Synth You've Been Gone
We return to bring you the latest news and developments on the astounding SynthAxe.
It's over six months since we last looked at the SynthAxe and thought up terrible puns but in the meantime the likes of Gary Moore and Phil Manzanera have been bitten by the Axe bug. Curtis Schwartz goes back for seconds.
We all know about the SynthAxe don't we? We don't? Well, plastered over all the music mags a few months back were reviews of the ultimate guitar synthesiser the SynthAxe, purporting to be everything to every guitarist, and more. However, all that fuss was being made over was a single prototype, with many things still to iron out, and promises of the Axe being in the shops even as optimistically as mid-way through last year. This never happened as the men behind this half-mythical beast, are nothing less than your plain old British perfectionists. This being the case, and without any of the typical pressures from financiers saying - 'either you release it now, or we're backing out on the deal' the lads at SynthAxe had all the time they needed to get it just right, and that time is nigh...
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the SynthAxe, it is essentially a guitar-like controller of MIDI instruments. The strings which are plucked with the right hand aren't attached to those fingered with the left - the right hand set of strings telling the on-board computer which strings are being played and how hard (envelope), with the fretboard strings giving the pitch information to the computer. Each fret has eleven contacts measuring the amount of string bend for each string as well as relaying which fret the string is held at. It is a long process to explain, yet all this happens with quartz-like accuracy and lightning speed.
Anyway, the computer is thus told pitch information, envelope (touch sensitive) information, and all without any glitches or odd notes popping up here and there.
On the guitar's body are various triggering mechanisms which can be used in addition, or instead of, the conventional plucking of the strings. There are the six black oddments above the strings as well as the other switch strategically placed for thumb control. These will sound the strings on and off as they are depressed, which should cheer them up a bit...
Other on-board switching is for 'left hand only trigger switching' - which automatically triggers the notes every time a new fret is fingered, thus making it possible to play the fret board with two hands; and a tremolo arm which, as it is not connected to the strings and is simply another control for the computer, can control anything from pitch bend to filter sweep to amplitude etc.
Now all this is very well, and appears incredible and simple enough - however, it is most certainly an instrument to be learned and not just picked up by any old guitarist who expects to perform miracles. I was lucky enough to go along to one of Gary Moore's rehearsals, as he's had the No. 1 SynthAxe prototype to work with for several weeks. In such an experts hands I can assure you the SynthAxe is an instrument to be reckoned with - quite feasibly able to out-manoeuvre conventional synthesists with a flick-of the wrist...
In addition to the controls on the guitar body itself, the SynthAxe has its own set of pedals. These give the user three extra functions - Automatic Hold, Automatic Capo, and Left Hand String Damp Disable.
When the Automatic Hold pedal is depressed any note played is permanently held by the system - a very musical device which is a very easy system to incorporate into your playing, especially if the SynthAxe is linked to a synthesiser such as the Oberheim Expander, which can assign different voices to different strings. The second function is the Automatic Capo. If you held the chord of Em7, say, and then depressed the automatic capo, you would in effect be playing with an open chord tuning of Em7. If you held a barre on, say the ninth fret, then you would have an auto capo on the ninth fret as well as being able to play below the capo, as this would then have note priority over the capo points!
The third pedal-activated function is the 'left hand string damp disable', and this disables envelope control from the fretboard and makes the envelope shapes of the notes played dependant on the envelope shape programmed into the synth. So if you had a long release time, then in this mode the note would sound for the duration of the release time, even after you may have taken your fingers from the fretboard completely.
An optional accessory to the SynthAxe is the SynthAxe console which enables multiple interfacing with a maximum of eight synthesisers at once, making the SynthAxe constantly switchable from one target synth to another.
There is no limitation to the variety of synthesisers which can be connected to the SynthAxe via the console - the only limiting factor is whether the target synth can fully interpret the multitude of different pieces of information emanating from the SynthAxe. At the time of writing, the SynthAxe was fully interfaceable with Oberheim's Expander (an excellent match as the Expander is capable of assigning different voices to different strings and also has immense control, more so than almost any other instrument yet available in this league), the OB8, OSCar, Prophet T8, the Rhodes Chroma and Polaris. Additionally, most American and European companies are closely cooperating with SynthAxe in developing interfaces for their instruments -including Linn! Many Japanese companies have also followed the SynthAxe's progress with great attention and the whole Yamaha team came down to the SynthAxe factory.
Other than the conventional-ish synthesisers I've just mentioned, the SynthAxe will also interface with the Emulator I and II, the Kurzweil (shortly) and... the Fairlight! I have yet to witness that partnership, but I don't think it would be too hard to imagine what it would be capable of.
That, I hope, might clarify the myths and mysteries of the SynthAxe, i.e. they're all true. Its price has yet to be finalised however, it is anticipated to be around £6,000 including footpedals. The SynthAxe is all computer controlled (with several computers being incorporated - one for the neck alone), it is flexible enough to be able to be completely re-programmed to do anything the future desires of it, or just a bit to update for new 'happenings'.
That's enough chat - have a listen to the demo on the tape - NOW!
Contact: SynthAxe Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Curtis Schwartz