Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (December 2007)

The Electronic Musician

By Bryan Bergeron

An electric musical instrument shop is a dangerous place if you’re an electronics enthusiast with a charge card — even if you can’t play a riff on a guitar. The modern, plugged-in musician isn’t limited to guitars, drums, microphones, keyboards, and other personal instruments, but is adept with a variety of ‘control surfaces’ — MIDI controller keyboards, mixers, faderports, and the like. Moreover, they are at home with computer-based sequencers, hardware- and firmware-based signal processors, and a seemingly endless supply of preamps, amplifiers, and support peripherals. I have yet to enter a fully stocked music store and not discover a device or software package that I didn’t even know existed.

The primary driver behind the increasingly sophisticated electronic face of music is economics. It simply costs more to assemble a classic studio than one composed of digital gear, including a desktop or laptop computer. Another driver is simply the fun factor. There’s more room for free expression and experimentation with digital gear than with single-dimension traditional instruments. After all, why limit yourself to solos when you can play with and direct a virtual band? A third driver is the increasing popularity of podcasts and youtube. The desire to author content for these and similar services has ignited interest in the mainstream technology community in high-quality, affordable USB microphones, preamplifiers with digital output, sequencers, and post-production hardware and software.

Full-featured sequencers, exemplified by Cakewalk Project5 for Windows and Logic Studio and GarageBand for OS X, enable you to create, record, edit, and mix music from the comfort of a keyboard. Given a modest understanding of music theory, why learn to play the drums or sax when you can simply select a virtual instrument from a drop-down menu? In addition to computer-based tools, there is a staggering array of stand-alone electronic devices. For example, most electric guitarists wouldn’t consider playing without some kind of effects processor that not only adds special effects such as reverb, echo, or delay to a sound, but that can model the audio characteristics of guitars, amplifiers, and even the instruments used by specific artists.

Two of my favorite low-end effects processors are represented by the pocketPOD from Line 6 (see Figure 1) and the Micro Cube combination amp-effects processor from Roland. Both units are entry-level products with a street price of about $130. Although you can easily spend thousands for a high-end amp or processor, products in the $100-$200 range are perfectly suitable for home or amateur band use. With the Micro Cube amp, I can make my Gibson Melody Maker sound like a traditional acoustic guitar or add flanger or phaser effects to approximate the sounds of the guitar-amplifier combinations used in my favorite rock bands. What the battery-powered unit the size of a bookshelf speaker lacks in power and repertoire of effects is offset by ease of use and portability. Of course, even the best effects processor won’t give you the skill of a professional guitarist — that takes years of practice.

The pocketPOD — which is inserted inline between the guitar and preamp — is an impressive effects processor in a portable package. The pocketPOD is based on the Freeescale 56364 DSP chip, which provides the unit with 24 bits of dynamic range and 100 MIPS of processing power. All that power means that you can model over 300 vintage and modern guitars and amplifiers. Additional models or presets can be downloaded from the Line 6 website and uploaded into the pocketPOD via its USB port.

Roland and Line 6 are but two of dozens of brands of guitar effects processors. And we haven’t even considered drum machines, wind instrument controllers, multi-track recorders, studio monitors, or tuners. For the latest developments in electronic music technology, a good source is Electronic Musician. Of course, nothing beats hands-on experimentation at your local music store. Just make sure to leave your charge card at home. NV

• Apple Logic Studio [url=http://www.apple.com]http://www.apple.com[/url]
• Cakewalk Project5 [url=http://www.cakewalk.com/products/Project5/sequence.asp]http://www.cakewalk.com/products/Project5/sequence.asp[/url]
• Line 6 Processor [url=http://www.line6.com]http://www.line6.com[/url]
• Roland Micro Cube [url=http://www.roland.com]http://www.roland.com[/url]
• Electronic Musician [url=http://emusician.com/]http://emusician.com/[/url]