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Black and The Christians live in Camberley

14 April 2007

Last night I went to see the 20th anniversary tour of The Christians and Black, at Camberley Theatre.

Black, and Colin Vearncombe in his solo guise, I've seen many times before. For the last fifteen years, his shows have been acoustic and stripped down. So it was a treat to see him fronting a raw electric four piece last night, with three singers, two guitars, a bass guitar player and a drummer (it does add up, the guitarists all sing). He kicked off the show with 'Everything's Coming up Roses', and despite gremlins in his amp for the first couple of songs, seemed to be enjoying rocking out. "They've let me out to make some noise again," he told the audience. Although this was a full band show, the mix was perfectly balanced and you could hear every word, something of a rarity today.

The setlist predictably included 'Sweetest Smile' and 'Wonderful Life', but many of the highlights were in the new material. Last year, Colin released the first album under the Black name for over a decade, and some of its tracks are among the best songs Colin's written. The title of 'Her Coat and No Knickers' got some laughs when announced, but the vulnerable ballad kept the audience rapt as it unfolded, a natural bedfellow for 'Let me watch you make love' from the second Black album. Colin got the acoustic guitars out and banished bass and drums for a delicate performance of 'Charlemagne'. 'Quinn's Old Flame', from Colin's experimental acoustic double album 'Smoke up close', was reinvented with a new electric arrangement. The show closed with a stunning performance of 'Water on Snow', perhaps Colin's best song out of the hundred or so he's released.

In a tour being promoted (and for many, attended) as a nostalgia trip it would have been easy to churn through the hits from the 80s and ignore the less commercially successful material. But Colin's continued to develop as an artist and if anything this short set proved that his new songs can easily stand against the hits that made his name.

The Christians I hadn't seen before. I remember listening to their early singles on the radio and I have a couple of their albums. With many bands, it's difficult to get into songs you don't know and this was the case for me here, although I enjoyed the oldies, in particular 'Sad Songs' and the encore 'Hooverville'. The lead singer was good at getting the audience to stand up and sing some 'nah nahs', but he didn't get people on their feet until near the end of the set. If the audience had been as into it nearer the start as they were at the end, it would have been a better gig. The highlight was a Bob Dylan cover, mostly played out with a picked electric guitar and Garry Christian's vocals. I don't really 'get' Bob Dylan, although I like a handful of his songs, so this was a surprise. Like Black's songs, the Christians' songs still stand up after 20 years.

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How to record/rip records for iPods and MP3 players

06 May 2006

Since I got a record player at Christmas, I've been tinkering with getting music on vinyl into a computer. I enjoy the gleam of the light across a mint 12" and the act of getting up and putting a new song on, having carefully chosen what would sound best next. But sometimes, it's nice to be able to play a track - perhaps even an otherwise unreleased b-side - on-demand in a single click. Perhaps most importantly, once these golden oldies are digitised, I can back them up and be sure that they won't degrade any further in quality.

My record player has a built-in pre-amp, so I can connect its output directly into the line-in on my PC. Initially I used a program called RIP Vinyl (see what they did there? Clever!). That worked well for pop music, but the volume settings for the line-in on my sound card appeared to be either extremely high or off. I couldn't get any sensible balance, which meant that noisy records suffered from clipping. It sounded like all the instruments were gargling with mouthwash at irregular intervals. But not, I hasten to add, in a good way.

I found I could get more control using the Sound Recorder program that comes free in Windows. Firstly, it worked with the second line-in socket my computer has (don't know why it has two, but it was free, so let's not question it). RIP Vinyl only coped with the one on the sound card. Secondly, it didn't suffer from any of the clipping.

Here's how to use Windows Sound Recorder to record vinyl:
  1. Find your advanced volume controls in Windows and adjust the line-in volume. If it's at zero, or the 'mute' checkbox is ticked, it's not going to work. I found a volume just about zero works just fine, but your mileage may vary.

  2. Go into Sound Recorder (it's in accessories > entertainment). By default, Sound Recorder can only record one minute of sound. The way to extend this is to load in a long silence and then record over it. You can do this by recording nothing for a minute, saving it, using Edit > insert file to insert it and repeat. Each time you do that, you add a minute. That kludge is - unbelievably - Microsoft-endorsed. Alternatively, download my ten minutes of silence.

  3. Put the needle on the record, and the drumbeat goes like this. Click the red round button to start recording.

  4. When the music stops, click the square stop button.

  5. Go to Edit > Delete after current position. That will get rid of any unnecessary silence at the end of your file.

  6. Go back to the start of your track in Sound Recorder and find where the music starts. This will take a bit of playing and stopping to work out. Just because the window shows a flatline when stopped, it doesn't necessarily mean the track's silent. Once you've found a spot just before the music starts, go to Edit > Delete before current position. That will get rid of any leading silence on your track.

  7. If you're recording an album, you'll need to extend your record time by inserting ten minute chunks repeatedly. By careful saving and use of the delete after and delete before, you can split a whole album into tracks. Be aware that the time counter loops at 999.99 seconds. That puzzled me for a bit.

  8. Sound Recorder will save a wav file. Using iTunes, you can load this using File > Add file to library. You can convert your WAV file to an MP3 by right clicking on it and selecting 'convert to MP3'. By doing this, you'll save as much as two thirds in file size without a noticeable drop in quality.

  9. Listen to your favourite old singles in an MP3 player and dance. Oh yeah. That's what it's about.
There is more sohisticated software available for ripping vinyl. There's even software dedicated to cleaning up the pops and crackles. But this is a proven and quick way to get vinyl recorded into your PC with the minimum of fuss and hassle.

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Erasure pioneers customised MP3 sales

29 December 2005

Erasure is using a new technology that enables you to mix a single and then download your preferred mix as an MP3. This technology for mass customising MP3s has also been used by The Prodigy, among others. My article looks at how it works.

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Amstrad CPC games updated

01 September 2005

In the 90s I wrote type-in games and programs for the Amstrad CPC computers which were published in Amstrad Action and Amstrad Computer User magazine. The format of type-ins imposed some limitations on the software - brevity was important, so you often couldn't do everything you wanted to. It was bad form to lock people out of a program which might have (their) errors in it by the time they came to run it, so you couldn't do anything too tricky with hiding the screen.

Last year I revisited my programs, which had already been on this site for a few years by then, and took the opportunity to improve them. It was mainly the presentation and music, although I also enhanced some elements of gameplay and the user interface.

I was surprised that after ten years I could still program the machine - not just by remembering what I'd done before, but by creatively solving new problems I hadn't come up against before. I hope to become as fluent in some of the new technologies I'm looking at, as I am in this obsolete platform.

Today I've replaced the two discs of Amstrad software that used to be here with one disc. I've removed programs that haven't aged as well or that don't make sense in an emulator (eg tape header reader) to make room for the improved type-ins. The disc still includes all the files referenced and tools used in my programming tutorial and still includes my machine code game 'The Further Adventures of Fred'. The disc also includes a puzzle called PixelMaze, which only had an obscure release before and so which can be considered new.

It's useful to know I can use the Amstrad as a prototyping platform on challenging projects before I get knee-deep in other programming languages I understand less instinctively. But I don't plan to begin any further Amstrad programming work. This was just a project I wanted to finish off properly, and now the updated disc has been uploaded, I have.

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