Nashville-based Guitarist, Songwriter and Musical Director Chris Wrate has worked with artists such as Kelsea Ballerini, Ariana Grande, David Foster, Daniel Powter, Colbie Caillat and Charice, as well as playing on TV shows like Oprah, American Idol, The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Today Show and Ellen.
Originating from Wisconsin, Chris grew up around the local blues scenes of Chicago and Milwaukee and it was his versatility as an artist that allowed him to work with a wide range of artists in a variety of genres, from blues, pop, rock, R&B, funk to country.
Currently working as guitarist and Musical Director to Kelsea Ballerini’s band, Chris took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about his new-found love of Celestion impulse responses.
Hi Chris, thanks very much for joining us for this interview! To start off, you’ve worked with so many amazing and interesting people; what have been some of your favourite projects to work on?
The artist I’m working with currently – and who I’ve worked with the longest – is hands-down my favourite… and that’s Kelsea Ballerini. There’ve been lots of highlights there. We get to do award shows every year, country music has a couple of award shows – one in Vegas and one here in Nashville and those are always fun to do.
Between that, we also have an American football team here called the Tennessee Titans and they have a football stadium in town. Kelsea hosts a festival for that every year which gets televised nationally and is in front of 70,000 people – that’s right up there, it’s always a really fun experience.
How long have you worked with Kelsea Ballerini?
I think it’s going on five years now. I started with her right around the time her second single came out, so it’s been a really fun ride with her from the early stages of her career to where we’re at now.
I bet! So, you’re a songwriter, musical director and also a guitarist. Do you have a preference, or do you enjoy the variety?
I do like the variety; currently with Kelsea I do a mixture of playing guitar and some keyboards in her live shows and I am also the musical director of her band as well, so I always enjoy spreading myself thin and trying to take on as much as I can in order to feel like I am contributing a lot.
But, at the end of the day, I’m always a guitarist first and foremost. It is and was my main instrument and my first love when it came to anything music-related.
Tell us a little bit about your own songwriting.
A lot of songwriting is different for me. It started with working with a lot of different worship band projects around here, for different churches and whatnot, so I contributed both recording-wise and writing for a few different projects when I lived in Los Angeles. Then a lot of the other writing was and still is contributing to libraries for different cues for TV shows. So those will get picked up in little snippets and used in various different shows.
You were involved in a national ad campaign for Weight Watchers, right?
Long story short, when I first started getting into writing for and contributing to various libraries that companies would use both for TV and certain ad campaigns, somebody that I was familiar with from a Church that I was actually playing with got an email saying,
“Hey, we’re looking for submissions for a cue, it has to be submitted by tomorrow. Here’s the style we’re looking for, it’s for a national commercial”
We actually didn’t get picked up for that, they never called us back! A year and a half later, my friend had thrown the music that we wrote into a library and I had completely forgotten about it. All of a sudden, somebody called us and said, “Hey, that music you wrote a year and a half ago? We want to use it in a national ad campaign that we’re doing with Jessica Simpson for Weight Watchers.”
That kind of spurred us on into thinking maybe we should get back into doing that, so we definitely want to write and contribute more music like that, but that’s kinda how that happened.
Before this interview you sent over a few videos of your setup. Is that your normal setup with your go-to IR combination, or do you like to vary it up depending on the tone or sound that you’re looking for?
I have my go-tos when it comes to my live amps and then the digital side, I feel that the same ones I use again in an amp are the same ones I typically revert back to using. I’m currently switching over to a Fractal from a Kemper and the same kind of thing has gone for the Fractal – I found myself using a combination of the Celestion 2´12 (closed back) Vintage 30 speakers and the Golds as well. The great thing about the Fractal is that you can pair the two together.
So, in the last amp I was using in our live show (before we switched to digital platforms), my speaker cabinet had a Vintage 30 and a Celestion Gold, so it’s cool to now be able to use the same combination of what I was using and mic’ing in those shows and recordings.
Have you only recently moved over to digital platforms in your live performances?
It was about two years ago that they pushed the switch on us. Initially it was a change that we were not very excited about as guitar players, we like loud amps and there was always the stigma of digital amps sounding digital and not feeling ‘right’, but I very much get what it does for a sound guy, what it does for our stage and for the artist as well, trying to quiet down the stage volumes and whatnot.
The IRs help a ton, for sure!
Do most artists play live now use digital setups?
I believe so, yeah. I was just talking to somebody about this in town yesterday, that the writing’s kind of on the wall where more and more acts now are moving away from using real amps and using either something like the Strymon Iridium so you can use impulse responses from companies like Celestion or something like a Kemper or a Fractal. But yeah, it’s happening more and more and IRs are becoming more prevalent.
How did you first find out about Celestion impulse responses? Was it when the band wanted to move over to the digital setup, or did you experiment with them before that?
I hadn’t, when it was pushed on us I was thinking that I had seen Celestion advertising that they were making IRs, so that’s when I reached out to them and said, ‘hey, we’re going completely digital!’
One thing that was tough about the switch was knowing that we knew we were going to lose connection and relationships with some of the companies that we used, because that would take away from some of the equipment that we were using, so I was very happy to find out that Celestion provided something like that. Again, what it does for those platforms I think helps an unmeasurable amount, to help bridge that gap from making the transfer to a digital setup, because it is very different for a lot of musicians to get used to having played and done one thing for so long and then switching to something completely foreign.
Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking of trying IRs for the first time?
That’s a tough one! I think the one thing that’s nice about IRs is that there is an overwhelming amount of stuff out there. Celestion I know provides a lot of information.
I would say if you’ve been mic’ing amps and if you’re familiar with what the speakers sound like and what they do to an amp, if they colour it or if they don’t, the Celestion IRs do a great job of staying true to the characteristics of those speakers. If you like a certain type of cabinet, whether that be an open back or closed, 2´12 or 4´12. Think of what you would like to have mic’d for that specific amp and it you can call up those IRs. They’re pretty true to the responses of what those will look like and there’s an amazing consistency too, that’s what’s great about it.
I’ve been in shows before where cameramen have bumped my mics off my amps when they’re backstage running around with the camera. Using IRs takes away a lot of those issues. Whether you’re in the studio or a live setup, the issue of trying to find the perfect position just goes away. It’s there and it’s true and it’s the same every time. There’s a lot of consistency there, basically.
Obviously IRs have changed the way you work on stage, have they saved you any time?
I think so. As you said before, with the digital amps right now I’m kind of getting use to the Fractal. That’s very new and wanting to compare that to the Kemper and just really see if there was anything better that I could be doing in getting a sound for myself. Another thing that’s great about the IRs, because I have all the ones that I now like, I can understand what they do to an amp and what they sound like against it. It’s my palette, if that’s the right word to use, because I know what that amp sounds like it helps me audition different pieces of gear going through it.
A lot of the digital equipment will come with a certain speaker or a recommendation, Fractal for example have a lot of IRs in there, but they don’t really specify all the time if it is a Celestion or if it’s a different kind of cabinet that might have come with that amp, so I typically just avoid theirs! I’ve listened to a few, but I always revert back to the Celestion IRs, with those I know exactly what I’m going to get out of them. It’s that consistency again.
You’ve got a consistent style and you like to stick with what works.
What about the way IRs have changed the way you work in the studio? Do you use them consistently, or do you sometimes still have a blast with real equipment?
Someone asked me about this the other day and I was saying that even when I’m at home, I don’t often play through my real amp. I’m always a big proponent of what my time is being used for and I don’t like playing on a live amp anymore because I find spending time getting better and more acquainted with that a bit pointless when essentially no one’s calling me to play a live amp anymore!
Everything has changed so much. A lot of the session I do it’s just so much easier to bring in the Kemper or the Fractal and plug that in; I know what sound I’m going to get. That being said, if I am changing amps and we want a Fender sound, to a heavier Marshall-type sound, I know exactly what IRs I want to place with those and I already have those all stored and set up. The ability to get those sounds up, especially in a studio when time is of the essence, makes the work flow that much faster to go through and say, ‘ok, we’re going to hit this section with this kind of amp’ and know which IR I want to place with it; that really helps.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Celestion impulse responses?
On Instagram recently, while I was still working on some stuff with my Kemper, I thought that I should listen to what the original profile sounds like without an IR against it. It’s a profile of an amp I already own, with a cabinet setup with a Celestion Vintage 30 and a Gold. It was so drastic that I wound up putting the clip on my Instagram Story!
I just filmed on my phone, of my profile with its stock settings compared against the same profile with the Celestion IR added:
Even in the phone recording above you could really tell the difference in quality once the impulse response was added.
The information that the Celestion IRs open up about an amp, there’s just certain positive frequencies that are now being projected that weren’t before (in a good way!), it just gives you so much more information. It’s one of those things where legitimately, to me, it’s a game-changing piece of gear.
So, what’s next for you in terms of projects?
I’m still working with Kelsea, although we’ve had a quieter year because we usually do three tours, which becomes a lot! In Nashville, we typically go out on the weekends which is nice, so we’re usually out Thursday through to Sunday and we get to come home for a few days a week to recalibrate. We’re in an album cycle, which is about to come out next month; it’s the calm before the storm, so we’re just enjoying our time off!
We will be promoting the album in March when it comes out and doing a few of the bigger country music festivals here in the States in the summer, but we’re not going out on a full tour until Fall this year. So we will do a tour that starts in Fall and we will probably go through 2021… I’m probably not supposed to say that!
So yeah, right now it’s just a lot of prep work for the upcoming album.
Just to finish off, I really do believe in the IRs. I got into playing Celestion by kind of an accident, the first boutique amp that I bought has a Celestion Gold in it, and I would carry that amp (which was a lunchbox-sized amp!) on a plane and bring it overseas. I would just backline a cabinet and I liked the idea that it would provide some sort of consistency instead of using another head.
That made me realise how different speakers are and how different cabinets are and just, because you have your same amp head, you can place it on a different cabinet but it will be drastically different. That taught me how important speakers are, I think people overlook that a lot. They think so much about the amp, but not the contents inside, so that showed me a lot about Celestion and that made me look into why I liked that backline amp a lot. I didn’t know that it had Celestion Vintage 30s until I looked it up. Then I thought ‘why do I like my personal amp?’ and then I realised that I like the Golds, I like the Vintage 30s; what else can I try?
What else have you tried out?
I’ve probably gone through all of them at least once! I’ve been talking a lot about the Vintage 30s and the Golds, but the Creamback is another of my favourite. I used that against a lot of Fender-style profiles and models and I do use the G12 Heritage speakers as well, mostly in higher-gain amps; I like to use a 4´12 cabinet for something more Marshall-y. I’m definitely trying to re-open up the palette of what I have, so I can switch through different IRs.
Whether it is an impulse response or an actual speaker from Celestion, it changes the landscape of your sound so much.