Digital Evangelist: An Interview with lovelytheband's Alex Strabala
Sometimes it’s all about who you know. Or at very least, who knows you — which was the case for Las Vegas native Alex Strabala.
“I was at my house and Mitchy called me and asked if I wanted to come on tour,” he says with a laugh. “It really was that simple.”
Mitchy, of course, was Mitchy Collins, lead singer for indie pop luminaries lovelytheband.
[If you aren’t familiar with LTB, know that their debut hit “broken” spent a record 76 consecutive weeks on Billboard’s Alternative charts, including 9 weeks at number one.]
“I had gigged with Sam a few times, but had only met Mitch and Jordan a few months earlier in Vegas, and we only exchanged a couple words. In 2017, my friend Blake got hired to play bass for them, then the following year they wanted to hire another auxiliary musician to play keys and guitar — so I had two people recommending me for the gig.”
Today, several tours in, Alex reflects positively on the memories he’s made, the people he’s met along the way, the stories he can tell and the opportunities he’s had to see the world.
“I’m an amateur history nerd who loves to explore and be a tourist all day, so both of the Europe tours I’ve done have been incredible,” he says, but jokes, “Ask me again after we’ve been on the road for three months straight like we’ve done twice now.”
But for all the influence lovelytheband has had on him, Alex has made his own equally distinctive mark on the group.
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When he was younger, Alex says he did what many kids did — saved all his money (over what seemed like a much longer time than it probably was) to buy a Line 6 POD XT Live.
And then he switched to a Marshall JCM900.
“I was a modeling hater for like, fifteen years because as a kid you don’t really know anything about how to dial in tones. Plugging into a loud amp in your room is just easy,” he says. “Later I got an AC30, and then a few boutique amps from Divided by 13, Bad Cat USA and Jackson Audio.”
But, eventually, he got tired of lugging all that gear from gig to gig and switched to a setup that included tube heads with load boxes and cab sims, allowing him to crank his amps to their respective sweet spots, but without all the volume. Naturally, he also became more familiar with listening to mic’d guitar signals through studio monitors and headphones, instead of live on-stage cabs.
“That was the beginning of my downsizing journey.”
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Once, while visiting a Las Vegas megachurch, Alex happened across some “incredible sounding guitars” and it changed everything — they were using Kemper Profiling Amps.
"That was pretty much the end of tube amps for me."
Forced to reconsider what he thought about digital amp technology, Alex embraced the opportunity, picked up a Kemper and profiled his own amps. And it paid off. He recalls closing his eyes and toggling back and forth between the between the actual amps and the profiles, completely unable to distinguish which was which.
“It was a truly apples-to-apples comparison of what the audience hears through the PA — unlike when I was a kid comparing my POD XT Live through crap PC speakers to a JCM900 cranked in the room with me. And the funny part is that the Kemper was actually an upgrade in tones from all my boutique amps.”
Plus, Alex is a money guy — his undergraduate degree is in economics — so the math added up, too.
“I replaced something like $8000 worth of boutique amps and cab simulators with a Kemper that I got for around $1400,” he says. “So that decision was a no-brainer for me.”
Even after switching to Kemper though, he was dragging around a big pedalboard and rack system and still felt limited to one amp model per set because he wasn’t using a midi controller, something he now calls “a waste of the Kemper’s possibilities.” That, as well as the constant urge to buy the latest and greatest expensive overdrive every time one hit the market was holding him back.
But all that changed in 2016.
“I found this page on Line 6’s website called The Helix Challenge, where they did a test similar to what I had done with my Kemper,” he says. “They recorded some dry guitar tracks, loaded down the amps and reamped the guitars through the real amps and Helix amp models. Then they ran both signals through the same cab impulse responses — so it was a real apples-to-apples comparison. They played both clips and you had to guess which was the real amp and which was the model. In truth, I didn’t really like the tones, but I could not tell which was which — so I knew that if it was really that accurate, I would be able to dial them in to sound the way I wanted. Plus it might be able to replace my whole pedalboard too, which would save a ton of weight and money.”
So Alex bought a Helix. And though he says it was a drastically different paradigm — buying or building original presets from scratch, rather than scrolling through profiles someone else had already dialed in — he was quickly able to develop tones equivalent to the commercial profiles he was using on the Kemper.
“If you pull up a Helix amp+cab model on its defaults, it will probably sound terrible,” he admits. “And I think that is part of why there is this apparent consensus that Kemper just has the best amp tones. But while Kemper is great and I’d definitely go back to using it before dealing with real amps again, Helix meets my needs a lot better.”
Here’s a few reasons he lists as why: better user interface, more flexible routing, smaller and lighter all-in-one form factor, dual amps with true stereo, unreal support from Line 6 / YGG, snapshots, built-in USB interface, more/better drive pedal models, more frequent updates and enhanced tweakability.
"For me," he says, "Helix was just the natural end point in my downsizing journey.
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These days, Alex feels like a digital evangelist.
“It’s not a right or wrong thing, but for most people I think the cost/benefit of going digital really makes sense,” he says. “Tube amps are awesome and I’m glad people still use them, but the analog superiority complex that some people have online kind of bothers me. Sometimes I can’t resist poking back by posting a picture of our Helixes in an arena or some massive festival crowd with a snarky comment.”
That’s right — Alex has successfully converted the entirety of lovelytheband over to Team Helix.
He says LTB was dealing with the same problems most everyone with pedals and amps has: volume, weight, getting terrible backline amps, having to set the knobs on pedals and sound check every show, and so on.
“Once they heard my Helix tones during production rehearsals they pretty much asked me to make them each a preset so they could switch over. Now every show is plug in, line check and play. We don’t even sound check because we fly and tour with our own console, stage box, IEMs, etc, and everything except drums is running direct, so our in-ear mixes are identical every show.”
Modelers are everywhere in the pro world Alex says. Of course, there are still plenty of top artists using tube amps, but more and more are switching to digital modeling solutions like the Helix. Still, every so often, he notes some surprise from stage hands when they hear the tones coming from Helix.
“These days we play festivals with other top artists using Kemper and Fractal, and our tones keep up just fine. Helix is still so new compared to Kemper and Fractal that people don’t know about it, but that’s starting to change.”
Alex's Stage Setup, Honda Center in Anaheim, CA | December 2019
You can find Alex on Instagram at @alexstrabala and on lovelytheband's US tour this summer, but here’s more:
You're very active in the Helix community. Why is it important to you to educate and give back?
Alex: For some reason I really enjoy helping people with the unit. I think it’s somewhat altruistic in that I’m helping guys who play in church or just your average hobbyist avoid spending money to get tones that they wouldn’t know how to dial in on their own.
To date I’ve had two different guys email me saying that my Helix videos saved their marriages because they were addicted to buying gear. After hearing my tones, they sold all their gear and bought a Helix. I’ve received thousands of less extreme messages thanking me for my videos and presets, too, explaining how they were able to get out of the analog gear flipping game because of my content — so that type of stuff is pretty rewarding.
As a Helix evangelist, what's the best advice you can offer to those who are still skeptical of what digital has to offer?
Alex: By far the most important thing when trying out modeling is the different monitoring paradigm.
When a real guitar cab is pointed at your legs, all the high end misses your ears, but the mic on the cab picks it up. So you’ll see people post things like modelers have “digital harshness” or high end fizz, when most tube amps have all it too — they’re just not used to hearing it because their cabs are pointed at their legs.
So I post this a lot, but there seems to be an endless supply of people trying modelers through cheap plastic PA speakers and then blaming the modeler for not sounding like a live guitar cab in the room with them. When you crank up a tube amp in your room, you’re hearing the guitar cab directly, it’s super loud, you’re hearing all the room reflections, and it sounds awesome.
When you run direct with a modeler, it’s like putting that guitar cab in another room, mic’ing it up, and monitoring that signal through whatever speakers you’re using.
So if someone is willing to switch over to monitoring mic’d guitar sounds, my advice is to get some decent studio monitors and a load box for his amp. Run the amp+loadbox and the modeler through the same cab IR, and compare the results through the studio monitors at live volume.
If you put a little time into it, you’ll be shocked at the results. These are the tones the audience hears through the PA anyway, so it’s really important to dial them in properly.
Last Question: Quickly, what are your top 3 'Tone Tips' for building great sounds with Helix?
Always dial in tones at as close to live volume as you can through good monitors or headphones.
Always dial in less distortion than you think you need.
Always check your guitar tones in a band mix. What sounds great in your bedroom will not sound good in a full-volume band mix.
To learn more about Alex Strabala or to check out his Helix presets and videos, visit his website: alex.guitars