Paul White packs away the keyboard and plugs Roland's new Guitar‑MIDI interface into his sequencer.
Man has always had visions — to fly like the birds, to walk on the moon, to make a guitar synth that tracks properly... Well, I guess two out of three isn't bad! Even the best guitar synths still need to be played with care, but no company has worked harder than Roland to make the guitar synth a manageable and viable instrument. Last year we saw Roland's GR09, arguably the best‑behaved pitch‑tracking guitar synth on the market, and though sloppy or over‑ambitious playing can cause it to throw the odd wobbler, it's about as stable, predictable and free from delay as pitch‑tracking guitar synths are likely to get. While it seems that guitar synths are always destined to be somewhat of a technical compromise, you can play things on them that would be quite impossible on a keyboard, such as subtle bends and vibrato on individual strings.
In an attempt to make guitar synthesis even more accessible, Roland have just launched the GI‑10, which, as far as I can see, is the pitch‑to‑MIDI side of a GR09 without the internal synth section. Not having an onboard synth naturally makes the price lower, but then this assumes you have a MIDI sound module lying around somewhere. In reality, few guitarists are going to discover a hitherto neglected Sound Canvas tucked under their bed, but the home studio owner with a MIDI setup can just plug in and go. And that's where it gets really interesting, because many MIDI users were originally guitar players who had to take up playing keyboard in order to gain access to all those wonderful synth and keyboard noises. With a guitar synth or pitch‑to‑MIDI converter, guitar players get to use all the neat sounds without having to learn to make their fingers go in directions they're not used to.
Almost any guitar will work with the GI10, but you can't just plug it in and go — you have to fit a GK2 series divided pickup first, so that each string can control its own synth voice. You can buy the pickup separately, for £129, or, alternatively, Roland are currently selling the GÈ‑10 in a bundle with the GK2A for £549. Even so, the total cost is very attractive considering what it enables you to do.
Unlike the GR09, the GI‑10 includes an audio input, so that any suitable monophonic instrument can be miked up and used to drive a MIDI synth. How successfully this works depends on the sound you feed into it, as I'll explain later.
Housed in a half‑rack case and powered by the familiar lump on the carpet, the GI‑10 is an absolute doddle to operate. There are only around a dozen parameters to set up, all of which are printed onto the front panel, next to their corresponding display character. The display itself is a simple 3‑digit affair, so this kind of on‑panel information is very important. The only controls are buttons for Parameter +/‑ and Value +/‑, and once you've set the interface to suit your synth and playing style, you just leave it alone.
An effective built‑in tuner is provided, along with jack inputs for a Hold switch and an expression pedal, the latter of which may be used to control synth volume or vibrato depth. MIDI In and Out jacks are fitted, but no Thru. However, you can switch the unit to pass MIDI In data directly to the output, which enables you to leave the GI‑10 permanently patched into a system, even when you're switching between keyboard and guitar.
Setting the unit up includes matching the pitch bend range to that of the external synth (a range of 12 is ideal for guitar synths), and making sure that the six MIDI channels (consecutive only) are the ones required by your synth module. A few other tweaks are all that's needed to match the sensitivity to your playing style. You can also opt to use a single synth in Poly mode, but this doesn't allow you to make full use of pitch‑bend, hammer‑ons or slurs. That's because hammers and slurs are also created using pitch‑bend information, so if you choose to work in poly mode, it's best to play cleanly, simply and to re‑pick every new note rather than rely on hammering or pulling off.
As pitch‑tracking guitar systems go, this one is about as close to perfection as we're likely to get without another quantum leap in technology. Clean playing is rewarded by delay‑free tracking, and bends and hammers are faithfully reproduced over MIDI, but you can't just play as you would on a regular guitar, because fast strumming isn't handled very well. Additionally, fast mandolin‑style trills can cause missed notes. Nevertheless, if you think like a keyboard player, and play in a way that's appropriate for the sound you're using, then you can have a lot of fun. And if your MIDI module will allow you to set up different sounds for each of the six MIDI channels you're using (and most multitimbral modules will), you can experiment with different sounds on different strings.
The monophonic pitch‑tracking mic input is slightly less of a success story, and I found it virtually impossible to track the human voice correctly, unless I stuck to a very pure tone with clear stops and starts between notes. I had a little more success trying to get it to follow my daughter's recorder, but on balance, I don't think this is a facility you'll come to rely on, unless you want to turn the spoken work into avant‑garde jazz!
Until now, guitar synths have demanded a great leap of faith on the behalf of the buyer, a leap that many guitarists were unprepared to take, but now that the technology is less expensive and more reliable than ever before, that leap is starting to look more like a hop. If you haven't tried a guitar synth for a while, give the GI‑10 a spin — I think you'll agree that guitar‑to‑MIDI conversion has come a long way.
Once you've got the GI‑10 plugged in and talking to your synth modules, it takes only a few minutes to set up the sensitivity, after which you can sit back and try out a few patches to see how they respond. Even with the optimum sensitivity setting, it's still important to play cleanly, otherwise the unit may mistake you lifting your fingers off the strings as an intentional pull‑off, which can sound messy, particularly on percussive sounds, such as piano. As with the GR09, triggering delay isn't a serious problem, and the majority of any delay you can hear is likely to be due to your MIDI module rather than the GI‑10. Pitch tracking is very accurate, even when you're performing bends and slides, but it's important to resist the temptation to strike harmonics off the side of your thumb as you pick, because this can fool the system on occasions.
If you're using the unit with a sequencer, it's important that your system has a mode that lets you record on six different MIDI channels at the same time (one channel per string). Editing can also be a bit of a problem, because the notes you see in the edit list aren't necessarily the ones you played. This is due to the extensive use of bend information to handle slurs and hammer on/offs, so if you want to create a printed score from your performance, you may have to do a spot of tidying up after you've recorded a part.
- Simple in operation.
- Accurate, delay‑free tracking — provided you play cleanly.
- External mic input doesn't work too well on most normal sounds.
The least expensive guitar‑to‑MIDI system Roland have yet produced, with a performance to rival their top‑end guitar synths. However, you do have to budget for a sound module as well.