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Fishman TriplePlay

Wireless MIDI Guitar System
Published August 2014
By Paul White

Need a fast-triggering MIDI guitar system that frees you from the constraints of cables? Look no further!

The Fishman TriplePlay is a guitar-to-MIDI system based on a hexaphonic magnetic pickup, working in much the same way as products that have gone before, the best known being Roland's GK systems. Where TriplePlay differs, however, is in the communication between the guitar pickup system and the MIDI end of the business, which happens wirelessly. What's more, the receiver isn't a box with a five-pin MIDI output, but rather a USB wireless dongle. Plug-ins may be hosted directly within TriplePlay for stand-alone operation, or within a Mac or Windows DAW via a TriplePlay plug-in. Alternatively, MIDI may be routed through the connected computer to a MIDI interface, to control external hardware MIDI synths. The common element is that this system normally requires a computer to work — it is not a stand-alone guitar-in/MIDI-out device, though there are hardware boxes available that can convert USB MIDI to five-pin MIDI, and that also work with the TriplePlay. A computer is still required to configure the main user settings, but once done these are remembered by the hardware. Note that iOS devices are not directly supported, though they may be usable via Apple's USB Camera Connection Kit.

What You Get

Bundled with the TriplePlay is a suite of software that includes IK Multimedia's SampleTank, Native Instruments' Elements, and a light version of Presonus' Studio One, so you get something to work with right away. A broadband connection is required to download both the TriplePlay software and the extra software.

Open the TriplePlay box and you'll find a hex pickup and controller, guitar-mounting hardware and the wireless USB receiver. The transmitter works from a rechargeable battery so there's also a charging cable and power supply provided. The mounting system is very elegant; though the pickup mount (various thicknesses are provided) fixes to the guitar body using adhesive, the pickup itself can clip in or out of the mount, and the same goes for the control box. As with Roland's system, the fixing is via the strap button and an angled bracket, but a clever magnetic system allows the control box to be detached from the bracket when needed. There's also a more permanent metal mount that you can screw onto your guitar body. Once you've found the nearest shim to the size you need, the pickup height can be adjusted more finely using two tiny cross-head screws at either end of the pickup itself, which is a very nice touch.

It is quite possible to use the TriplePlay without relying on the additional software (though the TriplePlay configuration software is needed for parameter adjustment and string sensitivity settings), provided you already have some kind of programme that can make use of a MIDI input. TriplePlay shows up as just another MIDI source once everything is running.

After charging the controller box, which takes around 90 minutes, and then pairing it with the receiver, it works just as if it was connected by a cable. It should be possible to work for up to 20 hours before having to recharge. In default 'Poly' mode, TriplePlay appears as a MIDI device sending data from all six guitar strings through a single MIDI channel, which means that independent pitch-bending is not possible when playing two or more notes at the same time. To achieve this, the system has to be reset to Mono mode, which uses one MIDI channel per string, and the receiving synth must also be set to multi-channel, mono-voice mode. Hardware synths (when used with a computer-to-MIDI or USB-to-MIDI interface, as mentioned earlier) are, again, best set up in multi-channel mono mode to allow complete string-bending flexibility.

Hexy Times

As with all hex pickup systems, correct installation is essential for reliable operation. The pickup must be placed as close to the bridge as possible, and the correct spacers used to achieve the string-to-pickup spacing recommended in the manual. Fixing it to Strat-style guitars or most Gibson models is easy, though guitars with Telecaster-style bridges are less suitable for use with hex pickups (though there are workarounds).

After plugging the receiver into one of your computer's USB ports, the LED flashes to show it is not yet linked. Activating the power button on the controller will also cause an LED on that unit to flash. These LEDs are also buttons so pressing them both together allows the units to link, at which point the receiver LED will glow steadily. The controller LED continues to flash every five seconds to confirm that it is transmitting. Once the units are linked, you can launch the TriplePlay software and adjust the string sensitivity. When working in stand-alone mode, the TriplePlay software also allows you to select which audio interface I/O ports to use.

When used as a plug-in within a DAW, the TriplePlay plug-in shows up as the instrument and any compatible plug-ins then show up within TriplePlay, so you can think of it as being a type of wrapper. Note that only VST-format plug-ins are recognised by TriplePlay.

On the hardware side, the TriplePlay system comprises the controller and hexaphonic pickup, and a USB wireless receiver.The guide that comes with the software is fairly basic, so for the detailed version you need to visit www.fishman.com/tripleplay/help. Adjusting the string sensitivity settings involves choosing a sensitivity value of between one and 16 for each string, and then adjusting to get an even level across all six strings — somewhere in the meter's centre zone; a healthy level but not maxing out when you pick hard. There's also a built-in tuner. All the plug-ins bundled with TriplePlay should appear in the programme's plug-in list, but if they don't, or you have other plug-ins you'd like to use within TriplePlay, you have to run a plug-in scanner for the synth channels and another for the guitar channel — the latter allowing processed conventional guitar sounds to be added to the mix. More sophisticated control can be achieved by configuring up to five external MIDI control sources to hold sustaining sounds, to change patches or to change the overall volume.

Your Fish Is My Command

In addition to the power switch and linking LED, the controller has a small volume knob linked to the TriplePlay's master fader, as well as a guitar/synth/both selector switch. Additionally, there's a very small four-way D-pad section, which can be used for patch changing but is also required to access some setup functions, or to change modes. Charging is via a mini-USB socket using the included charger.

The TriplePlay controller is capable of remembering a number of preset startup modes, to allow it to be used without the TriplePlay software. It is also possible to return to factory default settings and to launch certain diagnostics without going through the software, such functions being accessed by holding down the appropriate D-pad button while powering up. Other D-pad combinations give you System Reinitialize and Hardware Mode.

Happy Bendings

As to string bending, there's a choice of behaviours. Basic mode is essentially the same as Poly mode, but using a single MIDI channel and with no string bending possible. Auto Bends is a variation on Poly mode, where pitch-bending on single strings is possible as long as no other string is playing. This mode is quite clever as it ignores small pitch deviations, but responds to deliberate note bends. Trigger mode is for styles such as piano, where there are no pitch bends but if you bend a note to the next semitone this simply triggers as a new note. Smooth mode follows pitch bends in a more guitar-like way, and there's also Stepped mode, where bent notes still bend but are pitched to the nearest semitone once you finish bending.

Hardware Mode allows TriplePlay to control any class-compliant USB-MIDI device capable of powering the TriplePlay receiver. Mostly this will involve going via a computer, either to drive soft synths or external synths, but Kenton's USB MIDI Host is known to work with the TriplePlay. Once the system is running in the selected mode, patches can be stepped through using the D-pad, and Hardware Mode patches can also be saved to the controller, and the TriplePlay software permits the creation of individual Hardware Mode patches that include things like note splits. Note, however, that the Poly/Mono mode choice is not saved as part of a patch — the current global setting applies.

The user settings include the option to choose a bend range (±1-24 semitones) that best suits the player's style (of course, the receiving instrument must be set to the same range). Poly/Mono mode can also be set such that in Poly mode splits are disabled and only the plug-in shown in the Synth 1 slot is heard. In Mono Mode you can use splits to assign different synths to different parts of the neck, or to different note ranges. As with all the guitar synth-type devices I've tried to date, it is also possible to set how the system responds to a hold command. In this case there are four options, the first of which holds any notes currently playing but doesn't allow new notes to be added. The second mode gives you the same thing but with a reversed switch action, while Alternate allows you to use the Hold switch to jump between two different sounds. Finally there's a mode that lets you record and replay MIDI loops. Other settings include the ability to transpose each synth channel separately, and the means to adjust the sensitivity curve to change the way the instrument responds to your playing dynamics.

Going GUI

The TriplePlay software's GUI is divided into four main areas, where the Patch Readout on the left offers the means to load, save and audition patches. For adjusting string sensitivity or for tuning, there's a separate central area with a switch to change from string levels to tuner. There's also a Mixer section on the right for choosing sounds and for balancing the levels and pan positions of the various synth and processed guitar parts. Fretboard splits have yet another area based around a representation of a guitar fingerboard, where notes are displayed as you play them. A dedicated guitar channel is provided for use with the bundled Guitar Rig and the AmpliTube Custom Shop plug-ins. To use this, the regular guitar output jack must be connected to an audio input on your audio interface.

Synth channels 1-4 are used with virtual instruments, many of which are included with TriplePlay. An additional pedal channel looks after sustain pedal functions. A suitable plug-in and patch can be selected for each channel via an intuitive menu system, and it is possible to solo or mute individual channels. A scan procedure will identify other VST-format plug-ins that you may be able to use with TriplePlay and these will be added to the bundled plug-ins. When controlling a hardware synth, you can set the appropriate parameters relating to patch changes and pedal mode.

Operation

TriplePlay looks just the same when launched stand-alone or as a plug-in. While it can run in either VST or AU hosts, it can only 'see' VST-format plug-ins. The included SampleTank is 32-bit software, so TriplePlay must be in 32-bit mode for this to show up.

Of course the key to success with any device of this type is how well it translates what you play into MIDI data, and the old bugbear of tracking speed seems to have been adequately resolved as I couldn't feel any perceptible delay, even when playing percussive sounds. As long as your buffer size is 128 samples or below (ideally 64) the playing feel should be acceptable. As with competing systems, though, you do have to play cleanly to avoid spurious rogue notes being triggered, and if you're in the habit of playing semi-pinched harmonics you may find the odd note leaps up by an octave. Strumming also doesn't work too well — but this something that all MIDI guitar systems seem to fall down on, and who would strum a string section anyway?

Slow attack sounds such as strings or some synth pads are easy to work with as they are relatively forgiving of playing style, but if you want to play piano parts you'll have to work on playing very cleanly. TriplePlay is certainly no worse than its competitors in this respect though, and because of its fast triggering, it has much to commend it. The fact that plug-ins have to be in VST format is a bit irking, though, as even though most plug-ins now come in a choice of flavours, AU users may not have loaded in the VST versions of the synths they use and might need to reinstall them in the correct format.

Using the TriplePlay software is convenient when you're working within a DAW, but not having a receiver with a five-pin MIDI output is somewhat frustrating if you just want to control a hardware synth live, as you'll then either have to take your computer with you or budget for a suitable USB MIDI to five-pin MIDI interface. I also found the D-pad to be a bit small and fiddly, but on the whole the system is well conceived and well executed given its design brief. The fine pickup height adjustment is also an improvement on systems that use only shims.

Any other opinions must be informed by how you plan to use such a system. For example, since I work in the studio much of the time and am tethered by a standard guitar cable when playing live, the wireless part of this package isn't so important to me — but if you play live using a wireless guitar package, then it might be very important to you.  

Alternatives

I'm not aware of any wireless alternatives, though there are competing wired systems from Roland and Axon.

Published August 2014