Electronic Guitar: Kaki King

Real-time video control directly from her guitar
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.