Some folks have asked about the set. Specifically, they've asked about how much of it was live.
That's a fair question to which I would say ... Well, obviously, not all of it was live in the sense that some of it, basically the Drums, bass etc, was on backing. That much is true.
So what else was I doing?
First, I'll tell you about the rig. This bit is for the serious gear heads. If you're not a gear head... stick around all the same. You might find it useful.
First and foremost, I was running Logic Pro on a Mac Mini, which was tucked away at the back of the rig and you only really noticed it if you used it as a beer mat. (Yes, someone did...) I had multiple instances of OmniSphere, Hybrid and Apple's EXS sampler running on individual tracks, some independent, some tied together. There were also multiple instances of Native Instruments'Kontakt 5, which was loaded with Spitfire Audio's Albion One, Heavocity's Shreddage Guitars and a whole load of other libraries. My ancient Mac Book was running the backing tracks inside Audacity.
The Yamaha EX5 keyboard meant I could trigger all of these instruments just by changing tracks inside Logic. The Kurzweil K2000 was used for choral, lead and atmospheric effects. There was a Roland JD990 sitting to one side although it decided to throw the towel in at the last minute so it wasn't used.
And that was it. A lot of musicial instruments jammed inside some fairly small bits of gear. Now here's the track breakdown.
Tension : huge atmospheres, big drums, sound effects, trance leads, delicate pianos. A lot (but not all) of the sound effects were triggered from my keyboard. Most of the big atmospheres came from just pressing one key - that's the beauty of having a rack of really excellent samplers triggering in unison. The leads, the piano and the big screaming trance patch, were all live. You know this because I occasionally started playing in the wrong octave and quietly hoped that nobody would notice. That leaves the drums, the huge chugging guitars and the Moog basses. Yes, they were on backing.
Scary Horror Movie : Again, most of this was triggered from the main keyboard. Omnisphere was responsible for the huge scary whooshy noises and the immense lead patch. Some of the little piano trills were on backing but others were triggered from the Korg Nanopad, which was a last minute addition to the rig because my pox rotten Novation LaunchPad packed in the day before. The strings, distorted Moog bass and percussive effects were on backing.
The Art of Falling : The drums, bass and some of the guitars were on backing but everything else was triggered from the EX5. The guitar riffs are exactly that - short riffs tied to one particular note and triggered in the right order. The key to making it work is not only to trigger the samples exactly on the beat but also to add grace notes as you move from one key to another. That can make the process extremely convincing. Well, convincing enough not to need a guitarist in the band. :)
If you think you've heard this track before then you have. This tune was used in the recent Hoppings Fun Fair Promotional Film.
Sirens : The percussion, bass, guitars and some sound effects were on backing. The remainder - my keyboard pads, the piano lead and Jenny's vocals - were all live. Not an easy one to perform live.
Escape : The main leads, some of the bridging leads and the tickly pianos were entirely live. The drums, bass and a couple of keyboard parts were recorded. The main keyboard pad is an OmniSphere patch, I forget which one, but it's a heavily layered structure with different elements synchronised to MIDI Clock. Hit the notes in the right order and the internal arpeggiator does the rest. That's the theory anyway. What I discovered on the night was that I couldn't hear the backing drums in my headphones so I drifted out of time every now and again. Proves it's live though. The screaming solo at the end was entirely live (and sounds it). :)
I hope that answers some of your questions. We play as much live as we possibly can. The majority of my keyboards parts wouldn't make a Grade One Pianist blush so...
Just sit back and enjoy the noise.
NEF18 was an important event for us - it meant we were genuinely active on the local scene. This wasn't some fringe event, tucked away in some basement bar or secluded cafe playing to maybe four or five people. We were finally right in the middle of it, playing to a proper crowd.
We had an absolute blast. The Tanners Arms is a good venue. The food is brilliant, the company better still.
The set wasn't without its problems - one of the modules failed us and meant we had to cut our set short but we enjoyed ourselves. Jenny's vocal piece on Sirens went down extremely well so we'll be doing more of that. Tension, with all of its dark, moody angst and screaming trance leads had the crowd on its feet and dancing, probably a first for a SkinMechanix gig.
We still have a lot of work to do. We have technical problems to sort out. We have to produce more music. The band really needs to improve its visual appeal and I would be the first to admit that I am not the most photogenic person on the planet. So, yeah. Still room for improvement but hugely enjoyable for us and, we hope, the audience too. Actually, I don't think I've *ever* seen an audience who were so utterly pumped for an excellent night.
We would particularly like to thank Graeme and Stephen of Tunnel Club for their friendship and support, and a huge High Five to Simeon Soden and the NEF18 crew for giving us this opportunity to play.
Jenny and I sincerely hope that there will be a NEF19 and, if so, we really want to be a part of it. So should you.
I went for a ride in a Police Car last weekend. Have I turned to the Dark Side? Maybe. Want to know more? Keep reading...
“People don’t read web pages any more,” says my friend. “They don't have the attention span. It’s all about social media these days.”
True or false? From the evidence in front of me, I’d be inclined to agree. Our logging service clearly indicates that fewer and fewer people are coming to visit SkinMechanix.com every single month. So, yeah, on the surface these figures do suggest that nobody is reading web pages any more and, in my humble opinion, this is not healthy for the internet or the free movement of information.
So let’s do something to reinvigorate our little corner of the web, shall we?
Well, first and foremost, we've been hard at it with regards to the music. Then again, you'd expect little else.
But... I also have a new job - on top of all of my others. I’m on a temporary rolling contract with the Royal Astronomical Society and my job title is “RAS 200 Ambassador”. I’m still sorting out my duties but the idea is that we extend and enhance the role of the Royal Astronomical Society in this, the two hundredth anniversary of its founding. Pretty thrilled by this.
We're building up to our forthcoming concert as part of the Northern Electric Festival 2018. Just over a week to go and… it’s not all plain sailing. We’ve just been told that the venue is very well lit and doesn’t have curtains, which will make it almost impossible to display any kind of imagery. That’s a bit of a shame but does mean that the pressure is off when it comes to generating huge amounts of video content. On the other hand, it does mean that I can concentrate one hundred percent on the music.
Like it or loath it, a lot of time and effort has gone into developing our social media profile, far more than just our Facebook pages, which, strangely also seem to be less and less active these days. A couple of articles I read recently suggest that Facebook too is dying, especially amongst younger net users. Too many old crocks like me, I guess.
We’ve been pushing Instagram extensively, learning the techniques and the developing the tools we need to build an audience. It’s not easy and we’ve noticed that the number of people following our account varies considerably from day to day so it’s still a bit of a mystery.
So, that ride in a Police Car. What about it? Did I get ‘nicked’ pinching stuff from Lidl or flashing my junk in Tesco? No, I didn’t.
Last Saturday night, around nine thirty, we were watching a film ("The Good Guys") when our dogs went absolutely ballistic. They'd heard something, or someone, at the front of the house. I immediately went to investigate but found nothing.
Skip forward a couple of hours and we’re walking the dogs as part of our normal ‘final fling'. We proceed along Longhands Drive in Houghton and we spot a guy - tall, thin, blonde hair, hoodie - going from door to door, knocking gently on each. This is called The Silent Knock. It’s practically inaudible to humans but very audible to dogs. This guy was testing to see if there were any dogs at home and, if so, he just moves on to the next house. If not, he might consider going around the back of the property to investigate further. You never know your luck.
I called the Police and they had a van there in minutes. There was a reason for that. They were already attending a burglary in our own estate.
I gave them a description and they began searching for the intruder but found nobody. Twenty minutes later, I was sitting on a wall waiting for Jasper to finish up whatever he was doing when this same guy walked past me on the other side of the road pretending that everything was utterly normal. I was straight on the phone to the cops who arrived seconds later. After that, I was invited to ride shotgun as we enjoyed a brief tour of our estates, hunting for this ne’er-do-well.
Being in a Police Car is an interesting experience. First off, there are a lot more buttons and switches to play with. 'Siren', 'Top Blues', '999' to name but a few. Secondly, there's the constant chatter with at least three conversations going on at any one instant.
“It’s a bit like being on TV, isn’t it?” says the Cop.
“Sort of,” I replied. “I was watching (70’s uber-hard cop show) 'The Professionals’ this morning.”
“Ha! You don’t get to do much sliding across bonnets these days,” said the Cop. “Not with this much gear strapped to you.”
We didn’t catch the burgular. He was probably long gone but… it was an adventure and made for an interesting Saturday night.
That said, my brief conversation with the Cop did cause considerable alarm. He admitted that there was just ten cops on patrol that night across an area extending from Washington in the North to Easington in the South. That’s not a lot of cops over a very big area. “Blame the Tory Government!” said one of his colleagues. “All of these cuts!”
That’s when you realise the far-reaching consequences of these bloody austerity cuts. Nobody wins this one. But try telling that to your local Tory Councillor. Go on. Try it.
Let's not end on a downer, shall we? Here's some good news. SkiNmechanix actually rated a mention in one of the local scene's bibles, namely NARC.
Here's the all important link: we're classed as 'Intense electronica', which made me all happy. Very happy.
Without going into too many difficult and embarrassing details, I recently began the slow, patient process of uncoupling myself from a huge grumbling pool of seriously negative shit. After all, time is short and we all have better things to do with our lives. A week further on and I’m glad to be AWOL, not that anyone seems to have noticed. I did say it would be a slow, patient departure. No fireworks. No screaming histrionics. No burning bridges and absolutely no looted villages. Just a quiet, dignified exit followed by a slow meander into a soothing orange sunset.
My departure should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Not even the office cat, who was, incidentally, outsourced himself only a matter of weeks ago. I’ve been grumbling on and off for years. My ideas were consistently ignored and, on occasion, publicly trashed. Those that were not ignored were hijacked and credit passed to others who didn’t really have anything to do with the original goal. The content I delivered was routinely deleted and thereafter replaced with amateurish, sub-standard bollocks. Worst of all, and this really does define the very nadir of our working relationship, I was barred from working with one of my all time ‘heroes’, and there evaporated all of the career-enhancing possibilities that would have flowed from such a collaboration. And so on.
It’s all very tiresome and all very boring, and the situation had started to weigh heavily on my soul. Stay or go? Go or stay? Which is it?
And so I wrote myself a letter. Therein, I listed all of the ways in which these people had screwed me over. The letter took a long time to write and thereafter turned into a long, long letter. It made uncomfortable reading and I’m left with one niggling question. Why did I wait so long before I finally pushed the eject button? Why delay my departure if my departure was so utterly inevitable? Okay, so that's two questions but I'm essentially asking the same thing?
I think it’s because I’m an optimist. I always imagine that a difficult situation will, in time, resolve itself and perhaps get better. But this didn’t. Same old bollocks day in, day out.Enough is enough.
So I decided, in an instant, that I can do without this festering mess of cat sick in my life and that was it. Deal done. Time to bid farewell. Adios Amigos. Au revoir. Auf wiedersehen etc.
In the still of the night, those long dark hours between “Countdown" and "Family Guy”, I did wonder what would happen next. I knew I’d have a little more free time on my hands but I could so do with a rest. My circle of acquaintances would shrink a little but, let’s be brutally honest, that would be no great loss. I’d have less work to do but… I already have enough on my plate so… Do I care?
What came afterwards was deeply, sincerely enjoyable on a very personal level. I knew, with an absolute certainty, that I’d made the right decision. What followed was a tremendous sense of relief, a sensation that a weight had been lifted and that I was free to move on. That, in itself, was extremely empowering. I’ve said this many times before but I’m a great believer in Jung’s principle of Synchronicity. You make your own luck but that can only happen when you fully engage with the Universe. When that happens, you bring about change. Sometimes it’s change for the better. Sometimes not. But by engaging, you certainly do bring about change.
And changes did come. Later in the week, two new business prospects arrived representing new avenues to explore, new people to work with, new relationships to build. It’s as if the Universe had said “We’re done with that. Here’s something new to play with.”
And that feels good. Very good.
So, the moral of this small tale is this. If you’re stuck in a rotten situation with no chance of an easy exit then just …. Jump. Trust to luck. Trust the Universe. Shake hands with the great unknown and take a leap of faith.
You never, ever know where you might land.
There have been a lot of changes in the studio of late, and a few changes in direction as a result but nothing we can't handle.
Strangely, my interest in ambient piano surfaced once again. I've always loved Harold Budd's work and this was almost certainly the starting point... except that I didn't want to just clone his sound. I wanted to wander off and write something in my own style. I was quite pleased with the end result. Just dark and ambient, thoughtful and moody. It brought to mind some nice mental imagery, which lead in a couple of other interesting direction so... Job done really.
I've always sensed that to get anywhere in the composing business, you have to continually develop your skills and refine your technique. You really must push hard against your limits and see where you can go with this fantastic journey. One of my many weaknesses has always been the ability to develop and sustain a classical feel. In part, this is down to a genuine lack of ability. That's not me being all modest and self-effacing. That would be disingenuious. No, I really don't have much real musical theory at the back of the tool chest and I constantly have to ask the girls 'Where do I go with this?' and they'll usually come up with some trick or short cut that will get me out of a jam. They're both Grade 8 and classically trained and I'm just a lucky plodder. Yes, it shows.
Another aspect has always been a lack of quality orchestral samples. Every single string library I've ever tried (and I've tried a lot) has always sounded strong in some areas but weak in several critical sections with one exception, Spitfire Audio's Albion One. I took the plunge last week and bought a copy whilst their Spring Sale was on.
Okay, so Albion One does have one or two weak areas - the cellos don't sound right in the higher registers (so I don't use them) - but otherwise it's a splendid addition to our range of sounds. I'm still exploring and therefore not in a position to give a detailed review but I am enjoying it, and I am producing new music in a new style. That's the important thing I guess. Pushing back at the barriers. That's what this adventure is about.
Finally, I'm delighted to finally announce that SkinMechanix are playing at the Northern Electric Festival in July. Genuinely looking forward to it.
And here's the playlist... short but fun... Enjoy.
An enforced holiday - yes, I overdid it once again - has meant that I had some spare time on my hands and, rather than sit watching TV for a week, I decided to see if I could make some progress with a couple of SkinMechanix projects.
Principally, I wanted to play around with some new sounds and mastering techniques, for no other reason than because I wanted to see where they would lead, if anywhere. This was also the first project where I decided to really get to grips with Logic's automation functions, and that worked out very well indeed.
The end result was a short promo movie for Sirens. I'm very pleased with the result and I hope you like it to. The piano sound was a free gift from Christian Henson of Spitfire Audio. The remaining sounds are mostly Omnisphere patches, tweaked and tickled to perfection.
The movie footage was taken from a session we put together for the Ramones 4 concert but ultimately ended up not being used because we ran out of time.
The next step is to try and build some momentum into the project, to ensure that this small step doesn't just go nowhere in particular.
Progress? What's that?
I'd love to report that we've made fantastic progress on the new SkinMechanix album, Sirens, but, alas, I haven't. I've managed to find a few breaks in the schedule, enough to work on some new ideas, but truthfully, the project has stalled. Why? The hiatus is mainly because I've been flat out busy with the day job, infection Music. After years and years of struggling, we finally feel like we're there. Want to know more? Wait and see. Then you'll realise exactly why infection Music has my full attention. I'm utterly convinced that the hard work will pay dividends.
I haven't been completely idle. I've spent some time trying to figure out the feel and colour of Sirens, which includes layering up atmospheres, remixing a couple of tracks with new instrumentation, learning to use a couple of new plug-ins like Izotope's excellent Neutron.
In other words, it's the same-old, same-old. Work... It's just so bloody frustrating.
Okay, so... Where do we go? It's not all bad news. We finally managed to get a track onto BBC North East Introducing. That felt terrific. A major step forward.
Right now, I have a very brief window - around two weeks - between major jobs and the plan is to book some studio time. At the moment, Blast Studios in Shieldfield are our preferred venue. Why not do the tracks here? Simple. I'm still not convinced that the acoustics in this studio are right. I did manage to clear a load of crap out of the studio last week - stuff that's been accumulating steadily for six months, maybe more. That in itself will probably make a difference to the acoustics.
Update: File under How Weird is that?
Just as I uploaded this minor missive, local radio station NE1 FM played Tension by SkinMechanixM. Thanks, Jon! :)
Just a short announcement of no particular consequence.
SkinMechanix have decided to pause all promotional and performance related activities for the next six months.
After a series of long and extensive discussions with our management, Thinking Metal, we've decided that we need to concentrate on new material, a new sound and a new image. This is vital if the SkinMechanix project is to keep going. Simply put, we're not getting anywhere in this current guise. The constant effort to interest promoters and audiences alike is draining our resources to the point where it's just no fun anymore. We're a bit sick of being ignored, frankly. Fucking sick, actually.
We're also starting to realise that we can't really do this on our own anymore. We need help. Help with writing. Help with promotion. Help with management. So, anyone interested?
Ten years ago, we found ourselves in an identical situation. Our audience had gone. T-Bass was on its arse, SkinMechanix was out of ideas and Ion's fantastic new album, Future Forever, had tanked spectacularly. Then, as now, we took a break, found a whole new scene and the adventure resumed. This will be no different.
So, hang fire, folks. We'll be back.
Another busy few weeks pushing away at the new SkinMechanix album. I finally have a working title, Sirens, which is something of a major relief. The title has served up a set of mental images to play with and an overall theme to explore. Soundwise, I also have a rough framework for the album, a roadmap detailing where Sirens needs to go from here in terms of sound design, as well as the look and feel of the finished article. Similarly, this is a major weight off my mind.
Sadly, some of the tracks composed at the start of this project no longer fit in with that scheme but rather than throw them away I've decided to release them as a side-project, provisionally entitled Guitarzan. Most of these pieces have their roots in the early guitar experiments dating to 2016, as I was finding my feet with the new software packages, and whilst they're perfectly good tracks they just don't fit in with the master plan. Hence, another side project.
We started shooting a video for Sirens but ran out of time and opportunities. We'll start again as soon as the schedule clears a little.
I'll post a few new updates as and when something of interest appears. I really just wanted to let you all know that we're still alive and still hard at work.
I knew that this gig would be a bit of a challenge right from the start. There were several unrelated factors involved.
Firstly, I was testing a lot of new technology. Our existing live mixer was quite literally falling to bits. Having weathered around forty gigs since 2003 I knew with an absolute certainty that, sooner or later, it would die the death and probably at the worst possible moment too. Likewise, with most of my sounds coming from the computer these days, I decided that having to dismantle and transport my beloved iMac to every gig was a risk I no longer wanted to take. It’s just asking for trouble of the expensive variety, trouble that usually comes in the form of broken screens and knackered discs.
To address these issues, I added a Soundcraft Signature 12 mixer and a reconditioned Mini Mac to the rig. Bit of a risk but hey ho, that’s life. The gamble paid off because the two items worked wonderfully, both in isolation and in tandem. Neat, slick and very professional, the MiniMac and the Soundcraft mixer just came up in a matter of seconds, connected themselves and worked flawlessly throughout to set.
Furthermore, I convinced myself that our setup time, typically around an hour, had become a major barrier to doing more gigs. I borrowed a trick from Kraftwerk in that most of the computer hardware was bolted to a base board before we left the house and, as a result, our set-up time for the entire rig was just twenty minutes instead of an hour plus. That was a major win. In fact, we were up and ready to sound check before everyone else, which has to be an absolute first!
Secondly, I wanted to test out a whole raft of new songs. Tension, which is one of my new personal favourites, was nearly dropped from the set at the last minute because it sounded thin and under-developed. However, thanks entirely to a visitation from the Great God of Metal last weekend, we were left humbled and amazed by the new parts that just seemed to spring forth from nowhere. Surging atmospheres, huge chugging guitars and a melody that left me weak at the knees and in need of a Chocolate Hob-Nob. This is why I love music. You never know what might happen next.
Passengers was written just a week or so ago and came out of an extended session with Omnisphere. I love it because it’s a challenge to play live but equally very satisfying when it does work.
Sirens, which is the title track of the new album, was an older track which had just been given a fresh lick of paint. We were going to showcase the new video for this track but, sadly, ran out of time. Jenny and I also hastily improvised a set of lyrics, which was our first foray into vocal territory. Half-whispered/half sung, they add a strange and unusual dimension to the new SkinMechanix sound. "Vocals, eh?” I hear you instrumental purists mutter to yourselves... Look. It’s music. That’s all. We go where the music and the inspiration takes us.
On to the gig.
With the sound check sorted, we had to park the kit away at the side of the stage. That’s not unusual. However, moving it back into position just prior to the performance proved difficult. Somehow, my beloved EX5 keyboard slipped off its stand and hit the floor with a resounding slam. Thankfully, Yamaha used to build remarkably sturdy instruments back in 1999 and the EX5 was left without a scratch.
The performance was actually quite enjoyable, which is something of a new concept for me and one I’m not entirely used to. I put a lot of effort into rehearsals and practice sessions, particularly those tracks with difficult timing (Tension, Falling) and that seems to have paid off. I also put the tougher tracks like Tension and Space boy right at the start so that I was still fresh and full of bollocks, and not at the end when my energy is starting to flag. I also added “Wow!” right at the end because this track has consistently proven to lift an audience on every occasion we’ve played it in recent years.
However... by then… (and this is the tough bit) ... most of the audience had walked away.
We saw this last year when the headline act of the day were left playing to an almost empty hall and I thought that this was pretty rubbish actually. No wonder they looked less than pleased throughout their set although I felt that their response - to cut their set in half - was a little less than professional. Hence, the whole festival finished early by about thirty minutes. More so, our set had been cut short so that the whole event could stay on track and... suddenly there was half an hour to kill. That was last year. This year was no different.
I decided to soldier on.
Playing to a near-empty hall is no fun. There’s little or no reaction from the crowd because most of the punters aren’t familiar with the music. They don’t know where one piece starts and another ends. Also, there’s little or no energy to feed off. No communication and you need that energy or the gig is just flat. Finally, there’s no wow factor. Nobody to enjoy the spectacle. Like last year, I put a huge amount of effort into the visuals but my sympathies especially go out to Jenny, who put a massive amount of time, effort and expense into assembling an amazing costume only for maybe a handful of people to see it.
We did invite a lot of friends over social media but that fell to the curse of Twitter and Facebook. My theory goes like this. A Facebook invite requires little investment to put together and costs nothing to send. From experience, if something has no obvious intrinsic value then it’s just worthless junk and will be discarded in the same casual manner with which it was conceived and distributed. It should therefore come as no surprise that most of the message’s recipients simply disregarded the contents as one would disregard a chunk of worthless spam. Punters won't invest in something if the artist didn’t really invest in it in the first instance.
Consequently, we won’t send any more invitations out through Facebook or Twitter again, and those avenues will be converted to information-only outlets.
It’s not all down to problems with Facebook. Mark and Tracy, the organisers, spent a small fortune on publicising the event via fliers and advertising, and actually paid for the hire of the hall out of their own pockets. There was no lack of effort on the part of the organisers and frankly, they deserved better after months of effort.
We were especially saddened that only one of our immediate friends turned up (Thanks, Jane!). For the others? I guess the lure of the Metro Centre or the beach or the footie was just too powerful. Thanks guys. Goes both ways. Remember that.
In review, we enjoyed ourselves. Jules took some rather excellent photographs and Jenny’s dancing was, as ever, a show-stopper. Just a massive shame that so few people stayed to enjoy it.
What happens next? We keep going. This is what live performance is all about. Some gigs are crap, some are okay, and some are superb. This was okay.
As for me, I’m not hanging on to the negative vibes. Life is too short for that.
But I will state, quite openly and honestly, that one or two of my fellow musicians had best tread careful when they nag me to come to their own concerts. My response might not be what they were hoping for. :)
SkinMechanix are Headlining the day's events at the Never Mind the Ramones festival at Gateshead's Library on Saturday 19th August 2017.
The line-up includes poetry, folk music, the fabulous One Dollar Zombies and, of course, us. We're on at around 3 pm.
This has been a difficult concert to prepare for. We're all working full time and so connecting up schedules has not been easy.
In addition, we've been trialing a lot of new technology essentially to make the rig smaller and more compact. This has not been without issue. More so, some of the tracks are very recent too, one of which isn't even a week old and it's receiving its first live performance.
This is going to be a challenge.
SkinMechanix would have kicked off their Summer 2017 concert series with a small, private concert somewhere in Jesmond, Newcastle.
Sadly, the set was cancelled at short notice. No reason was given and no apology tendered. All we know is that someone, somewhere booked another entertainer without telling the entertainment team and we were, so to speak, given the Royal Order of the Bladder.
Hey ho... Such things happen in this line of work. Chin up and what have you...
SkinMechanix are delighted to announce that they will be appearing at the forthcoming Never Mind the Ramones IV all-day festival at Gateshead Central Library on Saturday August 19th 2017.