The latest in Roland's pioneering VG range could qualify as the best guitar synth ever made.
Although guitar modelling is no longer a novelty, we should remember that Roland pioneered this important area of guitar processing some 12 years ago with their VG8 system, which modelled not only amplifiers, effects and speakers but also guitar pickups and pickup position.
In 2000, the VG8 evolved into the VG88 which, as well as offering revised amp, speaker and effect modelling, could create synth-type sounds using Roland's HRM harmonic restructuring technology (which had tentative beginnings in the VG8). This enabled it to produce brass-like timbres. Unlike MIDI guitar synths, HRM sounds are created directly from the guitar-string signal, so they respond to playing technique: there's no pitch tracking or delay to trip you up.
The less costly VG99 that's reviewed here is the latest in the VG line and represents a huge leap forward, not just in guitar and amp modelling but also in its improved ability to create more complex synth-like sounds via HRM — which now includes the ability to recreate the sound of the vintage Roland GR300 guitar synth and electronic organs, while additional guitar and bass models, plus novel new control functions, extend the overall capability of the device.
To model pickups with any accuracy, or to create alternative tunings without retuning the instrument, you need a separate signal from each string, which is why Roland's systems need a GK-series pickup or a guitar with a Roland-compatible 13-pin output to deliver their full range of capabilities. The VG99 requires a Roland-compatible hex pickup to access its COSM guitar modelling and alternative tuning facilities, though the basic amp, speaker and effects modelling can be used with a standard guitar pickup. Even so, you'd lose out on so much that it wouldn't be worth buying a VG99 if you only intended to use it in this way — you really do need the hex pickup to make it worthwhile. In addition to allowing the creation of electric guitar pickup and amp/speaker combinations, the VG99 is also capable of modelling acoustic guitars (both steel and nylon strung), banjo, sitar and a few other novel acoustic instrument variations, as well as the aforementioned HRM synth-like sounds. As with its predecessor, the VG88, speaker cabinet and microphone modelling is included on the VG99, so that you can DI the output and get very close to the sound of a real, miked amplifier.
Based around three new digital processors, the VG99 has a dual-channel topography that enables it to model two different guitar (or HRM synth) sounds at the same time, each fed through its own amp and effects. Each channel can have its own stereo output or you can take a stereo mix of the overall output, while a Global setup mode EQs the output for a choice of combo and stack types, as well as offering a flat option for recording or PA use. Each of the two stereo outputs (Main and Sub) can be sourced from Channel A, Channel B, the mixer output pre-effects, or the mixer output with reverb and/or delay added.
Obvious applications for two channels include layering sounds and feeding two different on-stage amplifiers (mono or stereo) or studio tracks with two different guitar sounds, to create a big stereo soundstage. However, if you're inventive with the way you use your effects, you can do weird things like have a distorted rock guitar sound followed by tape-echo delays that sound as though they come from a clean 12-string or from a synth. The two channels may also be dynamically blended using footswitches, the front-panel controls or picking intensity, enabling you, for example, to morph from an overdriven electric sound to a Sitar as you pick harder. You can also decide which guitar strings are active for each channel, so you can set up sound splits in a similar way to a keyboard player, and you can even pan individual guitar strings.There's a separate multi-effects section for each channel and a poly effects section (one effect per string) that can be used on either channel, but not both at the same time.
The signal chain is arranged in a logical fasion, but it can be edited if you need to rearrange the processing order, and there's a simple mixer at the end of the chain. The VG99 comes with 200 fixed factory presets, and 200 further user memories which allow you to store and name your edited patches. The extensive repertoire of factory presets include some brand-new electric, acoustic and bass guitar models, plus the synth-like emulations.
As with the VG88, the tuning of the individual strings can be changed, using pitch-shift algorithms, to allow open or alternative tunings as well as 12-string emulations, and the two-channel design of the VG99 means that each channel can even have its own tuning, where that is appropriate. It is also possible to assign individual strings for pitch-bending via an expression pedal or other suitable controller, making it possible to set up B-Bender-type effects for country-music playing.
Roland's HRM, or Harmonic Restructure Modelling, isn't explained in detail in any documentation I can find, but it seems that the sound from the guitar string is broken down into a number of harmonic components, and the relative levels and envelopes of these harmonics are changed to create new sounds. Using the new Freeze function, sounds can be held indefinitely, where they'd normally decay with the guitar note.
This type of harmonic restructuring doesn't (at the present, anyway) lend itself to the replication of complex real acoustic instrument sounds, but it does have much in common with analogue synthesis, and can be processed using similar filters, modulators and envelope controls. Because the harmonic structure generated by the guitar string changes according to how the string is picked, the sound responds to playing technique in a way that pitch-tracking MIDI guitar synths can't match, and there's no tracking delay. By combining the HRM waveforms with conventional effects such as pitch-shifting, delay and chorus, a wide variety of synth-like leads and pads can be created, as well as some fat synth bass sounds.
Because the sounds are created in real time from the guitar-string output, you can't edit the performances in the same way as you can a MIDI part — you simply record the audio as you would from any other instrument. If you feel that extensive audio editing may be needed, it may be an idea to leave off delay and reverb effects and add them after editing, using plug-ins or hardware effects boxes, as that will avoid discontinuities in the reverb/delay decay tails and also help to disguise any edits.
One feature that many users asked for when the VG8 and VG88 were launched was a MIDI output that would let their VG system also control a MIDI sound module or soft synth. Now they have it. For extra real-time control, Roland have added a ribbon controller and the D-Beam, which will be familiar to many keyboard players. The infra-red D-Beam may be used as a variable control by holding the hand at different distances from it (it operates as two controllers, sensing both vertical and horizontal distance) or it can be set up to act as a switch. The ribbon control can be made to create whammy-like pitch glides, filter sweeps and other effects. Obviously, though, you have to take your hand off the guitar to operate it, so unless you have three hands it is only suitable for specific effects. The D-Beam will probably be of more use, as it can be activated by passing the guitar neck through the beam during performance.
The controllers can be assigned to various parameters, but one of the most impressive new tricks is the ability to use the D-Beam to freeze a sound so that it plays indefinitely until you break the beam again. It's like having a hold pedal for guitar or harmonic synthesis sounds, and can be applied to either or both modelling channels. Again, Roland don't say exactly how they achieve the infinite sustain effect but it doesn't sound lumpy like simple looping, so there may be some harmonic resynthesis going on. Freezing a decaying guitar chord sounds much like a sustained keyboard pad, and you can set how much of the 'frozen' sound you hear and how much of the original sound is heard on top if you keep playing.
Another request was for a USB audio interface that would allow recordings to be made with no additional audio interface, and Roland have responded by designing the VG99 to support audio and MIDI over USB on both Mac and PC. It also now has Roland's V-Link connector (usually used to control video processors or software) as well as an S/PDIF (24-bit, 44.1kHz) digital output. Finally, patch editor/librarian software (again for Mac or PC) has been added to the mix. This works over USB and makes it easier to assign controllers, including the pedals and switches on the optional FC300 floor unit.
Given its impressive list of abilities, the VG99 itself is surprisingly compact and non-threatening, with a graphic display that has icons in a similar style to the VG88. Six knobs beneath the screen are used to edit the parameters shown above, and may also be assigned to control parameters in real time during performance. The main functions are addressed directly via these knobs, the obligatory data wheel and a handful of largely dedicated buttons, and while some menu cruising is still required for deep editing, the process is quite logical. The intuitive editing software makes this rather easier, as you can see a lot more on a computer monitor than on an LCD panel display, but, having said this, I had no problem editing from the front panel.
In the upper left of the panel is the D-Beam transmitter/receiver, which can be turned on and off via a dedicated switch. Further buttons allow Pitch or Filter to be called up directly as modulation destinations for the D-Beam; pitch is also used to access the Freeze function. If you want to create a less obvious assignment, you have to go via the Assign button or use the editing software, which also allows the controls on the GK pickup to be reassigned to new tasks.
Alternative tunings, pitch-bend or 12-string emulations are set up via the Alternate Tuning button. Selecting Bend enables a pedal to be used to create pedal-steel effects by bending specific strings over a user-adjustable range, while the 12-String option fakes a 12-string by adding unison strings to the first two and octaves to the lower four, though you can change the tunings and second-string levels to produce your own custom instruments. Detune uses mild pitch-detuning to thicken the sound, while Harmony tracks the original pitch and then creates a real-time harmony in the key you select. Because each string is processed separately, this can build musically correct harmonies even when you're playing chords.
String-independent effects can be tweaked via the Poly FX Buttons, and Mixer does exactly as you'd expect, taking you into a page where you can adjust mixer settings, including the mixer's own delay and reverb send levels (which are offered in addition to any multi-effects you've used). The Dynamic button is used for setting the picking intensity needed to switch or fade between the two modelling channels.
Roland have also given some thought to ergonomics: the VG99 can be fixed to the optional PDS10 floor stand, which makes it easier to use the D-Beam and ribbon controller, and there's a rack-mounting kit available as well. There's also an optional MIDI floor control unit, the FC300, which includes two assignable expression pedals and can access channel switching, patch memory recall and the effects. It connects via MIDI or the new Roland RRC2 bi-directional Cat 5 cable interface.
Sounds are built up by selecting a guitar/synth, amp and effects combination type for each channel. The HRM synth models are arranged as a range of preset instrument types that you can tweak or effect to modify them. The poly effects can be set up for channel A or B and include the slow-attack 'Slow Gear' effect, while multi-effects are available for both channels. As you'd expect, the 'GR300' patch emulates the Roland GR300's individual string distortion (Hexafuzz), sawtooth wave generation, and pitch VCO and VCF for creating analogue filter-sweeps. For those unfamiliar with the GR300, it was Roland's only guitar synth not to rely on pitch-tracking. It was purely analogue and used the sound from the individual strings to drive wave-shaping circuits, followed by a simple envelope-controlled filter, to generate string or brass-like sounds. Phase-locked loops were used to transpose the sound, allowing an octave of pitch-shift in either direction, plus pitch glide. The distinctive blue box came with its own guitar, fitted with a Roland hex pickup (which isn't compatible with the later GK pickup standard). Andy Summers often played a GR300 in his Police days.
'Bowed' produces a generic bowed string sound, not unlike an analogue synth's attempt at a cello, while 'Dual' layers distortion with portamento-like pitch gliding. 'Filter Bass' does much as you'd expect, combining a deep analogue waveform with a resonant filter, while 'Pipe' is a filtered square-wave, intended to sound like a soft woodwind instrument — though it is also capable of producing convincing synth lead lines. 'Solo' is a soft lead sound, while the grittier 'PWM' creates the chorus-like beating of an analogue synthesizer, where two square-wave oscillators are slightly detuned, or where a single oscillator has its pulse wave width modulated via a slow LFO. 'Crystal' has more of a metallic, FM-like character, and 'Organ' plays sustained, organ-like tones — though some form of drawbar control over the harmonic mix would be welcome. in order to insert the interim harmonics that organ drawbars usually control. As things stand, you have level control over three octave components. 'Brass' produces a harmonic structure that is similar to an analogue brass patch, while 'Wave' works in a similar way but produces an alternative tonality.
If you're using the VG99 with a conventional guitar pickup, it's a simple case of plugging in and playing, but before you can use the more extensive functionality, you need to tell it the model of GK pickup you have, or if you're using a guitar with a hex piezo bridge system. Then you need to calibrate the picking sensitivity to balance the strings, to take account of the pickup spacing from the strings and your playing style. Settings can be saved for up to 10 guitars. If you're fitting a GK pickup to your own guitar, it is important that it is as close to the bridge as possible — otherwise string bending may move the string off the pickup pole-piece, resulting in a loss of level. You then need to tell the VG99 what you're plugging it into, so that it can EQ the output to compensate, and there are several guitar and flat amps and DI options available. This is pretty quick and straightforward, and it's then fun all the way.
As with previous VG instruments, the heavily overdriven rock sounds are excellent, with plenty of aggression and punch, while the clean sounds really shimmer, especially the acoustic models. Those in-between blues tones take a little more work but the Class-A amp models work well for this, especially if you also add in some compression or one of the many excellent overdrive pedal emulations. The high-quality pitch-shifting makes the open tuning and 12-string examples sound very natural, and many of the amp models have a boost button for solos. The acoustic emulations also seem more convincing this time around, while the sitar, banjo and resonator guitar models are also as good as I've yet heard.
The HRM synthesis takes a bit of getting used to, because, as the sound is created by shuffling around the harmonics of the guitar sound, you don't get the same purity of tone you'd expect from an analogue synth, but at the same time it is more expressive, as it responds to your picking technique. Think polyphonic fuzz meets slightly distorted analogue synth and you won't be far out. Combine the various synth options with octave-shifted, slow-attack guitar and a liberal sprinkling of effects and you can create some fantastic pads or leads. While the organ sound won't fool the local Hammond owners club, it works brilliantly sitting beneath a picked guitar part (especially if you use the rotary effect and assign the speed control to a foot switch), while the GR300 emulation is extremely close to the real thing and took me right back to my '70s prog rock days. It is also possible to create some very Jan Hammer-like synth lead lines using the 'Pipe' synth, and 'Brass' makes it easy to add believable brassy synth lines beneath a guitar riff. As with most analogue synths, it is hard to create anything particularly realistic-sounding, but the basic character is nevertheless very musical, and you can use that Freeze function to sustain any sound you like for as long as you like.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the editing software, which seems to have borrowed some visual ideas from Line 6's Variax Workbench and Gearbox software, as well as NI's Guitar Rig. Effects can be dragged around in a rack to re-order them, and you see pictorial representations of the guitar, synths and amps you've chosen. I had no trouble getting the USB audio to work, once I'd plugged the USB cable directly into my Mac (it didn't get on with my USB hub), and the record level via the digital input seems just about optimum. The MIDI Out works well (with a choice of mono six-channel or poly modes), but could use a threshold control to prevent very low-velocity notes from being output due to handling noise. I'd have preferred the GK pickup controller to be fitted with a five-way selector switch, allowing me to directly access the different pickup combinations for any guitar model, but other than this I've no complaints.
Although some purists will point out that the VG99's amp models don't respond dynamically exactly like the originals, they're very playable, and it is easy to achieve a polished, professional sound, with the heavier sounds conveying a real sense of energy. I love the synth sounds, the almost magical Freeze function and the great range of effects. The bass guitar and acoustic guitar emulations are surprisingly good, too. I could write much more on this remarkable little box, but as the bottom of the page is looming, suffice it to say that it is well worth a closer look, both for recording and live performance — especially if those synth-like sounds appeal to you. I feel my credit card levitating out of my pocket yet again...
The Line 6 Pod XT3 offers a dual-channel structure, but unless you also have a Variax guitar it can't offer alternative tuning or 12-string emulations. In the software world, Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 3 probably comes closest to having such a comprehensive amp-modelling and effects section, and it too can run with two channels.