Blogpril April 5th- now with more music

So I squandered the time that I should have been blogging listening to a lot of old favourite songs, which actually turned out to be no bad thing. With the rise of music streaming services, especially Spotify’s carefully curated playlists, which I have praised in the part and still think are a great idea to some degree, I’ve realised that at some point music became just background noise to me, rather than an actual emotional force. Since I’m now working for a musical organisation (as of this week) I’ve decided that won’t do at all. 

As a result I spent quite a bit of this evening deliberately picking out songs and pieces of music that I love/have loved and giving them a proper headphones on/eyes closed listening to. Some of them brought back strong and unexpected memories, which is something mood music playlists (though they absolutely have their place) can’t really do for me. I’ve resurrected my old MP3 player too, which will be travelling with me from now on, and I’ll be seeking out some new music from artists I already like, and trying to make some new emotional memories rather than treating music as part of the acoustic furniture.

A Quick Blaugust Day 11 – Doing Reviews

I’m out this evening at a new Opera ‘Thousand Furs‘ at The Anthony Burgess Foundation, so I wanted to put down a few words quickly over lunchtime as it’s likely I won’t get the chance to write much tonight.

I’m going to be reviewing Thousand Furs for the blog of the organisation that I work for, which I something I’ve come to enjoy doing. For a while, I also ran a theatre blog – anonymously in case I ever wanted to go work for someone whose work I’ve slated! – and found it a really interesting experience.

One of the hardest things about reviewing is trying to ‘be fair’. Sometimes I want to rave about a show, then I have to think, is there anything that someone else might not enjoy, that I ought to highlight? Likewise, if I didn’t enjoy a show, I need to pin down exactly what I didn’t like about it, and separate any positive points.

Of course, it’s probably not a good idea to totally balance every review that I write, or else everything ends up sounding just plain average, with so many good bits and so many bad bits. Plus, it doesn’t always make good reading – I do get a certain amount of evil enjoyment out of reading a poor review, particularly from a critic who knows how to do a slick put-down (This Telegraph review of Eric Whiteacre’s Prom is pretty masterful, and completely deserved, I’d told.) Equally it’s nice to be uplifted by reading about a show that’s gone really really well.

Sadly this is all the writing I’ve got time for right now – I’ve got some longer ideas lined up for the rest of this week, unless something topical comes up, and then I might be doing a post on how Blaugust has gone so far.

The Value of Music – Blaugust Day 3

Firstly, a Blaugust-related update. I’ve realised that a lot of these posts are going to be quite personal when it comes to content. I think I need to accept that since I left Salford University, even those I’m working with social media on a daily basis, I’m just too far from the academic and up-to-the-moment stuff to write the kind of posts that I could do when I was a student. Time is also definitely a limiting factor. Basically, I need to learn a new way to write, and that’s what this month is going to be about.

Now, onto the main meat of this post… This morning as I was getting ready to go out, I happened to look up at the top shelf in my room, and the collection of CDs slowly gathering dust up there. I had a major clear-out about a year ago, only keeping the ones that I had a serious personal attachment to. They have been sitting there untouched ever since, because much as these albums were a huge part of my life, I just don’t use any of them any more.

Once upon a time, buying new music was a huge deal for me, but somewhere around 2010 I got a Spotify subscription, and the way I consume music completely changed. Currently I have a  staff-curated playlist of this week’s new hits playing in the background as I write, and as of this sentence, it’s giving me a Japanese pop ballad. This is sometime I would never have listened to when I was younger, because music was expensive and I was never going to buy anything that I couldn’t guarantee I was going to enjoy. This song? It’s okay. I’m enjoying it. I probably won’t listen to it again. I can come back to it if I want (though I wish Spotify still remembered your music history). I could send it instantly to a friend if I felt they would enjoy it – no more trying to share earbuds in the playground – or I could share it generally if I perhaps wanted the artist to have more recognition amongst my peers. Looking over this, it’s slightly scary how quickly this has changed. Music streaming hasn’t just changed the way I consume music, it’s changed the way I value recorded music. Before I had individual, physical items. The case, the booklet insert, the feeling of ‘putting on some music.’ I still love that to an extent (which is why I go through vinyl collecting phases, but tend to stop quickly because that sort of thing is both addictive and house-filling.) But now I value the ease of access. With a little googling, I can find almost any piece of music ever recorded. It’s all out there, from the chart hits to the obscure. I value how I can decide to listen to some music, hear it, decide if I like it, and either discard it or keep it and find similar tracks.

Of course, I understand how music has been physically devalued in this regard. I understand why artists take their music off streaming services, and issue copyright notices to YouTube. I understand that this post may sadden some musicians, even some friends of mine. I’m probably guilty of supporting a bad system. But that doesn’t stop my using that system, because I love it. And I still love those CDs, but I’ve come to see them as relics, as collector’s items rather than items of music. Because if I ever want to listen to any of my old favourites, I won’t be getting out a step stool to reach that top shelf. I’ll be going to Spotify.

Recorded Music and the Online World

(Awkward disclaimer: This blog is formed of several ideas that were probably meant to be separate blogs, so it’s a little bit… rambling?)

A few years ago during my undergraduate degree (and it’s a little depressing that I can call that a few years ago) I got to do quite a lot of work on the history of recorded music. The beginning of the recording industry is fascinating for a whole lot of reasons, not least because of the trips that fledgling record companies sent their employees on in search of new music. Sound engineers such as Fred Gaisberg were sent out all over the world from the fledgling Gramophone Company to find new genres to record – the idea was to bring back music which could be sold to ethnic minorities within the United States. Sometimes the recorded music wasn’t very good as the engineers would have to try and find out who the best local musicians were, and if they couldn’t they would just take whoever they could get!

Nowadays, many people have accused mass media of homogenising music, particularly in the pop music world. Top 40 artists are often known and followed around the world, creating an industry where popular music is similar in many countries. Many academics worry about the effects of fusion music and influences upon certain musical cultures that might take over and eradicate the original traditions. (Philip V. Bohlman discusses this in the first chapter of his book – ‘World Music: A very short Introduction‘.)

However, there is a flip side to this. There is a mind boggling amount of music out on the internet for free, so while the music of many cultures might be homogenised, the originals are often preserved too. While shellac discs and wax cylinders might wear out, or take time, effort (and honestly space!) to preserve and maintain, .mp3s take up next to no space, and can be shared easily through Spotify, last.fm, YouTube etc. etc. etc…

Some of those preserved shellac 78s – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A – obviously not a disappearing piece of music though this is an early UK commercial recording – from around 1923? I’m too scared to even play these most of the time, they’re irreplaceable. Which is a shame, as the second violinist was my great grandfather.

 

This can and does create niche audiences and enthusiasts from all parts of the world for music from other cultures. I had lessons in traditional tabla while at University, and I’ve performed both in the straight up traditional style and in more fusion-type pieces. I didn’t learn this online, but it’s clear that plenty of people do – many teachers offer skype lessons which keep musical styles alive in a world that far from being ‘homogenised’, sometimes seems more diverse than ever.

Playing tabla with some of my friends while at university.

Plink by DinahMoe – The anonymous jam session

I recently found the web app/game ‘Plink’, and I’ve been completely addicted to it. Plink is an experimental app built for chrome by creative audio company DinahMoe which allows people to create music to a continuous beat. It is fairly simple, you mouse click (or tap if using a touch screen) to create a note and you can change your ‘instrument’. While it is possible to set up sessions with friends, you can also play with a small group of random people.

A screenshot of Plink. Each player has a trail of bubbles – solid ones show where notes have been played. The lines and gaps indicate the notes of the scale.

The best thing I found about Plink was that while the game doesn’t force co-operation between players in any way, that co-operation happened anyway. It would be totally possible to disrupt the musical flow by tapping completely out of time to the beat, or dominate the session by constantly tapping, this didn’t happen at any point whilst I was playing, even though I felt that I almost expected someone to ruin the game (I think there’s another blog topic in there – do we always expect the worst in anything anonymous on the internet?) The music would soon fall into a pattern where one or two people would be creating the tune whilst the other players would be adding accompaniment and waiting their ‘turn’ just as you would in a standard Jazz session.

I suppose it’s possible that most of the people who would be interested in something like Plink would already be musical in some way, but whether or not that’s true I was quite touched by the level of co-operation between users who were only nicknames on a screen. I’ve sometimes found that with many different online games, the less interaction the players can actually have with each other the more they do co operate, and can even find ways to communicate using the tools available – I had several ‘duets’ with other players where we copied each others musical phrases or tried to respond to a phrase with something appropriate.

I found literally as I was writing this blog that DinahMoe have made a number of other sound-based games which sound amazing and I’ll be checking them out right after this.

  • ToneCraft – A game where adding blocks in different places and of different colours in a 3D environment creates a musical composition (Google Chrome)
  • Traffic Jam – A racing game where the music indicates changes of events (so I guess kind of the reverse of the game AudioSurf, in which events change in time to the chosen musical track)

(I have to apologise for the briefness of this article as I haven’t written much in a while and need to get back into the swing of things. I’ll hopefully be starting my Masters Degree Dissertation on Mobile Film making soon and I’ll be writing more frequently. I just felt that Plink was too awesome not to talk about!)

Sound Design Updates – Going for ‘Simple’

Recently I posted a blog describing the sound design I was creating for my Digital Compositing project. At this point the sound design is nearly finished, the only thing that is currently missing is the sound of children playing in the background (after repeatedly failing to get a good recording of this I will be downloading a track from freesounds.org as soon as I have retrieved my password – oops!) and some room tone for the scenes both outside and inside the studio, which I’ll be getting at MediaCityUK this afternoon.

In previous sound design projects the ethos has always been ‘more,’ more ideas, more layers, more samples, more believability. Yet I felt like the more I put into this project the less it worked. The simple music track which I’ve posted below is the driving part of the soundtrack and I felt as if I was starting to overwhelm that.

I cut down completely on the atmos tracks. One recording of birdsong and one of wind for the park and suburban shots. One track of traffic for the road. I also removed the ‘voices’ of the characters completely, despite trying different sources (everything from my own voice to my cat to a creaking door) and different techniques, they sounded more like they were being strangled than having cute conversations! The animation shows them ‘miming’ reactions to each other and there are changes of expression, which I think will have to be enough.

In this project, using just one appropriate, well recorded sound in the right place worked far better than eight or ten layered tracks that were less convincing.

Getting back into Music making, and Trying something Completely Different

Prior to doing starting the MSc in Digital Media which led to this blog starting, I did an undergraduate degree in music, specialising in composition. Before University, I wrote orchestral music, and continued with this for a short while, but by second year I started getting involved in writing electroacoustic music (some of which you can find here.) Electroacoustics was great fun, but fairly niche. Then I graduated, moved back to Manchester and stopped composing altogether., putting all of that side in doing sound design, which I’ve blogged about before. Sound Design has been great, especially the foley side, but I found I missed the freedom of composition.

I made a New Year’s resolution to start writing music again, and even did some, but I’ve never written music without having other composers around so i felt I had no idea whether my work was any good or not, and eventually it was abandoned. So a few weeks ago I decided to try something completely different, making rhythm based electronic music and putting it out online for feedback.

As with every piece of music I make on the computer, I use Cubase 6.5. This is partly a familiarity thing, as Cubase was preferred over ProTools at Sheffield University, but also I feel it has a better workflow for composing. Though I’m definitely in Camp Steinberg, I do now think that Logic and ProTools are better in some ways for recording.

I’ve been referring to this music as electronic because I don’t know enough about this type of music to tell you what genre it should be in. In my teens I listened to a lot of metal and could tell you (with examples) the exact differences between metalcore, grindcore and hardcore, so I don’t want to incur the wrath of any particular group of fans by claiming to have composed in a genre I haven’t!

The first track I put together is this one, Nightlights was originally intended to be a song and I had a set of lyrics ready, but somehow it ended up going somewhere else. Nightlights was a last minute title choice as I was uploading it!

I’m not totally happy with the drum tracks in this, I listened to artists such as nervous_testpilot and Gareth Coker before doing this, and somehow their drums sound much more lively, it’s down to choosing better synths and doing more with them, so that will be the thing to work on. I’m calling this piece finished as a not bad first attempt and trying something new next

In the second track I made, I decided to try combining electroacoustic sounds with rhythm based synths from Cubase. This track went a bit crazy and I actually intend to go back and expand it as there are a lot of ideas but jumps too quickly from one to another. Plus upon relistening, that moment just before the middle section is way too bare.

So, if anyone reading this has any thoughts, feedback etc. do let me know, and don’t hold back. Seriously, I need criticism.

My eventual aim is to put these up on bandcamp for free, as royalty free music. I’d like to see my music used for something even if I get nothing from it. I’ve really enjoyed writing these and I’ve already started, though next week I’ll be going back to my roots and writing a piece for cello and piano. I’ve already got some ideas that I haven’t been able to record due to having builders in the house. Plus I’ll get to finish my Sound Design project and do some Voice over work for another project which I’ll have a blog post about soon!