Nashville-based guitarist, songwriter, and musical director Chris Wrate has worked alongside artists like Kelsea Grande, Ariana Grande and Daniel Powter. He also plays on TV shows such as Oprah, American Idol and The Tonight Show.
Chris is a Wisconsin native and grew up in the blues scene of Chicago and Milwaukee. It was his versatility as an artist which allowed him to work alongside a wide variety of artists, from blues, pop and rock to R&B and funk.
Chris is currently the guitarist and musical director of Kelsea Ballerini’s band. He spoke to us about his newfound love for Celestion impulse responses.
Chris, thank you so much for being here for our interview! You’ve worked with many interesting and amazing people. What were some of your favorite projects?
Kelsea Ballerini is the artist I am currently working with – and with whom I have worked for the longest time – is my favorite. There have been many highlights. Every year we get to perform award shows. Country music hosts two award shows in Vegas and one in Nashville. These are always fun.
We also have the Tennessee Titans, an American football team. They also have a stadium in town. Every year Kelsea hosts a festival to celebrate that. It’s televised nationally and is seen by 70,000 people.
How many years have you been working with Kelsea Ballerini.
It’s been five years. It was her second single that she released, and I began working with her around the same time. It’s been a great ride from the beginning of her career up to now.
You bet! You are a musician, songwriter and musical director. Are you a fan of one style or all?
I like the variety. Currently, I play guitar and keyboards with Kelsea. I also serve as the musical director for her band. I enjoy being a part of so many things and try to do as much as possible to feel like I’m contributing.
However, I am a guitarist at heart. It’s my primary instrument, and it was my first love in music-related matters.
Tell Us a Little About Your Songwriting.
Many songs I write are different from others. It all started when I was a part of a variety of worship bands in the area, and for various churches. I also contributed to recording and writing for several different projects while I was living in Los Angeles. A lot of my writing was, and still is, contributed to libraries for different cues that are used in TV shows. These will be used in small snippets in various shows.
Did you participate in a national campaign for Weight Watchers?
To make a long story short, I received an email from someone I knew from a Church, requesting to contribute to libraries used by companies for TV ads.
“Hey, we are looking for submissions to a cue. It must be submitted by tomorrow. Here’s what we want, it’s for national commercials.
They never called us back and we didn’t actually get picked up for that! My friend had put the music we had written into a library a year and a quarter later and I completely forgot about it. Someone called us suddenly and asked if we wanted to use the music that you had written a year ago. It’s a song we want to use in a national campaign that Jessica Simpson and I are doing for Weight Watchers em>
We were inspired by that and decided to get back into music writing.
You may have sent some videos of your setup before the interview. Are you happy to use the same setup as your go-to IR combo or would you prefer to change it depending on what tone or sound you are looking for?
My go-tos for live amps are my digital amps. I find that the same amps I use again and again are the ones I revert to. I am currently switching to a Fractal, a Kemper. I have the same experience with the Fractal. I used a combination of the Celestion 2’12 (closed-back) Vintage 30 speakers and the Golds. You can pair them together with the Fractal.
The last amp I used in our live show was a Vintage 30 and Celestion Gold. It’s great to be able now to use the same combo and mic in those shows.
Are you just starting to use digital platforms for live performances?
They switched the switch on us about two years ago. It was initially a change we weren’t excited about as guitarists. We like loud amps, and there was always the stigma that digital amps sounded digital. However, I understand what it does to a sound guy and what it does on our stage.
The IRs are a huge help!
Most artists now play live with digital setups.
Yes, I believe so. I was talking to someone yesterday about this. It seems that more and more bands are abandoning real amps in favor of using something like the Strymon Iridium. This allows you to use impulse responses from companies such as Celestion, Kemper, or Fractal. It’s becoming more common and more popular.
How did you discover about Celestion’s impulse responses? Did it happen when the band decided to switch to digital or were you experimenting with them first?
I didn’t know it, but when the offer was made to us, I thought that I had seen Celestion advertise that they were making IRs. So that’s when, I reached out and told them, “hey, we’re going entirely digital!”
The hardest thing about the switch was the knowledge that we would lose connections and relationships with certain companies. This would affect some of our equipment. Celestion offered something similar. It does a tremendous amount for these platforms, and it helps musicians get used to the idea of switching from one format to another.
What advice would you give someone thinking about trying IRs?
This is a difficult question! The best thing about IRs is the overwhelming amount of information available. Celestion is a great source of information.
I’d recommend that you have experience micing amps, and are familiar with how speakers sound and do what an amp does. If they colour the amp or if it doesn’t, Celestion IRs will do a great job at retaining the speaker’s characteristics. You can choose from an open or closed cabinet (2’12, 4’12, etc.). You can think about what you’d like to hear mic’d for this particular amp. These IRs are very accurate to what they will look like, and it has an incredible consistency. That’s the best thing about it.
There have been times when cameramen have knocked my microphones off their amps while they are backstage chasing the camera. Using IRs eliminates many of these issues. The problem of finding the right position, whether you are in a studio or live setting, is gone. It’s there, it’s real, and it works every time. It’s pretty consistent.
It is obvious that IRs have revolutionized the way you work on stage. But, has it saved you any time?
Yes, I believe so. The digital amps are a bit overwhelming right now, so I’m still getting used to the Fractal. It’s a new product and I was curious to see how it compares to the Kemper. The best thing about the IRs is that I already have all of them so I know what they do to amps and how they sound against them. Because I can understand what an amp sounds like, it’s my palette. This allows me to audition other pieces of gear.
Many digital equipment comes with a speaker or a recommendation. Fractal, for instance, has a lot more IRs than Celestion, but don’t always specify if the amp is Celestion or if the cabinet is a different type. I tend to avoid theirs. Although I have listened to a few of their IRs, I always go back to the Celestion IRs because I know what I will get from them. It’s the consistency.
Your style is consistent and you prefer to stick with the best.
How have IRs changed your work environment? Are you able to use them regularly or are you still able to have fun with actual equipment?
When I was asked about it, I said that I rarely use my amp at home. I am a firm believer in maximizing my time and don’t enjoy playing with a live amp. It’s not worth it when I know that no one is calling me to play on a live amp.
Everything has changed tremendously. It’s so easy to bring in the Kemper and the Fractal, and know exactly what sound I want. If I’m changing amps, and want a Fender sound or a heavier Marshall sound, I know what IRs to use with them and have all the necessary equipment. It is so much easier to create those sounds, especially when time is short, in a studio.
Do you have any other comments about Celestion impulse reactions?
While I was working on my Kemper stuff, I decided to take a look at the original profile via Instagram. This is a profile I made of an amp that I already owned, using a cabinet with a Celestion Vintage 30, and a Celestion Gold. The effect was so dramatic that I ended up posting the clip to my Instagram Story.
I have just filmed my profile using stock settings and compared it to the same profile that had the Celestion IR added.
You could clearly see the quality difference in the above phone recording when the impulse response was included.
Celestion IRs provide information about amps. There are positive frequencies being projected now that they weren’t (in a good manner). It just gives you so many more details. It’s one those pieces of gear that, legally, I think, is a game-changing tool.
What’s next in terms of projects for you?
Although I am still working with Kelsea because we do three tours a year, it has been a quieter one. We usually go out on weekends in Nashville which is great. Then we come home for a few days to reset and then we are back out again the next week. We are currently in an album cycle. It will be out next month.
We will be promoting it in March, and performing at some of the larger country music festivals in the States during the summer. However, we won’t go on a full tour before Fall. We will be on a tour that begins in Fall and will likely go through 2021… That’s probably something I shouldn’t say!
It’s all just preparation work right now for the forthcoming album.
Let me finish by saying that I believe in the IRs. Celestion Gold was the way I discovered Celestion. The first boutique amp I purchased had a Celestion Gold inside. I would take that amp with me (which was small enough to fit in a lunchbox). I would take it on a plane to bring it abroad. I would backline a cabinet, and I liked that it would provide consistency rather than using another head.
It made me realize how different speakers and cabinets are. Just because your amp head is the same, it can be placed on a different cabinet, but it will be very different. This experience taught me the importance of speakers. I believe people often overlook this fact. People think only about the amp and not about the contents. This made me more aware of Celestion, which helped me to understand why I loved that backline amp so much. I was unaware that the amp had Celestion Vintage 30,s until I checked it out. Then, I wondered “Why do I like my personal amp?” and I realized that I liked the Vintage 30s and the Golds. What else could I try?
Have you tried other things?
I think I have probably seen all of them at one time or another. The Creamback is my favorite. I have been talking a lot lately about the Vintage 30s as well as the Golds. That was used against many Fender-style profiles, models, and I also use the G12 Heritage speakers. However, I prefer to use a 412 cabinet for something Marshall-y. I am trying to broaden my palette so that I can switch between different IRs.
It can be an impulse response, or an actual Celestion speaker. It changes the soundscape so much.