Keyboard players, digital drummers and DJs have been dipping into synthesized sonic magic for a long time, but until quite recently, electric guitarists have been left a little wanting. A good example of the progress being made is Fishman's TriplePlay wireless MIDI system. Rather than rely on an externally-mounted hexaphonic pickup of the kind found in TriplePlay, though, Ireland's Rob O'Reilly uses smart fretboard scanning technology for his Expressiv MIDI Guitar System. As well as promising zero latency when in MIDI mode, the instrument also sports "normal" pickups so players can chop and change between analog and digital sounds at the flick of a switch.
The Expressiv system is the fruit of 3 years of research, development and testing. It doesn't just differ from other instruments in the looks department (imagine the offspring of a Vox Teardrop and Phantom coupling, or perhaps even one half of a pair of thick-framed X-ray spex), the 3.25 kg (7 lb) guitar takes a different approach to converting fingerboard action into MIDI too.
"I have tried Roland's GK systems, Fishman's TriplePlay and also the YouRockGuitar," O'Reilly told Gizmag. "Both the Roland and Fishmann MIDI systems track the pitch from the sound of the string. Expressiv uses a smart fretboard scanner to know which notes you are pressing. Pressing a string against a fret creates a switch, much the same as a key in a keyboard. The smart fret scanner decodes which strings are being pressed accurately. The result is similar to how a keyboard is played, except on a guitar fretboard. This is totally different to hex pickups which rely on pitch detection of a ringing note."
The Expressiv system is reported capable of ultra-fast tracking with no latency and no ghost notes, and the note will sustain as long as the player pushes a string against a fret. Would-be Stanley Jordans can tackle the 22-fret fingerboard with both hands or use the non-fretting hand to tweak parameters on the fly using the 4-way joystick and six assignable buttons. The guitar also has two high output Wilkinson single coil pickups, allowing musicians to switch between MIDI output and traditional amp output.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the ROR Expressiv MIDI Guitar is the clear acrylic infinity mirror in the middle of the matte black laminate wood body. In addition to being home to the single coil pickups and Tune-O-Matic bridge, O'Reilly has installed an X/Y touchpad where other guitars might have a pickguard. The player can use this to influence assignable parameters like volume and pitch (in a similar fashion to the panel on the front of the Kitara I reviewed back in 2011) when in MIDI mode.
The instrument is MIDI class compliant, which allows it be used as a controller for external hardware synths, keyboards or other MIDI devices (via USB or 5-pin MIDI). The digital wizardry gets the power it needs to operate via the USB cable plugged into a computer or laptop running favored music creation or recording software – though there is talk of adding a 9 V battery compartment so that the blue, green and red light show will still dazzle when in guitar/amp mode.
"USB has a power supply built in and of course, you never run out of battery in mid performance," said the company's Anthony Lingwood. Given the way technology is going, we presume it will be used more often with the USB cable than the MIDI cable. We are considering having a rechargeable battery onboard which is being recharged while you have it plugged in. However, the only reason that you might need a battery is to use the MIDI cable without a second power supply (which would be very handy). So we may include this feature, we will see."
To take the Expressiv MIDI Guitar System from attention-grabbing prototype to production model, RORGuitars has launched on Kickstarter. Early birders can still get in on the action for a pledge of €449 (about US$570), which represents a saving of €350 on the estimated retail price.
"Right now, players can't play the guitar and MIDI device at the same time, but the project is still in pre-production," said Lingwood. "We hope that even for the Kickstarter guitars, we can solve this problem and release Expressiv with a combined functionality of playing both the MIDI and guitar functionality at the same time. In the future, we will also have an extra pickup which will allow you to pluck a string as normal and that would decide how loud the note would be, or even control a frequency cutoff or any parameter."
If all goes to plan, RORGuitars plans on shipping out the first market-ready instruments in March 2015. Have a look at the pitch video below for a closer look at the Expressiv system.