The most popular MIDI guitar systems tend to be those with ready access to a good set of sounds and minimal bells and whistles. Most are floor units that basically let you connect any guitar and instantly enjoy playing lush pads, a brass section, or a Fender Rhodes piano—all without having to delve into any of the geekery that MIDI is heir to. Things get more complicated when you want to sequence and play virtual instruments, not to mention the hassle of being tethered to an audio cord and the obligatory 13-pin DIN cable.
Fishman’s TriplePlay Wireless Guitar Controller system represents an alternative that is not only more capable than typical MIDI guitar rigs, but provides as close to instant gratification as electronic music will allow, and dispenses with the cable clutter. As with many MIDI guitar-and-synthesizer packages, TriplePlay combines a pickup, MIDI converter, and a generous library of high quality sounds. Just add your guitar and a computer with a USB 2 port (Mac OS 10.6.8 Snow Leopard or later; Windows Win 7 or later, 32-bit or 64-bit). Fishman touts an effective wireless range of over 100 feet. I tested it out to about 35 feet, and it worked flawlessly at that distance. The main components of the system are the hexaphonic magnetic pickup—which houses the transmitter and the control unit—and a USB module that incorporates the receiver and the converter. Unlike some hex pickups, TriplePlay’s does not carry an audio signal, although the software lets you route and process audio.
The package also includes mounting paraphernalia and a small, illustrated pamphlet detailing mounting and proper setup of the unit on the guitar. Included are a bunch of pads of different thicknesses for surface-mounting the pickup at the right height beneath the strings (a gauge is provided to confirm the proper distance). If the curvature of your guitar surface makes flat mounting difficult, Fishman provides additional mounting hardware, including an adjustable bracket that mounts on Tune-o-Matic-type bridges; this was my choice to mount the pickup on my recently purchased Epiphone Genesis Deluxe Pro. The pickup controls can also surface-mount or sit on one of two endpin-bracket mounts, which is a desirable option if you want to avoid messing with your guitar’s finish.
Fishman bundles several useful programs to get you started, including a small handful of nice virtual instruments. These are directly available from the Fishman website, once you register. Native Instruments supplies Komplete Elements: basically pared-down versions of Kontakt and Reaktor, along with Guitar Rig LE. The included synth patches have been tweaked to work well with guitar technique—a bonus, if you’ve ever tried to tame a synth’s response to MIDI guitar. You also get IK Multimedia SampleTank 2.5 XT with a useful complement of sounds.
Fishman sweetens the pot further with optional, free downloads of Notion Music Progression—a notation and tablature program—and Presonus Studio One Pro 2 Artist, a remarkably full-featured DAW. Because of its intuitive operation and general ease of use, the latter is a great choice for bringing guitarists into the MIDI sequencing fold.
You download the Fishman TriplePlay application, which can only be installed after loading the Native Instruments and IK Multimedia software. Already having a full version of Komplete on my computer, I became a bit impatient that installing the synths was a prerequisite, but in fact, it is Fishman’s way of ensuring that TriplePlay hooks into a viable, plug ’n’ play sound library. One slight hitch: the SampleTank library must be stored on the system drive; a drag if you want to store the supporting samples elsewhere. Hopefully, IK Multimedia will remedy this in a future update. Pairing the pickup and receiver is easy: Power up the pickup, hold down the red, flashing button on the receiver or the flashing button on the pickup until the receiver button stops flashing. Thereafter, getting the receiver online when powering up the pickup is instantaneous and reliable. The pickup draws power from its USB connection, and has a mini-b USB connector for charging. A full charge lasts about 20 hours, so there’s little chance that you’d ever lose power during a gig.
While waiting for the software to download, I jumped the gun, and launched Applied Acoustic’s Lounge Lizard 4 (a physically modeled electric piano) and started to pluck away with no access to the TriplePlay software that tweaks the tracking of the pickup. Nevertheless it tracked beautifully— faster than my other MIDI converters, and with perceptibly less glitching.
Installing and registering of the instruments was simple, and subsequent installation of the TriplePlay app was equally easy. TriplePlay works as a standalone program and also as an AU and VST plug-in. Once you launch TriplePlay, the program instantly scans for the pickups, and a colorcoded meter in the center of the user interface adjusts each string’s sensitivity. Pick a string, and its meter provides a visual index for any adjustments you need to make. The idea is to get each string hitting in the bottom range of the red lights of the meter for a good overall dynamic response.
Just below the graph are indicators for battery charge, and a pair of lights indicating sustain- pedal messages and MIDI data, respectively. Below that, you can toggle the display between the pickup levels and a tuner. The patch you’ve selected is on the left, comprising a slot for processing the guitar’s audio signal, four synths, and a control-pedal input via an external MIDI controller. File menu options and patch-selection menus appear as highlighted icons near the right corner of the left panel.
TriplePlay’s mixer occupies the right-hand corner of the software, and this is where you can do your own patch creation or modify the provided presets. The first channel defaults to the guitar’s audio signal, plus four synthesizers and a controller pedal. One of the beauties of the software—especially when used as a plug-in— is that each synth channel can be farmed out to a mono voice per string, with independent pitch bend. This is usually a laborious process in your host sequencer, but it’s already taken care of in TriplePlay. From the mixer, you can mute or solo instruments, set volume and pan position, or by clicking and holding on a channel button, open a list of available plug-ins, with the option to scan for any new ones you’ve added.
TriplePlay’s user interface as it appears on a computer screen. The color-coded meter in the center is for adjusting the sensitivity of each string. It also displays a tuner.
Straddling the bottom is a horizontally arrayed guitar fingerboard, which displays notes as they are played. When you click the Show Splits button, you can view and edit the distribution of a synth across the fingerboard, so if you care to create a composite sound of multiple synths, you can limit them to one or several strings, and restrict the pitch range of an instrument across the strings—handy if you want to build orchestral patches such as a brass and woodwind section. In conjunction with each patch’s programming panel, you can even program velocity splits, in which one patch plays with softer dynamics, and gives way to another patch with accented notes.
Once I set up the pickup sensitivity properly, tracking was even smoother than my first audition, and dynamic responses more accurately represented my actual playing. Even so, every synth and every patch responds differently, but a double click on the synth channel button opens the synth’s panels, and a sidebar that lets you offset and tweak the instruments’ velocity response, among other parameters. Overall, the tracking was better than any of the MIDI guitar systems I’ve tried—and I’ve tried most of them.
There’s much more to cover, of course, but suffice to say that the TriplePlay package succeeds on several levels: If this is your first venture into guitar synthesis, you couldn’t pick a better system. The sounds vary from meat-and-taters pianos and brass to esoteric, evolving synth tones, and because you can add any AU or VST plug-ins you choose (and yes, you can add hardware synths) the sound library is totally open-ended. More experienced MIDI guitarists will appreciate that the software will let them dig deeper into the guitar setup and programming.
The only possible limitations you might consider are the fact that you need a computer as a go-between, and an audio interface for your guitar’s normal signal. On the other hand, the plugin versions integrate into your recording software seamlessly and more effectively than dedicated hardware MIDI guitar units.
When you consider TriplePlay’s street price of $399, plus the bonus of added software, including a full-featured sequencer and a notation program, it’s certainly a tempting package. The tracking is the best part of the bargain, presenting an unusually touch responsive system that, well, is almost like playing guitar! In fact, I don’t think you’ll find a more tactile MIDI guitar experience for a long time to come, and that alone qualifies TriplePlay for an Editors’ Pick Award.
Price: $399 street
Hardware: Hexaphonic pickup, wireless controller, and USB receiver. Fast charge power pack, USB charging cable.
Software: Bundle includes Native Instruments Komplete Elements and Guitar Rig LE, IK Multimedia SampleTank 2.5 XT. Assortment of virtual instruments are available from the Fishman website, along with free downloads of Notion Music Progression (a notation and tablature program) and Presonus Studio One Pro 2 Artist DAW.
Extras: Mounting hardware for pickup and controls.
Kudos: Highly responsive and tactile tracking. Tons of high-quality sounds. Wireless operation.
Concerns: SampleTank library must be stored on the system drive.