Review: The Kitara digital guitar synthesizer
Way back in January 2010, a short demo video of a new digital instrument prototype was posted on YouTube by its creator Michael Zarimis, and went viral. From the millions of views, a list of prospective buyers was drawn up and the Misa Digital Guitar soon began its journey towards commercial availability. By the time the next CES show arrived, the instrument had ditched its gleaming white ABS plastic casing and gone over to the dark side, received a few design modifications, and been officially named Kitara for its public debut. The Kitara has now been made available for purchase, and I've spent the last few weeks getting to grips with this innovative new instrument - being rewarded for inventive experimentation and punished for bad playing technique.
What's in the box?
In addition to the shiny black ABS plastic review model, the box contained a suitably-branded guitar strap, a USB stick containing a user manual, and a paper quick start guide to get you up and running. There was also a smaller box containing the instrument's power cable and adapter, a MIDI cable, an audio cable with 0.25-inch jacks at either end, and a USB cable. Underneath the cable box was a useful screen-cleaning cloth and some spare screen protectors.
As a rule I'm not one for reading user manuals but - although plugging in and powering up the Kitara is easy enough - I would heartily recommend spending a little time familiarizing oneself with both the PDF manual on the USB stick and the growing list of online tutorials before chopping through the dense foliage of this particular sound shaping jungle.
At just under 3 kg (6.4 pounds), the Kitara is by no means a lightweight - it's a lot less weighty than my '79 Falcon but is not as easy on the shoulders as my Jackson. It's an attractive, solid-looking instrument with a horned body shape - a little wider body than I am used to these days, but not uncomfortably so (kind of like a flat Steinberger GM) - and a flat-faced neck sporting 144 buttons over 24 marked fret positions, similar to a stringed guitar.
The instrument is ready to play right out of the box - by plugging the adapter into the wall socket, the 0.25-inch cable into an amp and cranking it up. There's a default sound loaded (which serves as a first reminder, if one is needed, that the Kitara may look a tad like a guitar but it isn't one) - and touchpad mode is enabled, meaning that you have to have your fingers on one or more neck buttons and tap the screen at the same time to get a sound.
Anyone who can already play a stringed guitar should easily find familiar ground on the neck, although the touch panel might take some getting used to. My first discovery was that the default settings are not conducive for an attempt at Purple Haze, which also led to my first surprise - the lack of an "open string" sound.
A quick word on the latter, and other immediately noticeable differences to playing a stringed guitar. Unless the String mode is engaged (more on this later), there'll be no sound from the instrument without pressing buttons. The missing open string sounds can be brought into play by detuning so that the first fret becomes the open sound, but this means ignoring the fret markings and essentially relearning your repertoire.
Also, when shaping chords or running through riffs, progressions and solo patterns on a string-based guitar, I use a combination of palm muting with the picking hand and finger damping with the other hand to keep strings from sounding when they're not supposed to. Such techniques lead to problems on the Kitara, where you'll be rewarded for clean button contact and punished for sloppy overspill.
"The important thing to realize is that the Kitara is not a guitar," says Zarimis. "It is correct that you do not play open strings or palm mute in the traditional way - these are guitar techniques, not Kitara techniques. So by removing strings, we remove these techniques. But at the same time, we introduce new techniques which are more appropriate for electronic music."
For some reason I can't fully explain, I also seemed to spend much of my initial messing around in the middle neck positions - perhaps it was the way that the presets had been set up (where some of the lower end notes were really low), or maybe it was the lack of headstock that found me in a higher playing comfort zone than I would normally occupy. I'm not entirely sure, but it didn't spoil the fun.
Under the hood
To really start exploring, you need to open the configuration menu by tapping the two corners of the touchscreen panel at the "bridge end" of the instrument. On the left as you look down onto the screen is a Volume slider; in the middle are the Presets (which new owners will have to fill up, but mine were already there) and the all-important Load button; and the right side of the screen opens the door to an almost infinite universe of parameter and settings tweaks via the Advanced icon. This side is also home to icons that alter the way the instrument is played courtesy of the Tap, Ball and Strings modes.
The Strings mode puts a set of digital string ends at the neck end of the display, which light up when touched and sound the corresponding note on that row of buttons (which includes that elusive open string sound). The space between these virtual strings is a good deal wider than on a real guitar and doesn't visually match the position of the buttons on the neck, which does take a bit of getting used to. This mode suits a fingerpicking style of playing, and the accidental touch of a button on another row above or below is less of a worry as it will only sound if the string on the touchscreen is activated.
The Tap mode gives all of the buttons on the neck the power to sound when tapped - good for Stanley Jordan emulators. I personally found this mode very useful for trying out new sounds and fluid playing until I got more used to using the touch panel. The background color of the touch panel changes when this mode is active.
Although I didn't use the Ball mode very much at first, it is a powerful sonic weapon. Dragging the X/Y axis ball modifies various predetermined sound parameters, different for each of the presets. If the ball is set to travel by itself via the System menu, this can result in some seriously strange sonic experiences.
Entering the Advanced menu takes you to the very heart of the Kitara. This is where all the sound parameters are open and exposed and begging for experimentation. Users can control pre-loaded voices, add effects from two FX blocks, alter the mix and tuning, and configure touch panel actions. Each new sonic adventure can then be saved in the onboard memory for later recall. A number of different voices can be assigned to each row of buttons (at one point I went crazy and had four different sounds interfering with each other), which can add a new depth or unique character to the sounds on offer.
It's even possible to assign different sounds to different strings - a bass or tuned-down sound for the bottom end row, a church organ for the fourth row and a distorted lead guitar sound for the highest row - although being able to change the tuning of each row means that you don't have to stay with concert pitch or even with the traditional low-to-high stepped arrangement.
Unless you're already familiar with software-based creation of digital sounds, though, it will probably be much less intimidating to start off by manipulating the settings of the existing presets - of which there are over 40 - before attempting to create your own from scratch. Even after spending a few weeks looking behind the scenes in the Advanced menu, I feel like I only scratched the surface - and that's without even considering what throwing MIDI into the equation might have led to.
Messing with the kid
Both the touchscreen panel and the buttons are really responsive - I'm no speed-shredder but even in my fastest moments, the Kitara managed to keep up. The product description says that the touch panel is capable of registering up to five simultaneous touch points, although it did seem to recognize and respond to more than that. At 800 x 600, it's not the highest resolution screen I've ever seen, but it doesn't really need to be - it's bright and clear when in the configuration screens and the combination of pulsing color action, the bouncing ball and the static digital strings works very well.
Being quite set in my ways, it did take me a little time and a lot of effort to bring my picking hand into play, but by the time I had to return the unit I was definitely starting to find my stride. I suspect that this instrument might well appeal to would-be guitarists who have given up on playing before the finger ends toughen up and make pressing strings less of a pain.
I had thought that pressing down buttons to get a sound might be a bit strange, but was pleasantly surprised by the experience - the Kitara's buttons respond to even the lightest of touch, and sliding up and down a row of buttons is oddly smooth.
Playing chords in something like the acoustik preset is a much more rewarding experience than, say, padman but you soon get to know which ones offer the best solution for a given technique. A two- or three- button power chord approach is far more audibly satisfying than trying to use bar chords.
Depending on what's determined by the preset or what's chosen during the set up of new sounds, dragging a finger across either axis of the touch panel can have some pleasing results - from a simple string-bend emulation to a completely bizarre sonic bomb.
Even though I'm not a big fan of digital music per se, I've played quite a few guitar synths in the past and have not been overly impressed. The Kitara offers a somewhat different solution than anything I've previously got to grips with, and I have to admit to thoroughly enjoying my experience. True, I needed to modify (and significantly clean up) my playing technique in order to be rewarded, but that's not to be unexpected with a new instrument. There were a couple of minor gripes, though.
Being tethered to a mains outlet is a bit of a bind but can be overcome for live performing by attaching a suitably powerful battery pack to the strap, in a similar fashion to the little box that allows you to play wirelessly.
If you're in a shared household and plan to use headphones, I would recommend plugging them into the audio out socket on your amp rather than rely on the 3.5mm jack on the Kitara (which I found to be a little on the quiet side, even when the volume slider was at maximum), although it is possible to boost both the input gain and the output level via the Mixer, Compression, Modulation, and Distortion settings.
Apart from that, the Kitara is a very capable and versatile stand-alone digital sound generator - but its real power is with its MIDI capabilities. I didn't get the chance to tinker with MIDI, but Zarimis says that the Kitara can "even control an external light show on the stage or control panning of the speakers from one side to the other etc - it can get really crazy but in the end, that falls more in to the artists/musicians domain."
While it may be tempting to think of it as a tablet computer docked in a guitar-shaped body - like the iTar from Starr Labs - it's not, and so isn't opened up to a world of mobile apps. Extending the available sounds beyond what's already available is possible, however.
"Our software is open source, so anyone can download and expand," Zarimis explains. "The internal sounds of the Kitara can be changed by downloading new wavetables and presets from the internet. Because it is a synthesizer, it is possible to get many different types of sounds"
The system firmware also goes through regular updating - users can look for notifications posted on the forum, which is also starting to feature user videos and preset sharing, or download a PC/Mac application which automatically checks for updates.
Pricing and availability
The Kitara is available now from Misa Digital. The ABS model reviewed in this article is priced at HKD 7,480 (US$960), and there's a limited edition aluminum model, too, that will cost you HKD 25,342 (US$3,252). The purchase price includes a replacement neck, should the unthinkable happen and buttons stop responding.
U.S. customers can now order the ABS Kitara from Sweetwater for US$1,099.
The Kitara has been available direct from MISA Digital for a few weeks now, so I asked Zarimis how it was being received.
"We have customers posting videos on YouTube and the quality is definitely improving," he said. "I can see the customers that bought the Kitara are really starting to understand it, and figure out how to get it to sound good. I guess from that perspective, it's like any other instrument. The instrument will only do so much - it's up to the artist to get music from it!"
Having watched this development from the very beginning, the Kitara didn't disappoint but I must also admit that - and call me an old axe-hack if you like - I was happy to return to familiar six-string territory when it was gone.