Recently I embarked on an experimentation with old audio test equipment, Specifcally, these devices used in labs and by engineers to diagnose problems with amplifiers, radios, and telephone lines. Err, I think. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what they were designed for, as I was no good at physics.
Either way, they look cool, and I’ve been interested in exploring some of the possibilities for a while, but didn’t know where to begin. However, I came across this guy called Hainbach on YouTube, who has put together an awesome guide that helped give me the push to dive in. I picked up a few different pieces for cheap on eBay, and began playing about with them to see what I could do. I mostly got a hold of audio signal generators, which are essentially what gives synthesizers their voice. The extent to which you can control them differs from instruments, but I was able to get some amazing sounds out of them.
I put together the track below with a single one of these devices, controlled by my Eurorack to some extent. Unlike a lot of my other music, there’s very few effects on here, and very few layers; the sounds of the test equipment stand on their own. Pretty much everything you hear (minus drums) is from the Feedback Function Generator. I love that I can get a really incredible ratchety bass sound out of this, jumping down from nice and melodic to aggressive. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I haven’t been able to get that kind of usable range from any of my other equipment. Either way, there’s something deeply satisfying about making music with aging bits of technology that were never intended to be used this way – it sparks the creative process in a different way.
At some point I’ll go through and write a bit more about this stuff in detail, but for now, I put together this video with my initial faffing about:
I don’t tend to do these kinds of posts for anything else, but with music there’s so many different ongoing projects, that I think it’s helpful to set out what I want to get done in the year, then look back on it at the end. I’ve touched upon some of this before, but here goes.
1. Release ease and desist EP
I have a full EP basically finished and ready to go under the ease and desist moniker. I just need to get through the final mixing and mastering stages, but am finding it hard to get the motivation to do so. It’s a bit different to my usual styles, so is proving to be a challenge. If I don’t get this done in the next 12 months I may as well quit everything.
2. Use YouTube More
I used to post synth videos on YouTube, and gathered just over 1k followers in a fairly short space of time. It became a faff though, so I stopped. This year, I want to make an effort to pick it back up, as it can be a good motivator/way to experiment with different projects. The specific targets are to i) post at least 12 videos in 2021, and ii) get the subscriber count to 2k. Completing the first goal should hopefully lead to the second. I’ve already re-branded the channel as allmyfriendsaresynths and posted the first video… with a bunch more in progress, so this should be achievable.
3. Listen to 10k tracks
I use Last.FM to track a lot of the music I listen to, and I’ve noticed that I am often most creative musically after listening to more music. However, I am not very good at just having music on ‘passively’, so it can be tricky to balance. I need to make an actual effort to sit and listen. Anyway, in the past I have never hit 10k tracks in one year. 2021 is the year to make that happen. I’ve worked out I need to listen to about 30 tracks a day, which should be doable…
4. Finish two KOSMO rows
I have started building a modular synth in the KOSMO format. I want to complete the build of the case, and at least two rows of the modules. Again, should be achievable.
5. Release another album
I have a whole pile of tracks built up from various projects, but nothing full length yet. The last release I put out was 2 years ago, so I want to end that drought.
Back in March I wrote an update on what I’d been up to lately, and what I planned to do over the coming months, which seems oh-so-very hopeful now. Given that it is now the end of the year, and we are still just as ravaged by the Coronavirus than we were back then (if not more so), it seems like an update is in order.
ease and desist
I started out writing tracks for a single ease and desist album, but the styles varied so wildly that it seems like this is more likely to become a few different releases. One of them is focussed on hip-hop, which was a surprising development. Almost all of the composition work is done, I just need to put the finishing touches on some of the tracks, and get the final mixes together. This is proving more difficult than it seems, as I don’t really have any experience with mixing hip-hop vocals. Here’s a sneak peek at the potential artwork…
The Hog Wyld album has been delayed a number of times, thanks to the ever changing set of restrictions which have prevented us from getting into the studio together. In retrospect, recording almost 20 tracks for a 10 track album was also probably an overly ambitious target. Either way, the main tracking is done, and so now we are onto the mixing and tweaking stage. In addition to the album, we finished up a bonus release, exclusive for our Kickstarter backers, which has a whole pile of covers, remixes, and other bits and bobs. That was truly a slog to get through, and I never want to record a cover ever again.
We had a wee Japanese tour in the works, with gigs booked for October, which was unfortunately cancelled thanks to the virus. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime type thing, but hopefully we will find a way to make something similar happen again in the near future.
My other band have been plowing ahead with writing, and we just released a festive single, called: ‘Prepare for a Digital Christmas’. It was played by Jim Gellatly a few days ago, and you can find it on Spotify and Bandcamp (and wherever else our distributors send to).
We are slowly but surely recording new tracks, and will be looking at putting out some kind of release in 2021.
That’s the main news so far from my more ‘organised’ projects, but what else am I working on right now?
I realised that I wasn’t making quite as much of my own individual music over the past year or so because I felt like everything had to be put towards some kind of release. I haven’t put anything out in so long on my own that there was self-imposed pressure there, and for me pressure doesn’t usually equate to creative satisfaction. The most productive times I’ve had in the past have always been linked to experimentation and curiousity, so I’ve spent some time setting up my studio space to get back into that mindset, and been really enjoying just playing about. I’ve been uploading some of these home jams to YouTube:
Despite normally being allergic to computer based sequencers, I’ve (re)discovered something called Numerology, which is a really interesting sequencing tool for Mac. It’s been inspiring me to write a bunch of new stuff, and I put together an explainer video over here:
Kosmo modular build
Inspired by my friend Michael, I’ve begun to start building out a new modular rack in the Kosmo format, created by Sam Battles (aka Look Mum No Computer). It’s already become a huge pain in the ass, and I’m remembering why I stopped doing DIY builds a few years ago, but in the end I think it’ll be worth it. I don’t want what little time I have to be completely sucked up by this project, but it is also cool to dig out the box of components again and see what sort of weird noise devices I can put together. It’s also impressive just how much I’ve forgotten since I last tried something like this. I have various circuits on breadboards kicking about that I have literally no idea how they work, so… that might take some work.
I have a whole bunch of tracks written and in various stages of completion (or collaboration). Finding the right collection of tracks that will work together as a release, and under what moniker, is proving tougher than it has in the past. Perhaps I have higher standards nowadays… or perhaps I’m just crippled by indecision. Whatever it is, I’m hoping that is one more thing that will change in 2021.
I have been playing guitar for (gulp) about 20 years now. Unfortunately, time served does not equate to ability in this case, as I squandered much of that in a love-hate relationship with the instrument.
In the past few years I have come to realise that my approach to playing guitar has been pretty abysmal, and that much of what I did was purely out of habit rather than had any particular logic behind it. Once I started to question that stuff and got better, there were a bunch of things that I wish I had come around to sooner. Here are some of them:
1. Your pick matters
I have been using Landstrom Sharkfin plectrums for as long as I can remember. I don’t really know where I picked this up initially, but I am sure I gravitated towards them just because they looked cool. In any event, I’ve stuck with them because they feel comfortable, and have a few different angles that can change how you interact with the strings. However, in the past few years I have gone from using the ‘medium’ GP02 picks, right up to the GP107 ‘Super hard’ picks – which is a huge jump in thickness terms.
The thing was – I tend to play pretty aggressively when strumming, and was always afraid that I would snap strings more easily with a hard plectrum, so went for an in-between option. What I didn’t really appreciate was that a flimsier pick makes it much more difficult to pick quickly and accurately. Switching to a harder pick almost instantly had a positive impact on my playing. Oh, and I haven’t broken any more strings than normal.
p.s. I went to the official Sharkfin site to do some research on the pick names for this blog, and came across this testimonial, explaining why they use harder plectrums: “I think it has something to do with masturbation. You’re hand isn’t as fast when you get older. The red one is extremely soft”. I have literally no idea why they chose to publish this.
2. Cheap strings are a false economy
When I started playing, having to constantly replace strings was a nightmare as I never had any money. What I didn’t realise was that I would be replacing strings a lot less if I spent a few quid more on a half decent set, as opposed to the cheapest ones I could find. Now, I spend about £5-10 a set (rather than £2!), play even rougher, with a harder pick, and rarely snap strings.
3. You need to intonate
…and some guitars intonate better than others.
Intonation is the process where you adjust the strings to make sure they are in tune all the way along the neck. I vaguely knew about doing this, but never really bothered doing it as I assumed it was a huge job. In most cases, it’s actually relatively straightforward – and it makes a huge difference to the sound. No matter how well you play, it will sound crap if your guitar isn’t intonated properly – especially if you are playing further up the neck, or doing any kind of clever stuff like tapping. Ideally you should intonate every time you change your strings, and definitely before you record.
In some ways I wish I had continued to live in ignorance, as now I am on an endless, impossible quest to get all of my guitars perfectly intonated, and whenever they are out it drives me crazy.
One other important thing I learned was that certain guitars simply will not intonate properly with different string gauges, or with alternative tunings. For example, I have always played with Light Top, Heavy Bottom (10-52) strings, because somebody told me a long time this was more balanced for heavier music – and I’ve never really deviated from that. However, I have a bunch of unusual guitars, and it turns out that many of them (especially the vintage ones) aren’t able to adjust adequately to compensate for the heavier gauges – so won’t intonate properly.
Similarly, I have a Danelectro Longhorn bass which I could never get to sound in tune, and wrote it off as a design flaw. However, I realised that this problem was partly the string gauge, and partly due to me tuning a half-step down by default. When I tuned to standard, and used a different gauge, the intonation improved dramatically.
TL;DR: Intonate your guitars. If you’re having problems, adjust the gauge of your strings, and/or figure out whether you actually need to be tuned a half step down.
4. Practice makes a difference (and music theory probably helps)
If only somebody had told me (!).
Even though I played regularly in a band, I wasn’t really writing, practicing, or learning anything new outside of that for a long time. Part of this was because as a teenager I didn’t really enjoy reading tabs or figuring out songs by other bands; I just wanted to come up with my own sounds and make songs with them. Equally, the prospect of studying music theory seemed incredibly dry, boring, and far too much like homework for my liking. I was firmly of the position that learning theory would just mean I ended up stuck in a box creatively anyway.
That renegade approach worked fine for a while… but when I hit a natural plateau and my ideas dried up, I simply just didn’t play guitar any more. Doing so felt like a chore, rather than something that I enjoyed, and that’s the way it stayed, for a long time.
At some point I got fed up not really knowing what I was doing, and forced myself to at least pick up the guitar regularly. I looked into learning some scales, and to try and play some lead parts from bands like the Smashing Pumpkins that always seemed impossibly difficult before. After a few false starts, it didn’t take long before I noticed a vast improvement over a fairly short space of time. Once I sat down and consciously made an effort to understand what I was playing, or stuck with tricky songs until I got them right, it was as if a lot of things clicked into place at once. It was as if my muscle memory machinations synched up with this new knowledge of the neck, and I was no longer as afraid of picking, or that if I improvised I would hit a duff note.
Now, I deliberately try and develop different styles of playing that I would never normally bother with (tapping, shredding, etc) – using a metronome to keep me on the straight and narrow. Even if I never really get to a decent level with these specific skills, I now actually enjoy playing guitar – and miss it if when I can’t. Weird.
When it comes to theory, one thing in particular that I found incredibly useful was to learn how the Circle of Fifths works. This provides a quick and easy way to understand different notes in a scale, what keys work with which, etc. Somebody had told me to do this a long time ago and I never bothered, but when I actually took the time to sit and make sense of it, it was mind blowing – like a secret key had unlocked all this musical theory that I thought was impossible to grasp before. I even got a Circle of Fifths watch to remind me how it works…
So long story short: Practice every day, even just for 10 minutes. Play other folk’s songs, and learn some theory. Rather than kill off your creativity, it will expand it.
5. Don’t stick with the same kind of pickups
When I was younger, I would slap a humbucker in any guitar I got my hands on. Why? Well, because they were louder (duh), but also because I used cheap crappy strings that snapped all the time, and I had to have a similar output so when I was switching guitars live there wouldn’t be a huge difference in sound. I even had two USA Fender Strats that were exactly the same for this reason. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me that I should just buy better strings rather than another guitar, but still.
What I realised when I started to collect more guitars was actually that the diversity of sound was an asset, rather than something I should aim to flatten out. Instead of getting the same kind of tones from every guitar, having the choice between P90s, single coils, vintage pickups, humbuckers, etc means that I can be much more creative when recording – like adding in a silky, round additional guitar part to complement things more than an additional brash humbucking lead would.
TL;DR: Embrace sonic diversity. Don’t try make everything sound the same.
It’s been a while since my last update, and while I haven’t been making a pile of chipmusic, I’ve been busy with a bunch of other projects. Here’s what’s going on:
ease and desist
I’ve been working on a new ‘ease and desist’ album. The tracks are much more commercial than anything else I’ve ever done, and have ended up as a mixture of different styles – primarily taking from the electronica and hip hop worlds – and with some collaborations on there. To accompany the tracks, I’ve created some videos, which are now up on the new Cow Tongue Taco YouTube channel.
The artist formerly known as… What started as a one-off project between me and my pal Lee has now grown arms and legs and become a fully fledged band. We have taken the tracks from the initial EP and reimagined them, writing a bunch of new songs and playing a pile of gigs as a three-piece – joined by Al Roney on drums.
We have successfully crowdfunded our debut album, which we are set to release before the end of summer on vinyl LP. Watch this space… and listen to some of the demos below:
Closet Organ are still going strong, and over the past year embarked on not one, but two mini tours of the UK – piling into a van and playing to a bunch of weird and wonderful villages.
After years of playing in horrible rehearsal places with broken equipment, a bunch of us finally bit the bullet and got our own dedicated space to jam, record, and generally hang out in.
Being able to go in and crank up guitars and have decent recordings is both a luxury and also now almost a necessity that I don’t think I could go back to anything else.
Right now, thinking about the future seems a bit strange, as none of us really knows what the next few days will bring never mind the next few months. However, once (or if) we emerge from the Coronavirus lockdown, we have big plans. Hog Wyld need to record our album and plan a tour. Closet Organ are in the middle of writing a bunch of new material… but for now it looks like I’ll be confined to my home studio, so that could bring a return to electronica for the time being. More updates to follow. Maybe.
Back in November, Lee came to stay with me for a week or so while he was looking for a new flat. We decided to make the most of the time by collaborating on a new side project.
In between making food, walking the dog, and working from home, we took turns writing and recording parts of what turned out to be a five track EP. Lee focussed on the drums, guitar, and bass, while I added the vocals and electronic parts. Both of us helped shape the structure and feel of the tracks, and Lee did some kind of production wizardry to make it all sound fantastic.
Gear wise we had a pretty simple setup, despite what the pictures below suggest. Lee had a basic audio interface for the instruments, I used a cheapy Behringer condenser mic for the vocals, and the synthy parts were almost all based on a single Eurorack voice (utilising a C64 SID chip). Listening back, it’s pretty crazy to think that the songs can sound so huge when they were literally all recorded between my kitchen and living room.
One of the coolest bits about the project for me was the collaborative part though. It’s easy to get stuck when you are working alone. Here though, whenever we hit a block, we would just pass what we had on to the other person. More often that not, they would hear the potential in what we thought sounded crap, which helped push the process along. A healthy way to produce, and truly collaborative rather than combative.
You can download the EP for free over on the Cow Tongue Taco Records label page. It will be available to stream on Spotify etc from the end of the month, and there will also be a limited cassette tape version available too.
January has been a bit less productive in terms of finished tracks than I had expected or would have liked, but I’ve still been doing a fair bit. I’ve re-organised and upgraded the studio so that I have far more simultaneous inputs for recording, and better access to my hardware effects, which is good. Just a matter of the final bit of cabling and it’ll be good to go.
Anyway, here’s a new track, that may or may not be on the next Cup Fungus album:
With the death of what seemed like a disproportionate amount of highly admired famous people, and a number of disappointing political outcomes, it’s probably fair to say that many people will be glad to see the back of this year, and the ‘curse of 2016’.
Without commenting much on any of that, I’m going to take a look back on the past 12 months from my own perspective. Musically, 2016 has been a great year; a year of re-awakening after a four to five year drought. I’ve built up my home studio, getting back into electronics and falling down the Eurorack hole; written, recorded, and released 3 solo studio albums, plus one EP; properly reformed my band Closet Organ and released our first ever full length album on vinyl; started up my DIY label Cow Tongue Taco Records; and played my first ever live gigs as unexpected bowtie – first in Osaka, and then in Glasgow.
It can be too easy to forget what you’ve managed to achieve over a 12 month period, so I think it’s good to look back and reflect a bit. Here’s some of the highlights:
January 2016 – Started recording music again, and released the ‘really something‘ EP.
March 2016 – Released my first full length album since 2012 – ‘drouth‘. Also set up noisepedals.com, which now has over 1,000 followers on Instagram.
Not to mention upping my video game with a new camera. Here’s a sample from the other night:
Of course, there’s not much use in simply looking back and neglecting what you want to aim for in the future. Aside from writing and recording as much music as I can, I have some specific things I want to make happen:
Release an unexpected bowtie album composed entirely on a pocket calculator.