Glowbugs. And why I will stop buying Computer Music Magazine.

So, inspired by getting a whole two comments in the last couple of weeks (on a blog that has lain mostly dormant for over two years), I decided to write a post.

About 3 years ago, when we were still living in Arizona, with still a year to go before we moved back here to Helsinki, I bought my daughter a little yellow ukulele. I would pick it up occasionally, finger random chords (too lazy to learn properly) and strum. After a few times of doing this, a piece of music began to emerge and when I played it, my kids would dance. It continued to evolve gradually over the next year or so, developing a relative minor section and a couple of little (I rather arrogantly thought) Beatles-esque baroque runs on the top string.

I continued playing it and my daughters continued dancing to it and enjoying it. I began to try to think of lyrics and a melody but found nothing that would match the music. I then decided that maybe the ukulele part could stand on its own two feet without vocals. Especially without my vocals.

So I made a tune out of it. I recorded the ukulele part into Garageband, then began layering other instruments on top. First some drums, then some electric guitar (heavily processed) and some synths. I then added a bass-line. Here is the result:

I picked the title ‘Glowbugs’, or ‘glowbugs’ as for some reason (over-weaning humility?) I don’t like to use capitals in my track names, because it suggests prettiness, childhood, dancing. Referring to my daughters whom this little tune originally entertained. I used Poolside’s cover of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon (a favourite of my wife’s and my daughters’) as a reference track, especially to set tempo and the drums.

The track (by which I mean my track, not Harvest Moon) to me sounds unfinished. There is little escalation through the 4:21 of the track, it basically just repeats itself, with only the major/relative minor contrast to leaven things. The drum track doesn’t even really have any fills.

But even if I spiced up the arrangement, there would still be lots of mistakes to fix. For example the bass has some timing mistakes and a lot of fret-rattle.

Then I could get onto a proper mix. This would involve me learning about mixing. I have a couple of books on recording and mixing and of course the web is full of advice. I am also a sucker for Computer Music and Total Music. The kinds of magazines that come with a DVD including 6GB of samples and some new effects plug-ins, then tutorials in the mag on mixing and mastering. I am pretty tech savvy (with a degree in electronics engineering that even involved taking some DSP courses), so I always think I could be a pretty good audio engineer if I set my mind to it.

So sometimes I sit down at my computer and think, OK, let’s start improving my mixing. I open up a track and then start going through the process. And then I get bored. Trying to optimise a track that already exists at some level bores the shit out of me. It feels too much like work. It is incredibly time-consuming and detail-oriented. Within 10 minutes of starting I am checking Facebook or surfing the web.

I like playing guitar and creating music. I don’t like cleaning up tracks and mixing.

So that’s why Glowbugs will remain as it is and why I will never again by Computer Music magazine.

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Polar Bears of Helsinki

So,  here we are… 2013 and all that.

The last few weeks have been mainly taken up with upping sticks from Scottsdale, Arizona (in the middle of the desert) to Helsinki, Finland (in the middle of the sub-Arctic winter). It is dark, freezing and frankly has been a tough experience all round. Major culture shock for us and the kids. We’ll adjust, but these first couple of weeks have been a grind.

I have also had to say goodbye to my guitars for a few weeks. They’re on the way from the US in an air shipment that arrives on Monday. But I was reunited with my old 1994 vintage (?) Japanese Strat! It has spent the last two years in a mate’s basement. I cracked the case, picked it up and although the trussrod clearly needs tightening it is in really good shape. It was even in tune!

Sadly, I won’t be doing anything musical for several weeks or even months yet. The immediate priority has been getting us and the kids over jetlag That’s just about done. The second priority is to organize our living arrangements. In Scottsdale we had a 120 square meter, three bedroom, two bath apartment. In Helsinki we have a 58 square meter one bedroom flat. In the long run we need to move out of the city and get more space, but we probably won’t be able to do that for a year or so. So we have a lot of organizing to do.

When the dust has finally settled (around Easter?) I’ll really be looking forward to playing guitar and writing some more songs.

ATG Live And Unedited from a Pub in San Diego Airport

Yeah that’s me in the middle in the shiny suit saying “You know if you hurry you could get a haircut” to the muppet on the right.

I really don’t have much to write about at the moment, but I find myself with time on my hands and alcohol on the brain at the airport in San Diego, way to early too early for my flight home to Phoenix and I realize that I haven’t written anything for a while. So I figured I’d just ramble a little.

My guitar playing has kind of stalled recently. I finished a song called Winter Storms about 2 weeks ago and since then I haven’t done much at all. (By the way, if you find yourself clicking through to Soundcloud on that link go check out this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this. (and of course this and this) It’s frickin’ nuts how much good stuff is being cranked out by amateur/semi pro musicians there. (sorry about the nested parentheses there, I don’t want this blog to start looking like C# code…))

Winter Storms contains a guitar break. I hesitate to use the word ‘solo’ as I am clearly no Jimmy Page. And that is my problem. Right now I feel like my creativity is limited by technique. I have more ideas for songs, but I am hesitant to ‘finish’ them. I plan on working more on guitar technique for the rest of the year, getting into a nice practice routine, rather than cranking out the songs. Hopefully by doing this, when I go back to writing again I’ll be doing more interesting songs.

Of course GAS continues to gnaw at my bones. Although I like my Cheapo Les Paul, I worked out that if I could sell that for approximately what I bought it for, plus offloaded my Fender Mustang I amp that I hardly use and maybe sacrificed my Squier P-Bass then I might have the funds to get a Gibson Les Paul Studio second hand. Upon realizing this, I began advertizing El Cheapo and the Mustang on Craigslist. So far no takers. But let’s see.

PS As I am now sat in an airport pub with all the other cattle class passengers, I feel obliged to point out that I wrote a bitter and sad song about how horrible it is to fly in planes these days and then I tried to do an experimental remix of it which has some good elements, but doesn’t really work. But I’d hate you to think I only write miserable slow songs, I also did a funky little one recently that I’m quite proud of.

Prince plus Fender Stratocaster (This counts as news in my world II)

I’ve been a Prince fan since I was a teenager, although I have to admit to losing interest in his records during the 1990s, he’s still in my book one of the greatest artists of all time. Back in the days of Parade and Sign O’The Times I was actually a pretty obsessive Prince fan. Those records from Dirty Mind to SOTT (and probably 50% of Lovesexy) were just fantastic.

Was just scanning the news and found this nice article on Prince’s lost gems by The Guardian.

At the top of the article is The Wee Purple Groove Hobbit with a Fender Stratocaster.

Photo hotlinked from The Guardian website

Although Prince is a famous Telecaster player, his classic instrument was actually a  Hohner Madkat Tele copy. So it’s interesting (if you are a guitar geek like me) to see him with a Strat. You can tell it’s a strat because of the pointy angle on the headstock opposite the tuning keys. The Tele headstock is thinner and more rounded. But it could also be he has some kind of partscaster or special edition he had built for him by Fender or a minion luthier.

Anyway. Prince and a Strat. That is all.

Songwriting, Songstuff and Polar Bears

I only really got back into playing guitar about three and a half years ago, after a break that lasted about 13 years. The timing coincided with two major life events; becoming unemployed and becoming a father for the first time, both of which happened in the same week in February 2009.

I suddenly found myself in the situation of transitioning from a high-pressure consulting gig, to being a full-time father of a newborn baby girl. I’d done a part-time MBA before going into consulting, so I had placed my career at the center of my life from the beginning of 2004 until then. Five years of 60-70 hours a week grind. Well, probably more. Before the MBA I was a chip designer at that Big Phone Company that Finland is so famous for. That could be quite an intense job at times too.

Of course in February 2009, I was looking for a new job, but financially-speaking we had a lot of runway. So I wasn’t particularly anxious. Thanks to my unemployment insurance and Finland’s excellent welfare state safety net, we knew we wouldn’t have to sell the car until after the summer and we could afford the mortgage probably for the rest of the year.

This is a time of life I actually remember as being very happy. Although there was a lot of uncertainty, I’d got out of an unhealthy job situation and I could feel the stress leave my body.  I also had this incredible gift of a child and family to care for. Newborns of course sleep a lot, as do mothers of newborns. I was left with a fair amount of time on my hands in those early weeks.

It’s at this point that I dusted off the case with ‘Fender’ on the cover and reacquainted myself with my Stratocaster.

I bought this guitar, a Made In Japan sunburst model with a rosewood fretboard, as soon as I got out my first post-university pay cheque in 1994. On the same day I also got a Trace Elliot Supertramp combo (in British racing green) and a Tascam 4-Track Portastudio. My paycheque wasn’t big enough to pay for them all outright you understand, but I put down a deposit and paid for them in installments over the next 18 months.

Although I love guitars with a passion, my aim has never been to be a virtuoso, but really to write songs. I am fascinated by the creative process. Inspiration and craft. I get a rush creating original material. This is what motivates me to pick up the guitar.

I’d dreamed of owning a 4-track since I was a teenager, so getting that Tascam was incredibly exciting. After buying it, I had a brief burst of creativity, writing very few complete songs, but filling tape after tape with riffs and ideas. Then life intervened, and around the end of 1996 I put the guitar down, boxed up the 4 track and other things preoccupied me. I left the UK in 1998, without my musical gear and other things took center stage for over a decade.

By 2009 of course, Tascam four tracks were obsolete. But we had a Macbook and on every Macintosh computer there is a software package called iLife, which includes an application called Garageband. A feature rich, yet user friendly ‘DAW’ (digital audio workstation). A software recording studio. A Tascam on steroids.

Since then, I’ve continued to mess around with Garageband whenever I get the opportunity. Initially the same pattern of lots of ideas as in the 1990s, no finished product. But earlier this year I set myself the goal of completing one song a month and uploading a finished’ MP3 to a blog. I started in March and by the beginning of this month I actually had six tunes up there, so I was a little ahead. It helped that a friend of mine did a kick ass remix of the first track I uploaded to the blog, that really got me moving.

Then about ten days ago I started contributing to a forum called Songstuff. This is a place on the web where amateur, semi pro and pro songwriters come to share their tunes (often via Soundcloud). I signed up for this forum with the aim of getting feedback and advice from others on my material, but I find it equally interesting to critique and give feedback to others. It’s also just a great place to discover new music. The level of talent and standard of material you find there is staggering.

I’ve removed three tracks from the blog, because after joining Songstuff, I know I can make them better. I’ve become more aware of what is possible with home recording and now also I have something of an audience that I want to like my music. I want to raise my game.

If you are interested in hearing my music you can go to my Soundcloud page to steam the tunes

or the blog to download MP3s

http://polarbearsofarizona.wordpress.com/

I apologize in advance for the singing…

Bradley Wiggins celebrates! Now he can go home to his guitar collection!

Although a Brit, I haven’t lived in Blighty since the beginning of 1998, having moved to Denmark, then Finland and now Arizona. Although I read The Guardian on a daily basis online, many things that grip and obsess the nation totally pass me by. Today however, I find myself at one with my country men and women – Bradley Wiggins has become the first British winner of the Tour de France. Although I love football, Wiggins’ victory gives me more pleasure than seeing England winning Euro 2012 would’ve done. And that’s saying a lot.

Although I’ve never raced a bike myself, I do like to occasionally go cycle touring and I often commute to work about 45 minutes each way, even in 110F heat. I’ve also followed the Tour de France since the famous showdown in 1989, when Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by just 8 seconds on a final day time trial finishing in Paris.

I was fortunate as a teenager that one of my best friends was a keen bike racer (@DrRobLamb on twitter). After seeing the drama of the Fignon-LeMond battle, I started asking him about tactics, who the riders were and so on. Once you develop some understanding, of the sport you begin to appreciate that a stage race such as the Tour is more than just who has the strongest legs and lungs. It’s about teamwork, psychology and racing intelligence. In some ways it’s a game of chess (or maybe poker) played out at 40 mph and at the limits of human endurance.  At university I met more cycling fans and learned from them too (one of my uni pals now writes the excellent blog Cyclostyle).

So it gives me immense pleasure to see Bradley Wiggins win this year’s Tour. Not only for the huge magnitude of the achievement, but also because of the nature of the man. Team Sky’s stated mission when formed was to win the Tour with a “clean British rider within five years”. They’ve done it in three. Wiggins’ performance this year has been a  big improvement on previous seasons and some cynics have questioned his integrity. He has responded powerfully and eloquently. Today, instead of hiding in the peloton to avoid potential accidents, he risked everything, battling to the end to lead out his teammate Mark Cavendish (Britain’s other male cycling superstar) to win the sprint on the Champs Elysées.

And on top of all this, the man collects guitars!!!

Today, The Guardian writes of how the French have warmed to ‘Colonel Wiggins’ or ‘Le Gentleman’ during this year’s tour

They have been told about his collection of Gibson and Fender guitars and Lambretta and Vespa scooters, and about the roundel on his helmet – originally the RAF insignia, appropriated in 1964 as a pop art device on a T-shirt worn by Keith Moon, drummer with the Who, and then adopted as a symbol of the Mod revival.

A bit of Googling has led me to this article from Cycle Sport magazine, where Brad talks about his favourite bands and a favourite guitar.

I just spend ridiculous amounts of money on guitars, it’s the one real indulgence I have – that and clothes. I really got into vintage guitars, and to be honest right now it’s probably safer than keeping your money in a bank. They never decrease in value.

If there was a fire in my house and I could only save one, I know exactly which one it would be. I’ve got a Gibson ES-335 in ebony black with a Bigsby which is 20 years old and in mint condition. I kind of love that guitar. Those 335 Gibsons are my favourites – mine’s my pride and joy.

Some more Googling also turns up Le Gentleman cradling a nice looking Tele in classic butterscotch blond

Colonel Bradley Wiggins. 2012 Tour de France Champion. Scholar, gentleman, guitar geek, legend.

Radio Silence

I’ve just realized it’s been at least three weeks since I last posted on this blog about how excited I was to be visiting New Orleans. Blog fade is creeping in. Must resist! Must resist!

My prediction that Liverpool would lose the FA Cup Final on penalties, was sadly optimistic. They went down 2-1 to Chelsea in normal time, despite a late rally and consolation goal. My thanks to my Twitter pals for updating me as I traveled from Phoenix to Louisiana via Houston.

NOLA was an absolutely fantastic experience. Packed full of music at Jazzfest and afterwards. I also managed to hang out a bit in The Quarter, The Marigny and The Treme a little bit. Although not as much as would’ve hoped — unplanned work sadly meant I hardly made it out of the hotel on the Monday. But I also had a weird and wonderful Rock’n’Roll Karaoke experience at a dive bar in Metairie, LA.

I’ve been half planning to write up the time in New Orleans as a blog post. But I’ve had difficulty finding the time. My music making and guitar playing have also stalled somewhat in recent weeks, but we’re heading into the long Memorial Day weekend here in the US, so I’m optimistic I can get back on track.

Watch this space…

(Please!)