Instrument innovations that hit the right note in 2013
By Paul Ridden
December 30, 2013
It's been another bumper year for new musical instruments. Join us as we look back on some of 2013's high points, including inventions that dare you to play out of tune, new takes on familiar designs, and simply stunning 3D-printed creations.
Twenty twelve ended with the arrival of a new digital force in the guitar world. Gizmag got an early taste of the always pitch-perfect delights of Peavey's AT-200 electric guitar featuring AutoTune for Guitar technology from Antares.
Rather than taking mechanical control of a guitar's tuning mechanism, like Tronical's Min-ETune or the successfully-funded, but yet to be released Roadie tuner for example, AutoTune takes an out of tune string and brings it to pitch with some digital processing magic. And it does this at the push of the tone knob, almost instantly. Once in tune, the circuitry constantly monitors and adjusts the output to ensure that the guitar always delivers.
But there's more. Fretting strings during the tuning process lowers their pitch, giving the player an opportunity to quickly switch to baritone guitar mid-song, or play bass on the lower strings and rhythm or lead on the rest. At the time of review, it was only possible to alter tuning to lower than concert pitch, but subsequent feature pack releases offer numerous alternate tuning, simulated string doubling, guitar and pickup modeling, virtual capo placement and MIDI possibilities.
This already rather impressive technology is only at the very beginning of its developmental journey, who knows what twists and turns are yet to come. I'll be going along for the ride, how about you?
Instruments in print
In a world where, for the most part, wood rules the roost, it's rather refreshing to have seen some fine examples of 3D printing push their way through the forest and out into the limelight. New Zealand Professor of Mechtronics Olaf Diegel recently added a five piece drum kit and a keyboard to his expanding collection of printed instruments, which, at the time, were heading to Frankfurt with guitar and bass to kick out the jams in a live concert for a trade show.
AweSome Music Instruments also added a Les Paul-style 3D-printed guitar to its product line during 2013, offering players a natural off-white guitar packing the company's T4-Switch system, which unlock up to 76 different analog tones from the AWE-3DG's humbucking pickups.
Other examples of note include some sensor-packed, 3D-printed, internally-lit, wireless digital music controllers called Instrumented Bodies that can create music as part of, or separate from, a dancer's costume. A fine-looking and (if the video is anything to judge by) great-sounding 3D-printed soprano ukulele blipped on the radar in October, and violin soloist Joanna Wronko demonstrated the chasm-wide difference between a 3D-printed instrument created by MakerPoint co-founder Sander Smit and a classic wooden violin during a short demonstration at TEDxAmsterdam in November. The latter is perhaps not really the best advert for the 3D-printing of musical instruments, but the printed creation doesn't sound that bad, does it?
Supercharging familiar forms
If instrument development in 2013 had a recurring theme, injecting the outwardly familiar with modern expressive performance boosters must surely be it. Take the Seaboard GRAND for example. From a distance you might think it a fairly ordinary digital piano, but get in close and you'll find keys that flex to the touch, allowing for real-time alteration of each note's pitch, timbre, volume or sound.
Developers ROLI initially announced a limited production run of just one GRAND model in March, but by October the Seaboard family had increased to three versions.
Back in November 2012, we learned a few tantalizing details about a new acoustic synth prototype being tested at Moog Music's labs. The system sits underneath the strings of an acoustic guitar between the bridge and sound hole, and augments and controls the vibration of the strings. The effect is best seen and heard, so have a look at Will Ryan and Vincent Crow from The Electric Jazz Project being introduced to the device by its inventor, Paul Vo, in the video below.
In April of this year, the device was launched on Kickstarter as the Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesizer. The funding campaign was successful and, although a little behind schedule, units will shortly be winging their way to backers. Orders for the next production run are now being taken at Vo Inventions.
It's been a good year for hacks, too. Highlights include Vladimir Demin's latest robot guitar masterpiece, the Photocell Piano, the Ototo, and the latest work from Aaron Sherwood (co-creator of the Firewall), the Magnetophone.
Tinkerers looking for something to kickstart the self-build bug in the kids could soon be heading to the garage or shed to start a Electric Loog project with a young family member, if Rafael Atijas follows his crowdfunding success with a product launch. Makers have also jumped on development boards like the Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone and Arduino to enhance their creative processes. My pick of this bunch are Igor Stolarsky's Guitarduino and the similar (but with added wireless control) ArduGuitar.
Something old, something new
It's time now for a couple of stunning modern builds, with a decidedly antique ambience. When a key is pushed down on the curved or flat keyboard of the Wheelharp, the respective string is pushed toward a rotating wheel that's spinning inside the decorative outer housing. The result is a haunting bowed sound that responds to a player's subtle fingerings.
The next offering continues the supercharged hurdy gurdy feel, and was dreamed up by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci. Concert pianist and music teacher Slawomir Zubrzycki started to built the Viola Organista in 2009, and the completed reconstruction made its world premiere in October at the International Royal Cracow Piano Festival in October.
For the solo musician, or those times when playing with the band is not possible, backing tracks or tabletop rhythm creators have been the weapons of choice. When guitarist David Packouz found that there wasn't anything on the market that was simple to use, portable and allowed lots of creative wiggle room, he decided to make his own. The Beatbuddy packs 10 drum sets and over 200 complete songs into a box the same shape and size as other stomps on the pedalboard. Custom beats can be created and loaded in, and the unit can be integrated with loopers and effects via the MIDI Sync interface.
Attack of the acoustics
If you want to take a guitar on your travels, you make have to make sacrifices in sound, size or quality. In 2009, Jeff Cohen and son Josh appeared on a US TV to try and raise funds for their full-size dreadnought acoustics which collapsed down to half size for travel. Iconic guitar maker Fender has now bought into the unique Voyage Air hinge system with the release of two VA guitars.
There are many ways to amplify or record the sounds coming from acoustic guitars. You could, for example, place a microphone in front (or inside) of the sound hole, or install a coil or piezo pickup. But whichever method you choose, cables will likely feature. Shadow's battery-powered PanaFlex soundhole system brings a touch of wireless wizardry to the proceedings, and offers built in chromatic tuning, onboard volume controls, and the ability to add different dimensions to the output.
Self-taught musician and engineer Dan Bouillez believed that having sound flow through a hole in the front of a soundboard was both impractical and inefficient, and set about designing something a little different. He fashioned a Bouilliez prototype featuring a floating soundboard from a donor acoustic, and is currently in the process of his first made-from-scratch build, which he fully expects to surpass the impressive sonic capabilities of his earlier work.
Thank you and goodnight
And that's it for Gizmag's 2013 roundup of interesting, unique or beautifully bizarre musical instruments. If you've spotted anything that you think should have been included, let us know via the comments below.