Interlude: Tech

I haven’t talked much about gear I used for recording Year of The Bird, mainly because it’s pretty boring. I was recording in hotel rooms, spare rooms, and bedrooms – almost never a controlled acoustic environment.

But if you want to reproduce the signature Pale Bird sound while you’re out on the road, all you need is:

  • Recording gear
  • An iPhone with GarageBand iOS – which has a kickass live sampler, as well as a decent amp sim for guitar, at least good enough for playing. I generally changed the amp settings when I got them onto my laptop. But having this setup lowered the barrier of entry to plugging in my guitar, or playing the synths, or using the smaller, and getting going.
  • An iRig for running guitar or sequencer into the laptop/iphone. The simple one that basically plugs into the headphone socket.
  • Logic Pro X on a 2017 MacBook Pro – I lean on its soft synths and the sampler A LOT, the sampler is great, and the amp sims are pretty good. Towards the end of the year, I got Bias’ amp sims, which sound even better. All the mixing and most of the playing happened on the laptop.
  • A CME XKey Air – a light and pleasant usb/bluetooth keyboard.
  • A Zoom H5 setup as a USB audio interface – I used the inbuilt mics, but more often borrowed an Audio-technica 897 Shotgun mic from my wife, and occasionally the mic from a set of iPhone headphones. These aren’t really ideal mics for vocals, but having something I can use handheld was really useful.
  • Audio-technica ATH-M30x headphones for monitoring, mixing, and mastering! Also for watching Killing Eve.
  • The IXI lang – a programming language for livecoding music. I used this for two songs (Dental Health and A Bad Crossword).

  • A snap dragon electro-acoustic travel guitar – made by a small uk company, this guitar has a bamboo body, a piezo under the bridge, and collapses down to hand luggage size so it doesn’t get trashed in the hold. I string it with light (10-46) acoustic strings, but with all the amp sims etc I’m playing it like an electric.
  • I frequently used a pitch shifter in Logic (well, their knockoff of the Digitech Whammy Pedal) to get bass guitar sounds. It doesn’t have the same feel, but I couldn’t take a bass on the road. I have two bass ukes that I’d love to take with me, but don’t have enough space, really*

  • A Novation circuit groovebox/sequencer for all that sleepy bloopy goodness. This is what I used The Year of The Dog, The Mountains Look Like Scotland and the upcoming Snowmelt, Suggestions for Halloween, and The Cascade Mountains.

  • Various instruments along the way: an acoustic guitar in Oakland (Rusty Horse Bones), a dobro and a double bass in Chicago (In Visible Cities), a Frontalini chord organ in Wolverhampton (Goodbye, 2018), a shower screen as a kick drum in Melbourne (Remarks Upon Seeing The Milky Way With The Naked Eye), various bathrooms around the world, and a bath as a reverb tank in Siem Reap (Snow Day).
  • Samples – I’ve talked about these elsewhere, but various mechanical and organic sounds including frogs, birds, a waffle maker, a freight train, my own voice…
  • Impulse response – a hotel atrium in Hobart for Filters.

This made for a pretty good minimal setup; if I could, I’d bring a bass uke, as I said; and I do miss non-travel guitars (although the Snapdragon is basically full-size).

If you’re enjoying the music, please download it through your favourite music service – it’s all available on the Pale Bird Bandcamp page.

*I’ve subsequently started using a EHX Pitchfork for live, which allows for fixed pitch shifts up, down, and both up and down, which gets some lovely sounds.

21. Afterthought

I’ve always been suspicious of love songs. They’re normally by someone trying to persuade someone to sleep with them. “Layla” and “Something” both about Pattie Boyd as two Big Dicks of 60s pop music solo for her hand, or somesuch crap. My wife’s presence in my songs is usually not very direct, for this reason. I think it’s cheesy as fuck.

I had to cheat slightly. You might notice “Afterthought” has the same music as “Filters”. In my defense, I had written and junked a completely different piece of music to act as the bed track for Filters, and there really wasn’t time to write more than one piece of music for each piece in Year of The Bird. It might feel ironic that “Afterthought” feels like a bit of an afterthought, and the lyrics wander off on characteristic stream of consciousness tangents.

I get sick of people slagging off millennials for being too broke, too sensitive, too emotional. Jesus fuck, we need more of that (the latter). But I’m the tail end of Gen X so I think I get a bit of each; a Taurus on the cusp of Gemini. We were the first generation after the boomers to see that “the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about”; to watch “sales climb high through the garbage pail sky, like a giant dildo crushing the sun”.

In the UK, avocados cost about a pound each, and eggs for poaching – a couple of pounds for a box of six; a really nice sourdough loaf, bought from the Blackbird Bakery in beautiful South London rather than made, might run to £3.50; so poached eggs and avocado on toast might cost a couple of pounds, if you push the boat out. If you eat that every single day for brunch, you would spend around £700 every year. If you’re lucky, you might find a small flat in Zone 4 in London for £250,000, and if you wanted the 20% you need to buy it, you’d have to have saved £50,000. That means if you cut your fancy schmancy brunches, you could save for a deposit within 71 years! If you start when you leave school, you’ll be able to to buy your first home when you’re 87, or 92 if you went to university (loans notwithstanding). If you’re spending five pounds every day on fancy cafe eggs and avocado, of course, you could be saving £1800 a year, and then you could get your deposit in only 28 years! Imagine, a homeowner – in your late 40s! Of course, within a few years house prices will have risen at a rate exceeding both interest on your savings and your wages, but Stop. Eating. Those. Eggs. And instagram most be terribly expensive, no? Look over here, not at the 2008 Failure of Capitalism.

I’m going to take a week off to eat eggs and avocado, and I’ll be back with a party icebreaker.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album! Why not listen to Volume 1, too:

20. Filters

I have to confess I swerved a little on this. I was holed up in a hotel in Hobart, Helen was still in hospital. I had been thinking about several things – about the way our voices sound, how they’re shaped by choice and place and class and race… and physiology; about Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room” and making a travel version reflecting place; about Tom Johnson’s “Failing”, the personal and self-referential nature of it; and about the neofuturist theatre groups and how their reflection of authentic experience was so refreshing. So I decided to create a set of rules, for a new* piece called “Filters”. Here are the rules:

This is a formal piece, with the following rules.

  1. The speaker will describe their voice and the construction of the music or track. The text should address all of the topics, it should be created by the performer, and it should be truthful. Music can be included, if composed and performed by the speaker.
  2. Antecedents: Tom Johnson’s “Failing” and Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”; and the Neofuturist theatre movement.
  3. Topics to be addressed
    1. The speaker should talk about their own voice, and factors which influence its sound
    2. How the room is affecting the sound
    3. How the antecedents in (2) affect the piece (if you’ve heard them!)
    4. The piece should end with the statement: “These are some of the filters affecting how the sound reaching your ears has formed. There are others at your end of the process, but I’m not sure what those are”

That final statement, especially, is terrible so feel free to change that.

I originally liked the idea of the person playing music at the same time (like Failing by Tom Johnson), but I tried that and it sounded boring, and was hard. I wanted a piece that allowed people to talk about their voices; their relationships to their voices; how their voices affect what and how they communicate; and how the place and recording technology influences those things too. As I said, I swerved; I felt self-conscious doing that for myself, so the recording became about the rules, and not my version of the piece. Maybe one day I’ll redo it, when it’s gained enormous popularity and everyone is doing it.

The atrium of the hotel I was staying in was huge, open to the elements, and four stories high; I set my recording going, walked to the top of the atrium, and clapped loudly. That impulse response allowed me to Alvin Lucier the shit out of the recording without upsetting the neighbours. It’s a little annoying to describe the technical details of the process, so let’s just say it allowed me to achieve the effect (in software) of recording myself speaking at a distance from a microphone; then playing that recording at a distance from a microphone and recording it; then playing that recording at a distance from a microphone and so on. This is what Alvin Lucier did in his original “I am sitting in a room”, the room gradually taking over so you no longer hear his words; and for him, it was at least partially about his voice, and his difficulties in speaking (he has a slight stutter), so my idea felt like an extension of this. I hope people try this out, I think if it is at all interesting, it is only in pluralism of people talking about their own voices and places.

Next week I explore my feelings about Eric Clapton.

*if somewhat derivative

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 1st, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too:

19. Hezarico!

It felt like a long time, but Helen was only in the ICU for four days. They took the breathing tube out on Wednesday (a procedure I was thankfully not around to enjoy) and moved her to a ward. We were not out of the woods yet, but gradually she became able to speak, and we sat and watched Season 1 of Veronica Mars, I brought in gyoza from the dumpling place over the road, and we hung out. Helen’s ward mate was an 85 year old man who looked 15 years younger and who had injured himself in an ice skating accident. He came from Cannock – a town about twenty miles from where I grew up – although had left Staffordshire 51 years previously.

I don’t know who coined the term “hezarico” – it wasn’t me. It was a friend, but I can’t remember who, and attempts to find out have so far proved fruitless. They heard the lyrics to Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as

And I said “What about breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
You said “I think I remember the film,
Hezarico! I think we both kinda liked it”
And I said “Well that’s one thing we’ve got!”

and assumed “hezarico!” was a triumphant cry – maybe in Spanish? – along the lines of “hurray!” or “huzzah!”. I wanted to keep on my song writing project, but it’d taken 10 days to write “Harp Lie” and I was behind and I needed something very very quick and very very dirty. My self-imposed rules stated that every song had to have music and words, but it didn’t state they couldn’t be the word “Hezarico!” repeated again and again over every chord change I could engineer. So that is what you got – a triumphant repetition. It reflected my mood about Helen not being dead, and breathing by herself, and eventually eating dim sum.

Next week, I attempt a conceptual audio piece.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 8th, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too:

18. Harp Lie

Content note: medical shit.

Helen got sick pretty fast; first she had a cold, then she had tonsillitis and we went to the doctors on Monday and he gave her some antibiotics, and then on Tuesday night Helen woke me up because her neck had swelled up and I told her she probably had swollen glands and she should let me sleep and then on Wednesday we took her to the ER and they admitted her and put her on IV antibiotics and steroids and then on Saturday night they decided to operate to drain the abcess that had formed, and at twenty to midnight her surgeon called me to say that she’d be put in a “medically induced coma” to help her recover, she would probably be awake by Wednesday, and that was good news because I’d spent the previous two hours saying to myself “She probably won’t die. She probably won’t die” over and over. I was right in that there was very little chance that she would die, but if you’re having that conversation with yourself it’s because there is more chance someone could die than, say, crossing the road, or eating an oyster, or something.

The doctor could have chosen a better phrase than “medically induced coma”; it’s not reassuring, and, as it turns out, Helen was somewhat awake the following morning. She had a tube down her throat and was heavily medicated so wrote on a little whiteboard and asked “will I speak again?” which was just about the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever seen. (Spoiler: Yes, she would.) Every 15 minutes she would fall asleep, and the sedatives would mean she would forget to breathe, and the artificial breathing machine would puff some air into her lungs and she’d get wake up upset and try to figure out where she was and what was happening and then when she’d done that she’d ask how long she’d been sleeping for and I’d say “like 5 minutes” and she’d roll her eyes because it was boring and uncomfortable and painful and then we’d rinse and repeat.

The days progressively got better. They reduced her meds so she could stay awake for longer and could breathe by herself. They let her have tea and an icy pole*. My days were monotonous – wake, visit hospital, have a fancy Hobart brunch, visit hospital again, go to our hotel room, put on a movie, email family and friends with updates, worry, go to sleep. I had nothing to talk about, and neither did she, because she was immobile in ICU. One day, I told her about a Thai martial arts film in which a monk had to battle a gang who had stolen his village’s elephant in order to blow up the presidents of two fictional countries. She told me “not to tell her about the plots of martial arts films”. It was all I had.

I think Harp Lie is a term Starlee Kine termed, or at least popularised. “A lie that’s big enough to be interesting but small enough to pass inspection”. Edgy winter goff art festival Dark Mofo was happening in the deep Hobart midwinter, and walked past the neon inverted crosses and the flamethrowers and the parade floats on the way to the hospital every day.

Next week, cause for celebration!

*this term, along with “too easy”, are bits of Australian lingo that helped me get through the week

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 1st, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too:

17. The Mountains Look Like Scotland

I have seen atoms with my own eyes. At least, I’ve seen a device (a Tunneling Electron Microscope, or TEM) which fires a beam of electrons down into a material, the electrons pass through the material and are scattered, and the electronics detects the electrons and reconstructs a cross-section of the material you’ve put in there. TEMs take up a large room, and the one I used during my doctorate was in the basement of the Materials department in Oxford, and cost millions of pounds. I was looking at samples of carbon nanotubes, tiny tubes made of carbon, a bit like buckyballs – C60, one of the natural forms (allotropes) of carbon. Carbon nanotubes have what’s called delocalised pi orbitals – meaning electrons wander around the whole length of the nanotube, which can be micrometers long, and make it blurry – so it’s hard to see individual atoms, which are closer to a nanometer in size – one thousand times smaller. But sometimes the nanotubes had crystals or atoms in them, and then you could see individual atoms. Individual atoms!*

I tend to take a fairly sceptical view of physics – physics is a really really really accurate model we use to understand physical reality – but if you believe physics explains everything we see, you run into problems when you start talking about consciousness and free will and things like that. So my attitude as a young man had always been – to paraphrase Terry Gilliam – “it’s only a model”. But I saw them! Atoms! With my own eyes! Or at least, I saw the reconstruction of what we thought the patterns made on a detector meant when we thought we were accelerating electrons at a sample in what we thought was a vacuum. I started to wonder whether that made a me a weird truther, like people who had seen ghosts or the shroud of Turin or been cured by Saints’ bones.

And so this is my most travelogue-y song to date – refracted through these contrasting views of reality:

  1. Everything is made of atoms. Atoms are real. They are the same everywhere I go.
  2. Forms are almost infinitely variable. Physical objects are almost infinitely complex – no mountain is the same as any other mountain, they’re different in trillions of ways.
  3. Forms vary over time. You can never visit the same mountain twice. Human beings completely replace their cells every nine years.
  4. Every thing I see bears the past echoes of my experience; every mountain is superimposed with the image of every mountain I’ve seen before.
  5. Everywhere does look a bit like Scotland.

At least Cradle Mountain in Tasmania does, where we were, hanging out at a Tasmanian devil Sanctuary and watching them eat wallaby tail. Iceland looks a bit like Scotland. Montana looks a lot like a big version of Snowdonia. Petaluma County looks a lot like rural England.

Next week, things took a turn and I had to start finding creative ways to lie.

*there’s a wonderful video somewhere from a Japanese group that captured images of a pair of Lanthanum atoms tumbling inside a nanotube. Tumbling! But it’s over 15 years old and I can’t find it.

Pre order Year of The Bird, Volume 2 at this week and you’ll get the download of this track (and all previous tracks) right away, and the full album when it’s released on July 1st, 2019! Why not listen to Volume 1, too: