The road to live performance starts here

On Wednesday night, for the first time ever, I played keys alongside my dad. Granted, it was in the living room and we were simply doing a dry run of Crocodile Rock; me playing the Farfisa organ part which supplies that iconic intro, him playing the piano… but it was something I didn’t realise quite how much I was missing until it took place.

It’s all in preparation for a gig with his band later this year (a week before my wedding, in fact). I’ve never played live anywhere before, and I’m tasked with learning eight songs. Eight. Scary? Slightly, but also a brilliant challenge I’ve always wanted to tackle.

I’ll track my progress on here where I can, as those learning the piano or with a keen interest in getting out of the studio and playing in front of people may find it interesting.

Production tip – drumsticks and the perils of patch browsing

Two tips in one post today. Why? Because they’re short and sharp and I need something to fill the looming postaweek deadline!

Drumsticks

I’m not a drummer, however, a couple of weeks ago I took delivery of a £2.99 pair of drumsticks from eBay. Having recently invested in an Alesis Palmtrack, I’ve developed the ‘found sounds’ sampling bug. Whether it’s me making silly noises with my mouth or banging spanners together, I’ve managed to create all manner of richly dynamic percussive sounds for use in my tracks. What’s better, they’re not from a sample CD, nor are they nicked from another record (two past times I indulge in equally and having nothing against, incidentally). They’re mine, I made them and no one else can claim to be their keeper. A bit like fitting your own bathroom, there’s a tangible sense of pride in that.

But… there’s only so many noises you can make by hitting things with your hands and there’s nothing quite like the tactile feedback of a drum stick, hence my purchase. It’s something I highly recommend any aspiring producer/beat maker/sonic experimentalist has a bash at, literally. Not only can you hit things more accurately and procude variations in timbre and tone, you can also use them to enter 64th note drum frills and hi hat patterns if you’ve got a midi controller with some decent pads on it. Give the latter a try – you won’t be reaching for the quantise button afterwards, I promise.

One slight problem, you will look like a tit walking around the house hitting things with drum sticks.

The perils of patch browsing

I’ll keep this one short. If you’re browsing the patch bank of a synth and come across something which appears to fit the track, stop and use it (although, please fiddle with it a bit to make it your own). If I could have a pound for the number of times I’ve gone past that point, hunting pointlessly for some kind of patch nirvana, I would have a lot of pounds. And no music. There’s a reason you liked it… so stick with it.

Jamie’s Meals From Mars

Jamie's thirty minute meals
Jamie's thirty minute meals. Whatever you do, DO NOT forget the wet towel under the chopping board.

Quite what the rush is, I’m not sure. In Jamie Oliver Land, it is assumed that those of us who are not famous chefs are constantly blighted by the problem of what to have for dinner. More precisely, how to avoid reaching for the takeaway menu every night.

I’m not sure about you, but I can neither afford nor have the inclination to work my way through the takeaway section of the Yellow Pages every week. I can quite happily leave such a special treat for the weekend.

Jamie’s having none of this, though. “You are going to love this pizza,” he insists. “Not only can you make it in under thirty minutes, but it’ll be tastier and healthier than anything you’ll get from a takeaway. Do not reach for that menu. Trust me, this one is going to knock your socks off.”

It is with this constant reaffirming, slightly irritating, Essex gusto that he sets about proving just how easy it is to make multi-course dinners in the space of ‘well under thirty minutes’.

And he does, every time. Yes, without fail, he ends up with a table full of sumptuous delights in less time than it takes Eastenders to play out another family tragedy.

There are several problems with this concept. Firstly, it is impossible to complete any of the meals detailed in the accompanying book in under thirty minutes. I’m not sure it’s even possible to complete them in an hour. No, my first attempt at his steak and pepper sandwich with chilli baked mushrooms, rocket salad and beetroot salad took as long as you think it might. Fucking ages.

Secondly, if you attempt to put your foot down and really go for the target completion time, you will end up with a kitchen that makes the streets of Cairo look tidy. A kitchen that will take at least three months to clean up and repair.

So why is this? What am I doing wrong?

Nothing, as far as I can tell. You see, as fantastic as the food he creates is (and it is wonderful, there’s no getting away from that), Jamie clearly lives on a different planet to the rest of us. He has a kitchen full of every utensil you can think of. A ‘nice serving platter’ or ‘gnarly little bowl’ is never more than an arm’s length away. I don’t have such things. If I cook anything that involves more than one course, I run out of pans very quickly. Finding a knife and fork that match is a challenge. I certainly don’t have a ‘cute little spoon’ to serve my homemade tartare source with, as was suggested in this evening’s episode.

More perplexing is Mr Oliver’s seemingly never-ending supply of chopping boards. Like most normal people, we’ve got one. He has (and I’ve counted) around twenty-seven. I will never have more than one chopping board, ever. I think it might even be illegal.

He also insists on serving every piece of food on the boards themselves. This may look lovely, ‘gnarly’ and rustic, but on our table would leave no room for people.

There’s an ever-present elephant in his sick-makingly perfect kitchen, too. While I’m sure it probably is possible to achieve the thirty minute deadline, any mention of the prior planning, preparation and investment required is firmly shoved under the carpet. Firstly, you’ll need to buy all of the ingredients. That means a trip to the shop and a good hour wandering around looking for ingredients you’ve never heard of and stumbling over your words as you ask perplexed shop assistants for the location of a vegetable you can’t pronounce. Jamie also asks us to purchase ‘good quality’ stuff. That means no reaching for the value range and consequently playing at least £3.50 for every ingredient. Next, you’ll need a food processor and liquidiser. No one owns either of these and those who were given them as wedding presents have long since flogged them on eBay.

In summary, you’re left penniless, knackered and beyond the point of hunger. And that’s before you’ve even started cooking.

The problems continue long after you’ve finished eating, too. Jamie fails to mention the fact that you will inevitably have several chillies, onions, lemons and bunches of herbs left over. All of which you will have no use for. Sure, I bet he’d suggest you can bung them into your next thirty minute meal, but I’m not sure I’d have the patience or time to do two of these in as many days.

So, 80% of the lovely fresh ingredients you bought – much of which is so exotic you’ve imported it directly from Indonesia – will end up in the bin.

Lastly, there is the amount of oil required. If you follow Jamie by the book, you’ll get through around eight bottles of the stuff for every meal. Contradicting his claims of healthy homemade cooking, his suggested use of ‘good quality’ olive oil will take whatever shrapnel you have left from your bank account by this stage and leave you very dead.

I must admit though, the steak sarnie was amazing.

Torres and Carroll

Torres: Boom or bust for ChelseaJust realised I’ve neglected to post an opinion on the big transfer deadline news this week. To have a blog is to offer an opinion and I have one on this subject. It would therefore be neglectful of me not to post it.

It’ll be brief though. Partly because few people give a toss what I think but also because I’m trying to watch Fulham vs Newcastle.

Torres: A pretty high price for a player who has looked decidedly out of sorts in the last 12 months. It’s possible he’s sulked his way out of Anfield and is waiting to unleash his usually barnstorming form at Stamford Bridge, therefore this Abramovich-inspired transfer is the one to watch of the two. Oh, and I’d imagine those in blue shirts won’t see Drogba for dust in the summer.

Carroll: £35m? His worth to Newcastle fans, yes, possibly, but in reality? No. Another stark example of just how far football’s head is up its own arse and how much the game has lost touch with reality. On this basis, I’ve got to be worth a couple of grand. And I’m a little disappointed Kenny didn’t come knocking after this display of manic panic buying.

Time for a new pair of gloves

Ableton LiveLogic has always felt very much like a snug-fitting glove. I know it like the back of my hand and as soon as I fire up my template song, I’m instantly in a very familiar world. I know where everything is and can instantly jump into the process of creating a track.

That’s probably why, when I fired up Ableton Live yesterday, I felt like a lost puppy. I was suddenly staring at a screen full of icons, grids and text. None of it meant anything. I recognised what appeared to be faders and panning controls but everything else was foreign. Meaningless.

Having started out on Cubase and subsequently moving onto Logic, I’ve been almost solely subjected to the linear approach of timeline-based sequencing and production. Dabbles with Reason are perhaps an exception, but even that follows the same time-honoured approach to building tracks.

Rarely a week goes by when I don’t spot someone using Ableton. Whether it be a YouTube video or an episode of ‘In The Studio’ from Future Music, I’ve always been fascinated to see professionals and fellow enthusiasts singing its praises and claiming it has revolutionised the way they make music. Really?

As its name suggests, Live is partly aimed at those wishing to take elements of their studio out on the road. However, this holds little interest for someone who makes music solely in the comfort of his spare room and is partly the reason I’ve never bothered to seriously look into Ableton’s offering.

Last night, however, I decided to try the demo (and it is worth mentioning at this point the fantastic approach Ableton take with this, offering any of the Live variants on a free 30 day trial with absolutely no limitations or missing features. Bravo.).

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried Live, if I’m honest. I did so several months back but instantly got fed up with not knowing what I was doing and went straight back to my warm Logic gloves.

The same thing happened last night.

In fact, I got so fed up with it that I ended up heading downstairs to shoot some people in the face on Call of Duty.

Later, having expelled many bullets and a large glass of red wine, I went to bed, laptop in hand (my fiance is away, therefore this type of behaviour is temporarily acceptable and not at all antisocial). I decided to watch some of the videos on Ableton’s site. It was this one which convinced me to give it another go, because the guy presenting it finally explained what the mystical piece of software is all about and why ‘being different’ is actually a very good thing indeed.

Ableton allows you to build grooves in a way no other DAW will. For example, in Logic or Cubase, you can bash a few midi notes in and create a ‘region’ on a horizontal timeline. These regions can be copied and moved at will, allowing you to build and arrange your production as you go along. The timeline itself allows you to instantly recognise where you are within your track. Which all sounds fabulous. But it can also be debilitating and often leads nowhere; you get so tangled up in the process of arranging that you forget about the process of writing.

Live offers a ‘session view’ which turns this process completely on its head. Instead of viewing a timeline, you create your own loops, across any number of bars you wish. Once you’ve created, say, a drum loop, you can leave it playing and record a bass part over the top. And so on. This sounds simple, but that’s the point. Without having a massive, gaping timeline to distract you, you can get on with the process of building a piece of music from scratch, even if it is only a bar in length. Many refer to it as a sketch pad for music and that’s a perfect analogy.

It’s early days, however, and I need more time to play but immediate thoughts are positive. I can see Ableton becoming a very useful part of the writing process.

Further updates will follow…