Electronic Guitar: Kaki King

Real-time video control directly from her guitar
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Real-time video control directly from her guitar

Having made her reputation as an acoustic guitarist, Kaki King might seem an odd subject for this column. But since 2014, King has been touring a multimedia project called The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body that incorporates video projected precisely on her all-white Ovation acoustic-electric, while a second projector shows a different set of images on a screen behind her and her guitar is processed through her computer.


Through her playing, King can send audio and MIDI signals to a video program, allowing her to control the projected images in real time. For audio processing she has forsaken hardware pedals for computer plug-ins. If all of that doesn’t make her an Electronic Guitarist, I don’t know what would.

How did The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body happen?

Having performed with a band and with multiple guitars, I went back to the challenge of entertaining an audience with just one guitar and me onstage. A friend of mine suggested dramatic lighting so people who weren’t focused on my fingers would have something that changed with each song. I started looking at lighting and discovered projection mapping. It is usually done on a very large scale, but I wondered how to make it small and do it on the guitar.

Could you explain projection mapping?

You’re creating a digital stencil, called a mask, that is like a cardboard cutout of a guitar that you shine light through. That’s a very basic explanation.


How do you keep the guitar absolutely still for the stencil system to work?

I put the guitar on a stand using a screw through the headstock and two screws through the body. That keeps the guitar in place and from tilting. We need it at a very specific angle. It still moves a little because I’m playing it pretty hard, but we compensate by making the stencil slightly smaller so there is a bit of a border.

What determines which videos are shown? Are you triggering them, or are they programmed?

For the parts where I trigger what you see, there’s two ways that I’ve been doing it. I have a cable coming out of my guitar pickup into a DI box where I split the signal. One signal goes to my laptop computer, where I have my sound processors. The other signal goes into the audio interface of the video computer, feeding my video engineer a dry guitar input. We run that into a video program called Resolume Arena, which can accept audio input. That program allows the volume of the guitar to affect the exposure. The louder I play, the brighter the image. If I’m playing nothing, you don’t see anything. You can run a video continually, but I control how much of it you see depending on how loud I play.


Is it like a gate?

That’s exactly what it is. We didn’t want to always have a hard gate where below a certain volume level the image shuts off, because that’s too strobe-like. It is set so that, if I stop, the video fades out. Though, on some songs we do have it shut off, because that’s the effect we want. There’s a lot of ways you can manipulate that fairly simple one-to-one ratio of volume and brightness.

The other way we manipulate the video uses Jam Origin MIDI Guitar. It’s an amazing program. We run a dry input straight into MIDI Guitar, and the output of MIDI Guitar goes into Resolume, so we can assign video clips to MIDI notes. Every time I play C3, you get this certain color spiral, or a color wash that affects the rear screen. It’s so much fun to be able to control something I would never create myself with an instrument I’ve played my whole life.

Tell us about the audio chain.

I have a simple setup. I am using Logic Main-Stage, employing some of Logic’s plug-ins and some of my own. I have a three-button MIDI foot controller that I’ve assigned to scroll up and down. Within one song, I might have four different sounds I use. They are organized so I can hit a button to scroll through them.

Visit emusician.com to read our full interview with Kaki King about her use of digital audio and video onstage.