A call to arms

Would you like to appear on the next Mass Love album? We’re currently in post production on Phenotype, our third studio album, and one of the tracks wants a big-ass stadium of voices for a massive climax. To that end, we’re throwing this open to our fans, and to the public at large. The more voices we can get, the better.

If you’re willing to join the throng, download the backtrack segment, record yourself singing (beltier is better), and send a dropbox link or an email attachment to david.beukes@gmail.com. Don’t let lack of studio stop you – sing into your phone if you like. Almost any format will do, but 320kps mp3, FLAC, or 24-bit WAV is preferable.

The more of you we can get to pitch in, the bigger and more badass this finale is going to sound.

Grab the backtrack: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/26215993/rise_up_chorus_91bpm.mp3

Say your goodbyes, raise a battle cry
Time to sound the alarm, eh, eh, eh
It isn’t enough
We need to rise up

Kiss your goodbyes, no more standing by
This is a call to arms, eh, eh, eh
We’ve taken enough
We need to rise up

Why I’m taking a break from Social Media

Some of you (possibly none of you) have noticed that I’m on indefinite hiatus from Facebook. I don’t want to say that I’m abandoning it outright – for one thing, it’d make things awkward if I ever come crawling back, and for another, it’s not actually possible to completely delete a Facebook account.

I thought it might be worth jotting down why I’m doing this. There are two main reasons; one is personal, one philosophical.

Facebook makes us think surveillance is normal

For many people, myself included, Facebook has supplanted email as a way of communicating. You can argue about whether email was ever all that private, but the key difference is that Facebook just isn’t, and unlike email, there is no way to secure it.

Facebook works hard to give the impression of privacy, but anything you say there is just between you, the person you’re talking to, Facebook’s staff, and Facebook’s partners in commerce and intelligence. And its surveillance is done in such an invisible, blasé fashion that we don’t even consider it. We should be outraged, but we’re not. The service it provides is so convenient that we don’t even think about the ramifications.

For me, the line was crossed when Facebook began suggesting new Friends for me based on research conversations I was having outside of its service. There was simply no legitimate way it could have deduced connections between myself and these people – not even the old “oh you’re in their phonebook” argument applies.

This brought me hard against the fact that literally everything you do online is subject to analysis by someone. Since the primary way we digitally interact is now our phones, not our desktops, that means everything you do on your phone is subject to surveillance, a sphere that we have traditionally considered private. In retrospect, that’s probably because our phones haven’t always been portable computers, and it’s taking us a while to adjust.

There are many reasons to want your communications to be private – your intent doesn’t have to be criminal at all. If I, for example, wish to write my wife a message explaining exactly what I’m thinking about doing to her after we get the kids to bed this evening, it’s no one’s business but ours – nor should it be.

I began wondering how I could send a genuinely private message, and it suddenly dawned on me that I probably couldn’t. Facebook is out, clearly. If you so much as have it installed on your phone, then voice calls are out too – so are SMS and email, because the Facebook app reads those, as does WhatsApp (owned by Facebook).

And it’s not just Facebook – pretty much every app by Google does this too, as do a whole slew of “free” apps, unless you take extraordinary measures to prevent it.

I’ve decided to stop participating. By continuing to use these services, I’m saying that I’m ok with living in a society where surveillance is ok. It’s not. And we need to stop pretending that it is just because it’s convenient.

Facebook is changing how we speak to each other

This one is a little harder to articulate, but I’ll try.

Facebook’s business model, in a nutshell, is rather like e-Tolling: getting people to pay for something that used to be free, and probably still should be. When you post something to your wall, its potential audience is severely restricted – only about 20% of your Friends and Followers will see it. In order for it to reach more eyeballs, you need to pay Facebook – the more you pay, the more people will see your post.

But this model only works if Facebook can deliver the eyeballs they’re charging for, and to ensure that they can, they keep you glued to the site for longer by optimising your News Feed, showing you only most interesting things your Friends are posting. That sounds good in theory, but the method they use to work out what’s cool has some unintended consequences in the real world.

Here’s how it works when you aren’t paying. Anything you post will reach a fifth of your Friends – typically the people Facebook knows you interact with most often. If those Friends instantly Like and/or Share the post, then Facebook assumes that it must be at least casually interesting, and they show it to a couple more people. If those people Like it too, they widen the audience again, and so on.

But if the first group doesn’t respond to the post, then it dies right there – clearly it was dull, no need to bore the rest of your Friends with it.

So what’s the problem? Sounds like good quality control.

Well, what Facebook is doing, indirectly, is training us to only post certain types of content. Wedding photos do well. Baby photos do particularly well. Celebratory posts about our successes are always greeted with Likes and Comments of congratulations.

Posts about sad things, not so much. No want wants to Like a post about being depressed – the language makes it seem insensitive, and besides which, other people’s problems just aren’t entertaining. If you want the endorphin reward of having your posts Liked – which equates to the validation of your Friends – then you’d better post things they’re going to enjoy, because if you don’t, you’re going to be ignored.

Consequently, your Facebook news feed is now an endless river of smiles, success, and elegantly posed selfies. As an aside, having your interest limited only to Liking things makes Facebook a terrible place to have any kind of serious discussion at all.

The consequences can be extreme. Last year I learned that someone I was at high school with had taken his own life. “Bollocks,” I said, “I’m Friends with him on Facebook, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.”

I pulled up his profile. It was true, he was dead. His wall is a litany of sorrow and loneliness, un-Liked by anyone. Certainly, I hadn’t seen a single one of his posts.

I am not saying Facebook killed him, that’s ridiculous. I am, however, saying that the way in which Facebook encourages the pretence of happiness definitely contributed to his growing sense of isolation.

Facebook purports to be a mirror of your offline social circle. It’s not.

In many ways, it fills a lot of the same emotional needs that interacting with real human beings does, but it does so in calorie-free way. We feel like we’re engaging with people, but we get none of the mutual benefit of actually spending time with each other. We are reduced to voyeurism, consuming only a canned and edited highlights reel of our acquaintances’ lives, duped into thinking this is the real thing.

A return to real relationships

I’m tired of having digital pretend relationships with pre-posed people. Facebook is a great way to rediscover lost connections, but it’s a terrible way of relating to them. On a personal level, I need to change that.

For me, the way forward is to disconnect from social media, at least for a time, and return to direct interaction with the people I care about. And when I have to talk over digital mediums, I’m going to use trustworthy encryption, because I refuse to accept that it is normal for our most mundane conversations to be subject to surveillance and scrutiny. I invite you to join me.

The encryption solution I’ve settled on is incredibly easy and user friendly – so much so that it really should be one of the first things you install on a new phone. It’s a suite of tools by Open Whisper Systems (read more here: https://whispersystems.org/), and what it’s called depends on what your phone platform is.

On iOS, visit the App store and install Signal Messenger. On Android phones, visit the Play store and install TextSecure. You’ll also need to install its sister application, RedPhone.

TextSecure/Signal is functionally a clone of WhatsApp, but its encrypted end to end, and unlike WhatsApp, it’s open source, so you can be sure that it isn’t backdoored. Also unlike WhatsApp, it doesn’t demand permissions it has no business having. Best of all, using it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your other favourite insecure apps (WhatsApp, Facebook, etc). It’s just that, if the person you’re chatting to is also a user, the conversation will be encrypted by default.

It also supports encryped voice calls. You know how in the movies they always say, “Let’s switch to a secure line”? This is that. Also, it won’t eat your cell minutes, it’ll use data instead.

If you’ve read this far down, there’s a good chance that you’re someone I’m interested in staying in touch with. I encourage you to do so. Come find me in the real word, though.

Mass Love: Prototype is finally available

Mass Love PrototypeIt is with no small amount of pride that I can now announce the launch of Mass Love: Prototype, the album that Lauren Moore and I have been working on for the last year. This very much a labour of love for us, and we hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it.

Prototype is pure synthpop, with traces of orchestral and hiphop influences. It’s 13 tracks long, and weighs in a fraction under 50 minutes in runtime, which I think is a respectable length. You can get it from BandCamp and CDBaby, with iTunes, Amazon MP3, Rhapsody, Spotify and a host of other websites to follow, as and when they get their act together. We decided against pressing physical CDs unless a demand presented itself – so please do let us know if you’re interested in acquiring one; if there’s enough interest, we’ll make ‘em for you.

This release had me thinking about how painful dropping an album was before the Internet became mainstream (also, I am old). The sheer expense of recording a thirteen track album aside, you also had to find a distributor willing to take you on, which usually involved alcohol, bribery, more meetings than a provincial government holds, and a fair amount of luck. You also had to press at least a thousand CDs, since most plants wouldn’t do a shorter run than that.

Today, it’s easier. Once you have a mixed master in your hands, getting it out there is as simple as uploading it to the distributor of your choice and paying an entirely reasonable admin fee. After that, all you have to do is wait a few days for it to show up at online retail outlets.

Which brings me to another interesting phenomenon that didn’t exist prior to the Internet: piracy. We launched this album on the 1st of February, initially via BandCamp, and we threw a listening party that Danielle Look of IndyMojo covered here. I delayed posting about it on this blog because I wanted to wait for it to replicate across all the major stores before announcing availability – seemed a silly idea to send people to look for a product they can’t find.

It took a week to appear on Amazon. It still hasn’t appeared on iTunes. But within 5 days, it was on most of the major torrenting and filesharing sites. Hats off to the pirates, you guys got it out there more efficiently than any of the professionals did.

If anyone reading this pirated our album, I would like to address you directly now.

First, thanks for liking our music enough to steal it – I take it as a compliment. I wouldn’t have put so much time and effort into making this album if I didn’t think these tracks were smoking hot, and the fact that you think so too, well, we already have something in common. Cool.

Second, I don’t subscribe to the idea that by you ripping a copy of the album off some dodgy filehost, you have cost me money. I am just as broke right now as I was before you downloaded it. You have made zero impact to me financially, because you were never going to pay for it anyway. That being the case, I would much rather have you as a fan than deny you a copy just because you won’t throw me ten bucks.

I think this album is fucking awesome. It’s the best work I’m capable of at this point in my career, so of COURSE I want you to have it. Why would I not?

Do me this favour, though: play it LOUD. This album was not written for low volume appreciation. I want your subs to be making the walls shake. And if anyone asks you what the hell this is, tell them it’s Mass Love, baby.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying, please go out and steal my shit. If you can afford it, I would obviously prefer if you buy it, because I am totally into eating regularly. This album represents every free moment I had for a year, and we did it without a budget or support from a label. Also I think I fucked up my left monitor speaker mixing this shit, it’s started to crackle. Spanked it too hard, I guess. Have to get some new ones.

But I still want you to hear it either way.

If you do decide to get legit, please consider purchasing via BandCamp. They let us keep a bigger share of the sale than any other distributor. Also, just so you know, the entire album is available to stream for free via SoundCloud.

Thank you for listening.

New year, new album

For the longest time, Lauren Moore and I have been bandying about the idea of doing an album together. The fact that we are both extremely busy with other stuff, coupled with the fact that we live on opposite sides of the planet has meant that until recently, it’s only been a discussion.

But this year we decided to do FAWM together. It’s an online creativity event where the aim is to write a song every two days during the month of February. We used the structure and pace of the event to provide us with the motivation to get the writing done, with Lauren doing most of the lyrical heavy lifting, and me doing the noises.

It’s been a wild ride. The disparity in our schedules plus the fact that I now have an ankle biter to look after (did I mention I have a kid? I have a kid) meant that I got up at 2:00AM every day to work on this, since that was the only free time I had. It has, however, been one of the most exciting and musically satisfying projects I have worked on in a long time.

With 14 songs now successfully written (and in possession of our first FAWM win), we have begun work on post-production. All of these pieces were produced in a very short time, so there are clearly things we’d like to refine, change, and add to, and we’ll spend the next few weeks (as long as it takes) tweaking and polishing.

Currently, for me some highlights of the work so far (and you can click through to play the songs) include:

You’ll Never Change
A pop music explosion. We didn’t intend for it to come out this dancey, it just headed that way organically. And once it’d started down the path, well, we had to follow.

The Calm Storm and the Dull Shine
Deep, orchestra-infused groove with a lovely vocal delivery, this is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest lyrics Lauren has ever written. I love this track.

Might As Well
We went full synth-pop on this one, with very satisfying results. This track has massive hair, tight leather jeans and shoulder pads.

Possibly the sickest thing I have ever written, in all senses of that word. This track is seriously dark, but so is my sense of humour, which is how it happened.

For a limited time (I think FAWM shuts down at the end of March) you can hear demos of all 14 tracks on my FAWM profile. We will be releasing this album in its final form towards the middle of the year.

Galaxy Class – Going Under (Mdavisto’s Mix)

Galaxy Class is an American duo based separately in Indiana and Chicago, comprising the compositional talents and devious synth mastery of Emil Hyde, and the vocal silk and sauciness of Lauren Moore.

Alert readers of this bolg will note that Lauren is also the voice behind ‘Verse, and this is not the first time I’ve worked with her. Hopefully it will also not be the last – her vocal talent has been described as “sad honey,” among other things.

This track started life as a doef-doef remix, which informed the basic structure, but something just wasn’t right, and I hit a wall. But then, when all hope seemed lost, I found inspiration in the most unlikely of places: dubstep.

I have a love/hate relationship with dubstep. I realise that it’s very hard to define what dubstep is given the way in which the term has been abused. I am not moved by the robots-fucking-each-other noises that seem to overwhelm the shallow end of the dubstep pool. Nor, having said that, am I against the work of Skrillex, who many hardcore fans would deny was dubstep at all. To me, dubstep is halftempo beats, with reggae influences, and wobbly basses, but it seems that everyone has a different definition, and everyone other than me is right.

Lauren posted an Ellie Goulding track on her Facebook wall, which prompted a discussion on how the dubstep remix was better. So, partly as a joke, I muted the doef-doef drums and replaced them with a half tempo stomp. It … worked. Really well, actually.

So from then on, that was the direction of the track. Honestly, it feels really weird to have dropped a track in this format, but I can’t deny that it sounds good. It’s like the song wanted to be this way all along.

From a technical standpoint, this was built in FL Studio 10, using almost entirely freeware synths. Preset jockeyism annoys me, and I am trying to make a point of building all the synth sounds I use by hand.

The gargantuan bass noise was built using TAL Elek7ro, as were the various zwarps and zorches, although now that I think about it, I may have made one in TAL NoiseMaker. The arpy synth chords were built in Phutura, and the guitar noises were made using the sadly discontinued SpicyGuitar and run through IL Hardcore for effects. Sundry swooshes were built in FL’s 3xOSC synth – basically just white noise with a bandpass filter and an LFO on the cutoff.

I think I am most proud, however, of the sonar-ish noise you hear in the intros and breaks. It’s a pair of barbells that I sampled at the gym in 2004. One day while doing curls at the local gym, I noticed that when the weights clanked together at the top of the movement, they produced a tone that was musical. I asked the manager if I could borrow the weights to sample them. He thought I was mad, but said that while I couldn’t take them home, if I wanted to come in and record them on site, that’d be ok.

So the next morning, they cleared the aerobics studio for me and I set up a portable recorder and a Shure beta57 mic, and clanked the weights together for a while. I think it was a bit of an anticlimax for the onlookers through the glass, but I got what I wanted – a really cool sonar sound for my signature set. So, to the crew at the Virgin Active in Kenilworth Park, Cape Town who humoured me – thanks a lot!

For some reason, Feedburner strips embedded music out, so if you’re receiving this via email, the remix can be found at: http://soundcloud.com/mdavisto/going_under_mdavistos_mix.
The original unmolested version of the song can be found here. And for the entirely nerdy among you, here is a screenshot of what the project looks like.

Producers and remixers

I’ve noticed this meme doing the rounds at the moment, and I felt compelled to do one for my industry.

Tutorial: How to prepare stems for a remixer

School hats on – today I’ve added a new tutorial on how to export stems (or separates) for a remixer. When you’ve decided to get a track remixed, it usually isn’t as simple as just sending your remixer your project data. We prefer getting your recorded material in the form of stems: clean, unprocessed recordings in separate files, with just one sound in each file. Means we can do a lot more with it.

In this article I talk about what a remixer needs from you, and how to go about packaging up your sounds for delivery. I use FL Studio, but I’ve done this in a platform agnostic way. So whether you’re preparing stems for a specific remixer, or making a pack that you’ll upload to the Pirate Bay so you can pretend somebody “leaked it”, this will explain how it’s done.

Read the article here.

New year, new studio

2011 was one of the most challenging years of my life to date. I posted very little content to this site, but I have what I think is a legitimate excuse: I spent most of the year project managing the building of our new house.

For the record, I don’t recommend self building – it’s one of those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time sort of things. The house took two years to progress from a Sketchup drawing to finished architectural plans (thanks Andre Thompson), about three months of material prep, and seven months in the building, running a mere four months over schedule. It still isn’t 100% complete, but we’ve moved in anyway, and it will provide lots of DIY fun for years to come, I’m sure.

It was a challenging process that wrecked my general faith in humanity (all suppliers are bastards), but the end product is … well, it’s even better than I expected, to be honest. And for all it’s incompleteness, check out the space I’m going to be working in from now on.

This doesn't suck at all.

It’s like a freakin’ space ship. This loft studio faces east, the main window providing an unobstructed view of the Letsitele Valley, and the mountain range beyond. It has an equally splendid view looking north over the Tzaneen dam in the distance. The room is warm and light, and generously proportioned for a project space – about 7 metres by 5. I’m itching to make music in it – just got to get it all set up first. Since this photo was taken, those holes in the wall have been filled up with power outlets and LAN ports (yes, there’s CAT-5 in the walls), and the beginnings of furniture.

So there’s a lot of catching up to do, but this is going to be a great year. I currently have two album projects I’m grinding on – one cinematic, one electronic, plus a musical in the works. Over the next few weeks I’m going be posting new material I’ve worked on for Slide, Lauren Moore, Tumi Lane, Thato Nhlapo, and more, plus some tracks from my own repertoire. I’ve also got new technique articles and FL Studio tutorials to post.

Oh, and I have to build a staircase so you can reach the studio more easily …

Shout out from PheloB

I’m feeling immeasurably pleased right now: PheloB gave me a shoutout on XtraLargeTV at his launch party. Feels good, man!

Working in the production side of the industry, you don’t typically expect to be acknowledged publicly by artists – after all, you’re being paid for providing a service, and the focus is supposed to be the product.

So I think that the fact that Phelo took the time to acknowledge me by name in a interview about himself speaks volumes about what a classy guy he is. Thanks Phelo!

If you’re receiving this via email, and the above embedding doesn’t work, you can watch the clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sHoBzYU5vI#t=4m40s

Phelo Bala – Look Like A Fool

If you google Phelo Bala, you’ll typically kick up a lot of links that talk about his siblings and their extensive careers, always framing him in the context of their achievements. You’d be forgiven, then, if you developed the impression that Phelo is a small man standing on the shoulders of giants – that Bala name does carry a huge legacy.

You’d be completely wrong, though, which is why I’m not going to mention those other Balas here (no disrespect guys, you know I love you).

Phelo Bala has a lot going for him. He was born into a uniquely musical family, a gift he has inherited and nurtured. He’s young and full of energy – at the time I write this he is only 20. Some will misjudge him based on this, thinking that his youth translates to inexperience.They’re wrong, too.

Only 20, yes, but he’s been singing in front of audiences for more than half a decade. Although this is his first solo outing, his previous projects mean he already has significant stage time under his belt, not just in local venues around the country, but internationally too. When you go to see him, then, you’re not going to be looking at someone cutting their teeth – Phelo is a class act. His youth does make him easy on the eyes, a fact that neither his label nor his fans will have missed.

Nor, for that matter, are you going to be watching someone lip syncing along on an empty stage to an over-produced backtrack – Phelo does everything live, with real musicians. I am old enough to remember a time when such things were taken for granted; they are now an exceptional rarity.

But along with strong chops, a great, controlled voice and a face for TV, Phelo has also been blessed with talent. He isn’t merely an accomplished performer, he’s a writer too – his debut album, due out later this month, is the product of his own pen. It’s enough to make you sick with jealousy.

He is uniquely poised, then, to take the market by storm, and I have every expectation that he will do just that. You will forgive me, other Balas, for my prediction that if I google you in a few years, I’ll find you being referred to as relatives of Phelo Bala.

Phelo B – Look Like A Fool by mdavisto

Anyway, let me bring it back for a moment to the technical side of things. I was approached a few weeks back to take a run at Look Like A Fool, the first single off Phelo’s new album. The song had already been recorded, with extremely strong vocals and good flow, but Phelo’s producer (dude, this article is about Phelo, shhhhh) felt it needed to go in a different direction.

I have a tendency to go very electronic, but I could hear straight away that this would not be the right approach for this song – it needed to stay as organic as possible. I took the parts into the newly released FL Studio 10 to see what I could get up to. I ended up discarding  the drums and most of the existing synths (although I kept most of the actual chord progressions), but the guitar parts worked for me, although not in their original form.

Slicex in action

I used FL’s SliceX plugin to do two main things. Firstly, what was most appealing to me about the guitars were the harmonics – so I basically just focussed on those and built a new rhythm around them. In the picture you can see that although the sample is sequentially sliced, the arrangement is anything but.

The other thing I did with SliceX was re-quantise the groove of the mute guitar parts. Not because the guitarist is out – they’re bang on time in fact – but because I wanted more ass-shaking swing in it.

FL Studio 10 has introduced two new plugins for vocal manipulation called Pitcher and Newtone. I view their addition with some scepticism, because Pitcher is an automatic retuner that works exactly like the infamous Autotune plugin – turn the knobs all the way over and you have an instant generic T-Pain vocal. To my ears, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

Pitcher also, however has a neat feature that lets you dictate its output via MIDI: play notes on your keyboard, and your vocal comes out in that melody. I had a lot of fun experimenting with this for the chorus harmonies, although I ended up going with Newtone instead.

Newtone does a similar job, but not in realtime. It lets you get right into the melody and edit what’s there, but in a much more controlled way than Pitcher does. It’s a lot like Melodyne, although its monophonic only (at this stage). So in the end, I cloned the chorus line and used Newtone to create harmony parts (“… so happy … so angry”). It’s all Phelo, and it’s all the same recording, but it ends up sounding like there’s a harmonising choir of him.

This was a great project to work on – I had a lot of fun doing it.