I was very surprised when the Zoom Q2n I'd ordered arrived by courier on Saturday morning, two days early. It's a ridiculously tiny little thing—after I mused on the ability of the manufacturer to cram all that functionality into something that's about the same size as a pack of cigarettes, my friend (and fellow camera nerd) Stephen from the WGB pointed out that it has an 11mm, 1/2.3" CMOS sensor which is the same size as those used in modern smartphones. And to my chagrin I realised that he'd managed to look that fact up even before I had, and it's MY camera; that's how much of a camera nerd he is...
I wasted no time in sticking a spare microSD card into it and trying out the quality of the 4K recording mode, and I'm happy to report that the results are really, REALLY good. When I tried the Q2n out as a webcam, the picture quality was still good, but when I set it up on the shelf in the studio where I'd put the old webcam, it struggled with the contrast between my unlit face and the broad daylight outside. As it's going to be more or less permanently used in that location, I needed better results than that. Hmmm, what to do?
Five minutes of casting round the studio for inspiration gave me the answer: I moved the Zoom Q8 I've been using for wide shots of the studio onto my old Velbon camera tripod, and put the Neewer ring light and its tripod back in their original location behind monitor #2 (which I now had room to do, as my Roland polysynths are all back in use on their new stand rather than propped up against the wall in the corner.) In doing so, I noticed that the mount on the Neewer tripod had become wobbly, but after finding a spare nut in my toolkit and swapping out the knurled knob that Neewer supplied, a few tweaks with the pliers had the light correctly oriented towards me and everything rock solid. A quick test into OBS from the Q2n on the Neewer tripod showed that the picture was nearly good enough, and the ring light gave the camera more than enough illumination without blinding me in the process, but you have probably already realised if you've been reading the earlier posts in this month's blog that I'm going through a phase where I want to do better than just "good enough". Another five minutes of browsing online gave me the answer I was looking for: a £10 handlebar mount for an action camera that was compatible with the standard camera mount on the underside of the Q2n. I ordered it immediately and added a spiffy bright red 2m USB cable for the Zoom as well (because the only decent USB cable with a USB micro-C connector on it that I could find in the house&md—and believe me, I spent an hour hunting through drawers and storage boxes for a longer one—was a foot long, which wasn't long enough to reach the PC.)
The goods arrived the following afternoon and by Sunday evening I had everything arranged to my liking and ready to try out on camera. With the handlebar mount clamped to the bed frame I could move the Q2n closer in so that my monitors (both speaker and screen) were no longer in shot, although the supports of the bed frame are still visible. Seeing the bed frame in shot isn't that much of a problem, as I've made a point of the fact both in earlier broadcasts and in the written description of the stream on my Twitch channel page and it adds a little quirkiness to the content, which is no bad thing. I didn't live stream things on Sunday evening as this was more of a test of the technology than it was a broadcast performance, but I was so pleased with the results I'd recorded using OBS that I ended up uploading the results to YouTube afterwards. I played an arrangement of one of my tracks from FAWM 2014 called Cinnamon.
Despite glibly commenting on the video's description that I'd got the studio more or less how I wanted it, I'd realised in playing the Juno 106 (which is second from the top on my keyboard stack, underneath the JX-3P) that the synths were so closely layered together that I couldn't see the Juno's controls properly. I'd also realised in using the rig for a live performance that the keyboards were ever so slightly not parallel (caused by two separate things: the horizontal pipes of the stand weren't all level, and the supports for a couple of the synths were butting up against the feet fitted to their undersides, which was preventing them from lying completely flat on the stand), and—most importantly—the keys for middle C didn't align vertically.
You can guess what my response to that was.
Yep: yesterday out came the allen key again, and the pliers, and the tape measure, and the spirit level, and I lugged the synths back out on to the landing before I disassembled the stand and then put it back together properly. Then I lowered my piano stool by one notch because I'd noticed in Sunday's video that my posture while playing was atrocious: I wasn't sitting with my feet flat on the floor. After noticing this I tried to sit on the piano seat with my soles of my feet on the ground and discovered that I couldn't. Given the state of my joints these days, that needed fixing (and it had been so long since I'd changed the seat's height that fixing it involved using a hammer...) The new height felt a bit weird when I first tried it out, but I'm sure that I will get used to it.
Today I'm a bundle of aches and pains as a result of all the heavy lifting I did yesterday (the Korg M3 in particular is not a subtle piece of kit, and I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon either grovelling on my hands and knees of contorting myself to get at the allen keys on the rear of the keyboard stand) but I am immensely pleased with how the studio is looking on camera.
The more important question, though, is how did it sound?
When I'd finished all the rearranging yesterday, I fired up Ableton and spent an hour or so tweaking levels from all my different input sources so that they all register about the same through the Focusrite interface I use to get audio into (and out of) my computer. Instruments shouldn't be so loud that the signal starts to clip, but they need to be loud enough that I get a decent signal without what I'm playing getting buried in the noise floor of the electronics. I think it's going to take me another few days of faffing about before I'm entirely happy with everything, but even by 7 pm yesterday things were sounding much better than they had been lately (and now that I have easier access to the Juno 106's controls, I soon spotted why it had been relatively quiet and was able to fix the problem.)
Once I was happy with the levels, I went back to a track that I'd recorded using the Korg for live stream number 6 a couple of weeks ago to see what I could make of it. I hadn't touched it for a fortnight but had let it marinate at the back of my mind to see what my subconscious could come up with for it.
I got quite a surprise when the answer turned out to be: quite a lot.
In fact as I worked on the track for what ended up being two extremely productive hours, I began to realise that rearranging the studio has somehow enabled me to level up my capabilities and my creativity. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that I am no longer being distracted by the voice of my inner critic telling me that I really ought to sort the room out because it's a cramped and inefficient use of the space available. Another reason might be that I now have pretty much all the instruments I use to make music in arm's reach as I sit in my chair. Yesterday I found myself going down inspirational rabbit holes that I am quite convinced would not have occurred to me if I hadn't spent the last week or so improving my workspace. The Juno 106, which I had left to languish, unloved, in a corner of the room for most of the last decade ended up giving me the key to discovering what the track should be about in a moment that literally ended with me saying "Oh, wow!" to myself out loud. I haven't gone back and listened to what I did yesterday yet, but when I closed everything down last night and got ready for bed I felt quite bemused by how easy the work had seemed to be for the last couple of hours.
I hope that feeling continues, because the annual songwriting challenge of FiftyNinety starts on Saturday and once again I will be attempting to write fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st. It's a challenge that I've completed successfully every year for the last seven years (blimey, is it really that long ago since I first had a go?) and each year I have a lovely time creating new music and hanging out with a community of supportive, enthusiastic musicians both amateur and professional alike who join in to help each other raise their songwriting game. I've learned a tremendous amount since I joined the FiftyNinety party and my abilities as a musician have changed beyond all recognition as a result. This year I've already donated to the site and got my "rock hand" that appears alongside my username, as this is a vital part of the challenge. With the studio as it is, I think I'm all set. I am really looking forward to Saturday when things get under way once again.
After the ridiculously hot studio session on Thursday night, I got very little sleep. Even though I'd finally switched over to my summer duvet, it was still impossible to get comfortable. On Friday, it was brutally hot (the temperature in the conservatory hit 35°C in the afternoon) and the only relief I got from the heat was when I drove to the supermarket in the car with all the windows shut and the air conditioning turned to its coldest setting, which was blissful.
Less blissful was my progress around the supermarket, as people seem to have abandoned any pretence of obeying social distancing rules since the government announced that the two-metre rule was being dropped; the public seems to have taken the reopening of non-essential shops and the annoucement that pubs can reopen next week as a sign that they can stop worrying about contagion any more and just go back to their normal way of doing things. And "normal", it turns out, means "behaving like dicks."
The amount of sheer unmitigated selfishness that I saw, the lack of patience and refusal to just bloody wait their turn, and the sheer bloody lack of awareness of our current circumstances left me profoundly depressed and vowing to never go shopping on a Friday afternoon again until the current situation clears. Our prime minister told us that he expected common sense to prevail in our response to the pandemic, but Captain Useless obviously has no idea that common sense is in exceedingly short supply these days—you'd think that the scenes in Bournemouth might lead him to change his mind, but no; the Tories are far more interested in resurrecting the economy than they are in protecting people who voted them in to power. We're already paying the price of that; the daily Covid-19 death rate (which had been dropping rapidly as social distancing began to do its job) has already started climbing again, which it hasn't done since April.
I used to read the reports of the latest government pronouncements on what we should do with disbelief, but these days I've moved on through derision to outright contempt. The cabinet all appear to be either too stupid or too arrogant to follow the science, choosing instead to ignore it completely. There are plenty of people trying to tell them just how inadvisable this is. Sir Jeremy Farrar, the Director of the Wellcome Trust went on record this week to say that the relaxation of lockdown is happening too early and the result will be a nasty spike of cases in July with a second wave arriving when the schools go back in September (ask any teacher and they will tell you that kids are walking disease vectors, even if they don't get sick themselves.)
Across the Atlantic, the president's followers are making it a point of pride (or perhaps just gleeful stupidity) in refusing to wear a mask, and that is having exactly the effect that you'd expect. This week has seen the United States lurch violently towards a massive healthcare crisis that one former staffer at the Center for Disease Control described as "like leaning in to a left hook." I get very depressed when I think about how many people will die as a result, because this is all avoidable. I am very glad that my supermarket trip let me stock up with enough supplies that I won't have to leave the house at all for the next week.
Unless people do start behaving sensibly, it's very likely that this pandemic will last for at least another year; just look at how long the Spanish Flu lingered on for, after all. The second and third waves back then were triggered by people abandoning lockdown too early; I keep telling myself that people will eventually twig that maybe they should be listening to scientists and medical professionals rather than the bumbling incompetents in charge of the country, but it seems like we're unable to learn from the mistakes of the past. I must admit to being utterly flabbergasted that the death toll which has already occurred doesn't seem to be enough to make stop and think about how maybe their leaders might be getting it wrong. So I went to bed on Friday evening feeling miserable and extremely pessimistic; five days of getting very little sleep tends to have that effect on me.
But I woke up on Saturday morning to the sound of heavy rain. The heatwave had finally broken and temperature in my bedroom had dropped below 20°C for the first time in more than a week. I suspect that the temperature didn't start to fall until quite late in the night, because although I managed more than the six hours' sleep I got on Thursday night, I still didn't get anywhere near the full eight hours that I was hoping for. It continued to rain off and on for most of Saturday, and by the evening even though the Sun came out again the temperature outside had plummeted to just 15°C. Last night I slept like a log and this morning I didn't get out of bed until 11 am. It was, quite frankly, glorious!
I'm glad to say that I have finished lugging furniture, books and gear around for the moment. I should really have waited for the weather to cool down, because it's been stupidly hot here for the last few days (it was 34°C outside yesterday afternoon), but I was much too excited to find out if my new studio layout was going to work or not, so I ploughed ahead and lost several pounds in the resulting sauna I'd created in the back bedroom; not a bad thing in itself, by any means, particularly since I'd treated myself at the village's rather excellent Chinese takeaway on Wednesday evening in celebration. Aside from a few finishing touches, everything's now in place and yes, I think that this setup is going to work out rather nicely...
Thursday night's live stream unveiling of the new setup went fairly well, apart from the heat, which rapidly saw off two of the three cameras I was using with OBS and Twitch (the temperature had hit 34°C in the studio by 9 pm, and it turns out that several of the devices that I was using really don't like being exposed to those sorts of temperatures). I am now even more of a fan of Zoom's products than I was last week, as while the lesser cameras failed, my trusty Zoom Q8 video recorder kept working without a hitch for the whole evening; I have subsequently revised my plans for my "ideal solution" live stream camera setup and have ordered a Zoom Q2N-4K camera as a replacement for the cheap Chinese webcam that I have been using for the last few weeks. It should arrive on Monday, so I hope to have it up and running for next week's show. I had originally planned to splash out on a GoPro setup, but the Q2N is a closer match to what I need than a Hero 7 or 8 would be, and the Zoom device does not require me to buy any intermediate pieces of kit to get the video signal into my PC. Oh, and the total expenditure with the Zoom camera is much, much cheaper (it worked out to be less than half the cost of buying a setup based around a GoPro.)
As I edited the recording of last night's shenanigans this afternoon, I noticed that I was clearly enjoying myself a lot more than I have done in previous weeks, and I'm sure that wasn't solely down to the ridiculously loud shirt I'd decided to wear; the amount of additional space that I've created in the studio has really left me in a very good mood, because the old setup was really beginning to feel very oppressive and claustrophobic. Letting go of a lot of old memories and associated clutter in order to free up that extra space turned out to be an important psychological step for me this week. And being able to play with ALL my collection of vintage polysynths without having to swap anything over is something that I've only dreamt about for most of the last forty years. I had forgotten just what a glorious thing the Juno 60 is, for example—even if I needed to tune it several times over the course of yesterday afternoon as it drifted out of synch with its more modern colleagues. Yes, its chorus is ridiculously noisy; it doesn't even do MIDI, but I was staggered to discover that it's now worth a four-figure sum, which is considerably more than I paid for it (as is the Juno 106, and the JX-3P is nearly in the same league as well.) I got a ridiculously satisfying kick out of sitting in my studio chair last night and seeing all that gear sitting there, powered up and ready to use. I am really fired up for Fifty/Ninety this year and I suspect my songs are going to sound very different as a result.
And that new SM7B mic is a delight; oh my goodness, I sound so cool when I speak into it. If only I could sound the same way in real life...
It's the Blog's birthday.
When I started writing this thing seventeen years ago I had no idea that I'd still be doing so in 2020. I've learnt a lot about writing by making regular posts here, and I've developed the habit of focusing my thoughts on what I want to say first rather than sticking with the technique I adopted to begin with of just diving in and producing a stream-of-consciousness text that kind of conveyed what I intended. I rapidly become far more interested in English grammar and punctuation than I used to be. I still get lots of things wrong, I'm sure—and I still wince every time I spot a typo in a previous entry that I didn't notice at the time—but I'm nowhere near as slapdash as I used to be when I was younger. As you might have noticed, I have also become inordinately fond of the em-dash as a punctuation device. How did I ever manage without them?
Refining my approach to written communication came in very useful for work as well, although I've noticed how much less tolerant I am of copy that confuses words like "your" and "you're" or "its" and "it's" these days (or maybe it's because people get them wrong much more frequently now?)
The most surprising discovery I made as a result of starting a blog was finding out that I really enjoy writing. I hope I've become a better writer than I was back in 2003.
Monday didn't get off to a good start when I started steaming the milk for my breakfast coffee and it instantly curdled. After some mild grumbling and forcing myself to make do with an espresso (hashtag #firstworldproblems), I walked over to the Post Office to get some fresh milk and another book of stamps. It was a lovely day. When I got back, I noticed just how unruly the front garden had become, so I gritted my teeth and forced myself to spend a few hours outside and get the lawn cut for the first time in at least a month. Things had got rather out of hand, so I was very glad I have a small scythe for cutting back the more rampant growth. The grass on the back lawn was getting on for a foot high.
When I started, I really wasn't feeling it. For one thing, it was a lot warmer outside than I'd realised. And I soon found out I was even more out of shape than I thought I was; one of my neighbours came over for a chat and became quite alarmed at the state I was in. So I took things very slowly, and made sure to stop and drink plenty of fluids, which helped me stick things out until the lawn was cut, the weeds trimmed back, and my garden waste bin was full to the brim. When I looked out of the kitchen window after I'd finished, I experienced the warm glow of satisfaction at admiring a job well done. What, me, smug? You bet.
Because I've not been outside much in recent months, even though it was the solstice on Saturday and the Sun is as high as it gets here during the day, the concept of wearing a hat or putting on sunblock didn't occur to me at all. After more than four hours of working in bright sunshine I ended up getting sunburnt, which hasn't happened to me for years. My next gardening session will be focusing on the virginia creeper, which has already reached the roof at the front of the house. That will have to wait until the bins have been emptied, which comes as a relief right now. The creeper has been very good at keeping the house cooler during spells of hot weather, but last night the temperature in my bedroom didn't get any lower than 23°C and I slept very badly. Today, the temperature is forecast to hit 30°C. I guess that means it's finally time to break out the summer duvet, then...
And as I typed that last paragraph my phone just pinged with a yellow warning for thunderstorms here later today, which would bring some welcome relief from the heat. I don't do hot weather. Maybe that's why I like skiing so much—but I do love a good storm.
Of course I've chosen the hottest week of the year so far to become way more physically active than I've been for the last three months. This morning UPS delivered the hardware upgrades to my studio that I mentioned last time, and I've been moving stuff around upstairs to make room for them. I also realised that all this rearranging was a great opportunity to make things less claustrophobic in the studio. I need more space in there, so my next job today will be to move a set of bookshelves downstairs and into the conservatory. I will be taking that task very slowly, and I'm making sure that I drink even more than the two and a half litres of fluids I've been told I need to consume daily to make sure my kidney problems don't get any worse.
I made a start on the rearranging yesterday, and ended up filling the recycling bag and a black bin liner with stuff that I decided I really didn't need to hold on to any more. I can see how people end up becoming hoarders, I really can; I recognise how seductive the temptation can be to just hang on to everything in case it's needed at some point in the distant future. You never know, right? I also suspect that a tendency to hoard things might be linked to having a very good memory, because objects that I unearthed yesterday brought back memories of events that took place thirty or forty years ago. The thing is, some of those events are better forgotten about. The objects associated with those memories have therefore all gone in the bin.
I am excited by the prospect of broadcasting my live stream tomorrow evening from a freshly organised and tidy studio, and I suspect that excitement may be another reason why I didn't sleep well last night. But after spending the rest of today carting things up and down the stairs, I don't think I'll have much of a problem getting to sleep tonight!
This Sunday morning I'm feeling a little more optimistic than I was a week ago. For one thing, last night I got the first decent night's sleep that I've had for weeks. I haven't decided exactly why I made this breakthrough, so in the best scientific tradition I'm going to note that further research is required. Several factors spring to mind. For one thing, I got so engrossed in making music yesterday that I didn't get round to getting something to eat until a couple of hours later than my mealtimes have been recently; for another, it was cool enough last night for me to sleep with the windows shut (the reduction in the amount of sound I could hear from outside probably helped a lot, given that the dawn chorus currently starts here before 4 am and the amount of noise made by the local flocks of first jackdaws and then crows on Saturday morning was, quite frankly, ridiculous); possibly it's because I know that after yesterday's summer solstice it'll be getting light later in the mornings again before too long; maybe it's just because my mood has lifted considerably over the last couple of days (and it was given a nice boost by hanging out on Twitch with Devin Townsend yesterday evening, who was in a delightfully good mood, radiating positive vibes and obviously hugely enjoying chatting with his audience). I said in last week's post that I want to spend my time making things that bring happiness and pleasure to people, not in spreading anger and hate, and that is very much the place that Dev is coming from too. And as he spoke about his reactions to the current state of the world yesterday I was watching, and listening, and nodding, and saying to myself many times, "Yup. Same..."
When I woke up today the first news of the outside world was brought to me by Twitter with multiple retweets of a zinger from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "Hmmmm, did yesterday's rally not go so well, then?" I found myself thinking. I might have pledged to not give in to anger or hate or even despair any more, but that doesn't mean I can't savour the warm glow of schadenfreude every now and again and boy, did it start to kick in this morning when I read the news for the first time in a week and started seeing words like humiliation, underwhelming, and pitiful cropping up rather more often than they have done of late in press coverage of American politics. The rally's final headcount of 6,611 was barely a third of the Tulsa stadium's capacity, let alone the 1.1 million that its organizers were expecting to show up, and Pink wasted no time in pointing out that when she played the same venue it had sold out in five minutes. Outside, the Washington Post's reporter Dave Weigel was tweeting video of the facilities for planned outdoor speeches to the anticipated (and painfully obviously non-existent) overspill crowd hastily being disassembled even before the President had arrived at the building. "Protesters were blocking access to the event," Trump's campaign manager whined, but images and video from the scene debunked him immediately; the neighbourhood was deserted. Meanwhile, the Tom Petty estate announced they'd be lawyering up if I Won't Back Down ever gets used by Trump's campaign team again. Needless to say, Petty's family had not been asked for permission to use the song. Even if they had been, they made clear that they would not have granted it.
The sentence "The Prez just got punked by a bunch of K-Pop stans and zoomers on Tik-Tok" would have made absolutely no sense to me when I started this blog seventeen years ago, but I am really digging the message today.
And to cap it all, then I saw the extraordinary footage that Michael McConnell tweeted of a skateboard-based BLM protest taking place in San Diego, and felt a glimmer of something stir deep inside:
Hope for the future.
I've got in to the habit of making sure to check for updates of all my studio software before I do my weekly Thursday evening Twitch livestream (and I will be on again this week at my regular time of 19:30 BST, so please tune in and say hi on the chat.) My routine is intended to ensure that I don't get any unexpected restarts or embarrassing pop-up messages appearing during the show, but it's also good discipline to maintain for anyone who runs a DAW.
This week there were a couple of large downloads waiting for me: the first was a 152 Mb update to Spitfire Audio's amazing BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover VST plugin, which I have been getting progressively more and more obsessed with since I installed it, and I will be blogging about it in more detail at some point in the not too distant future. The second download was an update to Ableton Live, bringing my install up to version 10.1.15 (there are no changes in functionality that will affect my setup, according to the release notes, it just provides additional support for new bits of hardware.)
But as I sat in front of the studio PC I realised that there were a few physical things in my studio that really needed upgrading as well, and some of them have needed fixing for a very long time. Since I've been spending a lot more time in there, a few things have really begun to bug me. This week I got irritated by them enough to go online and do some shopping to sort them out.
For a start, I realised this week that clipping a lavalier mic to my shirt really wasn't a good idea if I forget I'm wearing it when I stand up; fortunately I haven't done that on camera yet, but given my physical state, tiredness, and resulting lack of situational awareness at the moment it's only a matter of time before I do. I've been leaving it clipped to my box of guitar picks when I'm not using it, and several times this week I've caught the lead with my leg and the picks have ended up scattered all over the studio floor. After the third time of getting down on my hands and knees trying to find a bunch of plectrums, many of which are transparent and hard to see with my eyesight, I'd had enough. But what to use as an alternative? My first choice was my trusty Shure Super 55 which I've used for pretty much all my vocal recordings since I bought it more than three years ago (and I was quite astonished to discover when I searched the blog for that link just now that I've had it for as long as that), but when I bought my new mixer last month I no longer had enough space on the desk to keep using the tabletop stand I got with it, so I'd switched it over to a boom mic stand positioned to the right of my monitors, where it gets knocked by the door every time I open it and gets in the way every time that I walk into the room. As a first attempt at improving things, I swapped the boom stand out for a straight vertical stand—an old-school style one with a round metal base to match the mic's very traditional looks—but after trying it out I realised that having a floor-based stand sitting in front of me during a live stream wasn't going to be practicable. And if the truth be told, although I have a more than half-decent collection of microphones these days I have hankered after a Shure SM7B almost as long and as deeply as I have the Super 55. Until now, I had never considered buying one because of the expense; at the time I bought the Super 55 I thought that getting one was an extremely self-indulgent treat, but it turned out to be a wonderful piece of kit that I don't regret buying at all (and it looks and feels so good that it's a real pleasure to use). Now that my money worries have gone away, this week I found myself saying to myself, "So why don't you just get yourself one? You've always wanted one..." If you're not a gear nerd like I am, perhaps I should explain that the SM7B is the de facto choice for broadcasters, streamers and podcasters; there are three SM7Bs in this photo of Marc Maron conducting what has arguably become the most famous interview in podcasting history and when I watched Dev's latest stream on Twitch last night the first thing I noticed—at least after the outrageous orange and teal lighting setup in Dev's studio, that is— was the SM7B sitting slap-bang in front of the camera. So this week I ordered one, together with a cantilever-type stand that I can clamp to the desk and swing in and out of the way as it's required.
Getting in and out of the studio has not been helped by the stack of 80s synths leaning against the wall next to the door. Again, I've been making do with a two-tier stand that I've been using since... Well, let's just say I've had it a long time, okay? I can't even remember where I bought it.
The kludged-together modification with plumber's pipe insulation and gaffa tape isn't exactly professional looking, and the foam is showing its age after nearly thirty-five years. Upgrading my keyboard stand got added to my "I must get around to doing that" list back when I bought the Korg M3 way back in February 2011 and again, after "making do" for nine years I decided that it was past time I shelled out for an upgrade. What I was after was an A-frame stand that would let me set up my entire stack of polysynths in one go just like my hero Rick Wakeman (my Moog Rogue and the ARP Odyssey will have to wait.) The problem I'd encountered when I looked for a suitable stand in the past was that most of them are built for 61-key synthesizers rather than 88-key master keyboards; at 143 cm wide, the Korg M3 won't fit most stands of this type that I'd seen on sale. But a few months ago I discovered that the Jaspers range was just was I was looking for: they even have models that fit keyboards up to 170 cm wide. So when I bought the SM7B this week I ordered a stand as well, and I even shelled out for an optional accessory of a laptop stand. I can use that as a shelf for my old eight-channel Mackie mixer that I'd retired when I bought the ProFX-22. The Mix-8 will be perfect for controlling keyboard sound levels without me having to get up and adjust the main mixer. It also means that I can return my old gear to active service rather than leaving it languishing in a cupboard; see, I've been giving serious thought to what I wanted to do over the last couple of months.
Sadly, I suspect that the very cheap webcam that I bought recently will also need upgrading before long. This week it has seen heavy use with Skype, and I have discovered that it overheats after it's been used for more than an hour at a time and starts cutting out. I must remember that you really do get what you pay for; cheap deals don't always turn out to be the bargains they appear to be at first. Now that my mindset that has changed from "What can I make do with?" to "What would be the best solution here?" I've been thinking about what the ideal camera would be to have in the studio that would also be future-proof, and after I priced it up I realised that it is something that I can actually afford. But I will wait until next month before I bite the bullet and order it, I think. I've already spent my budget for June. I'm already looking forward to the live reveal for that, though. It's going to be very cool.
This week's livestream wasn't quite as shambolic as its predecessors. I no longer sound like I'm broadcasting from under a pile of duvets and I almost look like I know what I'm doing at times. Almost.
Thanks to everyone who subscribed to my YouTube channel this week. It is very much appreciated. If you haven't subscribed yet, please do!
And just like that, signs that the need for social change were finally beginning to be recognised have been replaced by footage of bloated white men giving Nazi salutes in front of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and urinating in the street next to memorials for fallen police officers. Despite some very stiff competition, the last week has turned out to be one of the uglier ones in our recent history.
It's very hard to feel hopeful for the future right now. Maybe it's because I live on my own and lockdown is beginning to really get to me at the moment. Maybe it's because my constant array of aches and pains is making a sense of my own mortality increasingly obvious. Maybe that was compounded by the fact that yesterday would have been my dear friend Anita's sixtieth birthday (and twenty-eight years after she died, there still isn't a day goes by when I don't find myself thinking of her.) Maybe it's because some of the people I see on the news at the moment clearly aren't interested in making things better for anybody, even themselves. And maybe it's because I know that when the effects of Brexit begin to bite, things are most likely going to get much, much worse.
At times like this I find myself almost wishing that the second wave of Coronavirus does hit hard, and that it hits despicable people like those in Whitehall yesterday most severely.
But then I remind myself that I want to dedicate my life to making things that bring happiness and pleasure to people, not anger and hate. That's why I make music. That's why I draw. That's why I stream video from the studio every week. So I'm going to grit my teeth, and try to keep my belief in a better world alive.
At the beginning of February I was six books ahead of the target I'd set myself for this year's Goodreads reading challenge. I've kept the same goal as last year, and I want to read 60 books by December 31st. But then lockdown happened, and instead of finding more time for sitting and reading, my ability to concentrate on any text at all was wrecked. I couldn't focus. I would sit down in my armchair, put on my reading glasses, pick up a book, and after no more than a couple of pages I would find my mind wandering and realise that I had absolutely no recollection of the contents of the paragraph that I had just read. Perhaps I was being ambitious, because one of the books I was struggling with is James Joyce's complex masterpiece Finnegans Wake, which is enough to make all but the most dedicated of readers balk. But by the end of May, my progress was five books behind my target for the year.
In the last week or so, things have improved slightly. I've discovered the pleasure of reading again and even though I am still buried deep in Joyce's language and metalanguage, I'm now just two books behind target. So help me, I even bought and read a book which was intended to help me to read another book (Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.) Maybe some of the reason for this renewed focus is that I've been doing stuff this month that sounds perilously close to proper cognitive work; I sent off the final version of a report I'd written on Friday, and I was very surprised by the sense of satisfaction that it gave me. I haven't felt that for a while in anything other than a musical context.
I really need to stop buying more books, though. I need to work my way through the large piles of books that I've already bought but haven't read yet. They have grown to a considerable size over the last year or so. And then there are all the Kindle daily deals I've succumbed to recently. It's hard to say no to a notable book when someone offers it to you for 99p...
Although everything sounded fine in the studio at the time, my latest live stream on Twitch on Thursday ended up sounding like I was broadcasting from underneath several hundred duvets:
It took me most of Saturday morning to identify what it was that had gone wrong. I was panicking, because as I eliminated the microphone and guitar signal chains, my studio controller and then my mixing desk as probable causes of the problem, it was looking more and more like my Zoom Q8 video recorder had failed somehow. It acts as a webcam and also as my audio feed for all my broadcasts in a kludge that avoids adding any further latency into the signal chain; to say it's an essential part of my livestream rig is putting it mildly. For a while it looked like it had stopped sending stuff out of its USB connection back to the studio PC; listening in on the Zoom's headphone socket, I could tell that what it was receiving from the desk sounded fine. But working down the signal chain eventually led me to check how OBS was handling the Zoom's audio—and I discovered that it wasn't. Oddly, the £25 webcam that I added to my setup before last week's stream (which had worked perfectly a week ago) had somehow decided in the interim to take over ALL responsibility for audio input in my live streams. And the reason that everything sounded so muffled was that the only audio my audience could hear was the output of the webcam's barely functional microphone.
As far as I can tell, I've got everything working again now. The new camera's microphone has been disabled with extreme prejudice. So let's hope it's still all working when I go live again next Thursday evening. You can find out by heading over to Twitch at 19:30 BST.
Before starting this morning's web update, I updated my Apache Netbeans installation from 11.3 to version 12, which was released on June 4th. Unlike the last time I updated Netbeans, this took me about two minutes, and as soon as I installed the Darkula LAF plugin, it found my old preferences file for font sizes and colours and I was back up and running. I didn't even need to download a new version of Darkula; I pointed Netbeans at the file I'd downloaded for version 11.3 and it worked perfectly.
Being able to install something that worked flawlessly on the first go has become so extraordinarily unusual these days that I thought it was worthy of mentioning it in the blog.
It's been a week of upgrading software for me. The studio machine got the 2004 update of Windows 10 on Friday and this time I made sure that the Korg M3 was switched on while the update installed. As a result, I didn't need to hack the registry before I could get the M3's MIDI signals recognised by Ableton. Every previous Windows 10 install has borked the Korg's MIDI settings, so that was a nice surprise.
I've also updated a big bunch of other software this week including UC Berkeley's BOINC screensaver platform and the Virtualbox virtual machine software that it uses both to provide a strong extra level of security to users, and to enable developers to run their applications on a much wider range of machines (so an app developed in Linux can run in a virtual machine running on a Mac or a Windows computer.) I'm using BOINC to run both SETI@home (and yes, I am still receiving—and processing—work units and getting credit for them in my stats, which I really wasn't expecting, given that the project went into hibernation at the end of March) and Rosetta@Home, which seems to have eased off on COVID-19 models for the moment. I've also updated my copies of the GNU Image Manipulation Program GIMP, which got a new release a couple of days ago, the Foobar 2000 audio player that I use to listen to podcasts while I'm working in the office (it's now at version 1.5.4) and Audacity, which I use to edit my music before final mastering (which is now at version 2.4.1). I used to find a piece of software and religiously keep using it at the version that was available when I installed it; sadly there are many reasons why this is no longer a practical strategy, the most obvious being system security. But all the software I've mentioned in this paragraph is open source and free to use, and packages like GIMP allow me to do stuff that I couldn't afford to do if I had to buy the equivalent commercial packages; GIMP has played an integral part in the production of all the graphics on this website for over a decade.
So far we've weathered the pandemic here in the South West UK better than most regions, but our luck may be about to run out. According to some—but not yet all—of the latest research, R (the reproduction number for Covid-19) has risen back up to 1 here in the South West and is above 1 in the North East of England. If you can keep R below 1, a disease will eventually die out; when R exceeds 1, a disease spreads across the population in greater and greater numbers as the growth becomes exponential and you end up with an epidemic. Although that Guardian report I linked to above suggests that hospitals and care homes are the main source of infections at the moment rather than general public behaviour, that may change as people get out and about more. Google are reporting that personal mobility is on the rise throughout the UK, creeping back towards baseline for people visiting supermarkets and pharmacies and skyrocketing in parks and recreation areas (in Bristol, the use of parks and other open spaces after Dominic Cummings's recent escapade rose to 174% above baseline figures).
Watching the demonstrations in Bristol on the news over the weekend and seeing footage of the long-overdue removal of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth quickly followed by it getting thrown into the very harbour from which his ships plied their trade, I have never felt more proud of my city. But mass gatherings of people hold extra risks at the moment. If R was on a knife edge before yesterday, I suspect it's well and truly tipped now.
On the other hand, the fact that public sentiment about Colston and his sociopathic cronies appears to have tipped into outright revulsion offers a very small glimmer of hope. This thread on Twitter by Professor Kate Williams on how up until the weekend, Bristol's Society of Merchant Venturers had successfully blocked all significant protests against Colston is one of many stories appearing on social media that is shedding more light on the organization than they've previously experienced, and they do not appear to be enjoying the attention.
Professor Paul Edwards, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, went on record on yesterday's Andrew Marr show to say that the government's tardiness in imposing a lockdown cost a lot of lives, although he didn't quantify what was meant by "a lot". Given that the death toll in this country is now the highest in Europe, at over 40,000, the number of deaths that could have been avoided is likely to be in the thousands. The Professor has previously commented that the recent relaxation of lockdown restrictions was a political decision rather than a scientific one (which is equivalent in diplomatic terms to Sir Humphrey telling Jim Hacker that his decision was a very courageous one). Indeed, the number of questions about the adequacy of the government's response to the pandemic that will be asked at the inevitable public enquiry grows larger with each passing day. From next Monday, it will be compulsory to wear masks on public transport in England, a measure that the Mayor of London was calling for two months ago. And yet—bizarrely—you'll still be able to go shopping without needing to wear a face covering at all. You might think you'd struggle to come up with a more inept and confused response to a crisis of this magnitude, but you'd be wrong.
Because this week America appears to have decided that outright denial is now their response of choice to the pandemic. Their President has espoused magical thinking as the mainstay of his strategy for dealing with Covid-19 from the outset, but it's disappointing to see the rest of the country falling for it as well.
If we survive all of this, I hope that people will once again pay more attention to the scientists who have spent years studying a problem than to the egomaniacal chancers who have proven repeatedly that telling us that they ought to be in charge and that they know what they're doing is no guarantee of competence or even basic critical thinking skills.
Last Thursday's live stream on Twitch is now available on YouTube.
I've been doing these for a month now, and while I'm still learning what works and what doesn't, I think I'm getting slightly better at speaking to camera.
The fact that it was much cooler in the studio this week meant that I was a lot more chilled and less stressed, which always helps things to go a little more smoothly.
If you don't yet view American branches of evangelical Christianity as an existential threat, perhaps the fact that it's becoming evidently clear that it's the religion of choice for white supremacists might help to clarify things. Some of the people interviewed are, frankly, woefully ill-informed about the modern world, insular in their beliefs, and evidently as dumb as a bag of spanners. When people like that gain positions of influence, bad things happen.
Meanwhile, the violent assault of an Australian TV news cameraman by a uniformed police officer outside the White House has sparked a major diplomatic incident after it was shown live, as it happened, during a news report on Australian television. Australians are, quite rightly, horrified—as is the rest of the world.
After the sunniest calendar month ever recorded, here in the UK the pollen count has shifted into high gear and I have really been suffering for the last week or so. My eyes have been puffy, swollen, and permanently irritated. I've been having regular sneezing fits. Last night things were so bad that I took an anti-histamine tablet. This was an act of desperation, because they do not combine well with the other meds that I take. But last night this worked to my advantage, as it completely knocked me out and I slept through until just after seven o'clock. I am paying the price this morning, though; I feel very groggy. I don't think today is going to be at all productive. I won't be taking another tablet any time soon.
I hope that I won't need to; last night the weather finally broke and we got some overnight rain. The temperature outside is about ten degrees cooler than it has been of late, the sky is overcast and dull and it's just started raining again. It feels odd to say so, but this comes as quite a relief, believe me.
Dominic Cummings's little jaunt to Durham Castle was against lockdown rules, but rather than sacking him, the prime minister decided instead to relax lockdown restrictions. He did this in direct contradiction of the government’s own guidelines, which state that the current alert level of 4 warrants "continuation of current social distancing measures and restrictions," an act of gross incompetence and craven weakness that will only worsen the UK's dismal record in dealing with Covid-19 (and as the government's self-congratulatory daily briefing sessions seem to have glossed over the fact, let me remind you that the UK was at the top of the daily death toll tables for the entire world for most of May, until it was overtaken by Sweden a few days ago.)
How prepared are we, really, to roll back lockdown restrictions? It turns out that Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government have just completed an analysis of which countries meet a sufficient number of the World Health Organisation's criteria for doing so. Understandably, New Zealand is at the top of the list. What about the UK, then?
We're not ready. We are so not ready. In fact, we're fifth from the bottom. The only countries less prepared than us are Syria, Algeria, Iran, and Nicaragua. Hooray for British exceptionalism, eh, Boris?
But even if the prime minister was suddenly struck by an unexpected attack of common sense and decided to maintain lockdown after all, thanks to Mr Cummings, the proportion of people who feel that they are justified in breaking lockdown in the same fashion as he did has nearly trebled, growing from 5% to 14%.
There's fat chance of sanity prevailing, I'm afraid. It's difficult not to be overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom, particularly if you make the mistake of catching up with the news. Yesterday's reports of appalling behaviour by the public from Bournemouth make it inevitable that the UK will lurch into a second, more serious second wave of infections, exactly as happened with the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
I really, desperately hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I will be. I will continue to stay at home and I'll be leaving the house as infrequently as I can.