The Alternative to Alternate Tunings

August 16, 2012

James Tyler Variax guitars have 11
tunings on a rotary switch, and you
can do custom tunings, as well.
Of course you don’t use alternate tunings—they’re a P.I.T.A. Even when you’re recording and don’t have an audience waiting impatiently, it’s still a major hassle to re-tune completely, then return to where you were. But that’s how it was, because four modern options make alternate tunings a practical reality. All of them let you create custom tunings, too.

MIDI Guitar

Roland’s VG-99 accepts the output from any Rolandready guitar or
pickup system, and provides both modeling and guitar-to-MIDI conversion.
The notes you play end up as MIDI data that drives a synthesizer, so in mono mode (where each string goes to its own synth channel), simply transpose each string’s synth to create an alternate tuning. For example, tune the synths driven by strings 4-6 up an octave for “Nashville” tuning. Pros: You can transpose by insane amounts, have different sounds (not just tunings) for different strings, and retrofit an existing guitar with a hex pickup to feed a MIDI guitar system. Limitations: MIDI guitar comes with tracking and latency baggage, and the notes you hear won’t necessarily be what you’re playing on your ax.

Gibson Robot/wilkinson atd

These systems physically retune your strings, and while I first thought the automatic tuning feature was silly (“C’mon, I know how to tune a guitar”), it’s a huge time saver. Pros: There’s no disconnect between what you play and what you hear, no alteration to the tone, and tuning down makes the strings easier to bend. Limitations: You can’t do tunings beyond how far you can tune a real string, and it typically takes around five to ten seconds to tune.

Modeled Transposition

The Line 6 Variax guitars, Roland VG-99 and VG Strat, Peavey AT-200, and Parker Autotune MaxxFly use this technology, where digital signal processing models the sound of a transposed string for each of the six strings. Pros: You can tune beyond how far you can tune with real strings, and changing tunings is instantaneous. Limitations: The notes you hear will not be the same pitch as what you play, you can’t retrofit existing guitars, and sound quality deteriorates with extreme transposition.

Hex Audio Outputs with DAWs

If your guitar has a separate audio output for each string, you can record them into separate tracks in your DAW, then use the DAW’s ability to transpose signals in nonreal time (or use a transposition plug-in, such as zplane’s Élastique Pitch). Pros: Can give extremely high sound quality due to non-real time processing, can tune beyond how far you can tune with real strings, and offers multiple mixing options (separate delays, chorus, or envelope filters on each string). Limitations: Can’t be used live, and you can’t hear what it’s going to sound like until after you’ve recorded and processed the part.

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