Gear Talk: Adam Fox

afox1This is the second installment of the interview series, we’re talking to Adam Fox.  Adam is renowned as a musician, producer and voiceover talent.  Part of a musical household, Adam has been involved in music & performance since early childhood.  He’s been deeply involved in audio production as well as songwriting for decades.  Adam’s gained the acclaim of guitarists worldwide in 1998, as part of a very select group of 7-string players chosen to be part of the “Generation Ibanez Project” tribute to Steve Vai.  Since that time, he’s released three CDs and is currently working on his fourth, titled “Back to Myself.”

Please check him out at his website, AdamCFox.com

 

 

photo credit: Michael Davis Photography

 

Adam’s virtual rig – the Digidesign Eleven:

Ratkowski Capture 1
Ratkowski Capture 2
Ratkowski Capture 3

DP: Your musical history is pretty well documented, so please start off by letting us know what you’re up to lately.

Adam Fox: Well.. at the moment, I’m in the midst of production for my latest Instrumental CD, “Back To Myself”, which I’m really enjoying. There will be some great music and it truly is an album title that is reflective of the material contained within. I spent several years out of the loop, I stepped back for a bit to deal with some personal things at home, among them my mother’s battle with Breast Cancer.

During that time when I was taking her for daily treatments, I would sit in the waiting room or in the hospital when she found herself there, and had time to reflect on my life, where I was and what my own mortality was all about. It’s pretty unavoidable to have that stuff rolling through your head when you lost your Father to Lymphoma Cancer, and are now facing Mom with Breast Cancer that was pretty aggressive. I used the Voice Recorder on my iPhone, as I always do when I have a musical idea, to arrange the musical snipits that came from that process.. Sometimes I would go to a stairwell in the hospital or step outside the cancer treatment facility so as not to look like a crazy person to those around me.

That’s where all this material came from, my reflections on my life the last 12 years or so since I had moved from San Diego to Southern Oregon, what that journey had entailed and how it had changed me as a person. I found myself with a TON of material, but at the time I was putting it all down in that rough, on the back of the napkin form as it were, I wasn’t conscious of the volume or type, I literally did not have the emotional capacity to understand what I had while dealing with Mom’s 3 major surgeries, 6 weeks of radiation therapy and assorted stays in the hospital.

DP: That’s definitely a major mental load.  What was it like trying to get back into being a musician?

AF: Well, when I looked back, after all that was over, and I had the ability to put my headspace right again, I went.. “Oh Crap, I’ve got to do another full length album and then some” .. Hence, “Back To Myself” was born, and I went to work. There are some great guest appearances on this album, because part of that process of reflection made me think that I really missed just playing with my friends, and in the business part of this business, I had somehow lost the objectivity and the “fun” of it all after almost 30 years as a musician.

DP: So the big focus was around just trying to enjoy music again?

AF: Absolutely.. I really wanted to get back to that.. so I started making some inquiries and was pleasantly surprised to have my friends be overly willing and want to jump right on this project. I started with Eric Sands, from Generation Ibanez fame and the monster Prog Rock Band, “Man On Fire”. I didn’t want to ask too much, so I asked if maybe he’d like to play some fretless on a track, and his response was.. “I’ll do the whole album if you want man..” so there it was, and he provides all the bass playing on the whole album. I also have been so fortunate to have my friends Rob Balducci and Mike Martin from Favored Nations and Matt King of Earthman sign on to make guest appearances, and my Nephew, Doug Alcantara from the San Diego band, “Terra Firma” will be supplying all the drums, and he’s a total monster behind a kit.

Also making an appearance will be another musical nephew of mine, Nicholas Alcantara, the guitar player from Terra Firma and up and coming guitar monster in his own right, yes I come from a musically talented family, starting with my Father who was a pro jazz drummer in his day playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and others and running a vein through to me and then my nephews. My dream band lineup that I hope to achieve at some point will be Doug on Drums, another Nephew, Thad Wilson from the San Diego band Evolve on Bass, Nick on Rhythm Guitar and me. Yeah.. I know very partridge family.. but with 7 strings.. I’m also working on a complete remix and remaster of “Songs in the Key of 7” from 2000 for a rerelease in between breaths.

DP: Moving to tone, much of your sound comes from the Eleven – which gives endless combinations of tones – but if you had to pick a fundamental set of effects you’re always using on the Eleven, what are they?

AF: Well, I think it’s important to look at what the fundamental change was in what I was looking for when I made the decision to retool my studio setup and overall sound. I wanted something that was going to give me a boutique sound, but with the functionality of a modern protools interface.

I heard some great stuff about the Eleven Rack when it first came out, so I started checking out Sean Halley on YouTube, he’s their main product specialist for the Eleven Rack and I was amazed at what it did, and more importantly how it sounded. Over the years, a lot of my recordings have ended up being direct using amp modelers by necessity because when I was living in apartments, my neighbors didn’t want to hear my live rig complete with my old 69’ Marshall 4×12 16ohm cab cranked and miked.. it had a tendency to vibrate the whole complex when I would want some volume.. and I’ve never been one for Power Soaks or Brakes, they just have always produced a staticy sound and just have always pulled my ear.

So in doing my research into the Eleven Rack, it was important that it sounded live like it did on the YouTube vids and sound samples that we all know can sound great when recorded in a million dollar studio by protools experts, but when you get them, they have excessive digital artificating and don’t sound natural.

Natural was my big criteria, and I liked the fact that the entire approach of the Eleven Rack was to bring classic sounding amps and effects that have that natural sound that more people are coming back to these days, and away from the over shred tone, which is not really what I do.. although they did have patches that could do that, but the primary focus it seemed by the development team was that natural, classic, boutique amp and effect sound and I liked that.

The effects within the unit itself that I tend to gravitate toward most often would have to be the analog boutique chorus, and the tape delay which is modeled after the Echoplex, and what I found most amazing when it showed up at the house, is that the tape delay IS exactly what the Echoplex sounds like. I’ve worked around music gear my whole life, and while working in this music store when I was a kid in San Diego, they specialized in classic gear, so I’ve had my hands on plenty of Echoplexes over the years and the Eleven Rack interface works exactly like the physical box does, and all the knobs and control changes produce exactly the same effect. It really blew me away.

So I have a basic pedal board setup, consisting of classic effects and classic amps, but with the added bonus of being a full Protools interface and completely controllable with my Ground Control.

DP: How are you using the Eleven live? Do you have to do much in the way of on-stage adjustments or can you make it through a show by just switching presets?

AF: I touched on this just prior to, and what a great question.. Yes the Eleven Rack is also the root of my live rig which everything else is built around.. I’ve been planning my rig retooling while I’m working on the new album. Another great feature is that you can select the output of the Eleven Rack to be set for studio, direct out to the monitors, amp head and speaker modeling or just the effects and amp without cabinet emulation.

It allows you to walk into a small venue that you can’t fit your live rig on stage without standing on top of the drummers cymbals, (The source of the partial loss in my right ear) and tell the sound guy that you’ll plug your low z outputs into the stage snake and you’ll hear yourself really well in the monitors just by setting a switch inside the unit itself.

As for MIDI and effect control, I can select my ground control to be merely a MIDI switcher, or I can set it up to be a MIDI controller and pedal board allowing me to turn on and off individual effects within the rig setup live on the fly at the push of a button just like a regular pedal board. This was a HUGE fundamental change from what I’ve always had. It’s always been patch change to get another sound.

Now I can have more control over my sound and effects without having to setup 100 presets just because I want a chorus on this tone, but not on this one..

DP: Since you’re a big seven string player, how does the low B string factor into your choices for effects and other characteristics of your tone?

AF: Well.. the way I use the 7 string, I haven’t really found that it affects my choices for effects, except maybe my Whammy Pedal. I use the Octave down a lot when I track, cause I just love the way it sounds and always have even when I didn’t have a Whammy pedal to do it with and I was just using my Intellifex with an octave preset.

This is easily incorporated into the Eleven Rack though through the Full stereo effects looping that’s built into the unit, and I find that the only pedal I have to hook up in addition to my MIDI controller is the Whammy, which can also be MIDI’d up to the Eleven rack as well with the MIDI Thru, making my whole thing hands free.

I don’t find that the low B really changes the way I approach the creation and coloring of my tone, because I’ve always pretty much stayed away from the heavier type of tonal destruction, cause it’s just not what I do. I’ve got a Jazz background and my approach to the 7 string tends to be more chordal and modal rather than using it as a jam string to hold up the structure of a tune.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing sounds more badass and I use the low B a lot, but I find that most of the time I use it as a writing and arrangement tool to give me more choices, rather than using it to drive the rhythm and structure of the song. I have a healthy respect for that, and I’d love to look into doing some 8 and 9 string experimentation, but my music has always been melodic and sing songy in structure. I’m the last person to call myself a shredder and I suspect that my approach wouldn’t change with an 8 or 9 string either.

DP: Whether it’s electronic percussion on your older recordings or just several guitars layered at once, you’ve got a lot of background sound to contend with. What do you think is most critical to get your guitar to stand out in the mix?

AF: Great question! So often I hear recordings where the guitars are so loud that you only really hear the lead itself, even when there’s such great polyrhythm and structure underneath that I want to hear more interaction with.

I have a condition called Synesthesia, and basically what that is consists of a crossing of certain neural pathways that make me perceive various types of input be they sound, visual, smell, etc. in a way that most people don’t. It’s different in everyone who is affected, so you may get people that see music, or smell color, etc. I know, weird stuff but as I was growing up, I had always been very sensitive to loud sounds. If there was a place that was crowded that I would go and it was just “Too Much” I would have to leave and never understood why it was just an overload to me.

Well, one day while working on some music in the studio I said to a friend who was there.. “Wow.. check out how those two colors mix together on this track” and my friend looked at me like I was high.. I said.. “Don’t you see that?, I’ve never seen that color before!” Again, the high look and finally he said.. “Dude it’s just music, what have you been smoking” I said “Nothing” and explained to him what I was seeing. He told me that he didn’t “See” the music he just heard it and was enjoying it just fine, but maybe I was having a stroke and should get checked out.. when I assured him that this is the way I’ve always perceived music and sound, he made comments that my life must be one big acid trip or maybe I dropped one too many tabs in my youth.

I told him I’d never done acid nor would I ever want to, but I started to worry that what I was seeing was maybe a big brain tumor or something, not knowing of the condition at the time as is the case with most synesthetes. So not having medical insurance, I went to the library, (yes this was before the Internet, and yes I know I’m old.. lol) and started doing some research. I discovered that indeed this was a condition and not the way that all people perceive the world around them. I was just glad it wasn’t a tumor.

DP: It’s amazing we were able to survive before WebMD, haha.  How did this new knowledge impact your approach to music?

AF: Ha Ha, yeah amazing what did we do before the net and when there were no smart phones.. just phones..  Well I started putting together why as a child, I would just get to a point of sensory overload and have to leave a particular place because it just became too much. Fast forward to how I mix the large and very complex sonic landscapes I make, and not only did I realize that this was not only a blessing not a curse, but it made me realize that my writing was a direct reflection of that.

I write and mix the way I do, because I see the confluence of sounds and I just kinda “Know” when it’s right by how the vibrations fit together.. Call it a mathematical representation that my brain calculates differently than others. I came to understand that’s why my sonic landscapes are as rich as they are, and why I want the guitar to “Fit” right into the middle of that rather than to be so out in front that the other stuff gets lost in the fray cause everyone’s focusing on the lead only. It’s like a painting, you want the appearance of texture and depth but it still has to remain in a 2 dimensional medium. My style is more to make the lead part of the overall picture rather than the feature player. Plus I’m just glad it wasn’t a tumor.

DP: On some early tracks I’ve heard from your new album, it sound as though you’ve switched gears from a very electronic sound to more acoustic sounds. How has this changed your approach to your guitar tone?

AF: Actually I haven’t really changed much of what I do, just the way I approach it. I still have material on this new album that will have a heavy electronic feel and texture. One tune in particular, “Transfusion” is the result of my experimentation with the huge variety of virtual instruments that I have in Protools, and how cool some of the sampling and chopping/beatcutting tools are to use.

However, I really did want to put forth a more organic sound with this album, and the tracks that I’ve sent you are really just the demos to hand out to all the musicians involved in the project, and a roadmap for the Drum Tracking. When I get Doug into the studio to cut all the drums, it’s going to really liven up the sound, far better than I can do with “Strike” the virtual drummer I have in Protools.

It’s the most fantastic virtual drummer I’ve ever used, and because I’ve always done my personal solo material all by myself in the past, I find that it’s just easier for me to map out and arrange my ideas that way. When I’m working with a hip hop or electronica track, I’m all about building on that sample, or that breakdown, like in “Hatched” the sample in that track is its’ own instrument, and has a life of its’ own. I cut that together, manually, 8 measures at a time in Sound Forge, because there really wasn’t great recording software in 98 when I was putting it together.. or that I could afford of course on a musicians living.

I’m an old school guy in approach, because I learned to cut audio tape from my father when I was very young and that has mapped out my approach to what I do regardless of the sophistication of the toolset I’m using at the time. I still approach it like I’m cutting tape, and maybe that’s why I get the feel I do. That organic sound also drives my change in guitar tone. There have been a lot of pieces of gear over the years I would have loved to have, but just couldn’t afford it trying to keep my bills paid, work as a musician and have that freedom while still meeting my responsibilities.

My gear has always been a collection of chewing gum and electrical tape, just there to get the job done with the budget I had to work with. It’s never been an issue with me, because I’ve had a lot of experience with just about every piece of gear out there, and was fortunate enough through the years to have companies like me, get what I was doing and were willing to help me get there. Like Digitiech, I did a lot of development stuff for them over the years, just at the artist level.

DP: Whoa, what?

AF: Oh yeah.. I got hooked up with Digitech in the late 80’s (when they were still doing both DOD and Digitech was their new venture into more professional type gear aimed at professional and working players), through a product specialist that would come and do demos at our music store. His name is Michael Dowdle, a truly amazing musician in his own right and he and I just hit it off and became friends. He hooked me up with the corporate folks, because I was gigging a lot and they figured since I was moving a lot of their gear in the store, and could pretty much be a product specialist myself, I’d be a perfect way for them to get real world players to provide feedback for them for how the gear performed in a live atmosphere.

Now, this was the early 90’s, so there wasn’t a huge endorsement mechanism in place like there is now. They’d send me a box, I would program it with cool sounds and send it back to them, and when the product came out they would send me a production model. That’s the way it was with the DSP 128, 256, GSP21, etc., So I was able to put my hands on things of a sufficient technical nature over the years, but I don’t know what I would have done with myself if someone came to me and said “Hey, go get what you want and Don’t worry about the cost, we got this” My tone really over the years has consisted of getting this box of tinkertoys, and working until I find a sound that hits me in the soul. Who knows maybe someday someone will throw a bunch of gear my way, and I still won’t know what to think of it.

DP: A few of your songs feature melodies that really use a whammy pedal. To my ears, it sounds like those lines just wouldn’t sound right without the whammy (Steely, for example). Do you write lines with the effect turned on? Or are you just envisioning what effects will be added at some point in the writing process?

AF: Another great question. Well, I’m very much an improvisational player and when I write it’s not to sit down and say.. Ok I’m going to use this scale and this chord structure. I learned to read and write music at a very early age, but I can honestly say that’s not at all how I approach the writing process.

I’m not one of those guys that charts everything out, although I have huge respect for guys like Steve (Vai) and Herbie Hancock who can sit down and translate what they hear in their head onto the page so quickly. Just blows me away. I am however, at the point in my life, for better or worse, that just skips that whole step, and gets to the fleshing out part. It just feels more natural to me to write as I go, rather than have something mapped out and framed in.

Perhaps it’s a detriment, and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot, but it just feels disingenuous for me to approach it like that. I’ve never done that in a band situation, it’s always been a collective effort or if someone has a tune, we just map it out as we go, and that has continued with my solo writing. I figure if someone wants to read what I did, I’ll ask one of my uber smart friends that has a way better command of it than I do to chart it all out for me.

DP: Composing everything is great for remembering things, but I definitely agree that it makes things tough if you favor improv.

AF: Totally, I mean, I understand the argument that it’s great for structure to have everyone on the same page, but I don’t want that with what I do.

In point of fact, it’s the polar opposite of what I do. That’s where my Miles Davis inspiration comes in. I love Herbie Hancock, and I was watching his documentary “Possibilities” one day, and of course he was in Miles Davis’ band for a very long time and learned to cut his teeth with Miles and those inspirations have followed him throughout his career with projects like the Headhunters, and his work with Trey Anastasio, someone I’d love to work with some of these days. It was pretty much the entire inspiration for his Possibilities record, to get together with people that he wouldn’t normally work with like John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Trey, Paul Simon, Sting, etc., book some time in the studio and see what happens.

He said in the documentary about Miles, that Miles paid everyone to practice on stage every night. He didn’t want everyone to practice in their rooms and then come to the stage with preconceived notions. If he heard something that was rehearsed, out it went. I went.. “Yeah, someone who gets what I’m trying to do” it was at that point I realized how deep my Jazz roots go even though I apply the lessons of Jazz without being strictly a Jazz guitar player.

DP: That’s a great example, so much great jazz is about having a chord chart, a melody and the really good stuff just happens in the moment.

AF: Exactly, and sometimes not even a melody just a chordal framework.. It’s the Approach in what you do that gives you what you get.. I want everyone to feel free to put their own stamp on things, because as the music grows and changes, it develops it’s own personal character of inspiration and that’s more exciting to me to just be the way it is rather than trying to force a fresh approach to the same piece of music night after night and album after album. I don’t know, it probably makes me less of a musician in some people eyes, but I really don’t care, it’s just how I am. J

That’s where the effects come in, since I don’t sit down and chart stuff out, I get inspired by the sounds and effects and what they do to the tone, rhythm and story of the piece. That’s what drives my whole inspiration, what the sound is like, rather than the scale or mode I’m playing in.

The entire “Songs In The Key Of 7” album was an experimentation in just that. I wanted it to be an homage to the greats like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker who felt that the blue notes and playing in the cracks were where all the really cool and far out experimental material was.

I left mistakes in there on purpose, because the take would have the sound and the feel that I was looking for. I wanted to take the Mechanical of the Electronica, Hip Hop and Techno of the day and apply an Organic, Natural quality to it. You’ll notice in “Steely” as you mention, that the guitar parts are written like horn parts, and the Whammy was a great way for me to express that energy I was looking for.

I went a little crazy with the Whammy pedal on that record as I look back in retrospect, but on the flip side of the coin, it wouldn’t have been the same record without it.. period. So if I’m not being my own worst critic, which I usually am, I would have to say that I wouldn’t want to touch one single note or fix one thing on that album because that would be the piece that makes the Jenga fall down. I am finding that as I go through the remixing and remastering of that Ablum right now in my studio.

DP: On one of your newer tracks, Fratricide, you feature a very 60’s sounding tremolo rhythm tone and a a tweedy lead. Are you doing more with guitar sounds of the past or is this just something that worked on this particular song?

AF: No you’re exactly right, the Eleven Rack, because of how it’s all put together has afforded me the opportunity to re-approach some of these great amps I played in music stores I worked in and always wanted to own but could never afford.

They went with the approach to take several of the most sought after amps and effects in history and do complete point to point true recreations of them, rather than jamming the box full of everything that they could including the kitchen sink because they wanted to compete with another piece of gear. The result is that the thing sounds freaking amazing.

Transparent and clean, with very little artifacting, in fact it’s so small that it actually adds color to the mix like a classic amp would if you mic’d it rather than having everything sound so perfect that it could balance on the edge of a razor blade.

I like the perfection in imperfection, really gives me wood when I hear it back in the mix. The tone on Fratricide is an AC30 patch with vibrato and some light MXR Compression. As you can see from the screen shots I’ve provided, the effects even have the same appearance as the original gear they’re modeled after.

I can’t talk about the tone on that song though without talking about the guitar I’m using which is a HUGE factor in how I get that sound. I’m using one of my Ibanez Sabre’s from the 90’s, with a unique pickup configuration with Seymour Duncans. I use a JB in the bridge, an older Alnico Pro in the middle position and my favorite pickup of all time, the SM-1 Mini Humbucker in the neck all with mini switches to give me great combinations that aren’t normally possible with a straight 5 way switch.

DP: Oh those Sabres were cool!  What pickup setup were you using on that track?

AF: It’s the one in the press pic I sent ya, the tone you’re hearing on the rhythm is the Mini Hum on in the Neck and the Middle Alnico on, with the JB in the bridge in split mode. It makes this really unique bell tone strat sound that I don’t really get out of any of my other guitars unless I wire them the way I like.

I’ve been using Duncan’s for a very long time, and they’ve made some really great stuff in the custom shop for me over the years too. I have the first 2 sets of 7 String Pickups they ever made, one set in my Lava Monster and the other in the Alien Tongue 7 string I have. They had to cut 2 sets of 6 string plates and hardware to make them wide enough and you can still see where they put them together, but they sound amazing. I attribute my sound just as much to their pickups as I do any piece of gear. I just like the way that they sing and resonate.

I’m doing a lot more with amp and rig setups now that I have an all in one box that actually does what it advertises, and as well as it advertises. I couldn’t be happier with the Eleven Rack and the totality of my circumstances when it comes to the gear I’ve got and what it can do for me.

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