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"It kind of worked between all the glitches," reminisces basso profundist Andy West, fondly describing the bass-boosting technology he pioneered in the Dixie Dregs, the revered jazz-rock fusion band he formed with guitarist Steve Morse in the 1970s. West used to control an Oberheim synthesizer with a pitch-to-voltage converter connected his huge 6-string bass.
"I had all the Mutrons, octave dividers, and phase shifters, too," he reveals. "All of those old-school but very good harmonic effects pedals. I've always been a big fan of that low-octave thing."
Today, West uses a laptop and software to capture that low thing. He's down to just two custom Geoff Gould bass guitars (six-string and five-string headless graphite neck models), a six-string fretless, and a bass preamp--plus the dozens of software plugins he uses to create the tones of his incredible picked bass style.
Software has been good to him. West still plays and records on days off from his "day job" as a software architect for a major corporation, and admits to missing the early days playing with Morse in high school bands. He also misses all of those jams on the first six Dregs LPs--almost unbelievably, most of those lightning-fast guitar leads were doubled by the bass. But frankly, West's income from his bass expertise has been a fraction of what he's made as a corporate software consultant and programmer since leaving the band.
This four-time Grammy-nominated bassist has consulted for giants such as IBM, Motorola, and A.C. Nielsen for a living. Coincidentally, he's even architecting a product that interfaces directly to O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf. When first contacted for an O'Reilly interview, West had this to say: "Wow! Now I can really have street cred with all my geek programmer friends."
Were you into computers in your early Dixie Dregs days?
I've always had an interest in computers. When I was with the Dregs I had a little portable Osborne I even before the first IBM came out. I've always been kind of a techno-geek, I guess.
You must be every programmer's coolest friend when they find out about your previous career.
Yeah, for sure. [Laughs.] I've heard that from dozens of people in the software industry through my website, people who program and are also bass players, and vice versa. Dregs fans mostly. I was working at a Phoenix software company in '98 when they built Bank One Ballpark for the D-Backs. They got all the Arizona-based musicians they could find to play "The Star Spangled Banner" at the team's opening night. It was myself, Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine from Megadeth, Joni Sledge from Sister Sledge, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Nils Lofgren from Bruce Springsteen's band, Robin Wilson from the Gin Blossoms, and Rob Halford from Judas Priest!
At that point I finally had to say something to the guys I was programming with about the show--you know, "Hey, come and see me play the national anthem." When my boss found out, he was like, "Oh my God! You're in the Dregs?!" The morning after the BOB's opening there were six Dregs albums waiting for me at the office to sign for him. That was incredibly cool for me.
You must have plenty of those kinds of stories.
Actually just two. When I was at AT&T in Washington, D.C., I worked for a contractor with a crazy deadline. We were all in a lab programming like crazy one night with a radio on, and this one guy finally just yells out, "Would you please turn that pop crap off! I'm a musician and it's driving me nuts to hear that crap music." I told the guy I knew what he meant and asked him if he'd ever heard of the Dixie Dregs. He said, "You're that Andy West?" He jumped up over my desk to shake my hand and said, "Wow, now I've got to treat you well!" He was an employee and I was just a contractor.
Beyond those two stories, though, people around me in the programming world are completely unaware of my past with the Dregs.
How have you balanced your programming and musical drives for the past 20 years?
I have one career that pays the bills, and another that enables my expression. That makes it easy. When I was in the Dregs it was artistically a very interesting and rewarding time, but the financial sustainability of that kind of non-mainstream music is and always will be extremely difficult. Something I discovered a long, long time ago is that the more you know about music, the less income you are guaranteed to generate. The inverse is true in the world of software programming, where I can learn more and am paid more for my knowledge and experience. Being virtuosic on an instrument, at least as far as making money from that virtuosity, is almost a curse.
How has software programming affected your musical creativity?
I've been really interested in software and computers since the early '80s. Once I started to follow software programming as a way to make money, though, the creative side of my career in music became slanted differently. I no longer had the requirement to make a lot of money from music, which can be a double-edged sword, but programming freed me to do whatever I want with my music. The other side is that I don't have as much time for music, which is especially true the better I've become at my job, which more and more involves design and oversight rather than programming.
How do the two disciplines compare and merge for you?
When it comes to business software programming, it's a lot harder to think you really know something if you really don't. The evidence of your abilities is more in-your-face with programming than when you're but one instrument in a group of talented musicians. Also, I think the music culture is to a large extent about fame more than talent. There isn't so much of that in the software culture, although it does exist in the publishing of computer books and creating open source projects, and other pursuits like that. These parallel universes of fame and the corresponding degrees of respect that go along with it are very interesting to me.
Have you ever written music software?
When I first started my career in the mid-'80s, I learned C--my first language. Naturally I wanted to write cool stuff with it, so I had an opportunity to work with a small company in West Los Angeles that was doing one of the very first hard-disk recording systems [Hybrid Arts]. It was on the Atari's GEM desktop, a complete windowing environment way before Windows came along.
Are there similarities between programming a DAW and a corporate software platform?
I think there could be .... Well, actually, no, there aren't. [Laughs.] And here's why: if you think of the engineering required to do digital audio and MIDI, that's really true software engineering, in the sense that you're working in a closed system and it's interfacing directly with hardware. The user interface, by nature, has to be extremely rich. It's more like writing CAD software than the kind of stuff I may have worked on for IBM or Motorola. At its core, business software is usually about nothing but data and reporting. It is about managing data and reporting on it. Having said that, though, I will say it's starting to get more interesting lately at the company I currently work for, Thomson NETg.
What do they do?
It's an e-learning company for the business market. Thomson Learning, the parent company, is more about publishing books and research information, assessments, the metrics of proficiency, and so on. That stuff becomes somewhat more interesting the more I get into designing for it. I just dumbed it down, but of course it is extremely complex with lots of business rules around data manipulation. At its heart, though, it is a very different kind of thing from music software programming.
Business user interfaces are nowhere nearly as sophisticated as they are in the music software world. It's funny because people at my company will point out a certain business program GUI to me as being very cool, and I'll just say, "Oh yeah? Well, look at these interfaces on Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Reason, and Logic." Those software programmers are doing really amazing stuff. Steinberg's Cubase was really the first one that did things innovatively with the front end. There are tons of innovations all over the music landscape going on every day.
Tell me about your early music-tech days in the Dregs.
Well, I started on the Atari and then I was with a group [Zazen] that had a Synclavier, and then I went to Windows PCs and suffered immeasurably for that decision. [Laughs.] I mean, really, I had the first predecessor version of Pro Tools on Windows, which was called Session 8, and I was in SCSI hell with it for three months! It was insane. That experience drove me to buy a Roland DM80 hard-disk recorder, which was simple and it worked, but of course it's not a computer. So I went back to the PC hell music stuff then finally got my first Mac in '99 and have been here ever since. Now I just use [TASCAM] GigaStudio on the PC talking through Lightpipe [a.k.a ADAT Optical] to the Pro Tools system on the Mac; that's my only PC tool.
What other digital audio tools do you use now?
I started using Apple Logic about a year ago; it front-ends Pro Tools really nicely. I know everyone who uses Logic loves it for the user interface, but actually I don't. The MIDI environment on Logic doesn't match the MIDI of [MOTU] Digital Performer. Pro Tools hasn't been known for MIDI for years--in fact, it used to just be crap for MIDI--but everyone grinned and bore it because of the way it is superior for handling audio. The last couple of versions of Pro Tools, though, have been looking better for MIDI. I just want to remain in one environment and not have to have two or three programs running just to cover all the bases.
When Apple bought Logic I thought, "It's time to learn Logic." It's a great front end to a Pro Tools system, and if I can do it all native [i.e., without Pro Tools-style DSP cards] then I'll be just as happy.
You used to drive an Oberheim synth with a pitch-to-voltage converter on your Alembic bass with the Dregs. Are you using virtual soft synths and samplers today?
Yeah, I'm using everything these days, it seems. Once I got Pro Tools and started getting plugins, I started selling all my hardware. Now all I have is a computer with Logic, Pro Tools hardware, a PreSonus mic pre, and my bass preamp. That's it! No more hardware--everything else is inside my computer. One great thing about Logic is the EXS-24 sampler. Now, I like GigaStudio on the PC, but would prefer again to have one completely integrated environment on my Mac.
I use the Vienna Symphonic sample library and cross-graded it over to the EXS platform, too, and now I can do all my GigaStudio stuff in Logic with Pro Tools as the hardware component.
There's a big part of me that just wants to see these kinds of samplers built right into Pro Tools, but they don't do it, and Logic wasn't developed by Apple, so you've got this "world of Logic" feeling about the environment that's not exactly an "Apple" kind of place. But I've learned it now and can effectively write and edit music with it.
Bass sounds have certainly progressed since the Dregs days, haven't they?
To be honest, I can't even think of the last time I heard a good bass sound at a show. Really. Maybe Satriani's guy at the Dodge Theater here in Phoenix, which is a 4,000-seat hall with a real dead-carpet sound in it. Once you reach a certain size of venue or room, getting an accurate live bass sound is almost impossible.
Have any of the computer-based bass tools helped?
As basses have gotten better over the years, and with all these plugins now, I can create pretty much any tone I can imagine out of the couple of physical basses I have. For creating harmonic lows I just have this one Roland octave box thing that works pretty good for bass, better than most of the plugins I've tried to create the octave. But I haven't tried out anything else lately, either, and it's been a few years since I've been just relying on my Roland box for those low octaves. I've been experimenting lately with this BBE Subharmonic plugin, though, and there's some other stuff from Sound Toys and others I'm looking into now, too.
So you're not playing much live bass these days?
True, but when I do I'm trying to figure out a way to play my bass through nothing but my computer onstage. There are things like [IK Multimedia] AmpliTube and Native Instruments' Guitar Rig and the Waves Guitar Rack. All of those are possibilities for front-ending my bass in a live-performance system because they're completely controllable with a lot of sound variations at your fingertips. We'll see, but I see no reason not to go that route for live and studio bass.
Describe your current bass rig.
I'm using two Bag End ELF subwoofers with two SWR 8x8 cabinets, a double stack that really sounds good. But you know what? I'm convinced that I'm the only person that hears it that way. After all these years of perfecting my bass sound live, it's just ultimately been really disappointing. I saw Tony Levin with Peter Gabriel a few years ago and thought, "If anyone has the ways and means to get a great live bass sound, it would be Tony." And it just didn't happen. You can hear his bass accurately during his solo, but the minute the band starts playing again it just went, "Bufffffffffff, booooommmm."
So you've totally made the leap to digital?
Well, I just want to be able to open my song file and have everything pick up exactly as it was when I last worked on the song. That is finally a reality these days. People just starting out in music with DAWs and such have no idea the kind of crap we all had to go through to get things this far!
Do you ever A-B compare your analog and digital tools?
There are lots of discussions about using the Pro Tools mix bus versus bypassing that and sending your [individual audio tracks] out to an SSL or Neve board and all that. To me, that's all garbage. It can all be done in a computer perfectly. For instance, I really got into this McDSP Analog Channel and putting it on the front of all my channels. It's really subtle. When you have it layered across your mix on every channel, it just changes the sound in a really interesting way. For me to think about how that sound compares to a "real" hardware analog compression tool just doesn't apply. The same is true for reverbs, too: I used [Digidesign] Reverb One and the simpler Waves reverb plugins, and now with Logic I use this convolution reverb they have built into it. Each of those has different, unique qualities you can like over any other reverbs out there.
So, to try to do an A-B, hardware-to-software comparison for me is like, "Wait a minute. Can I just quickly find a reverb sound that actually adds to the music as only that tool can?" Absolutely. Or, if I'm a guitarist, do I really need a truck to haul around my 50 guitars to each session or concert? No. Can I get by with five guitars? Probably--or do I just need one Line 6 Variax [physical modeling] guitar? With all the software innovations in sound and music composition and production today, yes, you may just need a laptop and one guitar or bass or reverb or compressor program.
What's up with the Dregs these days?
We broke up officially in 1983, and then Steve went to do the trio band and then we played again together for that Ensoniq demo song for the ASR-10 sampler. This guy at Ensoniq was a big Dregs fan and so they paid us to get back together and do this demo for their new sampler at that time. By early '92 I couldn't tour because of my programming work, so Steve kept his trio bass player and brought in Jerry Goodman [the original Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist] because Allan, the original violinist, is a pain management doctor with a practice who occasionally still plays music. So it was Steve Morse, T [Lavitz], and Rod [Morganstein] in the early '90s with Jerry on violin for a couple of albums. Then in 2000 we did a reunion tour with me and the original violinist Allan Sloan, and did an album called California Screamin' with half the original band and half the new band. Steve's been having a blast with Deep Purple since 1995 as well.
"Well, here's the deal," says Andy West: "There is no secret sauce to make things sound great. Even if I gave you exact settings, which I will, they won't sound the same for every reader. There are a variety of reasons for this, mainly having to do with the original recording and the inability to duplicate the exact sound that went down on disk originally. That being said, there are a couple of things I can say about how to 'go somewhere' with your bass sound.
"First, don't worry about getting the 'perfect sound' in the mix from the start. Just get the most full-range, versatile tone you can and lay that down. It will be easy to modify the dynamics and EQ later with plugins. Assuming you have a decent bass with a good starting tone, just getting a decent sound when recording your bass direct into a DAW is half the battle. I don't worry about anything at this point except getting a nice, full-range tone that will be easy to modify later.
"Specifically, before using any plugins, I use a really good preamp called the SWR Interstellar Overdrive and don't use a plugin on the original recording. The Interstellar is a basic tube-based preamp and I like the sound it gives. If you don't have a good direct box but your bass amp has a direct line output, just use that straight into your computer's I/O box. I have also used a mic preamp with an instrument input like the PreSonus M80 with the mic pre set up as an instrument DI.
"The basic thing here is to get a really good input sound to start. Also, the A/D converter has a huge effect on the quality. I use the top-of-the-line Digidesign 192 I/O, which sounds great in conjunction with my preamp. There are now some converters out there that cost a lot less money and might work just as well. If you just plug your bass into some crappy DI and use cheap converters, you will really have to work to get that sound where you want it."
"Though I have been doing a lot of writing and recording in Logic 7 lately, I will always mix in Pro Tools," West explains. "It is just the best mixing environment, in my opinion. I like the TDM-based plugins and it all just works.
"For starters, I really like the McDSP Analog Channel. I almost always put it first or second in my plugin chain. The effect is very subtle, but really helps the track lie in the mix and sound less brittle and harsh. I also like to use a little compression to even out the notes a little. The thing is, you don't want to take away all the dynamics--unless, of course, that is what you want. I like to use just a little to keep the bass clear in the mix. Sometimes a multiband compressor is cool, too, so you can get rid of any 'pumping' that can happen in the low end but keep the mids and highs dynamic.
"I almost always will be adjusting the bass EQ as the mix develops. Most often it is the last thing I finish. As you modify other things in the same range (mainly drums), you will find that you need to change frequency settings to keep the bass really present but not drowning everything else in that register out.
"On the song 'Perfect World' from the new Fwap CD of the same name, using my five-string GGould bass, the signal chain looks exactly like Figures 1A–C:"
"Figure 2 shows the same plugins but with the settings I used on my fretless six-string for the song 'To Serve Man':"
"As you can see, the settings are completely different--especially the EQ! My final advice on this topic is simply to experiment a lot: turn the dials radically to learn exactly what is happening, then learn how the settings interact with each other in more subtle ways. It's a fun, lifelong process--as long as your ears hold out!"
Andy West goes behind the scenes on some of his standout recordings.
|The first three (Dixie) Dregs albums were all on Capricorn Records:|
|1977||Free Fall||Our first album, really horrible recording but a lot of heart in the songs. Generally, a happy time was had by all.|
A chance to work with a real producer, Ken Scott. He is amazing and I really like the album a lot. This album is much more mature-sounding than Free Fall.
|1979||Night of the Living Dregs||Ken Scott again, this time recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, Switzerland. It was great. Unfortunately (for me, but lucky for everyone else), a lot of the bass tracks ended up being overdubbed because they either sounded bad or there were mistakes that could be easily fixed. Still, in general it captured the sound of the band live.|
|The next three Dregs albums were all on Arista Records. (Clive was actually OK in my book. Anyone who would sign the Dregs and Happy The Man had to be a little out there! Then again, he did sign O-Town.)|
|1980||Dregs of the Earth||Our first of three with Steve Morse producing.|
|1981||Unsung Heroes||Overall, my favorite Dregs album.|
|1982||Industry Standard||Our attempt to sell out with two vocal songs. "Assembly Line" is a really neat tune, however.|
|Later releases by the Dregs that were recorded while I was in the band:|
|1988||Ensoniq Promo: Dregs/Off the Record||Re-recordings of "Leprechaun Promenade" and "Take It Off the top" done at Steve's studio when we all got together for two or three days.|
|1989||The Best of the Dregs: Divided We Stand||A sampler of the Arista recordings plus a live version of "Take It Off the top." If you are only buying one album, this one represents us well. I think all are really worth having, though. :)|
|1997||King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents the Dixie Dregs||A very good live recording.|
|1997||Alive Down South||A bunch of southern rock bands recorded live at "Rebel Jam" in 1978. Contains two tracks, "Take it Off the Top" (will it never end?) and "Macon Bacon," which is not recorded anywhere else. This was the largest crowd we ever played to (Polygram Records).|
|1998||The Show That Never Ends: King Biscuit Best of Progressive Rock||Two cuts from the previously mentioned King Biscuit Flower Hour, along with ELP, Renaissance, Gentle Giant, Rick Wakeman, and Greg Lake. It's cool to be included with Gentle Giant.|
|The following four albums are with Zazen, a group that was formed in order to create some really beautiful music primarily aimed for meditation. All of the members shared a common Buddhist philosophy and spiritual teacher:|
|1992||Mystery School||Terra Nova Records|
|1995||Canyons of Light||Miramar Records|
|1997||Cayman Blue||Miramar Records|
|Various other recordings|
|1984||T Lavitz: Solo||A very cool jazz album (Landslide Records).|
|1985||Vinnie Moore: Minds Eye -||A very cool instrumental rock guitar album. The bass is a little hard to hear, though (Shrapnel).|
|1985||Steve Morse Band: High Tension Wires||One cut, "Leprechaun Promenade," originally done as part of a promo for Ensoniq.|
|1986||Crazy Backwards Alphabet||Not for the faint of heart and difficult to find (SST).|
|1986||Henry Kaiser: Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It||(SST)|
|1994||John French: Waiting on the Flame||Very interesting album with the former Captain Beefheart drummer and Henry Kaiser. I played on about half the tracks. This album ranges from almost corny folk to very experimental, out-there pieces (Demon Records).|
|1995||Paul Barrere: If the Phone Don't Ring||This is a pretty cool album if you like the Little Feat style of music. Paul used the whole Dregs rhythm section--T, Rod, and myself. (Recorded 1983; Zoo/BMG)|
|1987||Joaquin Lievano: One Mind||One cut, "An Uncommonly Fine Life" (Global Pacific Records).|
|1995||The Mistakes: The Mistakes||Again, not for the faint of heart, but well worth the effort, I think (Immune Records).|
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
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