Pat Metheny On The Synclavier Digital Guitar
From the New England Digital Synclavier Manual (with Digital Guitar Option) February, 1984
In the following pages, Pat Metheny, guitarist, composer and long-time Synclavier (R) II system owner, talks about his initial experiences with the Synclavier Digital Guitar Option. He offers some thoughts about the special nature of this guitar and how to get started playing it. Throughout the manual, there are many other suggestions from Pat on specific areas, such as special button and control knob uses.
The Synclavier Digital Guitar Option is an unbelievable breakthrough for guitar players. Although there have been several other attempts at guitar synthesis, most them have failed in one way or another. The only system that's been really usable has been the Roland GR system. The people at New England Digital have taken a very logical step and have built upon the superior instrument which the Roland guitar happens to be. Using that instrument as a standard, they have devised a system where a guitar player with a Roland GR guitar can patch into the Synclavier itself, which is definitely the most advanced synthesizer that any company has yet to manufacture.
The Synclavier (R) II Digital Guitar Option is the first really polyphonic guitar synthesizer. The Roland system is polyphonic in the sense that you can play chords, but with the Synclavier Guitar Option, you can actually play different sounds on different strings. You can play up to six different sounds, a different sound on each string.
You can play any kind of a sound with this system. The sound doesn't have to follow the volume envelope that the guitar string is putting out. This is something really unheard of in all the other attempts at guitar synthesis. Up till now, when a guitar player took his hand off the neck, the note would stop (unless it was an open note). With the Synclavier system, it's a whole new ball game. You can put your finger on a string and play a note, then take your finger off and the note'll still be ringing. In other words, you can play a low note and start a sound ringing, and then go up high and play another note, or a chord, on top of the first note and have all the sounds ringing together.
I think it's important to say that this instrument is not anything you're going to be able to just pick up and play. Of course, you'll be able to do that. But, speaking personally, I've had a Synclavier now for two years and still, every time I sit down at it, it's a learning experience.-- It's unlimited, the way any kind of complete musical instrument is unlimited, in the sense that it's up to your imagination what you get out Of it. With the Digital Guitar Option, this is even more true, because the whole way you play the guitar is undoubtedly going to change.
Along these lines, I'd like to stress that you should start thinking like the timbre you're playing, rather than just playing the guitar. This is a concept that may take a while, because there's a tendency to just play your hip little guitar licks with a violin sound or a vibes sound. And this might be kind of fun, but to somebody who is a little bit jaded it's probably going to sound pretty dumb.
If you're going to play with a vibes sound, you better be thinking like a vibes player. Listen to some vibes and try to get into your mind what vibes players do when they play. For instance, if you play a lot of chromatic notes with a vibes sound (or any sound that's got a really long decay and sustain time), it's just going to turn into mush. All those chromatic notes are just going to run together. Vibes players have to deal with that same situation. They have to think in fifths, or-other large intervals. Electric piano players have to deal with the same problem. That is, if you get below middle C and play anything smaller than a fifth, or an octave, it's just going to just sound like mud down there.
The guitar itself is in a very low register relative to the normal chording range of a piano or vibes. You have to think about register problems and all that. Because now it's a matter of a touch of a button to play up an octave or down an octave or to have part of your sound be up an octave or down an octave. (For a description of these functions, see "Overall Tuning" on page 92 and "Tuning" on page 80 of the ynclavier (R) II User Guide.)
On the other hand, sounds that are very staccato, like a marimba sound, will decay faster than a guitar normally would, so you want to get your finger off as quickly as possible to simulate that style of playing. So, practice getting your fingers off quick. The guitar system is incredibly versatile. New England Digital has taken lots of pains to come up with a system in which the way you get a timbre to respond to your own playing is variable to a fine degree. Each player will make it quite a different instrument depending upon his or her touch and on a series of button and knob decisions.
However, in general, this instrument favors people who play with a light touch and clean phrasing. This is a break from the tradition in guitar synthesis. I play with quite a light touch, and I'm finding that the lighter I play with the sensitivity up to its max (the DYNAMIC RANGE knob on the guitar), the better tracking results I get.
You have to listen real closely to what you're playing, because you're giving instructions to a computer and you want the instructions to be right. Think about it. If you play with a light touch, what the computer's going to hear through that hex pickup down there is mostly note. If you play with a heavy touch, there's a kind of clunk that happens when you pick. The computer has to digest that clunk and try and make sense out of it.
It's a good idea to practice with your Synclavier system off and your amp off and really listen to the sound you're making. If you make a lot of noise with your left hand or your right hand, the computer is going to hear that noise and is going to try and play that too. You want to reduce the noise as much as you can. There ar2 things you can do with the TRIGGER THRESHOLD switch and the TRANSIENT FILTER button to eliminate the noise. But still, the purer the sound that you make with the instrument, the more likely you are to give the right information to the computer, which can then translate your musical thought into the same kind of musical thought through the Synclavier.
You have to be very, very precise in your left hand fingering, because any little thing you do can set off a note. This varies from sound to sound. If the sound has a short decay, you can be as sloppy as you want. But with a long decay, if your finger's slopping around there, it's going to tell the computer, slop along with me. And you don't want the computer to do that. So, practice lifting your fingers up as cleanly as you can on your left hand. Like they used to say, arch your fingers as much as possible. That'll take care of it and make the sound much cleaner.
From a physics point of view, the guitar is impossible to play in tune. If you're playing single-note, lead-type stuff, every note you play is slightly out of tune because when you push the string down behind the fret, you're actually bending the pitch, even if it's just a little bit. That's what makes a guitar sound like a guitar. Now, the Synclavier people have provided a guitar function (the PITCH QUANTIZE (FILTER) button) that will take the raw guitar pitch and tune each note to the semitone so that always sounds perfectly in tune. But my personal favorite for the most expressive soloing is absolute raw pitch (PITCH QUANTIZE (FILTER) button unlit). You can do just about anything and it's right there with you. And if you de-tune the guitar a little you can find yourself getting these wild folk kind of sounds, like some wierd eastern instrument. This really takes advantage of the Synclavier in a way that the keyboard player never could.
I think as guitar players one of the challenges that we have is to justify our entry into the synthesized world by finding effects and certain kinds of sounds that wouldn't be possible with the keyboard. And, in fact, the Synclavier system is just begging for this kind of playing. Having worked with the Synclavier for two years, this guitar makes it a whole new instrument. It's starting to make sounds now that are so human and so natural sounding. Lyle Mays, the keyboard player in my group, came in as I was messing around with this particular effect, and he couldn't believe that it was the same instrument. It just seems to warm it all up when you've got the guitar a little bit out of tune.
Another major advantage that we guitar players have over a keyboard player who would be playing the Synclavier is that we have dynamics. This is probably the one thing that makes music sound like music, more than anything else - the relationships between loud notes and soft notes. We have much more dynamics control than is possible even on a touch sensitive keyboard. When we play with dynamics on a guitar, we're doing it with both hands. It's happening in a very, very natural way. The whole process is something that's close to us as players. Even with a touch sensitive keyboard, you're basically just giving some signals through your touch that correspond to numbers. The same thing happens with a guitar, but my experience so far has been that it can be incredibly expressive. Not to mention the fact that we can bend strings, we can get all that raw pitch, which makes the guitar sound like a guitar.
This is a real breakthrough for synthesis of any kind. It means you can get all kinds of "inbetween" dynamics combined with "inbetween" pitches from a single source. It's not like you're having to turn a knob while you're playing. It's like you're thinking it as a musician. You play it and it comes out.
Of course, there are times when you don't want any dynamics. For example, when you're trying to simulate the way an electric keyboard, which has no dynamics, would play. This can be done really easily (by turning off the DYNAMIC VOLUME button). In this case, no matter how hard or soft you play, the sound is going to come out the same, giving us a power as guitar players that we've never had before. Because as great as dynamics are, they do take away from the general power. And that's why you hear so many rock and roll guys going duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. The guys who do that best are the ones who play with the least amount of dynamics, often by using a compressor/sustainer to remove their dynamics. By turning off the DYNAMIC VOLUME button, you're instantly as mono-dynamic as you could ever possibly be, which is really fantastic. Then, with the MASTER VOLUME control on the guitar, you can get in there in any mono-dynamic volume you want.
Different players obviously have whole different conceptions of dynamics. My conception of dynamics is mostly based on playing with a light touch, but keeping the MASTER VOLUME up real loud so that my softest and my loudest are quite different. Somebody who plays really hard most of the time is going to have use the TRIGGER THRESHOLD switch, to compensate for any extra noise that might be heard.
The guitar button panel allows you to access all the main features of the keyboard control panel. Twelve of the buttons will be real familiar to anyone who is a Synclavier user. The first four on the top and the bottom eight are regular turf. But there are these four buttons on the right - these are the ones that are ours! They are extremely crucial to us because they deal exclusively with the guitar. They don't even exist on the keyboard control panel.
Every time you come up with a new timbre, or call up an old one, it will come up with default settings for these four buttons. The defaults are playable, but each sound can be modified with these buttons to make it even more effective. So, if you're a current Synclavier owner and you've already got disks and disks and disks of timbres, you're going to want to go through and make each sound sound the way you want it to, in terms of how you want to play and what kind of a sound it is, and then re-store it. I've already taken the time now to go through most of my favorite things. For instance, I've found that on one vibes sound I don't want dynamics, and on a penny whistle sound I want to have the raw pitch, and on a third sound I want the transient filters on.
These buttons are really crucial and have a major effect on what the person sitting in the audience is going to hear. (The manual describes each one in detail.) One thing that I've found is that it's definitely going to take some time to get your moves together on this miniature panel. You have to really know what you want to do, really practice your panel chops. Getting from one function to the other in a performance takes some deft punching.
That brings us to the controls that are on the guitar. Now, the Synclavier is famous for being programmable, which it is. It's totally programmable. Anything you do can be saved on disk and recalled at any time. The Roland guitar itself is non-programmable. So, there are moves you are going to have to make each time when you go from sound to sound. For instance, you might recall a sound which you've already stored with the PITCH QUANTIZE on, the DYNAMIC VOLUME off, the MONOPHONIC STRING off, and the TRANSIENT FILTER in the blinking mode. You're still going to have to remember whether you had your DYNAMICS RANGE control at the four o'clock position or at the nine o'clock position, and you're going to have to make that move. In that sense, you'll be combining a programmable type activity with a very human activity. If you're going to play a loud rhythm part, for example, you've got to get the sound up there and then put that TRIGGER THRESHOLD switch up high where you want it. (The manual describes the guitar controls in detail.)
Now for some miscellaneous notes on different effects you can get.
You get a great sound if you mix together the real guitar sound and the synthesized sound. It's the equivalent of a keyboard player playing something on the acoustic piano and the exact same thing with his left hand on an electric piano, which is also a great sound. But you can do this with one stroke on this guitar. It's just beautiful. It's also really neat to mix a synthesized sound which follows the envelope of the guitar with the natural sound of the guitar. You get this beautiful natural chorusing effect. It's even better if the synthesized sound is perfectly in tune (read about the PITCH QUANTIZE (FILTER) button) and the guitar sound is detuned just a little bit.
As I said before, as you play, you're sending pitch information to the computer. I'll just point out one pitch tracking situation I discovered when I played on the first, twelfth, or thirteenth frets. (And if you play acoustic guitar and you listen real close, you'll hear this same thing happening.) What happens is, if you lift up your finger from the first fret, the string automatically goes to the sound of the open string and you hear a note you didn't play. For example, you're playing C on the first fret of the B string and you lift up, you will hear a B. When you're playing on the twelfth fret and you lift up your finger, you tend to activate the octave harmonic that lives there. And, when you play on the thirteenth fret and lift your finger, your finger is close enough to the twelfth fret that it can also activate the octave harmonic. All these notes are very quiet, but the computer picks them up. And you may start hearing these notes that you didn't play (if the TRIGGER THRESHOLD is LOW and the DYNAMIC RANGE control is set at MIN). This can be annoying. Say, for example, you're playing in the key of A flat. You play a C on the thirteenth fret of the B string and then lift up. The last thing you want to hear is a B natural, but there it is. My suggestion is avoid those zones whenever possible by playing the same notes in another area. For instance, if you possibly can, instead of playing the C on the B string, play it on the eighth fret of the E string. It's the same pitch but you won't run into that function and it's going to make the sound a little bit cleaner. (Another thing you could do would be to raise the TRIGGER THRESHOLD to MED or HIGH so that the unwanted note would not play.)
This system lets you split the keyboard on the top key and then you can play the guitar with one sound while a keyboard player is laying another sound. If you have the stereo option, you can pan the sound all the way to the left for the guitar player and the other all the way to the left for the keyboard player. Basically, it's ike two totally separate instruments. You both have to be aware of how many notes you're playing so that you don't use up the number of voices in the system. One thing that's really great is that the keyboard player can use the volume pedal for the volume of his sound and you can use your MASTER VOLUME control knob and/or guitar volume pedal independently of each other. So if he decides he wants to do a crescendo with the keyboard volume pedal when you're playing a screaming lead on top, he can, without affecting your volume at all.
The Synclavier Digital Guitar system allows us to record as many s sixteen tracks of ourselves into the memory. It allows us to then push a button and see what was played printed out. Another stroke of genius is that the volume of the memory recorder is independent of the guitar volume. You can have one pedal controlling the live guitar volume and another controlling the recorded sequence volume.
The way the guitar is set up is crucial to how it's going to perform. If it's set up wrong, it won't sound the way you want it to; if it's set up really wrong, it just won't play. The type of strings that you use, the position of the pickup, the setting of the string balance screws on the back of the guitar, and the tuning are very important. Be sure and take the time to read and follow the setup instructions carefully.
Finally, the process of learning what to do with this axe is not omething which is going to happen overnight. It's not something that's going to happen in a week. You'll be able to make progress, take a few sounds, but what you're getting into here is going to take months at least, or years, to get a handle on. This is something ou're going to have to just jump in there and do.
"It’s A Revolution"
By Jim Ferguson, Guitar Player, September 1985
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN owns two Synclavier Digital Music Systems made by New England Digital. The company's Digital Guitar Option enables the polyphonic array to be controlled by any instrument equipped with a hexaphonic pickup. John uses a Roland G-303 guitar, outfitted with NED's remote button panel (mounted near the cutaway), which gives him immediate access to the Synclavier's functions during live performance. The particular software John is using allows him to play synthesized sounds, as well as resynthesized ones (altered timbres derived through the sampling process, where recorded sounds are converted to digital code, and then synthesized).
An essential link in John's system is the Digital Guitar Control Unit, an interface module that converts the guitar's pitch and dynamics information into digital code (Certain new and advanced features of NED's current model, the Enhanced Svnclavier, will be noted in the following text.)
The Synclavier Digital Music Svstern combines the features of a multi-track recording studio with those of a powerful computer-based digital synthesizer: the computer is NED's ABLE 60. (In fact Pat Metheny recorded the soundtrack to the movie The Falcon And The Snow bed room with a Synclavier). The system's other components include an ABLE 16-bit minicomputer, a 61-note kevboard, two floppy disk drives, a Winchester hard disk drive, a VT 100/640 graphics a dot matrix printer, and in John's case, a Guitar Interface Module.
Sounds are created with the Synclavier, through the partial timbre [tone color] method of synthesis, which allows exacting control over a sound's harmonic content. Up to four partials — parts of a sound — can be combined to create complex timbres. The volume and harmonic envelope of a timbre can be extensively modified, and effects as chorus, vibrato, and portamento can be added.
|Click on any image for larger view.
Once sounds are created, they can be played polyphonically with either the keyboard or the guitar, and then recorded in the system's 16-track memory recorder. Once in the recorder, sequences can be edited, transposed, slowed down, or speeded up without changing the pitch. Once a composition has been recorded and edited, it can be printed out in standard notation with NED's Music Printing option, a strong compositional tool. The Synclavier has many possibilities for guitarists, and the following outline is but a brief description. Up to 64 special tunings can be stored in memory and then accessed at the remote button panel while playing. From the panel, you can split the fretboard and, for instance, employ a different timbre for each string in any combination. In addition, you can sample any sound (analyze its components), resynthesize it, and play it back on the guitar.
|NED's remote button panel (each switch has three positions); upper row (L to R): Bank and Timbre Recall permit timbre recovery from memory; Tracks 1-8 (9-16) enable you to select a particular track: Sequence Recall retrieves program sequences from memory; Transient Filter assists in deriving a fundamental signal under severe conditions, such as wild string fluctuations; Quantize allows instant tuning; Dynamic Volume regulates volume, regardless of pick attack; Monophonic String can be used to program novel tunings, as well as other functions. Bottom row (L to R): Start and Stop activate the recording function or programmed sequences; Record is used in conjunction with Start and Stop; Continue allows you to pick up where a specific sequence has left off; Loop enables you to repeat a sequence indefinitely; Transpose enables you to transpose a sequence by any interval; Erase is for deleting sequences.
In live performance, straight guitar can be blended with synthesized sounds. Foot pedals allow you to mix Synclavier-generated sounds with the straight guitar signal, and a "hold" switch sustains a chord indefinitely while you solo over the top. A guitar that is out of tune (by less than a semitone) can instantly be put in perfect adjustment by activating the quantize mode, which simulates the fixed tuning of a keyboard. In this mode, you can bend a note, and hear the pitch move through the quantized steps. When the function is bypassed, you hear the raw pitch as you would on a standard guitar. The Enhanced Synclavier brings the system to a new level of sophistication. Standard components include a high-speed processor, improved software, a velocity- and pressure-sensitive 76-note keyboard, an expanded keyboard button panel, an expanded real-time effects controller, and super floppy disk drives.
Several new options provide increased capabilities. High-fidelity samples can be played back polyphonically on the keyboard or the guitar. Among other things, this allows you to play an orchestral score and have it sound like an entire symphony orchestra. In addition, samples can be combined with synthesized or resynthesized timbres to create unique composite sounds. For example, you could sample your voice and combine it with a synthesized violin sound and then, using this composite sound, play chords on the guitar. Also available are film and tape syncing options. This fall, Synclavier will offer an option that allows you to record any natural sound (say, an acoustic guitar) into memory over existing tracks.
(The price of a particular multi-component system depends upon its combination of modular elements.)