Quick Tip: Make your snare fatter via "doubling"

Everyone wants a fat snare and kick sound in this rock or metal mix. This is because having small wimpy drums personally reflections on you. If you do not have a meaty, buff, and confident kick or snare, you are not the hip studio owner and recording engineer everyone thought you to be. The kick and snare are the most importing part of your song. The entire song revolves around the snare. Without a good snare, your guitars will become acoustic and your vocalist will become Britney Spears. This is a well known fact in physics.

Joking aside, the fatty snare sound is pleasing to most people's ears. When you are maximizing and compressing your song in the mastering stage, your snare tends to be drowned out by the blasting guitars and vocals.

Alexander James Guitars Ursa Review

Ursa Gallery

Ever since I was a young child, I’ve wanted a custom-made left-handed guitar. Being a lefty, very few of the guitars I saw in my local music shops were playable, and some flat out didn’t sell lefty instruments. Walking into a musician shop is still, to this day, like walking into a candy shop where every piece of candy is a delicious jawbreaker that won’t fit into your mouth. I was on the search for a custom lefty guitar for a few years before I found Alexander James Guitars and his small team, owned by Alexander James Colarassi. Despite wanting a custom, I didn’t put aside money for the occasion since I assumed it was out of my budget and couldn’t give me much more value than my current collection of low-end Ibanez and ESPs. I found Alexander James Guitars on LeftFretz.com’s blog, a website dedicated to left-handed guitars and basses, and within moments of seeing his Macassar Ebony Ursa, I fell in love with his guitars and was writing him an email to enquire about prices, details, and endorsements. It’s been a few weeks and a year since I’ve owned my Ursa and about two years since I placed the order, and I want to share why I think anyone who loves exotic wood guitars should consider buying one of his instruments.


There is a lot to be said about Alexander James’ guitar designing process. We went through a plethora of guitar designs based on his signature Ursa shape. After me asking what he thought on various shapes and wood combinations, we finally settled on a modified Ursa shape that gave it a slightly unique “metal” feel. There are subtle angles that make this nearly perfectly smooth guitar have a moderately edgier look. The wood selection also contributes to making the guitar fit well with the genre I’m most familiar with.

When Alex sent me a picture of the Black and White Ebony piece he was eyeballing, one of the first things I thought was, “black metal!”. That, and cookies and cream. As most black metal fans can appreciate, the wood of the front body is black, white, and dripping. The color combination is far from grim, though, mainly due to the lacquers, glossiness, and the other types of wood used for the guitar.

Alex and I enjoyed long talks about different colors, wood combinations, the practicality of certain types of wood for guitar parts, etc. I never realized how many different options I’d have and I never realized that lumber could be so beautiful. Our conversations opened my eyes to a new world of craftsmanship that I, along with many guitar owners, are unfortunately ignorant of. I don’t imagine I’ll ever buy a painted guitar again knowing there are such beautiful wood materials for luthiers to choose from.

Seeing Alex’s work through pictures is one thing, but as one might presume, his guitars look much sweeter in person. The small nuances of the wood make the guitar look like it was freshly extracted from a tree. Alex has taken nature and molded it to his will. The design and craftsmanship make the entire cost of the guitar worth it, but the tone and its playability put this guitar into the higher echelons of quality.

Tone & Sound Quality

I can’t say I’ve ever cared about the “tone” of a guitar before. What is there to care about? I’ve thought, “the amp muddles it with awesome amounts of distortion, compression, and saturation”. It’s true that amplifiers do twist the sound of a guitar, but there is something to be said about how a guitar affects this mutilation. Like most parts of the audio signal chain, exponential increases in expense make a relatively small difference in sound quality, but for the first time in my near-thirteen years of guitar playing I can say this guitar has made a drastic difference my guitar recording sound quality.

Before I dig into how this tonal upgrade exists and why it’s important, lets dive into the guitar’s technology and its ability to customize its sound. My Ursa has four knobs — volume, tone, a magnetic pickup switcher, and a push-pull piezo volume knob — and has two switches: piezo on/off/combine and single/humbucker switch. Most guitars have switches for pickup selection, but with knobs, you literally have thousands of tonal possibilities. For an excellent, clean tone with my Line 6 amps, I mix the two magnetic pickups and a 50% mix of the piezo pickup. Switches always seemed ideal since they are easy to swipe at on stage, but if you’ve ever performed technical or fast tunes, you’ll find that using stomp boxes are superior for quick tone changes. A guitar with this customization works perfectly in the studio, and with some practice, it will be easy to dial in the tone on stage as well.

The pickups Alex chose are diverse and work well in every genre I’ve experimented with. In one of our first few phone calls, Alex was chatting about the new piezo pickups he was experimenting with. For the price, the piezo pickup sounded like a steal, so we went ahead and installed one on my Ursa. Beyond the piezo bridge, I gave Alex the freedom to choose the best pickups for metal that could also handle clean tones. Alex chose well. Both of the magnetic pickups are great and satisfy my need for a heavy metal tone. The bridge pickup excels at high gain rhythm tones while the neck pickup works perfectly for solos. At 100% volume, the neck pickup is overwhelmingly fatty for most rock uses, but it’s beautiful at 20–50%. With a little bit of the piezo bridge added, solos have the sought after John Petrucci plucky solo tone. Interestingly enough, Petrucci has a piezo pickup on his latest premium Ernie Ball guitars.

With these possibilities, you can pair this guitar perfectly with any amplifier or amp simulator. If you’ve ever worked with amp simulator programs, you will notice they lack the presence of moving speakers and for the nicer amps, vacuum tube saturation, but by dialing in a slight amount of the piezo pickup, you can add additional harmonics that add a surprising amount of tonal personality.

When most guitarists spend a decent amount of money on their instrument, they don’t particularly care about the pickups or knobs, they care about the craftsmanship and the quality components and how both of these add to the tonal quality. Not noticeable right away, this guitar has more sustain than any other I’ve tried. You do feel and hear the build quality of this guitar.

If the fine details in tone are important to you, than Alexander James Guitars is a company that will cater to your needs. Over the year of my guitar’s development, Alex has demonstrated his knowledge of the complexities of “tone”. He casually mentioned that the lacquer he chose has the least tonal compromise. This small statement blew my mind; it made me consider how every design choice on the guitar effects its feel and tone. With this statement and other discussions with Alex, I understood that the design and the tone of the guitar were interconnected, and my Ursa was beautiful in both regards.

Waiting for the Guitar

Despite the guitar taking longer than the anticipated four to six months, the wait was obviously worth it. When you invest this much time, thought, and money into a quality instrument, you can’t help but feel impatient by any length of time spent waiting. I had to remind myself that quality, and especially perfection, is something you can’t rush. You can’t rush the time it takes for wood pieces to achieve the right moisture content, nor would have I wanted him to rush any of the guitar’s construction. Alex had to build two necks for my guitar due to the first one being faulty, so it would be unfair to critique him on taking close to a year to finish it. Being a graphic designer and recording artist, I understand that patience is an important element in the artist experience; revisions are often necessary in the pursuit of perfection.

Alex and his team provided more than 40 pictures throughout the construction of my Ursa. Receiving the pictures of the guitar in my inbox was such an awesome treat. With Alex’s pictures and the questions I asked throughout the construction, I learned a lot about guitars, the wood they are constructed with, and their components. Despite being a guitarist for so long, it turns out I knew very little about the process of designing a guitar. It goes without saying, but it’s very fascinating.

Alex took one last picture of the guitar in its shipping box and a few days later it arrived at my house. It was well packed. The hardshell case was wrapped in bubble wrap and the guitar inside the hard case was wrapped in even more. It was quite an experience slowly uncovering the guitar from its mounds of protection. Once it was finally naked, my face lit up like a teenager’s would when getting a brand new car for his birthday. I dreamt of owning a custom guitar most of my childhood, and not only did I then have one, but the one I owned looked, felt, and held like I expected it to: like an incredibly well-built masterpiece of an instrument. After holding it in awe for a few minutes, I needed to plug it in and give it a test run.

Unfortunately, there were some electrical issues that likely occurred in transit which didn’t allow me to play it for another hour. I gave Alex a call and ran through a few tests to diagnose the problem. I had to dig through the wiring in the back cavity to find the culprit — a set of bundled cables that connect all the pickups together. A simply unplugged and replugged in the cables to get everything working. Despite the guitar’s complex electronics, it was easy to fix and I have never had an electrical issue again. Goes to show you how much they toss around “fragile” packages during delivery. Since the guitar was so well packed inside the box and inside the guitar case, there was no damage to the guitar beyond these loosened wires.

The only thing more classy than a handcrafted exotic wood guitar is a handcrafted exotic wood guitar created by Alexander James. When it comes to my day-to-day interaction with this guitar, the solid feeling of the guitar’s body, its solid construction, and its even weight distribution are the details I constantly notice. Literally every time I take my Ursa out of its case, I can’t help but think “damn this is solid”. I’ve always preferred thin guitar necks, but there is no doubt that the slight increase in neck thickness — coming from the S-series Ibanez guitars, extra thickness isn’t saying much — comes with the benefit of feeling like I am holding a guitar than can withstand the elements and trauma. Never would I expose the guitar to either, but regardless, it’s something any customer of Alexander James Guitars easily understands. Alex certainly fulfilled my desire for a thin guitar, all while feeling much more stable than any Ibanez S series guitar I’ve ever held. My Ursa feels like no other guitar, and that is no surprise when understanding that I’m holding something one-of-a-kind and built from scratch.

With my Ursa’s ideal thinness, perfect weight balance, and sturdy feel, it should be no surprise that this guitar is extremely comfortable to play. Early on our conversations, Alex and I discussed how much the guitar should be chambered for its tone and weight, and I told him that I wanted it heavy with a very thick sound. Nine pounds on many guitars is uncomfortable but forgiving, but perhaps as I’ve gained more muscle, the weight on this guitar is truly a non-issue. This guitar does not at all feel like other nine pound guitars. It’s always extremely comfortable on my lap and when used with a strap. I have no issues with the guitar being top heavy and tipping over in my lap or when standing up.

Being a left handed musician, I don’t get to try the majority of musical instruments out there, but I’ve certainly tried enough to understand where Alexander James Guitars fits on the spectrum. I am fond of Alex and his work; he has similar aspirations as I and his work is top-notch. If you like the exotic wood aesthetic and are in the market for a low to high end custom crafted guitar, I couldn’t recommend Alex’s guitars more. I can’t imagine anyone not loving one of his guitars, even if they had the pickiest preferences. The quality and customizability are things you can only get with someone who takes true pride in every single instrument they build. My guitar is tonally diverse, looks beyond beautiful, one-of-a-kind, and is built like a tank. Every pro-musician owes it to themselves to get in touch with Alex and his team and see how they can accommodate your dreams for a surprisingly affordable, truly custom guitar or bass.


Ursa Gallery


Details On My New Custom Ursa Guitar

As many of you know, I’m getting a new hand-built custom guitar forged by Alexander James Colarossi, exotic wood luthier. Being left handed, I’ve always been stuck with sub-$500 black or grey guitars. After 12 years of playing, I felt I finally deserved a nice guitar that would get me through the next decade of adventures.

Ursa Gallery

Selecting Woods

After many helpful and educational phone calls with Alex, I decided I wanted to have the front of the guitar body be made of Macassar Ebony and the neck be made of Cocobolo. Unfortunately, Macassar Ebony was in short supply at his preferred exotic wood dealership. Alex knew I wanted to get the guitar shipped as soon as possible so he sent me a picture of a beautiful piece of Black & White Ebony which he thought was exceptionally alluring. Within a day, I switched from a completely dark wood instrument to a much lighter orange creamy guitar. If you haven’t noticed, white, grey, and orange are my favorite colors.

My guitar will be made of Black & White Ebony (also known as Pale Moon Ebony), Cocobolo, and American Holly.

Body Shape

At first glance I fell in love with Alex’s Ursa guitar. The shape was classy, minimal, and unique. I asked if Alex could take his Ursa model and make it more of a modern, rougher, and rock/metal aesthetic while maintaining it’s elegance. We played around with 5 or so body shapes before I decided on one:

We were able to come up with a design that could fit all genres of music, especially metal. Metal music comes in so many packages; there are so many sub-genres, styles, cultures, and trends. I believe the design of this guitar could fit every one of them.

Unique Features

Three pick-ups — One high gain bridge pickup, one jazz neck pickup, and a piezo pickup literally inside the bridge of the guitar. The piezo pickup gives the guitar an extra clean sound somewhat similar to an acoustic guitar. The two main pickups are passive Seymour Duncans.

Neck-thru — The neck goes through the body for extra sustain. It also makes the back of the guitar look really awesome.

Wood tuning knobs and pickup covers — The more wood the better! And by wood, I mean wood from trees.

Convenient electronic switch locations — I requested Alex put the pickup switches in a location that’s easier for me to swipe at during live shows. The music I play is fast-paced and I need to be able to switch pickups quickly for solos, clean, and effect-heavy sections.

I will post more updates and pictures of the guitar as the building process unfolds. I’m really excited about this guitar, to say the least.


Update #2

Cocobolo (Orange) Neck Issues

The image on the right shows his sizing the neck. I requested a thin neck similar to Ibanez's S Series. I find thinner necks to be a lot more comfortable. The neck gradually gets thicker as it connects with the body.

After settling on cocobolo as the fretboard and neck wood, Alex ran into a few potential issues. Alex uses the extra wood from the necks he creates and tests the durability of them and ensures the wood sticks well. He reported the cocobolo neck he had created had a very small chance of breaking after many years of use due to the oiliness of the cocobolo; cocobolo is known to be quite oily. These particular pieces of wood just happened to be very oily. Alex offered to create a new neck and fretboard at no charge. That’s the kind of customer service I was looking for in a guitar shop, and Alex has definitely delivered. Alex recommended a wood that would work well with my guitar: Albesia.

Neck Version #2 - Albesia

Also known as Albecia, “Ablizia Falcata”, Albezzia. I really love this wood and it really harmonizes with the Black & White Ebony that will be used for the body of the guitar. You can see the three main woods used for my guitar on the right (Albesia, American Holly, Black & White Ebony).

Fretboard & Head

The fretboard is made out of a nice piece of striped brown Ebony (Gabon Ebony/Gaboon Ebony). I wasn't sure if I wanted a brown fretboard since most guitar fretboards are brown, but I'm really glad Alex encouraged me to use it. James Fraser's (Gemanon guitarist) new pure white guitar with a brown neck looks great.

The headstock is Black & White Ebony (Pale Moon Ebony) with some ebony veneer. The head went from being mostly beige-colored to a complex combination of black and cream-colored brown. The gold logo complements the wood very well.

Body - Black & White (Pale Moon)

It’s beautiful. I like a lot of the exotic woods I’ve researched, but this one is definitely one of my favorites. It’s incredibly unique and fits the metal genre well. It reminds me of smoke curls, weeping trees, and demonic figures. At the same time, it looks clean and organic.

Shaping + Knobs

Alex sent me some pictures to confirm the body shape and knob/switch placement. We discussed different knob/switch layouts. We went with Alex’s original layout, which isn’t included in the set of pictures above. The center strip of the wood is the neck (Albesia) and the white wood (American Holly) is for the back of the body.

Getting close

In the gallery, you can see the guitar being glued together. Yes, that is a lot of clamps. The clamps hold the pieces of wood together as the glue dries. I really like the symmetrical pattern from the Black & White Ebony. The cut of the wood is not the final shape of the guitar. The penciled outline on the left picture represents the final shape. I know alex is going to put a lot of time into detailing the guitar. The final product will look even more amazing.


Update #3

Body Front

The guitar is starting to come full circle, literally! It’s been sanded and is looking smooth. The image on the left is not sanded at all, the one on the right was roughly sanded, and the center shows my Alexander James Ursa fully sanded.

Back Cover

Wood electronics panel! Why would you want to ugly up this beauty with a plastic cover?! I really like the triangular point at the edge of the wood cover. It’s like a microcosmic representation of the guitar itself: smooth and round with the few points to give it an edge.

Other Curvy Angles

A close up shot of the neck-thru construction. Notice how there is no heel where the body meets the neck. Accessing those higher frets should be quite easier. The middle picture is the back of the neck and head; beautiful Albizzia wood. These pictures were taken before any final sanding.

Awesome Details

Truss rod cover on the left and the golden piezo guitar bridge installed. The truss rod cover is made out of Black & White Ebony, the same wood the body is made out of. Alex James cares about the small almost unnoticeable details like I do. The piezo bridge makes electric guitars sound like acoustic guitars.

Next steps: finish sanding, lacquering, waiting, more lacquering, and then shipment!


Update #4

My "RMA Ursa" guitar is almost done! The pictures below show my guitar being lacquered, buffed, and fitted with electronics (pickups, knobs, etc.). It's incredible what Alexander James Guitars was able to create. The high gloss with gold combo is stunning and breath-taking.

An in-depth review will be coming soon!

Achieving Decent Recordings

The changing definition of a professional recording

Every decade seems to have its own definition of a “good” mix. The 80s was famous for its overuse of reverb. The 90s, especially 90s rock, had its own sound too. I’m guessing the 2000s will be known for its over-compressed music. From rap to metal, no one has escaped this loudness war. I don’t think the 2010 decade will have a defined sound since home studios are becoming standard. The more audio engineers, the more diverse mixes there will be.

What I define to be a good recording

Everyone defines a “good mix” differently. I favor a particular style of mixing, however. My favorite mixes tend to have scooped guitars–in the mid frequencies–and louder drums. I like the drums to be really snappy and punch through the mix while not being overly compressed. I found that drums can be quite loud in a mix and not take away from other instruments. Ambience that complements the instruments is very important. I, along with most people, like songs that have varying volumes throughout it for it makes the song less artificial. I think it goes without saying, but overly loud and compressed songs sound lifeless. I want to be able to hear all their instruments and nuances. Songs with competitive volume, dynamics in tact, is not hard to create but some bands and engineers take it to the extreme and ruin awesome music in the process.

The greatest factors that contribute to an awesome recording

Flawless Performances — Since musicians tend to play, ya’ know, like humans, I find it easiest to work with MIDI whenever possible. I love working with MIDI because you can ensure that the timing is 100% perfect and every instrument is harmonious. The most important thing I learned when creating my electronic album is that the timing of the instruments and how they snap together can affect the entire feeling of the song. It’s worth it to spend the extra time recording perfect performances and quantizing them if necessary so they are aligned with the backbone of the song–usually the kick and snare drum. When recording, the performer needs to have some sort of click track to follow.

Drums — If your recorded or synthesized drums sound really good, the quality of your final mix will be exponentially higher. If you have ever worked with Superior Drummer, Steven Slate, or BFD Drums, you will know how much an awesomely mixed drum kit will fit so much better into a mix. Acoustic drums are super expensive to record and many times you will have to double them with “fake” (sampled) drums anyway to ensure they punched through a dense mix. For 90% of the home studios out there, I highly recommend they stick to electronic drum programs. I currently record drums using a USB electronic drum kit and use drum samplers like those mentioned above. This ensures that I capture the performance while maintaining the high fidelity that these drum programs can offer.

Good Mastering — A good mastering program can completely change the feel and tonality of the song. I always thought mastering was the final process that only added the final touches and subtle changes, but a good master can make a recording sound infinitely better. Ozone is an awesome mastering program. Most DAWs have all the tools that Ozone offers already built-in, but Ozone packages them into a really simple and elegant user interface. Ozone walks you through the mastering process, so I consider it a must buy for novice audio engineers. iZotope also makes a mixing app very similar to Ozone that can also help you get a grasp of mixing individual tracks.

Ambience — Once you have all your super high-quality tracks ready to go, you may notice that your tracks don’t compliment each other. They might sound distant or out of place. I found that adding some background synthesizers or adding more reverb and delay to the mix can help the the mix glue itself together. The ambience only needs to be barely audible. I usually add a touch of reverb and delay to every track in my mix via bus channels. The combination of a short thick reverb, a wimpy delay and when necessary, some synth pads can make a mix sound complete.

EQ — Equalizing can get complex, but there are some basic tips that I always follow when mixing. I’ve found that cutting off a big chunk of the lower frequencies (bass) really helps tame the tracks and keeps the entire mix from being muddy. I let one or two bass tracks do their job while the rest of the instruments get a low-cut filter. However, I leave a healthy amount of low end on guitars since amplifiers add a lot of character and tone in the bass frequencies. Distorted guitars, lead synths, and some vocals can sound hissy or airy, so I frequently cut off the highest frequencies to make the distortion sound less harsh.

Automation — Automation allows you to change volumes, effects, and affect volumes dynamically throughout the song. Automation can change how the listener perceives your song. For example, you can slowly decrease the volume of your verse so when the chorus comes in the chorus will sound louder when you return the song to its median volume. Another example: during the slow part of the guitar solo you can add a touch more reverb and delay to make it sound larger-than-life, but when the speed picks back up you can reduce these to ensure the solo doesn’t get muddy. Automation can get complicated really quickly and can take a lot of time but usually that extra time is well worth it.

Experimentation — Last but not least, experimentation is very important. It might sound a little cliché, but I found some of my best mixing techniques by breaking “the rules.” Be skeptical of those that tell you that recording needs to be done in a predefined way. Be skeptical of “experts”. Don’t be afraid to go nuts.

ExoNova, My First Electronic Album is Officially for Sale!

I've finally released my first electronic/rock album. Yay! This album is available for free on SoundCloud and for very cheap on BandCamp. You can also download it in nice little ZIP file. The album is for sale on several stores for those who want to support my musical endeavors. I truly enjoy writing and producing music, so any support I can get for this album will help me dedicate more time to doing what I love.

Vela Pulsar

Vela Pulsar is a fast, epic, and heavy metal song with a strong electronic influence. Vela Pulsar features a seven-string guitar, ambient synth elements, as well as multiple lead solos that overlap creating awesomely complex rhythms and melodies. I thought it would be interesting to combine an equal amount of metal with synthetic elements, hence Vela Pulsar was forged. The title of this song is based on the pulsating object observed through the constellation of Vela. The poorly understood and profound pulsars are astronomically powerful.

Lunar Maria

Lunar Maria is an epic symphonic electronic song with classic rock drums featuring a male and female choir, synthesized bass, distorted guitars, and a ton of ambient artifacts. Like many of the songs, this piece was written with the awesomeness (literally) of space and those who attempt to understand it. Our close satellite was once thought to be a god, obviously due to ignorance, but through the power of science we are now able to look at them and know what they truly are.

Retro Nostalgia

Retro Nostalgia, a song designed to resemble older video games, features lush pads and vintage analog synthesizer leads. This song is very melodic similarly to old-school game music but is mixed with the latest and greatest advanced digital instruments. Retro Nostalgia will make dig out your old game consoles in your closet, blow inside game cartridges, and plug in those controllers. This song was written with Super Nintendo and it's first party games such as Mario in mind.


Syzygy is an epic and powerful rhythmic song that features subtle lead synths and ethnic percussion. I find this song particularly special since I wrote it when I lived in Italy. It is a unique mix between industrial and electronic music. You will hear unusual sounds and more drums than can fit in a single room. With a gentle transition from one part of the song to another while having multiple melodies carefully intertwining, you will be hypnotized and left craving more.


Your journey begins. You look into the abyss. You are scared, but brave. This is the moment your whole life has been leading up to. You question whether you will survive this adventure. Regardless, the pilgrimage must be made. Catalyst is about traversing unknown places in search of a substance. It's simple flowing melody represents the human thought process's tendency to overreact when confronted with scary and unknown stimuli.

Perigee Reflection

Perigee Reflection is an ambient electronic metal song with melodic leads and some black metal influence. Like Vela Pulsar, Perigee Reflection combines synthetic drums and pads, and lead synths with distorted and clean guitar. I can't say I've come across a song that has strong black metal and digital synth facets combined. I originally planned to release Vela Pulsar with Perigee Reflection on their on own EP, but I decided they fit really well into this mostly electronic album.


Terraforming is an epic song with multiple evolving and dark sections that, in certain circumstances, makes the listener want to go outside and fight crime. It might also encourage you to explore, or perhaps dance in ways you never imagined. This would be the perfect song for the hero astronauts that colonize Earth #2 in the year 2264. This was the true first song I composed after learning how to engineer songs decently. It was my first real stab at electronic music, and surprisingly, it's one of my favorites. Its simple, effective, and entertaining.

Wise Thorian

Wise Thorian was created with epic action-packed cinematic videos and video games in mind. Its individual sections could easily be looped for gameplay or extended scenes. This pieces subtle melodies do no interfere with other sound and musical elements that might be present in visual art. Wise Thorian features subtle melodies for the first half in the song, then intense lead melodies towards the end. This musical piece has a strong emphasis on exotic percussion, modern synthesizers, and orchestral snippets to add some excitement to the mix.

Manipulative Lifeform

Will you be controlled? With the use of electromagnetic waves and neurotoxins, this unknown life-form is known to indoctrinate humans. Manipulative Lifeform features a simple rhythm, multiple synths, and a slow progression overlapping the dark and mysterious melody. Manipulative Lifeform is based on video game soundtracks, mystery scenes, potential futuristic and sci-fi events, and last but not least, the natural world.

Reflection On Time in Italy

A little over a year ago, my girlfriend and I attended a study-abroad program in Italy. What an experience. It was adventurous, fun, tough, exotic, and delicious. Here are 21 pictures (out of thousands) of our journey. Enjoy!

Cinque Terre. Absolutely beautiful. Took this picture on a hike.

Cinque Terre. Absolutely beautiful. Took this picture on a hike.

Staying warm in the winter, staying cool in the summer. 

Staying warm in the winter, staying cool in the summer. 

Composing. I wrote Syzygy in Italy.

Composing. I wrote Syzygy in Italy.

Lunch in Cinque Terre. Had some Angler fish.

Lunch in Cinque Terre. Had some Angler fish.

On the top of the Duomo, the largest church in Florence.

On the top of the Duomo, the largest church in Florence.

Celebration in front of the Duomo, Florence.

Celebration in front of the Duomo, Florence.

Beer from the tap at an American resturaunt in Italy.

Beer from the tap at an American resturaunt in Italy.

At the London Train Station. Also, a tasty Cappuccino.

At the London Train Station. Also, a tasty Cappuccino.

Just look at this. I probably don't even need to say that it was tasty.

Just look at this. I probably don't even need to say that it was tasty.

More dessert. Fluffy Tiramisu. Gained 15 pounds in Italy.

More dessert. Fluffy Tiramisu. Gained 15 pounds in Italy.

Gelato stores stacked their ice cream high. The giant mounds of it made it irresistible.

Gelato stores stacked their ice cream high. The giant mounds of it made it irresistible.

Mini chocolate cappuccinos that we bought at a chocolate fair.

Mini chocolate cappuccinos that we bought at a chocolate fair.

Top = Fiesole, neighbor of Florence. Bottom = Capri, famous Italian island.

Top = Fiesole, neighbor of Florence. Bottom = Capri, famous Italian island.

Looking over a vineyard in San Gimignano.

Looking over a vineyard in San Gimignano.

Ellyn in front of the Tower of London. We just started watching The Tutors.

Ellyn in front of the Tower of London. We just started watching The Tutors.

Walking around the city above Florence. Fiesole was one of my favorite destinations..

Walking around the city above Florence. Fiesole was one of my favorite destinations..

On a boat in Venice.

On a boat in Venice.

Rumor has it there is a leaning tower in Piza.

Rumor has it there is a leaning tower in Piza.


Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Expensive Microphones: Who Needs Them?

Can you hear the difference between the $3,200 and the $400 microphones above? I sure can, but I don’t think either one sounds patently superior than the other. For this individual’s voiceover, I preferred the much cheaper Shure microphone over the golden standard Neumann microphone.

There are hundreds of reasons why a bargain microphone might sound better than an expensive one: perhaps the person speaking was speaking through a pop-filter, or maybe his head was turned at a different angle and wasn’t correctly facing the diaphragm, or the recording engineers could have sloppily put the microphone closer to his mouth causing his voice to sound “deeper and more full” due to the proximity effect. For all we know, the audio engineers who exported their microphone test files accidentally normalized one but not the other.

For the home studio musician or audio engineer, can you justify spending a large chunk of change on a microphone if small things—like the faint difference in angle—can make it sound worse than one that is exponentially cheaper? When it comes down to it, when you add additional instruments to your mix and you compress your recordings in the mastering phase, no listener will hear the difference amidst the two identical yet very differently priced microphones. If someone states they can hear the difference, I suggest completing a double-blinded test and see if his results are the same; after several tests, you’ll be able to tell if he is deceiving him or herself. The human brain is amazingly adept at hearing or seeing) differences when none exist [1], confirming ones own biases and not wanting to admit that it was wrong. Many people listen with their wallets and eyes and not with their ears. I often see people overwhelmingly nominating cheap gear over expensive gear in A/B testing forum thread. Once the answers are revealed, the percentage that was once 70% in favor or lower quality gear shifts to something around 40-50%.

So why do people purchase expensive microphones?

There are several valid reasons, and some not so valid:

  1. Brings in customers - Musicians purchasing studio-time want to know they are in good hands. Musicians incorrectly assume that high quality gear translates to amazing mixes. I constantly read on forums how studio owners lose customers to a competitor because they aren’t utilizing Pro Tools, Waves plugins, or they don’t have a giant mixing consoles.
  2. Some actually are better - Sometimes expensive microphones are expensive for valid reasons. Surround sound microphones cost a fair amount because they have five or more microphones in them. Tiny microphones require expensive components to maintain their size. Ribbon microphones have a distinct sound that many are willing to pay big bucks for. Many popular microphones are built to last decades. I would be willing pay a little extra for a microphone that looked awesome; I own a Blue Dragonfly and Blue Woodpecker, and they initially sparked my interested because they were designed well.
  3. Good marketing - Like most types of products, there are companies that excel in marketing their products and victoriously make you feel lonely and horrible without their products in-hand. If the microphone company in question spends a lot of money on marketing, you are paying for their brand recognition.
  4. Shows experience - If you pull out that $1,500 Neumann microphone and boast how it sounds great when recording vintage drum kits, it will make you seem knowledgable and skilled — even if you are making the whole thing up.
  5. Prestige - If you have an impressive microphone collection, people will envy you. Maybe they won’t bow down to you (yet), but you’ll be known as the “microphone guy,” even if you never use them. I would love to have a microphone collection myself.

In the video above, you can watch some experts in the audio engineering industry discuss their interpretations between two very similar microphones. They are literally the same microphone, but one is older and was manufactured differently. I believe this video sums up my point well; these individuals who have been working in the industry for an exceedingly long time can’t even agree on the nuances of these microphones. They even contradict each other at times. I don’t know whether or not they are hearing a difference in these microphones are not. I surmise that there are subtle differences, but the experts can’t even agree on what subtle differences are actually better. They all have their own unique interpretations of how the microphones sound. If the differences of these microphones are so subtle, do you think the average music listener will hear or care about the differences? I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on these guys. They love their profession and are seriously trying to understand their recording equipment better.  In fact, they made this video so others can learn from it. My point is more directed towards the home studio owner who is thinking about buying expensive microphones. If these seasoned veterans don’t have “golden ears” —ears that can magically hear differences caused by minute electrical differences, cable shielding, or even wooden volume knobs— something tells me that the average home studio owner doesn’t either.

For most audio engineers and musicians, your money can be better spent on other audio products. Bass Traps, better studio monitors, a new computer, or a set of nice plugins are allbetter bangs-for-your-buck. If your room is not sufficiently acoustically treated, most condenser microphones will sound like a toy. Better speakers will enable you to hear more detail and the quieter facets of your mix which will help you achieve better musical decisions. Many love old expensive microphones because they sound “analog” and “vintage”. Nowadays, you can buy plugins that add that vintage saturation to any microphone you use to record. It’s much more economical to use a cheaper microphone and morph its sound on the computer. Even some believe external preamplifiers are more important that the microphones themselves.

There are thoroughly good reasons to buy the microphones, but I seldom see these sound reasons being debated on over the interweb. I mostly see people discussing a microphone’s very subtle nuances and how they will affect the music they’re recording. I tend not to dwell on these fine variations because I will probably end up crushing the life out of them with the compressor anyway. Many people openly admit they have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), but they continually visit forums that encourage that behavior. Maybe audio engineers should stop focusing on the almost nonexistent differences between some microphones and instead focus on ideas or other products that make clearly audible differences, like alternative mixing techniques and crazy experiments with their software and hardware collections.

[1]: I will probably write an entire blog post dedicated to music and gear psychology. There is a lot to say, and it really can’t be summarized in one or two sentences.

Remix My Song: Thermogenesis (Metal)

Instruments: 4 Rhythm Guitars, 2 Lead Guitars, 3 Solo Guitars, Bass, Drums Files: .WAV (works with all DAWs)

This technical death metal song will consume, then destroy you. It's fast, brutal, and has more notes than there are molecules in the ocean. Warning: trying to mix this song might cause you to give up on your recording hobby. I dare you to mix this mind-blowing song.

Thermogenesis Files

Thermogenesis Tempo + Time Signature Info

About Thermogenesis

I lived in Italy for a couple of months not to long ago. I live in the Bay Area of California, so this was quite a ways to travel! In Italy, I was encouraged to make a more technical song by my girlfriend. I wrote this song using a pen and small notebook I bought in Florence. I only had a guitar with me at the time, so I recorded some of the riffs on my iPhone to remember them. I brought the tracks home, and figured out the tempo and time signatures for the song in Logic Pro 9 (my application of choice). I was aiming for a song that was melodic, fast, and technical, all without sounding to death-metal-ly.

Importing Thermogenesis into your DAW

There are several ways to get Thermogenesis into your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Each DAW has its own unique ways of getting it into the application, but there are some universal techniques that I will show you.

Dragging and dropping - This is probably the easiest method. Just select all the files (CMD-A on Mac, Control-A on PC) and drag them to the arrange window of you DAW.

Using your DAWʼs built in file browser - Your recording application most likely has a built in file browser that can be used to selectively import files you want. This is a great way of getting Thermogenesisʼs files into your DAW. Just select the tracks and do one of the following: drag and drop or click the import/add button.

Import from within the menu - All DAWʼs have an option to import with your operating systems file browser (which is usually under the file menu). Its like importing with your DAWʼs built in file browser, but it brings up another window instead.

Importing Options - When importing Thermogenesisʼs .WAV files, you may get some dialog boxes that give you a couple options. You can import the tempo information and markers that are embedded within the metadata of the .WAV files. This makes sharing files between people really easy. I encourage you to import the tempo and marker information. It keeps you organized and can help greatly when adding instruments.

When importing the .WAV files, make sure they are imported to their own tracks. You do not want all of these .WAV files on one single track! 

Tips and Tricks

When working with technical guitar tracks, its sometimes easy to over-distort them and have them sound hissy. You could easily EQ hiss out of a guitar track, but I found it best to aim for a warm, wet, and full guitar sound.

On the last “Betrayal” riff (the transition to the first Chorus), I used some rotary toms. Since many MIDI drum programs programs don’t have rotary toms, I suggest cutting those toms out of the “cymbals” audio file to have them be apart of the song.

After importing the guitars into your DAW, you will notice that they donʼt sound like they are played on tempo. After you compress and distort them (with an amp simulator program) and mix the guitars with the other instruments, these imperfections will not be very noticeable. You can also use elastic audio/flex-time editing to synchronize the guitars. It may be hard to believe, but I do make mistakes when recording!

You do not have to use all the guitar tracks. I have recorded songs with no layering (recording a part multiple times) and it sounded fine. Try mixing the song with only a couple of the guitar tracks and see what happens. You might be surprised!

Depending on what sound you want, you may want to fatten up the drums a little. Try duplicating the kick, snare, and tom tracks and EQ-ing, compressing, distorting, or pitch-shifting them. Donʼt stop there. Why not double the bass and distort one of the files? Mixing is an art. Try really unique mixing techniques that sound crazy. You might be surprised with what you make!

For a thicker guitar tone, try using a tube saturation plugin such as PSPʼs VintageWarmer2 Micro. There are plenty of these on the market. Try some of them, and buy the one you think sounds best. Basically these plugins add a small amount of distortion and compress the track youʼre working with. It also changes the sonic color of the track. Sometimes its desirable, and sometimes it just makes an instrument sound muddy.

Donʼt forget to pan and automate! Panning and automating adds clarity to your mixes. There are many ways to pan the guitars, bass, and synthesizers. Try panning two guitars hard right and the other two hard left [100%]. Try panning two guitar hard left and right while the other two are panned less at 60%. Depending on what sound/style you want to achieve, lead guitars could also be panned hard left and right as well. Whenever there are lead instruments playing, its probably a good idea to automate the volume of the rhythms instruments.

Throw a compressor on your master bus (your main stereo output bus). I have included a TurnMeUp version of my mix which does not have compression on the master bus. Its sounds quite different. It has more dynamics, which audiophiles like. When using a compressor on the master bus, think of it as the glue to your song. It ties all the instruments together as well as making your song louder. Making your song louder is important nowadays due to the loudness war (read more on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war). Donʼt over compress your song, or else you will get a sound similar to Metallicaʼs Death Magnetic (harsh on the ears, no dynamics, and sonically boring).

Keep in mind: metal drums are suppose to sound rather robotic and perfect. This is always surprising to people who are new to recording. Metal drums are usually quantized (made mathematically perfect to the given tempo) and edited to make it sound more human (referred to as humanizing).

Q: Why are there so many guitar tracks?

A: I have doubled the rhythm guitar parts because many mixing engineers like using multiple takes to have a beefier guitar sound. They are there to help you experiment and find a good tone. You do not need to use all the guitar recordings.

Q: What drum programs did you use?

A: I used Superior Drummer 2.0 along with its Metal Foundry expansion for the cymbal and rotary toms. I use Steven Slateʼs Drums and his Metal & More expansion for the kick, snare, and toms.

Q: What guitar amp simulator do you use?

A: I used Guitar Rig 4. To get a much better metal tone, turn off your amp simulatorʼs amp module and add a convolution IR reverb plugin (such as Logicʼs Space Designer) to you signal-chain and load up a guitar speaker IR (impulse response). Basically IRs take a sound signature of a recorded speaker and enable you to use it on your own DI (direct input) tracks via a convolution plugin. You can find free guitar speaker IR files on several recording forums. Visit Recordiumʼs bookmarks page (http:// bookmarks.recordium.net) to find some of the great recording forums that I like.

Review: M-Audio ProFire 2626

ProFire 2626 Features

8 analog high quality I/O's (inputs and outputs) - Great for recording an entire drum-kit 16 ADAT Optical inputs and outputs - gives you the ability to expand the sound-card to have even more I/O's 2 headphone outputs (independently configurable) MIDI in/out

From the M-Audio Website: Eight preamps with Octane™ technology > award-winning quality Flexible on-board DSP mixer > create multiple unique cue mixes User-assignable master volume knob > customise your setup Functions as eight-channel mic pre/eight-channel A/D-D/A converter > standalone operation Up to 24-bit/192kHz > pristine high-definition digital audio JetPLL technology > critically acclaimed jitter elimination Pro Tools M-Powered compatible = industry-standard software

Setting up the ProFire 2626

Since I am working with a MacBook Pro, all my advice will be written for the Mac OS X.

For the average home studio owner, the M-Audio ProFire 2626 comes with all the accessories you would expect a consumer-grade recording interface to have. It includes the power cable, the FireWire 400 cable, the driver CD, a breakout cable for some more input options, and the unit itself. The ProFire series recording interfaces do not come with XLR cables (for plugging in microphones), ¼ plugs for guitars, nor a ¼ to 1/8 headphone adapter (although most high quality headphones should come with an adapter). You must purchase all of these separately. You won’t have to spend more than $50 on quality cables.

Installing the provided software and drivers from the provided disk is easy. The Mac OS makes the installation a breeze for most recording interfaces. After installation, you should download the latest drivers from the M-Audio website. For future reference, all M-Audio drivers can be found by searching google (such as searching “ProFire 2626 drivers mac”). M-Audio’s driver site is a little confusing, so make sure you are downloading the correct driver for your OS. After installing the newest drivers, make sure your DAW is receiving input from the MIDI ports. In Logic Studio, if configured correctly, MIDI information will be displayed in the transport bar at the bottom. If you do not see MIDI information, open your Audio MIDI Setup program and ensure the recording interface is being recognised and routed correctly. Home Recording Hub has a great article on how to configure your Audio MIDI Setup application correctly: http://www.homerecordinghub.com/mac-midi.html.

Connecting the ProFire 2626 to your computer is simple. You should begin with your computer and sound card turned off. Plug in the ProFire interface in via the Firewire 400 cable, turn the device on, and then boot up your computer. It’s always good practice to turn your speakers on last to avoid any speaker-damaging pops or clicks. With all your drivers and software installed properly (which it most likely will be if you updates your drivers via the Avid website), your computer should detect and play/record your audio through the ProFire 2626.

ProFire's Integration with Mac OS X

The ProFire’s bundled software called “M-Audio ProFire” is relatively easy to work with, but it doesn’t work like most OS X software. It emulates the look and feel of an actual piece of hardware. As a result, the beginner home studio owner may be confused by the complicated routing features. By reading through the manual, the software becomes much easier to understand. Overall, the interface is not as intuitive as I would like to be. It seems as if they took the Windows version of the ProFire software and ‘ported it to Mac OS X. That being said, I have not found any glitches in the software, but there are a couple bugs with its integration with OS X, which I mention below. By default, the headphones and speakers use the master volume knob. In order to use the headphones, you must also be playing audio through the speakers. You can configure the headphone and speaker volumes independently, but this requires some “rerouting” in their application. With physical hardware, rerouting means you physically unplug a cable and place it in its new correct place; rerouting software is in theory the same thing sans the real cables. It’s not exactly intuitive because its hard to visualise how your are routing data with the ProFire’s software menus. They should include checkboxes/one-click switches for these simple tasks rather than make their users search the manual or internet for answers. Once you set up your ProFire software to your liking, you will seldom need to open the program again, unless you actively use Pro-Tools.

The “M-Audio ProFire” software has some annoying bugs. When I put my computer into sleep mode while the interface is running, the device needs to be turned off and then back on once your computer has awoken. Sometimes the device doesn’t even play when my computer as well as the ProFire unit are booted correctly. If you follow M-Audio’s recommendation and turn off your computer before turning the interface on, this can cost you a lot of time. I have turned the audio interface on while my computer was on and believe it or not, nothing exploded! I don’t recommend turning the device on and off while your computer is running since it could void the warranty.

One great benefit of the ProFire 2626 is that it is compatible with Pro-Tools. Pro-Tools implements its own draconian DRM (Digital Rights Management) system by making you use their hardware in order to run it. M-Audio, the creators of the ProFire series recording interfaces, is owned by the makers of Pro-Tools (Avid). They make a version of Pro-Tools called “Pro-Tools M-Powered” that works with M-Audio devices such as the ProFire 2626. One drawback of using M-Audio/Avid recording interfaces with Pro-Tools is that you need to use the “M-Audio ProFire” software to configure things within Pro-Tools. If you use Pro-Tools with the ProFire 2626, you will be using the ProFire application more frequently which could become annoying. I do not use Pro-Tools so I do not know if this is a real problem or not. If you are not using Pro-Tools, consider this a valuable option. Many people are using Pro-Tools nowadays, so you may be interested in purchasing Pro-Tools M-Powered for $249 in the future.

*Update: Avid has released Pro-Tools SE, which works with their cheaper sound-cards.

The ProFire 2626 has been working excellently with Logic. For the most part, Logic 9 always recognises its audio and MIDI functions. The device has been accidentally disconnected during a couple of my Logic sessions. This would automatically make Pro-Tools quit, but Logic just warns you that it has been disconnected and starts to play audio through the laptop speakers. By turning the device on during a Logic session (again, not recommended), Logic warns you about a newly discovered device and asks if you want to use it. Logic Studio is awesome, and it works well with most recording interfaces. The ProFire 2626 is no exception.

Quality of the ProFire 2626's Components

The ProFire 2626 is a quality product. All the buttons and knobs work as they are supposed to. The unit is cased in a nice matte black metal. I believe it could withstand some abuse in a live environment. The headphone amplifier, microphone preamps, and speaker outputs all sound great. The preamps are plenty hot (loud), and the headphone amp can power Sennheiser HD-650 headphones which require quite a bit of power to use. All eight built-in preamps have a -20dB option and have phantom power, which is used to power condenser microphones..

I am pleased with most of the physical aspects of the unit, but they could have made the device look better. The buttons and knobs are a joke; they look and feel like toys. They are made of plastic and have a cheesy metallic coating. It makes the ProFire recording interfaces look like they cost less, hence people perceive it as worth less. I wish they would have included a small screen for more detailed information on input dB like most of the MOTU recording interfaces. I like gadgets that look high tech, and the green/rep clipping lights aren’t fancy enough for my exquisite tastes.

The ProFire 2626 is a solid piece of hardware that keeps on running just like the Energizer Bunny. The recording interface doesn’t get hot when leaving it on for multiple days, nor has it ever shut off by itself. No hardware component has failed me thus far. This device is built well, but their supplied FireWire cable is not. It constantly falls out of my FireWire 400 port on my computer. If the device is not intended to disconnect the unit while its connected to the computer, this could cause serious issues. However, it hasn’t caused issues for me. If you keep your computer still, this FireWire problem shouldn’t be a problem.


Good: Compatible with Pro-Tools Working great with Logic ProFire hardware is quality-built Supplied software looks cool, not to complicated

Bad: Software could be more user-friendly Software has some annoying bugs when it comes to audio playback The FireWire cable they supply bugs me The buttons and knobs feel like toys (Read the update at the bottom for some more bad stuff)

Despite the ProFire’s software having some bugs and it possibly not being intuitive the beginning home recorder, the hardware works exceptionally well. The problems I have with the unit are relatively small, and the unit works 90% of the time. For the price (currently $572 on Amazon.com), it’s hard to beat the ProFire interfaces. If the ProFire 2626 is more than you need, they do offer a much cheaper and smaller version called the ProFire 610.



After finishing this review, I came across quite a serious bug in the ProFire 2626 software. I was playing audio out of through the device into my speakers when the sound started crackling, which suggested that there was a bad connection with the device and the computer. This isn’t uncommon, but it’s usually remedied by turning the device off then back on. After restarting the device, audio would not play through the device. I even uninstalled the software and then reinstalled with no luck.

I called M-Audio technical support and they informed me that I need to have a support code. You can either get one code by registering your device or pay $30. I purchased the ProFire device not knowing that a year later they would start charging for technical support. This was quite frustrating to learn. I registered my device and used my one support code to get help. Turns out the ProFire software managed to change its settings without my knowledge. Simply turning the device off then back on changed the preferences for the device.


My ProFire 2626 has died. I was moving my computer setup and when I re-plugged it in, it no longer connected to my iMac. It served me well for many years, but I know this thing is going to be a pain in the ass to get repaired, so I'm saving up for a new interface. I'll be purchasing an interface from Apogee since I like the physical quality of their products, their looks, the Maestro software, and their simplified product line. I'm not downgrading my score since I still believe the unit deserves a 6/10 for it's decent performance over the years.

Because of this strange bug and the experience I had with Avid/M-Audio technical support, I am lowering the ProFire 2626 rating to 6/10 (before it was 7/10)

Overall rating for the ProFire 2626: 6/10

Buy ProFire 2626 on Amazon

Logic Preset: Twelve String Monster

(Logic 9 Only) This mysterious preset uses the EXS24’s Dual 12-string guitar preset along with many modulating effects, including a flanger and tremolo. It’s an eerie sounding effect. I imagine it would be great for a quite part of a rock song when few instruments are playing. It would add a unique flavor to a suspenseful part of a song. You could also loop the playback of this sample for your first date. Once she hears this bittersweet effect, she’ll be coming back for more.

Download Preset