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Quad Cortex: Two Weeks In

My Quad Cortex arrived fifteen days ago. I’m still in the honeymoon phase but I’m getting a better idea of what the device can (and can’t) do. My initial assessment still stands: “Lotsa fun, lotsa potential, lotsa work yet to be done.” It’s definitely not a mature product but there’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve been through one firmware update that went smoothly enough. Kick off the download and keep playing. When the system is ready to apply the update, the fun stops for a bit. It’s not super quick but it’s not horrible. At this time, it doesn’t seem to need to spend time rebuilding presets like the Helix does. That’s a frustrating aspect of Helix updates: after the software’s updated, I want to check out the updated functionality, not watch the device spin through 1000+ presets to update them. I get why they do it but it’s still kind of a drag.

This week I’ve started to dig into creating presets for my go-to sounds and to dial up sounds for the songs I’ve been wanting to record with the QC. It’s been a combination of delight and frustration: delight as the results have been phenomenal and frustration as a learn to navigate the tool and run into gaps in feature and function.

While a lot of the examples use separate paths for different scenes, I’ve found that to be inefficient in terms of management of DSP resources and setup effort. Blocks get duplicated and muting unused paths is tedious. As a result, my new approach is…my old approach with Helix. With the ability to create long signal paths with no loss of quality and the ability to bypass any block in the chain, I’ll have multiple amps and cabs in series and just bypass the ones not used in a particular scene. That way, if I’m using the same compressor, cabinet, delay, reverb, etc., I can reuse the same block across scenes. In the future, I’ll only use parallel paths for parallel processing, not for scenes.

As I gain experience building presets, it’s getting easier. Not only am I figuring out how I want to approach building presets, I’m also remembering my preferred amp models, captures, and effects. Another thing that’s making things easier is the ability to select the default settings for a block. Once you decide how you like to dial in a particular amp or effect, you can save the settings as the default so the next time you select that device, you’ll start with the same setting.

As much fun as I’m having with the Quad Cortex and looking forward to recording with it, it’ll probably take a few updates before I’d consider it gig-ready. For gigging, there are two features (supposedly on the way) that I’d need:

  • Auto Engage – Turn on a block (e.g., wah) based on movement of an expression pedal. Having gotten used to it, there’s no other way I’d want to engage a wah or whammy block.
  • Hybrid Mode Gig View – Currently, the QC’s gig view can be set to display 8 presets, 8 scenes, or 8 stomps. Hybrid mode will display four of one type in the top row and four in the bottom row. Generally I use scenes but sometimes I want to kick on a stomp without having to change modes.

While those are my most anticipated enhancements, performance features aren’t the only aspect that is immature.

  • Cloud functionality
    • Flaky uploads – This is most likely an infrastructure issue but uploading a backup or content such as a preset or capture fails more often than one would like. Probably a matter of scaling the infrastructure appropriately but whatever the root issue is, it’s frustrating.
    • Metadata – As the amount of cloud content grows, identifying assets of interest (captures, presets) becomes more challenging. While searchable tags is a nice start, structured metadata (e.g., device(s) captured, settings, creation date, etc.) would make it much easier to find things.
    • Library Management – The challenges with cloud assets don’t end after you find them. Managing a growing portfolio of IR’s, captures, and presets is not going to be fun without better tools to organize and manage them.
  • Clean up some interactions – While the touchscreen is a usability boon, the UI still would benefit from some refinement. Most noticeably, there is no way to enable / disable a block from the grid view. That’s a common enough operation that there should be some convenient gesture (swipe, double tap, long tap) to do it. Also, it can be frustrating to copy block settings across scenes / presets.
  • Continue adding blocks / effects – A number of items got pulled from the initial list due to schedule considerations. Now that the QC has been released, it’s time to clear the backlog. Effects like plate reverb and multi band compressor as well as amp models and captures need to be developed.

As I mentioned at the start, the honeymoon continues. I’m still surprised by how much stuff I can put into a preset without it working hard. It sounds amazingly good. Creating great sounding presets is not hard and it gets easier as you build out your favorites and set block defaults. The device is not without its faults but most are tolerable in a brand new product. Retailers are still a week or so away from getting their initial stock so we’re still in the very early stages of the product’s life cycle.

Neural DSP has done a wonderful job so far with the product. They focused on the critical features needed for success (physical design, great sounds, etc.) and now need to shift that focus to developing the QC into a mature product. Hopefully updates will be in the Goldilocks Zone: not too slow but not too fast either. I’m looking forward to seeing where the product goes from here.

Quad Cortex

Quad Cortex First Impressions

My Quad Cortex came in yesterday as part of the first batch of preorders sent to the US. In the first 18 hours that I had it, I’ve played about six hours and thought I’d share my early impressions. 

It’s not typical for me to spend six hours in a 24 hour period with a guitar in my hands. While a good bit of my enthusiasm is probably due to the 14 months I waited for the product to be developed, as a number of YouTube personalities indicated, the thing is just a lot of fun to play. After I got it set up, the first time I looked up was after 90 minutes had passed. Same thing this morning: I got up and before I knew it, 2.5 hours had gone by.

So what’s so fun about it? None of the YouTubers put a finger on it but IMO it’s a bunch of things. First off, it sounds great. NDSP had a terrific reputation for their plugins and clearly applied that expertise to their hardware. On top of that, it has great feel. Latency is low and it has the same sort of “bounce” in its dynamic response that I really enjoyed in my Fractal and Atomic modelers. The UI is straightforward. It still has some awkward bits (more on that later) but overall workflows are clean and interactions are intuitive. Overall, the device invites you to play and to explore without the “amp geek” parameters that can take a lot of one’s time with minimal ROI.

An interesting aspect of the Quad Cortex is that it seems to have been conceived as a post-PC device. It’s telling that the only computer integration available at launch was USB audio for running a DAW. There’s nothing that a person can do with the QC that requires anything more than a mobile device. Since the USB audio is class compliant, you can even hook it up to an iPad and record in Garage Band. For us dinosaurs who persist in using computers outside the workplace, a desktop editor is in the works for managing presets and performing backups. The Cortex Cloud does allow for backups to the cloud.

One thing that I think differentiates the QC from other modelers is NDSP’s perspective as a plugin developer. To put it bluntly, they’re probably more interested in having things sound good than having them sound authentic. Most of their plugins were focused more on achieving a certain sound rather than slavishly emulating benchmark gear. Of course they do have plugins that replicate Soldano and Fortin amps but the Archetype line has been more about replicating (and creating) artists’ signature sounds.

I’ve found the factory presets to be more akin to the Fractal ones in their usability as opposed to just showing off features. Getting a producer like Adam Getgood to shoot their IRs and having their signature artists help build factory presets provides users with a solid foundation for creating whatever sound is in their heads.

As I went through the factory presets—the guitar ones anyway—I spent most of the time in “gig view”, which displays footswitch mappings instead of the virtual signal chain. As a result, I didn’t get an idea of what was in the signal chain. I bring this up because I couldn’t tell which presets used a neural capture (NDSP’s equivalent to a Kemper profile) vs. an amp model. With the majority of YouTube previews focusing on the capture capabilities, some folks were concerned that the amp models were somehow lacking. They’re not. You might not have scores of amp models available at the moment but what’s there is very good. Neural has stated an intent to provide ongoing updates at a reasonable pace. If they execute on that plan, the amp models should get rounded out in the months to come while the QC community and commercial KPA profile makers expand the range of captures available.

Speaking of ongoing updates, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes down the pipe. Right now, my QC is running firmware 1.0.0 and the features are aptly characterized by Doug Castro (NDSP’s CEO) as MVP: “minimum viable product”. While the feature set is definitely not mature, what is implemented is done well. This is exemplified by the cabinet simulator. Rather than auditioning scores of impulse responses, you select the cabinet and adjust the virtual mic position and distance with a GUI. Another great example is the pitch shifter. While an intelligent harmonizer is on the roadmap, the fixed pitch shifter is phenomenal. While I’ve not personally used the Digitech Drop, the QC’s pitch shifter handles downtuning better than any multiFX / modeler I’ve ever used. There’s no perceivable latency so the feel is the same as it is at normal pitch. Another brilliant feature is the parametric EQ. Editing the parameters is so easy when you can drag/drop to adjust parameters. The PEQ, used in conjunction with the slick cab simulator should make it super easy to dial in whatever sound is in your head.

So what am I looking forward to in updates? One feature omission at launch is expression pedal auto-engage, a must-have for me. Fortunately, that feature is expected to be in one of the early updates. The Cortex Cloud is functional but immature. It works but lacks metadata to facilitate searching as the preset / capture libraries grow. Options for managing cloud content on your QC (e.g., reordering IRs) is limited. While the touchscreen is slick and works well, there are some workflows like IR selection that would benefit from refinement.

This is looking like it’ll be a fun ride. What we have now is a great-sounding device that is easy to dial in. While it’s already impressive, one of the things that struck me about Castro is that he seems to have a good handle on how software development teams should operate. As a result, I’m hopeful that they will be able to quickly mature the product and continue to add content.

Excuse me as I get back to playing guitar…


Modes on Three Strings

My One Octave, Three Strings article explained my “three strings” approach to navigating the fretboard in the context of the pentatonic scale.  Here, we’ll apply it to the modes of the major scale and I’ll provide some exercises for building fluency with them.


One Octave, Three Strings

Most people will tell you that a guitar has six strings.  Some even have seven or eight.  I prefer to think about the fretboard as if it only has three.

I’ve always had what I’d consider to be a good memory but remembering scales across all six strings has always been a challenge for me. I could remember the patterns across a few strings but I struggled to find my way all the way across the fretboard.  I’m still not great with patterns going across the fretboard but I found a way to navigate across the fretboard without memorizing those patterns.


Upcoming: My View of the Fretboard

When I was at Guitar Workshop Plus in San Diego a couple weeks ago, I had a lot of discussions about navigating the fretboard.  Having seen a lot of instructors’ takes on the topic, my approach seems a bit different from most of them.  I find it a lot easier to understand as it makes a number of simplifying assumptions.  That’s not without its drawbacks (and I’ll also explain them as best I can) but it provides some interesting options, particularly if you’ve been struggling with applying scales across the fretboard.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be putting some stuff together to illustrate where I’m coming from.  Hopefully some folks will find it helpful.  At least initially, it’ll be in written form rather than video–I’m a bit camera shy these days.  We’ll see where it goes.


Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, or just Happy Holidays. Wishing you have a lovely holiday season and a wonderful 2017!

Tribe of One has been delayed for a number of reasons but should be released in the early part of 2017.  In the meantime, here’s a short clip that might help get you into the swing of the season.


      What Child


The Joy of Tech

Some of the ideas I’m putting into Tribe of One go back a long way.  One of the ideas I’ve been playing with was something I did on a sequencer back when MIDI interfaces were a big deal and my powerhouse computer had a 486 CPU and a 15″ CRT.  One of the demos currently on my media page actually has a theme that goes back farther than that!

In retrospect, it occurs to me that I’ve actually been wanting to do this solo thing for most of my life.  From the sequencer built into the Roland JX-3P synth I had as a teenager to the Foster X15 four track recorder I got a year or so later to the MIDI rig I mentioned above, I’ve gotten a good bit of gear over the years with the intention of producing musical works independently.  I’m not sure if it was a matter of geography, inability to find folks with a shared musical vision, or just an asocial nature.  Whatever the reason, I’m coming to realize that the fact that I’ve spent relatively little time over my musical life in bands probably isn’t happenstance.

So why has it taken so long to do this project if the seeds were planted some 30 or more years ago?  A lot of the usual reasons: procrastination, insecurity, and that thing called life pulling my time/energy in different directions.  In the process of living my life, my ability to express my musical ideas diminished as I went years and years without doing any writing and hardly laying hands on any instrument.  I also lacked the skills to record and the tools to support my composition and recording workflows. This is where technology came to the rescue.

There are some awesome online resources out there for those wanting to learn about recording.  In the old days, you learned from a friend or mentor who showed you the ropes and taught you the tricks of the trade.  Nowadays, anyone with access to a search engine can find awesome tutorials not just on general recording techniques but for getting the most out of whichever recording tool you prefer. Same goes for songwriting: there are lots of resources available to help the aspiring songwriter polish his craft.

Similarly, the tools at the songwriter’s/recordist’s disposal are way better than ever.  Today, even a prosumer digital audio workstation has capabilities that major studios could only wish for a few decades back.  Digital amplifiers allow for recording raging guitars and thumping basses at whisper volumes: I regularly record while the rest of the family is in bed.  I also don’t have to worry about a barking dog spoiling a take.  Rearranging a song is a piece of cake: cut the chorus in half, add a verse, move the bridge.  Even though my instrumental proficiency has improved in recent years, it’s nice to be able to punch in a fix for a minor error on an otherwise great take.  The transition from tape to digital didn’t just improve signal to noise ratios, it facilitated remote collaboration as FTP of audio files replaced the shipping of magnetic media.

With the support of some amazing technology, I now have the tools at my disposal to fulfill my musical vision.  Now that I’m out of excuses, I need to knuckle down and complete the project.  I’m wrapping up the writing phase and should be ready to start real recording next month.


New Song Tease: All That Darkens


Despite it being sunny and relatively warm here, the song I recorded yesterday was pretty dark.  It’s still a work in progress but I thought I’d share a tease.



January Noodling

I’m still making progress and heading for an end of year release.  I’m still in the writing phase, partly rejiggering existing material and working on all-new stuff. Here’s something I’ve been working on over the past week.  I like the main guitar hook but the rest of the noodling will get updated over time.


Why am I doing this?

Good question.  I suppose part of it boils down to having a “.rocks” domain struck me as kind of cool. I think another part is that while I want to share details about my musical journey, it seems like a good time to separate that part of my life from the other parts, at least when it comes to social media.  Finally, I think I need to document my progress on “Morgan Hill”.  While I want to have my documentation, in doing so publicly I hope that I’ll push a little harder to get it done.