As multitouch becomes more widely available, there’s an opportunity to re-imagine all sorts of interfaces. And yes, that includes the guitar.

I’m way behind on mentioning it, but thanks to all the readers who spotted the fascinating Misa digital guitar. Strings and frets are each replaced with digital touch controls, and the soundboard touchscreen is set up to control notes, velocity, pitch, and filters. In fact, it makes the guitar more like a keyboard, and less like a guitar. But as with all digital instruments, abstracting the gesture from the actual sound means that you can arbitrarily redefine what the instrument really does.

Engadget wrote up the Misa last month

Misa Digital of Sydney has a bare-bones site and waiting list / queries via email.

Don’t want to wait around on a list for the fully-integrated version? Thinking about how you could just strap an iPod touch or iPhone to an instrument and use that instead? You’re in luck. In fact, if you’ve got an Apple mobile and Ableton Live, you can start right now.

Photo courtesy Jim Purbrick; image by Steve Marshall (Stevie BM).

Jim Purbrick first experimented with iPhone performance at an open OSCestra. Unlike the Misa, his guitar remains a real guitar. The addition of an iPhone (or an iPod touch, if you’d rather) is simply a way to augment the instrument. In the grand tradition of the one man band, touch control with the open-source control application Mrmr allows him to manipulate Ableton Live tracks.

The solution is an open source Python hack that connects his mobile device to Ableton Live through Live’s LiveAPI. And incidentally, this solution requires far less effort – and yields more immediate integration – than running a Max for Live device. (I have to point that out, because while I’m impressed by Max’s extraordinary capabilities inside Live, there are practical ways in which direct OSC integration is better for controlling Live itself.)

And good news, Windows users – this all works on your OS, too. In fact, the only problem is the lack of an interface builder for Mrmr on Windows, which is something I think we’ll soon solve. (JavaFX would be a nice choice, as you’d have a cross-platform Java interface that looks nice but runs anywhere, without the pain of developing in Swing. That last sentence will be meaningful only to Java developers; everyone else, pretend I just temporarily started speaking in tongues.)

Details and full instructions for the hack:

An Open Source, Guitar Mounted, Multi Touch, Wireless, OSC Interface for Ableton Live [The Creation Engine No. 2 (Jim’s blog)]


For further inspiration, here’s both the Misa and Jim’s own (real) guitar augmented by touch, in action:

  • dtr

    iPhone strapped on guitar… tempting idea!

  • For a while now I've thought instead of packing phones full of features it is hard to take advantage of, they should contain useful devices for real life eg a Lighter, an asthma inhaler or (comes vaguely back on topic) a plectrum holder.

    Be perfect for this.

  • So are all these cool ways of messing with music just pushing a laptop agenda and hastening the death of midi gear?

    One could make the argument that software is inherently closed by cost restrictions..

  • Peter, I'm completely lost. What do you mean?

    A laptop "agenda"?

    There's really no reason embedded hardware can't also do OSC, for the record. And it can use physical cables. And it could incorporate touchscreens.

    And there's also no reason you can't embed the touchscreen and generate sound internally.

  • Jim Aikin

    As a string player, I value the immediacy and subtlety of touch. I'll wait and see whether this multi-touch "guitar" can rival the immediacy of actually playing a guitar. Offhand, it looks to me like they're adding oars to a sailboat.

  • @Jim: Right, I agree, but that's why Jim's solution really makes some sense (and is radically different in practice than the Misa example). Then it's just an interface for the software, it's just using your fingers instead of being limited to foot pedals.

  • Things such as the Misa instrument (sans touchscreen) have been tried many times before. The Ztars, the synthaxe, the eigenharp, and even attempts preceding those, such as a late 70's contraption I once had that had a capacitive fretboard with short rod "strings" controlling 6 analog oscilators. I've even made a few along the same lines. But the problem is with the attitudes of string players, not the instruments, which are often well thought out, incredibly capable pieces of gear.

    Example: Even though early synthesizers were incapable of SOUNDING exactly like, say, a piano or a string ensemble, and were often monophonic and fixed volume, keyboardists recognized the POTENTIAL of the instruments to do things that that acoustic instruments simply couldn't; consequently, the synthesizer has evolved in ways that guitar hasn't. Guitarists seem to get caught up in "well, it isn't as "responsive" as my (insert guitar/amp here), so it's not "musical".

    There's a quote from (IIRC) Allan Holdsworth that sums it up well; paraphrasing, he said that most guitarists that pick up the Synthaxe immediately start looking for a patch that sounds like a guitar, then are frustrated/disappointed when it can't sound like one. Before MIDI (or whatever protocol you want) guitar controllers catch on, that attitude has to change.

  • Jeff Brown

    In guitarists' defense, there are more expressive parameters for them to screw with on a guitar then there are on a piano. On a piano, the only choice you make is what pitch (from a fixed grid) when; on a guitar, there's a ton of paramterers (pick angle, strike angle, strike speed, strike position, damping, polyphonic pitch bend — plus all the weird stuff like harmonics, scrapes, etc). Thus, when the guitarist moves to a synth platform, they give up a lot more expressiveness than a pianist does.

    Not that piano is inherently less expressive than guitar, but the amount of control over each note is clearly much lower. Rock-bottom, really.

  • @dbell: Well said! As a guitarist & keyboardist myself, I started at 13 on the guitar then learned keyboards later, I completely agree with your assessment.

    I don't know why most guitarists are like that but in my xp I've found them to pretty much personify your description. Weird, lol.

  • Steve Elbows

    After I got an Eigenharp Pico I was semi-joking on their forum about nailing it to a plank along with an ipod touch or future apple tablet. Now the iPad looms I may just do that, although various eigend software issues still dampen my spirits somewhat. All the same the combination of very sensitive eigenharp keys and a multitouch controller fills my mind with glorious possibilities.

  • cyn

    "But as with all digital instruments, abstracting the gesture from the actual sound means that you can arbitrarily redefine what the instrument really does."

    2 bumper stickers come to mind in response:

    "Got digital fatigue?"

    "One less iPhone…"

  • @ Jeff Brown; I'm not attacking guitarists, well, I guess I am, in a way, but the prevalent mindset more than the instrument or player. But I AM a guitarist, and I think that there's a few parameters on the piano that you've left out; volume, damper pedal, the range of the instrument, etc. There's surely more to it than "notes on a grid". I don't know if you can argue that one is really more expressive or complex than the other, but I get your point.

    My point was this: If you gave a guitarist an instrument with one string (or three, but all octaves of the other, and this string can only be played at one volume) and maybe some other, weirder parameters (an LFO? a filter?), then he's probably not going to embrace it. Give a similar instrument adapted to a keyboard player, and you have a Minimoog. I just wish that guitarists were more… embracing of new tech. I want the Misa and the Eigenharp to be ridiculous successes… but I think that part of that success depends upon guitarists opening up a bit to non-guitar sounds, and expressive parameters that are unfamiliar and maybe less primal than a pickslide.

  • Axel

    I'm also a guitarist and I've also tried to attach my iPod to my guitar to use it as a controller while playing. I gave up, because you have to look at the touchscreen to trigger clips etc. and there's just no place on a guitar where you could attach your screen to make that comfortable.

    But there are already several controllers on every electric guitar and that's the tone and volume potis and pickup switches. Yet I haven't found anybody who offers mods that turn those into midi/osc controllers.

    I agree that most guitarists are rather conservative but I think here's an idea that could sell (if only 0.1% of guitarists were interested in that stuff that would still be a good market)

  • Ed

    This is a great piece of innovation, hopefully it will incorporate all the dynamics of the gutair (eventually speaking)

  • Ed

    Guitar, HA!

  • As a guitarist with an axon midi guitar controller and all sorts of other tools for running it through a computer (mostly through Plogue Bidule) the Misa guitar looks and sounds like a gimmick/toy.

    A touchscreen is a great idea as pedals are often not the greatest way of controlling things but you've got to use it alongside the thing that makes the instrument great: the strings. I've been using my theremin to control cutoffs and such alongside my guitar and that also works wonders.

    Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips recently strapped a Kaossilator to his guitar. That seems cheaper than this and probably more powerful.

    Similar digital guitars have been around for years and have always failed because they lack the expressiveness of an actual guitar. Even the super fast axon guitar to MIDI converter with three programmable picking positions, bends, fret splits and all sorts of other features lacks part of the range of tones you can get out of a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. What you've got to do is work alongside the guitar's natural flexibility and expressiveness.

    As horribly expensive as it is, the Moog guitar is the only step in the right direction I can see.

    The first time I heard of the Misa guitar I posted a comment describing my ideal take on the instrument.

    It was a Moog guitar with a midi pickup and a touch screen on the front. A week after I posted that I read Moog had added a hexaphonic (for midi) pickup to their guitar so I mustn't have been the only one wanting it. If you then added a Kaos pad or ideally something like the Lemur you'd have a superior instrument. Then just add some pedals and a theremin like gesture controller and it's even better.

    The key is to improve on the guitar, not take away features of the instrument and replace them with electronic alternatives.

    Having spent a while now controlling synths (and Plogue Bidule) with my guitar instead of a keyboard I have to say it's so much more natural in many ways. It just has to be an instrument written with guitarists in mind not for synth players wanting to become guitarists.

  • I didn't really see the Misa as a category that makes sense, but I have to admit, I'm now doubly glad I posted it as a conversation starter. These are some really enlightened takes on what these instruments need to be. Rather than say more, I'm just going to reflect. 🙂

  • Hmm

    Is anyone going to source the multitouch screen from China and just make a dedicated controller out of it? Do you really need all the other functions of an iPhone?

  • Damon

    I really like the Misa Guitar. Sadly, or more so nobly, it does not have that immediate gratification anyone can learn to play in seconds thing. It clearly requires effort and discipline to learn, which definitely gives it that real instrument quality. Yes, I want a toy I can learn in minutes, but yes yes, I want an instrument I can take pride in apprehending.

  • Thanks for posting this Peter, it's a nice comparison. Having spent the last year using the iPhone + guitar interface live I can report that it works really well, but that I've also only scratched the surface of what's possible here. I think the best comparison would be to having a guitar + a keyboard on a stand in front of you. The iPhone is a separate instrument, but it's also conviniently integrated in a way that playing a keyboard on a stand with a guitar round your neck isn't. Also, being able to configure the interface is a huge help. I use a guitar pedal to control the guitar sound live and, yes, I can use that to control live too, but instead I use an iPhone to control effects on 4 instruments simultaneously compared to the pedal board controlling effects on the guitar. A multi touch screen gives you more axis of control and the customised UI gives you much more feedback on what you're doing. It's a great interface and I'm looking forward to seeing more people experimenting with it in future.

  • JonYo

    I've primarily a guitar player, an instrument clearly steeped in tradition, but I also feel I embrace new tech pretty freely. The thing here is: Why a guitar? If you make something that's "guitar-like" in some ways, but too different in the way the player physically interacts with it to apply the years of rapport the player has developed on physical layout of the guitar, then why make it "guitar-like" at all? To be honest, this thing in the top pic, as well as the Ztar, which has been around for a lonnnnng time, don't seem like they serve any purpose by retaining the guitar-like aspect beyond the stage-presnce of a standing player holding an instrument like one would hold a guitar. It seems like one would be better to just create a whole new thing, minus any guitar-like aspects that don't translate into playabilty.

    With regards to my own experience, I've held a Ztar, and found the fretboard layout of keys to be so unlike a guitar that I couldn't apply any of my guitar playing skill to it at all, so I lost interest for the most part.

    Note that I'm only talking about the fretboard grid of keys thing, not the addition of touchscreen control to a guitar that still has actual strings over a fretboard. That's a whole other thing, essentially adding more controls to a traditional guitar, rather than in any way tranforming the guitar into any sort of true hybrid instrument.

  • low resolution sunse

    I'm sort of getting the impression that interface makers are sort of trapped. If they create a whole new interface, musicians get turned off because it lacks usage context. If they use an acoustic instrument design as a basis, then musicians bring baggage associated with the particular instrument in to the experience.

  • @ axel:

    "… Yet I haven’t found anybody who offers mods that turn those into midi/osc controllers"

    I did do just that>. It suffers from the same problem someone else commented on re: the iphone, in that you have to stop playing in order to manipulate the pots… plus you realize pretty quickly that it's more efficiently done with pedals as controllers anyway.

    The only particularly useful one in my experience was using a rotary switch h to select patches on processors or channels in recording software.

    @ JonYo: I think you're dead on about the stage presence thing, but also learning new instruments is kinda hard. Building them is hard too.

    And re: stage presence, I'm sure everyone's seen the video guitar?

  • Mudo

    I'm working in a different approarch to import some expressive maneuvers from guitar to keyboard (or any interface control like pads, monome grids, turntables and so on…)

    My opinion is quite clear: Haptic is important.

    Guitarrist usually need string feedback, if you want to sell something to them you must put some hapting string emulator.

    Look a turntablist: Advanced controllers are emulating haptic experience (motorized vinyl platter), some others has involved in touchscreen (or surfaces) paradigm but doesn't really success with "old school" players (and turntablism is really young discipline in front of guitarrism)

    Try to use and expand creativity, the rest is Love/Hate jail mental structure…

    be water, my friends…

  • Stij

    @JonYo: I definitely agree. It's unlikely that these sorts of controllers will ever be able to fully replicate the experience of playing a guitar – so why even try? Why not make something NEW with this technology instead of trying to copy an existing instrument?

    Sure, guitarists would probably feel more comfortable using a guitar-like controller instead of a whole new instrument…but like you said, these controllers are very far removed from a real guitar anyway.

  • Axel

    @dbell: That’s some awesome stuff you have on your youtube channel. I especially loved the midi paper and the midi harp guitar. And the driver’s licence controller.

    And yes, I was thinking of using a 5 way switch to change patches anywhere on a stage without having to look at your feet. This has to be a useful feature for many guitarists.

    I’m really interested in your implementation and I will email you about it. I would also love Peter interview you for CDM.

    Great work!

  • Parker

    @dbell, part of the problem is that there's basically no "synth" analog to the guitar like there is to a keyboard. The technology has been around long enough to make a synthesizer and a piano keyboard in the same family because the technology was ready and available, and this is not the case for guitars.

    Also, the whole "guitarists won't embrace a weird thing" is unsubstantiated garbage. I'm all for discussion, but come on. I guess if I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that there's something in the mind of a guitar player that will make him or her get upset when there's not a good patch that sounds like a guitar that is somehow different in the mind of a piano player. Boo.

  • Yes, in my experience, guitarists are willing to embrace all sorts of weird things.

    (Sorry, how can you resist that one?)

  • vinayk

    I'm waiting for my ztar to arrive. After having played guitar for so long my brain thinks in guitar mode – ik knows all the fret positions and scale/chord shapes. I'd happily lose the ability to play pinch harmonics andaybe have sone more difficulty pitch bending in order to get the natural control of synths that my fingers crave – and lAtency free!

  • The Misa is an interesting cross of industrial design and musical instrument. But for the traditional guitarist there's really no point in putting a lot of effort into learning a new right hand technique. You may as well just play a keyboard synth for the same musical effect. I used to play guitar solos on my synth and people thought they were played on a guitar. I called it the 'keytar'.

    I must say I do like the cognitive dissonance of hearing one instrument and seeing another. It's a kind like musical ventriloquism…

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