2011: A year of musical innovation
The closing of the year is a great time to reflect on recent events. Regular readers will already know that musical instrument development is a bit of a passion of mine, and 2011 has been a great year for innovation. Join me, if you will, for a quick retrospective look at some of the tech we've been treated to during the last 12 months, ending with a recent take on an old classic - the Crap-o-Caster.
Japan's CyberStep began the year with a move into the music business in the form of an all-in-one synth, sequencer and multitrack editor named the KDJ-ONE. Powered by an Atom processor, and with 4GB of onboard storage, the portable digital audio workstation offered users hundreds of built-in digital sounds and the facility to mix two tracks on-the-fly, DJ-style. Effects pedal giant BOSS followed with a similarly petite pocket recording studio called the Micro BR BR-80 later in the year, which included COSM amp simulations and up to 64 virtual tracks for advanced editing and mixdown.
The traditional effects pedal has had to cope with an invasion from a number of new formats this year. Players are being tempted away from chained single effects by the many thousands of sonic possibilities offered by familiar-looking products like the Kempler Profiling Amp and the rack-mounted Axe-Fx II.
The Game Changer guitar from Music Man makes thousands of different pickup configurations available on one guitar, programmed via computer software, and TC Electronic's TonePrint system allows users to instantly dial in signature tones created by their guitar heroes.
Robot guitars and mobile apps
Despite somewhat lukewarm receptions to previous attempts at pushing the technology envelope, and before being troubled by the raid from Federal Marshalls for alleged infringements of the Lacey Act, Gibson introduced robot tuning and onboard effects to a gorgeous creation called the Firebird X.
The real threat to stomp boxes unleashed during 2011, though, came from the world of mobile devices. If someone had previously suggested that I plug my guitar into my mobile phone, I would have said they were crazy. Yet this is precisely what has been happening via interfaces like the Apogee JAM. Apps open the door to an infinite world of amp simulation, effects processing and digital recording previously restricted to dedicated devices.
The creative power of mobile apps has been further boosted by the incorporation of tablet computers into purpose-built floor units like the iO Dock from Alesis and DigiTech's iPB-10 Programmable Pedalboard.
Beyond six strings
It's not just guitar fans like myself who have been treated to a seemingly endless flow of new instruments. A brand new digital music power house called the Kitara was released in 2011, and I was lucky enough to go hands-on. Budget-friendly sonic experimentation has been offered in the form of the Beep-It optical theremin. DIY-minded creative types have been drawn to the ritual sacrifice of children's learning games at the altar of the bent circuit, inspired by Reed Ghazala's Radiopool Thereglyph, or encouraged to hack away by the wonderful Synth in a Book from the folks at Konkreet Labs.
If space (or money) is not an issue, then you could follow in the footsteps of Icelandic eclectic vocalist Bjork and commission a Gravity Harp, or use brain waves and eye movement to sound musical notes on the University of Plymouth's BCMI (brain-computer-music-interface).
Those looking to learn how to play have not been forgotten by innovators this year. Would-be keyboard players in particular have been spoiled by a bevy of really useful teaching aids - like the PianoMaestro, Ion Audio's Piano Apprentice and My Note Games, which is an app for the iPad that's claimed to make learning to read music score fun for young learners.
Returning to my particular area of interest - the guitar - learners can get up close and personal with a virtual tutor with iPerform3D online tuition, or follow the tablet-based lessons offered by the Rock Prodigy app.
Germany's M3i Technologies has had a busy year, partnering with Fraunhofer's Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films to develop a new sensing film for stringed instruments, and a pitch detection and correction system that uses lasers running along each of the strings.
On the subject of pitch correction, the developer of the (in)famous Auto-Tune technology announced in May that it was about to bring the same kind of power to the six-string git-fiddle with the development of ATG-6 - T-Pain for guitar anyone?
Guitar instrument design has also seen some interesting twists, with Gizmag being introduced to Bob Wiley's Ministar travel guitars, the simply stunning Di Donato guitar and Hector Trevino's Sonic Wind guitar. Since writing about the latter, a showcase video has been produced - which can be seen at Trevino's YouTube channel.
And finally, the Crap-o-Caster...
Searching for a way to close this nostalgic trip down memory lane, a colleague suggested I take a look at a video of Florida tinkerer Shamus showing off one of his creations. For his Crap-o-Caster, James McGuire (otherwise known as Shamus) has fashioned the body of the guitar from an old toilet seat. The toilet seat guitar is hardly new of course - the now-departed Charlie Deal has been knocking them out since the 1960s, one of his creations even appearing on the cover of a Huey Lewis and the News album cover in the 1980s - but it is a fun way to close the year, and at least no-one can seriously complain about the crap tone: