I realised about half-way through the month that I was coming out of yet another bout of depression. I reckon that returning to my bedroom studio and making music once again is what shifted it. By the end of the month I was really enjoying myself recording a bunch of instrumental tracks for yet another Bandcamp album...
Last update: May 2023
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I make music. These days, I make lots of music. My latest release on Bandcamp is the twenty-first full length album I've recorded since I rebuilt my bedroom studio back in 2020. It's called Continuous Fiction. and this time around you get fifty-eight minutes of starkly angular, kinetic music that will provide a feast for your ears. Once again I'm making this release a pay-what-you-want deal, so you can get it for free. Go get some!
Yesterday I was working on a thing at the desk downstairs and realised that a lot of the books that I needed to consult were on a bookshelf in my bedroom (because the desk used to be in my bedroom, back in the days when (a) I had poor sleep hygiene and (b) I was doing a Master's degree). It finally occurred to me that it would make much more sense to move those books downstairs. So that's what I have just done. In the process, I took the opportunity to group the books on various shelves together according to their subject matter.
This is the closest I've got to having a workout for a couple of months.
There's no Bandcamp Friday this week. In fact, there isn't another one until August 4th, so I have been taking my time putting together the music for my next album, which is now going to be called From Script to Screen. So far I've recorded just over thirty minutes of instrumental music that (as the album's title suggests), is shamelessly targeted at the film and TV soundtrack market.
The hesitancy about what I was doing that you might have detected from earlier blog entries this month seems to have gone away, and I feel much more confident in my abilities once again. The stuff that I've recorded over the past week is sounding rather good, to my ears.
One reason why this might be true is that, with the pressure to release in June taken away, I've felt comfortable going back and tweaking my arrangements a lot. I've even restructured a couple of pieces, which is something I don't have time to do when I'm trying to meet my schedule during FAWM or Fifty/Ninety. As ever, listening to each recording later on my mp3 player gives me a different perspective on what I've made, and headphones often expose flaws that I can't hear when I'm sitting in front of my monitors. I often find myself thinking, "Oh, I need to do something about that," while I'm lying in bed listening to my latest tracks. So the first hour of my studio time the next day is usually spent in revisiting that track and removing whatever it was that offended me the night before.
Doing this regularly has made me realise just how significant an effect coming to something first thing in the morning with fresh ears can have on how I perceive music. Whenever I ask people if they realise being subjected to sound at apperently quite moderate volume for more than a few minutes can make their ears tired, they look at me as if I'm some sort of alien. But it's true; ear fatigue is a real thing. During the so-called loudness wars of the late 1990s when record labels mastered their artists' albums with bucketloads of compression in order to make them sound louder than anything else being played on the radio, this often meant that it was very difficult to sit down and listen to an entire album in one go, even if it was something released by one of your favourite bands. The classic example of this was Rush's 2001 album Vapor Trails, which was so overcompressed that it lost all dynamic range; I struggled to listen to more than a couple of tracks in a row, and the band all hated what had been done to their work. Twelve years later, Rush paid for the album to be remixed and remastered, and the result is vastly superior to the original; many lesser bands didn't have this luxury and are stuck with the crushed, overloud versions that were inflicted on them by their labels.
These days, most streaming services impose their own loudness rules to try and discourage this sort of thing, and it's been successful, for the most part. Loudness is measured in a unit called the Loudness Units Full Scale, or LUFS (never let it be said that audio engineers aren't the creative type) and each platform has different loudness targets. If your music is louder than them, it will be made quieter and the process by which this is done can introduce enough of a change in the dynamics that most artists find it preferable to master in a way that conforms to the requirements rather than having them imposed. While the target for mastering a CD is -9 LUFS, streaming services are usually much quieter, at around -14 LUFS. I prefer the improvement in dynamics at -14 LUFS and my stuff is released entirely on streaming platforms, so that's what I master my tracks to, even when I burn a CD to listen to on my home audio system.
And I think my ears are happier for it.
Today is International Towel Day, the day when we celebrate the life and work of Douglas Adams, creator of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, former script editor on Doctor Who, and environmental campaigner; he is, of course, best known as the genius who came up with The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I treasure the copy of The guide which he signed for me, many years ago.
I still know where my towel is.
The big news for me this week was the announcement of the third version of Ableton's spiffy music production gizmo and MIDI controller, the Push 3. Its previous iterations required it to be plugged in to a computer running Live, but the premium version of the Push 3 has Live built-in. As it also has lithium-ion batteries which give around two and a half hours of use (according to Ableton) it's become a standalone, take anywhere piece of music technology. And a very sexy looking piece of kit it is, too.
The array of 64 pads which are the Push's principal input controls now support MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE), allowing you to control things like pitch or modulation separately on each note played. There's a new control paradigm, with a large jog wheel appearing as the principal controller for adjusting parameters. The display looks like it's had a significant update, too. Connectivity has been massively expanded and the Push can now function as an audio input/output device for the rest of your gear.
Will I be getting one? Probably not. While I use my venerable old Mk 1 Push every day, I'm using it primarily as a DAW controller and musical sketchbook, and I already have my input and output requirements covered. And at £1669 and £879 respectively for the standalone and connected versions, it's a lot of money to shell out when I'm unlikely to use most of the functionality it provides. I'm also wary of that matt finish, as on my Mk 1 this has degraded into a horrid, sticky mess.
However, Ableton have also updated Live to version 11.3.2 in order to support it, and the update includes a new MPE-enabled synthesizer called Drift (so that Push 3 users can play with the added expressivity of MPE without having to shell out for any other software first). I've already used Drift on a couple of pieces of music, and it has a lovely sound even without an MPE-enabled device to control it.
I must admit that this remix of Ableton's announcement video by Jeremy Blake, a.k.a. Red Means Recording had me snorting in fits of delighted laughter. It's a painfully accurate take on a certain breed of bedroom producers of beats...
The first spell of decent, sunny weather arrived here on Monday, and I made the most of it by going for a walk. I felt good when I got back to the house, but it was when I woke up on Tuesday morning that I really noticed how much better I felt; my mood was noticeably elevated (or at least not as low as it has been for the past six weeks or so). The change was significant enough that I'd noticed it as soon as my alarm clock went off and I'd opened my eyes. I've not experienced an overnight change that big since I first started taking meds for depression over a decade ago. It's only when I stop feeling down that I realise just how down I've been, and that was certainly the case this week. That sense of permanent tiredness that I wrote about in the last blog entry would appear to have been chiefly caused by depression. Blasting myself with bright sunshine for a couple of hours helped matters tremendously. It's Mental Health Awareness Week this week, which seems to be an appropriate coincidence.
And yesterday, I felt even better. So, after taking a bunch of stuff to the recycling centre, completing the second round of charity shop visits that I've made this month (and snagging a decent haul of interesting books for less than ten quid all told), and doing my fortnightly shop at the supermarket, I decided that I really ought to tackle the front and back garden.
Yes, I know that it's No Mow May this month, but as I hadn't touched the lawn once since I gave it its first cut half-way through April, things were getting rather out of hand and it was evident that if I stuck with No Mow May for the rest of the month I would end up moving straight into Trying To Catch Up June, Fighting A Losing Battle July, and It's A Jungle Out There August. So out came the shears and the mower, and I set to. I was clearly feeling much better, as rather than running out of steam after half an hour or so like I did back in April, I kept working outside for the rest of the afternoon.
I had help, though. Thanks to the amount of bird food that I've been providing for them over the last few years, the local bird population no longer view me as a predator but as a big moving thing that they associate with being fed. As soon as I'd started, a blackbird couple were following me up and down the lawn, making happy little clucking noises and helping themselves to anything tasty that the mower had uncovered and the female was quite happy getting so close to me that I could have crouched down and patted her on the head. I had to stop and wait several times while they got out of the way. And when I came back to the mower after emptying its clippings container into my green bin, there was a robin sitting on the handle and two of his mates were sitting in the cherry tree next to the patio watching the proceedings and waiting for their turn. As it was very warm and sunny I took the opportunity to hose down the bird table and by the time I'd finished gardening, it had dried out and was ready to be replenished. That was when the fun really started; when I looked out of the kitchen window as I brewed a much-needed cup of tea afterwards, I was astonished by the variety of birds that had showed up to take advantage of the food and the freshly-mowed lawn: not just the blackbirds and robins but also multiple dunnocks (the first I've seen in the garden this year), house sparrows, starlings, blue tits, woodpigeons, collared doves, and a very nervous magpie. A jackdaw even managed to fit itself inside the bird table at one point!
But I was paying the price for all that physical exertion by teatime. I could barely move. Last night I was taking a couple of painkillers every four hours or so. This morning my ankles and hips are still gently throbbing, so I will be taking things much easier today, I think. But I still feel lifted, so all that exercise and exposure to sunlight has definitely paid off.
I'm still spending a lot of time asleep. For several nights this week, my watch has awarded me a sleep score of 100, which is a considerable improvement on the low 20s I was getting when I was last in full-time employment. You'd have thought that I would therefore be leaping out of bed in the mornings, totally refreshed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But this is not the case. I would much rather roll over and go back to sleep for another three or four hours, and in the last couple of months that's exactly what I've been doing.
Recently I've been asking myself whether or not it's normal for me to still be worn out like this. Then I remind myself that I spent most of the past three or four decades in a permanent state of sleep deprivation and stress. And maybe my fatigue might have more than a little to do with the depression that I've suffered from for nearly as long; I don't know. Given that I left my last job four years ago, I expected that I would have recovered from burnout by now, but a quick search on Google suggests that while the average recovery time from burnout is between 6 and thirty months, it can take as long as five years to bounce back to something resembling normal fitness so maybe I'm still catching up on things. My physical health isn't helping matters much, although I've been slightly more active over the last week and I have noticed a small improvement in pain levels as a result. If I can keep active and lose more weight, I think I can keep things at a manageable level without risking surgery. I've had more than enough of hospital visits over the course of my life and I've no wish to spend any more time in there than I can avoid.
Being able to sleep for as long as I want is one of the most luxurious things I can think of, and I'm going to take full advantage of being able to do so for as long as I can—or, more accurately, as long as I need.
When I replaced my venerable old Denon home audio amplifier back in 2017 with a much more up-to-date Yamaha model, I did not expect that of all the new features it had, the two which I would appreciate on a daily basis would be the ability to control it over my home network (it has its own built-in web server) and the fact that it can stream music from radio stations on the Internet. But I've just switched it on without leaving my seat here at the computer by calling up its web page on my browser. And just as it was back when I wrote about it back in 2019, the receiver is currently streaming music from WGBH Boston's jazz 24/7 channel. It's a great choice for relaxing music to listen to while I get on with other things around the house. The browser even displays the name of the song that is currently playing and the artist performing it, which is very useful if you're as much of a music nerd as I am.
And I'm pleased to be able to report that I've been back making some music of my own this week. I picked up a couple of instrument libraries at very attractive discounts in Spitfire Audio's spring sale, and I've been exploring the sonic possibilities that they offer. Trailer Giant by RedCola is a Kontakt instrument stuffed full of dramatic drones, swells, and hits and at just 15% of its usual retail price, it was a bargain.
But in view of the state I'm in at the moment, I'm not pushing myself to create something just so that I'll have stuff to talk about when I return to live streaming as I plan to do on Thursday. I don't want to end up viewing going on Twitch as a job, because that would just drop me back in the stress and burnout cycle that I'm evidently still trying to fight my way out of. Making music in my bedroom studio should be the thing I find myself wishing I was doing when I'm doing something less creatively rewarding; I never want to find myself wishing I was doing something else when I'm in the privileged situation of being able to make whatever music I like, whenever I want to, with a bewildering array of resources at my disposal whenever I need them and nobody dictating what I should or shouldn't be doing with them.
I'll see how things go this week.
According to Wikipedia the Gaelic festival of Beltane takes place at this time of year because it's about half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It marked the beginning of summer, when cattle were driven out into their summer pastures. These days, May Day is celebrated with a Bank Holiday on the closest Monday—and this year May 1st actually does fall on a Monday, which is nice. As I don't work full-time any more, the holiday doesn't have the significance that it used to have for me. It used to be an opportunity to reduce the crushing sleep deficit that I continually suffered from; these days, I can take a lie-in whenever I want, and that tends to happen on most days of the week at the moment.
I'm feeling slightly better today. I was up and about an hour and a half earlier than I managed on Saturday. And after a proper cleaning session yesterday afternoon, the house looks significantly tidier than it did. But I'm taking things easy today in an attempt to make the day feel like a "proper" day off. I haven't taken too many of those recently, and by that I mean in the last couple of years. That might be why I've been feeling rubbish lately.