Bass players are increasingly called on to enter the electronic realm on key bass and more, or are sometimes replaced by those more familiar. For anyone desiring to use their chosen instrument to make sounds typically belonging to another, MIDI (“Musical Instrument Digital Interface”) is a very tempting way to go. Jam Origin’s polyphonic MIDI Guitar and monophonic MIDI Bass programs have dramatically lowered the barrier to entry in this field, and have done so in unique and outstanding fashion. While one might expect the MIDI Bass offering to be the subject of review in a bass-specific magazine, I’ll actually be focusing on MIDI Guitar 2 and tandem use of both platforms.
Choose Your Vehicle
“Remember, you’re a musician first; a bass player second.” So went the words of my first teacher (himself an accomplished career guitarist), whom I don’t really recall ever holding a bass. That was one of the most salient lessons I learned in those early days of studying, and the further I get into my own musical career, the truer it rings.
For anyone who has put an inordinate amount of time into mastering a specific instrument, the concept of a link to the wider world of musical creativity, timbre, and expression via the instrument they specialize in is incredibly enticing. Although far from perfect, the best protocol for that job is MIDI. If you’ve never used a MIDI device, the basic idea is that you use a controller of some type to codify musical tones and expression into a series of digital numerical values, which can then be “plugged into” something else that generates sound – usually a hardware or software synthesizer in one form or another.
Keyboards work great for this, because the information that keys being depressed and released with varying intensities create is easily digitized – the electronic keyboard is a “clean” instrument with no possibility of sympathetic string vibration, multiple locations of the same pitch in the same octave, no worries about intonation, etc. Guitar instruments – really any stringed instruments – are much more imperfect in comparison, so reliable and quick translation of their tones and nuances to MIDI has been elusive, at best.
All Roads Lead to Bloop
There are several ways to get there: you may have seen Victor Wooten using the new FretTraX system to trigger MIDI sounds and events, or a guitarist or bassist with an odd-looking and somewhat bulky Roland unit attached to their axe, or maybe just someone with piezo-equipped bridge saddles and a 13-pin output from their instrument feeding a rackmount unit or floor processor. Fishman® has the very impressive TriplePlay system; a wireless unit that converts to MIDI without need for an external brain – for guitar only.
But there’s another way, still in its nascency, and in my opinion the most exciting and most widely applicable method – real time, negligible latency, polyphonic audio-to-MIDI conversion software. I’ve experimented with this since about 2008, but at that point there was nothing I knew to be available like Jam Origin’s MIDI Guitar 2. I had been using a far more basic and underperforming program from a company called WIDIsoft. I won’t mince words about what Jam Origin has made available and is actively developing; it’s nothing short of revolutionary.
Typically, one of two methods need be employed to convert your strings’ sounds into MIDI; either the frets themselves need to be electrically connected to a processor that detects which fret you’re depressing a string onto, such as with the FretTrax or older Peavey systems, or you split each string’s output into its own individual channel by means of a hexaphonic pickup (Roland system) or piezo elements (RMC Ghost) and send those divided signals out to a separate hardware brain that then converts them into MIDI.
Each method has its benefits and drawbacks. Electrically capacitive systems that involve wired frets require expensive, invasive installation or need to be wired-in during construction and often have difficulties with sensing right hand articulation. Fret replacement becomes a more complicated process, as well. On the other hand, hexaphonic and separate piezo pickups are not easily or quickly installed and uninstalled, and they require an external piece of hardware such as Roland’s GR-55 Guitar Synth to actually carry out the MIDI conversion.
If it wasn’t before, it should now be clear why simply plugging your normal, non-modified bass or guitar into your audio interface and firing up MIDI Bass or MIDI Guitar 2 is such a big deal – and better yet, MIDI Guitar performs arguably better at the task of true MIDI conversion with fewer overall drawbacks than any other method I’ve tried. And at $99 for a lifetime buy-in for both MIDI Guitar and MIDI Bass, it’s a mere fraction of the cost of any other MIDI conversion system.
Bit by Bit
MIDI Guitar 2 and MIDI Bass come packaged together, and as both standalone programs and plugins for use within a digital audio workstation, in VST (“Virtual Studio Technology”) and Audio Unit formats. When used as a standalone host, either is capable of hosting your other VST effects and instruments, so there’s no need to use a separate DAW (“Digital Audio Workstation”). A respectable library of proprietary synth voices, guitar effects, amp simulators and cabinet models are included. However, the majority of effects and virtual instruments I use are native to Ableton Live, so I preferred to use the VST plugins within Live. There is absolutely no difference in performance when used within a DAW, as opposed to standalone mode.
As with any MIDI conversion system, setup is an important factor. MIDI Guitar gives you some parameters you should spend time tweaking for optimal results, and they have a handy walkthrough of these settings available via the Help menu. In particular, getting the input level through the audio interface right is key, as is setting the noise gate. You can adjust the buffer size and subsequent latency, but although my Intel i7-equipped PC with 16 GB of RAM performs admirably well in most media and audio tasks, I wasn’t able to set my buffer size to less than 64 samples without the CPU meter maxing out – a warning that your computer can’t quite keep up with the task at hand. Lowering the buffer size equates to lessening latency, so experimenting here is also worth your time.
Provided in the Articulation module are controls for pitch bend and range, legato, and aftertouch settings. For those unfamiliar with these terms, the program’s tutorial does a good job of explaining why you might or might not want to alter these parameters, depending on the synth/voice you’re using. There are also very convenient and easy to operate MIDI velocity controls, including gain, tone, and curve – again, explained well by the tutorial. The next module is titled Midi Machines, and this is an interesting one. Here you can basically configure the MIDI equivalent of audio effects pedals, but ones that are MIDI specific, to do some pretty fun things; an arpeggiator to create cool, automatic arpeggio runs based on a single pitch you play, a transposer to pitch your MIDI notes up or down several octaves or semitones (very important for practical usage), and more.
The Instrument module is for selecting what synthesizer or virtual instrument, you’d like to use, and if you’ve added your own VST’s into the software, it will show them among the available voices here, along with its own built-in tone generators. Next to that module is Guitar, which gives you options for amp and cab modeling on your dry audio (non-MIDI), as well as audio effects. If you have VST effects that you’ve scanned in, they will be available here, as well. Below the last two modules is the Mixer, which allows you to control the mix between your dry audio and wet MIDI sound, as well as master gain and a cool sync control that can slightly delay your dry signal to better match the latency of the wet one.
So What’s the Catch?
MIDI conversion is always a compromise. You’re either neglecting some right or left-hand articulation, dealing with a bunch of outboard gear, or in this case, with the limitations of the software in its current form. But the excellent thing about software is that it can be updated and augmented, again and again.
MIDI Guitar and MIDI Bass are made to be instrument-specific converters, and the way in which they recognize pitch requires the notes in the standard range of those instruments to be specifically programmed in, and that only those notes are recognized. This means that unlike the monophonic MIDI Bass, which currently detects notes between open E and the G two octaves above your open G string, MIDI Guitar currently will not detect a note lower than the D at the 10th fret of your E string on bass (it’s capable of detecting a guitar’s drop D tuning, which is one octave above the lowest D on a 5-string bass). This is obviously an issue, being that it divides a 4-string bass in half, as far as usable polyphonic triggering goes.
However, there is a very cool workaround – you can use a special script in one of the Midi Machines effects in MIDI Bass that stops note recognition where it’s picked up in MIDI Guitar (to prevent against any overlap of note recognition and output), and you can use both programs in tandem, feeding the same synth voice! This gets you whole-fretboard recognition with polyphonic capability above D, and it works very well. I’m set up this way in the companion video that accompanies this review.
Additionally, in speaking with the developer, it’s clear that they will be adding several lower recognized pitches, which I’m assuming will be Db, C, and B, likely to accommodate 7-string and highly detuned guitars. That may not seem like much, but it could make a considerable difference in real-world practicality. The developer also states they would like to make MIDI Bass polyphonic at some point in the future, but didn’t give me any reason to expect that to be imminent.
Bass as Interface
Here is what I would offer to the doubtful at this point: when using the bass as a controller, it ceases to be a bass. A controller’s keys and knobs have no intrinsic musical value; a C on a MIDI controller keyboard is only a C if the synth it’s hooked up to says it is. This understanding and mindset makes it far easier to see the greater value proposition of using a system like this, and using electronic manipulation to achieve the desired output. Just because you can’t use your open low B string to trigger a low B synth sound, doesn’t mean you can’t get the pitch of a low B. Play it an octave higher on your instrument or map that output sound to any fret you like (that’s within the program’s detectable range), and enjoy dropping low B bombs all night!
I’ve had a lot of fun playing with an 808 drum machine synth, in which the 12th fret of my high C string is for some reason the 808’s infamous, deep sub bass hit. It feels odd at first to trigger such a profound sound with such a seemingly high note, but that’s just it – when I’m using the bass that way, it’s not a note, it’s a command. With understanding and use of the Transpose control and controls within the plugins you’re using, there’s no missing capability, whatsoever. Additionally, I’ve had some interesting and fun results pitching my bass’ input into the audio interface up one octave via a Bass Whammy pedal first, which essentially turns it into a guitar as far as MIDI Guitar is concerned. It adds a little to the latency, as the Whammy imparts its own, but is another way of looking at solving an electronic conundrum with an electronic solution.
As with most MIDI converters, some latency is detectable and worsens slightly with decreasing pitch (another reasonable argument to keep your triggering up higher), but it’s nowhere near deal-breaking or show-stopping in its effect on one’s playing, here. While the Interface module’s parameters list selectable latencies as low as 1ms, the program doesn’t report genuine latency. But hopefully the accompanying video example serves to show that it’s not an arresting factor whatsoever, especially after five minutes of use. And again, the latency you’re able to run at will depend upon your computer’s specs and abilities, and how well tuned it is for audio use.
Note that you can mix the output of your bass with the affected MIDI sound through the software’s Mixer, and even add effects, amp, and cabinet simulation to your bass tone and control the mix in real time via an expression pedal or other MIDI controller, so it’s possible to essentially perform your own voicing split between real bass and MIDI output, allowing you some pretty unique soloing opportunities. Bass on E and A string, Rhodes on D and G string, anyone? On the DAW side, you’re only limited by your imagination as to what MIDI splits, voicings, DAW controls or other MIDI events you can program.
You can try both of these programs for free; downloads are available on Jam Origin’s site. The trial versions don’t lack any functionality – their stream is simply interrupted every several minutes. This is the best way to investigate for yourself whether or not the company’s products hold significant value for you. MIDI conversion can help you explore sounds and textures you might like to use for a recording, without needing to locate, purchase, and learn another instrument (or hire a whole orchestra).
Regardless of the trajectory Jam Origin takes with these already impressive offerings, I predict that real-time pitch-to-MIDI conversion will become the dominant paradigm, likely in the not too distant future, rendering most of today’s clumsy hardware solutions more or less obsolete. Jam Origin appears to be on the cutting edge of this movement at the moment, and I’m hoping wider adoption of MIDI Guitar and MIDI Bass will solidify commitment to development on their part and others. I’m ready for the brave new world!
SIDE PANEL INFO
|Model:||MIDI Guitar 2 and MIDI Bass|
|Accessories:||Zippered pouch, shirt clip, foam eartips, standard and large 3-flange eartips|
|Price:||$99.95 for both MIDI Guitar 2 and MIDI Bass, standalone and VST/AU plugins, Windows/Mac;
“MIDI Guitar for Garageband” is a light, standalone edition without plugins, only for MacOS, and only available from Apple's App Store for $39; a separate app is available for iOS ($30 via two IAP purchases for full functionality)