Just keep going until you get to the top

Just Keep Going Until You Get There

Album Progress Update

After a couple of weeks where I was getting a lot of other things done – like researching what to do if Soundcloud suddenly disappears (and actioning what I found out) – I’ve managed to make another dent in the heap of significant things-that-need-doing to finish a second album.

I recorded vocals for Solitude in Numbers and Niagara this evening and did some more work on the mix for Of Space And Time, one of the tracks from Tune-A-Day-June, as well as sorting out a few glaring problems with the backing track for Solitude in Numbers.  I haven’t reviewed the vocal takes for Niagara yet, so I may have to do that song again, but that won’t hurt – it’s a difficult song to sing, so practising it is a good idea. (Note to self: try to write some songs that you find a bit easier to sing… )

I’m not 100% sure that Of Space & Time will actually fit in with the rest of the album, as it’s steadily becoming more and more of a triphop album, but we’ll see. I might have to hold that one over for the next project, depending how weird the mix of tracks seems once I have enough tracks for some to be considered ‘spares’ towards the end.

As ‘No. 1 Fan’ was disappointed that I didn’t include Solitude in Numbers in the Sleepwalker album, I have sent her a mix to see what she thinks. (And to prove I’m really going to include it this time!)  It was one of the first tracks for the first album, and No. 1 Fan had heard my first mixes. I felt pretty bad about leaving it off when I saw her reaction, but it wasn’t in good enough shape to go on Sleepwalker.

Solitude in Numbers is the song that wouldn’t completely behave itself, no matter what I did to it. I hadn’t learned to mix when I put the first version together, which certainly didn’t help. The mood of the initial mix was upbeat and poppy, and although I’m all for sad songs sneakily hidden inside happy tunes, it wasn’t working, even after a remix. So a few months back, I started to record the song again completely from scratch, slowing it down a bit, and making the arrangement incredibly sparse this time, whereas the original version had been crammed with all sorts of unnecessary sounds which only served to make the track more difficult to pull together. At first, the new version sounded too empty, and needed more momentum, but it is now well on its way with what I hope are the right sounds and effects. This time, without the clutter, you can hear the lyrics better, and feel the message behind them. I think this version does the song a lot more justice than my previous attempts.

I’m sorry, but I am going to have to keep it to myself for a while yet, though, as I want as much of the material on the album as possible to be new to listeners when it is released. (There will be a few of the Tune A Day pieces on the album as well, though, and it’s probably not all that hard to guess which ones I’m thinking of using that I’ve not already mentioned in the blog!)

Painted Lady butterfly on buddleia

Covering A Song: Before and After

Something I have been meaning to do for a while is to do a cover song, Stoneygate style. (I play various Suzanne Vega covers on the guitar, but not as ‘Stoneygate’.)  So when a musicians’ Facebook group I’m following asked who would be up for doing some cover song swaps, I decided to give it a go.

The pairings were random, and the group is based in America, so I thought I’d probably be working with somebody State-side. In the event, the random pairing put me with (cue drumroll) Lynz Crichton, a fantastic singer-songwriter based less than an hour away from me! It was a lovely surprise to be paired with someone so close by, with the added bonus of a future meet-up for a coffee. (A Midlands-based Brit also organised the cover song swaps… watch out world, we Midlander musicians are taking over!).

Before

I thought it would be cool to share a little of the process with you. The first thing I did was to listen to Lynz’s EP on bandcamp, check out the lyrics, and sleep on it. I still had an earworm the next day with the song that had stood out, One Fine Day. Having another listen to the EP and reviewing all the lyrics helped confirm my choice.

Once I’d decided on the song, I could map out the structure and chords of Lynz’s original song in my digital audio workstation. I wasn’t sure about a couple of chords, and Lynz also very kindly let me have a chordsheet to check my work against. The key was not very keyboard friendly, as the song was originally written for guitar. That was going to slow me down for writing parts, so I transposed it up a semi-tone, at a very early stage, and checked it was still going to be within my vocal range. I also messed around with the tempo a bit, slowing it down to bring out the song’s full drama.

After that, I could set to work constructing an arrangement around the original song and record a guide vocal as a place-holder. My intention was to make it into a trip-hop version, but my first attempt with the arrangement felt somewhat disco-ey. It wasn’t that I disliked it, it was just that it wasn’t the vision that I’d got for it… I mentioned this to the swap organiser in our Facebook group, and he happened to mention Portishead. That got me back having a quick listen to Glory Box to check up on and confirm my suspicion that my bassline was the main culprit for the song having the wrong feel to it. It was just too bouncy.

I wrote a new bassline, stripping it right back so that it wouldn’t attract so much attention to itself. It was better, but the song now felt like it was missing something to really give it atmosphere. I tried adding some strings at key points in the song where there was space for them, messing up the chords so they felt more jazzy and retro. (This is what has given the song its James Bond overtones.)  Now the song was really coming together. Time for proper vocal takes, some more tweaks and mixing.

After

You can hear a draft mix of my version on Soundcloud:

 

Lynz is covering Silver Bird, by the way, and I’ve heard a draft already, with some awesome vocals. Watch this space!

 

First Game: Way of the Bubble

The Way of the Bubble, Menu Screen

The Way of the Bubble (Beta), Menu Screen

The last few weeks have been a bit intense at times. I signed up for a game music composition course on Udemy in June – maybe not the sanest thing to do during a 30-day composition challenge, but I doubled up and used the homework as Tune-A-Day June tunes, which helped me crack on with it.

It’s the first Udemy course I’ve studied and it is going well. I wanted to write about what I’m learning for Code Like a Girl, because it involves Unity, a very popular game development ‘engine’*.  With the games industry being so buoyant it would be good to encourage more girls to get involved. But I needed to write a long-overdue article first to complete the story about making video using Processing 3 to write basic animations, so I ended up writing two articles quite close together.  The first article is about making the music visualiser used in the Silver Bird video; the second is about what I’ve been up to on the game music course, which teaches you to make your music adapt to what is happening inside a game and trigger music cues based on events occuring. It’s been really interesting so far and I feel like I’m much better prepared for making more music for games.

I’ve also spent some time trying to learn a little more than is covered on Unity by the game music course by looking at Unity tutorials and just playing around with it. (If you read the second recent article for Code Like A Girl, you’ll see I had some fun body-modding the player character and giving his glasses a makeover). I definitely want to learn more about using Unity, as I’d like to create a simple game that I can use for making video footage from.  This will involve learning to code in C#, however, so that will stretch the old grey matter more than a little when I get to grips with it properly. I’ve only really scratched the surface so far.  (Unity can also take Java scripts, but the tutorials look like they concentrate on C#, so I’ll just follow those – the two languages seem very similar from my perspective, anyway).

Unity gives you a fantastic platform to work with for making animations, from what I can see, and you can almost treat it like a filmset once you’re proficient, setting up camera angles, getting the camera to follow a character’s movements, or to zoom in to the action, etc. I’m not sure how I’m going to fit in all this learning though. It may be quite a long time before I can make something really decent – if I get that far.

New Game – Way of the Bubble

Meanwhile, I’ve had my first glimpse of the Way of the Bubble game, the first game in the TrickJazz chillout mobile games series, which I already mentioned a few times.  The game I was originally scheduled to be in, Dreamwalker, has been delayed, so they’ve included my tune Sunset Landscape as one of the tunes in Way of the Bubble. The game is now in beta testing, and I’ve had a go at playing it already, which I’m naturally quite excited about.

Footnotes:

*I’m not sure how they started calling these things engines – Unity is a development environment where you pull together and organise all the different elements that go into making a game and test it. It has built in elements, like a ‘physics engine’ so you can apply gravity to your objects and make them bounce back from walls, etc. You can also buy additional items to extend the possibilities, particularly of the graphics elements available.

A Co-write and Victory!

Apologies, I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front*  – I’ve been focussed on getting through the Tune-A-Day challenge. Last night, arriving at the completion of Day 30 was almost an anticlimax – although I did try and write something a little triumphal sounding to go out on, as I’ve never got to Day 30 before.

After the first couple of weeks, I expected it to feel like a physical battle to keep going, as it has in previous years, but it didn’t really get that bad, thankfully, apart from a wobble early on, around Day 8/9. Maybe the previous years’ ‘training’ is starting to pay off, or maybe I was just that bit more accepting of the ideas not being 100% finished. The battle this time was more about ‘this is starting to feel a bit mundane’ or creating more than just a nice sounding intro riff.

Knowing that there was a small but dedicated bunch of people who would be waiting to check out the next tune was very good motivation to keep going. Not letting people down… So thank you if you’re one of those who followed along, commented, liked or retweeted: couldn’t have done it without you.

Oversized owl mug - a cuppa during songwriting session with Matt Steady

Enjoying a nice cuppa at Studio Steady

Day 26: First Stoneygate Co-write

A highlight was co-writing with Matt Steady for the first time on Monday (although I was ridiculously tired from a road trip to a family get-together the day before). Co-writing has been a mixed experience in the past: I co-wrote several songs with a friend at Uni, then there was a long gap. It was the first time I’ve co-written as Stoneygate, and I wasn’t sure if I should be using the electronics or the guitar. It is also the first time doing a co-write as part of Tune-A-Day. In case anyone is wondering, it is definitely not cheating – co-writing uses a whole extra level of skills that I need to work on, as well as the composition & lyric-writing, so it was more challenging than sitting down to write alone.

On the day, I didn’t think I’d keep pace if I tried to go with the electronics during the songwriting – I was rather low on brainpower, even after a large dose of Matt’s real coffee.  So I stuck with the guitar, to focus on chords, melody and lyrics and not slow myself down worrying about sound design and hitting all the wrong notes. Just as well, I think we were in a funny key (a technical term, honest)!

The song felt like a proper joint effort, and once we’d got past the we’ve-never-worked-together-before shyness, and worked out what we were going to write about, we were challenging each other’s ideas and throwing in our own. There was also the important matter of being made acquainted with the most curious of the Steady cats. The song, being essentially a blues piece, didn’t feel like a Stoneygate song, though, until I’d put it into the computer, messed around to get a bassline that contrasted with the chords, then put some trip-hoppy drums in, and then it all made a lot more sense.

July is looking very busy already. Plus, I’d like to try to get to grips with Unity, the games development platform, as I’d like to try and make a video using it.  (I’ve no idea if this is a realistic goal yet – it could turn out to be too big an ask, but I don’t think it will hurt to learn more about it).  I’m following a games music composition course at the moment. And, I’ll be doing cover-song swapsies this month with one or two of the other musicians in a Facebook group I’m in.  There’s also the small matter of progressing the album(s)! With more than an hour of additional material, the Tune-A-Day exercise gives me a lot more leeway selecting what makes the final cut for the next release.

 

*Not to mention the email and Twitter fronts.

Eclectro

It’s 20th June, which means two things for me: first, it’s release day for Manipulant’s Eclectro album. It is also Day 20 of the Tune-A-Day June challenge, so once I’ve written a tune today, I’m 2/3rds of the way through.

Tune-A-Day

I am quite surprised to still be going with the challenge. Knowing that there are a bunch of people waiting for the next track has helped enormously!  The Tune-A-Day 2017 playlist is currently on Soundcloud. I’m going to run out of space on Soundcloud before I finish the challenge, though, so I’m going to need to do a bit of reorganising of some of my older tracks, starting with removing the ones that I didn’t make public.

Eclectro

Late last night, Manipulant, aka David Speakman, got in touch to let me know that Eclectro was already ‘live’ in Japan, and that it would be available on Amazon and iTunes at the stroke of midnight.  Exciting stuff for me, as I’m on the album’s lead track, Run.

Keeps Me Alive reviewed the album along with a great interview with Manipulant, which you can read here.

As well as me singing, the album features contributions from astrophysicist Dr Fiorella Terenzi, who made an album in 1991 called Music from the Galaxies. The music on that album consists of the radio-wave signals from planets and stars and sounds like an eerie sci-fi movie. Who knew that space would already have the best sounds for its own film sound effects?

 

 

Tune A Day June 2017 Update

I thought I’d write a quick update for you on Tune A Day progress (etc). It’s already Day 11 of the challenge, more than a third of the way through, and amazingly I am still going. You can hear the tunes so far via the playlist, above.

I feel more confident of making it to the end of the second week now. That is usually when it suddenly starts to feel like a total uphill struggle, from past years’ experience. This time around, I was quite rusty to begin with, so I had some days in the first week where I really didn’t feel like writing. Added to that, there was the distraction of a UK General Election on Day 8. I normally follow election results online or on the radio overnight, as they come in, so I worked late, when I was already tired, and then caught up on what had been happening in the news whilst I’d been concentrating on writing Tension. (In case you’re wondering the tune was a deliberate reflection of the feeling of being on tenterhooks that I’d had all day.)  With the results going the way they did, with no-one winning outright, I didn’t get to sleep until a little after 6am and the late night messed up my body-clock, which didn’t help me with the next day’s task.  The election has provided some inspiration towards making the tunes as well as being a hindrance, so it balances out.

Last year, someone stuck a referendum on Brexit in the middle of June, but it didn’t affect the Tune-A-Day June challenge because I’d, ahem, given up by then (gasp!), having decided I wanted to write more songs with lyrics. I was finding I was just rushing to write *something* to meet the targets and not making real progress. This time around I’ve only written one song with lyrics so far, but one of the earlier tunes, Day 6, keeps suggesting odd fragments of lyrics to me. I kind of know what it’s about, but haven’t got the words yet. Because I was so rusty, writing instrumentals is good for me, even if I don’t manage to write many songs.

I’m not 100% happy with everything that I’ve made, of course. There hasn’t been time to mix most of the tunes properly, and there are loads of things I would want to change if I had longer to work them out more. But I’m very pleased to have lasted longer than the first week, and I’m delighted with having made so much new music in so little time after a long hiatus.

Looking at the progress so far, I would want to develop at least some of the tunes further. Reviewing the tunes also showed up various really annoying things I hadn’t picked up on earlier, but that’s pretty normal – you always need to take a break and listen again, and that’s not possible with the Tune A Day timescales.

 

Tune-A-Day-June 2017

Quite possibly against my better judgement, I’ve decided to have another go at the Tune-A-Day-June challenge this year. I don’t honestly expect at this point that I will last above a week, as I have just recovered from a nasty cold and am still getting tired more quickly than normal. But I might just surprise myself and get beyond a fortnight.

The Tune-A-Day-June challenge is basically exactly what it sounds like – the idea is to write a new tune every day throughout the month, publishing the better ones on Soundcloud. My first year at this challenge was a couple of years ago, when my friend Max mentioned it, and I decided to join in. I lasted almost the whole month, with a bit of cheating on a few days where I made two tunes to catch up for the odd lost day. Last year, I managed to keep going for about a fortnight, if I remember right.

The challenge tends to start off OK then begins to feel more and more like an endurance test. I actually did a couple of warm up writing exercises this year, ahead of June, because I was feeling a bit rusty, having spent a lot of time trying to promote my work and not so much time writing of late.

There seems to be a lot of psychology involved, as during the challenge, almost everything you make feels like it is below par, because of the rush to complete something each and every day and the difficulty of maintaining creativity over a sustained period – discipline not really being creativity’s most obvious friend. I don’t have the time to produce more than a working demo of each track – sometimes, I don’t even get that far. It can feel unsatisfying to not reach a finished arrangement or mix.

But, looking back over what I’ve produced during June in the last couple of years, it has been a very useful exercise and pushed me out of my comfort zone. With hindsight, it has given at least the beginnings of several of my album tracks and some that will very likely be included on future albums, so it has been incredibly worthwhile, even if it has felt rather painful at the time. Several of the tracks I made last year have received quite a promising reception on Soundcloud. The most surprising response being to Toil, which I posted rather reluctantly at the time, feeling it wasn’t really good enough to upload.

So, on the basis that it will be good for me, I’ll likely be driving myself a little bit crazy over the next few weeks as I scramble to meet the daily deadline, probably stretching it into the wee small hours before I go to sleep. The first tune of the month, Dystopia, is now up on Soundcloud…. more to come!