Tremulous Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: September 2020

Permalink entries for Chris's blog from September 2020.

My new album Oneiric Tulpas is now available on Bandcamp! You can also check it out on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal and all your other favourite streaming services. My previous album Beyond is also on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal and the rest as well.

My earlier albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a large collection of other music from me.

NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH-NINETEEN

My live streaming adventures continue. Thursday night's show was quite a long one, but I've edited out the worst pauses and less-interesting diversions for an improved (ha!) viewing experience over at YouTube:

Going by the numbers, I've been doing this for nineteen weeks, now. It amazes me that after that length of time, I can still find enough stuff to talk about on camera for over a couple of hours—although it has to be said that I am now notorious for straying wildly off-topic every week. But I hope that those diversions are all about stuff that you'll find of interest. For example if you're a musician, this week you'll hear me raving about a new free monophonic synthesiser VST plugin that you can download from Eventide that is well worth your time. I have been noodling with it until the small hours of the morning more than once this week.

UH OH

It'll soon be Halloween. Every year I have the idea of assembling some form of costume that I can wear when I answer the door to the local kids trick or treating, and every year I only think of doing so much too late to do anything about it, when all the bits and pieces I need are out of stock (because they've been bought by other folks with the same idea but who are considerably more organised than I am.) But this year I remembered my idea in good time and I've already started making my preparations; I've already collected most of the bits I need. The end result is going to be very silly, but I think it will look cool. Then again, I'm an inveterate nerd, so what do I know?

When Halloween rolls around I'll post photos in the blog so you can see the end results.

THINGS GOTTA CHANGE

As I've done every summer since 2013, I've been taking part in the engaging and highly addictive song writing challenge of Fifty/Ninety. As it does every summer, this means that I've been spending far too much time sitting in a chair in front of my DAW. As I'm not working at the moment, I enthusiastically seized the opportunity to do little else over the last three months or so. I'm now more than 90% of the way to my target of writing fifty new songs or instrumental pieces in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st (which is how the challenge got its name). As of yesterday I have forty-six songs listed (and available for you to listen to) on my 50/90 Profile, and I've also contributed to another song that has yet to be uploaded. Crunching the numbers, I can see that I'm five tracks ahead of where I should be by now. Although this means that I can take the home stretch of the challenge at a comfortable pace, I (very predictably) haven't been doing so, and I can tell that my body is beginning to rebel.

To be honest, it's rebelling quite strongly and for the last few days I've been feeling both bloated and utterly exhausted. This hasn't been that much of a surprise considering that I've been mixing and mastering until the small hours of the morning and as a result I've been going to bed later and later, but enough is very definitely enough. Last night I decided that it was time I reversed the trend of increasingly late nights, so I ran the bath early, spent more than half an hour in it just soaking and reading (I'm currently working my way through Carl Jung's "Psychological Types" and I leave it up to the reader to decide whether that had a soporific effect or not) and then headed off to bed.

I slept for nearly twelve hours.

It wasn't exactly quality sleep and I had a fitful night, waking up at least three times. My fitness app really wasn't impressed, because by going to bed almost four hours earlier than my recent average bedtime of 00:41 am, my "regularity" score dropped through the floor. But I managed to get a couple of decent periods of deep, non-REM sleep, one of which lasted for an astonishing hour and fifteen minutes. This morning, for the first time this week I managed to get out of bed before 10 am, so even if I'm not being very active during the day, at least I'm up and about more.

I've also been paying more attention to my calorie intake this week and since Saturday I've lost three and a half pounds. This morning I don't feel quite as bloated as I was at the end of last week, but I still have a considerable way to go to recover the ground I lost during August, when I was much too self-indulgent for my own good.

The final piece in the puzzle will be to shake myself out of my current state of profound lethargy and get more exercise. If my fitness app could sneer at me, it would have been doing so this month because I haven't even come close to achieving my daily step target of 10,000. On days when I've been feeling particularly under the weather recently I haven't even managed a tenth of that, and that's about as inactive as I've ever been (again, sitting in a chair in front of a mixer does not count as exercise). The temptation to just sit in the studio shouldn't be as strong after Fifty/Ninety draws to a close, but I'm sure that when the new studio desk arrives in a few weeks I will have to spend some time bedding it in and getting used to my new setup. To that end, I took delivery of a bunch of 19" rack accessories yesterday which were the missing parts of the new desk puzzle.

I suspect that the biggest logistical challenge will be to get rid of the Argos bed-and desk combo that I'm currently using. Know anyone who wants one? The bed part has hardly been used...

FEED ME

Over the last decade I've been increasingly concerned by the decline in the numbers of birds I've seen in the back garden. The recent news of the shocking decline of animal species globally has made me intensely aware of the need for me to do my bit to reverse things at a local level and I'm pleased to say that since I opened up the back garden by having the leylandii hedge removed (it's an invasive species, which means that few native animals or birds can benefit from it other than as ground cover), the amount of wildlife that I see out of my back windows has increased. A few years ago it would be unusual to see more than a couple of sparrows outside; looking at the bird feeders right now I can see more than a dozen making the most of the free food. I recently changed the seed that I use in the bird feeders closest to the house, and the current brand is clearly a big hit with sparrows. Before they started visiting in numbers I wasn't aware just what fussy eaters they are and most of what I was putting out before was ending up on the floor. None of the "No Mess" bird feed brands fully lives up to its name, but this stuff has a much better proportion of eat to discard than any of the other feeds I've tried. I reckon the sparrows get through about 5 Kg of it in a month.

The local starlings now arrive en masse; when I put out a few scoops of mealworms for them they turn up in a flock that I estimate to be around fifty strong. Unfortunately this has also got the attention of the local cats, and I've seen one or two close calls recently. The jackdaws that nest in the chimneys of the flats at the back now also turn up mob-handed, and the spectacle of five or six of them trying to fit inside the bird table at the same time is hilarious.

It would be nice to see some more unusual birds at the bird table, though. As winter approaches I will be experimenting by putting out other types of food to see what shows up. I'll let you know what I see.

UPDATES...

I just updated Apache NetBeans to version 12.1, which was released on September 1st. I'm beginning to get quite adept at upgrading NetBeans without too much flailing about, but I was disappointed to see that the default install of the latest version is still not autodetecting when it's being run on HiDPI monitors and the splash screen when it launches is still barely bigger than a postage stamp on this system. Luckily the Darcula plugin from my previous install returned everything to the way I like it without any faffing about.

BALMY

And just like that, I've gone from wondering whether it's time to break out the winter duvet to wandering around the house in jeans and a t-shirt again. It's 24°C outside at the moment as a plume of hot air has arrived from the tropics and the temperatures have reversed their decline of the last couple of weeks. The temperature in the studio last night was back up in the thirties, although thankfully none of my equipment decided to give up the ghost in protest. And that was a nice change!

GET YOUR WORDS FLOWING

Last night's stream was one of my better efforts, I think. For one thing, it was much more concise than my Sunday night shows have been so far, clocking in at just 69 minutes after editing. For another, there was plenty of interaction in the chat, and some great ideas and comments from viewers. That encouraged me to up my game, and while the topic of conversation did get derailed once or twice (and let's face it, it wouldn't be one of my shows if it didn't) everything gelled together and parts of it were even making a fair bit of sense to me as I edited the show down this morning before I uploaded it to YouTube.

Yesterday's show spawned another challenge for viewers taking part in Fifty/Ninety, too: the Nonet challenge. I was delighted to discover this morning that quite a few people have already written and recorded songs that follow the required lyrical form. If you want to get your lyrics flowing, or are just looking to create something a little further off the beaten track than usual, you should find some ideas in the show so please give it a watch!

WERE WE LOOKING THE WRONG WAY?

Atitlan's contribution to the nonet challenge was how I found out about today's big science announcement regarding the discovery of the gas phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine is a stinky and very toxic gas (it smells of rotting fish, or garlic, and you wouldn't need to breathe much of it in to end up dead) but while it has been detected in the atmosphere of Saturn (where the processes that generate it are explained by the gas giant's dense and turbulent atmosphere) its presence in Venus's upper atmosphere is much more interesting, because the geological processes that we know about that exist on rocky planets don't create it in large quantities, certainly not in the amounts which seem to be present on Venus.

Anaerobic bacteria, on the other hand, are extremely good at producing phosphine. Anaerobic bacteria are species of bacteria that don't metabolise oxygen—that is, they don't need oxygen in order to live, and they were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth. As a result of this, phosphine has long been classed as a biosignature marker by scientists searching for extraterrestrial life. In other words, if you looked at a rocky planet (note: not a gas giant) and saw phosphine in its atmosphere, you'd have good reason to suspect that life existed there.

The paper in Nature by Jane Greaves et al is suitably cautious. In their conclusions, the authors state:

"The detection of PH3 is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry."

Nevertheless, the data indicate that something very unusual is taking place and the existence of bacteria in the upper atmosphere is a strong candidate as an explanation.

I wish Carl Sagan was still around to hear the news. As always he was several steps ahead of the game and together with Harold Morowitz he wrote a paper with the title Life in the clouds of Venus? that was published in Nature fifty-three years ago on Wednesday.

MORE CAMERAS!

As autumn progresses, the temperature in my bedroom studio has dropped to more manageable levels, so yesterday I decided to try running a webcam from the shelf in front of me; when I'd last tried that in the middle of the August heatwave, the webcam rapidly overheated and stopped working. Yesterday I got to the end of the stream without any trouble from my cameras at all.

I have already returned the Zoom Q2N-4K to its traditional position as my main webcam, though. I prefer the much wider view that it gives of my workspace, and the picture quality is far superior—which is hardly surprising, as it was more than ten times as expensive. I really noticed the lower picture quality that the webcam had. Even after adding some colour correction in OBS, it really doesn't cut it for close-up work. It'll be fine if I stick with it as a secondary camera (or more accurately a quaternary one) for wide views, though.

I just wish webcams came with longer USB cables. It would have been very helpful if I could have shown closeups of the Korg M3's controls as I was creating the track for last night's stream. And it became very clear that even with my new spectacles, I need to tweak the spacing of the synths on my stand, because if I don't do something about improving the visibility of the M3's X-Y control pad, I am going to turn into a hunchback.

Although it didn't affect the stream, my Mackie Big Knob was playing up a fair amount yesterday. I suspect I may eventually have to send it off to be serviced, as it's never been quite right since I dropped a mic stand on top of it. Yesterday it sent me into a panic by completely cutting the feed to my monitors...

MORE BOOKS!

And I know I said on Sunday's stream that I'd sworn off buying new books for a while (this house could be used to illustrate the Japanese concept of tsundoku and I'm not proud of the fact) but it turns out that there's a new novel on the way from Suzanna Clarke called Piranesi and she is one of very few authors whose work I will automatically buy because I've loved their work so much. It's published on September 15th and I already have my copy preordered from Hive. I can't wait!

INSPIRATION'S WHERE YOU FIND IT

Sunday night's Fifty/Ninety Show asked the big question: where do you get your ideas from? Surprisingly enough, I had what is (in my humble opinion) a reasonably satisfying answer as well as a whole bunch of tips on how you can get on better terms with your muse, whichever of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne she happens to be...

I had a fun time making the show this week, although trying to peer at the chat window while I was presenting meant that I was trailing off into silence even more frequently than I normally do. However, please rest assured that I've edited all that out of the show in the link above, which reduced its run time by more than ten minutes! I see that I'm still peering down my nose at the monitor whenever I need to read stuff on screen, although not for very much longer. I'll be picking up my new glasses later this week—my first new pair of prescription lenses in more than four years.

Once the new desk has been installed in the studio, I may well update the monitors that I'm using with the studio PC, too. They're both quite old and they don't match in resolution, size, or even brand, which most people probably wouldn't even notice, but it drives me up the wall.

OUCH

On Saturday night my elbow felt so much better that I decided not to wear the arm brace I've been sleeping in for most of the past month. That turned out to be a very bad move, as I woke up in agony. My arm now hurts as much as it did a couple of weeks ago and last night I had another dreadful night's sleep. I'm beginning to think that it's not a simple sprain but rather an attack of tennis elbow, which means no more guitar playing for the moment, and that sucks.

Not being able to play doesn't seem to be affecting my creative output much, though. At the moment I'm working on my 42nd piece for 50/90 and I'm also waiting for the final section of an exquisite corpse to come in that I've contributed to (and I've been stitching the different sections together in Ableton, which is tremendous fun and creatively very satisfying.) I've been delving more deeply into the behaviours of the Max For Live Probability Pack that I mentioned in my last blog post and I can now get reasonably authentic-sounding performances out of it instead of the overcaffeinated robot playing I started out with. I'll have to be content with guitar-free pieces for a while longer, it seems. It's a shame, but I don't want to further mess up my elbow.

EIGHTY PERCENT THERE

I've had a very productive time making music so far this September. Today I uploaded my fortieth track to Fifty/Ninety, so I'm four-fifths of the way to my goal of writing fifty songs before October 1st. Track #40 is a collaboration with my very talented buddy Ryako, a.k.a. Mel, who (it turns out) can wheel out a terrifyingly accurate impersonation of a certain Icelandic chanteuse on demand and write (and record) perfect and appropriate-sounding songs, in character, at the drop of a hat. It's called Björk and Kirk in Outer Space and it was an absolute hoot to do.

And congratulations are in order, because Mel has just reached affiliate level on Twitch. Wooo!

I'll be busy making more music next week, and I have several other pieces in the pipeline at the moment. I've been having lots of fun with the Max For Live tools in Sonic Faction's Probability Pack over the last week. It's a free download for registered Ableton users and well worth the investment in time required to figure out how to get good results out of all five of the plugins in the pack. Coupling the Doctor Chaos tool with Waves's Bass Slapper MIDI bass guitar plugin results in utterly bonkers bass lines, but I think the Melodic Probability tool is going to come in more useful for quickly generating stuff that sounds like it was being played by a real human being.

EVEN FURTHER OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Did I say that I intended to keep the distractions and diversions to a minimum in my live streams this month? Well, needless to say that my plans didn't go according to, er, plan. Last Thursday's show took in a ridiculous array of tangents—even for me—before I finally got around to the point of the proceedings, which was to chronicle my musical adventures over the past week...

I'm clearly enjoying doing these shows, as two and a half hours went by in what seemed like twenty minutes. As I said at the beginning of the show I must be doing something right, as I've started to attract the attention of comment spammers who have been posting comments in my YouTube archive of past shows. These have all consisted of what appear to be randomly-chosen single words. There might be an attractive young lady in the profile picture of the accounts posting the comments, but you and I both know it's the work of a Russian bot, don't we?

I am plagued by bots on social media at the moment. Soundcloud have had a problem with them for years, and it got so bad I cancelled my Pro subscription and stopped using the platform altogether. Facebook and Instagram are now just as bad as Soundcloud both in terms of numbers of uncontrolled spammers and fake accounts liking my stuff or wanting to be my friend, and in terms of not doing anything to fix things. I guess that as the US election approaches, Russian bots will be even more active on social media; however, they're clearly not run by people bright enough to realise that actually, I don't have a vote in any US elections...

But I will be back with another live stream on Twitch tomorrow night at 21:00 BST, when I'll be talking about how to inspire yourself when you can't think of what to write, play or sing.

And today I ordered a few bits and pieces that should make sure that my forthcoming studio upgrade is a more ergonomically satisfying workspace, including some 19" rack shelves, an eight-way 19" power strip, and some miscellaneous fixtures and fittings to integrate my existing gear into the new desk. It shouldn't be that long before it arrives now, and I am already very excited at the prospect of working in a studio that doesn't induce an attack of claustrophobia every time I sit down at my desk or result in head injuries when I stand up again. I'll probably chronicle the upgrade here, so stay tuned.

SEVENTY PERCENT DONE

Yesterday I added the thirty-fifth song to my profile page for this year's Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge. That means I'm seventy percent of the way towards my target of writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st, and it puts me a couple of songs ahead of the work rate I need to match if I'm going to make my goal.

This year has been a bit more of a challenge than I expected, because I have done something to my left elbow which makes playing the guitar very painful. For the last three weeks I've been recording tracks with little or no guitar or bass guitar on them at all (luckily I have enough toys in the studio that means that this hasn't slowed me down much.) I even have a passable virtual bass guitar VST that I've used on most tracks I've put together in the last fortnight. But for most of this summer, my Mk1 Ableton Push has been my primary compositional tool. I really didn't see that coming when I bought it as a 54th birthday present to myself, way back in 2014. It sits on the studio desk in front of me, permanently plugged in to the PC, and it's the work of a moment to switch it on and start playing. Unlike the Korg M3, it's ready to go instantly (I've never timed how long the M3 takes to boot up, but it's easily a good couple of minutes.) The new studio desk I've ordered has a dedicated shelf for a proper MIDI controller keyboard, so the Push may get less use once I've acquired a suitable model, but somehow I doubt it'll be relegated back to its box.

But yesterday my arms were feeling good enough for me to take a stab at playing a real guitar or two, and although my playing was very rusty, I made it to the end of the track without having to give up and go back to alternative instruments. I'm still not out of the woods yet though; I could feel the soreness when I put my Parker Fly back in the rack. I'll be focusing on synth-based music for a couple more weeks, I think.

AUTUMNAL

I was going to give the lawn a cut this afternoon as it's looking a bit scruffy at the moment, but before I'd finished drinking my breakfast coffee the sky had clouded over and it's been raining, off and on, for the past hour. More rain is forecast for tomorrow, too. There's no longer enough energy in the atmosphere to trigger the thunderstorms we were getting last month, so the weather's not got the entertainment value it has in the middle of summer. Instead, it's just grey and wet outside.

I guess that means I'll just have to head back upstairs and record some more music, then.

ONWARDS

And just like that, August is over and the year has started to fade into autumn. The heat of a few weeks ago is well behind us and I'm sitting here at my keyboard wearing a hoodie. I know friends who have even switched their central heating on over the Bank Holiday Weekend. The temperature in the back garden dropped to just 5°C last night. Sunrise was at 06:23 this morning and sunset is at 19:55, so the bedroom is noticeably darker at night than it was in July, and as dawn now breaks a couple of hours later than it did in June, I'm beginning to sleep much more soundly once again. The sleep tracker app on my phone reckoned I experienced periods of deep, properly restorative sleep that lasted more than an hour twice last night. As I'm not working, I've turned the alarm clock off this week and I wake up when I'm ready to wake up.

I feel much less tired than I did last month. As a result of indulging myself a bit since my birthday, I've put on weight recently, but now that September has rolled around it's time to start losing it again.

That means becoming more active—and I'm hoping that the fact I feel much less lethargic than I was a few months ago will help.

DISTRACTION TELEVISION

I'm still streaming live from the studio twice each week, and on Sunday it was my ninth Fifty/Ninety show. This week I was talking about how to prevent that nasty 50- or 60-Hz hum that can crop up in your recordings, and discussed a tool that can remove it from any recordings that you've already made.

Running for just over ninety minutes, this week's show was a little more streamlined than in previous weeks, and I intend keeping the proportion of distractions to usable content lower than it has been. There were still plenty of asides and diversions cropping up from the chat, but as this has been a result of more people tuning in, I'm more than happy to follow the road where it takes me. If you've not tuned in yet, please swing by and join in the fun—and if you could follow me on Twitch, that would be absolutely awesome.

FLY THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES

LAX, the international airport that serves Los Angeles, is one of the busiest in the world. The idea that someone would strap on a jetpack and spend the weekend flying around in the airport's airspace at around 3,000 feet seems implausible at best, but apparently that's what someone did on Sunday afternoon.

It's not exactly the same as seeing a UFO, but I spent a happy half an hour reading the other breathlessly-written stories on the same website linked to by that article, which range from an audio recording of an FAA operator dealing with multiple reports from aircraft flying across Arizona seeing something in the sky above them at high altitude (at least forty thousand feet), to reports of mystery aircraft, possibly equipped with stealth technology, possibly involved in drug running, flying rapidly over Oregon at thirty-seven thousand feet and being chased (without success) by Air National Guard F-15s back in 2017, to stories of a mysterious glowing object sighted over Long Island and an encounter between an airliner and fast-moving bright light over Ireland, both of which took place in 2018. I remember the Irish sighting making the news here at the time (and being explained as a particularly bright bolide, or meteor).

I've amused myself reading UFO reports for five decades, but these days I tend to view the most likely explanation to be the many processes by which witnesses can misperceive and misidentify what they're looking at, and my entertainment is provided chiefly by the credulity of the writers of the subsequent reports, not by the likelihood that the sightings were records of encounters with extraterrestrial craft. Human vision is nowhere near as reliable as we used to think it was; the human brain is quite capable of making stuff up that was not there, or simply editing phenomena out of our experience that an attentive bystander would consider utterly impossible to miss; we can quite literally stare at something and not notice it's there. We can become distracted and forget commonplace actions that lead to us losing our phone, or our car keys, or our car; or we can put treasured items in special places so we don't lose them, and lose them forever.

Did the guy in the jetpack exist? Possibly. But it's just as likely that the budding Rocketeer might actually have been a model aircraft, or a kite, or even a bird. Dr. J. Allen Hynek's most famous and notorious explanation of a 1960s UFO sighting that took place over a large area of Ohio and southern Michigan may have been off the mark, but it wasn't by much.