IF YOU STEP OFFSTAGE AND SOMEONE ASKS YOU WHAT AMP OR DISTORTION BOX you used, it’s usually to compliment your playing and tone. Similarly, if you play your latest album
for someone and they ask you all about the gear you mixed it on, that probably indicates praise for
your production abilities. Alex Machacek recently enjoyed the latter scenario at his home, while
having the honor of hosting one of his biggest heroes.
“Allan Holdsworth came over, and after I played him my newest stuff, he asked to see my
studio,” says Machacek. “He was quite surprised that I had done nearly everything—including
all the mixes—with just an iMac, a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, and an audio interface. I think he liked
the simplicity of my system.”
The songs Holdsworth heard are from Machacek’s latest release, FAT [Abstract Logix], the
Austrian guitar virtuoso’s new trio album featuring bassist Raphael Preuschl and drummer Herbert
Pirker [FAT is an acronym for Fabulous Austrian Trio]. The record’s pristine mixes bolster
the argument that Machacek is the prototypical modern fusion guitar pro. Conservatory trained,
über-versatile, a master of D.I.Y., an experienced teacher, and super handy with the latest guitar
and digital audio technology, Machacek is captain of his own musical destiny.
Machachek’s last album, 24 Tales, was a fully composed affair built upon an epic drum solo
by Marco Minnemann. “That was all about overdubs and multiple layers, and it would be hard
to recreate live,” says Machacek. “With FAT, the pendulum has swung the other way, because I
wanted a lot of improvisation, long solos, and more song-oriented pieces. In fact, there is a swing
tune on it that’s actually playable!”
You live in Los Angeles and could have hired any big-name rhythm section you wanted. Why did you go back
to Austria and record there?
It kind of drives me nuts the way booking agents press so hard for an all-star band, even if the
music is already great. I think that’s because it translates to less work for them. I chose to track
with Raphael and Herbert because when I return to Vienna each year to teach, I always play with
them, and I’m telling you, these guys are cold-blooded killers. Who cares if they’re not super-famous?
They’re amazing. No matter how difficult the material is, they learn things on the spot.
Plus, they actually like to rehearse. If there are some crazy lines to play, they read ’em down, maybe
take a moment to adjust their fingerings, and then are like, “Okay, let’s go.”
Aside from rehearsal, what other sorts of preproduction
did you employ?
I sent out Logic sessions of rough arrangements
for some songs, so the guys could create
their parts ahead of time. Then, we went into
the studio and tracked for one day, because
in my line of business, that’s pretty much all
the budget allows. The main purpose of that
day was to get the drums done, and to finish
the song forms. Some songs were fully composed
going in, others were just conducted
jams. “Studio Swing” came from a chart that
had only the rhythmic kicks written out. We
just played it down using random notes. Later,
I composed everything, redid the guitars at
home, and sent it on to Raphael so he could
add new bass parts.
I tracked all of the guitar parts at home
using a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx Ultra plugged
directly into Apple Logic using an RME
Fireface UCX interface. I love that interface—
it has great mic preamps and great software
that makes it easy to set up things like different
headphone mixes. I used the Bill DeLap
chambered, headless guitar I’ve played for a
while now on every song except “Let’s Not
Argue,” which was played on a DeLap baritone.
By the way, I have one secret trick I always
do with the Axe Fx—I boost the input signal
a little by running an Xotic RC Booster pedal
in front of it. I think that makes it sound
even better. All the reverbs and other ambient
effects you hear are from Logic, or from
the Waves Diamond Bundle of plug-ins that
I treated myself to recently.
How do you recreate all that stuff live?
It’s actually pretty easy. I have the loops
saved in Apple MainStage on my laptop, and
I can control them with this cool, pressure-sensitive,
beer-proof MIDI foot controller
called the SoftStep, made by Keith McMillen
Instruments. My pedalboard is homemade—
a slab of Plexiglas with stompboxes velcroed
to it. I have a Keeley three-knob compressor,
an Xotic BB preamp, this great distortion
pedal made by a guy in Thailand called Mr.
CrazyMod, an Xotic-modded Arion SCH-Z
chorus, and the Line 6 DL4. I run them into
my Mesa/Boogie Rect-O-Verb head set clean
through a Port City 2x12 cabinet that I love.
In front of all my stompboxes is a Loop-Master
switcher that splits my signal and sends it
to my laptop so I can take advantage of Main-
Stage’s great reverbs and delays. I run those
effects in stereo to the P.A. With my guitar
amp running mono in the center, I get a cool,
stereo wet-dry-wet thing going.
I can also get synth sounds from Main-
Stage, thanks to the Roland MIDI pickup on
my guitar—which I mount non-invasively by
clamping it under one of the pickup rings—and
a Roland GI-20 MIDI converter. The laptop is
sending three stereo signals to the P.A.—the
guitar effects, the loops, and the synth sounds.
And, as elaborate as all that might seem, my
rig only takes ten or 15 minutes to set up.
On “Safe Word” and other tunes, you guys seem
to warp the meter in fun ways.
What you’re hearing on “Safe Word” is the
band splitting the quarter-note into quintuplets.
It sounds like rubber, right? It’s a trick I got from Frank Zappa, who surely got it
from someone before him. I like the whole
polyrhythm thing, because its sound is close
to human speech. Unlike most music, we
don’t speak in eighth- or sixteenth-notes. It’s
ironic—we put in all this work to play quintuplets,
just to sound more natural.
You told me you started out “transcribing Deep
Purple like every one else.” How did you evolve
from there to having such an advanced command
Well, it helped that I kept transcribing
more and more players. I burned through
cassette decks, using them until they broke
from me hitting Rewind so many times. The
game changed for me when I heard my first
Joe Pass record, a solo-guitar album called
Virtuoso. I wasn’t familiar with the musical
devices he was using—such as walking bass
lines—and it made quite an impression on
me. So I dove into jazz, learned the modes,
took lessons, studied, gigged all the time,
went to the Vienna Conservatory, got a fouryear
degree, and returned a few years later
to get an advanced degree in Jazz Education.
It helped a lot that I was from one of those
bad socialist states where education is actually
free and encouraged [laughs].
The next big game changer was hearing
Holdsworth. I had gotten to a place with Mike
Stern and John Scofield’s lines where I could
sing nearly everything they played and replicate
it on guitar. Holdsworth, though, did stuff
that was totally new to me. I started trying
out some of his exercises and approaches,
such as never playing more than three notes
in the same direction—that one drives you
crazy the first time you try it—string skipping,
and trying to visualize all the available notes
of a given scale spread across the entire fretboard.
And at a certain point I started writing
down all 12 keys in random order, and
then giving myself an assignment, like playing
Lydian while switching keys every bar—or
even every beat. It’s brutal, but it’s beautiful.
You begin to see every available note, like on
the neck of a Fretlight guitar.
Any dreams or ambitions you have yet to realize?
I think I’m already living my dream, which
is to make a living with the guitar and keep
the albums coming. I am not playing at weddings,
funerals, or divorces—I did that in my
past, and it was great, but now I play music
that I find interesting. I’m teaching [at Musicians
Institute], I tour Japan and other countries
under my own name, and I play for other
artists, too. I’m playing an upcoming prog
rock cruise with U.K., featuring Eddie Jobson,
John Wetton, and Terry Bozzio. That’s a fun
scene. You can’t escape—you’re on a boat!