songwriting

Meet The Robot Guitar: Your New Songwriting Partner

Gibson Robot Guitar

A Minor Inconvenience

One of my top resolution for 2010 is to finally start using open tuning in my songwriting. The problem is that I don’t like constantly retuning, which is why I use locking tremolos. Combining a locking tremolo with medium light strings and a somewhat delicate picking approach means that I don’t have to tune for months. Exploring open tuning using a locking tremolo basically  requires using several guitars, each with their own tuning or locking/unlocking the nut constantly. Not fun.

Tronical
In 2005, Chris Adams, a German professional guitar technician started Tronical to commercialize PowerTune, a robotic tuner system he had been developing  the 10 previous years. The idea was to combine a piezo bridge pickup with motorized stepper motors embedded in the tuning pegs then use a small computer to communicate real-time tuning data trough the strings thereby activating the motors. That’s right: the strings are used as “wires” to send data to the robotic tuning pegs. Genius! Motorized tuning has been done in the past, but the Tronical system doesn’t require additional drilling or routing, which makes it almost invisible and preserves the original look of a guitar. The system, endorsed by Uli Roth (ex Scorpion) was sold as a 800$ boxed kit for users to install on their favorite guitar.

Here’s a 2007 video of the original PowerTune system installed on a Strat:

The Robot Guitar
Then in 2007, Gibson signed an exclusive deal with Tronical, removed PowerTune kit from the stores and released it as part of the Robot Guitar, a Gibson Les Paul Studio with the PowerTune system pre-installed. In 2008, they released the Dark Fire, which merged guitar modeling technology with improved robotic tuning. More recently, in December 2009, they released Dusk Tiger (a cousin of Apple’s Snow Leopard?), which further improved the system and introduced mixing of the piezo and regular pickups.

Check out this cool review video from WIRED:

The Future
Although Gibson has introduced a “Robot” version of its Les Paul, Explorer and SG models, this still leaves the other guitar brands out in the cold. Personally, I play Stratocaster derivatives such as Ibanez/J-Custom, ESP/Edwards and modern Fender Strats. So I sent an email to Tronical and they wrote me back confirming the news that an aftermarket kit would be made available this summer to accommodate acoustic guitars as well as any non-Gibson brands. That’s good news because I was contemplating buying a Robot Les Paul on EBay just to extract the tuning system and transfer it to another guitar. Sick, I know…

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songwriting

Boom Boom Satellites – Electronic Songwriters

If you’re into electric guitars, synthesizers and music production, you’ll love the Boom Boom Satellites. They’ve been around since 1990 and have always managed to create the most potent blend of danceable rock n’ roll on the planet. Don’t be surprised if you ear some Garbage or Orgy as they were the sonic prototype for these bands.

BBS use real live drums with cutting edge synthesizers, which makes everything sound extra large and urgent. No drum machine around here. This also helps make their live performances more interesting than 99% of electronic bands out there. See for yourself in the following video:

Structurally most of their songs start with elaborate intros and go directly to the chorus, which is a common practice in dance music. They then proceed to do all kind of permutations of verses and chorus with copious remixing tricks (filter riding, swellings, cross fades, beat replacements, etc.). The result is extremely effective and memorable.

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songwriting

Eleven Rack: The future of DAW Plugins?

blog_gear_ElevenRack

Digidesign recently released their new 899$ Eleven Rack hardware product. Eleven Rack provides DSP acceleration of the Eleven guitar amp simulation plugin for ProTools LE and ProTools HD. In a way, it’s a replacement for the Line6’s Pod Xt Pro or Fractal Audio’s AxeFX rack units, but with tighter ProTools integration. Digidesign is following the footsteps of Native Instruments and TC Electronics by releasing hardware racked versions of DSP-hungry plugins.

Market Pressures

It’s no secret that lower prices and powerful multi-core native solutions are threatening the premium 10,000$+ ProToolsHD hardware solutions. By releasing dedicated boxes, Digidesign gets to accommodate low-end ProTools LE users while preserving the high-end ProTools HD market. The boxes are mass-produced in China, so they are just a cheap yet sophisticated dongle for the software. Very much like an iPhone. Genius!

I fully expect to see dedicated rack units for synths, bass & drum plugins. Guitars are first because there’s already a thriving market for such dedicated units. Being able to play live with the same box running the same program used for recording is a definite plus. Amp simulators have started to go beyond trying to emulate real amps and have started to produce sounds of theirown. The Fractal Audio AxeFX is the leading example of such approach.

Automatic Documentation

One feature that got me excited is that Eleven Rack can now save the plugin parameters in the metadata of an audio track (WAV & MP3 files can contain text tags). This means that plugin parameters can be recalled on a region-by-region basis. This form of automatic documentation of rack gear setting is something I’ve been wanting for years. The following video shows you how this is done:

Bye-bye Piracy

A rack version also helps in fighting rampant software piracy, which has affected many plugin authors. Apple are not affected by this since their core business is selling Mac hardware. The more users the better. Therefore, they can afford to reduce prices for Logic and remove complicated software protection schemes such as dongles. Software-only vendors are not as fortunate.

Physical hardware is here to stay. Get used to it.

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songwriting

Nick Troop – The Song Doctor

Nick Troop is a British doctor in psychology doing research on the effect of songwriting on human emotions. How cool is that? In his latest project he constructs the ideal David Bowie song by analyzing hundreds of songs. Obviously, he has no pretension of out doing Bowie using science and technology but the result is quite pleasant.

On his web site, you’ll find interesting statistical facts about Bowie’s lyrics. For example, it turns out that the words Bowie uses also seem to be related to how long his albums stay in the charts. Mhhmm, OK.

For his next project, the good doctor is looking for volunteer songwriters. Visit his research page to learn what it’s all about and maybe do your bit in the name of science.

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songwriting

Google Map As a Cute Toy Robot

Japanese folks love their privacy, sushi and…cute little robots. So Google Japan came out with this super-cute stop-motion animation of wooden toy characters to explain how they collect data in the land of the rising sun. The robot (let’s call him Snoop-the-friendly-robot), is seen removing all private information from photographs and obediently removing specific details when asked through a colorful telephone. Awwwww.

The theme music is appropriate and not too different from what you may hear while listening to Thomas the steam engine. I wonder if someone composed that or if it was automatically generated with one of those arranger keyboard so popular in Italy and Asia. Either way, it must have been fun to play and record.

See Japan? There’s noting to worry about. Google is not Godzilla.

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songwriting

Writing On The Bass

blog_photo_fender_bass

Usually, when we think songwriter, the image that comes to mind is one of an artist alone at the piano or playing an acoustic guitar. Yet interestingly, many bass players are the main songwriters for their band.

The best examples include:

  • Paul McCartney (Beatles)
  • Sting (The Police)
  • Nikki Sixx (Mothley Crue)
  • Tobin Esperance (Papa Roach)
  • Marcus Miller (Miles Davis)
  • Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
  • Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)
  • Geddy Lee (Rush)
  • Chris Squire (Yes)
  • Mark King (Level 42)
  • Trevor Horns (The Buggles, Seal, Art Of Noise, Franky Goes To Hollywood)

I think bassist have an advantage since they are the “glue” that keeps a song from falling apart. The role of a bassist is to support the chords played by the keyboard and guitar players, while following the drummer’s rhythms. As such they have a unique viewpoint of a song’s landscape. They have to keep the house standing while everyone else goes wild.

Switching instrument is a well-known way to explore new songwriting possibilities. Next time, try the bass and see what happens.

PS — Thanks to Sean for reminding me of Geddy Lee, Chris Squire and Mark King.

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