Day 15: Levels

(Now at the stage where I’m hammering these out where and when I can)

If you record and produce your own work, I have a piece of advice for you. Unless you know your settings, do not try to set up vocal lines and record on the same day.

I don’t know about you, but I take a lot of time testing out sounds and levels and listening back, but that gets tiring. Performing takes again and again is exhausting in a different way. Putting the two together is stressful.

I am a different person when I produce than when I perform. I don’t think I’m alone there. Knowing that about myself that means that I now don’t schedule recording for one day only.  I schedule a day for setup. That’s my process because I know that 1) I have limited time for recording my voice as opposed to my violin and 2) I am still at the point where I get frustrated with my production settings.

My voice gets tired quicker, and my delivery requires certain elements, so I know that in terms of good takes, I have a few before my mood goes off the boil. And also, when I’m listening back to work, the test takes are brutal and I’m glad I can clear those off without fear and leave it nice and clean for the actual recording day.

This is by myself, of course. I’ve found that while in studio with other people I can keep pushing and pushing until I reach what works. I often prefer having an external person as they can be a second opinion on the best take, which is often different to mine.

I also found that reaching out to people who know more than I do is a good call. Zero buzz is less important than actual levels to work with. Same way it’s better to be under- rather than over-exposed. Below is me recording into the same mic, switching around gain and monitor levels, up and down on each. Those spikes are finger clicks because I got sick of the sound of my own voice.

Screenshot 2019-01-27 at 18.29.39


Days 10-14: Commitment. Expectation. Ritual.

Some weeks will overbalance. In those times you learn what will slip between the cracks.

This past week I learned that if I decide I’m clearing out all kitchen and bathroom cabinets in one go, writing probably won’t happen after work. Those trade-offs can be worth it, though. My kitchen cabinets are pretty fantastic and that lightens the mental load just enough that other work goes better. Hopefully. It’s early days yet.

Writing usually takes me longer than I would like to admit. It is usually a few hours, during which I am doing other work and periodically return to add more thoughts, then I edit. It’s rarely a one-shot thing unless I’ve got a pot of coffee next to me. I may even think of a topic I want to explore days or weeks in advance and leave it in drafts, and return to it when the time is right.

As it goes for writing, so it goes for music. It takes me a painfully long time to make music by my (and others’) standards. I need to remember that I am barely past two weeks of this challenge, and that there were 30 days planned in my first sprint. Beating myself up about it is using energy that I can probably use elsewhere.

Over and over in my head the chant is “just do a little.” That’s all it is, because that starting point is the hurdle. Faulkner put it best in As I Lay Dying: 

“I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as when he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. And like he would be kind of proud of whatever come up to make the moving or the setting still look hard. He set there on the wagon hunched up, blinking, listening to us tell about how quick the bridge went and how high the water was, and I be durn if he didn’t act like he was proud of it, like he had made the river rise himself.”

I know that this challenge probably wouldn’t phase a lot of people, but it does for me. So I sympathise with Anse. Even getting on every day is a bit nerve wracking, but it’s down to one simple thing: expectations.

I am being unfair in that I am expecting more than I originally set, yet again. I’m expecting not only to improve my knowledge of a program, but to actively and successfully compose while using it, and arrange what I have made. It’s a lot to try for, given my skill level so far (minimal).

So with that in mind, I’m trying to put less pressure on the elements of this project that are less central to the finished product, which is completed, released music. Blogs are fantastic and I do very much want to document what I’ve learned and the choices I make. Ultimately, however, I got into this challenge to learn how to make better music. Maybe the consistent writing should be deferred to a writing project. I’m going to keep doing them as often as I can, but maybe an every day commitment is a bit much, for now.

Part of the issue is that I’m not especially sticking to a theme with this blog. Sometimes I go too technical, sometimes I write fluffy musings on the approach to a challenge in general. It’s that uncertainty that can make it difficult to pitch this appropriately.

In a sense, when learning something new, you have to treat yourself like a client. You both have goals and you’re in this together. Putting unreasonable expectations on either is a waste of time and resources. It’s a partnership to get to where you want to be. Over-burdening yourself with expectation at the start is setting yourself up for failure. I tried to ensure that I wasn’t getting ahead of myself at the beginning of this project, and yet here I am. Got to build and iterate, rather than run through the following thought process:

Alright, got to open this up. Wait, I should make coffee first. Am I planning to do any vocal recording? In that case I should make coffee and some voice-clearing tea. Wait, shoot, where’s my coffee cup? Damnit, I should get this done first. Oh hang on, what time is it? Should I go over rehearsing concert pieces while I’m still within noise making hours? Is that a noise in my building? Are they doing construction? Damnit. OK. Where’s the cable? Oh shoot, kettle. Wait, when did I last eat? Where is my notebook with the vocal exercises? Should I check around for other options? What was I working on last time?

So, shutting all that up is pretty important. Obviously it impacts my progress, if I feel that if I don’t have certain elements in place, I can’t do something as simple as opening up a goddamn computer program. During that worry time I could have simply opened up the program and tinkered around with other stuff. It’s familiarising myself enough with the process that these thoughts have clear answers. Answering those worries each time gets exhausting.

It partially comes down to the need to establish ritual. We all have our rituals that we have before we do certain things. Whether it’s something as simple as styling, a certain breakfast or coffee, little things that help your routine, get you out the door or doing the thing where you feel like yourself, as you want to be. They can help you, or can strangle your process.

Rituals are important, of course. But establishing ritual should not come at the expense of the actual work. Especially if you don’t have a working process yet. Then ritual is putting needless hurdles in front of something. To add to that, not being able to complete your ritual shouldn’t impede the work itself. You have to get to work without coffee? You couldn’t shower? Your hair has so much dry shampoo you’re worried you look like this?


For a lot of things we don’t currently rely on to pay our rent, it’s easy to let those hurdles turn us away. Because they seem more important. For work, we get over ourselves because we have to, because it’s urgent. I want to talk about what is urgent vs what is important in the future, but any work you choose to do is important. Those hurdles can be defeated with the same attitude.

Don’t let ritual strangle your process, even if you are struggling. Some weeks will be difficult and you just have to hold on and trust the work. The struggle stretches time out so it feels like forever, but it really isn’t. Keep note of the actual units of time you are spending. (Again. Two weeks.)

The weeks of struggle are worth it. I have to remember that.

Day 9: Fear and Challenge, Part 1

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.

Helen Keller

I feel it’s a good time to talk about this as it’s been a surprisingly difficult first week of the challenge, and it’s largely due to fear. I say part one, not because I have multiple posts planned, but because I expect this won’t be my last word on something this huge.

If you are staring down clear and present danger, fear makes sense. Most of the time the fears we grapple with are not clear and present danger. We feel fear for all sorts of reasons, and usually it isn’t because somebody has physically cornered us.


Sometimes we’re just watching it.

Most of the time the threat is something that is built of layers and layers, over years, until it’s a glowing, fearful pearl. Something that started out small. A little piece of grit that couldn’t be washed away, and in attending to it, merely grew the problem.

The fear I’m specifically looking at is fear of failure. Atychiphobia is fear of failure when taken to an extreme, i.e. when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals. More about that here.

This topic is a tricky one, because no two people have the same parameters of fear tolerance, or failure. What I deem to be failure usually sounds ludicrous in retrospect. It doesn’t really matter as much as the end result.

The two most common triggers:

  • Frequent criticism, humiliation, undermining in childhood
  • Experience of trauma

How it manifests:

A reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.

  • Self-sabotage – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety , or a failure to follow through with goals.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence – commonly using negative statements such as “I’ll never be good enough to get that promotion,” or “I’m not smart enough to get on that team.”
  • Perfectionism – A willingness to try only those things that you know you’ll finish perfectly and successfully.

End result: small output. While that output may have all kinds of lofty theory and narrative behind it, it’s still something small.

“But the [insert painting/piece/sculpture/etc here] was small! This artist only did x and look at them!”

Fine, yes, but whether that’s due to a fear of failure or something else, I generally don’t know. Second, while that’s fine for other creators, I don’t want that. I already have a lot of fear at going into a lot of things I do. Certain things, like classical music in groups, I am callused to. Solo classical performance gives me so much adrenaline my hands shake too much to even hold a pen. The most nerve-wracking performance was at my  grandfather’s funeral, where I had had one day to learn Massanet’s Meditation from Thais. Afterwards, I was ripping up individual sugar packets to make smaller and smaller origami cranes to have somewhere to send the energy. It got weird.

I can’t point to many things in life and call them a colossal failure, yet. What I deem to be failure is not taking the initiative. In that sense, I never took enough of a risk to gain a greater reward. Even though the reality of that failure would not have been egregious. I have a support network, if I can get over myself enough to use it. I can’t control what people think about my choices or work regardless, and either way they’ll have opinions.

Last year I made a private resolution while watching an Art Battle. I decided I wanted to get rejected as much as possible. It was a start. I’ll talk about that more in the future.

I planned a challenge for myself this year that is different from last year in a few ways. Last year the parameters were simple: play violin for 15 minutes each day. That was not something I had done for a long time, and getting back into it was revealing in multiple ways –  not least in terms of my own standards. 15 minutes a day doesn’t seem like a vast commitment, on surface.

Fast-forward one year and I play better now. I’m not at the level I used to be at, but I know more and I am less neurotic about things related to playing. I can say that I’m a competent player, at least. Picking up a violin doesn’t fill me with apprehension because I’m not ashamed of the lack of work I’ve put in.


Well, so far, so obvious.

Doing 100 days more violin would certainly improve my standard more, and would be unquestionably beneficial. However, there’s another area of my work that is seriously below standard: production. That includes structure, arrangement, recording and mixing.

I work on Ableton 9. I had a lot of help for the first release, and I slapped together a release for last year, but only when an imminent departure lit a fire under me. I sent a mishmash off for mastering in The Cage, and embarrassingly, it was 28 individual tracks and about 5 minutes extra drum loops I didn’t have the know-how to move around. The original vocal recording was at the wrong level and had a crazy buzz before Martin worked magic on it. I couldn’t properly quantize the violin tracks.

My lack of knowledge of sound engineering, levels, envelope, instruments, recording technique, mixing and generally messing around with tracks is sloppy and to purpose. I have little visible structure in my work. These are all elements that can be improved.

The main fear is that I won’t be able to hold to this, because I haven’t been able to adequately set parameters. What counts for 100 days of music production?

It’s a mix of theory and practice. Learning the tools and putting them to work. I worry that I won’t be able to use my laptop or use Ableton if I have to travel, etc., but on the other hand, I made it work last time.

So far this week, I have started basic arrangements, loops, sessions, some filtering and effects, built a small drum rack, made a pop filter, recorded drum effects live. I’ve watched a few tutorials and felt less terrible about it. It’s a small thing that becomes less scary with exposure. Even though there are crying jags and times you take a nap or a walk or make the call of making food, even though it might set you behind, but you’ll have more resources, just opening it and doing SOMETHING means you have something more the next day. It’s all just progress.

I once read that progress is like rowing upstream. If you stop, you won’t stay still. You’ll regress.

Go listen to this, then go do the thing.

You’ll be dead longer than you’re alive.

Day 8: Let’s get weird with fricatives

As I work standard office hours, I don’t have a lot of time to record sounds without worrying about noise complaints. Weekends are mine to play with, however. Accurate representation of social life with this challenge:

The fact that it’s -10C out and snowing doesn’t hurt, either.

So, I made a thing! For recording my voice without horrible plosives and fricatives that need to be cleaned out by a more experienced audio engineer. (With apologies to Adam and Martin.)

Brief glossary:

Plosives or stops are consonant sounds that are formed by completely stopping airflow. Stop sounds can be voiceless, like the sounds /p/, /t/, and /k/, or voiced, like /b/, /d/, and /g/. In phonetics, a plosive consonant is made by blocking a part of the mouth so that no air can pass through.

Fricatives are characterised by a “hissing” sound which is produced by the air escaping through a small passage in the mouth.

Affricates begin as plosives and end as fricatives. These are homorganic sounds, that is, the same articulator produces both sound, the plosive and the fricative.

If you’re curious about this, more information here. I’ve never seen it broken down in this way before and it’s also a really interesting way to analyse different accents. For example, implementing or excluding a glottal stop in your speech will bring your accent halfway to a totally different place. For a funnier visual representation, read this.

This wasn’t something I noticed about my accent until I started recording my voice in my apartment and had to listen back. My apartment isn’t too bad for recording and I like that there’s some level of aura in it, but my gods do I have bad plosives.

Usually the way around this is a pop shield. Also known as pop filter, vocal pop filter, pop shield protector. I have a hunch that if you searched for all of these individually they might be priced differently, but I’m not in the market for one I have to pay money for right now.

You can buy a fancy one that clips on to your mic stand, but I currently don’t even own a mic stand. Rather than add to the shopping list and delay myself, I’ll make one and upgrade later.

You will need:

  • Wire hanger
  • Pair of ratty old tights (pantyhose)
  • Small amount of grip strength

The instructions are here, and straightforward enough. Bend the hanger into a rough circle. Stretch one leg of the tights over it. Adjust position and gather slack. Try to make it look like it maybe remembered a circle once.

You can also do this with an embroidery frame, if you’re the type of person to prettily stab something a few thousand times. I respect both of those choices.

Progress in phone photos!

Second-last one ended up that shape because I tried to yank a whole leg over the frame. It doesn’t work out great, as you can see. Better to just tie off the slack at the top and keep tugging around. I recommend ratty old 40 denier tights that you fish out of the back of your tights drawers and the dry cleaning hanger you are least likely to miss.

Cost: $0

Fricative is now going to be my faux-swear of choice.


Day 7: Eat before editing

I was a full wreck so I made a ton of garlic kale mashed potatoes (which counts as colcannon, hooahh) and worked on fixing up drum tracks. Artist life can be thrilling, indeed.

The previous day had me realising that I needed to do the bare minimum and focus on rest. No violin, no piano, no concert rehearsal. Just Ableton, and back to sleep. Sorry, habit streak.

I mention food first in this case, because you should edit on a full stomach. Editing takes time and patience, which is harder to maintain when your blood sugar gets low. Not so full that you’re too sleepy to notice errors, mind. Just not hangry and unnecessarily taking that out on the work or innocent bystanders.

This post was mainly about looking at editing pre-built drum racks, made of samples already in the program. I looked at some tutorials from ADSR Music Production Tutorials for this. I like to record my own sound samples, so I’ll be making a separate post on the fun ways you can build your own rack. It’s fun, and depending on what you use, surprisingly messy and organic. On to the program, though!

So you draw in a few notes on MIDI and on playback, realise that there are weird bits, but you’re not sure which ones they are? There’s a knack for that, where you can turn individual instruments on and off. Similarly, you can impact the settings for each individual drum in a kit. When you play a drum rack, for example, you have a series of kicks, toms, claps, and other sounds, depending on what kind of vibe or style you want. Record scratch? Cowbell? House music claps aren’t the same as Latin claps unless you’re specifically trying to bring that sound in.

It seems ridiculous because you’d think a clap is a single sound, right? Nope. Depending on hand shape, velocity, distance, etc. just putting your hands together can make something sound sunny, or groovy, or thin, or broad. Try clapping your hands together but first at an angle, then aligned, then with the fingertips, then rotate your palms and clap your fingertips to your wrists. Do they all sound the same?


This image search was a surprisingly difficult one to decide. So, so many gif results for “weird clapping”

(I need to move to a different sound discussion before word rep makes me want to scream.)

Each sound has their own specific  colour, and as a starting palette that’s important. However, the colours you choose can be made into something else with the correct effects. Transposing a sound can fit it to your work, so it’s always worth checking before you dismiss a particular kit or rack. You can see that one rack without one specific sound can transform a mood. Alternatively, too many crashes can be massively irritating. When I was working on drums for Summon I kept being too hefty with crashes and annoyed myself. If my sounds are annoying me, then that’s a REALLY bad sign.

A drum rack contains multiple individual instruments. Here’s how it looks when you draw in notes on midi in different instruments in a rack.

Note Editor

Note editor, the red squares mark where I have drawn in notes in Draw Mode. Can also be used with a MIDI keyboard, hence the black/white next to each instrument name.

In a created sample, you can mute the instrument for all chains in the session view and see how it sounds. This was invaluable because I was able to listen and see what should come out rather than turn them off at random and get confused. It highlights which ones play at that point in time. M or S means mute or solo.

Muted Clap Mate

Muted Clap Mate, with a visual representation of the Kick Punch drum sound wave – warp set to default at 2 beats, currently untransposed. 

Learning how to write is important, knowing how to self-edit will save you a lot of time. Especially time spent trying to describe your errors to somebody else, which is a game I’ve enjoyed as long as I can stand. There are enough other errors to catch during the review process.

PS. Anybody wants the colcannon recipe, let me know.

Day 6: Shivers and synthesis

Early start, lot of information. Lot of caffeine and resulting full-body shudders.

Questions: do I try crank this out before going to training? Did I somehow miss a day of working or posting?

I did not, but later I went to strength conditioning and had to leave. I was too tired to keep up, which set off a panic response I was too exhausted to counter. Which means, you cry. It’s not anything more or less than that. I did leave training early, which I don’t like, but I went rather than skipped it, which is what I would usually do when I’m that drained. I don’t know if I made the better or worse decision, but I think the bottom line is I need to take better care of my sleep schedule.

My coach made an excellent point. When you’re dealing with a new challenge, your body takes time to adjust.

New information is exhausting. Changes in schedule are exhausting, and I’ve been incorporating more changes into my daily schedule. Evidently I left out the option for sufficient resting time.

I get edgy about taking time to rest or just watch non-educational stuff for a while, because 1) I am pretty great at procrastination, and 2) because usually there  is always something to do. It’s tough to switch that off.

Wait But Why has a fantastic article on procrastination and it did help me contextualise it somewhat. To use the article terminology, it’s pretty easy to get stuck in the dark playground, where you end up sleep deprived and hating yourself. This graphic really says it all. Bloody instant gratification monkey.

I came back from training early feeling drained and frustrated, but I figured that I might as well work on what I’ve got. So I worked on two items: sends and delays.

Sends and delays were tracks I had seen and never used. You can send a track audio to a specific track that has reverb effects or delay effects, temporarily or fully, one or the other or both. So it’s pretty cool for changing the audio effects midway.

What did I decide to do with this new information? Grab my kazoo. I had promised Precious that I would record a kazoo cover of White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, and by gum I meant to do it. Given I had made this promise ages ago, I originally thought I’d just record a quick and dirty cover into my phone.


Now that I’m taking on this challenge, my brain started thinking of the session view and how you can use it to create small loops. And then I started listening to the bassline of White Rabbit and realised it was a melodic ostinato, so I could theoretically hum it, loop it, and create a kazoo layer on top.

Then I thought again and figured maybe I could see if I could whack in a really rough drum track.

So long story short this may become a proper cover attempt that people probably will not want to listen to, because what is the max endurance for kazoo? Going to say about one minute, if that time touring was anything to go by. Eight of us in a van, and at one music equipment shop, myself and one other person were so bored we decided to buy kazoos and have a little sing-song in the van en route to the next venue.

Stunningly, we were asked to put them away after a while. Tolerance was probably fairly high at this point, because we had been listening to Fleetwood Mac on repeat, as we could not agree on any other music to listen to.

This is more about learning by finding the fun, as my dad always advises. Even when it seems like a big, daunting task, there’s always nonsense you can fit in.


If you’re at the point where there’s no way to bring some fun into a task, it’s okay to step back.

Example: look at this. This is the circle of fifths and I have the hardest time remembering it. Carolyn Gets Drunk And Eats ButterFlies is all keys if you start at C and read the circle of fifths clockwise. Carolyn Fondles BEADs lists all keys of the circle of fifths if you start at C and move counter-clockwise. Thanks Michael New for that mental image.

Challenges from friends or mentors can work. Silly mnemonics can work. I’m not forgetting that in a hurry.


Not every day will be fantastic. Can’t be. You cry, you barf, you deal, you try and make sure you get some rest so the next day might be a bit better. At the least you’ll be more rested.


Day 5: Keys 37:88:78


I used to collect keys. They look cool, they don’t take up a huge amount of space, and there’s endless variety. Given I have limited space I don’t have as much of a passion for it anymore. Eventually, I want a wall of keys.

Between my iRig and my M-AUDIO I have 125 keys. That’s a good start. Could say that with my laptop keyboard I have another 78. 203, excluding any house keys.


I spent more time on one instrument yesterday. This time, rather than throwing down notes I started wondering how I could change how it could sound.

So I started looking at a few options. All of the following can be found in this tutorial.

  • Attack
  • Reverb
  • Room
  • Gain

At what percentage does this sound good? Terrible? Do I even hear a difference?

I know what kind of sound I want. Describing it is often difficult because although I feel the same way about sounds as I feel about colours and tastes and touch, I don’t always have the words or bridge for them. Partially because identifying each note in a piece feels like identifying individual ingredients in a recipe, or individual chemical components. I can, but it doesn’t give us the full picture of how they interact. Saying “I’m making a curry” is different to “I’m making a garam masala-ginger-garlic-turmeric-fennel-chili-cinnamon-cardamom-coconut milk-tomato base.” Or whatever ingredients work for you.

The thing is that once I start getting into it, it’s fun twiddling around the sounds and listening to what sounds good to me, but I still need to do more research. I don’t just want to find the sounds I want. I want to be sure that I understand what makes it that way, rather than “I clicked things until this happened and it’s fine.” That’s not learning so much as accidentally a piece. Technically it’s random element, but perhaps a bit too random to me.


It’s not so hard to open Ableton as it was, and changing around the attack, the velocity,  the room an instrument is in, is pretty sweet. It’s like trying to create the taste of an apple synthetically. You won’t get an absolute spot on match to all apples, but you can get an approximation of that organic experience. That said, occasionally when you get an apple that tastes exactly like synthetic apple flavour, it’s a trip.

In this case it would be hearing a grand piano in a room. I wanted it to sound a bit more like the piano I grew up listening to. My room is right over the study where my dad practices piano, and I would go to sleep at night hearing that. It was lovely. I may not get it exactly right, but a little reverb in a constant hall, bringing down the hardness and a few other options makes all the difference.

I haven’t finalised all settings yet, but I will share fully when I have.

In the mean time, what kind of keys do you have?




Day 4: Paper and Programs

There was a rehearsal mixup for a recording project in February (more details soon) and so I had the evening to get all the things done. In theory.

Did I get it all done? Regrettably, no, but ticked off a few boxes on the ol’ Habitica app. I could beat myself up about how I only do things if I gamify them, or I could accept that that’s how I work and run with it, and not waste time berating myself. Work in progress.

(Disclaimer: I don’t have any affiliation with Habitica, and it’s free. I think it’s useful to share what works for me. It would be nice if I ever got paid to promote anything but I will disclose if that ever becomes the case.)

So, I mentioned how I got frustrated with how I throw notes down at random. Something that happens frequently when I don’t know what I’m doing. Standard pattern of try, get frustrated, not know enough to correct, drop it. Project goes stale and clogs up your computer.

Back up. Back up more. Step away from the computer.

Get a pad of paper and a marker. Or pen. Whatever is comfortable.

Make a broad strokes plan. Sections. Wireframe it out.

If you need to, rip up that page and do another. Thrash it out until it flows.

If you don’t know enough about a program, you can work with what you already know. If all you know is how to put down an overall structure on paper, do that. If you can’t do that, look at examples on the internet.

Similar to sculpture, you don’t start with your intended rock. You start small with wax or clay and work out all the kinks there. Same principle can apply.

The other reason I have to do this is I have one laptop with a 13-inch monitor. There isn’t a lot of visual space to work with and I like to have the work open next to me. I have a miniature easel which I prop the manuscript book on, then I can scan it while I work. It helps.

On a practical note, I’m still on MIDI. I  did connect up my little iRig keys to the system, which has honestly been the most useful little add-on to writing music. It’s small, it’s lightweight and has a few nice little options for working things out quickly. Working out the chords for what I want takes a bit of trial and error and changing around the chord structure has more of an impact on what actually sounds good than the original theme.

For tutorials, I’ve been following Michael New and Marks Piano – PGN Piano. Both very clear, concise and worth a follow if you’re either trying to learn or refresh your memory.

I’ve also been trying to practice the first book of the Mikrokosmos by Bartók (download link to the book). Despite what people seem to think, I never learned piano. I couldn’t generate interest in it, partially because my father teaches it. Now that I am trying to play what is in my head, suddenly I have much  more drive to get it right. So I leave these tutorials on even in the background while I’m doing other stuff, and then try to rewatch them where possible. Some of it is sinking in.


(Writing note: not sure I’ve figured out any consistent style and am currently just rolling with a diary format. After the beast of yesterday, probably best to keep this one snappy.)


Day 3: Why? How?

Two questions that can often present a barrier to learning or improving:

Why am I doing this?

How does this relate to that?

Those questions often have subtext in my experience.

Why am I doing this? often translates to What is the payoff?

How does this relate to that? often translates as How do I relate this to something that matters to me? 

The question of worth and what matters is subjective and often poorly formed in our minds. There’s always the image of yourself as the end product. Smarter, better, slicker, and yet the same age and with the same daily activities, if you even think of those factors. The end image that we have in our heads might not even be true or what we actually want. This is a really good article on the subject, but grab a coffee before you start reading. Specifically it discusses techniques for unmasking yearnings in your life and how they interact. Image from the article:


Fundamentally both questions boil down to is it worth it?

We can’t offer anything except platitudinal assurances to anybody else, because we don’t know how those different values are balanced.

Defining goals is tough. Interrogating your hopes and wants is deeply uncomfortable. Neither of those facts constitute an excuse not to do both.

Setting goals for this challenge didn’t work until I started using my day job to inform my work. Why is that? Because in my job, the work gets done. Why does it get done?

Aside from the fact that I am not currently an independently wealthy person, and need the job, the why and how are answered. Why am I doing this? has a clear answer.  You build in a specific way because it works best with an existing architecture. Music, despite its fluidity, does have architecture and can be addressed in those terms.

How does this relate to that? also has a clear answer. Structurally. It’s not just applicable in databases, or cooking, or even carpentry. All of which I have worked at. It’s because you break a task down into smaller bits that make sense.  You identify the thing you will need first. You work out how long it will reasonably take you to do that, before you can move on to the next milestone.

In music, you have some flexibility on determining your milestones, but I do quibble that certain ones need to happen in order. Whether you think that a melody or beat needs to come first, or lyrics, or understanding of a system, that’s what works for your process. I’m not here to dictate that. What I am here to quibble (somewhat) is how we perceive each.

I propose the following:

  1. Concept
  2. Lyrics/Mood/Theme
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Recording
  5. Arrangement
  6. Mixing
  7. Mastering
  8. Releasing

As a basic layout that’s fine, provided you never care that anybody hears it. Concurrently you need to be working on marketing, collaboration, release venues, dates, cutoff times, studio time if you can fit or afford it, flagging any external professionals you may need (engineers, promoters, publicists, etc). As well as that, you better have budgeted for the track costs alone, before you get to video/promo shoots/publicity/event costs if you decide on any or all of those.

All of these elements are great. When positioned next to a why, they make sense.

Hey, do you want to learn accounting? No? Because it’ll help you structure  your earnings, so you can actually afford new equipment or repairs for your instrument/physio you couldn’t afford.

Do you want to learn the physics of sound? No? Well, it will probably make your beats sound bigger and actually like a real drum, not stock, to give one example.

Do you want to know about chord structures? No? Good luck.

The point is that taking any of these elements in isolation of the bigger goal is myopic. Focusing on how boring the individual tasks are, even though I do it all the time, is counterproductive.

With all that in mind I’ve psyched myself up to work on this better, even if I still have difficulty grasping many, many concepts.

There’s a Bojack Horseman monologue that really kicks the aspiration side of me in the teeth. It’s Princess Carolyn, one of the more driven characters in the programme.

Princess: You want to know what I do when I have a really bad, awful, terrible day? I imagine my great-great-granddaughter in the future talking to the class about me. She’s poised and funny, and tells people about me and about how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s going to work out. Because how else could she tell people?

Bojack: But it’s…fake.

Princess: Yeah, well, it makes me feel better.

Why did I choose to bring you down to my level? Because this is what it is when you let your aspirations remain aspirations, in your head, and don’t take the steps. Often painfully small, slow, dull steps, to even approach where you want to be. Because it’s easier to remain one or the other and not be in between. A thing or not a thing. Stepping into the bridge between the two is horrible and you feel stupid. Most of the time.

Because we can’t guarantee a payoff. Nobody can.

So, I’ll tell you how you can circumvent that and keep going.

Embarrass yourself.

No, really, I mean it. Embarrass the hell out of yourself. Don’t bother by halves. Be egregious.

Allow me to tell you a story of how I got over myself and started going to the gym properly. It’s not my only or even most embarrassing story, but it was productive. Back to the days of the iPod Nano, which was still more robust than my self-esteem at the time.

I’m on a treadmill, flailing along, and one hand catches the earphones cable and catapults the iPod clear across the gym to the other side. In shock, I hit the emergency stop, and don’t realise that it stops after three seconds, so I also fall off the treadmill. I pick myself up and try walk over to retrieve it as nonchalantly as possible, then return to running.

Five minutes later, I did it again. At that point, I noticed that nobody had even looked up.

Your perception of embarrassment is rarely the same as anybody else’s. The stuff you remember versus what other people remember is rarely analogous. Except maybe for siblings.

So just go for it. Worst case scenario is that you end up on stage dressed as a giant bird talking about your feelings.


What’s the payoff though? And how does it relate to making music? Or anything else?

Very simple. It means you don’t really allow judgement (that may or may not even exist) to interfere with following something you actually want. Judgement and creativity cannot live in the same house, to paraphrase Yanni.

Frankly, the payoff means you stop giving a shit. And that is massively freeing.

Day 2: Listen

100 days as a challenge often feels like walking through a snowstorm. One foot in front of the other, no matter what.


Like Jon Snow, I also know nothing, and frequently have this expression. Ah nuts, I also wear all black and call myself a crow.

Rehearsal first with Summerhill, then Ableton. Afterwards, fit in cleaning, stretches, and some sleep. If you’re curious to hear the programme but can’t make the show for whatever reason, I got you.

It’s really weird to think about as a concept – to be in a very dynamic, breathing entity, where you are a living cog and your actions impact a totally different group in very measurable real time. Like in life, but these cues are a lot easier to see.

It’s simultaneously trying to be a machine and the best expression of the emotions that make us human. It’s both restraint and release. To express emotion without strangling the music, and then to make another person feel, remember, know something that might take you years to explain and relate to their experience.

I will likely always be in an orchestra because it’s very clear what is correct at a base level. It’s written there in front of you.

Interpretation, however, is another story. If you want to see a really good short explanation of the difference between reading and interpretation, watch this:

It starts out being about listening, but that feeds into interpretation, too. You cannot interpret if you don’t know how to listen. Proper listening is a full body activity.

If you’ve never seen this artist before, she is one of my heroes – Evelyn Glennie, an amazing percussionist who happens to be profoundly deaf. She teaches people to truly listen. Watching this and her documentary Touch the Sound was eye-opening and made me want to write music where I could hear what I hear in the world.

I plan to write a longer post about listening and a few other things that are seemingly innate and taken for granted, that I have had to re-learn over the past few years.

Ableton was more fun yesterday because things were more easily set up, but I got frustrated early because I was just throwing down notes at random with the iRig keys. That’s something I usually do and then prune out bits until it works, but I think this time I’d like to experiment with working with an actual structure.

Summon worked for that because the whole idea was that everything was supposed to be happening at once. Because that’s how it feels when you’re trying to recover. It’s all too much, too fast, and not fast enough. It’s a swirling mass in your head.

That isn’t a permanent state, though, and most of life is structured. Even if the structure is often broken or inappropriate. Being able to choose your own structure is a luxury.