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Zivix Jamstik MIDI Guitars: the Synth and Software Review



The traditional problems with MIDI guitars are a thing of the past

Let’s set the MIDI guitar stage to put the Zivix Jamstick MIDI guitars being reviewed into 2023 context.

Going back almost four decades, my first MIDI guitar was the Ibanez IMG2010 system. It comprised a futuristic keyless guitar with tuners at the instrument’s tailpiece, a 24-pin cable going from the guitar to the instrument’s MIDI converter/controller, which in turn converted the analog signal from each string’s pickup to MIDI, which then fed MIDI data (by way of a connected 5-pin MIDI cable) to a synth or other suitable MIDI device.

The guitar had a host of knobs and switches, including a programmable whammy bar. It did not alter the pitch of the strings, but could be assigned to a MIDI pitch bend or a number of Control Change (CC) messages such as Modulation and Aftertouch.

Key to getting all of this technology to respond like a proper guitar – the instrument of Nigel Tufnel – was ensuring that the guitar controller and the synth reached a number of agreements. If the guitar was sending one string per MIDI Channel, the synth would need to respond similarly; if the guitar was bending notes as much as an octave, the synth would need to be set to the same range to respond.

It was a bit more intricate than it sounds, and the process inevitably meant corresponding menu dives between the controller and synth panels. 

For all that, tracking your playing was mediocre by today’s standards – often glitchy and slow. 

Things are much easier today, although MIDI guitar has only recently reached something approaching plug ‘n play status. Part of the reason for the slow evolution is that MIDI guitars have been slow to address the outside world. Even turnkey systems with bespoke sound libraries can require significant tweaking to play external sounds properly.

To get a synthesizer to behave like a guitar, it’s been necessary to dole out one (and only one) voice per MIDI channel, with agreement between controller and controlee on the range of pitch bend. Each voice is the domain of one of the six guitar strings, optimally arranged so successive notes on one string cut off the previous note (how many notes can you play simultaneously on a single string?).

That was the prevailing order of things until now.

Jamstik Studio and Jamstik Classic guitars follow similar ground rules, but with a twist: with the advent of MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) and some slick software integration, Zivix has made guitar access to fluid and articulate synthesizer performance simple and easy.

Two models. Zivix’ first entry into MIDI guitar (as opposed to guitar-like MIDI controllers) is the Jamstik Studio, a 24-fret, double-cutaway, keyless (no headstock) guitar with two humbucker pickups and a coil-tap switch for tonal variety. It’s the one on the right of the picture at the top of this review, of course.

The package includes USB cable and a USB-A to USB-C adapter, along with a strap and strap locks. It also includes a variety of Allen wrenches for adjusting the string height. There’s a small hex wrench for tuning the strings. These are attached magnetically in a small well alongside the bridge.

We’ll do some grumbling about the tuning system in the headless Jamstik Studio (but not the Classic, which has traditional tuning pegs) later.

A few weeks into this review, Zivix released the Jamstik Classic, with a 22 fret, Stratocaster-style body and headstock, two single-coil pickups, and a neck position humbucker. A 5-position toggle switch lets you toggle pickup combinations.

As electric guitars, the pickups sound decent if not earth-shaking. Of the two, I prefer the tonal options of the Jamstik Classic; I’ve always preferred the sound of single-coil pickups to split coil emulations.

Guitar amp and effects plug-ins are the great equalizers in this instance. Both guitars have the same divided (hexaphonic) pickup situated between the tailpiece and bridge pickup. 

In hand. Jamstik guitars can send MIDI via its USB-C jack, over Bluetooth, or through its 3.5mm TRS MIDI cable, to hardware devices (read: no computer necessary).

Jamstik MIDI guitars are MPE-capable to an extent. They use MPE to distribute notes from each string over its own MIDI channel, as in conventional MIDI guitar setups. With MPE, however, generated MIDI CCs, pitch-bend, and other events are attached to each note, which could account for the controller’s clean and smooth output.

Jamstik has no direct way of generating Polyphonic Aftertouch or MIDI CC #74, which MPE typically uses to modulate timbre. This is not to say that Jamstik is all notes and no modulation, however. Velocity, of course, has always been available to modulate individual note volumes and timbre; additionally, Jamstik can map the envelope of a vibrating string as a source for generating a MIDI CC.

In practice, this doesn’t always yield the desired effect. Guitar strings decay and release rather quickly, and the envelope starts at a maximum value. Being able to invert the envelope, or trigger an auxiliary envelope or LFO (for instance) would be a boon here. The default mapping of MIDI CC 11 (Expression) is a good overall choice, but it doesn’t fit every patch perfectly. 

Fortunately you can switch it off if it interferes with the synth’s response.

Tracking. Jamstik’s tracking is easily the best I’ve experienced in a MIDI guitar. More specifically, latency is hardly perceptible in any of the instrument’s conventional modes through the USB connection. The response over Bluetooth is slower but still quite playable.

Jamstik will pick up what you’re putting down without glitching. If your playing is relatively clean – or even a bit less – it’s got you covered. You may have to futz with the string sensitivity and make sure your tuning is accurate, but all that is easily done with an assist from the included Jamstik Creator software (more about this later).

What’s most remarkable to me is how smoothly and precisely Jamstik handles pitchbend. Most MIDI guitar controllers (once you’ve matched parameters carefully between the controller and synth) can sound sloppy – out of tune, out of time with the synth, and vibrato often sounds exaggerated. On the Jamstik, these articulations feel naturally expressive – so much so that I was encouraged to push the instrument’s envelope, so to speak.

As an aside, if you’re interested in making a Jamstik fretless, there’s device called Guitar Flatter. It’s a clear polycarbonate overlay for the guitar fretboard that sits between the guitar frets and strings, presenting a fretless playing surface.

I ordered one after seeing the video demos, partly to pair with Jamstik and its MPE Mode expressiveness. My lack of experience as a fretless player aside, the combination of guitar-driven MPE on a fretless fingerboard is irresistible.

Roli Equator 2 has several exceptional upright acoustic patches. The combination yielded some startlingly convincing results. Double stops, chords, slides, and vibrato all played without a hitch.

You can switch Jamstik between three different playing modes. Multi-Channel Mode is suitable for synths that support MIDI Mode 4, the conventional way to provide individual string MIDI control. MPE Mode caters to the growing number of MPE-compatible devices. And there’s Single-Channel Mode.

I was very happy to find that single channel output was exceptionally clean and articulate, even with a modicum of pitchbend enabled. Naturally, you want to steer clear of bending more than one note at a time. But even with some pretty incautious picking, it rarely if ever sounded sloppy.

Compared to other MIDI guitar systems, the output of both Jamstik instruments is flat-out clean. 

Connecting to my Roland JV-1080 with the 3.5mm TRS MIDI yielded equally satisfying results, but it also illuminated problems inherent to connecting any MIDI guitar system to third-party instruments.

Specifically, unique parameters used to animate a sound may not be implemented by the controller. Aftertouch is one good example. Patches that rely on modulated crossfades may sound unworkable. In some cases there are workarounds, but in general it’s a good idea to do a little research on your synth’s capabilities and organize your favorite patches into banks to avoid the ones that don’t respond properly.

Jamstik’s envelope-following modulation is a great idea, but you may need to turn it off for some synths or reassign the type of controller it generates. Fortunately Zivix offers a Jamstik Control, a free app for IOS and Android, to customize Jamstik’s parameters over Bluetooth. For that matter you could simply play synths on your iPhone or iPad, or using Android Pro Audio.

Action. Zivix supplies the tools for adjusting the guitar’s action at the bridge and at the nut, as well as the divided pickup height relative to the strings. More importantly, you get download access to the Jamstik Creator plug-in (AAX, AUv3, VST3, Standalone), which is key to customizing the guitar, among other things.

In Creator you adjust individual (or group) pickup sensitivity, select the mode of MIDI output, and tune the strings – a critical part of accurate tracking. This tuning system wouldn’t be viable in live performances. The wrench is too small to grasp and detach securely, and the odds of dropping it on a dark stage are not in your favor. Even in the less chaotic environs of my studio, I’ve found myself hunting for the gadget on the floor.

The plug-in is where you set up macros for animating Creator’s built-in synth. Yes, Creator is also a multi-oscillator, hybrid analog-modeling and sample-based synth. Zivix has a decent library of presets, and it offers add-on libraries for purchase.

As yet there is no user sampling, but it’s under consideration for future versions. Your time would be well spent getting familiar with the synth, nonetheless. Few of the presets took full advantage of the more advanced modulation features, such as the multi-segmented envelope generators (MSEG) or string envelopes as modulators for the macros.

The Creator synth’s modulation is flexible, even letting you modulate one MSEG with another. Creator seems like a relatively uncomplicated synth, but a bit of imagination along with some exploration of its features can go a long way.

Sale? Jamstik is a fine MIDI guitar. It’s swift and responsive, its tracking is on a par with that of Fishman-equipped guitars and others, none of which readily support the MPE standard, and none of which are nearly as clean in its output.

However, the MPE implementation isn’t complete. It lacks the keyboard-based controls of say, a Roli Seaboard or a Roger Linn Designs LinnStrument, but that’s the fate of any current guitar-driven MIDI controller. Still, you can attach individual CCs to pitchbend even if you can’t directly use X- and Y-axis controls as sources.

For additional animation you can always budget for a MIDI foot controller. Creator’s synth readily responds to channel-based modulation too, and everything can be automated within your DAW.

At $800 for the Jamstik Studio/$1000 for the Classic you might find the instrument to be a steep investment. But consider what a comfortable and trouble-free portal for guitarists into MIDI and synthesis Jamstik can be, and you’ll likely be swayed.

I came into this review a little skeptical, and finished it considerably past my deadline, because I’d rather play the thing than write about it.

Bottom line, I eagerly bought one for myself. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Prices: Jamstik Studio, $799; Jamstik Classic, $999

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