In the light of the winter's music shows at Anaheim and Frankfurt, is modern technology now becoming available to every musician, and does every musician want to know?
YOU PROBABLY WOULDN'T have noticed if I hadn't pointed it out, but this month, MUSIC TECHNOLOGY is being printed in another part of the country. We've moved our printing operations from Sunderland to Worcestershire, for no better reason than it's cheaper - so you get a magazine that's more likely to stay at the same price for a while, and one that's more likely to be full of glossy colour photographs. Or so the boss says, anyway.
One of the more obvious results of our switch is that this piece of Editorial waffle now comes immediately before the Contents page, not after it. So, unless you read your copy of MT from the back, you won't have seen the preponderance of guitar-like objects illustrated there.
Actually, it's pure coincidence that this month, we're featuring interviews with two musicians (Nik Kershaw and Adrian Belew) who are guitarists first and foremost; talking to the man who designed the Stepp DG1 electronic guitar (Steven Randall); and detailing two more MIDI guitar systems (the Roland GM70 and Beetle Vortex) in our NAMM show report. We didn't intend this to be a "guitar player's special" edition of MT. It just turned out that way.
But why did it? Probably because, as you'll discover if you read our reports from the NAMM and Frankfurt music fairs elsewhere this issue, 1987 could be the year that the forefront of musical technology finally moves away from the keyboard, and towards other forms of musical controller - guitars, drums, wind instruments, voices, you name it.
MIDI was the catalyst that got the "keyboardless controller" movement going in earnest, but even then, only the MIDI triggering systems based around electronic percussion proved as reliable as that ever-present row of black-and-white switches, the keyboard. The pitch-to-MIDI devices necessary to enable, say, guitar and wind players to gain access to new sound technology simply weren't quick enough to do the job - so enthusiasm among musicians waned, for the time being at least.
But now those pitch-to-MIDI systems have been refined to the extent that they are fast enough to be taken seriously by players of traditional acoustic instruments. Roland's GM70 is capable of following a guitar player's fretboard heroics with uncanny accuracy, while the same company's VP70 voice processor includes an excellent pitch-tracking system that lets any wind instrument or human voice control a MIDI sound source.
Then there's Simmons, whose new "Zone Intelligent" drum pads give electronic systems a more "acoustic" response than ever before; and Akai, whose adoption of Nyle Steiner's Electronic Wind and Valve Instruments may inspire whole ranks of woodwind and brass players to take up the flag of new technology.
But do non-keyboard players really want to join the technological revolution? Now that designers have finally made their "user interfaces" reasonably transparent, and now that musicians have to go through a decently short period of acclimatisation when they decide to take the plunge and go for tech, that question should be answered once and for all.
Andras Szalay, designer of the Shadow GTM6 guitar-to-MIDI converter, and now the man behind an ingenious (and secret, so don't tell anyone) new system whose hexaphonic pickup is small enough to fit in to an ordinary humbucker, isn't kidding when he says: "If we can bolt this straight on to the guitarist's existing instrument, set it up instantly, let him play it in the shop within 10 minutes, and he still isn't interested, then we might as well give up". Quite so.
But even if non-keyboard players don't accept the latest wave of new technology, there's no escaping the fact that it will still manifest itself in a band's setup somehow: in the construction of microphones, in the design of effects units, or in the protection of amplification systems.
On the last point, Celestion made a major advance at Frankfurt when they unveiled their SR series of sound reinforcement equipment. Apart from its extremely compact size and high power handling capacity, what sets the SR system apart is the "brain" that controls it, the SRC1. This is an incredibly clever unit which, among other things, monitors the output of the entire system at all times, and takes immediate evasive action if the low-frequency power handling is going to be exceeded by a demanding signal.
The system sounded incredibly clear during a heavy rock 'n' roll session on Celestion's stand, but the important thing, of course, is that the SRC1 did its job without the musicians even realising what was going on.
Now that's what I call a transparent interface.
Editorial by Dan Goldstein
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