Archive for the 'Misc' Category

lossless formats

Friday, December 10th, 2010

A lot of people have been asking me whether I plan to release my new material in ‘lossless’ formats such as WAV or FLAC. The answer is that when the new album comes out, it will be available in higher-quality formats than MP3. Along with the physical CD (16 bit stereo 44.1khz) I plan to offer the album as a high-quality digital download (24 bit stereo 96khz AIFF/WAV) as well as FLAC. I will not however be offering 5.1 or similar formats, as I feel stereo is my medium. I could fool myself into thinking surround sound would offer me a new canvas to paint on, but that fact is, the majority of listeners would never hear surround mixes as they were intended, due to the discrepancy between speaker systems and listening environments.

The digital EPs ‘Amerikana’ and ‘Oceanea’ are intended for hardcore fans to get an early peek into the recording of the album in progress. They’re available in 320 kbps MP3 only because (a) it keeps the download time and hosting requirements small (b) I don’t want to encourage piracy, torrents and illegal CD replication (c) I want the eventual album release to feel like a major step up, in addition to the added value of its previously unreleased  songs.

So that’s my personal choice. I’m grateful to everyone for wanting to hear the music in its full glory, but you’ll have to wait a little longer! I hope this brings the matter to a close.

And so ends the Amerikana era….

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

The ‘Toadlickers’ music video came out, made a lot of noise,  reached #18 in the YouTube ‘most viewed’ chart, got a lot more views, then rapidly vanished from the chart altogether! I think this was a YouTube admin move because of its ‘explicit’ content (puppets having sex; and an offensive word meaning ‘born out of wedlock.’) C’mon YouTube, cut me some slack. Even the Pope is lightening up these days!

This reminds me a little of the year I got to #2 in the Guatemalan singles chart… and the following week there was a military coup and the chart was not published.

Shotgun pop music. Most appropriate for ‘Toadlickers’, I think. And so ends the Amerikana era… except for one small detail: I never released the 17 Hills ‘dissection’ vlogs. So here they are, parts 1-3! And, if you can sit still right till the very end, there’s some exciting and definitive news about the Oceanea EP.

Part 1 looks at how we recorded the 17 Hills backing track, and overdubbed fretless bass and pedal steel.
Part 2 focuses on the day I spent with Mark Knopfler doing the guitar parts, and how to give direction to a demigod.
Part 3 talks about Ethel, Natalie MacMaster, and how I came up with the song in the first place.

Hope you enjoy these!



‘Oceanea’ EP update

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

My new EP is currently being mastered by Simon Heyworth, in Devon. For those ‘in the know’ he’s not expecting to re-EQ it much, just looking at the peakiness. When there are occasional spikes in volume level–eg a high piano note that jumps out on ‘Oceanea’–it means the overall level has to come down, so it all ends up quieter. Not a problem quality-wise, but if folks put it in their playlist alongside other modern recordings, or when it’s played on the radio, it will sound very quiet and perhaps less impressive. So you deal with that using ‘limiting’ to reduce the peaks — either with a machine or by hand-tweaking the waveforms — so the overall levels can come up again. When machines or software plugins take this to the extreme you get the ‘sugar cube’ look of waveforms that have all the peaks taken out, so their density is increased to the point that everything ‘feels’ much louder and in-your-face; but when you do that, you sacrifice dynamics, and the music often ends up lifeless. (Don’t worry, we won’t go there!)

Whereas the last EP was mixed in a pro studio LA with Bill Bottrell engineering, this one I did all myself right here on the Nutmeg of Consolation. I don’t have a lot of gear, but the songs stand up by themselves without lots of effects, and the atmosphere felt more intimate. I’ve been blessed with lots of sun and wind this month so there was plenty of power on offer from the turbine and solar panels to do an entirely renewable energy-powered mix. My priority for the Nutmeg’s antique timber wheelhouse was not ‘reference quality’ sound, or isolation from the outside world, so don’t be surprised to hear a little North Sea ambience creeping into the mix.

I shot a beautiful cover with photographer Catherine Lindsay-Davies, and the graphic design being completed by Paul Sizer — yes the same chap that won the t-shirt design competition earlier this year, who went on to design the ‘Amerikana’ artwork. Once again the whole package will be downloadable in a format where if you choose to you can burn your own physical copy and print out the cover booklet.

I’m happy to say it looks like the EP will be out THIS MONTH! Look out for a release date announcement in the next couple of weeks. For registered Flat Earth Society members only, of course.

And how is the music? Well, personally I think this EP is the best work I’ve ever done. And I’d say that even if I was objective!

a strange dinner with Julian Assange of @WikiLeaks

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Reading all the furore about WikiLeaks and its mysterious frontman Julian Assange, I feel compelled to tell this story about a recent dinner conversation I had with with him.

It was at a private ‘do’ at a restaurant in Oxford right after TEDGlobal earlier this month. Julian slipped in to the party uninvited, plonked himself down opposite me and ordered some fish. Just that morning he’d given a candid interview to Chris Anderson on the TED stage in which he’d quite convincingly defended Wikileaks and its right/obligation to publish leaked military secrets that, some could argue, put lives and reputations in unnecessary peril. A cloak of secrecy surrounded his visit to the conference and even the TED production team had been kept in the dark about the identity of our surprise final day guest.

Julian Assange is a slender 6′ Australian with a flock of white hair. He cuts a striking figure in a white dress shirt, sneakers and jeans. It struck me that this charismatic guy who’s Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of several large and deadly organisations — not least the CIA — might do better to dye his hair brown and wears specs and an anorak. Sitting across the table from him, I half expected to see a tiny red laser dot dancing across his white shirt. In fact, if you’re going to stick around overnight in a city where you just made a controversial public appearance that was instantly tweeted all over the blogosphere, why not just paint a big red target on your back?

I asked him if he fears for his life. “All the time,” he said, “but if it comes I hope it comes quickly”. (I’m recalling this as accurately as I can.) “Just today after my interview at the Playhouse Theatre, I walked down the street to my hotel, tightly surrounded by a crowd of people wanting to congratulate me, or heckle me or whatever. I got to the concierge desk. As I was waiting to pick up my bag I felt a strange itch on the back of my neck. I felt for it and shit! it was a Band-Aid I’d never seen before. Christ, I thought, this is not good, this could be the bloody end right here, and I looked around for someone scurrying off into the shadows. Did I feel okay? yes, but…. then I realised. It was the sticky tape from the wireless headset microphone I’d just worn for the TED interview.”

Julian Assange left our post-TED party and reportedly gatecrashed another, leaving that one early by the emergency exit, setting off the alarm, choosing a dark back alley to make his escape in preference to the brightly lit Oxford main road. He says WikiLeaks is underfunded. I only hope the company has room in its budget for a little Kevlar in its CEO’s wardrobe.

Prefab Sprout’s new album

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

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A belated note about the latest Prefab Sprout album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, which was released a few weeks ago. It has a curious history. Paddy McAloon wrote the songs at the beginning of the 90s, intending to make a follow-up album to 1990′s ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. As he liked to do, Paddy made demos of all the songs in his home studio, and sent them both to me and to the band’s record company, Sony. I immediately fell in love with the songs, especially ‘Ride Home To Jesus’ and ‘I Love Music.’ I was keen to produce them and we’d started to make plans. However Sony’s head of A+R, Muff Winwood, who had always been a huge supporter of the Sprouts, was a bit negative about the album, saying that the religious overtones of many of the songs would create a perception of a ‘Christian rock’ band, which would destroy their credibility and commercial appeal. He was very aware that U2 had narrowly dodged a bullet round about the time of songs like ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ when many accused them of veering towards ‘God Rock’—even though those titles were referring to something completely different.

Ultimately it didn’t do U2 any harm though, did it. And Paddy’s songs were not actually promoting God or religion. If anything they were an analysis of faith and integrity. They seemed to aspire to a love of something above, beyond ourselves. In ‘Music Is A Princess’, for example, the author characterises himself as a lowly boy in rags, willing to die for Music but unworthy to carry her flag. In ‘Ride’, Paddy praises people who work thanklessly for the greater good. I thought the songs were excellent, with great chords and melodies, and it was  very refreshing to hear some subject matter that wasn’t just about sex, relationships,  money or starvation. But the band felt unable to deal with the friction caused by the record company’s push-back, and Paddy decided to move right on and start from scratch. I believe Muff Winwood has since claimed that he only wanted a few changes to the words and titles and perhaps the addition a couple of extra songs that were not so controversial.

It’s easy in retrospect to say that the original decision not to release ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ did irreperable damage to the band’s career. Certainly it threw a spanner in the works, because the next twelve years saw only two more Sprouts albums, neither of which approached the critical or commercial success of their previous four. There were several other song projects that never got off the ground, including a musical about Zorro and an album of Michael Jackson-themed songs. Paddy or his managers at Kitchenware would send me the tapes and I always enjoyed them and was impressed by how good his home studio recordings were becoming.

During those years, which also ushered in the era of Internet music and self-publishing by artists, I repeatedly told Paddy I thought he should ditch his major label contract altogether and just release his stuff himself via the Net. His output was so prolific that he could easily have released two or three albums per year, maintained a great mailing list (his brother Martin having become something of a Web expert), and made a perfectly good living without any interference from A+R men and radio promotion people. But he is quite conservative in his view of the music business, and always felt that success had to include the conventional trimmings of commercial acceptance, like seeing your poster in the window of WHSmiths, getting played on BBC Radio 1, and so on. He’s perfectly entitled to cling to that view. In this day and age though, what’s survived of the Industry star machinery is reserved for celebrity-hungry 20-something hotties that can sing, dance and disrobe like world champs. Paddy’s health is not good and he’s in no mood to be out there under the spotlights, so perhaps now he will reconsider my suggestion and make some new music to release softly on the Internet for the legions of devoted Sprouts fans to enjoy.

A couple of years ago Keith Armstrong, the Sprouts’ manager, talked Paddy into the idea of reviving ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ and releasing it independently. With the help of engineer Callum Michael, Paddy cleaned up the recordings and replaced a few parts, though he stuck with the original vocals. It’s a pretty sweet-sounding record. Of course, I feel it would have been even better if the mainly programmed backing could have been replaced Martin, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti, and the whole package produced by me. After all it’s been billed as a Prefab Sprout album, not a solo project like Paddy’s beautiful ‘I Trawl The Megahertz.’ But this release needed to be swift and the costs kept low. One of the challenges of the new music business landscape is how to pull off a project that requires several musicians and expensive recording studios, without going heavily into debt with a label who will then demand their pound of flesh in return. There’s not really a new system in place for compensating musicians and producers without incurring the huge ridiculous costs of accounting and royalty calculations.

Still, what we’re left with is a gorgeous piece of work. I’m really glad it saw the light of day, and hope that its warm reception from fans and critics alike will encourage Paddy to do some new work, despite the problems he’s having with his hearing and eyesight. If you want to feel inspired, just read his sleeve notes, about Brian Wilson and ‘The yawning caves of blue.’ He’s a brilliant writer and would make a fine novellist. There’s a very candid interview with him transcribed here which explains the album much better than I can. Do seek it out if you can. I notice it’s not on iTunes for some reason but it is on Amazon.

'Gig' announcement!

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Announcing:

THOMAS DOLBY AND FRIENDS: Circumnavigating ‘The Flat Earth.’
Union Chapel, Islington, London
Feb 28th, 2010

The other night I met up for a drink with my friends from the Flat Earth live band I took with me on my world tour in 1983-84–Justin Hildreth, Lyndon Connah, Matthew Seligman, and Lesley Fairbairn. We thought it would be fun to get back together and play for one night. It was great when Matthew and Kevin Armstrong joined me onstage at the Academy a couple of years ago, and this would be the full touring band. A quick email round to Chucho Merchan, Debra Barsha and Kevin confirmed that everyone was up for it.

But instead of a yet another 80s reunion, I thought we could do something a little more contemporary, a little more Reality TV. So here’s the plan. We won’t rehearse the show at all. Instead, we’ll meet up onstage, completely unrehearsed. We’ll re-learn songs like ‘Hyperactive’, ‘Windpower’, ‘I Scare Myself’ and ‘One Of Our Submarines’, chatting and telling stories as we go. It’ll be very interactive and the audience can chime in with questions, comments and requests, like a cross between a masterclass and a talk show. And I’ll try to arrange some cameo walk-on appearances from celebrated musicians I’ve worked with over the years. At the end of the evening we’ll play a short set of the songs we’ve practiced, back-to-back.

With the help of promoter Adrian Gibson, I have booked the Union Chapel in Islington for the evening of February 28th 2010. This is a lovely venue with seating for around 700 and a somewhat wrap-around stage which I feel will give a warm atmosphere for the show. It’ll be quite an early start, with 2 to 2.5 hrs for rehearsing and chat, followed by a break and then a short concert set.

The Union Chapel ‘gig’ will round out an exciting weekend for Dolby afficionados: the previous night, Feb 27th, there will be a show in Aldermaston by excellent duo The Pirate Twins, who could loosely be regarded as a ‘tribute band.’ I saw these guys play once before at a semi-secret 50th birthday bash, but since then they’ve expanded their repertoire and they will be performing The Golden Age Of Wireless in its entirety. They do an amazing job of re-creating my sounds and production, but many of their arrangements go beyond that as they explore ideas that my originals only hinted at. I decided to make my show the same weekend as theirs, because I know that a lot of fans and Forum members will be traveling specially for that show. Between the GAOW performance on Saturday and ‘Circumnavigating The Flat Earth’ on Sunday, it’ll be quite an action-packed 48 hrs. There’s more info about The Pirate Twins gig here.

I’m wide open to ideas for the show, so feel free to post your comments below!

Now THAT's what I call a birthday cake.

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

cake5.1

Simone

Monday, October 12th, 2009

About fifteen years ago, a new song popped into my head. It had a title, a melody, and a handful of lyrics. It had a faintly Brazilian feel to the rhythm and the harmonies. The title was Simone. It seemed to be about a woman who left her partner and escaped to some exotic location.

But the chorus was lacking a punchline. If I was going to sing her name several times, I needed to tell Simone something. There was no message to give her. The atmosphere was certainly there; yet to keep it from lapsing into it ‘lounge’ territory, it needed an ironic twist. And every time I tried to sit at the piano and play it, I got lost in the chord sequence. It seemed that every few bars there were several different ways for the chords to modulate. I would pick a given key to start in, but when I got back to the next verse I’d be in a completely different key. It was a musical Rubik’s Cube, and it was frustrating me. So over the years, I never made progress with the song.

This happens from time to time. There are remnants of unfinished songs in my closet. Not many, maybe a dozen over the 35 years I’ve been a songwriter. Usually if they never get finished, it’s because there wasn’t enough substance to begin with. But in the case of Simone, it bothered me. A lot. There was something fantastic about the song, and it kept nagging me. It would come back to haunt me every couple of years; I’d sit at the piano and try to play it, but I’d end up just as confused.

This is not like me! I usually have a very good sense of orientation with melodies and chord sequences. I can bend music and lyrics until they make sense. But with this piece of fiction, it took a slice of real life to bring me to a place where I could complete the song. Someone I’m close to told me they have gender dysphoria. (S)he felt a transition was taking place. This news was astonishing, and more than a little frightening. I found it hard to process. Looking back, I realised I could have seen this coming.

But it brought me back to my song. What if Simone was previously Simon? She was running away from her former, male self? Suddenly I had unlocked the riddle, I’d found the ironic twist I was looking for. I went for a long walk across the marshes, which is where I usually come up with my best lyrics, and I found the punchline I was lacking for the chorus.

‘You’re like a timebomb in his blood.’

With its new ambiguity, the plot line opened up many possibilities for a backstory with lots of tasty lyrical details. The next missing piece was the chord sequence. I thought hard about why I was unable to get my head around it. I decided it was the malleable and jazzy nature of Brazillian chords that was throwing me. So finally I tried something I’ve never done before: I sang the melody unaccompanied, and added the chords afterwards, as if I was voicing someone’s instrumental solo. What I ended up with was very curious: each of the three verses, and each double part of the song’s three choruses, is in a different key. I wrote down a chart for the chords, but I still can’t play them straight through without referring to it. How am I ever going to do this song live?

Happily the musicians I worked with are able to read pretty fluently, so armed with the chord chart (and with editing help from my friend Chucho Merchan) I put down a version with acoustic guitar, drums, percussion and upright bass. They did a grand job of negotiating their way around the tricky chords. It took me a few weeks to sift through the performances, but last night I finished a version (still absent a lead vocal) that I can finally call a complete song. As I often do, I emailed myself an MP3 from the lifeboat studio, so I could listen to it on my laptop speakers this morning.

I woke up today, did some chores, returned a few emails, played a little online Scrabble with my friend Rachel, and gave the song a listen. It’s damn good! How satisfying to have finally brought it to life after all these years.

And as a final ironic twist, I turned on the TV as I ate my breakfast, and what did I find? a 2002 movie starring Al Pacino as a Hollywood mogul who invents a computer-generated female movie star called…. ? S1m()ne.

Porn for gearheads

Friday, September 11th, 2009

When I occasionally need to record a group of musicians I don’t have room to do it in my lifeboat studio, the Nutmeg. I have to go and rent a studio elsewhere. Trouble is, I’m very hard to please in that department. When I lived in LA, Bill Bottrell introduced me to the delights of vintage Neve mixing consoles, and I was hooked. The mixer is the heart of a studio and directly affects the sound of a record, and these just have a great sound that’s all their own. Twiddling their knobs is like tuning a beautiful guitar. There are a handful of enthusiasts in California that own and maintain these old lovelies that had their heyday in the 1970s—the era of Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Nile Rogers—but most commercial studios have long since replaced them with newer, more powerful, but much less delightful Neves or Solid State Logic mixers. Bill single handedly changed the face of American music production when he recorded Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club on his old Neve in a vacant shop (!) in Pasadena in the early 90s. This album was raw and gritty and the arrangements stood up for themselves. It won several Grammys and signalled the end to 80s production excess (you know, ultra-compressed tracks running through giant automated SLL desks with big snares and tones of digital reverb, kinda like my productions for Prefab Sprout!)

But I’m very pleased to have found a little recording studio in East London (the right end for me) called The Way that owns one of only two left in Great Britain. It’s a custom 8078, 40-input board that lived at Sony’s studios in Tokyo for many years. It’s manned by an enthusiastic young staff who have inherited the passion for this board.

I just spent 20 hours recording a small Latin ensemble there, consisting of upright bass (Chucho Merchan), drums (Nic France), percussion (Bosco De Oliveira) and acoustic guitar (John Paricelli). I’ve had this strange song in my head for about ten years now, and in my imagination it was always played by a Latin quartet. It’s called ‘Simone’. It’s a dreamy slow groove that belongs in the ‘Oceanea’ section of my album. It has a simple melody but an odd Brazilian chord sequence, which is not my forte at all. Over the years I would sing it occasionally to myself in the shower, walking on the beach, or falling asleep; but on the occasions I’ve tried to work it out on the piano it’s always perplexed me. It modulates every few bars. Not only that, there are different options for each modulation. Each section is in a completely different key, so every time I would arrive back at the verse, I had to relearn the complicated chords. And I’d usually just say, fuck it I’ll go and make a cup of tea.

Well, I decided ten years was long enough for this puzzle to remain uncracked so I took the plunge and booked these musicians into The Way, giving myself two weeks to unravel the mysteries of the song. In the end I decided to run a click and just sing the melody, then work out the chords to go along with it. It was like solving a Rubik’s Cube–no, a Rubik’s Polyhedron. I finally managed this in the nick of time, and sent Chucho a demo so he could chart it out for the other guys, not being a reader myself. We came together in the studio for the first time and recorded the song, finishing up about 4.30am this morning. I think it sounds fantastic, and they gave me something I could never program in a million years. We also did a second song, ‘A Jealous Thing Called Love’ which I played on my last tour.

On aspect of modern recording versus the ‘old days’ is that you can do unlimited takes and record endless tracks. Before, you had to make decisions and choices as you went along: let’s say you had a near-perfect conga take with a couple of stray hits out of place, you would painstakingly go through and identify the bad bits, then ‘punch in’ ie get the conga player to repair the bad hits on the fly. Now you just let them slip by, knowing you can later do a composite of several takes, cut and paste a good section from elsewhere, or even physically move each hit forward or back a few milliseconds in time until it sits right in the song. While this is great because the real premium is the musicians’ time, plus the hours spent in a for-rent studio, the downside is that for every hour I spent at The Way I will probably spend half a day in the Nutmeg editing what I recorded! So I won’t know the true value of what I captured for another two or three weeks. It’s all very well to just let the musicians go wild while trying out different tones and EQs, but in the back of my mind I cold see myself sitting there in the Nutmeg for hours on end, looking out over the sea, playing god while I move huge chunks of multirack audio around in time, making it all groove perfectly. Still this is infinitely preferable to me than twiddling knobs on a synth or tweaking MIDI notes in Logic.

Anyway, here’s a cameraphone snap of me with the venerable 8078. I’m sure to most of you it looks just like any other mixing board. But to those in the know, this is like a vintage Bentley.

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more pics from TEDGLobal 09

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Some pics from TEDGlobal in Oxford last week, copyright TED/ James Duncan Davidson.

imogented

Imogen Heap turns the audience into a human looping machine while jamming on the Hang drum.

matthewted

Matthew White, euphonium impresario

sophieted

Sophie Hunger, Swiss singer-songriter

radioorchestrated

The Radio Science Orchestra. Centre is Lydia Kavina, niece of Leon Theremin. To right is Bruce Woolley. I later joined them for my song Puls Kosmosa.