- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Digital technology already has changed the future of many electronic items, such as cameras, cellular phones and televisions. Now it is bringing new possibilities to the guitar, says Kris Carter, president of Gibson Technologies in Northwest.

The beloved six-string instrument has received a makeover, although some people would argue that the guitar is better off without technological advances.

Gibson Guitar Corp. of Nashville, Tenn., will release the Gibson Digital Guitar in July, the first truly digital instrument of its kind. It will cost about $3,000.

“It’s been through a number of stages, mostly in terms of miniaturizing the technologies to get it to comfortably fit in the guitar,” Mr. Carter says. “If it’s too heavy, it won’t resonate as well. As we were introducing science into the instrument, we had to make sure we weren’t having any negative impact on the art.”

Electric guitars date to the 1930s, and since then, there innovations, says Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and chief executive officer of Gibson Guitar Corp. Also, the basic instruments the company sells are based on a design created more than a century ago.

“It’s very unusual not to have any technical progress in a product,” Mr. Juszkiewicz says. “An example of a product in the music industry with tremendous advancements is the electronic keyboard, to the benefit of musicians…. Acoustic instruments are still valued, and to a large extent have done well, but the electronic keyboard has provided a new way to make music.”

After coming to the conclusion that digital products are the wave of the future, Mr. Juszkiewicz wanted to create a guitar using the technology. He says digital technology will help noise and impedance problems, which frequent performances and recording sessions. Impedance is resistance in sound transmission, usually involving current flow through circuits.

As a result, the Gibson Digital Guitar contains a Media-accelerated Global Information Carrier (MAGIC) network, a digital transport carrying multiple channels in both directions through an ethernet cable. He hopes MAGIC will replace wiring systems in the musical instrument fields and consumer electronic applications. Through this system, the guitar can be “in sync” with up to 6,499 other instruments at the same time.

The instrument also contains eight quarter-inch jack outputs, which allows one for each string, in addition to a humbucking pickup output, which was invented in the 1950s to reduce unwanted noise, and a pass-through to carry a microphone signal. Also, two inputs carry audio to monitor other instruments, such as the drums and bass. “Split mode” can assign individual strings to be voiced through different amplifiers, which could make for an interesting live performance.

“Each string going to a different location onstage with a different amplifier and effects,” Mr. Juszkiewicz says. “Imagine the kinds of sounds you could invent.”

Although traditional guitar players may balk at the idea of a digital instrument, Mr. Juszkiewicz doesn’t think the criticism he faces is any different from the comments that accompanied the release of the compact disc.

“They said: ‘CDs sound so sterile. It’s not the right thing,’” he says. “It will be a while until the market really accepts and listens objectively to what we deliver…. There will be a segment of the population who will be ready to boil me in oil, in which case, we will continue to make a lot of the original guitars.”

As a community, guitar players tend to reject change associated with their instruments, says Michael Mueller, managing editor of Guitar One magazine in New York City.

“Everyone still goes for retro things,” he says. “It’s a weird dichotomy. They want old-school, classic, vintage gear, and they sing the praises of analog and say digital doesn’t sound natural.”

An analog signal is like a needle on a phonograph, which goes up and down constantly. The signal has been translated into electronic pulses. A digital format is made of samples of zeros and ones, converting the waveform to numbers.

Paul Reed Smith, managing general partner of Paul Reed Smith Guitars in Stevensville, Md., says digital technology is here to stay. In fact, he calls it “forward thinking.” He says the debate centers on just where in the process sound should be converted from analog to digital. At the moment, his company is not planning to make a digital guitar.

“Getting the guitar into the digital domain is something that happens in almost every CD you have,” Mr. Smith says. “It’s where you put the analog-to-digital converter…. Do you put it in the computer? It can go anywhere. Is [the guitar] the place for the analog-to-digital converter to go? Gibson seems to think it is.”

By creating digital sound in the guitar, Gibson Guitar Corp. essentially is making the instrument like today’s digital cellular phones, which eliminate background noise, says Paul Schein, guitar specialist at Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center in Wheaton.

Unfortunately, musicians who want to embrace the technology might not be able to afford it, he says. At first, probably only celebrity musicians and high-tech studios will buy the instrument. Over time, he says, maybe the public will become more accepting as the price lowers.

“If people want us to sell it, we will sell it,” Mr. Schein says. “We either follow trends or create them. We trust our own instincts. There may be a rock star or another store that starts the trend. We’re happy to follow it, if there’s money to be made.”

Jason Chong, department manager for guitars at the Guitar Center in Arlington, says customers who are interested in exploring new sounds and techniques will be interested in the instrument.

“I think customers will be suspicious,” he says, “but if it sounds good and it plays well, it will sell. Musicians are all about sound.”

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