New computer: update

Having completed April's Burning Lodge session (should be up on the songs page soon over at Burning Lodge), I've now got a little time window which I've used to install the new computer. I'll put a picture up on this post once I've had a chance to transfer a camera file from my phone to my computer (the Bluetooth dongle seems to have gone walkies right now) but it's certainly looking good.

The Silverstone case measures about 20 cm (height) x 27 cm (width) x 40 cm (front to back). Much smaller than my previous computer, which is sticking around for business use. The Gigabye motherboard comes with good instructions and it was very easy to install the CPU and fan/cooler. As I've got no optical drives installed in the case (we're gonna be using case at gigs and there didn't seem any point carrying the extra weight around so I've just used my LG external CD-Rom to handle all the installation of Windoze etc.), and only one hard disk in there, it's actually a very airy case. The case includes a fan-mount for two additional fans - I've installed one to help with cross-flow of air, and temperature so far does not seem to be a problem (OK, so we've not tried it in a hot rehearsal room or gig venue yet... I'll get back to you on that one.) The whole thing is pretty damn quiet... a little fan noise, that's all. Quieter than my previous PC, which was an Antec case specifically advertised as quiet... still, I guess no-one's gonna advertise their case as 'noisy', are they? "Go figure".

I haven't installed wireless networking as I've now got a couple of MSI ePower 85 powerline network sockets - one's connected to the crappy BT Broadband hub (pretty duff but it was free!) and one in the studio. This powerline ethernet equipment is great - they are now down to not much over £50 a pair and I can highly recommend them. More reliable connection than wifi in my house at least, and more secure (unless your neighbours are tapping into your electricity supply, and if they are, it's not just data security you should be worried about!) The end of unsightly Cat-5 cable criss-crossing the house... give the person who invented this system a medal.

Basic Windoze installation was relatively painless (to be fair, Windows XP is a lot better than previous incarnations of Jump-out-the-Windows in this regard. I ain't gone for Vista of course... no sir, I want a working computer, please!) The previous computer, as well as being for business use, now becomes a full dual boot affair with Linux - probably 64-bit Ubuntu. That'll be some good fun right there. I'm on 32-bit Windows on this new machine despite the fact it's a 64-bit processor as I am very far from sure that Windows XP 64 is a reliable choice for the working musician. I'd rather be slower and rock-solid reliable than fast and crashing half the time, thanks.
Then the fun of installation of music software begins. Sonar 7 Producer Edition is first up. This seemed to install OK although there was an interestingly fascist end-use licence agreement saying that it was forbidden to sell the software. If I'm right that means that there will be no second hand market in Sonar! Is this legal? If I own the product shouldn't I have the right to sell it on the open market? Imagine not being able to sell your house or your car, for example. If you're from Cakewalk and you're reading this please enlighten me as it seems preposterously draconian. What next - tattoo me with the registration code??

I haven't had a chance to use any of the new goodies in Sonar 7 yet - to be honest I didn't use much of the goodies in Sonar 5 either. The Sonitus plugins - compression, reverb, delay, modulator were the one thing I used all the time and they're pretty basic stuff really but very usable and sounded fine. Just a selection of the new stuff available for those interested:

  • LP-64 linear phase mastering EQ and compressor/limiter: to be honest, I haven't been doing much mastering during the Burning Lodge sessions. I've been mainly sorting EQ, compression etc out on a track-by-track basis and then mixing down and normalising to 0dB. This has resulted in slight variations between loudness levels on different tracks but really, who cares? These are demos, not albums. Once or twice I've used NI Reaktor's Finaliser mastering tool as a last-ditch effort to rescue a dodgy mix, but that's about it. I can't stand brick-wall compressed fatiguing listens, and a quick visit to The Loudness Wars wikipedia entry will explain why!
  • Z3TA+ waveshaping synthesiser - dunno anything about this one.
  • VC-64 Vintage Channel Compressor - yet another compressor, that's what the world needs. Well I'll certainly try it anyway...
  • Dimension LE software sampler with Garritan Pocket Orchestra - I'll certainly compare notes on that with Brother Oak of Burning Lodge, as he's got GPO for his complete Tracktion 3 Bundle.
  • FLAC file export - not that exciting to most people but I thought I'd mention it anyway...
Anyway I'll let ya know how much of an improvement Sonar 7 is over 5 (if any) once I've had a chance to try it out a bit.

Next step was installation of Native Instruments' Komplete 5 and Kore 2 package, which DV247 were selling for £649 all in - the nice people. That is a lot of software, and indeed hardware for your money. My previous experience of Native Instruments started with Generator 1.5 back in 1998 and my most recent rig consisted of Reaktor 5, Absynth 4, Battery 2 and FM7. I will review many of the basic elements of the Komplete package later in the year when I've had a chance to get my head round them. First impressions for now of the stuff I haven't used before:

  • FM8: in terms of usability, seems to be a huge improvement on FM7 (which itself wasn't bad).
  • Pro-53: fairly good Prophet 5 simulation but seems rather limited compared with much of the rest of what's on offer here.
  • Massive: extremely impressive 'analog-style' synthesiser. This is a very crowded field but this might just be pretty much the 'best' sounding softsynth I've heard. Of course "best" ain't always what you want, but nonetheless...
  • Akoustik Piano: 4 very nice sampled pianos.
  • B4: excellent Hammond organ simulator. Only problem now is I don't have a double-manual keyboard to take full advantage (although I will be getting bass pedals soon...)
  • Elektrik Piano: very nice electric piano/clavinet sounds although it doesn't sound that much different to Mr Ray 73 and Ticky Clav, both of which are free plugins, so hardly essential.
  • Kontakt 3: finally I own a proper software sampler. The last DVD of the library failed to load properly on my external DVD-ROM but would read OK on an internal DVD rom which I installed temporarily. Weird?
  • Guitar Rig 3: absolutely superb. The surprise package really as I'd completely forgotten about it when I ordered the upgrade. Seriously, if you're at all interested in recording electric guitar in a studio context, you have to get this. I'll post a much fuller review once I've had a bit more time to fiddle around with it. I'll probably be using it a lot in the next Burning Lodge session.
That just leaves Kore 2, which certainly looks cool and I think is really gonna do the business live, but I need to spend a bit more time figuring it out first.

I then reinstalled the Arturia softsynths I own, and a few other free plugins, and bingo! A working system. This rig will get its baptism of fire in the May Burning Lodge sessions where for the first time I've agreed to do 20 songs in 12 hours straight - see dialogue on the Burning Lodge site for more. This is pretty mental, given that I haven't studied any of the enhancements in Sonar 7 yet - I feel a bit like William Shatner with the new version of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Let's hope I don't fall into a wormhole like they did. Session is probably going to be on Sunday May 11th... we'll see.


Back in the DX7S...

(with apologies to Half Man Half Biscuit.)

I had a week off work this week and finally I've gotten around to tidying up the studio space a bit (thank f*** - it was becoming a complete quagmire!) Partly in preparation for the new music PC but also because there are a lot of rather dull jobs I have put off as long as possible. One of these was to sort out the mountain of old CD-Rs that I have accumulated over the last decade or so since CD writing has been an economically viable technology. These fall into 3 categories:

  1. stuff people have given me (mostly MP3s).
  2. stuff I downloaded from work in the old days before I had a broadband collection at home (pre-2003).
  3. back-ups of my old computer hard disks.
It was the third category I was most interested in, as there was some interesting music stuff on the hard drives of my old computers - going back all the way to 1998 when I had a 350Mhz Pentium 2 from Mesh. There's some interesting ambient stuff from 2001/2 recorded with Burning Lodge's Brother Oak and demos for Halberstram, which was an embryonic hard rock outfit from 2003/04 with Ace, of General Store / Tin Apes / RAF Widows fame. (Well, not really fame, but he should have been famous, as that's three of the best hard rock acts of the last 2 decades). Also some techno stuff that I was doing in about 1998/99 (some of which unfortunately isn't playable any more as it used sounds from a Yamaha SW60XG soundcard which had an ISA interface and so won't work on modern motherboards. Maybe Yamaha do an XG softsynth VST plugin but I've never checked - probably one for the next time I get time off...)

Another lost gem I'd completely forgotten about, though, were the Yamaha DX7 patches I programmed in 1997-99 when I bought a DX7 second hand. The DX7 presets sound pretty lame to modern ears - partly because the synth had no onboard effects (as it was made in 1983), but as a programmers' synth it's got to be one of the best of all time. My DX7 was unfortunately stolen at the end of 2000, but fortunately I had dumped all the patches as Sysex using a long-forgotten patch librarian program called Soundlib. Because Native Instruments' FM7/8 software synth reads DX7 patches I was able to hear them again for the first time in years. In a few cases the conversion doesn't sound 100% accurate to me (although it might just be that I have a bad memory), but mostly they were fine, and happily (or perhaps worryingly) they sound a lot better than anything I've been able to program through the front end of FM7 itself. Not sure why that is - maybe I was just trying harder back then. Anyway, some of these patches will probably find their way into my next Lodge session - we'll see. The lesson? Never throw anything away (unless you've archived it first).

For more nostalgia, check out this DX7 site. Ah, the days of membrane keyboards... (I had an original DX7 and not a DX7S by the way but DX7S worked better in the title for the Half Man Half Biscuit spoof. Sorry.)


Shopping for a new music PC

Had a fun time today going online to order components for a new PC to use for music recording (and, increasingly, for music making - plugins really have taken over. How long before the patented 'Typewriter guitar sound' is replaced by a plugin?)

Now, some readers will have thought 'fool' as soon as they saw the word 'PC' rather than Mac, so I'll address that issue upfront. Whilst I do agree that Macs are good for music applications, and Logic is an awesome sequencer package, I've simply got too much invested in the PC platform from a software and hardware knowledge point of view to make the transition unless absolutely forced to. (For sure, Microsoft Vista might force me to, but we ain't there yet, 'cos Windows XP is still available for the next few months - partly why I upgraded now).

On the software front, if presented with Logic I wouldn't have a clue as I'm a dyed in the wool Sonar man and always have been (and before that, Cakewalk). Apart from when I use Reaper, which you should try immediately if you haven't already... but that's Windows too. I have no idea if Sonar is the best sequencer package around, but who cares? It does pretty much everything I want and I know my way around it, which is the main thing.

On hardware, I am addicted to building my own PCs and again this is where the Mac, for me, lacks the sheer excitement of self-build. Of course many Mac fans will point out that building your own computer is a recipe for disaster, there are too many potential incompatibilities, etc. Well, I've done OK so far, fortunately. Nothing's blown up when it's been plugged in - yet. And I'm no technical genius, so if i can do it, anyone can. (Well, anyone within reason... I wouldn't expect my dad to try this stuff as he can barely send an email...)

As this is nothing if not a blog for technically minded musicians, I thought I'd post the exact spec of the PC for future reference. So here goes:


Previously I've gone for fairly large tower cases on my PCs due to the need to have enough room in to fit several hard drives for the requisite amount of recording disk space and back-up storage. But this time I've taken the opposite approach and gone for a SFF (small form factor) case - namely, a Silverstone SUGO SG02W. It seemed to have some good reviews online and didn't break the bank, so there it was. Also it accepts a full-size ATX power supply unit, which is great: the one thing you don't want to do in a PC is run out of power. Got a 500W Silverstone PSU to fit in the case, which should do the job nicely.


The Silverstone takes a microATX size motherboard. My requirements were quite specific: I wanted integrated graphics to avoid having to get an additional graphics card (who needs high-end graphics for a music PC?) and I wanted firewire (I've got an old external LaCie firewire hard drive which comes in handy now and then, and also in case I ever decide to get a firewire multi-channel recording interface, which is unlikely, but you never know. These criteria, plus cost (didn't want el cheapo but didn't want to pay over the odds either), led me to the Gigabyte GA-G33M-DS2R board, which looked as good as any.


Again I've turned over a new leaf here by going for Intel instead of AMD. In 2005 when I last built a PC, AMD were kicking ass at the low-price end of things, but Intel dual-cores (and even some of the quad-cores) are now so cheap and powerful that AMD, this time, was a non-starter. Most of the quads were still a little bit pricey for what I wanted so I went for a mid-range dual core: a Core 2 Duo 6570, with the 65nm "Conroe" core. About £115 including VAT. My existing machine, running a lowly Athlon 3500, rarely struggles even with my most demanding musical arrangments, so this baby ought to blow me away. We shall see...


No reason to stint on RAM at current prices - went for 4Gb of Corsair DDR2, PC6400. Why only 4 gigs? 'Cos I'm gonna be running 32-bit Windows XP - for now, at least - and the OS won't see more than 4 gigs. It should be more than enough, anyway.

Hard drive

Hard drives are now so large that there is not so much reason to stuff every machine to the gills with extra hard drives - for now I've bought just one, a 750Gb Western Digital model. I'll probably partition the drive into a small partition for the OS and main system files and a lot more space for everything else - given that Windows can be flaky, it makes it easier to restore in the event of something going wrong. I've also bought a LaCie external hard drive to back up everything, which I promise to do regularly this time...

stuff I didn't bother with

Didn't bother with a DVD writer as I already had a perfectly good external one. Likewise, I already have a good monitor and I can fit the M-Audio Delta 44 I've got in my old PC into this new one, so no upgrades required there.

Anyway, there you have it (I've probably forgotten something but we'll see...) This kit all arrives on Friday so there'll be some fun assembly going on. I'm gonna do my April session for Burning Lodge on the old computer though as I don't want to be messing about with new installations at the same time as I'm trying to record tracks. That's a recipe for disaster.

Oh yeah, one last thing: the supplier is Scan. Often marginally more expensive than Dabs but Dabs use Amtrak for deliveries and they are totally useless. whereas Scan use Citylink, who are a bit better. Also you can specify an exact delivery date on Scan and it will actually arrive on that date... whereas when I paid extra to specify a delivery date with Dabs, they seemed to just ignore it. All computer suppliers are shysters, but some are shyer than others, if you get my drift. More info and maybe even some pictures of the new PC when i've put it together...


Some March thoughts, and a few more for February

This month I've got a bit more time so I'm able to switch to proper thoughts rather than just 'thunks'. The February songs from Burning Lodge are now posted up at the song page (under 'Session VII'), so these comments won't just be happening in a vaccuum.

I was pretty pleased with the whole February session, although I lacked much of a clue lyrically. As I wanted to do at least some songs rather than all instrumentals I was forced to cannabalise lyrics from wherever I could. So we have Staking a Claim, which was taken from an insurance claim which Brother Buffalo submitted to a poetry anthology that our friend John put together in 1999. And Badass, which is taken from a character in The Onion called Hubert Kornfeld who was an accounts receivable supervisor in a midwest office supplies firm but thought he was a gangster rapper - kind of a cross between Ali G and David Brent, if you think about it. Very True Things is a tribute to my friend Steve's blog of the same name (currently done up in Welsh red, white and green to celebrate the boys' much deserved Grand Slam. With a dragon and everything. Lovely colour scheme, Steve.) The idea was to have a 16-note sequence running throughout the whole song and then play different stuff against that - which sort of worked, I think. Actually it was more to do with the fact that I couldn't be bothered to write any more complex sequence in Moog Modular V. I am VLT - Very Lazy Thing.)

Over The Line is about those occasions when a normally sensible person you know loses it completely. We've all been there. I've had various reactions to the run-out synth solo (done on the old Korg MS10 which makes we wonder how the hell to reproduce it live? Probably with the Super BassStation, that's quite versatile.) But people either love it or hate it, which is good either way, really. Georgi Markov Theme is a good example of getting an idea from writing a synth patch first. Once again it was the Moog Modular V: there's a module in there called a Bode Frequency Shifter which can give you either a chorusing effect or a very metallic sound or both, depending on how you set it up and modulate it. I did a patch over Christmas and thought I'd give it a shot. The scale used seemed vaguely Eastern European to me, hence the title, although Brother Oak mentioned Air as a comparison, which is v nice of him and after listening to the 'Virgin Suicides' soundtrack again I can see where he's at. (Interestingly, does patch construction count as 'pre-composition' and hence violate Immersion Composition rules? It seems unlikely, but what about for synths like Absynth when you can basically write a whole song as a patch? An interesting borderline case.)

Piano Manis the same thumb piano clean and then overdubbed about 7 times at different ring-modulated frequencies. I never liked Billy Joel so I thought it would be nice to steal his song title and destroy it. Off The Hook is a throwaway really, about the fact that I'll do anything to get out of doing stuff I don't wanna do. But it did offer the opportunity to try singing in a higher register, which was interesting.

We had the March listening session at Sister Selkie's place a couple of days back, and once again, she and Brother Buffalo delivered absolute killer sessions. You must watch out for SS's Poorly Piano and BB's There's the Line, Now Tow It, for example. The latter is almost certain to be a mainstay of Buffalo Typewriter's live set when we get the band up and running. That, and Good Numbers Boys.

I won't mention specific tracks I've done yet as it makes more sense once they're up on the site. But some general observations from the March session:

  • I'm continually amazed by how many times accidents happen which make the songs better - composition seems to be as much about keeping your ears open for things that are happening to you and around you, as about one person's struggle for the perfect musical intentional statement. For example: I had one track where I'd intended to do a pretty standard guitar solo but then I accidentally selected a quite weird patch that sounded like backwards guitar which I'd been working on a few weeks back. I wouldn't have actively considered that for the song in a million years but when I started playing it sounded much better than what I'd originally intended.
  • Tweakbench's Papaya VST instrument is great fun (like all the Tweakbench stuff - they are all small synths which do a few things extremely well rather than the behemoth instruments we've become used to. A much better design philosophy in many ways - I thoroughly recommend visiting the Tweakbench site if you're looking for something a bit different and useful).
  • The Yamaha AN1X still has massive usefulness as a synthesiser even though it is now more than 10 years old and hence probably very outdated technology in terms of virtual analog. But I used it quite a lot this time round.
Anyway, that's it for me until the newest set of Lodge recordings gets posted up on the site - probably later this week.


February thunks

Following the tradition of BHaPPY, five "thunks" from my February Burning Lodge session (recorded Thursday 7th February, played to the first meeting of the 'London and Home Counties Lodge chapter' yesterday):

  1. Finally getting something useful out of Arturia Moog Modular V (full review to come); for a long time I felt CS80V was a much better piece of kit but after several months of scratching my head I've finally figured out how to get some good sounds out of the thing. It's not a particularly easy softsynth to use but effort pays dividends with this one. But I prefer it as a polysynth to a mono, which is weird. The Bode Frequency Shifter module is one of the best things I've heard from any software synth.
  2. If you overdub thumb piano several times, each time through a different frequency ring modulator, you can get something close to a gamelan sound. Strange.
  3. Tracks where someone else suggests the title seem to come out as good, if not better than tracks, where I choose the title (on my session 'Over The Line', on Brother Buffalo's session 'Gonna Have To Be Friday' and 'Well We Could Do That'.
  4. Accounts Receivable office supervisor Herbert Kornfeld (of 'The Onion' fame, but recently deceased, sadly) is a good subject for a song.
  5. Never underestimate the appeal of simple call-and-response vocal patterns (particularly when they're done in different octaves).
More when the tracks get posted up on the Burning Lodge site. And congrats to all Lodge members who participated this month, on a killer session.


Floating Off At Dilate Choonz...

I haven't had time yet to post a full report on the Burning Lodge session we did last Saturday (19th Jan) and Brother Oak (the lodge head) - I'll do that later this week. Suffice for now to say that everybody's songs were great, and everybody in the lodge seems to be coming on in leaps and bounds as composers, singers, players, arrangers and producers.

I have posted one track from the sessions, Floating Off the Coast of Lowestoft, at the Dilate Choonz music blog. Done in about 25 minutes - just a patch I had kicking around on the Arturia CS80V and some electric slide guitar (in open minor tuning, bizarrely enough.) It's an ambient take on your basic 2-chord jam. I think I accidentally hit the ring modulation at the end there.

See what you think.


Everything's gone green...

Just to let you know that the initial 'Barney' background colour seemed like a good idea for about 12 seconds, then was trouble. So I've changed it. Much happier with this!


Teeing off...

Hello there all you rock'n'rollers, and welcome to "BTGB". The purpose of this blog, in the first instance, is to talk about making music in an "Immersion Composition Lodge". But what is Immersion Composition and What is a Lodge? The Immersion Composition Society website provides a lot of useful information on this, but for your convenience and entertainment, I will summarise below.

Basically, Immersion Composition (IC) is a technique for writing songs quickly. IC was invented a few years back by two guys in Oakland, California, USA called Nicholas Dobson and Michael Mellender. Faced with a creative block that was stopping them writing songs, they hit upon the idea of spending a whole day trying to write as many songs as possible. Their chosen method for doing this was called the "20 song game".

In the archetypal version of the 20-song game, each participating musician goes into the studio (or the Batcave, or wherever they record music) for 12 hours solid, and attempts to write, record and mix 20 songs. The rules of the game are:

  • The songs should not use any of the musician's previously composed material (although 'found' material like samples, etc. is allowed).
  • The songs can be any style, and any length. In fact 'pieces of music' would be a better description than 'songs', as lyrics/vocals are not mandatory.
  • That's it.
In the strict version of the 20-song game, at the end of the 12-hour session each participant burns their songs to a CD. Then all the participants meet up and listen to each other's output.

An 'Immersion Composition Lodge' is just a group of songwriters who record 12-hour sessions (sometimes called 'day sessions') on a regular basis and then meet to listen to each other's work.

Brother Typewriter is in the Burning Lodge, which began in July 2007 when Brother Oak a.k.a. Ben Dalby made the very, very welcome decision to form his own IC Lodge having begun with the Heater Lodge just a month or so before. Brother Typewriter has been active in the Burning Lodge since September 2007. He has so far recorded 4 sessions, and a total of 26 tracks. Three of these sessions are up on the Burning Lodge website.

This blog will contain the occasional observation about the tracks I've recorded, but to a large extent the results will speak for themselves, for good or ill - and all tracks are freely available on the site should anyone wish to download them. This blog is going to be more about the technical and technological aspects of the recording and songwriting process - so expect to find things like:

  • reviews of, and favourite patches for, VST instruments and effects
  • tips for working with the Sonar digital audio workstation (my DAW of choice)
  • observations on working with the limited set of guitar, effects and synth hardware I've accumulated over the years
  • more general computer stuff - e.g. tips for building your own music computer, should you wish to do that.
  • observations on particular ways of songwriting which seem to have worked well (or badly!) for me.
  • tablature for guitar parts I'm particularly pleased with.
  • thoughts on the relevance of music theory for rock'n'roll, insofar as it impacts on the songs I'm writing.
and so on... you get the picture. Or if you don't, you probably haven't read this far anyway!

To many people this kind of thing will sound incredibly dull, but then I never claimed I was writing for a mass audience. If you're looking for more of a cultural and political grab-bag then giroscope may hold more interest.

Anyway, the next Burning Lodge session is this Saturday (16th Jan) and once that's out the way, I'll post some observations on the tracks I've recorded this time round, which I'm particularly pleased with. Until then... rock on.