June saw me acquiring a new synthesizer for the first time in over a decade. And once I'd figured out how I could get it to talk to Windows, I started to have tons of fun with it. I also ended up buying several other new pieces of gear which I hadn't anticipated needing to do: a new mobile phone (and again, once I'd managed to restore all the things that I'd kept on my old, now dead phone, I had a lot of fun with it), a new mouse for my studio PC (which I didn't have so much fun with, to the point that I have since switched it with the mouse on my much older "office" PC), and a new chair for the studio (which is already my new most favourite thing ever).
At least—thanks to a change in my financial circumstances—I could afford to buy replacements without having to worry about whether I could afford to do so or not. It's difficult to convey how much of a relief that is.
I make music. These days, I make lots of music. My latest release on Bandcamp is the twenty-second full length album I've recorded since I rebuilt my bedroom studio back at the end of 2020. It's called From Script To Screen. Once again I'm making this release a pay-what-you-want deal, so you can get it for free. Why not grab a bucket of popcorn and an overpriced fizzy drink and give it a listen?
There isn't a Bandcamp Friday in July, but that hasn't stopped me working on music. These days, music is what I do. That's all there is to it. As I've said many times recently, being able to pour all my thoughts and emotions into pieces of music is pretty much the only thing that's keeping me (relatively) sane these days. Without being able to spend each day doing this, I'd be a basket case, pretty much. It's not a question of how I manage to be so prolific as it is a case of being extremely uncomfortable about the idea of ever stopping.
And so last night on my Twitch channel I released the 22nd full-length album I've made since I rebuilt my home studio at the tail end of 2020. This one very much features me in "film music" mode, which is a genre that really appeals to me because it's big and dramatic and pretty much anything goes. Its title is From Script To Screen and as you can see from the cover, it's a companion piece to my last album Continuous Fiction—even down to featuring another fountain pen made by Manuscript and another bottle of ink from Diamine!
Twenty-two albums. It would take you nearly a whole day to listen to everything I've released on Bandcamp since December 2020 and I've made a lot more music than that which didn't make the cut for a formal release. You could count the number of pieces of music I made in the last decade of the 20th century on the fingers of one hand and I never expected to be this prolific. But then I figured out that you learn a little bit about the process of writing music with every piece you create, so I set about creating as much as I could. I think I've made considerable improvement over the last fifteen years or so.
And apart from anything else, it's a ridiculously enjoyable thing to do.
One thing I haven't been enjoying so much lately has been the chair that I bought for the studio a few years ago. Although it was marketed as a "24-hour chair" intended to be comfortable in protracted use for an entire eight-hour shift in the office, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. The materials used clearly couldn't hack it, either. The original arm rests on it had disintegrated within six months and after two attempts glueing them back together both failed within a couple of days, I ended up buying replacements on eBay. They didn't particularly match the design of the rest of the chair, but they turned out to be considerably more durable than its other components, because in recent weeks it started creaking and groaning every time I moved (which isn't helpful when you're in the middle of a live stream). Earlier this week I turned it upside down, ready to take it apart to see if I could track down the source of the mechanical noises it was making, tighten up any loose screws, and oil any parts that were perhaps binding together. Instead I discovered that its plastic base had split in two right where the arms were attached to the seat. It was knackered.
I was very annoyed, because I expect an office chair to last a darn sight longer than this one did. On Wednesday I paid a visit to the local dump and got rid of it. Today, its replacement has been delivered by courier and this time, I'm not messing about.
I expect this one to last. I've wanted an Aeron since I visted my brother in the US in 2012 and sat in his. They're very comfortable indeed and I'm delighted with mine.
I've just received the latest delivery of bird food from the RSPB and after topping up the feeders, the back garden is full of birds. When I opened the curtains this morning there were fifteen jackdaws on the back lawn.
It's a delight to see.
The website for the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge went live yesterday. The challenge proper begins at Noon GMT on July 4th but the forums on the site are already busy with people getting ready to spend the summer writing new music.
It'll be my eleventh time taking part. I don't think that I will be going quite as nuts as I did last year, when I wrote and recorded 117 pieces of music in the ninety days between the 4th of July and the 1st of October, but I aim to produce at least fifty tracks of some description.
My instrumentation will be a little different this summer as three of my synths are heading off to the synthesizer doctor for some TLC in a few weeks. I'm hoping that they can resurrect my trusty Roland JX-3P, which has been unresponsive since last year. My Juno-106 and Juno-60 have both been showing occasional signs of distress, too. But I still have plenty of other items of musical gear to make noises with, so I'm sure that I will get by.
After a spell of unpleasantly hot and humid weather, the temperature has returned to comfortable levels and while it was still sunny yesterday, today it's grey and overcast outside.
Sadly for me, this has meant that I no longer had an excuse not to tackle several chores that I'd been putting off for the past couple of weeks. Before the Fifty/Ninety challenge starts, I've been attempting to tidy the house up so that it doesn't look quite so neglected. Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon up a ladder, pulling the more rampant parts of a Virginia Creeper off the wall. It was fairly windy, which added an extra level of excitement to working up a ladder that I could have done without. I'm not good with heights. This year's new growth had already reached the roof, which it doesn't normally manage to do before the first week of July, and this meant that I was keen to bring things back under control while I could still do so. It's been good growing weather this year, it seems. I'd filled my garden waste bin to the brim by the time I'd finished, there was so much foliage. I was very relieved to return to terra firma and put the ladder away again, I can tell you.
I've acquired a few more aches and pains today after all that exertion, but the house looks much better. I still need to mow the lawn and rein in some of the shrubs in the back garden, though. That'll have to wait until the green bin gets emptied.
Today the blog is celebrating two decades of existence. I've changed ISP once over that time, and the method I've used for uploading stuff to the Internet has gone from a 14k dial-up modem to always-on fibre broadband. I still hand-code everything, but at least the blog these days has finally moved from its original, basic HTML to CSS (although I put off teaching myself enough about CSS to be able to do that until October 2015). But even today, I still draw every page banner by hand with a Rotring pen then scan it in to the PC.
When I started the blog, I was just beginning my journey into the world of digital photography and the first photos to appear on the blog were taken with an Olympus C300Z. With a size of 1984 x 1488 pixels they were tiny compared to the photos I take with my phone these days, but that meant that their file sizes were small enough to store directly on my own web space rather than using a photo sharing site. Remember, this was 2003; Flickr wouldn't be founded until the following year.
I've been thinking about how much (or how little) I've changed over the course of the last twenty years. I'm still recognisably me, of course. But it's not been an easy couple of decades. If you've read the blog regularly since I started it (and I know some of you do) then you'll know that I've had my struggles. I'd like to think that I'm an older, somewhat wiser, considerably more self-aware version of the person I was when I first decided to post something about myself on this website. Back when I started blogging I wrote about feeling miserable a lot of the time but being diagnosed with chronic depression was years in the future. And the PTSD which is the underlying cause of that depression seems obvious to me now (as my sister commented, "With a childhood like yours, how could you not have PTSD?") but back then it would never have occurred to me that anything like that was what was wrong with me.
Early blog entries regularly grumbled about work and getting stuck in traffic during my daily commute; now, I'm more or less retired. These days, I judge myself by the creative work I do rather than by the feedback I received from my managers at work—why would you give credence to a person whose primary method of justifying the lack of pay rises they were giving out was to make you feel like you were barely competent enough to hold down the job you'd got? In retrospect, basing your self-worth on the feedback you got from someone like that is insane, particularly given the fact that I was being assessed on a subject in which I had a Master's degree by people whose primary job competency was in shouting loudly at people. I spent a large proportion of my working life being made to feel worthless and miserable by incompetent and very unpleasant people and I'm very glad that those days are over. Life these days is much more rewarding than it was back then, even if (or perhaps because) money plays a much less significant part in the equation.
So here I am, twenty years later, still capturing moments out of my life and putting them in a quiet corner of the Internet so that I can come back to them and remember what my younger self was doing from day to day (and for more than ten years, a lot of it has revolved around making music). It's not the sort of life that's going to get me millions of followers on social media, but it's something I enjoy doing.
Here's to the next twenty years.
Overnight, it's been hot and muggy here for the best part of a week, and I have been struggling to get to sleep. Last night my watch tells me I spent just 11% of the night in NREM sleep, which means I hardly got any proper sleep at all.
And oh boy, don't I know it. I feel exhausted.
There was a yellow warning for thunderstorms in place again yesterday, but nothing developed here at all. It barely rained. Today is slightly cooler, but the desk thermometer in front of me is still reading 23°C. I hope the hot spell breaks soon, because I could really do with a rest.
Out of consideration for my neighbours, I don't work on music with the windows open in the back room I use for my home studio. But keeping the windows closed with my gear running has meant that even though the room faces North, for the last couple of days the temperature in there has rapidly hit 30° C and it stays there until late evening. All I have to help matters is a desk fan, but I tend to switch it off while I'm mixing because the noise it generates is too distracting.
Yesterday I'd had enough by teatime, so I called it quits for the day. Today, aside from venturing in there first thing to open the window, I have stayed away from music making. Instead, I have spent the morning downstairs with all the windows open while I caught up on my reading. This spell of good weather seems set to continue until the weekend, but the more extreme conditions of a few days ago—which were formally classed as a heatwave by the Met Office—have eased off after a couple of evening thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday. I'm not feeling particularly motivated to fire up the studio, though. I'm pleasantly relaxed and downstairs it's not too hot at all. It's a more manageable 26°C outside, and as I opened the windows in the conservatory at breakfast time, it's only three degrees warmer than that in there.
But the music making has been going well this week. And it's not long now until the Fifty/Ninety site goes live once again for the songwriting challenge that I take part in every summer. When that starts, I'll be in the studio as much as I can, regardless of the temperature.
I've just installed the latest version of Netbeans on this machine. The drill was the same as ever, and I'm getting used to it by now: download and run the installer for the new version, then run Notepad++ in administrator mode so that it would let me append the string --fontsize 24 to the end of the netbeans_default_options line in the new Netbeans install's /NetBeans/netbeans/etc directory, and immediately get a prompt to update it to the latest version as well (and at least this happens automatically, because the Notepad++ programmers live in the 21st century). Then it was just a matter of running the new version of Netbeans and waiting for it to spot the plugins I had installed in the previous version and ask me if I wanted to keep on using them. After that, I could uninstall version 17 and I was back in business in less than five minutes, all told.
There aren't any significant changes for anyone with my use case. The UI is still as fugly as ever, even after I'd tweaked its settings. But Netbeans is free, and it's what I'm used to, and user inertia plays a significant part of my lack of willingness to seek out an alternative platform.
If it's not egregiously broken, I'm not going to waste time looking for an alternative. Which leads me to the next thing on my mind today...
As I was working on my latest mix yesterday I found myself wondering why it was that I seemed to have lost the ability to type the word "Vocalise" correctly. After a couple of minutes in which I became increasingly baffled by what was going on, I eventually realised that the "C" key my trusty old Microsoft Sidewinder X4 keyboard (which had been so well used that I'd worn a lot of the keys down to a shiny finish) had given up the ghost. It didn't take much thinking to figure out that it was probably repeated, heavy use of the Windows copy command, CTRL—C that would have been responsible. I'm fortunate to have a collection of various old keyboards lying around (doesn't everyone?) and I'm now using an old Microsoft Natural 4000 Ergonomic keyboard in the studio instead. It's not backlit, which is a pain. And looking for a replacement for the Sidewinder on the Internet yesterday soon convinced me that modern keyboards are amongst the most ugly pieces of technology I've seen since I first started using an IBM personal computer back in the early 1980s.
Downstairs, I'm using a Fnatic Gear keyboard which is backlit and has Cherry keys on it and it's a pretty decent bit of kit, even if it lacks the function and macro keys that the Sidewinder sported. But Fnatic no longer make the thing, and their current product line left me distinctly underwhelmed. Logitech and Corsair's gaming keyboards were the next models I looked at but honestly, the thought of having something as hideous of that in front of me every time I worked on music put me off the idea of buying one completely.
The only keyboard I've found that ticks all my boxes and looks all right to me is the new version of the Razer Blackwidow Pro, but I'm not sure I'm ready to splash out more than two hundred quid on a keyboard just yet. I think I'll be sticking with the Natural for the time being.
Evening update: after digging out the vacuum cleaner and a key lifter, I have managed to return the Sidewinder to normal operation. I guess it was a dirty contact at fault. But my cheap-and-cheerful Chinese gaming mouse (which is much the same vintage) immediately decided to become unresponsive and until I can get hold of a replacement, I'm using a Microsoft Intellimouse Optical that must be more than twenty years old; I've worn the finish down to black plastic on it, but it's still going strong.
The heat has arrived early this year. The maximum / minimum thermometer in the back garden registered a high of 30°C on Friday and Saturday, and yesterday I was working in the studio with the fan going until 7pm. This is the UK; few, if any houses have air-conditioning and most are built to keep the heat in during the winter, rather than out in the summer. I have a Virginia creeper growing up the west side of the house and that keeps some of the heat out, but the roof soaks up a lot of sunlight and radiates the heat downwards into the house. For things to be bordering on unpleasantly hot before the middle of June is somewhat unusual, and does not bode well for July and August.
It's cooler today, thank goodness. But it is also noticeably more humid. As a result, we've got yellow warnings in place for thunderstorms and for heavy rain. Both will be welcome, as it's been a very dry few weeks and most of the remaining lawns in front gardens in my street (sad to say, quite a few of them have just been paved over to provide more parking space) have taken on an unfetching crispy yellow shade around the edges.
Thunderstorms were forecast for yesterday afternoon as well, but around here, nothing kicked off at all. At this time of year, if the cloud base is too high all but the heaviest of showers will have evaporated before any water reaches the ground.
And as I typed that last sentence, it has—finally, blessedly—started to rain.
As I went to bed on Tuesday night I noticed that my mobile phone was on about a 20% charge. I decided I wouldn't bother charging it overnight but would leave it until Wednesday morning instead.
This turned out to be a Bad Decision.
When I woke up on Wednesday, the phone had completely run down. And when I plugeed it in to my charger, although the charger reported that it was supplying current, the phone remained completely unresponsive. I tried several different chargers and a USB cable from my PC. Still nothing. My phone, which had all my two-factor authentication codes and my secure banking application on it, was bricked. I'd lost the lot.
As you might imagine, I have therefore spent a very stressful couple of days trying to regain my digital identities. But I think I've more or less retrieved everything I had on the old phone now; at least, all of the apps that meant enough for me to remember the last time that I used them are now all back up and running with my existing accounts. If I hadn't been logged in to a lot of my favourite websites on different computers, things would have been a lot worse.
But there was a silver lining to all of this: I now have a shiny new phone with a working camera. Indeed, the camera on this phone is even more extraordinary than the Pixel 3's was back when I first bought it and everything on it worked properly. I may regret sticking with Google after the reliability issues which I experienced with the Pixel 3, but as my first choice of replacement phone (the Samsung S22 Ultra, in case you were wondering) wasn't in stock, I went with a Pixel 7 Pro. It's significantly bigger than the Pixel 3, but given that DigitalCameraWorld begin their review of its camera by saying that it wipes the floor with all of its competitors, and it's the camera functionality that I use most on my phone, it seems like a reasonable choice. Sticking with Google meant that I didn't have to spend time weeding out all the crapware that Samsung are notorious for installing on their phones. And the Pixel 3 made regular backups of stuff like my contacts list, so on the new phone they just appeared automatically—once I'd got back in to my Google account, that is.
It's been a stressful couple of days. But I think I've got everything I need on my phone back up and running and as for the apps I use less often these days, I'll reinstall them if I decide I still need them.
Now that the Opsix is working with my computer properly, I've been having lots of fun using it. I've also been trying to learn more about building FM synthesis patches, as it's a very different way to generate sounds compared with my old-school analog synths. I've found plenty of "how to" videos about it on YouTube, and I've been enjoying the series of deep dive programming videos made by Oscillator Sink, which are particularly clear and helpful (and I've downloaded several of the patches he's produced, which make some pretty wild noises). The Opsix's size is misleading; it's a beast of a synthesizer and it's capable of generating some spectacularly complex sounds.
I will be firing Ableton up again when I've finished this blog entry and I'm looking forward to see what sort of sonic territory I'm going to discover next.
The first breeding pair of collared doves to be recorded in the UK arrived in Cromer in Norfolk, in 1954. In less than seventy years they have become one of Britain's commonest birds, and my garden is visited by several pairs on a daily basis.
And despite being a life-long birder, I have to admit that I utterly despise them.
They are the most unsanitary species of creature that I have ever encountered. I have to wash out the bird bath and the bird table on a regular basis, because the collared doves poop all over them (I've already done so this morning). I think I'm going to have to invest in one of those extendable-arm window washing kits, too, as the roof of the conservatory is in a disgusting state.
Their call is loud and irritating. They are also one of the most stupid species of bird there is. Their nests are little more than a handful of sticks, stuck together with—yes, you've guessed it—more poop, and they will attempt to construct them on the most ridiculously exposed and impractical places, such as on top of the PIR light on the side of my neighbours' house.
But in contrast to this, the jackdaws that live in the chimney of the flats behind my house are now confident enough to visit my bird table when I put out mealworms. They are large enough to make the starlings (which would otherwise descend in a squawking, greedy mass) wait their turn. And when I occasionally make eye contact with them through the window when I've gone back inside, there's a clear intelligence there weighing up whether I'm a threat or not. They are also extremely handsome creatures and every time they pay me a visit I'm delighted.
It's June, and the blog is sporting another fresh new banner. This one is rather special, as it will commemorate the blog's twentieth anniversary. I uploaded my first ever post to the blog on June 24th, 2003.
I honestly did not expect to still be doing this, two decades later. But here we are.
For the first time in well over a year, I have acquired a new (to me, at least) item of musical hardware: a Korg Opsix "Altered FM" synthesizer. Yesterday I had fun exploring the new sonic potential which it offers me and I have to say I'm very pleased with it, particularly as I got it for less than the price Korg are selling it for in that link.
However, trying to get it to exchange MIDI information with my studio PC running Windows 10 was every bit as problematic as it is with my Korg M3. I trawled through a lot of Reddit threads and YouTube videos before I got things up and running, and the solution I found was different to all of them, so if you're struggling to get Windows to talk to your Korg Opsix, this is how I managed to do it—and unlike the solution that worked with the M3, no editing of the registry was required.
There is not one main problem; there are several. The first has to do with how the Opsix handles communications over its USB port, which uses something called the Remote Network Driver Interface Specification, or RNDIS. You need RNDIS enabled on the Opsix; this happens automatically on the original 1.0.1 firmware that the Opsix has when it's delivered (well, it did on mine, anyway) but it can be switched by the user on the most recent 2.0.1 firmware. And you should update the firmware as soon as you can, because you get lots more functionality with the update. And how do you do that if your studio PC is refusing to talk to the thing after you plugged it in and Windows did its automatic driver install?
The instructions that Korg provide with the software download for the firmware updater include a pdf file that describes updating its Windows driver using the Microsoft-supplied USB RNDIS Adapter version. I tried doing this on the studio PC, and got an error message from Windows which said that the device failed to start with an error code of 10. This wasn't a lot of help in establishing what was going on other than showing me that it wasn't.
My first thought was that, as the number of USB devices hanging off the studio PC is well in to double figures, I was probably encountering the same problem that causes the M3's reluctance to talk to Windows after an update; the old Korg drivers that it uses will only work if the MIDI port assigned to the M3 has a single-digit number. Nice one, Korg.
Fortunately, I have an old laptop which has never had anything plugged in to its USB ports other than memory sticks, my Ableton Push, and the occasional mouse. So I decided to see if I could get the updater to work on the laptop instead. I followed the instructions in the document that Korg provide with the software download, and this is where I made a mistake. I followed the instructions for enabling the RNDIS driver under Windows 7 instead of the instructions for Windows 10 that I'd followed with my studio PC. The instructions are largely the same, but when you get to the step of clicking on "Let me pick from a list of available drivers on my computer" you still tell the installer to use a Microsoft driver, but it's different; I clicked on Remote NDIS Compatible Device instead.
Lo and behold, it worked. No error code.
So I ran the software updater, and successfully flashed the Opsix's firmware to version 2.0.1. One of the things that this version of the firmware lets me do that version 1.0.1 doesn't is to select how the USB port behaves under the SYS setting (hold down the Opsix's SHIFT button and press the EFFECT/GLOBAL button at the same time to access the menu). This is one point that's made in multiple Reddit threads I read that wasn't clear; it was only after I worked through the process on my own that I realised this. Put simply, people were telling folk with problems updating their firmware to select the RNDIS option for "USB" on the Opsix's SYS menu in order to make the firmware update work. But this part of the SYS menu only appears after you've updated the firmware to version 2. Duh.
Nevertheless, I duly set the USB option to RNDIS as suggested. "Job done," I thought, so I powered off the laptop and the the Opsix, connected the Opsix back to the Studio PC, and booted everything up again.
No dice. The Librarian software still couldn't recognise that there was an Opsix connected. After a certain amount of swearing, I decided to try working through the driver update again with the Studio PC. But this time I deliberately made the same mistake that I'd made with the laptop and updated the driver as a Remote NDIS Compatible Device instead.
As you've probably already guessed, I didn't get an error code. And after restarting the studio PC, the Korg Librarian software found the Opsix perfectly and I was able to back up the initial settings to the PC effortlessly. So the second problem is that Korg's own documentation is incorrect!
The next step was to get a copy of Pete Brown's free MIDI SysEx Transfer Utility from the Microsoft Store. With that, I could send the old Yamaha DX7 ROM images that I use with my trusty DEXED DX7 emulator across to the Opsix (the Opsix can only use patches from the first generation DX7. It won't be able to make sense of patches from the DX7 II, for instance).
You don't need to do anything to the Opsix beyond selecting a blank program entry that is followed by another 31 entries, as the Opsix will import the entire cartridge image in one go (and that is why it's very important to back up the Opsix's patches beforehand using the Korg Librarian software, folks). Hit Validate and send on Pete's software, push the Yes button on the Opsix to confirm, and you're done. SysEx files are tiny; they're about 4 kb each so the transfer happens in a blink of an eye (I was amazed how fast it happened).
A couple of minutes later, I'd more or less filled up the remaining patch slots in the Opsix's memory (it can store a total of 500, and you can mark up to 64 of these as favourites which can be recalled by pushing the sequencer buttons instead of scrolling through the patch list with the control wheel).
Ableton sees the Opsix as a Generic USB MIDI Device but selecting that option for MIDI in and out in Ableton's preferences worked fine, and I was able to play sounds in Live from the Opsix and vice versa at the first attempt. So after all that, it was time to put the Opsix to good use recording some music with it. I ended up doing that until the wee small hours of this morning, all the while feeling very smug for having sorted out the problems. I'll be back making more music with it later today.
Ahh, home studio life. More fun than a barrel of monkeys.