Electronic Instruments Come Full Circle


Written by Yusuf Laher
17 Monday 17th January 2011

Remember “Guitar Queer-O,” the Guitar Hero South Park episode from Season 11? Remember when Randy Marsh tried (and failed) to impress the boys with his Les Paul? “They’re just little plastic controllers,” said his wife Sharon. “If they spent half the time learning a real instrument... who knows what they could accomplish.”

Now, with the development of the guitar-shaped Kitara synth-guitar, the incorporation of a six-string, real guitar controller for Rock Band 3 and the beefy Roland TD-20S V-Pro series electronic drum kit, electronic instruments have come full circle. From gadgetry escapism to full-blown analogue reality.

Developed by engineer Michael Zarimis, the aim of the Kitara is to draw electronic musicians in from the shadows. To transform them from knob-twiddling, shady background characters to front-of-house, spotlight-hogging rock-musicians with their own axes to grind. In other words, to reinvent our perceptions of introverted electronic musicians entirely. But can you really imagine someone like Aphex Twin sliding across the stage on his knees. And more importantly, would you want to?
The Linux-based Kitara uses an eight inch multi-touch display and a polyphonic synthesizer with over 100 default sounds and six pre-loaded effects – which can be assigned to the virtual strings – to readdress the notion of the nerdy keytar player in the piano key necktie. Unlike the keytar, the Kitara is not a keyboard. It’s a ‘synth-guitar’. A ‘stringless guitar’. “So why wouldn’t you just pay less for the real thing?” you ask. Well, “Er... That’s gay Mr. Marsh”.
Demoed at the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the Fender Squire six-string ‘controller’ for Rock Band 3 Pro Mode – guitar and bass – is due out in March 2011. The guitar will be console neutral but, wait for it, the output it produces in MIDI format requires a MadCatz MIDI Pro-Adaptor (which is console specific).
The neck of the guitar senses where your fingers are, single notes are represented by a number – which represents the fret on the guitar – and chords are represented by notes and a solid bar with a number for the lowest fretted finger. Unbelievably, the controller is a real, fully-functional six-string guitar that you can plug into an amp and play the old-fashioned Randy Marsh way, if you like.
In Expert Mode, with the guitar plugged into an amp, you can actually play the game and the real thing at the same time – which is a bit like playing an electronic drum kit and still making a noise to annoy your neighbour, really. Still, it’s interesting that Fender chose to go with Squire instead of a fully-fledged Fender Strat or Telecaster. (Ed - presumably to try and keep the rather high price down - currently set to be £175, above the cost of the game)
So it’s like training, really. A guitar treadmill for technophiles. Still, “what’s the point?” Why not pick one or the other: video games or reality. What happened to downloading tabs and figuring things out on your own? What happened to starting a band in the garage with a bunch of mates and terrorising the neighbourhood? Again, “That’s gay Mr. Marsh!” 
As far as electronic drum kits go, the Roland TD-20S V-Pro Series blurs the line between electronic gadgetry and tangible reality. It’s a complete 360 degree turn, from real drums to electronic pads and back again. The kit includes a more realistic, two-piece V-Hi-Hat trigger, cymbals that have been weighted and balanced to feel and respond just like the real thing, a complete set of ultra-realistic mesh pads and the improved TD-20 module. According to Roland, the “TD-20S lets drummers express themselves more naturally and with more realism than ever before!” See what I mean? It’s a more expensive, electronic version of the real thing claiming to be more realistic than ever before. Which is just weird. Like Fry’s Vegetarian “meat alternatives”. Protein chicken strips anyone?  
In the end, it’s a weird situation to be in. Initially, the difference between the electronic version and the real thing was obvious. Electronic alternatives came with upsides and compromises. Now, with kids learning to play guitar on their Xbox 360s, fine tuning their electronic mesh snare skins with real drum keys and sliding on their knees, rocking a mad synth solo in the spotlight, lines have been crossed. And you know what, “That’s gay Mr. Marsh!” Or is it?               
The Kitara’s set to be released in April. Pre-orders are available from the Misa Digital homepage.

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