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Jeff Baxter - Roland Users Group - Volume 1, Number 1
Roland Users Group - Volume 1, Number 1, Jeff Baxter

Jeff Baxter

How I Became An Electronic Musician

By Chip Stern

Roland Users Group, Volume 1, Number 1

What would you say is the difference between an electric musician and an electronic musician?

Well, I suppose an electric musician is any musician who uses an amplified instrument. And I think an electronic musician is someone who understands the parameters or mechanics of sound - how to make it, and how to process it - and uses that knowledge to directly effect his music.

How did you first become attracted to the electronic parameters of music?

When I was living in Mexico as a kid, there was really nobody there who could fix anything. So when something went wrong in your amplifier or guitar, you usually just tore it apart and tried to find out what was wrong with it. And that's basically what got me started. At that time I was just trying to figure out the different kinds of instruments and what made them tick. You know, sticking your hands into amplifiers, getting a shock, trying to see what made that happen. I think the one thing that I did come up with not in Mexico, but many years later in Boston — was I called up Dan Armstrong with an idea of putting a couple of coils together, then putting a switch between them, so that we could cut one of the coils out. It's funny, because that's probably one of the most widely used modifications, and it's used on so many guitars today, it's just amazing. Most of what I came up with or what Danny came up with was adapted to certain instruments. Like modifications that worked on a Les Paul wouldn't work on a Stratocaster. Out of that we got a knowledge of what makes for a good instrument, and what makes one instrument sound different than another.

You once told me that the first electronic instrument you ever worked with were the tone generators you'd fool around with in the repair shops. Now we've reached this incredible level of sophistication, but there's still a barefoot and pregnant mental block among some people as far as synthesizers and computers are concerned. Perhaps if we trace the roots of these developments.

There's two kinds of electronic music. There's the kind that was developed on the commercial level, and then there were the original synthesizers in Germany and Europe that didn't have keyboards; they were just ADSRs that triggered different oscillators and music was performed in that way. That equipment was so expensive, and so few people had access to it, that unless you were in some university that had computers and other related equipment, you weren't going to be able to deal with sysnthesis.

Now I suppose the first really significant signal processing device that I can think of was the tremolo, and there were two kinds: tremolo and vibrato. Sometimes you'd find an amplifier that would combine them both, or one that said vibrato but was really tremolo. Tremolo was a variance in the gain, whereas vibrato was variance in the pitch. Most amplifiers back then had a tremolo, even if they didn't have a reverb, which you really couldn't find on an amplifier until about 1960, when Fender got their terrific reverberation unit together. So those were really the first signal processor/ effects units. And it's interesting to know that people sometimes balk at buying an instrument with a synthesizer built into it, but people thought nothing about buying instruments with ugly, ugly tremolo arms screwed into the woods to get that same effect. There's a dichotomy there.

So around 1962 someone invented the fuzz tone, which was just a box hooked up to convert the guitar signal into this monstrous square wave; then it would go through its own harmonic choking and come out really obscene through the speakers. So in essence the first guitar synthesizers were guitars that had a pickup that converted the guitar signal into a square wave. I mean it wasn't really a synthesizer in terms of polyphonic synthesizer.

In other words, before this you basically had a more direct relationship. You bad a signal from the pickups, and the amplifier's boosting of that sig-nal. Now what you're doing is taking something that totally alters the parameters of that signal...

You're interfacing something... and that automatically becomes processed. So when the fuzz tone first came out, everyone jumped on it and had a fuzz tone. But the idea of having a little box that you could stick in your guitar case to make your amplifier sound huge really opened up guitar players to get out of the tradition of "my guitar and my amplifier,"" and it opened up a whole new market. So you began seeing a lot more reverb units, like the Fender, and Ecoplexes began selling like mad. Univibes, which were like a primitive chorus, they began selling - Hendrix used one. So then everyone began getting on the bandwagon.

So what exactly did synthesis offer to creative musicians that effects couldn't offer?

Well, it's very simple. An effect processes an already existing signal, whereas synthesis entails the gen-eration of a completely new signal from waveforms to amplification. It's the creation of the signal to be processed.

Roland Guitar Synthesizer Pickup Height Adjustment
Jeff Baxter with Roland G-33 and GR-33B Bass Guitar Synthesizer

How did sysnthesis develop through the 60s and 70s, and what was your involvement with that?

Well, I didn't have to do much with synthesis in terms of doing any research into it, other than learning about it, working at it as a musician. The first synthesizers were basically keyboard synthesizers, and I enjoyed the idea of manufacturing or creating a sound, totally from nothing. And that knowledge gave me a real understanding of what sound was. But I was mainly a guitar, player, and I was more interested in synthesizing off of the guitar, and for a lot of reasons. The guitar is just a more intimate instrument. So when I first heard about the Roland Guitar Synthesizer at a trade show I was very excited.

Hadn't they done something similar to what you'd been experimenting on?

Exactly. I thought that it might be fun to stick some tape heads underneath the guitar strings and see if I could get 'em to work. So I took the tape heads off of a couple of Guild Copycats — echo units that I had — and at least I found out that it was a good route to go. And when I saw the original Roland Guitar Synthesizer I realized that they'd pretty much gone the same route.

Now what did you achieve by using tape heads instead of your basic magnetic pickups?

What we got was a way to convert to voltage in a much less guerilla fashion — voltage outputs from a pickup are such a trashy thing. When I saw that Roland was committed to building a guitar synthesizer, and I hadn't seen anything else like it, I told them that I'd be happy to be involved because their dream was the same as mine. I mean they were very smart. The people at Roland had a completely different attitude. A lot of guitar companies, amplifier companies, musical instrument companies spent years trying to emulate other ideas. As far as amplifiers go, ever-one was trying to build an amp that sounded exactly like a Fender or trying to build guitars that played like a Gibson or a Fender. But at Roland, they built an amplifier that didn't sound anything like a Fender amp — and that impressed me.

And that was the Roland Jazz Chorus. What about that amp was unique or special, from your perspective?

The most unique thing about it was that it became a stereo amplifier when it went to chorus. That's an incredible concept. Sometimes I like to record the Fender/Rhodes, and instead of chorusing it directly during the mixdown I'll run it back out into the Jazz Chorus Amp and mic it in stereo and it's just beautiful.

So you get that pretty undulation effect.

Right, but it comes from the speakers. There is actual, physical panning taking place. Now that, and the fact that it has a tone cir-cuit that sounds totally different than a Fender was, to me, very exciting.

The chorus effect, simply, takes a signal, and alters its pitch, much as a vibrato does; but a vibrato in a guitar amp, the whole signal is fed to the vibrato, whereas in the Roland and BOSS Chorus effect the two signals are intermingled, and what you hear is a combination of the dry signal, the pitch-altered signal, and all the harmonics that occur within it. And to record it in stereo you simply record dry on one side and altered pitch on the other — so psycho-acoustically then, they come together. And it's a very rich sound. The depth control is more or less a blend control, and the speed control regulates the distance between the top of one vibrato altered signal and another. And that amp just didn't sound like a Fender, period. To me that was a big step for someone to design an amplifier that's a real work-horse — which is what the Jazz Chorus has become — and make it be the Twin Reverb of the 80s.

So the first project you were actively engaged in with Roland was the Guitar Synthesizer project. How did that proceed?

It was wonderful. My role in the beginning was a sort of combination engineer/test pilot. I'd pack it up in a bunch of anvil cases and take it on the road or drag it in the studios and use it in every environment I could — to try and learn what the instrument could and couldn't do, and to offer input to help develop the instrument as quickly as possible. My main thrust at the time was to make the folks at Roland see that the secret to a really great Guitar Synthesizer was a great guitar. The electronics were fairly common in a sense; there were good synthesizers on the market. But the combination is what would sell the instrument. And now, I think Roland makes as good a guitar as anybody.

What were your considerations in designing the characteristics of each guitar? In other words, how would the sound of these guitars blend in with the sound of the synthesizer?

Well, there's a school of opinion out there that firmly believes you can't play a Guitar Synthesizer without blending in some of the guitar signal. But I wanted a synthesizer. So there are many times where I just employ the synthesizer sound. And even though the first Guitar Synthesizer I had was monophonic, it could be interfaced with the most sophisticated Roland Synthesizer System. I just had to double-track and triple track a few things with it. But there are things to this day that people swear were played on polyphonic synthesizer or something.

Can you think of a few examples of such chicanery, sir?

There are a couple of songs on the Living On The Fault Line album like "Echoes of Love" where it sounds like synthesizers. It is — but it's not a keyboard.

In designing a working model of a polyphonic Guitar Synthesizer, what features could you imagine for an all-purpose, interfaceable guitar, and the synthesizer hook-up? In other words, in terms of price vs. performance, you had to keep it at an approachable price point for the average player. And figure out where to locate the key features. So there must have been certain trade-offs.

Well, certainly. You had to decide what to put on the floor and what to put on the guitar. But along the lines off a guitar player's thinking, there's volume and tone controls, which in essence means he has AMPLITUDE and FILTER controls. Well, the filter controls are mounted on the guitar. And it plays the same role in the Roland Guitar Synthesizer as a tone control does on the guitar signal. And then there's just a BLEND control for the two — that's necessary — and a master volume.

And then you have what, VCF controls onboard?

That's the filter.

And the LFO?

The amount of it is controllable from the guitar. The depth of LFO vibrato — the speed, the rate—is controllable from the floor module. Because usually you never vary the LFO speed in a program. The only controls that might be varied during performance are mounted on the guitar. A lot of synthesizer players use the CUTOFF control for the Voltage Controlled Filter manually — so there it is mounted there on the guitar, in the same spot where a tone control would normally be.

Allowing you to ...?

Open and close the filter manually. Then, mounted on the bridge pickup of the guitar you have two controls to trigger the LFO. One to hold, and one to release.

Now what controls are mounted on the floor module? Six oscillators?

Yeah. Tuneable. With an interrelated filter and envelope controls. The envelope and the filter are permanently connected. Then you have a master tuner for the VCOs. String selection switches. A compressor on/ off switch. Then five footswitches, all interconnected, to designate routing for the signal.

So using the guitar as a trigger, and the floor module as an envelope modifier, what are some of the sound parameters you can come up with?

Real good trumpet sounds, among other things.

What exactly do you do, as far as setting up the controls, to achieve that sound?

Well, again, you listen to the trumpet, and you break the trumpet sound down into its various bits of data. What makes the trumpet sounds like it does. Then you vary your envelope, and the amount of filter you allow to pass through, to give you, as close as you can, the original characteristics of the instrument. Strings, for instance, don't have much attack, usually. So you might want to back off on the attack control. Whereas trumpet is all attack. The trumpet is definitely a square wave, whereas the trombone might be more of a triangular wave.

What about a saxophone?

Well, a saxophone is a square wave, for sure. But it's not as bright. You see, it's real hard for a lot of people to visualize, so one way to learn about synthesis is to find someone who has an oscilloscope. Look at it. Put different signals, different instruments through it, and then understand what the signal looks like. And then you'll be able to relate to it. Because most of synthesis is related in terms of graph, mathematics — and that's all directly related to the waveform. And it's easier to understand a waveform when you can see it.

What about the less expensive GR-100? What options would that give a young guitarist? And why purchase that over another guitar and effects modules?

You might as well purchase the guitar that gives you more bang for your buck. And the Guitar Synthesizer is sure heads and shoulders above any other regular guitar. It's like buying a Steinway with 88 oscillators in it.

Now there's a concept.

Well that's really what it is. It's a synthesis of (chuckle), if you'll pardon the term, the electronic and the mechanical. Now, you could buy a regular guitar and a chorus and vibrato effect, and probably end up spending the same amount of money. You'd certainly end up paying the same amount if you tried to duplicate the quality of electronics in the GR-100, so why not buy an instrument with an open-ended...


Exactly. That's the kick.

So as things evolve, you can mix and match, and use different synthesizer components to modulate each other?

Well, it seems to me it's like Apple Software. As soon as a standard becomes recognized in an industry, then people start to get creative. When that 24-pin connector that connects the GR guitars to the synthesizer interfaces becomes a standard, forget it.

Like Dolby.

You got it. That's the whole idea. In fact, I've been trying to figure out ways of interfacing different effects through a 24-pin connector to get it into the synthesizer.

What exactly does the GR-100 do as opposed to the GR-300?

It doesn't have a VCO, so it doesn't produce its own pitches, basically, you are processing the sound of the guitar, one string at a time.

So bow are you processing the dry signal of the guitar and making it somehow richer or warmer?

The GR-100 combines Hex Distortion, VCF filter, Chorus and LFO effects. It gives you somewhat of a synthesis sound — the sound of the hexaphonic pickup. It produces a cleaner square wave than you can get by running your guitar through a fuzz tone. And it's more controllable—chords sound like chords. Most distortion devices can only process monophonically. So what you get is a basic Guitar Synthesizer sound with some very, rich coloration.

Like a very liquid hex fuzz and compression sound?

Right. The hex fuzz is basically six separate signals, one from each string, converted to square wave, and then combined so that you can play combinations of strings without having them beat against each other. These six signals can be processed through the six VCF filters in the GR-100. Which allows you to really radically alter the tonalities you get from the guitar in a completely new way. Another thing is that the hex distortion is really pure, free from harmonic inter-relation of the individual strings.

So you wouldn't have that terrible out-of-tuneness you get from a fuzz.

Right. Back to the GR-700. It will put the Guitar Synthesizer on the same creative level, in terms of sophistication and technology, as any synthesizer on the market available for anybody — it'll be the Jupiter-8 for guitar players. That's the idea. It gives the guitar player complete laboratory control; he will be as in control of a synthesizer as any keyboardist. With the added attraction of being a guitar player. The dynamics of the instrument are such that they allow you to become a lot more intimate. You have twelve oscillators; filter section, waveform section; envelope generators and VCAs; a pair of LFOs. It's a very sophisticated instrument — and there's almost nothing that you can't do on it, almost. But then one man's limitations are another man's horizons.

What are some things on the horizon for electronic musicians at Roland?

Well, a computerized pedalboard for one thing. It'll accept anyone's effect pedal; you can patch 'em together and process all the sounds, with the added kick of storing 32 patches in computer memory. It will mean less time and effort in getting your favorite sounds back.

What about all these new devices like the Micro Composer, the Rhythm Composer and the Basslines. I imagine you use them a good deal in the studio. How would you counter the argument from people that these instruments supplant musicians? I would think that they'd be adjuncts to a good musician.

It's sort of the same argument as using a calculator in a mathematics class. Because, if you're a skilled musician, and you can play the synthesizer, why should you have to play a particular part, when you could have a machine play that part. Now the machine has to be programmed by you; you have to be creative enough to compose the idea. It then allows you greater flexibility to play something else. It's like saying that you have to count on your fingers, or multiplication by longhand.

The fact that people still confuse such devices with effects is not the fault of Roland. May be it's the problem of people who can't grasp or refuse to grasp or having anything to do with technology.

We've come a long way from tbe fuzz tone, huh?

Yep, and it's only just beginning.

Jeff Baxter - Boss GP-10

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