The quest to build the ideal MIDI guitar controller continues with Yamaha's eagerly-awaited G10. Aaron Hallas makes the pick-up.
Making a satisfactory, realistically-priced MIDI guitar controller is a task that has successfully eluded designers for years. Finally it seems, Yamaha are making ground.
I CANT THINK of any instalment that has been adapted for as many diverse styles of music as the guitar. From classical to rock, from ambient to jazz and everything in between, the guitar can do it all. Everything, that is, except function as a reliable MIDI controller. In this day and age, with thousands of guitarists waiting for the "ultimate" MIDI guitar controller to arrive, that's not great news. Try as they might, manufacturers have found the step towards MIDI to be elusive.
For several years, guitar controllers have had to rely on pitch-to-voltage or pitch-to-MIDI conversion to control the sweet voices of synthesisers and samplers. At best this conversion process is slow and not very reliable. As an alternative, a few companies have adopted fret-wiring for their instruments. Although this conversion method does improve the response time and accuracy, additional transducers are required to translate dynamics and stringbending into MIDI data. Plus, the high cost of instruments such as the SynthAxe and Stepp guitars have placed them out of the reach of average musicians.
Recently, two companies (Yamaha and Beetle) have found ultrasonic scanning to be a viable alternative to fretwiring. Oddly enough, this latest technological breakthrough for guitarists isn't new technology at all. As a matter of fact, SONAR (SOund, NAvigation and Ranging) dates back to World War II. The system works by having an ultrasonic sound transmitted along the strings, and then determining the location of the fingered fret (or nut) by analysing the reflected wave. The result is very fast and accurate tracking.
Yamaha's new G10 MIDI Guitar System takes advantage of this technology and adds extra sensors for determining velocity and string bend information. The result of the combination is that the overall response is very good - in fact, the G10 is without a doubt one of the most comprehensive and versatile MIDI guitar controllers money can currently buy. Its price tag clearly places it out of the budget end of the market, and the sonar tracker requires a design that makes no sound of its own, so the guitar-purists are sure to be unhappy. But a high retail price and the lack of sound generating circuitry certainly hasn't stopped a ton of keyboard players from shelling out loadsamoney for a KX88 and other dedicated keyboard controllers.
DESIGNED IN THE sleek, modern style begun by the folks at Steinberg, the G10 is a dedicated MIDI controller that uses a single set of 0.016 gauge (G-string size) strings. The strings have a very low, fast action - which I have to admit felt a little strange to me at first - but after a few hours, I began to feel reasonably comfortable with them.
The instrument weighs in at a mere five pounds eight ounces, so it isn't a burden to carry on the shoulders for long periods of time. The body is contoured to fit snugly against your body and cut in such a way that the front of the instrument is at a slight angle facing up at you so the fretboard and a three-digit performance number LCD are clearly visible.
A sensor cover at the bridge forces your right hand up and away from the strings - a bit too far for my tastes - so I preferred playing the G10 with the cover removed. Yamaha must have anticipated this because they have cleverly placed a handrest/damper beneath the sensor cover that provides protection for the three sensors and also somewhat dampens the acoustic sound of the strings (a welcome addition since the instrument was previewed in August). The headstock also has dampers under its cover, which can be slid off to allow access to the headstock string-locks.
The handrest makes it possible to rest your hand near the bridge of the G10. From this position, the MIDI volume and programmable controller wheels located along the lower edge of the guitar's body are well within reach, but I found I had to move my hand forward a bit to reach the two program select buttons. One of these increments the patch selected by a value of one, the other decrements by a value of one - sorry, there's no random access from here. The whammy bar is of the threaded type and is located in a very convenient position; it can even be played in tandem with the volume and controller wheels. It may take a bit of getting used to for some guitarists, though, as it doesn't loosen the strings but instead functions as an assignable control wheel.
The Overall Sensitivity Control knob and six tension-adjusters are on the tailpiece, while a breath controller input is located along the top edge of the body. The output connector for the multi-pin seven meter (23 foot) cable that connects the G10 to the G10C (see below) is located on the back of the body.
The neck has a Gibson feel to it, sporting 24 wide oval frets of which only 23 are functional. Yamaha explain that the 24th fret is a reference point for the ultrasonic pickup. The frets are nicely finished along the edge of the neck; however, the tops of the frets on the model I tried were not highly polished. This resulted in an irritating rubbing sound while performing string bends. The narrow body allows easy access to the entire neck with no interference from the heel block. The G10 does not have a leg rest, so plan on wearing a strap at all times.
Minor criticisms aside, I found the G10 to be very accommodating from a playing standpoint. I just wish Yamaha had found a more effective way of damping - you can still hear the pitch of the strings when you play (though it's reputedly much better than on the original prototypes). As the strings are all tuned to G, you can get some distracting, discordant sounds from them while playing chords. In fact, I found myself either wearing headphones or playing at very high volumes to overcome this problem.
THE BRAINS OF the G10 system are housed in a 2U-high rackmounting box aptly named the G10C (Guitar MIDI Converter). All programming is done from the front panel of the G10C, with the results of your labours reflected in a 2X40-character, backlit LCD. Just to the left of the display is a large three-digit LED that indicates the currently selected performance memory. A generous selection of buttons and knobs have been provided for programming the G10C, as well as a nifty pull-out guide sheet that serves as a reference to the available edit and utility functions (similar to that found on the TX81Z, TX802 and TX16W). The five modes of operation which can be called up with these buttons are Chain, Play, Edit, Utility and Store. When a mode is selected, a red LED in that button lights up so you can see which mode you are in at a glance.
To the right of the display panel are six gain control knobs for individually adjusting the gain of the G10's strings. The G10 input connector and cartridge slot are also located on the front panel. On the rear panel are the MIDI In, Out and Thru ports as well as a pair of patch selection jacks, an assignable footswitch jack and an assignable footpedal jack.
"Playability: The low action felt a little strange at first - but after a few hours I began to feel at home with it."
PERFORMANCE MEMORIES STORE all the parameters needed to optimise the G10 system to your style of playing as well as the parameters needed to translate your performance into something your synthesisers and samplers can understand. Synths or samplers that can operate in Mono Mode (MIDI Mode 4), and preferably ones that are multitimbral, are best suited for use with guitar controllers. If you think of a guitar controller as being six separate monophonic controllers, then you can see how important it is to have control over each string. Accordingly, each performance memory can store a program number, MIDI channel, volume, open tuning, velocity curve and mute setting individually per string. The memorised global parameters are Trigger Mode (normal or left hand - for hammering on), Capotasto (an electronic capo), legato, sensitivity offset, controller assignments and ranges (bend range and so on) and a performance name.
If you are using more than one synthesiser or one that is multitimbral, the program number parameter allows you to specify a different instrument for each string. With the MIDI channel parameter, it's possible to transmit data for all strings on a single channel or any combination of channels (up to six). The Volume parameter determines the MIDI volume for each string. The Open Tuning parameter allows you to transpose each string individually, while the Capotasto parameter can be used to transpose all of the strings up to a maximum of 23 frets. The Velocity Curve and Mute parameters allow you to optimise the output of each string to the voice it is controlling.
Sixty-four performance memories can be stored internally, 64 more on a RAM4 cartridge. A performance memory can be selected from the G10 with the two selector buttons, from the G10C front panel using the data entry buttons, or with a pair of footswitches connected to the rear panel. The G10C is capable of receiving and responding to MIDI program change and control change messages, so a Yamaha MFC1 MIDI foot controller or another MIDI instrument could be used to randomly select performance memory locations. Received MIDI control change data is merged with the G10C's internally generated data and transmitted via the MIDI Out port. The G10C can be set to receive on any MIDI channel or can operate in the Omni mode.
Yamaha recommend using a TX81Z or TX802 with the G10 system, so it's not surprising that they include within the memory of the G10C a set of patches and performance parameters for the TX modules. Utility Mode is used for memory management and for other housekeeping functions, such as transferring patch and performance data to the TX modules or RAM cartridges, setting each string's sensitivity and most notably, velocity curve and bend curve edit. These allow you to fine-tune the response of the G10 to your picking and bending technique. There are eight velocity curves available - four preset, four user-programmable - so the G10C can be set up to accommodate several different playing styles (flatpicking, fingerpicking and so on).
Edit Mode is used to create or modify performance memories which can then be stored internally or on a cartridge. The Chain and Play modes are used when playing the G10. In the Play mode you can select a performance memory group and any of the performance memories it contains. Chain mode allows you to set up four specific sequences of performance memory locations, each having a maximum of 20 steps.
I (OBLIGINGLY) USED a TX81Z FM Tone Generator with the G10 system and although the combination worked very well together, I wasn't able to discover the true nature of the beast until I used it with certain other instruments. My main keyboard in the studio is a DX7, and although it doesn't operate in Mono mode, I found that it responded very well to the G10, as did a Roland Alpha Juno 1. I was able to create a velocity curve in the G10C that came close to that of the DX7's keyboard, but because the G10 has a wider velocity range, I got more dynamic range out of the DX and Juno voices. My Oberheim Matrix 6R does operate in Mono mode, and it also proved to be a good choice of partner for the G10.
The G10 system has no problem handling most of the duties of a master controller in the studio, though I found that I didn't like using it for programming drums. The tracking is excellent, but a very clean playing technique is essential. The G10 responds so quickly to everything that you do that it leaves very little room for error. While using it to enter data into a sequencer, for example, I noticed a lot of double notes or ghost notes appearing (which only presented an audible problem with voices that have a very sharp attack). If I played two notes on the same string in a legato fashion, the G10 would interpret my finger placement for the second note as a hammer-on and the plucked note as another identical note a few milliseconds later. A talk with Yamaha confirmed my suspicions that these are a result of the G10's fast response, and any attempt on their part to eliminate this would compromise its tracking performance.
I also noticed that a lot of string-bend data is transmitted from the slight up/down movement of the strings that occurs during normal playing. Setting the string-bend sensitivity to zero eliminates this; however, it also prevents you from doing string bends, period. Oh well...
The manual, which is clearly and concisely written, includes a quick-start section to get you up and running with the G10 system. It also includes four G10/G10C system examples, a number of useful charts and illustrations, a section on MIDI and a general maintenance section. However, it doesn't address the performance aspects of the system nearly enough. I found that the Performance Tips and Suggestions addendum was the most valuable in terms of getting the best performance out of the system. Within the addendum is something I think bears repeating. To quote Yamaha: "MIDI controllers in general are misunderstood. These instruments are not meant to replace the instruments of origin. Instead they are designed as new tools for the musician to work with, and require learning new techniques and concepts. When used properly, they will greatly extend any musician's musical horizons".
THE G10 SYSTEM may not be the ultimate MIDI guitar controller, but it certainly is a step in the right direction. It's also the best one I've used so far (and I've tried quite a few so far, thank you). It tracks very well; it plays well; it feels good and it's relatively easy to work with.
Overall, I think the advantages that the G10 has to offer far outweigh any minor problems it has. The system is a real joy to work with, affording a range of expression beyond that of any keyboard controller I've used to date. It's certainly a welcome addition to the MIDI studio, and I'm sure the G10 would be a monster to use in a live performance situation. Now, if I could only afford one...
Price £1579 for G10 and G10C
More from Yamaha Kemble Music (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Aaron Hallas
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: