1. A track I made called “Lake Manitou”

    Posted December 20, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Here’s another track I made recently, called Lake Manitou. I’ve been told it sounds like a cross between Bobby Konders and the Aphex Twin. Worse things could have been said.

    I thought I’d write about the origins of this track, for my own benefit, and because I think electronic musicians should talk more about their creative process and less about technology and gadgets. Be warned: you almost certainly have better things to do than to read the next 700 words.

    “Lake Manitou” started life on a Sunday evening in late October. I was playing around with some new melodies but the process was closer to musical doodling than to serious or even semi-serious composition. A pentatonic scale stopped everything sounding like a mess, but even still the different melodies just weren’t connecting, they sounded like they came from different pieces of music. This doodle, I felt, would go no further than the margin of my metaphorical notebook.

    Later on I isolated each of the melodies, wondering if any might be spared oblivion before I moved the whole thing to the trash. Most were forgettable and insipid but one stood out, a two-bar descending riff that had a lot more character than anything else in the doodle. That riff ended up becoming the backbone of Lake Manitou.

    The riff’s journey from its doodle origins to Lake Manitou was not a straightforward one, however. At first it was meant to be a background part of a faster electro track, which was what the original doodle had sounded like. But I couldn’t really come up with an idea for what that track would do, or for other sounds that might complement the two-bar descending riff. I had reached a creative impasse.

    A week later, while walking through Bermondsey to a friend’s housewarming party, the riff was playing in my head. It suddenly struck me that it should be part of a much slower house- or disco-oriented track, and that, instead of being in the background, it should take centre stage. I thought about how it might sound: dreamy, languid, tropical, subtly euphoric. I thought about post-disco tracks like “Adventures in Success“, about “Sweet Harmony” by The Beloved. It was a big change in direction from the uptempo electro track I’d been planning, and from anything else I’d done before. But the more I thought about this new track, the more determined I became to make it.

    When I sat down to work on it, most pieces fell into place quite neatly. Slowing it down, backing up the main melody with some warm chords, adding some space to the sound with delay and reverb: these things didn’t take long and I was happy with the results. The choral pad sound was a challenge, however. I’ve often tried to use a sound like that in a track—Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” being a kind of exemplar for me—but always got it wrong. Would Lake Manitou be undone by yet another botched choir pad? Trying the preset choir sounds on various synths just made me even more downhearted. In the end I spent about an hour making that sound, using a combination of synth pads, reverb, filter and actual samples of a choir.

    With everything in place the next job was to arrange the track. Arrangement is stressful. Sometimes you uncover major problems with your composition, with everything else sounding awful when the one strong element is taken away. Sometimes your mistake is to reveal the key idea too early, or too late. Lake Manitou ended up being quite hard to arrange, going through two major iterations over several days before it was eventually finished.

    One thing that might be worth mentioning is the fade out. I always like it when bands start to do different things while a track is fading out. You can hear that on happen on some Parliament songs. It leaves you wondering what else the band went on to do after you left the room. In Lake Manitou there’s a subtle nod to that gimmick, when the flute changes tack right at the end and starts jamming along with the main melody. I like the idea that the flautist was just embarking on an epic, self-indulgent jam session which the producer had to kill before it all went a bit Jethro Tull.

    Anyway, that’s the origin story of Lake Manitou. I’m not going to write stuff like this about every track I make, you’ll be pleased to hear, but if you make music yourself I’d be interested in reading similar notes about your own creative process. It’s a lot more interesting to me than gadgets and VSTs at any rate.

    (Oh yes, I nearly forgot: the title is a reference to an internet thing)


  2. Getting back into making music

    Posted December 13, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter you might have noticed me making a lot of music recently.

    And if you’ve known me for a long time, you’ll know this is less of a recently discovered hobby than a case of normal service being resumed.

    I’ve been making electronic music for a long time, since I booted up NoiseTracker on my Amiga as a precocious 16-year-old, and it used to be a major part of my life until the twin pressures of work and parenthood conspired to crowd out almost everything else.

    My recent resurgence in music-making motivation dates back to March this year when, after leaving my job at Tobias & Tobias, I was presented with an an extremely generous leaving gift—a Maschine Mikro. According to Chris Tobias, the idea was that it would get me composing music again, and on that score it was a raging success. Since then I’ve recorded around 10 tracks which I’m reasonably happy with, along with lots of throwaway experiments that are best left gathering digital dust on my hard drive. And it’s been really good fun: in fact I’ve been quite surprised to find how much I enjoy it.

    I always did enjoy making music, of course, so why am I surprised to find that I enjoy it now?

    One possible reason for this is that, these days, I’m approaching music from a different direction than in the past. I don’t really think about musical genres or styles or “playability”—the degree to which a DJ might want to use your music in a performance—as much as I used to. In the past I thought too much about things like that, about how closely the music I was making adhered to a specific genre’s set of rules, or how it would sound on a club system. That would often get in the way of enjoying the creative act in its own right.

    Sometimes I was able to step away from that production-line mentality, and it always felt liberating and fun to do so. But more often than not I would slip back into it, laboriously building tracks up from genre-friendly templates and rejecting anything that took me too far from the beaten path.

    Today, I have no ambitions to release music or play it in nightclubs, and am not making it for any other purpose than my own enjoyment. That’s why I’m enjoying it a lot more. And it’s probably the reason why the new music I’m making seems to be a lot better than the music I made in the past. It’s more like play than work—the way it should be.


  3. Battling the weaponised drones of popular opinion

    Posted November 3, 2014 in comment, politics, twitter  |  No Comments so far

    Kevin at Strange Attractor on what the tactics of Gamergaters tell us about the future of online political discourse.

    When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion.

    The article’s broadly pessimistic tone resonates with me, but I feel more positive when thinking about the countermeasures that could protect against these tactics. The Eliza chatbot set up to engage these sock puppets is just one example, acting more as chaff—attracting attackers and wasting their resources—than as an offensive weapon.

    If ideas like that proliferate and evolve we might just escape a future where we have to abandon the web to swarms of hate-spewing bots.


  4. Something strange is going on at the bus stop on Southgate Road

    Posted October 30, 2014 in London, transport  |  2 Comments so far

    Every now and again I get the bus down to Moorgate. This involves going to a stop on Southgate Road where three suitable buses regularly turn up.

    It’s an unremarkable bus stop by Islington standards. There’s no Countdown machine—these are being phased out now that we all have direct synaptic links to TfL’s data feeds—but it does have a roof, and a thin red bench, and the nearest overpriced delicatessen is just fifteen seconds away.

    So far, so normal. But if you come to this bus stop during rush hour on a rainy weekday morning, you will see something very strange indeed.

    A bus queue. In London. In 2014.

    A bus queue. In London. In 2014.

    London is a place where the bus queue died out long ago. It got replaced by a new system for deciding who boards first. It’s a system that we all understand but could never describe. One thing we do know about it, however, is that it doesn’t involve what is shown in that picture.

    What is shown in that picture—a single-file queue that takes up an alarming length of the pavement—is what I’d expect to see in the event of a tube line being shut down, a nuclear strike on the capital, or a sudden influx of zombies. It’s crisis behaviour.

    When I first saw it, my first thought was that something terrible must have happened. I considered walking, or getting a taxi, or just running away as fast as I could. But curiosity overcame fear and I took my place in the queue. And you know what? It worked pretty well.

    The first bus was so busy we couldn’t get on. Stress levels rose. The second bus was stern, keeping its front doors shut until a few passengers had stumbled out, at which point the queue was able to shuffle forward a bit. That felt better. Then the third bus turned up practically empty and we were on so quickly I could barely get my Oyster card out in time.

    Now, when I arrive at the bus stop and see that the single-file queue has formed, I am eminently relaxed about it. I can’t say the same for the new people who, seeing it for the first time, stare open-mouthed in shock and devastation, just as I did. But they’ll get over it.


  5. If Only Your Icon Would Take This A Bit More Seriously

    Posted October 7, 2014 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    The other day I wanted to find out if I could move Skype credit from one account to another. If I could, I’d have been fairly happy as I’d have saved money. A quick Google found this page on the Skype website:

    Bad icons

    Yes, you did answer my question—but I’m not happy about it


    It was slightly jarring to see the happy-face icon beaming at me like a puppy seeking approval. Yes, you did answer the question, little website, but it wasn’t the answer I wanted. Can you please stop grinning?

    Sometimes the substance of an answer is more important to the reader than its clarity or precision.


  6. “If Everyone Jumped Off a Cliff…” — A New Perspective

    Posted October 3, 2014 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    In late 2012 I appeared on one of those comedy-panel quiz TV programmes. It didn’t get commissioned, thank god, so you won’t have heard of it. In front of the studio audience, Sara Cox cracked a joke about the graphics I’d made for my tube seat strategy post of 2011. The good news, dear reader, is that I managed to come up with a witty and suitably risqué retort. But the bad news is that it only came to me in the summer of 2014, approximately eighteen months too late.

    In the early 1980s I was in junior school. Something happened—I forget what it was—which prompted a teacher to say to me, “if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?”

    She didn’t expect an answer, of course, and I didn’t offer one. But last night, fully thirty years after she posed this rhetorical question to me, I finally thought of a retort. Here it is.

    “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, and I decided not to, what kind of world would be left for me, an eight-year-old child, to live in? After all, everyone else would have jumped off a cliff: my loved ones, my friends, the adults I rely on for food, wisdom and emotional support—not to mention all those others who keep society’s wheels turning.

    Yes, I might go home and, for a time, enjoy the unbounded access to toys and property offered by a landscape newly bereft of a human civilisation which had recently chosen to jump, en masse, off a cliff. But before long starvation, depression and insanity would surely begin to take their toll. How long would I last? And how lonely and drawn-out would the end be for me, when it finally came? Perhaps, then, to have jumped off that cliff, along with everyone else, might have been the best thing after all.”

    I’m sure you’ll agree that my teacher would have struggled for a comeback if my eight-year-old self had come up with that. It’s a shame it took so long to think of though. Compared to that, my Sara Cox retort was lightning fast.


  7. Possibly the most enigmatic wayfinding device ever

    Posted September 28, 2014 in ephemera  |  1 Comment so far

    While walking around my new office the other day I came across this mysterious wayfinding device.

    "You can go in one of two directions"

    “You can go in one of two directions”

    You can go left and you can also go right. But what will you find?

    Ah, now that would ruin the surprise.


  8. A track I made called “Birthday”

    Posted September 22, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been meaning to get back into making music for a while now. Here’s a track I made over the weekend, called “Birthday”. It’s been described by those in the know as “a bit Cbeebies.”


  9. Alex Salmond

    Posted September 20, 2014 in politics  |  No Comments so far

    Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister of Scotland yesterday, having failed to win the referendum on Scottish independence.

    He was fighting against the might of the Westminster establishment, the media (no newspapers supported him), the major financial institutions and the vested interests of the wealthy in this country.

    His opponents used the weapons they know best—negativity, condescension and intimidation—and did not hold back.

    Despite all this he gained the support of 45% of Scots, and a majority in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, backed his vision of an independent nation in charge of its future. To have done so in the face of that level of opposition is a huge achievement, and I hope history will recognise that.


  10. The worst yes/no dialog ever

    Posted September 8, 2014 in ephemera, user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    If I was better organised and had more time to spare, I’d collect pictures of dodgy dialog boxes and probably set up a tumblr for them.

    As it is, I only take these pictures when I come across a particularly dodgy example. Here’s one.

    "Yes to abort, No to continue"

    “Yes to abort, No to continue”

    It appeared when trying to buy petrol from a self-service machine. You’re quite stressed in those situations as you sometimes have a queue of cars waiting for you to get on with it. The last thing you need is a woeful piece of design like this that forces you to lay aside your preconceived notions of what “Yes,” “No” and big red X’s actually mean.