Yesterday I wrote and recorded another two songs, did rough mixes on them, and uploaded them to the Fifty/Ninety site, bringing my tally for this summer's songwriting challenge to a grand total of 55. Since I signed up for FAWM back in January 2009, I've written 544 pieces of music. Without those challenges, I would never have written them. Without taking part, I would never have discovered how much I enjoy writing music, or how creatively rewarding the process is. I wouldn't have become friends with the group of enthusiastic musicians and lyricists who call themselves FAWMers. I wouldn't have ended up playing guitar or Stick in front of live audiences. And I most certainly wouldn't have built up my voice control to the point that I can sing something without making a complete fool of myself. FAWM and Fifty/Ninety are the high points of my creative year; taking part is the most fulfilling thing I get to do.
Every year, once I finish working on songs, I take time to reflect on the new things that I've learned as a result of taking part. This year I have even remembered to post the top half dozen here on the blog. Here they are, in reverse order of the perceived effect they have had on the results I get:
6. Live 10 is worth it just for the Drum Buss plugin
Drop the "transient shaping enhance" preset of the Drum Buss plugin on to your drum track, and prepare to be amazed. Wow. Just - wow.
5. Having the right tools is inspiring
My financial circumstances right now are better than they have ever been. I consider myself very fortunate to have disposable income, and I have been spending some of it on the sort of guitars that before I could only dream of having. I bought a Godin xtSA and a Roland guitar synth at the beginning of 2017 and a G&L S-500 in October; in July this year I added an Ibanez RG770 to my collection, which has taken it into double figures. As a result of having an arsenal of guitars all at arm's length in the studio, I've been playing guitar much more. In fact, I've been playing guitar obsessively once again. And, just as I found when I bought my Jackson San Dimas and a new Blackstar solid state amp back in June 2014, sitting down and playing for hours on end has really had a noticeable effect on my playing. But the learning point I want to make is this: each guitar that I have has its own distinctive tone, and I find myself playing each one in a different way. Some have 21-fret necks; others have 22- or 24-fret necks. Some have high-output humbuckers; some have quieter single-coil pickups. Some of them have Floyd Rose whammy bars fitted; others don't have a tremelo system at all. It means that if I feel blocked by whatever I'm trying to do with the guitar I'm currently holding, putting it down and using another one usually gets me past the block. I realise that this is a luxury that is beyond many musicians, and I'm not trying to boast about my gear here; the point is that when you find the right tool for the job, the process of coming up with a new idea for a song suddenly becomes much easier. Getting the music out of the instrument is no longer a conscious part of the creative process - it just happens.
4. Find the right register for your voice
I've noticed over the last few years that my singing voice sounds more comfortable in some keys than it does in others. This year I've been exploring singing in lower registers. When I tried this a few years ago, I ended up sounding like Christopher Lee. Whilst this got a few laughs, it wasn't really the result I was looking for. This month I tried a different approach and really surprised myself with the way my voice sounded. Judging by the comments people made on the track, I surprised other people, too. If I can manage to duplicate that tone, I'll be singing that way again.
3. If you get a better idea, go back and use it
I used to be very precious about the recording process. Maybe it was because one of my favourite Oblique Strategies cards reads "Honor thy error as a hidden intention" but I used to strenuously resist the idea of going back and making changes to what I was putting together; that was what I played, so that was how the song ought to be. By the time I'd recorded five or six tracks of drums, bass, guitars and vocals I would be so committed to the song's structure that I would ignore that inner voice telling me that things would work much better if I tweaked things. This year I have paid more attention to those nagging doubts and several times this summer I've gone back to the earlier parts of a song I'd laid down and recorded them again so that the song flowed better or the mix was more coherent. The result has always been a marked improvement and several of the songs where I did this have become favourites.
2. Massive is Massive
Native Instruments had their Massive wavetable synthesizer VST plugin on sale during the summer, and I bought myself a copy. It's well named; the sounds it can produce are monstrous. I've barely scratched the surface of what it can do when you tweak the controls, because just scrolling through the immense library of presets provides hours of entertainment and my most frequent reaction to hitting a note each time is "Oooh, that's nice!" Several songs I wrote during Fifty/Ninety fell into place as a result of noodling with Massive. Once again, having a new instrument is a fantastic way of giving your creative process a kick.
1. Software for Mixing and Mastering is Awesome
Several FAWMers have extolled the virtues of iZotope's mixing and mastering software in recent years. Last year I downloaded their free spectral shaping plugin Neutrino and signed up to their mailing list. I used Neutrino a fair bit, and while the results were subtle, there was a noticeable improvement in the quality of the sound. So when I got an email offer to get their audio production suite at a much reduced price, I bought it. The results of applying Ozone to the master track of my songs wasn't as subtle as Neutrino's careful gloss - it was dramatic. I couldn't believe how much better a track sounded once the different elements of the effects chain - gating, eq, dynamic eq, compression, and exciter - were applied. It's become my go-to plugin for pretty much everything I've recorded this year. For individual tracks I used to have a collection of effects racks in Ableton that I would drop on vocals or instruments. Now I just use Neutron 2, because it works with other instances of the plugin to show where one track is masking another. I can make changes to eq on one track - boosting or cutting it - that will simultaneously carry out the reverse operation on the other track. It's insanely clever and I can hear more separation in the mix as a result. The suite was worth every penny.
Because I find challenges like FAWM and Fifty/Ninety so fulfilling, I have been looking around for other outlets for my creativity that work in the same way. As luck would have it, there's one starting tomorrow. This one appeals to another aspect of my creativity, as the challenge involves creating a drawing, in ink, for every day in October and then sharing each one on social media. It's called Inktober and I'm already excited about taking part.
How excited am I? I've even bought a new pen specially for the challenge: a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, that's how excited I am. Using a brush pen is a new technique for me, and I can't wait to get started to see how I get on with it.
After my last, somewhat bleak blog post I found my faith in humanity restored yesterday evening thanks to those wonderful people from Brooklyn, They Might Be Giants, who were playing SWX in Bristol. It's not the first time I've seen them in concert. I've been a big fan since their album Flood came out, and I once went to two of their gigs in a single day - a feat I've not duplicated with any other band. In all the times I've seen them they have never ever failed to deliver a glorious dose of pop goodness and savvy, good-natured music. They have a sense of humour that always tickles my funny bone. Even so, last night's gig was one of the best shows I've been to in quite a while.
After the first number Flans sized up the audience. "I see the ratio of beards to eyeglasses is being maintained," he said - whilst making eye contact with yours truly...
They rattled through two sets that showcased material from the new album: Mrs Bluebeard, I Left My Body and (my favourite track off the CD) Let's Get This Over With but also ranged across their prodigious back catalogue, so we were treated to She's An Angel, the Famous Polka, Number Three, Hey Mr DJ I Thought You Said We Had A Deal, Letterbox, Spider, Fingertips, Particle Man, Istanbul (Not Constantinople), The Guitar (which featured the entire audience waving goodbye at the appropriate point), Subliminal, Spy, How Can I Sing Like A Girl, New York City, A Self Called Nowhere, The End of the Tour, Damn Good Times, and more. The sets also included songs that are so new that they haven't made it on to an album yet - but which have appeared on their Dial-A-Song service. These included The Communists Have The Music, which was only released a couple of weeks ago. I er, may have overexcitedly shouted "Yes!" whilst punching the air when they closed out the second set with The Mesopotamians, which is not only one of my favourite TMBG songs but also one of my favourite pop songs ever.
We marvelled at John Linnell's contra-alto clarinet. We cheered Marty Beller's drum solo. And of course we got Birdhouse In Your Soul to finish things off. It was a glorious evening.
Less glorious was my sleep score on Sunday night, according to my tracker. According to my watch, I didn't fall asleep until 3:20 am which gave me a score of 20 (I've been averaging the mid 70s in the past week). As I got up again at quarter to six I didn't really get any decent restorative sleep at all.
At least the cold didn't wake me up like it did on Friday night. I was very glad that I'd switched to the winter duvet, because the overnight temperature outside dropped to just 1°C.
I will be heading off to bed much earlier tonight, I reckon.
You may have noticed that the blog has more or less abandoned any discussion of what's going on in current affairs or the mainstream media. I haven't written a story about the outside world for many months. There's a reason for that: despair. I don't want to play the role of the angry guy shouting at clouds, but reality really does appear to be on the blink. The main parties in British politics have become indistinguishable from each other in their levels of rapaciousness and venality. Government these days has been reduced to different cadres of the privileged elite ensuring that their own interests are protected at the expense of the people who elected them, the infrastructure of the country that they're supposed to be running for us, and the future of the planet.
The BBC report the PM's cringe-inducing performance as a masterpiece of political grand-standing, even when we know that the rest of Europe is laughing its head off. We're told that the people have spoken and are not allowed to change their minds, even when the scale of the mess that Brexit is creating grows clearer and larger with every passing day. One might gain the impression that someone has realised that they can make a lot of money out of the ensuing carnage and that they really aren't interested in common sense prevailing; who those people might be is left as an exercise for the reader. Meanwhile, the EU doesn't care what Mrs May believes. They have nothing to lose by allowing her to fail spectacularly. She will not achieve any of the objectives that the Vote Leave campaign told us would be delivered. But somebody - not you - will be much better off afterwards, so it's perfectly all right. You'd never hear this perspective from the UK media's coverage of the negotiations, of course. The narrative that they report is based on a world-view that lives in dreams of an Empire that was fading a hundred years ago. Thinking it can be restored is fantasy, pure and simple. But it's a fantasy that appeals to a section of the population that has a very binary way of thinking: black or white, us or them, in or out, remain or leave. As the BBC have staff with some extremely unsavoury links to far-right organisations, this shouldn't come as a surprise; I can't trust any television channel that drags Nigel Farage in front of the cameras to provide his perspective on anything whatsoever.
And when it comes to failed politicians, the levels of smug incompetence demonstrated by those who believe they were put in charge of things as a result of their fitness to rule simply beggar belief. David Davis in particular is so blind to his own monumental lack of ability that there ought to be a picture of him under the entry for Dunning-Kruger Effect in the dictionary. This is the man who laughed when he admitted he had failed to do the job he was appointed to do. That is not the response of a sane person. The response of his superiors is equally suspect: only in government would this degree of ineptitude be praised rather than rooted out. I think we ought to be following France's example and ordering all our current 'politicians' to undergo psychiatric testing. And while we're at it, why don't we give them the Voigt-Kampff test too? I have a sneaking suspicion that most of them would fail it...
Not that any of them would care; they are protected from the carnage of Brexit by a portfolio of offshore investments, created even while they tell the electorate to have faith that the British economy will weather the storm (because guess what? That's not what the economists are saying.) The more conniving among them have already arranged to go and live somewhere that is still in the EU when the shit finally hits the fan; the hypocrisy takes my breath away. If there is a snap election between now and Christmas as the rumour mill is currently predicting, God help the politician who turns up on my doorstep asking for my vote.
I see the train wreck happening in slow motion, knowing I can't do anything about it. So I've retreated into the world of the studio and try to console myself by making music. Nobody out there seems to be interested in making other people's lives a little better any more. If I can write a few songs that managed to bring a little joy into someone's life for a few minutes, that will have to be enough for me.
I continue to be fascinated by the results of the sleep tracker part of the Withings health app that I installed last week. It tells me that last night I enjoyed a session of deep, uninterrupted sleep from 4:24 am to 5:50 am. That's nearly an hour an a half of continuous deep sleep and although I have little data to back up the assertion, it feels like that was a significantly longer period of deep, restorative sleep than I'm used to. I hope it means that losing some weight (six pounds so far) is beginning to have some beneficial results. I'm reassured that I do appear to be getting more than four hours of deep sleep each night on a regular basis. It's a lot more than I thought I was getting.
I'm still figuring out how to use the Withings Pop effectively. The activity progress dial on the watch face wouldn't give an accurate reading until I'd completed my account details on the Withings website and set my step goal there. Until I did this, the watch was showing my daily progress incorrrectly and was out by what looked like factor of ten. The dial barely crawled off zero each day, even after several thousand steps. Silly old me had assumed that the fact that I'd set exactly the same step goal with the app I installed on my phone last week that talks to the tracker several times a day would have been enough to configure the watch correctly, but this is apparently not the case. It appears to be working correctly now.
I cruised to an early finish at Fifty/Ninety on Sunday afternoon when I posted my fiftieth song on the website. That means that the treasured gold cup emoji has now appeared next to my username to indicate that I've "won" the challenge. This is the sixth year I've hit my target and I still get a big kick out of seeing that cup appear. This year I tried to push myself musically and I strayed into a number of different genres from pop and prog to funk, jazz, electronica and experimental. There are probably more specific titles for genres that my music belongs to, but if I'm honest about this I find the whole obsession with categorising music both limiting and grindingly tedious. I don't really care if what I'm listening to is known as darkwave, future bass, shoegaze, or one of the thousands of other genres that are talked about these days. It's a way of teaching kids to put things in boxes, rely on labels for things instead of appreciating the things themselves, and it discourages innovation or the crossing of boundaries in the creative act. That can't be a good thing.
I'm going to continue making music (whatever genre it may be) for the rest of the month. I'm enjoying myself far too much to stop and rest on my laurels. That productive patch I mentioned earlier on the blog is still going on and I like what I'm coming up with at the moment. Last year I created a total of 55 songs; my all-time record is 67. I'm not sure that I'll manage that this year, but with another two weekends remaining on the calendar between now and October 1st, I should be able to match last year's performance at least.
Once Fifty/Ninety has concluded I'll go back to some of the songs I've written and polish them up a bit in readiness for my annual Christmas CD. There are a few things I want to change now that I've got to know these songs a bit better (is it egotistical to enjoy listening to your own music?) and I want to smooth off some of the roughest edges.
For me, this is about as much fun as it's possible to have.
I've kicked my weight loss regime up a notch or two. The old bathroom scales (the ones that showed my weight as ten pounds lighter than it really was) have gone in the bin and I've replaced them with a set made by Nokia, of all people (or, more accurately, their French subsidiary company Withings). When I researched scales online, the Body always came top of the list for accuracy; what other criterion would you want to use for a set of scales? They are bluetooth-enabled so they can talk to my smartphone; I installed the associated app and immediately realised that it is just the sort of thing that will motivate me to lose weight, because I can track my weight from day to day and see graphs of my progress. More motivation is supplied by the scales themselves. When I weigh myself, they display an eight-day trend chart so I can see how I'm doing without needing to open the app on my phone. Turning weight loss into a sort of game appeals to me immensely - after all, I work for a company whose products rely heavily on gamification...
It should come as no surprise for you to learn that I have already created an Excel spreadsheet for all this data so I can make graphs of everything.
As I have a health-tracking app now, I thought to myself, maybe I should see what other things can talk to it? I discovered that I could get a Withings watch that acts as a basic fitness tracker for £35, so I have bought one. It counts the steps I take every day and there's a dial on the front which tells me what percentage of my daily step goal I have achieved. This is presently set at the default value of 10,000 and I am sorry to say I have yet to achieve anywhere near this, but the resulting guilt is encouraging me to walk about more.
Every time I sync to the app on my phone, the watch updates the time it shows from Internet time servers, so it also turns out to be an extremely accurate timepiece. Most importantly for me, it also analyses my sleep patterns. So far I've discovered that I get more periods of deep sleep than I thought I did (which is reassuring), but they are interspersed with frequent intervals of light sleep.
That's all very well, I can hear you say, but have you actually lost any weight so far?
That's the best part of all this: I am already back under sixteen stone. I've lost seven pounds. I've done this just by giving up biscuits and really focusing on portion control. I'm looking forwards to seeing how things continue next week.
I'm going to try and hit my Fifty/Ninety target this weekend. So far this summer I've written 47 tracks, so I have three to go. On several weekends so far I've managed three in a day, so it shouldn't be that much of a challenge to hit the finish line by tomorrow evening. I have really enjoyed myself writing music this summer. I can really hear an improvement in what I've produced, even compared with a couple of years back. The software I'm using is partly responsible for this, of course - Izotope's mixing and mastering software has become an essential part of my workflow. And the fact that I have a much larger arsenal of musical instruments to choose from is a great source of inspiration. My collection now even includes a melodica, a more expensive version of a favourite toy from my childhood which was the first keyboard instrument I ever owned. It was, I think, made by Bontempi. I can still remember the taste and texture of its mouthpiece although it must be at least fifty years since I last played it. The new one has more keys, and the flexibile pipe that connects to the mouthpiece will, I hope, stop it filling up with spit as I play. That's not pleasant, believe me.
The main reason I have enjoyed myself so much this year is that I can hear an improvement in my general proficiency as a player and as a composer/songwriter. The fact that I've written nearly 540 pieces of music in the last ten years has a lot to do with this. I don't cringe when I play back my songs any more and that is a source of deep and profound satisfaction. I'm doing things this year that would never have occurred to me to attempt before.
And if I do reach the magical fifty songs this weekend, I won't stop writing. There's still half of September left!
It's been a while since I wrote anything on the blog. Time flows by at what seems to be an ever increasing rate. It's dark outside when the alarm clock goes off in the mornings, and in ten days' time the hours of daylight will be shorter than those of darkness once more. Friends are already reporting seeing Christmas displays in the shops, although I have yet to see one. Come to think of it, I haven't even seen a hallowe'en display anywhere yet. I'm sure that will change before very long...
I've made a little progress on the sleep front, although it feels a bit like "two steps forward, one step back" this week. According to my old bathroom scales I've already lost a few pounds after stopping buying processed foods and ready meals. I've got back into the habit of preparing and cooking food again, and the freezer is gradually filling up with portions of stews and curries. I've been enjoying eating them, too; ready meals just can't provide the intensely satisfying experience that you get when you eat a meal that you put together yourself rather than taking it out of the fridge and putting it in the microwave for five minutes. The extra time spent preparing everything is time well spent, although cooking has eaten away at what little free time I seem to have left these days.
Some dietary changes have been harder to bear; totally giving up eating biscuits has been brutal, but I've managed to stay away from the cookie jar at work for over a week, now. But those bathroom scales have betrayed me. When I got weighed during my visit to the doctor's, I discovered to my dismay that my scales (which, it has to be said, are more than thirty years old and have never been recalibrated) were out by something on the order of ten pounds, and unfortunately not in the good way. At sixteen-and-a-half stone I am considerably heavier than I thought I was. In fact, I'm back to the weight that I was when I returned from Vancouver back in 2012 and well into the "at risk" category for sleep apnea. My collar size is over 17 inches, which is another contributing factor. Looking on the bright side, though, finding out all this has renewed my resolve to do something about it.
And I do feel slightly better. I feel less woozy and last night I slept through to about four in the morning, which I haven't done for about a month. When I got up today I felt less exhausted than I normally do.
The doctor has referred me to the local sleep clinic, but warned me that it could take six month's to see anyone there. I couldn't resist saying this: I won't hold my breath, then...
I woke up at about three in the morning on Wednesday, worried that I was forgetting to do something, and sure that it was something important. Still woozy from sleep, it took me a moment to realise exactly what it was.
Then it hit me.
I wasn't breathing.
After a few seconds I remembered what to do and made a very unflattering "Huuuuurk" sound as I sucked in the biggest lungful of air that I could manage. I completely freaked out - I got no further sleep that night, as my body was flooded with adrenaline.
So, I have sleep apnea. I've suspected that I might be suffering from it for a while, and it would certainly explain why I wake up every morning feeling absolutely exhausted. I'll be off to the doctor's next week to get properly checked out.
It's been, quite literally, a wake-up call. Being overweight is the principal cause of sleep apnea and for the past couple of years I've been eating very little other than processed foods and supermarket ready meals. The free cookie jar in the office hasn't helped matters either and I'd put on most of the weight that I'd lost back when I was on the 5:2 diet. As of today, I weigh 215 pounds, or just under sixteen stone. I have a thirty-eight inch waist. I need to lose weight, and to do that I need to start eating healthily again. So I'll be cooking my own meals this weekend rather than microwaving something in a plastic tray. I've got fresh vegetables and meat to cook with, rather than anything with extra salt and other preservatives pumped into it. I'm going to start drinking my tea without sugar (I rarely put sugar in coffee these days, so clearly I can manage my favourite beverages in unsweetened form if I put my mind to it). And my alcohol consumption, which is already down to a single bottle of wine a week, is going to be cut still further. No more biscuits. No more crisps. No more chocolate. (I'm sitting here sobbing quietly to myself.)
I have a goal, too: I want to get down to a 34 inch waist, which I had twenty years ago.
As I reported here last month, my Twitter stats went crazy in August. My final tally for the month?
281,000 tweet impressions.
The last time I broke 100K was a couple of years ago and while I haven't chacked all the way through my previous analytics, I suspect that last month's figure is more than double my previous best. I'm still not sure why I've suddenly got traction like this, but I seem to have found a community of Twitter users who like what I'm doing. Given the random nature of many of my tweets, this is a surprise.
I'm still writing songs for the Fifty/Ninety challenge, and after taking a four-day weekend last week, I'm several songs ahead of my target with 36 tracks written. Today I'll be back at it, provided that my studio PC plays nicely. As I mentioned last month, it's been randomly shutting down on me. I changed the power options from "maximise performance" back to "standard" in case it was stressing the system, and I took the whole thing to bits a couple of days ago to see if there was anything obviously amiss, but I couldn't see anything. I replaced the CMOS battery on the motherboard while the lid was off (it still had the original battery fitted) but it still locked up on me yesterday evening. At least this is an improvement on its earlier behaviour - it didn't shut down completely...
Back in February last year, I replaced the power supply and wiring harness on the system, so I'd be surprised if the power supply is the cause of things this time around. Running DISM and SFC hasn't brought any OS errors to light; maybe it's just that Windows 10 is an atrocious operating system. I hope it starts behaving soon, because I'm using it a lot at the moment.