Road Trip: Fun and Games in the American Midwest (June 2018)

A triathlon of conferences, a day at the circus, and a trip to “Sweetstock”…

Sometimes I drone away for hours at a time at my desk in “Studio B,” aka my office, writing articles and doing R&D. And sometimes I go out on the road for any one of a number of reasons. And what happens? Well, here’s what June 2018 was like…and I loved every minute.

The Between the Waves Madison Music Conference and Festival in Madison, WI kicked off the week of Father’s Day. Madison’s demographic skews young due to the college population, and music is huge. The number of venues and bands make up a thriving local music scene that causes sites like Sonicbids to mention Madison in the same Top 10 breath as places like Austin, Nashville, and Toronto. It’s unassuming, yes, but they love their music.

Panel discussion with Butch Vig and Michael Boddicker

One of the highlights of BTW was when multi-Grammy-winning producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage) deconstructed a song and took it from an initial, tentative singing into an iPhone while stuck in traffic on the 10 in Los Angeles, through numerous draft attempts, different treatments, lyrics, and more. Vig had kept all his rough drafts and the process of how the song evolved was fascinating, revealing, honest, and riveted the crowd. Michael Boddicker, who along with multiple film credits has worked with Michael Jackson, Chicago, Quincy Jones, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Lionel Richie, Neil Diamond, and a zillion others, recounted not only the stories behind the projects, but was forthcoming about what he brought to these artists. Michael started on guitar and still brings an expressive guitar sensibility to keyboards through layering, controllers, and a never-ending quest to make electronic instruments sound alive and expressive.

Of course there were plenty of other workshops from author/studio owner Fett, musician/industry consultant Nancy Moran, drummer Sandy Gennaro (Joan Jett, Johnny Winter, Bo Diddly, etc.) and many more, including yours truly. Off-campus activities included a producer’s panel and engineer’s panel to critique song submissions, a full concert schedule at Madison’s night spots, and the capper: The MAMA (Madison Area Music Association) awards at the Overture Center. It’s not just about recognizing local luminaries; MAMA is a charitable organization dedicated to supporting youth music. I was honored to be one of the presenters, and could really feel that this is not just a community in name only. BTW was an enticing, sprawling event, and underlined that Madison is a city to watch when it comes to music.

With a couple spare days before GearFest, I visited Circus World (basically a hip museum and don’t laugh—it was really cool) with Jonathan and Susan Lipp, the owners of Full Compass, as well as the spectacular Al Ringling Theater in Bearaboo, WI. Built by the Ringling (yes, there’s a circus connection) in 1915, all I can say is the theater has been beautifully restored, elegant, and yes, I’d love to play there someday. If you’re ever within striking range of Madison, don’t miss out on the theater.

And then it was on to Sweetwater GearFest. This celebration of gear and music just keeps getting better and better; this year, attendance topped 15,000 attendees. People came from Australia, Japan, India, and Europe just to attend GearFest—which should tell you something right there. CEO Chuck Surack stood at the entrance and greeted people, and you could tell he did it because he was both humbled by the level of appreciation but also, he’s never forgotten that it’s the customers who keep Sweetwater vital.

I gave two workshops there, one on mastering and one on modern songwriting tools, including the Harmonic Editing features in Studio One 4. I was taken aback that Sweetwater took down the dividing walls between three conference rooms, yet there was still standing-room only. It was very gratifying, and I did everything I could to make sure the crowd got what they came for—insights on how to make better music with their tools. (Yeah, I’m selfish. I just want to hear more cool music!)

Guitarist Larry Carlton being interviewed by Sweetwater's Mitch Gallagher during GearFest.
Guitarist Larry Carlton (left) being interviewed by Sweetwater’s Mitch Gallagher

One of the many highlights was Grammy award winner Mitch Gallagher’s expert interview of Larry Carlton. There are hundreds of ways to do interviews wrong…and only a few ways to do them right. He did it right.

And of course, there were after-show dinners, where I was lucky enough to have an extended conversation with engineer Sylvia Massy (Tool, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, System of a Down). Suffice it to say that creativity is alive and well in a woman who destroys a piano while recording the process of destroying it.

I have a perfect attendance record at GearFest because I believe in what it stands for, and the company that stands behind it. It’s also a chance to interact with thousands of end users and musicians, and find out what’s on their minds (yes, that’s how I get ideas for articles!). If you haven’t attended GearFest, it is not to be missed. Between the manufacturers showing off their latest and greatest, the workshops and seminars, and Sweetwater’s people being the perfect hosts, I’m going to keep going as long as they keep happening.

But that brings up an interesting point: the Sweetwater campus was never designed to be “Sweetstock.” Although it handled the crowds admirably, it’s hitting capacity and if it continues to grow at its current rate, Chuck is going to have to do something like rent Ohio and have a Park ‘n’ Ride. GearFest has gone from “hey, let’s provide a way for our customers to get together with the Sweetwater folks” to a phenomenon. The kudos it receives are well-deserved.

I had just enough to time to wash my clothes, and then it was time for Summer NAMM. Once given up for dead, it has bounced back since finding a permanent home in Nashville’s new Music City Center – as you can see from the picture at the top of the crowds. I was tapped to give the keynote address for the TEC Tracks seminars, as well as participate on two panels and do a meet-up which according to NAMM, was the best-attended one (there are some definite advantages to being scheduled on the last day of the show, after people have seen everything).

I am very, very lucky that I can be a part of the music industry, which is truly the industry of human happiness. Madison WI, Fort Wayne IN, and Nashville TN…they may not be New York or LA, but if you’re looking for music, they’re the real deal.