Blog Archive

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mitch Gallagher discusses Sweetwater , his new book , and gear

INTERVIEW WITH Mitch Gallagher

MGS - Today we are here with musician, author, and Editorial Director for Sweetwater, Mitch Gallagher.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Mitch

MG - Thank you, I'm happy to be here!

MGS - Can you fill us in on your previous jobs and what led you to being the face of Sweetwater ?

MG - Well, I'm not sure I'm really the face of Sweetwater — the real face of Sweetwater is, of course, Chuck Surack, the founder and president — but I do appear in many of the product demos and publications, and I host the weekly Sweetwater Minute videos, so I guess maybe it seems that way. 

Let's's sort of a long story; I'll try to condense it down! It's funny how so many things I've done over the years play into what I do now. It's actually something I tell my students and those who ask for career advice: never pass up an opportunity to do or learn something new, you never know where it will lead or when you will use it.

I started out as a guitar player from Jamestown, North Dakota, studied electrical engineering and computer programming in college, then dropped out to hit the road with rock and country bands. I went back and got my degree in music, and while doing that taught recording and synthesis at the college and also taught 30 guitar students a week, as well as playing as many gigs as I could.

I went to grad school to study music composition and classical guitar, and built my first project studio, where I recorded albums and did parody songs for radio stations — I would re-create all the parts for a song, then the station would drop their own lyrics in on top of it. I learned a lot doing that, about arranging, recording, and more. I was playing in bands, and was also working at a music store selling gear.

I grew tired of academia, and saw an ad in a magazine for a place called Sweetwater, applied, and was hired. This was in 1992, and I was the fifth Sales Engineer. This was pretty early on, and the company had just moved into their first building out of Chuck Surack's house. There were 15 or so people working here then. Now we have something like 500 employees.

Anyway, I worked in sales for several years, then moved to the marketing department, where I did the first catalog and helped with the first website. I, and another early Sales Engineer, David Stewart (who is now a VP of Sales here) also started "Sweetwater University," which is still the company's training program for new Sales Engineers.

In 1998, I had the opportunity to be the Senior Technical Editor at Keyboard magazine (strange for a guitar player, I know, but I was always really into MIDI, synths, and computers). I did that for a few years, then was appointed the Editor in Chief of EQ magazine. I wrote tons and tons of articles and reviews, and interviewed a lot of artists, engineers, and producers. During that time, I had my studio and was playing guitar, too. And, I started writing books on music technology.

In 2005, the magazine industry took a down turn, and all the corporate stuff finally wore me out. I contacted Chuck and within a couple of weeks I was back here at Sweetwater for the second time. 

MGS - Many of our readers will know you for the Sweetwater gear demos and writing the mailings we get from Sweetwater. Can you tell us about your day-to-day duties there ? 

MG -  Honestly, I probably have the coolest job in the world, and it's one that really brings together all the things I love to do: playing music, checking out new gear, writing, doing videos, educating, working in the studio, and more. I get to check out new products before they are released, so a big part of my job is learning about and evaluating the new toys. For me, it's a dream job.

My job is Editorial Director, which basically means that I'm in charge of anything with words that goes out of here. So I oversee the content for the catalogs, the SweetNotes print newsletter, some of the website, the e-mails, and so on. I also write the daily inSync internet newsletter, which I actually started for the company back in the mid-'90s. I do our weekly Sweetwater Minute videos — we've done more than 120 of those — and a lot of product videos as well. I write quite few articles for the newsletters, catalogs, e-publications, and website.

I'm busy outside of Sweetwater, as well. I write a monthly column for Premier Guitar magazine, contribute to several other magazines, write books, and I'm on the faculty at Indiana/Purdue University where I teach audio recording and music business classes. Plus, I have a band and make music in my studio.

MGS - Having been there myself I can attest to the Sweetwater complex is mind blowing to see in real life. I even met Brent Mason there one day. What is the most rewarding part of your job ?

MG - Thank you, it is a pretty spectacular facility. But it was all designed and built for one purpose: to help the company and the employees work efficiently, so we can serve customers better. There are a lot of perks to working at Sweetwater, and the people who work here tend to be really happy in their careers. I think it shows in how we deal with our customers. The Sweetwater campus is a big part of that.

The most rewarding thing is how much we touch musician's lives and work. Maybe it seems sappy to say it, but it's so cool to know that you're a part of someone's creative work and that you're helping them realize their dreams. I hear from a lot of customers, and it's so great to hear what a new guitar or amp or piece of gear meant to what they could do with their music. We're all musicians here, so that means a lot to us.

MGS - This time of the year is hectic I imagine more so for you. What does Sweetwater do to gear up for the holidays ?

MG - It is super busy this time of year, both because of the holidays and also because of the end of the tax year, and a lot of companies are getting their purchases in for tax reasons. So things get cranking! But, we have a well-oiled infrastructure in place and plan way in advance — we know what to expect and how to prepare for it. So, with all that advance work, it goes smoothly. I'm not saying we don't have to ramp it up at this time of year and work even harder, but it's controlled; there is no panic.

MGS - Your love for guitar is very obvious. What are your top 3 favorite guitars right now and why ?

MG - Wow, that's a really tough one. Working at Sweetwater is a little like working in a candy store; you're constantly tempted by the latest and greatest new toys! There are so many great options out there for guitars right now, at every price point. I mean, the guitar I started on, a cheap Encore Les Paul copy, was pretty awful — I still have it. Today, you can get a guitar for half the price I paid for it that is a far superior instrument. 

For me personally, I've been rediscovering the classic guitars. Martins, Gibsons, Fenders, Gretsches, and so on. There was a reason those models were and are such great successes. But then you see how good the guitars are from Ibanez, Schecter, Godin,'s really hard for me to nail it down to three. And, I have a soft spot for PRS guitars, because I've known Paul Smith for quite a while and I think he is making modern classics. I also really respect my friend Abraham Wechter's talent. He's making some innovative acoustic and electric models. They're all so good.

Having given that non-answer, there are particular things I personally look for in an electric solidbody guitar, such as a lot of acoustic resonance and sustain, low-to-moderate output pickups, and so on. Other things, such as neck shape, have become less critical to me than how the instrument responds to my touch.

I will say this: my current favorite guitar is one I just got, a Martin baritone 12-string acoustic. I was at the Martin factory and played it there, and it haunted me for weeks. I ended up having to buy it. It's the biggest sounding, loudest acoustic guitar you ever heard. It so inspiring to play!

MGS - I see Sweetwater just took on a friend of ours, Pigtronix pedals. Have you had a chance to play any yet ?

MG - Yeah, man! I met David from Pigtronix a few years ago and have been watching his company and pedals. I'm really glad we're carrying them. I love that there's always a twist — their pedals seem sort of like regular pedals until you dig in, then you find there's some unusual capabilities or unique things you can do with them. They're a lot of fun. David sent me a box with every one of their pedals in it for review and for videos. I'm having a blast!

MGS - What is your favorite cover song to play ?

MG - I've got a band made up of guys from here at Sweetwater — there are so many incredible musicians and engineers here! We do Gov't Mule, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, Pat Travers, those sorts of things. My favorite one right now is Warren Haynes' version of "Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday," which is his cover of an old Booker T and the MGs song. It's a chance to do a bunch of harmony vocals with extended soloing...lots of fun!

MGS - Can you tell us about your home studio ?

MG - It's actually in flux right now. For years, I had it set up to do projects for outside people, so I collected a lot of gear to cover any situation. Recently, I made the decision to focus on my own music. So I've let a ton of gear go. I'm focusing on the gear I need for specific tasks: recording vocals, tracking electric and steel-string and classical guitars, recording bass. For drums I go to an outside studio. I'm working on Pro Tools and PreSonus Studio One with a bunch of software synths. I've got a couple of mic preamps; an A Designs Pacifica (great for electric guitar) and a Universal Audio LA-610 (excellent for recording bass direct). I use Focal and JBL monitors, Royer and Neumann mics. Then I mix using Pro Tools and Universal Audio plug-ins and Dangerous Music summing and monitoring.

I've got it streamlined down to the essentials that let me get work done quickly, with good sound quality. I've tried to make the studio as efficient as possible so I can be as productive as I can be in the time I have.

MGS - Have you ever gotten starstruck with any of the musicians that visit there ?

MG - It's a real thrill to meet and talk with Joe Satriani, Stanley Clarke, John Jorgenson, Victor Wooten, Adrian Belew, David Grissom, the guys from Megadeth, Alan Parsons...but it's more excitement than being starstruck. Over the years, I've been fortunate to meet so many of my heroes, in the guitar and keyboard worlds and in the engineer/producer world, and to even become friends with some of them. As a side note, I have to say, all of the musicians and engineers who have come here have been really nice and really generous with their time.

Here's a story where I was sort of starstruck, though, if you'll forgive the name dropping: When I was the editor of EQ magazine, I ended up at Billy Bob Thornton's place after a trade show one night. Billy bought Slash's old mansion, which was formerly film producer Dino De Laurentiis' home, I think. Slash had built a killer studio in the basement, and Billy's a serious musician and songwriter, so he moved right in. Anyway, I walk in, and the first person I meet after Billy is Dwight Yoakam. I sit down on the couch between the guys from Barenaked Ladies and Warren Zevon. About 2 am Daniel Lanois came in, and I'm a huge fan of his work so I was even more "struck" at that point. Billy showed us his motorcycles, we played billiards, then we went down to the studio where he had me sit in the engineer's chair while he blasted his new album at UNGODLY volume levels over the big studio monitors. It was a memorable night!

MGS - Anything funny happen to you there over the years ?

MG - We work really hard here, but we also have a lot of fun, so yeah, there are some great stories. Something I thought was funny was a musician came in to do a clinic recently and he refused to do an interview with me because he was afraid of tiring his voice...and he wasn't a vocalist. That cracked me up; I've heard lots of reasons to not do an interview before, but that was a new one.

MGS - I see you just released a new book. Can you please tell us about it and where we can get it ?

MG - Sure, thanks for asking! It's my seventh book. My previous ones were about recording, studio acoustics, etc. But this one is about guitars, so it's a return to my original passion. The title is Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Guitar Sound.

 It covers all of the elements that make up a guitar tone: guitar types, pickups, electronics, woods, hardware, amps, tubes, speakers, pedals and effects, cables, picks, everything from beginning to end. Then there's a section on how major artists get their tones; people like Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen, Brad Paisley, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Eric Johnson, Allan Holdsworth, and lots more. I go through the different periods in their careers and the gear they used for their signature sounds, then tell how to get their sounds for yourself. The book took about two years of writing and research, and it was a true labor of love. I hope people like it and find it a valuable resource.

You can get it at Sweetwater, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, anywhere you buy books. If you get it from Sweetwater, ask your Sales Engineer and I'll autograph it to you.

MGS - What has been your proudest moment over the years as a journalist and/or musician ?

MG - It's weird to think of it in those terms, I like to think the best is yet to come! But I guess you have those moments that stand out. I don't know if it's really "pride," but you have moments that are special milestones.

Musically, I'd have to say winning a NARAS (Grammy) award. It was for a classical piece I composed for percussion ensemble and synthesizers, based on the Fibonacci number series. It was an honor to be recognized and it led to so many cool things. But I always feel good when I finish a project, whether as a player, a composer, or a recording engineer. I think it's a real privilege to get to make music on any level, and I find it tremendously rewarding to be part of a creative work.

As a journalist/writer/editor, it was a big deal to me to see the first issue of Keyboard that I worked on. I started reading Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines when I was a teen just starting out, and I devoured every word. I used to dream about how cool it would be to work for one of those magazines. When I actually got there, it was pretty incredible — truthfully, you asked about being starstruck, and I was a bit starstruck by the other editors, because I'd been reading them for so long! 

Likewise, my first issue of EQ as Editor in Chief was really special for me. The cover story was on Jimmy Johnson, the brilliant Muscle Shoals guitarist/producer who played on literally hundreds of hit records we all know and love. Later I met him and he signed the cover of the issue for me; I have it framed. Then he asked me to sign the cover of his copy. He's such a nice guy, a true gentleman.

Then, there are those moments when the first copy of each new book arrives. It's an incredible feeling to break open the box and hold it, after all those months of work.

MGS - Ok Mitch we do this in most interviews. I give you a phrase and you react with only 2 words  GO

Two words? If you've read my replies above, then you know I can't contain myself to two words on any topic!

Greg Koch - "Crazy Virtuoso" Greg is a non-stop laughter-generation machine, but he's also one of the best guitar players around. He blows me away with how skillfully his comedic mind and his musical fingers work.

Les Paul - "Epic Life." When you look at his life, from the groundbreaking music to the inventions, you can't help but be amazed. We lost a true genius when we lost Les. I was privileged to meet him a few times and to have dinner with him once. I'm honored just to have met him and to have seen him play.

I guess you could also say, "Epic Axe." There's nothing like a great Les's a true classic guitar. When I was growing up, I just knew my playing would improve when I got a real Les Paul. And when I did, I think it did improve!

Brazilian Rosewood - "Extinct Tone." Brazilian rosewood is definitely special. We should treasure those instruments made from brazilian rosewood, because there won't be many more.

American made - "High quality." Great products are made overseas these days, but I like to think that something that is truly American made still represents a high-quality item. 

Lindsay Lohan - "Best wishes." I hate to see someone who has achieved success fall into struggles. I don't know enough about her or her situation to make any comment, but I think it's a drag that the media seems to take such joy — and profit — from someone's difficulties. I hope she finds her path.

Tony Cole - "Blogging Genius." Wait: "Nice Guy." No: "Brilliant Virtuoso." How about: "Supreme Inspiration." There are just so many choices, I don't know which way to go....

Chuck Surack - "Focused Vision." Chuck is the president and founder of Sweetwater. I've known him for 20 years now. He has a focused vision for whatever he is working on — and he does a lot of stuff. That vision is obvious with Sweetwater and the amazing success the company has had. But people may not know that Chuck is also a family man, a philanthropist, active in his community and church, and certainly not least, a talented musician. Despite his other commitments, he still manages to play with his band most weekends. I think that's so cool that he's been able to maintain his passion for music. I hope this doesn't come off like a ploy for a raise — because it's all true!

Mitch Gallagher is the former editor in chief of EQ magazine. He’s written more than 1000 articles and six books on recording and music technology, and has released an instructional DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Electric Guitar Sound. To learn more, visit

Sweetwater Editorial Director Mitch Gallagher was introduced to recording when the manager of the rock band he was in loaned him a 4-track cassette recorder. He studied electrical engineering and computer science at North Dakota State University, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Moorhead State University (now Minnesota State University - Moorhead). His graduate studies at the University of Missouri in Kansas City included music composition and classical guitar.
He toured as a lead guitarist/vocalist in rock and country bands, and has played with big bands, fusion and experimental music groups, and as a classical and steel-string guitar soloist. As a classical guitarist, he studied with Michael Coates and Douglas Niedt, and currently studies with Jason Vieaux and Denis Azabagic. He has performed in master classes with William Kanengiser of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and Lorenzo Micheli of Italy's SoloDuo.
As a music technology specialist, he has taught college courses, lectured, given clinics, consulted with pro audio manufacturers, and spoken at festivals, conventions, and conferences around the world. Publications such as the Washington Post consult him as a technology expert. He is a respected recording, live sound, and mastering engineer, and operates his own recording studio and production company, MagMedia Productions.
As a composer, he studied with Henry Gwiazda, Gerald Kemner, and James Mobberley. His compositions cover genres from classical to experimental to heavy metal. "Prophecy #1: At First Glance," an experimental percussion ensemble/synthesizer work based on the Fibonacci number series, received a 1991 NARAS (Grammy) award in the Best New Music/New Classical category. He was a featured artist at the 1994 International Computer Arts Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he lectured on his Prophecy series of electronic music compositions.
The former senior technical editor of Keyboard magazine and former editor-in-chief of EQ magazine, Gallagher has published nearly 1,000 articles in magazines such as Performing SongwriterAcoustic GuitarEQEQ en EspanolKeyboardPro Sound NewsGuitar PlayerGovernment Video,Extreme GrooveMusic Technology Buyer's GuideVideographyStrings, and Microphones & Monitors. He is also the former editor of Church Sound magazine, and served as associate editor at Live Sound magazine.