Early in 2010, Gizmag caught up with software engineer Michael Zarimis and learned a little about his new Misa Digital Guitar. Renamed the Kitara and launched at CES 2011, the instrument had a built-in synthesizer, a neck packed with low profile buttons, and a touchscreen in the body that combined to offer the player an impressive arsenal of futuristic sounds and effects. The Kitarist was also given precision control over numerous parameters, and could use the device as a MIDI controller. Despite being well received, Zarimis has now retired the digital guitar in favor of something he's calling the tri-bass. Despite its name, the new device has not been designed to lurk only in the lower frequencies. In fact, it doesn't make any sounds on its own, but requires cabled connection to MIDI synths or third party software running on a computer.

"The Kitara has been received pretty well, some bands like Muse have used it in their videos," reveals Zarimis. "Ultimately however the Kitara lacked focus, or a real strong purpose, so a lot of people didn't know what it was for. This is why I have tried to really focus the tri-bass on electronic synthesizer music."

Because the Kitara looked very much like a guitar, many digital music noobs (including myself) headed straight for familiar shapes and playing styles, such as bar chords and scales, when first picking up the unit. Zarimis says that such things are simply not important to the creation of music using a controller, and so cut the number of rows on the tri-bass to three from the Kitara's six. Those rows are still divided into frets, 20 of them, but players can look forward to a much smoother sliding action and less cramped playing experience.

"The point of the neck design is to make sliding on the neck more enjoyable, and also to make it sound good," says the Sydney-based tri-bass creator. "You can feel the fret lines as you slide and it is very fun to play. You don't feel like you're struggling on the tri-bass neck, whereas the Kitara required you to really concentrate and watch the neck as you played. You would be punished for a single miss-hit."

The fingerboard consists of four rounded peaks running the length of the maple neck that give it a first-glance look of a short, fat-stringed futuristic bass, though all the action takes place in the grooves. The buttons of old are gone, replaced with three rows of "fretted" capacitive touch strips – 60 in all. The body is real wood too, and is home to custom electronics, a user-replaceable battery that's said to be good for over three hours between charges, an externally-mounted volume knob, and a touch panel.

Touching a sensor on the neck registers a note, which is then played using the touch panel with the other hand. The touch screen has been divided into four sections in standard mode, corresponding to different MIDI channels. Each channel can be assigned a different synth, and more than one area of the touch panel can be touched simultaneously for multiple sounds. The large section registers contact along both x and y axes, while the smaller sections only measure contact on the x axis.

Sustaining a note so that it continues to play after removing a finger from the touch panel involves sliding the finger upward in the selected section until it changes color to white. The note will now keep ringing until a finger is dragged up again to cancel the sustain.

A sample pad mode can be activated by pressing the far corners of the touch panel. This divides the panel into six zones which are independent of finger placement on the neck, giving players the option of using software to split keys so that the panel area triggers a different sound source to the neck, or to control parameters without causing a sample to sound. This mode also allows players to sound notes on the neck without needing to touch the panel, catering for two-handed tapping or single-handed solo runs.

Touching all four corners at the same time activates the Sliding Chords With Portamento mode. The tri-bass "strings" can be split between three separate monophonic (glide/portamento capable) synths, ensuring that each setup is identical. The controller can then be used to slide chords. Tapping two corners of the touch panel situated closest to the neck brings up a battery life gauge.

"Unlike the Kitara, which was quite tricky to configure, on the Misa tri-bass all the configuration options are gone," says Zarimis. "All the controls are pre-assigned and you can set any configuration you want through your software (such as Ableton). This is important because it makes people feel more comfortable with the instrument, but also it means if you know a lot about Ableton and MIDI controllers, you don't need to spend any additional time learning about how to configure the tri-bass because it just works."

Misa Digital is now a one man operation, which means that each tri-bass is built to order and currently subject to a shipping delay of up to eight weeks while it's being constructed. The device is available in black or white finish, and is priced at US$649.

The video below shows the kind of thing the tri-bass is capable of ... in the right hands.

Product page: tri-bass

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