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Review: Starr Labs Ztar Z7S

June 1, 2008
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FIG. 1: Although it mimics the form of a guitar, the Ztar Z7S relies on a sophisticated array of triggers to generate MIDI data.

FIG. 1: Although it mimics the form of a guitar, the Ztar Z7S relies on a sophisticated array of triggers to generate MIDI data.

Starr Labs has been building distinctive, guitarlike MIDI controllers for many years. Company owner Harvey Starr may not be a household name, but the company's Ztar Guitar/Fingerboard Controllers are known to many fans of alternative MIDI-instrument controllers. EM has covered several of these products in its “What's New” section and reviews, and the Ztar Z6 won an EM Editors' Choice Award in 2002.

Past Ztars were custom instruments with options such as string triggers and touch pads. The Z7S, however, represents Starr's first attempt at packing many such features into a comparatively affordable instrument (see Fig. 1). You still can get a few options, though, including a neck-sensor strip ($95), MIDI wireless ($249), a breath controller ($149), and a battery-pack kit with charger and two batteries ($199).

MARRIAGES OF CONVENIENCE

By no means a guitar, the Z7S is an attempt to marry the expressive capabilities of a guitar with the precision of a MIDI keyboard controller. The basic Z7S guitarlike form factor hosts a set of six string triggers, frets arrayed with fingerboard buttons, a ribbon controller, and a combination joystick and fire button of the sort found in some game controllers.

The string triggers extend to a length of about six inches from setscrews that are positioned where a guitar's bridge would normally sit. The string tension seemed a bit stiff, but it was easy to loosen for a better feel. The string triggers provide somewhat faster tracking and more accuracy than my guitar-to-MIDI system, but I found the tactile difference between the Z7S string triggers and the strings of my conventional MIDI guitar difficult to reconcile.

On the upper portion of the instrument's face, a row of membrane switches offers up and down octave transposition, patch selection (for controlling external instruments), and access to the various Ztar modes. You also get a Write button to confirm edits, a Record button for capturing and overdubbing MIDI data for playback, and a Panic button.

At the center of the instrument's top side panel is a large green LED display flanked by two rows of eight buttons. At the top level, the buttons select Ztar patches. Hit the Edit switch at the panel's left, and the patch-selection buttons access a menu of editing options; hitting it again accesses submenus and parameters. A pair of buttons above the Edit switch increase and decrease the values. Hitting the Edit switch again backs you out of Edit mode.

FIG. 2: Viewing the Z7S upside down reveals the game-style joystick at the top left, in the shark''s fin–like area. A ribbon sensor runs across the body to the right.
<P>The ribbon controller is convenient for achieving rhythmic filter effects with taps of the picking-hand pinkie, but be careful not to strum too zealously!
<P>The plastic Velocity- and Pressure-sensitive fingerboard buttons are programmable and can be mapped to a variety of MIDI data types, so they can do much more than just trigger notes.
<P>Membrane switches provide octave transposition, patch selection for external instruments, access to the Ztar modes, MIDI recording, and more.

FIG. 2: Viewing the Z7S upside down reveals the game-style joystick at the top left, in the shark''s fin–like area. A ribbon sensor runs across the body to the right.

The ribbon controller is convenient for achieving rhythmic filter effects with taps of the picking-hand pinkie, but be careful not to strum too zealously!

The plastic Velocity- and Pressure-sensitive fingerboard buttons are programmable and can be mapped to a variety of MIDI data types, so they can do much more than just trigger notes.

Membrane switches provide octave transposition, patch selection for external instruments, access to the Ztar modes, MIDI recording, and more.

JUMP FOR JOY

A 3-way joystick is positioned at the lower “bout” (the front part of the body where it joins the neck) of the instrument. I had to move my hand over and across the string triggers to engage it. I'd prefer to have the joystick near the instrument's upper bout, where I could catch it more easily.

My review unit had the optional neck-sensor strip installed along the top side of the neck. With this in place, you can run your thumb along the side of the neck to send Pitch Bend, MIDI Volume, or any number of expressive Control Change messages. However, players who normally bring their thumb over the fingerboard to hold down a string must be wary of accidentally sending MIDI data.

The ribbon controller sits next to the joystick, across the bottom of the guitar (see Fig. 2). It's relatively easy to reach and convenient for achieving rhythmic filter effects with taps of the picking-hand pinkie. Given its placement, though, I had to be careful not to strum too zealously.

HEAVY NECKING

The Z7S's neck is one of the instrument's most obvious departures from guitar design: in place of guitar strings, six rows of elongated buttons, nestled in plastic frets, correspond to frets on a guitar. The rounded buttons are roughly the diameter of my guitar's wound D string and feel smooth enough to navigate comfortably. In string trigger mode, they determine the MIDI Note Number of a plucked string and will sustain until released or dampened by the picking hand.

In Dual mode, you can simultaneously trigger notes and discrete Control Change messages based on Velocity data from the strings. Strings can trigger a different set of notes than those issued by tapping the buttons.

The buttons are Velocity and Pressure sensitive, and Starr has bestowed them with tremendous MIDI-data-mapping capabilities. For example, you can set up Velocity zones in which a range of values can output a different Note Number or MIDI channel. This is a great way to program alternate drum hits or crossfade between instrument variations.

IN THE ZONE

In addition to mapping to Velocity zones, the triggers offer remarkable independence: different areas of the fingerboard can send to different MIDI channels and can accommodate practically any tuning you can conceive of. For instance, you can set one zone to respond to tapping the keys and another zone to trigger only when the strings are picked. Zones can overlap and can use different note-interval settings. If that isn't enough, an optional, independently programmable trigger pad (the $299 TCA1) installs over the strings, toward the neck. Consequently you can set up more zones than you have digits to accommodate them with.

Unlike a guitar fingerboard (whose frets are spaced closer together higher up), the Ztar's fingerboard scale is equidistant over the length of the neck. Presumably a graduated, guitarlike scale would add considerable expense. Still, the scale of the fingerboard buttons can be difficult to get used to if you are accustomed to a guitar-scale fingerboard; at first, I frequently overreached and triggered unintended pitches.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

The Ztar will not necessarily eliminate all the artifacts of MIDI guitar that you might expect. For example, the triggers are sensitive, so if you have a tendency to trigger adjacent strings with your fretting or picking hand, you'll still trigger unwanted notes.

The Z7S implementation goes well beyond Note On messages. Because you can assign multiple destinations to buttons and plucked strings, and the buttons are velocity sensitive, I was able to assign the velocity sensing to send Modulation Wheel messages and to use dynamics to control vibrato. Furthermore, you can assign alternate messages to successive events; in this way, you can switch messages on and off — a handy way to return a control to an initialized state.

Because the Z7S can send multiple MIDI messages, it opens new windows of opportunity for musical expression, but you have a bit more to consider when playing. For instance, because Dual mode allocates one portion of the neck for tapping and one for picking, you'll need to cultivate a new set of skills to keep track of what each hand is playing.

The arpeggiator is adequate for basic up-and-down patterns, but that's all. More interesting is the unit's sequencer, which, thanks to a recent memory upgrade, holds up to 40,000 events. Because the Ztar can send out lots of data, the upgrade is especially welcome. The sequencer resolution, however, is 24 ppqn, which does not allow much room for loose phrasing.

A MOVING TARGET

The Starr Labs Ztar Z7S is brilliant, but as of this writing, it's a work in progress. During the review period, Starr changed hardware and software, improving construction and adding more RAM and a more powerful CPU. As a result, I evaluated a moving target. Clearly, Starr's focus is improvement rather than mass production.

In addition, as a production-line instrument, the Z7S faces some quality-control hurdles. My first review unit shipped with a flimsy power supply, and a complete set of string triggers went dead. The optional battery pack needed to be replaced due to a loose solder connection. The accompanying USB driver software for Mac OS X was a beta version, and attempts to load SysEx data from the Mac via the Ztar USB connection never worked. Hopefully, as the Ztar's production ramps up, the quality-control problems will fade away.

The Z7S's MIDI implementation is easily light-years ahead of any guitar-to-MIDI converter's, and beyond most keyboard controllers', for that matter. To make the most of those features requires a clear understanding of MIDI and controller scaling and mapping, and the Z7S would greatly benefit from a comprehensive, dedicated user manual. (According to the manufacturer, such a manual is in progress, but no delivery date has been promised.)

The Z7S is neither a guitar controller nor a keyboard controller. You will need to get past many musical orthodoxies inherent in keyboard and guitar technique before you become truly comfortable with it, but once you do, it can provide a gateway to extraordinarily expressive musical performances. If you can spend time delving into its MIDI controls and adapt some of your musical skills, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more powerful MIDI instrument than the Ztar Z7S.


Former EM assistant editor Marty Cutler is a musician, writer, MIDI consultant, and teacher in New Jersey.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

MIDI fingerboard controller $1,995

PROS: Fast, glitch-free tracking. Extraordinary MIDI implementation.

CONS: Hardware production problems. Inadequate documentation.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5
Value 1 2 3 4 5

Starr Labs
starrlabs.com

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