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Monday, 6 January 2020

Making Music, Part 2: If music is the food of the soul, I can only make baked beans.

Playing music has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to learn to do. Writing music, however, has been THE hardest.

My first exposure to writing music was a game on the Playstation 1 called Music 2000. It was pretty good, it had all the midi writing tools current music software does, with basically the same UI. If you couldn’t write your own tunes, it had samples which were all in the same key so you could just jam those together and make something that sounds amazing... to a child.

My interest in it waned after I realized there was no way to get my super cool tunes off the PS1 to impress all my friends.

Flash forward to my teenage years. Writing lyrics was the preferred way to kill time while in the back seat during long car journeys and other occasions when my parents didn’t get me. Here are some actual lyrics I wrote:

I was just starting to dabble with the ukulele back then, knowing little beyond the absolute basics. Thanks to my friend's older brother who was a stellar piano player, I learnt some chords that didn't sound terrible in combination. However, a neat chord progression alone wouldn't drive these lyrics out of Sucksville. Plus, I’m poor at singing, which didn't help.

At the time I thought it was the chords' fault, of course, and that I could replace them with better ones if I knew some music theory. Luckily, there are seemingly limitless resources for learning theory, which I understand now, would only get me so far.
You know what actually would have helped? Learning an instrument well enough to compose on it, which I cleverly did not do. With this one neat trick I had created a stupidity feedback loop; Every time I’d pick up my ukulele, I’d eventually get tired of my own lack of skill and go learn some theory. If I knew more theory, I reasoned, the next time I tried to compose would be much more pleasant, right? Spoilers: no.

After 15 years of finding and absorbing as much theory as I could without proper teaching; watching song breakdowns and learning fancy magic words, I have figured out what I should have done from the start. So let me sum up everything I found useful without getting into the nitty gritty:

  • All the music theory I learned was not useful as a starting point for making music. It became useful much later as a diagnostic tool, though could still have been replaced with experimentation.
  • Instead, if you play your instrument a lot by learning a lot of different songs you will begin to recognise patterns. A circle of fifths diagram can tell you how chords could be arranged, but only playing will make it intuitive.
    Also, by playing a lot, you’ll find particular sounds you enjoy to make on your instrument. When you go to write, you will draw from what you know and these sounds will be not only your building blocks, but your signature.
  • When playing or writing music, repetition is your friend. You may get bored playing the same thing over and over, but the listener does not. In fact, it gives them an idea of what comes next. Like with any art, setting expectations for the audience allows them to become invested, whereas inconsistencies are jarring.
  • Restrictions on your practice will serve to both prevent becoming overwhelmed, and format your art to be more consistent. Try writing using only 4 chords or only a few notes, etc.

As for resources, here are the ones I found most useful:

This image of a chord wheel. It's still worth having as a reference for building a chord progression. Play the chords in the pink shape and you'll get an idea of their relationship to each other. Then, you can shift the shape around the circle to hear the same relationships in different keys.

8bit Music Theory is a youtube channel which I found very useful when learning theory, it's very clear and descriptive. It helped me understand how music is like any other art form; there are practices but no rules, and gradation in sound is just as rich as gradation of color. At the same time, the channel breaks down tons of potential directions for writing and techniques you could add into your pieces.

This latest stint of learning to write music has stemmed from making my game, Winter Solace. It needs a soundtrack at some point, which is enough to motivate me to have another crack at it.

So, armed with all this knowledge and experience, would I do any better?

Subscribe for the exciting conclusion in
Making Music Part 3: Anyway here’s Wonderwall

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Making Music Part 1: I fell in love with a dying keyboard

Like many, I tried to learn an instrument from a young age, and also like many, I was terrible. I've always been a more image-y kind of guy. My instrument was the piano, but neither my parents nor the teacher could really motivate me to play. I even had a nice electric keyboard, but I rarely turned it on to do anything but laugh at the synthesized orchestra hits.

One day, I stumbled on a YouTube video of a guy called Jake Shimabukuro playing ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on a ukulele and felt deep in my gut that this was a feat I had to accomplish.

So I bought a ukulele, found the tab, and it was the first thing I learned. To this day it’s still the most complicated piece I can play (mediocrely), though I'm in the process of transcribing Chopin’s nocturne op. 9 no. 2.

From then on, learning to play was a challenge I'd gladly face. Ukuleles are plain fun to use even if you're just pumping out musical gibberish, and taking it seriously presents a very unique kind of challenge, like learning a new language.

During uni I felt like rekindling my piano skills to see what I'd retained. But my uni dorm was small. Really small. Enough room for a bed, a desk and chair. There might have been space for an extra person, if they were standing and the door were closed. A keyboard would not fit.

After a little searching on eBay, I spied a keyboard with a few octaves missing (four instead of the normal seven) and snatched it up. Only when it arrived did I see that not only were there fewer keys, but they were smaller too. Truly the ukulele equivalent of a piano.

And it's gorgeous. Boasting nine instruments (including the world's simplest drum machine), it can be played out and about for the low low cost of six DD batteries. But the sound, oh the sound. The beauty that pours out of this machine is something hipsters can only dream of emulating.

I had no idea what I had bought but it was perfect. I didn't care that I'd retained nothing from my childhood because just pressing the keys was, and still is, a joy. The way the tones crumble when you press too many keys at once and how the circuitry is slowly coming apart produces a sound I find absolutely heartbreaking.

It may not be long for this world, so I quested to save it while I still can.

Over the last week I've been learning Ableton Live, a surprisingly approachable music program, sampling the whole keyboard to make digital versions of all the tones. With help from friends and tutorials, I’ve managed to get past the interface, learned the magic words, and come to terms with the software.

So here it is. It took me a couple of days to clean, trim and master, but if you'd like to play a digital version of my keyboard, now you can too.

Dropbox Link

Now that I can make any sound I desire, nothing should be able to stop me from writing my own songs, right?

Subscribe for part 2: If music is the food of the soul, I can only make baked beans.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The lens into another place

Last year I found my art to be a bit lacklustre, I don't feel like i've gotten better since last time I had a crack at a drawing. So i decided to dedicate the start of the year to reflection and development.
Something I've found really facinating is Twin Peaks' depiction of two opposites existing in parallel, like being inside and outside at the same time. I tried to get that feeling here. While reflecting, I went looking for some new art and found a couple new artists that inspired breathed life into my own style:

Jules (@Cy_lindric)

Sachin Teng (@SachinTeng)

Over time i've collected a huge folder of reference images, as catalysts for concepts at a later date. One of which is a book on abstract photography called Shape of Light, with photographs from the Tate Moderns exhibition of the same name. I find abstract photos are high fedelity enough to give you an idea without describing any specific place or scenario. If you're having an art block, I reccomend.

In this year I want to check that folder more often, flick through, get inspired and clear asside time to make more thoroughly planned drawings. I haven't been satisfied with a drawing I've done in a while.

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Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Chevron Hakama Trousers

I was inspired by a piece of art I saw at the Jameel Prize 5 exhibition at the V&A earlier this year. The Jameel Prize celebrates contemporary Islamic art, and the work that inspired me was by Hala Kaisow.

Hala Kaiksow is a sculptural clothing designer who works with natural fabrics, naturally dyed and handmade. Her works have a natural emergent quality, as if they were either grown, or used to be something larger that became weathered over time. Her clothes have a nomadic aesthetic, and look like they are hung on a person, rather than enclosing.

They reminded me of Japanese traditional clothing and how they too feel like they drape bodies in cloth. A haori for example, feels like it rests on your shoulders, unlike a western jacket which feels like it's attempting to reshape you.

Hala's work re-stimulated my desire for more varied clothing, because men's fashion is a graveyard of jeans and t-shirts.

I've designed clothing, but never made any; this is my first atempt. I decided on starting with a pair of trousers because I didn't like the idea of figuring out how sleves work. Later I was told by friends who make clothes that as a starting place, I had chosen poorly.

And boy did I learn.

Fuelled by optimism, I started designing. They were going to be a sort of mix between the following clothes:

Some features that I wanted:
  • Loose easy fit - The gratuitous amounts of sweeping fabric never fail to look epic.
  • High waist - A lot of women's trousers have high waists and I am dead envious. They look like they give the hug equivalent of a waistcoat but for your hips and belly.
  • Loose crotch - So I can stretch in them and not be castrated by fabric.

Time to design, and the ideas were flowing. I was getting so into it that I thought maybe I could design a top at the same time? I mean, why not?? So easy amirite??? I decided not to for now.

**Top Tip** If you're ever looking for sewing patterns for clothing, add the magic word "drafting", otherwise you'll just get lots of patterned fabric. That's right, I made my own pattern, because I have no self control. With pens, paper, rulers, and a little basic maths, it felt like I was making a map, so I found it super fun.

It wasn't until version 1 2 3 4 that I had something that was actually wearable.

There was a lot of trial and error, I'll spare you the detail, but as you can see below it took till version 8 till I had something that I liked. It was tricky to figure out where extra fabric was needed and where it was too much.

And here they are!! As a bonus, I added buttons to the ankles so they can be tightened, and an obi belt because they're so darn cute.

If you'd like to recreate these in your fit, I've made a clean version of the pattern you can download below. It's scaled to 10 pixel per cm. The red parts, just try to make a smooth curve as best you can. There was some improvising in cutting and stitching, but this was the pattern I worked to.
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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

New Winter Solace banner

It's been a while since I've made a new piece for Winter Solace and I wanted to make a new banner, or something. Every little thing feels like I'm working towards how it'll be when it's complete...Maybe I'll animate it...
I feel like the name needs to change. Though not sure what to. Suggestions?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Learning to Unity 2: how I understood coding

Unity has some fairly cumbersome back-and-forths between different places in the program where you have to specify different things, a lot of important things are hidden, but that's mostly because there are just so many tools available.
There are plenty of good resources if you'd like to learn to use these tools or make a game in a following the steps kind of way. The problem came when I would try to make something of my own, I was absolutely paralyzed, unable to know where to start.

Until something clicked, and in an instant I understood what was going on

It's all about boxes.

In this order of a few steps, If you want to make a thing, you have to:

1. Decide what shape of box it will fit in.
2. Give your box a name.
3. Fill the box with that kind of thing.
4. Use or its edit the contents.

And the steps must be done in this order for something to exist and work.

 Let me break this down. When you see something like:

public int myFavoriteNumber;

What this is saying is that we have an "int"(code word for "integer") box called "myFavoriteNumber" which we can change from anywhere (public). (btw, the strange way of writing this is called "Camel case" and Unity will turn "myFavoriteNumber" into "My Favorite Number" by itself when you view it from outside of the code editor).

Then step three is to fill the box with something that will fit into it. you could do this in the script or let that be done in the unity editor:

Then step 4, since now that you have a box full of things and it has a name, you can ask for this box and it's contents from other places.

It's like if I want to give you a cup of tea, I first need to define what a cup is, call it something, and than fill it with tea. In code it would be written something like:

public cupoftea teaForYou = earlgrey;

Only then can you I give you the tea.