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Multitimbral Magic with MIDI Guitar


By Craig Anderton

MIDI guitars are a niche product, because the learning curve can be daunting for some guitar players. However, I'm surprised how many professionals have adopted MIDI guitar not as a guitar replacement, but as a creative, expressive voice that neither guitars nor keyboards can duplicate.

Thanks to ongoing controller improvements, and a better understanding of what MIDI guitar does best, I'm using it more than ever. But a big part of my renewed interest in MIDI guitar is Studio One's MPE support, and the ability to let a single MIDI guitar serve as multiple simultaneous External Devices. Let's dig deeper.

Most MIDI guitars offer two playing modes:

Poly mode, where all data from all strings appears over 1 channel.

Mono mode, where each string generates data over its own MIDI channel.

With multitimbral instruments, a MIDI guitar in mono mode can use each string to drive its own instrument. For example, the bottom three strings could drive a bass, while the upper three strings drive a polysynth sound. In theory, that's cool-but there's a drawback. In some applications, you might prefer to have the polysynth sound respond to all six strings. Yet, mono mode reserves three of those strings for bass.

Fortunately, Studio One has a simple solution: Create two MIDI guitar External Devices. Set up one for Mono mode, and the other for Poly mode (or if available, MPE mode-or even External Devices for all three modes). Then, drive the bass strings with the Mono mode external device, and the polysynth sound with the Poly or MPE mode device. Here's how to do it.

Setting Up the External Devices

Creating the external devices for Mono and Poly modes is simple (fig. 1). The only difference is that the Mono mode device selects Split Channels, while the Poly device does not.

Figure 1: External Device setup for (left) Mono and (right) Poly mode MIDI guitar, using the Zivix Jamstik.

Fig. 2 shows the Studio One setup. SampleTank's Polysynth responds to data over Channel 1. It also has three bass presets that respond to data over channels 4, 5, and 6.

Figure 2: Track setup for driving a multitimbral synth with MIDI guitar.

Tracks 2, 3, and 4 use the Mono mode external device. These tracks accept data from channels 4, 5, and 6 respectively, which correspond to the guitar's three bottom strings. The tracks output their data to the like-numbered SampleTank channels. That takes care of driving the bass presets.

Meanwhile, Track 1 uses the Poly mode external device. So, SampleTank's Polysynth preset responds to all MIDI data coming in from all the guitar strings. Now we've layered chords played by the Polysynth with bass notes from the bass presets.

Enter MPE

My main guitar controller, the Jamstik Classic MIDI Guitar, offers an MPE mode in addition to Mono and Poly. Studio One's MPE implementation doesn't support using channelized multitimbral instruments with MIDI guitar. However, this is not an issue with Studio One's bundled instruments, which aren't multitimbral but support MPE. So, my third External Device for Jamstik is set up for MPE. External Device setup is like any other MPE controller. Tick the Enable MPE check box, choose the MIDI controller in Receive From, and select the appropriate Pitch Range (typically 48 semitones).

In the example given above, SampleTank doesn't support MPE so it was necessary to use Poly mode to control its Polysynth sound. Poly mode has limitations, like not handling string bending for individual strings, and more tracking issues than Mono mode. But if we use the Jamstik's MPE mode to drive the MPE-friendly Mai Tai, we can layer the Mai Tai's polysynth presets with SampleTank's bass sound. Compared to Poly mode, using MPE with the Mai Tai gives better tracking and per-string note bends that don't influence other notes that are sounding. Fig. 3 shows the setup.

Figure 3: SampleTank and Mai Tai are layering bass sounds and a polysynth preset, respectively.

And here's one more trick: Note that I'm still using the Poly External Device to drive SampleTank. Turning off pitch bend in SampleTank's Polysynth eliminates most of the challenges involved with responding to Poly Mode, so the final sound becomes 3 individually articulated bass notes, 1 Mai Tai MPE synth for leads and rhythm with pitch bend articulations, and 1 layered SampleTank preset-thanks to optimized External Devices from a single MIDI guitar for each of them.

There's no problem with using three External Devices from the same instrument. When you add another device with the same Receive From entry, Studio One will warn you that Connecting multiple devices to the same port may lead to copied transmission of MIDI events. You can safely ignore that, because we want copied transmission of MIDI events.

So, does it sound big? Listen to this short snippet recorded in real time with no editing, and decide for yourself.
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