The phenomenal success of music-related mobile apps has forced many of us old timers to have a good rethink about the way we make music in the 21st Century. For many musicians - including The Gorillaz and Bjork - Apple's iPad is taking center stage in the production of modern music. Digital instrument innovator Harvey Starr is also looking at the iconic tablet as a way of giving more people the chance to experience the power of Starr Labs' custom-built electronic guitars at a fraction of the cost. Pairing the iPad with his company's button-based electronic guitar fingerboard, Starr is developing a new hybrid monster called the iTar.
Starr Labs has been making the acclaimed Ztar electronic guitars for nearly 20 years, attracting the attention of such luminaries as Stanley Jordan and Living Colour's Vernon Reid along the way. The arrival of the iPad has offered the company the chance to pair its patented, 6-string, 24-fret fingerboard technology with the powerful processor inside the popular tablet to create a versatile, creative and powerful new digital instrument.
The iTar won't come supplied with an iPad, of course, but the Bo-Diddley-like square body will be home to a dock for securing the tablet in place while performing. Starr Labs is currently working on an application that will provide virtual strings across the touchscreen display of the docked device, but users will also be able to create and store custom playing surfaces.
"If you want strumming bars (strings), an X/Y control pad, 2 joysticks and 5 knobs, you can have it," Starr Labs' Jason Begin told Gizmag. "If you want to trigger the fingerboard without strumming six strings, you can do that as well with a giant tapping surface on the iPad screen. The pairing of our fingerboard also allows users to have tactile control over other third party applications like synthesizers and samplers. It can also be used a simple button matrix for use with other music applications."
The coming together of iTar and iPad will offer much more than just a touchscreen digital guitar. Inventive use of apps could see users creating a full complement of backing musicians to support each performance, capturing great musical moments via a mobile recording studio and mixing desk, learning to play via onscreen video tuition and demos, or even running some video imagery in the background while belting out some tunes. There may even be interactive, Guitar Hero-like gaming possibilities to explore.
"Technically speaking, the iTar will be made of a high impact plastic that will withstand the bumps and bangs of its portable nature and due to its modular design, will break down easily for travel and storage," says Begin. "The fingerboard will be USB 2.0 bus powered via the iPad itself so there will be no need for batteries or clumsy wall warts. The docks will also feature professional quality I/O that you would find on our flagship Ztar models (MIDI/Audio)."
Planned options include an external MIDI connector, an extended-life battery module, and high quality external speakers. Starr Labs has also developed an interactive full RGB LED fingerboard as a deluxe option that can be custom configured by the user to create personalized graphics along the fingerboard, or tied in with gaming or learning apps. A stand-alone iTar fingerboard option will also be offered to iPad owners, which should appeal to non-guitar players that might like to use the surface as an array of mappable MIDI buttons.
There's also talk of extending the modular design beyond the iPad and into smartphone territory, and also branching out into other operating environments like Android.
"We're in the thick of development now," Harvey Starr told us. "The hardware is coming together nicely and I'm just making changes now for better functionality and ease of production. We should have working software in a few weeks."
The first production iTar system is scheduled to ship two months after the closing of its current Kickstarter crowd-sourcing appeal - around February 2012 - although Starr is also looking into other ways to fund the project. The planned list price will be US$199.
Starr told us that more information on the iTar will be available on the company's website in the next couple of weeks.