Improvizone

Tea in the pond

Andrew Booker 2007-08-04 13:25:41

It was 6.30pm on Tuesday 31 July 2007, the shop next door had shut, and I'd forgotten to pay the congestion charges. To find a place to pay, Simeon and I took a walk along The Cut, a nearby street hosting several pubs and bars. All of them packed.

You can understand, amid the relatively sparse scattering of bodies in Imbibe, why I might be miffed with this. Sim reasoned that although busy, they probably were not full of the kind people who would want to listen to us. I see what he means, and a few of the Imbibe gigs in the past have been a little bit edgy like that. But playing ambient bar music that people can semi-enjoy as they semi-listen to it, or not find too intrusive if they just want to talk instead, is what we're supposed to be about. It should at least be tried...

At Tuesday's gig, we did some great stuff. The first half hour was probably the strongest opening yet. It's always nice how everyone seems so much more at ease when the drums start playing. There was a point about 10 minutes into the gig when things were going a bit quiet, I was just tinkering on washy cymbals, at it was all threatening to go off the boil. Knowing Nick, I knew he would respond if I stepped back on the gas. Quickly the whole thing picked up again, not in a desperate recovery, but in a naturally escalating way.

I was interested to see how we would get on without Mike, our regular ambient-experimental lead-guitarist, who had luckily arranged to take the Bearparks on holiday to one of the higher-and-drier regions of Devon, rather than the submerged parts of Gloucestershire. I think we did very well, though the complexion of this gig was noticeably different. Typically when we play, pieces mutate and change course. Not at this gig. Almost everything followed a single theme, and then ended formally and often in a controlled way. So for a start, everything was shorter. We were constantly bringing in key changes to keep the variation going. More shorter pieces meant more spaces between them for applause. Lucky there was a modest audience to provide the clappings.

Shorter pieces meant that we seemed to have to work hard to fill the time, something which never usually happens, and did a bit more varying of the lineup than on the original plan. As I looked at the clock on my laptop about an hour into the gig, I noticed none of the level indicators were moving on the the hard disk recorder (Cubase). I immediately realised Cubase had locked. Yikes. This has never happened before. I brought the piece we were playing to a close and got the others to waft out some sweet ambient noises while I inspected the damage. I had to reboot, almost certainly losing everything I had recorded up to that point. The cameras had been rolling, which meant for the second month I had not managed to record good audio and video at the same time. Normally this kind of thing would kill me. Yet somehow, once the machine was back up, I started up the recording again and we simply carried on. Whatever was lost was lost, I'd just have to inspect the damage later. What mattered was that we'd been playing very well, and that people had been there listening and enjoying it.

The players this time did as well as ever. Os's understated synth/laptop parts had all sorts of totally undefinable sounds, sometimes lost in the amplified mud of a noisy bar, but which come through nicely in the recordings. This is why we record. Tibo the irrepressible brought his usual flair and jazzy fun to the guitar, flute, melodica and kalimba (thumb piano). Tibo has so much music in him, he always has something to play over everything, which is good at a gig like this. Nick and I have been playing in rhythm sections for over a decade, and it's always great to settle into some grooves with someone who likes the drums so much. Not all bassists do, inexplicably. And finally Simeon, at his third consecutive gig, sitting down this time, having seen in last month's photos that he was the only one standing. It's good to have a mix of characters at these gigs. You want a little bit of wacky and edgy to keep everyone alert. You also want someone to lay the ambient carpets and keep the whole thing sweet, and occasionally sprout some lush solos. That's Simeon.

And that was the gig.

It felt like one of the best. Listening back, there are really good things there. As I was handing out CDs, I had a couple of quick chats with people watching. Everyone seemed to love it. So what is wrong? Why can't we get people to come to it, if every random person we talk to in the bar thinks it's the diiiig's billicks?

The CDs didn't bring anybody. This was a surprise, and a bit of a blow. One single person I gave it to at the gig already had it. He was a friend of Os, who had given him a copy. Arguably, dispersing 1000 CDs in London and expecting them to make an impression is like dropping a box of PG Tips Pyramids in the Serpentine on a hot day and expecting the ducks to start quacking oooh... it's the taste... when they slurp some of the water. But then, people picked them up. What have they done with them? Used them to scare the blackbirds off their raspberries?

Listings do work in bringing people, and this site works too, but in such tiny numbers that neither can be depended upon. That, coupled with my ability to pick the only bar in the area that has hardly anybody in it (normally this would be my drinking establishment of choice), means we're stumped. And that, in a couple of sentences, is why this was our last gig at Imbibe, and why we are going to take a short relocation break. More on all that kerfuffle another day.

Meanwhile, I know you will be itching to find out whether anything survived on the disk from the first hour. No? Oh come on, is this nail biting or what.

Well, yes, I managed to rescue a lot of data. This is contrary to initial appearances, which were upwards of 2GB of unplayable guff using up space on my hard disk.

A data file of any format usually has a header section at the beginning to help file reader interpret the data in it. Cubase on my Windows XP laptop (ick!) records .WAV files. Demonstrating yet again Microsoft's boundless organisational wisdom, these have headers with two slots for storing the size of the data in the file. A quantity their own Win32 API will tell you anyway. The two elements are not the same number. Of course not. The first one is the file size, less the number of bytes up to the end of that slot. The second is the data size, ie the file size less the number of bytes up to the end of its slot. Riiight.

You can see a hexadecimal view of Simeon's stereo file, with the missing data size elements in pink. Cubase had written all the other metadata OK (somewhere in there it says 16bit, 44.1KHz etc), but crashed before it could write the data size, hence the values are zero, or nearly.

So, knowing the file size from the operating system, and doing a little reverse-engineering of the WAV header format, for they are not all the same, using the internet and a nice free hex editor, I wrote a little C program to fill in the missing pink bits. I've recovered everything from the first half hour, when all three video cameras were recording, and more. Sadly all the recovered audio had glitches. It will have been written to disk that way, and has been a recurring problem with recording audio on a Windows machine. The later audio seems to be fine, so in fact I can only thank my laptop for crashing in the middle of the gig and sparing at least the second half. I lost the MIDI completely, but I was hardly using the notes at this gig. When you've got Os and Simeon, you don't need pad noises from me.

Downloads from the second half of this gig are on their way. Also I hope to edit together a couple of YouTube videos from the first half. Meanwhile, Os is doing a much better job with the Improvizone visual chronicling than me. Following his photos from the 5th gig, check out the two videos he posted immediately after this one.

The moment of t'roof << | >> Music for the 3rd Millennium