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.