We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Picone, a Director at Fractal Audio. In this write up and accompanying demo video by presenter Leon Todd, Matt explains how easy it is to use your downloaded Celestion Impulse Responses in Fractal Audio’s current line of products, or to select from the factory-loaded Celestion Impulse Responses pre-installed in current Fractal Audio products. Impulses can be used one at a time or combined to create unique blends. We also discussed progressing your mixing skills as a digital musician, the endless possibilities and fun you can have, and how the world of digital music is evolving. A must read for all Celestion/Fractal Audio fans!
First of all, thanks Matt for agreeing to do this interview with us. It’s going to be super useful for CelestionPlus users, especially for those who are new to Impulse Responses or the Fractal Audio amp modelers. It would be great to also cover some more advanced stuff for readers who are already big Celestion/Fractal Audio fans!
To start us off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! I am a 40+ year veteran of the world of music. I started taking a very serious interest in guitar and electronic music when I was just a boy and I’ve sort of stepped my way from one thing to another to land in this wonderful position at Fractal Audio, where among many other things, I provide support to our customers and professional artists. It’s a dream job!
It certainly sounds it, how long have you worked with Fractal Audio?
Aside from Cliff Chase, the founder of the company, and Danielle Chase, I am the senior employee, having been with the company for about 12 years. I was first introduced to the Axe-Fx as a customer in 2008, and I fell in love with the product immediately. One day, Dweezil Zappa reached out to me out of the blue and said, “Hey, I really love the sounds you’re posting online. Would you want to help me integrate the Fractal with my touring rig?” I was super happy to help, until one day he said, “I’m going to tell Fractal that they should hire you.” The short story is that they did indeed decide to hire me.
Are you also a musician yourself?
Oh yeah – I’ve played music my entire life. I played in bands and toured a little in my 20s and today I write and record. I’ve been a Celestion fan since I knew that speakers even had brands. Celestion is like the emperor of guitar speakers, you know?
So, Fractal Audio currently offers the Axe-FX, FM9, and FM3 amp modelers, would you say that it’s easy for musicians to get going with them?
I would say so. We were the first company to allow the end user to load Impulse Responses in a guitar processor, so our customers have a long history of understanding how this works, and we’ve done our part to make it easier and easier over the years for people to bring these two worlds together.
In the beginning there were only “Factory” cab sims, meaning you couldn’t erase or change them. Soon we added “User” cabs, meaning you could import your own. By the Axe-Fx II in 2011 we had tools to “capture” your own IRs, or you could create a mix using our Cab-Lab application. Now, with the new products, you have all of that and more, and it is easier than ever. For instance, you can drag-and-drop new IRs right into the Cab block, and you can create a mix and do phase alignment and all other sorts of things right on the hardware itself.
It sounds like a very creative piece of hardware.
It really is.
Going back to your question, despite the fact that we have done a lot to make it easier, I believe that there are a great number of people who, for good reasons and default reasons, just haven’t explored the creative possibilities. So, even though it may be comfortable to a great number of Fractal Audio and Celestion customers, I think that there’s definitely room for more people to benefit from just how easy it is to audition and select Impulse Responses.
So, in that case, what do you think a new user of Fractal products and Celestion IRs would need to know to get started?
One of the first things we would want someone new to be aware of is that there are already samplings of Celestion IRs included with the factory content of both the Axe-Fx III and the FM3. So, the first fun thing would be to find those and listen to them. Here’s how I would do this:
Step 1 – Load up any preset in the Fractal Audio editor software.
Step 2 – Click the Cab block. Make note of the fact that it shows multiple cab “slots,” so you probably want to use the “solo” or “mute” buttons so you can focus on the one you’re going to change.
Step 3 – Next, click the “Picker” button, which opens a window showing all the different Cab IRs in your unit. In the upper-right corner there’s a search box, which you can use to search for Celestion IRs, for example. All of those amongst the factory content have “cel” at the end.
Step 4 – You can click any one and be done, or, to try and compare different cabs, click the little “push pin” icon first. Then click any IR, grab your guitar, and audition away from one to the next to the next. Once you have found one you like, just close the picker window — and don’t forget to save the preset if you want to keep this change.
And users can also import new Celestion IRs that they’ve purchased, right?
Yes! First, you can easily import a single IR through drag and drop. In any preset, click the Cab block like we just did in the first example. Then select any ‘User’ bank and a numbered cab slot that says ‘Empty’ (unless of course you want to overwrite an existing User cab.) Then, just drag and drop your new IR into the slot, which writes it into the unit’s memory. Again, don’t forget to save the preset so it will always call up your new IR.
What if someone purchases an entire package of Celestion IRs and wants to explore these?
That’s easy too. In the “Tools” menu of Axe-Edit or FM3 Edit, we have a tool called ‘Manage Cabs’. This opens a window showing every User Cab Memory on your unit—2048 of them on our newest products—so you have a lot of space to play with (each slot holds one IR). Then you can cut, copy, paste, drag and drop, swap, import, export, clear, rename, audition and more.
To load a whole package, first make sure that the “Browser” pane is open in the cab manager. Then, simply drag-and-drop the entire folder of Impulse Responses into the Browser. It scans the folder for usable files and shows them on screen. Now you can drag them into the memory slots one-by-one or in a batch. This makes it incredibly easy to add hundreds of IRs at once, if you wanted to. Then those will be readily available inside your Cab Block as you create or edit presets.
It sounds like a very intuitive system!
So, now we come to the next big question, which is, ‘technically it’s very easy to bring the worlds of Fractal Audio & Celestion together, but what do I do with that as a musician?’
Combining IRs opens up so many possibilities when it comes to the depth of sounds you can create. The classic way for a beginner to start exploring further once they have a few IRs that they like, is to create their own blends of Impulse Responses. You might start out by loading up the Cab block with one that’s fat or dark and another that’s bright or crisp. It is a bit like working with paint. If I have just two colours to pick from, give me black and white and I’ll create every shade of grey! Then as you become more familiar with IRs, it’s likely that you will start to desire a greater variety of color choices.
Once you have your combination of IRs you can adjust the levels between them to change the colour, or pan them to different positions to explore mono and stereo sounds. We also give you access to some EQ filters to further adjust the tones of your IRs. With this simple set of tools, you can start to imitate the same process that, over the last 50 years, recording engineers have used in the studio, using multiple microphones each with their own flavour to bring out the desired qualities of any given speaker.
Another great thing is that some Celestion IRs are captures of a room, which demonstrates the speaker in a reverberant space. By combining room IRs with close mic’d IRs, you can create a blend of close sound and ambience for incredibly natural tones. Just like with the guitar itself you can learn a lot by experimenting, and that’s the musician’s playground side of the Impulse Response world.
The possibilities are endless! You could spend hours & hours having fun finding the perfect blend.
Yeah, there’s something to be said about that as well, which is that some people just never do any of this blending. They prefer to be handed some favourites rather than learn about the different sonic characteristics of microphones or the placement of the mic in relation to the speaker. The adjectives on the Celestion IRs make this nice. Bright, Fat, Balanced, and so on.
The Fractal Audio range is very versatile – both for beginners and the most advanced musicians. Do you have a customer profile in mind when you think about the customer base as a whole?
I can tell you that the Fractal customer, by natural selection, is usually a discriminating customer. What I mean is that, typically, they have not chosen our product because it is the least expensive. Instead, they have selected our product because of its reputation for sonic performance and quality, and because they demand versatility and flexibility. This type of person is usually willing to invest a little time in their tone. At the same time, we have worked really hard to make this technology accessible to someone who wants an easy path. Much of what we have talked about today represents our latest and greatest offerings in that area. Over the last five years we have made tremendous inroads to improve the usability for the beginner – you can quite simply load up a factory preset that sounds great and just play, without thinking about tweaking any further. Some people prefer this, as I just mentioned.
However, if you want to take it to the next step, the learning curve is only as steep as you want it to be. You can stay shallow and achieve incredible sonic results; if you become curious there are baby steps, or you can delve fully into the art and technology of tone. One of the reasons that “Fractal“ is an apt name for an audio product is because the deeper you want to go, the deeper it gets.
How do you think the landscape has changed, due to the numerous lockdowns around the world over the last year, in terms of further pushing the digital side of guitar gear?
From our perspective we have seen a steady increase in the world of digital guitar products since we set out to challenge the idea that digital had to mean compromising. For a long time ‘digital’ was synonymous with compromise because in the early days digital technology was more limited. Very quickly you started to have companies releasing products which tried to do too much with too little power and the term digital became sullied.
It was really Fractal Audio who stood up, challenged that notion and said, ‘wait a second, digital has the potential to lead the guitar world into a better place’ and the big change that we’ve seen has been that continual movement in that direction and it’s wonderful! The more competitors emerge, the better we do because that prompts the conversation, ‘must I still be looking at traditional analogue equipment?’ No!
There’s a conversation going on right now about which digital products are the best; the conversation is no longer about whether digital can stand up against analogue. When you combine this with the fact that you’re also seeing the emergence of a generation of musicians who are comfortable with technology, it’s been a wonderful, perfect environment.
In fact, many of our customers today have never owned a traditional tube amp; they say things like, ‘the Fractal is the first ‘amp’ I’ve ever owned—prior to this I played through an iPhone!’. Then they discover these whole intersecting worlds of companies like Celestion. You have a musical legacy here going back decades, and we should pay homage to this heritage. Well, that’s exactly what Impulse Responses do, and that’s why, not only the beginners, but the top, top pros love it when I say, ‘hey, you can bring in your personal favourite Celestion speaker that you have toured with for 30 years. Let’s hook it up to the Axe-Fx and capture it!’.
Of course, from there you can take things even farther, like tweaking the cab or the amp after the fact or getting into some really esoteric stuff like changing tube types or seeing how things sound when you run the rig on UK power instead of USA power.
Wow, does that really make a difference!?
It can definitely make a difference, yeah.
Then you might say, let’s drive that virtual speaker to within an inch of its life, or change its compression properties– Personally I think this stuff is fun, and you can very quickly get some cool musical results. I guess this all speaks to the idea that you can take your basics, or you can take your advanced stuff and some people really love to do that.
Is there anything about Celestion Impulse Responses in particular that you have noticed in comparison to other IRs?
I have a level of confidence in Celestion IRs, because I trust the brand to represent the product that they are so familiar with. To be honest, I am mostly mic’ing Celestion speakers when I’m out there in the field with pros. Meanwhile so many other companies are also creating Impulse Responses based on Celestion speakers. So Celestion’s own entry into this space? That’s the horse’s mouth!
You mentioned earlier that you are also a musician and music creator. Do you have a favourite Celestion speaker of your own?
For a long time, I played Celestion Vintage 30’s. I also played the Neo Century Vintage, which was a lightweight Vintage 30. I love that speaker because it sounded just like a Vintage 30, but it weighed nothing! And who doesn’t love the sound of Greenbacks? I would also probably have to say that I have, more recently, become a fan of the Creamback.
What facilitated that shift in preference, if anything?
I think the Creamback is just, musically, very comfortable for me. It requires less work when I know the sound I’m looking for.
The Vintage 30 is very popular in modern music, but I also really like it for a traditional, clean, sound. It can be a bright speaker, but when you want that clarity it’s a great place to go. And then, of course, the microphone choice, position and all the options in the Fractal let you turn it into anything you want.
Do you like spending hours really customising your IRs & blends? Or do you prefer the more straightforward preset route?
I know some people spend a lot of time, so I hope it doesn’t sound immodest to say that it just doesn’t take me hours. I can get very quickly from something in my head to what I want to hear. It comes from practice, but there is a middle step between practice and ability, which is learning to be fearless. Make mistakes so you can learn from them! Fearlessness also allows you to set imitation aside; to forget about perfection sometimes.
Together, our products create great tone almost at random, so you can make a commitment and get on to making music—good songs and good guitar playing–which is the point, I think.
Again, thanks so much for chatting with us today Matt, do you have any closing thoughts you would like to leave us with?
Just a final thank you, not only for your interest in Fractal Audio, but for creating these great impulse responses and again for the incredible legacy of tone that is Celestion and everything you’ve done over the years. Here’s to our next few decades together!