Saturday, November 13, 2010

Learning to Play MIDI Guitar

I've been controlling synthesizers with guitars since before MIDI was even invented. I saw this ad for the Synclavier guitar system in Guitar Player magazine and had to have one. The smallest 8-voice monophonic guitar system was $19.500.00... yeah, I had to scrape, scrounge, and sell a lot of stuff to even get in the door. That system eventually grew into a 32-voice stereo system with 8 MIDI outs, SMPTE, the Velocity/Pressure keyboard and a Terminal Support Option. It was ridiculously expensive, but getting it was the single best decision I ever made in my life. No way I'd be anywhere near the musician I am today if I hadn't.

Speaking of today, now it's easier than ever to set up a MIDI guitar system. Back in my Synclavier guitar days, we were working with the original Roland GR series guitars, and setting them up just right so that they tracked properly could be a nightmare. I went through at least three Roland GR guitars before I found the Steinberger GL2T-GR that ended up being, 1] an awesome playing ax and, 2] something that had the required Roland pickup.

Here's a knot-head with a GL2T-GR who has no earthly idea what he has or how to use it:

Hey buddy, I'll take that off your hands and pay you well. Sheesh, I'd be rescuing that poor ax. lol.

Anyway, that was back when you could only control a synthesizer with a steel string guitar, because all of the available hexaphonic pickups were magnetic. Now, with piezoelectric saddle designs like the RMC Polydrive II's that are installed in my Blackbird Rider Nylon/RMC guitars, we classical-based players can get into the act too (Not that any of the uptight, painfully self-conscious traditional classical guitarists would ever go out on such a limb).

That brings me to Point 1: The most important decision you'll make when you decide to play MIDI guitar is which guitar to use and most importantly, which pickup system to put in it. Even if you play steel string guitars, you'll be better off with a hexaphonic piezoelectric design in which the strings make physical contact with the transducers: There's nothing better - or more reliable - than a physical connection between the string and the pickup elements. No electromagnetic hex pickup will ever be as good.

One of the main reasons why this is the case is that the RMC systems isolate the transducers from the body of the guitars: If you are using them as just regular guitar pickups, you can hit the body of the guitar and no sound will come out of the amp at all. Flamenco guys hate that, of course, but without all of those sympathetic resonances coming from the body of the guitar, the interface has an easier time picking up the fundamental, and less chance of getting confused and mis-tracking.

So, settle for nothing less than an RMC Polydrive.

Now for Point 2: Which guitar-to-MIDI interface should you get? Before getting back into MIDI guitar, I researched every guitar-to-MIDI system that had been made since 1990. There are several usable units out there, but almost none of the older ones are optimized for piezoelectric transducers. The Blue Chip Axon AX 100 - which later became the Terratec Producer AX 100 Mk II - and the Terratec Axon AX 50 USB are really the only choices now.

I said now, but unfortunately Terratec has discontinued the Axon lines, and so they are an eBay-only item now. This has caused a huge spike in their prices - I saw an AX 50 USB go for $1,009.00 a week or so ago - so if you're smart, you'll try to land an older Blue Chip model. That's what I did: I got a Blue Chip Axon AX 100 SB (With the then-optional GM sound card) for half of what that AX 50 USB went for. Terratec Axon AX 100 Mk II's are going for around $1,500.00 right now: I paid less than that for NIB unit a year ago! So yes, I have two Axon AX 100's: A used Blue Chip and a new Terratec (One of the very last ones sold new, evidently).

So, you've chosen your guitar, gotten your RMC Polydrive installed, and snagged an Axon: Now what? If you got an AX 100 SB or an AX 100 Mk II, stop right there! Since they have onboard sounds - even if they are cheesy GM samples - you can keep your first rig dead solid simple and learn to play it. That's what I did. I just learned my way around the Axon for a year before I decided to add a more interesting sounding MIDI synthesizer sound module.

If you've read this far, I can give you the bad news now: Statistically speaking, I have almost no chance of being wrong when I tell you that, you will fail. It'll be too difficult to learn the Axon (You'll have to spend a lot of time reading the manual), you'll be unwilling to improve your technique so the synth tracks (You have to play very clean and deliberately), and you'll give up. Think about it: How many guitarists do you see out gigging with a MIDI guitar rig? My admittedly anecdotal experience is exactly none. Back in my Synclavier days, there was John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Al Dimeola, Frank Zappa... and me. And out of all of us, I was the only guy who played the Synclavier live on every song in the set.

The point is, you have to have a powerful need to succeed, you have to be willing to invest a lot of time learning, and most of all, you have to be resolved to radically altering your technique to make it all work. Almost no guitarists are ambitious and disciplined enough to do it, and that's just the way it is.

Now back to you Axon AX 50 USB guys. I really want one of those for the USB connection to my computer, but I'm not willing to spend over $1K on one. If you do have an AX 50 USB, though, there is no sound card in it, so you'll need something to play with it. In the keeping it as simple as possible department, any GM sound module like a Roland SC-88 would work, or you could use the USB connection to play the sounds inside your computer. Every Mac, for example, has a GM sound set in it.

My personal philosophy is that samples suck, and pure synthesized sounds are much more interesting. Ten plus years of Synclavier programming will do that to you. So, just as soon as I was comfortable with the Axon, I added a Yamaha FS1R FM/Formant Sequence synthesizer sound module to my rig - it's going to take a couple of years to become a virtuoso programmer of this thing - which is the best synth ever, if you like digital.

Check this out:

The formants allow you to program this synth to talk! Like I say, screw samples.

If you're into the old fat analog sound, there are just a gazillion older Roland analog synth sound modules you could get into, but remember to keep is as simple as possible at first and master one task at a time. No matter how good you are with this stuff, you can overwhelm yourself with a complex MIDI guitar system if you don't take it a step at a time. I've been playing synth guitar for twenty-five years, and when I got the Axon, I started over from scratch: Playing scales cleanly so the unit could track them.

If you end up one of the few winners in this game, you'll end up with a rig that looks ominously cool on a darkened stage before the lights come up (Hey, these considerations are important)...

... you'll be playing some very high tech guitars...

... and you'll be the hero who tamed the digital beast.

Good luck... you're gonna need it. lol.


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