The importance of wholesome structures

Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head, has some important lessons for maintaining clarity and sanity in a world of proliferating distractions.

In meditation circles, it’s common knowledge that prolonged stability of attention can create the conditions for deep insights to arise. However, we live in societies where attention is being monetised and manipulated by the advertising economy. Social media is engineered to foster addiction; newspapers are engaged in a clickbait race to the bottom. The river is flowing fast – away from clarity, insight, connection, and wellbeing – towards attentional degradation. There is a vicious circle in which we no longer have the willpower to do those things that nourish us and so we just scrape along the bottom: clicking, swiping, bingeing. Is there a way we can pay attention the people, things, and places we really ought to, and so become happier in the long run?

Getting jiggy with it

Fortunately, Crawford thinks he has identified something that will enable just this. He describes a process in which a skilled carpenter cuts several pieces of wood to the lengths she will require other pieces to be. This is called a “jig.” Rather than measure subsequent pieces of wood, she simply cuts the new wood by resting her saw against the jig. The jig is an improvised structure: one that it makes it easy to perform a task correctly and without cognitive effort. Crawford sees jigs everywhere: in the short-order cook’s kitchen, and in the world of information work.

For example, I’m writing this in a notebook on the train to see my parents. I have no headphones and no books with me. My phone is stowed, it’s data connection off. This set up is a kind of jig. I can think, meditate, write—or not—or watch the beautiful West Country scenery roll by. My attention is less likely to be dragged away from these pursuits as it could be were I using a computer, or could feel the bulk of a smartphone in my pocket. Later, if I type this up, working from these notes will themselves be a kind of jig. I haven’t even taken Crawford’s book with me. This is a big deal for someone who can’t usually travel for a weekend without bringing three books, one of which might be 500 pages long and impenetrably written.

What happens when mind and body are in the same place? It’s actually quite nice, often, or has the potential to be. But we need structure to make it happen. Willpower is a finite resource. There are good jigs and bad jigs, and we use them all the time. Pen and paper offer more attentional protection for writers than an iPad; meditation retreats provide seclusion in which the heart and mind settle; joining a gym provides you not only with equipment but a dedicated space – if you go. Holidays are jigs for relaxing; gambling machines are jigs for ridding yourself of money. The internet is perhaps the mother of all jigs, a chaotic uber-jig, that simply amounts to the closest thing we have to a goddess of distraction.

What kind of jigs do you use? Is there a way of arranging these structures to best support your nobler intentions?

The New Default

Our gadgets come out of the box ready to bombard us with emails, distract with SMS messages, snare us with headlines, and amuse us with status updates. In our technocratic culture, the expectation is that we are always ready to respond. Yet the pace of information grows ever more frantic.

We could create a new default. What if we gave ourselves the time to settle into deep, uninterrupted attention; to cut away the trivial; to stop multitasking; to leave our phones off; to toss our ‘to do’ lists in the bin; to not check our email; to turn the router off; to write on paper again? What then?

The zenith of stuff

There’s a statistic doing the rounds that claims more than 50% of Earth’s species will be extinct within 85 years. E.O. Wilson, the Harvard professor behind this proclamation, has written about interdependence within ecosystems and the increasing pressure human activity is placing on life on Earth.

The idea that more than half of our biodiversity – both species we see everyday and those that are yet to be discovered by science – may disappear from the planet over the course of our children’s lifetimes strikes me as a startling wake up call, if one were needed. Perhaps the time has come to put aside some of our personal ambitions and learn to live simply again. We know that the period we are living in is most likely a historical blip in terms of the resources we have access to; and, as psychology tells us, we can’t pretend that we can make ourselves happier by acquiring more stuff. Our minds just don’t work that way.

We’re slowly recognising the limitations of materialism and increasingly looking to life experiences to provide meaning and status, as a glimpse at any social media feed will prove. Consumer brands are catching on, using advertising to position their products and services in a way that not only resonates emotionally but frames them as experience. Cars are for roadtrips with fashionable friends; bring a tablet on your camping trip so you can connect with nature by watching movies in your tent; these tunes are the soundtrack of your demographic’s summer. There’s also a danger that experience-seeking becomes the new materialism. Both can be extrinsic ways of looking for happiness and, as such, not as effective sources of satisfaction as we may lead ourselves to believe.

All this is easy for me to say: I’ve never been without access to material goods. In fact, I’ve acquired tons of gizmos, computers, instruments, books and clothes over the years in a quest to create, better myself in a vaguely conceived way, or just mess around with. I could fashion a three-storey cabin out of the books in my ‘to read’ pile if there were some way of turning them back into wood, or build a lifesize replica of the Pequod. This privilege has at least bought me the perspective that materialism is ultimately a dead end when it comes to adding meaning to your life. Rather, meaning comes from living in accordance to values you decide for yourself in relation to other people, traditions and what we know about the world. Given that we’re now aware of our effect on species, the climate, the planet itself, it’s surprising that we haven’t re-evaluated where we seek satisfaction more thoroughly. I’m not alone in thinking at the time of the 2008 financial crisis that certainly, now, the developed world would take systemic failure as an opportunity to address our worst excesses. That does not seem to have happened and instead we appear to be striving to reinforce the pattern of consumption and increasing output we had before.

I don’t know whether change is possible but I can’t help but feel that a more conscious, questioning attitude towards material consumption and GDP growth would be beneficial – and not just for the environment but for our individual sense of satisfaction and social cohesiveness. It’s hard to know where to begin but many people seem to be finding meaning in minimising, economising and downshifting. In the spirit of small beginnings, I’m going to give my credit card a rest over Lent – yes, even when it comes to buying books. In the longer term, let’s hope that the humanities, the arts, ecology, outdoor sports and contemplative pursuits provide us with wisdom enough to adapt responsibly to a world that is certain to change rapidly, one way or another.

The Uffmoor Sound

I was recently asked what kind of gear is used to make the Uffmoor Woods Music Club records. I got a bit carried away in my reply and thought I’d post it here in case it helps budding indietronica producers. The UWMC tracks vary in their aesthetic quite a bit but there are some consistencies when it comes to gear, budget and my own abilities and limitations.

Digital Audio Workstations

I use Cubase SX 6. I’m really used to Cubase now, having learned how to record and mix on an old freeware version. I’ve experimented with the Ableton Live demo but found it difficult to stamp my mark on it. I’ve no doubt Ableton is a great piece of software (all my friends tell me it is) but I’m just not adept with it yet. I might try it out again in the future.

Fruity Loops. I don’t use this that much anymore but it’s simple and useful and cheap. Good for making quick and dirty loops.

Plugins

I make frequent use of Cubase’s Double Delay plugin to thicken tones up and add interest. You can hear it on the ukulele on I Spit on Your Grave. It doesn’t sound much like a uke because there’s so much delay on it.

A fair bit of compression ensures that the instruments come through strongly in the mix. However, in more recent mixes (such as those on Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone and Romances of the Djinn), I’ve been a bit more careful about not exceeding 3-5db of gain reduction so that the subtlety of the instrument isn’t lost. i.e. so it doesn’t come through really loud all the time and can rise and fade dynamically in response to the song. I use fairly strong ratios like 4:1 to 6:1 quite frequently. Maybe that’s because the mixes are often filled with parts and the background instruments need to be consistent (and slightly quieter) so the main elements can vary in loudness and catch the ear.

SupaTrigga is a great plugin for mashing up parts, especially guitars and ukuleles, on tracks such as Paper Lanterns and The Axe.

PSP Vintage Warmer is useful for warming up mixes, pads, kicks and snares.

Waves Multimaximiser is great for settling a mix. It allows the various frequency ranges of a song to breathe independently of one another. So the hi hats won’t get quieter just because your kick thuds in.

iZotope Vinyl is a free lo-fi plugin I’ve made extensive use of. I’m almost loathe to mention it as you’ll hear it all over every Uffmoor track now!

Mixing

I always roll off frequencies on every instrument under 50hz. These just muddy the mix and can’t be reproduced accurately by most stereos anyway. I sometimes use a visualiser to see where the instruments frequencies are and EQ accordingly. Probably the best method is to create a narrow, very strong boost temporarily and sweep it up and down the frequency range to find out where the various sounds contained within the instrument are. Then you can hear what you want to boost and cut. A goniometer is useful for identifying when frequencies might be interferring with each other.

Synths

I don’t have any expensive synth packages. I just like using some of the ingenious free stuff you can find out there. Such as Tweakbench. My midi keyboard is an M-audio Oxygen 61. It is no doubt heresy in this day and age but I sometimes use the synth packages that came with Cubase. Maybe I’ll invest when I find one that will work for a few songs.

On the early tracks I used a MicroKorg quite a bit.

I like to use synth pad sounds to provide a moving background on tracks like I Spit on Your Grave and Your Smile. On I Spit on Your Grave I recorded the pad into a broken tape recorder and then pressed on one of the spindles with varying pressure to get a warping, tape slowing effect.

Instruments

On most Uffmoor tracks the electric guitar is a Gibson Flying V and the acoustic is an entry-level Fender. I use the rhythm pickups, or both, most often and usually have the tone pot at 10 but sometimes like rolling it off to 0, though I haven’t done this much on record yet.

My amp is a Fender 90 watt thing which sparkles on the clean channel but is fairly grimy on the distortion channel (which I don’t use). For distortion I’ve used a Deucetone Rat pedal into the clean channel. The Deucetone Rat is something I spent far too much money on many kalpas ago when I had a disposable income. It’s two Rat pedals in one unit and you can set them differently and let the signal from the one cascade into the other. I’d just buy one Rat pedal if I had to replace it. It’s pretty good live though as you can still have the Rat sound and get an extra boost for a solo by stomping on the second Rat. You can hear this set up on Darth Vader’s Slowest Dance.

On Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone, I used an old Line 6 POD for the electric guitar parts, on the fuzz setting. I liked it but miss being able to wail with feedback! I’m thinking about buying a very extreme fuzzbox to get that warm electronic sound.

A cheap Danelectro delay pedal serves on a lot of guitar tracks and has been used on Distant Signal songs and live as well as tracks such as The Axe. This is a tape delay sound rather than the icy infinitely receding galacial caverns you can create with digital delays. I use plugins for that kind of sound.

I use a ukulele or a nylon string acoustic on a few tracks. I like the sound of nylon strings and think they chop up well and you can do interesting things with them in your DAW. The Axe has a ukulele that’s been chopped up by SupaTrigga.

I have a little box of toy instruments: bells, xylophones, a harmonica, a plastic accordion. I record these with a microphone and then play with them digitally, adding plugin effects etc. Unexpected sounds can have a big impact.

Drum sounds

I used to download various sample packs people had made and now have a fairly random selection. On Your Smile I recorded my bedroom door closing and EQ’d it to make a kick drum. I want to do this kind of thing more and more.

Sometimes I’ve been known to record with a real live, breathing, drummer (dangerous and not recommended).

Other hardware

I use a Focusrite Scarlett USB interface and a cheap Samson USB condenser mic, which I might upgrade at some point, though it’s served me well. I have an SM-57 for close micing my amp. Sometimes I’ll put it close to the edge of the cone; sometimes far back from the edge of the cone. On Darth Vader’s Slowest Dance I just put the condenser a couple of metres back from my amp, which was raised onto a table.

General wisdom

An atmospheric sample can add a lot of texture to a track. There’ll probably be more of this on future records. It’s also fun to go out and gather the samples just using your phone or whatever you have to hand. You don’t need great audio quality for this as the way it’s recorded becomes a feature of the sound. That’s probably true of recording as a whole, or at least, that’s the approach I take.

You can never quite get the sound you heard in your head (or on your favourite record) but that’s part of the journey. You get something new. I was trying to do something a bit like M83 with the vocals at the start of Your Smile but I’m happy with it as it is.

A lot of effects can be created out of a limited palette of audio tools. EQ, gating, compression, reverb, delay are all staples of recording and mixing but, used creatively, they can conjure up totally far out sounds, man.

The early tracks, such as those on Forgotten Lore, sound lo-fi and experimental because I didn’t have a lot of kit and didn’t really know how to use what I had. So I played around and improvised until I found something workable. You can always get something from nothing.

I have no problem with using a preset if it’s a shortcut to the sound I want. There’s no point spending a lot of time fiddling with something for the sake of it. There are those who’d burn me at the stake as a witch for saying that.