Thursday, April 25, 2013

Voodoo Amps and Trace Davis - The New Kings of Live and Loud?

Fifteen years ago, Trace Davis took a natural attraction for electronics and a love for rock 'n' roll, and founded Voodoo Amps. Today he stands at the top of the heap, servicing the amps of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Aerosmith, Rammstein, Alice Cooper's band, Mark Tremonti, and building Voodoo Amps  masterpieces for the masses. He does it one customer at a time, and the customers could not be happier.

Trace Davis on the job.

I considered not writing up anything about our recent chat and simply reprinting examples of Trace's letters from his customers, which are probably the most enthusiastic and effusive I have ever seen - whether he is modifying a Fender Vibro-King, a wall of Rectifiers, or delivering one of his own, Davis seems to receive raves from those he serves, and in these days that says a tremendous amount about his commitment to his customers, and to great tones.

Voodoo Amps came to my attention back in 2011, when I happened to view a video of Thin Lizzy's performance at Hellfest in France. Vivian Campbell (a Voodoo endorsee who has a prototype Signature preamp - the VC-2 and utilizes Voodoo V-Plex amps) had just left the band and had been replaced by Richard Fortus of Guns 'N' Roses fame. Two things about this performance blew me away - one was the passion and excitement contained within Fortus's playing, he was the most exciting co-guitarist I had seen next to Scott Gorham since a young Gary Moore. I realize that this is a subjective opinion, but I also acknowledge that I am favorably comparing him to some amazing players, but I feel he earns it. The other thing that amazed me was the tone coming from Fortus's amps. He was using a Voodoo Custom V-Rock 100 and the tone was amongst the finest I've ever heard - goose-bump good.

Trace recently had the honor and pleasure of modifying thirteen (13) Marshall JMP-1 preamps for none other than arguably the king of tone, Billy Gibbons - who also gave a Voodoo V-Rock head the once over:

Trace: "All thirteen JMP-1s had been on the road for years and as such, had drifted a bit - they no longer sounded quite the same, and the requirement was to make them indistinguishable from one another. I performed the same JMP-1 Platinum Mod that we offer on our website. 

"We meticulously went through each, so that when all was said and done, they would be identical to one another. Of course, I grew up listening to Billy, so it was an honor to work with him! I always loved his sense of phrasing and he has had such great tones throughout his career. I am thrilled to no end that he enjoys the tones and feel of his preamps. 
"He also played through one of my amps that I had brought along - I didn't know if he would have an interest or not, and I took a chance and brought one along. Things were very hectic backstage, and Billy was there one minute and gone the next, but when we finished up, he stopped by and played for a few minutes through the amp. He played for a bit, and then handed the guitar back to his tech, Elwood Francis, and you can imagine how thrilled I was when he said, 'Son, that's one hell of an amp you got there.' Tony, if I died tomorrow, I would die a happy man"
Aerosmith's Brad Whitford and his Voodoo
Trace spends much of his summers being deeply immersed in the touring season, servicing back-lines as a technician and consultant to the biggest acts on the road - last year he spent much of the day re-tubing, biasing, and otherwise making sure that there would be no technical difficulties with Aerosmith's extensive amp back line. You have to appreciate that none of these thirteen amps are of the same model and make - they run the gamut from yesterday's tweed classics, British standbys, and a superb collection of modern boutique beauties, and Davis tends and tweaks them all:

Trace: "I think that when I do support for an act, I go a bit deeper than most. I basically service all of the amps, and I also try to make sure their guitar techs are comfortable when I leave. Doing a band like Aerosmith, well, that makes for a long day as they are able to bring out and use as many amps as they like on the road. 
"I recently did Alice Cooper's back-line and one of the things I got into was with Orianthi's amps. They were brand new, but they were a bit noisy on the high gain channel, so I helped her tech move some ISP Decimaters around in the rig to help quiet things down. You just have to listen to the player, listen to the amp and address their needs."
Scott Ian approved!

If you're wondering how Trace got into the amp business, well, the apple apparently falls not far from the tree:

Trace: "My father worked for the Westinghouse Corporation, and part of his job was overseeing the production of vacuum tubes. Westinghouse made their own tubes, but they also OEM'd tubes for GE, RCA, and many others. Then much later, I owned an amazing '68 Marshall Plexi, and one day I was playing it and lightning struck nearby and shorted out the amp's output tubes and transformers. The amp was never the same after that, and ironically, that's what got me into this business - trying to duplicate that perfect tone. 
"A few years later, a gentleman brought a very late '68 or early '69 Plexi into our shop for servicing. We service and refurbish a lot of old Marshalls, but this was the first one that truly captured that lost tone! I couldn't believe it. Of course, the fellow had no desire to part with his amp, but after several offers I finally purchased it. That amp became the basis for our V-series of amps. 
"We sent the transformer to Mercury Magnetics to be cloned - I wanted every player to be able to experience that tone without having to go through a bunch of old amps to find it."
Mark Tremonti and Trace dialing in Tones.

The topic of transformers is one dear to Trace Davis - he feels that the transformers are the heart of the amp, and he has worked closely with Mercury Magnetics to insure that his designs are seen through to the highest quality. He also is a big proponent of transformer upgrades when doing modifications - Voodoo Amps is the largest mod shop in the world, and Davis and company can tackle most any amp and make it all it can be:

Trace: "We have modified literally thousands of amps - we have Standardized modifications, but that's just the beginning. We spend a lot of time with customers, finding out exactly what they are looking for when they want a modification done. While most customers love our Standard Mods, some players have more specific needs, or needs outside the ordinary, and we are here to meet those needs."

One of my favorite Trace/Voodoo amp modification stories comes from a fellow who was looking for a certain tone that he heard on AC/DC's tune, Night Prowler. After several phone sessions, and the customary filling out of the Mod Form that helps break down the customers complete signal chain, he received an additional e-mail from Davis, from which I will quote:

Trace: " Bill, I spent most of the day and all morning making some fine line tweaks based on the song you referenced. 
"AC/DC Night Prowler tone - when you listen to the studio version the guitar tone is great (truly). However - there are (2) different guitars creating the tone you are hearing. Combined, they sound great. 
"I tried to morph both tones together in the Treble channel, going by the guitar/pickups you have, speaker cabinets, speakers, etc. I would recommend plugging into the Treble channel only to start with. Set the Preamp/Gain control full up/wide open. Set Treble, Mids, Presence to 12:00, and the Bass to 10:00. Raise up the Master and play - this should be a good starting point."

The customer went on to rave about how the exact tone he sought had been achieved and how Davis had made the entire transaction one of ease and enjoyment.

Customer service above and beyond the call of duty seems to be Trace Davis and Voodoo's stock-in-trade. A visit to the company's Facebook page finds a wall covered in customer love. I asked Trace where such a devotion found its beginnings, and his answer was simple - it all kind of starts with the old Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Of course, we know that in the every day hustle and bustle of life it's not always that easy, but I have always found Trace to be not just receptive, but eager to be of assistance in any way possible at any time.

New products are often the lifeblood of the boutique amp builder, and the latest addition to Voodoo's amp line, the ODS-60, might be Davis's boldest move yet. After building his reputation as the lord of live and loud, Trace has now went after the 'holy grail' of boutique amps, but at a fraction of the price of a genuine Dumble. Davis stops short of direct comparisons, but is confident that the amp is what it is intended to be, and as such opens yet a new avenue of tones for Voodoo lovers.

Also, Davis has done what some have called impossible - he has built an iso-cabinet that actually works and sounds great. It's built to reduce volume by 30 dB and will retain a tight and full bottom end at up to 130 dB. He told me that the Iso Cab took over two years to design and R&D to get it where he felt confident to offer it to a public that had been failed too many times by isolation cabinets that simply didn't deliver.

So - when he's not making loud better, Trace Davis is making louder more tolerable and usable at home, onstage, and in studios. There are loads of great amps out there, but to my ears nobody is doing the classic 50 and 100 watt heads better than Voodoo Amps - even if their name isn't seen on the stage, there's a good chance that amps you are seeing may have been made better by David and his crew at Voodoo.

Click here to hear loads of great Voodoo Amp samples on Soundcloud!

He's even a great matchmaker - when we spoke, we talked about a couple of friends of ours - one Trace's and one of mine, who had never met. One needs a hot guitar player, the other is looking to spread his wings a bit and work with yet another world class vocalist. We arranged an introduction, and as fate would have it, they both happened to be on the same island continent at the same time. A match made in heaven? Hahaha, we'll have to see, but if it's not it won't be for a shortage of effort and genuine good will. Trace Davis is a great amp builder, designer (did I forget to mention that he does a tremendous business as a design consultant for some very large, unnameable amp companies?), and modification/restoration specialist, but even above all that he's a helluva guy and a damned decent human being - who could ask for anything more, I ask?

EDIT: Huge thanks to Trace Davis - even after the fact, he's making things better with some great facts and pics to help make this article better.

Bill Nelson on the Value of Music and Musicians - "Artists deserve respect and should be able to earn their living without their work being stolen."

I spend a certain amount of my time speaking with musicians. Much more time, I am sure, than the general public would ever have need, or desire. What comes up almost as much as the music is the fact that there is a cancer that has eaten away at the masses - the proliferation of theft as a way of life.

I'm not looking for an argument here, and not interested in a debate. When McDonalds gives their burgers away for free, my lawyer stops sending me his bill, and the rent is no longer due, I'll be fine with illegal downloading and piracy of music - until then, I'm not listening.

However, I came across a Facebook discussion this morning that delved into the topic, and I came across a comment by Bill Nelson - a man who has been in the business of being a working musician his entire adult life (a bit over 40 years). Nelson led the band Be Bop Deluxe for several years before casting the conventional music business model (record, tour, record, tour....) aside to focus upon the recording side of his business and art, only occasionally venturing out to play live. He has done this for over thirty years and managed to please his fans, and feed his family - in other words, he has been a success.

His comment on this thread, which actually came from the Facebook wall of music journalist Anil Prasad (if you don't know this man, Google, Google), captured my attention by almost perfectly encapsulating both thoughts I've had and discussions I have participated in concerning the topic of 'free' music versus music as a viable commodity. As Apple works on its streaming successor to iTunes (iRadio), the issues of how we listen and choose to fund the art of music grows more complex and disadvantageous for the artist, while in the background there is the swell of a tide that suggests that people do want to listen to music at a bit rate better than dismal, and albums are to singles as movies are to a sitcom, as books are to short stories. Here is Nelson's comment in full:

Bill Nelson: "I have strong opinions on this subject, as those who frequent my Dreamsville website ( will already know. I've been a professional musician for 40 years or so. I work long and hard hours, producing music that I hope my audience wants to hear and enjoy. Music is my career and my calling, and the notion that my craft amounts to nothing of financial value in the eyes of certain consumers gets my hackles up. 
"Nevertheless, it's worth pointing out that physical sales of recorded music still outnumber downloads and that there is still a healthy market for music that doesn't cow-tow to the fickle youth market. I'm not just citing the 'classic rock' type of audience here but those of us who have broader and perhaps more complex and developed tastes. Whilst the mainstream music sector pitches its 'product' at increasingly younger kids, there is still a relatively sizable mature and discerning audience who appreciate a somewhat deeper listening experience. 
"Which is why, in the city where I live, there are a number of hi-fi shops selling expensive, top-end speakers and amps to people who place a real value on music and are willing to invest time and money in maximizing their enjoyment. These folks are not listening to mp3s or downloads through cheap ear buds, they sit in front of their high-end systems and really listen, giving themselves to the music with genuine commitment. 
"Despite the perceived 'war' between formats, delivery systems, free music versus paid for music, etc. (a war gleefully pumped up by the popular media), there's really no black and white, either or, with this subject, (although those with vested interests will continue to crow the demise of physical product in an attempt to push the music further into the download only realm). Kids will have their free music and will listen to it in whatever manner they like, (or think is cool). But kids grow up and their tastes change along with their values. 
"The music I enjoyed in my teens defined me as I was then but doesn't necessarily do so now. I've grown to demand more, not just from music but from myself and everything around me. I guess one of the problems with the music industry is that it remains pathologically infantile and presumes its entire audience is likewise fixated with some shallow ideal of perpetual 'youthfulness.' Thankfully music is capable of so much more than that, as any musician worthy of the title 'artist' already knows. 
"Music has a real value, both spiritually and materially. Artists deserve respect and should be able to earn their living without their work being stolen by morons who inhabit a 'something for nothing' culture."

Nelson has done his usual great job of communicating his thoughts to his audience - in a manner that I felt deserves a wider reading.

There is much work to be done, but I am encouraged by things such as record store day, and the fact that vinyl is viable - you can't keep the beauty of music from the masses forever. One day they will hear it as it is meant to be heard, and the tide will turn. In the meantime, many of us will continue to fight the good fight, and carry on with the mission to make music both a better listening experience, and profitable for the artist.

Again, I'm not looking for debate, or argument here - you can't sway me a bit, as I love and respect musicians way too much to ever think they should toil for my pleasure without fair compensation. As a reviewer who gets a lot of music free, I will add that I often buy a copy of records that I have received from labels and artists that I like. I generally give them to someone less fortunate, who I think will appreciate the act, and remain a customer, and not just a consumer.

My thanks to those like Mr. Nelson, Anil Prasad, and David Lowery who voice this loudly, and often.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Peter Frampton - Hello London!

Peter Frampton returns to the UK for a rare UK show at the London Camden Roundhouse on Tuesday, November 5th, and as tickets went on sale this morning, you'd be well advised to get yours now.

The legendary guitarist is set to rock the US through the Spring and Summer with first two shows with the Cincinnati Ballet, a Frampton first, followed by a slate of shows being billed as Frampton's Guitar Circus Tour, which will see Peter being joined by BB King, Robert Cray Band, Sonny Landreth and a host of special guests, so I'm guessing that by summer's end he'll be as hot as he was in 1976.

Peter Frampton is playing as well, if not better than ever, and this show is one that I imagine no UK friend will want to miss.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Joe Satriani - Unstoppable Momentum - Incredible Electrical Alchemy

Sometimes the pieces just fit together perfectly. Joe Satriani sounds ecstatic - his exuberance is unmistakable, and while he's never less than excellent, this record finds him to be almost shamanic as he leads this journey. Mike Fraser is back behind the recording console, and again makes Joe sparkle with incredible clarity, and force. The tunes are stellar - as fine, if not the finest the six string phenomenon has assembled, and again, I mark this as being a result of wherever Satriani's spirit is currently sailing. His playing is transcendently beautiful across the disc, and his tones are textbook. He even went out and rounded up the perfect rhythm section - bassist Chris Chaney is super solid, and his propulsive push is a wonderful platform from which Satriani launches his melodic forays; then there is Vinnie Colaiuta behind the drum kit - his sheer mass of musicality matches Satriani's every step of the way. Unstoppable Momentum may be Satch's new crowning moment - the puzzle of perfect pieces.

Satriani has alway been melodic, and virtuosic - he settled that issue back in 1987 when Surfing With The Alien went platinum and literally invented the genre. However, the years have been well spent, and Unstoppable Momentum is the best realized package of melody, chops, and magic that Joe has yet mustered. Maybe a few years of working in the school of hard rock writing with Chickenfoot has tempered the more esoteric impulses, and while there's no less technical wizardry, this somehow feels much more complete.

Unstoppable Momentum harkens back to the late '80s in the best sense. The arpeggiated chord pattern, sure footed shuffle, and the summer sweet melancholy of the verses that launch into a tightly harmonized chorus remind me why that era stands so tall in the lore of the electric guitar. I say this a lot, but yeah, if you had played me this track back in '87 and told me that's where Satch would be in 2013, I would have been over the moon - and I am. The fading tail of this tune is one of those rock moments that will become part of the lexicon.

Photo by Chapman Baehler

The summery theme continues with the top down at midnight vibe of Can't Go Back, in which Joe shows that, actually, maybe you can. This is a soundtrack to a David Lynch movie with a happy ending - when the ascending harmonies are launched, all systems are go. Goddamn, this is exciting stuff - a slight return to a golden age. Satriani challenges Beck as the reigning King of the Trem, and his vowel sound wah inflections are to die for. Colaiuta and Chaney play like they've played together all their lives, and again, Chaney's is the perfect masonry on which a drummer could ever want to dance upon.

Nighttime falls upon the disc with the dark, sci-fi stylings of Lies and Truth - shredding hasn't been this gorgeous since Vai was waxing poetic with DLR. Mike Keneally's keyboards are a delightful pastiche of tones and moods that take you right where you need to be to tag along with Mr. Joe's Wild Ride - he just keeps ratcheting up the stakes, and the drama climbs along with the winsome harmonies. There's no shortage of amazing, death defying technical displays, but they are so consummately musical that you almost don't notice your jaw dropping.

The smile hits your face about five seconds into Three Sheets to the Wind, and it stays. Is it Beatlesesque? Djangoesque? Sure it is, but it's all Satriani and when he and Colaiuta go into their brutish, muscular stomp that's announced by Keneally's trip trance to Pepperland, it's all Keystone Cops and Chaplin smiles from heaven upon these artistic souls. The happiest song of Summer 2013, an instant classic.

I'll Put a Stone On Your Cairn takes us across an ocean and into the stratophere of guitaristic beautificense. Yeah, I made that one up. Short sweet, and pretty - play this one when you mean it.

A Door Into Summer is the album's lead track (single?), and it's a great choice - a bit more obvious in its tip of the hat to the best of the '80s, but it's the best reminder we've had in too damned long. I hope Joe takes a few tracks this anthemic down to Cabo the next time he makes the trip. Joe's melodies are sublime and they've managed to make us not miss having a singer on so many occasions. His trademark Ibanez into Marshall tones are captured in HD by Fraser's sure-handed engineering. They make this sound really easy, but if it was, everyone would be doing it.

The movie takes off into adventure hero land, and Shine On American Dreamer has me doing just that. Bolero moments abound and the hero takes to the ring and dances. This is the dream they're trying so damned hard to kill over in Washington, but just by listening this you know they can't win. Souls gotta fly free.

Jumpin' In is a jitterbug gone dinosaur tromp that if you try to dance to, you might just stumble - then Satriani and Keneally throw in some fabulous Middle Eastern mystery that sees Chaney playing some serious bass, throwing down melody, then some solid pop and thumping as Satriani dances across the top with delight. This one is very playful, so make sure you keep it contained. And yes, Colaiuta is wonderful.

Jumpin' Out sees the circus leaving town, and the interplay between an obvious joyful Satriani and his band is astounding - they never miss a step, and they sound like this is the most natural thing in the world to do, but again, this should not be done at home without a net. Joe shows off some ridiculously innovative chops, and barely blinks - makes it all sound so easy for our listening pleasure as he rides off into the sundown.

Classical melodicism enters the picture with The Weight of the World, and Satriani seems to have gone a bit European here, and he does it brilliantly, and dare I say he evokes the rock 'n' roll soul of the sadly missed from the scene Ritchie Blackmore at times. He hits reset several times to lighten the load, but then the returns to the bittersweet refrains, made all the more effective by the brief respites.

A Celebration wraps it up, and it does its job quite well as Satriani takes things higher and higher. He really does sound ecstatic - you can almost hear the guitar smiling - this is how guitars are meant to be played - joyfully, fearlessly, and loudly.

Play this one loudly. And buy it today. Maybe Satriani's best since the '80s, and he's put out a lot of great records, but this one grabs my rock 'n' roll heart and holds on.

Thanks to Joe Satriani, Melissa Dragich-Cordero, Peter Noble, and


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Todd Rundgren - State - Genius

A State in which the discombobulated voice and guitar of Todd Rundgren again successfully mates with his laptop studio to results as sweet as his best. Melodies have always been what kept us coming back to Todd, and this record is swimming in it.

At long last The Runt sounds like he remembers his best moments producing XTC, Hall and Oates, Cheap Trick, The New York Dolls, and his many own classic rock radio classics. Every electronica drenched moment is married to marvelous melody, and the road from Something/Anything? is made much clearer. Rundgren has always been one of the world's greatest manipulators of the art of recording, and this may be his crowning achievement - he's lassoed HAL 9000 and brought him back to earth. He's made the machines nearly human, and the melodies are straight from the angels. He may not have faith, but he is a god.

My issue with electronic music has historically been that there was little imagination, and too much repetition - and then there is the almost complete absence of interesting harmonic invention. For State, Rundgren has emptied the fridge - he's left no ingredient in storage, and he has put them together with a deftness and beauty that has been missing from the concept of soulful electronic music since Don Was put his flagship Was (Not Was) into dry dock some years ago. From beginning to end, State delivers on the promise.

Imagination caught my ear instantly with it's return to Skylarking bit of sequenced synth beauty that just keeps morphing into something more and more lovely, when Todd makes me miss Robert Fripp more than ever with some huge power chords and a stately beat that rings in the verse. Imagine my surprise to hear an electric piano pad, a beat, and some skronkily melodic keyboard pastiches that fly around a delicate vocal that swims through the sultry mix, and it becomes clear where much of Daryl Hall's success may have conceived.

"What is hell? The same old smell,
The same old situation,
No Imagination."

Heavy Prog - with much imagination. Imagination is the first track from Rundgren that has absolutely blown my mind in a long time, but I'm guessing that is just how it is with genius. On occasion it is even obvious to me - I might not be it, but I know it when I hear it.

The Gap Band makes time with Nile Rodgers's Chic throughout Serious - scratchy rubber band rhythm guitar chops joust with super fat analog sounding synths, and an angry sounding Todd tramples over the tundra with his steely eyed intent. This is way too much fun for a Todd Rundgren record.

Rundgren's computer generated keyboards sound better than many more organic ivories I've heard over the last couple of decades. He understands tone - nothing grates, and nothing sticks around for longer than it's welcome. In My Mouth is a loping mid paced number that is unclearly ambiguous, but in the best sense - what's in the singer's mouth that he is offering? Could be a kiss, could be a word, but I'm guessing it's a song when it's all said and done.

Ping Me is a desperate plea to communicate - to make us at least feel we're communicating. Just a small reminder that you think of me. One of this record's many beauties is its ability to sound so organically electronic - electronica has never sounded so musical, and that's where Todd has his ace hidden. The melodramatic tone of Ping Me haunts equally to Rundgren's impassioned requests.

Todd weighs in on the war on women with the video game drone of Angry Bird. If Bowie and XTC had ever met up to dance in Berlin, it may have sounded like this - this is a great party. I can't imagine someone not digging this - I know it's subjective and all, but this is great stuff. There's a moment here in which ZZ Tops's Sharp Dressed Man passes Steve Miller's Fly Like An Eagle in the hall, and it's a sit-com classic. They stop, look at one another and then move on in silence after a nod of the head. All of these moments work - there's never a sense of copying for any sake other than fun.

You might not like the instrumental track for Smoke without Rundgren's vocal melodies, and the same can be said for the equation in reverse. The track is one of the stiffer on the album in terms of sounding very quantized, but the jazzy and ethereal vocal saves the day.

Collide A Scope should be the album's classic - it kicks off with some Rush via Godzilla hard rock tomfoolery of the highest order before settling into Todd's best song since, well, maybe ever. This might be the Todd track that gets put into the space capsule. Existential dualism weaves its way through a laundry list of yes/no hello/goodbyes and a sci-fi rock chorus that will have many remembering why they love Canada'a most profitable export.

The ghosts of Danny Wilson (the band) gathers around Something From Nothing, and if you're unfamiliar with my reference, do yourself a favor and seek them out, and then you too can say, "Oh yeah!" Things are often not what they seem on this platter, and Rungren's rumination on faith is not one of reverence, but rather a cautioning against. Rachel Haden from Todd's touring band joins in on vocals, and her performance is sublime, the perfect foil to TR's voice. A spiritual sibling of sorts to XTC's Dear God?

Speaking of cautionary tales, Party Liquor might be one of the better examples I've heard. The best dance track on the record is not so much a celebration as a pronouncement of last rites. This track is a treat - you've been there, you've seen the balloons and the parade, and then had to clean it up in so many ways.

Sir Reality closes out the record with a trip into the darkside of the world's attachment to untruths. Every line a lie in the kali yuga times of the endless newscycle of big media propaganda. Here, Fripp meets Philip Dick as Todd plays some of the best guitar on the record - I haven't mentioned the guitars much, but they carry their weight in a way that leaves you wanting more. It begs the question, is anyone speaking their mind, or is it just their agendas? A nice bit of spacey prog to return from one of the most satisfying pieces of art to see birth in 2013. This could bring back the concept of the album as a living entity, if anyone would just stop and listen.

Rundgren's best? I'll leave that up to you to decide, but don't miss the opportunity to sit down and listen to this from beginning to end.