CLASS OF 88
Roland VG88 V-guitar System
By John Walden
Originally published December 2000
Ever imagined what a guitar with a resonator body would sound like with a humbucking pickup and a capo at the 12th fret, played through a Marshall stack? John Walden creates just such a virtual instrument, with the help of Roland's VG88 V-Guitar System.
Time was when your average male guitarist would turn to publications of rather a different sort to SOS if he was interested in 'modelling'. More recently the word has been used in a very different sense, and digital models of amplifier and speaker technology are an established part of many modern guitarists' lives. Roland and their Boss offshoot have been significant players in the development of this approach; indeed, perhaps one of the most innovative products to appear at the start of the modelling trend, the VG8 'Virtual Guitar' (reviewed SOS May 1995), was made by Roland..
Not only did the VG8 attempt to model various amplifier and speaker combinations but, because it took its input signal from Roland's GK2A split pickup, it could model every stage of the sound-production chain. From pickup, through guitar-body style and amp/speaker combination to digital effects, all were modelled. And while the VG8 was perhaps not a true guitar synth, it did offer some very non-guitar-type sounds.
SOS's 1995 review shows that Paul White was obviously very impressed by the technology of the VG8. However, he also commented that it didn't offer acoustic guitar simulations, didn't output note-on/note-off information via MIDI, and had a price tag of close to £2000 (including the GK2A pickup). Five years down the line, Roland have released a follow-up, the VG88. They've certainly addressed the price issue, as the VG88 costs little more than half the price of the VG8 on its launch -- and the new unit also features acoustic guitar models. However, the VG88 is entering a very different marketplace in 2000 than its predecessor did in 1995, so it's interesting to consider how it sits amongst the range of products now available.
While the VG88 retains the 'stealth-bomber doorstep' look of the VG8, some details of the hardware layout have changed. As well as a new expression pedal, an additional 'CTL' (control) footswitch is provided (which can, for example, be assigned to switch particular effects on and off), and the positions of the editing controls have also been adjusted. However, anyone familiar with the VG8 will soon be able to find their way around the VG88.
The rear panel (see below) features an input for the 13-pin cable from the GK2A pickup, six jack sockets, MIDI In and Out ports, and a power switch. From left to right, the six jack sockets provide a standard guitar input, guitar output (an unprocessed out from the guitar's standard pickups), main left/right outputs, a stereo headphone socket and, finally, a connection for an additional external footswitch or expression pedal. A dedicated button on the VG88's top surface allows the main output jacks to be switched between three modes, depending on whether the unit is hooked up to a guitar amp, power amp, or a line-level device such as a mixer or multitrack.
The review VG88 was supplied with a GK2A pickup, which is connected to the guitar's jack socket via a short patch lead. The GK2A then connects to the VG88 via a supplied 5m lead terminated with a 13-pin connector. This lead can carry the output from both the GK2A pickup and the guitar's standard pickups to the main unit, so there's no need to have two leads trailing around behind you. If you have a suitable guitar on which you don't mind mounting the GK2A, installation itself is relatively simple. An alternative, if more expensive route, would be to buy one of the many 'Roland-ready' guitars available that have the GK2A built in.
Once all the necessary connections have been made, the F6 button (located beneath the LCD) provides access to various driver settings for the pickup, including individual string sensitivity. Usefully, the settings for a particular guitar/pickup combination can be stored in one of five memory locations, so if you have more than one instrument equipped with a GK2A you'll be able to switch between guitars quite quickly.
It's worth emphasising at this point how the GK2A/VG88 combination generates sound. Like the VG8, the VG88 is not strictly a guitar synth, although it can generate some synth-like tones. The GK2A pickup, like a standard guitar pickup, is responding to string vibrations but, importantly, the pickup is split and detects the vibration of each string individually. It is this information that is passed to the VG88 so that it can apply its modelling magic. I'd like to emphasise here that no pitch-to-MIDI conversion is involved; the source of the sound is always the string vibrations. These vibrations are not used to establish a nice neat MIDI pitch which, in a synth, might then be used to trigger a sound sample (ie. a trumpet) at that pitch. As a consequence, the VG88 does not suffer from the tracking delay found in most true MIDI-based guitar synths -- bends, tapping, hammer-ons and whammy-bar antics are all allowed.
A sound (patch) is constructed from an effects chain that, by default, follows the sequence shown in the diagram below. Patches are organised in 65 banks of four patches each, with user patches in banks 1-25 (which can be overwritten); banks 26-65 are presets.
From the Name/Chain menu, this signal flow can be displayed on the LCD, with each of the processing stages represented by an icon. Using a combination of the cursor keys and the value wheel, the position at which the input from the GK2A pickup enters the chain can be altered, as can the order of the other stages.
As with many recent Roland products, patch editing on the VG88 can be undertaken at a number of distinct levels. Pressing the F5 button gives access to the Global settings that apply to all patches. These include two-band EQ, reverb and noise-reduction levels, and would be useful in a live context if you were moving the unit between different performance venues.
For individual patches, the EZ Edit function provides a way of making quick tweaks. Pressing its dedicated button brings up virtual knobs on the LCD for control of the patch's Drive, Tone, Modulation (ie. depth of chorus) and Delay levels. Each virtual knob can be selected with the cursor keys and then adjusted with the value wheel. While this is all painless enough in the comfort of your own recording studio, it is obviously not the same as turning real knobs, as found on an amp or some of the other popular amp/effects simulators that are currently available.
In edit mode proper, each of the processing stages shown in the signal-chain diagram can be edited in some detail. Most of these stages (compression, EQ, delay and reverb, for example) offer exactly what you would expect, and the sound quality and degree of control is up to the usual Roland/Boss standard. For example, the EQ stage in the main signal chain is a four-band affair with the two middle bands being fully parametric (see the 'Effects Highlights' box opposite for other examples).
The Amp button calls up the VG88's palette of amplifier and speaker simulations. Both this section and the guitar section (see below) use Roland's COSM (Composite Object Sound Modelling) technology. The 'Amps & Cabs' box below provides a full list of the options, which cover all the obvious ground. The manual doesn't give the real names of the amps modelled, but the labels used make it clear what to expect, and the icons in the LCD depict the general look of the amp each model is based upon.
Build Your Own
So far, the range of amp models and digital effects provided by the VG88 is, essentially, what many modern guitar processors now provide. But things get really interesting when you press the 'Guitar' button, which allows you to build your own virtual guitar. It's this that clearly sets the VG88 aside from the competition. Some 19 different guitar model 'types' are available, although, as you can tell from the 'Virtual Guitars' box over the page, some of these are not actually intended to sound like a guitar.
For constructing a virtual version of a standard electric guitar, the Variable Guitar (Vari GT) is the most suitable model. This provides both a choice of pickups and of guitar body types, and allows adjustment of a number of parameters associated with each of these (the selection of editable parameters available depends upon which guitar model is selected). In addition, pitch-shift and pan can be set for each string. The relative levels of the GK2A and standard pickup can also be set via the Mixer option.
A number of preset pickup configurations are available. These cover twin humbuckers (as on a Les Paul), three single coils (as on a Strat), and a range of others, including P90s and PAFs. [Both of the latter are vintage Gibson pickups, the second standing for 'Patent Applied For', referring to the sticker found on some early versions. PAFs are invested by some people with a mystique that doesn't attach to later versions without the sticker... Ed]. The more adventurous can select the Vari pickup option, which allows single-coil, humbucker, acoustic, piezo and 'microphone' pickups to be mixed and matched. Their tone, phase relationships, and position relative to the bridge (yes, you can just about get the pickup to sit on the 12th fret!) can also be adjusted. For the guitar body, Solid, Flat, Round, f-hole, Metal and Banjo types can be selected. 'Flat' and 'Round' simulate acoustic guitar bodies, while 'Metal' is a resonator type. Again, an icon on the LCD changes to indicate the nature of the selection. Body size and degree of resonance can also be set.
The intentions of the Acoustic, Nylon Strings, Open Tune and 12 Strings models are obvious. As with the VG8, the Open Tune model essentially applies pitch-shift to each individual string. The presets include open D, E, G and A tunings, but a User setting is available to create other tunings, if so desired. The results are very convincing and it is easy to see how this could be really useful in a live context.
As summarised in the 'Virtual Guitars' box, the remainder of the guitar models are more specialised and, rather than modelling a real guitar, use COSM processing to create a range of both guitar-like and more synth-like sounds. The dgree of customisation available is considerable, and it would take a long time to explore all the possible sound-shaping capabilities on offer.
Roland have struck a good balance between making the editing process easy and keeping the number of hardware buttons and controls reasonable. The excellent LCD display certainly helps here. This said, sound-editing on the fly in a live context might be a little fiddly; in the studio this is less of an issue. Still, given that the unit has a MIDI input, I wonder whether software editing from a PC or Mac is something Roland might consider at some stage?
Back To Reality
As you might expect, given the variety of processing options described above, the range of sounds available from the VG88 is considerable, and even the presets take some time to explore properly. Switching off the COSM guitar and digital effects modules demonstrates that the amp models are good in their own right, and if you used the VG88 just for these, some very professional tones would end up on your recordings. Relative to, say, the Line 6 Pod or Johnson J-Station, editing amp simulations is a little more cumbersome, as there are no dedicated 'amp-like' controls, but from bright and clean through crunch and into the high-gain models, all the main types are represented. I particularly liked the Clean Twin, which could be coaxed from a real jangle through to gently overdriven, and the BG Lead, which I thought gave a really nice, warm overdrive.
But to use the VG88 as something like a Pod substitute is to miss the point. Adding in the COSM guitar modelling gives more flexibility to any of the basic amp models -- swapping between using a single-coil, P90 or humbucker pickup model with, say, the Clean Twin amp gives you exactly the differences in sound that you would expect. The VG88 might not replicate the exact tone obtained by plugging three particular guitars equipped with these pickups into a Fender Twin, but each model is pretty close, in terms of the general flavour of the tone. The simple conclusion is that, for straight guitar tones, the sounds available from the combination of COSM guitar and COSM amp modelling are flexible and of high quality.
Patches based on the non-electric guitar tones illustrate the versatility of the VG88. For example, Presets 55-1 through to 56-3 are all based on the Acoustic, Nylon and 12-string models, and I'd be happy to use any of them live. Even when fairly exposed as solo instruments in a sparse mix, their sound quality and realism are highly convincing. It's possible to do without the wash of reverb applied by the Roland programmers, too. For a few strummed 12-string chords, choosing '12ST AG' (Preset 55-4) is considerably easier than tuning up a real 12-string!
Presets 58-1 to 65-4 give a reasonable demonstration of the more synth-like tones available from the VG88. 'Fat Bass' (59-1) and 'Drv Bass' (60-1) are good examples of the bass guitar-type sounds available, the latter having some real power to it. 'Syn Lead' (62-2) lives up to its name, and as the GK2A is quite happy to respond to tapping techniques, some really over-the-top solos are possible. 'MildHorn' (64-2) is also quite expressive; the slightly slowed attack and swell of the note can give a feel not unlike the Irish pipes (not quite Davy Spillane on guitar, but that sort of effect!). While the level of flexibility is not as great as you'd expect from a true synth, what is available is very good.
There is no doubting the impressive technology around which the VG88 is built. Whether used for creating virtual guitars or amps, or for its palette of synth-like tones (which are useful, if limited in range), the VG88 would do an excellent job, both live and in the studio. It's a worthy successor to the original VG8.
Like the VG8, however, the new unit still does not provide pitch-to-MIDI conversion, so anyone wanting to use their GK2A pickup to drive an external synth, or record with a sequencer, will need to shell out some extra money for a separate device to do this -- which is a shame, given that a good deal of the necessary hardware is already built into the VG88.
As excellent as it is, the VG88 is probably going to appeal to quite a niche market. If you need straight amp simulations and you already have some decent 'real' electric and acoustic guitars in your recording arsenal, there are much more obvious equipment choices that might be made (including other devices from Roland and Boss!). Many of these will certainly match the amp simulations available in the VG88, and some may offer a wider choice of amp models and dedicated hardware controls that make sound editing much more like working with a real amplifier. However, if your budget can stretch to the VG88 and GK2A combination and you want a dose of the unconventional to go with your bread-and-butter amps and effects, the VG88 is well worth exploring. As a live or studio tool for the experimental guitarist it offers serious fun and serious sound in equal measure!
Copyright © December 2000, Sound-On-Sound