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electronic MUSICIAN

Starr Labs Z5 MIDI Guitar Controller Review

By Marty Cutler | April 1, 2011

MIDI Guitar Controllers are better than ever. Still, as a guitarist''s gateway to MIDI and synthesis, guitar controllers are hard-pressed to compete with keyboard and drum-pad controllers, whose powerful MIDI implementation usually places them way ahead of the expressive curve. Although recent-generation controllers such as those from Roland and Axon units offer lots of real-time control, there''s always room for more.

Starr Labs has been manufacturing all sorts of alternate controllers for years. Among the company''s diverse instruments is their line of Ztars: a guitar-like hybrid instrument which—instead of using pitch to MIDI conversion—utilizes keyboard and fret-switching technology to provide fast and accurate MIDI access to guitarists. The concept of fret switches has been around the block a few times, but Starr has worked the idea into instruments capable of virtually unparalleled MIDI control and therefore, great expressiveness, which helped garner the company an EM Editor''s Choice award in 2002 for the Z6S Ztar.

Since that time, the company has added numerous new instruments, firmware updates, and upgrades, including the addition of USB controllers in 2004, and wireless MIDI communication. For the most part, the Ztar line has consisted of custom, one-off instruments, and as such, most were relatively costly. The Ztar Z5 represents Starr Labs first production-line models, and at $1,595, it comes in at a considerably less-expensive price tag. Surprisingly, the Z5''s implementation remains quite sophisticated, and in some ways, it feels like a more solidly constructed instrument than its predecessors.

My Z5 review unit arrived in a sturdy plastic hard-shell case, replete with documentation, USB and MIDI cables, and a wall-wart power supply that connects to a MIDI adapter. The unit can draw power from the adapter or from your computer''s USB port. The USB connection sends and receives MIDI data, which makes it especially appealing to laptop jockeys looking to minimize MIDI interfaces and awkward power and MIDI cable runs. The instrument body and neck are maple, with a sunburst finish. Toward the bottom-right of the body is a four-direction, programmable joystick. A set of six string triggers with adjustable tension sits on the body.

The Z5 programming section sits on the instrument''s side panel, facing upwards at the guitarist. The panel''s bright green LED display is nested between two four-button rows of soft keys, flanked by increment and decrement buttons, and an edit switch. Hitting the Edit switch takes you into the Z5''s rich set of features, including Velocity curves, string response, sensor response, MIDI Clock (The unit has a built-in sequencer), many editable parameters are individualized per string, and you can tailor the feel of the instrument to taste. Probably one of the Z5''s coolest carryovers from the rest of the line is the ability to create and store alternate tunings. I was easily able to create a raft of alternate guitar and banjo tunings. You can assign string output to different MIDI channels and synths, and create zones in which you can further subdivide the instrument''s output to different devices. To the programming panel''s left are buttons for sequencer-pattern selection, octave up and down transposition, a Panic button, and much more.

Maybe the greatest difference between the Z5 and its siblings is the unit''s fingerboard. Instead of rows of buttons representing triggers for each fret, six vertical rubber sensors, roughly the circumference of strings, traverse the length of the fingerboard. Rubber frets run crosswise, dividing the scale into 24 frets. The “strings” serve as switches, and when used in tap mode, become velocity-sensitive triggers.

Using a string-like system rather than rows of buttons makes the transition to a controller easier for guitarists, but it will still take time to get used to the idea that there is no vibrating string under the fingertips, and tactile references such as string gage and neck width don''t apply here. Notes sustain long as your fingers hold the chord. The flip side is that you''ll need to develop new damping techniques unless you like unintentionally sustained notes. (Starr Labs says the muting system can avoid this issue.) These are not flaws in the Z5; it''s the cost of doing business with MIDI.

There are way more playing options than this review can encompass; the Z5 may be the company''s entry-level pro instrument, but it remains a deep one, with tons of expressive capability. Its configuration is ridiculously versatile; you can play it like a guitar (in which a string can play only one note or sustain a note and layer successive notes on the same string, tap the fretboard, or combine the tapping and picking into one instrument. Starr Labs has done a tremendous job of bringing in a powerful MIDI controller at a reasonable price. Take it for a spin.

Overall Rating (1-5): 4.5
Starr Labs Z5 Product Page

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