Patterns in need of new homes

I have been tidying up and have decided that the time has come to get rid of some things we will never want again. It is fairly easy to find new homes for many things but we have accumulated a lot that will only be of interest to collectors and craftspeople. Finding the people who might be looking for them can be quite tricky.

We had a large number of antique/vintage/old knitting and crochet patterns. Some of these have gone to people I knew had specialist interests but a lot still remain.

I have made a page with photographs of many of them and tried to organise them by topic. If you are interested in any of these, contact us via the link at the top of the page.

Click here to view the patterns.


People often ask Steve to design particular illusion charts for them. He almost always says no. It is very time consuming and he always test-knits things himself to make sure they really work. He is always willing to help someone wanting to create their own and their are also tutorials on our web site.

A few weeks ago someone asked for help to create an illusion chart for the Om symbol. She just caught him at a time when he wasn’t designing anything else, and it was small and fairly easy, so he did it himself and we wrote a pattern for it.

llusions are notoriously difficult to photograph. This one shows the effects quite well from several different angles. This is probably because it is small with strongly contrasting colours. It was knitted in crochet cotton but would work in any yarn.

Buy the pattern – Iconic Om Illusion

In other news …

A few months ago I wrote about the eventful start we had to this year. One part of this was about my elderly step-father who moved into a very nice care home on February 15. Within days the home went into lockdown because of a stomach bug. It was just beginning to open up and Covid 19 came along. The home has fared very well and has sent us constant updates.

On June 25 (his 92nd birthday) Arthur fell and bumped his head. It was a very minor fall which didn’t require any treatment. The next day he fell again and had a very painful knee. The doctor came to see him. He was taken to the local hospital where they didn’t find anything seriously wrong though there was concern about why he had fallen twice.

The next day he had developed severe bruising and a lump on the knee so was taken, by ambulance, to another hospital for scans and other tests. They did not find anything wrong and he was provided with a zimmer frame so he could walk more easily. While he was there he was tested positive for Covid 19. He had not had any contact with anyone outside the home and there had never been any positive test on residents or staff at the home. His only contact with the outside world was on the previous day when he had been briefly to the hospital. The time frame seems far too short to be showing any signs of having contracted the virus.

Because of the positive test he had to stay in the hospital for seven days even though he did not need any treatment there. On the sixth day he was tested again, with a negative result. He was sent back to the home but they refused to accept him because the seven days were not up and they had not been notified of the negative result by email or fax. Back to the hospital again in the ambulance. I was kept informed by the home and hospital but, as it was now the weekend, they couldn’t do anything more until Monday. He was finally taken back to the home on Tuesday. Everything was fine. He is still very intelligent and astute but his short-term memory is failing. He wasn’t troubled by what had been happening because he didn’t really remember it.

In February we bought a Portal and this has proved to be a very good thing. He can cope with it much better than he could with a mobile phone. We have only ever had one problem which was when someone had accidentally turned off the power to it. On Tuesday of this week (roughly a month after his return to the home) we spoke to him on the Portal. He looked fit and well and said he was still using the zimmer frame because he felt safer that way.

On Wednesday we got a phone call from the home to say that, in the routine tests, he had again tested positive for Covid 19 and had to be confined to his room for 14 days. This won’t worry him. He is showing absolutely no symptoms. Everything he wants is brought to him and the room has its own wet room and toilet. There have still been no other positive tests at the home so the whole thing is a complete mystery.

Saturday August 8 update – He tested positive again but still absolutely no symptoms.
Wednesday August 12 update – Another negative test.
Monday September 7 update – Another positive test and, because of that, the care home has been closed to visitors until October 6.

The Big Lock-Down Math-Off

In a normal year The Math-Off is a best-of-three, knockout, event that takes place on The Aperiodical website for the whole of July. It usually involves 16 people. The aim is to present bits of fun, or stimulating, maths to entertain, puzzle, or provoke, not the kind of geometry or algebra you might have done in school. In the words of organiser, Christian Lawson-Perfect, The kind of thing that you’d tell a fun maths friend about when you bump into them.

But this year was different. Back in March, Christian had the idea to convert it into The Big Lock-Down Math-Off. It was a much more casual, open-ended affair. Anyone could send in as many pitches as they wanted and, every two days, Christian took two at random from the pile to face each other. Everyone was invited to vote for the bit of maths that made them go ‘Aha!’ the most.

Nobody knew at the start how long the lock-down would go on. It ran from April 11 until June 3, and covered a huge variety of topics. You can still read all the pitches. Click here for the first match.

Running alongside the ‘serious’ Math-Off there was also The Big Lock-Down Math-Off Online Sticker Book 2020, created by Matthew Scroggs, Now, in July, it has taken on a life of its own and is still continuing.

The idea was for people to collect, buy and trade virtual stickers, like the stickers you used to collect as a child. The stickers were all related to the pitches in the Math-Off competition. Matt had done something like this last year but the circumstances were very different then. Everything was planned from the start to fit in with the structure of the competition. This time the Math-Off had no real plan so the sticker book had to be make-it-up-as-it-goes-along. Nobody envisaged that the lock-down would go on for so long. I cannot even begin to imagine how Matt managed to keep one step ahead and keep hundreds of people involved and entertained for over three months (and it is still ongoing).

Everybody was given one pound of imaginary money each day (£i). The money could be spent on buying stickers in the village shop. (The beginning was a long time ago so the details are a bit vague now.) In the earliest days there were 23 stickers to collect and there were a few different villages where you could buy them. You could walk from one village to another but then not walk again until the next day because you were ‘too tired’. Duplicate stickers could be swapped with friends.

As the days went by, more locations were added, there were more stickers to collect and everything started to get more complicated.

The Definition News kept people up-to-date with information about the Π∋∋ Sticker Company. Its reports were written by Liz Windxor. (The sticker book name is a pun on the old Panini sticker books.)

There is a website called It is primarily a database for knitters and crocheters but it also has a social media aspect to it. Woolly Thoughts has a very large group of people who are interested in the kind of mathematical knitting we do. In addition to the knitting stuff, we have always used the group to introduce mathematical ideas and events to its varied members. Over the years it has acquired many members who are not knitters and are just there for the Maths. We started a new thread about the Math-Off and the Math-Off Sticker Book. It was kept up-to-date with all the matches, voting, winners, etc. but the ‘serious’ side soon got swamped with posts about stickers. The two topics were separated for the sanity of those who didn’t want to be involved with stickers.

Generation 2 stickers arrived on April 13, taking the number to 79. Ten days later Generation 3 added 32 more stickers. On April 26 Generation 4 stickers were released but the Definition Village News was beginning to report political in-fighting between villages and weaknesses in the sticker company, making it more difficult to obtain some stickers. (The problems with Gen 4 seem to have persisted long after other generations were released.)

As people travelled from one village to another parts of a map were revealed. Different shops were selling different packs of stickers. It soon became obvious that not everyone was seeing the same parts of the map. I decided to start with what I had seen myself and began a rudimentary map and a list of what was available in each village. Other people were then able to add what they had found on their travels.

Expensive bus routes and very expensive train routes started to appear. It began to look as though there was a circular train route running all round Approxfordshire. This proved to be the case. There were seven towns on the circular route and other criss-crossing routes. There were also bicycle routes. A bicycle cost an extortionate amount of money but some people got lucky and found vouchers for them in prize packs of stickers so then it was just a matter of finding a town where you could exchange the voucher for a bicycle. The map was getting very complicated so I delegated the map-making to one person and the ‘shopping page’ to another. These two dedicated workers did their utmost to keep track of all new information and changes.

By mid-May things were changing dramatically. There was an alien invasion when 17 strangers suddenly completed sticker books and took over the leaderboard. This was quickly dispelled. Generation 8 stickers were released, again with political arguments – and a dragon sudddenly appeared. It was even rumoured that a reporter from Corollary City had been eaten. People were afraid to go near the dragon but, thanks to acts of collaboration, it was eventually slain. I do not know whether the nearby town was always going to be called Collaboration Town or whether it was named in honour of the actions.

Around this time the Woolly Thoughts group on Ravelry had a sudden influx of new members. Many of these were directed there by Matt who had been a member himself for a few years. Some people felt it was a bit like cheating to use information that had been collected by others but Matt was happy to point them in our direction. I think it made his task more challenging and he had to work even hard to stay ahead of the hive mind. I guess he regarded this as a good thing. Inevitably, there were a few minor snags and discrepancies but these were all dealt with very quickly. Conversations on Twitter were also ongoing. The Dragon and Liz Windxor, and maybe others, had their own accounts.

Everyone had an avatar on the map that they could customise. Matt made a cross-stitch version of his.

Later in the month Auction Houses and Trade-in Centres started to appear in the cities and there was a Merchant in Collaboration Town who would pay for particular items to be collected and brought to him. There were also travel cards.One of these made all train journeys free. At some point Puzzle Village appeared and, if you were within travelling distance you could go there every day to solve a mathematical puzzle. The puzzle took the same format every day though some were surprisingly tricky.

By the beginning of June we had Generation 10 and the pricing structure for buying stickers was getting more and more complicated. The Final Generation appeared on June 11. We also heard mention of motorised electric bicycles. Nobody knew how to get an electric bike so I tentatively asked, on Twitter, if anyone had any idea what might happen if 20 bicycle vouchers were taken to a city. Would they be traded-in for £0.20i like other stickers or would something else happen. One person thought there was only one way to find out. She gave me a bicycle voucher and several more followed. When I reached a city, there was a notice to say they could be traded for an electric bike.

An electric bike was a wonderful thing. New short cuts suddenly appeared and existing bike routes could be used without getting tired. With a travel card and an electric bike it was possible to go to a large number of places at any time.

Eventually there were 566 stickers and some complicated hurdles to jump to get them all. So far about 20 people have managed to collect all the stickers. Many of them have become so addicted they are still playing and are continuing to acquire money in various ways to pass on to other people.

I made no secret of the fact that I had more than one sticker book though did not originally reveal my other identities. There was nothing in the rules to say you couldn’t have more than one identity so several other people did the same. It was easy to join with different identities by using a different device or different browser.

My second identity was something of a recluse. For a very long time I did not ask to be friends with anyone else and did not ask to swap stickers with anyone but I did accept when people asked me to be friends or to swap. I was surprised how many stickers I acquired this way. After my real self had filled the sticker book, I changed tactics and made more effort to collect stickers. Identity 2 only had 60 friends whereas my real self had 84 (and could have had more).

My third identity didn’t set out with a purpose but after a while a journey opened up which involved taking a very expensive flight so I decided to take it to see what opened up in the foreign country. It was good and bad. The exchange rate was good so it was possible to buy many more stickers but the range of stickers was limited. I had saved up and bought a train travel card before I went on the plane but there was nowhere to travel to in the foreign country. There was no accessible city so the perks of being in a city were lost. In a city batches of 20 surplus stickers could be traded in for money. Cities also had auctions where you could bid for some stickers that were not available any other way. When Identity 2 had nearly filled the book, Identity 3 decided to fly home and used the advantage of having two ‘friends’ with almost complete books to gather enough bicycle vouchers to buy an electric bike. This identity hasn’t finished yet but it shouldn’t take long.

The whole thing has been amazing. I am in awe at Matt’s ability to keep adding new things seamlessly. I feel sure there could not have been such a detailed plan at the start.

At the time of writing there have been 1792 posts on the Ravelry group.

Matthew Scroggs wrote:
As Pat correctly conjectured back in April, I was very much making everything up as it happened this year, and added features as I thought of them and/or felt like adding them. I’ve had a lot of fun watching people react to and engage with all the new features that I’ve added.

Thanks all for playing, it’s been lovely watching you pick your
colourful avatars, react to the Definition Village News, get lost in the forest, and run around the map desperately trying to buy 52,000 playing cards. I hope to be able to catch up with many of you in person soon(probably at Big MathsJam?).

Liz Windxor (Lead reporter at Definition Village News) sent a poem:

Today I swapped my five three four,
For my friend’s sticker five three four,
By magic two more five three four
Appeared, and so now have four.

Creative Crocheter wrote:
My strategy initially for what to buy was to track which generation I needed most (with a focus on obtaining the ones in which my 2 Math-Off matches appeared). I would plot out a route to locations selling those, spending pretty much every cent as soon as I could. I had abysmal luck with the prize packs, so stopped buying them until people started reporting that they were getting hedgehogs and travel cards as prizes. When I’d accumulated enough to buy a travel card, I had enough extra to buy one more prize pack – and won a travel card! So I quit buying prize packs at that point, since others reported that additional travel cards were not swappable.

In terms of swapping strategy, it was pretty easy when everyone had different swaps and I needed a lot. I’d look for those with something I needed who also needed something I had, with a focus on my current generation of interest. Others appeared to care about whether an offered sticker was as “valuable” as one being offered. To me money spent on stickers was a sunk cost, so I only paid attention to their cost when swapping with those who appeared to care. As I got more in each generation, I did try to offer swaps in the same generation, though that was usually not possible.

Once I had the travel card, things picked up, as I could work the puzzle between shopping excursions. I was saving up to buy sufficient bicycle vouchers for an ebike when VERY generous swappers gave me enough stickers to go to Celebration City! Since the reports were that ebikes were cheap there, and that the toll road to get there demanded anything in excess of £4i, I quickly spent down my cash to just under that amount, hustled in and bought the ebike. At that point I needed very few stickers and had a much easier time retrieving the merchant’s requests. So it didn’t take long to accumulate enough to buy a final sticker pack – which had the only one I hadn’t already been generously given in swapping! So now I’m saving up for the expensive final sticker, which I can afford as soon as the merchant pays me for the item I’m carrying (100 copies of Woolly Thoughts).

Lots of sticky notes “died” in the service of tracking what percent I had in each generation and plotting out plans for where to go and what to buy next. FennekLyra’s map was invaluable and being the “shopping page guide” gave me a place to record what I’d be tracking anyway. I can’t imagine how participants like Luna got so much cash and so many stickers so fast without that type of information being shared by others! I hope you’ll get that story.

I never did venture into The Forest, since by the time I was ready to focus on the special number stickers I hadn’t gotten by swap, I had an ebike and the location stickers (thanks to generous and intrepid explorers). Given how much time everything took, I doubt I’d be this close to finishing if I hadn’t taken time off work the last 10 days! I also owe a big debt to some tips on how to get started solving the puzzles. After that, I only had trouble when I miscopied them (the addition and division signs were impossible to tell apart on my screen unless I enlarged the font size a lot) or missed a combination in my table of possibilities (starting from a different point usually got around that).

I’ll be interested to hear others’ approaches and how much the Twitter feed and other collecting of group intelligence played into the meteoric success of the top 4 finishers!

Peter Rowlett wrote:
One of my favourite things that happened was the alien invasion, but how you explain that to anyone who wasn’t playing, I don’t know!

I think mathematically speaking the interesting pricing structures were fun. The price drop auction, the ones where the price was based on how many stickers/swaps you had and the random walk. Some interesting game theory in there.

Sharon wrote:
Can I just say that I initially just joined in out of curiosity and just planned to watch what was going on. However, I found myself looking forward to where I could “travel” to next each day. Pondering things like “Dragons on the road”, “Puzzle Town” and “How can I ever afford a flight?” have been a real diversion from Covid-19 news. I also have great admiration for all the skill and effort people put in to their individual pitches in the Math Off. It has been a pleasure. Love this little community. It is like a little bright light in the dark! Thank you, guys.

Sam Hartburn made this video to celebrate finishing:

Celebration and sadness. Several of the people who have already filled their sticker books are still going round buying up stickers for those who have not yet finished. I think they will be very sad when it all finally comes to an end. It has given a lot of people a lot of pleasure in times where they have wanted something silly, but challenging, to get involved with.

Thank you, Matt, from all of us.

Where did all the fish go?

This question has been asked so many times in the past couple of weeks.

Our house is typical of houses in old mill towns. It is the end of a terrace of six, on a main road. It is less than a mile from the town centre but when this row of houses was built, in 1890, it was out in the countryside and there were only three other houses. It would have been quite an exclusive place to live. In a short space of time many more houses were built, including long terraces of mill workers houses. The wealthy people moved out.

From the back of our house we can look down on the terraces. We can also see the cobbled streets behind them (though can’t get at an angle to get a clear picture). All the old houses have back streets like this one immediately behind our house.

At the front we have a small garden which is mostly taken up by a fish pond. It has been there for over 20 years. It is very close to the house. Fish have lived for varying lengths of time and eventually died from natural causes.

It is a busy road with traffic and pedestrians. Every day lots of people stop to look at the fish. A couple of weeks ago, we got up one morning and all but the very largest fish were gone. At first we thought someone had taken them. After posting on a local Facebook group we heard more and more reports of herons being spotted in the area. We can only assume that, as with many other forms of wildlife, the herons are behaving in a very unusual way during lockdown. They are probably short of food because of the way water is moving in and out of local reservoirs at the moment but they are very brave to come into this environment.

We know how brave they are because last Sunday at about 10 o’clock Steve saw one right outside our window! Fortunately the pond was covered by then and he went hungry,

Immediately after the fish went missing. Steve made a temporary cover. He used things we had lying around but it wasn’t very pretty. We really didn’t want to cover the pond because it would not be so easy to see the fish. We had over 200 messages from people who said they’d enjoyed watching them. These are some of them:

I’ve been walking past this pond and looking at the fish everytime for as long as I can remember (I’m 29) – I hope the issue is resolved & your not deterred from getting more fish!

That’s so sad I have been living in Canada for 10 years but remember your fish so well and they gave me so much pleasure on our daily walks.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always enjoyed walking passed yours and seeing them 🐠🥰
Often wondered why a heron never ate them, always figured it was because one wouldn’t land on a main road?!

We always stop and look at the fish. My autistic daughter gets alot of joy out of looking at them. We only passed by a few days ago.

My girls have loved seeing your fish. Amy is 23 but remembers the ‘fishy house’

My son wanted to feed them everytime we went to the shop when we lived on Claremont street

I see so many people stopping to have a look. All my children have enjoyed watching the fish when we walk past.

We decided we should protect the pond, at least until life, and wildlife, return to normality. We looked at all kinds of options. The one we liked best was a movement-activated water jet that squirts anything that crosses it. This wasn’t a practical option mainly because it had to be permanently attached to a hose and that wasn’t possible. We were also a bit concerned, with it being so close to the house, that it might also drench the postman, or anyone else who came too close.

The second idea was to buy a security camera that not only recorded what it saw but also had a light and noise that were activated by any movement. We ordered one and it was delivered next day. No matter how we tried we could not make it work. It would not connect to our wifi system. Reading some comments we found a few people saying this particular model actually works better on older systems. To their credit, the company we bought from refunded our money within an hour of the courier picking up the return.

Old-fashioned nets were out of the question. A net would be untidy and quite difficult to move whenever the pump filters need cleaning. We had to settle for ‘invisible floating nets’. They are not invisible, they are not nets. They do float on the surface and they should keep the herons at bay.

People are very kind. One of the people who contacted us wanted to give us some of his fish. He had recently moved house and had ‘adopted’ them. There were far too many in his pond and he had been looking for a good home for them. The only problem was that he couldn’t catch them. For three days he, and his wife, tried to get them but the pond was very murky and the more they tried the worse it got. Steve went round to help. Being on opposite sides of the pond dealt with social distancing. He was no more successful.

They gave up and we went out and bought some more. This is the only time I have been out of the house in 12 weeks and I didn’t get out of the car. Steve bought about a dozen very small fish. When he put them in the pond they dashed about all over the place and much to our surprise three golden orfe, that we thought were gone, suddenly swam out from hiding. After the first day none of them have been seen much again. The little ones come out occasionally in the evenings but they are not very adventurous.

The next day another person sent a message to ask if we could rehome her fish. They had grown too big for her tank and she was ‘looking for a good home for them’. A few minutes later she arrive with the two fish in separate ziplock bags. One was very bright orange, the other black. We thought we would probably never see the dark one again but both are very active and are often swimming at the top of the water with the original large fish. A week later the small ones are still very timid and rarely seen. They do not come out to have their photo taken.

Is this just fantasy?

This illusion has probably taken longer to create than any other. It is based on the iconic image from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video. In one way the charting was difficult because the faces are in deep shadow and trying to make them appear and disappear in illusion knitting was very challenging. On the other hand there are quite large areas of the canvas that are nothing but black so these parts were easy.

It is always very difficult to photograph illusion knitting and this one is particularly difficult. At first glance you might think these are just black squares. Look directly from in front and you see narrow stripes. When you look from the side the ethereal image appears. Scroll down for a moving image.

Steve designed it before Christmas and started to knit it, using our favourite Stylecraft DK yarn in Graphite and Silver. Then life took over and he knew he wouldn’t be able to finish it for a long time. We pulled it undone and I did it again. It was finished in mid-March. It was even mounted and photographed. We then decided it wasn’t good enough. We usually avoid using black for illusions because it is just too stark but sometimes only black will really do.

Under normal circumstances I would have kept the original and started again but that was going to be tricky during lockdown. As a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ person I was not going out even before the ‘shielding’ process came into effect. I could have used mail order but that might have taken a long time and I had already decided that now would be a good time to start using up our yarn mountain.

I thought I could probably find enough black, of a different make, but it turned out that I already had enough black Stylecraft. The lighter colour was more of a problem because we had nothing else suitable to give the right effect. I could have done it using 4 ply black with either white, or parchment but neither of these was quite right. The only solution was to pull undone the finished piece and use the silver colour I used before. I knitted one of the faces as a small sample. It seemed to work so I cast on 161 stitches and knitted a few rows.

It is very rare that I start a new project without finishing the old one but I did leave this for a few days to make Don’t Panic. When I picked it up again I knitted six more ridges before I realised that I had not done the edges correctly. I pulled it undone and started again.

The sample, which was Freddie Mercury’s face became a square for a wall-hanging or cushion.

Buy the pattern – Is this just fantasy?
Buy the pattern – Freddie Mercury

Rainbow Delusions

Illusion knitting – but not as we know it.

When you look at illusion knitting from directly in front you only see narrow stripes. An image appears when you look from the side. These ‘Delusions’ are the complete opposite.

The rainbow has become the symbol of 2020. It seemed perfect for experimenting with something new. The rainbow, and RAINBOW lettering are obvious from in front but they disappear into a plain grey surface when you look from the side. The rainbow emerges out of a grey sky.

It is always difficult to photograph illusions to good effect and these are no exception. In real life the images 95% disappear. I used Stylecraft Special DK yarn. I would not normally think of this yarn as being at all fluffy but it is fluffy enough to create a slight halo on the brighter colours so it is always possible to see a faint shadow of red, orange and yellow. A very smooth yarn, like cotton, would overcome this problem.

Artist’s impression

We have two separate patterns for these but if you add them both to your cart on Ravelry you get one free. The pattern with the lettering includes a version that does not have the ever-present stripes.

The two panels are exactly the same size so could be used as the two sides of a large cushion, or joined together to make an afghan as in the artist’s impression here.

Buy Delusion Rainbow pattern
Buy Delusion Rainbow Script pattern

Getting to grips with Zoom

Last week Steve wrote about the video made by Cottontown Chorus as a tribute to NHS and key workers. It raised over £1700, on the day, for Comic Relief and Children In Need.

He wrote about it from his perspective. We have since been asked for more information about how the video was put together. A few members of the chorus have written about how it went for them. Some of these accounts are very long but worth reading if you are interested in doing a similar thing. They highlight some of the pitfalls as well as the amount of camaraderie.

James McCollom wrote:
Back when everyone was worried about the lack of toilet paper, I’d just been sent home to work. Could I find a webcam in any of the electronic stores? Not on my nelly. So my first few Zoom rehearsals had been via my Android phone, which has been suffering due to the constant battery use. I finally downloaded an app to connect the phone on your camera to your PC via wifi, which allowed me to see more than four people in a Zoom room at any one time! However, during the shooting of the video, we nearly had to scrub take two when my until-now-not-very-tech-savvy parents tried to start a video conference. A lucky escape: remember to learn the difference between airplane mode and do not disturb!

I’ve been hanging a (lime) green bedsheet behind me so that the virtual beach background would work properly. It’s still hanging limp from the curtain rail in my back bedroom, ready to be deployed in a green screen emergency.

I recorded two full takes after our Tuesday evening rehearsal, but must have started another twenty which I abandoned mid way through for various reasons. Another one the next morning – but in the end, the first take was the best.

My recording posture for this project was to listen to the backing track from my PC through the left earpiece of a phone hands-free kit, with my mobile laid on a shelf in front of me at chest height, singing about 15 inches from its inbuilt receiver. The sound quality was ok. Don’t be afraid to improvise. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

Thankfully no interruptions from the neighbours – they have been extremely patient with the amount of singing coming through their wall these past few weeks!

Alex M sent photos of his ‘recording studio’. His comment was “I thought my setup to get the beach backdrop working (I needed a solid colour behind me) might be amusing.”

He obviously had to sit on the floor for the filming (though I am sure he would not have been sitting down when he made the voice recording).

Christopher Price wrote:
The music
I was already confident of the notes for my line, so no extra learning was needed… until I sang along with the track. There are passages where the rhythms I’ve been singing all my life are wrong, and this only comes into focus when you’re having to copy the recording exactly. I’ve even gone back to the Beach Boys’ original and yes, the same rhythms are on there. Just goes to show, you don’t know a song until you really listen to it. I further realised on listening back to my recording that I was a fraction too late on some of my entries – not a rhythm issue, more down to the breathing and anticipation of the start of the line. I re-recorded a couple of times to improve it, but my final submission didn’t eliminate it completely. Going through this recording process will make us better individually, and a much tighter unit when we get back together in person.

The beach
We were asked to find a beach background; I found the perfect one, a single palm tree off to one side, with an azure blue sky and sandy beach. I tested it in zoom and it looked wonderful. Then we were asked to use a copyright free photo. A reverse image search revealed it was very much copyrighted. I spent an inordinate amount of time on a couple of royalty free image sites looking for a picture as close as possible to the one I was previously so happy with. It’s the little details that I think make a video like this a success and it’s up to us as individuals to take care of them.

The outfit
The instruction was for a Hawaiian shirt in line with the clean cut, laid back feel of the Beach Boys. My dressing up box let me down on this one and without the ability to borrow one, I had to improvise. My getup consisted of a striking pink beach towel, sunglasses and a hat. I hoped no one would object to me showing too much chest.

The tech
I’m fortunate to have a decent laptop, this meant that when I put the beach background on, it was pretty painless. My computer can do the virtual greenscreen. Others not so well. The chorus ran a test room prior to the recording so you could test the tech. When I went in over lunch on the day of recording, there were 8 people in the room all trying out different things It was great to see so many people taking it seriously and preparing. So it’s all the more demoralising when the usual suspects turned up with no background, in front of cluttered shelves with poor lighting; ignoring every bit of advice we’d been given. The tech team had to talk them through it on the call while 40 others who were all ready to go waited. There will always be some …

My setup consisted of a laptop stacked on two boxes of paper on the dining room table to raise it to eye level, with a bedside lamp on the keyboard shining directly at my face to give consistent lighting.

In the music, there’s an instrumental break; a great opportunity to do something to add a bit of interest and variety for anyone watching. The plan was to use the 10 seconds where the leads don’t sing to drink a beer in a suitably theatrical manner – side on using my full arm to raise the glass. The difficulty being that the virtual green screen doesn’t recognise the glass so tries to cut it out of the picture. Throughout the rehearsals, I’d tried different things to see which worked best and eventually settled on a refreshing beach cocktail – a vibrant yellow drink (orange juice), with a couple of straws which I would have to raise up in front of my body to stop it from disappearing.

The recording
On the day of the recording, I noticed that most other people were wearing sunglasses so made the snap decision to take mine off so I could sing directly into the camera to more directly connect with the viewer – I felt that wearing sunglasses was a way of hiding from the performance and with too many wearing them, it short changed anyone watching. I had to tone down my initial enthusiastic performance given in a previous test run as the sync between the videos meant that any rhythmic movements would be out of time. As a result, my rendition was far more static than I would have liked; it’s a limitation of the technology unless you’re prepared to record each person individually and edit them together – a specialist, time consuming activity.

On the day, we did three recordings, with the third one being the one that was ultimately used, much to my dismay – this was the one where my internet connection slowed, the music became distorted and streamed at an inconsistent pace. It was disappointing for that to happen when I’d put so much into trying to perfect my performance and while I did my best to adapt to these difficulties, my ‘box’ on the final edit is so far behind the others and, to me, stands out like a sore thumb. On the plus side, the video is smooth and undistorted, it’s just hugely delayed! No doubt other people will have had similar experiences, while others won’t have even noticed that anything was amiss.

Ultimately, it was a process that I hugely enjoyed with the right balance of creativity, precision and technological discipline to make it a continuously interesting activity. And of course I received the desired (positive!) comments on taking a drink halfway through. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Chris Shepherd wrote:
It’s worthwhile saying from the off that one of the main things that needs to be bedded in amongst a group of participants on a large video conference is the cultural norm to allow everyone’s voice in the room to be heard. Largely this involves:
– Making sure that everyone is muted unless they are addressing the group
– The leader of the group ensures that they take visual cues from participants who may wish to speak (IE holding up their hand)
– People are encouraged to ask questions by text in the zoom chat channel

Secondly it’s important for technical issues to be resolved by a single point of contact only, and that this generally should happen ahead of time rather than interrupting the flow of the session. One of the key considerations here is to foster a culture where people make preparations ahead of time so they’re not stung by technical issues at the 11th hour.

Finally I’d say time-keeping is crucial. One of the main things I’m experiencing as a software developer is the mental toil that staying on video conferences for 8 hours every single day is having on my ability to function. Allowing time for breaks in any video conference lasting more than 2 hours is essential so as to avoid diminishing returns.

Jim Law was responsible for putting the tracks together. In his account he refers to Joe, who helped with the tracks, and Neil Firth, who is Musical Director.

Jim Lawrenson wrote:
Despite lockdown, I am still working full time from home, so I only really had a few evenings and one weekend to play with, so with only 9 days until the Big Night In, the first step was to move the deadline from Monday to Saturday for the test tracks, knowing it would take some time to work out the process in time for the Tuesday rehearsal.

The first step was to build a test track using as many voices as possible – and then from that, we tried to work out how to build a tutorial for the chorus, that would eliminate the major problems that were likely to arise. Those issues include background noise, clicks, microphone distance and orientation, using different devices to record, misplaced vowels, jumping the beat and lots of others. Auditioning 30 separate tracks of 4 minutes each takes 2-3 hours and that was just to work out which tracks might be usable in the first place, so I realised quickly that it may end up being a fairly time-consuming project.

Using Audacity as a DAW, I brought in a header track for each part, which was referenced to the backing track. Then subsequent parts were imported and matched to the header track one at a time and sync’d and balanced to the header track for that part.

Each sync’d part had to be listened to in it’s entirety with the header track and in some cases multiple times, as the track may have started off correctly, but then changed part way through – so that’s another 4 minutes each track minimum plus processing time for each track – so maybe another 5 – 6 hours.

Although I developed this technique some time ago, it was for a much smaller number of voices, so I was learning about how to do this more effectively and developing the process along the way. In total – it took around 20 hours to get the test track finished. Joe also used a similar process. That’s just to get to the finished test track so it meant some very late nights.

I fed back to the chorus members about how to do a final version on the Tuesday evening, using the learning from the test track and also played it to a few people to get some further feedback. At that point, I reckoned there was about 40% chance of getting a finished version done in time.

The second set of tracks were more in line with our learnings from the test track, so we had eliminated some of the issues, though obviously much of the difference in the recordings is down to the recording device, so some of the tracks had the same issues second time around.

This time, I did quite a lot of work on some of the tracks to edit sections of them – either to silence obvious errors, or to take out serious pops, clicks and other inadvertent noises. In addition, some people started ahead on the early notes, but then got back into sync later on. Rather than just remove the tracks from the recording, I edited each track to silence the start in those cases. That probably took around 5-10 hours.

Once I had the entire chorus lined up and balanced together – I played it to Neil and sent him a few different versions with different levels for each part and he asked to bring out different parts, initially the tenors, to see what difference it made. Then we brought the leads up a bit more and so on.

Once Neil was happy with it, the final step was to incorporate Joe’s version of the track and merge them together.

I realised early on that ideally we needed two versions of the track, either because we could choose between them, or more likely – merge them together to create a much deeper sound. That meant finding someone with a great musical ear and experience of using DAW software. That man was clearly Joe King.

So, Joe did pretty much the same thing that I did, but built a second parallel version of the song using a slightly different method, as he also had some different reverb and echo options – using some of the extra voice filters in Logic Pro X. Sometimes, these can make the sound more robotic, as you will hear on other Virtual Choirs, but as part of a merged track – I figured it would make it sound much better.

We were keen that it didn’t sound ‘processed’ like many of the other virtual choirs, so we merged the two versions to create a 60 voice track to increase the depth of the sound. A bit like Phil Spector’s wall of sound concept.

Another benefit of using two entirely separately created tracks, would be to remove some of the bias in both my ear and Joe’s, and we would end up with a far more balanced final recording. That turned out to be a good hunch as it worked really well.

With the video, I used Adobe Premiere Pro, which is a pretty advanced piece of software, but rather than merge 42 different videos together, Chris figured out how we could record the Zoom meeting in realtime and then I worked out how to post-process it to make it match the audio track as closely as possible.

It’s literally the Zoom online meeting capture, but realigned to the maximum number of voices that are singing words – doots and dums don’t have much mouth movement, so they are less distracting than if someone is singing the words out of sync.

We reckon that between us the finished track took around 50-60 hours, so it isn’t an insignificant project. For future projects, maybe we could halve that if it is a similar type of track. We have looked at testing other types of song – which so far look more difficult to synchronise, so it will likely be back to testing again for those.

Funnily enough, I was looking up the Wall of Sound concept on Wikipedia yesterday – a week after we finished the track and hadn’t realised that Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, used the same process on the original version of God Only Knows in 1966, so either I think like Brian Wilson, or the song naturally needs that kind of depth to work properly and it’s just a coincidence.

I’m going to go with the first of those.

More thoughts from Steve
(Some of this is repeating what was in last week’s post)
Any time you start using new technology with a large(ish) group of people you are going to come across various problems. One of the first things you need when you are using something like ZOOM to run a group rehearsal and, eventually, a virtual recording, is someone acting as host of the meeting who is infinitely patient and a good communicator. Initially simply getting the whole chorus in the same virtual room at the same time proved to be a problem but those large issues were sorted out within a relatively short time.

The meeting does need a host to manage it but also needs chorus members to show restraint and mute themselves whenever they are not required to be talking. Any extraneous noise can be very off-putting when you are trying to listen to comment or instruction from just one person. Even with a supportive membership, there are always internet links that drop out, people who arrive late, the wrong camera being used on an ipad, audio links that refuse to work or any number of gremlin related hazards to smooth running. Iron out as many of those initial problems and you are in a good position to start.

Our next difficulty was the virtual recording. Because we all needed to be singing the song with the same timing it was necessary to sing the individual parts of the song while also listening to a teach track for that part. The individual tracks could all then be sent off to one of our audio wizards to be assembled into the complete song and leave our only remaining task to mime to that completed song track back on ZOOM. Simple, you might think.

For the miming we decided that “beach attire” and some virtual beach background would be appropriate. The beach attire was reasonably easy. The virtual background a little more problematic. A green screen, or a flat and featureless wall, is a necessity to get virtual backgrounds to work. The singer needs to be well illuminated by a light that doesn’t then cast shadows on the wall or green screen. The wrong lighting or a surface that is not featureless can mean that the singer can disappear into the virtual background each time they move. For some members the only featureless surface they could find was a ceiling. To use this surface the computer/phone/ipad needed to be placed on the floor and the singer needed to lean over it to create an illusion of normality.

It took only four runs through of miming to the song on ZOOM to get a project that “hung together” in a way that we were happy with. A project that we are all, justifiably, very proud of. A project that really brought the chorus together in the lockdown.

April 30 – The total raised is now £1902.
It is not too late to Donate

Tribute to NHS and key workers

Cottontown Chorus made this video as a tribute to NHS and key workers

We are also remembering fellow member, singer, and dear friend, Dr John Kelly, who will be greatly missed. He died as a result of coronavirus in the week before the video was made.

Donate now

I am a member of Cottontown Chorus. We have won the British Barbershop Championship seven times and currently have the European bronze medal. Last year we also won a gold medal as a mixed chorus when we combined with Amersham A Cappella.

Before lockdown we had been working hard to fight again for the Championship, in May. Obviously that isn’t going to happen and we have to wait until next year. We are missing our singing.

Barbershop is the most extreme form of close harmony singing. It is made up of four different parts which all need to blend together to produce the barbershop chords. This isn’t easy when we are all in the same room. It is nigh on impossible over the internet. Nevertheless, we wanted to try to keep going so rehearsals went online at the start of lockdown.

We have several members who are excellent singers but certainly not tech-savvy. The first week was ‘interesting’, to say the least. We were using Zoom. Trying to get everyone in the same ‘room’, at the same time, was challenging but eventually we managed. The organisation got easier as the weeks went by.

When we heard about the BBC Big Night In to raise money for Children in Need and Comic Relief we decided to make a video. One suggestion was that we should sing one of the songs from our rock set. This group of mostly middle-aged men love an excuse to get dressed up in their rock gear!

Rock Set

We have an extensive repertoire. We wanted to make a tribute to the NHS and key workers so chose God Only Knows (what I’d be without you). Coincidentally, we also sang this in our last public performance before lockdown, at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester.

Poor quality photo taken with a phone March 7, 2020 – and we’re dressed in our ‘Charleston’ gear

There are about 70 people in the competition chorus. 42 took part in the video, which proved to be a very good number because it created a nice 6 x 7 grid. Some of our members are key workers themselves and couldn’t take part because they were working.

The first stage was relatively simple. Many barbershoppers learn their own part from teach tracks, and everyone is very familiar with using them. We all have access to the tracks so we each recorded our own voice, listening to our track, so that we all got the same timing. Obviously, the recordings varied, depending on the equipment that had been used. A small group of people balanced them so nobody was singing too loudly.

For many members getting organised for the visual part was more demanding. We thought we needed to be dressed appropriately for a Beach Boys song. (Are you noticing a theme here?) I, for one, don’t have any beach attire. Pat cannot be exposed to sunlight so we just don’t do holidays with sun, sand and sea. We searched the house but didn’t find anything garish enough. Pat is ‘shielded’ for 12 weeks but I am allowed out for essential shopping. Fortunately, our nearest supermarket is Asda, which happens to sell clothes. A flowery shirt is not an essential but I was able to get one at the same time as buying food. I guess others faced similar challenges and probably had to borrow from members of their household.

We also wanted to make the backgrounds appropriate. Zoom makes this easy because it has a ‘green screen’ feature that lets you use your own picture as the background. It will work, but is not perfect, if your background is just a plain wall. We have a big house so it’s not that difficult to find a wall space but I decided to experiment further.

I probably wouldn’t have even thought about trying to make a real green screen but, on the same day, a local person put out an appeal for fabric to make drawstring bags for nurses to put their clothes in so they can put everything in the washing machine at one go without touching anything. We have masses of fabric from the days when I used to do screen printing. We sorted through a big pile of fabric and kept anything green.

Most green screens are very bright, almost fluorescent, and nothing was quite that colour. I read on the internet that any shade of green will work, as will red, blue, etc. Apparently red can be tricky as faces are sometimes seen as being the same colour as the background. The biggest problem with ordinary fabric is that it is difficult to get completely flat. I had enough clips, bars, hangers, etc. to be able to fasten it up but, even after ironing, the slightest crease is picked up as a different shade.

I fixed up a screen and soon discovered that you have to be fairly close to it otherwise the camera also sees the walls at the side of it and that messes things up. Two or three feet away from the wall is far enough. This meant moving the laptop and microphone across the room so that everything would fit in. The green screen wasn’t a great success. I had to shave off most of my beard because the camera seemed to think it was green and my background picture showed through. In the end I settled for using the plain white wall which was just as good.

I was lucky that I had plenty of space and somewhere to do this uninterrupted. This wasn’t the case for everyone. Some people had to lock up their dogs, silence their children and turn off everything that could make a noise.

The filming took place on my birthday, Saturday, April 18. Everyone was miming to the recording and being filmed by their own laptop, phone, tablet, whatever. It took a while to get started. There were some who confused themselves because they were logged in on more than one device. Others couldn’t understand why they could not see themselves, only to discover they were using the wrong camera on a phone. We had the inevitable lost connections, dropped phones, and other minor problems. We also needed to remind people to move as little as possible so that the overall effect would not be distracting. This didn’t stop Chris entering into the spirit of his location and bringing his cocktail with him.

It took three attempts to get it right. The first failed because it wasn’t recording. Someone disappeared part way through the second attempt. Third time lucky!

We hope you enjoy it

Donate now

Cottontown Chorus

The Big Lock-Down Math-Off

Today, Easter Saturday, April 11th, is the first day of The Big Lock-Down Math-Off. In the first match we are up against Andrew Stacey. It is basically Knitting v Superheroes.

The voting for the first match ends at 9 am BST on Monday the 13th

Don’t let maths put you off. Some days there may be difficult things but on other days pitches, like ours, will be very easy to understand. If there is something you like vote for it. You don’t have to vote every time.

The Math-Off is usually an annual event taking place in July. It is a knock-out competition for mathematicians from all round the world. This year it is different. The organiser, Christian Lawson-Perfect, says

Welcome to what has become by default the sporting event of the year! The Big Math-Off is running a little bit earlier this year, to keep us entertained while we’re stuck indoors.

Because it’s unclear how long the lock-down will last, and nobody knows what’s coming one day to the next, this year’s Math-Off is a much less structured affair. Anyone can enter, and every two days for as long as we can we’ll pick two pitches off the queue and pit them against each other. Nobody gets knocked out, the votes don’t mean anything, and we’ll see lots of different bits of maths. It’s the ideal Math-Off!

Our pitch today is very like a blog post I wrote here a few months ago so I won’t repeat it now,

Almost as much fun as the actual competition (or more fun, some would say) is the virtual sticker book that accompanies it. This is run by Matthew Scroggs. He is usually very well organised but I suspect he is probably making it up as it goes along this time. You are allowed to buy stickers each day, with imaginary money, and can then trade them with friends. It gets very competitive. You don’t have to read any of the pitches, or know anything about the Math-Off to be able to take part.

Have fun.