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The age of the Misa Digital Guitar has dawned

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January 22, 2010

Each 'keycap' represents a note, similar to fret positions on a traditional guitar but the...

Each 'keycap' represents a note, similar to fret positions on a traditional guitar but the sound of each one can be varied according to user preference

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A software engineer based in Sydney, Australia has created a digital guitar controlled by open source software which he hopes will see musicians play electronic music in a live environment. Players control the pitch, speed and volume of notes produced by the Misa Digital Guitar via a 24 'fret' neck and touchscreen interface.

The instrument bares the name and has the look of its traditional stringed relative, but that's just about where any similarity ends. The Misa Digital Guitar is a digital sound synthesizer, or more accurately a MIDI controller, powered by a 500MHz x86 compatible AMD Geode processor.

An open source control program sits on the Linux 2.6.31 (Gentoo) platform and generates the notes chosen on the neck and the graphics displayed on the 8.4in LCD 800x600 pixel resolution touchscreen. Graphics frame buffer access is taken care of by DirectFB, "which acts as a fast layer on top of the hardware".

The inspiration for Misa came after hearing the song "Waters of Nazareth" by Justice, "if you listen to that song, you can just tell it is heavy/death metal guitar translated to synthesizers" but rather than just fit a MIDI interface to a stringed instrument and suffer the subsequent delay and reproduction restrictions, he decided to make an easy to use, true digital guitar.

"The aim is for people to be able to translate the music in their head, out of the guitar in a more intuitive manner. I believe I have succeeded with this design. Because this instrument is really fun to play and really addictive. Much of the frustration of playing the tradition guitar is gone, but the digital guitar itself challenges your creativity more. This is the direction musical interfaces should be taking."

The body and neck are CNC machined from solid ABS plastic. The touchscreen sits in the middle of the body, where the pickups would be on a traditional guitar. The neck consists of 144 'keycaps' spread across six rows and along 24 'frets', each one represents a note (just like on a traditional guitar) which can be tuned to just about any pitch and tone desired in Misa's control program.

The touchscreen detects contact made on x/y coordinates which means that controls can be assigned to different axis on the screen. For instance, in the video below the x axis is set to condense or crush the sound and the y axis represents note velocity. Tapping the top of the screen results in a soft, muted sound and tapping the bottom of the screen increases the volume. Moving to the right increases the distortion and so on.

The bright circle at the center of the screen controls more aspects of the sound so tapping, dragging, sliding and otherwise touching the various parts of the screen results in different sound combinations.

Misa will happily hook up to any operating system on any computer with a MIDI compatible sound module / sound card and will also connect to most synths and samplers. The prototype offers four simultaneous MIDI change control parameters to play with but more can be added if needed by tweaking the source code to update the firmware.

With a list of interested buyers already in place, Misa's creator is currently putting the final touches to a pre-production model and will update the website when the first one is ready to go. He hopes that the project will constantly develop and grow and sees users creating and sharing code modifications with other digital guitarists, such as a different graphical experience on the screen or control command variations. He also hopes that open sound control might be implemented via the ethernet port sometime in the not too distant future.

And just in case any left-handers are wondering, the versatility of controlling each note on the guitar means that Southpaws could simply alter the configuration and turn it upside down, Hendrix-style. The designer has stated, however, that a more comfortable left-handed body design will be made available as an option. Such things will no doubt be taken care of at the ordering stage.

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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