June 2018

The Conference Triathlon: Fun and Games in the Great American Midwest

PLEASE NOTE: These posts are arranged with the oldest first, and newest last. Please scroll down to see the latest.

Sometimes companies can’t decide whether a feature is desirable or not. For example, Product A trumpets “transformerless output stage for clean, accurate sound” while Product B touts its “warm-sounding transformer outputs.” Then there’s the compressor that boasts “no VCAs or opto-isolators,” while another company spotlights its use of opto-isolators to get that “soft, vintage” squeezing effect.

Some people are so enamored of a particular approach that if you don’t agree with their assessment of what’s important, they think you’re a fool. But those who are more objective realize that it’s easy to have doubts about what is best, because no one can seem to agree about what exactly is best.

Take tubes. For a few years it was considered vital to have an all-digital signal path. Now it’s de rigueur to have at least some analog, preferably tube, in there somewhere. It’s not like tubes are a new technology, so why did they go away in the first place? This isn’t just an example of shifting public tastes. It’s proof that everybody is pretty much clueless about what makes for a pleasing sound.

And they never will, because what the human brain enjoys so much about sound are the zillions of variations. Our ears are extremely fine transducers—the eyes see only an octave of light, but our ears can resolve 8 to 10 octaves of sound, with an incomprehensively huge dynamic range.

Companies and musicians will strive for “the” sound that’s happening at the moment. But like a mirage, the closer you get to it, the more it vanishes...only to be replaced by a “new” sound. Remember when Prince’s Minneapolis sound was the freshest thing on the planet? Try that now, and you’ll just sound dated.

I have a 1966 pink paisley Fender Telecaster that cost a couple hundred dollars in the 70s because no one in their right mind wanted something so ugly and cheap. Then a decade later, people were willing to pay thousands for one in good condition. Did the guitar change? No.

What does change is peoples’ index of paranoia: the idea that somehow, they’re out of touch, making the wrong purchase, or not keeping up with the Joneses. If artist A just had a hit running a microphone through a fourteenth-hand Wollensak recorder, guess what the price for used Wollensaks will do on reverb.com?

Audio has entered an era where differences are quantitative rather than qualitative. Many people ask me for gear advice—the best keyboard, the best mic, etc. But you can get cool sounds out of any synth, and you can write a song with any guitar. Frankly, you’re just as justified buying a piece of gear because you love how it looks—all-tube signal path or not.

Playing with and debating about gear is fun, but the biggest improvement you can ever make to your studio is to become the person you really are, and make music that only you could make.

Butch Vig (center) and Michael Boddicker (right)

Of course there were plenty of other workshops from author/studio owner Fett, musician/industry consultant Nancy Moran, drummer Sandy Gennaro (Joan Jett, Johnny Winter, Bo Diddly, etc.) and many more, including yours truly. Off-campus activities included a producer’s panel and engineer’s panel to critique song submissions, a full concert schedule at Madison’s night spots, and the capper: The MAMA (Madison Area Music Association) awards at the Overture Center. It’s not just about recognizing local luminaries; MAMA is a charitable organization dedicated to supporting youth music. I was honored to be one of the presenters, and could really feel that this is not just a community in name only. BTW was an enticing, sprawling event, and underlined that Madison is a city to watch when it comes to music.

With a couple spare days before GearFest, I visited Circus World (basically a hip museum and don’t laugh—it was really cool), as well as the spectacular Al Ringling Theater in Bearaboo, WI. Built by the Ringling (yes, there’s a circus connection) in 1915, all I can say is the theater has been beautifully restored, elegant, and yes, I’d love to play there someday. If you’re ever within striking range of Madison, don’t miss out on the theater.

And then it was on to Sweetwater GearFest. This celebration of gear and music just keeps getting better and better; this year, attendance topped 15,000 attendees. People came from Australia, Japan, India, and Europe just to attend GearFest—which should tell you something right there. CEO Chuck Surack stood at the entrance and greeted people, and you could tell he did it because he was both humbled by the level of appreciation but also, he’s never forgotten that it’s the customers who keep Sweetwater vital.

I gave two workshops there, one on mastering and one on modern songwriting tools, including the Harmonic Editing features in Studio One 4. I was taken aback that Sweetwater took down the dividing walls between three conference rooms, yet there was still standing-room only. It was very gratifying, and I did everything I could to make sure the crowd got what they came for—insights on how to make better music with their tools. (Yeah, I’m selfish. I just want to hear more cool music!)

July 27, 2018

Is It a Bug, or Is It a Feature?

I had just enough to time to wash my clothes, and then it was time for Summer NAMM. Once given up for dead, it has bounced back since finding a permanent home in Nashville’s new Music City Center. I was tapped to give the keynote address for the TEC Tracks seminars, as well as participate on two panels and do a meet-up which according to NAMM, was the best-attended one (there are some definite advantages to being scheduled on the last day of the show, after people have seen everything). There’s a NAMM show report at harmonycentral.com so I won’t go into too much detail here, but Summer NAMM 2018 was a way more positive experience than the moribund summer shows of years gone by.

I am very, very lucky that I can be a part of the music industry, which is truly the industry of human happiness. Madison WI, Fort Wayne IN, and Nashville TN...they may not be New York or LA, but if you’re looking for music, they’re the real deal.

One of the many highlights was Grammy award winner Mitch Gallagher’s expert interview of Larry Carlton. There are hundreds of ways to do interviews wrong...and only a few ways to do them right. He did it right.

Sometimes I drone away for hours at a time at my desk in “Studio B,” aka my office, writing articles and doing R&D. And sometimes I go out on the road for any one of a number of reasons. And what happens? Well, here’s what June was like...and I loved every minute.

The Between the Waves Madison Music Conference and Festival in Madison, WI kicked off the week of Father’s Day. Madison’s demographic skews young due to the college population, and music is huge. The number of venues and bands make up a thriving local music scene that causes sites like Sonicbids to mention Madison in the same Top 10 breath as places like Austin, Nashville, and Toronto. It’s unassuming, yes, but they love their music.

One of the highlights of BTW was when multi-Grammy-winning producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage) deconstructed a song and took it from an initial, tentative singing into an iPhone while stuck in traffic on the 10 in Los Angeles, through numerous draft attempts, different treatments, lyrics, and more. Vig had kept all his rough drafts and the process of how the song evolved was fascinating, revealing, honest, and riveted the crowd. Michael Boddicker, who along with multiple film credits has worked with Michael Jackson, Chicago, Quincy Jones, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Lionel Richie, Neil Diamond, and a zillion others, recounted not only the stories behind the projects, but was forthcoming about what he brought to these artists. Michael started on guitar and still brings an expressive guitar sensibility to keyboards through layering, controllers, and a never-ending quest to make electronic instruments sound alive and expressive.

July 20, 2018

Do We Need to Be IT Professionals to Record Music?

Larry Carlton and Sweetwater's Mitch Gallagher

And of course, there were after-show dinners, where I was lucky enough to have an extended conversation with engineer Sylvia Massy (Tool, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, System of a Down). Suffice it to say that creativity is alive and well in a woman who destroys a piano while recording the process of destroying it.

I have a perfect attendance record at GearFest because I believe in what it stands for, and the company that stands behind it. It’s also a chance to interact with thousands of end users and musicians, and find out what’s on their minds (yes, that’s how I get ideas for articles!). If you haven’t attended GearFest, it is not to be missed. Between the manufacturers showing off their latest and greatest, the workshops and seminars, and Sweetwater’s people being the perfect hosts, I’m going to keep going as long as they keep happening.

But that brings up an interesting point: the Sweetwater campus was never designed to be “Sweetstock.” Although it handled the crowds admirably, it’s hitting capacity and if it continues to grow at its current rate, Chuck is going to have to do something like rent Ohio and have a Park ‘n’ Ride. GearFest has gone from “hey, let’s provide a way for our customers to get together with the Sweetwater folks” to a phenomenon. The kudos it receives are well-deserved.


Recently, a friend of mine with musical chops that go on forever, and tours regularly, bought a brand-new, super-powerful Windows laptop. That's a cause for celebration, right? Right?!? 

Well it was, until he tried to re-create the setup from his previous laptop. First, he had to install his DAW. Hardly anything comes with distribution disks, and when you have AT&T DSL...suffice it to say that downloading 15-20 GB or so of data is a multi-day-long adventure. So he took his laptop to a Starbucks with fast internet to do the downloading...although now he needed to get into "offline authorization" land. Eventually, he got that nailed but then installing all his plug-ins became the next issue. Some had challenge/response, some had dongles, some used iLok ("download your new license manager"), some used eLicenser ("download your new license manager")...you get the idea. 

Then once you have all your software, if you're dealing with Windows you now need to optimize your computer. Oh right, the audio interface needs new drivers. (And please don't say "Get a Mac," because many issues involve third-party software, not the operating system.)

But this isn't much different from the alleged "good old days." Ever try maintaining a 24-track, 2" tape machine? It ain't pretty. Which is why I think that if you want to do recording on even a semi-professional basis, it's almost essential to have a computer from a company like PC Audio Labs, Studio Cat, Carillon, or Sweetwater that custom integrates computers for audio - and preferably, offers remote desktop support. When I've had intractable issues, remote support solved it within minutes.

(Yes, Macs are indeed less of a hassle. But times have changed, and Macs aren't as innocent as they were back in the System 7 days. What's more, even the most diehard Mac fan will concede that at least until the Mac desktops are upgraded, a Windows machine costs less and performs better. Interestingly, the new Apple laptops - which are supposed to be more powerful for video and audio applications - reputedly don't offer much of an advantage because sticking i9 chips in a case with thermal engineering for I7 chips causes the CPU to throttle back to the point where they can't go at full speed anyway.)

Ultimately, a custom computer costs more. But it's not even close to the price of a tape machine and tape. Professionals and semi-professionals can either keep beating themselves over the head trying to make these things work (and if you don't believe people are beating themselves over the head, check out any DAW forum), or we can bite the bullet. 

And what about hobbyists? Buy an iMac, just use it to run music software, and don't look back. With Windows, dedicate a computer to music and once it's set up, don't be tempted to make it do anything else.

Years ago, I said that running a computer-based studio would only become more difficult in the years ahead. It has, and we have to admit that power comes with a price. But does anyone here want to give up that power? I didn't think so!