Archive for the 'Music' 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!

Get ready for TEDx Aldeburgh Music on Nov 6th

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

On November 6th I’ll be hosting an exciting TEDxAldeburghMusic event at the Snape Maltings in Suffolk, UK, home of the Aldeburgh Music festival, featuring an excellent lineup of performers including Imogen Heap, William Orbit, Martyn Ware, Tim Exile and Tod Machover.

I’ve written a lot about the TED Conference here over the last few years, but in case you didn’t know, I’m TED’s music director, which means I help select and book the musical performers for the events, as well as providing the House Band. TED now has two regular annual events, the main one in Long Beach in Feb/March, and TEDGlobal in Oxford in July. A year ago we launched TEDx, ‘an independently organised TED event’, which enables any community or venue to stage their own mini-TED conference, within certain guidelines. TEDx events must be not-for-profit, and can use a quota of pre-recorded TED talks; but you must bring in your own speakers, video their talks, and send the results back to for possible inclusion on the main site. There has been an astonishing response to TEDx program over the last year with over 1500 events taking place all around the world.

Aldeburgh Music is an organisation that hosts the Aldeburgh Festival of mainly classical music. It was set up in the 1950s by composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears. My mother was the first secretary of the Festival, when the audience was about 100 people and it took place in the Jubillee Hall in Aldeburgh. As it grew, a new venue was selected: The Maltings at Snape, a beautiful disused industrial building complex set in the reed marshes on the upper reaches of the Alde river. I have a family connection there too—my great-great-grandfather was the brewer Newson Garrett who built the Maltings in the mid-nineteenth century where his company loaded malt onto Thames sailing barges bound for London and the Continent. So I’ve been going there for as long as I can remember, and Kathleen and I got married there in 1988. I even remember watching its huge roof burn in a terrible accident one night in 1968. It was subsequently rebuilt, and is now better than ever, housing the Britten-Pears Music School, as well as several peripheral buildings including the newly completed Hoffman Building which is used for extra activities such as Faster Than Sound, a series of experimental electronic music events, performances and installations. The expansion has been brilliantly masterminded by Aldebugh Music’s dynamic CEO Jonathan Reekie.

As I’m now living close to Snape again with my family, Jonathan and I had been thinking it would be nice if I could get involved in Aldeburgh Music in some way. Keen to grow Aldeburgh’s scope beyond just performance of music, he was very interested in TED, and when the TEDx program started up it seemed like an ideal opportunity to put together something that might even turn into an annual event. So the idea for TEDxAldeburghMusic came about. Joana Seguro, who produces the Faster Than Sound series and runs multimedia company Lumin, was engaged as Producer, and the three of us began lining up speakers and refining the theme. After a few months of planning we settled on a date and a speaker lineup.

So I’m pleased to announce that on Nov 6th TEDxAldeburghMusic will take place at the Snape Maltings, Suffolk. It will be a day-long, all-music themed event, featuring live talks and performances by Imogen Heap, William Orbit, Tod Machover, Louis Lortie, Martyn Ware, Tim Exile, United Visual Artists, David Toop and others. You can read their biogs here. As is always the case with TED events, speakers have a maximum of 18 minutes onstage, which means that during the course of the day the audience will witness a rapid-fire succession of brilliant speakers and performers, with a diverse range of wild ideas that will hopefully blend into a coherent theme. The main areas covered will be the creative process; music software and hardware tools and techniques; music in the community; and the future of the music business itself. Mixing up talks, live music, demos and video, along with some of the musical higlights from the last few years of the main TED Conference, I’ll be introducing the program and (hopefully) tying it all together. It promises to be a great day.

The proceedings kick off at 10am and last until 5pm or later. TED events are very interactive, so bring your friends or make new ones. It’s perfectly ok at TED to continue and expand the ideas presented onstage via conversations with complete strangers in the foyer or in the lunch break. Tickets are a very reasonable £20  (£15 if you’re under 27) and you can buy them here.

More information at:

see you at the Maverick Festival gig July 3rd

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

On Saturday July 3rd at 7pm I’ll be playing a fun gig at the Maverick Music Festival in Easton, Suffolk, UK. I’ve formed a temporary band called The Toad Lickers and we’ll be playing a short ~1/2 hour set to celebrate the release of the ‘Amerikana’ EP. It’s quite appropriate as this is an Americana music festival. It’s a relaxed and upbeat affair that takes place on a working farm, with several stages featuring great roots American and ‘Country And Eastern’ bands and singer songwriters. It’s in its third year and is run by my friend and neighbour Paul Spencer, long time music video documentary producer (and former drummer with the Alex Harvey Band!) On the surface I’m an unlikely person to play a barn dance with linedancing picnickers in cowboy hats, but actually if you’ve read the lyrics to ‘Toad Lickers’ from the EP you’ll know it’s not quite such a stretch! In fact, I’m going to be shooting a video earlier that day, so if you do make it and would like to be an extra, make yourself known.

You can get a one-day ticket to the event for £25 – either online via (probably not ready till next week) or by phone from NAC on 01603 660352.

I mentioned Maverick in an interview with the Bob Harris show on BBC Radio 2 which will air in the early hours of this Sunday morning (June 26th) around 12.15am. We’ll be rehearsing at Kevin’s later that day, taking a 2-hour break to watch England v Germany. We’ll try to put together another rehearsal on July 2nd, but that’s it. So it’ll be somewhat less spontaneous than the Union Chapel gig in February, but not a lot! I won’t have a big synth rig, so don’t expect pyrotechnics. It’s an organic, low-budget affair, with a tight stage, but the band lineup should be as follows:

drums: Justin Hildreth
bass: Matthew Seligman
guitar: Kevin Armstrong
fiddle/banjo: Aaron Jonah Lewis
pedal steel: BJ Cole
backing vocals: Barbara Ann Spencer (Paul’s wife!)

Nick Sinclair took some really nice pics to help publicise the event. I got to pose with this gorgeous 1930s Indian motorcycle:

17 Hills dilemma

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Just so you know, I don’t make musical decisions by committee. I believe ultimately as an artist you have to be selfish and please yourself, rather than trying to second-guess your audience.

However, one of the songs from my upcoming EP ‘Amerikana’ has two different vocal takes. The first went down live in the studio along with bass, drums, guitar and grand piano. The second I did several months later as an overdub. I’ve worked a lot on the song over the interim and I’m very close to it at this point, probably too close, and I was finding it hard to judge which was the best vocal.

So as an experiment I sent 16 friends two mixes each, just piano and vocal, A (live) and B (overdub.) Same piano track on both. Some of them are musicians, some are just friends I trust. I will paste their reactions below:


generally, prefer B….
it’s more english, and the words are clearer
which is important in this one..


B gets my vote. You’re telling the story more clearly without mawkishness..
A is a wee bit too melancholy for me though there is a section of A which is better.


B. Love and warm vibes


It is clearly vocal B that I feel is the stronger one. In vocal A, I don’t feel that you are really hearing the words and telling the story that you are singing. For example, the beginning of the first bridge. In vocal A, it sounds like part of the song. In vocal B, you stop to tell us that story. You make a change.


B. It’s the one which makes me want sing along. It’s the one which makes me really listen to the words. It’s the one that makes me tear-up.


I vote “B”. IMO “A” is not a confident, committed telling of the tale like “B”. “B” is a
unified piece, angrier in the right place, more vocally dynamic and far more
confident where the melody takes an unexpected turn and challenges the ear.
I would delete “A” and feel excited and positive about “B”.


my vote is for version B. It sounds lived in.


There is something in your voice on A that is impossible to repeat, and as music is a moment, the
moment is captured there so beuatifully. Not that the other vocal isn’t good. But A is the one. Trust me!
And thanks for asking my opinion.


I’m going to say vocal B! More personal and earnest, sounds like you “mean it” more, and reminds me of your Flat Earth era vocals.


B is very much the thomas that we know…..english, slightly more introverted
deeply soulful….closer to the airwaves thomas :) …and very
importantly I can hear all the words…


“A” makes more sense to me. “A” would be my choice if I were in your shoes.


B is the most engaging of the vocals by far – I understand you’re going for a world weary approach with A, but it’s a bit of a whinge to be honest – B is Best  – good tone and I actually want to listen to his story whereas the A fellow, well I’d happily pull the switch!


Vocal B sounds more decisive to me esp at the beginning.

Listening to the recent version I hear that it DOES sound like you’ve lived with this tune a long time… and I think that’s a good thing. So I’m not sure how much of a “gut decision” it represents, but I would be inclined to go with version B.


I vote for this one… Vocal B. I love your connection to the lyric on this one!


we prefer B.  Both are gorgeous, Version B seems to have more clarity


I have not filtered these comments. They were 16:2 in favor of B, with two lone souls preferring A.

Most of the criteria I felt were important—the storytelling and the emotion—I suspected A had the edge, but people actually got more of those same qualities from B. Funny how people perceive things differently! The aggregate of comments about A was ‘indecisive, worldweary, whingey,’… the story was not as well told and the words were not as clear.

I read the responses as they came in, feeling more and more comfortable with the idea of going with vocal B. The two lone detractors twinged something in my heartstrings, but I brushed over that. I was relieved they were almost unanimously in favour of B, because A is a technical nightmare—the vocal mic has piano all over it, making it virtually impossible to tweak for tuning and timing, or to get rid of lip smacks and asthmatic breaths.

Yet I am genuinely torn because my heart says in A I was feeling it more; plus wouldn’t life be great if I could do one-take vocals and never have to worry about them again!

Then I got this email from the guy that’s going to engineer/mix it with me next week, a man with a long an distinguished track record who did a great job mixing one of my previous albums. Yikes.


There is no comparison, as I suspect you knew, but just needed affirmation.  The live vocal (A) is perfect.  well..  it’s hard to understand “cell block E”, “cell block A”, and what exactly the crooked lawyer did, but please, you know its right.  There’s loads we can do in protools, as long as we lock in the mix on fresh ears, before the tweezing.
It’s fucking gorgeous.


The plot thickens…..

my new alter-ego: The Lost Airman

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

A bizarre character called The Lost Airman dropped in on a London gig Saturday night by Evelyn Evelyn, Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley.

And who was that masked man? The audience gasped as he tore off his false ‘tache and eyebrows, popped out the zombie contact lenses, and shed the Galliano coat; then Amanda said “It’s Thomas Fucking Dolby!” And the audience (mostly under 40) didn’t know who the hell Thomas Dolby was either. Never mind, I thought, and launched into an impromptu ‘New Toy’, which I wrote for the original, seldom-credited punk cabaret diva Lene Lovich. Amanda took a good long sniff of her armpit and blasted out a great version of the song, as Jason strummed.

Here’s a fan video clip of the song, which we managed to pull off without bass and drums.

Many thanks to @karohemd for the pics!

Melodyne Editor comments

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Today’s blog will be of little interest to you unless you’re actively involved in pro audio, computer music, studio production and so on. I posted these notes to the Celemony online forum earlier today.

It concerns a new software program called Melodyne Editor. Even laypeople have probably heard of ‘Autotune’, a rival program and also these days a generic term for the digital retuning of vocals and some instruments. Well, the it’s not hard to understand that a computer could be used to speed up and slow down the pitch of a note or series of notes at a microscopic level. But it’s completely counter-intuitive to imagine being able to select a single note from within a chord or cluster of notes, and retune that independently of what’s going on around it.

After a couple of days working with Melodyne Editor, I’d like to post some comments for others pro audio users considering making the purchase, and/or for existing users who want to share tips on how to get the best out of it. I should state that I paid full price (£359 in the UK) for this product and have no affiliation or sponsorship deal with Celemony. I think this is a fabulous, magical piece of software. I always thought of pitch/time shifting tools as something you could apply to monophonic content, but that complex or polyphonic content was strictly out of bounds. After using Melodyne’s DNA (Direct Note Access) technology I’ve had a revelation: an audio recording is just a bunch of fundamentals and harmonics represented as digital data, that can be analysed, segmented and manipulated, all non-destructively. Here are some detailed comments:

-ME worked great for my brass section, but also for guitar parts–I was quite amazed when I transferred a comp’d guitar track (acoustic arpeggios, chunky electric chords, and electric lead all on a single track) to find that I was able to access and retune individual notes. A very helpful feature for guitars is the ability to click on a note on the left hand margin (eg high E) and effectively retune just that string, throughout the piece.

-I also used it on an out of tune bass guitar track. I feel it does this better than a monophonic retuning tool, because sometimes the ends of notes overlap or have overtones. Interstingly, with bass it doesn’t always sound ‘correct’ to have it perfectly in tune. But I like that ME lets you ‘eyeball’ the tuning on a passage and see what’s going on, even if you choose to leave it alone.

-As you do lots of work in ME you have to keep an ear out for unwanted artefacts as you go. Sometimes you can introduce clicks at the begining of notes. But if you make a mistake you can always go back and reset the changes you made to that particular note. This is an improvement over ProTools, where sometimes you’re performing destructive edits on the source material, and if you screw up you have to go fishing around folders for the raw source.

-When dealing with vocals, I’m pleased that Melodyne doesn’t seem to have such a recognisable ‘sound’ to it the way Autotune does.

-Being a pretty innacurate singer, when I record vocal tracks, in the past I have typically sung 3 or 4 good takes, then comp’d them together line by line, even borrowing words, syllables and breaths. What I will probably do now do is a secondary comp, choosing between the ‘untuned’ and ‘retuned’ vocal. Sometimes a line is more expressive when left alone. Other times a word that was in tune to begin with, actually sounds better sonically after ME because of what it does the to internal modulation of the note.

-My vocal tracks in ProTools LE often end up with dozens of fades and crossfades, to avoid the clicks it introduces when waveforms have to make a jump at an edit point. ProTools HD doesn’t have this problem (one reason they stick you up for a lot of extra dough!) yet ME seems to get around this by cleverly negotiating all its edit points. I can’t tell you what a time saver this is. Now a few small gripes:

-When dealing with multitrack data, and tuning tracks individually, it’s very easy to end up with a ‘chorus’ type effect, which spoils the sonic integrity of the source. For example, with my brass section tracks (3 individual plus a pair of room mics) I retuned each track seperately, and the result no longer sounded out of tune but there was a strong chorus/ensemble effect which took away from the personality of the horns. It would be great if you could retune one track, then apply those settings to an adjecent or other track, so that all tracks get tuned the same way. I understand that the standalone version may be able to do this?

-In ProTools, if I transfer more than about 30 seconds of audio, PT’s transport refuses to stop playing, and all functions are frozen. Last night I aborted it after about 20 minutes. I had to stop and start the transfer in chunks.

-I find the Tuning Drift tool very unhelpful. I assumed this would work well on a note that started off in tune then drifted sharp or flat. It doesn’t seem to work as advertised, and I end up using the Modulation tool instead.

-I wish the standard Apple key commands worked within ME, such as Command-Z for Undo. After 25 years working with a Mac I hit this like a nervous twitch, and it’s annoying to have to keep remembering that it only exists as an ME menu command.

-I’d like a single command to render the ME-affected audio back to a track of ProTools as a new audio file. Bouncing and importing are too disruptive. Of course everybody uses their tools and workstation differently, but I hope my $0.02 is helpful. I have no regrets about shelling out for Melodyne Editor. Congratulations Celemony on a fabulous piece of kit!

Howard Jones dream

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Last night I dreamed I hired Howard Jones for a keyboard session at a big studio (Abbey Rd? Real World?) We were getting ready for him and setting up all my old keyboards—the Fairlight, the PPG. I was worried because they had been in storage for so long. Someone came in and said ‘Howard’s juicers are here–where should be put them?’ (For some reason I knew his ‘juicers’ were not electric blenders, they were people to make his fruit juice.) I hooked up the PPG Wave 2.2 and played a chord. It was a long backwards sample that I could not make out. Then I looked at its little LED screen and all the text was back to front. At first I thought this was because its patches were garbled after all this time. Then I realised it does that when you play a backwards sample—it’s a little German in-joke.

Eventually Howard arrived. He was very friendly and looked great, in fact just like 1983. But we were both wearing identical green corduroy jackets. This was embarassing but being English neither of us felt able to mention it. Then I woke up.

Top 10 reasons today is a fabulous day:

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Thomas Dolby
Pic: Richard Skidmore

1. Sun is out, steady gentle breeze.
2. The Nutmeg is generating LOTS of power, feel I could run the whole village off it.
3. Sitting in my wheelhouse editing 10 takes of Natalie MacMaster‘s delightful fiddle playing.
4. Engraver called to tell me some tiny brass plaques I ordered for my wooden sailboat are ready to pick up. ‘Jib’/'spi’/'cunn’/'kick’ etc. Will row out and do some drilling before this evening’s Loch Long race.
5. A sand artist I contacted in Isreal may be interested in working with me.
6. Booked an Eddi Reader vocal session in Glasgow next month.
7. Limbs aching satisfyingly after windsurfing and tennis yesterday.
8. Pot of Earl Grey just brewed.
9. My Wired Playlist Podcast is up on iTunes, featuring 2 1/2 brand new songs!
10. Reading enthusiastic feedback to 9, to my new singles album Singular, and to the track listing on the upcoming GAOW and TFE re-releases.