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The Final Cut


Approx. £7,000 worth

Axeman Gunther Carstensen gets all excited learning to play synths - on a fretboard!

SynthAxe; the world's first digital guitar.

Are you one of those frustrated guitarists who has had to switch from frets to keys in search of the modern sound ? Then, like me, you probably know the feeling of despair when you realise that however competent on one instrument attempting to get to grips with a keyboard can turn you into a mere beginner attain. When, therefore, rumours began to circulate that a British company had developed an instrument which allows you to play a synth via a fretboard I was eager to find out more. Upon entering the workshop in West London I could sense the enthusiasm and quiet confidence as well as the determination to succeed which are indispensable when a revolutionary new technological development is to come to fruition. Bill Aitken, Managing Director of SynthAxe, was proudly demonstrating the astonishing possibilities of the prototype one minute producing the sound of a grand piano by strumming the six trigger strings and plucking a string section the next.

Back in 1977 when he was composing and producing sound tracks for the Beeb this must have seemed a very long way off. Being a guitarist Bill found the limitations of a keyboard frustrating not just because his keyboard knowledge was rather limited but also because subtle effects like string-bending, finger-vibrato, pull-offs and manual damping could not be transferred from the guitar to the synthesizer. What finally stung Bill into action were the shortcomings of the new generation of pitch-to-voltage guitar synths. He contacted Mike Dixon and Tony Sedivy and together they decided to climb the technological mountain and build a guitar controller for a synthesizer.

Using a Nova Mini-Computer and a one-octave fingerboard the team began to study and analyse guitar playing technique. The Nova was programmed to analyse the guitarist's performance, and to output the correct musical data to drive a digital-to-analogue interface between the Nova and a Yamaha CS80 which they had rescued from seemingly mortal injuries after it had fallen down an elevator shaft. By 1982 Bill, Mike and Tony must have felt that the gods were smiling upon them, for not only had they managed to persuade Virgin no less to finance the project, but in the meantime a whole battery of hi-tech synths, including the Fairlight CMI had become available. (Not that progress up until then had been all that rosy; when one bank even turned down a request for a £500 loan you can imagine how they must have felt.) Moreover, MIDI had arrived on the scene, just in time as the newly formed SynthAxe Ltd wanted to spend their time designing synthesizer control systems rather than sound generating electronics. A further stroke of good fortune occurred when Fairlight Pty showed great enthusiasm tor the project and offered SynthAxe a set of software cards and a prom-blower with the CMI which would allow it to double as a 6809 Software Development System in addition to its role as a Computer Musical Instrument. Consequently, all SynthAxe software has, up until now, been written on the Fairlight CMI.

A rear view of Synth Axe prototype with development circuit boards in the body, neck and machine head.

Finally, at the end of 1983 after further development of the dual 6809 processor system, the main circuit boards, the triggering systems and the fingerboard, the different parts of the system were crudely mounted on a metal frame to provide the first playable prototype. Opinions and suggestions were sought, amongst others from Andy Summers, Phil Palmer, Randy California and John Porter.

Many of their comments were eagerly put into practice for meanwhile two designers, Ken Steel and Ian Dampney, had joined the team in trying to solve the problems of finding the optimum layout whilst balancing physical and musical requirements with mechanical constraints and weight distribution. It was no small help that four out of the five people involved in the development of the SynthAxe had some guitar playing experience.

Now what exactly is the SynthAxe? What does it do and how does it function? It should be clear by now that it is not a guitar: nor is it a guitar synth. Put simply, the SynthAxe is a controlling device which plugs into any synthesizer with an interface powerful enough to interpret the musical codes created by a guitarist's technique. The information from the controller is sent to the synth, either on a MIDI interface or on another suitable computer interfacing system depending on the internal design of the synth. In this way, effects peculiar to fretboard instruments such as the guitar can be faithfully reproduced while making use of the multitude of musical possibilities which a synthesizer provides.

The original SynthAxe Frankenstein prototype.

The information from the fretboard is transmitted to the synth in a digital format. Contact between each string and each fret produces a unique digital code. This means that any gauge of strings can be used (such as six B-strings) as long as they are metal. With the SynthAxe you can also forget about tuning: the pitch of the string has no bearing on the digital code.

As on an ordinary guitar the pitch of a note or a chord is determined by the left hand. Triggering takes place on a different set of shorter strings which are set at a slight angle to the fingerboard strings. These trigger strings are velocity sensing, and if your synth is capable of interpreting velocity data you can set the synth patch to modulate VCA levels, filter effects etc. And let's face it any guitarist would feel that something was amiss if regardless of how hard he strummed the instrument the volume was always the same.

However, there is another way of triggering and that is by way of a set of keys which are located at the top of the body. The six keys correspond to the strings while the two larger keys just to the left are the group trigger keys which allow you to trigger the three treble or the three bass keys at the touch of a button. The reason for these two triggering methods lies in the sonic differences between a guitar and a synth. The guitar like the piano is percussive in quality giving a sharp attack followed by a relatively short sustain. The synthesizer in addition to such sounds also produces sounds with much longer sustain, such as brass and strings. To trigger these sounds with the strings on the SynthAxe would result in a short and unsatisfying 'toot'.

A close up showing master trigger trigger keys, trigger strings and vibrato arm systems.

Like the trigger strings, the keys are both velocity and pressure sensing, if your target synth is internally capable of such effects you can play staccato by hitting the keys hard taking the finger off quickly or legato by pressing the keys down slowly.

Another very interesting feature is the vibrato arm which has exactly the same mechanical action as on a conventional guitar. But because it is a digitally controlled system there are no tuning problems and the response of the arm can be set to the player's taste.

A number of other features such as the string bending and manual damping capabilities of the SynthAxe as well as its angled neck impress by the faithful reproduction of the electric guitar with different technological means as well as by the innovative nature of the design. However, what impressed me even more were the possibilities created by the pedals which will be supplied with the instrument. There is the automatic hold pedal, the automatic capo pedal which allows you to barre across any fret and, after pressing the switch, play above or below the cap fret, and the left hand string damp disable pedal enabling you to play some amazing overlaying effects. Other pedals are already being designed. All this and I haven't even told you of the specially designed two-octave neck, the intricacies of the fretboard and the string mounting system. That will have to wait until a more detailed review.

Now what about interfacing? The SynthAxe can plug directly into a single MIDI capable synthesizer. At the moment, the company is co-operating with Oberheim (Xpander), E-mu Systems (Emulator II), Fender Rhodes (Chroma and Polaris) and Fairlight on hi-performance MIDI interfacing for guitar oriented control data. But other manufacturers will also be approached.

All these wonderful possibilities — there must be a catch, I hear you cry. If it's the price you mean then you're probably right unless, of course, the cost of between a quarter and half a Fairlight CMI has you casually reaching for your cheque book in your backpocket. However, SynthAxe are quite open about this and point to the fact that the research and development of any micro-controlled system is bound to be expensive. But after an initial period when models will be crafted, assembled and tested by hand the company expect to introduce a volume production version within the next year which will be less expensive. Midsummer will see the launch of the SynthAxe. And I can't wait to get my hands on one of them.

Contact: SynthAxe Ltd, (Contact Details).

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Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


Electronic Soundmaker - Jul 1984

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Guitar Synthesizer > Synthaxe > Synthaxe

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