…but what could it be? Well… because I’m feeling all festive and that, here’s a cheeky listen to what to expect.
Earlier this year, me and my good friend/partner in crime Tom Pritchard decided it’d be an excellent idea to hole ourselves up in his studio for a week, and record as much music as was humanly possible. We had no idea whether this idea would work or not, but we set to it regardless and isolated ourselves from the outside world. After an incredibly inspiring week of recording using a variety of analogue synths, drum machines, and effects, we ended up with a huge selection of music.
The original plan was to compile our favourite material into one album, or potentially an album and an EP. After sifting through the vast selection of recordings we decided that the best thing to do would be to compile our music as two full-length albums, each with a different feel to it. So that’s what we did.
It gives me great pleasure to present the fruits of our week-long collaboration/social isolation/sometimes co-op Halo sesh: Neffle!
While being very different to my usual output, Neffle represents a very particular moodset and, aided by the spontaneity of recording, is a remarkably honest collection of music. Due to the nature of the live recording process, there is no micro-editing, no obsessing over every minuscule detail, no ridiculous production wankery: just a selection of steadily evolving, hypnotic ideas put to disk. We decided an October release would be best due to the heavily autumnal feel of the album, and I’ve got to say… I think it suits the current climate incredibly well. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.
The artwork for both releases was very kindly provided by Charlotte Davis, whose photography is well worth a closer look. Cheers Charlotte!
Wow. I’m still quite overwhelmed by the response to Pieces. Thank you so much to everyone who has checked it out over the past couple of months, it really means a lot that it’s been such a popular release… especially given the experimental nature of it’s release! So far it looks like the audiophile master hasn’t been a massively popular choice (though, I must admit, I suspected that would probably be the case), but I’ve been overwhelmed at the response to choosing to release it as a PWYW compilation. Thank you so much to everyone who has bought it through Bandcamp, and I hope you’re enjoying the bonus tracks!
Anyway, I thought it’d be a good idea to let you know what I’m planning on doing this month. October has been a pretty special month for me over the past few years, and I plan on continuing this semi-tradition this year. But first, a little background.
In October 2011, I started working on a few ambient re-workings of existing tracks. I continued working on new tracks in a similar style once I’d re-worked three tracks. These tracks became And All Is As It Should Be, which was then released in 2012.
In October 2012, I wrote a large collection of songs that would later form the backbone of Pieces. A lot of these tracks were picked up for production use, and a lot of these tracks were used on Pieces. Two of these remain unreleased (last time I counted!), and I’m sure they’ll make an appearance at some point.
In October 2013, I wrote a few songs that… erm… I’m keeping to myself for now. I don’t want to sound cryptic, but I will say that they formed the foundation of what I’m hoping will be a future release. I also wrote some more tracks for Pieces.
And this year, I plan on writing lots of short ideas, similar to what I did back in 2012. I have no idea what I’m going to do with them, and I have no idea what style they’ll take. So far, it’s going in a direction I hadn’t anticipated… which is great! Who knows where this idea will take me.
And this is the first track. Wish me luck!
Pieces it out now! Did I mention that it’s free? Grab it now, you fool!
Pieces is available to download now in your format of choice. Everything that you could possibly want to know about this release has been covered already, but I’m still open to the idea of writing more articles related to its creation.
And with that… I would like to take this opportunity to say a HUGE thank you to every one who pre-ordered Pieces! Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy it!
Next stop… album 4. Ho ho ho ;]
’nuff said – Pieces is out tomorrow!
So, Pieces is out in just over a couple of weeks, and you’ll be able to download it for free. I’d just like to take this quick opportunity to say a huge thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered the extended/audiophile versions so far – your support genuinely means a great deal to me, and I’m looking forward to sharing the extra goodies with you all.
So – on to the topic at hand: all of my larger independent releases so far have been paid-for releases, so why the sudden change with Pieces? And, for that matter, why on earth am I now offering my previously paid-for albums as pay-what-you-want offerings? Yes, I’ve released free EPs and singles before now, but not albums. Why the sudden change of heart?
Well, there are actually a few different reasons as to why I’m doing this – but I’d like to preface this by saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with releasing albums with a price attached, or for free, or however an artist wants to release an album.
Pieces is my first independent release in about four years and, frankly, I thought it’d be fun to try something new! I’ve released free EPs and singles in the past, but I’ve always been a bit wary of releasing what is, essentially, a free album. In some regards, the very nature of Pieces is a bit of an experiment because it’s not what I would typically classify as a normal album (as I’ve detailed previously), so I felt a little safer in the knowledge that it could all blow up in my face. I have attached a monetary value of zero to this project, and I am going into it with every expectation that I won’t make anything from it. Before now, I’ve seen artists and content creators release material using a pay-what-you-want model, only to turn around and get pissy at customers because they aren’t paying enough for their material. As far as I’m concerned, that is an absurd stance to take, and if you expect everyone to pay for a release then you should damn well attach a monetary value to it! In essence, by putting out Pieces as a PWYW release I am removing any financial expectations from it. I fully expect to make nothing off of this release, and the fact that people have pre-ordered the extended version so far has already surpassed my expectations, and I am hugely grateful to anyone who has chosen to support me despite there being absolutely no obligation to do so. That’s amazing, and – in a way – has already validated this experiment, in my eyes.
Secondly – and this relates directly to my re-pricing of Distant Activity and Lightfields as PWYW releases – I want people to listen to my music! I don’t want to get in the way of that. If people want to listen to an album, then you’d better believe that they’re going to find a way to do so, regardless of whether they want to pay for it or not. I could talk about the ethics behind content piracy until the cows come home, but my number one aim is for people to listen to and enjoy my music. I’ve never made a lot of money off of album sales, and I’ve never released an album in the hopes of making a quick buck. In a sense, re-pricing my earlier output is my way of putting my money where my mouth is – obviously I’d love it if people would continue to choose to support my work financially, but I don’t live in a fantasy land where I expect to live off of album sales alone. There are plenty of people out there who manage to do just that, and I applaud those individuals. It’s bloody hard. I just want to make my music available to as many people as possible, so it’s my job to let people download it easily and in their format of choice. Conversely, my releasing my music essentially for free is not a declarative statement that I believe people should feel entitled to have whatever they want (content wise) for free. I don’t agree with that. But, with regards to my own music – it’s my personal decision, not some kind of bold statement.
Thirdly – it’s a digital-only release. As I said before, I don’t expect to make anything off of this, and it costs nothing to release an album on Bandcamp. That’s awesome. I have zero overheads in that regard, and while Pieces took a hell of a lot of effort and time to put together (as every one of my releases has), I’m in a pretty financially neutral position from the get-go. I decided to release Pieces through iTunes, Amazon, Spotify et al because, once again, I don’t want to impose any kind of barrier to people who want to listen. Because my option in terms of releasing a free album via those services is restricted, I’ve decided to release the extended version through those services. Obviously, I’d much rather people choose to support me via Bandcamp but, again, I don’t want to get in the way of people listening to my music. Unfortunately, releasing music through iTunes costs money, but it’s really not a huge amount, and that’s a cost I’m happy to swallow.
I know it sounds like a giant cliché, but I am not putting out albums to make money. I release music and work in other fields related to audio to that end, and it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to release solo material without having to make any compromises. I do, however, feel that this was compromised slightly with my most recent label releases, but that had more to do with personal psychological issues than anything else – I wasn’t working to a deadline, and I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted.
With all this talk of separating music from financial value, though, I feel as though it would be remiss of me to suggest that I think my music has no value. If that were the case I would have stopped writing music a long time ago! As you’ve read, there are lots of little reasons as to why I thought this would be an interesting move, and none of those bear any relation to my own personal views on my musical output.
Ultimately, I stand by every single one of my releases and, though there are always things I would change about them in retrospect, they represent very specific periods in my life… and that’s something I would never want to interfere with, and it’s something I feel incredibly grateful to be able to share with people… well, not only that, I feel incredibly grateful that there are people out there who would want to share in that.
Regardless of whether you choose to support Pieces financially or not, I sincerely hope that some of you out there enjoy it and connect with it in one way or another. That’d be neat.
Pieces is a strange collection of songs. You may have noticed that I haven’t really been referring to it as an “album” over the past couple of weeks wherever possible (though, it’s always easier to label a collection of songs as an “album”, so now and then I take the easy route!), and there’s a very deliberate reason for that.
In my eyes, an album is something that was written & arranged to take the listener on a very deliberate journey – a collection of songs that follow a specific theme, or a deliberate series of themes, designed to complement each other. Where some people may refer to certain album tracks as “filler”, in my view it’s much more important whether such tracks work in the context of an album taken in its entirety than as stand-alone tracks. It’s along this way of thinking that I didn’t refer to And All Is As It Should Be as an album for a very long time; AAIAISB was more of a collection of selected ambient works, and while I can now say with absolute certainty that it has a strong journey-esque feel to it, it was certainly never written with a particular goal in mind. AAIAISB started life as a series of ambient re-works of existing tracks because I thought it’d be an interesting exercise, and it was something I found myself completely absorbed in once I got going. The aesthetic came as a natural extension of what I was doing, but it wasn’t a deliberate choice from the offset… but as a result of that naturally evolving aesthetic I feel, in retrospect, as though it’s earned the right to be called an album.
Pieces, on the other hand, was written over a much longer period of time than And All Is As It Should Be, and it certainly wasn’t written with any particular aesthetic in mind. I started working on Pieces one night back in August 2012, and it all came about from not being able to sleep one night. You get no bonus points for guessing which track I started writing that night (spoiler alert: Sleepless), but I wrote it and realised that I had no home for it. I was putting the finishing touches on Icarus, and it didn’t fit in with the rest of those tracks… so I held onto it. That was the start of a pattern of holding onto disparate tracks that wouldn’t fit in anywhere else, with one big exception.
In October 2012 I decided I was going to go to town and just write as much music as I possibly could. Regardless of whether I thought an idea worked or not, I was going to write loads of music and deal with it later. I ended up with 17 tracks at the end of the month, and I was incredibly happy with how the experiment turned out. In the months leading up to that (and somewhat thanks to my experience with writing Sleepless) I’d been working on refining my workflow in Reason. I had a very particular palette of sounds to work from (a lot of my own patches & techniques, and a lot of sounds by Tom Pritchard), and I found the chilly late-Autumn atmosphere particularly inspiring. I was experimenting with Blocks in Reason, and my Propellerhead Artist Feature was filmed around the time I was working on these tracks. Of those 17 tracks, only 5 made it onto the final version of Pieces, but two of them made it into my Artist Feature (if you’re interested in hearing those, they’re still on my Soundcloud page, and can be listened to using the player below). The rest found their way into the hands of various production agencies & music libraries, so all of them found a home. I was worried about breaking up that collection of songs for a long time, but it was definitely the right call. While they still stand as a lovely personal time-capsule in a similar vein to AAIAISB, I am much happier with the finished version of Pieces than I was with those tracks in isolation. The title of the project comes from this particular run of tracks, but feels much more relevant in the context of the finished article than the original 17 tracks.
That said, I continued writing odd songs over the course of the next year and a half, and it was only in late 2013 that I realised that I had a pretty hefty selection of songs without a home. I listened to them all, and I was surprised at how well they all sat together. A few songs had originally been written with album 4 in mind, so those sat well together. I’d written a few tracks around Sleepless, and I wrote a chunk of material during that particular October. I’d also written a couple of more post-rock inspired tracks after putting out the debut Civil Protection album. Here were four disparate collections of tracks that were all written to sit together in small groups, all thrown together to see what would happen… needless to say, I was very pleasantly surprised!
So, while I might not refer to it as an album in the strictest sense, that doesn’t mean I’m not happy with it as a complete work… and, for all I know, I’ll probably change my mind somewhere down the line. I’m already starting to feel that it has a pretty solid aesthetic quality to it, and it seems strange that these totally unconnected works would fit together like they were always supposed to. In that sense, I can’t think of a more fitting title for this particular project.
I guess the pieces came together, but I guess it’s up to the listener to decide whether they fit or not.
After my last posting about the audiophile master, it might seem a little strange to some that I’m not releasing any kind of physical version of Pieces. Surely, if there’s a version of the complete work that’s catered towards people who want to listen in a dedicated listening environment, it would make sense to put out some kind of physical release?
First up, I know there are plenty of people out there who prefer physical media over digital releases. I totally get that, especially in the case of vinyl – doubly so given that vinyl masters often offer the best way to listen to an album in an environment designed for listening. However, as I pointed out in my last post, this point in particular has nothing to do with the release medium whatsoever. I’m not a vinyl aficionado, but I still buy a lot of CDs. There’s something about the first listen ritual and checking out the artwork and any liner notes (if there are any).
Having said that, if I can’t get my hands on a CD copy of an album I particularly want, I have no qualms with downloading a digital copy… and that’s something I’ve found myself doing more and more recently. Strangely though, more than a few CD releases are comparable in price to their digital download counterparts (especially when you factor in additional costs for lossless versions – a practice I’m not particularly keen on), so for the marginal extra expense in cases like that I’m much more likely to go for a CD if possible. From a completely vain point of view, I also like to keep my music on a shelf so people can see what I’m into. To me, having that kind of thing on display is much more aesthetically pleasing than a bunch of files on my computer.
In short, I’m neither for nor against physical media at this point. Like I said, I’m not a vinyl aficionado, but if everyone were to suddenly stop selling CDs tomorrow and instead offered lossless digital versions of all of their music at a reasonable price instead, I don’t think I’d lose a whole lot of sleep.
None of this really explains why I’m not releasing a physical version of Pieces though and, predictably enough, it all comes down to numbers. Well, two sets of numbers, at least.
Firstly, I only had a pretty small run of CDs of both Distant Activity and Lightfields made in the first place. Icarus and And All Is As It Should Be were completely out of my control as both were distributed exclusively by Distinctive Records & Lost Language Recordings. I still have a few Distant Activity discs kicking about, and I have more than a few Lightfields discs still. The sales of downloads vs. CDs in the case of these two albums is incredibly one-sided in the favour of downloads, outside of pre-orders. I don’t have a huge amount of marketing clout (read: I have no marketing clout), and I have never been under any illusion that my music is going to suddenly become a cross-over best-seller. That’s not why I write music and put out albums, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I’m able to write music and make noise for a living without being entirely dependent on album sales. CD sales have declined massively for me over the past three years or so, and now it’s at the point where I feel like getting a CD run put together would be a complete financial waste of my time. Unless there’s a sudden run on physical versions of my existing releases, I don’t see myself putting out another CD release again. Anybody who is able to read this article is probably more than likely to have a sufficient internet connection to be able to download my music. The important thing for me is to put out my music at a comparable standard of quality to a CD release wherever possible, which is why – when possible – I’ll always try to make my music available in lossless formats as well as lossy formats. The financial incentive is gone, and I’m no longer as bothered by the need to have a physical release as I once was. Been there, done that.
Secondly, there are three versions of Pieces. Which version would I even put out? I could put out a physical version of the main album itself, which would be kind of pointless as you can download it for free. I could put out a physical version of the extended edition, but then what about the audiophile version? I could include that as an extra disc, but then it’d be at a lower quality than the actual downloadable release version (the downloadable version is released as 48khz/24-bit files). And even then, why would you want an extra disc with the exact same music on it? I don’t think I’ve ever bought a double-album that featured the exact same music on both discs – I’ve bought a couple of albums with instrumental versions available on a separate disc (which is something I took on board with the digital releases of instrumental versions of Distant Activity & Lightfields, and is a trend I plan on continuing with future vocal works), but never with the exact same material on both discs. I’m sure that such a thing exists, and if anyone has come across a good example of such a release then let me know!
From the point of view of my own vanity, I’d love to keep putting out physical releases. I still remember holding my first Distant Activity CD, and holding something that I’d put so much work into in my own hands. But I’ve got to be realistic, and – especially with Pieces – I don’t think it’s the right call.
That’s my take on things. Maybe in the future I’ll think about putting out a vinyl release of my next album or whatever I do, but honestly I just don’t see it being either financially viable or practically relevant any more. If I started taking my solo music live, I’d think about it (but that’s a topic for another time). As it is, though, I’d much rather put that effort into writing music, and releasing it in a variety of formats and versions to suit the actual listening experience. There are things I can experiment with in the world of digital distribution that would be much more costly to try out with physical media, and that seems like it should take a much higher priority over my own brief personal satisfaction.
I’ve gone a bit mad and decided to release Distant Activity & Lightfields as Pay What You Want albums over on Bandcamp, starting from the princely sum of “nothing” if you so choose.
I have no idea how long I’ll keep them like that until I come to my senses, so it’s probably a good idea to take advantage of this before I change my mind.
Hello, and welcome to a series of articles I’m going to be writing about the creation & release of my compilation album Pieces!Today I’m going to talk about one of the bonus features for those who pay for the release via my Bandcamp page, and why I decided to release it in the first place. This feature is something I’ve wanted to experiment with for a little while now, and it’s called the “audiophile master”. To explain what that is, we have a bit of ground to cover first. This will serve as more of a primer for the overall concept – if you’re looking for an in-depth look at mastering and the processes involved, I would strongly suggest looking elsewhere.
So: What does the mastering process entail? Generally speaking, the mastering process is the final creative step between an otherwise completed project and the listener. As songs are recorded, produced, and mixed individually, this can result in a collection of tracks which may have some quite wild sonic variations throughout. Naturally, this would not be particularly useful for the average listener – an album should flow naturally with each track sitting comfortably alongside the next. Listeners should not have to ride the volume control while listening to an album to compensate for wild amplitude fluctuations between tracks. It is the job of the mastering engineer to take the final project mix-down, and make sure it all sounds correct as one complete work. It is also the job of the mastering engineer to get the project ready for distribution, which can involve adding ISRC codes and other meta-data to the release.
Why are there two masters in this case, then? Well, this actually goes back to the point I made above about the listener not having to ride the volume control while listening to an album. It has become common practice over the past two decades or so to raise the overall level of a project during the mastering stage, so that the final album will sound satisfyingly loud next to other commercial releases. While this sounds like a reasonable thing to do on paper, this practice involves the use of heavy compression and limiting, which will result in reduced dynamic range and, in some instances, distortion in the form of digital clipping. There is only so far you can push digital audio before this happens and, naturally, this is not a good thing. It is up to the mastering engineer to strike a fine balance between perceived loudness while preserving a project’s natural dynamic range. While a listener should not have to ride the volume control while listening to an album, there should be room for an album to ebb and flow in a satisfying manner if necessary. While listening to an individual song that is AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE might be satisfying at first, this may fatigue the listener over the length of an entire album or with repeated listens. Again, this is not a good thing. An often cited example of an overly compressed record is Metallica’s Death Magnetic. It is compressed to the point of repeated clipping, and – even to the average listener – sounds distorted throughout.
Soooo… why are there two masters in this case, then?! See, I came across this idea last year with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ rather fantabulous album “Hesitation Marks”. They made a big deal of the fact that copies of the album purchased through the website would feature the regular version of the album, which would be compressed & limited to a commercially viable level, and an “audiophile” version of the album, which would be specifically designed for those wishing to listen in a dedicated listening environment with the dynamics preserved to a much higher standard. This sounded like a fantastic idea to me – a commercially loud master for regular listening, and a dedicated master that eased up on the compression for those who want to kick back and listen to the album in a quality listening environment.
What you’re saying is that, basically, you stole the idea then? Well… yes and no (buuuut… mostly yes!). To be honest, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the NIN audiophile master. It sounded different, and there was definitely a bit more going on in the low-end which was a bonus, but it didn’t preserve the dynamics of the original album mix as well as I’d hoped – especially when compared to the vinyl release. There is no reason for this in my opinion. Vinyl is not a superior format in terms of potential dynamic range, but vinyl masters are often far more dynamic than their digital counterparts. This is a huge issue in my opinion, and is not something that can be solved by releasing albums at a ridiculous sample rate and high bit-depth. This is one reason why I was a bit miffed at the marketing for the Pono player, which seemed to completely skirt the real issue entirely. It is for this reason that I decided to go with a sample rate of 48khz at 24-bit for the audiophile master – the difference in dynamic range comes from the master itself, not from the distribution format.
If the audiophile version is better then, why not just release that? That is an excellent question, and there’s one big thing I want to point out here. The “regular” Pieces master is in no way compromised or inferior to the audiophile version. They are meant for different purposes. Strictly speaking, I wrote the album with the regular master in mind, and it was the first master that I heard in its entirety and was completely happy with. I would never put out a release that I felt was compromised in any way. For everyday listening, the regular master is the way to go, and I imagine it will be the version of choice for the vast majority of listeners. However, for those with a dedicated listening environment with high quality equipment, the audiophile master provides a nice alternative. When I use the word “audiophile”, I am referring to the kind of person who loves listening to albums from start-to-finish in a dedicated listening environment, and not to the kind of person who would spend hundreds of pounds on hi-fi cables because they sound “cleaner”.
Let’s get down to it then: what are the main differences between the two masters? Here goes…
In short: The main reason behind the existence of the Pieces audiophile master is to provide some additional choice for those who want it. When I say that “most people will prefer the regular master”, this is not a condescending or disparaging statement. Which version you prefer will likely come down to taste as much as anything, and I would much rather offer the choice to those that want it than offer a one-size-fits-all release with no alternative.
Regardless of which version you prefer, I hope you enjoy Pieces when it’s released on the 8th August!