Before deciding on the track Pyramidion for February’s Phantom Circuit internet radio session I toyed with a synth 12 bar blues but the 1888 recording of Arthur Sullivan I used within it is a bit difficult to understand without subtitles. So I’ve done a version for my ‘Because It Was There’ series. (Elongated backing track a longs ways down the page).
I went to add a few useful links to this video on YouTube but ended up writing a short discourse on MIDI Guitar In Practise.
Though there are ways to convert an ordinary guitar signal to MIDI, if you want the ability to play polyphonically with independent control of each string, particularly when bending, then as of the time of writing a hexaphonic pickup is necessary. That sends six signals to be converted to MIDI and currently the best at that conversion in terms of both speed and accuracy is the Fishman TriplePlay; here in the Connect version which plugs into a computer via a USB cable.
Roland shifted the emphasis of their MIDI guitar products over a decade ago and concentrate on making the internal sounds of their hardware work as well as possible and their performance with external equipment has deteriorated. If you can find one at a reasonable price the Axon from yesteryear is compatible with Roland GK pickups as is the Yamaha G50 which is based on the same technology. There is a comparison of latency on Wayne Jones’ site, but bear in mind there are other factors to consider.
But what to do after the conversion? From the mid 2000s on times were lean for the synth guitarist as with multi-timbral synths and MIDI Mode 4, which allowed for using 6 channels to transmit data, falling out of fashion. Even using computers could be a pain as you’d often need to set up a plugin for each string and changing the sound meant adjusting every one.
But with the introduction of MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) things have been looking up in both hardware and software – though idiosyncrasies in implementation can mean intervention is required at times. For example TriplePlay only sending on channels 1 to 6 can result in oddities as channel 1 is normally for control information in MPE so you need to shift the strings away from that. I tend to use a computer for convenience and Reaper as my Digital Audio Workstation which has a number of their JS Script utilities that can do the job with MIDI Tool 2 the one I tend to reach for.
There is a wide range of plugin synth choices with Surge XT a good free example but here I’m using Arturia‘s Pigments which I like for easy CC (continuous controller) assignments and the clear visual indication of what they’re doing. MPE mode can be found in the settings reached by the cog icon in the top right of the program.
But how to get those control messages into the computer? Once you get beyond the couple of expression and switch inputs available on most equipment, or don’t want to take a hardware synth or controller keyboard just to plug pedals in to, then options are a bit limited. I’ve found the best bet is the Audiofront Midi Expression which can take four inputs or more if using simple switches rather than pedals that output a range of values like those for expression and some for sustain. You can also use multiple units together.
This won’t be news to a lot of people but many of the problems guitarists have playing MIDI equipment from their guitar is down to playing technique attuned to the very forgiving nature of guitar amplifiers and not grasping the difference in how sound is produced in both other physical and synthetic instruments.
For the latter how fast the sound starts and fades away is probably the most important as anything blown will not be able to start a note as quickly as picking a string with fingers or plectrum. Those are the attack and release parameters on a synth which is part of the amplitude, or volume, envelope which often is found in the ADSR form – attack, decay, sustain, release – though many more stages are possible.
For technique avoiding producing a signal from strings you don’t want is most important. That doesn’t necessarily mean a note as brushing past a string without producing a definite tone will send a value for the MIDI convertor to interpret. I favour the way I play slide where I leave my fingers and thumb resting on the strings I’m not playing to damp them.
That’s enough for now but if anyone is interested I could go into detail.
Incidentally the backing for this track was generated by Band-In-A-Box by PG Music and then fed through various plugins. They have concentrated in recent years on realistic playback of sounds which isn’t my thing but the core MIDI engine still produces usable results without great claims of artificial intelligence, as it has been since 1990.
As promised above, the backing track – full size version.