A MIDI Guitar for the Masses?

Midi guitar controllers have a chequered history. My big book of guitars has pictures of several, like the Synthaxe, the Stepp DG1, the Yamaha DG10 — space-age visions of cool technology that, somehow, never really took off. Part of this was cost - these things weren’t cheap. Partly it was because playing them rarely felt like playing a guitar. And partly, they didn’t work as well as the makers claimed or players hoped for.

Enter the YouRock guitar. Visit the web site and you’ll be confronted with the trappings of Guitar Hero - lots of black and red, testimonials and videos from men (it’s always men) wearing leather and long hair, and an instrument that looks like … well, a $200 game controller, black (of course), with heavy metal stickers and a natty line in interchangeable heavy metal headstocks.

Get past these first impressions, however, and you realise there’s more going on. The fingerboard looks about the right length and width, with 21 frets and what appear to be strings, not buttons. And six strings, roughly in the right place, to pluck, pick or strum. The YouRock guitar is, in fact, a midi guitar controller, with a built-in synth, midi/usb/audio outputs and a good range of options, most accessible from the instrument’s control panel, all from the software (PC and mac). Said instrument was duly ordered, dispatched efficiently from the US (arriving in under two weeks) and eagerly unpacked.

Not a toy!Six tensioned wires and a whammy barVery-nearly-full-sized-fingerboard

It arrives in parts - the neck docks with the body, and can be removed for travel. Though the neck is pretty much full-sized, the body tiny. Whatever else, and however many of the supplied stickers you smother it with, it’s always going to be hard to look cool playing one of these.

The fingerboard is very playable. It’s a little shorter than full-length, but not so much as to feel like a toy. Strings and frets are a single moulded grid of plastic, so under the fingers it feels more natural than the pads or switches of some guitar controllers. It is, of course, dead flat: even classical guitars are generally made with at least a slight camber, which helps with barre chords.

All the connectors are on the lower edge of the body, thoughtfully including a guitar output as well as a line level in/out stereo sockets. Midi and USB complete the set. The control panel on the upper edge, as you would expect, lets you switch sounds, change tunings, enable modes such as slide and tapping. Settings are saved in 99 available patch configurations: these double up the available guitar and synth sounds, which can be turned on an off independently in performance, but also give you the ability to mix the two sounds. There are some built-in backing tracks, and combinations of buttons configure more advanced settings, letting you choose from a generous set of different tunings, for example.

Let’s dispose of the synth straight away. While it’s fun to be able to plug in headphones and play, the sounds aren’t going to win awards. Some of the patches aren’t particularly well programmed or recorded. Like the rest of the guitar’s firmware, the sound library is updatable via the internet and the USB connection; I hope at some point there will be a better one.

Getting the latest firmware is essential — an easy install via a program downloaded from the web site. Recent versions provide much better defaults for sensitivity and tracking, so much so that after the install it felt a different instrument. Connect to a decent sound source — I’ve had fun with both my Roland XP-60 and the samples in Logic — and you start to be quietly impressed with what it’s developers have achieved.

It’s not quite like playing a guitar, of course. The temptation to bend strings is immense, and of course that just doesn’t work (playing an instrument like this reveals really quickly how much we rely on bends, vibrato and so on to play expressively). Coordination between left and right hands needs to be tight: fretting a note a fraction of a second before you pluck the string can get interpreted as a hammer-on, though the latency is configurable. You need a little more force on the “strings” with the left hand than I’m used to (though this will improve left-hand strength), and the fingerboard is remorseless when it comes to leaky barre chords - if you haven’t enough pressure on the string, the open string will sound right through. The strings on the picking/plucking/strumming part of the controller are quite hard, but are polished, so feel smooth to the touch: a lot of fingerstyle or classical playing will get tiring (the tension is adjustable, but I’ve not yet felt the need). And dealing with open strings sounding on is an unavoidable issue with this sort of controller: again, there are a couple of settings, and a strip on the bridge kills all sounds when touched, but you can’t simply rest a right-finger or thumb on a string to stop it sounding.

It’s a very different feel to playing a “real” MIDI guitar like the Brian Moore or Roland instruments, with a split pickup or piezo feeding dedicated tracking hardware. But it’s inexpensive, pretty much zero set-up, tracks well, can be played at speed, and will feed whatever MIDI hardware or software you have directly. I’m not sure that I rock (maybe a bit old for that), but I have a suspicion that the YouRock guitar might.

2 Responses to “A MIDI Guitar for the Masses?”

  • tk responded:

    The cheapest MIDI guitar solution is this iPhone App.
    A+ MIDI Guitar Controller by WKode
    It even works with Guitar Pro 6.0’s MIDI capture function so you can make guitar tabs easily
    here’s a demo

  • David responded:

    Looks neat - one to check out!

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