Jan 202015

The deadline for round 1 of SpinTunes 10 has finished and we have a new song!

Despite having two weekends to complete the challenge, this one was submitted at the last moment as it took us a while to come up with a concept that we were happy with. I tend to find that the first round of SpinTunes is often the most challenging in some ways, because it is usually left quite open in comparison to later rounds, in order to ease newcomers (or rusty old hands) into the way of meeting deadlines. As a result, there is almost too much choice left. Having a work-in-progress studio didn’t do to much to encourage us to sit down and get started, either! The challenge was:

Heart Beatz – Tonight’s your lucky night…or so you hope. The fire is crackling, and you have a candlelit dinner waiting for your special someone. All you need is a seductive tune to put your lover in the mood. Write it.

Studio DrumsNow, I don’t really do ‘seductive’ at the best of times, least of all in a song; we needed something to rescue us from writing something so corny that it would make you puke. After going through a couple of options (including a date between two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse), we grabbed tight onto the fact the challenge doesn’t mention what the lover should be in the mood for. If you haven’t listened to the song (play it above), then you should do that first, as spoilers follow!

Katharina came up with the title “Gag Reflex’, which is a perfect summary of the song, which is an exercise in double-entendre. It takes the form of a duet, with the male voice trying to encourage the female voice to do something she is convinced will make her gag. Probably not a song to play in the workplace, but the last line makes it all clear and the intent is purely innocent. Honestly!

For the music, I wrote the basic chord pattern on the bouzouki, which lent the track a different feel, even when I translated it over to guitar and keyboard (the bouzouki has four pairs of strings tuned to a tone lower than a guitar). We start of with just bass guitar and vocal, with acoustic guitar joining after a few bars. At the end of each verse and chorus there is a bit of a breathing space where short bouzouki and harmonica figures add texture over a heavily-filtered and delayed bass note.

The verses and chorus are fairly simple chord patterns, but then the tone turns a little more sinister at the bridge, where a repeated piano chord is joined by a simple kalimba melody and a heavily warped pan-pipe line that decays into the next verse. I think this is the most successful part of the track, as it really sounds quite creepy and builds up well to Katharina’s insistent final line.

The final “Heart Beatz” (Round 1 Album) is free to download. Please visit the SpinTunes website for more information and even some videos. You can also listen to the whole thing right here:

Studio DeskMeanwhile, as you might have guessed from the photographs accompanying this post, I have got a bit further in putting the studio together. Yes, that is a real drum kit in the first photograph. I’ve never played the drums, although I do have a set of digital drum pads that have been used for drum programming and triggering samples, so I’m looking forward to learning how to play them.

My musical focus has always been on melody, rather than rhythm, and a substantial chunk of my back catalogue contains no drumming at all, but this second hand beginner’s kit was offered at too good a price to turn down. Even if the drums are not for me, having a kit set up for anyone else to play should help with some spontaneous music-making (and might entice Sean over for a session or two).

In the second photo, you can see a first attempt at getting some sort of work area set up. The old range cooker (the white thing at the back, to the right) is a bit of an obstruction, so I might end up moving it out in order to get a better layout. In any case, there is still enough room for keyboard and mixer to stay permanently set up and still have space for recording gear. The blue fabric at the back of the picture is hiding some high density rock wool panels (which are proving difficult to find in Austria) that help deaden the sound and limit the reverberation from the tiled walls and floor. At the moment these are just leaning against the wall, but I have plans for some self-built panels and bass traps that will really help tame the sound.

Now it’s time to wait for the next challenge. Don’t forget to vote!

Jan 092015

Studio BeforeThings have been quiet on this blog over the last six months, but not without reason. We have moved from a small flat in the city out into a house in the Austrian countryside, which has eaten into quite a bit of time thanks to dealings with estate agents, banks, lawyers and all the associated palaver that goes with such a move. Then we had packing and moving, as well as a couple of months of building works going on, before we could finally settle in.

Being outside of Vienna means access to the culture and amenities of the city takes a bit longer, so no more falling out of concerts straight into a tram that delivers us practically to our doorstep. However, that is only one (small) disadvantage. On the plus side, we now have a home with metre-thick walls and enough space to let us have music and writing gear permanently set up and ready for when inspiration strikes. In particular, the house an out-building that is now in the process of being converted into a dedicated recording studio.

Piles of boxesAs the photograph shows, it is going to take a while to sort it all out, but there is enough space in there for a three-piece band to practise and/or record quite comfortably. The room originally functioned as part of a butcher’s, hence the impressive-looking electro-mechanical system embedded into the walls, but this does mean it will take a bit of work to overcome the acoustic issues of having a tiled floor and concrete walls.

On the plus side, there are no parallel walls and the sound-proofing (those thick-thick-thick walls again) is pretty good. So far I have laid down an old carpet recycled from one of the rooms in the house and have some high-density rockwool panels to install as a first step in treating the sound, though more work than just that will probably be required in the longer term.

By way of motivation to get the recording space fully functional, we’ve signed up for the 10th SpinTunes, writing and recording as ‘Dreiviertel Drei’. Here’s the trailer:

I’ll be posting the new tracks and links to each round’s album here over the next month, along with some updates on progress sorting out the studio as it happens. Time for some new songs!

The Ice Spire

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Jun 192014

My latest piece of music is a long ambient piece that was inspired by a prompt at the Naviar Haiku project. They provide a weekly prompt of a haiku, set within a suitably atmospheric photograph, to which various musicians create music. Of these, a small selection of tracks are picked to form an album-length collection of music representing a set of Haikus. The piece I created, “The Ice Spire”, has just been included on the latest release from Naviar Records (the third compilation from the project so far). Please have a listen below as you read on!

The track is a slowly evolving piece that was written with the idea of walking through a snow-bound landscape and coming across an ‘ice spire’, which I think comes across quite well in the music. I took a new approach for this, first of all recording two sets of long notes using the EBow on my bouzouki. The EBow doesn’t always affect both of the strings in the set (the bouzouki has four sets of strings, the lower two of which are octaves apart) in the same way, so the note sometimes fades in and out between octaves over time. These two tracks were then fed through the iVCS3 iPad synthesiser, which is a software recreation of the legendary ‘Putney’ synth, full of really wonderful sound-mangling facilities. Both tracks were ‘played’ through the synth, interacting with the synth’s own oscillators, travelling through a fairly complex signal path that I was able to control as the sound evolved.

With these two electronically manipulated tracks as the starting point, I then added some sparse melodic lines to the piece, still sticking to just the bouzouki. You can hear strings beyond the bridge being tapped with a small wooden mallet to provide percussive effects as well as various harmonics, some use of a metal ‘bottleneck’ and a gentle traditional melody line, played with plectrum within the normal fretboard area. Considering that every sound you can hear in this piece comes from a single acoustic instrument, albeit one that is well and truly put through the electronic grinder, it has produced a pleasingly full result.

The whole album is available as a ‘pay what you like’ basis, through the Bandcamp player above. It will appear on my next instrumental album too, but I hope you enjoy the advance listen, as well as the other pieces on this album and the other from the Naviar project.

Mar 272014

It’s SpinTunes time again and though I have not joined in as a competitor, I did offer up my services to the Boffo Yux Dudes, who have an ongoing tradition of carpet-bombing the last round of SpinTunes with ‘shadow’ songs (i.e. not official competitors, but meeting the requirements of the challenge). This time around I wanted to gain some more experience with my new bouzouki, so you’ll find its unique sound on two songs from the shadows. The first of these tracks started life as a set of lyrics from Scott Mercer (of the Dudes), brought to life on keyboard & vocals by Dave Leigh (of Dr. Lindyke) and embellished by my 8-strings (starting with a short instrumental section before accompanying the vocal).

The second track is a slick country-rock song by the Dudes, in which I sneak in a very short instrumental break about halfway through:

As I was pulling this post together, it occurred to me that that this is not the first time I’ve done this. Back in SpinTunes 5 I did something similar in the final round, that time adding improvised bass and guitar to a laid-back jazzy piece by Denise Hudson. The lyrics take the form of a spoken word recitation over the top of the music, seeming a bit out of place with the tone of the backing and yet at the same time oddly apt.

On the subject of guests, Katharina and I recently also appeared as guests on The Way of the Buffalo podcast, discussing Every Photo Tells… as well as Obscurities and other subjects. The podcast is well worth a listen and the host, Hugh J. O’Donnell has managed to pull together quite a list of interesting guests over the weeks.

A Tasty New Year

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Jan 122014

CookbooksAnyone who visits here with any sort of regularity will have noticed that I am partial to the odd challenge now and again. From the latest String Quartet to Every Photo Tells… or SpinTunes, challenges are a great way to provide a new focus to creative ideas and take you to new and often unexpected places. After setting me the 10 Weeks: 10 Sounds challenge, I returned Katharina the favour by setting her a challenge of her own.

Since she has a collection of cook books that seemed to be rarely used (as she tends to fall back on her favourites), I thought it was time she made some use of them, so for the Cookbook Challenge, I set the following:

You should create one dish from each of the following cookbooks, photograph the process and blog about each one. Let us know a bit about the book, why you chose the recipe, what (if anything) and why you had to change any ingredients or processes. What was difficult? What did you learn? How did the final result taste?

1. Haggis, Whisky & Co. (leave out a single ingredient)
2. Paul Bocuse Standardkochbuch [The Paul Bocuse Standard Cookbook] (use an ingredient you have never used)
3. Austro Tapas (use breadcrumbs)
4. Crèmes Brûlées (change an ingredient)
5. Gordon Ramway’s Great British Pub Food (pick a recipe that contains alcohol (it’s pub food, after all!))
6. Natürlich Jamie [Jamie at Home] (add something red)
7. Macarons (something that goes well with coffee)
8. Vive la France (add vanilla)
9. La Cuisine Grecque [The Greek Kitchen] (served with a feta side dish)
10. Plachutta – Meine Wiener Küche [My Viennese Kitchen] (traditional, but different)

In each case, I chose the book and set some restriction to make it a bit more interesting than just selecting a recipe at random. You’ll find my specific comments about the resulting meals under each blog post Katharina made, but suffice it to say that I ate like a king for the weeks that the challenge was running.

My favourite savoury dish was the Greek meal with meatballs and deep fried feta cheese, which offered up a fantastic combination of flavour and texture. Of the desserts, the quark dumplings with cranberry whisky sauce were probably my favourite (though it was a close call), because they were tangy, warm, fluffy and crispy. The success story of the whole thing, however, was the caramelised apple cake from Haggis, Whisky & Co.. We’ve made this again twice since the initial challenge, because it was so good!

Apple Cake

Find her whole series of blog posts here.

Jan 122014

Sid Smith String Quartet viiiThe new year brings a new musical challenge, this time in the form of a string quartet inspired by a series of rainy windows. Music writer Sid Smith has been taking photographs of the patterns rain makes on his office windows for a few years and has now set up the results as programme of graphic music scores. There are twenty ‘string quartets’ in the project, each incorporating four photographs. In total, 33 different musicians have signed up to record music based on these scores, which will be gathered together at Sid’s blog.

I will be writing and recording the four movements of ‘String Quartet viii’ from this project and have just completed the first of these. Despite the title, there is no requirement to use a classic string quartet arrangement, so my first piece (and possibly the others, too) uses a more folky set of instruments, albeit still all stringed. The piece is structured around a simple backing of electric bass and acoustic guitar, with a dark melody reflecting the lines on the photograph played on bouzouki. In the more detailed centre of the piece, additional texture comes from the mandolin.

This was a great opportunity to write for some of my newest instruments and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to grips with the bouzouki in particular. It is a Greek (rather than Irish) model, so is tuned a tone lower than the top four strings of a guitar. This makes chord patterns easy to work out, though when accompanying the guitar and bass, it means playing in what feels like a different key. In some ways this is awkward, but on the other hand it forces me out of playing what might work on guitar. The pairs of strings also result in a substantially different playing experience, not just in the sound produced, but in the action of moving around the fretboard. When it comes to playing the mandolin, the tuning is completely different, so there is no safe ground to fall back on there, either.

Here is the resulting piece:

Dec 012013

2013-Winner-Vertical-BannerThis year I once again had a go at the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing a book/50,000 words in the space of 30 days. I bent the rules somewhat this time around, using the 50k to finish off Some Other Scotland (yes, at last, I know!), write several short stories for both Every Photo Tells… and 100 Word Stories and make some progress with my latest writing project. I’m pleased to say that I broke the 50,000 word mark yesterday afternoon having made good progress with everything.

Some Other Scotland now requires some editing, as the breakneck speed of writing for NaNo resulted in a completed story, though spread out in a bit of a jumble and missing some items of research. Once I have the next few episodes complete, I will continue recording and publishing the remains of the story. It looks like it will come in at 51 or 52 episodes, which is roughly what I had expected when I first started, though the length of the episodes is longer in general than when the story started.

We’re also working on some new EPT eBooks to follow up the first one. Over the last hiatus, Katharina went back to revisit a couple of stories she had to skip the first time round. That means the next eBook will contain stories from both of us for all the photographs.

The last writing project (for the immediate future) is the novel set in the same world as my novella/album ‘Obscurities‘. Following this year’s NaNo, it now stands at just over 55k words, but this is only around half way through, though I hope to finish it next year before NaNo comes around again. It is progressing well and will also be accompanied by an album of new music, though this will be very different from Obscurities.

Nov 042013

I’ve mentioned my use of the relatively new application Scapple before, but as I work towards finishing off the epic that ‘Some Other Scotland‘ has become, this apparently simple little app has been making a growing impression on my workflow.


Using a Google map as background

Quick Recap: Scapple is in essence just a small mind-mapping application that gives you a little more freedom than most, not forcing you to have everything in a strict hierarchy, but allowing you to join ideas together and to other items. I have tried several mind-map applications over the years and none of them came close to just writing it down on paper until now. Another key thing Scapple has going for it is that it is really easy to quickly add a lot of content, so there is no need to mess around with layers of menus.

For the scenes I am currently working on, I have around five different point-of-view (POV) characters coming together for a grand showdown that forms the climax of the action. There is a lot to keep track of and I want to avoid a situation where a character is described as being in two or three different places at the same time – this thing is going to be busy enough as it is without making it difficult for my readers & listeners to follow. My conclusion was that the only way to keep on top of it all was to create some sort of interactive chart of what I wanted to happen to check that it was possible and realistic. Think of those scenes where generals move little figures around a reconstructed map: that was the kind of thing I was looking for.

The ideal solution would be some sort of war-gaming software that was customisable, but I would need to learn how to use such a thing, which I just don’t have time for (at least not for the sake of a single section of a single book). I already have a Google map of many of the key locations in the story, but to avoid spoilers I only update it after scenes have been podcast, but I considered using a new map to add pins and lines to with Google. Flexible though that system is, however, I wanted to be able to shift things around to try out different ideas and G-maps keeps editing and use of maps quite separate and that would add another layer of complexity that I didn’t need.

Scapple to the rescue!

From a paper scribble...

From a paper scribble…

One thing I had never used in Scapple was the ability to load background images. The idea (at least according to the documentation) is to allow you to have a pleasant textured background to make everything less clinical, but let’s get creative. The image you choose is not affected by scaling, which means that when you stick text, lines & boxes over a point on your background image, it stays there, so you can overlay diagrams on any background you like. I tried this out by taking a screenshot of the Google map of the area I was interested in (shift+cmd+3 on Mac, shift+prtscn on Windows), loading the image into any basic image editor and trimming off the bits I didn’t need. This image was then loaded into Scapple as a background texture – just open the Inspector and choose the ‘Document’ option to see the ‘Choose Texture’ button. It worked perfectly!
... to an interactive map!

… to an interactive map!

You might find it useful to make the image a little fainter in the editing software so that your text stands out better. Depending on the size of the image you might find you need more space, in which case you might want to double or half the image size before saving it – you’ll need to experiment (I found an image of 1600×1200 to work well for me, but it will depend on how far in you want to be able to zoom).

With this in place, I was able to easily add labels and arrows showing how certain characters will move around during this key scene and then output the whole thing as a pdf to import into Scrivener. So much faster than trying to learn a completely new package and completely compatible with everything else I’m using!

This is only the start of what I can now see as a REALLY great feature. You can load ANY image, not just maps, so if you have old mind-maps or plans you could take a photo (or scan) of them and add new annotations. Or draw a plan of a house and use Scapple to work out where the characters are when the murder takes place – like a Cluedo board!

Oct 262013

XmasCoverA new book!

Last year, Katharina and I visited all the Christmas markets in Vienna (and there are many), wandering the stalls, tasting the delicious food and discovering some quirky and unusual crafts. Armed with her then new camera, Katharina took hundreds of photographs and combined them into a series of popular posts on her blog, reviewing the best and worst of what each market has to offer.

This year, she added to the original text, selected the best of the photographs and I added my own perspective to each of the reviews, creating an eBook guide to every Christmas market in Vienna (and a few unmissable ones in the area outside the city).

Everything you need to know about the markets can be found in the book – even if you’re an old Scrooge like me:

English Version:
Amazon US / Amazon UK / Smashwords

German Version:
Amazon DE / Amazon US / Smashwords

 Posted by at 10:35 am


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Oct 082013

OdditiesI had no plan to produce two instrumental albums within the space of this year, yet only five months after the release of ‘Obscurities‘, I’m delighted to announce the release of ‘Oddities’.

This can be viewed as a direct sequel to Obscurities, comprised as it is of an eclectic range of instrumental music in numerous different styles and with all sorts of different instrumentation featured. Both were the product of challenges of different sorts. In this case, Oddities mutated out of an online photographic challenge (FMS Photo-a-day) to become a fairly intense challenge to me of writing a piece of music every day for a month. Each piece was inspired by a single prompt and accompanied with a related photograph.

For example, day one’s challenge was “‘N’ is for…” – my response was to take a photograph of my collection of fire engine Nozzles and create a musical piece using only the nozzles (resulting in some wonderful bell-like sounds). This process repeated every day for 31 days in total, with prompts that had me reaching for guitar and ukulele, bass and keyboards, zither and harmonica amongst many others. I tried my hand at writing Austrian and Scottish styled folk tunes, improvising a guitar solo in 7/8 time, turning the Vienna skyline into music and various other challenges. Every day I posted the photos to Flickr and the music to Soundcloud.

Of course, some of the pieces ended up being a little rushed, due to squeezing most of them in to working days, so once the month was over, I spent more time tidying up the ones that had loose ends, re-mixing some and adding some more suitable treatments to others. I pulled all the photographs together, along with a description of the process and some old-fashioned sleeve notes, which you can find in a 60+ page, full-colour PDF booklet (included with the download).

The result is ‘Oddities’ – 31 brand new pieces of instrumental music joined together by a common thread and a set of photographs, but each quite unique in its own way. As with ‘Obscurities’, you’ll find something to like here, even if it isn’t all to your taste. Give it time, though, let the tracks run together and you’ll find they do become a cohesive whole. I have again released this under a ‘Creative Commons’ licence, so podcasters, video bloggers, radio stations and musicians can use it in their own works, so long as they link back to this website.

So, without further fanfare, here it is. Listen to it right here as often as you like and, if you want a copy, download it for a few measly quid/dollars with the ‘Buy’ link below. Please share it with any friends you think might like it, too!