Though Salem, MA is notorious for the brutal witch trials held in 1692-93, the city has in recent years become known for a new kind of brutality – the crushing riffs and intense high-gain guitar tones dialed in by Kurt and his friends in the Merrimack Valley hardcore scene that sprouted up in the late 90s around bands like Converge, Cave In, and Piebald.
The tube amps available to scrappy DIY punks on a budget back then weren’t exactly voiced for moshworthy high-gain riffing, so the Merrimack Valley bands had to perform creative tone-sculpting with the Boss OS-2. To help their chugging palm-muted riffs cut through, they rolled the Color control all the way counterclockwise to the OD-1 voice and kept the Gain and Tone controls low to counteract the bass frequency boominess that can occur when vintage amps meet high gain.
Nowadays (though not to be all “EarthQuaker! EarthQuaker!”) Kurt gets similar results from the Westwood transparent overdrive, which has an active two-band EQ and can be heard on the new Joyce Manor album produced at God City. “Almost every band I record leaves my studio with a shopping list,” says Kurt.
Ballou’s control room workflow revolves around one of the most ergonomic mix positions we’ve seen. His main console is a modular Tonelux system with separate channel-strip and fader racks which integrates seamlessly into his workstation. At his home studio, Kurt keeps a Thermionic Culture Fat Bustard 12-channel tube mixer on hand so he can mix at home while his assistant engineers track, edit, and mix at God City.
For Kurt Ballou, collecting gear walks the line between business and pleasure. “Music is my job and music’s also my hobby,” he says.
“I’m interested in how a new tool can inspire a new artistic creation. When I get a new pedal, I’m like, ‘Oh wow! I can figure out what this thing does,’ and I spend all this time tweaking knobs [and] learning the pedal, but maybe in that process you come up with a new riff, and that riff becomes a new song, and then that song takes on a life of its own.”