strumzilla

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

Filtering by Category: Technology

Get to Know Your Camera!!

Here’s a short experiment with my new XT-3 and slider. I’m trying out a variety of shots and angles to add interest. No real B-roll in this video, that’s for future projects. This is a means to practice for future music videos and silly bits. I find the only way to really learn something is to do it, make mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes for future projects.

For bored camera/video geeks only:

Camera settings are important and noise reduction is great for noobs like myself. This is a slightly improved version of the original video, now with noise reduction applied. It's a bit softer and it doesn't work on all clips, but overall I think it's a better look.

Some lessons learned:

Automatic and manual settings both have their uses, it's important to know which and when.

For ISO settings I think manual is going to be preferred most of the time, unless there was some compelling reason to have it adjust due to quickly changing light. Not sure what that would be, but it's possible I suppose.

For focus it depends. The auto focus is great if you're moving around, but if you're static it's probably better to go manual and leave it. Again this depends on what you're doing. If I'm shooting a music performance video and I want it to stay focused on my guitar, I'll probably go manual. The auto-focus is pretty good, but the occasional focus hunting can get distracting.

Lighting is always critical and I already knew that, but I'm trying to learn the situations in which I can get away with more ambient/natural light. Color temp changes gets distracting.

Time Marches On

It’s been a relatively busy few months, but nothing of singular significance has warranted an update. I made some changes and upgrades to the home studio to include trading in the Apollo Quad 1st generation unit to Vintage King and replaced it with the newest iteration Apollo X 8P unit. This design is somewhat more oriented to patchbay use and so I also got a Switchcraft patchbay and a whole bunch of cabling for the studio. The rearrangement and running of cables took the better part of a few weeks. It’s mostly done now, although I’ve got the odd cable to run here and there.

All of these processes can be sort of slow and iterative based on other demands - work, exercise, etc. I’m still dialed back from full time musician mode because of the elbow, although it’s slowly getting better it still limits the amount of time I can spend playing every day. In the meantime I also traded in my Nikon D5300 to B&H Photo for the newest generation Fuji XT-3 mirrorless camera. I’m still figuring out how to use it, but I can already see the benefits. It’s an amazing camera. Along with this upgrade and the studio changes, I tried to straighten up and organize my various closets and so now I have a camera closet so to speak. I’ve decided to use the extra room with the WinPC as the video room and I’ve got a desk and green screen permanently set up. The closet now houses all my camera gear, and that stash is slowly growing. Every hobby (at least mine) tends have some gear fetishism and acquisition inherent to the process.

I cleaned up the amp closet as well and coiled all the newly extra cables after having changed to mostly snake cables for the patchbay setup. Because of the patchbay I’m now able to split one eight cable snake with four leads going to the vocal closet and four to the amp closet. So, now I have the Royer 122, SM57, and I was able to dust off my Sennheiser e906 dynamic mic and all three are in place for the 65 Amps 112 cab in the closet. I’m still using the default vocal booth setup with the Slate VMS One and SM7. This leaves me two left over leads in the vocal booth and one leftover lead in the amp closet. I also added a 16 channel passthrough to my main desk so I can plug in instrument mics and whatnot as needed. I’ve got one channel dedicated to the DI output from my H&K Grandmeister and I still need to run two outputs to the Matrix GT1000 for output to the Port City OS 212 I have in the main room.

The remainder of the ports are mostly redundant, but it will be nice when I need to mic up instruments or just plug in a vocal mic in the room. The switchbay is essentially ready for use at all times but a couple of the fairly common uses require a patch to be run, for instance the Avantone monitors need a patch cable to be heard. As these are only used to check the occasional mix, that need is fairly uncommon. Tweaks are sure to be necessary as I slowly transition back to a more music heavy mode again. These needs reveal themselves with the use of the gear.

Continuing on with switchbays, I had been holding off for several months as there is a new player in the game with Flock Audio, who are soon to release the first software controlled patchbay. I had wanted to wait until they were released but the release schedule hasn’t been confirmed and they have some fairly draconian return policies. As far as I can tell, you can only return/get a refund if the box is unopened. There doesn’t appear to be an option to return the unit if you decide it’s not what you wanted. For a unit that I think is going to run upwards of $2K, that’s a pretty big leap of faith. I’m going to wait until it’s been out in the wild for several months if not longer and see how the reviews look. It’s a great idea if it stacks up to the hype of Flock Audio. The ability to change routings through software with a few mouse clicks and to have presets saved for various arrangements is quite appealing.

In the meantime I’m glad I decided to go with the typical patchbay setup as it’s really streamlined operations as well as opening up some routing options that weren’t readily available in the past.

I'm (re)Macified...

Just about finished with the transition from WinPeaCe o' junk to iMac Pro. Two 2 TB SSDs to handle sample libraries and scratch disks with two 6 TB SATAs for archive and non performance sensitive storage. I finally managed to get all four monitors working and the external cd drive is ripping "Bad Music for Bad People" and "To Pimp a Butterfly" (no, I'm not abandoning rock, good music is good music) as I type. QOTSA reminded me of Bad Music, not sure why I didn't have that in my collection.  Now I can finally get back to some real, uninterrupted work. Not to worry, Ear Training for Live Performance is monopolizing all waking hours so new songs/videos for a few months at least.

I finally caved...

I just ordered my first new Mac since my 2013 MBP which was relegated to drum room duties a few years back. It had been chugging under the weight of multiple monitors and larger track counts for awhile.  Apple has creators wrapped around their fingers since they still imo provide the most stable and streamlined environment, especially for music and video. And they charge for that exclusivity. 

I’ve managed with a WinPC these last couple of years, enough to write all of the songs I’ve posted to date. It’s been a bumpy ride at times as I’ve had some major shutdowns and failures (all in the WinPC driver/software side) and recurring hiccups that regularly interrupt the creative process. It wasn't a new experience for me, as I've owned desktop PCs for over thirty years. I actually got my start on a TRS-80 Color computer, followed by an Apple IIe (which we never really knew how to use properly), an Amiga 500, and then finally a Gateway IBM 486.  I toiled under the pre plug n play environment for many years, so I'm not unaccustomed to making PCs work, I just grew really tired of it.

For me, the appeal of the Mac is that it just works. You turn it on and it's reliable like a television (pre smart tvs) or a refrigerator. You don't have to constantly struggle with driver updates, hardware conflicts, etc. I’ve had multiple Macs in the past, dating back to my first Mac Pro in 2007. With rare exception, they just perform. They don't unpredictably freeze up, crash, fail to boot, etc. like my WinPC still does on a recurring basis. When they die, they die horribly, but that’s typically after many years of steady service (and usually a few months after the AppleCare has run out). I'm willing to take the chance again just to have that Mac workflow environment, which is still my favorite by a long stretch.

So, with shaking hands (and spouse approval), I clicked the mouse and drained a considerable pile of ducats from the vault to order one of the new iMac Pros. I chose a mid tier option that I’m hoping will last at least four years and beyond. Mid tier in Apple terms is premium by any other company’s standard. By the time I feel compelled to upgrade again (inevitable in the computer world for the foreseeable future) we’ll hopefully have the house paid off and enjoy a bit more discretionary flexibility. Of course I paid for AppleCare this time so I'll be covered for any disasters at least for three years.  Depending on what's developed in that timeframe, I may still be happy with the its performance to keep going for a few more years beyond. 

It's not about having the fastest/newest computer, I've resisted Macs for many years now and went back to the desktop PC when they released those touchstrip MBP with very little incentive for the creative types. The iMac Pro is a step in the right direction and maybe the upcoming Mac Pros will be even more appealing, but I'm not willing to wait at least another year that could stretch to two based on how slowly they've trickled out updates to the pro level devices.  Having seen several reviews and demonstrations from creative professionals, I know the new iMac Pros are a content powerhouse and I look forward to just creating for a good long while. 

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). 

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. 

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. 

Troops...

I suppose it's been a bit. We're fast approaching holiday season here with Veteran's Day weekend starting tomorrow evening followed by Thanksgiving in a few weeks. Significant events since the last post?  Mostly purchases of stuff. Dining room table, what for the holiday eatage. The prematurely necessary upgrade (replacement) of the iMac and Aeyoung's further cracked iPad.  I was wanting to wait and buy a new Mac Pro when they went on sale in December, but I decided to try the mobile hotspot option with my iPad and Aeyoung's laptop and discovered I could have essentially full laptop functionality with the interwebs at work. Which is nice (without going into detail about said use of interwebs). Did I mention I started playing WOW again? No? Never mind.

Apple's most recent reveal included new macbooks and ipads. I bought the high end version of the macbook pro (from which I'm typing this) and the high end lte version of the ipad. I am fairly confident I would have waited another year or two for any of these upgrades if the imac's graphic card hadn't bought it and aeyoung hadn't delivered the killing blow to her ipad (I drew first blood with the thing a few weeks after we bought it). We've been trying to conserve the fundage a bit until we get the 401K replenished in another two years, but some of these things have a mind of their own. I've essentially stopped looking for concerts to attend, which is sometimes a significant part of the budget. There are a few artists that I will go see no matter what, but last I heard Zep and Floyd aren't due to tour anytime soon.

 Things at work are okay. We have actually had quite a light schedule thanks to our leaders in Washington and the furlough. The number of claim requests getting processed drop to nil since the regional office was affected by the furlough, but I expect the numbers will start climbing back up before too long. My last post discussed the unfinished game conundrum. So, with that in mind, I decided to jump back into playing WOW which won't help me complete any of those unfinished games and is just adding more time/money into a game that I've played around 40 days worth of. Yes, that was days.   WOW just has a special quality that always draws me back in. I'm leveling another mage this time, although I'm specced as a frost mage as opposed to my previous fire mage. And I can say frost is much more effective when soloing. I've been playing for a month and I'm just about level 73. I'm probably going to keep going and then upgrade to Pandaria once my character is ready for those zones. 

Most likely the new PS4 and Xbox will be released while I'm doing this. It's a veritable surfeit of gamage, my friends. I'm starting to think I'll never finish the PS3 and 360 games that are gathering dust currently. I've got a few steam games I'll play when I get around to them. I'm actually more interested in the new technology in these systems as opposed to any specific launch titles. The new kinect's higher resolution and ability to track not only individual limb movement but also the force of the movement means that the interactivity for the fitness programs is at a much higher level now.

 I watched a demo of a chubby game journalist (redundant?) trying to follow the Insanity workout and it looks very promising. It constantly tracks body movements and gives you instant feedback with various scoring metrics. At one point it was comparing his score to females aged 30-45 and he was falling short so he put a bit more effort into it to reach the goal. I gather there are all sorts of data to use like your former best, your xbox friends/family, all time records, etc. That's just the kind of geeky oneupmanship I like. Basically it's saying, "We know you know you're a fatass. But do you realize how much of a fatass you are? Didn't think so. Try harder, fatass"  It looks like most of the P90X workouts are on there as well and it also appears that all the kinect fitness programs (and there's a metric ton) will be free to play (at least for the first year) for xbox live gold subscribers. I think I may be moving my workouts up to the home theater in the near future. 

 

Everything breaks

at least in the realm of computers and electronics it seems. I have been a pretty stalwart advocate for Apple products, but in reality nearly all of my Apple computers have eventually suffered a major mechanical breakdown to render them unusable. The latest casualty is my 2009 iMac, for which I already had to replace the hard drive last summer (only to find out 2 months later Apple was recalling them). Now it's starting to flake out with graphic "anomalies" which render windows and icons completely black or scrambled and effectively unusable. A bit of online research revealed that other users with the same problem needed to have their logic boards replaced. In the Apple realm, I've learned that logic board replacement is usually about as cost effective as buying a new computer. I already suffered a logic board failure with my Mac Pro after its warranty ran out and that's what prompted the iMac purchase back in 2009. In fairness, the Mac Pro failure was because I tried to upgrade the RAM and accidentally didn't completely seat the ram in its socket before powering up the computer, and apparently this caused it to short circuit and fry the logic board. So that's two unusable Macs to add to my first mac laptop that I purchased in 2008 for my Afghanistan deployment that essentially died (would no longer power up) in 2011ish.  At that point I had bought a newer macbook pro, so the loss wasn't as significant. Still, in retrospect, we've had some pretty crappy luck with our Apple computers. But for some reason, I'm still motivated to buy a new one. I bought my first new Windows pc in many years (I think at least 5) back in 2012 because I was getting back into pc gaming. I learned that despite all the improvements over the years (Windows 7 was a definite leap ahead of Vista, which was the last OS I had been using), the windows experience still fell short of the simplicity and power of OSX.  I have been staying abreast of the Mac Pro update news, and they finally announced a completely new model this past June. I wasn't going to be as quick to upgrade until the iMac died, but not it seems I won't have a choice. I'll definitely pay extra for the applecare protection which is kind of a shitty requirement since these computers are not priced competitively to start with.  

Troops...

It's another glorious Friday in the dee-eff-dub...

Tonight we're going to see Asia for the third time, this time in support of their XXX album as well as a sort of 30th anniversary of the original Asia album. They're supposed to play most of the album (although it doesn't appear to be in album order) as well as few from the new album and select songs from the others. They're playing at the Granada which is a decent small venue on Greenville in Dallas. We saw Eric Johnson there in October and I would swear I had seen shows there way back in the past before I joined the Army but I couldn't find any ticket stubs to corroborate that. I know I saw a lot of shows at the Arcadia, which is not too far away, so maybe I just remember the name. We originally had gen admission tickets but luckily they offered seats as an upgrade later after the original on sale so we took advantage. I hate asking Aeyoung to stand for two hours, especially when it's a band that only I really get into.

Next week is a short week before Thanksgiving on Thursday and starting on that day I have 11 days off in a row. Which is nice. We don't have any special plans other than decompressing. Well, there is the Rush show the following week. That's kind of a big deal, at least for me. Rush announced two days ago that they would be filming Phoenix and Dallas for the next DVD which was a pretty big surprise. I'm not sure what motivated them to shoot in these locations, but I'm pretty happy about it. The only other concert video I have of a show I actually attended is the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas from 2004. That's a compilation DVD and I didn't attend all the shows on the DVD. I did make a very brief appearance (in the audience) in the small set by Union Station (Man of Constant Sorrow), which was the band a set or two before the real reason I was there, Eric Johnson. We have VIP tickets for Rush and our purchase was complete at one minute past the on sale time, so I'm cautiously optimistic we'll be somewhere close enough to actually show up on the DVD at some point. Even more important, we'll have a concert video of a show we attended to enjoy for the rest of our lives. That is a great thing.

There haven't been any other world shaking developments on the homefront. We're starting to put money away each month with the eventual home purchase in mind. I transferred most of the music related artwork & paraphernalia from the big bonus room to my studio/home theater room. It seems trivial, but having all that music memorabilia on the walls and scattered about the room really enhances the vibe. I'm actually pretty happy with the overall size of that space and I think it would be fine for our eventual home. I definitely plan to separate the home theater and music studio at our eventual home, but I know I don't necessarily need a huge room for my music studio.

I've learned a few hard lessons thanks to Apple, Inc. lately. Mainly that they have started to morph into a more MS Windows kind of experience in the recent past. The more systemic chronic problems really began with my purchase of Mountain Lion when the installer informed me my hard drive was about to die. Too bad I didn't know then that Apple would eventually deem these hard drives defective and offer free replacements (3 months and one new hard drive too late for me). Adding to the Apple frustrations were my even longer standing issues with Itunes and my portable devices (iphone/ipad). My problems always stem from not being able to get complete information transferred from my computer to the device when adding new music. I still buy new music several times a month and for whatever reason, itunes just arbitrarily (it seems) will fail to copy album art, or the complete album, or some other frustrating element whenever I try to copy new music over to my devices.

After multiple attempts to fix the problem manually I eventually have settled on periodic complete wipes and restores of the devices. This seems to be the only effective way to ensure that everything from the mac will transfer to the device. I'm not really ocd about much, but my music collection (and the problems associated with itunes) can make me certifiable. I don't know why with the long age of itunes software that it's still such a common problem to just transfer media files between the mac and the device. I understand the need for DRM, but I don't download much of my music at all. It's about 99% (literally) ripped from cd's I have purchased, because that's still the way I prefer to buy my music. Knock on wood, it seems to be working for me.

Right along with the itunes/media devices frustration I started to experience problems with mountain lion itself. The two most important peripherals (not counting my backup hard drive) I use are my presonus mixer and axefx. These both worked as audio devices initially when I upgraded to mountain lion. But for some reason over time, one and then the other stopped being recognized by the system. I went through the whole nutroll with deleting all traces, reinstalling, updating, lather, rinse, repeat with both devices. I reinstalled mountain lion several times. Then I got desperate. I wiped the mac and installed mountain lion clean. No joy. I then jumped through several hoops until I could get Lion installed on a usb drive so I could perform a complete wipe and fresh install of Lion. This also now seems to be working for me.

All of this with no significant changes on my end, just wanting to add music to my mac/devices and to use the gear that had previously been working. During the process I got to a point that I thought my mac was truly dead and I was going to have to replace it. I had also been thinking about getting a pc at the time (mainly so I could play guild wars 2) to use separately because for some reason along with mountain lion, the mac no longer wanted to let me install a bootcamp partition. So I got the pc during the time I thought the mac might be truly dead but it made a comeback once I went back and wiped everything and started over. Now I have the mac dedicated to music and just basic mail/internet browsing. Hopefully that will provide some more longevity so I'm not compelled to upgrade too soon. With the software I own, I still feel the mac is better suited for music production. Unfortunately I'm starting to get the feeling apple is more concerned with selling portable devices since that's where the real money lies, and they are going to continue marginalizing the power users.

'Tis been awhile

It's nearly November and I've been firmly ensconced in my new job for the past few months. Life has settled into a fairly predictable pattern. We're still trying to sell the Killeen house, fortunately we have a new realtor that actually has been trying to justify their 3% although the house probably isn't much more likely to sell in the near future. The Killeen market, while being healthier for sellers than DFW is still very much a buyer's market and very much down.

On the homefront the most significant developments (in my narrow minded view of the world) have been a substantial upgrade to the home theater and this year's most significant musical gear upgrade, the Axe FX II. On the home theater front, we now have a system that truly discourages going to the movie theater anymore. The only reason to go to the theater now is for those movies we're really dying to see or just an excuse to do something. The specific equipment upgrades include a new Epson 9700UB HD LCD projector, Golden Ear Triton 5.1 surround system, a Yamaha Aventage RX-A3000 receiver/amp, apple tv 2.0, and a Carada 117in viewable screen. We now have a home theater experience that I can be happy with indefinitely. I don't foresee making any changes unless something breaks beyond repair or until 4K becomes the new standard. Watching movies on that size screen with the new speakers is actually better than most theater experiences we have and I'm not talking about the ability to pause, go to the bathroom, lack of screaming kids, etc.

I just got the AxeFX II last week and haven't really had time to reveal how significant an upgrade it represents. I love everything I have discovered so far, and one nice new feature is the ease of achieving quality tones with minimal effort. Great tones were in the Ultra, but it took a little more work and tweaking. It seems with the Axe II that great tones are just a few clicks away. There definitely is a higher level of clarity and responsiveness. It's somewhat equivalent to the difference in sound between my old home theater system (klipsch center and bookshelf front l/r with unmatched kenwood surrounds and sub) and the new matched Golden Ear 5.1 system. You just hear so much more detail and the quality of the different timbres is so much higher. I don't think I'll ever be an audiophile or tone chaser to the level of an Eric Johnson, but I have a new appreciation for what higher quality equipment can do to the listening/playing experience. With the guitar, it still holds true that the most important aspect of sound comes from the player's hands/brain, but having powerful sound processing that is so user friendly and streamlined really helps the process. I'm going to start alternating my electric playing with my acoustic so I can continue to progress on both fronts. I've been in a fairly strictly acoustic phase for several months and while I've made some decent progress, it's been to the detriment of my electric playing. Part of the appeal of the acoustic is analogous to piano in that it's easier to play fully formed songs as a solo artist, where with the electric I'm mostly working on guitar parts that are part of an ensemble/band.

The amount of divergent interests and goals I have in my life makes it difficult to pursue them all with any regularity. I'm trying to get back into studying Korean while I'm also trying to write, compose new music, continue improving on three different instrument disciplines, working on my ear and theory, fitness, etc. Not to mention I have a full time job and like to chill out with a good movie or book on a regular basis as well. I guess it's still a good thing when you so many different interests that there isn't enough time in the day to pursue them all.

Site Transfer

I am moving to a new web hosting service, and the domain transfer/site update process is not exactly going smoothly. I have to copy/paste all my old entries and update the date stamps for each. This means that the site is completely skullduggerized in its chronology at this point. Hopefully I'll have it fixed within a few weeks given time.

Still Breathing

What can I say, it’s been a busy 8 months or so. The site definitely needs maintenance and updates to make it a valid blog. Lots to come if and when I have time. I’m on the cusp of retirement (what comes after the cusp by the way?) and will be busy at work and other assorted events in the near future. I have lots of updates on the home life and a metric crap ton of gear updates. On the gear front, I can only say that I am much closer to gearvana than ever before (if such a thing is possible) For those wanting a hint I can only say: Fractal Audio, Roland, JBL, Presonus, Charvel, Maton, Mesa.

Not a review as such…

…but a reflection. I made a recommendation to a potential Mac buyer on the Native Instruments forum (software synth makers, among other things) based on my positive experience with the Mac so far. It resulted in a flame from a fervent winsciple about how NI products (and software in general) run so much better on Windows compared to OSX (Mac). He quoted several "tests" that supported this notion by demonstrating CPU efficiency improvements with the same products under both operating systems.

He even admitted to owning a Mac Pro, but stated that he bought it to run Windows because the Mac Pro is "just a windows pc with mac labeling" or words to that effect. He had told the potential buyer he should get a Win pc because of the so called improvements for NI products. Oddly, he didn't state that buying a Mac would actually be the best solution if you truly believed the numbers since you could have the option of running either OS, unlike Win PCs which can't run OSX.

To make a long story short, although I doubted his claims I attempted to load the programs in question into my Windows drive on my Mac (yes, I do run Windows under my mac, but mostly just for a couple of games I can't run on OSX). Scratch a perfectly good Saturday out of my life for that. I spent most of the day loading the programs, and then found I couldn't get my audio interface to work for more than a few minutes before it quit responding and resulting in three BSODs before I called it quits.  I think there may have been an eventual solution and I should add that I have Vista which isn't fully supported yet.  

It just demonstrates the amount of additional hassle that any Windows related operation involves. I had truly forgotten what it's like to need a regular tweak of various components in your computer just to keep it running. I have been using the Mac for a couple of months now, and with the exception of a program update every couple of weeks, I don't have to do anything except turn it on and use it. It's really as simple as turning on a television or other appliance.

The bottom line is that my personal experience with the Mac has mostly lived up to the hype. The thing works, and it works well. It's not perfect, and I have had a few hiccups along the way, but they all were sorted out in very short order.  I can't see ever going back to a Win PC except to run work related stuff if I can't avoid it at home or the odd game that isn't released on Mac.

Innovation - Touchscreens

Microsoft has been making the rounds with a new touchscreen technology (article & video) that will debut later this year, mostly in commercial applications. It's somewhat reminiscent of the interface shown in "Minority Report" a few years ago, where they would manipulate images and video with their fingers on a screen. It will eventually make it to the home user (good luck guessing how much it will cost) although it will probably be several years. This is going to be a much more intuitive way of using a computer, much like the way you would handle items on your real desktop such as a pen, paper or photos. It also allows multi-user access so that multiple peope could sit around a surface and interact whether it's playing games, ordering food at a restaurant or something more creative. Very cool.

 

Mac - So Far, So Good

After 3 days of migrating files, installing updates, downloading new programs that can't be transferred to the Mac from Windows, etc., I am finally getting close to functionality with my new system. I type this post from Wordpress running on my new Mac, and it was relatively painless. As is typical for me with computers in general, I can't describe the exact steps of how I got here in that I think most of the web server specific installs were already completed the first time I started using wordpress, but I did install a couple of programs that were necessary for me to interface from my Mac. I think it was MAMP and XAMPP that did the trick, although other than downloading, installing and turning them on, the actual functionality was lost on me. I'm guessing they were necessary for me to be able to actually run Wordpress from within my Mac browser (Safari) but anything they do is essentially under the hood as far as I'm concerned. The beauty of Wordpress is that once you get it installed, it's really no more difficult to use than a word processor/web browser. Which is nice.  Now that I'm getting close to having all the programs I had previously (whether using the same program for OSX like my Native Instruments soft synths, or using an equivalent like Transmit for FTP in place of Cute FTP which I used on the pc)  I can start delving into the Mac specific stuff as well as getting back to my routine of practicing guitar and writing music. My initial experiments with my music programs have been promising as they have installed with ease, and so far they have sounded better to my ears (with a nod to subjectivity) while putting absolutely no load on the quad core system I'm running now. More to follow.