A SELF-TUNING GUITAR WITHOUT MOTORS, SPRINGS, OR moving parts? That might seem impossible, but if you’re familiar with Antares’ Auto-Tune processing, you’ll immediately understand the Peavey AT-200: This guitar contains six onboard instances of Auto-Tune, each connected to an individual piezo-equipped string saddle. Auto-Tune monitors and corrects pitch in real time on each string, delivering not just automatic tuning, but virtually perfect equal-tempered intonation for single notes and chords, all over the neck. The AT-200 earned an Editors’ Pick Award when first reviewed last winter, and since then, Antares has added significant upgrades and expansions, warranting another look at this rapidly developing technology.
The AT-200 features a solid basswood body, maple neck, and rosewood fingerboard, and the workmanship and playability make it a strong competitor in the under $500 price range, even without considering the Antares features. Excellent setup and fretwork, along with a rather flat 15.75" radius fretboard, inspire fast riffing and allow buzz-free bending up and down the neck. Played acoustically, the guitar is lively, bright, and snappy, with impressive sustain and a slightly honky upper midrange emphasis.
Screen shot of the Antares MIDI Designer Pro app.
Plug in a 1/4" cable and the real fun begins: Strum the guitar, push down the volume knob, and you’ll hear a swooshing sound as all the strings are instantly tuned to pitch. It’s hard to believe what has just happened, but unplugging the AT-200 confirms it: the strings aren’t really in tune, they just sound in tune through an amp. Then as you play the guitar normally, Auto-Tune subtly massages the pitch of any sour notes: tricky chords up the neck ring as if played on a well-tuned piano, and you can still bend strings, use vibrato, even play slide (with superhuman precision). The Auto-Tune algorithm leaves non-pitch information alone, so chicken picking, muted chunk, and the squeak of fingers on strings come through fully intact. This technology is powerful, maybe a little frightening. Auto- Tune for Guitar essentially puts your bending and fretting intonation on steroids, and it’s unlikely anyone will know you’re “using.”
The AT-200 can be expanded with software Feature Packs to add guitar/pickup models, alternate tunings, a virtual capo, and doubling effects like an octaver and simulated 12-string. It’s beyond cool being able to switch instantly from standard tuning to open E or DADGAD, without any change in feel or fear of breaking strings (remember all the pitch transposition and tuning is done via software—string tension never changes). Similarly, a virtual capo shifts the range of the guitar up or down as much as an octave, always in perfect tune. Feature Packs are rounded out with guitar and pickup models, which cover a wide range of classic single-coil and humbucker tones, all of them imminently musical and useable. I particularly enjoyed the snarling “Junior P-90,” velvety “Vintage Humbucker,” and glassy “Vintage Lipstick-tube,” and the “Acoustic” model sounds impressively like a flat-top with an undersaddle pickup.
The expanded sounds in the Feature Packs can be selected, combined, and stored as MIDI-accessible presets. With any standard MIDI controller connected to the AT-200’s MIDI input, you can perform physically impossible feats like sliding a virtual capo while playing, or switching to a Les Paul Junior model in an open tuning for a slide solo, then immediately changing back to a Strat in standard tuning for rhythm. Additional features are available via MIDI continuous control, and I found some superb whammy pedal effects in the AT-200 using a Rocktron All Access and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.
The AT-200B breakout box.
For players who want MIDI control, but don’t want an extra cable dangling from their guitar, Peavey offers the AT-200B breakout box, which connects with a single 8-pin DIN cable and provides MIDI in/out/thru and audio output. The breakout box is solidly built and adds considerable convenience for interfacing with a pedalboard or complex amp rig. It also simplifies Feature Pack installation and delivers phantom power, eliminating the need for onboard batteries (expect about 10 hours from four alkaline AAs). If power ever does fail, the AT-200’s Tone knob can be pulled to select a hardware bypass of Auto-Tune, routing the two passive humbucking pickups directly to the output jack (these pickups are not used by Auto-Tune and can be replaced if desired).
iPad control is available via the MIDI Designer Pro app ($25), which simplifies selection of guitar models and tunings, and yields access to more advanced settings such as reference pitch and global transpose. Currently, though, communication is only one-way from an iPad to the guitar, which sometimes results in confusing conflicts between the app’s display and the actual sound coming out of the guitar. (There is also a free version of MIDI Designer Pro—MIDI Designer Lite—that is fully functional except for an ad bar. It allows people to try out the controller, or use it permanently if they don’t mind the ad bar, for free.)
Finally, when you need to travel light, there’s Antares’ innovative Fret Control, which involves maneuvers like fretting F on the 6th string while pressing the Volume knob to shift the guitar into dropped-D tuning. Fret Control works surprisingly well, seldom misfires, and allows convenient self-contained access to most of the Feature Pack options.
Antares has done a remarkable job creating a transparent and glitch-free system, but playing through Auto-Tune doesn’t always feel exactly like playing a standard guitar. I occasionally noticed a subtle stepping effect, most pronounced on slow, wide string bends. And while the software allows vibrato, it diminishes the depth of any intentional string wiggling, varying with speed—faster vibrato comes through most naturally, while very slow or light vibrato can be lost entirely. There are currently no parameters to control these artifacts, but interestingly it is possible via MIDI to disable live intonation correction (“Solid-Tune”), leaving all modeling and automatic open string tuning (“String Tune”) still active. For swampy funk and microtonal blues licks, I preferred this response (sometimes it sounds better not to be 100 percent in tune!), and I’d encourage Antares to make this mode more easily accessible.
I measured roughly 4ms of pick-attack latency, with the lowest notes lagging a bit behind that due to the way Auto-Tune detects pitch. This is slightly more latency than experienced with the average digital effects processor, but I found it easy to ignore after a few minutes of playing (4ms is the delay equivalent of standing a few steps farther from your amp). Slightly more serious is the way the out-of-tune acoustic sound of the guitar can phase and warble against the tuned amplified sound at low volumes. This is not an issue at gig volumes or when recording through headphones, but for quiet playing around the house, you may prefer to tune the open strings with a conventional tuner.
Antares is clearly committed to the future of Auto-Tune for Guitar. Older AT- 200s can be upgraded to current specs with a free software download, and a luthier kit has been announced for installing the complete system in virtually any guitar, along with a floor pedal allowing installation with no permanent instrument modification. I’d add custom tunings to the future wish list: it’s possible to “trick” the AT-200 into some unusual tunings by fretting during String Tune, but custom tunings cannot currently be saved or programmed. And it would be nice if the virtual capo and single-coil models were standard features (the $199 “Pro Pack” is required for capo settings above the 2nd fret), but given the tremendous power the AT-200 delivers at a bargain price, it’s hardly fair to complain about any of these shortcomings. Is Auto-Tune cheating? Well, the AT-200 can certainly make a novice string bender sound more like a pro. But I’ll leave that debate to others as I think it largely misses the point: Auto-Tune is here, works extremely well, and has enormous creative potential. If you find it frustrating getting and keeping your guitar in tune, need a wide range of modeled tones in one instrument, or are just interested in exploring alternate tunings, I highly recommend you try out the Peavey AT-200.
PRICE $499 street
NECK Bolt on maple, shallow oval shape, 5-bolt joint
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 15.75" radius
FRETS 24 medium
TUNERS Sealed die-cast, 15:1 ratio
BODY Solid basswood, black or Candy Apple red
BRIDGE Die-cast hardtail, adjustable piezo-equipped saddles
PICKUPS Two Peavey ceramic-magnet dual coil
EXTRAS Onboard Antares Auto-Tune for Guitar technology, 8-pin DIN connector
POWER Four AA batteries, or phantom from AT-200B breakout box ($59 street)
CONTROLS Volume (push to tune) and Tone (pull bypass), 3-way pickup selector
OPTIONS Software Packs: Essential, Pro, Complete ($99/$199/$299 street); iPad control app ($25)
WEIGHT 7.5 lbs
KUDOS Self-tuning and intonating. Stunning range of add-on tones and tunings. Affordable.
CONCERNS Ringing strings distracting at low volume.