Californian company Zeta have made a significant contribution to the profile of the electric violin, with a range of instruments and hardware which have opened the world of sound synthesis to the string player. Since the first Zeta synth violin appeared in 1984, the company has grown enormously and has a string of world-class musicians as advocates, including 'fusion' violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
The Jazz model violin was the first synth design to appear from Zeta, and is available in both 4-and 5-string versions (CGDAE). This handsome instrument is constructed from lightweight bass wood, and although it's a little heavier than its acoustic brethren, its weight is conveniently concentrated on the player's shoulder for maximum comfort. Its most striking physical feature is the absence of traditional outward-curving shoulders; the Jazz has more of a double-bass design, with shoulders much lower on the neck. This allows easy access to high positions, especially on the lower strings, and avoids strain on the left wrist and elbow, but requires that your intonation is very good and that you don't rely too much on visual communication or physical contact with a shoulder for familiarity. Zeta have included a removable upper bout strut (or traditional shoulder) for those players who must have a reference point for their hand when shifting into higher positions. The body itself has been thinned, allowing the player to look down a little more on their fingers. Initially, I found the headstock heel and the neck heel a little offputting, as they have a less extreme angle than normal, but in general I have found playing very comfortable.
The violin uses unique ebony hex wrench tuners which point inwards and upwards, keeping the instrument in tune for long periods of time (in fact, I've only used these when changing strings). Normal daily tuning is handled at the tailpiece.
Electronic control functions include a line out for mono analogue output of the violin sound, a MIDI Out with a snug locking facility for the cable, and a volume knob. The volume knob acts as a mix control for the analogue signal and MIDI, but only controls the volume of the former.
The timbre of this violin is simply magnificent. When I became interested in electric fiddles, I doubted whether their sound quality could ever threaten acoustic territory, but no company has worked harder than Zeta to make this possible. I found the Jazz model's creamy tone a dream -- even the open strings -- and I played it for a whole day without even trying it with MIDI.
At the heart of the sound is Zeta's bridge system, which uses two piezo pickups per string and can be raised or lowered according to taste. Each string has its own preamp and trim pot for sound level control. The preamps are battery powered, but when using MIDI, remote power is supplied by the Synthony. If you happen to find a better pickup system than this, Zeta promise a refund! (See 'The Science Behind the Strings' box for more technical detail on the Zeta system.)
To get the MIDI violin system up and running, you'll need several things. In addition to the MIDI violin (or Zeta Retropak -- a bridge and tailpiece MIDI pickup for acoustic violins), you'll need a Zeta MIDI control unit. Zeta manufacture two MIDI controllers: the VC225 and the more recent Synthony, which has built-in sounds. The VC225 is identical to the Synthony, except that it doesn't contain sounds, and would be a better buy for a musician who already possesses a good GM synth.
The Synthony has an internal GM synth, and is extremely easy to operate. Each of its 12 command parameters, with corresponding LEDs, is clearly printed on the front panel. I'm particularly fond of the Dynamics Mode parameter, which transmits the relative loudness of each string to the synth, in such a way that the player can control aftertouch or breath control from the bow for expressive sounds, or the initial attack volume for percussive or keyboard sounds. The Dynamics Scale command determines how much of a change in volume is controlled from the bow.
The front-panel edit button toggles from one preset to the next and also acts as an 'enter' key, for saving and deleting presets. The display is a simple 2-digit affair, and a there's a useful built-in tuner. Also provided with the Synthony is the MS40 footswitch, which controls three types of hold, sustain, bypass, and a chain/step system for saving, deleting and changing presets quickly. On the back panel, there's a MIDI Out for driving other synths, and on the front panel there's a headphone input and a synth In/Out button for bypassing the internal GM synth.
The sounds on the internal synth are pretty basic and cannot be edited, apart from transposition. A serious musician would probably be better off using the Synthony or the older VC225 to drive another synth -- to my ear, most of the Synthony sounds are cold and lifeless, especially drums and percussion. Authentic orchestral timbres are badly lacking, and strings are very 'synthy'. A handful of sounds -- fretless bass, marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone, and the 'Warm Pad' patch -- provide comfort, but in my opinion, a good external synth is essential for best results from this equipment. (Be warned: if you have an older MIDI synth that will only receive on one MIDI channel, and you have pitch bend enabled, pitch-bend messages will only be recognised properly if only one note at a time is being played. So when double-stopping, both notes will be equally affected by pitch variation in either one of them.)
I confess to being a bit cautious when I connected the Synthony to my Kurzweil 2500. I knew that tracking speed, which you'd expect to be good with the Synthony's own sounds, might have been considerably reduced with an external instrument. Not so! The results were breathtaking. Tracking was instant and accurate, and this was where the real fun began. Although each program required editing for best results (chiefly attack, decay, sustain and release) and this was a little time-consuming, I found using first-class sounds through a violin an incredible incentive for imaginative music-making. I discovered that it was best to leave pitch-bend at '0' wherever possible, especially with sounds that take a little longer to reach their full amplitude, because at increased playing speeds the synthesizer doesn't track and causes minute flaws in intonation.
To backtrack slightly, setting the unit up includes system learning, which is 'teaching' the controller your bowing style with the volume turned down. A few other twiddles are all that's needed to match up the Synthony to your playing style.
As long as your playing is clean and accurate, and not too over the top, the Synthony MIDI Controller is as stable and reliable a unit for violin as you're likely to find. Tracking speed is 98% delay-free, losing the other 2% on the bottom C string (5-string instruments), so I'm pretty impressed. Most bowing styles can be faithfully reproduced, as long as the weight of a bow stroke is not too superficial, and the fingers of the left hand firmly stop the strings. You do have to be careful setting up a good threshold sensitivity, because the Synthony sometimes refuses to recognise open strings when they are played in the middle of a series of stopped notes using slurs, especially at high speeds. For best results, re-bow open strings. Slurs work best in fast passages and detaché is best kept in the upper half of the bow. Certain sounds will even work well with tremolo bowing. A controlled spiccato is successful with certain sounds of short duration, especially percussion, as long as each bow bounce is firm enough to sufficiently bring the string up to the correct pitch.
If you think that your intonation is pretty good, working with MIDI, with pitch bend at 0 and using no vibrato, may come as a shock. Notes will easily 'jostle' around a semitone if they are not 100% accurate, so it may take a while to build up your confidence. Intonation is more difficult on an electric stringed instrument because there are fewer overtones present than with an acoustic one, so be patient and results will be rewarding.
For more expressive sounds the violin is ideal, being a fretless instrument; bending notes is therefore a more natural approach than using a pitch-bend wheel.
The Zeta Jazz violin is a superb instrument, and the MIDI system should promise reasonable, reliable results in the hands of a good player (if he/she gets enough session jobs to afford it). Electric bowed strings are definitely gaining more and more respect and good players who have a system like this should benefit immensely.
According to Zeta, an unusual pickup/preamp combination is the major factor behind the accuracy of their violin system's tracking capabilities. Each string passes over an individual, metallised, piezo pickup assembly, in which transducer elements are arranged in a 'Differential-V' configuration. This unique design cancels bow noise within the pickup element, in a way that's analogous to how electrical interference is cancelled in a balanced mic preamp. The string and metallised pickup assembly form part of the earth path of the pickup output signal, and each pickup element is mechanically and electrically isolated within the aluminium bridge. The internal preamp is essentially a 5:1 mixer with a direct output from each string. The signal from each pickup is effectively rolled off below the fundamental frequency of that string, greatly reducing inter-string interference. Individual level controls allow the user to adjust the balance between strings.
The Synthony features a Zeta-designed GM synth utilising a Crystal chipset. Pitch-to-MIDI conversion is handled by the same circuitry as found in the VC225 MIDI controller, and the close integration between synth module and controller results in faster, more accurate tracking. The violin volume control has a dual function when connected to the Synthony: it acts as an output volume control and a mix control between the internal synth sounds and the 'acoustic' sound. It also sends volume controller information to external synths, via the MIDI Out of the Synthony.
Has to be heard to be believed.
Beautiful design and feel.
Easy access to all parts of the fingerboard.
Free, high-quality case (as included with all Zeta instruments).
The player may take some time to build up confidence in intonation.
One of the greatest electric violins available.
Simple to operate.
Many bowing styles successfully reproduced via MIDI.
Limited internal GM synth.
The Synthony's performance is very satisfying,
but you'll probably have to budget for a better sound module.
£ JV205 Jazz violin (5-string) £2379; JV204 (4-string) £2149; Synthony MIDI controller £2699; VC225 MIDI controller £2149. Violin Retropaks: 4-string £889; 5-string £969. Prices include VAT.
A Harbourtown, PO Box 25, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7UN, UK.
T +44 (0)1229 580577.
F +44 (0)1229 580577.