IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE THAT THE electric guitar would one day become iOS-compatible, but did you ever expect to see a decent axe being sold in the Apple Store? The Squier by Fender USB Stratocaster is a hybrid instrument that can be connected directly to your computer or iDevice via USB and plugged into an amp like any other electric guitar. However, the best thing about this guitar is that the USB connection is bi-directional: plug it into your computer, iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, and jam along with iTunes or YouTube while hearing yourself through your favorite virtual-amp software. Is this the ultimate practice tool?
This Squier USB Stratocaster has a built-in audio interface so you can play along with songs from your computer or iDevice while using your favorite virtual amp.
While the USB Stratocaster is not the first guitar to offer USB connectivity, Fender deserves kudos for releasing an instrument that is priced low enough for beginners and intermediate players, yet plays like it cost twice as much. When you use the digital connection, the USB Stratocaster acts as an audio interface: it has an onboard 24-bit analog-to-digital converter (ADC) that sends a digitized signal to your computer or iDevice. At the same time, the guitar receives stereo digital audio in return and uses the built-in 24-bit digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to feed the instrument’s headphone amp. The guitar’s second Volume knob (the one closest to the edge of the body) controls the signal level coming in via USB. Unfortunately you need a USB connection, which powers the onboard electronics, to use the headphone amp. The headphone output is very loud at maximum level, so keep that in mind when playing for long periods of time.
Note that this instrument doesn’t send or receive MIDI, nor does it rely on DSP modeling. It uses Fender-designed pickups to feed an amp the old-fashioned way, while simultaneously sending and receiving digitized signals over USB. The 1/4” jack is in the traditional spot on the body’s lower bout, while the headphone jack and USB port are on the bottom next to the strap button.
The instrument comes with two six-foot USB cables that have a Mini-B connector on one end that plugs into the guitar. One cable has a Type-A USB connector on the other end, which connects to your computer. The other cable has a 30-pin connector that fits Apple devices. If you have an iPhone 5, fourth-generation iPad, or iPad Mini with the new 8-pin Lightning connector, you’ll need a 30-pin-to-8-pin adaptor.
The guitar is USB Class Compliant and supports Apple iOS, Mac OS X 10.7 and Windows 7. Any application that supports Core Audio (Mac) or ASIO drivers can accept audio from the guitar. I used the USB Stratocaster with my iPhone 4 and MacBook Pro running OS X 10.6.8 without issue. But because I don’t have OS X 10.7 installed on my laptop, I cannot run Fender’s Firmware Updater for the guitar. Nonetheless, even with my out-of-spec operating system and old iPhone, the Strat was completely plug-and- play over USB, just as it should be.
For example, I attached the USB cable between my iPhone and the guitar, and launched the Agile Partners AmpKit app. Right away I was rocking through virtual amps and effects. Later, I tried IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube for iPhone and, again, I was up and running immediately.
Next, I plugged the guitar into my MacBook Pro, opened the Audio section of the System Preferences and selected Fender Audio Device as the Input and Output. Then, I launched IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 and selected my favorite patch. Finally, I launched iTunes, selected my practice playlist, and started my workout routine. This procedure took exactly one minute (I timed it). Now that’s instant gratification!
Latency—the time it takes for the signal to go from the pickups, though the ADC to your virtual amp, then return through the DAC and headphone amp—is exceptionally low on the USB Stratocaster. The only time I noticed it was when I was playing single-note lines with a clean virtual-amp setting, but it was just barely detectable.
When I handed the guitar and earbuds to my 13-year-old son, his first comment after playing through AmpliTube 3 was “Wow!” Seeing that it was connected via USB he added “That would be great for recording.” And the USB Stratocaster is, whether you use GarageBand or a pro-level DAW. And because the 1/4” jack is always live, you can record through an amp and directly into your DAW simultaneously. To get the lowest latency when you record, set your software’s buffer to a small number. That way, you won’t hear a delay between your amp sound and what you get in your earbuds.
The biggest surprise was how well the guitar played and stayed in tune (when I wasn’t using the whammy bar). The overall setup was great all along the neck, with no dead spots, whether I was in standard or open/drop-string tunings. The only issue was that the frets were a little rough in spots. Nonetheless, I can’t remember having a $200 guitar that played this well right out of the box. And I appreciated having at least one humbucker onboard, because it can be tricky to get rid of the noise from single- coil pickups when recording.
Best of all, the guitar offers classic Strat tones, including the out-of-phase sounds from positions 2 and 4 on the pickup selector. Considering all that this guitar can do, the USB Stratocaster is an incredible value, whether you use it to record, practice, or gig.
SQUIRE BY FENDER
PRICE $199 street
NUT WIDTH 1.65"
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25.5" scale
TUNERS Die-cast sealed
BRIDGE Vintage-style synchronized tremolo
PICKUPS HSS with ceramic magnets
CONTROLS Pickup Volume, Tone, 5-way Selector, Headphone Volume
I/O (1) ¼" output; (1) 3.5mm headphone jack; (1) USB port
FACTORY STRINGS Fender USA Super 250L, NPS (.009 ~ .042 Gauges)
WEIGHT 7.3 lbs.
KUDOS Easy to use. Plays above its price. Bi-directional audio interface.
CONCERNS Headphone amp requires USB connection.