Category: Gear


My Passion for MIDI Guitar

I’ve been into MIDI guitar for nearly 20 years now and when a viewer asked me to talk about the guitars in my collection, I thought it would be more interesting to talk about MIDI guitar and the various internal MIDI conversions I have performed over the years.

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A YouTube viewer asked me to demonstrate all the patches of the GR-55 and so I obliged, not realising how many there were and what a boring video I would end up creating. So here it is – a complete demo of all the pre-programmed patches on the guitar synth.

I have been using Roland guitar synths since 1994, starting with the now legendary GR-1 and working my way through to the most recent GR-33 version. Being a tech fanatic, it is no surprise that every time Roland releases a new shiny box, my pulse races and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When the announcement of the new GR-55 guitar synthesiser was made at the 2011 Winter NAMM, the news was equally, if not more, exciting.

This time around Roland was marketing the GR-55 as a kit-killer, a one box solution that would do away with the GR-33, the VG-99 guitar modeller and any other stomp boxes you might employ. The promotional videos near enough spelt this out in huge flaming letters four hundred feet high. So, the GR-55 had a lot of hype to live up to but this didn’t stop me pre-ordering my unit.

I’ve had my GR-55 for a couple of weeks now and I thought it was time I posted some thoughts on it. First off, I must commend Roland for returning to a metal chassis when building their effects units. The VG-8 and VG-88 both sported metal cases and looked like Stealth bombers and this gave the units a sturdiness that was comforting. Other units such as the GR-33 or the VG-99 have relied on lighter, less solid plastic constructions, so it was nice to see that the big blue GR-55 was rock solid. It instantly makes you think you’ve bought a quality piece of kit. The buttons are solid, the footpedal exudes quality and there’s a nice big rotational control knob flanked by press buttons to act as your main navigational tool.

This is my Roland GR-55 guitar synthesiser

This is my Roland GR-55 guitar synthesiser

The display is lovely and large and is a refreshing change to other guitar synths I’ve had which often have relied on double line LCD displays which tire your eyes really quickly. The GR-55’s display takes a page from the VG-99 and writes its messages to you in large friendly letters. The editing and patch access takes getting used, relying on lots of flicking through the “Page” buttons to access features and it can be a bit overwhelming remember where patch functions are. But I am sure with some more practice this will come second nature to me.

But what about the tracking? Yes, the most important quality of a guitar synth is how well it tracks on your guitar and I can say, hand on heart, that the GR-55 is the best guitar synth for tracking I’ve ever owned. With minimum setup, even my nylon string Godin Multiac ACS was triggering sounds very accurately. The sounds themselves are very high quality and in my opinion, superior to the GR-33 and hark back to the top end synth sounds of the GR-1. Of course, some of the patches are near useless and will need tweaking, but I was very impressed with the pianos and the wind instruments. The flute patch itself is very expressive and sounds utterly convincing.

The unit also features a USB stick reader so it can be used to playback WAV files – making ideal for solo performers to pack backing tracks with them – and there’s a 20-second looper on board too. The looper itself is good fun allowing you to capture ideas and to overdub on the top of the original loop ad infinitum, but compared to one of the RC units put out by Boss (Roland’s dedicated guitar business) it feels quite limited. However, it is an extra value feature you get with the unit and should be considered in those terms.

Connectivity involves a USB connection to a computer allowing you to backup any patches, but I don’t think that there’s a dedicated patch editor for the GR-55 yet. This would be a great tool to have, especially if you have trouble editing on the GR-55 unit itself.

But the big question thrown up by the GR-55, or more specifically by Roland’s original promotional material, is whether you can throw away all your other effects units if you buy a GR-55? Well, you can certainly sell your GR-33 on eBay because this is the superior item on every level. But if you use a VG-99 for recording, then you might want to consider holding on to it because some of the COSM guitar modelling sounds OK, but nowhere near as rounded as the VG-99. Of course, hearing is subjective and you might think them acceptable. I can see the GR-55 being used by gigging players to replace racks of equipment as I think the pedal would be great in a live situation.

Overall, the GR-55 is a jump forward in the technology and a welcome addition to my sonic armoury. If you are considering purchasing one of these units then you I believe you won’t be disappointed. If you are looking for a cheaper option or your first foray into guitar synths, then check out eBay for all those GR-33s and GR-20s that are being offloaded by new GR-55 owners!

And here are three videos I’ve made to demonstrate the GR-55. I used my Godin Multiac ACS nylon string guitar to show how well the GR-55 tracks.


Roland GR-55 Piano Patch Demonstration


Roland GR-55 Flute Patch Demonstration


Roland GR-55 Patch Compilation

And here comes the self-publicity bit where I foolishly try to convince you to buy some of my music, much of it recorded using guitar synthesisers, funnily enough:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/artist/darren-lock/id4151062

And here is a complete demo of the pre-programmed patches of the GR-55:

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If you are a regular reader of this blog you have probably realised that I have a bit of a weak spot for music technology. If you are like me and have limited musical talent and ability, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for you to scout around and find new ways of making your playing appear more interesting. This can be done by a multitude of ways; some practise, some have lessons, but I just hide behind a vast array of electronics in a pathethic attempt to add colour to my guitar playing.

Where is this going? Well, I am always on the look-out for new gizmos to either bring a new sonic array to my arsenal of sounds or to inspire new tunes. Last year, it was the Boss SL-20 that really floated my boat. The idea behind that pedal was to bring the “slicer” effect to the guitar, an effect that has existed for a while in synthesisers and been used predominantly in the dance music genre. It takes the sound source and cuts it into pieces and broadcasts it rhythmically, slicing it up and broadcasting a pulsing cut-up sound. It’s hard to explain further than that really. Anyway, the SL-20 was interesting to me because it also brought a level of harmonic delay to the proceedings.

Harmonic delay is something that has interested me for a while. The concept is that you strike a note and the equipment is programmed to play the harmonic variations of that note. So you can instantly create a backing track for a song with just a handful of notes. This is what attracted me to the SL-20 and then the Digitech Timebender which was advertised earlier in the year at the 2009 Winter NAMM.

I’ve been waiting a couple of months for the units to hit the UK and was lucky to spot them arrived at Absolute Music Solutions last weekend, so I put my order in. Absolute Music Solutions are a preferred music sales team of mine, so I wholeheartedly recommend them. When they have the gear in stock, they have it in stock (unlike many other musical instrument webstores) and their delivery is lightning fast. Prices are good too!

Anyway, the Timebender is a standard twin pedal configuration that has been championed by Boss et al. The delay side of the pedal is impecable and if you are looking for the ultimate delay pedal, it certainly gives the Boss DD-20 a run for its money. Something I noticed about the DD-20 is that it does “colour” your sound and you seem to lose some dynamic range. You don’t have this with the Timebender and everything sounds sparky and clean.

There are ten delay varieties and a 20 second looper. The range of delays are great, but to my cloth-ears, I can’t always hear a difference, but you get 5 seconds max of stereo delay. The interesting part of the pedal is how you present the delay in the mix. You can have it bouncing all over the shop with a panner effect, or you can select one of the 9 auto-rhythms.

Where the pedal comes into its own is with the “Strum” function. This allows you to hold down the right pedal and pick a dampened note in the rhythm you want your delay to repeat. It is frightningly accurate and you can create some great varieties of delay repeat. In fact, if you think about it, I guess it is only limited by your imagination.

This Strum feature can be combined with the harmonic delay feature, which gives you 100 intelligent harmony settings to pay with. Using the MusIQ technology, you press down the right pedal again and play the fundamental note (or chord) to figure out what key you are playing in and the harmonics are generated from that. It is a great feature, but it is a bit picky. During my tests, it would throw out many wobbly notes and I am thinking that it isn’t particularly fond of the output from the Roland VG-99. Funnily enough, the Timebender harmonic function tracked more accurately with my bass and VB-99 setup. I have a feeling that the pedal likes really clean, direct output from the guitar for it to operate with optimum accuracy. I will try this later and report back here.

If you don’t have a “do-it-all” delay pedal and are looking to buy into that market, then the Timebender is a must-have. However, it is limited by its five second delay and the mono 20 second looper. The Boss DD-20 has a 20-second max delay and stereo looper and its really still king of the castle when it comes to delay. But if you are intrigued by the idea of harmonic delay and can find a use for it in your recording setup, then gives this pedal a spin.

The following two tracks are recorded with just a guitar and bass and the Timebender harmonic delay function.

No One Knows – Stereo Mix

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The next track is called “March of the Numpties” and ended up sounding like something off Robert Fripp’s “League of Crafty Guitarists” albums. It is a single nylon guitar with the harmonic delay panned left and right. I quite like it because it sounds ridiculous!

March of the Numpties – Stereo Mix

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She really is a “Black Beauty”

I hadn’t played a Gibson Les Paul style guitar since I sold my Columbus copy back in 1996, so when I saw one of these come up on eBay for £330 I thought it was a bargain. So I purchased the guitar and an internal MIDI pickup kit from Roland to do a DIY install so I could use it with my Roland GR-33 and VG-99 pedal boards.

The guitar was really well made for a copy and I was very surprised by the finish and most importantly the variety of tones you could coax from the instrument with the three humbucker pickups without any fancy effects. The instrument had a good weight and the setup was low, with minimal fretbuzz.

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Here is the body of the guitar complete with MIDI pickup

Converting the instrument into a GK-2A midi guitar was trickier than installing it into a standard Fender shape body because you don’t have the routing beneath the scratchplate to play with. Instead, you have to fit the circuit board in the existing cavity where the tone-pots are housed, which is a bit of a squeeze and fitting the control buttons were also a problem, unless I wanted to drill holes in the front of the guitar and ruin the finish.

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Here you can see how I mounted the controls in the plastic pickup housing

I didn’t want to do this, so I came up with a novel way of housing the control buttons, pickup switch and activity LED light. Using a very small hand-drill, I made holes in the plastic pickup housing closest the bridge and housed these controls there. I needed a steady hand with the soldering because there wasn’t much space to move and I purchased some small switches from Maplin for the job. It was a first class job and I really impressed myself.

The only other fly in the ointment was fitting the separate volume pot for the MIDI output, and I could either drill a hole in the body or fit it into the scratchplate. I did the latter, even though it was a tight squeeze.

The Epiphone was a great MIDI guitar like this and I really regret selling it on, because my GK-2A installation was a thing of beauty, even if I do say so myself. The main reason for me selling it was that the brass fittings gradually lost their lustre over time and I read elsewhere cases that they actually started to go green, so I decided to sell while the guitar was still in good cosmetic condition.

Roland GP-100 Guitar Effects Processor

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The golden GP-100 sitting magnificently at the centre of my old rack
This is part of the “gear that I have owned” thread. I bought a second-hand Roland GP-100 guitar effects processor from a seller on eBay back in 2003 in a whim. I didn’t really need it as I was using a Roland VG-8 guitar system, but I’d read in the past that Robert Fripp of King Crimson had used them and in a supreme case of “monkey-see, monkey-do” I bought this unit in an attempt to search for the “new sound”.
The GP-100 is austentatious in its gold casing and fits in a 1U rack. In terms of sound, I was quite impressed by the COSM effects inside the unit considering it was quite an old piece of kit at that time and had been superseded by other effects units in the Roland range. I used it for parts of my Textures, Without Words and Empty Spaces albums. I tended to use the more unearthly effects that unit could produce and I must admit that I’ve found it hard to reproduce these sounds on my current rig.
While I was impressed with the sounds, I wasn’t so impressed with the editing functionality. The unit came without instructions, so I had to bluff my way through using it and I found the editing side of the GP-100 rather user-unfriendly. But then I had been spoilt by the VG range of units from Roland and their slightly easier to use interface.
I eventually sold the unit after a short period because it had developed a fault that meant it used to freeze up and stop working. The only way of fixing this fault would mean me taking a screwdriver to the unit, opening it up and removing/replacing the battery inside, which would somehow reset the unit back to normal. This took time, and was frankly a pain, so it had to go.
If another one of these came up on eBay for the right price, I’d probably grab it just for the heck of it – though I am wary about the condition of these units now as they are rather old, they do go wrong and the front panel control are a little prone to wear.

godinmultiac.jpg

My latest waste of cash is a Godin Multiac nylon guitar I purchased for a good price on eBay. After being impressed with the XTsa guitar, I was eager to try another of their instruments and have always had an ear for nylon instruments, though cannot profess to have any proficiency on such an instrument in the classical context. For me, I play the Multiac the same way I play the electric, with a pick and as a lead instrument in the genre of “rock” or whatever they call it.

The guitar itself is a wonderful piece of craftmanship and feels solid and expensive. The electronics means I can connect it to all my GK-enabled Roland gear and get any sound from it. Its MIDI tracking is second-to-none and this is what turns me onto the Godin guitar range. If you want a guitar that can solidly track MIDI data, the RMC piezo pickups in Godin guitars are THE BEST. THE BEST. THE BEST. I said that so it goes in. Roland might have the market with the GK range of MIDI pickups, but the RMC piezos have the best all-round use.

Don’t think I’ve been lazy with the lack of music output on this site. The way things are at the moment, my studio isn’t exactly how it was and I’m doing little bits of recording as my bass is packed away. For your consideration is the next piece which is a demo track that I recorded a few weeks back. It showcases the Multiac and will form the basis of a “proper” song once I’ve thrown some bass and electric guitar at it. For now, you just have drums and acoustic guitar. It’s fairly loose and is more of a framework to hang other elements on. It’s how I record, from the bottom-up I think it is described in music circles. At the moment, I’ve got loads of little bits of music on the hard drive recorded like this. Fragments of songs to be, little riffs that have been committed to a stream of zeros and ones, bits that will one day be recombined to form something more solid. A digital musical pot noodle – just add water – or in this case magical musical glue.

Anyway, enough of the preamble: this is a demo track using the Multiac and I really like the tone it has.

Slow Drift [Demo]


Direct download: CLICK HERE