digital guitar science
"The SynthAxe is not a guitar, nor a guitar synthesiser – it is a new type of musical instrument which gives a guitar player the means to plug into and play a variety of synthesisers."
So began the closely typed, 17 page press release, and so ended six months of bizarre rumours.
Someone, came the whispers from the jungle, was developing a digital guitar synth. The Australian manufacturers of the Fairlight computer were involved, and the financial backing appeared to stem from Virgin and Richard Branson. During interviews, guitarists mentioned they'd been approached by 'certain representatives' bearing the prototype of a wildly futuristic device, and asked for their views. Strict secrecy was impressed upon them.
Now the first firm details have been released and the truth is definitely stranger than the recent fictions.
The project dates back to the late seventies when founding designers Bill Aitken and Mike Dixon became disenchanted with the pitch-to-voltage conversion systems then adopted by guitar synth developers.
They moved on to dissect every component of technique embodied in a guitar, intent on finding electrical ways of reproducing the same effect. In one way the SynthAxe is a mass of sensors – they detect how hard you strike a string, how far you bend it and what note you've pressed. It's those elements of measurement that are passed on to any connected synthesiser, NOT the frequencies of the vibrating strings.
The fretboard is equipped with normal strings, but they're tuning is unimportant. When the string touches on the metal fret it makes a contact which produces the correct digital pitch code for that position, not, in fact, a brand new idea.
That's just your left hand. For the right we have an entirely separate set of wires, they can be any gauge you like and set to any tension, providing they're metal.
The sensors attached to these trigger strings are velocity sensitive and, providing the synth is capable of interpreting such data, you can use the strength of your attack on the strings to effect, say, the dynamics or the filter.
Rest your fingers on the strings after they've been struck and another set of electronic 'tasters' will dampen the synth notes for you.
So far all these factors have worked towards mimicking a normal guitar. Now the designers begin moving away from the traditional. For a start the two octave fingerboard has equally spaced frets – since intonation no longer matters, you might as well save yourself the effort of cramming fingers together for high chords.
This makes the fretboard much longer than usual so it's been angled sharply upwards to prevent terminal overstretched elbow.
Above the neck/body join are a set of extra keys that have functions beyond those of the trigger strings. These are where the sustain lives. Each of the fretboard strings has its own black, oblong key and they're all velocity and pressure sensitive. If you push gently, the fretted note will fade in; push and release quickly and there'll be a punchy envelope; carry on holding them down and the notes will sustain indefinitely; press harder and you activate the second touch facility as on synth keyboards such as the DX7. Useful for introducing modulation, swelling volume, etc.
All these facilities of course presume that the synth or computer you're connected to can understand and act on such instructions. The SynthAxe is MIDI-ed but not all MIDI-ed keyboards would know what to do with such details.
There are three more master keys – one fires the E, A and D leaving you to play individual notes on the remaining top trio, the other works in the obvious, opposite conjunction and the final pad, activated by the heel of your right hand, sets all six strings going.
You don't have to use your right hand at all. If desired the SynthAxe can scan its fretboard, detecting and outputting every new string/fret contact. You could play the neck with both hands, if you wanted.
And down on the floor, keeping in touch with the 14 way output cable, is a pedal board that supplies automatic hold and, more intriguingly, automatic capo. Play a barre across a line of frets, stamp on the pedal and the SynthAxe then realigns itself so those higher notes become the open strings. But the barre doesn't have to be a straight one, you could capo a chord, which is a crafty trick.
Now here's the bad news. The SynthAxe contains no tone generating circuitry of its own, you have to link it either directly to an external synth, or through the optional console to control up to eight synths at once. Even so, the closest the manufacturers can come in estimating the eventual cost is "between a quarter and a half of a Fairlight CMI". Our estimate puts that at around £6,000-£12,000.
After we'd lain down and got our breaths back, it seemed a sensible idea to voyage to SynthAxe's HQ near Olympia and view the aluminium and perspex prototype. The amount of electronics within the SynthAxe is terrifying. The production model will contain two large circuit boards crammed with chips with more inside the neck.
Chatting to Bill Aitken and Mike Dixon, you cannot help but be impressed at the cautious, detailed planning which has gone into the design. For example there's not one triggering system for the string/fret contact, but two. The first operates during normal 'dry' playing, the second comes into action when you and the guitar are covered in sweat so this 'wet' mode means you're always sure of a clean clean trigger.
Moving parts have been kept to a minimum. Magnetic sensors do most of the work but the entire device has been constructed to tolerances which will cope with stray magnetic fields from amps, stage lights, etc, and disarming surges in mains voltages should you be dealing with Mexican volts.
The prototype is a bitch to play, but that's not surprising. Physically it's only a crude version of the production sample pictured opposite. However it is close enough to judge the equally spaced frets and the neck angle. They DO take some adjusting to, but they don't disrupt your guitar technique as much as you might expect. You could find yourself wearing the SynthAxe a little lower than usual.
The upper keys also make sense when you're faced with long sustained sounds. There's something psychologically upsetting about twanging a string and hearing a note that lasts forever. If you're holding down a key then the grey cells are less put out.
A first encounter with a SynthAxe, especially when linked to a Fairlight, is not something to be rapidly forgotten. Assemble the left hand into an E major, grip the plectrum and strum – and out comes a perfect Grand Piano.
The designers are lining the SynthAxe up alongside synths such as the Prophet T8, Oberheim Xpander, Emulator II, Rhodes Chroma and, of course, the Fairlight. They've had a great deal of encouragement and support from the Fairlight Family who were excited enough about the SynthAxe to send the company their first Fairlight MIDI board.
With synths such as the above in tow, it should be impossible for the SynthAxe to sound anything short of brilliant. The major questions are speed and certainty. Can you be positive that every note you hit, however quickly, will sound perfectly?
It looks as if the SynthAxe has cracked those problems, and re-routed the future of the electric guitar in the process. You and I may never be able to afford one, but we'll be hearing them.
Review by Paul Colbert
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