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Ibanez IMG2010 and MC1 Product Review

Ibanez MC1 with IMG2010
The Ibanez MC1 with IMG2010 MIDI Guitar
By Don Morris, as told to Tom Mulhem

The Ibanez MC1 MIDI Electronic Guitar Controller and IMG2010 MIDI Guitar come as a set ($1,699.00, with case) and are designed to place the guitar into the role of a keyboard in controlling synthesizers. Like other MIDI guitar controllers, the system contains no sound-generating circuitry of its own, and therefore must be connected to a synthesizer-- with or without keyboard. The bulk of circuitry in the MC1 is devoted to translating the sounds produced on the IMG2010 into MIDI commands. The guitar itself has a hard rock maple neck with glass fiber reinforcement, an adjustable truss rod, and an ebony fingerboard. The body is made of solid maple. It has an electronic multiple-use control arm that looks similar to a standard tremolo, although it does not physically affect the tuning of the strings. In addition to the hexaphonic synth pickup, the IMG2010 has a pair of humbuckers. Currently, only the IMG2010 guitar is offered with this system. (The instrument is a little body-heavy, which is accentuated when you play it in a seated position; standing up and wearing it on a strap makes this offset less acute.) It comes in black and silver finishes.

The MC1 has two MIDI outputs for driving two synthesizers (more can be driven if the synths have MIDI Thru ports, or if you use MIDI splitter boxes). It also has effects-send and -return jacks for patching effects into the guitar's signal path (the synthesizer is unaffected by this). A pair of synthesizer input jacks lets you route your synth's audio signals into the MC1, where the are mixed (together with the guitar, if desired), and their combined volume is controlled by the master volume on the guitar.

Two output jacks, labelled Guitar Out and Mix Out allow for two modes of operation. First, if only the mix output is employed, the signal going to the amp from that jack contains a combination of synthesized and straight guitar sounds. Second, if a cord is inserted into the guitar output, only the straight guitar sound comes out of it, while the mix output becomes a synthesizer-only output. There's also a 3-position output level switch for matching the MC1's level to an amp, recorder, etc.

Optional footswitches control hold and program-selection functions. A "hold" footswitch allows you, for instance, to strike a low note and sustain it for as long as your foot depresses the pedal. This lets you lay down a pedal tone to solo over, or sustain a note longer than the string vibrates. Remote program selection can also be achieved using the Ibanez IFC60 Intelligent Foot Controller ($195.00) which has a three-numeral LED display and six footswitches. One is for memory-bank select (1-12) and the other is for five select patch numbers (0-9). Note: the IFC60 is also designed for use with Ibanez' DUE400 Digital Multi-Effects and EPP400 Effects Patching Programmer.

In the following piece, Ibanez technical representative Don Morris explains how to get yourself going on the MC1 system.

Stateside Ibanez facilities check the guitars for intonation, proper hex pickup height, sensitivity, and other factors that affect performance. To adjust the intonation of the strings, use an allen wrench to loosen to small set screws on the side of the bridge that secure all of the saddles. Then move the saddles to the proper location and retorque the screws. Don't overlook proper intonation; correct setup of the guitar is critical for optimum performance. If you're not sure how to adjust it, have your repairman do it.

Putting on new strings is easy. You drop the ball end of the string into the tuning machine, which is located at the bridge, pass it under the rollers and over the saddle, and then thread it into the unit at the headstock which has six hex bolts. Tighten the hex bolts with an allen wrench and cut off any string that protrudes through the end of the unit. Then tune to pitch.

The guitar's master volume control governs the overall output of the guitar and the synth, depending on your mix. Then there's the sensitivity control (especially useful when switching picking styles) followed by the velocity knob. If the synthesizer responds to velocity commands via MIDI, you can use your picking variations to call on the synth to create louder or softer sounds. The forth knob is the parameter knob, which lets the user control any parameter assigned to it through the MC1 control unit. In the next row is a standard 3-way pickup selector, followed by a three-way mode selector switch for synth only, guitar and synth, and guitar only. Next is a master tone control for the guitar's pickups. In the mode selector's middle position, the final knob, Guitar/Synth balance, is active.

A guitar controller must be properly tuned. Here's how to do it with the Ibanez. Depress the Tune key: a flashing 440 will appear in the program display. If you wish to change the pitch standard (to match other instruments, vocal parts, etc.), you can depress the Increment key, and the number increases by one unit per step. Its range is A 440 to A 445. While you tune, an upside down "U" appears in the display. If the string is out of tune with the reference pitch, the upside down "U" is broken, and only one of its lower "legs" glows. If it's the left leg, it's flat; if it's the right leg, it's sharp. When a complete inverted "U" shows up, the string is in tune. Repeat this procedure with all the strings. When you're done, hit Enter.

Ibanez MC1 with IMG2010
The Ibanez MC1 (frontview)

The switch labelled Sens.A is used in setting the controller's sensitivity to each string. This tailors each string's response to your own picking, and should be done every time you change the strings or adjust their action. Activate Sens.A and play the high E string, and the display acts as a bar graph; the top bar goes all the way over and stays there while the bottom one recedes as the note decays. The top one is like a peak-reading meter. If it slams all the way to the right and goes wham, wham, wham, then the sensitivity for that string is too high. Use a small screwdriver to adjust the sensitivity trim pots inside the back of the guitar (a rubber plug covers the opening to these; remove it for access to all six trimmers). If the top line of the display only goes part way across, then increase the sensitivity. You want the top bar to get to the right and stay there, and have the bottom bar reach the same point and fade back in about a second. It's pretty easy to do.

There is also an overall sensitivity control on the face of the guitar that lets you increase or decrease sensitivity. This is useful if you go, say, from fingerpicking to flat picking and other techniques. Stanley Jordan, of course, has to have his sensitivity cranked a bit more than usual to accommodate his two-handed tapping. The sensitivity comes out from the factory set for average picking, but we do suggest that you check this out when you first fire up the guitar.

There are a number of procedures to follow when you set up a system to control a synthesizer. First, see which MIDI channel you have your strings assigned to. Each can be assigned to a different MIDI channel. You hit the switch labelled MIDI, and the display shows you which MIDI channel the first string is on. You advance through the strings by hitting the Display key. If you are using one synthesizer, it's best to have them all on one channel, usually Channel 1. Even though it's transmitted on one channel, it is polyphonic. Any string can be assigned to any of the 16 MIDI channels. What's nice about this feature is that you can have, say, your three highest strings assigned to one synthesizer and the other three to another. Or you can have every other string go to an alternate synth. It's easy to set up, and once set, it remains in memory for use with all 128 presets on the MC1. If you don't select MIDI channels for the individual strings, they default to Channel 1.

The MC1 lets you call up presets in the unit itself, plus presets in the synthesizer. On the left LED display is a number that corresponds to the internal preset; on the right is the MIDI preset selection number. So in other words, when I call up preset 000, I'll get the patch that corresponds with 000. In the case of the Yamaha DX7, its patch numbering starts at 01, so 000 on the Guitar Controller corresponds to 01. As you advance the preset selector on the MC1 using the up or down arrows, your synthesizer's preset numbers also change, according to how you've selected them.

String Select (abbreviated Str.S) lets you choose which strings trigger the synth. For instance, you can have just the lowest three strings triggering the synthesizer and all six coming through as a straight guitar sound. This information can be stored in memory and can vary from patch to patch. So, for example, if you have program 1 set for bass synth on the lower two strings only, you can program that in; then in program 2, you can have lead synth on the upper two strings, etc.

The button labelled Chroma lets you put the unit's string-bend sensing in either chromatic or non-chromatic mode. Chromatic mode translates bends into discrete half-steps, while non-chromatic mode gives smooth bends between notes. The chromatic/non-chromatic selection may be set for each patch.

There are several ways the MC1 operates while in non-chromatic mode. When you're transmitting on one MIDI channel, you can bend strings monophonically-- that is, the MC1 follows the bend if you are playing one note. When more than one note is being played at a time, the MC1 tracks the bend chromatically (as if you had selected the chromatic mode). This calls for a bit of heads-up playing, but quite often the bend string is the only one played at that time.

Ibanez MC1 with IMG2010
The Ibanez MC1 (frontview)

If you want to play more than one string at a time while string bending, you have to use a multi-voiced synth that can receive on at least six MIDI channels (one for each string). We've tried this on a Kurzweil, and it works very well.

The Program switch (Prog) is what you press to start changing various parameters. Say, if I want to copy one patch into another location in memory, I can. This is useful for arranging patches in a specific order for an onstage set. You can also assign which of your synth's patches you want to call up when you select a patch on the MC1. This is set by using the Assign switch.

There are some other underlying functions for some of the keys, as indicated by the print below them. For example, press Enter and Assign at the same time and you are in Control Change mode. This lets you assign a control function to the knob on the guitar labelled Parameter. Therefore, you can have it govern any particular function on your synthesizer that can be put under MIDI control, such as the amount of modulation. In fact, if you don't select a function for it, it defaults to modulation. You can make it pitch-bend, arpeggiate, or do other things. To set these parameters, the MC1 uses the synth's MIDI control numbers, 00 to 31.

With the Arm switch, you can assign another control function to the control arm (the whammy bar). It acts like another control, such as a pitch wheel. Its function defaults to pitch bend, but like the parameter knob, it can be reassigned to any of the functions (00-31).

The control arm does not physically bend the strings. So, if you're blending your actual guitar sound with the synth and you depress the bar, the synth sound will dive, but the guitar will remain the same. This approach was used instead of an actual vibrato arm for a couple of reasons: Tuning is so hard to maintain with a standard whammy bar system, and keeping a constant string height over the hexaphonic string pickup is crucial for optimal note tracking.

The next switch is the Copy function, which lets you copy one program into another location, up to 128 internal patch numbers. We briefly discussed this function earlier.

The last two functions (Data and Range) affect string-bending. First look at the bend range. Bend the string and determine the maximum amount you want to change the pitch. In many cases, I don't bend more than three half-steps. The manual says to add one half-step to your expected range, just to provide a little extra room. So, I set the bend range to four-half steps. You can set the bend range to a maximum of one octave up (12 semitones).

Because this is a MIDI system, the string-bending function uses the same MIDI control function as the pitch-bend wheel. When we set the bend range for four half-steps, the control arm is also set for four half-steps (if the control arm is programmed to control pitch-bending, rather than other functions). We can set the desired bend range on the MC1, and set a larger range on the synth for the control arm action. There is, however, a small trade-off. This is explained in the manual. Basically, here's what it does: In MIDI code, we can describe a bend up and a bend down. There are 128 numbers to do that. Bending up takes 64, and bending down take 64. The MC1 is designed only to transmit string-bends above the pitch of the fretted note (note that the arm can bend up and bend down, though). Now, in the case of our bending up, we use only 64 finite MIDI pitch increments to define our range. So, if you set the range to 12 half-steps, you're going to hear finite steps when you bend up three or four half-steps. You're hearing sixty-fourths of an octave, which, when you listen closely, sounds like pitch plateauing. However, if you set your synth's bend range to match the MC1's, (e.g. four semitones), then you're dividing a much smaller range by 64 and therefore you get a smoother-sounding bend. So that's the advantage of setting your synth's and the MC1's range to a smaller interval. The smaller bend range also makes the control arm action more smooth, more guitar-like.

After you've set the bend range on the MC1 and the synth, you have to enter the bend data into the MC1. This calibrates the MC1's bend commands to the actual amount of bend on the synth. The command is "tuned" at each semitone within the bend range, using a tuning range from 000 to 999. These are not MIDI pitches, but rather the value range that the MC1 uses. The owner's manual provides a listing of bend data for many current synths, so all you have to do is enter the listings into the MC1. This may sound complicated, but it's not. And after you press the Enter key, the bend data stays in memory.

After you're up and running, you should familiarize yourself with the key transpose function. This lets you transpose what you're playing by as much as an octave up or down. Tap the Key.T switch and the LED will show 00. You can either use the up and down arrow keys or the number keys to set the amount of the transposition. For example, if you want to raise your pitch by an octave, simply hit Key.T followed by 1 and 2. It will display 12 in the LED display and your synth will sound and octave lower. To lock in your change, simply press enter. Each MC1 program memorizes its own transposition value.

Ibanez MC1 with IMG2010
The Ibanez IFC60 Intelligent Foot Controller