Guitar and MIDI at Gryphon

Musig Quarterly

At our MuSIG meeting at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, over 30 of us were treated to a fascinating and impressive presentation on guitar synthesizer controllers by Dimitri Vandellos and Warren Sirota.   Versatile performing artist Mark Hanson, who teaches guitar at Gryphon, was our host and did a great job making sure that we had excellent sound for the afternoon.   We usually have a hard time getting anyone of our members to write up a review of a meeting.   Perhaps attesting to the high, inspirational quality of our meeting at Gryphon, two (!) of our members, Neil Panton and Mike Sult, independently contributed the following reviews, which we publish with pleasure.

Mike Sult:

This was one of the most informative and relevant presentation/demonstration/performances that I have attended since joining MuSIG.   (The fact that I am a guitarist, who has recently purchased a guitar controller, made this a particularly special event for me).   The first thing I would like to express to both Dimitri and Warren is how much I enjoyed their performances.

Dimitri started the day off with an absolutely beautiful piece that featured his enormous musical and artistic abilities.  My reaction was in the realm of “WOW!!!” Dimitri’s piece ranged from heavenly ethereal sounds supporting his melodic excursions to percussive and “heavy” synth sounds used to set up hip, toe-tapping grooves (I had to remind myself that no drummer or bass player was accompanying him).  His playing demonstrated that be is an artist of the highest order, and for me it was inspirational to hear someone use technology in such an expressive manner.  This is what it is all about!! I hope Dimitri keeps the MuSIG community informed about his future performances.  I know he’s gained many fans.

Dimitri demonstrated the Roland GR-SO system, a Pitch to Voltage (and MIDI) system.  The GR-SO system consists of a HEX pickup (each of the guitar’s six strings has its own pickup) that can be mounted on the guitar of your choice.  (I think it must be used on a steel string guitar, acoustic or electric.) This signal, which is completely independent of the normal electric guitar signal, is sent to the Brain-Synth module (1-2 standard rack spaces in size).  The Brain converts the signal coming from the HEX pickup to a voltage that the synth module can interpret and use.  The GR-SO is different from some other systems, which do not contain their own synths.  The process of converting the HEX signal into MIDI signals (which are sent to the MIDI 0 UT port) takes some milliseconds longer so the GR-SO HEX signal reaches its own synth faster than the MIDI signal reaches the MIDI OUT port.  This MIDI conversion process can contribute to delays and tracking problems.  When using the GR-SO by itself the direct processing (non-MIDI) feature helps minimize the tracking problems.  This module contains an enormous variety of synth sounds that can be played by the guitarist.  In addition to the sounds of brass, strings etc., there is a complete array of drum/percussion sounds and synth/effect type sounds.

Since the GR-50 system includes its own tone module, there is no need for additional MIDI equipment.  Just plug the synth’s audio out into an amp and you are ready to play.  If, however, you do want to control additional synths from the GR-SO, you can simply plug the MIDI OUT of the GR-5O into the MIDI IN of the synth of your choice.  Each of the strings can be set to its own MIDI channel so that, for example, one string can control a heavy bass sound and another string (or group of strings) can control a choir type sound.  The choice is up to the player and the options are enormous.  A footswitch panel facilitates the changes of programs on the system leaving the hands free to play the guitar.  For the “knob” oriented player Roland has provided a single knob mounted on the hardware that attaches to the guitar tailpiece.  This knob can be programmed as desired (program changes’ or volume changes for instance).  The “programs” on the GR-SO consist of an entire guitar set-up so one press of a footswitch can change the set-up from one MIDI channel (and sound) on all the strings to any other combination of your choice (with associated sounds for each string).

Dimitri plays with a very accurate and precise technique, which explains his success with a guitar synth.  He commented that he hasn’t found tracking problems to be of any significance.  Indeed his system responded very accurately to what he was playing.  The only time the GR-50 couldn’t keep up was during the fastest of passages containing 32nd or 64th notes (Dimitri has “chops” galore, unlike most of us who don’t have to worry about playing too fast!).  When the GR-50 is used in conjunction with additional MIDI synths, the potential for tracking problems is magnified.

Neil Panton:

I don’t think many knew what to expect at this session, but what we received was a professional and knowledgeable overview of how guitarists can control synthesizers and computers to enhance not only their live performances, but also their work in the studio and their teaching and learning abilities.

Dimitri began the meeting with an explanation of his guitar and equipment set-up.   For his first demonstration he did not use MIDI, but simply a pitch-to-voltage converter, which drives his synthesizer.   His guitar is a hollow body Ibanez electric with heavy gauge steel strings.   The steel strings are necessary to work with the Roland GK-2 pick-up which he has glued to the body (not permanently!).   This in turn connects to the converter, also on the body, which combines the new voltage with the guitar’s regular pick-up in a 12-pin cable which connects to his Roland GR-50 guitar synthesizer.   In this way, he is able to mix his guitar sounds with the synthesizer.   The converter, by knowing which string he has plucked, makes a (very) educated guess as to the pitch he has fretted or bent and translates this into an electrical voltage.   The synthesizer contains its own sounds and can assign a different sound to each string or combination of strings.   The sounds themselves may also be altered to suit your own tastes.   These preset combinations of sounds can then be controlled by means of a footswitch or buttons located on the converter.

Then he played!  Performing an original composition, Dimitri demonstrated not only his understanding and control of his instruments but also a tasteful and articulate display of musicianship. Switching from lush textural backgrounds to percussive rhythmic patterns, he overlaid his own guitar leads.   We were treated to bells, basses, marimbas, drums, a variety of sounds only a synth can make as well as some hard-edged rock guitar sounds.   Even working without his effects, Dimitri showed the remarkable possibilities of controlling synthesizers with guitars in live performance.   He later returned to demonstrate guitars and sequencers.

Adding a Mac SE/30 with Passport Designs Pro-4 Sequencer, a Yamaha TX-802 sound module, a Yamaha RX-7 drum machine and a Roland Super JX sound module, Dimitri quickly recorded two choruses of 12 bar blues.   Beginning with a bass line, adding cymbals and high hat then finishing with a piano accompaniment, Dimitri and his wonder guitar (and fingers) demonstrated how simple it is for a guitarist to use computers as a teaching, practicing, composing and yes, even recording tool.   Just to put the icing on the cake, Dimitri quickly loaded up two notation programs, Encore and Music Prose, both of which can take his real time performance and turn it into notated parts.

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