Pedal Boards and Rack Systems: Pinging the Pros, ft. Bob Bradshaw 

Bradshaw and Edge_3989
The Edge with Bob Bradshaw and some tools of the trade.
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Example of a Bradshaw pedalboard in ATA flight case.
Buzz PJ
Session guitarist Bradshaw rack systems, 1981 vs 2013.

Nearly every electric guitarist has a love affair with effects pedals.  Why? Because we’re always in search of more mojo, color and texture for our tone. Plus, as we imagine new sonic horizons with possibilities of soaring majestic delays or greasy fuzzed out dirt, it’s super fun to research the plethora of stomp box effects available today.  The thrill of the hunt and the quest for sonic inspiration are powerfully seductive forces to us.

Roll-your-own pedal boards have been a staple of garage bands and local heroes for decades.  After deciding which combination of effects will enhance or define your sound, your inner “tech” will be determined to wire everything together, plug in, and conquer the Colosseum. Unfortunately, typical DIY pedalboards are plagued by hum, hiss, noise and tone-suck.  Each pedal may sound splendid on its own, but multiple pedals don’t always play nicely together.

Fortunately, the merciful Almighty Lord bestowed upon us Robert “Bob” Bradshaw to save the day.  Bob, founder of Custom Audio Electronics (CAE), is famous for designing and building custom refrigerator-size, remote switching systems and compact pedalboards for touring and recording artists including U2’s The Edge, Police’s Andy Summers, Toto’s Steve Lukather and L.A. session cat Michael Landau.

Bob and I were introduced by mutual friend Gil Griffith, who at the time was VP of Marketing for Eventide. Gil, a talented musician in his own right, had the brilliant idea of getting Steve Vai to create 48 new, unique presets for the H3000 Harmonizer, which catapulted the product straight to the top of every pro guitarist’s wish list. Even more impressive than its meteoric rise to coveted status was the fact that the Harmonizer sold amazingly well, despite its $3000 price tag 25 years ago. Anyway, Gil asked me to demonstrate the H3000 at the 1993 NAMM Show, and he firmly nudged me to connect with Bob to get “Rackzilla” professionally wired by CAE.

Rackzilla, my 16-space “refrigerator” rack, consisted of instrument level amps and pedals, as well as line level “studio” effects that technically do not belong in the same system.  To further complicate matters, some pedals needed to be mounted on the large pedalboard at my toes while others were able to reside on a tray inside the rack behind me. Some effects, like overdrive, were inserted between the guitar and the amp, while other FX, like delays and reverb, entered the signal path at the amp’s Effects Loop, which is located in between the guitar amplifier’s preamp and power section. Plus, there were long cable runs that were ready to dull my tone or to tune in to any one of SoCal’s local Mariachi radio stations. There was plenty of potential for a train wreck.

For the curious folks among us, among Rackzilla’s noteworthy pieces were a Mesa Triaxis MIDI controlled preamp, Mesa Strategy Stereo 2:90 power amp, CAE RS-10 foot controller, two CAE 4×4 audio loop switchers, CAE Black Cat Vibe, CAE Super Tremolo, Eventide Orville Harmonizer, Lexicon PCM80, assorted boutique stompbox pedal effects, wah, volume and expression pedals.

A second compact “fly date” pedalboard-only alternative to Rackzilla was designed to interface with a small combo amp (Matchless DC30 or Mesa Mark 1 Reissue). It contained only what I considered to be essential at the time. Its signal flow in 1996 was Thru > Mesa V-Twin > Black Cat CAE Freddy Fuzz > Demeter Tremulator > Black Cat Vibe > CAE-modifed Vox Wah > Volume pedal > Delay True Bypass Loop (Boss DD-5) > to the Amp. Everything was powered by custom CAE 9V and 12V power supplies, with some strategically isolated taps to keep the tremolo and the digital delay quiet. The only changes I made to the board over the past 20 years are minor: V-Twin is now a Fulltone Full-Drive 2, the Boss digital delay is now an analog Maxon AD-80, there’s now a Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Tuner, and I’ve added a Dunlop CAE MC-401 Boost/Line-Driver to serve as a bypassable buffer. When the effects are bypassed, the guitar tone through the pedalboard virtually identical to the sound of plugging directly into the front of the amplifier.

Depending on your perspective, my pedalboard is either simple or complex. I can assure you that my pre-CAE attempts to wire it were disastrous. The effects boxes looked pretty, but they were noisy when placed in close proximity on the board. Rather than wasting my life force on scaling a steep learning curve, I hired Bob to get it right for me so that I could get back to the business of making music instead of determining which offenders required isolated power taps or a change of scarce real estate. I didn’t mind paying his fee–you can always get more money, but you can never get back your time.

The pro tip here is to build a functional team of talented specialists. This practice allows you to focus on your strengths. Other specialists will fill in the gaps in your skill set, aptitude or temperament. Super producer Quincy Jones is a prime example of someone who utilizes the skills of all-star writers, engineers, musicians, arrangers, et al., to ensure that his joints are the best they can possibly be. If you’re not convinced, listen again to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Off The Wall. Then read the list of credits. It’s akin to the Hall Of Fame. The workload is handled by a team, yet Quincy’s credit is undiluted. Next to Michael, Q is the star.

Applying this principle to a pedalboard, it makes sense to hire a specialist like CAE/Bob right away, before wasting your time, money and psychic energy. Cry over the money once instead of spending it twice! If you choose to take the DIY route, you may get lucky, but think about this: you should be playing your instrument and writing hit songs, not toiling with physics considerations like line vs instrument level, routing of audio vs power lines, sequence of pedals, buffer vs true bypass, switching logic, FX loops, power isolation, finicky germanium transistors, and much more. Wear leather pants, not a lab coat!

Long story short, Bob and his crew designed noise-free plug-and-play systems for me that were bombproof and idiot-proof. Both Rackzilla and my compact pedalboard traveled internationally without incident. A forklift punched a hole through Rackzilla before pushing it off the edge of an elevated loading dock, but the system functioned perfectly.

If I were to elaborate on why I continue to rely on Bob’s services and products in only two words, those words would be: confidence inspiring.

Bob was kind enough to answer a few questions. Good info for any guitarist who uses effects in the signal path…

MJ: What are your thoughts about the shift from rack systems to traditional pedalboards? Is there still a compelling reason to consider a rack system?

BB: Basically, we are at the mercy of the manufacturers that provide us with the tools we use to make music. When I started out around 1980, there were really only pedals to work with. I started implementing “rack mount” gear into guitar rigs because I was working with studio players here in Los Angeles who saw engineers using rack mounted outboard gear on the recordings they were working on, and wanted the same sounds in their rigs for themselves. I had to learn how to deal with level and impedances in order to get pedals and studio gear to play nice with each other. Manufacturers saw this trend, and started producing “rack mounted” gear specifically for guitar players and the “rack mount” boom was born.

Of course now, it’s back to pedals.You can’t really find decent rack mounted single purpose effects for guitar players being manufactured anymore. That stuff is all on the used market. What happened was, the manufacturers started squeezing too many effects into one chassis and quality went way down, and soon “rack” stuff got a bad rap. It is the same with everything: too much of a good thing, so the trend started tilting back to pedals. Also there is a size/weight difference here, as players started scaling back the size of their rigs. If you travel with your gear, you know what I mean. With rack mounted stuff, you are dealing with a standard size based on increments of 1.75” x 19” (no matter what is in the chassis) vs. a pedal chassis which could be any size. Then there is instant gratification and we all want that! It is much more fun to grab a knob and turn it, than it is to scroll through menus, etc. And a pedal for the most part represents a much smaller investment too. You can buy a pedal for $200 or so, where a rack mounted piece may cost you $800 or more.

Today there are many pedals that rival their “rack mounted” counterparts in terms of sound quality and flexibility. But don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of bad pedals out there now as well. To me, there is no difference in building a rack vs a pedalboard. The signal still has to get from point A to point B relatively unmolested (unless you want to screw it up!). Signal doesn’t care if it goes through a rack or a pedalboard.

MJ: Who needs a loop switcher (programmable or not) on a pedalboard, and who can get by with an inline true-bypass rig? 

BB: Anybody that cares about the quality of their un-affected sound. I maintain that a well designed loop system stands a better chance of retaining your original guitar signal than daisy chaining your pedals together.Even if all your pedals have “true bypass”. This is because a loop system bypasses not only your pedals,but the cables connecting them too!  And proper buffering at select points in the signal chain is important too, loop system or not. If you just have a few pedals, you can probably get away without a loop system, as they do add to the size/weight of your board.

But generally speaking in any case, buffers somewhere in the signal path are essential.

MJ: Are you concerned about digital clock noise in a primarily analog signal path?

BB: That has never been a big concern for me. I am more concerned with 60hz. hum!

MJ: Anything newsworthy you’d like to share?

BB: Trends come and go. While I may be best known for large elaborate systems (many of which are “rack mounted”) I have also pioneered smaller programmable pedal based systems that are easily as powerful as any rack . And they come in a wide variety of sizes and are not as expensive as you might think. The latest is called the RST-LS which contains 10 mono bypass loops, 4x switchable outputs and 2x Control Functions. It contains mono and stereo audio inserts for patching in devices that don’t require bypass loops, and is a full function midi controller. I also have coming in the fall an expression control pedal which automates your existing expression pedal with separate rate and depth controls and tap tempo. It is called AutoSweep.

Contact Bob Bradshaw:

bob@customaudioelectronics.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CustomAudioElectronics

Instagram: #customaudioelectronics

Twitter: @THEcustomaudio

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Bradshaw designed pedalboard switching system.
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An Interesting Interview From 2015

Ebhardt and MJ Glyph NAMM 2016
Rebecca Ebhardt and Michael James at NAMM Show 2016

Rebecca Ebhardt interviewed me for Glyph last year. Rather than focus on technology, she chose to get into philosophy, motivation and pragmatism. I am pasting the piece below because it contains solid info for anybody coming up in the music business, as well as for veterans who want to remain relevant.

Plus, if you know me personally, you may learn something new about me.  Enjoy the read!

Interview With The Talented Michael James On Producing, Finding Success, And The Roads That He Took To Get Where He Is Today



 By Rebecca Ebhardt

How Did You Start Producing And What Gave You The Motivation To Continue?

Short answer is “I was in the right place at the right time.”

The story behind the answer is more complex.  I was an emancipated minor at age 14 and mostly homeless for about six years. I saw my way out of that kind of life by endeavoring to be an athlete or scholar. I was hell-bent on earning a scholarship and I got a full ride to UCLA. I loved writing songs at the time. I was writing a lot of poetry and thought it would be cool to turn my poems into songs. I picked up guitar and began learning jazz. Two years later, at age 19, I landed my first record deal, the result of a $15 demo tape. I had some hits on college radio, which as that time was a big deal–it was vibrant and meaningful, and contributed to the success of some great bands like REM and U2. One day my manager showed me one particular chart that listed four of my songs in the top 10.  That was pretty cool, even though I had no clue how to leverage the buzz into greater success. I thought I was going to be a famous rock star. But, by age 25 I was washed up, and then at 26 I accidentally produced a hit record for NY rockers Too Much Joy.  It began as in indie release before it was picked up by Irving Azoff’s major label Warner-funded venture, Giant Records.  Giant had me add a couple more songs, made a video featuring LL Cool J, and I was off to the races!

My motivation to continue through all the ups and downs is simply that I love making records with creative geniuses who view our world from a different perspective that we mere mortals do.  If this wasn’t my job, it would be my hobby.  It’s an exciting way to spend the precious hours of my life.

The record business is portrayed in the media as glamorous, but it can be brutal and merciless. Even if you were born with prodigious talent, you need to devote countless hours to developing your God-given talent.  And I’m no exception, even after 34 years.  Although I was in the right place at the right time–more accurately, in the right place enough times–whenever I have a day I’m not booked, I still go to work and I woodshed new techniques. I keep a list of mix-related problems that I’ve encountered, and I work through them to add to my bag of tricks.

In the early 2000’s, when Pro Tools became ubiquitous, I embraced the new digital technology, and developed the skills to be equally competent in both the analog and digital domains. Early 2002 I made the jump to full time mix specialist. Now I typically mix a song a day, 250-ish days per year.  I love the work and the lifestyle.  As long as there are innovative artists and technologies in the pipeline, I’ll continue to be motivated.

 

Did You Have Any Doubts That You Would Be Successful?

No.  I didn’t have a safety net, so I couldn’t afford to fail.  At UCLA, I was initially a pre med major and realized I was very unfulfilled by traveling such a rigid predetermined path. When I realized I was a creative improvisor, I walked away for a bit and focused solely on music. It pretty much fell in my lap (though I had to work hard), but I did return to UCLA and switched to Third World Development Studies. I was thinking the whole time “why am I doing this? I am not going to work for Peace Corps, World Bank or IMF.” I realized I loved music and it’s a God-given gift–not everyone has this opportunity, so I figured I’d see where it goes. My only other distraction at the time was racing bicycles–I raced at the world championships once, but racing was my avocation, not my bread and butter gig. It was a fun to contrast to the crazy record business.

 

How Did You Build Contacts And/Or Clients?

By age 25, I realized my artist career ran it course, but by 26, I was a producer with a hit.  In the interim, I decided to become a session guitarist and keyboard & drum programmer. I was pretty good, but there was a snag: I didn’t have a car so I was relying on other people to give me rides to get to the studio. One of my buddies was billing $350 a day as an engineer, and splitting it with a recording studio 50/50. I thought, “Hey man, I want that, I can really get ahead making $1k a week”.  At that time I was still attending UCLA by day, so I would go to the recording studio after midnight with my night-owl friends. They would play their instruments and get free recording time while I learned how to use all of the recording equipment.  I was eventually ready to work prime time sessions.

Bands who recorded at our studio, Radio Tokyo, got great results at affordable prices. We didn’t care about how much we earned; we just wanted to get in the game and prove that we could play ball as well as the big leaguers. I was basically the guy who was working inexpensively for $35/hr. for these bands who didn’t have a pot to piss in. These were bands like Jane’s Addiction, Jawbreaker, The Bangles, et al. Consistent results and a fun, exciting working environment ensured the development of solid relationships. Eventually I just got a great reputation where word of mouth took over and I was booked 8 months in advance. It was never about money. If I make people feel good about their art, they’ll come back again and again, plus they’ll refer their friends. I’ve been working with some artists since 1984. That said, I’m always out there meeting new people and exploring new challenges. You must regularly reinvent yourself and refresh your skill set because when you fail to evolve, you go the way of the dinosaur.

 

What Are Some Of The Biggest Mental Tools You Can Obtain To Be Successful In This Field?

First: Let it go if someone doesn’t like you.  Always treat people with respect and do your work with integrity and a high standard of excellence.  Do that, and you’ll sleep well at night with the knowledge that, if there’s a problem, it’s not due to anything you did.  Avoid dwelling on the haters; instead focus on the folks who appreciate and love you.

Second: Let it go if someone doesn’t like one of your epically awesome ideas.   Just say, “Alright, no problem,” and mentally file the idea for future usage. You’ll have a new tool in your bag of tricks. No good idea is ever wasted. One day there will be a perfect opportunity to use it.

Third: Remember that it’s not your record, it’s the artist’s music.  My goal is not to impress my engineer friends, but rather to impress the artists.  They need to know that I’m helping support their vision, not mine.  Nowadays I don’t have to think creating a testosterone driven “Kick Drum of Doom & Remorse” sound as much as I think about serving the artist. Treat their craft with respect and make the listener focus on the song and the emotion of the song, not the kick drum that will blow your colleagues’ minds.

Fourth: KEEP IT FUN! If you aren’t having fun, you won’t inspire artists to continue working with you.  You’ll live a healthier life, and you will attract others with your positive energy.

 

If You Can Come Up With The One Habit That Could Possibly Ruin Or Stall A Person’s Career, What Would That Downfall Be?

Two things: Bullshit and disrespect.  Always be truthful, humble, attentive and courteous.  It’s a privilege to work with an artistic genius, so be present and don’t take any opportunity for granted.

 

Maintaining A Successful Career Takes A Lot Of Work And Commitment. How Much Time Do You Dedicate To Your Work?

My life and my work are commingled. I absolutely LOVE what I do, so my work is integral to the person I am at the core. It doesn’t define me, but it permeates everything to some degree. I work 250-ish days a year, and shoot for 8 hour days.  Even if a mix takes only half that time, there’s plenty of ancillary work to be done, from taking meetings and generating sales to woodshedding new techniques.  Same net hours as a full-time job, but more flexibility…  When I leave the studio, however, my brain shifts out of work mode and into “balanced life” mode.

 

Is There An Artist You Want To Work With That You Have Not Yet Had The Chance To?

Where do I begin? (Laughs out loud.) My favorite artists with whom I haven’t worked: Neil Finn from Crowded House, the guys from Steely Dan, Jonatha Brooke. There is another artist who I hope reads this; Butterfly Boucher – she did a cover of Bowie’s “Changes” for the Shrek soundtrack. I met her in person and I remixed a couple singles for her when she was an Interscope artist. She’s a consummate musician and arranger with prodigious talent and a unique point of view. She really gets it.

 

What Is Your Favorite Equipment To Work With, And What Makes It Reliable And Easy?

Favorite brands that give me a competitive advantage when I’m mixing:

Manley Labs, Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Tonelux, Avalon and Empirical Labs make the indispensable analog stuff for me. Focal Professional makes my studio monitors.  Tom Anderson builds my guitars; Mesa/Boogie builds most of my amps (I’m using six of them in the studio today!), but I also play a rare George Alessandro High-End English amp and I’m really into Joe Morgan’s custom shop stuff.  On the digital side, Pro Tools HDX, SoundToys and UAD plugins, and Eventide Harmonizers are essential to me. Those things are consistently reliable, plus I have developed relationships with the people involved, who encourage feedback to constantly improve their products. Some of those people, like Bob Muller at Dangerous, EveAnna at Manley, and Paul Wolff (ex-Tonelux and API) solve problems long before I become aware of them. I’ve been known to pick up the phone and ask those guys if they have a solution to a problem, and they’ve already built it into a piece of gear that’s been living in my studio for several years.

I’ve used several brands of hard drives, but my go–to for the past 14 years have been Glyph. I must have had two dozen 10,000 rpm Cheetahs that I would hot-swap as needed. They were so bomb proof that I didn’t retire them until 2-3 years ago. I was supplementing with GT series, because I could run less expensive 7200 rpm drives and get virtually the same performance as the Cheetahs.  I have dozens of GTs in the studio.

My current preference is the new Glyph Studio series. I love using the Studio Mini and the Studio RAID. I have three 1TB Minis because they spin at 7200 rpm and they are buss powered via USB. They’re robust and convenient in the field with a laptop; they’re conducive to pre-mixing tracks on a plane.  I’m actually working off of them instead of merely transferring and archiving.  In my control room, I have three Studio RAIDs.  They inspire confidence because I know my solid backup plan is immediately more robust and the drives handle whatever I throw at them. I don’t need multiple work drives anymore with my Pro Tools sessions; I stripe RAID 1 on the 4TB and 8TB devices. The data are simultaneously written to two different hard drives. If one fails, I can send it to Glyph for hassle-free recovery and repair or replacement. At the end of the day I back up to 3 different places. If it’s something I care about, it has to be in 3 different places.

It gives me peace of mind to work with Glyph. I expect all hard disk drives to fail eventually, but there’s no need to worry or stress about it. I use and rely on Glyph so that I can proactively evolve rather than passively sitting around like a dinosaur waiting for the meteor to hit.

P1050803
MJ with studio boss, Rosie.

Pinging the Pros: Vintage King’s Chris Bolitho

 

Michael James, Rob Chiarelli, Jeff Ehrenberg and Chris Bolitho at ASCAP Expo 2015

Many years ago my friend David Zeman, keyboardist for the Rembrandts, AJ Croce and Parliament, asked for my help in upgrading his basic vanilla Pro Tools system to a premium HD4 Accel system. I had already done several HD upgrades to my rig, so I was intimately familiar with many of the obstacles he would face in his quest for the Holy Grail of digital audio workstation power. As I began to help him, I realized that the process would take much more time than I was able to provide.

Because there were so many variables to his equation, I decided to refer David to a professional. Pro audio guru Chris Bolitho and I had spoken several times, and he impressed me as someone who “gets it.” Chris saved David and me many hours of research, and quickly and painlessly got Dave into his new rig. We were so impressed with Chris that I became a source for referrals for him for about 10 years, even though we had not yet met face-to-face. Every report about him was glowing. 100% satisfaction rating!

Fast forward to 2014. Thanks to my status in the record business, I had become accustomed to purchasing pro audio equipment directly from manufacturers or their reps. My ability to purchase at cost was one of the perks of having healthy nurturing relationships with the folks who design the recording equipment that I use. This is quite a delicate thing because manufacturers absolutely need to protect their retailers, but it makes sense to have a few direct relationships with celebrities and industry leaders. Indiscretions and loose lips can topple empires, so there’s an understanding that artist accommodation prices remain discreet, if not confidential.

On the rare occasion that I needed to buy something from a retailer, I would go to the “Pro” division of a specific large corporate chain with whom I had a relationship, who would sell to me at dead cost. I had no incentive to look any further until my superhero point person decided to change careers and leave the company. He set me up with The New Guy, who was pretty cool, but was unable to accommodate my needs in a timely manner. Things can happen pretty quickly in my world, so I surround myself with a team of experts who are nimble and attentive. New Guy always had a 72-96 hour delay, so he missed the boat several times.

I was in the market for a Sterling Modular “Plan B” mastering console, so I called The New Guy again to find out if he could help me. The New Guy quoted me a price that was 20% less than I knew he was permitted. Some manufacturers protect their dealers by prohibiting discounts beyond a certain percentage, a practice that ensures the product does not become devalued. Violation of the minimum price covenant often results in having the dealership revoked. There was literally no profit on this particular deal, only marketshare for the company. Good for me, but not good for the retailer. Something didn’t feel right. It felt unenlightened, almost like turning a blind eye to global climate change, a scenario in which instant gratification can result in long-term holistic problems.

My instinct told me to call Chris Bolitho. Why? He gets it. He’ll find a win-win. Always does. I’ll get my console, and Chris will ensure that the world continues to have access to a brick and mortar pro audio store that provides actual services performed by real human beings. High quality recordings will continue to exist. The future looks bright!

So… I phoned Chris. He quoted me a fair price that I knew was indeed a win-win. Then I asked if he could explore a deal that would involve trading some equipment that I no longer used. He examined my list, then advised me how to get the most bang for the buck. I gave him the green light. Zero dollars cash out of pocket, console acquired, orphaned gear off to a new home. Everybody wins, as it should be.

There’s a common misconception about artist deals. You might think that we get the least expensive accommodation price directly from the manufacturer, but that’s not always true. Further, there’s a lot of value added by running an artist deal through a credible reseller like Vintage King. Due to its purchasing power as a result of a large economy of scale, VK may get a better price from the manufacturer than the artist can. Remember that the manufacturer wants to protect the retailer, plus it wants distinguished professionals to have the equipment at a price that makes us feel special and motivated to spend. By running the deal through VK, it can fulfill both needs by both subsidizing the retailer and reducing the accommodation price.

That, however, is not the best part for an artist in my position. Much more important than a sexy price is Vintage King’s marketing clout. VK has transcended the traditional role of the retailer, and has evolved into a partner with artists like me. VK’s marketing mavens have contributed to my continuing visibility in the press. I cannot even begin to describe how important this is for a behind-the-scenes craftsman like me–I may be doing my best artistic work ever, but if the outside world were unaware of my talents and relevance, I would be unable to thrive in such a competitive industry that is reeling from an accelerating race to the bottom.

You may be wondering where is the value of Vintage King for you if you’re not a celebrity. The most obvious answer is that the showroom is well endowed with all the good stuff that the hit makers are using on their recordings. You can roll up your sleeves and get hands-on with a mountain of gear, you can do side-by-side listening comparisons, and you can get valuable consultation from the VK’s sales team. Chris and his colleagues work with many, if not most, of the top pros in the recording industry. They know who is using what, and they aggregate that information for their customers.

And if you’re selling or trading used recording equipment? Unless you want to spend the precious hours of your day hoping for a few more bucks by industriously vetting prospective buyers on eBay or Craigslist, you’re in the right place. I personally have no interest in dealing with that headache; Vintage King, however, is in business to do exactly that. In my experience, Vintage King pays a modestly higher wholesale price than other retailers do. Then they test and refurbish your old gear before selling it, which they do with both a warranty and a return policy. Good karma.

Fast forward to 2015… I am honored to call Chris one of my friends. Yes, we’ve dined together, we’ve done several special events together, and we’ve had our share of deep conversations about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. And cats! We send each other photos of our cats creating music and destroying Christmas tree ornaments.

Before signing off and passing the baton to Chris for his thoughts, I must say that he does much more than acquire equipment for my studio. He’s a super smart team-building guy who knows that a deal is only a good deal if it’s good for everyone. He looks at the big picture, and helps define a strategic game plan for upgrades and purchases, based on my needs, not his commission. He even identified a couple untapped revenue streams in my business, both of which I’m now nurturing!
Plus, let’s not forget to mention that Chris’ sexy British accent makes him sound impossibly interesting at all times, even when he’s merely giving directions to Vintage King’s impressive Los Angeles showroom.

Without further ado, here’s my brief interview with Chris Bolitho.

MJ: I’ve never known you to compete on price, only on service. That seems like it would be very difficult to do in the age of virtual storefront online shopping, yet you seem to be as busy as ever. Tell me more about that.

CB
: Choosing a piece of recording studio equipment is a big purchase in terms of the financial and emotional investment for most people. That’s not the kind of life moment many of us would trust to a stranger or catalog style website even in today’s hyper connected culture. Audio consultants at Vintage King spend a lot of time personally training on and checking out gear, but perhaps more importantly speak with people using the equipment we sell, and can help to aggregate end-user feedback and anecdotes. A quick phone call to a trusted audio consultant can help make sure that you are making the right decision, see what others have chosen in the same situation, and help make sure you have considered all the alternatives. We have new, used and vintage equipment on hand, and plenty of experience deploying it! Of course price is important to everyone, and as one of, or the, largest dealer for most high quality equipment we’re lucky enough to have all the price breaks to be able to get the best deal every time for our clients.

MJ: What motivates you to continue working in this career with so much enthusiasm?

CB
: Some things move quickly in our industry, yet others stay the same. Some of the very best, most inspirational pieces of gear and recording techniques date back to even before the 50s and new ones come out every day. Our amazingly talented manufacturing partners are always pushing the boundaries and innovating, and we get to help our clients combine the best technology of today with the classic gear of yesterday. It’s this feeling of excitement and innovation coupled with the feeling of constants that makes recording equipment so inspirational for us all. Not to mention the wide variety of interesting and exciting people we get to work with every day from the home enthusiast, through the new hot song-writer, to the grammy winning producer or oscar winning composer.

MJ: I’m curious about your perspective on working with individuals or small businesses versus large corporate entities who spend truckloads of money. In my case, you’ve held my hand through some long incubation periods, like my recent Pro Tools HD 12 upgrade, which was a small purchase that we discussed six months ago. At the time, you recommended that my needs prescribed waiting until December before making the purchase. As usual, your recommendation proved to be right. It fascinates me that you always take the time to ensure that we make the right decision, whether we are dealing with a $600 or $6000 purchase. You make me, a small business individual, feel just as important as Skywalker Sound. How do you manage to do that when you have so many other clients needing your services at the same time?

CB
: We get excited by helping people find solutions that accelerate and fine-tune their creativity. Whether that’s a multi-operator control surface at a movie lot, or an impedance matching box for a musician doesn’t really matter – the professional satisfaction is in contributing in our way to the creative process. If you do things in the right way, for the right reasons every time, everything else sorts itself out.

MJ:
Is there anything you’d like to add that may be helpful to my readers?


CB
: Thanks for being a great friend and loyal champion for many years, Michael. Looking forward to working on events, upgrades, meals and phone calls together for years to come!

MJ
: Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to provide your insights!

 

Chris’ official mug shot.

 

The charming, thoughtful family man and pet lover I’ve come to know.

 

Recording Studio Tip: Discovering Your Unique Guitar Tone with Chandler Limited Pedals

Sometimes the best way to be heard is to whisper instead of scream. Similarly, many of the most compelling recorded guitar tones in history are all about subtlety instead of bombast.

Over the years I’ve learned that lowering the gain of guitar amps in the recording studio (relative to the extreme high gain settings preferred by live shredders) will make heavy tones more articulate, and therefore more expressive. Diming the gain provides sustain, but destroys dynamics.

The trick to unlocking your unique tone is to find the amp’s sweet spot that allows you to clean up your tone when lowering the guitar’s volume knob and/or playing with a soft touch, and, with the same amp settings, enabling the amp to growl, sing and bark as you turn up or play harder. When that happens, listeners will be able to identify you by your unique dynamic touch, stylistic nuances and technique, regardless of your choice of amplifier or guitar. Chances are good that you will immediately sound like a more expressive player if you’re typically a high gain junkie.

Today’s tone tip is about how I use Chandler Limited’s two hand-wired boutique guitar pedals, the Little Devil Colored Boost and the Germainium Drive, to enhance my tone. Both are capable of screaming, but I prefer to use them more subtly. Because I already have, in my opinion, great tone that balances the fine line of crystalline chime vs ballsy growl, I don’t want to radically alter my tone. Sometimes I want just a little bit more of what I already have. A little bit more sustain, girth, drive… with a small bit of coloration to make the sound bloom with more character when I step on the pedal.

Although the Chandler pedals are designed to respond differently to each player, guitar and amp combination, I seem to always end up in the vicinity of my personal default settings, regardless of my amp and guitar choices. If you already love the sound of your rig, try my settings and let me know what you think.

From left to right, here they are.

Germanium Drive:

Highs – very bright

Germ Drive – 4.5

Feedback – 4

Boost Range – full

You’ll notice that my settings of Highs vs Boost Range meet in the middle ground, complementing each other to provide a nicely balanced tone.

Little Devil Colored Boost:

Boost Range – mids

Color Boost – 4

Feedback & Bias – 6 (or 5 for more bite)

Highs – very bright

As a subtle alternative, I sometimes switch the Boost Range to full and lower the Color Boost to 2.

I find that these settings tend to work on both my clean and crunch tones. Although similar in aesthetics, the Germanium Drive configured in this manner is a bit more dynamic and clear, while the Little Devil sounds relatively thicker and more macho. If the former is the equivalent of adding a tasteful rhinoplasty to your tone, the latter would be like adding a butt lift to it. Pardon the metaphor—it gets the point across.

I do in fact use other pedals with more extreme settings to create contrast in my palette of tones. Needless to say, you can, too – you don’t need to throw away all your other beloved pedals in pursuit of an idealistic, boutique, hi-fi tone. That said, it really is worth the effort to go down this road and find a pedal that allows you to retain your unique sound, while tastefully enhancing it. You can be even more of what you already are!

If I find some extra time this week, I may bang out a quick home-brewed video to let you hear what I’m describing. If so, I’ll update this post.

Pinging the Pros: Gil Griffith

From Harmonizers to Distressors and Beyond

Latest version of the legendary classic

I cold called Eventide in the early ’90s because I wanted my own Harmonizer in my portable producer rack, but its hefty price tag of $3000 was beyond my humble means. I was hoping that the company would grant me an artist accommodation price because I had recently recorded some hip Sub Pop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, all of whom were buzzing.

My call was directed to Gil Griffith, VP of Marketing (or something similar). Gil was somewhat of a legend: he came up with the idea for Steve Vai to create 48 presets for the H3000, which as a result became a required staple in every session guitarist’s refrigerator rack of doom and remorse. The presets were both twisted and beautiful, and they made a guitar sound like an otherworldly instrument that Shiva and Vishnu might play while destroying or creating life.

Gil was impressed that I had the balls to request a discount, given that my marquee credits were Seattle-centric as opposed to international. He was further impressed by the fact that I was prepared to actually purchase the H3000 when other cats from the Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Michael Bolton camps shamelessly begged for freebies even though they could afford to pay.

Long story short, Gil asked me enough questions to determine that my profile was more street, less corporate, than that of a “typical” Harmonizer user. He saw a fresh marketing angle that could attract a different demographic to the product.  Gil planned to fly into Los Angeles the next week, and suggested that we meet in person to discuss various possibilities.

My wife Irina and I rode our mountain bikes 20-ish miles to Gil’s hotel, arriving in a glorious stew of Lycra and sweat. Fortunately we asked him in advance if he’d mind, and he was cool with the idea. He was getting into cycling back home in New Jersey, so he was curious to check out our machines.

Irina and I had state of the art race bikes, and we were wicked fit: she was an actress of renown and I was still ripped from racing at the UCI Pro MTB World Championships. For better or worse, there we were, flying our freak flags with only a thin veneer of spandex separating our flesh from the elements, taking a meeting with a tall charismatic VP in a well tailored suit. Talk about an indelible first impression!

Fortunately Gil bet on my character and enthusiasm. He singlehandedly positioned me, along with my colleague and mentor Keith Wechsler, to become perhaps the most in-demand preset developers (at the time) for not only Eventide, but also competitors Lexicon and TC Electronic.

As an aside, Keith and I took these preset gigs quite seriously, and our fees skyrocketed to $10,000 plus the product (times two) per project. Along the way, we became friends with the folks who hired us, so we eventually decided to completely forego our cash fees. Believe it or not, it was the right thing to do.  Even though we could have continued charging top dollar, we believed that our karma (or dharma?) was to be of service in a pure way. With hindsight it’s clear that we wanted to do the preset work for the good of humanity, not as a career path that might interfere with our true passion of making records in the studio.

Anyway, back to the story of Gil, and how he enriched my life and my business…

Gil arranged for Don Teolis and me to write 91 new and unique presets for the H3000 D/SE and D/SX units. The former was geared toward studio applications while the latter was all about crazy guitar effects, including some trippy “backwards” Hendrix/Beatles stuff. By that time, Gil, Don and I were genuine friends, so we did the job for love, not money. Help a brother out, right?  Don and I were on fire, and created all those presets in a single day! I distinctly recall writing a wish list of every cool idea we could fantasize, and then rolling up our sleeves and executing the plan. It was a helluva day, but not really a surprise because that’s the way it was when working with Gil. He attracts excitement and inspiration.

Eventually Gil exited Eventide to found his own company, Wave Distribution. The company launched coveted brands like Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Empirical Labs, Focal Professional, Kush Audio, Burl, SoundToys, Tonelux, Purple Audio, and others. Because of Gil’s high standard of excellence, I’ve relied on him to spec and supply much of the equipment in my mix room. He knows what I need, before I do. With that in mind, let’s get on with asking Gil a few questions in our first Pinging the Pros segment!

Ken Bogdanowicz (Harmonizer designer), Gil Griffith, Dave Derr (Distressor designer)
MJ: You always know what I need. How is that?
 
GG: I feel that the products I choose to represent tend to be designed by folks within the very market we sell to – they own or work or worked in recording studios as musicians, producers and/or engineers – and as such, came up with their product ideas from inside the studio – necessity being the mother of invention and all – so if they needed the very product they designed, you, as a recording engineer and producer, most likely need that product too. I’m not clairvoyant, it’s just easy for me to recognize symbiosis.
 
MJ: How do you decide which gear to represent?
 
GG: I actually look at the person behind the gear first. Dave Derr and I were friends and colleagues from the eight years we spent together at Eventide. I worked at his studio (Studio E in Garfield, NJ) after he left Eventide, recording demos for bands I was friendly with and trying to help promote. When he showed me the Distressor he had developed, and asked me to help him sell “a hundred or two”, it was a no-brainer. 
 
When I met Wade Goeke from Chandler Limited, he had one product (the LTD-1 EQ) and two dealers. He had recently left Brent Averill, and had all these ideas for a range of products based on Beatles-era EMI gear from Abbey Road. His enthusiasm for the pro audio market and his exuberant personality were contagious. I liked him right away and wanted to work with him to bring his vision and passion for classic analog signal processing to the market.
 
All the best stuff that we love in life typically comes from the mind of a creative individual, who bends the forces of business nature to his/her will and makes something cool and useful (and typically disruptive) against all odds. Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs. In our industry – Georg Neumann, Rupert Neve, Les Paul, Saul Walker, Colin Sanders, David Griesinger – were the forward-thinking pioneers who bucked trends and produced new products and markets with a determined singleness of vision. I have been blessed with woking with a few modern audio pioneers over the years, including Richard Factor, Ron Noonan, Ken Bogdanowicz and Dave Derr. From that experience, it became easier for me to recognize the people who possessed the right combination of creativity, passion and design chops to bring the next “gotta have” brand to the pro audio market.
 
Now, my very good friend Bobby DeNiro told me that it’s not cool to drop names ;-), but my story is not about me, it’s about the people I choose to work with because of what I saw in them and their potential. And here I’m speaking of not only Dave Derr, Ken Bogdanowicz and Wade Goeke, but all the brands I helped launch or promote – Greg St. Regis (Studio Electronics), Andrew Roberts (Purple Audio), Peter Frampton (Framptone), Paul Wolff (Tonelux), John Arbiter (Carillon), Jaques Mahul (Focal Pro), Chris Pelonis (Pelonis Speakers), Ruben Tilgner (Elysia GmbH) and Gregory Scott (Kush Audio).

 
MJYou do business in an enlightened manner. Every deal is a win-win, and you spread the wealth rather than hoarding it. When you were with Eventide, why did introduce me to Lexicon?

 
GG: I believe in healthy competition. If we didn’t have competitors, innovation might crawl to a snail’s pace. Good competitors keep designers and manufacturers on their toes. The best win-win for me is a friendly competitor, like Lexicon was to Eventide. A competitor whose products and design strategy you admire. I have owned Lexicon gear, have used it in the studio, and have been wowed by artists like Steve Morse who could do amazing things through a PCM 42. How do you not respect and admire a company like Lexicon? Plus, the man who ran it during my time at Eventide was Ron Noonan, who I had great respect for and almost went to work for in 1994. I got friendly with Lexicon’s Director of Sales Joel Silverman from seeing him at AES, NAB and NAMM shows – in Anaheim, Joel and his then-wife Kathy used to host a really nice Sushi dinner party every year during NAMM, and he invited me one year. I thought that was very big of him (and I *love* good Sushi!), and we kind of hit it off and started hanging out at trade shows, to the point that we even switched name badges as a joke at NAB and AES one year. Confused the hell out of people, but it was out little inside joke.
 
So since I knew the gear and liked the people, I was more than happy to share the love and introduce you to them, figuring if I liked and admired them and their products, you would too.
 

We all benefit when creative, clever, and passionate people bring cool products and brands to the market place – and there’s room for all of them – and it’s in all of our best interests that the pro audio industry be healthy and vital and alive and prosperous. 

MJ: What’s new for 2015? What’s on the horizon?
 
GG: I’ve set up a web portal for our dealers and distributors (store.wavedistribution.com) to bring the efficiency and ease of use of retail on-line shopping to wholesale distribution. I’m launching two new brands this year, and there’s a plug-in coming that is a real game changer. With the Euro weakening against the Dollar, I’ve opened distributors in India and China to expand our market reach and take advantage of those opportunities. I’m as optimistic as ever about the future of Pro Audio, and am looking forward to bringing the next Wave (pardon the pun) of cool, cutting edge products to market… and of course, as always – having Michael James be one of the early adopters!
 
I appreciate all the insight, advice and feedback you’ve shared with me, it’s certainly helped to further fine-tune the course and development of more than a few products over the years.
 

-Gil

 

Misc. Stuff: Event with Rob Chiarelli; Gear “Option Anxiety”; KIVA Music. 



Event details 

Mingle and Learn

Rob and I will be the featured guests of Marek Stycos at tomorrow night’s GC Pro and Audio Alchemist event. We will be available to answer questions about how we do things in the studio, or we might simply hang out over a bowl of Thai curry and get to know some new friends.

I enjoy doing these types of events because they give me an opportunity to mingle with old friends, meet new ones and share classic recording techniques and philosophies with the next generation of audio recordists. Plus, in this case, it’s going to be a blast because Rob and Marek are at the top of their game. They are masters of what they do, and they’re both good friends of mine.

Giving Back

Rob and I have been making a concerted effort to “give back” by doing events, workshops and master classes. Although there is an inherent educational component to what we do, we try to keep things light and fluid, with plenty of room for improvisation and interactive audience participation. I’ve been told by several sources that the attendees and the sponsors both value this because they leave the event feeling like, “If Rob and Michael can do this, so can we!” I guess that modest success in the record business looks glamorous and unobtainable to the new guys & gals. Apparently we put a face and a tangible handshake to that success, therefore making it real and within reach.

Recording Gear

Something I’ve noticed is the fact that the up-and-coming generation of record producers generally have very little gear—and they can’t even imagine that they will ever have the resources to acquire a collection. They don’t believe that they will ever make enough money from music to actually own some cool pieces of equipment. Their recording studios are sometimes simply a laptop and a microphone. But that doesn’t stop them from making some great records. 

By contrast, those of us who were lucky enough to have a career in the business when the money was flowing have accumulated enough tools to deal with any potential situation. Some of us are prolific; others are lazy. There’s also a third subset that gets bogged down in what I call “option anxiety”: those cats have so many choices that they spend too much time futzing with technology when they could just be making music. They become slaves to the tools, which should in fact exist to serve the music. My philosophy is that one would be better off learning every little operational and aesthetic nuance about just a few key pieces of gear, than to only scratch the surface of a vast collection. It’s likely that I will be reminding some folks of that fact at tomorrow’s event.

Rising Stars

Over the past couple of years, I have observed one of my favorite record producers, Stefano Vieni, along with his brilliant engineer Alex Ponce (aka El Guapo!), develop a nice collection of recording equipment. In their mid 20s, these two talented young men have made around 150 records during that time, some of which have become hits on the Latin charts. They are very smart about their purchases, and they learn how to get the most mileage from each item. Technology never gets in the way of what they do – it only enhances it.

Alex has earned my respect not only for his engineering and mixing skills, but also for the fact that he is humble enough to ask for mentoring whenever he needs it. He’s gotten so good, so quickly! Some young cats are credit hogs and don’t reach out for help because they want to be the rockstar. As a consequence, they learn lessons more slowly than the humble guys who ask for help. That’s not Alex. He’ll make an international call in the middle of the night if he thinks it will help to make a better record. 

Alex and Stefano are responsible for the recent #1 and Gold records I’ve mixed.  Kalimba, Mario Guerrero, new artist Anna Sophia, et al. Great stuff! I’m super excited for them and all the success they are having. Even though they have gotten good enough that they no longer need my services, they continue to work with me. They understand the long-term value of nurturing good relationships. For that, I am grateful. Keep your eyes and ears open for their new venture, KIVA Music.