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. How I’m taking control of my oversized vinyl collection, one record at a time

    Posted December 10, 2013 in Diary, music  |  No Comments so far

    I own far too many records.

    These records total over 2,000 and they’re sorted in alphabetical order by artist. A couple of months ago I decided to go through them systematically, one at a time. For each record I find, I ask myself a simple question: do I want to listen to it, all the way through, then and there?

    If I don’t, then the record gets listed for sale on Discogs. If I do, and I like it, it gets to stay; but if it gets a “meh”, then it gets listed for sale too.

    When I started this exercise I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve passed the 200-record mark – still less than 10% of the total – I’m realising that it’s going to take ages to finish. Which is not such a bad thing. This long-running triage project is, after all, good fun. It’s nice to re-immerse myself in records I’ve not listened to for years. And it’s curious, almost exotic, to subject myself to its strict alphabetical discipline.

    In this digital age of expensive algorithms and the mind-bending calculations they perform to choose music that takes us to the precise centres of our comfort zones, it’s an odd experience to step away from the “Genius Mix” or the “Recently Played” playlists into an unforgiving regime of alphabetically-sorted vinyl. So you didn’t want to listen to Analord today? Tough. Thinking of leaping out of sequence to Sun Electric just because you ‘feel like it’? Again, tough: list or listen, that’s the rule. Selecting music based on what mood I’m in or what I want to hear will often bring me down the same old pathways to the same old group of albums, and this project is forcing me to do something different, which is great.

    I’ve come to realise that a lot of my record collection had become like junk DNA, lots of seemingly useless detritus that pads out the interesting stuff. Records that I’d regularly flick past without considering, on my way to the releases I wanted to hear. But, like junk DNA, many of them have turned out not to be so useless after all. Having to stop and subject each record to the “list or listen” test has kind of re-connected me to each one of them, encouraging me to remember why I bought the record in the first place, and to imagine future situations where I might regret having sold it. And there is some good stuff in there too. I’ve discovered that even records you’ve purchased can be ‘slept on’.

    OK, this all sounds like a convoluted description of a straightforward nostalgia trip, which it is in a way. But as much as I harp on about rediscovering music and things like that, this whole exercise has one clear and unsentimental objective, which is to reduce the size of my record collection. I’ll probably always own too many records, but one day I hope they’ll all be records I actually want to listen to.


  4. Sinthpop – is it a musical genre or is it just a typo?

    Posted November 9, 2011 in ephemera  |  3 Comments so far

    In a café on Upper Street I saw a poster for a club night. It seemed innocent and unremarkable but my eye kept being drawn to it for some reason. Then I realised why:

    80' night with Sinthpop

    Ironic or accidental?

    There are two things wrong with the poster.

    The first is that it says “80′ the way it should be” when presumably it’s supposed to say “80’s the way it should be”. This is obviously a typo.

    But the second one is more mystifying – “Sinthpop” instead of “Synthpop”. At first you might think it’s a typo as well, but maybe it isn’t? Maybe “sinthpop” isn’t a typo but is in fact a genre of music? Does anyone know?

    If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time a typo gave rise to a genre of music. In the early 1990s some people mis-spelt the word “techno” as “tekno” and before long “tekno” became a distinct genre which even has its own Wikipedia page.

    So maybe “sinthpop” is the same. Maybe it’s pop music with a sinful nature. Maybe “It’s a Sin” by The Pet Shop Boys is a seminal sinthpop track. Stranger things have happened.

    I know I could use Google to answer these questions but I don’t want to. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.


  5. Another Radio 4 proposition that they probably wouldn’t like – “Desert Island Noise”

    Posted July 30, 2011 in ideas  |  3 Comments so far

    When you think about it, the pretext of Desert Island Discs is pretty strange. I’ve never been able to figure out how it works.

    Is the idea that you’re on a ship that’s sunk and you’ve escaped with six records, a book, and some random luxury item? Or are you victim of a harsh but bizarrely genteel pogrom, summoned to Broadcasting House and processed by Kirsty Young before being handed your requested records and then forcibly, irreversibly deported from civilisation?

    Neither scenario strikes me as particularly credible, and this is probably why I often wonder about changes to the Desert Island Discs setup. Except the changes that come to mind always make it less feasible and more ridiculous.

    People that know me in real life have probably heard me pitching the idea of Desert Island Desert Island Discs, a show in which the budding castaway has to choose six episodes of Desert Island Discs to preserve their sanity in future exile. I don’t know which six I’d choose but among them would be Sir Digby Jones and his selection of motivational power ballads.

    Digby Jones

    Fun fact: this man, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Howard and Tessa Sanderson all chose Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" on Desert Island Discs

    But Desert Island Desert Island Discs has a flaw. A few years into its life a new controller would inevitably arrive at Radio 4 and say, “we need to go deeper”. Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Discs would be born. Not long afterwards the audience will demand another layer – Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Discs. And when would the madness end?

    No, Desert Island Desert Island Discs is a dangerous path to take. So instead I’ve got another proposition for Radio 4 – Desert Island Noise.

    The setup for Desert Island Noise is quite simple. You are being banished to a desert island (shipwreck or pogrom, whichever floats your boat). You have been given a digital music player and some speakers. The music player has a single audio file on it. That audio file is precisely one second long. That is all you have to listen to, for the rest of your life, on this island. Hence the name, Desert Island Noise.

    It’s harsh and unfair, like a gameshow designed by a psychopathic computer, but it would be interesting, don’t you think? Maybe Sir Digby Jones would take a 1-second wav of someone saying his name approvingly (“Digby!”). Maybe Andy McNab would have a burst of gunfire or the last shriek of a vanquished adversary. And god only knows what Benny Hill would have chosen. Well, I’d want to find out anyway.

    Should Desert Island Noise be made? And if it was, and you were on it, what noise would you choose?


  6. The thing with Ping

    Posted September 24, 2010 in social media  |  No Comments so far

    Ping, which launched a few weeks ago, is a social network for music built on top of iTunes. So far it’s been a bit of a damp squib. Immediately after launch some were extremely enthusiastic about it:

    The future of social commerce… It can tell me who my friends think are cool… Some of my friends are famous deejays. Others just have eclectic musical tastes.
    Om Malik, GigaOM, 1st September 2010

    Others, however, were more guarded:

    The interface is still buggy and slower than molasses in January at the North Pole during a legitimate Ice Age. And that slowness is a big turnoff and an inherent factor of working within iTunes. We don’t love Ping yet, but we don’t hate it, either.
    Jolie O’Dell, Mashable, 1st September 2010

    In the last few weeks discussions about Ping have become increasingly negative. Analysis of online chatter published by Buzzstudy on September 15th showed that:

    With the exception of a huge spike on the day of its release, Ping chatter has been surprisingly low… [sentiment analysis revealed that] iTunes Ping was clearly the most negatively talked about service.
    Buzzstudy, September 15th 2010

    Some recent coverage of Ping has the tone of a post-mortem, an instructional case study of historic business failure, with inside sources dishing the dirt on what went wrong:

    …Apple launched Ping without insight from a major part of the industry: the A&Rs and digital marketing teams, the people whose job it is to connect artists with fans. Perhaps this accounts for why Ping is so, well, boring.
    Austin Carr, Fast Company, September 22nd 2010

    The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the breakdown of talks with Facebook has been to blame, and indeed Facebook is being portrayed as a bit of a villain:

    “Working with Facebook as a large company is challenging at this stage, very similar to mid-late-90s Microsoft,” says one Silicon Valley veteran.

    Dan Frommer, Business Insider, September 21st 2010

    A lot of the problems with Ping are pretty glaring. You’re only allowed to like three pre-defined genres of music, artists are added to the system manually, and you can only use it within the iTunes application. When you think about it, it seems like it was conceived as the antithesis to everything we’ve learnt about successful social networks in the last five years.

    But there’s another big problem that I associate with Ping. It’s not a flaw in Ping itself – it’s something that Ping has brought into focus, something more general about the relationship between music and social interaction. In a nutshell, the problem is this: do people really want to know what music everyone else is listening to?

    Don’t get me wrong – music plays a huge part in my social life. Most of my closest friends are people I got to know through shared musical tastes and activities. Social discovery and enjoyment of music is important to me, and I don’t think people should be separated into isolated bubbles of mutual musical ignorance.

    But at the same time I don’t think that social discovery & enjoyment of music works well in the larger social networks, which is what Ping aspires to be. Broadcasting one’s musical taste to the world at large doesn’t feel right. I wouldn’t put my Last.fm listening history on my LinkedIn profile, for example, and I don’t think I’d gain much from seeing that information on other people’s profiles.

    Music is one sphere of life where there is still a strong case for communities of interest, rather than communities of acquaintance. It provides a great example of how most of us partition our lives, similar to the famous “work/life balance”. Religion and politics are other examples. Some relationships, especially professional ones, can work better when these subjects don’t take centre stage.

    For me at least, music networks are better if they are decoupled from the larger social spaces and allow me to control how much of my musical taste leaks through into them. And this is a basic problem with Ping as I see it. A Facebook-sized, music-based network that uses real names and forces people into a set of pre-defined genre boxes doesn’t really fit with how a lot of people engage with music. Music is a social experience, yes – but it’s a private one too.


  7. Is RSS the “vinyl” of digital media?

    Posted January 26, 2010 in media, web  |  No Comments so far

    For large stretches of my life, I’ve allowed my obsession with music to burn up huge chunks of my time as well as my money. Illness, poverty, hangovers, rain – none of these things would stop me leaving the house and spending whole weekends wandering London, going from record shop to record shop. Over time my vinyl collection grew while my bank balance fell, but I didn’t mind – because that collection of vinyl was (and still is) valuable in lots of ways. I didn’t just enjoy listening to those records – I also enjoyed playing them out. I played in clubs, made compilation tapes and distributed mixes over the internet.

    My vinyl collection helped me evangelise the music I loved to like-minded people. And before the worlds of music and the internet collided back in 1999, this sort of behaviour occupied a useful niche in the music ecosystem. Vast numbers of releases, especially in genres that flew under the radar of mainstream promotion, were filtered, curated and recompiled, helping normal people – who had better things to do than waste their lives exploring dusty record shops or compiling mixtapes in their bedrooms – explore obscure fields of new music. In this way vinyl kept influencing the public’s relationship with music long after it stopped being a mainstream format.

    Some records

    It’s a common mistake, especially when thinking about media formats, to see things in a binary way where the only two states are ubiquity and death. Many made this mistake when vinyl was eclipsed by the CD, thinking that its death was just around the corner. But this thinking was wrong. Although vinyl sales fell, its role remained important and it still is today – in fact, vinyl sales in the US actually increased by 33% in 2009.

    RSS, unlike vinyl, isn’t a formerly dominant format that’s finding a smaller niche. Instead, it’s a new format that’s failed to go mainstream: usage of RSS readers is in decline and Twitter is supplanting it as a mass-market feed delivery channel. But there are definitely similarities between the formats, and the role they play in their respective ecosystems.

    You can’t ask mainstream users whether or not they use RSS in their daily course of Internet usage any more than you can ask the average couch potato whether or not they use Cathode Ray Tubes or Liquid Crystal Displays – Mashable, October 2008

    Not everyone wants to get to grips with concepts like Atom or OPML, learn how to use an RSS reader and incorporate it into their daily routine. That’s understandable: I know lots of voracious online readers who’ve never got to grips with RSS. Similarly, many people in the 1990s, despite loving music genres that released mainly on vinyl, didn’t want to join the anorak-wearing record shop brigade and start buying expensive import 12″s.

    But for media owners (whether websites or record labels) that vinyl-buying, RSS-reading audience is worth reaching if only because they’re in the habit of evangelising. A heavy RSS user is more likely to run their own website on which they’ll compile and re-publish that content, just as turntable owners are more likely to create mixes that showcase obscure records to a larger audience. RSS heavily influences how information moves online, and plays an indirect role in shaping the online experiences even of those who have no idea what it is.

    So even if RSS is never destined to become a mainstream format for delivering content online, reports of its death will prove to be greatly exaggerated. The internet needs a format which, like vinyl, appeals to the obsessives and whose very nature encourages compilation and re-transmission.


  8. How to post your Last.fm loved tracks to Twitter

    Posted December 8, 2009 in How-to  |  5 Comments so far

    I remember when Twitter was still quite new. Back then, a lot of people were still trying to think of uses for it and one thing that was fairly common was to plug it into your Last.fm account.

    In retrospect I can see why that was seen as a good idea. Twitter was supposed to be about broadcasting minor ephemeral details, and the music you were currently listening to definitely fell into that category. But there was a downside. People listen to a lot of music and, with a Twitter post for each track played, that added up to a lot of useless information on Twitter. Thankfully, the practise of scrobbling directly to Twitter soon faded out.

    Today there are some more useful and less irritating ways of posting information from Last.fm (or, indeed, its open source alternative Libre.fm to your Twitter account. One of them, Tweekly.fm, produces an automated weekly tweet of your top three artists. Another one, which I’m going to explain here, involves posting tracks that you “love” on Last.fm to your Twitter account.

    Here’s how it works:

    1. If you don’t have a Last.f account, create one here
    2. Get the URL of your “Loved tracks” RSS feed. This is easy: just change “USERNAME” in the URL below for your Last.fm username.

      http://ws.audioscrobbler.com/2.0/user/USERNAME/lovedtracks.rss

    3. Test the URL by opening it in a browser. You should see something that looks a bit like this:
      Last.fm RSS feed browser output
    4. If it works, go to Twitterfeed.com and create an account if necessary
    5. Once logged in to Twitterfeed, click on the “Create new feed” button to the top-right of the screen
    6. In “Step 1: Send Feed To”, select Twitter. Click on the large “Authenticate Twitter” button and enter your Twitter account details. You’ll then be directed back to Twitterfeed.com
    7. In “Step 2: Name feed & source URL”, enter a name for the feed – this can be anything you like. In the “RSS Feed URL” field, paste the URL of your RSS feed
      Twitterfeed screenshot 1
    8. Click on the “test feed” button to make sure the feed is valid
    9. Click “Advanced settings”. A bunch of new options will appear underneath. Here’s a screenshot with the things you need to check circled in red:
      Twitterfeed's advanced settings

    10. In “Post content”, select “Title Only”. This will ensure that the posts to your Twitter account only contain the artist, title and shortened URL to the track you loved
    11. Make sure “Post link” is checked and a URL shortening service is selected
    12. You might also want to enter some text in the “Post Prefix” or “Post Suffix” fields, otherwise your tweets might be slightly baffling
    13. You’re done – just click “Create feed” and that’s it set up.

    Now whenever you “love” a track on Last.fm, your Twitter account will post a link to it. This makes Last.fm’s “love” feature a bit more useful when it comes to recommending music to other people – especially people who don’t use Last.fm. And as long as you don’t love everything you listen to you won’t be clogging up your Twitter feed.