Kick Out the Jams
Three locals who don't make music, they make music sound better.
photograph by Amie Vanderford
Making it in music is difficult, to say the least. It’s a young person’s game, as life on the road and late nights in clubs takes its toll. But that discouraging reality doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of die-hards, and there are many ways to foster a love of music into maturity. Several Memphians have kept their musical fires burning by turning to making and servicing musical instruments.
We take a look at three people whose interest in music led them to create the tools that creators need. Mark Conley found his muse in building acoustic guitars by hand. Lyle Caldwell tuned into his technical side to develop Psionic Audio, where he modifies and repairs classic amplifiers and handcrafts the effect pedals that guitarists use to improve their tone. Gebre Waddell writes computer programs that process audio signals.
Each of these tinkerers creates tools for artists. But they approach the task and the attendent challenges in different ways. All differences aside, they make high-quality products that make Memphis sound better.
The bridge on Mark Conley’s handmade acoustic guitar looks like … well, the bridge. The bit of wood that holds the strings to the body has a familiar “M” shape that Memphians will instantly recognize as homage to the Hernando De Soto Bridge that spans the Mississippi River.
The Bluff City’s musical bug bit Conley, a Memphian by way of New York, Alaska, and Michigan. He makes a variety of acoustic instruments by hand in his home-based shop.
He came late to musical instruments and to woodworking. “I made a bookcase that fell down,” Conley says. Asked if he can play, he replies, “I can’t play enough to be dangerous. But I really enjoy the detail and building the guitars.”
That appreciation for detail comes naturally to the “son of a tool and die maker. But I wondered if I had inherited any of his talent.” Conley is a professor working in literacy and teacher education at the University of Memphis.
Conley took his pursuit seriously. He read a classic text on guitar making, Guitar Making: Tradition and Technology, by William Cumpiano, a master acoustic guitar builder. “I basically moved in with him for two weeks,” Conley says.
Even after studying with a master, making an acoustic guitar is a daunting task. “It’s one of the hardest things you could ever do. There are 200 little steps that add up to one guitar. When I began, it was frustrating. I’d build one guitar and make one set of mistakes. I’d fix all of those mistakes. Then, with the next guitar I made, I’d find a new set of mistakes. That went on for quite a while. Every time it was a new challenge.”
The task is to make a light instrument. You learn where you can take things away. The important thing is to keep building. The string tension is 250 lbs. You string it up and let it sit for a while and it becomes itself. It’s like making a stew, you start out with the best materials, but you never know what it’s going to be like.”
Conley just delivered his 40th guitar to a client. “The client wanted a guitar to celebrate the birth of his granddaughter,” he says. “We collaborated on different designs. It’s a model of the Everly Brothers J-185. I always do a historical study before I build a guitar. The guitar became wildly popular, but Gibson only made 200 of them and stopped making them for 30 years.”
“I’ve given away a couple of guitars a year to the Madonna Learning Center auction. I’m not trying to become the next Gibson or Martin. It’s just enjoyment.”
Pricing them can be difficult. “Some hand builders charge $5,000 or $6,000,” Conley says. So, I went through a little bit of angst over that. Martin’s charging about $2,600 for a D-28. So what seems reasonable? If I did it full-time, without finishing, building a guitar takes two weeks. It takes another two weeks to finish it. So it’s a good month of work on my part.”
Conley has little desire to make an electric. “I started one but got bored. They’re too easy. I started a Les Paul, but it still sits in the shop.”
But he’s not through exploring. “Bazukis, mandolins, in the process of making a Dobro. I’ve just got to follow my curiosity.”
Caldwell has always been a problem-solver. He earned an English degree, but he wound up working as a computer consultant for IBM.
“It’s the same kind of problem-solving,” Caldwell says, comparing the analysis of computing problems to designing audio circuits. Not only are the problems similar, so are the cultures. “There are so many forums where people post circuits.”
Caldwell is a musician and followed a familiar path into tinkering with circuits and electronic signals: His gear broke down and he taught himself how to fix it.
“I started off like most others, a musician without any money. I couldn’t afford to have it fixed,” he says, recalling his elbow-grease years spent teaching himself. “I used library books. I reinvented a couple of wheels.”
Caldwell found traction in a niche of the guitar effect market. The Edge, U2’s guitarist, has an iconic sound that features a delayed signal: When a note is played, a signal processor called a delay waits for an interval of milliseconds or seconds and repeats the signal, generating an echo effect. Think of U2’s guitar sound from the later ’80s. The piece of gear responsible for the sound is the SDD-3000, manufactured by Korg. Based on U2’s popularity, the pedal developed its own fanbase and became an eBay holy grail. Vintage Guitar magazine rated the effect among its Top 25 most valuable effects, citing a price range of $775 to $925.
“U2 [fans] started snapping them up. A working pedal that was 20 years old was going for $900. I looked up the circuit and realized that it was the preamp that people loved,” he says.
With that insight, Caldwell turned his attention to the needs of working players. He found two Nashville professional guitarists and worked with them on how to deliver the coveted tone to a work-friendly environment for pros.
“Players want to know what they can get on a pedal board?” he says. Caldwell also chose to favor quality over price as his market-positioning strategy. His pedals cost more than those available in the big-box and online retailers, but players appreciate the difference.
“Many are putting a fancy paint job onto the same circuit that everybody is making,” Caldwell says. “A big company is using a one-cent part. We use a $5 op-amp. Most are 30 cents.”
He says most players don’t mind the increase in price, because of the better sound. Caldwell’s company, Psionic Audio, makes three pedals and has designs for eight more. His enclosures are made in Tennessee.
Caldwell sources and sells his products globally, which has its benefits as well as difficulties. “People around the world know my product. Fifty percent of sales to the European Union have tapered off. Some of my components come from Asia, which was hit by the tsunami.”
Caldwell makes the pedals by hand and sells direct over the internet. He sees his role more as the designer and less as the production crew. “I can only make so many myself. If I had my way, I would gear up and make 1,000 units.”
Gebre Waddell is a renaissance man: a writer, audio engineer, and computer programmer. Waddell owns Stonebridge Mastering, where he prepares mixed audio for broadcast and for final output like a CD or a vinyl record. In fact, he wrote the book on the topic. Waddell also has used his programming skills to make a series of plug-ins, computer programs that process digital audio.
Waddell came by this task naturally. “I’ve been programming since the age of six,” he says. “We had an old TI computer hooked up to the TV. I programmed all through middle school and high school. At 15, I made a game in C++.”
Waddell attended the University of Memphis with a single-minded pursuit, to start a business.
So Waddell did, creating a mastering studio in his home. It wasn’t easy at first. “I ruined a few records in the early days,” he jokes. But his big break came when he got a job for Public Enemy, then another involving John Tesh and Ringo Starr.
Once, all music was recorded to analog tape and mastered to vinyl records. In the ’90s, digital technology advanced to the point that computer-based music was an acceptable substitute. By 2000, digital recording was the norm and offered several improvements over the analog production process. People will always use tape and make physical records, but Pro Tools and computers became the industry standard.
Computers offered the emulation of instruments in small programs called plug-ins, which mimic instruments and signal processors. In plug-in design, Waddell had his second major success. In 2006, he developed Reason Rhodes, a plug-in that mimicked the classic Fender Rhodes electric piano. It was a hit and made the cover of Keyboard magazine.
Waddell next set his sights on writing a book about mastering. “Mastering can be a bit of mystery,” he says. “The information was never really put out there.” A recording consists of tracking (the actual recording), mixing of the tracks, and mastering. Often, the balance of track sounds in a mix is too loud or not loud enough, and the room where tracks are mixed can introduce sonic artifacts. Mastering lets engineers fix these issues and conform a mix to broadcast or duplication standards.
Waddell’s book Complete Audio Mastering: Practical Techniques was published by McGraw-Hill in July 2013. It’s the first book on the topic published by a major publisher. Waddell developed two plug-ins that go along with the book.
That process led to further study and bigger things. “When I started the book, I was looking at what processes would be the most important and how to make the algorithms better,” Waddell says. Programmers use algorithms to model analog processors and create digital processors.
While his next plug-in remains under wraps, Waddell has signed a deal with German company Brainworx. “They loved the idea,” Waddell says. I’m going to Germany to work on promo videos. I have a working prototype I use daily. They will work up a multiplatform version with additional features. It will be released under the Brainworx brand.”
His success has not diminished his desire to keep learning and innovating. “If you’re going to be any good at mastering, you have to get deep into lots of stuff. I want to know as much as possible.”