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Stepp DG1 Guitar Synth

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Article from International Musician & Recording World, October 1986

Paul Fishman avoids all references to giant leaps for mankind, but still likes Stepp's digital guitar synth


By now any musician who over the last month or so has come into contact with most music magazines must have gazed upon the rather plush adverts for the Stepp DG1 and probably remarked 'What the F***'s that?' — which is a fair enough comment. From a quick glance at the picture in the advert some might easily be led to believe that it is Darth Vader's guitar — a leftover from the 12 bar jam sessions in the Star Wars canteen, last heard playing I've got those Hyperdrive Blues, I woke up this Millenium, and other such modern day classics. Fortunately this would be a totally unfair judgement of character; the Stepp as a musical instrument is something of a breakthrough and not just a novelty.

Now some of you might be wondering why I (a keyboard player) am reviewing a guitar-based instrument, particularly since on various occasions I have been quoted as saying how I am totally ignorant about planks of wood with bits of metal stuck onto them. Don't get me wrong, I totally love the racket that guitars can make and if the truth were to be known, at times I am highly jealous/frustrated by not being able to create the same sort of expression on a keyboard. The pros and cons of maple necks, what gauge strings, coiled pickups etc, are my personal equivalent of musical valium. As far as I'm concerned a Humbucker is a black and white sweet that my mother used to find stuck to the pockets of my school blazer. You get the picture! But the Stepp isn't a flashy 1986 version of the guitar, as its sound source is purely synthesized and therefore does not depend on the sound of the strings/neck/pickups...

Hendon — the Gateway to the Universe?



The idea for the Stepp was first conceived about eight to 10 years ago in that glorious suburban metropolis known as Hendon. It was here that Steve Randall, the man who first dreamt of the idea, lived and spent large amounts of his life locked away in his bedroom writing and recording a wealth of very fine home demos of his songs.

Around this time synthesizer manufacturers were starting to wave their equipment under the noses of the musical population and musicians were beginning to realise that there was a lot more potential to them than just making stupid noises. They were versatile tools that could be an incredible textural asset to groups, composers and solo artists. The only problem was that you had to be a keyboard player, because a synthesizer was a keyboard instrument. When you look back on this period of instrument evolution it is easy to see how this situation was totally dictated by the technological conveniences of the keyboard. So the guitarist was told to shut up and be content with a fuzz box and a wow-wow pedal, a whacky combination if ever I met one. This was fine by me, as I had previously abandoned the idea of playing the guitar purely on technical grounds: ie I was appalling. Besides, I was far more interested in doing Brian Eno impersonations — give me a pair of white gloves and a joystick and I was away.

But it didn't take long for the manufacturers to realise that the synthesizer boom they had created was also being contributed to by frustrated guitarists who wanted to explore synthesizer sounds but weren't capable of doing it via the guitar, as such a method didn't exist. So the next step (no pun intended) was totally inevitable. Big fanfare... drum roll... cash register... the arrival of the guitar synth.

Guitar Synths — the Arrival of the Turkey.



Initially many people thought the guitar synth was going to be the end of civilisation as we knew it. What had happened with keyboards was going to be repeated with guitars but unfortunately there was a funny smell in the air. Was it chicken... no... was it duck... no... wait a moment — it was a Turkey. Yes that's exactly what it was. Two manufacturers lurched into the guitar synth battle — Roland and the demised ARP — and as the two of them locked antlers on the musical market place it soon became apparent that the transition from keyboard to fretboard hadn't gone as smoothly as expected, especially since the demands that guitarists were making were far greater than those which had been made by keyboard players. The instrument had to be able to express the technique and performance that the guitarist had developed over the years. There were huge problems involved, ranging from tuning, speed of response and interpretation of playing style just for starters.

Tuning: with a keyboard, figuring out what note is being played is easy; when a key is pressed it makes an electrical contact which the internal computer can scan up and down the keyboard and send out the relevant information. Now with a guitar synth to actually decipher the pitch manufacturers had opted for measuring the vibration of the strings to find the notes. This is an incredibly more complex approach with humungous potential pitfalls. Being able to decipher the fundamental pitch and block out the vast quantities of harmonics as well as any sympathetic resonances from the other strings is a major problem.

Speed of Response: how long does it take between playing a string and actually hearing the sound? Obviously this should preferably be immediate or at least without any delay that is going to inhibit the playing style of the musician. The speed that the electronics within the instrument can calculate when and note is played what has to be staggeringly quick for it to be usable.

Interpretation of playing style: is what in many ways makes the essential difference between guitars and keyboards. There are so many different ways to play a guitar, it is not just a matter of turning notes on and off. It is this that makes up so much of the character of the guitarist's performance. Notes can be plucked, strummed, bent, picked, up stroked, down stroked, etc...

Consequently ARP sank a lot of money into their instrument's development and ended up going out of business, which was a great shame as they were one of the pioneers of keyboard synthesis. Roland on the other hand have persevered over the many years developing and commendably improving upon their initial design but still being trapped by the insurmountable problems involved.

Personally as a keyboard player I have never been that impressed with guitar synths, which is not meant to be a slag against Roland as they have done a fine job (and therefore avoiding the knee in the groin from Roland UK). But to my mind, until now guitar synths have not offered anything different that couldn't be attained by a keyboard player, apart from allowing a synth to be played by a guitarist. Thankfully people like Steve Randall were not satisfied by this compromise and persevered with what must have seemed at times to be an impossible task.

The Stepp DG1



The Stepp DG1 is basically a guitar dedicated system and in many ways is a new instrument in its own right rather than a compromise for frustrated guitarists. It is a complete instrument that generates its own sound, which means you don't have to plug it into another instrument, unlike the Synth Axe. All you need is an amplifier and away you go.

As I have already mentioned its sound comes purely from its own internal synthesis and does not use the strings to generate the sound at all. Looking at the synthesizer aspect of the Stepp, it uses what is regarded as conventional synthesizer components and approaches that are found on many keyboards. It doesn't use any new methods of synthesis (thank God) and fits into the category of what is called subtractive synthesis (unlike FM or additive synthesis).

It has six voices (six strings — figures really) and each voice consists of two oscillators with either sawtooth or pulse waveforms (variable). The oscillators can individually be tuned, modulated, synced together and in addition there's a noise source. The filters have standard resonance, cut off and tracking parameters. There are two ADSR envelopes which can be used in the usual format of one for the VCA and the other to modulate the filter, plus one LFO per voice with a sine wave output. All parameter setting values when in the edit mode are displayed in the two LED windows and are adjusted by the single parameter rotary control. The synthesizer aspect of the Stepp in many ways is very similar to one of my favourite synths, the Oberheim Matrix 12, as any source can modulate another via the internal patching. This is a great advantage as you are not limited to a small amount of modulation sources and destinations and allows the user far greater freedom to experiment.

The Stepp will remember up to 80 single programmes and another 20 combination/split programmes. For example each string can have a different sound assigned to it or sounds can be layered on top of each other, but this, like all other keyboards, divides the amount of available voices. Basically the Stepp has all the things you'd expect on a good synth with easy editing access.

Playing the Stepp



Small LEDs replace fret dots

What makes the Stepp so revolutionary is how it interprets the guitarist's performance, which previously has been incredibly compromised. At first glance the strings appear to be fairly normal but on closer inspection you can see that all the strings are the same gauge. This is to avoid problems caused by wire wound strings. The other interesting point is that there is a separate set of strings for the fretboard area and that the strings that run along the neck are totally independent.

So as to avoid the previous headaches which have been so inherent in guitar synths, the designers have had to develop new approaches. The neck strings define pitch and various envelope parameters, the secret of which lies in the 'semiconductor' frets which are used to detect pitch. They sense 'neck damp' — when strings are touched but not fretted, when strings touch frets, when a string is on a fret and when they are played open. These control aspects can be overridden by the 'keyboard mode switch' which allows the instrument to operate in a similar way to a keyboard, eg retriggering each time a note is played.

The Strum Strings interpret the variety of ways a string can be played — damping, velocity and muted envelopes — which is a combination of damping and velocity plus velocity release.

At the present moment the manufacturers advise using a metal pick for playing; this is because 'note off' information is detected by human contact. They are currently exploring alternative possibilities for picks for those guitarists who find it a problem. This is not to say that plastic plectrums don't work, but metal ones do give better contact.

In addition to the usual tuning functions that are available on keyboard synthesizers, each string can have its own tuning within each programme and changes in pitch across a string may either be set to move chromatically, or by portamento — gliding from one note to another.

To avoid the annoying time delays that are inherent in MIDI, the Stepp uses its own internal form of communication which responds much faster and allows for greater expression and subtlety that a guitarist expects from his instrument, as well as the famous 'wang bar' which is so much an important aspect of many players' style. Since the frets, strum area and wang bar can be routed to control so many independent modulation destinations this elevates the playing possibilities to an endless degree.

Although the Stepp doesn't depend on MIDI as an internal control language it does have a MIDI Out and MIDI In. What is so interesting about the MIDI In is that the instrument can first be used to record information to an external MIDI sequencer and then when played back it will respond with exactly the same performance characteristics as when first played, therefore utilising the Stepp's unique parameters of control. Of course you can connect the Stepp to any other MIDI Synth but they won't be able to respond in exactly the same way as the Stepp's own internal voices purely because they don't have its unique facilities of control.

Strumming strings are independent of the fretboard strings


A lot of care has been taken in the physical design of the instrument, probably because it was a guitarist who conceived the idea, not a technician. The body of the instrument actually feels like wood but is, in fact, a form of foamed moulded plastic, which hasa density that is similar to wood. The body is a curved moulded surface which gives a solid but not weighty feel. The neck is tapered and is designed around a triangular piece of metal to give it rigidity.

All the voices and general electronic guts are in a separate but compact case which doubles as a guitar stand. The guitar is connected to the stand via a single lead.

Another cute idea is that instead of the usual dots that you find on a guitar neck there's a series of small LEDs.

Conclusion



I am totally impressed with the Stepp. Having been around at the initial instigation of the idea and now actually seeing it become a reality I can only praise Steve for his unrelenting persistence, especially since this isn't another from one of the existing Mega manufacturers.

The thinking behind the Stepp is not to make it out of date in a year or so's time. They believe it will stand up despite the rapid development of technology. At present they have put together a fine team of people to manufacture and develop their ideas and, of course, give the essential technical back-up. Their policy is not to bring out their instrument with a multitude of software bugs and features that are promised to work somewhere in the future — which unfortunately so many other manufacturers seem to think is alright to do. Currently they are exploring expandable voices for musicians who need more than six voices and the control of sampling instruments, the difference being that they will be able to use all of the Stepp's performance controls. There's an ironic concept — being able to play guitar samples...

Despite the fact that the synthesizer aspect of its design is fairly conventional, it is quite stunning how the effect of the sound is totally different when played on the Stepp. I heard an acoustic guitar sound that was made from a normal synthesizer-plucked sound and it was amazing how naturally acoustic it seemed.

So much of what actually makes up a guitar sound comes from the amplifier, distortion, harmonics and not forgetting volume — how could anyone ever forget volume — and all these aspects can still be used in conjunction with the Stepp to personalise its sound even further.

The cost of the instrument is about £4,000, which might come as a bit of a shock to guitarists, but then this is the equivalent price of some of the best keyboard synthesizers that are currently available.

If you are a guitarist who has ever toyed with the idea of synthesis but has been frustrated by the existing compromises, then the Stepp could well be the answer to your dreams.

The Stepp is a serious musical instrument which should develop new playing techniques to inspire a lot of guitarists. In addition to this I would like it to go down on the records that this is the first guitar review that I've ever done. This could be a breakthrough for me. Next month, the Tuba!

I am now going off to figure out how the hell I can strum my keyboards...

Stepp DG1 Guitar Synth - RRP: £4,000 approx

For additional information contact Stepp Ltd, (Contact Details).


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

JB Self Lock

Next article in this issue

Korg DDD1 Drum Machine


Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

International Musician - Oct 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Guitar Synthesizer > Stepp > DG1

Review by Paul Fishman

Previous article in this issue:

> JB Self Lock

Next article in this issue:

> Korg DDD1 Drum Machine


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