MIDI Guitar Controller
Casio's first truly professional MIDI guitar boasts an onboard synthesizer and claims to have the fastest pitch tracking of any MIDI guitar. Rowland Jones bought one to find out!
If you are a guitarist who turned to keyboards in order to experience some of the wonders of synthesis, sampling and sequencing, then you will no doubt agree that a reasonably priced guitar controller/synthesizer has been long overdue. With the release of the Casio PG380, the waiting is now over.
The PG380 is a MIDI guitar controller with onboard synthesizer which looks, in essence, like a Fender Strat (for those of you unfamiliar with the term, the 'Strat' is a design of guitar which has dominated rock-and-roll for the last 30 years). The headstock is more pointed, giving it an aggressive '80s look and this, coupled with the smooth black lacquer finish, results in a very good looking instrument. The pickguard (which appears to be metal) is matt black and matches the three rotary controls.
The guitar is fitted with three pickups; the neck and middle pickups being single pole types with a humbucking bridge pickup which also has a coil tap feature. This is brought into play by pulling out the lowest knob - the tone control. (The manual claims this operates only on the humbucker, but on my model it acts on all three pickups.) The remaining two rotary controls govern the conventional pickup output volume and synth output volume. The synth pickup is mounted between the bridge pickup and the bridge. To the left of the rotary controls is a conventional Strat-type 5-way pickup selector switch.
Before moving on to the electronics, a few more words about the construction of the guitar. The body is alder, the neck maple, with an ebony fingerboard with frets which are slightly wider than Fender frets. I encountered some problems with fret buzz but put this down to the fact that the string action needed some slight adjustments. The strings are locked at the nut and are tuned at the bridge; a major source of frustration for us traditional Strat players but you have to learn.
The back of the guitar is amazing, since it is has more access flaps and removable panels than you have ever seen. One for the battery case (which you'll be using a great deal if you dislike mains adaptors, as I do), the usual Strat-type covering for the tremolo arm springs, and a large plastic flap which opens to reveal an orifice for a ROM or RAM card. This was a major source of frustration since it kept opening. The culprit turned out to be a small piece of sticky-backed felt which kept coming loose. In addition to these, there are two rubber 'bung' flaps which cover the sensitivity controls and microswitches.
The microswitches are not only a nuisance but potentially a danger, since they are easily damaged. The three switches control tuning, bend range and, most importantly, MIDI channel selection. I say 'most importantly' since the first two switches are normally set and left alone but MIDI channel changing should be more accessible, and this is a bone of contention. For example, having used the PG380 to record a bass line on one track of a sequencer that is set to MIDI channel 1 and controlling an external synth, to record another track you now have to fiddle around with the microswitch to change the MIDI channel. The alternative is to re-allocate the channel after recording on the sequencer but that means also changing the input channel on your synth module. Such an essential control should really be on the front panel.
The only other important element is the panel on the lower edge of the guitar. This contains the power switch (which controls both guitar and synth functions), 9-volt DC adaptor input, and a MIDI Out socket. As far as audio output is concerned you have several choices. The two ¼" jack outputs are labelled 'iPD/Mix' and 'Guitar'. The first gives a combined synth and guitar output, the second gives guitar output only; using both jacks splits the outputs. Alternatively, you can use a stereo guitar lead which gives stereo output of both sounds.
So now on to the small control panel, which will cause much muttering the first time you use the guitar at the Farmer's Noggin or other suitable venue. This panel features a two-digit red LED display in a raised housing, which reads '11' on switching on and goes up to '88'. 'Spinal Tap' fans should not be too overjoyed by this, since it does not describe a volume range which even Nigel would be gobsmacked by. It is, in fact, an indication of which synth patch/program you have selected from the PG380's internal sound module. There are 64 sounds available, stored as eight banks of eight (11-18, 21-28, etc). These are accessed by the eight buttons just in front of the LED display, which are conveniently numbered 1 to 8 (such forethought). Accompanying these are four further buttons. The first allows you to select sounds from the plug-in ROM/RAM card as well as from the internal presets. When using a RAM card with 128 sounds, two small lights indicate whether you are using the A-side or B-side. The second and third buttons transpose the MIDI output and the synth output up or down one octave. The fourth button is labelled 'Chromatic'. When switched in the synth will only read the pitch of notes in discrete semitones, so that bending a string up a tone will effectively trigger two notes, one and two semitones above the original pitch.
These controls have other significant effects as well, which we'll come to later when we look at playing technique. Finally, on this panel, there are two indicator lights which act as guides and enable you to tune the guitar accurately to an internal reference (which is preset by the dreaded microswitches on the back).
That completes our quick tour of the guitar. The first thing you should do with the PG380 is to set the pickup sensitivity for your particular playing style. That's what you should do. However, if you're like me you'll switch it on, plug it into as many synth modules as you can, and make horrendous noises; the sort of MIDI mania I've been waiting for all these years. But when sanity returns, having convinced myself that the instrument actually works, it's time to take a more sober approach.
As a guitar, the PG380 sounds very good. The seven pickup combinations available provide a good range of sounds, and the tone control adds a bit of extra control. No problems there - but before you can try the synth sounds you need to make certain adjustments. Setting the guitar up is easy using the sensitivity controls in the back of the guitar body and the LED display on the front, which gives a readout, as described in the slim but adequate manual. The only practical difficulty is estimating how hard you 'normally' pick the strings, since the range of intensities is quite considerable. However, the procedure is easy enough to do, so you can fine tune the sensitivity as you grow more familiar with the instrument. You may also find that you have to adjust the sensitivity to a different level for use with external synth modules that are velocity sensitive.
Casio also produce a version of this guitar without the internal sound generation circuitry, but I opted for this model so that on the rare occasions when I play with other human beings rather than in a studio environment, I wouldn't have to drag a stack of other gear along as well.
The onboard sounds are created using the same synthesis system that's employed on Casio's new VZ1 synth, and there's a fair selection ranging from steamy bass sounds, through vibes, marimbas, brass, strings, to a church organ. My particular favourites are the sequence bass, the VZ vibes, the R 'n' B brass and the jazz flute. My major regret is that you can't access these sounds via an external MIDI device such as a sequencer (there's no MIDI In facility): the only solution being to sample them if you have the technology.
Certain of these sounds do suffer from considerable digital noise, enough to affect solo performance but probably not if you're jamming with your local rock combo. But the question I'm sure is on everyone's mind is, 'Does it suffer from delay?'. The answer is yes - it still exists. This delay, my more electronically learned friends tell me, is a natural result of pitch-to-MIDI conversion. Apparently, if you consider the note heard by the pickup as a sine wave, the PG380's electronics need to hear from one zero-crossing point to the next in order to determine the pitch of the note. This 'analysis time' creates a perceptible delay, which is affected by the pitch; the lower the pitch, the longer the wavelength, and the longer the delay before the machine says 'I know what that note is!', electronically speaking.
This gives us a problem and a partial solution. For example, if you want to play a mega bass line but are finding the delay a problem, use the Transpose button to take the synth patch down an octave then play the line an octave higher. This is one solution in a recording/sequencing environment; playing live, you can combine the MIDI and natural guitar sounds if you need to get the attack of the note absolutely 100% right. Also, you will find that using sounds with a slow attack minimises the problem of delay anyway.
As far as MIDI implementation is concerned, the Casio PG380 guitar can operate in Poly or Mono mode. In Poly mode, all MIDI information is transmitted on a single channel, whereas in Mono mode the information from each string is carried on a different MIDI channel. These two options, and the choice of MIDI output channels, are controlled by the aforementioned microswitches.
In many circumstances Poly mode will produce the required effect, but in certain areas Mono mode allows other possibilities. The first option is to assign different sounds to different strings, eg. bass on strings 5-6, vibes on 1-4, thus allowing you to perform as a one-man rhythm section (you could go further by adding a bass drum on string 6 and snare on 5 - then try fingerpicking). The other application for Mono mode is to simulate guitar-type effects relating to 'open' strings. If, in Poly mode, you played an open first string (E) together with the same E note played on the second string, a synthesizer would only sense one note. But in Mono mode (using the same sound on each string) you would hear two notes. This is vital if you wish to achieve the 'open tuning' sound from the PG380.
The PG380, like any other guitar synth, requires a different approach to playing. You should be prepared to modify your technique to make the most of it. First of all, you may be horrified to discover how inaccurate your fingering is, because a MIDI guitar has no qualms about highlighting every slight mis-fret. As a result of this, when you use the guitar to input MIDI data into a sequencer, you may well find a whole mess (literally) of irrelevant data being collected - so be warned! You also have to remember that the guitar (used as a MIDI controller) will not respond to dampening the strings with the palm of your right hand. (If you want to experience a strange effect, sample a muted/dampened guitar then play it from a guitar controller; it's virtually impossible to stop yourself dampening the strings!) Another important element relating to technique is how to play in the style of the sound you are using. For example, a keyboard player using a guitar sample needs to play chords virtually as fast arpeggios. Similarly, if you are using a flute sound on the PG380 you should use the 'chromatic' setting, since a flautist doesn't bend notes. Also, with this switched in, finger vibrato can be used to give a realistic flute-like 'trill'.
In practice, the Chromatic feature 'locks' the sounds within semitone scales. This is quite useful since the MIDI controller output can be more sensitive to slight string bends than is apparent on a normal guitar (or maybe it's my sloppy technique again!). To avoid this, I would suspect many players may find themselves using heavier gauge strings on the PG380 than they would use on a normal guitar.
As a guitar, the PG380 is a quality instrument; Casio have taken a wise decision to stick to a classic design and have added their own stamp to it. Electronically and electrically the guitar sounds good (with the exception of some of the 'noisy' patches). Criticism has to be levelled at the poor positioning of the MIDI channel selector and the choice of microswitches. This may be fine for someone who wants to set the guitar up for live use controlling other MIDI modules, but for studio use it's a pain.
Above all, be aware that you won't get the best out of this instrument unless you come to it with an open mind and are prepared to modify your playing technique to use the PG380 to great effect.
Price £1299 inc VAT.
Contact Casio Electronics (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).