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Sweetwater’s 3rd annual GearFest is paradise for musicians

Company pulls out all the stops for 25th anniversary

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Mention the name “Sweetwater” to music professionals in top studios and on headlining tours from New York to Los Angeles and all spots in between, and you’ll probably be greeted with a nod of recognition and a smile. Mention the name Sweetwater to almost anyone from Fort Wayne, and you’ll get… well, Sweetwater president and founder Chuck Surack tells it best.

“Everyday I run into people who say ‘I have no idea what you do out there,’” he says.

What Surack “does out there” in Sweetwater’s massive building on Bass road is lead one of the largest and most respected music equipment retailers in the country. The company has around 200 employees, a state-of-the-art recording facility, a professional service center, an enormous inventory of music equipment and instruments, and a list of clients that includes some of the top producers, engineers and artists in the music industry.

Sweetwater’s 3rd annual Gear Fest music gear expo marks the company’s 25th anniversary, and will give visitors the opportunity to see everything the company has to offer. Over 50 leading music gear manufacturers will be showing off their latest and greatest music gear, and clinicians and other experts will be putting the gear through its paces during the special demos and seminars happening throughout the day. There will also be a “Musicians Flea Market” for used equipment and instruments.

“Most of our business is outside of this particular region,” says Adam Cohen, Sweetwater’s Director of Marketing. “Even though the company has evolved to where we offer more and more to local musicians, very often not a lot of people get an opportunity to see what we’re all about. Gear Fest is a chance to open the doors and let people come in and get a feel for what we have, to actually see the huge inventory we have in the warehouse, to check out all the guitars we actually stock.”

Attendees at GearFest can check out everything from the latest synthesizers and electronic keyboards to the incredible Wall of Guitars, where the whole back wall of Sweetwater’s warehouse, floor to ceiling, is lined with hundreds of axes from Fender, Gibson, Brian Moore, Martin, and other luthier luminaries. They can also register to win something from the thousands of dollars worth of prizes that’ll be given away during GearFest.

If you’ve got kids in tow and you’re worried about them getting bored, the Kids Connection has plenty of kids’ games and activities to keep them amused. But you may not even need it. Some of the music technology on display has a high “gee-whiz” factor. In other words, just taking in what some of this stuff can do is pretty entertaining.

But there’s more to GearFest than instruments, amplifiers, microphones, and mixers (though there’s plenty of that). The day-long event is paradise for musicians and “gearheads,” and offers a comprehensive overview of some of the best music technology equipment available right now.

Use the phrase “music technology,” and people usually assume you’re talking about “electronic music,” with pre-programmed sequences, robotic drum beats, and synthesizer saturation. But music technology at Sweetwater takes in the whole range of equipment that musicians use to enhance or augment — or even just plain amplify — a musical performance.

Like the personal computer, music equipment has steadily become more accessible and affordable in the past couple decades, to the point where the average musician or hobbyist can tap into some pretty sophisticated power. Some of the computer-based music production systems that Sweetwater specializes in let musicians do things on their laptop that less than 20 years ago would have required a professional studio, a trunk-load of cash, and a degree in audio engineering to accomplish.

Sweetwater has been at the forefront of this revolution in music equipment ever since the company began a small recording studio. “I’ve always been into technology and electronics from being very little and tearing apart reel-to-reel tape recorders and making them work again,” says Surack. “When I went on the road as a saxophone player I was always the guy running the sound and doing the technical stuff in the band. Back in 1979, I got tired of being on the road so I moved home and started a recording studio.”

In the 80s, Surack’s expertise at a ground-breaking new Kurzweil synthesizer called the K250 was one of the things that started the company down the road to becoming a retailer and service center. The recording studio is still a part of Sweetwater, except now it has expanded into a three-room, state-of-the-art production facility.

The key trait in today’s music equipment is accessibility — more power for less money and less hassle — and it’s a trend that Surack doesn’t see ending any time soon. “Music technology is crossing into more areas,” he says. “When I started, it was mainly for the keyboard player. Then, they started having electronic drums, and tools for guitar. Now you can get violins, cellos, and wind-type instruments. The technology is growing and getting more and more approachable and consumer-oriented.”

Surack points out that even non-musicians can join in. “Look at something like Apple’s Garageband. You can go in and make loops and just have fun with it. That will grow new customers for us and it will also make sure that the pro is still a pro. He or she will not be intimidated by the Garageband guy.”

Sweetwater’s reputation in the industry enables the company to draw some of the top clinicians to host the seminars, clinics, and special demonstrations that go on throughout the day at GearFest. The names of companies attending GearFest are instantly familiar to anyone who has seen a band on stage: Fender, Gibson, Roland, Korg… Representatives from leading computer-based audio production tool design Digidesign and famous PC-makers Apple computers will also be there. “They’re (the manufacturers) pulling out all the stops, bringing people here because they recognize that Gear Fest is a once-a-year opportunity to really get in front of a lot of people and show off some great technology,” says Adam Cohen.

Also on hand will be several “behind the scenes” industry names. Mitch Gallagher, editor of EQ magazine (and a former Sweetwater employee) will lead a seminar on “Conquering Option Anxiety,” to help musicians sort through the wide range of music equipment options available.

Legendary producer and engineer Bob Clearmountain will also be at Gear Fest. Clearmountain’s resume could raise the eyebrows of even the most casual music fan; he’s worked with Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and Paul McCartney, just to name a few, and recently had the opportunity to “update” a project he worked on 20 years ago, completing a 5.1 surround-sound remix of Roxy Music’s seminal Avalon album (“More Than This”).

Clearmountain is a great example of the kind of music industry professional Sweetwater counts among its clients: you may not recognize the name, but you probably own something they’ve worked on. “A lot of people assume that the bigger the name, the more they know about stuff, and to some extent that’s true,” Cohen says. “But it’s sometimes the case that the busier they are, the less time they have to do all the research necessary to figure out what sort of technology is going to accomplish what they need. So, many pros choose to do business with Sweetwater, because they recognize we have a level of expertise. Their job is to make records, or tour, or make do whatever it is they do. Our job is to make sure we know what the technology can do and how it will incorporate into whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish.”

Sweetwater deals with their non-professional and semi-professional clients in the same way. The company has earned such a great reputation because musicians and producers at all levels know they can trust Sweetwater’s experts to “know their stuff” about the new music technology almost the minute it hits the streets.

In addition to GearFest, Sweetwater also plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary by taking over the Embassy Theater Friday night for a performance by Tower of Power, the legendary soul/jazz/R&B band. Surack estimates he’s seen the band around 30 times, and got into them while honing his chops on the saxophone “When you hear their sound you just can’t stop moving.”

Despite 25 years in the business, Surack, an area native, says he still is asked why Sweetwater isn’t in a music industry hot spot like Nashville, New York, or Los Angeles. “Clearly the question came up, as we got into the retail side of things,” Surack says. “It’s still a question asked: ‘why are you in Fort Wayne.” It’s easy for me to say: because I love the community, I love living here. It’s not a stumbling block, and I don’t envision changing it.”

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