Casio MG MIDI Guitar
Pitch-to-MIDI conversion without the complication of a free-standing conversion unit; Simon Trask finds new freedom in Casio's guitar controller.
For guitarists thinking of making the crossover to the world of synthesis, Casio have a friendly, reasonably priced controller.
OF ALL THE challenges faced by manufacturers of hi-tech instruments, the MIDI guitar is perhaps the toughest. The problem is not only the technological one of how best to translate a guitarist's performance into MIDI data, but a practical one of how to present MIDI to guitarists in an acceptable manner.
For their entry into the MIDI guitar market, Casio have put all the MIDI electronics into a standard solid-body electric guitar and presented MIDI in as straightforward a way as possible. The standard guitar controls are set into the scratchplate, while an adjacent panel contains the MIDI controls: a MIDI volume control knob and three 3-position toggle switches. This has the effect of making the MIDI side of the guitar as simple (and quick) to operate as the regular guitar controls, which can only inspire confidence in any budding MIDI guitarist.
THERE ARE TWO models to choose from: the MG500 and the MG510. These are available in three colours (red, white and black) and come with a tremolo arm fitted as standard. In fact the two models are identical in every way except for the shape of the body. The 510 adopts the familiar "Strat" shape, while the 500's shape can only be described as "futuristic".
Both MGs have a basswood body and maple neck, and the 22-fret fretboard is rosewood. The guitars sport three pickups: two EMG-styled single-coils and a humbucker (double coil). A five-position switch allows you to select each of the three pickups or combinations of single-coil and humbucker. Additionally, a coil tap allows you to switch out one of the humbucker coils. These choices give the guitar quite a wide tonal range. The complement of guitar controls is rounded off by volume and tone knobs.
The necks are slim, smoothly-contoured and comfortable to play on. Casio have used a flat fretboard which is slightly wider than the average electric guitar fretboard - more akin to a classical guitar, in fact, and perhaps best suited to a clean playing style. The action is fast and smooth and, at the same time, manages to avoid fret buzz (unless you employ a particularly hard picking style).
The MG series has an adjustable bolt-on neck, so in true guitarist fashion you can replace it with a neck that better suits your playing style if need be. You can also adjust the neck curvature by turning the adjusting nut on the headstock of the guitar (a large custom wrench is provided for this purpose), and also make adjustments to the machine head torque (helping to prevent detuning), guitar pickup height (for a thinner or a thicker sound), and the bridge height (for fine-tuning the string action). Another, smaller wrench is provided for the latter operation.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the fact that the MIDI electronics are on board the instrument, the MGs don't weigh appreciably more than your average solid-body guitar. What's more, both instruments are well-balanced when strapped on, with comfortably contoured bodies.
The tremolo arm is not one of the strong points of the design, however; in fact, it's rather flimsy, though it does perform its allotted task well. Disappointingly, it's not a locking trem, nor is there a locking nut - neither of which bodes well for strings remaining in tune. A further irritation is that the arm hangs over the MIDI panel when not in use.
"Casio's pitch-to-MIDI approach inevitably means that there is a delay between picking a note and hearing the equivalent pitch on a MIDI sound module."
AS YOU'VE NO doubt realised, Casio have adopted the pitch-to-MIDI approach of deriving MIDI data from their guitars; the requisite MIDI conversion pickup is built into the guitar, located immediately next to the bridge. To adjust the MIDI sensitivity for each string you have to peel off a rubber strip on the rear of the body, where you'll find a small screw for each string. It sounds a bit messy but it's not too much of a pain, as you're unlikely to want to adjust them very often.
The pitch-to-MIDI approach inevitably means there is a delay between picking a note and hearing the equivalent pitch on a MIDI sound module, as the conversion circuitry has to be able to pick up a dearly-defined frequency. On the MGs this seems to be in the region of 25-30 milliseconds, which is pretty much par for the course; though it is a little frustrating when you want a sharp, on-the-ball attack from your MIDI sounds.
And so to the MIDI control panel. As mentioned earlier, this consists of a MIDI volume knob and three toggle switches. Separate volume knobs for the guitar and the MIDI modules gives you plenty of flexibility when it comes to balancing the two, but in addition one of the toggle switches allows you to quickly select guitar, MIDI, or guitar plus MIDI, output.
The middle switch is a three-position octave selector which alters the MIDI pitch output from the guitar, allowing you to quickly switch the range of your MIDI instruments and to reach bass notes which would otherwise be below the guitar's range. One useful application of this could be to play basslines on the upper strings, where there will be less of a delay.
The third toggle switch allows you to select between normal and chromatic playing modes. Normal allows pitch-bends and string glissandos of a semitone or more, while chromatic mode allows pitch-bend within a semitone but retriggers notes whenever their bent or "glissed" pitch reaches an adjacent semitone. In English, this means that if your left-hand playing style involves a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs, you'll need chromatic mode, as normal mode has problems tracking non-picked notes (which it presumably tries to handle as pitch-bend).
Casio have been rather ingenious when it comes to transmitting patch changes. You flick the normal/chromatic switch to a third position, play a note on the guitar, and then flick the switch back again. Hey presto, you have a new sound on your MIDI module. Patch changes 0-95 are possible (16 on each string, from frets 1-16, working across from string 1-6). Not the easiest of methods (you try working out which string and which fret calls up patch 73), but to be fair it's hard to see what else could have been done without resorting to LEDs and numeric keypads.
"When it comes to transmitting patch changes, you flick the normal/chromatic switch, play a note on the guitar, and you have a new sound on your MIDI module."
A further feature which isn't specifically MIDI, but which is invaluable nonetheless, is an electronic tuner in the shape of two triangular LEDs, referenced to an internal clock frequency. Play a string and if both LEDs light up, the tuning of that string is correct; if one or the other lights up then you're sharp or flat. It's extremely accurate, and a real boon if there's other noise going on around you.
For the experienced MIDI user the range of options offered on the MGs might seem rather limited, yet for that vast army of guitarists for whom MIDI is still a four-letter word it might be just the right approach.
But perhaps there are one or two more basic facilities that you feel should be present. Can the MIDI channel be altered, and can the guitar transmit in mono mode (essential if you're pitch-bending on more than one string)? The answer to both these questions is yes, but here we encounter a more dubious aspect of the design. Accomplishing either of these things means peeling off another rubber strip on the rear of the guitar body. This reveals a set of nine DIP switches located on the circuit board which holds all the MIDI electronics and is where life starts to get difficult. DIP switch one is used to switch between poly and mono transmission (the current MIDI channel becomes the basic channel in mono mode, and is allotted to the top E string). It's a clumsy exercise at best, but you can do it. Selecting the MIDI channel is altogether more tricky: switches 2-5 effectively become four binary bits which have to be set to a number from 0-15. And just to make life even more confusing, you need to make the adjustment to channels 1-16. It's enough to give an experienced MIDI user a headache; newcomers to MIDI are more likely to suffer a catatonic fit.
DIP switches six and seven allow you to set a bend range of four, five, seven or twelve semitones, while switches eight and nine allow you to select an A tuning of 440,441, 442 or 443Hz.
I can foresee a temptation to leave the rubber strip off all the time, which may not be a good idea (particularly if you're in the habit of throwing beer all over your guitar). On the other hand, you'll probably not need to change the tuning or pitch-range settings too often, and depending on how you work and what equipment you're working with, you may not need to change the MIDI channel or mode too often either. If you're using the guitar as a MIDI controller in Poly mode in conjunction with a sequencer, it's probably easier to adjust the MIDI channel on the sequencer track (in other words, treat the guitar like a DX7 Mk1). Still, while Casio will no doubt plead economic necessity, I can't help feeling a 16-position knob for MIDI channel selection and a toggle switch for mono/poly mode selection would have made a useful addition to the MIDI panel on the front of the guitar without sacrificing the operational simplicity that Casio deem so important.
By now you will probably be aware that programmability has been sacrificed in the name of simplicity. This means, for instance, that when you're in mono mode there's no way of sending out individual patch changes for each string. In fact, when you select mono mode the MGs send out the same patch number (the current number) on all six MIDI channels. The implications of this depend on the MIDI slave setup you're using. With a single multi-timbral instrument it will obviously depend on whether the patch number calls up a multi-timbral memory via the basic channel or whether the same patch is called up on each channel. If you're using several different instruments, you'll have to ensure that the sounds you want to combine all use the same memory number. Yes, things can still get tricky, despite Casio's best intentions.
"The MG guitars prove that MIDI can become an integral part of a solid-body guitar without disrupting the look, feel or balance of the instrument."
Power for the MIDI electronics is provided by either six AA-size batteries (located behind a plate on the back of the instrument) or by a 9V DC power supply which plugs into the guitar between the jack output and MIDI Out connections. Battery power is essential for live work (unless you're prepared to stand still all the time), and there should be no problem about batteries lasting the course of a live set. But ironically, as guitarists start to make use of radio transmitters in order to free themselves from the ubiquitous audio lead, along comes a new cord for them to contend with: MIDI.
"GOING MIDI" IS hardly a step guitarists will undertake lightly, for financial as much as for musical reasons. And Casio's approach of selling a guitar that happens to have MIDI on it raises its own set of problems. As a guitarist, can you afford Casio's guitar as well as your current guitar, or will you have to sell your favourite axe? If you will, is Casio's guitar capable of taking its place?
Of course, if you can't afford a MIDI sound module to play from your MIDI guitar, you might as well not bother in the first place. Fortunately suitable expanders are getting cheaper all the time, but it's worth remembering that a TX81Z or an MT32 each cost the price of a decent guitar.
Then, of course, you have to think about amplification. Does your amp have enough spare inputs to cope with the extra sound sources, and is it capable of handling the "keyboard" sounds from your MIDI module(s)? If not you'll need to arrange parallel amplification for them.
With all these extra expenses to bear in mind, the last thing you want to think about is buying a new guitar. And yet at present there aren't many cheaper alternatives to Casio's approach.
Casio's MG guitars represent one of the best, and certainly least painful, entries to the world of MIDI. Despite one or two minor complaints, it's good to see that the company hasn't neglected the quality of the guitar itself.
The MGs prove that MIDI can become an integral part of a solid-body guitar without disrupting the look, feel or balance of the instrument. I suspect that ultimately the only way in which MIDI will be sold to guitarists en masse is if regular guitar manufacturers fit the requisite electronics in all their guitars at source, or if a MIDI retrofit kit can be fitted inside any guitar with the same ease that a humbucker pickup or a tremolo arm can be fitted nowadays. Either way, the guitar comes first, MIDI second.
But Casio's user-friendly approach may just have hit the right balance, and should win a lot of converts.
Price £549 including VAT (both models)
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