Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesizer takes crowdfunding route to production
By Paul Ridden
April 12, 2013
Back in November 2012, we brought you news of a new pickup harmonizer technology dubbed LEV-96 in prototype testing over at Moog Music. Sat in the sound hole of an acoustic guitar, the device took precise control of string vibrations to offer an expansive, colorful and rich harmonic backdrop to what was being played. Paul Vo, the inventor of the newly-renamed Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesizer, has since made some improvements to electronics, user interface and mechanical design, and has now launched a crowdfunding campaign to get what he calls the "most fundamental and radical innovation in the music industry today" into the hands of musicians.
Vo has been working with the folks at Moog since 2006, and is the man responsible for inventing the technology behind the award-winning Moog Guitar and Moog Lap Steel. He's been developing his new Acoustic Synthesis system since 2009. Encouraged by the response from Moog and those testing the 12 units created for the LEV-96 beta phase, he has decided to offer a limited number of "inventor's cut" products for sale through his design company, Vo Inventions LLC ... with Moog's blessing and good wishes.
"The folks at Moog Music and I have a great relationship, but it's a bit of an unusual relationship in the sense that it too is an invention, built for our specific purpose and out of the usual mold," Vo told us. "As a result, most of the speculation about it is likely to be wrong I guess. Nothing has changed in our relationship. I've always been an independent inventor and I've worked with Moog in whatever way makes sense for their corporate strategies and my ideas and initiatives as an inventor. On this occasion, that formula and its built-in flexibility has led to a different result that probably looks like a change in the relationship from the outside looking in."
The Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesizer is made up of over 1,200 components, including three high bandwidth digital signal processors and 12 physical full bridge transducer drives. The analog and digital signal processing vibration control engine is called the Core-96 and sits out of view inside the acoustic guitar. Between the sound hole and the bridge, the combined capacitive touch interface (with LED status indication and lock-out) and physical sensoriactuator unit lays flat against the upper face of the instrument.
The system expands the sonic capabilities of an acoustic guitar by augmenting and controlling the vibration of guitar strings. It's capable of 12 channels of sub-microsecond analog sampling, and 96 virtual channels of vibration control (16 per string). Whatever synthesized sounds you hear come from the acoustic guitar itself, it's not routed through an external amplifier.
"The DSP and control systems of the Vo-96 operate completely in the background, adding and subtracting harmonic motions from the string by modulating the magnetic field around the string," the inventor explained. "Synthesis occurs on the string, in directly perceivable reality."
Sliders on the touch interface control power, harmonic blend and note duration, and players can adjust modulation effects with instant preset save/recall. There are six quick-change presets available in three sets of two using odd, even and all harmonics. You also get three harmonic arpeggios unique to six presets independently triggered on six strings, hex random harmonic modulation with average rate and amplitude adjust, and hex Tremolo with separate triggers per string.
The system is said to be compatible with most steel string flat top acoustic guitars. Vo says that if you can roll an AAA-sized battery (which is about 1 cm/0.4 inch in diameter) under the strings at the bridge, and there's more than three inches of depth within the body, you should be OK. There's more precise compatibility information on the blog section of the company's website.
To install a Vo-96, you'll first need to remove the strings from your chosen acoustic guitar. The assembly is lowered through the sound hole of the acoustic guitar, and the transducer positioned toward the bridge and centered. After re-stringing (but without fully tightening), adjustments are made to ensure that the pickups are positioned correctly and then the unit is secured in place. The device's spring-loaded mounting clamp has tacky undersides to keep it from moving without causing damage to the guitar's finish. Then you just tune up, power on and experiment.
Players have two power options – the Vo-96 can either be connected to a wall outlet via an AC adapter or an optional lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery subsystem has been developed to cater for cable-free portability. Bluetooth wireless technology has also been included to allow easy install of future firmware revisions and tonal additions to the system.
In addition to providing that interesting harmonic accompaniment to acoustic picking, the modulations can also serve to "improve" the sound a decidedly average guitar throws out, giving it the kind of voice you might expect to see on higher end models. Also, because the device's behavior and feature set are software-defined, the present, and particularly the future, sonic possibilities go way beyond what's demonstrated in the video at the end of this overview.
To secure the finances needed to implement some final mechanical design improvements to make the Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesizer easier to install, and put it in the hands of a limited number of musicians, Vo has launched on Kickstarter.
"Some of the ideas in a concept car eventually are cherry-picked into retail products but you almost never see the actual, full-on concept car out on the road," he said. "But the internet and more specifically Kickstarter is changing everything – so this time you will! Making the Vo-96 available through Kickstarter allows us to maximize the value to you and provide the most powerful product for the price; and there is simply nothing else available at any price that does what the Vo-96 does."
Ignoring the supporter pledge levels and jumping straight to the actual product, backers experienced in luthiery can grab a bare-bones Vo-96 kit (containing circuit boards and wiring) for US$1,050. One of the first 200 mains-powered complete units can be yours for $1,250.
For another $200, a signed and numbered professional installation kit can be yours, which includes a full battery subsystem and powerpack. At the top of the pledge tree, backers stumping up $4,800 or more can get a Vo-96 installed into a Wes Lambe hand-made acoustic guitar, like those shown below.
At the time of writing, Vo has managed to pass the half-way point in just a few short days. Manufacturers have been secured, and final assembly will be undertaken under the direct supervision of Vo himself. He's even vowed to personally test and sign each and every unit shipped out to backers. The campaign ends on May 12, so there's still plenty of time to jump in.
The pitch video below features Tyler Ramsey trying out some of the system's modulations. Audio for the video comes courtesy of a single large diaphragm condenser microphone plugged into the video camera. The only post-processing undertaken was to add some stereo reverb to the mono recordings.