Mitch Gallagher Interview Part 1:"Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking they have to wait for better gear before they make music..."
With Mitch Gallagher about the beginning of his professional career, first choices, passions, time spent and duties in Sweetwater Sound and everything that led to the release of his brand new ep called Foundation...
The name of my today's interlocutor is immediately associated with hundreds of presentations of various gear, specialist articles and interviews. Many of you surely know him. It's Mitch Gallagher, a man of many activities. Perfectly organized, charming, full of passion, sincere and open-minded, great man, musician, editor and composer. Now you will have a chance to look at him from another, probably the most personal side. It was supposed to be a simple conversation. A simple interview, but, is it possible to do a simple interview with such an unusual man as Mitch Gallagher?
So, I invite you to the first part of the conversation with Mitch Gallagher. We will talk about the beginnings of his professional career, first choices, passions, NARAS (Grammy) Award, first book and Sweetwater Sound....
Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: Mitch, you are a man of many passions, you write about music and equipment, you test gear, play. You find yourself in everything that concerns music and sound. What do you think about yourself?
Do you think that you could do one of these things better than today?
Mitch Gallagher: I am very fortunate to get to explore a wide range of things in my career, all related to music.
Music has brought so much to my life, and given me the opportunity to do so many wonderful things and meet so many amazing people. I’m very grateful and humbled! I know that I can always improve in everything I do. That’s part of what makes it all fun, learning new things, getting better - although it can be frustrating if you don’t feel like you’re improving quickly enough! I try (not always successfully) to keep it in perspective. My friend Nick Bowcott (he was the guitarist in Grim Reaper, worked for Marshall, and now works with us at Sweetwater) once told me a story about Dimebag Darrell from Pantera: When he was learning to play, Dime was frustrated at his progress, and his father told him, “If you learn one new lick a day, you’ll learn 365 new licks a year.” I love that, and I think it applies to pretty much every aspect of life - I really do try to learn one new thing a day, hopefully more than one! Sweetwater’s owner, Chuck Surack, says, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. There is no standing still.” I think that is true in business, in guitar playing, in writing, in pretty much all areas of life.
How do you reconcile all these activities? What does your typical day look like?
It keeps me busy! One of the great things about all the things I do is that there’s no set routine, and I’m never bored.
Every day is different. I shoot videos for Sweetwater on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, but outside that schedule, I might be writing an article, editing an issue of our Sweetnotes newsletter, meeting with a manufacturer about new products, learning a piece of gear for a demo, teaching a class for the Sweetwater Sales Engineers, editing an article, or doing many other things. I also teach two classes on music at Purdue University. Somewhere in there, I try to practice guitar as much as possible (both electric and classical), write and record music, play a few gigs, and also have a life outside of work and music!
At Sweetwater you have access to practically everything. If you were to indicate the equipment that made the biggest impression on you?
The past 25 years or so have been amazing for gear - from ADATs to Pro Tools, it’s been really fun to watch
all the change and to be part of it. Today’s gear is incredible. There are so many great pieces of gear available.
One recent piece of gear to “wow” me is the Universal Audio OX; it’s an incredible stage and studio tool for guitarists.
The new Moog One synthesizer is truly amazing. There are too many killer pedals, guitars, and amps to even begin listing them, let alone microphones, plugins, and studio monitors. It’s a great time to be a musician and recording engineer/producer!
If you had to list the five most essential things in today's recording studio, what would you point at?
In terms of gear, everything is important. The end result is the combined signal that all your gear creates, so it all matters. But some items have more impact than others. So - and in no specific order, I think these are the most important:
• Room acoustics/acoustic treatment - if your recording space doesn’t sound great, it’s hard to get good sounds.
And if your control room/mixing space isn’t great acoustically, it will be difficult to get good-sounding mixes.
• Microphones - great sound starts with capturing great sounds from the sources.
• Studio monitors - every decision you make in the studio is based on what you hear from your monitors. They need to be great. Keep in mind that “great” doesn’t have to mean “perfect,” it means providing a great and revealing representation of what is happening with the audio.
• Audio interface - this is the hub for everything that happens in your studio.
• A great chair!! You’re going to spend a lot of time sitting in your studio, you might as well be comfortable!
Haha! You got me here! Yes! Chair is very underrated, and in fact it is a very important part of the studio equipment... In your life you have probably tested almost everything. Is expensive equipment always the best?
I have been very lucky to get to try out a lot of different equipment. No, expensive gear is not always the best - it depends on a lot of factors, not least of which is, what do you mean by “best”? The definition of “best” can change depending on what you are doing or trying to achieve. Affordable gear is capable of amazing results, and it keeps getting better and better. But I will say that if you’re trying for high quality, then expensive gear will make it far easier to get there; you won’t have to work as hard. You won’t have to compensate for the equipment. But I think that focusing on the price of an item is the wrong approach. What matters is what it can do for you, what it provides, and how well it does its job. Budget is always a consideration, but I think of gear in terms of what gives me the best result, not what it costs. I think sometimes people make the mistake of thinking they have to wait for better gear before they make music. It’s the songs and performances that make great music, so, everyone reading this interview, don’t wait until you have the “expensive” gear to make music.
I agree! In your opinion, is it worth trusting advertising?
It’s no secret that advertising has a purpose: to make you interested in buying something. There’s nothing wrong with that; bands advertise their gigs, musicians post about their music on social media, recording studios advertise their services, and so on... If you think about it, we all have something to sell, even if it’s ourselves at a job interview or audition.
I try to look at advertising as an opportunity to find out about products and learn. At Sweetwater, we work really hard to make our catalogs, publications, online posts, ads, videos, and more, into educational resources. We want our customers to be educated about the gear so that they can make informed choices when they’re purchasing gear.
How do you perceive home recording? Opportunity or curse plunging the market and world of music?
I think the home recording revolution has been very positive. Yes, it has changed the music industry dramatically.
And home studios have certainly impacted commercial studios. But in my mind, anything that allows more people to create art is a good thing. Musicians are no longer at the mercy of major record labels. But change always has a price.
We now have to find new ways to market and distribute our music, to find audiences, and to support ourselves as musicians and engineers/producers. Ultimately, whether it’s good or bad isn’t really the issue - it’s happened, and is the way things are now. We have to find a way to make our industry work and to continue to make music.
What do you pay attention to when choosing a guitar?
I look for a guitar - whether solid, hollow, semi-hollow, or acoustic - to really resonate. I like to feel the neck vibrating
when I play the instrument; I feel that a lot of the tone comes from the neck. I like for a solidbody to be loud acoustically. Action can be fixed, pickups and frets can be changed, but for me the basic guitar has to really resonate like an
acoustic instrument. I have bought electric guitars without plugging them in, when the instrument really had a ring and resonance to it.
Your opinion on what happened to Gibson?
I’m a huge fan of Gibson guitars. When I was growing up and learning to play, all of my heroes played Gibsons, Fenders, Marshalls, and Mesa/Boogies. I knew that when I could get gear from those companies for myself, my playing would instantly improve! (It wasn’t quite true, but it was still a good goal.) I’ve met so many great people at Gibson and they’re all truly dedicated to making fine instruments, helping musicians make better music, and having a successful company.
From what I can tell, the company is moving in a good direction, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the future.
But where do you think Gibson made a mistake? Have they over invested? Did they underestimate the costs?
Or is it just a question of the modern market and demand?
I’m not very knowledgeable of the inner workings of Gibson, so I really can’t speculate about any of this. I will say that I just returned from the annual Winter NAMM trade show in Anaheim, California, where manufacturers show their latest products for the coming year. It was almost impossible to get into Gibson’s room, it was so crowded. They had a lot of really nice-looking new products on display, that seemed to be a real return to what they do best: high-quality instruments that deliver tone and quality that musicians want. The response to them from the crowd was excellent, everyone seemed happy to see Gibson’s direction for the future. I saw several guitars I’d love to own myself!
Now a difficult question, why Sweetwater?
There’s truly no place on earth like Sweetwater. Chuck Surack, the founder and owner, is a musician. He started the company as a small recording studio, and the recording studios are still a big part of the company.
The retail part of the company grew out of Chuck helping his friends when they needed gear. That’s still the idea of the company today - to provide the best possible service we can for our friends. It’s grown to be a big company, but it is still family owned, Chuck is here every day, and the philosophy remains the same. Sweetwater is completely unique in the world of music and pro audio gear.
How did you get there?
Not a lot of people know this, but this is the second time I’ve worked at Sweetwater. Back in 1992, I was in graduate school in Kansas City, studying classical music composition and classical guitar. I had just won a NARAS (Grammy) award for a piece of classical music I wrote, but I was unsure what direction I wanted to go in for my future. I saw an ad for a company in the back of a magazine, and contacted them. It turned out to be Sweetwater, and I became the fifth Sales Engineer. Now there are almost 500! I stayed in sales for a few years, then moved into marketing. I left in 1998 to become the Technical Editor at Keyboard magazine. I was huge fan of Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines, and dreamed of working for them since I was a teenager. I became the Editor-in-Chief at EQ magazine in 2000. Around 2005, I became frustrated with the magazine business. The corporate environment and the people in charge had taken all of the fun out of it for me. I had stayed friends with Chuck, and he asked me to come back to Sweetwater as Editorial Director. Initially I was working on catalogs, publications, and the web site, but in 2009 I started doing videos. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve now done nearly 2,000 videos for Sweetwater! Along the way, I wrote a couple of thousand articles for Keyboard, EQ, Guitar Player, Premier Guitar, and many other magazines, as well as seven books. I also teach music and recording classes at Purdue University.
Apropos NARAS Grammy, How did it happen that your work entered the competition? Do you remember with whom you won? What kind of competitions - if any?
The award was in the category of New Classical/New Music. I believe it was intended for new, unknown composers; I don’t recall who else was in the category or if they still have that category anymore. I had written a piece for a composition class I was in for graduate school at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. The piece was recorded at a new music concert, and submitted for the award. I was completely surprised that it won! There are many, many categories of NARAS awards, this was not one of those that is shown on the television show — that’s reserved for the big-name winners. But it was a real honor to receive the award, and the school got a nice cash prize to use as a scholarship too.
What was the name of the composition and can you tell me a little more about it? I have in mind its construction, where you recorded it, what prompted you to write it - where did you get your inspiration from, etc...
It’s a long nerdy story, but I’ll try to summarize. The piece was called Prophecy #1: At First Glance. It was composed for pre-recorded synthesizers playing along with a live percussion ensemble, consisting of piano, tympani, two marimbas, snare drum, and miscellaneous percussion instruments. The whole thing was derived from and organized by the Fibonacci number series - I was very interested in 20th-century serial composition techniques, and became fascinated with using mathematics to create source material to use when composing. I applied the Fibonacci series to the pitches in the scale. (The Fibonacci series goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and so on, infinitely. Each number is added to the previous number to arrive at the next number. 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, and so on.) I came up with the idea to use the Fibonacci numbers to determine the intervals in what is called a “tone row.” So starting from the note “C,” the pitches are C, C#, D, E, G, and so on. To my amazement, when I did this, the entire thing repeated every 24 iterations - every 24 Fibonacci numbers - so I arrived at a 24-note “scale” (or more accurately, “row”) that I could use to create the music.
From that point, I composed as a “traditional" 20th-century composer would (for example, Berg, Schoenberg, and others) using inversion, retrograde, and other serial composition techniques - much like you would with a 12-tone row, though I had a 24-note row to work with. I wrote the entire score out by hand using pencil and paper, and then copied out the parts for each musician by hand - this was long before notation software and before I could afford a Mac computer or decent printer! I remember I worked all night and was still frantically copying the parts for the musicians the morning of the first rehearsal, and barely got it all done in time. I recorded a stereo mix of the synthesizers, which were a Roland D-110 and a Yamaha TX-816, maybe a Korg M1, driven by MIDI using a program called C-Lab Creator (which later became Logic and was purchased by Apple) running on an Atari 1040ST computer, onto a TEAC reel-to-reel 1/4-inch analog tape deck through a little Yamaha mixer. I think I used an Alesis MIDIverb II for effects. For the live performance, the tape was played and the ensemble conductor followed the tape to direct the players in the percussion ensemble. It was very exciting to hear it played live in a concert hall! I had no dream or idea the recording of that performance would be submitted for the awards, and I was completely shocked when it won. I did end up composing two additional pieces (Prophecy #2: Second Sight and Prophecy #3: Third Eye) where I combined the Fibonacci series approach with experimental electronic music techniques, so there is a whole Prophecy cycle actually finished. I keep thinking I should go back and re-record the whole thing using the modern gear that is now available. But at the same time, it was so long ago, I don’t have those synthesizers or software anymore, and it’s hard to think about going backward to revisit that when I have so many new things that I want to record and release. I have a cassette copy somewhere of the original performance and the other two pieces in the Prophecy cycle. Maybe I’ll post them to my website.
Oh, it would be great if you put it on your website! Thank you for telling me the story of this composition. It's really fascinating and it's great to listen to it!
My pleasure Adrian! Thank you for the opportunity to talk about it!
What has this award changed in your life? You were a very young man then. A man at the beginning of the road... Did this award open some doors to you?
I think winning the award opened some doors for me. It sort of gave me instant credibility, especially since it was in the classical music realm. It probably would have had a greater impact if I had pursued a career in academics (as a college music professor) or as a full-time classical or film-score composer. At the time, I didn’t see either of those as my path forward in life and decided to leave school instead. I chose to focus more on recording and guitar, and took the road that led to Sweetwater, magazines, and creating books, articles, and video, which has certainly been the right choice for me.
Returning to Sweetwater... How is it different from other stores in the world? Where is the strength of this store?
The strength of Sweetwater - we call it the Sweetwater Difference, comes from Chuck’s original vision: to provide the very best customer service available anywhere on the planet. This means highly trained, experienced, and expert Sales Engineers, fast shipping, great warranties, follow up after a purchase, in-house technical support, in-house repair, and so much more. I wish everyone could visit here. It’s so inspiring to be surrounded every day by 1,500 people who are so passionate about music and sound and customer service.
The most-known musician shopping at Sweetwater is…
I can’t really name one particular person, but it’s safe to say that our customers include everyone from people just starting out with their first guitar or drum to the biggest stars in music. You never know who might be on tour and stopping in to see Sweetwater or who might give us a call searching for gear or needing help. I get to interview a lot of the artists who stop by. It’s a lot of fun!
What do you pay attention to at Sweetwater when recruiting new family members?
We look for a lot of things; you have to be very smart, very motivated, and above all, you have to be passionate about what we do, which is serve our customers in the best way possible. You have to be willing to always do the right thing, even if it’s not always the easy thing. And you have to totally love gear, music, and great sound!
Any memories from the times of working on your first book? How bliss did you work on it? What do you think about it in retrospect?
I can very clearly remember when the box of author’s copies of each book I’ve written arrived at my door. It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment opening the box and seeing the fresh new books after months of work. I had the same feeling when I received the CD copies of my Foundation EP. It was already available as a download and streaming, but there was something different about holding the physical CD in my hand and opening the shrink-wrap that made it seem more “real,” if you know what I mean. Each of my books has been a very different experience. My first book, Make Music Now! was a how-to compilation of articles by various authors, so that was pretty easy to put together; I was both an editor and an author on that one, so it was very much like what I was doing for Keyboard magazine at the time. But the others, for example, Acoustic Design for the Home Studio, was a lot of research and thinking about how to approach the topic. The Studio Business Bookrequired a lot of interviews with studio owners and managers and making sure all the information was current. The hardest book to write may have been The Music Technology Dictionary - can you imagine how much work it takes to write a dictionary about technical terms? It required a lot of time, a lot of research, and a lot of work. Honestly, it was pretty tedious. Mastering Music at Home was fun. I wanted it to be very practical and hands-on instruction, which was the same when I wrote Pro Tools Clinic. Writing those books was sort of like teaching a class, which I also enjoy doing. My most recent book, Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Guitar Sound, is perhaps closest to my heart.
I did a lot of research for that one, and tried to examine every aspect of guitar tone at a very deep level. I do love writing books. I find that, as with music, I can sort of get in the “zone” and time just flies by while I’m writing. I work quickly, and can write as much as 7,000 or 8,000 words a day if I’m rolling and can sit down and focus hard without interruptions - that’s very, very fast. The writing part is the most fun and seems to fly by. The research required can be a lot of work and takes many hours. I want everything to be completely accurate, so I’m really picky about the research. But once the research is done, I can sit down and really enjoy the actual writing process. I toy occasionally with writing a novel or fiction of some kind. I have a lot of ideas. We’ll see if I ever finish anything; the problem is that doing that would take away from the already-limited time I have available for making music, and I don’t want to do that right now. I’m trying to stay focused so I can improve as a guitarist and composer, and release more music.
What is your recipe for a successful presentation of the equipment, for successful review?
I approach a written review or a video as if I’m talking to a good friend about the piece of gear. I try to keep in mind who the item is for; every piece of gear is right for some customer, and you have to figure out who that customer is and why it’s important to them, what it can do for them. Above all, I try to remember that the videos are not about me. It’s not a chance for me to show off my playing or to talk about myself. I get so tired of gear demos where someone is showing off or talking more about themselves than about the gear. I want to learn about the gear, what it does, if it’s right for what I need. It’s about the gear and about informing the viewer.
Thank you Mitch!
Thank you Adrian, Looking forward for the next time!
Soon, the second part of my conversation with Mitch Gallagher, in which we talk more about his new ep entitled Foundation, we will also visit his home recording studio. So there will be more about equipment, technology, music and... What else? You will find out about it next time.... Stay tuned!
More information about Mitch Gallagher and his latest ep Foundation can be obtained here.
More information on Mitch Gallagher's activity in Sweetwater can be found here.