FAT Fusion, Alex Machacek's High-Tech Low-Budget Prog Rock Production Practices

If you step offstage and someone asks you what amp or distortion box you used, it’s usually to compliment your playing and tone
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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.

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“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 of harmony?

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!