Roland VG-99 V-Guitar System

July 1, 2007

I have suffered from synth envy for some time, longing for effects parameter controls—such as LFO speed and filter sweeps—that keyboard players access with the turn of a knob. Many guitar multieffects offer similar control, but they typically require extensive MIDI programming and a plethora of foot controllers. That doesn’t work for me, as I tend to ride my volume pedal pretty much continuously during performances. The VG-99, however, eliminates the need for extra expression pedals by including ribbon controller and D Beam functions that let me use my hands to control things such as pitch shifting, filter sweeping, and LFO rates. You might think my hands would be

otherwise occupied by playing the guitar—and you would have a good point—but you’ll see how the VG-99 lets you work around this as I take you through a composing session in which I created every sound (excepting drum loops) using only the VG-99.

I was using a prototype without a manual for these sessions, but, thanks to the VG-99’s intuitive layout, I was up and running in no time. The VG-99 requires a guitar equipped with any 13-pin, hex pickup. I used a Burns Steer fitted with a Ghost system, and I ran the 1/4" audio outputs of the VG-99 into an M-Audio Firewire 1814 interface and a Mac G5 running Ableton Live software. (The final version of the VG-99 will have a USB connection for direct computer access, as well as an onscreen editor.)

Each of the VG-99’s dual modeling engines lets you program COSM (Roland’s proprietary “Composite Object Sound Modeling” technology) guitar and amp models—as well as choose separate effects chains—so you can run two completely different rigs simultaneously. You can play through both rigs together; switch between them with a footswitch; pan between them using the D-Beam, ribbon controller, or an expression pedal; or, thanks to the VG-99’s Dynamic feature, change rigs depending on how hard you pick. Imagine picking lightly to produce a clean Strat-simulated tone through a Twin, and harder for a screaming fuzz-toned Marshall sound.

For engine A, rather than a Strat, Tele, Les Paul, or other standard guitar model, I picked the Dual setting from the Synth option. As this was a synth sound, I combined it with the JC Full Range amp model. In the effects section, I added a stereo delay and an auto wah (for that synth-like LFO sound). For engine B, I chose a virtual Les Paul flicked to the front pickup, a clean Twin amp, an octave fuzz, a warp delay, a slow gear (automatic volume swell), and a pitch shifter. The combination of these two sonic chains in parallel produced a combination of effected guitar tone with a keyboard-like synth sound. For a guitarist to achieve a similar layered texture, it would have required a raft of pedals, a hex pickup, and either a synth-guitar unit or a pitch-to-MIDI converter and a synth module.

The fun was just beginning. I programmed the ribbon controller to modify the synth guitar’s auto wah rate so that when I slid my finger along the VG-99’s top-mounted ribbon, the rate would increase or decrease. I was soon playing the auto-wah LFO speed like the band Aphex Twin. And I was able to take my hands off the guitar because I set the Pitch section of the D Beam controller to its Freeze function. In this mode, whenever I waved my hand (or guitar neck) in front of the D Beam light, it would hold whatever note or chord I last played on the synth chain (engine A). Waving my hand again would unfreeze the signal. While the sound was frozen, of course, my hand was free to use the ribbon controller. Engine B remained unaffected, permitting me to play pitch-shifted lines against the warbling synth. Using this abundance of sonic bounty, I created a loop using Sonosaurus’ free SooperLooper software. So far, so phat.

Grabbing the InstaBass preset automatically dropped my guitar’s pitch, and gave me ready access to a Jazz Bass sound through a modeled bass amp for a dub-bass line. Then, looking for some extra noise, I modified the Hendrix-like FoxyPurp preset by changing the virtual Strat’s bridge pickup from a single-coil to a humbucker, adding a pitch shifter to the octave fuzz, and assigning the ribbon controller to shift the note up one octave at my touch. (Note: The names of some presets may change in the final version.)

Finally, I removed the original signal, and added a touch wah. The patch had plenty of sustain, giving me time to radically shift the pitch up and down with my finger. This generated the guitar wails and screams of my wildest fantasies. Then, I looped these sounds, and ran the loop through Live’s bit-reduction plug-in to toss the tone completely over the top.

All of this work so far was just a background for my solo excursions. For the lead tone, I created a patch with a virtual humbucker-equipped guitar running through a distortion pedal and a clean Fender Twin emulation. I find that with most modeling systems, I get better solo tones with a modeled overdrive or distortion pedal through a relatively clean amp model. The pedal distortion seems less brittle than the amp overdrive.

Next, I added a model of the Boss Feedbacker pedal. Like the original hardware version, the effect added a realistic feedback sound to the end of each note for extra sustain without adding extra gain. A pitch-shifter effect set to fourths—combined with an EQ pedal to roll off the highs—served up an evocative tone reminiscent of trumpeters Nils Peter Moelvar and John Hassell. Some modeled tape delay added to the mystery without getting in the way of the original signal. The result was a piece of chill electronica, composed and recorded without ever having to get up and locate another pedal, amp, or guitar, or touch a keyboard other than my computer’s.

Of course, this session only scratched the surface of what the VG-99 can do. In addition, it can convert pitch to MIDI to control outboard synths, and its V-LINK feature can control video. While any guitarist could have summoned up most of the effects I used with a ton of gear—as well as the hand-to-foot coordination of a professional dancer—what the VG-99 offers is all of this sonic manipulation power in one box and an ergonomically efficient way of manipulating its sounds. The VG-99 can be mounted on a stand (or rackmounted) for easy access in a live situation, and foot controlled with the optional new FC-300 foot controller.

The original VG-8 convinced Joni Mitchell to go back on tour after a long hiatus, by eliminating the need for a truck full of differently tuned guitars. It also inspired her to compose Taming The Tiger. It remains to be seen what artisitic acheivements will be instigated by the VG-99.

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