2013-11-04

Some Thoughts On Guitar Tone

Recently, I posted the following guitar tone test to my YouTube channel in order to briefly demonstrate the sort of tones available in Peavey's ReValver MK III.V guitar amplifier modeling software.
This demo quite obviously scratches only the surface of what is possible with ReValver. The editing possibilities are deep and extensive, and the sounds produced are astoundingly realistic. I defy anyone to correctly identify the modeled sound versus the recorded sound of one of the modeled amps consistently. In short, ReValver produces fully realistic modeled guitar amplifier tones.

That got me thinking...

We live in an amazing time. The software demonstrated in the above video cost me just thirty dollars (on sale), and contains every type of guitar tone I would ever want to record. And this is just one example of what's out there. If you follow guitar gear, you are certainly already aware of the Line 6 POD line of amp modelers. Less well-known are systems such as the Eleven Rack, Axe FX II, and Kemper profiling amplifier. There are others.

What's most interesting to me is how the basic architecture of these technologies seems to be evolving. In other words, there seems to be three leading technologies here:

  1. Line 6 "dream rig" with Variax modeling guitar, POD amp modeler, and DT-series tube amplifier
  2. Roland GR-55 guitar synthesizing, with either an external pickup up specially designed guitar going into a Roland synthesizer, which feeds into either a PA or guitar amplifier (or both).
  3. Fully modeled or profiled amplifier sounds using a traditional electric guitar into an amp modeler or profiler.
Interestingly, #3 is both the most advanced of the three technologies (so far) and the lowest-tech. Line 6, Roland, and many other companies all offer their own line of guitar modelers at various price points. These range from cheap ($150) to boutique ($3000) and the sound quality tends to reflect the amount of money you spent. The major benefit here is that you don't need to buy a special guitar to make use of this technology. You just plug into the modeler and away you go.

Many people believe #3 to also be "the future." I know many people who have invested in premium grade amp modelers/profilers, and they're getting great tones. But if you think about what's in store for guitar technology in the future, I think #1 and #2 are more emblematic of what we are going to see in the future.

Both operate under the same basic principle: the Line 6 Variax and Roland-ready pickups utilize piezo crystals rather than the traditional magnets to detect guitar string vibration. The piezo pickups go out to a special output jack that feeds into the POD or guitar synthesizer as the case may be.

Frustratingly, these jacks are proprietary. That is, the Variax is only compatible with Line 6 products; the Roland pickup is only compatible with Roland synthesizers. Much like Apple vs. PC, it's a question of choosing which architecture you want, and running with it.

Line 6 start-up costs are significantly higher. A POD will set you back about $500, and a Variax guitar will set you back another $1500. The DT series amplifiers can be had for less than $1000, or you can choose to go out to a PA system. All in, you're looking to pay at least $2000 just to get started with the Line 6 guitar "ecosystem."

By contrast, a Roland guitar synthesizer goes for about $600, and the external pickup costs $200 ($100 if you buy it with the synthesizer). It's possible to purchase a Roland-ready guitar for $800 and up, but for most people, the start up costs in the Roland "ecosystem" are about $700-$800.

A Few More Words About Pros And Cons
Both Roland and Line 6 technologies offer excellent amp and effects modeling technologies. What Roland offers in addition is full MIDI integration and synthesized sounds: pianos, keyboards, flutes, etc. It's possible to make your guitar sound nothing like a guitar or any other stringed instrument. It's possible to make your guitar sound like a keyboard synthesizer. This comes with some well-documented performance issues that the user must essentially learn to "live with," but it's a small price to pay for the ability to play virtually any keyboard sound on your guitar.

By contrast, there is no MIDI integration in Line 6's technology, so the player loses out on the expanded pallet of sounds, but on the other hand, performance issues (specifically tracking) are non-existent.

Conclusion
Add it all up, and here's what it looks like from my vantage point:

First, I believe hex pickups are the future of guitar. Whether the industry standard becomes Line 6 or Roland, I have no idea, but the hex pickup is here to stay. This ultimately means that in the long run, the world will move away from stand-alone modelers like the Axe FX II, in favor of hex-pickup modeling technology.

Second, the choice between Roland and Line 6 really seems to come down to what one wants. If you're the type of person who only ever wants to make guitar sounds - but as many guitar sounds as possible - then Line 6 seems to deliver the biggest bang for the buck. If, on the other hand, you're the type of person who dreams of playing keyboards on a guitar, or fusing keyboard and guitar sounds into complex tones, then Roland really and truly is the only game in town.

But any way you shake it, I think the future belongs to synthesized sound. I imagine Line 6 will eventually deliver synthesized guitar sounds, and Roland will continue to enhance their technologies until the sky is the limit.