Keen readers will know that I take part in the annual RPM Challenge to record an album of original material during the month of February. Last year I took part again, in what was probably my most ambitious approach to the challenge.
Late in 2016, I read that 2017 would be the 50th anniversary of the first discovery of a pulsar. The cogs whirred and ticked inside my brain and it occurred to me that this could be an interesting subject for the 2017 album. As pulsars are emitting regular beats into the universe, they could be my metronome. As well as the first pulsar discovered (CP1919), I decided to use the pulsars in the Pioneer pulsar map – the map on the Pioneer (and also the Voyager) probes which show the location of Earth in relation to 14 pulsars.
I would use the rotation period of each pulsar to set the BPM of their corresponding track, with the idea that you would be able to observe each pulsar and listen to the piece of music, and they should be in sync with each other – hence the title I eventually chose for the album, Music To Watch Pulsars By. At this point it hadn’t ocurred to me to check what the periods were for these (or any) pulsars – as far as I knew they could all have been impossibly fast, or interminably slow…
I did more preparation for the album than I have before. I found some useful data on each of the pulsars I was going to use and loaded it all into a spreadsheet. I worked out a calculation to convert the rotation period of each pulsar (measured in seconds (or fractions of) per rotation) into beats per minute. I double-checked and triple-checked the calculation. It turns out most of them were at a fairly reasonable speed. A few were quite fast, a couple were very fast. In the end, only one was impossibly fast (B0531+21 at a ridiculous 1813 BPM!), and just one other was interminably slow (B0525+21, a far more sedate 16 BPM).
The faster tracks did present one immediate challenge. Neither my recording software (Reaper) or drum software (Hydrogen) would accept very high BPMs, so for these tracks I would divide the BPM to a useable value, and then multiply the number of drum beats accordingly which seemed to work.
This was the second album I’ve done which didn’t feature any “real” instruments at all. Much of my recording for the RPM Challenge has been very light on real instruments – mainly because it is easier and quicker to produce tracks using the virtual synth sounds without plugging in a guitar, tuning, getting the right sound and level etc – but I have usually managed to fit some guitar / bass etc in somewhere. I didn’t make any concious decision to do it this way. It just kind of happened. I did even buy a singing bowl off eBay to use in one track (the idea fitted in with the notion of rotating sounds) but in the end after struggling to get a decent and consistent sound from it I ended up using a glass harmonica virtual synth which I’d downloaded. For some unknown reason, I even recorded that using the same note that the singing bowl produced. I still have the box that it came in, with the packing material, so perhaps I’ll put it back on eBay…
When I first came up with this plan, I hadn’t quite grasped the magnitude of the task. One track for each of the pulsars on the map, plus one for the original discovered pulsar meant writing and recording 15 tracks in 28 days. The most I’d done before was 10 tracks (on my first two RPM Challenge albums), and I’ve always struggled to finish. It was hard and challenging work. I found myself in the last week with nothing completed. I made notes, worked out what needed to be done and after a lot of effort they started getting finished. On the last day I got home from work, still with a few tracks to finish. After a few hours I only had two left to finish, but by then it was nearly last orders so I nipped out for a quick couple of emergency beers then back home to finish. For the first time it was after midnight when I finished, but the rules do say that it’s ok if you haven’t been to sleep 😉
I burned a CD to post off to RPM Challenge HQ and popped it into the CD player to make sure that it worked, and was rather stunned to see it was 53 minutes long!
Overall I’m generally very pleased with the results, and I think it is probably the album I am most proud of making. I hope you will like it too. The finished album is available on Bandcamp, where it can be downloaded for whatever you would like to pay or even for free if you want (although obviously I’d prefer it if you did pay something 😉 )