Sarno

I’ve got two words for you: Sar-no.

Yesterday I had a conversation with Mike about my in-ear woes and he told me how he had the guitar in his mix, and it was something I was on the edge of considering anyway, only with a little extra added benefit.  I was considering changing my mix and pushing the guitar off to the left side and bringing the bass back to the middle.  It would create more of an album mix instead of trying to reflect the phyiscal proximity of everything on stage.  That thought had occurred to me already but the little bit extra was that Mike put the guitar reverb on the opposite side!  Cool idea!  The thinking was that it would get the guitar out of my face and put me even more in the room and Mike said it sounded really good in his mix.

So. Brad Sarno.  I’ve been hearing about him for years, about how he’s the preamp guru; about how he’s helped various guitarists get the elusive “Garcia Tone” and whatnot.  And Mike mentioned that he was coming to the show.  🙂  Perfect!

So he came down early to check out my rig and I explained the issues I was having with the IEMs (In Ear Monitors).  Actually before I even got a chance to do that he said he had something for me to try and he handed me his handmade distortion pedal, the Earth Drive.  So we plugged that into my pedal board and compared it to my other two distortions, the AC Booster and the OCD.  It was unbelievably good!  It was so responsive to touch, kept the bottom end intact and had a very buttery sound but still crisp.  Sold! I actually put it in place of my AC Booster, my favorite distortion on the planet.

Then he recommended a different mic for the amp.  They’d had a Sennheiser 421 on it and he said that that was a very crisp sounding speech mic that was good for a variety of applications, but said that I might warm my sound up a bit by using a Sennheiser 609 instead.  Then he mentioned that they also made a 906 which was closer to the original discontinued 409 and it just so happens that Rachel (our FOH) had a 906!  I know, a lot of tech talk, but the 409, 609 and 906 are recognizable as the square looking mics Pink Floyd sing into in the Live In Pompeii film.  And it didn’t disappoint.  At the show last night I had the best mix I’ve ever had with the IEMs and it gave me back my guitar voice so I was able to really play the way I like.  Amazing!

But in spite of the great mix, the first set last night seemed a little disconnected and that was reflected in what the other guys were saying during the break.  I sat down with Craig and we examined the set list for the second set and decided to make a couple changes.  Probably the most important change we made was to start the set with my song, Jones.  That’s a tune that Creek starts a lot of sets with and there’s a good reason for it: It puts everybody in the groove.  It enabled us to do a reset of the show and was exactly what was needed.  Second set was a smoker!

Another thing we did was some EEL stuff (the audience interaction piece) near the end of the break.  So when we came on for the second set the crowd was in the middle of jamming out on the EEL and we just joined in jamming with them and eventually working our way to Jones.

All in all yesterday was a great learning experience, and as a result my experience on this tour is going to be much better.  And the Sarno Earth Drive is a large contributor to that.  I highly recommend this pedal to anyone “searching for the sound.”

http://www.sarnomusicsolutions.com/products/ed.html

Now to work on my bowling skills….. cheers!

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Third Gig Blues (and a day off)

Ah.  Well you know, if you don’t have bad gigs then what do you have to compare the good ones to?  But perhaps “bad gig” is a little strong.  Actually there were some amazing moments.  Lots of them.

You have to be able to laugh at yourself.  That’s first and foremost.  With that in mind, my night started horribly in that I had seen the set lists earlier in the day and realized that one of the sets started with Horizon Line, which uses a drop D tuning.  (The low E is tuned down to a D… makes D chords fat as hell.)  And so about ten minutes before the start of the set I was scrambling… changing clothes, putting in contacts, getting my ears in… and I thought, Oh!  I have to tell Trey (our guitar tech amongst other things) to tune my guitar to the drop D.  Which I did.  Ha.  I’m ahead of the game!

And so we walked on for the first set, and then the count.. one, two, three, four…. and the band kicks into Another Door!  F#CK!!  Horizon Line starts the second set!!  So now, I’m in the wrong song, with the wrong tuning, and the intro to Door is one of those one meter on top of another meter sections, so I have no idea where I’m supposed to be playing.  Hell-lllo!!?!  It’s hard to worry about making mistakes when you start with a massive CLAM on the very first note!

Things can only get better, right?

And they did.  There was some great jamming.  We did Peel and Spock’s Brain which both came out awesomely!  And Take It As It Comes, one of the new originals Mike and I are writing, and that came out great as well.  Lots of good stuff.

But by the end of the second set I was tired.  I think the crowd was tired maybe, or maybe I was projecting that.  We ended the second set with a couple of rockers, How Many People Are You (another new M & S original) and Dig Further Down and, for me anyway, it was like pulling teeth.

But you know, it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.  I’ve learned my lesson about that.  It used to be that if I had a bad night and people would say, “Great set!” I’d be like, “Um, no.”  But I’ve had enough experiences listening back to nights I thought sucked only to realize they were pretty good.  It’s all so subjective!

So yesterday we had a much needed day off.  It was a chill day that included a BBQ and a little bowling… 🙂

And today we play in St. Louis.  I think I have an idea on how to improve the sound of the guitar.  I’ve been being kind of a purist about things in that I haven’t done any EQ or compression on the guitar sound in my in-ears, the idea being that I want to know what it sounds like out front as much as that’s possible.  I would hate to have the guitar sounding like butter in my ears and like crap out front!

But I need the thing to sound good so that I can play the way I want to.  Did I make the helium comparison yet?  Imagine you needed to convey something deeply emotional… only you’ve just inhaled helium.  That’s what it’s like to play guitar without the right sound… it just doesn’t express the way it’s supposed to.

And so my idea has to do with panning.  The way I have my mix currently reflects my perspective physically, with Robert’s keys panned right, Craig’s percussion panned hard left, Mike just a little left, but my guitar and vocal dead center.  Mike mentioned to me yesterday that he originally had me and Robert panned right because that’s where we are physically, but he moved me to the left but also put the guitar reverb to the right, and he said it sounded great!  So that’s one of the things I’m going to try.  It will be mixing the band how I would mix an album rather than reflecting the physical reality.  I think that will help get the guitar sound out of my face.

I have to give a shout out to our crew here.  None of this stuff would work if it wasn’t for them.  They start setting us up while I’m still rolling out of bed and they are taking down long after the last notes ring.  And the entire time they are there helping to create this amazing thing.  There is just SO much technology and creativity overlapping here which requires considerable effort on everyone’s part and our crew does an amazing job of getting it altogether and tolerating us musicians at the same time!  Much gratitude in their direction!

Get Your Swagger On

The second night of the tour …. so much less nerve-wracking than the first. Life is so much less stressful when you know what to expect or even sort what to expect. Still there’s always some stressors.

We broke out Last Step, an epic somewhat composed musical piece from our recently released EP. It’s one of those tunes that gets composed into the recording medium so that parts of it are recorded one measure at a time. Then when it’s finished, you can transcribe what you did and wow, it’s one intense piece of music. On the original demo, the first thing that was recorded was Mike saying, “someone needs to take a long journey because of a loss.” That was the beginning concept before there was any music or lyrics. And so musically it does that – it starts with a theme, moves to another theme, and then to another, travels into some strange territory before it’s starts to make its way backwards to the third theme, then back to the second and then to the first with the final line being an echo of the first line. The theme changed when we got to the lyrics. We imagined that a man wakes up to the presence of something like a ghost that could be the spirit of someone who traumatized him previously …. possibly.

Anyway, the music has many overlapping layers and at certain points each part is playing in its own meter superimposed on top of one another. As a result, it can be hard to know where you are because nothing anyone else is playing can anchor you to your own part. And in a lot of cases, Mike and I are singing in three while playing in four! Not so easy! During the rehearsals we had to stop many times and restart because we would end up out of sync.

But at the show, we totally nailed it and was delivered with passion. The jam went to interesting places and it all got very powerful at the end. Success! But my original point – even though songs like that can be stressful, the overall vibe going into last night was relaxed, energetic, excited and fun! And that’s how the show seemed … at least from my perspective.

As everyone gets comfortable with the material, it’s nice to feel us all “get our swagger on” by really laying into this stuff. At the end of the night, I had a long conversation with Robert where on top of solving all the world’s problems, we more importantly discussed the general concept of what we’re trying to do musically in relation to the darker side of sound … or maybe the edgier side. “Irreverence” is the term Robert used, which I like. There are certain moments …. well maybe there should be lots of moments … where you can get your brain out of the way. It’s no longer about notes or rhythm or changes or arrangement It’s about gut-wretching emotion traveling from your inner depths directly to your hands, skipping your brain. I feel like I’m not playing the guitar but instead slathering hunks of emotion on to a sonic canvas – with a crowbar.

Oh, and as a follow up to the in-ear rant yesterday, we have these ambient mics on either side of the stage to pick up the room noise. I didn’t have much of them in my mix on the first night, but cranked those up for last night’s show which made a world of difference for me. I could hear the room again!! The question of the day: Who thought of pole vaulting and more importantly, why?

Opening Night

Well, the first show of the tour is behind us, thankfully.  But let me back up…

We have new band members, Robert and Johnny, and we have a bunch of new material as well… a few new covers and some new originals from a batch of new material that Mike and I are writing.  And we have some new crew members, new stage gear, new lighting stuff…. lots of new new new!

There was quite a bit of preparation for this tour… two sets of rehearsals, one for a week and one about ten days long.  We had to learn all the new material plus bring the new guys up to speed, but not only that, we wanted to revamp some of the older material and bring it into the new… hmmmm… direction?  Attitude?  Philosophy?

And all of that went very well.  Johnny and Robert learned a LOT of songs!  And we did a lot of arranging and figuring stuff out.  There are a TON of lyrics I had to learn!  And remember!

Anyway, our first night went very very well.  It was a nerve-wracking day however.  The first day of the tour will always have it’s glitches.  With all of the technology we use, combined with having new crew members and new gear, well, needless to say things ran behind schedule.  And as a result sound check started very late and we didn’t have much time.  It was Johnny and Robert’s first time using in-ear monitors and it’s just time consuming to set those up.

With regular monitors, you really just fill in the sound that’s missing from your proximity on the stage.  So normally I can hear the other instruments pretty well, so I just supplement the sound by adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  And then a LOT of vocals.

But in-ears shut out the ambient sound of the room, pretty much completely, so that everything you need to hear has to be put into them.  There are huge advantages to this, as you have total control over the overall volume.  For vocals especially this is a great thing!  I can hear pitch very well but more than that I can hear how much “grit” I’m putting into my vocal.  I can control the tone of my voice to a very great degree.  And the clarity of everything is improved greatly.  I can hear all these nuances in peoples’ playing that would normally get lost in the mush.

But clarity is a double-edged sword especially for the guitar.  Normally when I play, the amp is down by my legs and the sound blows right by me.  And when I solo, I’ll even take a few steps away from the amp because I like to hear the guitar in the room.

But with the in-ears, it’s like my face is directly in front of my amp.  I hear everything. Way. Too. Clearly.

Ah, I’m getting lost in the technical stuff.  Back to reality.

The new material is awesome!  It rocks in a way none of the other material ever has.  And the new guys are very rhythmic players on top of being very attentive and responsive.  The resulting sound is sparse, yet full.  It breathes.  The space between the notes becomes as important as the notes themselves.  Time becomes amorphous yet the pulse throbs steadily.

On top of that, Craig has greatly expanded his pallet of sounds.  Combine that with the sounds Robert gets, and Johnny also has an electronic pad for generating sounds…. Sometimes I can’t tell who’s making what sound!  Not that it matters!

Ok, enough for today.  Next time I’ll dig into the new material some more.

What is that guitar?

That guitar is one that was built specifically for this tour.  One of the themes of this tour is “moire” which is that weird thing that happens when you look through two screen and you see all sorts of weird 3D shapes.  Moire is everywhere in our production, including in our guitars!

Mike and I worked very closely with the builder, Ben Lewry of visionaryinstruments.com, who specializes in creating very funky electronic guitars that usually feature all kinds of touch controllers and accelerometers that can be used for controlling audio effects in software like Ableton Live and whatnot.  These guitars have no such controllers, but instead feature full RGB lighting behind the moire screens that make up the face of the body.

Ben and I had lots of conversations about my Ibanez because he wanted to create the instrument so that it would sound and play simlilarly.  The body shape and neck and headstock are all designed based on my favorite guitar.

As part of the design, he put all the controls along the top of the instrument, so there are no controls on the face of the body itself, to leave the moire screen as emtpy as possible.  There are four preset light designs built in that I can choose with a selector swith.  Most of these presets react to the sound of the strings, so that when I play something, the guitar lights up.  It’s very fast and when I play choppy rhythms or staccato leads, the lights really accentuate the sound!

But, even cooler than all that, the guitar has a DMX input, which means that it can receive color commands from the light board and be totally controlled by our lighting guy!  It took a few shows to get that working, but now it’s in full effect.  So cool!

I’m also using in-ear monitors for the first time.  And everything is wireless, so for each show I’m wearing a transmitter for the guitar audio, a receiver for the in-ear monitors, a receiver for the DMX data, and a battery pack for the guitar’s lights.

WIRED!

MC350

In retrospect I had no idea what I was doing back in 1981 when I was looking for a new guitar.  I had been playing the Travis Bean for four years but Max Creek was getting ready to record “Drink The Stars” and the Bean had intonation issues because of the aluminum neck, so it was time.  I had been looking around and I read a bunch of things about a guitar that Ibanez had on the market, the Musician series, patterned somewhat after the Artist model that Bob Weir was using at the time.  There seemed to be a few models of Musicians, some with active EQ and some without; some with “dual sound” pickups and some with “tri sound” pickups.

Creek had a weekend playing at Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square so since we were hanging out in Boston on Saturday a few of us when to Wurlitzer Music in Boston to check out what they had.  It turns out that they had one model of Ibanez Musician, an MC350.  I played that thing for probably an hour in the store and every five minutes this very rude sales dude would come over asking if I was going to buy the thing.  At one point he asked, “Do you even have money?”  Yes, you dick, I have money.

Long story short, I did get the MC350.  And I still use it today.  It’s pretty much all original except for some brass knobs to replace the plastic ones, and a small wiring change I made in 1985.  But all the hardware, including the pickups, is original.

Well, relatively recently I found out some information about this particular model.  There were only 84 of them ever made, and mine is one of the earliest ones, and one of the few made in 1981.  Most of the rest were made in 1982.

A couple weekends ago I had the rare experience of seeing one of these other MC350s.  My friend John is a collector and brought his to a Creek show and we couldn’t help but take some photos of the twins: