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Charlie Lab Digitar

Pocket MIDI Guitar By Derek Johnson
Published January 1995

How do you fancy a way of playing guitar patches, like a guitar, without the expense of a guitar synth system? Impossible? Derek Johnson finds out...

Italian company Charlie Lab's Digitar aims to provide a cheap and easy way to add guitar‑like textures to MIDI‑based music, without the need to buy an expensive and cumbersome dedicated MIDI guitar synth. For a start, the Digitar isn't actually a guitar: it's a compact and sturdy belt‑mounted box, worn around the waist and equipped with six thick wires — 'strings' — which you play pretty much as you would the strings on a guitar. Power and MIDI connections are provided by an external box which is connected to the Digitar by a lead. Chords of up to four notes are played on a MIDI keyboard, the connected Digitar interprets these into a six‑note guitar chord, you strum the strings and the result is sent to the MIDI Out to play the guitar sound of your choice — all of this, of course, happens simultaneously. String movement, detected by fast optical sensors, produces no audible delays or glitches.


The Digitar's 'strings' are suspended between the bridge and the optical sensor housing. The 'bridge' also houses a large switch which functions as a parameter selector and increment/decrement button. For right‑handed people, the control panel is to the right of the bridge — string orientation can be reversed for left‑handed operation. Central to the control section is a four character LED display; this leads to some rather cryptic abbreviations while editing, but is bright and clear. Surrounding the display are the editing buttons — here you access various options for selecting MIDI In and Out channels, patch numbers, transposition, rhythm or lead mode and neck position (an automatic option selects neck position in relation to where on the keyboard you play the input notes). The well‑illustrated manual explains all, but be warned that it can occasionally be a little unclear.

You have access to eight patches (which Charlie Lab confusingly call 'Sounds', though they are not sounds at all, but rather configurations of parameters). These comprise a main program change and an optional secondary program on a different MIDI channel. The factory set 'Sounds' call up a variety of acoustic and electric guitars on any General MIDI/GS sound source, although customisation is easy. As shipped, the secondary program change is GS patch 121 'Guitar Fret Noise' or 121 variation 'Guitar Cut Noise' (General MIDI‑only sound sources interpret both as Fret Noise) which sounds whenever you take your hands off your keyboard. This can be irritating, but sometimes helps with the illusion of a real guitar being played.

While eight patches may not seem a lot, each patch also has access to two function buttons — waggishly labelled FUN1 and FUN2 — and pressing one of these accesses an extra set of parameters that alter the way the main patch behaves.

In Action

For the non‑guitar playing keyboardist, the Digitar is a gift from the gods: it really does allow for the easy generation of convincing guitar parts. Given a quality sound source — I used a Korg X5 and a Roland SC88 — the results are uncannily realistic. There isn't a guitar synth on the market that comes anywhere near the Digitar in price. Of course, real MIDI guitar systems do offer extra facilities — separate MIDI channels per string, pitch bend, splitting and layering and so on — but we wouldn't necessarily expect these features in a product aimed at keyboard players and costing less than £300.

It's worth noting that the Digitar is not without its faults. First of all, the power/MIDI lead is a little short (though extra length can be added by simply buying a telephone extension lead). Secondly, the connectors used are basically flimsy 4‑way telephone plugs. This is the one serious weak spot in an otherwise robust unit. However, the manufacturer is aware of the problem and it looks as if the connector will in future be provided with a rubber protective sleeve.

I also found that while the Digitar's output is always astonishingly guitar‑like, there are times, if you listen closely, when chord voicings aren't quite right. Don't get me wrong: chords are always correct and in tune, but voicings are not totally predictable. This is probably due to six‑string chords being derived from a four‑note input. The Digitar also can't really be used to play lead lines in the same way that a guitarist would. A 'lead' mode assigns input notes to the first available free string, so if you only play single notes they will all be assigned to the top E string. This could be adapted to solos, but probably isn't worth the bother.

The bottom line is that the Digitar succeeds. You can pick, strum or thrash in whatever manner you wish, and the Digitar will always turn it into something useful — and that includes up and down strokes. The result can be played live or recorded into a sequencer, and in fact, the MIDI input (upon which the guitar strumming or picking is imposed) can even be a set of chords being played by a sequencer. A good feature for live use is being able to select various modes over MIDI; note numbers at the lower extreme (0 to 22) are used. The otherwise unavailable 'split' mode, which enables the Digitar to emulate a 12‑string guitar, is selectable here.

There's nothing else like the Digitar on the market: gentle acoustic strumming, finger‑picking or heavy distorted thrashing are all eminently possible — and very convincing — with this excellent device.


  • Unique.
  • Easy to use.
  • Great results!
  • Reasonably priced.


  • Power/MIDI lead too short.
  • Power/MIDI connection a little too flimsy.
  • Chord voicings could be more predictable.


A unique device that delivers exactly what it promises in a straightforward and affordable package.