Saturday, 23 January 2021

More Quarantunes

 I've been keeping myself occupied in these strange times by making music at home, and then sharing it on Bandcamp, all priced at "Pay What You Like". Some of the music is the surf / twang / garage that regular listeners would expect and some of it is me playing with keyboards, synthesizers, primitive drum programming, and a range of other musical tools. 

I have reached Volume 18 of the regular Quarantunes VOLUME 18-  and there are several other collections of electronics, drones, tone poems here : The Whole Bang Shoot .

I really enjoy making music and exploring sounds, so it has been a boon to have lots of musical gadgets to play with : I find that having a new thing to make sound with is likely to inspire me to create something with it, and that is often a different harmonic or melodic path from what I would normally take on my home turf of "single coil guitar into a Fender-type amp with a bit of reverb and a bit of shimmer". Even though that is still my home turf after all these years! 

I will do an updated technical / songwriting post soon but now I am going to enjoy some winter sun. I hope you are all keeping as well as possible in these weird times

Monday, 11 May 2020

New Primevals release - and Quarantunes Volume 4

The Primevals new CD is available now on Bandcamp : Primevals on Bandcamp

We had expected to be gigging a lot just now to launch it, but goodness knows when that will be possible. I'm delighted with it - we've featured a number of these songs in the set already, and it was a joy to work through the creative and collaborative process with the guys. We put a lot of rehearsal time in to shape the songs, made suggestions to the band for possible changes - "could you play it more like ..... ", or "that bit that sounded like a mistake - that was really good", and had several good days working with Sandy Jones at FML in Wishaw to record and mix it. 

I have also been keeping myself entertained with Quarantunes - Volume 4 is now available, pay what you like on Bandcamp : Quarantunes on Bandcamp  

Reflections on Quarantunes so far

My friend Jim Byrne asked me how I can be so prolific, so I thought I would gather my thoughts on that. For context, I have been doing a lot of writing and recording, and sharing the results on Bandcamp as 4 Volumes (so far) of Quarantunes, over about 8 weeks. All new material, all done really for my own entertainment. 

My Bandcamp Page is there, and all of Quarantunes are available on a pay-what-you-like basis. 

Since the lockdown started, I've been playing more often, and the writing process follows the P G Wodehouse advice to writers - "First apply the seat of the trousers to the surface of the chair".

Partly it is a lucky run, in that a lot of the ideas that I have been working with have been fruitful, but also partly it is because I am spending more time writing and I am working harder to move ideas from concept to implementation.  

More detail on the technical side of recording is in Technology Post - which may be of interest.

If I am thinking about writing, I might think about chord structures, or voicings, or how to arrange a set of chord changes that pedal on a note. While that is interesting, and rewarding, there is no air moving. So if I want to write, I pick up an instrument, and make sure that Reaper (which I use to record) is up and running, so that if creativity strikes I don't need to put the guitar down and then risk losing the moment.

Occasionally I will start with a tune in my head - that is a joy, and gives me a really straightforward entry to the process. I think that most songwriters will know about that, so I won't detail that too much. Over the 40 ish tunes on Quarantunes so far, I think 3 or 4 of them had that blessed start.

So here is what I have been doing that has lead to lots of outputs.

I start out by playing - usually in Reaper - sometimes with a couple of chords, sometimes to look for a sound that is interesting to play with. If I am playing guitar that might be a Fender Bassman with a shimmer, or it might be a hot Marshall. Or if I am trying things on Keyboards it might be a Hammond or a Fender Rhodes with all the options for varying those sounds. Then the interaction between the notes/chords I am playing and the sound leads to some forward motion in terms of melody or rhythm, and I narrow in on a tempo. Tempo is vitally important for shaping an idea, 3 bpm can make all the difference between a tune that has space to breathe or one that feels hurried. (Both of these are valid options for following an idea - it might be desirable for a particular tune to add additional pressure by playing it so it feels slightly too fast - but I prefer to find the sweet spot in the middle).

I also write on bass guitar - sometimes I will set up a drum loop and play bass along with that, then mess around to find something that draws my ear.

Whatever the idea is, whatever instrument I am playing, I will play with the idea for a while, getting a combination of melody and rhythm, and record fairly quickly. That helps me to assess it, and I will record several takes and variants, and then listen back to work out how to extend or augment or amplify that idea. Sometimes the first thing I have played becomes the intro, sometimes the verse - and very occasionally it ends up as the catalyst for the whole thing but does not actually make it into the final piece. I had one that started with a set of descending keyboard chords, which I then played off, analysed, built on, and finally created four related sets of chords. By the time I took stock of them, I realised that all of the children of that original set were richer and more interesting than the original set, so I took the hard decision of abandoning the original set and building a song from the children.

There is a tension between the creative stage ("plinking at chords to see what happens") and the editing stage ("can all those chords really be majors?" - "where's the tune gone?" - "is that in time?") which demands some careful navigation. For me, it is important to let it flow as much as possible, at the risk of careering away, as opposed to jumping on immediatelt to shape the ideas as they are coming through into a structure. I can always tidy up the timing of a performance later, so I want to let the ideas flow where they need to go.

I then build other parts around it - in the Quarantunes recordings I have generally only been working on one at a time - and try out some form of arrangement. I find Reaper easy to use for this - cutting and pasting chunks, saving revisions, easy to undo changes.

In the recordings for Volume 4 I have spent more time than before on the drums - most are still loops of actual drums but I have been using Sitala as a Midi drum interface and that has led me into a bit of a timepit as I try to finesse that, chase a different ride cymbal ... and marginal timing on that. Still worthwhile though, because being able to work with new Midi drum loops opens up more grist for the songwriting mill.

Another method that I have used is to set myself a challenge - write something that uses 9ths, or write something at 157 bpm, or something funky at 111 bpm. That does not always lead to a new tune, but sometimes exploring that challenge and then listening back to it sparks something else.

In general, I try to finish a recording session with getting some kind of rough mix as an MP3. That lets me put it on my phone or my iPod so I can have it in the background while I am cooking or pottering around. There are several different levels of listening, and I have found it better to get even a rough clunky mix - drums too quiet, guitars all on the right hand side, keyboards coming and going - is better as part of the process so I can then put my editing head on when I come back to it. That can also help identify components that can do more - there is a big difference between the close listening as part of the writing process and the background listening when most of your mind is distracted by a different task, like cooking.

Lastly there is the final mixing - I don't rush that, and try to wait until I am happy with the recorded structure, sounds, arrangements. Some tunes have been stripped down in the final mix, others have had a new bass part added, or guitar accents.

Overall, I think I am making my own weird world of sound, which I find comforting in these troubled times.

If anyone has some questions, or thoughts on this, please feel free to ask

Thursday, 30 April 2020


I hope everyone is surviving lockdown OK - staying safe and staying sane.

I've been keeping myself busy with writing and recording new tunes. The first set flowed pretty quickly, and I decided it would be in keeping with the spirit of the times to put them up on Bandcamp for "Pay What You Like". I've had some very positive responses, and some people have been kind enough to pay for them - thank you, friends!

Each one so far has been written, recorded and mixed over 2 weeks,

Volume 1 is a mix of faster and slower tunes, different moods as seemed to fit when I was recording.

Volume 2 was written partly in response to several friends' suggestion that they would be interesting in hearing a collection of the more reflective pieces, separated from the surf / garage / noisier ones.

Volume 3 has more of a mix of moods, including some Morricone-ish tunes with some theremin.

They are all available on bandcamp, pay what you like, or download for free.

I hope they bring some joy in these difficult times.

Bandcamp Link (for everything)

Thursday, 12 March 2020

sad news

We realised earlier this week that the gigs in France were unlikely to be feasible. All the shizzle going on with schools and colleges closing, events of more than 100 people being banned,  restricted travel, the bonkers increase in cases in France .....

And there is also the strong likelihood of us getting there, doing some gigs, having a great time with a small gang, then ending up at Bergerac to fly home to find "CLOSED", Ferries off, too. So we end up with a few extra weeks in France, waiting for the RAF to fly us back to Catterick, for 2 weeks lockup.

So, with great sadness, we had to pull the plug. If we are spared, and if we can still travel, we will be back some time in 2020.

I am licking my wounds, drinking Calvados, and listening to some rock and roll fundamentals - Electric Ladyland, the first Stooges album, the Kinks Face to Face, T Rex Electric Warrior ....

We will be back.

Nous allons retourner ou nous appartienons.

Nous sommes Les Primevaux

Much love to our dear friends in France who have worked so hard to organise the dates for us, and also to all our friends over there, old and new, the people who drag themselves out on a Tuesday night to see a band. I hope that the sun shines for you soon.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

It's what Thursday nights are for

As ever, the Primevals gathered at 9pm in Berkeley. We probably have 8 rehearsals to get ready for France - gigs start in Paris on Friday April 3rd, with Lille, Rouen, Blois, Toulouse and Perigueux following on from there.

The core of the set is well-covered ground so tonight we ran through some older ones, some that we have not played for a while, and a new cover. We will probably need about 25 songs that we can do at the drop of a fedora to get through the tour - we find it best to have a core set of about 15 or so and then throw in 3 or 4 others from the long list depending on what we feel like on the night. It's never been our way to have THE SETLIST IN STONE for a tour. To get to that 25, though, we need to try 35 or 40, because sometimes that old one resonates nicely, or conversely that one we thought was a strong candidate doesn't seem to shine the way it should.

Tonight's candidates were Lowdown, See That Skin, Reframe It, Have Some Fun, Stream of Life, Don't Feel Free, and a cover whose name escapes me for now.

Time for a glass of Malbec and to check some notes on structures - there's a couple of slightly odd breaks in See That Skin, which made perfect sense when we played it in 1985, but we just need to feel our way back into that groove.

Friday, 5 July 2019


My friend Iain Shaw asked me about the recording process. I think this post may contain more detail than he was looking for, but it felt good to express it all. Thanks for asking, amigo!

Everything was recorded in Reaper - it is a really good value full function piece of recording software, even though I don't use it as much more than an 8 track. (REAPER)

Most of the guitars were recorded using Amp Simulators - previous experiments with miking live amps was not positive, partly because I don't know much about the technology of doing that so the results were variable, partly because it is not always conducive to family life, and also because doing it all in Reaper gave me a much wider range of sounds to play with. 

I used a lot of Amplitube 3 - their Marshalls and Fender Twins are very good, very straightforward. (and are included in the core product, which I think is free.) Yesterday I bought the Fender add-on pack which is marvellous for me - '59 Bassman, Champ, Vibro-King, more Twin Reverbs, etc. I will be using that for "Even More Guitars" if there is enough interest in this one.

I also used Bias FX - that is a bit of a timepit, because there is so much tweaking available with bi-amping and so on. I spent a few hours playing with that to set up a selection of AC30 type things and also to try their various tremolo setups - I could then pick those up when I needed them. The classic way to lose the vibe and feel of a guitar track is to stop playing for a bit to find out what that amp would sound like through a 4x10 instead, and then maybe in a bigger room with these Neumann mikes .... no, the Sennheisers .... a bit further away ....ah, no, wait, how about in an amp enclosure .... with a plate reverb ... ooh, that's interesting ..... and then by the time I have chased that sound rabbit down the sound hole I have forgotten what I was trying to play.

The bass parts pretty much all went through the Bass Professor software - wonderful free download which adds oomph.  ( PROFESSOR) I bought a Sire Marcus Miller Jazz bass last year and re-did most of the previously-recorded bass parts with that - lovely pre-amp, loads of signal and very adjustable and responsive

The core of the drums were from the Loop Loft - Joey Waronker, Simon Phillips, Matt Chamberlain, Omar Hakim, I also used some of Drums on Demand  (Volumes 1, 2 6 and 9)
There are one or two tracks where I programmed the drum tracks (at least in part) and I added some percussion on quite a few - an extra hi-hat, a tambourine, crash cymbals to accent. etc. 

I also added some keyboards - a great Fender Rhodes simulator (Waves Electric88) which was about £50  and a Hammond ( ) which was a similar price. I have a wee 2 octave Korg keyboard which is enough for me. They were recorded as MIDI tracks which I had to tweak a bit for individual note attack and timings - for MIDI editing, the Piano Roll in Reaper is often quicker than me learning to play the keyboard part right. 

I recorded the basic tracks nearly all built round a guitar idea - usually with a particular sound set up (e.g. driven Fender Twin with a slow shimmer). The idea and the sound are closely related, because the genesis of a lot of the tracks was me playing around with a guitar sound and seeing where that went. 

I would hunt through the drum tracks to find something helpful to the recording - sometimes just the simplest beat, other times I found exactly the right thing on first dig. 

Then I would record the main guitar for several goes round - sometimes the first was a keeper, sometimes I would listen back and realise I needed to adjust it. I didn't do much  tweaking of the guitar parts in Reaper - it is much quicker for me to take a breath and play the guitar part right than it is for me to guddle notes around in Reaper. Once I had enough to construct the main track around, I would save that, listen back to it, check the construction overall - then build up what other sounds would go with that - a contrasting guitar ? a descending bassline ? a big clanging souped up Marshall ?? 

In the main I worked on one track at a time, but there are some that I came back to and re-worked, generally if I only had time to record the main part to lay that down for later investigation

I re-mixed everything for the CD - my initial mixes are for me to have a record of the idea, in the moment, rather than for wider consumption. So the guitars are often too loud, there are holes in the mix and there are sometimes wee clunky bits that I don't mind at that stage but need to be tidied up for regular listening. Also, I find that my ears can get tired out if I am listening too closely for too long, so it is better for me to do an initial rough mix as part of the recording stage and then go back round it in a day or two so I can hear it with fresh ears 

I had a long list of at least 40 that I gathered and listened to to sift out which ones were the keepers. There are at least another 20 that I recorded as sketches or bits which ended up as useful things for me to do (sometimes I learned things, sometimes I just expressed whatever I needed to express at the time and that was plenty). 

Once I had those 40 ish I went through them, and I guess about half of them made it to the re-mix/re-master stage as I polished them (as little as possible). There was one track which got cut from the final running order - although I was fond of it, and liked the vibe, it didn't add anything more than the other similar tracks that were already there. 

Lastly - if anyone reading this has questions about the recording process, I'd be delighted to share my (limited) knowledge - ask away!