Day 1: Breaking the Seal

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Part of the reason I’m taking this challenge on is that I really don’t like working in Ableton. I don’t know enough to have some fun with it. So if I force myself to use it every day and just play with ideas, outside of a pressurised environment, that might help.

Right?

Yesterday I didn’t do a huge amount. Start small. All commands I use will be for Mac OS, just an FYI.

  • Opened Ableton (!)
    • Preferences (cmd+,)
    • Look and feel
      • Changed background colour from the default to DISCO (way nicer)
    • Audio
      • Buffer size from 32 samples to 64 under Latency
      • This improves response time
    • Library
      • Never collect files on export if I want my laptop’s memory to survive this (saves a bunch of storage in your system)
    • Record, Warp, Launch
      • Changed file type from AIF to WAV format
      • Default warp mode to Complex
    • Built a few MIDI tracks to test out some sounds (scrolled through the list until I found something I liked)
      • Prepared Piano2 Harmonics
      • Harp3 Release
      • Kit-Core Borja (drums)

I used this video, which will probably keep me going all week, because it is an hour of solid gold content:

This sounds minimal, and it is. This is what I could get done in 15 minutes or so. I also procrastinated all day to do this, in that I have certain tasks that have to happen before certain cutoff times. I need to practice violin before 11pm,  even though I’ve never once received a noise complaint. I need to make sure I get groceries for the week, make calls to fit people into time zones, plan for the week ahead.

Drink about 15 years of coffee.

I will say that changing colours on an interface, even though it feels like a silly cosmetic change, does make a difference. It’s similar to the principle that you should always spend your money on good shoes and a good mattress, as you’ll be in either at any stage in time, and you should be comfortable.

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I committed to 15 minutes a day because once I open the program, I spend that amount of time anyway making bleeps and bloops. Yesterday I started drawing with  MIDI in pen mode to make a small hook. Something that might come in after the break in my next planned track. Too early to share, I think. But still. Funky colours make it a little more encouraging.

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THE CHALLENGE

This is it. My plan for the next few months. I’m nervous and excited.

I wanted to set it up like a project, with internal milestones and expected deliverables so that I can avoid my usual goalpost-shifting.

What do I want as an outcome? Simple. More musical output at a higher standard than the previous year. One completely valid criticism I had last year was that my output is minimal. You can choose to become bitter or better, so I’m going to become better.

So, here are my  plans for the challenge:

  1. Every day I will open Ableton 9 and use it.
  2. I will intentionally investigate one feature or tool within that per day
  3. The minimum time spend per day will be 15 minutes
  4. I will make notes on my findings and write about them, including tutorials used, forums frequented, etc.
  5. Findings will be posted daily. Short form on Instagram and long form on this blog.
  6. This will dovetail in with online tutorials but must involve practical application on a daily basis – what did I do with this information
  7. End output is minimum one finished track to post on all streaming channels.
  8. Stretch goal would be three finished tracks, one each 30 days.
  9. This challenge will cover recording techniques, production tools, and gaining a better understanding of sound engineering.
  10. I will track all costs associated with this challenge (equipment, libraries, etc, if needed)

This challenge will occur daily with the exception of illness where I am unable to move. (This happened last year.) In that event, a day adds on to the end date of the challenge.

I want to break this into four blocks. Three 30-day blocks and a final ten-day speed run. This will allow me to break it down into smaller chunks, identify what I need to work on first, and prioritise as I go. 100 days of learning random parts is all well and good, but to achieve these outcomes, I need to give myself the best chance. The other reason is that there are a lot of 30-day challenges for music production and it seems a good format.

With all this in mind, I don’t expect to have a particularly interesting social life in the next while, so apologies in advance unless you’d like to come drink tea at the desk next to me while I’m working. Which, for the record, I quite enjoy. Otherwise, I’ll see you on Instagram.

Wish me luck!

No-Suitcase January

Fear of a blank page is called Vacansopapurosophobia, if you’re curious. Helps me break the seal of writing. Also, while we’re on the idea of fear, and for the day that’s in it, please enjoy David Bowie’s answers to the Proust Questionnaire. A legend gone too soon.

On to the topic!

A lot of what I want to work on this year is what I have wanted to work on the last few years. What I want to change is how I work on it.

I realised this after the end of last year, when I pushed too hard.  If you’re wondering what pushing too hard looks like, picture the following.

A room painted dark red, with cool lamps, a tinsel-and-Santa-hat-festooned-Buddha and miniature Christmas tree in one corner. WWII grenade on the wall, religious iconography and a stained glass window. My unwashed, profusely sweating self in old  candy pyjamas, covered in as many blankets as possible on the couch, stumbling up to get tea, tissues and cold medicine whenever I wake up. BBC news on in the background.

This is in Coventry, in Martin Bowes’ house. I’m there to record violin for Attrition‘s new record which will be on vinyl this year. Martin is a lovely person, was an amazing host, but also gets the job done, recording in The Cage Studio. I re-recorded Pripyat, even. It should be a really awesome thing. I’m just too burnt out to have the correct emotional response.

Before this (few days before Christmas), I had done the following:

  • Flown from Toronto to Ireland
  • A week or so before, I had spent a week working in Montana
  • Couple weeks beforehand, was in Ireland to work
  • Few days before that, I launched a single and event in Toronto
  • Couple weeks before that, I was in Nashville.
  • September and August I spent shooting two music videos, one of which is currently live.

That’s not counting corporate shows, shoots, and so on.  This is just the sheer volume of travel in a short space of time.

Over the course of a few months, I did not fully unpack a case, buy groceries, or cook properly for myself. My apartment, aside from  when my mother visited to come to my  launch (good lord can I take a moment to point out how AMAZING that is? Seriously) was a dystopian nightmare where things were in places that made no sense. I think the conditioner was next to the tins of beans at one point.

Point being, while I got a good bit done, and I’m glad for that, my body had its revenge. I can’t remember the last time I was that sick.

I’m still not at full health. I don’t expect to be for some time, but I had to make a few decisions that I hope I will carry through into the following year.

  1. Say no when I have to, without guilt. For January I’m trying to make sure there’s no shows and no reason for me to pack a suitcase.
  2. Gamifying daily tasks so I put off less – I’m currently using Habitica, which is so far paying dividends, and it’s free
  3. Take on challenges that clearly benefit me.  I’m taking on another 100 days this spring.
  4. Make my health a priority. If I’m not at strength, I do a worse job and reduce my overall output value.

So with all that in mind I want to take what I did last year and do it bigger, and cheaper, and smarter. I can’t do any of that if I don’t keep to the points above.

I’m hoping that I don’t have to pack a suitcase this month. Either to stay anywhere or to play a show, as my pedals, cables, interface, swag, notes and laptop require a small wheeled case.

I’m excited for this challenge. The first one I did last year was surprisingly hard but it stuck. For anybody new to this, I did 100 days of practice on Instagram, and kept to it even when I had to borrow a violin while I was travelling. (Adventures in frozen Saskatoon!) One thing I noticed is that I run my thumbs on Instagram captions. Not in itself a bad thing, but a blog allows me better formatting options and no blanking out my work if I accidentally over-hashtag.

So this year, doing the same thing but with the added bonus of writing. Given that the challenge this year is geared towards improving my technical skills and output, this will be good for me to lay down thoughts, see where the hurdles are and let me detangle ingrained processes.

So. No-suitcase January, because I’ve got a lot to unpack already.

Light

“It’s light. Finding the light that can glow”

There are so many things that we need to find in this world, but nothing comforts us after a bad time like light does. There’s nowhere to hide, and provided we have done nothing we need to conceal, that is a comfortable place to be.

Speaking as somebody who was terrified of the dark as a child, that is.

We all hide much, and more than we probably need to. So we stop looking for light to bring in, because of shame.

I can’t see fully in light. It blinds me. And often we can only let it in if there’s a break or vulnerability. Leonard Cohen said it best:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Anthem, 1992

To be ready to let light in, there’s pain, and there’s work. There’s a gnawing  fear that it’s a weakness that will be exploited. Who has not had some weakness exploited in their life?

I started looking for light by going back and back to the first thing that every musician learns:

Scales. 

I hear the groans of musicians everywhere, but hear me out.

Scales are like weights training for your intonation, your technique. We know this.

But.

Scales also hold the keys to anxiety and avoiding repetitive strain injury.

The irony was that I didn’t even get this advice from anybody I was involved with musically. A dental hygienist put me on to it while fitting me for a night guard. When I started getting anxious because this mould was going down my throat, she told me to start playing through scales in my head, start to finish, while breathing in. It worked, and nobody had ever given me that advice before. It planted a seed.

What follows is speaking from my own experience. But I know that I didn’t like scales, so I tried to get them out of the way as quickly as possible. Which meant that when I was playing scales for a teacher, I would be tense because I hadn’t laid the foundation properly, and tensing up added on increments every time I played that note.

I learned that this was more relaxing when I worked on it as though it was an experiment.  Just observing, no judgement. Just a long note. I started trying to keep my  bow as even as possible, which meant noticing when I got afraid.

It seems silly, doesn’t it. Getting afraid because you’re two-thirds down a bow towards the frog, when moving between the two lower strings? Because I didn’t drill  technique hard enough? Or knowing that I don’t watch my intonation when I hit a C note above middle C in 3rd position?

This isn’t an hours-long commitment, by the way. This is something I take 15 minutes on, but those are dedicated minutes. That is when I am fully engaged in what I am doing. Just me and a vibrating string which envelops everything else in my head. Distraction breaks that connection, so getting better at getting back to that is important.

(Quick note as well to anybody  who has only played scales as up and down with zero variation: what are you doing? That’s step one in how you can drill the hell out of it and also start to improvise better.)

End of technical talk.

This seems like a lofty topic to relate down to something as simple as body awareness and the fact that I was a lazy music student, right?

It isn’t, though. It’s small decisions that reflect up to the big ones. It’s putting in the work on the foundations. If I have no foundations, I cannot build. Putting the work in there reduces my anxiety, which means I play with less pain, which means I play more, and get better, and get closer to making music I can play as well as write.

You can find something that makes a light glow brighter in you. It doesn’t have to be grandiose, or lofty, or anything related to anything I talked about. This is just what I found that helped me. You can find a glow in working on something, day in day out (not even long-term, necessarily), building a foundation that has deeper ramifications for you.

I spent a while perfecting a breakfast sandwich and that was as important to me at the time as this is now, because I was not feeding myself properly up until that point. Now it’s mainly a weekend treat. These individual glows don’t have to be a lifelong pursuit, either. It’s taking the time and care to build a foundation, because it is worth it.

Weaknesses remain weaknesses if we keep them in the dark and do nothing to address them. A vulnerability is out in the light and can be turned into strength.

How can I support my child to learn?

So a really sweet story I wanted to share about a night out in Toronto.

Most of the time now I don’t really go out on nights out. I either can’t afford the time and/or money, but I am usually taking an Uber to work on mixing with Devecseri. Livin it MASSIVE (if you mean this Massive).

Sometimes the Uber conversations are fun, sometimes not, sometimes none. Usually it comes out pretty quickly that I’m a musician because I’m lugging around a violin, midi keyboard, laptop, among other things. One journey recently was really sweet.

I get to talking with my driver, who has two sons, aged 6 and 2. They’re boisterous and have lots of energy, and he’s going to take them out to the bird sanctuary in Niagara for the long weekend. We start talking music because that’s where I’m going and he mentions his 6-year-old has started making his own tunes, humming and recording it into his smartwatch unprompted. Neither his parents or grandparents are musical or play any instruments, so it’s particularly interesting. I was really impressed, until he asked a question that just made me so happy:

“What can I do to support my son?”

I never really work with kids or parents in my line of work, so this question made me so happy. Amazing parent moment. He has financial constraints of course, so lessons aren’t always possible. So I suggested a few things for somebody learning music, and this could apply to any age:

  • Go into a music shop and ask if it’s possible to try different instruments and what would be good for a young beginner
  • YouTube for getting a sense of possibility, seeing different teaching methods and instruments available
  • Get a cheap instrument for a beginner. Check the internet, trading sites, second hand places. Even music schools have to get rid of stuff sometimes or know somebody who is.
  • Lots of schools have free or group classes for kids, which can be a great starting point.
  • Other than that,  just listen to a kid. Don’t tell them what they’re doing sounds terrible, because that SUCKS to hear. It puts a zap on your head, let me tell you.

Obviously respecting noise and neighbours is one thing, but framing it makes all the difference. Everybody is terrible at the start. Sometimes it doesn’t end there.

This is purely based on my own experience, of course. I know I needed a much more careful and nurturing approach when I started to learn composition for making music, even though I studied musicianship for years in an abstract sense. I went back to it as an adult and had much more anxiety around being perfect or not at all, no middle ground.

Support takes many forms in music. Sometimes you just need somebody to listen. Having the awareness to know when something is in a more fragile state and structuring feedback accordingly is a valuable skill. That way you can spotlight the areas that have potential and gently nudge away the dross. Of course, as any musician or artist progresses you can be a bit less gentle, same with raising a kid. I feel like this is much more important when a person is actually creating music, not just learning how to play it. I really hope this kid gets the right teachers for him, although by the sounds of things he’s already well on his way.

Ideas can be so fragile, but it’s key moments like that which can change everything.

Adventures in Ableton Live

Learning how to compose while learning the software to do it is like learning to be a bricklayer while building the road out in front of you. It’s fun, but it takes a lot longer. However, that technically is what building your own path is.

To really overstretch this metaphor, I think I’ve bulldozed a space ahead enough to track back and start building a path. Hopefully without causing harm.

That’s one reason I like having a day job in software. In a weird way, it keeps me disciplined. When you only have a very narrow window in which to work, you work. You learn a lot about best practices, most of which translate to any business model. And make no mistake, being known as a musician, much less getting paid, is a business. It’s one of the few ones where you clearly, blatantly, obviously, bleed for your work, but it’s all too easy to be anonymous, or relatively so.

There’s an benefit to keeping your head somewhere between the clouds and the ground. Bestride the narrow world, and extra so as an immigrant. I am learning Toronto while keeping Ireland with me, but they feed into each other.

So what am I learning? Ableton will do anything as long as you ask and know how to ask. There have been many, many swearing incidents where I play a new improv off the top of my head, thought I had everything set up, and – ah! balls. I had no channel selected, or I’d armed the wrong track, or I’d selected the wrong track, or I was still in session mode, or a host of other obstacles.

Any system reminds me of a jungle gym. Overwhelmingly complicated at the beginning, daunting, and you will likely fall on your ass. A lot. BUT. It’s important to fall, and fall early. If not, you’ll be more afraid of failure than anything else. I’m trying, slowly, to ease that death-grip fear. Fear is the reason behind an overwhelming majority of my mistakes, which is funny when you think about it.