I took a short break from all compositional work lasting around three months - although this was not based on any real need to rest or from a lack of ideas. Simply put, the needs of the business took priority, which is only right and proper. It's a pleasure to report that Infection Music is now looking better than it has done for many, many years and that I can again resume work on SKinMechanix. Better still, I also have a rather neat array of new instruments to alpha test, which should, in turn, give rise to new avenues all ripe for musical exploration.
I kickstarted this next phase over the Easter Weekend, once the studio had been reassembled following the Maker Faire event, which was, incidentally, a huge disappointment. Probably our last in fact.
Starting a new project is always a daunting prospect. A complete absence of new ideas, a blank canvas, a gaping maw of emptiness. All projects start this way. You have bits and pieces which might work, parts and fragments that could, possibly, move off in an interesting direction but then you're also left with a large pile of fetid rubbish fit only for... I have no idea. Ugh. File under 'What was I thinking?'
Borrowing one of Jenny's ideas, I put together a progress chart consisting of three columns - Ideas, In Progress and Finished. Each column is filled with Post-it Notes each bearing a song title, and the idea is to move these around until ... you get it... an album forms.
That was a positive step. That helped. A lot.
Sunday night began with a gentle ambient piano piece, Utopian, which uses the Long Tail Steinway patch. Utopian had evolved from another idea called Ikon, which was going nowhere so Ikon became a casualty fairly early on although I'll amost certainly recycle the name.
Straight away, I loved Utopian because it sounded dark and melancholic, and matched my mood exactly. However, critically, it isn't SkinMechanix. Or it doesn't feel like SkinMechanix. It's not even Ion, which begs the question What is it?. I don't know... but it I posted it up on the Ideas section and left it there.
Okay, so if that isn't what I want, what do I want?
Time to get back to some old habits, good or bad.
Time to rely on craft over originality.
Just go with what you know rather than trying to carve out something new. The end result... a rock based piano fragment which ticks most of the vital boxes and is most definitely SkinMechanix even if it's not entirely original.
Here it is anyway...
* Forgive the rough headphone only mixes...
Four gigs in four months. Quite an effort.
My last in this phase is tonight. A short affair - an astronomy themed lecture for my employers, WEA. The performance will consist of just three tracks interspersed with some astronomical facts and figures. I'm genuinely looking forward to it, which is a rare occasion, probably because it's the end of this particular chapter.
I'm looking around the studio, at the racks and keyboards, the DAT players and the hard disc recorders, and noting how much of this stuff has been made redundant by the arrival of the iMac running Logic. So much stuff acquired over so many years and at so much cost. And, now, how little most of this kit is actually used productively. Old friends, old favourites, left to get dusty at the other end of the room.
I note with a smile that every time I sit in front of my super dooper super computer, I turn my back on my former go-to keyboard for melodies and riffs, sequences and ambience, my trusty old Roland JD800, which sits neglected at the far end of the studio, covered in bits of paper and cables, a duster (how ironic) and dust. Lots of dust.
Notice also the bank of analogue synths, some older than the people around me, which are presently hip and happinen', cool and groovy. So fashion dictates. They too are used very little these days. They're more of a novelty, truth be told. They take up a lot of space, and required regular dusting and servicing. A few folk have suggested that they should be boxed up and stuck in the loft, and the available space used for a sofa or someplace to park their backsides during one of our extended recording sessions. Nice idea but I know what I'm like, that such an item of furniture would likely be used to dump more junk, more magazines, more paperwork.
Studios evolve. People evolve. Music evolves. Stay fresh. Stay focussed. Stay alive. Evolve or die is the mantra.
But, for today, and probably a small part of tomorrow, I will spend some of my precious time with my old friends, play them, clean them, play them some more, and remember their past glories before moving on to the next phase of this adventure.
Where is that? I have no idea, truthfully.
I have to finish the new SkinMechanix album. I have four, maybe five tracks that I love and I need another seven or eight at minimum, before I'll have a finished album. But this is where I need to be, musically speaking, and this is where I will stay until this version of SkinMechanix has run its course, until it is time to pick up where Ion left off.
Last week's gig at Prohibition Bar was very much a case of the Curate's Egg. Certain elements were, in the main, rather good. Others were not.
Let's be positive and start with the good bits.
Prohibition Bar is a really, really nice venue. Crammed under a railway arch and with real trains running directly overhead, it feels special. Unique, even. The stage is a bit small but I had no trouble installing the rig. It doesn't take much space these days.
With respect to the performance, for the first time in a long time, I actually enjoyed myself. I genuinely got a buzz out of playing live, and that felt good.
Better still, this was the first gig in many years where everything worked pretty much as it was supposed to. All of the technology on show actually behaved itself for once.
The performances were good. Not perfect by any means but good. Long ago, I accepted that I was never, ever going to play a perfect rendition of any given tune. Everything I've ever done has contained small errors - bad timing, fluffed notes, entirely the wrong melody which just happened to be in the right key, more or less. Perfection is for robots.
Jenny did her scary shroud dance and dropped in some nice viola lines at exactly the right moment in "Stranger". We also enjoyed an impromptu spot of Poi Dancing courtesy of Olga, which took me by surprise as it was entirely unscripted but also entirely welcome. I like it when the audience just spontaneously jumps up and joins in.
So, okay. To the bad bits.
The audience was small. Very small. Just four friends, five if you count Jules, and maybe three or four more if you include the bar staff. This meant there wasn't much of an atmosphere when we started and we consequently lost the build-up. We held off as long as we could, waiting for a sudden rush of adoring fans to roll energetically through the side door, all blaming our crumbling transport infrastructure for their tardiness. But that didn't happen.
A minimal soundcheck followed and then we were straight into the first track, "The Art of Falling".
But this is where the magic happened. The audience did seem to like it, so off we went. The stage area is a kind of time acceleration device. Time seems to move by at double the normal rate as soon as you start the backing machine and, more or less as soon as you go up on stage, it's time to come off.
I have to say that, to their considerable credit, those friends who did turn up made the evening very special indeed and by close of play, the gig felt warm, intimate and very, very friendly. And I'd rather have a small appreciative audience anyway.
This was an important gig even if hardly anybody saw it. It proved that we can a) do small gigs b) do a gig without the technology throwing a wobbler and c) enjoy ourselves. I came away with an incredible buzz which still persists to this day, a week later.
So... the big question remains. why such a small turnout?
First and foremost, hand on heart, I didn't do much to promote the gig. That was actually a deliberate choice on my part. I ran a few random tweets on Twitter coupled with a small advert on Facebook, well knowing that this approach is an utter waste of time. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy in that I proved my own point. Social media doesn't work. End of.
Furthermore, the poor turnout was also affected by three highly significant external factors. Firstly, the sub-zero weather didn't help. Neither did the nightmarish roadworks on the main approach road, the Felling Bypass, which could easily be twinned with Dante's third circle of Hell. Similarly, the broken Metro service had been hastily replaced by a pretty rotten bus service, which presented a deeply unattractive proposition for anyone wanting a decent night out.
In a way, these factors actually combined in my favour because I genuinely wanted to put on a small gig in front of a small number of friends. I wanted to play some of the newer material with only minimal pressure because I figured that without the stress and the nerves to ruin the performance, I'd maybe have a reasonable chance of gauging a reaction to the music.
Conclusion : everyone I spoke to went home happy. Everyone took something away from the gig. A few nice memories. Some photographs. A handful of CDs.
Was I bothered by the small turnout? Not really. Does it dampen my urge to play live? No, not one iota. Does it make me want to rant and rave, maybe scream my frustration and disappointment at the heavens? Nope, not at all. Does it bother me that the very people we have made an effort to see perform over the past year didn't bother to show up at all, and some didn't even bother to apologise or even make an excuse? No, it really doesn't. Genuinely, it doesn't bother me at all.
And that's because this adventure isn't about the people who didn't turn up. It's actually about the individuals who DID make the effort to show up.
They're the smart ones. They're the folks who went away from this outing with a buzz and maybe a little smile on their faces.
This gig was about the players - their sense of achievement, a sense of having done something positive, made a difference even. They're the ones who went home happy. Jenny and her strange shroud dance, Olga and her improvised and completely unexpected Poi performance, Jules down on the floor, clapping away and smiling, all the while fighting the urge to get up on stage and perform again. (Go on, Jules. You know you want to.)
This was their performance. And I am happy for them. I am happy that we made it happen and that I was there with them.
However, jolly hockey sticks and groovy vibes aside, let's be grown up and adult about this performance. Let's not pretend that this isn't about anything but business because, ultimately, art lives in the real world and art occasionally has to justify its existence when it consumes time and money and resources, especially so when those assets could be directed towards other more financially viable projects.
Prohibited Activities was, we hope, the first of many potential outings, adventures which are, we feel, exciting and bold and likely to cause a bit of a buzz.
"So what?" you're thinking. Well, you're clever. You're smart and savvy. You know good business. Figure out the next piece of the puzzle, if you can.
Anyone who wants to participate in future adventures needs to remember that their potential participation is grounded in their willingness to support what we're doing now.
Accepting that there is a problem with any creative endeavour is the first step on the path towards fixing that problem.
Unfortunately accepting that there's a problem with a piece of work, something in which you've invested huge amounts of time and energy... is just very, very difficult. That acceptance can hurt. Sometimes it can hurt a lot.
Experience is your ally and friend in this instance. It insists that, to succeed, you've got to accept the issue and do what you can to fix it. Admit the fault both to yourself and to your peers, and then take your lumps. Suck it up, Fatboy.
So here's my problem - airplay for the new material has dried up. Completely.
Thinking it through, there are a few possibilities. Firstly, I have to accept that my new direction might not be appropriate for the chosen radio station's target audience. Fair point. Secondly, the tracks I circulated were clearly not part of a finished project, something complete and finalised, a product that the customer can download or purchase. Thirdly, the tracks were a bit raw. They lacked polish, dynamics and that cohesive finished feel that a good, released product has in abundance.
But then the darker side of my soul asks one simple glaringly obvious question.
What if the new material is just not very good? What if it's just bad.
Is that the problem?
Deep down, my gut instinct tells me that the new music is actually pretty good. I do have some confidence that most of the elements are essentially correct. However, I also accept that the tracks probably need more work to make them truly listener-friendly, so that they have that carefully crafted feel, and they exist as a fully polished and realised concept, and not something that was knocked up quickly to keep your producer happy or to meet an impossible deadline.
I spent a large part of the weekend thinking this problem through, both intellectually and emotionally, and, late on Saturday night, there was a minor epiphany when my analytical brain cut in and whispered in my ear.
What have you forgottten, my old cock sparrow? it said in a fake Mockey accent. (I have no idea why it sounds like this...)
... several hours later, the realisation hit me...
In the good old days, there was a refining process. We would put together a few ideas and play them to the family, maybe a couple of friends too. If they gave their approval then we would do a little bit of polishing, put together a demo disc of maybe three or four tracks, and then send those out to friends, colleagues and a few carefully chosen radio stations. We then waited nervously for the replies, if any. This way, you could gauge if something was working or if it sucked. If a track sucked, you figured out why and fixed it, or you dumped it and started afresh.
But this refining process has been almost entirely missing with the new material. I've written half a dozen new tracks, arranged them and then almost immediately, uploaded the rough mixes for public consumption. This is DUMB. Why? Because your listeners assumes that this is the finished article rather than a work in progress and can quit the stage suitably less-then-impressed.
So... We have to go back to the old ways of doing stuff. Demo disc then release, not the other way round.
Seriously, this recent experience pretty much proves that just releasing stuff, willy-nillie, over the net doesn't work. Deep down, it probably doesn't engage. With anyone. Raw unpolished tracks don't resonate with the listener. It's just noise. Instantly disposable, more so when that are legions of other bands our there doing better work.
Now we have a plan.
P.S. The image at the top of the page, Ancients 01 which is part of the backing movie for Glorrianna, was selected as Image of the Month over on the Dada-Dash Facebook group. Quite chuffed by that! :)
So, we did it. The first in the series of the Synchronicity gigs...
Here's Saturday Night's running order plus some words of explanation.
1. The First Degree
2. The Art of Falling (Gracefully)
3. Fourmation *
4. Zyra's Song
5. Quietly Yours
8. Martian Road Trip
9. Waving at Mono *
10. Universaility *
The new pieces were written, munged and/or messed about with between May and July of 2016. Only Waving was carried over from the original SkinMechanix set.
This was my first solo performance in more than eight years so, as ever, pre-gig nerves were a problem. They always are. Doesn't matter who whispers in my ear about everything being alright and that nobody will notice but . . . I still get scared shitless.
I did expect some technical problems. I was using a lot of newish technology which we were still trying to figure out. This was the first gig with this system in place and I wasn't at all surprised when the MacBook producing the video locked up completely. Thankfully, it waited until the very end of the set before dying. (Strangely, John Christian's lap top did exactly the same thing during AirSculpture's set)
Yeah, I know. We could take the easy option and just rely on some odd-ball bits of kit, content to make weird noises dressed up as music but No. We prefer to take chances. I know that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. This time we got away with it. . . but only just.
So here's the music . . .
This track sets the scene. We're not in Kansas any more. Mostly samples triggered from my Alesis keyboard. Some PPG-style leads from the JD990. The massive guitars were Shreddage 2 samples, stacked and heavily overdriven.
A guitar-based piece or rather a piece based on guitar samples.
I make no secret of the fact that my guitar playing sucks. Like a Hoover. Hence, I opted to sample a couple of phrases, loaded them into Logic and triggered each in the right order. It's tricky because each sample has its own echo / delay line, and syncopating those repeats with the main rhythm is somewhat demanding. I didn't quite succeed every time but then that's the fun of it. . . And layering six or seven guitar samples up on one key is more fun than is safe to admit in a family-friendly forum.
This was an old piece I 'rediscovered' whilst clearing out a hard drive from the old studio. It had always been at the back of my mind and I'd always wanted to do more with it but, until now, I felt that I didn't have the sound set to make it happen.
I was very pleased with the resulting piece, which is in three sections. It's a conversation between two people who have one thought on their minds although manners, social conditioning and a lack of communication skills prevent them from fully exploring their possibilities. We've all been there. Several times.
A simple piece with a simple arrangement. The introductory sequence is our Zyra Step Sequencer sampled and looped. The remaining riffs were vocal samples processed and looped, and backed up by Logic's Steinway Piano preset.
The video backing was generated in two forms. The live action shots were filmed up at our local nature reserve with a case of one young lady, two Dalmatians (Amy and Jasper) and several thousand flying bastards who took lumps out of both of us all afternoon. The animations were generated using stills and a software particle animator.
A very new piece, written 7th July 2016. Gentle piano, ethereal Kurzweil pads interleaved with massive chugging guitars. I am enormously proud of this song. Borrowing a term from Canadian funsters, Rush, this is an 'arrival' track. This is where I've wanted to go for more than twenty years - dark, brooding and intense, the track explores the savage duality between the simplest piano parts fused with Death Metal guitar histrionics.
A piano-based piece, written 11th July 2016. Layered and recorded in just three passes, it's Einaudi meets Harold Budd. I did not have time to learn to play this piece. To make it work, I sampled the individual sections and triggered the samples from the Alesis. I had some countermelodies worked out on the Kurzweil but promptly forgot them.
Should I have included this track? I figured that I could either mime the track or just not play it. I really wanted to include the piece to give the set some balance, so that the set wasn't all screaming solos and pounding guitars. Also, miming is crap and cheats the audience. Same applies to fiddling on with farty noises over the top of a main melody. But I still didn't have time to learn the parts and play them with any degree of accuracy. I came up with a compromise which let me play something live and gave the audience something very pleasant to listen to. I sampled each section - verse chords, verse chords plus solo, chorus etc - and played those. This gave me the possibility of re-arranging the piece on the fly, which is what happened anyway, because one of the chorus samples didn't load properly.
This was an attempt to get as close as possible to the Kraftwerk sound on 1981/82. It works, or would have done if Logic had loaded in the entire sample set, which resolutely refused to trigger on the night.
The piece has it's origins in a Facebook piss-take but since neither of the individuals involved in that piss-take bothered to show up on Saturday night, I will say no more on the subject but unless we're invited to perform at a Kraftwerk Convention then this track will be dropped from the live set. I didn't enjoy it much.
What would it be like to go for a road trip on Mars? Dunno. . . but here's my imaginary soundtrack. It's guitar samples against a very simple blues backing. Sounded great in the studio and better still up against a film backdrop but didn't quite work as a live piece. It probably won't survive the inevitable cull. Dunno. Maybe it will, maybe it won't.
An old favourite, which we've performed at nearly every gig over the past fifteen years. Why? Because it's seriously good fun to play live. It feels right, even now.
. . . first appeared as part of the Newcastle University set in 2009. I liked it then and I still like it now. Probably more so. I wanted to finish on a huge anthemic piece with big solos and drum riffs. The out-going solo was largely improvised.
By and large, the set worked. I came away fairly happy that it delivered the goods. There were certainly some mistakes but the genuine pleasure of playing new material is that nobody except me knows exactly how it should sound so nobody knows if there were any horrendous mistakes.
On a slightly sour note, I was more than a little disappointed that certain individuals who will remain nameless (but we all know who they are) just could not be bothered to shift themselves for this concert even when they were a little more than thirty minutes away from the venue. I guess that the draw of Saturday night TV really was too powerful to resist. Or they're lazy hypocrits. You decide.
Guys, we enjoyed/endured a round trip of over 550 miles to perform at this venue. The least you could have done was apologise in advance.
This was the first time I'd performed solo in more than seven or eight years. Jules had wanted to retire from live performance but admitted at the end of the gig that she'd really wanted to get up and play Waving . . . So maybe retirement isn't retirement after all.
I actually enjoyed this performance and certainly more than I have enjoyed some of our recent outings. I'd like to say thanks to Phil Booth for inviting us, and Martyn Greenwood and Adrian Hendy for making the event so pleasureable. And, of course, a big thank you to the Air Sculpture boys who were as friendly and as much fun as usual.
I can't leave this update without saying a very special thanks to Jules for being so wonderful, and to Jenny for all of the help, support and creative input whilst I stitched this performance together... it's frankly amazing...
SkinMechanix will return at Never Mind The Ramones 3 on August 20th at Gateshead Central Library, Prince Consort Road, NE8 4LN.
Be there or be square.
Sorry, I haven't posted in a while.
Back in the good old days I'd probably have complained about too many distractions or not enough time or too much work but, for once, I'm actually, genuinely, properly busy. Very busy. And busy for all the right reasons too. With music 'n' that... Just like in the err... Original good old days...
Actually, it is genuinely like the good ol' days ... when I was up in the studio nearly every night, working on new ideas and new styles, new themes, new compositions. Forever pushing at the boundaries of what could be considered music. Not all of it is. Some of it is not half bad. Passable even. But some of it is, for want of a better word, a right load of old shite.
However, and this is the killer, it's fun again. And that's what makes it worthwhile.
Why? Lots of reasons but they mostly boil down to just two vital factors. The first is gear related. I got stuck into a major expansion of my sample library, adding 100's Gigabytes of new sounds to Logic's already impressive roster of instrumentation and outboard. I also bought two of the Roland Boutique Synths, a JX-08 and a JU-06, largely because they were cheap and also because they're ideal for carrying to the other end of the house when you want a bit of piece and quiet away from that pack-of-loons I call my family. I also got seriously stuck into Logic X Pro. This is an amazing piece of software. I'm really, really impressed. And, yes, I could go on and on and on about Logic... In fact, I regularly do (cue much rolling of the eyes) but that's tech geek stuff and I don't want to bore the crap out of you.
The end result is that I'm finally unearthing the sounds and atmospheres which I've been hearing for twenty years - hearing but unable to fully articulate. This means that I've been delving into quite dark territory, like the soundtrack to a make-believe Brunch with Marilyn Manson or an Apres Ski with Trent Resnor.
How did this amazing return to productivity come about?
Well, that's the second factor. I did what I said I was always going to do. Simply put, I learned to say No.
Strangely, No is often frowned up as a word. It's selfish. It's negative. It's a sign, a hint, that you're denying someone else a little portion of your time, passion and energy. If that's the case then so be it. But No is also a very powerful word. It represents freedom. 'No, I am not going to the Garden Centre so you can buy another bloody Gnome.' No, I am not going to spend my precious Saturday afternoon standing outside the Ladies' changing rooms in Primark whilst you try on the latest in a long line of tatty t-shirts produced in a Taiwanese Sweat Shop.... No, I am not driving the length of the country to listen to half a dozen middle aged pot bellied blokes wearing faded jeans and a Genesis t-shirt miming to a pre-recorded backing track....
See? Saying No gives you something more precious than all the tea in China. It gives you time.
Time to think. Time to create. Time to watch the little Fluffy Clouds go by...
Selfish as it may seem, I have now developed the ability to simply walk away from certain projects and, more importantly, certain individuals who were sucking up my time and giving nothing in return. Does that make me a bad person? Probably but time is short when you get to my age. The Great Celestial Clock is tick-tick-ticking all day, every day. The great yawning hole in the ground which will form my eternal resting place draws ever closer with every passing moment. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. A sobering thought, no?
Does that mean I am afraid of shuffling off this mortal coil? Of snuffing it? Not really. Not so long as the end isn't painful or, worse, in the middle of an extended bouncy-bouncy threesome/foursome with ... That would be bad. They're quite good fun, you know?
Does this mean I'm afraid of living? Absolutely not. I let go of those ropes a few years ago. I consider myself hoplessly lost on a strange and unusual sea, cast adrift with just myself and a packet of Rice Crispies for food, watching the twinkling lights on the shore from the vantage of my metaphorical rowing boat and wonder how the rest of you can live the way you do? I mean, ask yourself. Is this it? Is this all that I am? Is this all that I can be?
Is this too much Captain Kirk for a Monday morning? Probably but...
The future is quite interesting, really.
What about this bloody concert?
I've spent the last couple of months working on a mix of audio and visual ideas. What do they entail? Come to a gig and find out for yourself. I've posted a lot of work-in-progess pictures in the past and, frankly, they generate bugger all interest. They certainly do not increase the number of bums on seats at gigs, that's for sure and they certainly don't increase the number of virtual tickets sold. Yeah, I know some people can't get to the gigs because of geographical limitations but I really do get a bit pissed off (as do the concert organisers) when certain individuals cannot get themselves motivated enough to drive thirty miles down the road for a gig and then bitch endlessly that there aren't any decent gigs around. Likewise, the price of a virtual ticket is pretty insignificant really but the bitching never stops. Tell you what, mate. I'll come perform in your living room, if you like. Pay the fee and me and the girls will turn up at your gaff and do a gig. Just remember to switch off off the TV before the set starts.
Now I'm starting to sound like my Evil Uncle Cyril and his evangelical crusade to have Mary Whitehouse beatified for banning tits on the telly.
Of the videos, suffice to say I am quite pleased. They're a heady mix of sci-fi Blade Runner/Matrix inspired tosh and some artsy bollocks with the occasional sexist boob thrown in for good measure. Boobs? Yes, boobs. Look, I know my audience. They're mostly middle-aged men with expanding waistlines and receding hair, and their wives would rather run a mile than attend an electronic music concert. I'm not being patronising here. I both empathise and sympathise. Been there, bought the T-Shirt mate. So, a small amount of boobage is welcome when you get to my age.
And that's sort of the theme of this concert, or what I hope will become a concert series.
When you get to my age...
It's called Synchronicity for a reason. I'm a great believer in Jung's ideas regarding chance events because so many strange and wonderful happenings have taken over my life in recent years and, frankly, it's hard to figure out how this strange situation came to be. My own take is that you make your own luck. We're all looking for something, even if we don't really know what that something is. The more you engage with the Universe, the more you likely you are to encounter exactly what you were looking for in the first instance. Simple statistics really. I know Jung had a more Supernatural take on this concept but...
Synchronicity is about age. Age and a few other ideas besides. I'm fifty four years old at the time of writing. A regular old crock if you will, and that's what Synchronicity is about. It's about looking back, dealing with loss, revisiting the past, digging around in the ashes, learning from past mistakes and perhaps trying to figure out where to go from here. Isn't that a bit self indulgent? Yes, it is but it's also something I feel. The passage of time. The friends that have come and gone. An old concept? Again, yes, but one that's important to me. I feel something is missing. Gone. Something is not quite right. Opportunities lost? Adventures never delivered? Time sliding into the distance?
Whatever it's about, it's about honesty. I'm being honest with myself. Honest with the listener too.
And it's fun.
Let's not forget the fun.
I'm going to talk very briefly about one small piece of the creative process. A couple of months ago, I daubed poor Jenny in a load of white face paint and wrapped her in a set of make-shift bandages. Jules provided a quick 'n' dirty headpiece, which finished the look off very nicely. Then we shoved the poor girl in front of the camera and just pressed the magic button in the vague hope that something interesting would happen.
And it did.
The end result was a delight. A mix of ice cold, pure beauty fused with a chilling melancholia. Some of those images are still available further down the page. I couldn't be happier with the way they turned out.
Why did this work whilst other sessions did not? Critically, I am sure it was because there was very little planning indeed. Just an idea and a rough feeling of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to achieve. I didn't explain anything to anyone, and this seems to be central to the success of the project. It worked because the idea was unfiltered by anyone else's thought process.
Some weeks later, another set of images came, unbidden, to the surface. These images depicted nothing more than a collection of objects from my past - a pair of compasses I'd owned at school, a spherometer given to me by my old Boss, David Sinden, a collection of lenses and prisms I'd inheritted when a local astronomer, Bob Scott, passed away. All of these objects have a personal resonance. They're important to me because they're a link to my past. I also wanted to include images by Da Vinci, a table of astronomical data from Backhouse's books on variable stars, a collection of spectra from a 1934 Supernova and a set of maps from Dutch Atlas passed down from my Grandfather. Why? Because they seemed important. I don't know why but ... just a feeling. After that, I simply arranged these objects on our dining table atop an old pair of red velvet curtains and moved each object around until something inside my head clicked.
What emerged from those photo sessions was, to me at least, tremendously powerful and also deeply emotional. I'm enormously proud of those images. I have never considered myself an artist but this body of work genuinely feels like something special, a creation out of nothing, a release. They're self-indulgent but honest. Absolutely honest. Somehow, I was directed to produce this series. Directed by what? Nothing Supernatural, of that I am sure. Something internal definitely. Perhaps a need to organise, rationalise, categorise and prioritise.
Again, I don't intend to post many of these images here. I posted a few of Farcebook and there was MINIMAL interest but that's very much par for the course. Maybe if I'd included a picture of a kitten riding a skateboard... Anyway, these images will form part of the Synchronicity performance. If you want to see them then get yourself along to a gig.
Most of the above was written very quickly, without any heed or attention to the ever-present spell checker that constantly interrupts my thought processes with a cheerful but somewhat nagging attitude. Get knotted, mate. I'm busy. Hence, it's not a very elegant piece of writing. I'll polish later, when I have more time. Apologies to any Grammar Purists I may have offended.
The current creative rush has come to an end. Reality returns, the journey slows to a halt, time to pause and evaluate.
I'm numb. Genuinely numb. The creative well has been drained. The muse has left the building, gone walkabout, and she left an enormous pile of washing up to boot.
However, I pretty much expected this to happen. It's part of the creative process as I understand it, so I'm not overly concerned. At the same time, it is scary and a little worrying that I might find myself at the start of yet another creative drought which lasts, God forbid, maybe six or seven months. That would be bad for all sorts of reasons related to gigs and release schedules. Not that I have many release schedules. I have one. It's scribbled on a piece of A4 above my head and it says "Release something, you lazy SoB...", which is just about all it needs to say really.
But a creative drought would be bad. Very bad.
So, yeah, the creative spell has certainly run its course but at least I'm happy. Three halfway-reasonable pieces of music, all of which can be performed in one format or another later in the year. Couple those with several photographic ideas brought to life over the last two months, with more to follow hopefully. It's a decent enough portfolio to put together from my first real foray into the studio in years. Absolutely years. And it does feel good.
So what now?
Rest. A proper rest. No sense in flogging a dead horse.
The alternative is to get to work on the other tasks - updating web pages, trying to boost sales enough to justify this adventure, additional research, which is a rather cute way of saying "Who can we rip off/plunder next?". That sort of thing. Then, of course, there's the valiant though ultimately futile attempt to interest the local media. You want the truth? I've long since given up on trying to interest that particular sphere. Why bother? It's not like anyone actually takes any notice, is it?
Will the creative well fill up in that time? I bloody hope so.
I've really enjoyed this sudden rush. I've wallowed in the re-discovery that this process is still enjoyable, still invigorating, still capable of producing good results. As I see it anyway. You may think otherwise.
Documenting this episode is, I feel, an important step. For once, I don't feel that I'm bullshitting anybody, especially myself. I have genuinely started work in the studio again, and it feels good. I've posted finished songs and images on my Facebook page. I've updated my studio log book and kept a record on the computer detailing my thoughts and experiences. I feel that I've genuinely explored new territory. I'm sure that was the major difference this time around. Instead of the old and the comfortable, I tried something different and... I liked what I found. I enjoyed the process again.
It occurs to me that I haven't properly described this approach. Here goes. Simply put, I created three fake commissions from a movie director, each describing a style of music I've not explored before or, equally, steadfastly avoided. I also set a deadline and a duration for the finished piece. I dropped each commission in a hat and picked one at random. I now had guidelines detailing a mood and a theme, and a time limit, which perhaps served to curtail my habit of just pissing about with new sounds.
I used the same approach with the images. One set of ideas were sparked by the fantastic lighting on a friend's bathroom floor. That was enough to set the ball rolling. An hour later and I was sitting on said bathroom floor with a collection of found objects, camera in hand and marvelling at my rather surreal surroundings. A toilet floor. Weird, eh?
At the same time, I feel it's important not to over-analyse this approach. There's still a nagging uncertainty hanging over this renaissance. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe it was just the log jam of ideas waiting in the wings. I've no desire to look behind the curtain just in case there's nobody there. Except me, or a facsimilie of me, wearing a green suit and a big hat. And that would look crap. Really crap.
I care not. I have music which I'm happy with and which I enjoy listening to. I also have a set of images to work against. That's enough for now.
A busy couple of days, augmented by a few strange twists and turns along the way, some of which were nice, some not so pleasant.
After a very, very busy week crammed with the usual business of work, work, work and yet more work, Saturday involved a much anticipated road trip down to the fair city of Leeds for the "Return to Lille" concert.
Mercifully, the tailbacks on the A1 weren't the unusal manifestation of Dante's Inferno and we found ourselves on the outskirts of Leeds in just 90 minutes. However, what followed was a near disaster in that our poor little Binatone SatNav completely folded following a valiant attempt to get us through the treacherous Leeds one-way system. There's no other way to put this but... It's crap. It's not funny. Indeed, it's positively dangerous because none of us knew the first fucking thing about Leeds City Centre and I would guess the same is true of every other visitor using this miserable piece-of-shit road system. I lost count of the number of times we went around the same slice of bastard ring road.
The best solution I can offer would be to clear out every single man, woman, child, dog, cat and wheelie bin - with the obvious exception of the traffic planning wankers - and bomb Leeds from the air. In the grubby aftermath, we could then commission someone with a modicum of common sense to design a new, greatly simplified road layout. I don't think anybody in Leeds would really mind, either.
And so to the gig itself.
It's in a pub called The Fenton, which enjoys a decent reputation for hosting live music. The venue itself is a crowded room above the main bar, accessible only via a near-vertical flight of stairs. Minimal lighting, shabby decor, uneven and slightly sticky floors, and far too many people to be truly safe.
I'm in Heaven.
However, Jules isn't. She's been to enough venues like this over the years to know that this is no longer 'her thing'. Jenny braves the bar and is dismayed to find the usual array of snot-nosed, spotty yobs more interested in ogling her tits than sparking up a conversation.
What we can hear of Berlyn Trilogy is pretty good. They're the support act and have obviously been forced to endure that traditional right of passage which all supporting acts must navigate - the soundcheck. I'll guess that their soundcheck was probably either non-existant or cut short, take your pick. Kudos for surviving that experience with professionalism and dignity.
Pulse were just bloody brilliant. This is what seeing a bloody good band is all about. Musicians that can play and sing, and a front man with enough charisma and charm to make the whole enterprise a fucking joy. The near obligatory synth-bass didn't mar this rocket fuelled performance - aggressive guitar, good synth leads and excellent vocals. This is how it's done.
Eurasian Eyes are Sunderland lads Mel Bell and Paul Russell, and I've wanted to see them live for about a year.
Negatives first. They wear their influences on their sleeves a little too proudly. Shut your eyes and they could be easily be mistaken for any Midge Ure-era Ultravox session. Whilst that's no bad thing in my book, it's not everyone's cup of tea. Musically, the backing was too loud and the deep bass left little headroom for the vocals and leads. In addition, the arrangements were too close to the CD material which led some to suggest that they were just singing along to the CD. (They weren't...)
Positives next. So much energy! So many excellent vibes, all skillfully played and arranged with spot on vocals. FFS, let me repeat myself! This is how you do it. I've never seen an audience at an EM concert bouncing around like this in bloody years. All I usually hear is the gentle, rhythmic rattling of a Zimmer Frame accompanied by the occasional burst of feedback from a hearing aid.
Shiny Darkness were good but it was late and elements within our party were getting tired and grumpy. We also had a long journey up the A19 ahead of us and, consequently, we didn't stay for the full set but what we heard sounded much like late nineties Depeche Mode - again, no bad thing.
Sunday morning and an early morning meeting in Newcastle. Ugh. It gets worse. There's an urgent need to visit the Gent's section of M & S because I've shredded my last pair of underpants. Go on. Laugh. You know you want to.
As is traditional, the family are dragged into J. G. Windows just to see whatever new gear they might have and it was pleasing to find the new Korg Minilogue keyboard. It sounded absolutely fine albeit with a few reservations - no portamento/glide, which I use a lot - and the filters sounded a little too clean but I have to admit that I'm astonished that Korg can make such a quality product and retail it for just £399. I'm aware that this review is thin and shallow, and this little wonder deserves a better report.
However, what happened next took me by surprise.
Thirty five years ago, I watched Depeche Mode perform at Newcastle University Student's Union and I was completely and utterly blown away. Many people have been cruel and suggested that everything except the vocals that night was on backing (and maybe it was) but that doesn't take the lustre off what was a fantastic night. Fed up of listening to my mother's over-cautious drone, I went into Newcastle the next day and dropped £250 on my own synth, a Moog Prodigy, which I still have. It'll probably be buried next to me.
Behind me, Jenny was playing with a little Roland JDXi, which I like but have always felt that the build quality wasn't all it could be. The salesman snagged her like a true professional and he did a good job, took her around the machine, loaded up some really good sounds, and then demonstrated the vocoder and the sequencer. I just stayed out of the way. I'm a synth addict and can't be trusted to give impartial advice in this regard. I let Jenny make up her own mind.
Yeah, you're ahead of me. And thus, another synth nut is born. There's a JDXi synth sitting next to me, alongside my little Roland JP-08. Have the JDXi on loan whilst Jenny moves house and the pictures depict the unboxing experience.
I really like it. Straight away, Jenny dropped a simple vocoder track - just the word 'Hello' repeated over and over - and I'm pretty sure it will take us on another journey.
A busy weekend.
This next phase of the musical adventure follows the theme of Synchronicity - look it up. The urge to perform live again has re-appeared because, well, that's what it's all about, isn't it? Finding something important to say and then talking to your audience, connecting with people.
Having experienced this thing called Synchronicity many, many times in my life, I'm well used to the Universe throwing the odd curve ball in my direction every now and again, and I genuinely wasn't all that surprised when my phone chimed at around 11 pm last night with a message from Phil Booth. Would I like to play Awakenings in July? You'll be supporting AirSculpture.
Of course I would, Phil. Of course I bloody would!
I fucking love this Universe. I really do.
I'm still figuring out where this new musical adventure is heading. The progress, thus far, has been entirely positive but I still haven't fathomed out a general direction, an over-arching theme or a cast-iron sound set. The true cause is that I am quite literally spoiled for choice. My synths can easily deliver tens of thousands of fantastic sounds, and each and every one of them will lead me in new and exciting directions. Well, maybe that's not entirely true. It's difficult to find oneself excited over another blown-bottle preset or a digital choir patch. Most of those sucked in the 80's and they still suck now. It begs the questions 'Why are they included in patch libraries?'. Who uses them? No idea.
But my point is... With so many cool sounds to choose from, how do I limit myself to just those sounds which will give the projects it's own sonic footprint, an identity of its own? Some strict discipline is required.
Anyway, past projects this week have involved reworking a couple of old T-Bass/SkinMechanix tracks, specifically Love song and Waving at Mono essentially so that I become more and more acquainted with Logic Pro, which never, ever ceases to amaze. It's a brilliant program though not without its issues.
As a for instance, I imported a MIDI file of Lovesong and, bless it, but didn't Logic go and create a drum track, complete with virtual drummer, for every single percussion track... and there are lot of them. The end result was that most of my available memory, all 8Gb of it, disappeared very quickly, resulting in the not-so-familiar and not-terribly welcome The Audio Engine cannot cope with this much bollocks message. Oh dear.
The solution was easy - just merge the percussion tracks into one before pressing play. It works but it's not the best solution. Probably converting each track to a MIDI track would be a better idea.
So, where to go...
I felt that I needed a change of environment and rather than explore the delights of a new offering from Steam, Sir, you are being hunted..., I grabbed the camera and invited the family to join in with an improvised photo session.
I'd had a couple of ideas buzzing around in my head for more than a week. I wanted a white-faced female against a white background wearing rags, almost like a shroud, and ... well, see for yourself.
I dragged Jenny into the proceedings and smeared her face with white-stick makeup, except that we quickly discovered that there wasn't enough to create a truly flat finish. However, that turned out to be a happy accident in that it created a slightly incomplete and somewhat decayed appearance. Next, Julie provided us with a bag full of white linen rags, mostly cut-offs from her dress-making activities, and that was just absolutely perfect. An improvised lighting rig came next, just a halogen spotlight on the ceiling and a filtered camera flash to flood-fill the subject.
This was just a test session to see what we could create quickly and I'd already resigned myself to post-processing the results in GIMP to a certain extent. However, straight away, the session fell into place. Just a set of happy coincidences, which worked out very well indeed. The raw images were good but too precise. I'll use these later though because they have a special quality of their own. Jenny took my direction very well and provided a number of excellent poses herself. Jules assisted, jumping in with valuable advice and to stop me going off on a tangent. I think the whole session was no more than 20 minutes, 30 minutes maximum.
Post-processing was simply a case of bumping the exposure a few stops to make the whole image brighter, and then pushing the blue a little. I added another blurred layer with about 50% opacity to give the images a real glow and to smooth out any obvious imperfections.
And job done...
I now have something to work off, a set of images which will push and direct the ideas train.
And a special thanks to Jules and Jenny for helping out with this strange idea, which was probably a little bit outside of their respective comfort zones but, never-the-less, I felt was worth the effort.
The adventure continues...
Bloody hell. I actually managed to spend a couple of hours in the studio. Better still, this was time that was, by and large, uninterrupted by the phone, humans, dogs, various charitable bodies, the taxman, the accountant.... the list goes on.
What did I do? I'm not really saying because I'm not giving anything away. Call me selfish and self-indulgent but I don't want somebody to come along and try to dictate what goes onto the next album. Suffice to say that I spent a lot of time working on a decent bass guitar sound, and came away very happy indeed.
I also spent some time with a couple of old analogue synths. Amazing. So full and rich compared to software emulations.
Better still, there's the possibility of an Ion gig later in the year. New venue, new crowd. I'm happy.
Where to go from here?
Which business model do we follow?
How do we start over?
Has too much water passed under the bridge?
Are we even relevant anymore?
Some serious thinking in progress...
I have a new arcade game. It's called Dr. Distracto!
The aim of the game is to list all of your distractions on a piece of paper and then kill them off, one by one.
Rules of the Game
1. Nothing is sacred
2. No person is beyond splatting
3. If someone is a pain in the ass and consistently lets you down, show them the door
4. If some entity consumes more than it gives back, ask yourself if this activity is worth sacrificing your time and energy. If not, splat!
5. Some things are important but not that important. The trick is figuring out the importance threshhold
6. It's okay to be selfish. This is your last best hope of a life. Don't rely on your own particular Heaven for a second chance
I'm sure there's more to say and do but... this is a good starting point...
No, seriously. I am. Honest. Cross my heart. Trust me. I really am.
Don't believe me? Okay, I'll post some work-in-progress pieces for ya in a little while... How's that?
Great. We're on the same page.
To back up that commitment, I've started to invest in some new gear. As I mentioned elsewhere, I was seriously impressed by the idea behind the Roland Boutique Series when news first emerged last year and I couldn't wait to try the JU-06 and the JP-08. Well, having waited for what seemed like a minor eternity, I had a play on a JP-08 it really was love at first listen. I bought it then and there. I remain impressed, long after the fan boys have ripped it to shreds. It sounds exactky like a Jupiter 8, or as much as I remember of the Jupiter 8, which admitedly isn't much. It's in my rig and intended to replace a couple of the more ancient digital keyboards that have slowly been removed from the studio in recent years and now infest my loft in much the same way as Catherine Deneuve's former lovers infest hers in the movie The Hunger.
Yes, I am aware that Bowie was in that movie and, yes, I was deeply saddened by his recent demise. I have a small and functional collection of Bowie albums, which have been on a steady rotation since he passed. However, I've yet to hear Blackstar in its entirety. I have to admit that it will be a while before I will be able to listen to it. I wasn't alone in recognising the message carefully encoded into the video for Lazarus.
Hey ho. We'll be at the Bowie Ball in Newcastle over the weekend and celebrate Major Tom's passing in style.
I also invested some serious money in an extensive update to my already extensive sample collection. You didn't know I had a sample collection? Shame on you. I won't say what I bought but it was expensive... Not Omnisphere, before you ask. That comes later... Buy the album if you want to know. Suffice to say, I am very, very pleased with the results so far, which speak for themselves - three demo tracks worked out just last weekend. I'm happy.
I've also started to research a couple of areas where our competition are not currently active. That's another adventure, and one which has me seriously energised. I have to say, it's nice to have this energy back.
Which leads me to...
Over the Christmas break, I had a long hard think about where I'm going and, perhaps more importantly, where I want to go with this adventure. I started to figure out where most of my available time was going and if that was a valuable investment. Obviously, most of my time goes on my family and it shouldn't be any other way. However, hand on heart, I have to admit that I have acquired a significant number of distractions in recent years, and those distractions have been progressively eating into my available spare time in a manner which is slightly worrying. That these institutions cannot see that this slow, persistent erosion of my former life is perhaps even more worrying.
Eventually, I came to the very necessary conclusion that, nice though they are, some people are taking the piss. They really are. More so, they're guilt-tripping me into wasting whatever time I have left on this small blue rock into... What exactly?
Theoretically, I should get something in return but ... what exactly do I get in return? Stress. More and more stress it would appear, to the extent that I've stopped enjoying myself. In fact, I have to admit that I stopped enjoying myself some time ago. I stuck it because I wanted to see this adventure to its conclusion and, happily, that journey is now coming to an end.
I know that heritage and tradition are important. I know that charity stems from the best of intentions, and that you and your friends are entirely honourable...
But guys... You're killing me.
I'm losing sleep over the fact that I'm not creating anymore.
So, please. Stop trying to fashion me into something I'm not.
No musical content in this post.
This started out as one of those weird breakfast table discussions.
How do you join Anonymous? Given that the community likes to remain anonymous (there's a hint in the name), I figured that the process would be fairly convoluted and complex. I figured maybe it was along the lines of a funny handshake or a set of strange passwords and phrases but, err, no.
Apparently, all you do is hang around www.4chan.org and talk to the right (or wrong) people. Chatting on IRC is another method. Find an IRC client, install, open a channel and buy a mask. Easy, really.
But, from my point of view, there's a catch...
Anonymous have stated that they intend to wipe out terrorist groups like ISIS and anyone with even the vaguest connection to white supremacy. I would think it fairly logical that such groups have been fairly heavily infiltrated by Law and Enforcement Officials, some acting on behalf of their respective governments, others acting independently. Likewise, I would imagine that the best way for ISIS to protect itself would be to sit quietly at the back of the internet chat room and report anything sort of iffy to their superiors.
They also recommend you switch over to a TOR browser. Erm... Yeah... Smart move.
What I'm saying is... Unless you know absolutely everything there is to know about staying safe on the internet and hiding your presence completely, it's probably a good idea to just walk away from this one.
By all means, stay safe. Be vigilant. But leave this one to the hackers.
Spread across six pages of the November 2015 issue of Sound on Sound Magazine is a retrospective of their first 30 years spent covering the world of music technology. I had the pleasure of working for this amazing magazine between 1987 and 1992, and whilst it was a lot of very hard work and resulted in much heartache, largely spent sailing a fine line between praising a company's efforts for delivering an outstanding product, and finding oneself up in Court for libel, I do remember that period with considerable fondness.
Now, tucked away at the bottom of page 113, is a screen capture from an Atari ST running one of the earliest versions of Steinberg's Cubase, their flagship product of the time. The tag dates the picture to 1989 although I could have sworn in was 1990 but.. Hey ho... My memory isn't what it used to be.
I have to admit that I didn't really take much notice of the screen cap at first. I glanced at it, smiled and whispered something deep and mystical such as "... those were the days..." and then went back to gazing lovingly at images of the new Sequential Circuits Prophet 6. Gear Lust still burns strongly in this one...
A while later, maybe after the second or third coffee, the penny dropped.
Yeah, the screen cap looks familiar. It bloody should.
Because, lurking within the icy-blue epilepsy-inducing glare of the Atari's monochrome monitor, that's my music.
Specifically, it's a track called "Synthex", which later morphed into "Lovesong", and Lovesong finally saw the light of day some five years later as the last track on The Infection of Time.
And that made me smile...
Connexion was never my favourite EP. In fact, I don't think it was ever anyone's favourite CD.
Why? Aside from being the illegitimate child of The Infection of Time and our difficult second album, Generator, the advent of Connexion coincided with the unravelling of the adventure that had been Tranquility Bass. Sad to say, we were a band that was rapidly falling apart.
I won't go into the reasons why the band had simply stopped working because lingering on past mistakes is never a good idea. Learn from them by all means. Don't make the same mistake twice. And certainly allow those mistakes to inform your later decisions.
The most important lesson I took from the whole Connexion experience was that you should never listen to people who don't know the first damned thing about your business, your ideas or your motivations. Always, always, always listen to your own inner voice over and above the inane ramblings of those with an agenda of their own. After all, if they actually knew anything about the music business then they'd be the individuals heading off down to London to talk to a couple of A & R guys from Sony and not you. Yeah, you read that right. Sony.
Anyway... Why the interest in a disc that disappeared without a trace sixteen years ago? Simple : a customer ordered a copy of Connexion recently because, strangely, it's still available for sale from our web site.
And not a download either. A genuine hard copy CDr version of Connexion. Blimey. Do such things still exist?
Yes, they do. I certainly have a few copies of said disc left over but they've been stuck at the back of the loft for far too many years and their labels are peeling. These discs date back to the time when the only way you could print onto the body of a CDr was to print onto a self-adhesive label and then stick it to the disc. Even back then, we all knew it was thoroughly rotten system and everyone knew it would cause real problems further down the line. We were dead right.
I found a copy of Connexion in a cardboard box towards the back of the loft. Once down in the studio, I let it warm up and then pushed it carefully into the MacBook's CD reader. Alas, the noise that issued forth was not at all nice - the sound of a CD reader falling to bits. This is not good.
I found another and repeated the process. It too was faulty.
In the end, I gave up and retrieved a SCSI back-up disc from our file store and mounted that on an old Mac Desktop. At least that worked and I was able to salvage the original WAV files from 1999.
I burned the WAVs to a blank CDr and sent it off to the customer, complete with an original copy of Connexion so that the customer had said disc in his collection. I also included a recommendation that he should not attempt to listen to this disc unless he was prepared to sacrifice the player in the process.
So, if anyone reading this has an original copy of Connexion, complete with self-adhesive label, and you want to listen to that long lost musical pearl without damaging your CD drive, let me know. I'll send you a link to the on-line archive and you can burn your own, completely free of charge.
For those interested, there were actually three versions of the artwork - Billy (fog bound), CityScape and The Cage. Released at the Alfa Centauri festival in May 1999, The Cage proved the most popular design and sold out completely.
Towards the bottom of the page there is a link to a video I put together for a local charity. As a testament to the efficacy of my skill as a musician and video editor, they asked me to remove my sound track and replace it with... silence.
What's that, you say? Silence? Really?
The customer is always right, right?
Yeah, they are.
Presently fighting some issues with Logic Pro X - my Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 box keeps disappearing from the mix, usually mid-playback. Thus far, I've not been able to find a reliable solution.
Must keep digging...
Still feeling like crap but... I'm also baby-sitting a Dalmatian puppy called Jasper. Doubtless you'll heare more about Jasper over the next few months but, for the moment, he's intent on wrecking our house carpet by carpet, cushion by cushion. My job, at present, is to limit said damage to a pair of old training shoes and his squeaky toys whilst the lady of the house finishes a couple of urgent commissions. On no account is he allowed on the furniture - he chews it - and on no account is he allowed in either the workroom or the studio because he was last seen emerging from the studio trailing a 10 foot MIDI lead which he wrapped around himself and the stairs, which is never a good combination.
Anyway... Since any kind of work-related activity was out of the question, I took the opportunity to watch many of Junkie XL's tutorials over on YouTube, specifically those on scoring for strings, recording natural drums and ruining your neighbour's lives with some stoner guitar techniques based around the riffs he created for the movie Mad Max: Fury Road.
Well worth a listen...
An old friend, Brian W., called me last week. "Can you help me set up my studio?". Of course I can. That's what I do...
... except that Brian has now dumped his PC and bought a Mac Mini. I heave a sigh of relief. Brian's PC became the source of so much confusion, irritation and lost time that, in the end, Brian gave up making music for nearly 18 months. The culprit?
Or more specifically, Cubase 7
Cubase and I go way back, to the time when Cubase was known as Cubit and was just fresh out of the stalls as Steinberg's successor to their studio workhorse, Pro 24. I was working for Sound on Sound magazine at the time and I snagged the review copy of what was a seriously impressive piece of software. Running on an Atari ST, it was graphically rich as well as fast and intuitive to use. Thanks in part to the Atari's built-in MIDI ports, the timing was absolutely spot on too, or as spot on as MIDI can manage.
And I bought into it. Cubase V01-00 was a Godsend and my productivity went through the roof. I was smitten.
Cubase 2 delivered the goods. It too earned a good, five star review. As did version 3-00. Sort of. It wouldn't run very smoothly on my fairly new Apple Performa 5200 but it did run. However, my first attempt at using the audio recording section of Cubase trashed my hard disc so badly that Apple support and I spent a week rebuilding the machine and it was never, ever the same again. I upgraded to an Mac Desktop running with the latest OS but Cubase still wouldn't record audio properly. I gave up.
But Steinberg seemed to come seriously undone after that. I remember going to a demo in Newcastle around 2002 or thereabouts wherein two luckless Steinberg reps were attempting to coax the latest version of the software, I think V04-00, into life. To call their session a dismal failure would be unfair to other far more worthy dismal failures. This was a disaster. Nothing more.
Once one of their greatest advocates, I walked away from the project. I elected to stick with Cubase 3 and rather than commit to Steinberg's emerging VST system, I went with a hardware solution instead, an Akai Hard Disk Recorder.
Skip forward a decade to 2013. I'm installing Cubase 7, Steinberg's flagship product, on Brian's PC and all is not going well.
Brian's PC has been specifically built for making music. Decent drives, good graphics, lots of memory, Windows 8. For a PC, it's a good machine. But it won't have Cubase.
After a lot of cursing and swearing, and threats to circumsize the sales rep with a carving knife, we arrived at a solution. Cubase, it would seem, did not like the drivers for the Presonus audio box. It would lose them. Delete them. Forget them. Ignore them.
Time and time again, I would visit Brian, wherein we would both troubleshoot the latest screw-up and, having traced the problem once more to a foible within Cubase, we would both retire and wait for the muse to return.
Only to have Cubase take a dump on any good intentions once more.
In short, Brian stopped making music altogether. He gave up. He walked away.
Until last week, when he rang me and asked if I could help one last time. I said "Yes", naturally, but I also told him of our adventures.
"Do you remember all of the fun and games we had with Cubase?".
"Yes..." (deep sigh)
"Well, I found a solution..."
"Did you? What?"
"I bought Logic..."
"Apple's Logic Pro..."
"Does it work?"
"On the whole, yes."
"Better than Cubase?"
"It's not perfect but at least it works... "
Two days later and I'm sitting in front of Brian's Mac-Mini and we've just kicked Logic into life for the first time. And you know something?
It just works.
There's a minor issue with an aging USB cable but we swap that out and the system just works. And it keeps just working for the whole weekend. I show Brian how to download loops, how to use the softsynths, how to bring up the Hammond B3 organ simulation.
And Brian is happy...And so am I.
I'm blessed in that I have two seriously good musical instrument vendors pretty much on my doorstep. PMT are the new arrivals whilst JG Windows have been on their current site since Adam was a lad. I'm fairly certain that they sold Joshua his first trumpet, or at least gave him lessons.
PMT took over from my old friends, Sounds Live, about a year ago and retained many of the existing Sounds Live staff.
The recent revival of analogue synthesisers means that, once again, the shelves in both shops are now at near breaking point with lots of lovely, lovely analogue synths. It really could be 1981 all over again except without Thatcher, the curly perms, the huge shoulder pads and Bros.
The first instrument I set out to test was the Moog Sub 37. My first synth was a Moog Prodigy so I have something of a soft spot for Uncle Bob's equipment. And, straight out of the trap, the Moog Sub 37 does not disappoint. Not one iota. In fact, if I hadn't been dragged away by my family, I'd probably have still been there at closing time. It's that addictive.
What did I like about the Sub 37? Pretty much everything. Sharp, snappy envelopes, a silky smooth filter and rock steady oscillators combined with a half decent sequencer/arpeggiator meant that I just lost myself completely in this instrument without getting bored once. The build quality is superb too. The case is a work of art with solid wooden end pieces, a good keyboard and nice, firm knobs. (Hint: if you're building equipment and you're ever so tempted to Google-search for 'Nice Firm Knobs', don't. Just don't, right. You won't get anything like the results you really want, okay. No, I'm not kidding.)
If I had a minor comment to make, relates to the oscillator section. I felt that the transition from sawtooth to square wave was too sharp and there didn't seem to be much variation in between. Maybe I needed to spend a bit more time tweaking the filter to bring out the tonal characteristics of the oscillators but I definitely came away with the feeling that if the machine had a weak point then this was it. Otherwise, the oscillators were rock solid. Whilst I don't have absolutely perfect pitch, I couldn't detect the slightest shift in tuning in more than an hour and they didn't drift at all compared to the digital pianos in the room.
The sequencer is basic but then that's part of its appeal. Software bloat is the enemy of true creativity and, trust me, I'm something of an expert when it comes to bloated sequencer software.
I didn't have time to dig into the modulation options, which superficially at least, look very comprehensive. I would have preferred to run the demo unit through an effects line, such as a basic delay, simply because that's how it would be used at home or out in the field. Raw waveforms are just too harsh for my tastes these days. Delay adds character and richness that raw doesn't have.
Conclusion: If I'd had the money, I'd have stumped up for the Moog Sub 37 on the spot. It's that good. It's that playable.
In a similar vein, I've been playing with Korg's reworked version of the ARP Odyssey for some months now and the only thing that pisses me off is that bloody tiny keyboard. I have big, stubby fingers and whilst I can noodle with the best of them, I cannot get to grips with the mini keys.
Sonically, the KARP sounds almost exactly like my Odyssey Mark III except that the pressure pads work properly and the fader pots aren't full of bits of KitKat and pork pie. Yes, my ARP is certainly showing its age…
I'm interested in the KARP because I can foresee a time when I'd like to get up on stage with an Odyssey but don't want to subject my ancient retirement fund to the stresses of being bounced around in the back of the car or shoved up on stage next to a bunch of beer swilling fans. Not that our fans drink much in the way of beer. They're all too safe and conservative (with a small 'c'). Pimms is more their sort of thing. Lord above, you should have seen the front row squirm when we brought out a half naked belly dancer at the last show we did. Never seen so many blokes cross and uncross their legs at once. It was like a Sharon Stone movie.
Conclusion: I like the KARP but, alas, it doesn't add anything new to my sonic palette because I already have that base/bass covered. Why would I buy one? I would prefer to have one for live use mainly as a sacrificial animal. I wouldn't be terribly devastated if it got bounced off stage by a drunken roadie. That's what insurance is for, and the KARP can be replaced - just check out eBay for second hand models. But my big analogue monster is staying put, in the studio, atop a velvet cushion where it is fed strawberries and cream once an hour, being fattened up for the time when my family need to money to bury me or enjoy a nice break in the Seychelles. Their choice, I guess.
Next up was a brief (and I mean very brief) session with an Arturia MiniBrute. I tried one of their special edition models about six months ago and came away seriously unimpressed, largely because the custom aluminium finish was poor and lacklustre and just not worth the money. By Steve Jobs' maxim, appearance is just as important as function, and so I dismissed the MiniBrute as being poorly finished and unprofessional. That said, I still wanted to give it another try and I was glad I did because it I did enjoy myself a lot, even if the demo unit had been set up by a wandering Village Idiot - sequencer set to lowest tempo, oscillators to lowest range, filter to lowest cut off.
Conclusion: I want to hear more.
This is the first instalment of the new blog. I don't normally ask for opinions but I'd certainly welcome some feedback.
These reviews are, for the time being at least, superficial but then it's the superficial tests which often reveal the weaknesses in a piece of kit. For instance, if I cannot figure out how to start a sequencer playing from the front panel in less than a minute because, for instance, the function page which controls sequence playback is buried deep in a menu someplace, then how the hell am I going to do that on a darkened stage in front of a room full of screaming fans (Joke! Our fans only tend to scream when there's a spider in the room...
Forthcoming reviews and first impressions...
1. Yamaha Reface Series
First impressions - fairly good but, in my humble opinion, not nearly enough bile and venom has been heaped on those designers who saw fit to cripple these lovely instruments with those bloody horrible mini keyboards. A lot of serious musicians have bitched seriously at this trend. These mini keyboards are the work of the Devil. Please stop. I can't play them. They're a waste of space, of essential real-estate. I'll only use the instrument as a keyboard-less expander so the mini-keyboard is, in fact, a waste of precious resources, real estate that could easily have been dedicated to longer faders or, better still, more faders.
2. Roland JDxi - loved it although I would seriously question the build quality. I have no doubt as to its sonic abilities but it feels cheap and plasticy. First and foremost, this is a studio instrument. It's not physical enough to survive for long in a gigging environment. One encounter with a drunken stage hand and it's just one step away from an insurance claim.
3. Novation UltraNova - Seriously impressed with the range of sounds from this keyboard. A few real 'Wow' moments coupled with several 'How da fu** do they do that?' blank expressions. Want.
4. Apple's Logic Pro X - we dumped Cubase at the start of the year because I felt that it had become too unreliable. Reaper looked like a viable alternative but I wanted access to Apple's new version of Alchemy and was happy to stump up the required readies for Logic. I don't regret that decision.
5. Reaper - I'm still running this for a couple of old legacy jobs. I still like it too.
6. Roland AIRA series - I do enjoy these a lot. A full review later.
7. Akai Rhythm Wolf - a more detailed review will follow. Whilst I like the drum sounds and their controllability, the bass synth is horribly weak.
8. Arturia Beatstep Pro - The demo unit hadn't been connected up because nobody could figure out how to get their hands on those rotten mini connectors but, physically at least, this sequencer feels fantastic. Rock solid build quality. I came away wondering how Arturia are able to build such a fantastic bit of kit and serve it up to us undeserving peons for just £190.
Stuff I really cannot wait to try:
Roland Boutique Series especially the JP-08. I'm going to put our new Dalmatian puppy, "Jasper", on eBay so that I can afford just one of these things.
Anyway... more later. Enjoy.
Jules and I visited Sainte Chapelle when we were in Paris way back in 1990 or thereabouts, and I was totally blown away by the scale and wondrous atmosphere of this beautiful place. This music is an attempt to capture the emotions I experienced at the time, and which have never left me.
The Freemen of Newcastle commissioned MACAW Engineering to fly one of their drones over Newcastle's magnificent Town Moor in autumn 2015 and this is the result. This footage was filmed over the main Moor itself and you can see the other, smaller moors in the distance.
These open grass areas are the green lungs of the city and give the city's residents free and open access to clean, fresh air. The moors are also working farms and Newcastle upon Tyne is one of the only cities in the United Kingdom where it is still possible to find cattle crazing in the midst of a densely populated area.
This is my first edit with shorter jump cuts. The final version is slower paced and not so hyper.
This version of the blog will hopefully be a step up from the previous versions. It will focus pretty much exclusively on musical equipment and music. There won't be very much in the way of personal commentary. It's my way of getting back into music.
Way back in 1987, I started reviewing bits of equipment, software mostly, for the industry bible, Sound on Sound. This was a truly superb gig in that I was able to marry my love of musical equipment with my earnest and serious desire to be A WRITER. Okay, so the prose wasn't Solzhenitsyn (look him up!) but I was getting published (and paid), usually once a month, and that's enough to scratch the word WRITER on your CV . Well, yeah. Giggety.
Anyway, when SOS started to send me a few too many software sequencers to review (nearly all of which disappeared faster than a Top Gear Presenter next to a Gatso camera), I jumped ship to another publication, which I will not name because I would compare the entire experience to being given an enema by a foul tempered Turkish Prison Guard wearing barbed wire mittens.
And that's when I pretty much gave up writing and reviewing. It had stopped being fun largely because I felt (and others would certainly agree) that the gear had stopped being fun. Too many pristine digital keyboards with too many pristine digital sounds and the words 'Workstation' emblazoned across their front panels and, as we all know, back then the word 'Workstation' was generally considered shorthand for so much of what you want to do is buried beneath a menu system so vast and labyrinthine that it makes the Gordian Knot look like The Sun's Five Minute Crossword Puzzle...
But today... well, the world has moved on and analogue synths are enjoying a colossal revival, which makes me happy. I'm rediscovering gear again, and that feels good.
So that's the function of this blog - to talk about gear and music making and technology and art and so many other things.