Strumzilla

​A blog/journal about my life and the stuff I like. Popular subjects include music, guitars, gear, books, movies, video games, technology, humor.

The Edge of Summer

The sun has been shining, the grass is green, and summer is in the air. We're still in that magical window when it's nice to be outside for most of the day without fear of withering from the heat. The press of the last few months is just about to see its release. I've got a long weekend and then I take my board exam next Tuesday. I feel pretty confident about my readiness, but I'll still crack the books daily til Tuesday. 

The transition to fee basis at work has essentially completed and my schedule has normalized itself for the most part. It's really nice to have a three day workweek at the most. It's funny how quickly that became the norm for me. The default schedule should be three days for three weeks and then a week off. I'm working half as much and bringing home more than double my Federal pay (with consideration for no increase to my pension and no 401K matching).  It's really the perfect work scenario for me and my capabilities. I can complete exams more thoroughly and faster than any of the people I have worked with so far. I'm sure there are others like me out there, but we all have a fairly unique skill set that gives us distinct advantage over other examiners. Nearly thirty years of continual Federal service including the twenty three years of active duty has definitely paid off in my current job.

I haven't really been able to settle in and take advantage yet because the last few months were occupied with the end of the Berklee semester and then the beginning preparations for the board exam. Thankfully, the board schedule is transitioning to a ten year cycle after this.  My goal is that by the time I take the next board, we'll have paid off this house, built or bought our house in the country and I'll be well ensconced in my bespoken home studio.  That mostly depends on a steady state for my current work situation. I'm relatively confident that the C&P program in general won't go anywhere soon, and I'm mostly optimistic that the role of the examiner will stay the same as well. The prevalence of laziness, incompetence, and ambivalence in the Federal service actually plays to my advantage. There's no shortage of work for me, and this allows me to maximize my time/salary in a way that's really unmatched anywhere else in the job market that I know of. 

Rascal's Refrain Reprise

So, I "finished" this version of the tune. I started to work on a video with After Effects but quickly became mired since I don't know the program yet. I decided to throw together a basic lyric video and post that to Youtube and share on Facebook. I'll start watching some AE tutorials here shortly once I finish this semester's homework and finally get around to filing my taxes. I plan on revisiting the tune in the future. There are definitely things I want to add as well as things I'll likely re-do, mainly the guitar solo. I'll probably let it gel for now and start working on another tune. I think some time away will give me a better perspective on the tune. I plan on restructuring the ramped up intro and adding some small electric guitar accents to the later verses. I also still wanted to double track with my Les Paul or something different from my strat just to add some more color. 

 

A busy two weeks

It's the Saturday after I completed my first two weeks as a fee basis (contractor) examiner for the VA in essentially the same job I was performing previously. I worked a total of seven days over two weeks and completed a record (for me) of 161 exams. This will result in a take home pay of about four times what I typically make. I don't necessarily think this workload will be typical, and I don't plan on working any more than three days a week going into the future as I was on the verge of burning myself out after four straight days of full speed ahead. I think it is feasible I could maintain an average of 60 a week with one week off a month for a monthly average of 180ish. Doing the math, this would put me right at the max salary for a year. I could earn more, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't authorize any more.

At this rate, I think it's completely feasible to pay off the house in five years and move forward with our plan to have a home on 1-2 acres on the outskirts as well as getting my dedicated music studio built. This will largely depend on a continued steady supply of exams from work. The proposed presidential budget, as corrupt, lopsided, and tunnel visioned as it is, does allow for an increase in funding for the VA, so at least for the near future work should be plentiful. I'm hoping I may look back at this post some day in 5-10 years to confirm my projections were close. It's possible the timeline could be even shorter if they keep supplying me with exams. In the present environment, I'm not having any problems getting extra exams. I was even turning down a few every day last week because I was already swamped with 20+ exams each day. The lazy and ambivalent federalistas in my department are now a source of extra income for me, so as long as they stay around I should have no problem keeping my dance card full. 

Rascal's Refrain

I'm taking a class called Recording and Producing in the Home Studio this semester. The course centers around developing a song from scratch until it's ostensibly ready for commercial release. I chose a song that had come from a guitar riff and chord progression several years ago. I had come up with it while noodling (as you do) and fairly quickly had an idea of what the song might be about. I never got around to developing it because I didn't think I was ready and then when I eventually learned about this course I decided to save it for that. In the past several weeks I've created a rough draft of the tune and it's gone through a series of re-writes based on the instructor's feedback. So far the response has been pretty positive and he's made some good suggestions.

I had penned scratch lyrics to this a few years ago and then once or twice I had re-visited them for a bit. I've come up with nearly the finalized version, although changes to the song arrangement are still possible and that might necessitate more editing to the lyrics. I posted the lyrics to Facebook and got some positive comments from a few friends. This was nice as they are part of what the song is about. It's a nostalgic nod to the high school and pre-Army years in which I spent all of my free time listening to music, partying, and trying to attend as many live shows as possible. Not much has changed. Here's the current version of the lyrics as of today:

 

Rascal's Refrain

Smoke filled Pontiac traveling east
Fleeing the suburbs, evading police
Another world in that little car
No haze could obscure a sky full of stars

David’s hunky dory when London calls
We’re Miles ahead when Wichita Falls
Kate’s running uphill hounds in tow
After work we'll catch a show

Raise your glasses
To the boys

Wanderlust
We thus entrust

Smoking, Drinking once again
They stagger around
then fall to the ground

Clearview, Arcadia, Bronco Bowl
Seeing every band, our only goal
Smoky clubs and raucous crowds
Take heed now, it might get loud

Pat & Ornette on New Year’s Eve
A Caravan of Dreams departs the scene
Stumbled down an alley, fell in a hole
Late for work with blood on my clothes

Raise your glasses
To the boys

Wanderlust
We thus entrust

Smoking, Drinking once again
They stagger around
Then fall to the ground

Skippy’s was just one mistake
Out of many they made

Vagabonds and wastrels
Derelicts distasteful

Blackout driving
Devils walking with a grin
Their feats will astound, no one in this town

Raise your glass
To yesteryear's past, dead and gone

This rascal's refrain is all that remains

This rascal's refrain is all that remains

Back to music centric posting...

I finally posted my Life On Mars cover video (version 3.5) to youtube and shared it on facebook. I decided to just post it as is in the weekend before I resumed my studies at Berklee. I knew I wouldn't have the luxury of time once classes got rolling. At the time I had a few run throughs of the mix, but planned on re-visiting the audio mix at the end of the semester. That's still the plan as of now. I've already learned a lot in the past few weeks so I'm confident I can obtain a much better result at that point. 

I'm not happy with the musical performances, but they do represent what I was able to create given a short window of time. I performed most of the parts on individual days (I think I performed both the drums and bass on the same day?) and then worked on the audio mix and video edits on subsequent days. My approach for videos has been to keep performing entire takes until I get one that is acceptable and stopping there. I'll have to figure out tactics for punch in type approaches for video. Recording myself performing the music on video/audio is a complicated process and that's when I'm capturing complete live takes. If I were to attempt to capture punch ins like I can do with audio, that would add just another layer of complexity that I'm not really ready to take on for a cover video. I might consider this for my own music in the future, but then I would likely not try to present the performance as a continuous unedited take. 

The response was generally positive from some close friends. I think the ones who actually took the time to comment were doing out of friendship as much as their actual enjoyment of the performance. I still appreciated it though, my overall ego is fairly bullet proof but my artist ego is a delicate flower at times. The musicians and musicophiles from whom I was hoping for feedback gave it the standard facebook "like" but didn't comment. I'm assuming that's their diplomatic way of telling me I need to keep working on my craft. And I appreciate that. My ears are good enough to know my version isn't going to make it on any top 100 Bowie Covers lists, for that matter it wouldn't make it on a top 100 Life On Mars covers list. But it's a work in progress and this represents a moment in time. A few short years ago I wouldn't have been capable of putting together, and I would have been lacking in the confidence to share it with anyone. 

It's February, do you know where your posts are?

Some personal updates - the biggest event in the past few months was a brief cancer scare (I know that's so overused but it's actually kind of fitting) for Aeyoung over the past few months. She had been having some intermittent swelling and pain in her neck and a CT scan had showed some concerning calcifications. After much hoop jumping between the imaging center and our insurance (which saw her finally request the study get performed at a different clinic), she underwent a PET scan a little over a week ago.

It took us nearly a week to get the results, but we were thrilled there was no sign of any hypermetabolic activity anywhere in her body. Not only did that clear her of cancer in the area of concern, but it basically gives her entire body a clean bill of health from a cancer standpoint. This was a big weight off our shoulders. The past several weeks have been like 1997 all over again. There's nothing quite as demoralizing as a cancer diagnosis. You no longer know how much time you have and what the quality of that time will be. We were facing the possibility that we might only have months together, and they might be progressively more miserable for her. 

In the days before we received the results, all I could think about was if I could have one wish it would be for her to remain cancer free. That wish came true and we can return to a sense of normalcy for what lies ahead. My hope is that with a change to fee basis we can accelerate our mortgage payoff and give serious consideration to getting a 1-2 acre parcel of land and having a home and a free standing music studio built. Lots of miles to cover before then, but the horizon is wide open and the future looks bright. 

Work related updates

Another infrequent update. I've been staying busy at work and school. I can't recall if I ever mentioned it before, but in the wake of a lot of upheaval in the VA system, not to mention crossing over the five year mark last August, I decided to request a change from a full time permanent position to fee basis (contract). This would see me forfeiting any additional deposits to my 401K as well as earning any more rate increase on my federal pension. I'm also technically forfeiting the other federal benefits (healthcare, dental, vision, paid leave) but those losses are negligible. I'm already eligible (and using) my retiree benefits for these and the loss of paid leave becomes irrelevant under the fee basis paradigm.  

What I gain from fee basis is getting paid for the amount of work I do, dictating what schedule I want to work (meaning I can work 5 days, 3 days, take a month off, etc.), and the ability to leave work as soon as I'm finished on any given day. The rate at which they pay (and considering how fast I work), means that if I maintain my current production levels I can realistically take home more money while working fewer days. Although I'll be forfeiting additional increase in my federal pension, it was never going to be a significant portion of my retirement and I will still be able to draw some money when I reach 62.  The 401k (TSP) may be eligible for transfer to another similar IRA type account. I will look into this in the future. Regardless, the cons are minor and the pros are great for this change. 

The decision to change was made in the wake of perceived sweeping changes in the VA (including an increased use of contractors) and the concerns about a new administration coming into power. I made the request in December and received fast and positive feedback from my direct supervisor. In this process, he has actually been the only real support and has moved things along at every step. It's still pending because of sitting in the Dallas VA mailroom for a month (literally) and then sitting on someone's desk in HR until my supervisor personally visited and got them to do their jobs. The complete lack of inertia among many employees in the VA is what gives us a bad name. There are people content to draw a paycheck and all the benefits and perform as little actual work as they can get away with. They act like they're doing you a personal favor just to listen to your request. 

All that being said, hopefully things are in the home stretch now and I can adopt a condensed schedule. My plan is to work Tue-Thu, but I'm requesting that they give me a dense schedule every day in the hopes I can maintain similar numbers. I'm hopeful I can nearly double my current take home pay, but that will be predicated by how much they offer in compensation and how high demand remains. 

Midsummer(ish) Update

Work continues on the Life On Mars cover video. I actually had a "complete" version of all the music, and was relatively happy with it. But, in one of many learning points during this project, I gave a listen to the original (which I should have been doing more often) and realized my intro was just too fast of a tempo. I had tried various ways to approach the order in which I laid down tracks. I think drums first is still probably the best way, although in this tune they don't come in for the first minute. After learning that I really couldn't keep track of the drums while trying to play with the original, I tried using a midi version of the song with which I could include a click track and that seems the best approach. 

There are multiple ways to approach this sort of incremental song construction. Due to problems with latency, it was important for me to keep the recording setup between the drums and my DAW as simple and uncluttered as possible. Latency is a killer with drums and percussion if you're trying to record in time. I managed to get a version down that was close enough for my satisfaction. I did end up making some minor timing corrections, mainly for the occasional rushed kick drum on the "and" of 4.  

Probably the single biggest challenge of this project is that I'm recording to video.  Making corrections to timing mistakes and the occasional clam note is easy in a DAW, but trying to get that synced up to video becomes exponentially harder. There are ways around this with creative video editing, but it was important to me that the foundation of the video was going to be good performances on all the parts as the baseline. Although I'm mainly doing this for my own entertainment (and internet points, because, internet points), I have felt this might serve as a sort of audition tape that I could use as needed for bands, further academic endeavors, etc. 

My approach has been to keep attempting complete takes until I get one that's close to "perfect" (my version, not Rick Wakeman's). I then stop recording and know that I will use the last takes. In some cases this might be the 10th+ take overall. 

Once I looked at the rough draft of the video performances and had worked on the mix (I was on version 14 or so), I realized I just wasn't going to be satisfied with my version if it didn't have the same vibe as the original. I never desired or expected to make a perfect note for note rendition that would sound exactly like the original, but I felt like my version was too rushed and too produced sounding. It was lacking the dynamics and character of the original, and that's kind of the whole point. 

I resigned myself to have another go at the intro, as that was the biggest problem and I managed to have a "decent" go at the piano part yesterday. Although it was useable, I was suffering my version of a hangover after drinking four beers the previous day, and I wasn't giving myself the best opportunity for a good take. I also realized that my approach to the green screen needed some work. I've learned a small amount about videography, and one thing I've gathered is that your green screen needs to be as flat and "invisible" as possible and it needs to be lit appropriately. 

Looking at my various takes, there was a variety of lighting and screen real estate occupied by my green screen backdrops. I think for my project, the best approach will be one where the green screen completely occupies the background. There may be future projects where I have the green screen as a sort of object in the background that doesn't necessarily fill up the screen. 

All that being said, I need to re-shoot the entire thing so that I can have a consistent lighting and size for my green screen. I am learning to never see an individual performance as too precious. This is a growing process as I learn to accept not every take will be perfect, but become willing to keep trying until I get as close as I'm capable. I know when I've done my best, and that's usually when I'm just practicing or playing without the "red light".  The good thing is that I've learned to get over red light syndrome because you can always make another attempt. Part of the comfort level comes from really knowing the part well and having confidence that you can play it right. 

Tying in to that was finally settling on an arrangement from which I would build the song and giving myself time to practice it. I think I've decided on just playing the intro piano part independently without a rigid timekeeper and then locking in with the drums at the first chorus when they initially come in. I may tweak this as I discovered that the intro was fairly close to 113.5 beats per minute, but then it increases to 128 at the first chorus. It sort of slows down again at the end of the guitar interlude, but returns to that during the rest of the song. My dissatisfaction with the piano performance largely stemmed from timing and feel issues related to trying to play to a metronome/backing track when I had been accustomed to playing it more freely. 

Dealing with this tempo change has been instructive and it gives me some experience for the future as this issue will come up again. I'm definitely convinced that you need to ensure you practice the piece exactly the way you intend to record it. This seems obvious, but in this case I had been playing the piano part for so long that I didn't think this would be much different. And it wasn't really, but it was different enough that my playing become too mechanical and lost the vibe.

As mentioned, I'm also planning on tweaking the camera setup. My plan now is to use my GoPro and iPhone cameras so I have at least two angles of each performance. This just adds another layer of complexity, but I always enjoy performance videos with multiple angles (if done well) more than just the simple straight ahead shots. The GoPro is ideally suited for "neck cam" on the guitar and bass, and I'll also be able to get some alternate overhead shots as well as a shot of kick drum performance (this will be used sparingly, but I like this angle on drum vids).  

The ostensibly biggest obstacle in this project (famous last words) is getting the piano and drum performances down solid. These are the two that I tend to make the most mistakes (albeit few/small) compared to the vocals, guitar and bass. I find repeating takes of those performances is less arduous and time consuming than piano and drums. My plan is to approach it in this order - drums, piano, bass, vocals and guitar. My main reason to redo the bass & guitar is because I want the additional camera angles and I need to fix the way I use the green screen. I also need to help Aeyong install a window blind for our little half moon accent window which is still letting too much natural light in which can illuminate behind the screen and that's a problem.

Another impetus to repeating the entire process is that I've purchased my next equipment upgrade, which is the Slate Virtual Microphone System. This is comprised of a large diaphragm condenser microphone, preamp and a software based modeling system that models microphone, preamp, and compressor (as desired).  This system was announced a few years ago, but it's just now hitting the market. I've heard all positive reviews so far, but I don't know that it's hit enough of a market saturation to be certain.

Based on the microphone alone and considering its price point ($1K), it's a good upgrade from  Blue Baby Bottle (which is still a great mic) and should fill a niche for several years. Philosophically this system is the microphone equivalent of the AxeFx. As the technology has progressed over the years, modeling has narrowed the gap with analog gear, and most listeners don't know the difference. I've always embraced technology and I while I love analog gear, I also love the digital stuff for the flexibility, variety and power it provides. The three microphones it models (at onset, more will be added later) would be way beyond the wallets of all but the most successful (rich) producers. It models the Telefunken 251, Neumann U47 and Sony C800G microphones. Bought on the market (especially for classic versions), this three mic locker would likely run upwards of $50K.  Of the reviews I've seen so far, people are having a difficult time telling the difference between the original and modeled versions. I'm not sure how much I buy that, but for the price and what's a decent sounding (extremely flat) microphone it's more than worth it. It will be interesting to try this new mic out on the vocals for this project. 

There are more aspects to the video project to come, to include filming our dogs in various costumes against the green screen and the subsequent film editing and use of effects. These are all essentially new skill sets I will develop as part of this project. I'm always going to focus on music first, but an occasional video project is fun and a way to keep it interesting for the short modern attention spans (including mine). 

Sniffwhistles and snarkbottoms...

Don't ask, it just seemed appropriate. We're in the latter half of May, so just checking in. Not a lot new to report. I've taken this semester and intend to take next semester off from Berklee. A combination of feeling like I was falling behind on some areas I wanted to explore (in musicianship and writing in general), combined with a feeling that one of the courses I was taking still needed some work (Music Compo & Theory) sparked the decision. I've got enough eligibility remaining in my GI Bill (9 years) that I can afford to slow the pace a bit. I've grown a lot by taking up drums, bass, and vocals but I've made a decision to at least try and dive deeper into guitar and keys, which I consider my most important instruments. I'm trying to work more on fundamentals, theory, and improvisation, especially on the guitar. 

I've also started separating practice and composition, so that I try to focus on each on alternating days. I've also accepted that some days I just don't have the mental and/or physical energy to make any progress. I just give it a pass when those days happen.  I've made some decent progress with this new approach (considering I hadn't really written anything since the compo class). I've got one song that's almost fully written, and several that I've made progress on.  I've been trying to compose structures and rough arrangements when I have time at work, as I can essentially accomplish this on my laptop alone. I'm also slowly learning how to incorporate some of my theoretical knowledge in helping me structure these songs. I tend to get inspiration in a random fashion, sometimes as a melody, sometimes as a rhythm. It doesn't tend to come theoretically intact (although rules are totally made to be broken, they can help), unless it's a really simple tune in C. I'm trying to hone those skills so I can naturally fit something in a major or minor key without having to look it up. I'll learn more about this is future compo classes, but thus far we were writing to film cues and not necessarily in the way I would write a song for myself. 

I also started recording my cover of "Life On Mars" by David Bowie. I've been working on the piano part for years now. Rick Wakeman's playing is often deceptively simple sounding but ends up being a technical challenge when you try to reproduce it close to his version. It reminds me of Tommy Emmanuel's guitar parts in a sense. They both play songs & parts that are ostensibly fairly easy sounding as a listener, but they both have such manual dexterity and facility on their respective instruments so that "easy" sounding chords and fingerings are anything but. The biggest challenge for me was that I had been playing "Life On Mars" as just a solo piano piece without any reference point, and this meant I was playing it too fast for vocals to keep up. I had to start playing it with the song so that I would pause long enough for the vocals to fit. 

And when I say cover, I'm making a video of myself covering all the parts. The most important lesson I've learned in recording a video, is that you really need to ensure you can play the part without significant (noticeable) mistakes, because it's a huge pain in the ass to try and fix mistakes after the fact. This is true for audio, but exponentially worse with video. I performed a couple takes and got one that I was okay with, if not over the moon. I think I'll probably re-record the piano once I've recorded all the other parts. My biggest complaint with my performance is that I was following/reacting to the recording and this makes it sound a bit robotic and flat. "Life On Mars" is a good object lesson in recording a full band cover version because it has a variety of tempos and the various parts don't all come in at once. 

The drum track is pretty simple, especially for any capable recording or touring drummer. That being said, my recently intermittent practice schedule combined with my intermittent within intermittent practicing of the drum part meant my first attempt was pretty awful. It was mainly the kick drum parts, as there is this repeating lead in beat that's on the and of 4 (I think) and it's offset from an open hi-hat to the extent that I feel like I have to rock back and forth. I think I need to get a drum stool that raises higher because there are times when I think my knee angle is a bit too acute (I think it's typically around 100 degrees flexion, and 80-90 would probably be a bit more mechanically advantageous). I have started practicing drums daily since then with an emphasis on that song and it's improved quite a bit. I feel like I might give it another go this weekend. After all that, I think the bass, guitar, and maybe the vocals won't be too difficult. There are a couple of high parts "Sailors, fighting in the dance hall" for one, that I'll probably need to make several passes at. My normal approach would be to record multiple passes of each line, but I'm not sure how well that will work with recording a video. I'm more likely to try singing it straight through several times and picking the best single take.  I'll likely gain some more knowledge on the recording of vocals since this will be one of my first times trying to layer vocals as well as adding harmonies. The other nice aspect is that this will also be an object lesson both in song recording, but especially in combining multiple recordings into one music video. 

On the homefront the biggest events have been a hailstorm in March that will result in us replacing a big portion of the roof and several windows. With a 2% deductible, that means we're going to be out about $10K of our own cash. We were lucky that we inherited that amount from my mother's 401K when she passed. And when it rains it pours (no pun intended), because our previously reliable (not counting bulbs) front projector seems to be dying on us. The picture dimmed considerably and when I replaced the bulb it didn't make any difference. We made the choice just to replace it, and ended up choosing a JVC that can display 4K, although it's not a native 4K to the unit. It basically upscales/doubles the image faster than the eye can see, so it will accept 4K signals and it will make 1080p signals appear to be 4K. True 4K projectors are still prohibitively expensive, so we're hoping to get at least five years out of this one (the previous one almost made it that long), and by then 4K prices should have dropped to more reasonable levels. 

At the end of March we traveled to Toronto to see David Gilmour at Air Canada Center and then to Chicago a few days later where I flew solo for his show at the United Center. He exceeded all my expectations. My only complaint is that the time flew by so fast and the next thing I knew the show was over. I really hope he films a show or two from this tour, perhaps the planned shows from Pompeii this summer. His most recent album is probably his best, and his set list was probably more than half Pink Floyd tunes. He played Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Time, arguably my top two choices to see live so everything else was icing on the cake. 

Hey Folks

And by folks, I refer to the singular. It's been a fairly action packed few months. I was really busy with school in the fall semester, especially near the end. I discovered that the workload and complexity of the courses as I proceed through my degree plan were increasing to the point that I was burning myself out. I managed to pull off the grades, but I felt I was sacrificing true understanding and deeper absorption of some really important concepts. So, in reaction I have decreased my courseload to two going forward. The heavier courseload was predicated by my (I think now, false) assumption that I needed to take a full courseload to receive all of my GI Bill benefits. I had actually been told that by multiple advisors at Berklee, but I managed to get the supervisor of financial aid to weigh in and he said otherwise.  Apparently taking two courses for 3 months would be the same as taking four courses for 1.5 months. I won't know for sure until I look at my explanation of benefits after this semester is complete, but I think it's accurate. It's a huge relief and weight off my shoulders. I'm not taking these courses at Berklee just to check a box or get a certificate. I'm taking them because I truly want to learn this material. 

There's not much new to report at work, same behavior from the same jackasses. I compiled a DBQ report for October which essentially was unchanged from the report a year ago. Submitting this report to dickless did result in more maneuvering as expected and he actually endorses the idea of counting exams for providers in the interest of capturing workload. That being said, it's apparent that the same non-performers are being protected and given credit for "other duties" which essentially means they're getting a pass since he's unwilling to grow a pair and actually do his job. I'm not surprised, it's essentially what I expected from him. My only faint hope is that eventually when the contract supports runs out (if it does) he'll be left to explaining why the clinic can't meet the demand to his bosses. He probably already has detailed plans on how he'll tap dance his way out of that scenario if/when the day comes. I just can't bring myself to give a shit what he and the other oxygen thieves are getting up to. Life's too short.

On the homefront, we finally got Aeyong her new car, a 2016 Toyota Highlander. It worked out pretty well, and it's a really feature packed nice car. We traded in the Ranger, so I've got the Pathfinder now. We saw Patton Oswalt and Kathleen Madigan on back to back nights at the Majestic last month, and they were both hilarious. I got a cool one off poster that was made for Patton's Majestic show featuring him as various Star Wars characters. On that theme, I've mostly gotten all the concert and music posters framed and put up in the drum room as well as the upstairs living room. I bought four different framed artists renderings of Jimmy Page, David Bowie (as a statue head from the Man Who Fell to Earth), Kate Bush in a sort of airbrushed painting from the back photo of Hounds of Love (probably my all time favorite photo of her), and then an alternate view of Battersea Power Station (from Animals) in black & white with a small colorized flying pig. I think it's the same photographer who shot the album cover, just an alternate view. 

Continuing in the home decorating theme, I sort of grabbed the torch from Aeyong and attached jet packs to my feet before taking off. Aeyong had bought a Daenerys Targaryen doll from one of the local stores a year or two ago. We had incrementally bought these little pop figures (cartoonish versions) of the other GOT characters in the subsequent months. I had seen an article or video showing various Star Wars characters from The Force Awakens, and this led to more exploration into miniatures and figurines. I added several pop figures from TFA including Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma. This led to further investigation, and long story short, I've ordered several miniatures from Star Wars, LOTR, and GOT. This includes premium versions of Darth Vader, C3PO/R2D2, and Rey with BB8. The pop figures are little rubber/plastic dolls and fairly cheap, but the premium format figures are made of quite sturdy material and feature multiple poses, articulations, working lights, etc. 

I have some cool versions of Tyrion and Arya that we've already received. Also coming is a miniature of Strider (it's called Aragorn, but he's definitely in ranger mode with this figure). I also have ordered some really cool Weta miniatures and artwork. The biggest is a huge miniature of Smaug laying on his pile of gold with a tiny Bilbo underneath. I'm also getting a miniature of Bag End, and I've got my eyes on Minas Tirith. We're also getting some lovely prints of various LOTR/Hobbit scenes - a wide angle Bag End with Gandalf at the door, a close up of Bilbo looking out the front door, a wide angle of the Argonath with the fellowship in canoes crossing the water, and a shot of the meeting pavilion from the Hobbit where Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman held their dawn counsel. 

The really cool thing is that Aeyong is into it, and actually wants to display the artwork and miniatures around the house. My first instinct is to keep most of it in the home theater area, but ultimately we're going to run out of room and it will naturally spread. I don't care if this fits with the better homes and gardens of vacuous assholes aesthetic. This is the stuff we're into, and we can do what we want with our house. It's a bit childish I suppose, but in a repeating theme for this blog and my adult life, I still like the stuff I liked as a teenager and I learned a long time ago to do what makes me happy not what meets other's approval. Stephen King made a comment in an updated preface for a comprehensive version of the Dark Tower series (which I've finally got around to reading, mea culpa) that his adult personality and tastes were basically established by age 19. I think that's essentially true. I know most of the stuff I really value was already present in some shape by that age. I've expanded my tastes a bit and I've accumulated a lot more music, books, movies, etc. in the intervening years, but I essentially still love the same stuff.  Continuing the geek acquisition theme, I got a really cool Marvel Graphic Novelish omnibus of the Dark Tower series that I need to hold off until I finish the proper series. I'm on the Waste Lands at present. I had gotten on a bit of a coffee table book kick in the last year which included Jimmy Page's photo biopic, the Kate Bush photo book created by her brother, a comprehensive three volume set of my favorite webcomic Ctrl - Alt - Del and several others. My geekdom spreads its tendrils like kudzu. 

I've gotten some new albums over the past few months. I especially love Beck's 2014 album (yes, the one Kanye had to interrupt the Grammy presentation about), Morning Phase. This is easily one of my favorite albums, and it's gone on the stress reduction anti-depressant album list (sharing space with the LOTR soundtracks, Zero 7, Metheny, Emmanuel and a few others). I've also added a few more Radiohead albums, and I really love Kid A.  I went back and got three Big Audio Dynamite albums as well as The Big Heat by Stan Ridgway. This was after Matt had posted several 1985 era tunes on Facebook. I had forgotten how much I loved that music. This isn't the complete list, but I also added Mozart's Requiem and Symphone Fantastique by Berlioz. 

The past few months saw some devastating losses, but one positive addition. In music we lost David Bowie, Lemmy, Scott Weiland, and several other key musicians. In my personal life, we had to have Bridget put to sleep in November. She was 15 years old, and the small benign growth on her abdomen had grown so large it was affecting her movement, breathing, and she was beginning to behave erratically.  We grew concerned that she would hurt herself, as she was doing things that didn't make any sense. Aeyong was finding her digging in the back yard for hours in the early hours of the morning. She just seemed confused and not herself in the past few months. She didn't seem comfortable or happy anymore and we had to make the hard decision. We had a similar experience with Lucy. Once they got to the point that their personalities changed and they no longer seemed comfortable, it was time to let them go. It's still the hardest thing we've had to go through. These are our children, and as much as I loved and miss my parents, their loss didn't hit us as hard as losing our pets. The silver lining is that we noticed our two other dogs were missing her (unsurprisingly), but we also have grown accustomed to a three dog dynamic since we first got April in 2007.  So, on that note, I charged Aeyong with finding us a new puppy. She looked at several shelters and eventually found our new chihuahua (mix?), aptly named Skittles. She could have also been called skittish or skitters, but Skittles seemed appropriate. She was a rescue and she still has some of that street mentality (she apparently wasn't fed well and has a predilection for plants, acorns and various other flora). She is a sweetheart and I think she knows she is a member of our family now. 

I would be remiss if I didn't further discuss one of the most devastating losses I've ever experienced as a fan of music and the creative arts in general. Two days after the release of Blackstar (on his 69th birthday), David Bowie suddenly passed from this world. Apparently well aware he had terminal cancer, David composed and produced this album as a sort of swan song and parting message, and it's proven to be an amazing piece of work. I can't give the album an adequate review in this space, and neither can I adequately express how much David and his work meant to me. I'll do my best in the future, through spoken word and music alike. For what it's worth, his loss has proven to be just as devastating for artists around the world of every age and genre. Almost anyone of note has expressed their immense sadness at his loss and the profound effect he had on their lives. The number of tribute songs and covers are too numerous to count. I have been working on versions of his music for years, and so a short term plan (which was already in the works long before he passed) is to put together a cover version of "Life on Mars" with me performing all the parts including vocals. This project derived from a desire to put together an audition for the Music Composition program with Berklee (I'm currently in the Music Production program, but want to dual major), but it's also been a long term goal to further my musicianship, production, etc. skills in being able to cover entire tunes by myself. Life on Mars was one of a few select tunes that I felt capable of not making a complete ass of myself in the process. We'll see. 

Joe Jackson Live, Dallas 2015

It was great to see Joe Jackson live again, for the first time in nearly 30 years. It was even more enjoyable to see a show with my old friend, Matt Garrett with whom I've seen some legendary concerts. Joe and his touring band: Graham Maby (bass), Teddy Kumpel (guitar), and Doug Yowell (drums) were fantastic and capable of covering a broad range of Joe's catalog and covers (Scary Monsters!) with their freakish musicianship and solid vocal skills as well. 

Joe (and his fans) aren't getting any younger, but for most of the gig you could close your eyes and it would be 1986 all over again. His piano playing has always been stellar and that combined with his beautiful grand piano and the always great sound at The Majestic Theatre made it sublime. We suffered a slight embarrassment of riches in that we were so close to the stage and had a bit of a proximity imbalance with the mix. Doug Yowell's deceptively diminutive frame belied a powerhouse player who literally beat the skins off his kit. That's not to say he wasn't subtle and nuanced when needed. Doug and the band join a long roster of amazing musicians that Joe seems to attract magnetically. 

Graham Maby doesn't need my description or endorsement. He's a legend in the Joe canon, and deservedly so. Teddy Kumpel was a previously unknown player to me but he adeptly covered a broad range of not only guitar tones but several other instruments during the performance (often covering brass, string and even vocal parts). Joe's set progressed in an additive fashion, with just Joe on piano and vocals for the first few songs and Graham joining for "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" followed by Doug Yowell, and finally Teddy Kumpel. They ended the set the same way, which is such a Joe thing to do. He's always had the aesthetic symmetry to his art, demonstrated in the global resonance of Big World, recently mirrored in the four "City" EPs that make the new album. The devil is always in the details and Joe's music has always had multiple layers to discover over progressive listenings. Supposedly some private New York gigs were recorded for television, hopefully these will surface at some point. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Maby
http://www.teddyjam.com
http://www.guitarmoderne.com/artists/spotlight-teddy-kumpel#more-2828
http://fret-king.com/black-label/elise.html#.VhpfYBNVhHx
https://dougyowell.wordpress.com/

 

  1. It's Different for Girls 

  2. Home Town 

  3. Be My Number Two 

  4. Girl  (The Beatles cover)

  5. Fast Forward 

  6. Is She Really Going Out With Him? 

  7. Real Men 

  8. You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) 

  9. A Little Smile 

  10. Kings of the City 

  11. Poor Thing 

  12. Love at First Light 

  13. Another World 

  14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)  (David Bowie cover)

  15. Sunday Papers 

  16. Keep on Dreaming 

  17. Ode to Joy 

  18. Steppin' Out 

  19. Encore:
  20. See No Evil 

  21. One More Time 

  22. A Slow Song 

Interview with Mark Day of Fractal Audio

Mark Day gets around. Currently the Artist in Residence for Fractal Audio Systems, Mark brings decades of experience and a keen appreciation for the great tones of classic and hard rock. Mark’s guitar skills have landed him gigs with none other than the legendary Dave Friedman, with whom he worked alongside during a stint in LA that saw him also working for Tone Merchants and fielding offers from the likes of Suhr Guitars. Mark has worked directly with the likes of Eddie Van Halen and the band, Steve Stevens, George Lynch, Jerry Cantrell and many other legends of the six string. 

Mark Day has long been known for his presence on the internet where he has recorded dozens of gear demos and song covers. Mark combines great chops and musicianship with a tongue in cheek approach that makes his videos both entertaining and educational. He’s known for his silly faces and self deprecating style, both elements which are often lacking among “serious” musicians. 

Mark has been cited as a primary reason for many gear purchases, not insignificantly for Fractal Audio Axe Fx units both past and present. Yours truly owes a debt of gratitude to Mark for my original AxeFx Ultra and later AxeFx II purchases. (not to mention a Suhr Modern). 

Mark’s videos have converted countless analog non believers to the superiority of the AxeFx by the simple approach of playing songs. With Mark’s great understanding of tone and musicianship, you can see what’s truly possible with this amazing digital modeler, which in many ways has surpassed its analog predecessors. 

Darren:  Can you just tell us your name and your occupation or job title?

Mark: I work for Fractal Audio and I’m their Artist in Residence.

 

Darren:  So tell me what's on the what's on the front burner at Fractal, are there any high-priority projects?

Mark:  I’m not actually working on the firmware, that’s actually the geniuses here at Fractal, like Cliff. I get to reap the benefits of their brilliance. I just get to do little demos here and there. It’s fun for me to see these products and enhancements before the general public, I feel really lucky to do that because there are so many more deserving players out there, that’s for sure.  I'm just, I would say, the average player with better than average luck. 

Darren: I think there are a lot of people that would dispute that. We know you’re Canadian and you’re humble.  (we went off the record here for a short bit, there are non disclosure agreements in place for Mark’s job at FAS so we were just establishing some limits) 

Darren: What are your earliest musical memories, as a child?    

Mark: I’m a late bloomer, I didn’t actually pick up the guitar until I was about seventeen. As a kid at age thirteen-fourteen, I was always looking at the Sears catalog and you would see electric guitars and it always piqued my interest and I would ask my parents, can I get an electric guitar?  They were not into that kind of thing. I guess I was attracted to it and I always liked listening to music and I think the thing that really did it for me like so many guys my age, baby boomers, seeing Kiss, you know, Kiss Alive, that first live record that they did. That just made me want to play music and to be like Kiss. I remember listening to that first live record and hearing the way the guitar sounded, I couldn’t believe how powerful six strings could sound. That was my first kind of eye-opening experience to music and guitar and it wasn’t long after I got a summer job and saved up all my money and went down to the local music store and bought a guitar and it stayed in my hands like six, seven, eight hours a day every day for a long long time.

Darren: So you were totally into from the get go. 

Mark:  Totally. It was like a drug. 

Darren:  Do you remember your first guitar? Do you still have it?  

Mark: I don’t have it. It was a Hofner Les Paul copy. 

Darren: Oh yeah, I know the Hofners. 

Mark: Yeah (laughs) it was a real piece of junk, the neck was twisted on it, but it was the first guitar that I bought. I bought it with my own money and I think I paid, $200 with a case, so it was nothing special for sure, but I couldn’t put it down. I played it all day and all night. I would fall asleep with it in my hands, and I didn’t go outside, I just stayed in and played my guitar.

Darren: Were you self taught? Did you take lessons? 

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. You guys in this day & age have the internet, tablature, and millions of people that play guitar, they’re all over YouTube. If you want to learn how to play a song and you’re not into theory or tab, you can just google search and someone will be doing a lesson on it. Whereas, when I was young we had LPs, you know, records, and I would sit there in front of the record player, and you would have to tune your guitar to the record and you couldn’t slow it down, so you had to pick up the needle and play a little section of the song and try and pick it out, play along with it, then go on to the next section. It’s not like it is today where someone has taken the time to write the tablature out, and done a lesson on it, so on and so forth. It was a lot more difficult to learn but it was fun, it kept me busy.

Darren: It trained you to use your ear, and I think that’s probably the most critical component. 

Mark: Yeah, definitely. To be able to pick up parts in songs. There are some people I know that can listen toa song and twenty minutes later they’ve got every single note. I was never one those guys, but I had a decent ear. It served me well and it helped me to learn songs, it got me into bands, so it was a lot of fun.

Darren: Just to give you some context, you mentioned Kiss. My actual first album was “Dressed to Kill”, the LP. I’m not a youngster by any means, I’m 47, so I have a fairly similar frame of reference to you. 

Mark : Okay, then you know exactly where I’m coming from.

Darren: Yeah, I played guitar a little bit in my teens and I was in the Army for a long time, I put the guitar down, which was probably the stupidest thing I ever did, but I picked it back up about ten years ago, so I know where you’re coming from. Especially if it’s Van Halen I, you probably wore out several copies of it trying to figure out Eruption and everything else. 

Mark: Actually back then when I heard Eruption it was almost deflating. I heard it and it was like “Oh My God!”. You know, here I was struggling to play simple things like “The Boys are Back in Town”, you know some Thin Lizzy stuff or some Kiss stuff and then when I heard Eddie play Eruption it was like “Oh My God!” 

Darren: I don’t know about your experience, but I didn’t conceive that it actually was live guitar. It was actually a year or two before someone keyed me in and said, “No, that’s actually live, that’s one dude playing a guitar”. It was like “How?”.  I couldn’t conceive of the sounds I was hearing when I first listened to VH1. 

Mark: It was pretty mind blowing. I never thought I was good enough to even play that stuff. I didn’t learn Eruption, until probably, maybe ten years ago?  I just felt that it was always just over my head. Especially the feel, he’s got such a slithery way of getting into notes, he’s got such a groove, it’s really hard to copy. When you hear him play that kind of stuff, if you want to cover it, you try to do it as close as you possibly can, but his style is really hard to emulate.

Darren: I agree, that’s what everybody misses, myself included is the groove. You can get the notes and get them all in the right sequence and maybe play it at speed, but if you don’t have the groove it just doesn’t work at all. That’s what makes all those guys great, Stevie Ray, Eddie, all those guys. You mentioned your parents, was there anyone musical in your family? Anyone that was a singer or played instruments?

Mark: Well, my brother played drums for awhile and he could sing but he only did it for a couple of years and he played in a band. I would say his drum career lasted about three years and that was it. He went on to other things. I was the only one in the family that ever played anything. Now, these days as I’m older I’ve got a bunch of second cousins, my cousin’s children, they all grew up to be very musical, they all play instruments and play in bands. When I was younger I was the only one. 

Darren: You mentioned that you’re a product of your times because if you had the inclination back then it was a lot harder to break through and get an instrument and to see other people, and now everything is a couple of keystrokes away at least as far as exposure and lessons. 

Mark: It’s almost like if you can’t play Eruption in three or four lessons you just give it up.

Darren: Exactly, because there’s four hundred other people on YouTube that can play it (laughs) so I know. 

Mark: There are so many wildly amazing players out there, that I’ve just given up the competition when I was younger and now it’s not a competition. There are so many excellent players out there that I’m not in that class. I just kind of do it because I love it. I do what I like to do, and have fun at it. As long as I’m having fun at it then it’s a good thing. 

Darren: To put a microscope on it a little bit, what parts are the fun parts to you? That’s kind of a vague question, I realize. 

Mark: Yeah, the fun parts. I was never a writer. I’m a sideman, that’s for sure. I like playing other people’s stuff and that’s just what I like to do. I wrote when I was a little bit younger and wasn’t very good atit, and I didn’t really enjoy the writing process much. Whereas I really enjoy listening to players that really say something in their playing.  Guys like Steve Stevens, George Lynch, or Steve Lukather, Gary Moore. Those kinds of players. I really enjoy listening to stuff that they put out that gives me the chill factor, makes my hair stand on end. Sitting down and learning those parts and kind of putting my own feel to it, that’s what’s fun to me. Just learning new things, even if it’s old songs and stuff, its new stuff to me, and accomplishing stuff that I didn’t think I could possibly play in a million years and being able to pull it off, that’s what’s fun to me. 

Darren:  I think a lot of people have that. Especially like you said, if it’s something that’s really taken you a long time because that delayed gratification when you finally get it and you realize how hard it was. Eruption, or whatever it is. You’ve got that whole nostalgia factor, you know, the longer you have to wait for something. 

Mark: Yeah, exactly. I thank technology for coming up with some of the tools we have today. I think of certain software packages like Transcribe that you know, slow things down and you can tune the song and loop the song, and things like that which really aid in learning stuff properly. That’s a real godsend. I wish I had that stuff when I was younger.  Also, just the sounds that you can get now. I remember in the 80s and 90s, building these huge racks of gear to get the sound that I wanted and now it comes in a black box like the AxeFx which is just amazing. An amazing, amazing tool that can get these great guitar sounds that you never thought possible and it’s right there. It’s easy to dial in and it makes you sound like a rock star through your Mac.

Darren: All the previously perceived evils of digitization and digital technology have now been overcome and not just for the convenience factor but just the quality is that it's at the point where human capacity is now the important difference. (the limitation isn’t the gear anymore, it’s truly in the hands of the player) Everybody's got their analog gear they love, and if it sounds good why change it? So, I don't argue with those guys necessarily, but it’s like you say that everything you can do inside a modeler like the AxeFx is crazy.

Mark: I hear things that people post, you know on Facebook or YouTube, just young people and the sounds they’re getting are like “Wow, how did they get it to sound like that?”. (in the past) To get sounds like that you’d have to sit in a million dollar studio for weeks on end with a world famous engineer to get those kind of sounds before and now anyone can go buy this box and put something out that sounds as good or better than a lot of the classic records.

Darren: So contrast the ease of access we have now, to how you had to learn, sometimes by brute force, so to speak, using your ear, how is it a negative to have all that stuff right there in front of you?

Mark: I don’t think it’s a negative at all. I wish I would have had it. I guess the benefit of going the long haul is I had to use my ear and I learned what I like and I can pretty much dial in a sound within a matter of seconds that I like. If someone puts an AxeFx in front of me and says “Here’s a blank preset, now find something”. A minute later I’m going to have something I can use. Which is really cool. 

Darren: So, let’s explore that a little bit, because this is actually tied in to some questions I had already planned. Describe how you would build a preset, but in the context of what your years of analog experience bring to the table. What is that you know from those years, that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you had just been handed an AxeFx from the beginning.

Mark: Well, signal path for starters. I hope I understand signal path. I know what should go in front of an amp and what should go in the effects loop of an amp, post amp, post cabinet. So I know that, I know what I like to hear. When I look at the AxeFx, I always think about when I had a big rack, you know, a twenty space Bradshaw rig, where I had a few pedals in front of my preamp, and then ran all my post effects in the effects loop or after the preamp. I hated noise so I always had noise gates in my old rigs so I had absolutely no noise whatsoever on stage. I always used line mixers and stuff like that so that my guitar sound was always intact and I could blend in effects, kind of like a live mixing console. I used to do my own sound, I had my own PA system and I did sound for our band and I used to rent out PAs and I learned to never give the singer a microphone into a delay unit and then plug that into the mixer that’s not how it works. You plug the microphone into a channel on the mixer and then a send from that to a delay unit and then take the output from the delay unit into another channel where you can EQ that if you need to and you run it all in parallel so that you don’t get phase issues. I always look at setting up my guitar sound sort of like that.  So, when I’m building a preset I’m always thinking about my big rig. Although you don’t really have to with the AxeFx. Sometimes people will ask why I’m running my delays in parallel, and I’ll say “You don’t have to.”, but I just do it out of habit. 

 

Darren: Clearly for you, sitting in front of the AxeFx and seeing the grid layout, it’s not daunting for you like it might be for someone who doesn’t know what the components are, and you already know how they work. The AxeFx is thankfully intuitive if you have a basic understanding like you discussed. 

Mark: I remember when I was younger and I couldn’t figure what In and Out meant. You know, “I’ve got two pedals, now what do I do? I’m going out of my guitar so it must go to the out plug.” You do stupid things like that. And there’s no sound until you finally understand signal path. You know that in goes to out and vice versa. You don’t have to worry about that with AxeFx because it’s all laid out for you.  Sometimes old analog users are frightened by the grid, but it all makes sense once you look at it for a few minutes. It’s all very logically laid out and easy to use. It’s really easy to get a bad sound if you want to as well.

Darren: (laughs)

Mark: Tweaking things that you don’t know about, but if you just use the basic functions, like, the first thing to do is, I just tell people, bring up an amp, stick it in the middle of the grid and then put a cabinet block right after it. Then put shunts from the beginning to the end and pretend that amp block is just like the real amp. You’re going to go to the input gain, turn that up a bit, go to your tone-stack, forget about all the advanced parameters and just get a good basic sound into a cabinet block that you like. If you like Marshall 4x12s, there’s a million Marshall 4x12s there. Pick one, then try a bunch until you find the sound you like, then once you have the core sound then start adding delays, phasers, flangers, pitch blocks, stuff like that. Start with the basics and it’s really easy to get a good sound. A lot of people see all these advanced parameters and they start messing around and it can sound really bad really quickly and then they get frustrated with the technology. Just treat it like a normal amp and you’ll get a good sound. 

 

Darren: I’ve noticed a couple of your posts with the new firmware (FW18 at the time of the interview), and I’m not asking for firmware details, but you always joke about using too much distortion in your videos, which I find hilarious because I didn’t realize there was such a thing, but you never use too much distortion that we can’t hear the notes, you can still hear the nuance. Most of my favorite players use all the parameters available to include their fingers, pick attack, tone/volume controls. Guys like Eric Johnson, Larry Carlton, and Joe Bonamassa are always riding their tone and volume controls. Their tone isn’t such that when you get the volume past two or three, you’re already in face melt territory. So I noticed you had mentioned playing a little less gain on the new firmware, so I thought that was kind of cool. (laughs)

Mark: Yeah, I’m just funning around with this stuff. I typically like a very high gain sound. I’ve played live in so many bands for so many years, but now I watch people in that scene on YouTube and it’s not as dynamic. When I played live I was always riding the volume, all the time. I mean, that’s my main instrument is my volume control. I always had volume pedals, and I was always using the volume pot on the guitar to get different nuances of gain or sound. From turning it way down to get a cleanish kind of sound to in the middle for crunch and all the way up for a solo. Back it off to about 8 for regular rhythms that are high gain but you don’t want squeals. 

Darren: It just seemed interesting to me that you were talking about messing around with the new Plexi models and just using less gain than you typically would. 

Mark: I tend to just go for my tastes. I realize it’s not everybody’s taste, but I try to remind people of that. People say “You use too much gain!” in all this 80s stuff, you know, “Why don’t you show some other things?”. (laughs). My comment to that is I do what I do, what I think I can handle. I can’t play Stevie Ray Vaughan, so I’m not going to attempt it. You may want to hear a demo with a Stevie Ray tone, but it’s not going to be from me. If you want to hear Steve Lukather, Van Halen, Ratt, or Lynch, that’s what I like to do. That’s where I fit comfortably. I try not to go out of my comfort zone. 

 

Darren: I find it exasperating, or really I just laugh now because people have this sense of entitlement and it’s your job to give them exactly what they want. You posted a video and now you’ve got this implicit contract with the world at large, it’s amusing to me. 

Mark: Thankfully a lot of the people that watch dig what I’m doing which is really good for me. I’m very fortunate. If I had to be diversified, it wouldn’t happen. I’m not that player. 

Darren: I think people would know it too. If you don’t like the music and you’re just going through the motions, people are going to know it. 

Mark: I’ve gotten on that path every once in awhile where somebody is really bugging me and I’ll do it and then regret that I did it, and I don’t look happy in the video. 

Darren: Life’s too short to learn songs you don’t really like (sorry to all pro musicians everywhere, obviously you have to pay the bills so this statement is a bit pie in the sky)  Your Steve Ray comment reminds me of a joke. How many guitarists does it take to play a Stevie Ray Vaughan song?

Mark: I don’t know

Darren: Apparently all of them.

Mark: (laughs), exactly. 

Darren: How long does it take to tune a 12 string? (I only have two jokes, promise)

Mark: I don’t know. 

Darren: No one knows (we’re still waiting).

Mark: (laughs)

Darren: this is one of those more esoteric class questions. Do you consider yourself and artist? You have the title, your job says you are (laughing). 

Mark:  No, I don’t. 

Darren: Why not?

Mark: Every day I wake up and go to work, and this started a few years back when I got asked to go and work for Tone Merchants and Friedman Amplification,  before that I was asked to go work at Suhr Guitars because of my videos. To be honest, I never got it. It was like “Really??” (laughs) “You guys want me?” “Really, why?” So, I have to pinch myself, “am I really doing this?” I don’t think of myself as an artist so much as a lucky bugger, you know?  

Darren: for whatever the validation is worth, I think people are afraid of the word art, or artist. In this class I’m in, it’s all we ever talk about. It’s used very broadly, but there’s something you bring that is you, that is based on your background, that is uniquely you. I understand what you’re saying about the context, and getting requests from companies, and I’m trying to imagine what it would be like in that situation, wondering “What I’m going to bring to the table?”.  By any definition, you are an artist. It’s not required that you release albums or write songs or compose works to be an artist. Because you definitely have a thing. You definitely have fans. 

Mark: and I appreciate that. There’s things that I hear in my playing that I know it’s me, so I guess that’s cool. I worked on my vibrato like crazy. It’s all I ever thought about and it’s all I ever did. There was actually a video that changed my life, back in 1981, and I was playing in this band and we were pretty hot stuff locally and I remember I worked for a school board and we had video cameras and they were the first video cameras you could actually carry around and they were still huge, you had to have a separate VCR to go with the cameras and they were ridiculous. 

Darren: I remember those. 

Mark: We decided to videotape this show that we did. I remember playing it back and listening and looking at the way my fingers did vibrato and I was like “Oh my god! I suck so bad, it’s awful!” It was like a revelation. I either had to quit or fix it. I remember it was just the dawn of VHS tapes, and there were movie rental places and I went to this one and there were a couple of concert videos and I remember thinking I was going to find a concert video of a guitarist that sounds good and I’ll see how he’s doing vibrato and see if I can pick it up by watching the guy. I couldn’t find anything that I liked and I ended up getting this REO Speedwagon concert and the guitar player Gary Richrath had this really nice, wide, melodic vibrato that was not what I would call a nervous vibrato like that Cher kind of vocal pattern. 

Darren: or like the bumblebee vibrato.

Mark: That was like a revelation to me because I would watch this tape and see how he was moving his fingers and I would sit there and practice in front of a mirror until I was able to cop the look and at the same time the sound and feel. I worked on vibrato forever and ever. Hours and hours for years. It was my main focus, vibrato and bending. And then there was this time in the last ten years where I would hear myself playing and I would think “I hate that, I know it’s me!”. Every time I would hear my vibrato I would know it was me and then I realized that it’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing because people would say kind things about my vibrato and bending and I realized it would be really stupid if I changed it because I actually have three or four people that like it. That’s a good thing. 

Darren: we’re always our own worst critics. We can hear everything and we can see behind the screen. 

Mark: Oh man, I’m a huge critic of myself. 

Darren: You’ve got the typical Canadian modesty. I’m American, but I’m a big Rush fan and I’m familiar with the typical Canadian self deprecation and humility. 

Mark: laughs.

Darren: So you described that and I thought it was a cool that it was a big event for you. Have you had other sort of career or path shaping events like that?

Mark:  Yeah, there’s guys out there that like the tone I’m getting and there’s guys out there that hate the tone, think I’m using way to much gain, etc. So I’m focusing on the guys who like my tone. Probably the biggest revelation with my tone was that I wanted a lot of sustain and power. For the longest time I never used a distortion pedal. I had old Marshall Mark IIs that had a preamp. They were a master volume model amplifier, 100 watts, and I used those for years and years and I never used a distortion pedal in front of it. It was really difficult to get the amount of gain that I wanted having the amp and pickups squealing and howling. There were a lot of things I had to develop to get that high gain and volume without making all the noise. A big part of playing rock guitar is being able to keep it quiet between passages and not having the squealing and howling. So I developed a lot of things that helped me fight that feedback battle. There were things like using the volume control on the guitar, that was a big thing, volume pedals, noise gates. I would do little tricks with my guitars. For instance, on Les Pauls there’s the pickup rings and I would take hobbyist glue and I would glue the pickup edges to the rings so they wouldn’t move. To prove this theory, just get a guitar where the pickup is free floating, and it’s just got the two adjustment screws and turn your amp up really loud. Just mute all the strings except the lowest one and just let it start to do its business. You’ll notice that if you hold the pickup firmly in place, it’s not going to squeal and howl. 

Darren: Is it because of the actual pickup movement within the magnetic field that it’s feeding back?

Mark: Yeah, exactly. The pickup is vibrating, and at a certain volume it starts to pickup additional noise and vibrations and it will actually start to move around and get this real low end howling noise and if you put your finger on the pickup it will stop that feedback. When I was younger I used to put cotton balls in my pickup cavity or pieces of foam to keep the pickup in place. The easiest thing for me is just to take some hobbyist glue and put a couple of beads so that they pickup can’t move. If it’s adjusted and you’ve got the right height, tone, just use the glue to fix the edge to the pickup ring and a lot of your feedback problems will go away. Of course there are noise gates. It’s funny, because I’ll get whatever rig I’m using and I’ve been at shows where we’re playing and my rig is at volume and really cooking and someone will come up and ask to sit in and I give the guy my guitar and they’re a decent player but they can’t control my rig at all and will ask “How can you use this much gain and control it?” I’ll get on and it’s totally quiet. There’s no feedback going on, unless it’s controlled where I want it. Taming the feedback monster was a big revelation for me too. That was really cool. 

Darren: I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t appreciate with guys like Eric Johnson or EVH that it’s not just the notes they’re playing, it’s the notes they’re not playing. The notes they’re muting, whether they’re using their right or left hand, and how delicate a balance that is and if you don’t have it, it’s going to be really obvious. 

Mark: Oh yeah. I’ve heard inexperienced guitar players go on stage and not with a lot of gain but they’re still having big feedback issues, there’s all kind of 60 cycle hum. I always made a big effort to make sure that my gear was always top notch running wise, quiet as a mouse, no ground loops and hums, crackles, or bad cables. I always wanted to show up to the gig where you didn’t know my amp was on. When I hit that first chord, you were going to fly back in your seat because you weren’t expecting that kind of power. Darren: It’s interesting that probably the most popular question I saw on the Fractal site was specifically that (Mark’s quiet rig). I think many people have this idea that a lot of it is in the AxeFx. What I assumed and you’ve now confirmed that a lot of it is happening outside the AxeFx. 

Mark: Yeah. Part of it’s controlling your guitar, standing in the right spot. Your pickups, your hand muting, both left and right hand muting. When I play solos I’m using both hands for muting. If you watch some of the videos I’m doing with high gain, I’ll have my right hand fingers on strings that I’m not using just to keep them quiet. It’s a whole skill set to be able to keep your guitar quiet when it’s supposed to be quiet and noisy when it’s supposed to be noisy. That’s a big part of guitar playing. Another thing is intonation. Just because you play a G chord doesn’t mean it’s in tune, even if the guitar is in tune.

Darren: Especially down at the low end (of the fingerboard). 

Mark: I never realized, especially when I was playing Floyd Rose equipped guitars, how much I was bending the strings in chord patterns to keep the guitar in tune. You hand your guitar to somebody to start playing and it sounds whacked out of tune, and then you pick it up and it’s totally in tune. I discovered that when I was playing I was actually compensating the intonation with the way I bend my fingers during chord shapes and solos and how I placed my fingers on the frets, how I’m moving the strings, how I’m using vibrato in chords just to keep everything intonated. Intonation is so, so important. It’s not just plugging your guitar into a tuner and saying, “Okay, we’re good.” It’s so much more than that. That was a very important revelation to me. 

Darren: Yeah, it’s so critical with intonation and with bending it’s very obvious if you don’t know where you’re at. Let me ask you some more artsy questions. Have you had any other kind of big, significant emotional events (like the vibrato revelation)?

Mark:  Probably so many. Well, singing. Same thing with singing. Intonation while you’re singing is so important. There are too many guitar players out there, so you have to sing some stuff, you have to sing background or sing lead vocals. You have to do more than just play guitar. There are so many good guitar players, you’re not going to get a job. If you’re playing in a band, singing is a musical instrument just like playing guitar. I still remember back in the first band I was playing in one of my best friends Roy Nichol, who is the drummer for April Wine, I don’t know if you know them. (http://www.aprilwine.ca/news/second-news-item/)

Darren: Oh yeah, “Just Between You and Me”

Mark: Yeah. I played with Roy for thirty years. 

Darren: That’s awesome. They’re an awesome band. 

Mark:  I still remember when I was a kid and he asked me to play in his band and I didn’t sing and he just basically said, he stuck a microphone in my face and said “You’re going to learn to sing. Because we need to do harmonies, we need to make this band something different, so you need to sing. And if you don’t sing, I’m going to punch you in the head.”

Darren: (laughs) That’s good motivation. 

Mark: (laughing), and it was good motivation. I don’t think he’d ever punch me in the head, but he was pretty intimidating, and he was a very talented guy, a great singer, great drummer and a great guitar player too. Imagine me as the guitar player, I join this band and he plays half the night on drums and half the night on guitar and he shows me all the guitar solos.

Darren: That’s amazing.

Mark: The drummer showing the guitar player how to play the guitar solos. If you’ve ever seen any of my Journey cover videos, he’s playing the drums, keyboards, and he’s doing all the vocals too. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyOD4LCpbkw&list=RDuyOD4LCpbkw#t=7)

Darren: I love those. I think you’ve done some Rush that way too.

Mark: Yes, he sings the Rush stuff too. That’s Roy. 

Darren: He’s a triple threat at least, maybe he’s a quadruple or quintuple threat.

Mark: And he’s an amazing studio engineer (laughing).

Darren: I already hate him (laughing)

Mark: He’s got more talent in his fingernail than I have in my whole body. If I could offer any guitar player advice it’s to find somebody that’s way better than you. Because you’re going to learn so much. Always hang out with people that are way better than you, and you’ll always advance. If you’re the best in your band or crew, get away from it.  Go someplace else where you find better musicians or more eclectic musicians. Just to develop your own goods through them. 

Darren: To expand on that, do you like to put yourself in uncomfortable situations whether it’s musically or creatively to kind of spark that? 

Mark: No, I’m slow to the game so I’m a chronic choker. 

Darren: (laughs)

Mark: I like to do things on my own time. I have been put into situations where it was a good thing and I’ve been put into situations where it wasn’t so good. Moving out to Los Angeles was a big deal. I had a really good job in Canada, had a house, and a music school and I was giving lessons, had a band. I just decided I needed to be away from there for more reasons that just music. It was like being dropped onto another planet.

Darren: I can imagine.

Mark: I was taken out of my comfort zone. I basically moved to LA with a little bit of music gear and a couple pairs of jeans in a suitcase and started from scratch. It was very interesting, and pretty scary. There were a few times where I thought “What am I doing? I should just go back to Canada.” But I persevered and met a lot of interesting people and I got to work with people like Dave Friedman, and I got to do things that guitar players my age would just die to do. Things like doing work for Van Halen, Steve Stevens, George Lynch. I remember sitting in George Lynch’s house and programming his AxeFx, and thinking “Wow!”

Darren: Am I here? Pinch yourself.

Mark: Yeah, this is crazy, so many things. 

Darren: I saw the video with you and Steve Stevens, and I was thinking I wouldn’t be able talk coherently.  

Mark: Yeah, Steve is such a great guy. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met out there for sure. He’s very kind and he’s one of the first real rock stars that I met, and he was so nice to me. He actually came up to me, he approached me and gave me a hug and said “Mark, I love your videos!”.

Darren: Wow.

Mark: I said, “Are you kidding me?” He goes, “No, I’m a big fan, and I really like your stuff.”

Darren: There you go. You’re an artist, Mark, face it. (laughs). 

Mark: He was just a super sweetheart and so many really cool things. Getting to work on Van Halen’s rig and watch them in a little room rehearse for their latest tour they went on and to get to sit there and watch and get to listen to Eddie do the whole Van Halen I, right in front of me, twenty feet away.
Darren: That’s crazy. 

Mark: You know, I didn’t sleep that night. I was like “Oh my god, did that just happen?”

Darren: And did this come about because you went to California and you were working for Dave Friedman and Tone Merchants? Is that how these opportunities came about? 

Mark: Yeah, Dave worked with all these artists so I got to hang out and collaborate and help him out get to see all these concerts and rehearsals. We were always in people’s rehearsals like Alice in Chains, Billy Idol, The Offspring, I did a lot of stuff with building and programming pedal boards for George Lynch, god, so many artists, Lukather, Joe Bonamassa, Jerry Cantrell, just so many things that were so cool that I never dreamed of doing, and it just fell in my lap. There were times I would be driving on the 101 to work and just going “Wow! How is this happening?” (laughs). It’s so bizarre that it’s happening to me. There’s so many people out there that are more deserving, but it just kind of happens so I’m going to soak up as much as I possibly can, because it’s really really cool. I can’t even remember half the things, and it’s funny when I was out there because I didn’t post half the stuff on Facebook because nobody would believe it. “Okay, Mark, you gotta stop this because people are beginning to think you’re full of crap.”  Very lucky, fortunate person for sure. 

Darren: To get paid to do what you love, what could be better?

Mark: Yeah, yeah. And while that’s going on I get to meet the love of my life, Roxanne, so life is pretty cool. 

Darren: I did see you had posted that part of the incentive to working for Fractal was that you would be closer I guess?

Mark:  Yes, that’s right. Closer to Roxy, closer to my family. The weather sucks here, but other than that I just love being closer to her and she’s with me a lot more and I’m going to see her a lot more and it’s really nice. She’s sitting right beside me right now. She’s an awesome girl and it’s really nice to have someone in your life that supports what you’re doing and she really lifts me up, that’s for sure. 

Darren: Mike Myers had made a comment about how when he was at Second City that he would have these great weeks but the payoff was when he would come home and talk to his family and his Dad and all his accomplishments during the week didn’t mean much until he had someone to share them with and that’s what makes it all worth it. That’s awesome. 

Mark: Oh yeah. When I was out in LA and I’d do fun or cool things I couldn’t wait to call Roxy and let her know what happened, it made it that much better. 

Darren: I got one last question and I’m going to let you go because we’re already over an hour. House is on fire, what piece of gear, or instrument (not counting Roxy, cats or whatever loved ones you would rescue first), what musical instrument or equivalent do you save?

Mark: It would definitely be my Lifeson Les Paul. 

Darren: Oh yeah, you have the Axcess?

Mark: Yes, I have the Lifeson Axcess. 

Darren: Awesome. 

Mark: It’s a newer guitar for me. I’ve got another Les Paul that’s really special too, but I’ve had this Lifeson for a couple of months now and I just really, really fallen for it. It’s one of those instruments that comes around not very often. I’ve had a few really good guitars in my life, but this was one is really special. I’ve always been a Les Paul guy, I love the tone of a Les Paul, the weight of it. I’m a little guy but, people always pick up my Les Paul and say “Wow, it’s so heavy man, how can you play with this?” I pick up other guitars and they feel like toys. I like to feel ten or twelve pounds in my hands, it’s just really cool. But this one here (Lifeson LP), with the Floyd, I always liked Floyd Roses, not just for whammy bar stuff, to be honest I rely on my finger vibrato way more than using the bar. I like what a Floyd Rose does to the strings, I like the way it resonates, I like the way it warbles if I hit a string really hard, I get that sort of Brad Gillis thing. 

Darren: Yeah. How many springs?

Mark: I’ve got two. Maybe three. I might have gone back to three, normally two or three.

Darren: Is it floating, flush?

Mark: No, it’s floating. Yeah, anything I ever had a Floyd Rose on was all full floating. I mentioned before about intonation, and I got so used to playing with a Floyd back in the 90’s that the way I bend the strings when playing chords to keep it in tune has just become part of me, so when I found a Les Paul that had a Floyd on it, I was in heaven. It was perfect. 

Darren: So are you riding the Floyd with your right hand, or do you have one of those compensators. I forget what it’s called, but I have this shock absorber thing that always brings it back to zero. 

Mark: No, I basically burn the coating off the Floyd with my acidic hands. 

Darren: So you keep your hand on it to keep everything else in tune when you bend?

Mark: Yeah, I don’t really pay attention to what I’m doing, but the palm of my hand is always on the bridge. 

Darren: I’m assuming all that stuff is just subconscious now, keeping the intonation when you play a chord, all those kind of controls and the muting that you do, it just becomes natural so you’re not thinking about it. 

Mark: Yeah, I’ve sat there for students when I was giving a guitar lesson and they’d ask me questions like “How do you keep the bends in tune?”. I would sit there and go, “Well, let’s look at what I’m doing.”  When I realized what I was doing it was like “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff going on here that I didn’t even realize.” It’s weird what you pick up over the years. 

Darren: Well, and they say the best way to learn something is to have to teach it. Like, “Whoa, let me actually analyze this and see what’s going on.” Hey Mark, I really, really appreciate all the time. You’ve gone well over the projected, reasonable amount of time.

Mark: Thanks, we talked about a lot of things and we hit on a lot of things that I didn’t even think about for a long time. 

 

Much appreciation and respect for Mark and all he’s done through the years. He was very generous with his time and answers, but being that he’s a Canadian homeboy and Rush fan, it’s not all that surprising. In the time since this interview was recorded, Mark has continued to work at FAS and they’ve recently released a paradigm changing update to the firmware, which has been renamed to Quantum. In my little time using it, I’ve had that typical FAS experience of quickly just falling into playing and forgetting about fiddling with knobs. Guitarists and gearheads will never stop tweaking knobs, but at the end of the day all we want to do is play. Mark Day gets to do that for a living and he’s inspired countless admirers to follow in his footsteps. For this we’re eternally grateful. 

Mark Knopfler - Dallas 2015

Still a bit gobsmacked with how good Mark Knopfler and band were last night. It’s all a product of Mark’s brilliant songwriting, arrangement, playing, production, and most of all his imagination. Mark is a storyteller in the truest sense and he inhabits his characters to a depth not unlike Kate Bush or Tom Waits. I often feel like he understands American and World culture and history better than most of the natives.

His band are monsters on their respective instruments, and in most cases that’s three or more instruments each. The tour lineup includes Mark Knopfler (guitar, vocals), Guy Fletcher (keyboards), Richard Bennett (guitar), Glenn Worf (bass), Jim Cox (piano, organ, accordion), Ian Thomas (drums), John McCusker (violin, cittern), Michael McGoldrick (whistles, uilleann pipes), and Nigel Hitchcock (saxophone).

This band can cover any genre and create any dynamic. Majestic is a great old venue (I’m deliberately not talking about the seats), and the sound was excellent. High marks for the Dallas audience as they all seemed to be real Knopfler fans and not just the socialites that sometimes inundate these shows (not looking at you, ATT PAC). Another really cool feature of this and the last few tours is that Mark offers the board recordings on little guitar shaped USB sticks a few months after the show. As this was a great performance (even according to Richard Bennett on his blog), this live recording should be a keeper.

For the gear heads: Mark played a variety of strats, I think the classic old Les Paul from the BIA era, the resonator made famous from the album cover, his old Pensa Suhr (on the second half of Telegraph Road, and shit yes, he played Telegraph Road), a steel string acoustic, and the Danelectro pictured here. Great feature on Mark’s most important guitars on SkyArts from a few years ago:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=9&v=27OT_FSWrIE

  1. Broken Bones 

  2. Corned Beef City 

  3. Privateering 

  4. Father and Son 

  5. Hill Farmer's Blues 

  6. Skydiver 

  7. She's Gone (with Nigel Hitchcock)

  8. Your Latest Trick  (Dire Straits song) (with Nigel Hitchcock)

  9. Romeo and Juliet  (Dire Straits song) (with Nigel Hitchcock)

  10. Sultans of Swing 

    (Dire Straits song)

  11. Mighty Man 

  12. Postcards from Paraguay 

  13. Marbletown 

  14. Speedway at Nazareth 

  15. Telegraph Road  (Dire Straits song)

  16. Encore:
  17. So Far Away  (Dire Straits song)

  18. Going Home: Theme from Local Hero  (with Nigel Hitchcock)

Interview with Troy Grady

Interview with Troy Grady of “Cracking the Code”

Troy Grady isn’t simply described or categorized. An attempt to distill him down to one or two words invariably falls short of capturing the complex arrangement of many talents which he brings to bear in his creative endeavors. So, I invented a new word: Multiinstrumentalamediaentrepreneurialinguist. Webster’s, take note. 

Troy Grady is the mastermind and primary creative force behind the groundbreaking web series, “Cracking the Code” which reveals the secret techniques employed by the virtuoso legends of guitar. The series unveils previously hidden nuances to the techniques that separate the all time great shredders from the six string punters clogging up Guitar Center and Youtube. (and, ahem,  the blogoverse). 

Troy’s keen intellectual mind, combined with a deep well of cultural references and visual media acumen has resulted in a series that is immediately entertaining but very dense and worth multiple repeat views. The series is part biographical, part historical and all educational. The guitar tuition alone is enough to justify a curriculum at the university level. 

Troy’s project stemmed from a lifelong love of music, and a special devotion to the heyday of 80s era rock lead guitar. The germ of the project actually began in his time at Yale, where he was majoring in Italian, you know, as most budding entrepreneurial guitarists are wont to do. Viewers of “Cracking the Code” will quickly surmise Troy’s shrewd analysis, wit, and his sponge like absorption of culture both past and present. 

 

D: Watching “Cracking the Code”,  I can’t even conceive of the amount of time and effort that must have gone into the project. 

T: It was harder learning the skills in the first place. Now we have this whole production system and language we use to describe these things internally between me and the guys (Troy has a team of 3 including himself) so it’s very easy to cook up these kinds of visuals now. But, it took us several, probably two years to actually develop that language, to get everybody with the same skills, to get to the point that any one of us could open up a project done by any one of the others. 

In his blog, Troy describes the initial responses the team received when they would try and preview animations in process to friends, family, the UPS guy. The initial efforts weren’t so well received until the team had a sort of epiphany in that the animations didn’t have sound or music.  In assembling the clips to allow room for sound effects and music, they realized that to keep an even and steady flow, they had to treat the vignettes as if they were a piece of music and apply a sort of rhythm to the process.

D:  I thought it was really interesting in your blog how you mentioned the use of the “metronomic click”. How you ended up approaching it like it was basically an instrument.

T:  Unless someone works in production, you can’t show someone a half finished project and get an honest appraisal for what it’s like. They can’t separate the analytical from the visceral. They don’t know how to look at that and say, “Oh, that’s going to be really great once you add music to it”, they just think it looks boring. It’s very much like trying to play unmixed tracks (music) to someone who’s not a recording engineer. They just sound bad. They’re like, “Oh, but it doesn’t have 2db of dynamic range, and it’s not brick wall limited” (this is a music production joke about the tendency of modern pop music to be so over compressed in an attempt to make it louder but resulting in a loss of dynamic range and vitality).

D: (laughs) As is preferred by John Q. Public. 

T: Exactly. 

D: What’s on the front burner right now?

T:  There are no big projects, but we do two main things that make money. We make the episodes of the show and we have this lecture series that we started called “Masters in Mechanics”, which is a monthly, very detailed investigation of a particular topic or player.  So it’s the juggling act between those two things and being pecked by the 1000 crows of everything else that you need to handle…

D: like interview requests…

T:  …and customer service emails, blog posts, posting things on Facebook, writing articles for Guitar World, which is another thing that we do now with some regularity. Making episodes is the hardest thing we do because they’re the most involved, they take the most time, and it’s the thing that everybody clamors for, ironically that we can’t deliver as fast as we’d like. 

So the lecture series was actually a way around that. By saying, ok, here’s something we can deliver, probably on a monthly basis, that is a huge amount of work, but of a different variety. So, if people want more of Cracking the Code, in some form, this is a way that we can deliver that. Whereas the show episodes are just going to have to take as long as they take, and until I get three more people here, there is no way that the pace is going to approach that of cat videos, and talking head blogs. 

D: and that is your competition…

T: It’s my own competition, I should be working sometimes. I need to watch Maru jumping into or out of the box. I actually don’t know what our competition is, we’re pretty much doing the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing on the internet. 

D: Yes, I was joking about the cat video, as far as actual competition, you don’t have any, you’re in a league of one.   

T:  I guess, but the internet has enabled you to make cheap things that are reasonably entertaining with almost no work and a high frequency of output. But we decided to completely do the opposite and make life difficult for us, by trying to make things with a pseudo-television level of production value that take forever to do.  

D:  What’s a typical workday like for you?

T:  I don’t know if we’ve really achieved a rhythm on that front. We do have an office, I have a studio that’s just down the block from the office, so that actually works out very well. I work better in an office setting. If I’m forced to work from home, inevitably naps happen at like 3 o’clock (laughs) that’s no good. Then I end up staying up way later than is really productive if you want to maintain any sort of schedule, so I like coming to an office. It’s usually a mixture of doing all the animation which we mainly do here, but any live playing and filming is done at the the studio, as well as soundtrack work which happens there if we need to record drums, or do anything, you know, turn on an amp or play drums. I tend to do that from the studio and I’ll do all that stuff early in the morning if I can and then come in here, hopefully by the middle of the afternoon at the latest and then take all that stuff and start assembling it or editing it. 

So, it’s almost like going fishing in the morning. You get up really early and you go and turn on all the gear and see what comes out, see what you catch. You put it all together and come back to the office and put it all together and see if you’ve got anything good. So, that is one rhythm that we have, on days when we’re doing heavy show production, and that’s usually toward the end of the episode when I start doing all the soundtrack stuff. We’ll plan for the soundtrack from the beginning, but we’ll only start doing towards the end once we have rough edits of all the animations together because sometimes the timing of the one thing influences the other thing. We’ll go back after the animations, and say “Oh, give me one more bar of space here because I want to have this particular thing happen in the song”, and I sometimes won’t know that until I’ve actually done the song, usually to a scratch version of the animation. So, it’s this iterative process, but that’s the good part of the process, because it’s usually towards the end which means we’re getting close to finishing it. 

D: It’s probably a fluid process. 

T: Yep, and the seminar stuff throws a monkey wrench into that, just because filming those 3-4 hour video marathons is entirely in the studio, and that requires planning, and a certain amount of caffeine and sustenance (laughs) to make it through seven hours worth of that. Then making sure you’re got it all and then invariably having to go back and edit and film these lick (guitar) packs that we distribute along with that. These are slow motion examples of things I talk about in the seminar, some of which I record before the seminar, and others of which I have to go back after we film the seminar, because I mentioned five different things that I wasn’t planning on mentioning and then we have to go back and film those things so we can include them.

D: Have you found yourself hesitating to answer a question or make a reference, because, like, “Oh my god, I’m going to have to demonstrate now”

T: Oh, yeah, absolutely, there’s whole topics, all the time. In fact, the guys are always trying to get the episodes to be shorter. Invariably, they become longer over time. This one that’s coming up, the Eric Johnson one, there was a whole scene involving Jimi Hendrix and the Mixolydian mode, which was really cool, and we were going to do these psychedelic colors, and Jimi shooting rainbows out of his guitar, and we had to cut that because of time. That didn’t make it into the episode, but it’s in the notes that we supply with the downloadable material. 

D: What are your earliest musical memories?

T: My parents are rock and roll generation people. We drove around in the 70’s with Rod Stewart blasting on an 8-track in the car.  I think growing up in a music friendly house was obviously of key importance because I have friends whose parents were from a generation prior to that, who listened to “Fiddler on the Roof” and Gershwin, and who were not very friendly to rock music and thought it was all a waste of time. In my household, even though they weren’t musicians, they went to shows in the 60’s and saw, like, Grace Slick walk onstage at the Fillmore East at 2am, just because she happened to be in town that day and was unannounced and just showed up at some other show. This was before the era of arena rock, and you could walk into Cafe Wha? and see some amazing act that you could throw a rock and hit from 20 feet away. 

I grew up understanding that people like Eric Clapton were geniuses. They weren’t rock and roll rebels, these were people that, if you did music, this was a thing to be admired. That’s not just true of my immediate family, but also my uncles and aunts, there were a bunch of musicians there, and it was understood in my family, and I don’t know why actually, but it was understood that this was an acceptable thing to do with your life. 

Being in the right environment certainly helps and having a supportive family environment, where things are tacitly acknowledged to have value. Even if someone is not beating you over the head and forcing things on you, if you’re a kid and you see your parents doing a thing and enjoying it, it only makes sense that is going to have some residual positive impact. 

D: Do you remember the first music you liked, or the first music you bought?

T: That’s hard to say, because I know when I was very young I had the little Micky Mouse record player, all sorts of kids stuff on 45s and I remember my grandmother giving me Englebert Humperdinck records like “Cuando Cuando Cuando” and “Please Release Me”, (laughs) and I used to listen to that, but I was not a rock fan as a kid per se, because that was what my parents liked and I didn’t know what the Rolling Stones were, or that they were such a big deal, or why you had to wait by the phone to call the radio station and win tickets to the Tattoo You concert, I didn’t know what these things were. But, that’s what they did. But, I liked Billy Joel, because we’re all from Long Island, so that’s a religion.

D: Well, they issue those, right? They come in the mail, “Here’s your new Billy Joel album”.

T: They do, yeah. Absolutely. It’s exactly like a Springsteen in Jersey kind of thing, perhaps less well known, but it’s exactly like that. Everybody knows the guy, or everybody knows the music and has some connection where their friend’s uncle’s roommate’s gardener was connected to Billy Joel in some fashion. So, I started on piano, it was the first instrument that I actually played, and of course Billy Joel music was the first stuff that I played. We did everything, from ironically not “Piano Man” first, probably more like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Summer, Highland Falls” and all the stuff that are more known to people who know the b sides and all the obscure songs. 

D: “And So It Goes”?, I’m sure you know that. 

T: Oh yeah, and everything off of “Streetlife Serenade” is great, “Turnstiles” is great. All those early albums had this very melancholic, almost folksy vibe to it.  They were all great piano songs, for various reasons. Then there’s the obvious sort of “Eruption” stuff like “Angry Young Man” the hammering on the C, the middle C, and then “Root Beer Rag” and a couple of others that are a little more showy.

D: How old were you when you started on Piano?

T:  Oh, I don’t know, single digits. We had an air organ, when I was really young that you plug in, it was like an accordion where you had buttons on the left for chords, and you had like a two octave keyboard on the right. My dad actually taught me how to play this, and to this day, he has no musical ability that I can think of.  The music they gave you with this was numbers, there was a little stick on strip of letters that went over the keyboard and the chords on the left were marked black for minor and white for major and the little book we had “On top of old smoky”, and it said like “1 - 1 - 3 - 5”. You would hit the white number one that would play the c major chord that went along with this and he actually showed me how to do it and that’s how I actually started playing keyboards.

D:  It’s like Piano tab (tablature, commonly used for guitar is an easier version of sheet music)

T:  Kind of, yeah. That’s exactly what it was, and my Dad’s a very technically minded guy, worked in home improvements for a number of years so it was no problem translating that. It was after that they put me in piano lessons at some point and that went up to about probably 8th or 9th grade when I actually stopped taking lessons because at that point I knew enough that I could just play the things I wanted to play. My sight reading abilities were beginner level. You were playing things that were like easy piano versions of stuff and I couldn’t stand it, but my composing and improvising skills were already kind of there at that point. I finally said, and I felt guilty about asking parents if I could stop going to piano lessons and they were like, “Sure, no problem” because at the point all I did was play piano all day. 

D: So you were learning stuff by ear?

T:  Oh yeah. There were a few key insights early on. Once I realized that “Oh, that’s what a chord progression is?” I didn’t know what that was, but once I realized that was the building block of modern pop music, essentially, everything took off from there and within a year or two, all the conventions of pop music had basically been totally distilled in my brain. I could listen to stuff on the radio and just play it. I was always using the SK1 for piano licks. We talk about this very briefly in the show, there’s a scene where I show “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” solo being played on an animated piano. That was one of the very first things I did with the SK1, was slowing down Billy Joel licks, and that was all major pentatonic stuff mainly on the white keys like C, F, and G. Piano has its own idiosyncratic vocabulary that’s not so easy to translate to guitar playing so I can’t say the one necessarily fed to the other, but these are all the interests just being mixed together, and the same tools were used to decipher them. 

D: I was amazed that you thought of the sampling approach. I love the newer things, the “Amazing Slow Downers”, but just as you show in the video, the old approach was to put the needle on the LP, play a few seconds, keep trying to put it back in the exact same spot, and you wear it out and scratch it and it no longer plays.

T:  I’m a little annoyed in that I think our experiences were so idiosyncratic that had I had an older brother or something, he would have been like “Dude, just get yourself a variable speed tape recorder and stop killing yourself”,  but I didn’t know that people were doing this in these ways. From working on the show, I’ve gotten so many emails from people with their own bizarre stories that range from modifying the rollers inside of their tape decks so that even though it was spinning at the same speed, with the bigger roller it was effectively going slower. I’m using the wrong terminology here, but basically physically modifying the tape deck to play back at a different speed so they could accomplish the same thing. There were a million different ways of doing this and it sounds like nobody really knew how anyone else was doing it, whereas now, I’m going to sound like old school, but now you just drop into any one of three or so applications for doing this, and there you go.

D: It’s on your phone with everything else. Kids these days…

T:  I know. The video games, the Rock Band games were huge for that. I don’t know if you remember when people started ripping the individual tracks. 

D: Yeah right, the multitracks, the moggs and the oggs. Love that stuff. (moggs and oggs are proprietary audio formats typically used in the various rock band video games. They were isolated individual tracks of each instrument which would allow a listener to hear individual parts and often revealed nuances not heard in the regular full band version of the song). 

T: I was hearing stuff that I had waited for 30 years to hear.

D: Absolutely. I know some of it was covers, but some of it’s the actual stems. 

T: Only the first version of the game was actual covers and they did a really good job, but no one knew the game was going to be that popular and because it became so popular, apparently it sparked this whole quest to get these master tapes which were hidden in all sorts of weird locations like buried in producer’s basements and the actually found a lot of them because they had a reason now finally now to get the isolated tracks and make money off it. So the popularity of the games helped resurrect a lot of these possibly lost tapes. So here I am listening to isolated guitar tracks from Van Halens first album. 

D: Van Halen was amazing when you could first hear just Eddie.

T:  Oh yeah! And you could tell it was live as a band because you could hear the drums bleeding in ever so slightly into the mic, or maybe it was crosstalk on the tape, but I prefer to think it was live mic bleed because that’s cooler. But you’re hearing this and going, “Oh, that’s what he played there” like where Dave (David Lee Roth) is yelling normally on the record (laughs) 

D: Yeah, something inane…

T:  Yeah, right. Someone then, of course, posted these on youtube. I remember looking up, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, the guitar track, and it’s there, and I’m reading the comments, and one of the comments, obviously someone very young, who said “Oh, I just heard this great song yesterday, and I went on the internet to see if I could find the guitars, and here it is!!” (laughs)

D: I know, I hate you. 

T: Yeah, it’s like “Kid, you don’t know man!”

D: Exactly. It’s like “You don’t know the long slog of people trying to suss out Eddie Van Halen tracks on LPs”

T:  I know. I love to romanticize the good ole days, but the learning opportunities are just so much more immediate now. You can pickup more in 6 months on Youtube, things I didn’t even know existed. 

D: The tools are great, the Amazing Slow Downers are great when you approach it that way, but the one great thing about that era is that you basically were depending on your ear, there weren’t tabs for everything. Tabs are great, but if they become the crutch, you know full well…

T: Right. But I think of things I had to play that I didn’t know until at least six years of playing like harmonics, for example. Right hand harmonics (sometimes called false harmonics, the technique involves fretting a note on the neck with your left hand and holding usually your right index finger at a spot 12 frets higher and striking the string with your right thumb or pick. It’s a technique pioneered by Lenny Breau and Chet Atkins) - this was a thing I had heard, and had no idea how that was being done for the longest time. I remember being in the guitar store and seeing a salesman at Sam Ash fretting some super low note and hit some crazy Eddie Van Halen style high pitched right hand squeal and I’m looking at him like he sawed a woman in half. I realized that the learning process was so uneven, even for people who were talented and were seeking information, it just wasn’t that readily available. 

D: I saw on your blog you had interviewed Tommy Emmanuel. He talks about when he first started learning Chet Atkins songs, he just kind of intuitively figured out that he was playing the bass line, chords and melody. (all at the same time, live) He could just tell. Everybody else just assumed it was a studio trick, it was a bass line (played by a bassist), it was multi-tracked. But, that was his whole world and he just focused on it, he was going to figure out how to play it. There’s something to be said for people who grew up in that era and didn’t have a choice. 

T: He tells a funny story about the first Chet Atkins song he learned, called “Windy & Warm”. He listened to this forever and he couldn’tfigure out how the fretting worked and he finally was able to do it, but it was all these weird stretches and many years later when he met Chet Atkins and told him how hard it was to learn and Chet said “Oh, I used a capo”.  And Tommy’s like “Auuggghhhh!!” because he never knew.

D: He also tells the story that he started off using a regular pick, playing pick-style (holding a pick between the thumb and index finger and using the middle and ring fingertips to pick strings. A thumbpick frees up the index finger since the pick slides over the thumb and doesn’t have to be grasped by the index finger) but he saw an album cover where Chet Atkins was wearing a thumbpick, and he was like “That’s what it is!”

T:  Right, exactly. Who knew?  Which is why it’s so fascinating that these guys who had no one to learn from at all, got as far as they did, it’s almost like magic. Who did Tal Farlow have to listen to?  They had radio, maybe. If you wanted to hear a song again, you just had to wait around for awhile until they played it again. (laughs)  There were no other guitar players, no one playing the super out there stuff with the advanced picking that he was doing. He listened to Charlie Christian, who was a big influence. Charlie Christian is a great player, but of a decidedly earlier era, who did not have all the sophistication happening, the least of which on the harmonic side, but not the picking side of it either when you look at Tal’s playing now you can recognize right away what he’s doing.  You can see the sweeping in both directions, you see two way pick-slanting, and it’s amazing to look at this and go “Oh my god, no one stood a chance”. No one was going to know what this stuff was. Now it’s plain as day, you don’t even need to slow it down to see how these things work, you can just watch the guy because his hands are so big, any time he leans the pick in one direction or another you can see it with his giant thumbs. He probably has no conscious awareness of doing that, and how he figured that out in the 40s, I don’t know. 

D:  The thing I found amazing was how these guys independently figured this stuff out, even though they couldn’t really express it. I was surprised that Eric Johnson and Yngwie’s (picking) approach is pretty similar. I would never have thought that in a million years, just because they sound so differently, they play different scales and whatever, but technically that’s amazing. 

T: Absolutely. The musical styles being very different, but the string switching styles are essentially the same. That’s really what the similarity is. When you start to look at picking technique as a system of parts, each of which can be swapped out for other components, that’s how the similarity becomes more apparent. The way that these lines are organized, the rules that govern that are similar. That’s why I tend to think of them as being the same, but obviously there are other components of what they do that are not the same, or to varying degrees, only related. But I’ve come to see the string switching side of things being the most influential in determining what the player can and can not play, or what kind of things they are likely to build their style around, because that’s the biggest obstacle mechanically as far as picking is concerned, getting from one string to another. 

Your system for doing that is largely what determines the kinds of things you’re going to write and play. The greats don’t necessarily acknowledge this in a conscious way, but it’s very clear that they have a way of sensing the path of least resistance and they move forward and build all their cool licks and tricks around the things that are the easiest. It’s fascinating that they do in fact know enough that they can sense that. I’m sure we all got to a point that we said “Oh, this weird three note per string stuff is hard” but I kept banging my head against the wall trying to do it, whereas I am sure that at some point, when I was fourteen I probably played some two note per string lick, probably played it really fast, or a four, six or some even number of notes, probably played it really fast and clean, probably didn’t know why, and didn’t think enough to recognize it to stop and say, “Oh, I should do that”, focus on that type of thing. Whereas, a guy like Yngwie, by the time he was twenty one, he was writing albums and had built an entire style like this, so clearly he had reached that point, probably many years before that. Which is crazy to think. Probably by the time he was seventeen, his entire mechanical system was in place,   enough that by the time he was twenty one he had albums worth of material and he was touring with major bands and writing their material too. That is just mind boggling. 

D:  I haven’t seen too much of the Electromagnets, I’ve seen Eric (Johnson) play their tunes, but if you look at his very first Austin City Limits appearance, and I don’t know how long he had been playing then, I think he had been playing for awhile, it was like ’84, he was completely developed. 

T: Oh yeah. He was also older by the time we saw him on Austin City Limits. 

D: You’re right, the ’84 one, he was probably around 30ish or so (Eric was born August 1954). One comment about the Yngwie/Eric discussion. The thing that never occurred to me is to start a descending scale (going from the higher pitched to lower pitched strings) with a downstroke. It’s always been intuitive to me to lead in the direction that you were going.

T: You’re saying that if you were playing a scale that was descending you would likely start on an upstroke simply because it moves in that direction.

D: Even with the two note per string patterns. As soon as you released the Eric stuff, I was like, “Good”, because that’s the guy, if I want to model anybody, that’s the guy. 

T:  That’s not too far off. There’s some validity to that idea, even if it’s not a strictly logical solution. There are playing styles that share some similarity to that mindset, for example, when I interviewed Frank Gambale.  Frank is a two way pick-slanter, you can see it whenhe does any sort of swept arpeggio, the pick leans very heavily, and I think we always knew this. We always saw the great sweepers doing this, people like Jason Becker, it just wasn’t obvious that it also had something to do with alternate picking.  But it does, because not all of Frank’s playing is sweeping. 

There are many times, even in the context of a swept passage, in which he will switch strings using alternate picking, but Frank is always leaning the pick in the direction of his motion. Not so much that he’s choosing pick strokes that move in that direction, but the pick slant itself leans in the direction that he’s moving. The reason he does this is because, if you think about the Yngwie picking system, which is a one way pick-slanting system, the ascending side of the Yngwie strategy, where the pick is leaning downward, permits him to switch strings using picking in all cases, so in other words if he’s moving from a lower string to a higher string on a downstroke, then he can use sweeping to do that, so he doesn’t have to jump over the string. 

If it’s an upstroke, then he can do it just using alternate picking because that’s how downward pick-slanting works. If you flip that scenario upside down, you can do the exact same thing going the opposite direction. You can use upward pick-slanting when you use descending lines, and you will always be able to switch strings with picking, no matter the occurrence. If it’s an upstroke string change, then you’re going to use sweeping this time, and if it’s a downstroke string change, you’re going to use alternate picking. This is roughly the Gambale system. It’s a bi-directional Yngwie, if you want to think of it that way. That’s why you don’t hear legato in his system, he only plays lines where the picking is going to work out that way, but when I interviewed him, I made him play a line that was sort of backwards for him. Where I said, “play a descending pentatonic line, but start it on a downstroke”. He understands pick slanting, he doesn’t call it that, but he knows the movement. I asked him why he did this. “Why do you lean the pick that way?” He said “sometimes I want to sweep in that direction”, which is certainly one way of looking at it, but if you’re descending with upward pick slanting that lean helps you sweep in that direction. 

But I said, “do a pentatonic scale, but lean the pick down”. He goes “Aughh, why would you do that, it’s so awkward”. But he did it, and he did it perfectly. So, in other words, if you’re doing two notes per string alternate picking and you lean to downward pick slanting then you start each string on a downstroke, then you would go down/up and everything would work out fine like the Yngwie system and Eric Johnson. So he did it, he did it perfectly, and he goes “Aughhhh, who would do that? It’s weird” because now I’m having him lean down but play a descending line which is effectively like leaning down but moving up at the same time. There was no other way to do it, it’s the only way it works, but that’s not how he thinks. 

It’s fascinating, but the idea that the movement has to somehow flow with the melodic flow of the line is not all that farfetched, and in his case, it makes sense, it’s just leaving abunch of other possibilities on the table, like the entire Eric Johnson system, for one, simply wouldn’t work that way because it’s a one way picking system. So, if you want to do his stuff, the easiest way, really the only way, actually, is to use downward pick-slanting, because of all the sweeping also.  

D: Especially how fluid he is with the two note per string patterns, and I love how you stress that a lot of people avoid this distinct sound that you have available that definitely sounds different, and his use of pentatonics and you can’t tell if it’s major or minor, that’s a big part of it too.

T: Yep, yep, absolutely.  I think a lot of people can benefit from playing his style of lines, because it completely sidesteps the whole issue of playing really fast on a single string, which everybody is sort of obsessed with. You can tell from listening to him that there isn’t ever a point where he does that (laughs).

D:  Yeah, I don’t know of any Eric Johnson tremolo (fast picking on a single string) Eddie Van Halen type picking, he doesn’t do that at all. It never really occurred to me, but you’re right. 

T:  No, and nor does he play any sort of patterns that move around on a single string like a Django or an Yngwie. What he think he does is because there are so few ways to play what he plays, other than the way he does it, is it minimizes the opportunities for mistakes.  The whole idea of hand synchronization isn’t really a thing with him, because he isn’t just picking really fast with the right hand and trying to sync up the left hand, that’s not a challenge. It’s really just one movement, it’s like hitting a snare drum. There’s a downward component, and an upward component. 

There’s never a point where he’s just trying to move the hand really fast, where everything turns to mush. Which, of course, is like the classic bad guitar playing when you're first learning picking is this sloppiness of the hands not being synchronized, then trying to move that across the strings. All of this is baked into his strategy already. It’s already solved for you.  

D: You just turn up the gain, that’s all you need to do, and you’re all set…

T: Yeah (laughs)

D: …    When you want to pick fast and sloppy. Changing gears, back to you a little bit. How would you define what you do artistically? How would you define your art? You can make this as broad or as narrow as you want. 

T: I’m not sure I understand the question (laughing). 

D:  Looking at what you do. Obviously it’s creative, it’s multimedia, there are multiple elements that go into it. Let’s consider this from another angle. What are you hoping to achieve with the creative projects you’ve made? It could be “Cracking the Code”, it could be original music. What’s your goal as an artist, what are you trying to do?

T:  My initial response is, I don’t use the term artist, because it just seems highly pretentious (laughs).

D: We’ll give you a pass, this is how the question was asked.

T: Yeah, and I don’t mean to accuse you of accusing me of something…

D: (laughing)

T:  It’s just I’m very pragmatic about a lot of things, and so for me it’s like “Oh, here’s a problem I can solve, and it feels good to solve a problem, here’s a thing where some of my skills can be useful. So it’s exciting to do that, and it’s even more exciting to do that for a living if there’s a way we can make that fly.  So, ultimately, to be able to do this in any fashion and actually have this be a thing I get up every morning to do is very satisfying, just for that reason. 

I worked for a number of years in executive recruiting before this, that was fun for a lot of reasons, because it was tech oriented, and there’s always be a component of technology in the things I do. That was also another entrepreneurial situation in which I ran a company, and so all the other associated things, it wasn’t just doing recruiting and making placements and working with clients, it was also running the business, building the website, writing the software that we used internally, so all that stuff was fun. I enjoy doing that kind of thing, and I enjoy using as many of the things that I do at any given moment, in any given undertaking, a certainly this stuff here probably hits on more of them than anything I’ve done before, in the sense that, every single skill that I have - technical, creative, or otherwise is getting utilized here. 

Even the business side of things is not going to waste either, being able to take a meeting or send an email, that’s currency in the digital era in the modern business world. I spent a lot of time doing that and building relationships, and I know how all that stuff works, and now I’m doing it in a slightly different arena. I like what we’re doing only because everybody likes to have a purpose. I can get up in the morning and feel like we’re doing something that makes the world a little bit better place, even as much as I enjoy the subject matter itself and just simply doing it on a physical level. I don’t know if that answers the question.

D: No, that’s perfect. Whether or not you use the term art, it is art, you could have just done a video on Youtube and said, “look, I did this high frame rate video analysis” and just distilled it down. It probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective. You could have taken the easy way out. You’ve put it in a package, like you said, that’s using all of your skills and knowledge. Your putting it in a format, that even though it’s highly technical in some senses, and granted, guitarists love to get into the weeds on stuff, butit’s in a format that even a non guitarist or non musician would enjoy watching it. 

Another question - What’s your educational background?

T:  I was an Italian major at Yale, and there was no particular intent there to do anything explicitly academic, it was just, I like languages, and the base skills are kind of in in the musical/linguistic arena. That was stuff I enjoyed doing. A lot of people look at language class and go “Oh, God”, that switch is just not turned on in their brain. Conjugating verbs is like, they live in fear of doing it like fear of long division or something. But for me it was always easy and fun. Italian was the main game, but I also did Spanish and German also. The language element is sort of conceptually related to the musical element. “Cracking the Code” as a project actually started in school, I did this as an independent study. While I was there I actually wrote the manuscript that basically would be covered, all the techniques, pretty much up to what we’ve seen in the show. That whole downward pick slanting thing was something I discovered in school and it thought “This is my area of expertise, I should do something with this”. 

Of course, the first stab at that was as overwrought as the show currently is, except in print form. It was just pages and pages of Dante allusions, psychology concepts, and I still have the dot-matrix printout in my house somewhere. There was actually I guy that I worked with who was a grad student at the time, Andrew Leonard, who is a fantastic guitar player himself, and he was a little bit older than me, and was like a 70s fusion fan who then went on to play classical guitar, and he was in the classical guitar program at Yale at the time, so he was actually my advisor for this independent study that I had cooked up. He ran the guitar program at, I want to say, a school in North Carolina, and he’s in Massachusetts now, I forget where, he teaches. But he’s a serious, hardcore classical guitar player and you can see some really unbelievable clips of him on youtube playing things like Koyunbaba, a really impressive, fiery sounding Spanish classical piece. He got in touch recently, he found the website and said “I had no idea you were still doing this”.  Turns out someone who watches the show was one of his students in North Carolina. So the circle is now complete.

D: The apprentice has become the master…

T: Not really…

D: I know, just finishing the quote. 

T: He’s a hardcore academic in guitar, which it’s cool to see that those worlds overlap. 

D:  Your love of language, is that something you had growing up, you know, family members, how did you get exposed, or how did you get into language?

T:  I think that’s another thing where the parental influence was like, “We’re going to have our kid learn another language”, because that’s a valuable skill to have. I give my parents a lot of credit for that. They gave me Italian lessons when I was young, only enough to do like the colors and the numbers. I remember we’d have a guy who came to the house who taught me how to say “Man, Woman, Superman, Spiderman” and all this stuff (laughs).  But that was enough that, if you give a kid any indication that a thing is doable, then I think the reverberations of that are such that the enterprise seems very approachable, and not so scary.

Later on, New York State Public Schools actually have a great language program, well they did, I don’t know if they still do. Language was mandatory throughout high school and in junior high you take 10 weeks of four languages, and then you pick which one you want to specialize in. When I was in seventh grade we did Spanish, German, Italian, and French. Once you hit eighth grade, you pick one of those and that becomes your language class through like 10th or 11th grade. So I picked Italian because that’s what I had previous experience with as a kid and I would say New York State Public School actually taught me to speak Italian, which is kind of amazing. I think it could have been done better, but the fact that it was done at all is kind of amazing. Because Americans are sort of famous for not being very aware of how people speak in other parts of the world. 

D: Yeah, we all think English is the language everyone should be speaking. So you literally had 10 weeks of exposure (to four languages)? That’s so crazy. 

T: This is a New York state thing, I don’t know if they do it in other states. 

D: Well, it may be in other states, but in Texas it’s like, “Well, if you want, you can try a foreign language, but it’s up to you, maybe try Spanish?”

T: Exactly, well, we had a program, I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but in New York State there’s a Regent’s Board that decides all the things that you’re supposed to study in high school. There’s a track that you follow, that’s the high end of the public school track where you get a Regent’s diploma, and I believe at the time, California was the only other state that had this. I have nothing but positive things to say about that. It’s kind of a common core concept, which I think has come under fire, for a lot of reasons which are probably specific to the teaching industry that I don’t really know about. But the idea that there’s this sort of Hogwarts type curriculum you have to master was a cool concept. I remember, Regents is in all these different subjects, you take language, earth science, bio, chem, physics, english, and then all the math, every year was a different level of math. Regents level math wasn’t anything super fancy but you got up to serious trigonometry right up to knocking on the door of calculus. Had I remembered everything I was taught in high school, I would be like the most knowledgeable guy on the block outside of people who are academic mathematicians (laughs), not that that’s saying much, but …

D: You’d be great on Jeopardy…

T: Yeah, I’d be Jeopardy champion and I’m a big fan of a certain amount of standardization because I know once I got to college and they said, “Here, do whatever you want”, then I did whatever I wanted which meant not doing anything hard anymore and just doing that stuff that was easy and/or fun. Maybe I’m not the right personality for that, maybe I need a little more boot camp. But I think there are certain people who take to that, people who are academics, who are going to dive deep into this particular subject, but for me I felt like it was a less focused experience that wasn’t the Hogwarts kind of training camp experience that I liked about high school.  

D: Do you remember any really high point success or failures that you had, maybe moreso in music or in art, but creative pursuits in general? Do you remember any successes or failures that kind of changed what you did, or shaped how you developed?

T:  In the show we’ve tried to portray a certain amount of these little victories, like using the SK-1 (this alludes to his discovery of using a very early and rudimentary sampling keyboard to grab a small section of audio and slowing it down so he could learn it on piano or guitar).  If anything, I think those things were probably the most important because any one bit of information you could get your hands on back in the day could be incredibly valuable in terms of understanding work in the bigger picture, because again, information was just not easy to come by. 

We had this once scene in the show that I really wanted to put in that I had to explain to the guys that work with me why this was a big deal, where all the metal guys are in the record store reading the tablature books, and trying to memorize the sheet music. I used to do that, I would go into like Sam Goody in the back, in the rack where they had all the rock songs written out, and I would try and memorize as much of the music, like these Ratt easy piano song books. 

D: And they’re so accurate, by the way. I’ve got my Rush “Moving Pictures” sheet music book from 1981 over here somewhere, and it’s darn accurate, I can tell you.

T:  Oh yeah, I know.  I had the Van Halen I and II sheet music books at home, and there was no tab, it was only staff notation. Actually, I’ve gone back and looked at it and some of it was pretty accurate. It was always hit or miss, like you said, you never knew what you were going to get. Of course there were no tabs, so you didn’t really know how the hell any of this was supposed to be arranged. So having one moment, where you could figure out how something actually worked, on piano that was typically some kind of chord progression where you would go “I can do the flat 7 dominant 9th thing” and that’s like the Layla chord progression and now you go back to your tonic after that, and that was like one extra arrow in your quiver that you then could use and understand and write a song with. 

D: When you were learning piano back then, by ear, were you slowing it down, just trying to keep up with the music, or did you get it on sheet music and then develop your ear, how did that progress?

T: No, it was all just chord progressions. You learned how to listen to that, usually by just following the bass, ultimately. For me, the piano journey is so different than the guitar journey because you don’t have to worry about the technical as much. You’re not concerned with playing the notes, because they’re there. There’s only one middle C, you just push the button. Whereas on guitar…

D: That’s true, you usually have five choices, at least.

T: Oh yeah, five times five times however many notes are in the phrase and then it quickly becomes unmanageable. So, someone like Yngwie, of course we knew what the notes in the arpeggio were, that wasn’t the hard part. We just didn’t know, or I didn’t know where they were being played and certainly not how he could be possibly be picking them at that speed. 

D: Yeah, what’s he doing with is right hand?

T:  I didn’t know what sweeping was. None of that’s present on piano, so piano guys will sit around and it’s all about chord progressions, just finding cool progressions and ways to play leads over them. In pop music in particular, it’s just, you very quickly realize it’s this very highly reusable system of a very small number of chord progressions that are different from another, and you’re always looking for new ones. So anything that’s outside, or moves out of key suddenly becomes interesting, like that Layla chord progression where, that cool chord they hit, it’s in the piano breakdown in Layla, which is in D, and then there’s a C9 right before it goes back to D and you’re like “Ooh”!  what’s that, how do you play that chord and have it make any sense at all. 

D:  When you were taking your piano lessons, were you learning more of the advance chord forms, or did you figure that out?

T:  No, those were the little victories. They taught me what a seventh chord was. As soon as I knew that , I was like, “Oh, that’s that thing that you’re hearing everywhere, and then all the sudden that unlocked like a thousand things. This one teacher I had was the guy who ran the music school in my town, and he was a real working musician from the club days in the 40’s and 50’s and he played swing tunes on piano, keyboards in bands. He taught me one or two of these jazz style kind of comping chord progressions, that alone, that was so much information there because I would have never figured out from listening to a rock or a pop song. Right away that unlocked a thousand possibilities.  The vast majority of technical things I’ve learned, I learned from a tiny amount of technical stuff. This four hour volcano seminar (on Yngwie Malmsteen) we did, is one lick. Basically all these techniques I learned from dissecting this one 5 second lick from this instructional video. You can pull from this almost the entirety of his picking technique.

D:  You talk about it, I don’t know if you use this phrase, but you see it in so many disciplines, “the chunking” - it’s like the guys who can memorize the 400 digit numbers, it’s all chunking, it’s pattern recognition. 

T:  Oh yeah, any of these breakthroughs, sometimes it’s these very specific and small breakthroughs that just help you understand a whole lot of other stuff. Like I said, back in the day, any little nugget you could discover unlocked a whole new dimension of possibility. 

D: You allude to the fact, that you had the Yngwie stuff down for a long time. When did you start playing guitar?

T: Probably like seventh grade, I think it was the summer between seventh and eighth grade.

D: When did you get to the point, because you’re ridiculous now (ridiculously advanced at guitar, check out the link to his videos/page), when did you get to the point where you were like, “I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’m pretty satisfied”, because you’ve had Yngwie down now for what, ten years or longer?

T: Oh, twenty.  It’s in the show, the whole pop tarts thing, that’s real. That was exactly how it happened. I had no picking skills before that, that I could rely on, and that day, instantly from that point on, all the down pick-slanting stuff was done. It was maybe over the course of the next few months or so, it just sort of got baked in. At that point, and that’s not all alternate picking, it’s just in the Yngwie and Eric Johnson styles. Those were the guys I was listening to. Once I made that realization that it was the pick-slanting and switching strings after upstrokes, it was instantaneous. I could play it that day. Like minutes later, it was done.

D: That’s obviously a huge success.

T: Oh yeah, because precisely like many of us, I had the catalyst.

D:  How long had you been playing when the pop tarts event occurred?

T:  Like five or six years, but from like age fourteen to twenty, a very formative period when you don’t have anything else to do but sit in your room (laughs)

D: What was your daily schedule like, did you have an average amount of time you spent practicing?

T: Oh no, I was never a practicer. I was more like, just turning on “Unchained” (Van Halen song) really loud and just playing stuff. I had no patience for practicing, because it never worked. Now I’m a practicer, because now there’s a system you can follow that actually works. I’ve tried practicing and it never produced results. I’ve gotten better results from just kind of screwing around, not really paying any attention at all. But I wasn’t really a great player, I was a better piano player by a long shot, and a better songwriter. I could do your standard 80’s pentatonic, Eddie Van Halen pentatonic licks and some tapping, and that’s about it. We wrote all kind of funny songs, like this song “Food Town” we talk about in the show which was like a Beastie Boys/Weird Al kind of song about supermarkets. It was just a silly thing we used to do in my bedroom with the Casio sampling keyboards, all my friends would bring over their keyboards and drum machines and we would just do this kind of electronic rock guitar kind of thing. That was all kind of fun and games. In terms of the hardcore technique that your average kid has now just from watching Youtube, I was nowhere near that but I had spent enough years building up just basic things like hand speed and general music knowledge that when that pop tarts thing happened, it immediately explained why I had been having all these troubles trying to do picking, up until that point. 

I think from that point, I was like a sophomore in college, so from about age twenty until approximately 30 or 31 I didn’t have the three note per string dynamic down. I just figured I was hearing it wrong, or there was some kind of catch. I didn’t have video, really. You couldn’t see what Steve Vai was doing. A good portion of what he does is in fact downward pick-slanting with sweeping, exactly the same way that Yngwie and Randy Rhoads do it. Of course not everything he does works that way, but so much of it did that I could sort of ignore the others as flukes. I didn’t own “Intense Rock” (Paul Gilbert), I never even watched it, so I didn’t even know that pure three note per string alternate picking was possible. It was just not a skill that I had, and it’s not a skill that Yngwie has, either, actually. So for ten years, that’s the only way I played and it just became second nature. It was with the Batio (Michael Angelo Batio) tape “Speed Kills” that I figured that out. That would be another success.

D:  Do you play any other instruments besides guitar and keys?

T: I’m a passable studio drummer, only to the extent that I need to record patterns and parts. I probably don’t have enough drumming chops to play in a band and just be the drummer.

D:  Is that something you did so you could write, basically?

T: Yeah, and I did a very brief, like one year, in marching band in high school, just enough to know what the issues were, but not to get any good at it. We all wanted to play drums, and we had drum machines and we were always trying to fake drums and get good drum sounds. That was always the mark of your recording skills, as a kid with the four track cassette, because you couldn’t mike up a drum set in your house, really.  So well used drum machines, the better keyboards had the better drum sounds. The Casio SK1 drum sounds were almost laughably terrible, they sounded like a metronome, a little blippy,  plastic noise. But then my friend got some advanced Yamaha thing and it had this incredible sampled drum sound, and we were blown away, it sounded like Trent Reznor to us, we were like “Oh My God”.  So drums were always a thing, and as soon as I had the space and the time, one of the first things I did was to go out and get a drum set. 

I did a little banjo in high school, that was another thing I sort of figured out, like Scruggs (Earl Scruggs) style bluegrass banjo, and harmonica was another thing I figured out, I’m not that great at them but I had a little insight. 

D: I’m sure you’ve experienced that with each new instrument, the learning process is accelerated because you’ve learned all these other instruments, and definitely for string instruments you’re going to have some crossover. 

T: Right, it is. The insight with the banjo is because there’s a thumb string which is an octave higher and that fast sound we all associate with, that Scruggs sound, this rolling and very complicated, sort of Baroque sound, turns it is just an artifact of having the damn thing tuned right, which I never knew how to tune a banjo, I had one, and you tune it right and all of the sudden there’s all these very basic rolling patterns become possible with very little effort and that’s the sound, as soon as I realized that, it was like every banjo song I had ever heard. 

Harmonica, there’s a trick to that as well, playing blues harmonica, you play the harmonica a 5th above the key that you buy it in, and all of the sudden all those cool bending sounds become possible.

D:  You realize that you have a fairly unique dichotomy in that you’re very analytical and creative, you know, the whole right brain/left brain thing, if you subscribe to that. That’s what I think is so great about the whole project is that you have that analytical mind that typically doesn’t exist in guitar circles, at least not to that extent, as you said, you’re bringing all your skills to bear in this project. 

(We had already run over an hour at this point, so I asked Troy for one more question).

D: If you could give your 18 year old self any advice, what would it be?

T: Lose the mullet. 

D: (laughing) That’s always good advice, at any age. 

T:  It’s the hair really, because I’m from Long Island. It’s not like “Back to the Future 2”, well that, maybe “Buy some Apple” (stock).  

D: There you go, fine. Nothing in the path of your creative life that you would steer differently or accelerate? Granted, this is kind of a time travel question, so the Apple stock thing is not necessarily an unfair answer. 

T:  I always think about that, and I think we all have because we grew up in the era of Back to the Future, and definitely with me it’s “No more hair blower” because you’re just frying your roots and it looks terrible. And do something besides buying the Camaro because it was a complete waste of money, I should have just bought some Cisco or Microsoft or something, and then I could have bought all the Camaros I wanted.

D: But you have the memories.

T: I have the memories of the Camaro, yes, so I can’t really complain. 

D: In the process of this experience and your exposure, have had any starstruck moments? Anybody that you met, and thought “Holy crap, I’m talking to so and so”?

T: Not really, I haven’t really met that many famous people. But I may be past the age of starstruckedness, at this point, or maybe it’s my personality. If I met Eddie Van Halen or Billy Joel I don’t even know if I would have that reaction, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see when that actually comes to pass. 

D: You’ve definitely met some ridiculous people, at least from my standpoint. Looking at your blog, and seeing that you had actually talked to Tommy (Emmanuel) I was like, “Oh hell yeah!”.  Do you have any plans with the Tommy stuff? It looked like you had filmed him. 

T: Oh yeah, that stuff was all supposed to be part of season three of the show where we’re getting to the live interviews, at this point I can’t even look that far down the road. We realize that people wanted to see some of this material, so we started editing some of those interviews into these little packs of downloadable licks with slow motion and tablature. But they’re super time consuming to edit and I don’t know how really interested people are in seeing that stuff. I know a few people are very interested in seeing certain players they like, but it’s not clear, it’s not like we sell tons of them. 

D: Yeah, commercially viable or not.

T:  Well, yeah. They’re very useful for me, as things that we can incorporate into the lectures and other things. “Here’s a clip of so and so doing this lick which you can now look at”  The Batio stuff in particular, we made a lot of use of lately in this antigravity seminar, it’s great to have such an indisputable reference material.  The things that he’s doing that I’m saying that he does, that we look at in historical footage is much more evident in this super intimate close up footage that I have. So that’s great, and I’d love to do more of the Tommy stuff, he was great to work with. His managers were super nice and he’s a very nice guy himself, so I would love to do something with that, it’s just a matter of time and manpower. 

D: Oh sure, no pressure. Just curious. Any parting thoughts, anything you want me to know or put into the interview?

T:  I think it’s more about what you wanted to know and you’ve gotten a pretty well rounded picture of where all these skills come from and how I got here, which is interesting. I feel a little self indulgent (laughs) being able to recite all this stuff, I’m not sure I’m a person of enough marked importance to be having this conversation, but if this could be helpful to other people doing this kind of work, fantastic. 

D: I think it’s absolutely helpful, and think what’s great about you, is that you’ve brought all these skills to bear, and you’ve created something unique. You really have. Whether or not everybody wants to know about alternate picking and wants to know some of these techniques, who cares?  It’s culturally very significant. All the guys, the Eric Johnsons, the Eddie Van Halens, whether or not everybody needs to know their technique, their techniques have allowed them to make music that has touched millions and millions of people, so to me it’s very significant. 

 

Extra special thanks and sincere gratitude to Troy Grady for sharing his very precious time and for being such a thoughtful, literate and open interview subject. Double extra special thanks for his efforts in creating and sharing “Cracking the Code”, which is legitimately a huge milestone in understanding the techniques of the guitar greats that have escaped most mere mortals who pick up a guitar and dream big. 

Sup...

Thought I would briefly drop in for a midsummerish update. I'm going into my second week of no homework and I'm getting antsy already. Still waiting to see if Berklee will update and finalize the music composition program curriculum. I've been taking some macprovideo courses (reviewing some theory and trying to dive in a bit deeper with Logic. still lots to learn).

Ye Olde Gloriouspaste Fedexerish Transport Apparatus is bringing forth some sonic splendor later today in the shape of Korg's flagship synth, the Kronos 2. I ordered one of these in April and it's just now being delivered. Somewhere between high demand and manufacturing/shipping shenanigans lies the answer as to why it took three months. No matter, it's in my hands tonight. And sometime in the next 15 or so years I might justify the expense.

I had put off getting a powerful synth workstation for a long time, mostly because I couldn't justify the need (which is still largely the case), but looking forward to the coming semesters at Berklee as well as my goal to dual major in production and composition, I'm pretty confident I'll have many practical exercises and projects by which to utilize and slowly master it. It's been heralded by many professional artists and producers as the best in the industry at the current time. My only small concern is the keybed feel. I have no doubts it's good, I'm just accustomed to the Roland RD700 I've been playing for five years. In all other aspects I'm confident it will exceed my expectations. I can't wait to try all the preprogrammed patches (Baba O'Riley, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Superstition, etc.). There's enough for a keyboardist in a cover band to play about 12 hours continuously without needing to create anything new. I'll have more to say I'm sure, but it will probably take months if not years for me to wrap my head around all it can do. 

Rest in Peace Carolyn

Carolyn Bullock Hightower Laughlin was suddenly called home on Sunday, May 10th, 2015. She was surrounded by family and wrapped in love’s embrace in her final days. 

Carolyn was born March 4th, 1943 in Sayre, Oklahoma, the only child to Buford and Colleen Eastham.

Carolyn grew up in the panhandle town of Borger, Texas and then left home to embark on her life’s journey with high school sweetheart, Loal Hightower, Together they raised five children and were married for 39 Years. Carolyn worked in accounting for many years, a large portion as comptroller for a group of interventional radiologists. Among her many charitable callings was volunteering for children through CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a cause that she held dear. She was a godly woman that walked in faith her entire life and loved her church families just like her own. She later married Richard Laughlin, and they shared their last years happily in Tyler, Texas. 

Carolyn bore the burdens of marriage and motherhood for all of her adult life, raising all of her children with strength, grace and steadfast love. Carolyn never wavered as a Mother, neglecting her own needs over those of her children and grandchildren up until the day she passed. She gave all her love until she had nothing left to give, and then she let go. Her loved ones are her strong and proud legacy and they will live on in her honor, forever carrying her in their hearts.

She is survived by daughters and sons-in-law, Deborah and Larry Cano, Dianna and Scott Hamil, Danielle and Courtney Perkins; son Dennis Hightower, son & daughter-in-law, Darren and Aeyong Hightower; granddaughters Heather, Christina, Amanda and Jaesa; grandsons Chris, David, Adam and Athen.

Busy Busy Busyerington...

It's almost surprising I have found a few minutes to quickly update the blog.  It's been a very busy couple of months since I posted last. Between work, school and trying to practice I've been essentially moving non stop from wake until sleep every day. Ironically, the days I thought I would still get some good practice time (weekend) are often the days I don't find any time to practice. I've been saving my weekly assignments that are project based until the weekend, and these end up eating up big chunks of the day. My best practice days have ended up being Mon-Thu. I haven't been able to maintain my previous 3 hours a day by any stretch. 2.5 hours is a great day because it generally means I got 30 minutes on everything. 

I've had a few weeks where the scope of the work just overwhelmed my practice schedule in general. That combined with a few fix up projects in my studio (mainly installing acoustic treatment) wiped out a few weekends and several weekdays as well. Aeyong has been gone to Korea the last five weeks, so taking care of all the household stuff has really kept me moving at full speed. She comes home tomorrow, and it will be great to have her back. I essentially have 2 weeks left this semester and then the next day we start the spring semester. 

A big development has been the creation of the Music Composition for Film, Television, and Games degree track and I'm orienting towards pursuit of a dual degree with that and production. I will be busier than the proverbial one legged man in an ass kicking contest for the next four years. All that being said, the past two months have been fantastic for my development as a musician. I finally shared my original work with friends and classmates, as well as a brief cover of a Coldplay tune "Amsterdam" that featured me singing and playing all the instruments. 

I couldn't foresee a time when I was going to be ready to do that before, and now I've done it and it was no big deal at all. I've only had a few friends take the time to listen to it, but I've gotten positive feedback from all of them including one who I've respected for years as a musician. It's a small validation, but a really big deal for me. I've known I had something, but I always wondered if it would be enough for others to consider it worthy of the effort. Now I know that it is. Enough laurel resting, I've got work to do. 

2015 arrives

This year and the three to follow promise to be a very challenging but ultimately rewarding period of time in my development as a musician. The week after next I begin my Bachelor of Professional Studies in Music Production through Berklee Online. I have decided to take an optimistically large first bite by enrolling in five classes.

If my personal and professional life are still intact at the end of the semester I will probably continue this policy depending on whether I deplete my GI Bill authorizations or not. The way the VA calculates annual limits is a bit nebulous. Fortunately there doesn't appear to be a semester limit so if I'm running low on funds I can either take fewer classes in the other semesters or just pay the difference.

It's hard to predict what aspects will be the most challenging. Because I've been interested and have read up on many of these topics over the years I don't worry as much about the comprehension of the material so much as the amount of actual coursework. This combined with working full time could mean I'm back in the PA school mode of constant study/homework in my non work waking hours. If it's necessary then that's what I'll do. 

I tried to select a mixture of technical and artistic courses so I'm not too bogged down in one type of thinking. I decided to take the Math for Musicians course and get it out of the way. I missed the testing out by one question, although I would have missed more if it wasn't multiple choice. I haven't had Algebra, Geometry or most of what was on that test since the early 80's. I have my doubts about the applicability of everything in that course, but I know there will be some benefit when it comes to understanding electrical and acoustic theory in later courses. Not to mention that basic sound theory is based on math in large part (frequencies, octaves, etc.). 

Not that I post frequently to begin with, but I wonder if will have enough free time to post much going forward. Although the amount of post worthy material is likely to increase exponentially in this program.

Peeps...

Greetings from the great electronic wasteland to my audience of one. Things continue to progress towards the pending music production degree with Berklee. I've gotten approved and enrolled in five courses for the first semester. I've mixed a couple production courses (Pro Tools 101, Music Production Analysis) in with a few hopefully easier courses (Developing Your Artistry, Guitar Chords), and what is the least appealing, non musical but still mandatory (for me) course, Math for Musicians. I was one answer shy of testing out of the Math requirement, but it was mostly Algebra, Geometry and other math topics I've literally not seen since high school, nearly 30 years ago. Apparently the math is considered integral to courses like Acoustics and others that may actually use math. I'm assuming it can't hurt, and I want to just get it out of the way now. The guitar chords course shouldn't be overwhelming although I'm sure I'll learn something. I managed to score well enough on the theory test to skip ahead to the 200 level courses. 

I got the full version of Pro Tools, and at this point I still prefer Logic, but I'm getting accustomed to how Pro Tools works as well. There are many similarities. Logic is just a better organized, intuitive, simple yet powerful DAW. Given the choice, I'll probably still use Logic, but Pro Tools is so ingrained in the professional community and Berklee has gone all in with AVID, so there's no avoiding it. I also upgraded some of my studio. I got Focal Alpha 80 monitors, a Blue Microphones Baby Bottle, an SE Electronics Vocal Shroud/Acoustic Isolator, and made a big upgrade by getting an analog preamp, the UAD 4-710D which is essentially a four channel mic preamp with dual transistor/tube capability.

I've got the Baby Bottle, my SM58, and the e906 and SM57 in the amp iso box hooked in right now. I haven't been using the iso box because I've just got the Port City OS 212 in my main room (it's a bit too large for the box). Eventually I'm going to get a 1x12 to keep in the iso box permanently and then the e906 and SM57 will get more use. I'll eventually get a Royer 121 to combine with the 57, but that's probably a few years away. The 4-710D is a great piece of kit, which is true for all the UAD stuff I own. I find I like the blend of the transistor/tube more than either one isolated. There are several UAD plugins I still plan on purchasing, but I need to space those out. My next big studio upgrade will be acoustic treatment for the main mixing room and the vocal closet, along with ARC room correction software to get it calibrated. That may be a Christmas present, or I may wait until next year. 

I still have a few textbooks to buy for the first semester, and I know down the road there will probably be some software purchases specifically for certain classes. I think the East West Symphonic VST  is required for something down the line.  I want to upgrade to Komplete 10, but it's not a high priority right now. I've been trying hard to maintain a daily practice schedule which remains (and will remain) a challenge with the five disciplines. I'm sure I will have to scale back quite a bit once school starts. The trade off is I will be learning other valuable music and production related skills and techniques (not looking at you, math). I'm going to find a way to at least maintain my chops if I can't improve them as much. If I have to practice in shorter sessions on alternate days, that's what I'll end up doing. 

Accepted

I got an acceptance email from Berklee the week before last, and the official letter yesterday. I start in January 2015. This is great news, and I anticipate this will be one of my most significant milestones not just in music, but in life itself. Music is one of the great joys of my life, so the opportunity to learn and grow as a musician and producer is a dream fulfilled. Now back to our regularly scheduled gear & sundry related ramblings.

I was going to buy the academic version of Pro Tools, but have decided to go with the full version since the academic is generally not upgradeable. After the most recent round of gear purchases, I will wait until late October early Novemberish before upgrading. My learning and practice plan has remained essentially unchanged. The greatest challenge is effective time management.  With trying to regularly practice 5 separate disciplines (voice, drums, keyboards, bass, guitar), a good day of practice generally runs at a minimum of 3 hours, and a really good day may run 5+hours. I have days where I only practice for 1-2 hours and feel like I'm slacking. My available time for practice will most likely be cut short once I start school since I assume most of my assignments won't be specifically tied to a certain instrument. I'll probably have to adapt to striving for 30 minutes 5 times a week on each instrument. 

I may plateau a bit for the four years of school, but I anticipate I'll grow so much as a musician and producer in general that it will have a lasting positive impact on all of my instruments.