How Did American Idol Fall So Far?

I watch American Idol, and have every year since season one. If you want to start snickering, start now. If you don’t want to stop, you can skip the rest of this post, because it’s all about Idol.

If you’re still reading, here’s why I watch American Idol. First, for a while there they had some pretty interesting talent. They don’t now, which is what most of this post will be about. Second, my wife loves it, and I love my wife. Third, I’m fascinated by the business model they created for this show. They’ve dramatically altered the supply chain for talent. Instead of a producer finding an unknown talent, grooming the talent at the producer’s expense, and then launching the talent into an uncaring void–the model for the industry for at least decades, maybe centuries–with a so-so chance of success, the show offloads the risk and expense onto advertisers. The competition builds an audience for the talent week by week, grooming the unknowns in public, and by the time the winner is picked the best of the lot has an audience numbering in the millions, ready to pay for more. It’s all pretty amazing.

But the thing that makes it worth watching is amazing talent, and this year’s show, even more than last year’s (which was pretty dismal) has talent that is simply not amazing. The biggest talents in the room are behind the judges’ desk, and they’re not producers, they’re artists. By the way, I’m referring to Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. when I say “talents.” Jennifer Lopez isn’t a singer, she’s a star. Her appeal has very little to do with her voice. If it did, she wouldn’t have any appeal at all, because she’s barely got any voice at all. But she’s got star power, and maybe that’s the problem. When you think you need a mega-star behind the desk to get people to tune in, you’ve basically admitted that the talent on the stage isn’t good enough to do the job. You’re inviting the audience–and maybe the performers–to forget that the point of the show is the contestants, not the judges. The judges this year aren’t horrifying assholes like Nicky Minaj, but they thoroughly overwhelm the poor contestants.

Maybe that explains how Idol can audition 100,000 people and wind up with a bunch of bar singers who seem to sleepwalk through every performance. I don’t know. Something must explain it. When you’re down to the top 6, and Ryan Seacrest and the judges are practically yelling at the contestants after every performance to get it on, for God’s sake, do something great, you know the show has gone terribly wrong. The show’s producers aren’t on-camera, but if they were we’d probably see them tearing their hair out and screaming for someone, ANYONE, to turn in a killer performance.

In previous years, you didn’t have to beg the talent to blow your mind. 100,000 people auditioned every year, and out of those 100,000 there would be one or two–in a great year, three or four–who called down the lightning with every song. The first time I saw Fantasia perform on Idol, singing “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About,” the hair literally stood up on my arms. Adam Lambert practically tore the set apart with every performance, as if no stage was big enough to contain him. Kelly Clarkson threw down with everything she had, every time. Jennifer Hudson brought every song to a spectacular boil, en route to an Oscar-winning performance in “Dream Girls” that made Beyonce look like a nice kid doing a guest spot with a wedding band. It was amazing to see how much better than very, very good the best were, year after year. It was an object lesson in the rarity of real brilliance.

This year’s crop don’t exactly suck. But there’s nothing especially exciting about any of them. They’re nice kids playing rock star to the best of their abilities, following the directions of their coaches in every particular. They’re not doing what it takes to tear your heart out with every word they sing. They don’t know how.

What happened? How can you run out of brilliance? Maybe it’s the predictability of it all. Everything runs on rails: the staging, the backup musicians, the pop repertoire that by now has been played and sung to death on a million bazillion stages worldwide. Surprise has been engineered out of the show. The performers are doing their damndest to play out a scenario that’s been played out too many times already. They can’t excite us because we know all the moves they’re going to be advised to make, and the only question is whether they can make those moves more or less perfectly than everyone else who’s trying to do the same. You can measure the individuality of these performers only by how far they fall short of what’s required.

Whatever the reason, there’s less chance this year that you’re going to see something amazing on Idol than there ever has been. And without that amazement, the whole thing falls apart. which is what we’re seeing this year, and why neither my wife nor me really feels compelled to keep watching. If this keeps up, Idol is a goner.

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Cover the Distance

This is the story of how I recorded the most emotionally shattering harp part I’ve ever laid on a track. Like Ringo said: you know it don’t come easy.
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Blog, Hunter's Music

What a Great Gig with Lowlands in Milan

I performed last night (5 April 2014) with Lowlands in Milan, and it was a great gig. The venue, Spazio Teatro 89, is a very nice theatre that seats about 250, and the place was packed. The acoustics in the room and onstage were wonderful. I could hear every detail of my own and the band’s performance without straining. The band—which actually consisted of a core unit of Ed Abbiatti (guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter), a keyboardist (on piano, organ, and accordion), a drummer, a mandolinist, augmented by a range of performers (including me, a cellist, a horn section, a lap steel guitarist, and two bassists, one standup, one electric) who played on some tunes but not all (I played on 17 tunes, which shows you how long the set was)—was in fine form, and the audience went nuts basically from the first piece through the end of the show. Very cool.

The whole band takes a bow at end of show; Ed Abbiatti in center with arm raised, me to the right next to the bearded guy in the black shirt and jeans

The whole band takes a bow at end of show; Ed Abbiatti in center with arm raised, me to the right next to the bearded guy in the black shirt and jeans

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Digitech RP360XP or RP500? Here’s how I make up my mind

I published most of this post in a response to a question posted in the comments here. I figured that it was worth publishing as a post in its own right. So here are a half dozen things I think about when I’m choosing between a Digitech RP360XP and an RP500.
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Blog, Hunter's Effects, Hunter's Music, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise), Upcoming Performances

Playing in Milan on April 5, Taking the RP360XP

I’m doing a gig in Milan, Italy at Spazio Teatro 89 on April 5 with Ed Abbiatti and his band Lowlands. It’s an all-acoustic show in (I’m told) a big theatre, and it’s going to be recorded and video’d, so there should be some cool stuff to see and hear afterwards (like an “Unplugged” DVD). I’m spending a few more days in Milan after that to record a few more songs with Ed and Lowlands for the next record. I’ve been on just about every record Ed’s made with this group, and it’s cool to be part of that history.

I’m bringing the Digitech RP360XP with me on this trip, not the RP500. I ran the two boxes side by side tonight, comparing identical patch setups, and the RP360XP sounded better overall–the same vivid tones as the 500, which after all is based on the same chip, but bigger and more detailed somehow. Like Bill Clayton at Digitech tech support told me: subtly better.

That wouldn’t be enough to get me off the 500, which has very, very superior performance features compared to the 360XP, except for two things:
1) The 360XP runs on Euro standard wall power as well as US standard, and the 500 doesn’t. So I’d have to drag a transformer to the gig with the 500. Much simpler with the 360XP. Also…
2) With this band, I won’t be doing the rapid tone changes I use on my own stuff–for the most part I’ll stick to one basic sound per song, and use the expression pedal to modulate the sound. So the performance features of the RP500 aren’t so important this time.

And oh, yeah: if you’re flying a long way, every extra pound and cubic inch in your luggage matters. The 360XP is a lot smaller and lighter than the 500, and that makes a difference here. (However, I have to carry a direct box with the 360XP, because there are no XLR outs.)

The other big difference for me is that the RP500 is programmed with all the tailored sounds I use for my own repertoire, as well as the v17 patch set I offer in my store. The RP360XP only has the v17 patch set in it, and even a few of those patches need some tweaking. (Did you wonder why I haven’t released a set for the RP360 yet? That’s why.) However, I don’t think I’ll miss the customized tones on this gig. Most of them are variations on the v17 sounds anyway, with EQ adjustments for the layered arrangements I do in my solo work. So I don’t expect to miss the repertoire-specific sounds, which is a good thing given that I don’t have time to program them into the RP360XP before I get to Milan, either.

The biggest problem I may have is convincing Ed to let me use the RP–it’s an Unplugged gig, after all. But I’ll work on it. Stay tuned for more details on the gig. See you in Milan.


Digitech’s Tech Support is the Best. I Mean It.

I’ve been pissing and moaning a lot about my RP360XP the last few days. I think it’s only fair to note that the folks at Digitech Tech Support (support@digitech.com) are the best I’ve dealt with just about anywhere. They are unfailingly prompt, polite, to the point, and accurate in their advice. When I have a problem I can’t solve, I go to them with full confidence that they’re going to help. Every time.

It’s easy to forget stuff like that when you’re struggling with a series of problems such as the ones I’ve had with the RP360XP in the last few days. So let it be said: Digitech’s tech support gets it right.

Now back to pissing and moaning…

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

The Digitech RP360 Firmware Update Finally Took–After 6 Tries

I had to power the device down and up again 6 times, with Nexus running on my computer, before the firmware update worked. The first 5 times, the update started, took a few shaky steps into the RP’s flash memory, then shut down. The sixth time, it went all the way. And to my great relief, the backup I’d saved of the 50 presets in my Huntersounds v17 patch set loaded on the first try.

The RP360XP: maybe it's working now?

The RP360XP: maybe it’s working now?

So I’m up and running again with the RP360XP, ready to test the patch set in the audible world. I still don’t know if the problems I’ve seen with the stability of patches in the RP360′s memory have been solved by the latest firmware update, but I’ll know soon. Stay tuned.

And Digitech, if you’re reading this, would you please fix this s—? I own one of almost every RP you ever made, starting with the RP200. I’ve been programming the RPs for 10 years. And if I didn’t have that history, I would have thrown this thing into the trash on Day One, because so far it’s the buggiest piece of gear I’ve ever bought from anyone. And you must know it, because it’s pretty amazing to see the first firmware rev less than two weeks after a device becomes available for sale. It makes me wonder whether that rev was underway even before the device went public, i.e. whether you knew the thing had some serious issues when it was released. Did you?

Blog, Hunter's Effects

The Digitech RP360 Crashed on a Firmware Update–Will it Come Back?

Last night I completed installing the first set of 50 Huntersounds patches on my Digitech RP360. I immediately backed up the set to my computer using Digitech’s crippled Nexus software. I’m glad I did, because if I hadn’t all that work would have been lost, maybe forever.
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Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

Announcing the Huntersounds Patch Set for Digitech RP1000

Yup. It’s here. If you’ve been waiting for the Huntersounds patch set for Digitech RP1000, wait no longer. $50 gets you fifty killer original harp-ready sounds. Just go straight to our store and pick it up.

The Digitech RP1000: You can load it with our patches starting now

The Digitech RP1000: You can load it with our patches starting now

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Recommended Gear

The Digitech RP360′s Software Still Sucks, But The Front Panel Works

I’ve given up completely on editing the RP360XP via the Nexus software–it’s just impossibly bad crap, and it creates more problems than it solves.

Fortunately, it turns out that editing the RP360XP via its front panel works fine. What a surprise. The front panel in the previous generation of RPs was okay for minor tweaks, but it would start to go flaky if you edited more than a few patches at a time. The RP360XP’s front panel editing is fully functional, stable, and very precise.

So I’m making good headway now on this device, and I’ll probably finish initial setup on the first set of patches this week. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Digitech, if you’re really serious about software support for your devices, try making software that works. It can’t be that hard. After all, your competitors have been doing it for years.

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