July/August 2003

Do You Believe in MaGIC

I saw music's future at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, Calif., last January. It is digital-very digital. Certain corridors at that trade show are lined with stacks of Macintosh G4s, and synth makers speak incessantly of sample rates and real-time tone modeling. For analog fetishists at the show, things don't look so good-music's future feels cold and uninviting. Journeying upstairs to the Gibson booth, where Ike Turner is playing stock blues licks on a Les Paul guitar, things feels like home, all is good again. But what's that cable coming out of Ike's guitar? That doesn't look standard. And what's that strange box it's plugged into? Oh crap. Ike's guitar is digital.

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Gibson Les Paul equipped with Ethernet output

Gibson's digital guitar came out of research and experimentation on the part of Gibson Labs, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based division of the world-famous musical instrument company. It fits a regular electric guitar with a new type of pickup and an RJ-45 connection-aka an Ethernet slot-the same kind of input/output found on the back of networked computers. In that way, the digital guitar isn't so much a model unto itself than it is an option like one you'd choose for a car. The Ethernet-output-equipped Les Paul, the only digital guitar Gibson has let the public see (even though the first prototypes were built from ES-335s), still has the tried-and-true 1/4-inch phono jack onboard. And it uses regular guitar strings. It's just a guitar with added features, features that should open doors to sounds we've never heard.

Think about how fast you can navigate the Internet via an Ethernet connection, and you'll realize that the RJ-45 jack in the digital guitar is capable of handling much more information than a phono jack ever could. The technology behind the digital is called MaGIC, which stands for Media-accelerated Global Information Carrier, and it can provide 32 channels of 32-bit, bidirectional high-fidelity audio with sample rates up to 192 kHz at speeds that eclipse MIDI by as much as 30,000 times. In other words, this digital guitar can do way more than even Pat Metheny's MIDI-enabled ax.

The digital guitar's pickup (Gibson calls it a "hex" pickup) allows you to output and route a signal from each individual string via a breakout box that the Ethernet cable plugs into. Among other I/O ports, the breakout box has a phono output for every string, each of which could be sent to a different amp. Plans for a MaGIC-enabled amp are in the works at Gibson, as well as a direct connection to a computer, which could change the way guitarists develop their styles and approach recording.
Think about what could happen if you used modeling technology to change each string's signal into the sound of a unique instrument-turn a guitar into a horn section, from tuba up through pocket trumpet, or perhaps mutate your guitar into a group of synths. Truly ambitious aural tricksters could remodel a string signal's tone after each note, creating a morphing guitar effect. We could be in store for a new kind of dream in sound. Or a nightmare.

After reading about all of this I wondered exactly how discrete the separation of the string signals are. Would the signal from the B string bleed with those from the neighboring G and high E strings? "The crosstalk will vary depending on size of the string, and how hard it is plucked," says Gibson Labs' Nathan Yeakel. "Generally, adjacent strings are not audible unless your amp has the gain set very high."

Skeptical of how a digital pickup might sound and worried that the digital guitar would have flat, cold tone, but Yeakel eased my concerns: "Traditional pickups only sense string motion in one axis. The pickups on the digital guitar sense motion in the X and Y axis and recombine them before being digitized. The result is a more natural sound that contains more of what you hear when the guitar is unamplified. Another difference is that the traditional pickup has a resonance point-usually between 2kHz and 15kHz-that extenuates the upper harmonics of the strings. This is one of the things that makes different pickups sound different. The pickups on the digital guitar are fairly flat, allowing you to set the resonance point through tone or EQ, and therefore extending the timbral range of the instrument." Who knows, perhaps the hex pickup will even prove superior to the PAF humbucker over time.

Gibson created MaGIC for guitar, but quickly realized that the technology could be used for additional applications, from consolidating the mess of wires in a stage setup to transferring huge files like high-density MRI scans from hospital rooms into doctors' offices for scrutiny. How about that? It's 2003 and electric guitars continue to change the world.

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