Gizmag has been following the development of the Antares Auto-Tune for Guitar technology with great interest since it was first teased back in May 2011. In January 2012, it was launched in two guitars at the Winter NAMM show, but only one of those has actually made the leap into production. Peavey released its AT-200 as last year came to a close, and I've spent the last few weeks in the company of this game-changing guitar while also chatting with some of the folks involved in its development.
Auto-Tune technology is perhaps most (in)famous for the kind of vocal manipulation trickery of T-Pain, Cher and Kanye West, as well as its part in the controversy surrounding the widespread use of pitch correction in general. When Antares announced its intention to develop a version for the electric guitar, the ground began to violently shake and fractures started to appear in the very fabric of the otherwise stable, ultra-conservative world of your professional axe-man. Well, not really, but a clear difference of opinion continues to this day.
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With this is mind, I haven't restricted my review of Peavey's AT-200 to merely playing with all that Auto-Tune technology currently has to offer, I've also reached out to musicians, producers and bedroom players for their thoughts on the first production guitar to feature this pitch correction wizardry. First, though ...
What's in the box?
- Peavey AT-200 electric guitar
- Two hex keys
- Four AA-sized batteries
- Quick start guide
- CD containing owner's manual and software (Peavey's ReValver HP SE digital amp modeling sim and the mighty Reaper DAW from Cockos)
Though perhaps better known for its amps, Peavey has been producing guitars since the release of the T-Series models in the late 1970s/early 80s (my first dip, however, was with the odd-looking – but great-sounding – Razer, and later a Tracer super-strat). The company partnered with Eddie Van Halen to produce a line of signature EVH Wolfgang guitars in 1996, and more recently with motorcycle designer Eric Buell for the Mike Stone Signature MS-1.
Where guitar makers AxCent and Gibson have been blazing a trail for hardware-based self-tuning of the guitar, Peavey has opted to move in a decidedly more digital direction with the help of Antares. Before we take a brief foray into the turbulent waters of player opinion, let's have a look at what the AT-200 brings to the table in terms of specs.
Inside and out
The AT-200 has a solid basswood body with a through-body string design and either black or red finish. On the front you'll find Peavey USA's own humbucking pickups topped by solid covers, a Tone pot that's pushed down to activate the Auto-Tune DSP and pulled up for passive pickup output, a Volume knob that's pressed down to engage String Tune and Solid Tune, and a 3-way pickup selector switch. There's a green LED light above the neck pickup to indicate whether the Auto-Tune system is active or not, and battery box round the back to take the four AA batteries needed to power the Auto-Tune circuitry.
As you can see from the photo above, removal of the back plate reveals the Auto-Tune system, together with the wiring, pots and connections to the 8-pin DIN in/out port and a 0.25-inch audio out jack on the jack plate. All the hardware – such as the die cast bridge and sealed die cast tuners with a 15:1 gear ratio – is in black, and a rosewood fingerboard sits on top of the 24-fret, 25.5-inch scale bolt-on maple neck.
The great divide
A perfect example of this polarization of opinion comes in the shape of ex-guitarists from psychedelic rock band Plan 9. Film-maker and musician John DeVault welcomed the new technology, but could see that perfect tuning and intonation might not suit every taste or style.
"I'm sure that for some types of music like the blues and garage rock it will probably sound unnatural – too perfect," DeVault told us. "But for other types, especially those involving electronic instruments, it would be a plus. I'm curious to see how well and how quick it can correct pitch for fast solos and rapidly changing chords."
"Intonation is a big issue for most guitar players," he continued. "Even after a guitar is set up there's usually some slight problem. A chord that sounds great in one position doesn't sound quite right in another. Sometimes being slightly out of tune is part of the character of the guitar. Sometimes it's just a pain in the ass. It would be nice to have a guitar that really is perfectly in tune, all the time."
One-time bandmate Tom Champlin (currently playing with The Ruffinators), on the other hand, is not so keen.
"Electric guitars have been working pretty well for the past 40 or 50 years the way they are," he said. "I'm not really a fan of guitars doing things by themselves. If I'm going to change the tuning I'd rather do it myself. I like my guitar to be as simple as possible, and the more gadgets and bells and whistles you add it's just another thing to go wrong later on. When it comes to guitar signal chains, the less crap the signal has to go through the better."
"I'm sure this technology will become standard in the not too distant future," he conceded. "Maybe soon they will come up with a guitar you don't even have to really play. Just plug it into an amp, put it on a stand and sit at the bar. At the end of the night you can haggle with the club owner about money and go home. Good gig!"
Others were even less receptive to the new technology, including multi-instrumentalist, working musician and mastering studio owner Bill Bairley.
"Why would I pay for a feature like auto-tuning?" he asked. "The guitar is inherently out of tune a few cents in certain positions, that's what makes it sound like a guitar and not a guitar patch on a keyboard. If someone comes into my studio with an instrument with bad intonation, they will have to use one of mine. No serious musician would have an instrument like that to record with anyway. Sure, this guitar could give you alternate tunings quicker but guitars already exist that do that, and that digital manipulation does not sound accurate to my ears. I can hear it every time."
"Tweaking the tuning pegs between songs, needed or not, is part and parcel of the guitar experience," he concluded. "It gives the ears a little break, and a place to try out bad jokes."
Although limited space prevents me from sharing the opinions of everyone I talked to, I would like to close this section with some thoughts from singer, songwriter and producer Johnny Warrent – who actually went that extra mile and arranged for an AT-200 live demo with his local Peavey rep before sharing his take on the instrument.
"I like the fit, finish and feel of this guitar," noted Warrant. "The neck and fret scale are comfortable with 24 frets instead of 21 or 22. As a guitar, without the Auto-Tune function, it is a good quality instrument. The pickups are friendly to my taste and on its own this is a solid guitar. I did not like leaving it out of tune and relying on auto tune to correct the pitch. I can hear or feel the acoustic value of the out of tune strings. Any musician worth a set of strings would have the common sense to tune the guitar first. Once the guitar is tuned the auto tune is actually quite fun to play with."
"I enjoyed the drop tunings and baritone tunings as the harmonic residence of the acoustic notes still fit what you are playing," he went on. "The ability to switch tunings within a song give you endless lead solo capabilities. You can play in the same shapes and places on the neck regardless of key. That was exciting. The strings also retain their tension regardless of what tuning you use. So there is no sloppy or buzzing strings to deal with. No fear of twisting your neck or breaking a string. The Peavey AT-200 is an easy to use, fun to play, versatile tool. Thumbs up from this cowboy."
Armed with lots of bullet points to look into, it was time to see for myself how Peavey's new baby actually performed.
Welcoming the future
The AT-200 is a good, solid, well-made guitar which feels good in the hands and, at just over 3 kg (7 lbs), is not too heavy around the neck. Though the tone of a guitar is very much a matter of personal preference, I found this instrument's humbucking pickups (in passive mode) offer a nice fat sound with sufficient variety between bridge, both and neck toggle positions to adequately satisfy most of my blues/rock and jazz/funk moods.
With batteries loaded, and the strings slightly detuned from pitch (to a different degree on each string), I was ready to engage Auto-Tune for the first time. The system is activated by pushing down the Tone knob. A steady green LED indicates that the circuitry is active. If the strings are out by five steps or more, the Auto-Tune system will at least struggle and probably won't work as expected so you'll need to keep this in mind if you, like me, intend to experiment with out of tune strings.
To digitally bring the guitar into tune you'll need to strum all six strings and then press the tuning button. There's a scooping sound as the Auto-Tune system brings the strings to pitch, and the LED light also flashes. That's it. Job done.
If you're bothered by the tuning sound, you can either pick and tune one string at a time or turn down the volume knob to zero – Auto-Tune will still work.
As noted by Johnny Warrent during his test drive, players will likely want to keep the AT-200 as near to pitch as possible even when using the Auto-Tune system. If you don't, and your amp isn't turned up loud enough to drown out the acoustic sound of the strings being picked, you'll quickly tire of the uncomfortable out of phase sound that results. Fortunately, the output on my Vox tube amp was high enough to ensure minimal sonic discomfort (though my neighbors would probably disagree).
The first thing I noticed about the active Auto-Tune system was a lowering of the overall output volume from the guitar. I brought the issue up with Peavey Europe's Product Demonstrator Tom Allen, who kindly provided technical support during the review period.
"Yes, there is a drop in the volume when the Auto Tune system is activated," he told me. "Antares is aware of this and there is to be a free update very shortly, which will be available from the Auto Tune website."
To get the firmware update onto the guitar at the moment, you'll need to grab a MIDI interface along with a MIDI Y-Cable, but a dedicated unit called the breakout box will be made available for purchase from Peavey next month.
I thumped out a few power chords, followed by some more intricate patterns at different positions on the neck and then treated myself to (quite) a bit of noodling. I have to admit to being suitably impressed by how unprocessed (or not too digitally clean and precise) the processed output sounded, and the ease with which the system seemed to handle intentional vibrato and string bends.
"The current threshold for Solid-Tune is from 15 cents below a note to 20 cents above," Marco Alpert from Antares confirmed. "This doesn't imply that you can't have subtle vibratos. If your actual vibrato is from -20 to +25 cents, for example, you end up with a very subtle vibrato, approximately ± 10 cents or so (depending on the speed of your vibrato), not one with a 45 cent range."
Who wants to be a bass player anyway?
I'd already seen from the video earlier in this review that it was possible to dial in alternate tunings without so much as touching the pins, and was keen to try it for myself. Fretting the low E string at the second position and strumming all the strings while activating String-Tune gave me drop D, including the B and top E strings at the second fret offered DADGAD and a bar of all the strings at the fifth fret gave me a baritone guitar. Moving further up the neck before fretting also made it possible to play bass on the six-string.
The ability to almost instantly change tuning mid-song without losing string tension was quite an eye-opener, I can tell you. Even more impressive was the ability to split the tuning of the guitar – dropping the bottom E and A strings and leaving the others at pitch, for instance. Baritone and standard runs on the same guitar ... sweet.
I was also looking forward to messing around with the guitar's virtual capo feature but, sadly, it was not to be. As it stands at the moment, the AT-200 only allows players to drop, rather than raise, the pitch of a string.
"There's no way to capo up on the basic guitar (apart from an actual capo), but there will be with the feature packs and our new Fret Control system," Alpert advised.
In the few weeks I've been playing with the AT-200, I've had the opportunity to try out the guitar in different settings – including a small bedroom and a large enclosed hall – and have only one issue. To the possible disappointment of its detractors, it's not the output sound/tone or the Auto-Tune DSP, it's the life of the supplied batteries.
"With good Alkaline batteries we're seeing around 10 hours of battery life out of those in constant use which, with the system being disabled (or the guitar lead unplugged) when not in use, is a very usable battery life," said Allen. "However, I use Lithium Ion batteries myself and these last a good 20 hours. Much better value for money."
The bottom line
Some of the folks I've talked to during the review process have expressed concerns that Auto-Tune technology will spawn a legion of players who are unable to properly tune a guitar, or won't even know what an out of tune instrument sounds like. While there is a possibility of this happening, I don't really believe that's where this technology will lead us.
"Unlike the Auto Tune plug in for vocals which actually helped people sing," said Allen, "the ethos behind the Auto Tune for guitar is that it's a system to fix the issue of physical tuning and the problems that can bring – such as intonation (which can never be 100 percent perfect on a guitar). So, as this system is monitoring the intonation constantly, if there are subtle changes in heat/humidity/string tension which can cause the guitar to slip out, then Solid-Tune will keep the guitar in tune. Not only this, but it'll be in tune anywhere up the neck."
As I said earlier, at lower (practice) output volumes, the AT-200 can sound quite strange if the strings are out of tune and the amp is throwing them out at pitch. This out-of-phase noise encouraged me to physically bring the strings in tune, and I suspect that other players will feel similarly. The system certainly seems to offer more benefits if the instrument is in (or near) tune when Auto-Tune is active.
I've encountered a good deal of negativity while talking about the brave new world that Auto-Tune for guitar technology has to offer, something that Peavey Europe's Product Demonstrator has also faced.
"Like any new technology there is a fair degree of cynicism from the old guard of guitar players," Allen told me. "This is also not helped by the fact that self-tuning guitars, such as the robot's, haven't always worked quite as people expect and they haven't gained a huge amount of fans. I always make sure everyone is aware that this is not the case with AT-200 – there are no moving parts whatsoever and the tuning system is instant and accurate! To be honest, when people get their hands on the physical guitar and start to use the system, any doubts do disappear quickly and in no time they are tricking the system to create alternate tunings and seeing the full potential of the system."
I've really enjoyed my time with the AT-200. Highlights include being able to almost instantly switch tuning mid-song, which is something that I wouldn't normally even consider but this guitar makes experimentation so much fun, it's really hard to resist. I've played bass guitar and rhythm on the same guitar, at the same time. I've dropped to a favored slide guitar tuning for a break and then back again without even thinking about it, and the (albeit simulated) perfect intonation provided by Solid Tune has offered a level of freedom for my fingers that might only otherwise be possible after regular visits to my luthier.
Auto-Tune technology certainly won't be to everyone's taste, but I would say "don't knock it until you've tried it." Like effects pedals, EBows, capos and whammy bars, the Auto-Tune system is a tool. It's there if you want to use it, but no one is forcing you. That said, I highly recommend that you check out what this guitar, and its Auto-Tune circuitry, can do for you.
Of course, at the time of writing, Antares has only just released the first of its feature packs that will allow users to expand on the features and tones already available with the basic guitar. Meanwhile, Peavey's breakout box is set to join the fray next month, which will offer a non-battery power source for the Auto-Tune system and open the instrument up to the world of MIDI control. So, perhaps the best is still to come.
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