Paul White brings back from NAMM exclusive news of Roland's new secret weapon in the physical modelling wars.
Roland chose NAMM '95 to introduce a radically new instrument based on physical modelling synthesis. However, the Roland VG8 is not a keyboard instrument, or a hybrid keyboard/wind instrument such as Yamaha's VL1: instead, it's designed around the humble guitar. Strategically this makes a lot of sense, as even in these liberated times, guitarists greatly outnumber keyboard players. On the other hand, guitarists also tend towards conservatism, so how they will react to such radical technology remains to be seen. Roland went to great lengths to try to convince us that the floor‑standing VG8 is not a guitar synth — "No triggering, no delay" was the message — but the term guitar synth isn't really out of place, because the VG8 actually synthesizes guitars.
The guitar has the capability to express far more nuances of performance than the keyboard — in real terms, a keyboard is little more than a row of switches — but traditional guitar synthesis strips away most of the playing subtleties in order to make the guitar trigger some form of synthesized sound. Players familiar with existing guitar synths will tell you that this makes the player feel remote from the sound being played. The VG8, on the other hand, uses a split pickup to capture the string vibrations from a conventional guitar, and these original harmonics are digitally processed and restructured to create a vast range of guitar/pickup/amplifier combination sounds. This technology is called Composite Object Sound Modelling or COSM, and it operates in two basic modes: Variable Guitar Modelling (VGM) and Harmonic Restructure Modelling (HRM).
In VGM mode, the VG8 might best be viewed as a virtual guitar system comprising a guitar body type, pickup types and placement, amp type, speaker type, mic type and mic placement. All these parameters can be juggled in the virtual world of software, and the result is a wide palette of real‑world guitar sounds. And in this virtual world, it's possible to create setups that couldn't normally exist, such as pickups mounted halfway along the guitar neck. In addition, each string may be individually panned in the stereo field. At the time of the demo, no acoustic guitar simulations had been included, which I thought was a missed opportunity.
In HRM mode, the VG8 restructures the harmonic output from the guitar string in real time, to create new sounds that are neither emulations of existing instruments nor limited to what we normally expect from a guitar. During the demonstrations, we heard patches that sounded like a guitar/flute hybrid and several brassy guitar sounds, all of which retained the characteristics of the player's style.
The VG8 takes its input from the Roland GK‑2A divided pickup, which may be fitted to virtually any guitar. DSPs then process each string's original waveform, independently and in real time, following any changes in harmonic structure due to playing technique. These harmonics are then processed and reassembled to produce the new, modelled sound.
So what control does the user have over what is obviously very complex software? For starters, the VG8 has a very Mac‑like, icon‑based interface, so if you want to change your speaker cab, you just select the icon for a 1x12 or 4x12 stack, or whatever you're looking for. Similarly, the VG8 can imitate pickup configurations. We heard various radically different guitar styles recreated one after the other, including a 12‑string guitar and electric bass. And to complete the studio simulation, you can decide on a capacitor or dynamic microphone type and then vary its virtual distance from the virtual speaker cabinet.
In HRM mode, the string waveform is processed and restructured, in real time, by modifying the relationships of the different harmonics along with their envelopes. Again, since the restructured signal is still based on the harmonic content of the actual string vibrations, as seen by the pickup, the individual player's feel is translated into changes in tonality. At all times, Roland were keen to emphasise the fact that the guitar is the actual sound source — there are no oscillators. To further increase the range of available sounds, signal processing can be performed on a per‑string basis.
One downside of such advanced technology is price, and the VG8 is going to hit the shops at around the £2000 mark. Furthermore, although the VG8 is said to output basic MIDI information to enable the user to run a conventional guitar synth, MIDI can't be used to drive the internal sound source because there isn't one — this isn't a synth so much as a processor. Once you hear the VG8, I think you'll agree that it's impressive, but will guitarists take to COSM in droves, as Roland hope, or will they sit on their wallets and wait for the inevitable MicroCOSM? We can only wait and watch.