Roland offers an entire guitar shop in a box.
Several months ago, I set out in search of the perfect guitar - one that can handle everything from funk to metal, jazz to Texas rock. After thrashing through a zillion permutations (and people's opinions) of pickups, wood, electronics, craftsmanship, and other sonic signifiers, I ultimately came to the same conclusion that many guitarists do: serious players use multiple guitars for a reason.
Then I remembered Roland's Virtual Guitar modeling technology and its latest incarnation, the VG-88. Within a single device, I found most of the guitars I'd been looking for - and more.
SETTING THE STAGEModeling has become a technology to be reckoned with in terms of emulating existing instruments and gear. The general idea is that engineers analyze how these devices make sound under various circumstances and re-create those characteristics with digital signal processing (DSP). Guitarists are probably most familiar with modeling devices such as the Line 6 Pod and Tech 21 Sans Amp. These devices emulate classic amps, such as Fender Twin Reverbs, Marshall stacks, and Mesa Boogies, and they're no larger or more costly than a modest pedalboard. However, these devices model only the amp and effects, leaving you with the basic sound of your guitar.
One of the big buzzes at the 1995 Winter NAMM show was Roland's VG-8 guitar-modeling system. A Roland product specialist demonstrated an incredible variety of great guitar sounds using a guitar with no conventional pickups. At the same time, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter blew people away with guitar and amp emulations, as well as the system's expressive response to picking technique, harmonics, and the tremolo bar. I heard Hendrix, Page, and Clapton, all from a single guitar equipped with nothing more than a Roland GK-2A divided pickup and a VG-8. During the next few years, Roland added a few more bells and whistles to create the VG-8EX.
GUITAR COSM-OLOGYThe Roland pickup's sole mission in life is to filter each string's signal into a much less complex waveform and send it into the modeling system. Theoretically, it doesn't matter if the strings and pickup are mounted on a luxury guitar or a piece of plywood; however, the natural sustain of the hardware will affect the overall envelope of the sound.
The pickup's signal passes through a sophisticated set of DSP algorithms called Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM). These algorithms combine electronic modeling (tubes and transistors), magnetic modeling (pickups, transformers, and speakers), and physical modeling (wood and metal) to emulate everything between the pick and the listener. The Harmonic Remodeling Synthesis (HRS) feature generates synthesizer-type sounds as well. Throw in polyphonic pitch shifting, and you can instantly retune to anything you want without touching a tuning peg!
With all this power and flexibility, why hasn't every guitarist immediately jumped on the bandwagon? For one thing, the concept was so foreign when it was introduced that some people simply assumed it was another typical MIDI guitar. Equally foreign was the idea of screwing an additional pickup onto a guitar. Moreover, playing an amplified electric guitar is a visceral and subjective analog experience, and digital technology doesn't suit everybody or every application. Finally, the $1,995 price tag for the VG-8EX was a bit steep.
Enter the VG-88. Its appearance resembles the previous generation's look and functionality, but with significantly redesigned technology. It offers better sound and a significantly lower price tag than the VG-8EX.
Roland avoids revealing the VG-8EX's digital audio specs, but it probably falls somewhere between 12- and 16-bit resolution with a 32 kHz sampling rate. However, the company proudly states these specs for the VG-88: 24-bit A/D and 20-bit D/A at 44.1 kHz. This means better tone quality, more effects, and improved dynamic response to touch. In addition, there's enough DSP power to process the output of your guitar through the effects and amp-modeling section while simultaneously generating a virtual guitar from the divided-pickup signal. However, VG-8 and VG-8EX owners will have to leave their old Patches behind; the VG-88's architecture differs considerably from the original units.
IT'S A SETUPThe biggest challenge with the VG-88 is having to attach a Roland GK-2A divided pickup to your acoustic steel-string or electric guitar. (Other compatible pickups include the Axon AX-101 and Yamaha G1D.) You can also use electric, acoustic steel-string, and nylon-string guitars with divided piezo bridges.
If you choose to install a divided pickup, you'll need enough space to put it about 91/416 of an inch from the guitar's bridge. They all come with double-sided tape for temporarily affixing the pickup to your guitar, which lets you test it before drilling holes into the instrument. You'll need the included screws and springs to permanently install and adjust the pickup. In theory, mere mortals can do this, but enlisting a technician might help your peace of mind.
The pickup connects to a control box with a 9-inch cable, and you must mount the control box on your guitar's face. Another short cable routes the guitar's native 11/44-inch output to the controller as well. A three-way switch lets you select the output of the native pickups, the divided pickup, or both, and sends the signal to the VG-88 through a provided multipin cable. A volume control and two programmable switches can be used for functions such as incrementing and decrementing Patches (see Fig. 1).
If drilling holes in Old Faithful isn't your cup of tea, Godin and Fender make guitars with suitable built-in pickups and controls. I didn't have the opportunity to try one, but the Godins are beautiful instruments with a lot of handmade touches. For this review, I used the more affordable Roland-Ready Fender Standard Strat (with a built-in GK-2A.)
A 13-pin, 16-foot cable connects the control box to the rear of the VG-88. There's no need for a 11/44-inch cable from the guitar. If you want to externally process the native guitar signal, you can use the Guitar Out jack on the back of the VG-88 to pass the unprocessed guitar signal. A Guitar In jack lets you run other guitars through the unit's effects and amp modeling (see Fig. 2). Stereo outputs pass the VG-88's signal. There's also a rear-panel headphone jack. MIDI In and Out jacks allow System Exclusive transfers, the sending and receiving of Continuous Controller messages, remote Patch changes, and reception of MIDI Clock (more on that in a moment). A 11/44-inch jack lets you connect an additional expression pedal or up to two footswitches (with an insert cable).
The final setup stage uses the built-in calibration screen to adjust each string's pickup sensitivity. This is not difficult, and you only have to do this once unless you radically alter your guitar. The unit can store multiple setups so you can use more than one guitar in a set or session without needing to recalibrate.
PLAYTIMEOnce you've set up the VG-88, getting started is no more difficult than it is with a multi-effects box. A dedicated front-panel switch lets you optimize the output signal for a guitar amp, headphones, or sound system by selecting whether to bypass the unit's amp and/or cabinet models. This lets you add the coloration of your external amp, or leave your it at home and play directly into the sound system, cutting down on your chiropractor bills. If you choose to play through a guitar amp, use a channel without overdrive or distortion engaged.
VG-88 Patches comprise models of a guitar body, pickups, effects, amp head, speaker cabinet, and mic placement. The unit offers a total of 260 Patch locations: 160 Presets and 100 user Patches. The VG-88 lacks the memory-card slot found on the VG-8, so it's good to know that the VG-88 sends and receives System Exclusive to ease offline storage.
The Patches are organized into banks of four. Bank numbers appear in a large 2-character LED display, and Patch numbers and names (up to 8 characters) appear in a multipurpose backlit LCD.
Four footswitches along the top front of the unit select a Patch within the current bank. The two pedals that increment and decrement the bank number are mounted toward the center of the unit, making a balancing act necessary to engage them. A programmable footswitch engages various effects, and a programmable expression pedal on the far right controls parameters such as volume, wah, and pitch.
HENDRIX, BECK, AND SRVThe VG-88 has fewer signature-artist sounds than its predecessors, but there are still plenty of these sounds in the factory presets. ST Wing provides a clean, Hendrix-style Stratocaster, and JB Lead captures Jeff Beck's authoritative sound very nicely. Crunch TL conjures up a Tele reminiscent of early Pretenders, and Texas ST packs all the clear punch you'd expect from a Lone Star Strat through a Twin. OD Stack boasts incredible distortion and sustain while maintaining the clarity of the individual notes. It's great fun playing with alternate tunings, such as the Dobro-like Body E.
Considering the VG-88's depth of control, Roland made editing pretty straightforward. Dedicated buttons access the major functions, such as guitar modeling, amp modeling, and effects. The icon-based LCD interface and six associated function keys make for easy system navigation. Add four cursor-navigation buttons, page keys, and a value wheel, and you have everything necessary to edit the Patches and system.
Pressing the VG-88's EZ Edit button proves to be the fastest way to modify a sound. Simply select an algorithm type (such as Clean, Crunch, Drive, Lead, Wah, or Acoustic Guitar), then choose one of five simultaneously displayed parameters (Drive, Tone, Color, Mod, Delay) and dial in the desired setting. Store the Patch if you like, and you're done.
PICK A GUITAR, ANY GUITARThe COSM Guitar section lets you build and edit instruments with great detail. A total of 19 algorithms model different types of instruments, and each one has several pages of parameters. The parameters available to each algorithm vary, but all include EQ, Pan, and Mixer sections. The EQ section offers fixed-frequency high and low boost/cut controls, and fully parametric low and high mids. In the Pan section, you can place each string in the stereo field for a very full sound. The Mixer controls the output level of the COSM sound and adjusts the balance and polarity relative to the guitar's native pickups.
A brief disclaimer: Roland and many other companies that model classic gear do not overtly refer to gear by name so as to avoid legal complications. Because I'm not selling anything, I'll sometimes make more direct references.
Of the 19 algorithms, the most complex is the Vari Guitar, where models of classic electric guitars reside (see Fig. 3). Most mimic vintage or reissue instruments, including Les Paul, Classic Strat (with passive electronics), Modern Strat (active electronics), Telecaster, P-90 (single-coil Soapbar pickups), Lipstick, PAF (vintage humbuckers), Rickenbacker, Chet Atkins (humbuckers on hollow-body), and a modern S-S-H (two single-coil pickups and a humbucker). Within these models, you can engage one or two pickups and specify individual volume and tone. The tone controls do offer a mellower sound, but they don't completely roll off the highs like real tone controls do.
LEX LUTHIERThere's also a complete roll-your-own pickup model available. You can choose front and rear pickup types, including Single, Double, Acoustic, Piezo, and Mic. You can also specify phase, position relative to the bridge (even partway up the neck), and angle for both front and rear. You can't emulate custom wiring (such as seven-way Strat switching), designer pickups, or hot-rod electronics. The Single and Double models sound convincing enough, and the Acoustic and Piezo models fare reasonably well.
The Vari Guitar algorithm also has a pitch-shift section that produces a second pitch for each string (ñ2 octaves). Each string has level controls for the direct sound and the additional pitch. Other controls depend on whether the pitch shifter is in Shift or Harmony mode. Shift mode provides coarse and fine tuning for the absolute pitch of each string. This combination of controls allows for capo, 12-string, otherwise impossible tunings, and even a combination of all three. Harmony mode lets you specify an interval from each string's native pitch and the overall key for the Patch. The VG-88 then generates the appropriate harmonies for the selected key while you play - very cool for certain applications, such as dual guitar leads from a single instrument.
As with most real-time pitch shifting, the best results stem from remaining close to the base pitch. Adjusting the tuning by a few steps works pretty well. An octave down passes for a nondescript bass, and an octave up works reasonably well for simulating a 12-string when blended with original string's pitch. However, I noticed that the tracking lags and glides and the sound becomes grainier when shifting the pitch by an octave or more.
The Vari Guitar algorithm also lets you specify the instrument body. Presets include Flat (a flattop acoustic), Round (with a round-bowl back), F Hole, Metal (metal-bodied resonator guitar), Banjo, and Solid. You control attack, balance between the straight and resonant sounds, low cut, size, resonance and low-frequency volume.
Other algorithms provide shortcuts to particular guitars. The Acoustic algorithm simulates an acoustic guitar with a choice of body controls as well as piezo pickup or mic. The Piezo setting emulates its namesake well, a sound that recently found popularity in the new-age-meets-light-jazz genre. On the other hand, the unconvincing Mic setting sounds more like a wimpy pickup.
The same holds true for the Nylon Strings algorithm. Despite the characteristic round punch and short decay, the sound is not truly acoustic - it resembles a nylon string guitar with a piezo pickup, at best. While useful, the 12-string algorithms lack the full jangle and twang of the real thing, a result of having only a global Detune control rather than individual fine tuning. Unfortunately, the Acoustic, Nylon, and 12-String algorithms do not offer user-definable alternate tunings.
The Open Tune algorithms provide easy access to commonly used tunings without bogging you down in all the settings of Vari Guitar. Changing between preprogrammed tunings at the drop of a hat is extremely cool; it's a godsend in live performance. However, these algorithms are not available for the Acoustic, Nylon, and 12-String models.
The Pedal Shift algorithm lets you bend notes with the expression pedal. You set a Master Shift interval, then select the strings it affects. It seems limiting to have a single pitch-shift range for all strings, but with the Pedal Assign parameters, you specify each string's pitch-shift range. It isn't exactly the formula for instant Buddy Emmons or Adrian Legg, but this algorithm certainly suggests these musical directions.
The VG-88 has four polyphonic algorithms in which each string is processed independently to avoid interstring modulation, with the general idea being that these provide greater clarity. For example, Poly Dist produces serious distortion while still retaining the character of the individual notes. Poly Comp provides independent compression for each string, letting you sustain single notes while preventing the volume from decreasing when you play chords. Poly Oct allows simultaneous blending of subharmonics one and two octaves down. The Bowed algorithm yields a volume fade-in effect.
BEYOND GUITARSThe remaining algorithms use a technology that Roland used to call Harmonic Restructure Modeling (HRM). Now, the company simply refers to the algorithms as additional instruments. The sounds include bowed strings, filter bass, pipe, pulse-width modulation, a crystalline bell, organ, and brass. The VG-88 lacks a few of the VG-8EX's HRM instruments, most notably the very rich and warm VIO-Guitar algorithm.
These instruments bring MIDI guitars and synthesizers to mind, but the technology and sounds remain significantly different. MIDI guitars analyze pitches and translate them into Note On and Off messages that trigger a MIDI sound generator. This process results in the tracking delays commonly associated with MIDI guitars. A real-time signal processor, the VG-88 has no tracking delays.
Best considered as by-products of the guitar-modeling process, the HRM instruments won't seriously contend for the guitar-synth crown. The various instruments have different sets of associated controls, but with extremely limited parameters. For example, these algorithms don't offer selectable waveforms, pitch, and other parameters normally associated with oscillators. Similarly, the envelopes are primarily those of the guitar string. Most of these instruments sound like pretty wimpy single-oscillator synths. For example, the new Brass algorithm has only Cutoff, Resonance, and Touch Sensitivity parameters. The Organ instrument offers volume control over 16-, 8-, and 4-foot stops, but there are no other parameters to speak of.
The VG-88's built-in effects section can certainly liven up these sounds, but there's only so far you can go. They might be novel for guitarists, but these synthlike instruments sound pretty plain by today's synthesizer standards. They can add to your overall sonic palette, but only as icing on the cake. If you're serious about guitar synthesis, look elsewhere. You can drive the VG-88 and an outboard MIDI guitar converter from the same pickup with Roland's optional US-20 Unit Selector ($195).
AMP CITYThe VG-88's amp algorithms are very respectable. Amp emulations include the Roland JC-120, Fender Twin, Matchless (drive), Vox AC-30, Mesa Boogie (lead), 1959 Marshall (input I, input II, or both in parallel), Marshall Combo, Marshall Bluesbreaker, Marshall Plexi, Soldano SLO100, and Peavey 5150, as well as nondescript crunch, blues, and acoustic-guitar preamp settings. The controls throughout are pretty much what you would find on the real thing.
You can also mix and match the heads and cabinets. In addition, you can place a modeled microphone in front of the cabinet at various distances, and you can position the mic vertically from the center of the cabinet down to the floor (lower positions reduce brightness). A balance control lets you mix the direct head signal with the speaker output.
I haven't tried all the real-world equivalents, but I was impressed with the range of tone quality this collection and their controls offer. Moreover, the sounds are fairly clean compared with other amp models, which yield a bit too much noise.
EFFECTIVE EFFECTSThe VG-88 has more built-in effects than its predecessor. They include a compressor/limiter, wah, EQ, delay, modulation, chorus, reverb, and noise suppression, all of which are available simultaneously. Primarily derived from the Boss GT line of effects, most have their own volume control, making it easier to adjust the composite results.
You can arrange the effects (along with the amp model and foot volume control) in just about any order. The native pickup's input always goes into the head of the chain, but you can input the signal from the GK pickup just about anywhere - a very flexible feature. Unfortunately, you can't process the native and GK pickup signals completely differently; for example, it's not possible to run native pickups through a crunchy, modeled amp while having a clean, modeled piezo.
The compressor/limiter is straightforward to use, and it's passable for most applications, but it gets rather noisy on long sustains. A separate noise-suppression section is designed specifically to reduce pickup hum. This works well; I haven't noticed any noise from the GK pickup. The EQ section has the same 4-stage setup found in the COSM guitar parameters, but it's nice to be able to insert it anywhere in the chain.
The wah section can be set for either pedal or automatic control. In Pedal mode, you can adjust the center frequency, but not the filter type or resonance amount. (It sounds like a lowpass filter, although this is not specified.) Auto mode yields an old Mutron-type effect or a continuously modulated wah. Parameters include lowpass/bandpass, sensitivity, frequency, peak width, rate, and depth.
An extensive modulation effect offers standards such as flanger, phaser, tremolo, autopanning, and vibrato. There are also some interesting pitch effects. Harmonist picks up where the Vari Guitar's pitch-shifter leaves off by generating up to two additional harmonies within a user-defined key. The P. Shifter effect generates one or more iterations of the performed pitches at successive intervals. For example, if you have it set for a fourth up and four iterations, you'll get a progression of four successive fourths. Harmonist and P. Shifter can even be combined with Vari Guitar's pitch-shifter for some fairly avant-garde sounds!
The modulation section also has a delay effect with up to 1,800 ms of delay time as well as feedback and high cut (which simulates older analog delays). You can get a two-tap delay effect by dialing in a percentage of the set delay time to be applied to one channel. This section also has a unique 252 Chorus effect that uses a crossover to divide the signal into two different frequency ranges with separate chorus settings.
Although it is not well-documented in the manual, the VG-88 recognizes (but does not send) MIDI Clock for locking tempo-based effects to sequencers and other clock-driven devices. You can also use tap tempo.
Distinct from the modulation section is a dedicated, stereo chorus effect. As you might expect from Roland's history in the field, this chorus sounds great. There's also a reverb section, including Bright Room, Warm Room, Bright Hall, Warm Hall, and Plate. Controls include reverb times up to 10 seconds, predelay up to 100 ms, low cut, high cut, and density. The sound of the chorus and reverb are at least as good as you'll find in any other guitar effects, and it rivals some dedicated units. The VG-88's collection of effects provides just about everything you need, short of specialty items.
GROUND CONTROLThe VG-88 lets you control almost any of the unit's parameters in real time. The expression pedal, Ctrl switch, auxiliary pedal, and auxiliary switch provide lots of foot-based control, and you can program the guitar's GK volume knob and S1/S2 switches to affect most parameters, including switching between models for rhythm and lead. MIDI Control Changes 1 through 95 are also valid modulation sources, which lets you sequence parameter changes while performing or modulating external effect processors. Eight generic assignments let you modulate multiple parameters from a single controller, such as the expression pedal. You can also limit most of the parameters with minimum and maximum values.
You can set the switches to respond as momentary or toggles for some interesting performance effects. These performance options will have you exploring new possibilities for a long time.
The VG-88 also offers global settings for adjusting the lows, highs, noise-suppressor threshold, and reverb level across all Patches. This is great for tours where you are playing a series of rooms with different acoustic characteristics. The unit also sports a built-in tuner with auto mute.
Speaking of performance, the VG-88 offers no form of program chaining or direct jumping between programs in different banks. This means you must use the Exchange function to relocate Patches to certain banks so you can easily switch them within and between songs. However, the unit responds to Bank Select and Program Change messages sent from an external MIDI device, and the programmable real-time controls make it possible to change from a rhythm to a lead sound without changing Patches.
ONE WITH EVERYTHINGAn amazing piece of technology, the Roland VG-88 provides an incredible amount of flexibility in a very intuitive manner. All I needed to do was refer to the manual to understand even the deepest editing parameters. More referential than instructional, however, the manual could be better organized and more thorough.
Let's be clear - the VG-88 won't suit everyone or every application. The guitarists I showed it to unanimously agreed that they would welcome the unit in the studio for its flexibility and recording ease. Beyond that, it comes down to how much of an analog purist you are and how attached you are to that piece of wood you've been playing for so many years. As a worst-case scenario, purists can simply think of it as another effect to expand their rig's sound palette.
I used the VG-88 on two songs with excellent results; on one song, I used it for three stereo tracks: a crunchy but distinguishable Strat-and-Soldano combination, a piezo 12-string, and a barking Tele with an AC30. I even used an octave-down Patch for the bass line. The results elicited pointed comments from players about how good the guitars sound.
This single unit can't possibly reproduce every custom or vintage axe and rig out there. On average, its emulations are probably about 80 percent realistic (some Patches more, some less) when compared directly with the real thing. However, the real thing involves $50,000 or more worth of vintage guitars, amps, effects, and microphones (not to mention the sonic space to crank it in and the physical means to store and haul it all). Having a damn good replica of most anything you could want - along with a slew of new possibilities for a street price of about $1,300 (including a GK-2A divided pickup) - is a real bargain in my book.