Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Sat, 24 Dec 2011

A fairly musical year

In 2011 I performed and recorded a fair amount of music. I've not been to the Plough session since January as I just got out of the habit. As previously mentioned, I have started an Arlesey session. I hope to build that into something bigger next year. I know there are a lot of musicians around, but it's a matter getting them down there on a convenient night. I may have to step up the promotional efforts a bit. We went along to the community concert this week. That consisted of the Stotfold Salvation Army band, a Letchworth choir and a few performers from the village. Perhaps we can organise more locals for next year.

The pub session has put me in touch with a few more musicians and I've also met a very good bassist via Bandmix. We've jammed a couple of times and may do something in future. I really want to find some sort of musical project that will challenge me without taking up too much family time. A few gigs would be cool.

I do feel that my guitar playing has moved on a few steps in the last few years through the band, the pub jams and through generally just playing a lot at home. I often just pick up a guitar and jam for an hour or so. I'm trying to focus my practice a bit more lately by actually learning some tunes and working on a blues course I bought.

A lot of my recording efforts have been centred around the wonderful < a href=http://sixstringbliss.com/>Six String Bliss community. I sang on two collaborations. Coz I Luv You was a Slade cover for The British Are Coming album by several UK based forum members.

Cuppa Soup - Coz I Luv You by steevc

Hey You was a spontaneous project by about 9 of us scattered around the world. Jan did some great production to make it sound pretty professional.

Comfortably Dumb - Hey You by steevc

I did a solo track for the latest album, Guilty Pleasures. This was a pretty simple effort with minimal instruments. I must be getting better as this only took around an hour to record.

Duelling Benfords by steevc

I've done a few other tracks that are on my SoundCloud. Most have been fairly simple, but I want to do something more ambitious. There is another 6SB album due in April, but I want to try other songs to build my skills. I have just about all the gear I should need, including a Peavey bass from Martin on the 6SB forum. Of course there will always be other stuff I want, but this should not be holding me back. I need to overcome my natural procrastination tendencies.

Stay tuned.

[16:11] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 15 Feb 2011

Musical blogs

I meant to mention a couple of friends in my latest post, but forgot. Dave contributed the MIDI adaptor and is crafting some fine looking guitars at the moment. He was one of the gang who went to Hamburg with my last year and a fine musician.

My good friend Malcolm has an amazing home studio full of vintage synthesisers and other gear. He has long been hampered by a lack of funds to construct a PC capable of realising his ideas, but has managed to build one now. He has written an extensive piece on the reasons for choosing all the parts. It's a mega machine, but pretty affordable. I got to see it in the 'flesh' at the Herts LUG meeting last week. It's huge, but the passive heatsinks and big, slow fans mean it's very quiet. I'm jealous, but can't justify a new build just now. My PC seems to handle what I want for now, but I will look at making it quieter.

He didn't use the new PC for it, but Malc has finally got some of his old recordings on-line. I'd like to see him using something like SoundCloud, but he prefers to host it himself.

[22:03] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 04 Nov 2010

Easy does it

As previously reported I recently did what I would consider my first proper bit of multi-track recording in order to contribute to the Six String Bliss Trans Genred album. The theme was covers, but in a different style. I'd played Easy by The Commodores a couple of times at my pub sessions, sometimes on ukulele and thought it might work. I didn't have the time to put together a proper backing track, but my friend Jan found some midi files from which I took the bass and drums. The rest is me on all vocals, ukulele and guitar. It took a few hours to do as I was learning the applications as I went along. The Zoom H4 has been great. The microphones are perfectly good enough and it's pretty simple to use. Just plug into the USB and click a couple of options to activate. I could have used the internal effects, but thought it would be better to add them later on the PC. I ended up just using some reverb on the lead vocal. The drums and bass had some reverb added by the soft synth.

So here it is:

Easy by steevc

I can find lots of issues with it. The timing is bad in a few places, the drums sound distant and the ending is not great. The midi file went on a bit longer and I just chopped it off there. But, people have said nice things about it on the show and on the forum. It didn't sound quite so bad when I mixed it on my PC speakers, but they were hiding a lot. I'm now convinced of the need for proper monitor speakers. That may be my next studio acquisition.

So what should I record next? I'm thinking I should try some electric guitar. I need to work out the best way to record that. I also want to so my own drum tracks. I may look at collaborating with others, so I can stand a chance of completing some tracks in my limited free time. I'm not expecting to go professional, but this is fun. If others get enjoyment from my music then that's a bonus.

[22:20] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 20 Oct 2010

Adventures in sound

Been doing various musical things lately. I'm still doing the singing lessons and making some progress there. We've been working on some Muse songs, but some of them go into the ultrasonic. I don't think I'll achieve that any time soon, but my range is extending.

I put my singing into practice by finally getting around to recording a song for the next Six String Bliss album that should get released next week. After a session on Linux audio at friend Malc's studio I was inspired to give Ardour another go. It turns out the trickiest part is finding some reasonable settings for the JACK Audio Connection Kit so that you don't get too much latency or drop-outs. Mine is not optimal, but allowed me to record. I'm using my Zoom H4 as my microphone and interface. My song was all acoustic, so I didn't use the built-in effects. I didn't have time to do proper backing tracks, so I used an existing MIDI file for the bass and drums. These were played by Rosegarden into Fluidsynth and then to some Ardour tracks. It took me a while to get to grips with the general recording process and techniques like punching-in, but I managed to put something reasonable together. I'll talk about it more after the album release, but I plan to do more.

The other musical adventure was a little trip to Hamburg. This arose from a mention of a gig by friend of Six String Bliss Skinny Jim. A few of us decided to go over for the gig. Dave, his son Callum, Martin and myself flew out from Luton to be met by local member Jan. We stayed in a couple of hotels on the notorious Reeperbahn, centre of the local red-light district. The whole adult club/shop scene was a bit surreal to be around, but we had not trouble there. This is where The Beatles got their start. Jan showed us around some great guitar shops where you could played just about any instrument without getting hassled by the staff. I played some nice Parkers, a PRS and various others. This gave me some more ideas for my next guitar(s), but I don't really need another just now. That evening was spent at the gig in a small club by the port. The support band were a Brazilian punk band who were 'interesting', but the main act were excellent. Good time rock 'n' roll. We had a good chat with the band who were really glad to have us there. I recorded part of the show on the H4 and this should appear on the 6SB podcast some time (with Jim's permission). This couple of days were a great opportunity to meet people I've been chatting with on-line for ages and it felt like meeting old friends.

There are lots of pictures of the trip from me, Dave, Jan and Martin. Martin has also written his own report on the trip. Of course it's discussed on the 6SB forum too. There's a big meet-up planned in Nashville next year, but I don't think I'll get there. We'll have to do somthing else this side of The Pond.

[21:42] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 03 Sep 2010

Singing for my supper

For most of life I haven't considered myself a singer. I did some at school when I had to and would sing along to records in private, but never really performed. A couple of years back I did some singing with the Secret Bass drum group and did a few performances that I quite enjoyed. I've also done a couple of singing workshops at the music centre my kids attend. Then last year I started going to the Plough pub sessions and performing various covers. I've not been that happy with my singing there. Either I run out of breath, can't hit notes or just can't get my voice to do what I want.

So I decided I needed professional help. I found local singing teacher Liv McNeil. Tonight was my first lesson. I spent 90 minutes doing all sorts of exercises and singing a bit of Muse. Overall I'm not terrible, but I have some bad habit that's creating a grating tone at times. She said she hadn't come across this problem before, so we're trying to work out what to do about it. It may just be that I don't relax properly. I've got a CD of exercises to try before I go back in a fortnight.

Normally when I sing at home it's done fairly quietly and at the pub I don't really project, but in the lesson I could make a racket. It felt good, even if it didn't always sound good. I don't anticipate being the next Freddie Mercury, but I think I could improve on what I've been doing up to now. You can follow my progress on my Soundcloud page. There's some songs I did over the last few months. I'll try to do some using what I've learnt.

[21:51] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 04 Feb 2010

Jamming at the Plough

As previously mentioned I've been mostly playing my acoustic guitar since the band project dried up. I've been keeping an eye on sites like musofinder and Bandmix for possible collaborations. With my general lack of time it would have to be something local and not require too much commitment.

I also subscribe to updates from the Lemonrock gigs listing site to see what's going on locally. I noticed there were 'Jam sessions' at a pub the other side of Hitchin. The listing said it was an Open-Mike, but I thought I'd have a look. I practiced a couple of songs and took my guitar along a just before Xmas. The pub is slightly off the beaten track down some tiny roads. It took me a while to found as I foolishly didn't use the sat-nav. When I got there I found the organiser Rick getting set up. He said it really was a jam session and to bring in my guitar. He plays ukulele, mandolin and violin. Other people turn up each week, mostly with guitars, but we've had banjos, saxophone and didgeridoo(!). The music varies between Irish and other folk tunes, sixties pop song, blues and other genres. I've done a few rock songs I know and people join in. Generally people have chord/lyric sheets that you can use or I just watch others for the changes. I've even been doing some singing. I'm not great, but I'd like to improve. There are other people in the pub, but I don't feel too self-conscious.

Some weeks are rehearsals for the pub 'band', the Ploughmen. I played at one of those where there were more songs I knew. It's all good practice, but I could do with improving my chord repertoire and technique. I'm looking around for a teacher to get some lessons. They are a friendly crowd with some good players, including a member (still) of the band Matchbox who had a hit in my youth and a director of a UK guitar company who plays a mean guitar and banjo.

I need to find some more songs to learn and share with them. I'm trying to find some that stretch me a bit. I did The Eagles' New Kid in Town this week and just about made it through after trying to throw in a few twiddly bits. Song suggestions are welcome. I try to practice a few times a week, but am also helping my son learn. His piece this week is Green Day's Good Riddance that I would like to play myself.

I've just splashed out on a few guitar accessories. I've had the same strings on my guitar for ages, so got some more sets. Although I have multiple devices to tune my guitar (in Zoom H4, Korg Pandora and Roland amp) I lacked something convenient for tuning the acoustic and so bought a Korg AW-2G. It's a very neat gadget and seems to work well. I used to have a Korg tuner years ago, but sold it when I didn't think I'd be playing much acoustic. This is better as you just clip it on and it picks up vibrations through the guitar. I bought from Strings Direct who got it to me today even though I only ordered yesterday afternoon.

[21:50] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 14 Nov 2009

Muse at the O2

Standard rambling introduction: I first heard Muse about 10 years ago when xfm were playing Muscle Museum and Unintended. I wrote them off initially as Radiohead imitators, but they have carved their own niche over the years. They remind me of bands like Queen who would produce mini operas with loud guitars. My other half is also a fan, along with a broad swathe of the general population. They can sell out large stadia in minutes.

This was my second gig at the O2, after Prince. This time our seats were in the upper levels. I'd heard that these were not good for vertigo sufferers and we happened to have one with us. She coped well, helped by having a seat with a barrier in front of it. We were at the far end from the stage. So a long way away, but at least we got the front-on view. The O2 facilities are pretty good. Loads of restaurants and bars. It's a long way from anything else, but the transport links are reasonable.

Support was by The Big Pink who I knew from their single Dominos. They reminded me a bit of Depeche Mode in their industrial phase. It was hard to make out any lyrics. They were a bit annoying in using really bright lights behind them that shone straight at us. Maybe they are just really ugly and don't want to be seen except in profile.

The stage set consisted of 3 huge towers that I thought initially were just backdrop. The muse set started with nothing else visible on the stage and the towers lit up like tower blocks and then video of people marching up stairs. Then the middle parts dropped away to expose the band up on these high platforms. Later they would drop down so they could use the whole stage, but went up again later. The drum kit would rotate at times. The band played a storming show with hits from across their career, including early song Unintended. The light show was amazing with green lasers filling the hall and lots of projection on the towers. I've seen a few bands not using conventional rectangular screens. It's visually interesting, but not so good for clearly seeing them. We had a good sing-along to the hits. Unlike the McFly gig I took my daughter to the sound was not deafening. The level was about right, but not enough to drown out the people who insisted on chatting all the time behind us. Can't they just enjoy the music?

Overall I thought it was a great show for a big venue. I still like to see a good band in a small hall, but my other half likes to see the big names. The next day Muse announced they are playing Wembley Stadium next September. I'm sure they can do that well as they did recently, but do I really want to go?

Due to train problems the rest of our group drove to Cockfosters and got the tube from there. We managed to get back there despite the band finishing at 11. It took a while to get onto the platform due to the huge crowd, but then it was an easy journey. I don't know what we would have done if we had missed the last train. From Cockfosters it was an easy drive on empty motorways to drop off one person at Luton then home to Arlesey by 1:45. Luckily I was able to have a lie in.

[11:46] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 08 Oct 2009

Steve Lawson and Michael Manring at Round Midnight 07/10/02009

I'm pretty familiar with Steve's work, having seen him live a couple of times and having a few of his albums, but I knew less about Mr Manring (no, we wasn't in Dad's Army). I had heard that he was an iconic figure in the bass community (yes, there is such a thing). This blog post indicated he was something special, so when I heard they were playing together in London I reserved a ticket at Round Midnight.

The venue is a conveniently short walk from Kings Cross. I was surprised at how small it is and, unusually for a music venue, it is not in a basement and has windows to the street on two sides with late shoppers looking in. I settled with a beer and a burger on a cast-iron bar stool and waited for the music to start.

Steve was up first playing some of his tunes that I know and a Bruce Cockburn cover I didn't. It's amazing the textures that a single player can build up with skilful use of effects and loops. Then Michael joined him and they jammed for a while. It's mesmerising to see two top musicians playing like that. There didn't seem to be much eye contact, they just do it by ear.

After a break Michael returned to play his own music and it was amazing. There are some musicians who just seem to have complete mastery of their instrument to make it do whatever they like and he is one of them. The use of harmonics and his Hyperbass's levers to change tuning made for a unique sound. I know he played Selene and Helios. The latter was one of the most amazing performances I have witnessed.

The show ended with another duet and ended with the audience wanting more. Steve promised they would be back next year, but I think they might need a bigger venue.

Someone was videoing the show, and using some arty angles, so that may appear on-line at some point. Meanwhile, Benjamin Ellis has uploaded some great pictures and Steve posted some recordings of a previous gig that may give you a flavour of it.

I was thinking back to how I caught on to the whole solo bass scene. It started when someone lent me a crappy bass to see how I got on with it. I decided I want to stick with guitar, but whilst trying to learn some tunes I found various sites, such as TalkBass.com, and then found some podcasts by solo bass player Jeff Schmidt. I think it was via one of those that I found Steve Lawson and got to know him a bit through discussions on Twitter. He really like to engage with his audience and it obviously worked with me. I'm sure I'll be going to more of his shows.

[21:05] | [] | Comments | G

Sat, 12 Sep 2009

Going acoustic

It looks like my band may be on hold for a while as some people either have work commitments or want a break. That's a shame as I was looking forward to playing some gigs. I need to meet up with the others some time to discuss the options.

Meanwhile, I've been working on my little acoustic project by learning some more Pink Floyd songs. This has been done on my Dean Performer electro-acoustic. I've been looking up tab for the songs I want to play. The web is a great resource for this, even if the music companies are not so keen on it.

Other members of my family are also getting into guitar. My son is getting on well and my dad has just upgraded from a budget (Lidl) guitar to a better quality Yamaha classical. I'll have to check that one out. I wouldn't mind another classical as it would better suit that type of music. I've been digging out my old music books to play some of that.

I'm keeping an eye out for any possible musical collaborations. I just can't get into travelling too far to play given my limited spare time. So if anyone around Arlesey, Stotfold, Henlow or nearby wants to play some guitar for fun then I could be interested.

[22:38] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 02 Sep 2009

Guitar craft

One of the things I love about the internet is how you can engage with people all over the world, including artists you admire. Some, such as bassist Steve Lawson, spend a lot of time talking to their fans on-line in order to build a more intimate relationship and mutual respect. It may not sell as many records as an expensive marketing campaign, but leads to a more loyal following and enhances the enjoyment of the music.

This week a post appeared on the Six String Bliss guitar forum linking to the latest creation by Jeffrey Jones. I commented that these instruments, whilst beautiful, seem beyond the reach of most musicians and that my own tastes are more for utilitarian musical tools. Today Jeffrey himself has responded to my comments with a lengthy post. I've responded to let him know that I appreciate his work even if it's not what I would necessarily buy myself even if I had the money. It's great to hear his side.

I aspire to having a guitar built to my own specification one day, once I figure out what that might be. You can pay an awful lot for an off the shelf guitar, e.g. the Gibson replica of Billy Gibbons' Les Paul. That seems destined for a collector's wall. For a fraction of that price there are plenty of luthiers who will build you a custom guitar. Gordon Smith, who built my main guitar, offer limited customisation options, but others can build almost anything you can imagine. Maybe in a few years I'll be a good enough player to justify splashing out.

I've not got together with the rest of The Barking Spiders since our open rehearsal performance due to holidays and other events. People have other commitments at the moment, so I don't know when we will next play together. Meanwhile I'm doing a fair bit of playing. I'm alternating between the band songs and some acoustic pieces for my own enjoyment. I've been working on a few of the classical pieces I played in my teens. I fancy the idea of collaborating with someone on some acoustic guitar work. This could incorporate any combination of classical, jazz, folk and perhaps some ideas I have for acoustic versions of classic prog tracks such as songs by King Crimson. This depends on finding someone and the time to work on it, but it's a possible path. Since joining the band I feel that more options are open to me. I intend to find a local teacher who can help me build the skills to develop those options.

[21:32] | [] | Comments | G

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