Shadow MIDI Guitar system
It's finally here — the Shadow GTM6 Guitar to MIDI System. Jerry Uwins gets wired.
Guitarists tend, by nature of their craft maybe, to be a pretty conservative and techno-shy lot. Witness many supposed innovations — constructional, electronic and cosmetic — over recent years which have not enjoyed mass appeal, due, one could argue, to a realisation (made all the more vivid when it involved parting with large piles of cash for the privilege!) that one's basic competence and means of expression relies on two hands doing the right things with a set of strings mounted on a structure of (usually) wood. There has as yet been no mega-selling guitar which wasn't visibly derived from a Strat, Les Paul or 335-type concept. Acoustics don't change much either, do they?
Now that guitarists have, courtesy of ever-advancing technology, the potential to access the wonderful world of sound synthesis, any related discussion usually comes to the conclusion that it's fine, as long as (a) it's a magic box I can plug straight into; (b) I can still use my favourite guitars without seeing large wodges of precious mahogany routed out to accept onboard electronics; (c) I don't have to throw my playing technique out of the window and completely relearn; (d) it doesn't hurt deep in the purse; and (e) it works without giving me brain damage. The Shadow Guitar to MIDI System was launched, midst no little excitement, at the Frankfurt Fair earlier this year, and is just beginning to be seen in UK music stores. What exactly does it do, and to what extent does it fulfil my supposed criteria for success?
The system is packaged as a 19" rack-mount unit with foot controller, working in conjunction with a choice of special pickup assemblies — a complete bridge/locking tremolo for Strat-type guitars, a replacement bridge unit for standard electrics, and the one I received for review; a classic/acoustic system. In all cases disturbance to the guitar is kept to a minimum, and wiring in is said to be a job quickly tackled by someone who knows what they're doing. Depending on which version is relevant, the Shadow will set you back somewhere between £992 for the acoustic/classic to £1039 for the locking trem model.
Evidence of the pickup system fitted to the Suzuki jumbo supplied was minimal — the ends of the contact strip just visible at either end, under the individual plastic saddle pieces; a little box of tricks mounted inside the guitar body; a jack socket on the rim near the strap pin; and, because the system also incorporates a ceramic pickup, a volume control by the heel to mix the amplified acoustic sound with the synthesised voice. Used — via the control unit — merely as an electro-acoustic, the Shadow's pickup is very good. Even driving a couple of normal guitar combos, usually a no-no for a good electro-acoustic (in this case a Lab Series L7 and a Yamaha G100-115 II), it delivered a balanced, even response, retained the guitar's inherent tonal qualities, and responded well to Eq'ing.
Routing to the control unit is definitely a guitarists' plus-point. No multiconnectors here to clutter things up, just a simple stereo lead supplied as part of the package. One side carries the guitar sound, the other all the signal information required to trigger whichever synth or synths (the Shadow can accommodate up to 16 different units) are linked up. Now, because of factors associated with converting pitch to voltage, much breath has been expended about problems with delay, particularly in the lower registers (where the converter has to identify one complete cycle of the note before figuring out what pitch it is), and accuracy of the pitch itself with all those harmonics swanning about. Suffice it to say that with the Shadow I found the problem averted.
To the control unit itself. Round the back are two guitar outputs — electric and acoustic — and two MIDI outs depending on how many synths you're controlling. Me, I only used one — a Roland Alpha Juno 1 — so it was a doddle. For those with keyboards to spare, the system diagrams in the adequate but not too well translated (German to English) owner's booklet make set-up seemingly quite straightforward. Front-wise, there are inputs for your guitar and foot controller, a detachable control panel with a concise array of buttons, lights and LED display, and the all-important knobs for setting string sensitivity and dynamics. It is indeed detachable for remote use, but when I did thus, all the lights went out (Twit! — Ed.). It needs a lead to keep in touch with the rack module. Enquiring of its whereabouts, I was told by Barnes & Mullins, the UK distributor, that a special 25-core connecting cable is imminently available as an optional extra, costing about £50.
After switching on (and here you have the option of a 'cold start' which clears any unwanted memory and parameter information, and offers a factory-set piece of music from the built-in sequencer to confirm that everything's wired up O.K.) it's an easy few, but important, steps to whanging away. Amongst the buttons — the main two switching between 'Play' and 'Program' functions — is the ability to tune your guitar to the Shadow, the LED indicating numerically how much above or below A440 you are. It gives a leeway of ± 1 semitone beyond which horizontal bars show whether you're above or below those limits. This facility can also be used as a guitar tuner, displaying the exact tuning of each string. I used the Suzuki capoed most of the time, but once the tuning routines are completed that's not a problem. I made the error of getting stuck in before adjusting the string sensitivities and dynamics. Quel mistake! Gremlin sounds or none at all, random triggering seemingly from nowhere. What could have been a very short, turbulent relationship was happily reconciled by doing properly what I'd failed to do before. When sensitivity for each string was adjusted — albeit a slight compromise between fingerpicking and plectrum strength — and then finely tuned for touch sensitivity (assuming your synth accepts velocity information) via the dynamic control, the difference was profound. Sure, you have to watch your fingering and keep it precise (no bad discipline anyway), specially when triggering voices with a lot of percussive attack, e.g. demented Hammond, harpsichord, clav. etc., but this is the point where the Shadow starts showing its potential.
End results will, of course, depend on what sound sources you're using, but here's a glimpse of what the system itself can do. There are three types of 'bending' to hand, all of which can be memorised for each preset, and are denoted (or not) by dots on the LED. 'Trigger' steps up or down in semitone shifts, with a new note starting each step. Used conventionally, this would apply to piano-type sounds. 'Quantise' is similar, but with only the initial attack, the semitones sounding as part of the decay. 'Bend' is exactly that, the pitch changing smoothly in line with the string bend. When using 'Quantise' and 'Bend', one needs to make sure that pitch bend on the synth (depending on make) is set up to 8 semitones; otherwise the results are unpredictable, particularly when glissing up the frets.
If using only one synth there's the usual hiccup of all plucked strings pitch bending at the same time and to the same extent as the one being bent. Via the Shadow's MIDI assignments there's no reason why six synthesisers can't be hooked up, each assigned to an individual string. Rather extravagant, yes? Well, in practice, and in the pursuit of 'realism', three would suffice; e.g. 1 = 1st, 2 = 2nd, 3 = 3rd-6th.
The unit's transpose facilities are impressive, and add greatly to its appeal. Any of the strings, individually or collectively, can be transposed in semitone or octave steps, up and down by 3 octaves! So, aside from a multiplicity of complex intervals and tunings, or simply shifting a voice to the required register, there are the creative possibilities of taking sounds completely outside their normal context — so high they're almost out of earshot, so low the speaker's hardly moving. The one drawback is that you can't assign a different transpose setting to each preset, which is a shame.
The Foot-Controller provides four basic functions via three pedals. Rec-Play/On-Off allows the user to turn the synthesiser on and off and set up recording and loop-play of the sequencer. Hold, using one keyboard, permits a note or chord to be sustained while you twang about over the top of it, or, in a multi format, can be assigned to a pre-programmed MIDI channel allowing one sound to be sustained by the Hold while you solo over it with another. Chain enables stepping through a pre-programmed selection of sounds, memorising the bend modes previously mentioned. In a more complex set-up it can be used to chain through presets for Hold and Sequencer.
The sequencer, with its 100-note memory and approx. 90 seconds recording time, is easy enough to use, but there do seem to be a couple of operational drawbacks. First, it's definitely real-time, so your sequence has to be absolutely spot-on. Looping the sequence timingwise at the end of the last recorded bar takes a little practice with the Rec-Play pedal, but soon becomes pretty much trouble-free. But herein lies the other problem. When playing live, having already recorded and stored a sequence, you can't use the foot-controller to start or stop it — this has to be done with the sequencer button on the control panel. If you do press Rec-Play accidentally whilst it's playing, the sequence is erased. The upcoming availability of the cable for remote control is thus all the more important, but it does tie up a hand momentarily to prod the button.
The Shadow is not a substitute for a keyboard player — it's not intended to be. Approaching alternative voicings from the guitar is a whole different ball-game, and whilst I knocked out a passable Green Onions on the aforementioned demented Hammond and got fairly close to the truth with baroque-style chord sequences, the Shadow's main role in life seems to be to add texture and orchestration. This it does well, offering the guitarist a means to broaden his contribution in a band context, add another dimension to solo performance and, at least as important, revitalise his or her musical ideas. It's also pretty easy to live with (after those vital hours of familiarisation) and, as indicated, I didn't find the slight delay a practical problem; certainly not with judicious mixing of guitar and synth. Anyway, the user must also realise that sounds with different degrees of attack have to be treated accordingly — you can't go thrashing around at 100mph with a legato violin, for instance. If one's specially anxious on a fast run, say with bass, you can transpose the unit down a couple of octaves and play off the treble strings to minimise the delay.
Talking of bass, the GTM6 will soon have a bass-mate: the BTM6. Available early Autumn in the UK, the control unit will, like the GTM6, retail at £899. Details of pickup types are yet to be announced.
Success for the Shadow measured by sales may depend on the price tag. This isn't to say the system is not good value for money; rather price is a psychological hurdle which keyboard players overcame long ago, but which guitarists still have to cope with. There are many players who haven't exceeded £1,000 on their entire set-up, let alone spending as much again for the Shadow, not to mention the requirement for at least one MIDI synthesiser. Having said that, there are certainly plenty of guitarists — pros and semi-pros in regularly working bands — for whom the Shadow ought to be a distinct asset, and to whom the initial outlay shouldn't be a fighting point. At the point of sale, stockists must ensure that demo systems are set up properly, Prospective customers' initial impressions are crucial, and avoiding my early experience can only pay dividends. As a kind of 'first generation' in magic-box guitar/MIDI technology, the Shadow deserves success. And, as with all things high-tech these days, one doesn't have to be much of a soothsayer to predict the likelihood of a Shadow Mk.II in the not too distant future, probably offering more facilities at half the price. As and when it gets down to those levels (and below), and competitors' activities notwithstanding, that's when the fun will really begin!
More details from Barnes & Mullins Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Jerry Uwins
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