CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Gearhead: John McLaughlin Makes MiGiC

A six-year deep dive into synth control helped this guitar icon create a new electronic voice

John McLaughlin and Shankar Mahadevan
John McLaughlin and Shankar Mahadevan

Over his 50-plus years on the world stage, John McLaughlin has never been afraid to explore uncharted territory. Yet, as the 78-year-old guitarist jovially admitted by phone from his home in Monaco, he’s always wanted to be a singer. And though he’s counted among the greatest players of all time, his search for a voice-like sound keeps driving him forward.

On his new duo album Is That So?, McLaughlin’s guitar and Shankar Mahadevan’s voice combine to create something both meditative and emotional. My first listen was in a noisy (and irritating) environment, and it took less than 30 seconds with headphones to be transported and transfixed by the soundscape. Over the six years it took to make the album, McLaughlin built a new voice for himself using an improbable tool—a synthesizer plugin from Apple’s Logic Pro digital audio workstation. Improbable not because McLaughlin is new to guitar synthesizers; he’s been messing with them since the ’70s. The issue is that even when synths can track the phrasing of a guitar, it’s hard to capture the complex decay and sustain that gives stringed instruments their nonlinear dynamics.

McLaughlin did that and more on Is That So? The vowel-like synth tone moves with the nuances inside the notes. The parts are unapologetically electronic but don’t sound programmed; they sound performed. “It was a long time coming—oh brother!” McLaughlin laughs. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the guitar. That’s been my instrument for my life. But for this project with Shankar’s voice, which is wonderful, I wanted to find a vocal quality. It started with a standard tone with the Logic ES-2 synth plugin. I was tweaking aspects of the inside of the tone.”

He created the instrumental tracks in stages. When orchestrating background parts, he relied on the Fishman Triple Play MIDI pickup system (“polyphonic and very accurate,” McLaughlin reports). But when it came time for the improvised solos with Shankar—which are more of a musical dialogue than a traditional vocal/instrumental trading-off—he wanted to go beyond the limitations of MIDI. “About a year or so ago I found a program called MiGiC,” he says. Billed as real-time guitar-to-MIDI software, MiGiC processes audio from the guitar’s output to generate MIDI messages.

“It took some experimenting with the pickups—you have to work with it and with the synth patches,” McLaughlin explains. “But the amount of gain you put into it can give you different ‘inside’ tonal effects, which becomes much more personal. The average MIDI note is impersonal to me. Though it’s purely monophonic, and it’s kind of demanding because you need your playing to be pretty accurate, it can handle whatever you can give it. It sets that singing tone you only get from a guitar string.”

MiGiC is available with a free 30-day demo or at full purchase price of $24.95 at migic.com. Fishman Triple Play starts at $229.95 street price.

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Emile Menasché

Musician, journalist, and author Emile Menasché has composed soundtracks for Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentaries. He is jealous that his dog Hudson gets more attention from passersby whenever they’re seen in public together.