Five Ways That A Home Studio Will Drive You Insane

I grew up in the pre-Internet era, but the funny thing is that I now can’t really remember what life was like before email and the World Wide Web.

It was also the pre-digital era. When I started to write songs, having a home studio entailed investing large amounts of money on a multi-track reel-to-reel recorder, another machine to mix down onto, outboard effects and mixing desk. Not to mention, mics, mic stands and cables.  I couldn’t afford all that, so I saved my pennies and hired studio time, even for demos.


And to be honest, I can’t really remember that time very well either. Today, I have recording software (including effects) on my laptop and with a small mixer and a few mics, I’m in business. The studio is no longer a luxury, it’s a tool.  I’ve recorded four albums at home, and because I have had  time to get things right, I’m generally happy with the results.

But…if you have the budget, there may be a case for spending on pro studio time for the bigger projects. And it’s not simply because the professional operation will have better equipment. Working in a dedicated studio may help you solve some of the issues that can drive you mad when you’re working at home.

Here are five issues that can blight your home recording outcomes.

1) You Never Finish

2015. “I’m making an album at home,” says a friend of a friend. 2018. “How  did the album project go,? you ask. “I’m still working on it,” the friend of friend replies.

And here’s the problem.  Having a home studio means  you never have to watch the clock. That’s great…it really is. But the downside is that you can just keep on tweaking things in search of the perfect guitar sound, vocal or solo that you never quite achieve. Without the constraints of a budget,  there is a danger that you simply won’t know when to stop. And if you’re working on your own, you may lack the objectivity to know what a good take actually is. The album never gets made.

Solution: Set a timetable and stick to it.

2) It’s Impossible to Judge Your Own Performance

This can be a particular problem when it comes to vocals.  The prerequisite for a vocal is that it should be in tune. In theory, and assuming you have a half decent ear, that should be easy to assess, but other factors can cloud your judgment, Maybe, it just doesn’t sound right because you don’t like the vocal tone, or the phrasing doesn’t quite work. Other people tell you, don’t worry, it’s fine and in tune, but it doesn’t sound right to you. Eventually, you lose all ability to judge the vocal line and possibly also mislay the will to live.

Solution: Work with someone you trust. Someone who can tell you if it’s a good performance or not. If that’s not possible, forget about it for a day or two. If the vocal still doesn’t sound right when you come back to it, do it again.

3) Live Sound is a No No. 

Unless your studio is an isolated farmhouse or enjoys state of the art soundproofing, a home rig probably won’t be ideal for recording a band, complete with live drums.  My own setup lends itself to building songs one track at a time. That gives me a lot of control, but I miss the live ‘band’ sound that is achievable in pro studios.

Solution: If you need a live sound and you can’t do it at home, invest in some studio time

4) You’ll be Learning on the Job 

My first attempt to record an album on my own equipment was a disaster. So much so, that I quietly binned it and started again. Performances were partly to blame, but mainly, I was learning some fairly basic technical skills. Skills that I would have taken for granted had I been working with an experienced engineer.

Solution: Experiment, read, take advice and don’t expect brilliant results immediately

5) Lack of Interaction

There is a temptation – which I’ve fallen victim to – to do everything yourself – guitar, bass, keyboards, drum programming etc. Actually, it’s a bit of thrill to do that. But… arguably lose the studio magic that comes from collaboration.

: Bring in other musicians

Why I Love Country Music

“British country music – there’s no excuse for it”

As pithy soundbites go, they don’t come much better.  In the space of just nine well-chosen  words,  the author managed to drive a soon to be bloodied knife into the heart of anyone foolish enough to enjoy playing or (God forbid) writing country music, while also being a resident of the United Kingdom.

And there is a part of me that agrees with the sentiment – which incidentally was expressed by a doyen of the English folk scene. Country music and its trendier spinoff, Americana may have some roots in the traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and England, but lyrically and musically they speak to an American experience.

Aspiring to Pastiche

So if you’re based in London, Aberdeen or Swansea and you happen to play in a Country or Americana band, all you can really aspire to is pastiche, or at the very best a heartfelt tribute that sits somewhere to the left of the real thing.

One  problem with Country is that the lyrical tropes are pretty specific to America.  Words that conjure up visions of endless roads, roadside bars and trains that take fifteen minutes to roll by, don’t sit well on the tongues of Brits. Even ‘cheatin’ songs – certainly a universal experience –  exist in Country music as an almost heroic, if often tragic, counterpart to the the constricted  morality of the Bible Belt. ‘Cheatin’ isn’t just ‘cheatin’  in country music. Cheatin is the plot McGuffin that allows writers to explore sin, salvation and redemption. The same stories have a different resonance in the context of an increasingly Godless UK.

The Case for the Defence

So-case closed. UK country – there’s no excuse for it.

But there is a case for the defence.  As a writer, I’ve learned a lot from Americana. In particular,  Americana has taught me that telling stories that illuminate the lives of ordinary people  is an incredibly rewarding thing to do.

So I put my hand up. The lyrical structures that underpin much of Americana lie at the heart of an awful lot of my songs too. That’s not to say that I’m writing about American themes – most of my songs are set firmly in the UK.  But they are stories that often – as is the case with Americana – explore some of the more awkward corners of the human heart.

So file under Anglo-Irish Americana. Or better still  file under songwriter that draws on elements of folk, roots, Americana, Blues and Jazz in service of narrative lyrics.  See below for an example



Travel and songwriting #2 Coming Home With The Blues

In a previous blog, I wrote about the beneficial effect that travel can have on the songwriting mind.

I was thinking about that again,  when reviewing my last album, Love & Pride, which has been available for about a year and is about to be re-released with additional tracks.

Every album is – or at least should be – a reflection of a particular time and set of circumstances. A kind of diary of a time and place, albeit coded within songs.

In the case of Love & Pride, I began to pull together a collection of new and (some) old songs in the period immediately following a working trip to Chicago. It was my first time in a city that has nurtured some of the giants of jazz, blues, rock and dance music. I was determined to absorb some of that heritage, so I spent my free time in jazz and blues clubs while also finding time to watch a free gospel concert in beside the lake.

And then, as you do, I came home and began to think about making an album and at some level the trip to Chicago rubbed off. But that wasn’t all that was going on. In England, we’d just had the Brexit vote. A month or two later, Trump was elected in the US. Times were uncertain, and I was facing my own personal crisis. I began to think about hbard times past and hard times ahead.

Love& Pride isn’t a blues album – not even close – but it is ‘blue’ in spirit, I think. Hope you enjoy.

The Art Of The Story Song – The Key To Narrative Songwriting

At  4.00 o’clock on a December morning, the narrator of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat begins to tell the heart rending tale of a triangular relationship between two men and one woman.

IOK let’s face it, it’s a subject that that is a staple of popular song, drama, fiction and just about any other art form you can mention.  But Cohen –  like all good writers – take this most over-worked scenarios  and turns it into what might be called nowadays, a fully immersive experience that leaves you shaken and stirred.

Famous Blue Raincoat is a song you can come back to again and again,  perhaps because Cohen doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The arc of the narrative is clear.  The narrator is writing a letter to a friend who has betrayed him by sleeping with his wife (or partner), Jane. The couple stay together but the relationship has changed.

But it’s the detail that intrigues. Prior to the betrayal,  the one time friend goes to a station to meet a train, but return alone with his raincoat ‘torn’ at the shoulder. Cohen gives no further detail. You’re left to fill in the details yourself.  Similarly, the betrayer is no said to be living in the desert. At one stage, he intended to ‘go clear.’ Again no further details. What this means is that every time the listener returns to the song, the imagination  builds a bigger world around these carefully crafted pointers.

Cut to Tangled up in Blue, my favourite Dylan song. The first verse references a marriage and relationship breakdown. From there we go on a disjointed journey, where each verse seems to shine a torch into another period of the narrator’s life (it may even be multiple narrators).  Each scene is vivid. You see the faces, feel the pain and joy,  but Dylan doesn’t join the narrative dots.   He leaves that up to the listener.

Compare and contrast with Springsteen, who often writes with the precision of a screenwriter.  It’s all laid out. But here’s the trick. Every time you come back,  you rebuild the scenes a new, because the writer puts a projector and screen into your mind.

I am fascinated by the narrative song – from traditional ballads to today’s rock, rap, folk and/or Americana.   And there is more than one way to  tell a story

Arguably the real test of a story song is whether or not the listener feels inclined to hear it more than once. Give away too much, the song could be like a joke that isn’t funny second time round.

Here some songs – on a spotify playlist – that I feel have stood the test of time – along with a couple of mine.



Heroes Next Door – Support Your Local Music Legends

Chicago 2017. I’m standing at a bar in Buddy Guy’s Blues Legends club.  It’s jam night and I’m watching a local singer – the imperious and rather wonderful Holle Thee Maxwell –  wow a crowd that is largely comprised of tourists, such as my good self.

At one point, Holle plugs an upcoming concert, at which she will be playing with members of blues legend,  Willie Dixon’s band.  As it turns out, several members of that band are in the  room, all of them  pointed out by Holle.

For a music obsessed traveler, it is a wonderful moment. This is the America of my dreams.  A place where you can walk a few blocks, pay a $5 cover charge and find yourself standing at the bar with men and women who are an acknowledged part of musical history. And let’s not forget Holle, herself.  A blues, soul an opera singer, she is also part of Chicago’s heritage.

Bert’s Blues

But I live in England, so let’s jump back further in time. I first saw  saw Bert Jansch play in the cellar bar of a pub in North West London and a few weeks later in the upstairs room of a another bar in Clapham.  On both occasions he played inspiring sets that made me a) want to practice harder and b) encouraged me to buy a Yamaha LD10, just like Bert’s.

Bert was, of course, a musical  legend. One of the key figures in the UK folk revival of the 1960s,  he was a master musician who has, by now, influenced several generations of musicians.  But like many on the folk/blues scene, you might find playing a pub folk club on Wednesday and the Albert Hall on Saturday.  He was, in short, not only a guitar genius but also an accessible, jobbing musician. The same could be said for others of his generation, such as Martin Carthy or Steve Tilston.

Close to the Action

The great thing about small pub gigs is that – from the point of view of a guitarist  – you can really see what’s going on – or to put it another way, you are close to the action and can clearly see every piece of left hand fingering and right hand technique.

And if you’re lucky, you might also see a real legend at work. To drop another name, I was once luck enough to see former Fleetwood Mac guitarist at a bar in Southampton.

So what am I saying here. Musicians start off in small pubs and club and in some cases that’s where they stay or return to.   We live in an age of stadium rock, but small venues are where new music is made and where it can often be seen and heard at its best.   So support the heroes next door – the ones that have already earned their place in history and the ones taking their first step in that direction.

Will Playlists Kill The Album?

If you write songs and post them online as albums , you probably spend a lot of time playing around with the sequence of songs.  I certainly do.

Back in the day – when vinyl and then the CD ruled the roost – sequencing was something of an art form.  There was the opening track – the one with which you hoped to wow your audience – and from there you took listeners on a journey that culminated in the album closer. And very often the closing song would be one of the best on the album.  A good final number was like the closing chapter a novel. Whether an out and out rocker or an atmospheric dying fall, it was the climax of the experience.   Sadly in the age of streaming, a lot of listeners won’t make it to the closer.

But hey. Today we still have albums, but we also have playlists.  Now I’m a great believer in albums as entities in themselves, but I have to say there’s something to be said for creating playlists of your own material as well. Songs from different albums that seem to go well together.

And it’s not just me. As reported this week in the Guardian newspaper, increasing numbers of artists are eschewing the album concept and instead creating rolling and ever-changing playlists for the streaming community. Will this destroy the album?  I hope not, but what it will do is provide musicians with another way to package the songs they write and produce.

With that in mind, I’ve just created a little four track mini-list bringing together some bluesy tracks (see below)on Soundcloud and will be doing something similar on Spotify. Hope you enjoy.


First Songs – Don’t Throw Them Away

If you’ve found your way to this blog because you  too write words and music for fun or profit, then you probably remember your first song.  This is mine.

What’s more, you can probably remember the circumstances in which you wrote it.  Maybe it was inspired by your first serious love affair – or less sweetly, your first meaningful breakup.  Whatever, the inspiration, I bet you found it easy to write. You were (probably) young and  unencumbered by any sense of your own limitations. You just sat down and let the words and music flow out.


The reason, I’m talking about this is because I recently rediscovered my own first song after many many years.  The discovery came through playing it for fun and thinking: “you know what, I would like to record this.”  Why? Because it had a strong melody and pushed my voice to places it rarely goes these days. The words were those of an 18 year old – but I could live with them.

So why hadn’t I recorded it before? Well, it was an acoustic song and in 1997, punk happened. I set aside my acoustic, bought an electric guitar and amp, and for a few years, I rocked out. When I returned to being an acoustic troubadour, Come Tomorrow was forgotten.

And now it’s on my new album – Love & Pride, because it seems to fit and I like it. In the words of English songwriter Ralph McTell: “You were my first song and I still love you.”

Let me know what you think. And post your first songs.


Why Travel Broadens The Songwriting Mind

In about 24 hours time, I’ll be setting off for Los Angeles to attend an awards ceremony.   I’ll be there on business rather than for  pleasure and I won’t have too much free time – if any – to explore the city, but I’m looking forward to it. After all, travel, is travel, is travel and it’s always inspiring.

A Source Of Inspiration

But hey, I know what you’re thinking. This is a songwriter’s diary – so why is he banging on about travel.  Well simply because a few days ago, a friend asked me if travel is a source inspiration for songs.

Directly or indirectly, I think it is.  In fact some of of my favourite songs have strong travel themes –  Foreign Affairs by Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell’s Amelia spring immediately to mind. More recently, Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a wonderful song called Transcendental Reunion on the unlikely subject of queuing up at arrivals.

In my own case, I’ve written quite a few songs that have –  directly or indirectly – been inspired by a holiday, business trip or simply moving between one city and another by air sea or land. So why does travel broaden the songwriting mind?

Alone With Your Thoughts

Well one obvious reason is that you often spend long periods of time alone with your thoughts – say on a bus journey or eleven or twelve hour flight. That in itself can stir up memories that by some kind of alchemy morph into choruses, hooks and verses.

You Meet New People

You meet new people and hear new stories. And maybe also you expose yourself to fresh ideas or even figures of speech that you haven’t heard before.  All these things can feed into song ideas.

You Soak Up Musical Heritage

Last year I visited Chicago and when I was there I made a point of going to a blues club and a jazz venue ( as well as seeing the Killers on the shores of Lake Michigan).  The next album (Love and Pride) had a definite blues tinge. (see above link)

The Landscape Inspires You

And it’s always worth remembering that simply being in in a different place – replete with its own landscape, sounds and smells gets the creativity juices working.

Getting the Juices Running

But the travel/songwriting equation plays out in different ways. As I already mentioned the blues/jazzy feel of much of my last album owes much to a week spent in Chicago. More directly, spending my birthday alone in San Francisco, directly inspired a song entitled San Francisco, New Eve.

But the inspiration can be more circuitous. Years ago, I spent time on a bus driving through Greece from the the city of Sparta. It was full of soldiers returning to camp and none of them looked particularly happy. That experience ultimately resulted in me writing A Soldier’s Pay – a song about an English soldier returning to his camp after a week long drinking session.

So to close, here is a spotify playlist of some of my favorite traveling songs.  Hope you enjoy.



Long Term Review – Why the Martin DRS1 is my main gigging guitar

Have you ever been in the situation where your ears are telling you one thing while your preconceptions – or perhaps more accurately, prejudices – are sending you an entirely different message.

Let’s wind the clock back to a January day in 2014. I’m sitting in the acoustic guitar room of Andertons Music in Guildford, where I’m playing a Martin DRS1 for the first time.

And my ears are telling me that this is an instrument that I want to spend more time with. It’s not the loudest dreadnought I’ve ever played, but it has a warm , evenly balanced sound that responds well to strumming, flatpicking and – perhaps more surprisingly – my style of fingerpicking (see above). Admittedly the action doesn’t seem particularly low and the neck feel fatter and a bit more clubby than I’m used to, but crucially it is very comfortable to play. And as I sit noodling, watched by an assistant who senses a sale, I become more and more convinced that the sound and feel of this guitar suit me down to the ground.

Those Pesky Preconceptions

Then the preconceptions kick in, for this is not a conventional instrument. I have no problem with the solid Sapele back and sides but I have doubts about the stratabond neck. A fairly standard feature on Martin’s Mexican made instruments, such necks are constructed of thin strips of wood . In other words, its a kind of plywood. It is very rigid (in some ways ways a plus) but for someone used to solid mahogany necks on my acoustics, it looks extremely strange and unfamiliar. Frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live with it. Added to that, the fingerboard is made from a synthetic material (Richlite) as is the bridge. The preconceptions prompt me to ask myself: “Is this a real guitar or a very expensive toy.

My ears win the day and I buy it.

Fast forward to the following week. I’m really not sure about the neck. The Richlite seems hard on my fingers. I think about taking it back to the shop and trying for a swap.

So what happened?

Three years on and its my main gigging guitar. Initially I took it out just occasionally to gigs and continued mainly use my Yamaha LD. Slowly but surely, however, it inveigled its way into my affections. More to the point, I began to regard as the most practical choice for live work.

For one thing it stays in tune supernaturally well. Despite tuners which on the face of it appear to be slightly flimsy, it turned out to be rock solid. I suspect the stiff neck helps (although the downside is probably less resonance), along with a well cut nut. The tuners themselves do the job. It takes a capo well, too.

I also find it easy to get a good plugged-in sound. The pickup system – Fishman – is very simple and the onboard preamp has just two controls (mounted in the soundhole) for tone and volume. But they work. I don’t know if there’s any science to this, but the warmth of acoustic sound seems to offset the natural brightness of the piezzo pickup when the guitar is amplified.

A Handsome Devil

Last but not  least. I think the DRSI is a handsome devil thanks to chestnut colour of the Sapele. Yes, it’s simple and there is – for example – no binding on the neck or body. But that stripped down look complements the rootsy music I tend to play.

What Don’t I Like?

I use if for recording, but if you don’t get the mic placement exactly right, it can be a bit boomy. And its natural boom tends to be exacerbated when the original recording is compressed during the mastering process. Get the placement right, however, and its fine.

I use the DRS1 for recording, but it’s not always the right tool. For live work, I’ve found it hard to beat.

Here’s what it sounds like on record.

Same old Same Old – Six Ways To Get Out Of A Songwriting Rut

Whether as instrumentalists, singers or songwriters, those of us who play music with any degree of seriousness tend to aspire to finding and developing a recognisable personal style.

And that’s a good thing. Over time our style – or our way of doing things – becomes our brand. It’s the thing that sets us apart.

But here’s the rub. While it’s good to have a recognisable style it’s certainly not good to become predictable. And sometimes, without knowing it, personal style morphs into sameness. From a songwriting point of view, that might mean falling back on certain chord voicings. Or we may find ourselves pulling out variations of the same melody over chord sequences that are always different and yet strangely familiar. Or to put it another way, we end up falling back on those musical tropes and habits that have served us well over the years. It’s a rut.

As a songwriter, I’ve always tried to break things up a bit. So if I’m writing a 10 song collection, I’ll employ different tempos, song structures, keys, and tunings, playing styles and subject matter. This is all conscious activity. Unconsciously, I might well be – for instance – using similar chord patterns but in different keys in two songs. As far as I’m concerned they sound as different as chalk and cheese, but record and play them back to back and the similarities emerge.

So how do you break away from the habits that have become vices. Here are five ways that work for me.

Learn and Play Some Cover Versions

One thing I have been guilty of is focusing solely on my own songs. After all, when I’m out gigging, 95% of what I play is original. So when I’m at home, I concentrate on writing new material or honing existing songs.

The problem is that it’s all too easy to base everything around a personal style – and musical knowledge – that you’re overly familiar with. Maybe also, you forget how to be a fan.

Playing covers reconnects you with the way other songwriters work. The chords they use. How they use melody above the chords. Their use of rhythm. I’m not talking about ripping off other writers. It’s more a case of letting them pull you out of your comfort zone.

Write on Different Instruments

Even changing from one apparently similar instrument to another can re-inspire you. For instance, when I returned to playing live after a ten year gap, the catalyst was the purchase of a parlour acoustic guitar. It asked to be played fingerstyle, and as I explored its musical possibilities, I started to write a whole new collection of songs, which eventually found their way onto the Secret Histories and Firecracker Day albums.

More radically, you might switch from acoustic to electric guitar as your main writing instrument. Or from guitar to piano. Alternatively to take your mind of chords and focus it on melody and beat, you could try building a song from a drum track.

Arrange Differently

The album I’m probably most proud of is Firecracker Day. It’s a stripped down, acoustic purist album featuring voice and fingerstyle guitar. It was designed to ( if such a thing is possible) showcase my guitar work, voice and story telling style. But here’s the thing. I loved the stripped down format but I knew that when I came to make another record, that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) do the same thing again.

So next time round, I jettisoned a lot of the fingerstyle solo playing and opted instead for layered guitars. Strummed at flat picked acoustics, overdubbed with electric lead lines. This had a double impact on my writing and recording. On one hand, it changed the feel of existing songs. Equally, though, it fed into my writing.

Play with a Band

I play a lot of solo gigs, but every so often I get a band together. And guess what, my writing changes. Once I get a feel for what the band can do, I start writing for that combination.

Get Outside Your Own Life

Most of us start off by writing from experience. Your sixteen and your girlfriend/boyfriend dumps you, so write a song. It’s heartfelt and your friends all like it. But unless you have a more interesting life than I do, writing from personal experience has its limits. So look at the world and people around you. There’s a whole world of stories out there. Stories that can inspire your next hit (if you’re luckier than I am).

Learn Your Craft

On the technical side, there are a huge amount of tools at your disposal. Listen to other writers to see how they structure their work in terms of verses, choruses, bridges, codas, internal rhymes. Equally – and this gets back to playing covers – there’s a whole range of musical styles, scales and chord substitutions that can take your writing forward.

More of this in another blog.