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Guitar vs. Synth: Who’s in Charge Here?

Marty Cutler

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Helpful Tips from Marty Cutler’s THE NEW ELECTRONIC GUITARIST: Adapting synthesizers to guitar, guitar technique, and programming, all working together to improve tracking.

Guitars and technology might not be as comfortable a marriage as you might think. MIDI is an unambiguous protocol that attempts through binary code to describe technical gestures by which we control devices that react, to ultimately produce sounds we call music—in our case, we are doing this with guitars, the instrument of Nigel Tufnel. All the same, with a decent understanding of how MIDI works and how guitars are played, exploring the music in music technology can become second nature.

Envelopes Rule

I’ve been harping away about the guitar-friendly features of this or that synth or sequencer. But it is also important to realize that some things are just lost in translation. This actually happened: I was in a music store and saw someone getting ready to play a Roland GR-707. He became completely frustrated by the instrument’s intermittent response. I wasn’t close enough to see him play, but strangely unmusical wisps of the synthesizer wafted through the air. Finally, I got a little closer to find out what the problem was, and sure enough, the guy complained about how bad the tracking was. He started playing speed metal riffs to make his point. Of course, he was playing a slow-moving pad, as if he thought the synthesizer would automatically follow his playing to the letter. That goes to illustrate my first principle of MIDI guitar. Say it with me: “Envelopes Rule!”

Remember, synthesizers use controls to determine how quickly they attack or fade out, and we need to play according to the way the sounds are set up. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has tried to play 240bpm bebop on a tuba. Although by now I’m reasonably certain that someone will pick up a tuba and prove me wrong, you can’t play speed metal or any other solo that depends on rapid-fire picking with a patch that has a slow attack without making drastic alterations to the programming. The concept of envelopes has another implication if you are trying to emulate a realistic performance of an acoustic instrument. If we turn my tuba example around, you will not convince anyone that you are emulating a realistic tuba performance.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you might just like the tone of the patch, and that could form the basis for a solo instrument or a pad with a more rapid attack. Excellent—you’re on your way to becoming a creative programmer! With the caveat that you might not like the result of your altered instrument, you can do this and remember that you are not breaking anything, that you can always go back to the original patch and start over. Perform these edits with your MIDI guitar connected so you can get a tactile impression of the instrument’s response to your edits and your playing needs. Keep your synth manual by your side (or online) so you can locate the parameters you need to edit.

First, let’s examine two reasons why your synthesizer might be responding sluggishly to your neo–Van Halen solos. I’m assuming that you are working with a subtractive-type synth with typical envelope generators. Most synthesizer patches shape their sounds with two envelope generator types. One controls the shape of a sound’s amplitude. It might be called a VCA, recalling the good old days of analog synths with voltage-controlled amplifiers, or it could be labeled DCA, referring to a digitally controlled amp; Korg calls its amp envelope generator a VDA (standing for variable). Regardless, the in the envelope’s nomenclature is usually your clue that it controls the sound’s loudness over time.

Next, start by calling up the patch you need to edit and accessing its envelope parameters. I’m using the Korg Legacy M1 to illustrate the process because it has a relatively easy-to-understand architecture and because it covers the parameters we need to examine. For purposes of clarity, let’s start by clicking on the Easy tab. The two aforementioned envelope generators sit on the right-hand side of the graphical user interface (GUI); topmost is the VDF (yes, Korg’s acronym meaning variable digital filter instead of DCF).

The cursor points to the Attack parameter in the Korg M1 Amplitude Envelope Generator. Clicking on one of the small rectangles changes the way the sound develops over time.

First, let’s focus on the VDA. You will notice four small rectangles positioned on the line graphics. The lines plot the program’s changes in amplitude (vertical axis) over time (horizontal axis). They might be a bit small to read, but the rectangles represent the ADSR parameters of the sound program, and they are also virtual handles you can grab with a mouse click. In reality, the Korg’s envelopes are slightly more complex than a simple ADSR, but the rectangles handily mark the more familiar aspects of the envelope. Notice that the first line, which represents the attack time—the time it takes to reach its maximum amplitude—is canted rightward, meaning that it takes some time to reach its full volume. If you are content with how the rest of the sound develops over time and simply want to speed up the attack, just grab the first handle of the four and tug it leftward until you are happy with the response time. If the response time is still sluggish, look at the filter envelope in the VDF, just above; notice that in my example, the attack time is very slow there, too. Grab the rectangle for the filter’s attack and move it leftward until the sound responds properly. One word of warning: Be especially ginger with the filter settings. A lot of the program’s tone rides on how bright or muted it is, and drastically altering its timbral contours might ruin the patch you are after.

At this point, the sound may respond to your playing, but you might find that the attack, while speedy enough, sounds a bit harsh, or that its speed causes the patch to articulate every glitch and accidentally triggered note you play. In those cases, consider that you may have a bit of leeway in the instrument’s attack time—and this is where having your MIDI guitar controller connected is handy. Back off on the attack time just a tiny hair until you are satisfied that everything sounds and performs the way you want it to. The response may feel a tad squishy but will still track your musical gestures. For a long time, [Weather Report keyboardist] Joe Zawinul’s lead sound was an alto saxophone sample with a somewhat softer attack than your average lead, but it was an excellent foil for his very unique and profoundly human solo style.

We are not done yet, though. Another aspect of making a sound respond quickly is whether it gets out of the way of your next note soon enough. To that end, look at the release tabs on each envelope; dragging them to the left shortens their time. Here again, being judicious keeps the sound from cutting off prematurely and sounding too staccato.

I’ve highlighted the Velocity Sensitivity (Vel Sens) with a rectangle. Here, you can set how your picking dynamics affect the intensity of the envelope, the speed of the envelope, and the polarity of the effect.

And yet, we are still not quite through—and I guarantee you will be glad you were patient. Having gone through all this, here’s your reward, and it’s a genuine enhancement to expressive playing. Just about all modern synthesizers in existence are velocity sensitive. To many, that simply means that the harder you play, the louder you sound, but in the world of MIDI and synthesizers, Velocity is capable of controlling much more. Using our Korg as an example, we can first click on the VDA tab and locate the cryptically abbreviated Vel Sens section, and with it, the equally mysterious EG Time parameter. The former stands for Velocity Sensitivity, and the latter stands for Envelope Generator Time. Increasing the EG Time value allows us to change the attack time by how forcefully we play. That means that a lighter touch lets you play with a softer, more pad-like effect, and bearing down produces a more aggressive tone that will let you indulge your speed-picking fantasies. Varying your touch between both poles yields very expressive results. Once again, congratulations on your programming ventures.

Mono Madness

Despite the importance of enabling independent string behavior so your synthesizers will respond more like a guitar, there’s a world of benefit to learning how to play a guitar like a synthesizer, too. The late Keith Emerson was renowned for his solo on the tune “Lucky Man”; the sound of that gliding, swooping, and monophonic synthesizer caught the ear of many a listener. Another good reason to play sounds monophonically has to do with emulation of wind instruments. One of the dead giveaways of unconvincing emulative solos occurs when one note lingers into the next note—show me a wind player who can do that! Mono synthesizer programs ensure that the release of one note does not run into the next. They often have the benefit of portamento, the ability of a sound to glide in pitch to the next note. They can also be programmed for a legato response so that the sound of the attack doesn’t retrigger with every note—so your patch doesn’t sound like a typewriter.

Working a monophonic sound for expressiveness doesn’t necessarily come naturally to guitarists—even those who can spin out flowing, single-note lines. Nonetheless, a competent steel guitarist already has the proper techniques at hand (pun intended) to achieve similar results by integrating a technique called blocking. Speaking as a lapsed steel player (another intended pun), I can acknowledge that the techniques required for a guitarist to master blocking may not come immediately, but with practice, you’ll gain the control you need.

Blocking, as you might guess from its name, is the technique of damping notes with your picking hand. That’s an important technique for steel players in particular because the instrument’s setup provides an enormous amount of sustain. One of the beauties of the instrument is its ability to play long, slow-moving chords smoothly, and yet particular country music styles often require short, choppy, almost banjo-like arpeggios. A lot of the ability to vary the style so drastically lies in the player’s picking hand.

Here’s a photo of the underside of my picking hand relative to the guitar. The thumb and index grip the pick or thumb pick, the meat of your palm mutes unwanted strings, and your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers remain relaxed in order to pluck chords when called for. 

Try this: On your picking hand, curl the pinky, ring, and middle fingers under and into the palm of your hand. You can grasp your pick of choice (I usually use a plastic thumb pick, which stays in place with less gripping) between the sides of your index finger and thumb. Your hand should be in a relaxed position roughly a quarter-inch or so above the strings. The idea is to be in position to play notes with the pick, using a back- and-forth, swiveling motion of your wrist, and damp the strings with the meat on the outer side of your palm when you need to. Practicing this style isn’t that different from normal guitar routines. Try picking repeatedly on a single string, then move to the next string, just to acclimate your hand to the technique, then try alternating strings, then bring your fretting hand into action and try playing scales, and then try playing passages—slowly, you should be mindful of phrasing, and so don’t simply play a barrage of uninterrupted 16th notes. Play melodies with some space in them. If it helps, listen to or watch a pedal steel player such as the late, great Buddy Emmons to get a feel for the technique.

Your Guitar and MIDI

One of the most liberating developments in MIDI guitar history was the abandonment of proprietary guitars and the emerging ability to use your own axe with a divided pickup, but there’s a debit side, too. Your guitar may have some properties that make it difficult to use for synths. Body resonance in the wrong places can set your strings vibrating, and your MIDI pickup might translate that as note data. Worn or twisted strings with a bump could cause note misfires and intonation problems, as can worn or poorly finished frets. In general, whatever problems you might perceive on your guitar will be amplified when connected by MIDI to a synthesizer. Give your guitar some love, and keep it well-maintained and in tune. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

No one’s playing technique is exactly the same as another’s. Consequently, all MIDI guitars let you adjust the instrument’s response to your playing. Here’s a detail from GR-55 Floorboard, a software editor/librarian for the Roland GR-55 guitar synthesizer.

All the same, many MIDI guitar controllers have ways to curb the data that issue from a problematic guitar. Every MIDI guitar I am aware of lets you tailor its response to your playing style, and, by extension, the setup of your guitar. The setup facilities for the Roland GR-55 provide a good example. You can specify the distance of each of the divided pickups from its string, the manufacturer of your pickup, the fingerboard scale, and the sensitivity of each individual string to your touch. If your preferred string action is a bit high, you are more likely to excite strings when you release notes; accordingly, most guitar controller systems offer a low-velocity threshold, which keeps those casual brushes with your strings from triggering unintended notes.

Consider what you play on your guitar as having a conversation with your synthesizer. Depending on the understanding and care you take, your conversation with your synthesizer can be one with an incredibly obtuse and dull listener or an animated conversation with someone you love.

To check out Marty’s book – The New Electronic Guitarist.

Reprinted from The New Electronic Guitarist, by Marty Cutler (Hal Leonard Books, 2017). All rights reserved.

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