Archive for the ‘RPM Challenge’ Category

So that’s the RPM challenge finished for another year. I threw away a lot more this year than previously and still managed to complete the ‘more than 35 minutes’ challenge. Aided by a 13 minutes violin improvisation of course!

I won’t ramble on about the contents of the album here, you can read that on bandcamp by downloading it (I won’t charge you, just take it if you like it). Stylistically this album – a bit like last year’s – is a bit of a transitional one, though quite where I’m going isn’t entirely clear, even to me. I mentioned on Twitter a while ago that I was having a bit of a musical crisis and that is still unresolved, so this album has 80s-style drums & synths, odd synth noises, keyboard noodling, an all-acoustic piece as well as a violin improv that could have come from any time in the last 5 years (from me at any rate). Oh and a cat snoring – if you download it for the bonus track – and a ‘classical’ piece I wrote 13 years ago rescored for electronic instruments.

Despite it being a bit ‘neither owt nor nowt’ as we say around here I’m pretty pleased with it. There’s lots I would like to have been able to do better but also plenty I think I did well, or at least well enough for an album made in 25 days. Lets see what happens next time eh?

I also did a video for the “Violin Improv”

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For my 7th RPM Challenge album I’ve take a dystopian theme – yes, even more so than usual.

Due to various personal and domestic constraints I’ve had far less chance to prepare and work on the album this year. In fact I have had no preparation at all, so what is on there is largely a set of layered improvisations. ‘Introduction’ isn’t even layered, it’s a single take at the keyboard. For most of the tracks though, I’ve laid down an ‘idea’ track and worked with it by adding other sounds and instruments to make what, I hope, is a coherent piece of music.

The backing to ‘Restart’ was a late addition when a hard disk drive failed on me (luckily only a backup drive) making a strange a persistent rhythm I felt I just had to work with. So, despite starting this month with absolutely no plan at all I still managed to get 9 tracks totalling over 50 minutes. Oh the power of improvisation … and a 15 minutes ambient drone piece 😉

For those that care about these things here are the instruments I used on each track:

  1. Introduction: Yamaha Montage
  2. Trails of the City: Yamaha Montage, PreenFM2, builder taking my ceiling down*
  3. Cave Work: Octave electric violin with SY-300 guitar synth, Waldorf Blofeld
  4. Escape Route: MakeNoise Erbe-Verb+Mutable Systems ‘Clouds’, Electric violin, PPG softsynth
  5. Robot Dance: Emu Proteus, Yamaha Montage, PPG softsynth, spoons
  6. In my day this all was shoe shops**: Moog Sub37, DSi Tetra, Erbe-verbe, Octave Violin
  7. Restart: Failed hard disk, Yamaha Montage, Nord Lead A1,
  8. The Revolution will be short: Bastl Instruments Trinity Drum,  Nord Lead A1, Emu Proteus, Electric violins
  9. The End: Nord Lead A1, Moog Sub37, Emu Proteus

*I told you it had been a busy time.

**Track 6 was originally going to be called “In my day all this was Tescos” which is a better, and arguably funnier, title but I didn’t want corporate lawyers on my back.

As always, it’s a pay what you want download release on bandcamp.

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In deep in RPM challenge mode at the moment (yes, it’s February!) as well as working on several other things at the same time (including an orchestra concert at the weekend .. eek!). But I did find time to film a Helicopter Quartet rehearsal.

This is a preview of a track we are working on for the new album, filmed live at Rock & Roll Circus in Leeds. We currently have 3 tracks recorded and mixed and we have 3 more to do – this is one of the latter. We have no date for the album release, it’ll be ready when it’s done.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this.



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As regular readers will know, I always do the RPM challenge*

This year’s project was an attempt to build on the synthing and keyboard skills I’ve been learning over the past year or two so there’s very little violin on it. In fact the only track that has any violin at all, Carriageworks, was actually written for performance by Midnight Llama – though done here all my own. I like to experiment in RPM February and this year’s challenge, beyond the obvious time one, was to do a mainly keyboard-based album. Obviously not every single note of this album was played by hand – I own sequencers and arpeggiators – but quite a lot of it was, the piano lessons are starting to bear fruit.

For this project I took the themes of repair, renovation and recycling as my starting point. The title track, Carriageworks, was already written – and I mean “written”, I actually have a score for it – before starting the February recording marathon so I took that as the initial inspiration for the whole album. Karen (percussionist in Midnight Llama) had asked me to write a train piece for her drum pads and I wanted to do something a little different from the usual train journey piece. The overall theme of Carriageworks is a failing railway carriage that goes into the repair shop and emerges in rude health … for a while.

The other pieces take different ideas from that initial theme. The ideas behind Scrapyard and Bin Night should be fairly obvious from their titles, Brownfield is thoughts on a brown field site being developed sporadically (this is common in Leeds), Wide Closed Spaces is meant to evoke a large derelict building with old bits of broken industrial equipment in it and Metal Ink was inspired by tales of regeneration in Sabrina Peña Young’s novel Libertaria: Genesis, which I read after reviewing her album for Radio Free Midwich

On the album you’ll hear lots of synths, Simmons drum samples, recordings of buildings being pulled down and even me whispering into a microphone. Yes, this is the first time I have ever had my own vocals on a recording. I do not intend making a habit of this, I promise.

There quite a bit of Berlin School influence here too. This is mostly thanks to Stuart Russell, my co-synther in CSMA who got me into synths in the first place and is now educating me in the ways of sequencers, arpeggiators and drum machines.  Well, I say “drum machines” but most of the drums on this album are taken from samples in my E-MU synths. Only Bin Night uses an actual drum machine. In this case a lo-fi 8 bit device I bought in Brno, Czech Republic.

I’m really pleased with this album, it marks further movement in my musical style and capabilities and I think it sounds quite different from previous releases. It’s got drums and vocals on it for a start!



* Though I have never actually sent a CD into RPM challenge themselves

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I haven’t had time to blog about RPM 2015, but I have been doing it, despite being extremely busy for work, gigging and, to cap it all, laptop hardware problems.

This year’s album consists of four narrative pieces, based on some of the short stories in Jorge Luis Borges’ book “A Universal History of Infamy”. If you have the book it’s pretty obvious which is which I suspect, but if not don’t worry about it!

The structures are necessarily very different from ‘Mechanisms’, which were mostly classical in style, as I’ve tried to follow the narrative of the stories. Some events of the piece are explicitly played out and others are implied or affected but the thread of the story was always a strong indicator of where the music should go next. The stories in the book are mostly quite anti-climactic – rogues tend not to end well – so that gives the tracks a similar feel to some extent. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not so I’ll leave it at that.

Have a laptop fail on me half way through February has made it a bit of a strain to complete this. Some tracks have had bits done on three different computers due to hardware limits of the other two systems I have access to – also one of them is a Mac and the other a Windows system – I’m just extremely grateful that most DAW software is multi-platform these days! Anyway it’s done. There are some things I’d possibly like to change now, but don’t have the time or stamina to move all the many gigabytes of audio files across hard disks yet again.

The album is free/pay what you want to download as usual, and if you do decide to download it you will also get a copy of the live solo gig I played on the 22nd February … it’s technically allowed in the RPM Challenge ‘rules’, even if it’s not really related to the main theme of the album. Enjoy!

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Yes, it’s nearly February again and time to think about the RPM challenge. As I usually try to really challenge myself for RPM (ie not just do an album of ‘what I do’) and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it this year. For reasons I won’t go into here, I won’t have as much time this February as the last two, so fitting everything in could be hard, but I still want to have a go.

My plan therefore is to do a wholly sample-based album. Over the last year I have (as usual) been collecting recordings of things I hear and I intend use those to make up some pieces. Also I plan to do some recordings of instruments and use those as samples to build up textures.

This should save me a little time – setting up microphones and getting a good take is quite time-consuming, and also doing it ‘in the box’ this way means I can work later into the evening without disturbing the neighbours, or them disturbing me.

That’s about all the thought and preparation I’ve put into RPM so far, a bit like my first, 2012, RPM album I suspect most of it will appear during the month itself. Also, a lot of the time some of my most interesting pieces have happened when I’ve been pushed for time and had to be creative. So I hope for some good results, though it could be patchy and I might not complete the full 35 minutes or ten tracks. But it’ll be interesting trying!

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It’s done!

An Evening With Ada is finally finished in time! I’ll be honest, this RPM Challenge has been difficult, harder than the last one. My decision to make it a single piece meant I had to keep the whole thing coherent and, I hope, consistent. Doing separate pieces last year meant I could start each new piece from scratch which was helpful when I got stuck, a luxury I didn’t have this time. There were several moments this month where I seriously worried about whether I would actually finish it.

The piece itself is actually in two movements – not the three or four I originally envisaged. I think it helps keep the momentum of the music going and even these two parts could have been run together, but I think they do work better with a gap and it was technically easier to do it this way. I only just scraped past the 35 minute requirement, the original length was nearer to 39 minutes than the 36 it now is, but I deleted a large part of the opening as I really didn’t think it worked well.

This has been more of a collaborative venture than a lot of my other ‘solo’ projects. I have a singer, a narrator and a guitarist appearing in the piece, and this was both a good thing and a source of stress for me. Not that any of the others did bad work, it’s all very good, but I didn’t record Dorothy (the singer) until the middle of February and I was starting to worry about the piece working, as I had to imagine how the singing would sound when listening back. This is something I’m not good at, singing is an alien skill to me, I can’t sing at all and have never written for a singer before. But it was good to have other people’s skills appearing here in a piece of mine and I’m delighted with Dot’s singing on this album. I was also deliriously happy that Sydney Padua gave me permission to use one of her wonderful drawings of Ada, from her cartoon strip 2dgoggles on my cover. This website was also quite a large inspiration for a lot of the music that appears – it saves on doing original research 😉

This album has a lot more electronics on it than Outside – which was all acoustic. In fact it has very few acoustic instruments and a lot more synthesizers and samplers on it than anything I’ve done before, I hope this marks a new-found confidence with synthesizers and I also hope that I’ve used them well. This was both a source of pleasure and one of stress too, while it meant I didn’t have consider the neighbours (and noises from the nearby airport) so much while recording it also meant I was learning new skills at the same time as putting down the tracks. MIDI is something I’ve always hated, and still do – even more so now!

As is maybe expected there are bits of this that I like and bits that I don’t. As a whole though, I’m happy with what I’ve done this month and I’ve learned a huge amount doing it too. I hope you like at least part of it.

Many thanks to

  • Dorothy Taylor for singing my first songs so beautifully and driving all the way across the Pennines to do so
  • Karen Kirkup for reading awkward sentences from the ‘Sketch Of The Analytical Engine’
  • Michael Capstick for making a lot of guitar noise for me when we should be been rehearsing Helicopter Quartet
  • Sydney Padua for letting me use her drawing and for a lot of inspiration
  • The National Museum of Computing for putting up with my strange requests to record the noises some of their equipment made
  • My neighbours for not complaining when I recorded the loud electric violin and guitar parts

It’s available to listen to or download at the link below. The download is available for free or pay-what-you-want and includes a PDF programme booklet that also has some pictures to look at if you get bored with the music.

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Last year’s RPM Challenge was a fun one. I recorded a 10 track album during February, from scratch using different instruments on each track. I’m really pleased with that album, it actually has some of my favourite tracks on it. Which surprises me a little given that I did no preparatory work beforehand, apart from choosing a selection of possible titles. Yes, it also has some of my best titles too 🙂

This year I am going to do the RPM challenge again, with different personal parameters. I’m going to record a single piece of 35-40 minutes and using some collaboration with others – the idea is to make it a 3 or 4 movement piece about Ada Lovelace. I’ve jokingly referred to it as an “opera” at times which is not really what it will be, but there will be singing and speaking on it. I have my singer and narrator ready to record.

I’m also going to prepare material, though nowhere near a full score, for this project. I don’t really want to improvise 40 minutes of music as it’s hard to keep the structure coherent when doing that and also with collaborators I need to prepare them beforehand so they can rehearse and get familiar with the material. Most of that preparatory work is already done, I have a structure and I have themes I intend to use and also some field recordings that will be included. I’ll be using acoustic and electric instruments in this piece, sometimes mixed as I’ve (I think) successfully done that in recent projects, and sometimes separately. It’s quite a major thing to do, as was the last RPM challenge, but that’s part of it being a challenge I suppose!

Whether I will also do the daily blog, as I did last year, remains to be decided.

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I finished early! 26 days spent making sounds on as many instruments and other things as I can find in my house. I managed ten tracks and over an hour of music. The quality is variable, as I expected, but I’m quite pleased how some of the tracks have turned out, especially the ones I was most worried about. The style of pieces varies a reasonable amount from all-acoustic pieces to ones that can only exist inside a DAW with lots of plugins, from folky to sinister and from classical quartet to rock(ish) guitar. That said I can’t honestly that there is “something for everybody” here, I do have a certain style that won’t be to the taste of many people and I do not apologise for that. Although the music is a mishmash of ideas and instruments there is a common thread running through the whole thing which I hope is discernible.

I don’t intend doing it again in this format. If I do RPM next year I will be more sensible and allow myself to reuse instruments on different tracks and probably do fewer of them. But it was a handy exercise in just what I could come up with and whether I can actually make something approaching music given an instrument I can’t actually play and nothing else other than a little ingenuity and moderate technical expertise with Ableton Live. In some ways those pieces are the best ones I think because they forced me to be more creative. There’s a lesson there …

Two of the tracks were recorded in a single take. “Saltend Girl” and “I Wish I Had A Harpsichord”. The violin one because, well partly because I’m lazy but also because I was looking for a track I could play live. The pedalboard noises can only really be done live – that’s the point of them! If you record selective noises and them arrange them then it’s really just a synth piece by other means. The string quartet could quite easily be played live by a real quartet, though I haven’t notated it.

Actually, none of this is notated. I did originally try to notate the string quartet but I found it annoyingly slow and just got in the way of the music. That’s not to say that I dislike notation and will never use it – I’m currently working on a notated piece for a longer-term project – just that it has its place, and that doing it in such a tight schedule as this is very hard for me.

I do have my favourites from the month. “Things My Last Boyfriend Wouldn’t Eat” is probably top of that list, despite it having my voice on it. “Holidays in Hull”, and “Happiness is Not a Zero Sum Game” I am also particularly pleased with. “The Cat Ate My Rondo” could have been so much better I think. I’m not quite sure what happened, I suspect I got distracted somehow by moving the recording into the hall to get some extra natural reverb. It’s an instrumentation I think I will revisit sometime in the future as I think it has a lot of potential. “Last Minute Mushrooms” also feels messy to me. The synth work is pretty bad wherever it appears, and unlike my dodgy guitar playing it’s harder to hide that with effects, I need to keep working at that. The last one, “The Traitor’s Hornpipe” (on mandolin, another instrument I can’t play) pleased me though. After the string quartet, it took the longest to do and had a large number of false starts and throwing things away but eventually I came up with, what I hope is, a powerful end to the album that ties up the loose ends.

The album is available for download on bandcamp (see below). You can download it for free, I don’t want your money and if you download the album you also get some programme notes that might, or might not, shed light on what I was up to, and a copy of the diary I kept while doing it. Which probably will.

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Just a few more days before the end of the RPM challenge. I’m definitely going to complete my goal of ten tracks all on different instruments, and the running time is a little over an hour! There is more quantity than quality on the album, but that was inevitable given the way I had decided to do it. There are some good pieces that I am very proud of on there, and some that I’m far less satisfied with.

I’ve learned quite a lot in the process, not least of which is that I don’t want to do it again! Not like this, on all different instruments anyway. Next time I might aim for a single piece of 35 minutes … or maybe not 😉

There are a few things I did wrongly. I tried to notate the string quartet before playing it, which was stupid. I can’t notate that much music fast enough for this sort of project, so I ended up working from a structure in my head straight into the DAW. Actually that’s how most of the pieces were done, though some had more post-tinkering in Ableton than others and a couple were recorded in a single take.

I also learned that my techie skills still need a lot of work and development. This might surprise people who think of me mainly as a techie but I still find a lot of DAW processing hard work to get even close to right. Like an instrument it’s just practice I suppose.

And I also learned that I’m useless with synthesizers. This is something I seriously intend to rectify but the synth sounds on this album are very far from what I would really like. Creating a new sound almost from scratch is quite alien to me and I always end up mucking about to see what comes out and stopping when I reach the “that will have to do” stage.

Most of the tracks I’ve done are on Soundcloud, I won’t link to them here because they’ve all been changed,  though sometimes only very slightly, since they were uploaded. I’ll blog again on 1st march when the album is released.

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