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Chris's Blog Archive: August 2022

Permalink entries for Chris's blog from August 2022.

I make music. These days, I make lots of music. And the results of all that music making are available for you to listen to. My latest release is a follow-up to 2018's Fort and it contains another set of songs inspired by some of the colourful characters I read about in the copies of the Fortean Times which land on my doormat every month. I had a blast writing about them, and faking the saucer sighting photograph on the cover was even more fun! The album is called Out There. And yes, of course playing the Theremin was involved.

Once again I'm making this release a name your price deal, so you can get it for free. Go get some!

R&D IS MY R&R

Now that I've officially "won" Fifty/Ninety by writing fifty songs, the pressure's off and I can really start to enjoy myself. In my last post, I mentioned the "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach that I adopt during the closing phase of the challenge, but after further consideration I've decided that that gives an unfair description of what I get up to. What I do is far more about research and development. Remember that I said that my skill set improves a lot during these challenges? This is why.

This week, then, I've been taking a deep dive into music applications that have been kicking around, unused, on my computer since I downloaded them. In the cases I discuss below, I've had the programs for over a year but up until this week I'd only dabbled with them. So it was time to boot up the studio, load Ableton Live, and set to work.

The first couple of tracks that dropped out of my R&D adventures this week feature a synthetic vocalist, known as a "vocaloid" by aficionados of the things. As I'm on a tight budget these days, the plugin I have been using is entirely free. It's called Alter/Ego and it's made by the Canadian company Plogue Art & Technologie. You feed the plugin MIDI notes for the melody that you want the singer to sing and type your lyrics into a text field in the plugin. When you hit play in your DAW, the software converts the text to phonemes and then renders each of them out at the required pitch from a library of pre-recorded samples of the singer saying the primary speech sounds, which are a lot more complicated than just vowels and consonants. This particular rabbit hole involves understanding what is meant by terms like fricatives and diphthongs. These are represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and I'll explain just why they're important in this context in a minute. There are a couple of libraries available for Alter/Ego that Plogue provide for free (Bones is a male singer and Marie Ork is a female singer who can also do growled heavy metal vocals!), and there's also an open source version of a French vocaloid called Alys that is now also free to download from the developer's site (it used to be a paid product and you can't just install it and run it—you also need to download the .png file in that link as this contains the steganographic key which is used to unlock the software; you just drop the image on the plugin's interface.) Alys was designed for the French language, and the speech sounds in her library are subtly different. As a result, when you throw English text at her, she sings it with a French accent...

You can hear what I did with the Bones voice here and the vocal stylings of Marie Ork's clean voice can be found here.

From my limited experience in using Alter/Ego this week, Bones seems to do a better job of singing intelligibly than Marie Ork does. However, once you pop the hood and start tweaking things you can get much better results; I discovered this after tumbling down the rabbit hole of the IPA that I mentioned above and discovering X-SAMPA. You can switch Alter/Ego to X-SAMPA mode to see how it has split up the text you entered and if necessary, you can substitute alternative X-SAMPA characters to get better results than the default choices. I also very quickly realised that MIDI note length makes a tremendous difference to the results you get and shorter notes usually sound much better than longer ones. However, if you start playing legato notes, Alter/Ego will start singing legato as well, staying on the current syllable until there's a break in your playing (and that provided me with a genuine "Aha!" moment as I now understand how my FAWM buddy Silvermachine achieved some of the more over-the-top vocal performances in his recordings!)

The other plugin I've been having great fun with this week is a MIDI sequencer. But this is not your average MIDI sequencer by any means, as it is built from the ground up to allow you to apply randomisation to just about any MIDI note parameter you want. It's called Stochas (because the results are stochastic, geddit?) and once again, it's freeware. In fact, it's open source, so you can compile your own version if that's your thing. It's being developed by the same team who brought us one of my favourite free synth plugins, Surge (and check out the YouTube video of Roger Linn using Surge with his Linnstrument on their Github page—it's very cool).

Stochas sits on a MIDI track in your DAW, but unlike most other MIDI plugins that generate notes, you can't then drop your favourite synth plugin on the same track and get notes happening straight away. Getting sounds out of Stochas is a bit more involved. In fact, for the track I'm currently working on, each iteration of Stochas takes up three MIDI tracks: one for Stochas itself, one for the synth that Stochas sends MIDI notes out to, and a third control track that I use to send MIDI notes in to Stochas to make it switch between sequence patterns. Although this is explained in various videos on the Stochas site, people seem to struggle with setting up the MIDI ins and outs required to get Stochas to start playing a synth. There is quite a lot of grumbling in the comments to their videos, although the people complaining do tend to figure things out in the end. The video on setting up Stochas in Ableton covers what you need to do, but speaking as an instructional designer I think it does so in a very blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of way (the video is less than a minute long, for a start, and it only covers Live's session view; although the controls are the same, they're found in different places in arrangement view.)

What's important, and I suspect that this is where people are going wrong, is that it's not enough just to configure the MIDI from channel for the synth plugin track (not the track where you put Stochas itself). Although the synth needs to be told which MIDI channel is being used to send the MIDI notes it should play, it also needs to know which device is sending the data. You do both of these things using the the upper pair of type choosers for the synth's track in Live. The top chooser is labelled MIDI from and is used to tell your synth which channel Stochas is using (it's channel 1 by default, but you can change it in Stochas's options page.) The chooser immediately below that has a drop-down box that shows a number of sub-options, and you should see that Stochas is one of the choices available. Make sure that you select that in that chooser (this happens at 0:36 in the YouTube video in the link in the last paragraph). Remember: you need to set both of these choosers correctly for the synth to start receiving MIDI notes from Stochas.

Once I'd figured this out and switched Stochas to work in polyphonic mode rather than mono mode (which gives you way more control over the probability that an individual note will trigger, and to my ears just sounds better) I was off and running. You can hear Stochas doing its thing driving the Surge synthesizer plugin here, although be prepared to also hear me in full-on guitar hero mode backed by bucketloads of truly epic choir samples as well...

But now I'm kicking myself that I didn't use Stochas for Out Of My Hands, the album of randomly generated music that I released back in April. Ah well; I guess that means that I'll just have to start working on Out Of My Hands II...

FIFTY DOWN, FIFTY TO GO

With fifty days of the Fifty/Ninety challenge left to run, I have hit my initial challenge target of fifty songs and have already started work on the next fifty in order to meet my stretch goal of writing a hundred songs between July 4th and October 1st. At one song a day, that's a much easier work rate than I've managed to sustain for the last month and a bit.

And yeah, I know. I went nuts. I needed to, I think; it's been a great way of taking my mind of the wider state of things at the moment. I've been kind of under the weather recently—I'm kinda hoping that next week involves less internal haemorrhaging than last week did (and I wish I was joking, but I'm not...)

PUSHING HARD

We're now just shy of five weeks in to the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge and if you're taking part and trying to stay on target for writing fifty songs in the ninety days between the 4th of July and the 1st of October, you should be looking at completing your nineteenth song today.

I'm... Kinda a little ahead of the game at this point. Yesterday I added a bombastic, dystopian prog rock epic and an eerie instrumental recorded using a single plugin to my profile page, bringing my total for this year's challenge to 40 tracks so far. If I wanted to do so (I don't, needless to say) I could take the rest of August off as well as the first week of September and still be on schedule. But as I've mentioned more than once on this blog recently, my goal this year is to write not fifty songs, but a hundred. Which means that I'm forty per cent of the way there. Go me!

I've been pushing myself hard, but I think that it's paying off. I really do believe that your creativity works the same way that your muscles do: the more you work out with it, the stronger it gets. The second track that I recorded yesterday took around an hour to put together from start to finish. A few years ago, it would have taken me all day to do something in the same vein. And—most importantly for me—I think it's a pretty decent piece of music.

It's important, because I've been trying very hard to ensure that the material I've created this year is of a consistently high quality. I start these writing challenges with a grab-bag of ideas that I want to try out and a collection of subjects that feel like they ought to be a song, but those have generally all been used up by the time I get to song number thirty or so. When I listen back to what I've written in past years, I can hear myself switch into full-on experimental mode at that point. Although adopting a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach is a fantastic way of discovering new production tricks and techniques (and my skill set usually grows at its fastest during this phase of the challenge), some of the recordings I've made in previous years weren't really what you'd call radio-ready. I don't want that to be the case this year. I'm not at the "all killer, no filler" point in my songwriting career just yet by any means, but if I can listen to anything I've done this summer a year from now without inwardly cringing, I'll be a happy bunny.

TIMES ARE HARD

I listen to Internet radio a lot, but in recent months many of my favourite stations have disappeared. I decided to see if I could find out why just now, and discovered this notice announcing that Abacus FM was in "hibernation" until the autumn. The recession (and that's what this is, make no mistake) means that the donations that kept them on the air have dried up. I hope that they will be able to return as planned in the autumn and that their streams of British comedy, old Goon Show episodes, and recordings of birdsong will resume.

In the meantime, I've been listening to a lot of 1950s science fiction radio broadcasts on America's Old Time Radio. There are dozens of adaptations of stories by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, and even L. Ron Hubbard!

I've also been enjoying listening to recordings of old radio adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. An episode I listened to last night had Sir John Gielgud as Holmes and Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson; I had no idea that they'd ever performed these roles together, but I discovered that they'd recorded 28 episodes of the show together in the 1950s—and the producers even engaged Orson Welles to play Holmes's nemesis, Professor Moriarty! I also recognised the unmistakeable voice of Nigel Bruce (who, for me, will always be the quintessential screen Watson, even if he died before I was born) playing Watson in the preceding episode.

Great fun!

NEW MUSIC

I've just released my latest album over on Bandcamp and its cover now graces the top of this page. I have also updated my Music Page and added the album to my discography there. I get a big buzz from seeing all those covers—all designed by me, I should add—listed one after another. And I feel confident in saying I have now compiled a significant body of work over the last decade. At least, it's significant for me: this is my fifty-fifth release on the Bandcamp platform.

Out There is a collection of songs about all sorts of esoteric things such as the plumber from Plimpton in Devon who claimed to be a Tibetan Lama despite never having even visited the country (let alone not being an Ascended MAster of anything beyond copper tubing), and who, after his secret was revealed, went on to claim that one of his books had been dictated to him by his cat, Mrs Fifi Greywhiskers (I'm not making any of this up, honestly); the man who blew up third- or fourth-generation copies of NASA photographs of the Moon on a photocopier and then claimed that the fuzzy blobs he'd created could be discerned as pipelines, giant aircraft hangars, and immense excavation machines (for more detail on his theory and methodology, have a look at James Oberg's account of his conversation with the author; it begins on page 89 of that link and is well worth your time. And yes, I was wondering about the use of the term "aircraft" in the context of the Moon as well, because the Moon has no atmosphere and the wings that the author claimed he could see would be useless); about the purveyors of "diet supplements" who double as conspiracy theorists and UFO "researchers"; about the seemingly never-ending series of working parties and investigative departments formed by the United States Government to find evidence of anomalous phenomena (none of which has ever succeeded); and about this guy. Did you know that he has no academic experience in any related field at all (his degree was in sports communication) and he used to be a bodybuilding competition promoter?

(So many parenthetical sentences. Sorry about that.) In listening to these tracks you'll soon realise that we don't actually need aliens to exist in order for our reality to be filled with tales of such utter ridiculousness that they will keep you entertained for years. I've been interested in the field for a long time, and the more material I read (and I have read a great deal of it, much of it originating from sober, mainstream publishing houses) and the further I go down the rabbit hole, the less convinced I am that any of these phenomena have any kind of physical reality at all. Which is kind of sad, in a way. We all like a good mystery, right?

And that is why I wrote the song Contemplation from the standpoint of "but what if it was all true?"

MONTH START

It's a new month, and that means that it's time for another new blog banner. I have nearly exhausted the supply of images that I thought up during my last drawing session way back in December 2020, so I will have to settle down for a few hours in the conservatory this week and see what new references to popular culture I can shoehorn the word "Blog" into. There are quite literally hundreds of the things on this site already, yet I feel like I've barely started on picking the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. This month's banner may be somewhat niche, as it's referencing the Borderlands video game franchise, particularly Scooter's shouted advice at the player to avail themselves of one of his many vehicles whenever they wander near to a transport station...

I ended last month with thirty-six pieces of music uploaded to my profile page at the Fifty/Ninety challenge site. That's somewhat more than the fifteen songs I needed to have written to be on target to write fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st but as I explained last month, this year I intend to write double that amount (last year I ended up with ninety-five finished pieces, which would take you more than seven hours to listen to from start to finish). That seems crazy, right? That's because it is. But the thing I've learned from taking part in Fifty/Ninety and its sister challenge FAWM is that nothing improves your abilities as a musician (or a producer, or a mix engineer) faster than writing a lot of music. Since I put together a proper home recording setup in my back bedroom almost two years ago now, the rate at which I'm releasing music has skyrocketed. Since I signed up for FAWM back in 2009, I've written almost 1,100 songs and instrumentals and I know I can't be objective about my own work but I think the material I'm creating this summer is way better than I was putting out even a couple of years ago. I have learned so much about what works for me as a process (and what doesn't); I've acquired some splendid new tools to make music with; my ears have become more attuned at picking out things that need fixing in my mixes; and in general terms I've become much more picky about what I'm doing and what counts as "good enough". I really want to get better at all the aspects of being a musician that I can. The way I look at it, if I make some sort of progress with every track I write however small, then the more I write, the faster I'm going to see (and hear) an improvement.

But did I also mention that it is also just ridiculously good fun to do, too?

I WANT TO BELIEVE

Yesterday afternoon I built a flying saucer.

I made it out of kitchenware, suspended it from one of my microphone stands, and then sat in the back garden taking photographs of it outlined against a partially overcast sky. It looked pretty convincing, though I say it myself.

Goodness knows what the neighbours would have thought if they'd seen me. But I had a truthful answer ready for them: "I'm shooting the cover for my next album." Here's one of the outtakes:

Out There Outtake

The process of releasing new music on Bandcamp can lead to some unusual activity. It lets me indulge in some of my other favourite creative pastimes, but things haven't gotten quite this ridiculous before. I'll be releasing the album on Thursday's live stream on Twitch.