Back in the Saddle?

I’m going to try to get this blogging thing going again. I like to write, but I seem to have fallen into the idea that I have to have a carefully considered, thematic, thousand word essay, and that becomes too much to tackle with my busy schedule. So, I will try to put out short bursts of whatever is going on and include a nice photo.

Sandy bought a book called “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin. The subtitle is “Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives”, and yeah, it’s another of the endless stream of self help books around, but I am finding it intriguing. A lot of the book is about asking yourself questions and analyzing your tendencies. Knowing yourself better gives you a fighting chance of sustaining the habits which will shape the life you want to live. I feel I can also use this approach to more successfully encourage my students and recording clients.

Some things I’ve learned so far include:

I’m a Questioner. That means I question expectations and don’t like arbitrary rules. I am convinced to do things by logic, reason, doing research.

I like to start things but sometimes have a hard time following through. Like keeping this blog going. I prefer to work at a steady pace. Familiar is ok, but I like novelty and new things.

There’s a lot more, and I will try to communicate with you more regularly. I leave you with this photo of Sandy’s music room, aka our living room. The evening light was just lovely, and her instruments are lined up, waiting for the moments when they come to life.image

All Aboard

I’m at 38,000 feet, hurtling through the sky between Minneapolis and Seattle. It’s September 10, the first day of our vacation. Sandy and I have gotten into a routine of taking a trip this time of year, and we find it’s a great choice for those without kids in school. Our two children are well into their 20’s and living on their own, so we are free to go. Ian lives close by and generously agreed to bring in the mail and keep an eye on our place.

This trip is a loop. We land in Seattle today, staying overnight at a B&B called the Gaslight Inn, which I understand is a Victorian mansion in the Capitol Hill area of the city. Tomorrow morning we board the Amtrak train to Vancouver, British Columbia. We’ll be in that beautiful city for a few days, then ferry over to Vancouver Island and head down to Victoria. From there, we’ll either take a ship back to Seattle or use the ferry system to get to Anacortes, WA, near where my cousin Dennis Koger lives with his wife Barbara. At any rate, we’ll see some of Washington state before we fly back home to complete our eight day journey.

I love to travel, and Sandy does too except she doesn’t enjoy flying. We’ve taken a few trips by train, which is a great way to go if you have time and like to see the countryside. My first big train trip was in 1970, from our farm near Fennimore, WI to Seattle and back, visiting relatives. This was one of a couple of family trips from my childhood that really stands out. It was the end of the era of train travel before Amtrak was formed. I believe our carrier was the Great Northern Railroad, and we boarded the train at a small and old fashioned station in Prairie du Chien, WI. The traveling party was my parents and the four of us kids, ranging in age at the time from 13 down to 8 years old. I was 12. It is remarkable to me that my parents could undertake such an adventure. The two week trip meant my father had to find trusted help to milk the cows and generally take care of the farm. We were going right at the end of the school year, so it was late May into early June. That means the trip had to fit between some critical farm tasks: spring planting and harvesting the first hay crop. The cost of the trip had to be considerable, and I remember my Mom brought a big picnic basket full of snacks because we only took one meal a day in the dining car. The journey was nearly two full days, starting on a rainy late afternoon. We made our was north along the Mississippi River, pulling into the big train shed in Minneapolis at perhaps 11 pm. That was our longest stop on the trip, but we weren’t allowed to get off the train. From there we rolled through the night across Minnesota and North Dakota. We were impressed that the train kept a pace of 80 miles per hour as the wheat fields of Montana flew by. In the afternoon the Rocky Mountains rose up in the distance and soon we were crossing the continental divide and making a brief stop at the entrance to Glacier National Park. It was my first time seeing mountains, and the scenery was spectacular all the way into Seattle, where we arrived the next morning.

So much was exotic for the farm kid from Wisconsin. My uncle and cousins were commercial fishermen who piloted their not so big boat to Alaska each summer for the salmon season. The lush green of Washington state. The hippies living on the beach just a block or two from my relatives’ home. The Space Needle and Monorail, the busy seaport in Seattle. Also exotic was my cousin Dennis’ record collection. I spent lots of time listening to The Beatles’ White Album- heady stuff for a twelve year old. My brother and I bunked in an Airstream travel trailer, which was cool too. I don’t remember much about the return trip except that we were exhausted and us kids slept about 12 hours straight that first night home in our own beds.

In adult life, Sandy and I have been on several trips by train. To New Orleans via Chicago with our kids in 1994. I remember stepping off the train at a stop in Memphis on a hazy early morning, and later pulling into the NOLA station next to the Superdome. I was struck by how foreign a place it was, and of course that was the site of so much devastation from hurricane Katrina a decade later. In 2008, we took the first of our September trips, to upstate New York to visit Sandy’s sister Debbie and her family. On the way we had a lovely afternoon and evening along the Chicago lakefront. Later, we visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Niagara Falls, both bucket list items for me. While we were on the trip, the economy nearly collapsed (remember September 2008?) and by the time we returned home, Sandy’s job had almost evaporated. Times were better by 2012, and that September we took the train to Glacier National Park. It was a wonderful trip,passing though the Wild West oil field territory of North Dakota, retracing the approach to the Rockies, and great hikes, tasty meals, and kind people in the Glacier area.

Gotta go. The plane is about to land, and it’s time for another September adventure.image

My Bowl Runneth Over

imageI think of myself as a musician first. I’m a studio guy and teacher because I’m a musician. February 9, 1964 was the day I realized how important music was to me. I was five years old, and a sensational band from England was making their first appearance on the popular TV variety program “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The band was the Beatles, and they were the most amazing thing I had seen or heard. It would take years and some false starts before I really got going playing music, but I knew from that day where I was headed. One of my favorite sayings is “you don’t choose music, it chooses you”.

New Year’s Resolutions aren’t usually my thing, but in January I resolved to see more live music and seek out musicians who are new to me. On a recent weekend I went to three concerts in 3 days and it was good for my soul.

The first show was on a Friday night, singer/songwriter Barbara Cohen at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. I wasn’t at all familiar with her, but was invited by my friends Steve and Kathy and hey, I’m seeking out new music. Bryant Lake is a funky urban nightspot, with a bar, bowling lanes, and a small concert space that seats 150 or so. From what I understand, Barbara Cohen is a Twin Cities native who was in some significant local bands before moving to California a decade ago. She had a recording contract at that time but when her performing career began to sputter, Barbara turned her focus to film soundtrack work. A bike accident resulted in an epiphany that returned her desire to perform, and here she was, back on stage after an 8 year hiatus. The show had rough edges, as Barbara and her quickly assembled trio of backing musicians felt their way through the songs. At one point she consulted with guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker to confirm the first chord of the next tune, but still the show was joyous, spontaneous, and she sang beautifully. Keep returning to the stage Barbara Cohen. I look forward to seeing you again.

The next afternoon, Sandy and I were at White Bear Lake United Methodist church for a fundraising event called Empty Bowls, to benefit a Native American food shelf. Besides a delicious wild rice soup, Empty Bowls featured a concert by Peter Ostroushko and Dean Magraw. I’ve been playing music regularly at this church for 14 years, and the previous Sunday I had made a big deal of what fabulous musicians these guys are. Perhaps because of this, I was asked to introduce them at the concert. They came on stage, and with hardly a word to each other began a stunning display of musicianship. Peter is simply one of the finest mandolin/fiddle players in the world and Dean a stellar guitarist. They seemed to sense right away the excellent acoustics for their instruments and the quiet attention of the audience. Sometimes on a gig you have to fight your way through a bad room or noisy background. On this day they were free to play with delicacy, finesse, and a wide dynamic range. The thing that struck me most was the level of nonverbal communication between them. Without a set list or a net, one or the other would launch a tune, and a brief look or nod was all they needed to negotiate the arrangements. Between songs we were treated to dry humor and an hour passed quickly watching two masters at work.

Sunday evening found me in a nearby suburb for a show by the Tune Jerks at the Hope Christian Church Concert series. The Hope series just finished it 13th season of presenting concerts ranging from bluegrass to folk, jazz, and beyond. I just found out about it, but this is a great service to the community. Good music at a reasonable price and at intermission, pie and coffee! I think the series is curated by Bob Douglas, and the Tune Jerks are a trio he formed some years ago. The Jerks play old time string band music, Celtic fiddle tunes, and even ragtime and early jazz on various combinations of guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and claw hammer banjo, along with fine singing. They played with relaxed skill and finished each other’s sentences with good humored jabs. Twice during the show they were joined by clogger Julie Young, whose percussive tap dancing was like adding a drummer to the sound.

Three good shows, and I plan to keep getting out to support and be inspired by musicians of all sorts. I also hope to return the favor and move and inspire others when I perform.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Last week Sandy and I took a trip to Arizona to visit my mom and enjoy some warmth and sun. We spent an afternoon at the Musical Instrument Museum (mim.org) in Scottsdale and they practically had to kick us out at closing time. MIM is mainly a collection of 15,000 instruments from around the world. One of the first things you see is this huge standup bass, one of only 3 made in the 19th century.ImageYou don’t finger it. There are levers on one side that clamp on your chosen note and the idea is to bow long low notes. This mondo bass didn’t catch on, clearly because it won’t fit in a minivan.

From here you go into a series of large rooms, divided up by continent. We started with Africa. They have displays for each country and you wear a headset that plays music samples automatically when you approach. As we worked our way through Asia, the Pacific rim, and South America, a couple of things struck me. One is that people make instruments out of whatever they have in their corner of the globe. Check out this South American drum with an alligator skin head:Image

Another impression I had is how instruments reflect your culture, like this Mongolian bowed lute with carved horse head:Image

There are many styles and streams of music around the world that I know almost nothing about. A group of Tibetan instruments:Image

A gamelan orchestra setup from southeast Asia:Image

Ah, some familiar turf. Buck Owens’ guitar and outfit:Image

The piano John Lennon used to compose Imagine:Image

The MIM is a great place to remember why I love music. There was more to the trip, like the sunburn I got on a 3 hour bike ride, but that’s another story.

Thanks Dad

My father passed away February 5, 2012 at the age of 79. I’ve been thinking about him often this winter. A few months ago I read the book “Visiting Tom” by Michael Perry, and Tom Hartwig, the book’s namesake, reminded me so much of my dad. Perry is a writer who lives about two hours away from me in Wisconsin and I describe his books loosely as memoirs filled with humor, philosophy, and interesting characters. Simply put, I relate to what he writes.

Dad’s name was Delmar Gildersleeve. Pronounced “Delmer”, not “Del-Mar” and certainly not “Del”. The unique name fit him. He was a compact man, strong, with face and arms permanently tanned by a life spent outdoors. A farmer in his working life, and an all around handy guy. He could do all kinds of mechanical stuff, plus welding, carpentry, construction, painting. Dad took good care of his animals and fields and in return got the best from them. He was curious, studied the world around him, and with my Mom traveled far and wide. The last dozen years of his life they spent winters in Arizona. He took care of the yard, walked, explored the area on his motor scooter, and got really involved with radio controlled cars and airplanes.

Dad was born in central Iowa and grew up during the Depression and World War II. He was a wiry farm kid who had a driver’s license at 14 (there were no school buses yet) and graduated from high school at 16, just short of his 17th birthday. These facts impressed me.
In 1950 he joined the army and spent a year in Korea, where he was twice seriously injured. He had little to say about the war other than that a year of living in a tent cured him of any desire to go camping later in life, but we have learned that his unit saw intense fighting. The balance of his service was spent as a military policeman in Kentucky, and after being discharged Dad returned home and started farming. He met my mom, they married in 1955, and in 1959, a year after I was born, we moved to southwest Wisconsin, where I grew up.

Except for his stint in the army, Dad was his own boss. He saw what needed doing and got it done. As kids, we were an important part of the farm labor force and he would often say we needed to “hit the ground running”if there was hay to be made or corn to harvest. Our pay came when he would sell a batch of pigs and he would designate us kids as owners of a pig each. I bought my first guitar by selling a pig! Dad was a fair boss in that he would never ask you to do a crappy job without pitching in himself. If you had to stand shin deep in manure, he was right next to you. In retrospect I see that he was also good at figuring out what chores we preferred and assigning us those tasks. As teenagers we had our battles with our parents, but they were remarkably trusting and supportive.

As an adult I’ve been lucky enough to find my way and become my own boss. Visits with my folks would usually include a long talk with Dad, solving the world’s problems, debating politics, catching up on life. At the end of 1995, Sandy and I moved into our house and in January of ’96 Dad came to stay with us for a few weeks and was the primary builder of my studio. I had books, diagrams, and a plan, but he made it a reality. A guy who knew very little about music, Dad caught my vision and built the place that has served me so well all these years. There have been revisions and updates, but the bones of the studio are all him.

Thanks Dad, rest in peace.

A Week in the Life

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I believe in climate change, and I know that our local weather is a blip in the overall worldwide picture, but this winter in Minnesota is turning into an endurance test. Two months of mostly extra cold, often subzero temps. I scan the weather page in the Sunday paper and see that Fairbanks, Alaska enjoyed a high of 32 above yesterday while we tumble toward an overnight low of -20 with the wind blasting out of the north. This week I am extra thankful that most of my work is done in my basement recording studio or teaching at the local music store, with the occasional trip elsewhere for gigs and rehearsals. A busy week it was:

Monday I teach 10 lessons, half an hour each, in the afternoon and evening. They range from 7 year olds to adults, and most have been with me for months or years and we have an easy rapport. A high school senior and I discuss how country music is adding elements of rap and hip hop, while rock and pop is favoring acoustic instruments and folk textures. Later in the evening I am back at my studio for a four hour session with Jeff Crandall. I wrote about Jeff in another post, and it’s the second session of his J. Briozo project. I engineer as Jeff carefully crafts acoustic guitar and vocal tracks which will see overdubs later.

Tuesday, another 10 lessons, but instead of straight through, I have a break in the middle of close to an hour. I spend it trying to make our health insurance more affordable by applying on MNSure, our state health care exchange. As a self employed person I have a big interest in health reform because insurance is very expensive and an unlucky illness could mean bankruptcy. MNSure is suffering from the same startup problems as the federal website and even with helpful guidance via phone, the system crashes both times I attempt to enter my info. I’ll keep trying, but I go back to work for now. After teaching I have a rehearsal with one of my bands, St. Croix Crossing. It gives me a chance to try out the latest version of my pedal board, which is a work in progress.

Wednesday morning I am just finishing scraping the latest inch of snow off my driveway when Jim and Bob arrive for a session. Both are recently retired schoolteachers and long time musicians and songwriters. They are working on a set of music I have dubbed “Sergeant Peppers” because the songs are lush and full of details. We do a drum overdub and start working on mixing a pair of songs they hope will be used in a celebration of their hometown. Just before 1 pm I look at the clock and realize I have just minutes to get to my lessons. I dash off, teach 14 students over 7 hours. I finish the day with 3 hours at the studio editing drums with Peter O’Gorman for our original music project, After Everything.

Thursday, it’s really cold outside. So cold the local schools are closed and two or three students miss their lessons because of car problems and weather issues. I spend the first part of the day recording Sandy’s mandolin parts for a demo we are making for our bluegrass/acoustic group North Shore Trail. After teaching I spend an hour or so listening and getting ready for Friday’s session.

Friday, the temperature has risen close to 50 degrees, about 30 above zero, and Brian Aamot arrives for a long day of mixing. We are back to his project after a long layoff and he has a list of changes to the mixes of his 14 songs. We work 10.5 hours with a lunch break in the middle. I would describe the music as melodic heavy metal and I am impressed at his ear for shaping vocal harmonies.

Saturday, Jim and Bob are back. In four hours we finish the mixes on the two songs started on Wednesday and everyone is pleased with the results. We go out for a late lunch and I spend the rest of the day working on recording my guitar tracks for the North Shore Trail demo.

Sunday I catch up on my blog and look forward to the new episode of Sherlock on public television. The current temperature is zero.

Pedal to the Metal

 

 

     Since we are now well into the 21st Century, the time seemed right to assemble my own guitar pedal board. It’s what all in-the-know guitarists are doing, and besides, my collection of very 20th Century pedals are dying off and need to be replaced. For the non guitarists in the crowd, a pedal board is a frame or platform to which you affix your collection of boxes that do everything from helping you tune to making your instrument sound like a gargling banshee. Typically you use Velcro to attach your pedals (the boxes) to the board, allowing for easy rearranging. To this you add cables  to connect them all together, and often some kind of power supply so you don’t have half a dozen AC adapters dangling off the thing. Put it together, attach a guitar on the input side and an amplifier on the output, and you are ready to rock…or jazz, country, whatever. Neat, clean, easy, or so I thought. Here’s what I have so far:

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     This project is full of decisions! I wanted a pedal board that was big enough to house a versatile setup, but small enough to move around. Since it will be literally underfoot when I’m gigging or rehearsing, there are ergonomic considerations. I chose a Pedal Train 2 with a soft carrying case, and it nicely fits the above criteria. For power, I bought a newish unit called Volto. It is a rechargeable lithium battery (your smartphone has this kind of battery too) that will power half a dozen pedals for 30 hours of use. The Volto is attached to the bottom of the Pedal Train and connected to your boxes with supplied cables, eliminating the need for batteries or power adapters-mostly. One pedal has to run on a 9 volt battery and my big blue Möbius has special needs. By that, I mean it constantly hums an A440 note unless it has it’s own separate power supply.

 

     Beyond all the technical and ergo stuff, your pedal board is an expression of your artistic flair and organizational skills. There are online forums where geeks post photos of their creations, and argue the merits of their setup versus others, like parents cheering on their kids at soccer games. The pedals themselves are carefully chosen the same way wine snobs or craft beer fans consider what crosses their palate. “This is an especially good vintage with fully distorted flavor and notes of Hendrix and Van Halen”. Sure, you can choose a cheap collection of Chinese diodes, but the world of boutique boxes calls out like a siren song. Why, just the titles are intriguing. Express yourself with pedals named Tim (straightforward, utilitarian), Euphoria (sounds like a fragrance) or, I’m not making this up, the Bag of Dicks (draw your own conclusions). 

 

     Pedal boards seem to be like guitarists themselves, never quite finished or totally happy with their sound or technique. I’ll be chasing this rainbow for a long time to come.

 

Welcome back, Jeff!

My blog is back with new title, “My Side of the Glass”. I plan to write regularly about audio recording and my life in music, plus anything I think is worthy of your consideration. First off, my name is Randy Gildersleeve, I own a recording studio, GilderSound, play and teach a bunch of fretted instruments, and perform in an array of bands and ensembles. I live in Minnesota, presently cold and snowy:

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One of the best parts of my work is the wide range of interesting people and projects I get to be part of. Tomorrow I begin recording the next album of my good friend Jeff Crandall. We’ve worked together on two full albums and an EP of his band Swallows, an album by his previous band Thinland, and a few other side projects. Jeff is a talented and prolific songwriter and a skilled musician and singer. Oftentimes we wind down after a session with a deep discussion. Music, creativity, politics, books, family, almost anything. How we got together is a story itself.

Back in the late 1990’s there was a jam band called Stew. I didn’t know them, but a mutual friend generously gave them some money to record and suggested my studio. The bass player in Stew was a fellow named Aaron Kerr. Aaron is also an award winning cellist and composer. Stew didn’t last long after we finished their record, and Aaron started playing music with Jeff, a recent immigrant from California.  Jeff’s songwriter friend Leigh Gregory, out in San Francisco, was recording an album called Mellow Drunk and wanted Jeff and Aaron to add vocals and cello. They came to me, we hit it off and have recorded lots of music over close to 15 years. So, thanks to the short lived band Stew, I started on a path that continues to this day. Welcome back, Jeff. I look forward to our next adventure.

A short discourse on… what was I talking about?

I hang onto this idea for a week or two in early October. Since I seem to be buying a new computer, this fires up my semi dormant case of GAS, or gear acquisition syndrome. Every year around this time I start thinking about what I might add to the studio because business investments can be subtracted from your income and lower your taxes. Now, GilderSound is very well equipped, but I always have a running list of items that will make the place that much better. This year I have two big items on the list, not counting the computer/Pro Tools situation which has pushed itself to the front of the line. Item #1 is a Bricasti M7, which is arguably the finest hardware reverb on the planet. By “hardware” I mean a physical piece of gear, not software. The other item on my short list is a Rascal Audio Tonebuss summing box. Unless you are a gear geek like me, you are no doubt asking “what the heck is a summing box?”. Well, until 16 months or so ago I was asking the same question.

Let me explain. Before Pro Tools and other DAW’s came along, we used mixers and tape machines to record, manipulate, and eventually mix all of the sound together. This equipment added tonal color to the music, like filters and lenses affect the color of photos and film. In the 80’s and 90’s sound engineers often characterized digital recording as “cold” and analog as “warm”. Much of this had to do with digital to analog conversion not quite capturing all of the details of sound, but some of what was missing was tonal shaping provided by analog electronics and tape. Around the beginning of the 2000’s conversion got much better, and digital became a pretty transparent medium to record in. Combine that with low cost and great editing capability and pretty soon everyone was using computers for some or all of their recording process. Still we crave our analog warmth. I love stuff with tubes in it- guitar amps, mic preamps, compressors, etc. because they add some of the “secret sauce” to recordings. But all of us recording folks were still looking for more depth and dimension in our final mixes. Some of the high end mixing engineers were still using large analog mixers and argued that the trip through the mixer combined the tracks in a more pleasing way than staying inside the computer. There was no way a mid level guy like myself could afford a nice mixer, since that would be an investment 10’s or even 100’s of thousands of dollars.

The companies who make products for people like me got going and created some solutions. They built some smaller, high quality mixers and came up with a category of product called summing boxes. Part of me wonders if this is like the drug companies coming up with solutions for conditions I never knew existed, but obviously lots of people have them since they advertise on television. Anyway, with a summing box you send stems, or groups, of your tracks out of the computer into the warm analog world where they happily combine into a stereo track you record back into the DAW. I must admit I was skeptical, since I was already sending some tracks out to external hardware during mixing. Still, I wanted to check it out, so in November 2009 I bought Dangerous D-Box, and among other functions, it has 8 channels of summing. It was actually several months before I was able try mixing “out of the box” however. I bought a patchbay to route signals around and it turned out to have some gremlins, but the company eventually sent me a new one that worked. So, on a Tuesday evening in May, the previously mentioned Andy LaCasse and I did a mixing shootout. We took one of our Kilter songs and mixed in and out of box versions. We were somewhat surprised, but both of us agreed that we liked out of the box better.

So this revelation pushed me in a whole new mixing direction. The D-Box is kind of limited in the summing area and I soon decided bigger and better one was in order. But that’s another chapter. Thanks for sticking with me during my longish foray into the history of digital audio.

Is that an expansion chassis in your pocket or….

One of my best friends is Andy LaCasse. Multi instrumentalist, songwriter, bandmate and co-conspiritor. Most Tuesday evenings we get together to work on a slow moving train of a recording for our band Kilter. Some guys play poker, we do this. We do get some work done, but spend a fair amount of time discussing whatever is going on with our lives. So of course on the last Tuesday in September we talk a bunch about my recent computer adventures. Andy said something that really sticks with me. I’m paraphrasing, but what he said was I had been given fair warning that it was time to start moving toward a new computer.

This is a more complex problem than you might think. My studio computer is loaded with Pro Tools HD Accel, which besides software includes three very expensive PCI cards mounted into the slots in the G5. In the middle of 2006, Apple introduced the Mac Pro tower computers and changed the architecture of the slots to something called PCIe, which they have used ever since. PCI cards won’t work in PCIe slots, so my $14,000 worth of cards can’t be installed in a new Mac. Another problem is the Apple operating system. Snow Leopard, the newest OSX, does not support the G5 and earlier, non Intel Apple computers. So Apple is gradually sailing away from me. My frankenstein G5 is working great so far, but since it is just as old as the box it replaced I am aware it could go belly up any day. I head to Gearslutz, the online forum for recording geeks, to do some research. I learn that my PCI cards will fit into some new Windows computers. Sorry, but I’m a Mac guy, so that’s not the solution for me. I find a thread where a couple of pro engineers are discussing using new Macs and putting PCI cards into an expansion chassis. The expansion chassis is a box that holds the cards and connects to the computer through a cable hooked to a PCIe card. Great, I can keep using my cards! A company called Magma makes a chassis that works perfectly with Pro Tools, but it costs $2199. Yikes, that’s close to the cost of the new Mac Pro quad core I plan on getting, but this seems like the way to go.