Roland VG-99

The VG-99 is the latest incarnation of Roland''s synth/processor and MIDI converter for the electric guitar.
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BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: hear audio examples created with the VG-99 by Marty Cutler
Bonus text: learn about a synthesis technique that Roland calls Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM)Check the specs: click for a PDF of the specifications for the Roland VG-99

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FIG. 1: The top panel of the Roland VG-99 is intuitively and ergonomically laid out. Note that the signal flow of the A and B instruments follows the flow of a typical hardware rig.

The VG-99 leaps past its predecessors in Roland's Virtual Guitar series, the VG-8, VG-8EX, and VG-88. It adds the ability to combine two instrument models, much like a traditional multitimbral synthesizer. The VG-99's built-in MIDI converter immensely increases its sonic potential and functionality. Rather than laying out a list of features and connectors, I will focus on some of the unit's more interesting and unusual aspects, as well as changes that I have observed since the original V-Guitar was introduced (for more information, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com).

I tested the VG-99 with my Brian Moore iGuitar, which is equipped with RMC piezoelectric pickups. The VG-99 offers settings for Roland GK-model pickups — which you mount on your guitar — and guitars equipped with built-in piezoelectric divided pickups. Setting up the VG-99 for the first time is a breeze: you simply patch your guitar into the 13-pin jack, make a few adjustments, and tune your guitar using the unit's onboard tuner, and you're ready to play.

Topographical Motions

The VG-99's top panel sports a D Beam on the left and a ribbon controller on the right (see Fig. 1). If you mount the device on a stand or set it on a desktop, you can easily engage the controllers with your hands and also engage the D Beam with your guitar neck. Moving them through the D Beam lets you manually initiate functions such as manipulating a filter, performing whammy-bar effects, or freezing the instrument's output. You can program the D Beam to respond to horizontal or vertical motion, but either way, it takes time to gain a measure of control: on occasion, my hands inadvertently traveled in and out of the field, which turned the effect on and off rather than modulating it.

The narrow ribbon-controller strip has the same set of control options as the D Beam but affords greater precision. Unless you're an accomplished thereminist, it will be easier to find discrete pitches and get precise rhythmic filter effects by tapping on the strip. Don't overlook using the two controllers together — you can perform interesting tricks such as freezing a chord with the beam while playing with filter cutoff or pitch with the ribbon. I am reluctant to use any effects that require me to take my hands off my instrument's playing surface, but I'll admit that the built-in beam and ribbon controllers are seductive.

Buttons labeled Pitch, Filter, and Assignable appear below the D Beam and beside the ribbon. They activate the same respective functions, but they're conveniently positioned near each controller so that you can easily access them while performing. The Balance knob sits between the A and B instrument-programming buttons and the easy-to-reach Patch Level knob; all of them provide handy access to those adjustments without descending into menus.

To the D Beam's right is a large blue backlit display, and just below it, a set of knobs and function buttons; hit a button, and knob icons appear in the display. Depending on the function you've selected, another tap on the button can turn the function on or off or scroll through selections. You can adjust each function with the knobs or with an Alpha dial located to the right of the display, and the virtual knobs turn and provide a context-sensitive readout.

In addition to an array of analog audio I/O, the rear panel furnishes a coaxial S/PDIF output and a USB 1.1 jack (see Fig. 2). USB sends and receives bidirectional audio and MIDI System Exclusive. The VG-99's USB port offers more than an audio interface for the guitar; you can also use it as an insert effects processor for audio tracks from your computer. In addition, Roland provides connectors for an expression pedal, a dual foot-switch, and a proprietary jack accommodating an optional FC-300 foot controller ($349). All of these controls can be programmed to send Control Change messages.

Topographical Notions

The VG-99's layout is extremely intuitive. Buttons for the A and B models run from left to right, with the signal flowing from guitar to effects to amp to mixer. Polyphonic effects are first and offer various types of overdrive and distortion that you can apply to individual strings. The results are fat overdriven or distorted guitar tones with no intermodulation between strings, with an unusual clarity absent from monophonic distortion. Next come more-conventional effects such as flanger and chorus, followed by a button that lets you set up a virtual amp. Naturally, each selected area shows up in the display, with tabs illustrating subsequent editing pages.

Above the A and B instrument buttons, the Alternate Tuning button lets you choose from 11 preset tunings and a user-programmable tuning. You are not limited to virtual 6-string instruments. One page offers 12-string, detuning (for a beating effect), and harmony settings, again including a user-programmable set. More remarkably, the alternate tunings can apply to one virtual instrument or both, either in tandem or independently. Better still, tunings are not restricted to guitars; any of the COSM instruments can benefit from alternate tunings, and MIDI notes will follow suit. If you want a 12-string guitar or synth tuned D-A-D-G-A-D, they're yours (see Web Clips 1 and 2).

This Year's Model

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FIG. 2: The VG-99's rear panel packs a variety of balanced and unbalanced analog audio I/O, in addition to MIDI, USB, coaxial S/PDIF, and assorted foot-controller jacks.

The VG-99's electric guitar models sound amazingly like their hardware inspirations. Every acoustic guitar model sounds more like a well-set-up electric-acoustic guitar with a piezoelectric pickup than a knockoff of a purely acoustic Martin or Gibson flat-top (see Web Clips 3 and 4). I have yet to be convinced by acoustic guitar models, whether they come from Roland or any of its competitors.

I found old favorites carried over from the VG-8, including Stratocasters, Telecasters, and Gibson ES 335s, as well as Variable-instrument models, which let you freely swap out instrument components such as pickups and bodies. Synthesizer models, including brass, organ, crystal, and pipe, were also on hand. Overall, sound quality is a great improvement since the days of the VG-8, no doubt because of the VG-99's 24-bit resolution (versus the VG-8's 12-bit resolution). Twelve-string guitars, for instance, take on added sparkle, brilliance, and depth.

New to my ears is an instrument model in the Guitar section called L4, which rather accurately captures the well-defined but warm sound of a hollowbody jazz guitar. The Bass section offers two excellent instruments, Jazz and Precision. Bass sounds are a great improvement over the VG-8's, whose bass models suggested pitch-shifted electric guitars.

Among the less literal translations, the VG's sitar is rich and resonant. Though it won't fool anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the real thing, its sparkly, animated buzz invites plenty of interesting jumping-off points for sound design. Some of the effects settings — particularly distorted tones — are applied too heavily. That's a common factory-patch syndrome, but my recollection of the VG-8 is that the effects were applied more judiciously.

New School, Old School

Old-school guitar-synth fans will probably appreciate the new GR-300 model, which offers a choice of sawtooth or rectangular wave that emulates the original instrument's hex-fuzz clipping. Most of the presets sound just as raunchy as on the original GR-300, and you'll even find a replication of the braying synth-lead sound favored by Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie. The GR-300's envelopes were not deluxe in the hardware unit, and Roland had no reason to change that in the VG-99. One cool thing about the VG-99 is that except for the attack parameter, your picking determines the envelope.

In addition to alternate string tuning and detuning, you can detune each of the two oscillators. Overall, the GR-300 presets favor the original's cheesy aspects, but in most cases, toning down the distortion settings and lowering the filter's cutoff frequency produced more-genteel-sounding patches (see Web Clips 5 and 6).

Guitar Synth or Processor?

Ever since Roland introduced the VG-8, I've argued that the device was not a guitar processor, but a guitar synthesizer in the best sense of the word. All VG instruments rely on the guitar's signal as an impulse for reshaping. The same is true whether you are emulating a Les Paul, Martin, Dobro, D'Aquisto, Hammond organ, or synth bass. The VG-99 blurs the distinction further — not only by modeling a vintage synth, but also by offering two simultaneous instrument models you can layer, detune, or crossfade between with your playing dynamics. The ability to layer two independent tones effectively functions just like a synthesizer's combination mode. And the equivalent of a built-in GI-20 MIDI guitar converter completely obliterates the guitar processor categorization.

The VG-99 will be a very tough act to follow — even for Roland, whose primacy in the world of guitar synths and processors is indisputable. The instrument has many levels of functionality I haven't touched on, including its built-in MIDI- and video-controller capabilities. The VG-99 is so flexible, in fact, that I half expected an addendum to fall from the well-written manual explaining how to use it to program my cable TV or call up hidden GPS features for directions. Whether you regard the VG-99 as a synth or a processor, it is a major addition to the guitarist's sonic palette and gets my highest possible recommendation.

Contributing Editor Marty Cutler no longer divides his time between multiple gigs: he subdivides it.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

guitar synth/processor, MIDI converter, and audio/MIDI interface $1,195

PROS: Terrific-sounding models. Abundant guitar models and other tones. Vastly programmable. Independent control over two instrument models. Internal MIDI converter. Intuitive control panel. Plenty of I/O and controller options.

CONS: Requires divided pickup for access to models. Overdone effects on some presets.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 SOUND QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Roland Corporation U.S. www.rolandus.com

BONUS MATERIAL
Web Clips: hear audio examples created with the VG-99 by Marty Cutler
Bonus text: learn about a synthesis technique that Roland calls Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM)Check the specs: click for a PDF of the specifications for the Roland VG-99