By Craig Anderton
When Gibson announced it would be introducing a digital Les Paul, people didn't quite know what to make of it. Initially, Gibson's "digital guitar" was mostly defined by what it was not: It wasn't going to be a modeling guitar like the Line 6 Variax, or a Roland-style guitar synthesizer.
Some people even thought it wasn't that great an idea, that the price was out of line, and that guitarists wouldn't "get it." Despite the naysayers, though, I was intrigued. Sure, the idea of providing a separate audio output for each string wasn't new, but it seemed like an idea whose time had come.
Thanks to better technology that could be applied to the pickups, multi-input audio interfaces, computer-based hosts, and plug-ins, putting together a sophisticated hex processing system for guitar could be done with a few judicious mouse clicks - not endless re-patching of costly outboard gear. Being able to apply different processing to different strings, or groups of strings, as well as explore a variety of panning options (including full-blown 5.1 surround; maybe it's not just coincidence that 5.1 accommodates six strings!) seemed pretty cool. I was curious to get my hands on "the Les Paul Digital Guitar" and check it out.
So I waited as the release date kept getting pushed back, and pushed back, and pushed back some more. Apparently the task of making something that plays like a Les Paul, looks like a Les Paul, and feels like a Les Paul?but is equally at home in a hybrid analog/digital direction?is not a trivial undertaking. For starters, the hex pickup is very different from a standard pickup; it achieves 90dB of dynamic range, and provides surprisingly good freedom from crosstalk between strings. Furthermore, the performance is highly dependent on the relationship of the pickup to the strings, so Gibson had to add a computer-controlled assembly step to make these fine adjustments. (Interestingly, the string set is also unique, as the gauge and tension are chosen specifically to produce a uniform output level for each string).
The HD.6X-PRO looks and feels like a Les Paul, but there's a lot going on "under the hood."
And, not only was a guitar being developed, but a digital network to go along with it. And something like this has to be right the first time, because you're not going to get a second chance. In fact, some people said the digital guitar was just too complex, and would never come out . . . but they were wrong. It's here, and it's real. And it works. Really works.
Let's get the price out the way first: At $4,999 list, it's expensive. Granted, it looks gorgeous (love that metallic blue look), and the package is classy: Spiffy case with roller wheels, the inclusion of Sonar Producer Edition version (the full version, not a lite or limited variety), a Hosa eight-cable snake to handle the multiple outputs, ethernet cable, and a breakout box. But given the cost, you can pretty much bet that you won't see it being cradled in the hands of the rhythm guitarist in your local bar band at the Holiday Inn.
Nonetheless, if you have any interest in guitar, it's well worth delving into what this all about. Like so much technology, it wouldn't surprise me if the underlying concepts work their way into lower-cost models in the years ahead. But here's the real bottom line: I predict that pretty soon, you'll be hearing some outrageous guitar sound on some recording, and go "What the...?!?" And it will be the HD.6X-PRO.
If you want, you can ignore the electronics entirely and treat the HD.6X-PRO as a standard Les Paul guitar. (There are a couple differences that help playability, though: The guitar fret board is wider than a stock Les Paul?equivalent to the width of a bound fret board?and the frets are a shade lower.) It has a mono output jack for "Classic Mode," two humbuckers, and the usual complement of controls. This is also good news if your breakout box with the electronics (more on this later) gets run over by a PA stack: The show can still go on. Having this option also brings up the possibility of layering the standard sound with what we'll cover next.
Well it is, but I've never seen a Les Paul with a hex pickup, CAT-5 cable jack, a headphone out, a mic input, or outputs for each string. This is all made possible by the "MAGIC" network, which exists on an ethernet-type cable that patches to the guitar (although it's the same type of cable used for ethernet connections, technically the protocol is not the same as ethernet).
The jackplate has (from left to right) a volume control for the headphone jack, headphone jack, MAGIC network port, mic in jack, and standard mono out for "classic mode."
Not only does it carry the individual outputs from the strings, but it also carries the output from the guitar's mic jack, and sends monitor signals to the guitar, which ultimately end up at the headphone jack. The idea of having a headphone and mic jack on a Les Paul might be off-putting to purists, but those who use in-ear monitors and headset mics will likely find this addition a real plus. Note that the headphone jack is most emphatically not there to let you listen to your guitar through headphones as you practice; it has a much loftier goal.
The cable terminates at BoB, the Breakout Box. This has jacks for the standard mono output, six separate jacks for each string, and two jacks for stereo groups of strings (1-2-3 and 4-5-6; these use the same jacks for the top two strings, so these jacks serve double duty). You'll also find a jack that carries the mic out, and another jack pair to receive the monitor signal of your choice.
The Breakout Box takes the signals from the MAGIC network, and breaks it out into various analog outputs. It also has two ins for monitoring, and a mic out.
Surprisingly, there's no way to connect BoB to your computer digitally: It's all done via analog connections. This is to be expected for live use, where you may want to feed six separate processors, or go to a mixer for concert hall surround effects. But given the digital nature of computers, it's unfortunate there's no way to bypass the analog electronics. However, a company representative has said that Gibson is working on ways to add a USB interface, which would address the digital interfacing issue.
That said, if you want to take full advantage of all the guitar's outs, you need an analog interface with at least seven inputs to handle the "classic" out and six individual outs. Of course, you're not obligated to use all these; you could use two inputs for the two string pairs, or three for the two string pairs and the mono out.
If you're expecting perfect isolation between strings, it's simply not possible. At first I thought it was a limitation with the pickups, but eventually realized that guitars are resonant little suckers, and hitting one string will, by nature, make the other ones vibrate a bit. With lots of gain (e.g., distortion plug-ins), you can pick up a bit of crosstalk but in some ways, I like this because it makes for a less "clinical" sound. In any event, the crosstalk is much lower than I would have expected, so kudos to Gibson for that; they clearly put some serious effort into the pickup design.
I'll tell you what: Guitarists can now do sonic techniques very similar to what keyboard players do with splits and layering, as well as surround effects. Of course, the first thing I tried to do was pan all the strings across the stereo field from left to right, but it sounded overly-gimmicky. It's when I started thinking things through a bit more than things really started to pop.
The hex pickup, placed unobtrusively between the bridge and bridge pickup, provides the six individual outputs.
For example, one very cool sound was running the guitar outputs into Sonar and inserting the Waves GTR octave divider on strings 5 and 6. With a little tweaking, I got a bass sound that was very much like that tough, distorted bass sound for which Nine Inch Nails is justly famous. Meanwhile, I distorted the top four strings (but remember, there's hardly any intermodulation distortion), chorused them independently with Waves choruses, and spread them a bit across the stereo field. The combination of the rich, shimmering high end, coupled with the raunchy bass, was dramatic to say the least. When I played this against a drum loop (see later for links to audio examples), it sounded like I really didn't need any other instruments?the guitar just took over the soundstage, and wouldn't let go. Nor did I want it to...
I then tried envelope filters on the strings, as well as flangers, amp simulators...you name it. One of the effects that surprised me most was delay. I'm so used to hearing delay on the entire guitar that it was very different to hear it just on the top two strings, with the other strings providing a clear, direct sound. I'd go so far as to say that where the HD.6X-PRO really shines is for rhythm guitar parts (power trios, take note). Lead parts tend to be single-note lines anyway, so breaking those leads into individual strings has less to offer than being able to turn a rhythm guitar into a "symphony" of guitar sounds. The "split" approach makes it easy to play leads on the upper strings, while hitting chords on the lower ones with entirely different tonal characteristics.
Then I brought out the "big gun": Multiple instances of Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 2. Once you start applying effects like tempo-synched, step-sequenced filters to the guitar, you cross over from rock into a much more "techno" kind of zone. It's compelling, to say the least, and a fertile field for experimentation. Bottom line is you can do synth tricks, but retain the guitar's characteristic organic sound...think "polyphonic AdrenaLinn" (come to think of it, processing each string through an AdrenaLinn would probably be pretty astonishing).
Layering is another "killer app." Take the mono output, feed it into a guitar amp, dial in a great guitar sound, and layer it with the other strings. At this point, it sounds like you have an army of guitar sounds, and you can imagine the possibilities.
Surround? Well, I haven't gone there yet, because I don't have my studio set up for surround. But I have heard several surround demos at trade shows, and it's clear this represents a whole other world. (Perhaps this is one of the reason why the HD.6X-PRO includes Sonar Producer Edition, as it has a really good surround implementation.)
Words ultimately fail in describing this guitar, because you can't imagine what it does if you haven't heard it in action. So take a listen; here's the story on the clips.
This is the "NIN bass meets Andy Summers chorus" I alluded to earlier. It's a tough, gritty sound that shows some of the guitar's "split" capabilities.
This reminds me a lot of the old Roland GR-300 sound. This was obtained simply by plugging in AudioDamage's FuzzPlus 2.2. into Sonar's FX bin for each string.
This is just a pretty sound with chorus on each string, as well as delay.
This is variation on the above, with a little more resonance added to the modulation.
A little synchronized delay can really add "animation" and interest to the sound.
This is a fairly complex patch. All six strings feed into an aux bus that terminates in a Guitar Rig 2 distortion sound. The bottom three strings feed a second aux bus that terminates in another instance of Guitar Rig 2, loaded with a synth-type filter and an "analog," tempo-synched step generator. Finally, a little bit of the straight sound of the bottom three strings is mixed in for a little more definition.
This is actually just a simple hex power chord, but processed within Sonar to add enveloping/synched effects.
Each string has a resonant filter with slow LFO, and they're all summed together to make a big, moving, animated filter sound.
Now is my enthusiasm starting to make sense? (Drum loops courtesy of Discrete Drums.)
The HD.6X-PRO isn't for everyone. First, you have to afford it. Then, you need a pretty sophisticated setup if you want to exploit the guitar to its fullest potential, regardless of whether you plan to use it with a computer as the centerpiece of your studio, or live as a multichannel guitar. And that's still not enough: You have to work with it enough to adapt its potential to your playing style. It's one thing to slap on a bunch of processors, pan the strings all over the place, and create something pretty garish. It's another thing to tame the beast and make it do your bidding in a musically appropriate way.
But when you do, I think you'll discover - as I have - that this is not an instrument to be underestimated. You can go places you've never gone before, and they're fun places; perhaps more importantly, they range from beautiful, tranquil spaces to regions filled with snarling dogs and erupting volcanoes. I was delighted. And if you get a chance to play the HD.6X-PRO into some presets that exploit this instrument to the fullest, I predict you will be too.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.