Auto-Tuning a guitar is coming, say Antares. But if that seems frightening, it may be worth a closer look. Photo of the (classic) guitar (CC-BY) John W. Tuggle.

A new tool could be for the expressive, not just the lazy. That’s the read of Auto-Tune for guitar, and it makes me excited to see what people will do with it. It could be the advent of the true digital guitar.

Antares teased their efforts to bring Auto-Tune technology to guitars earlier this month, having gotten as far as working proof-of concept. (See Harmony Central’s exclusive video above, and Axetopia, Synthtopia.) I hadn’t worked out anything intelligent to say about it, perhaps because I was cowering in a corner in fear.

As a technologist, I have great respect for what Antares does, and their portfolio goes far beyond just the flagship vocal pitch correction. But suffice to say, Auto-Tune has been used in recording in some pretty unpleasant ways – the fault of the user, not the software, I’d argue. It’s regularly applied in order to suck the life out of great, perfectly-tuned singers, as well as to cover for people who can’t really sing, to the point that producers seem to not understand what the sound of a human voice is in all its complexity. (Case in point: Glee. The talented cast sounds incredible live and onstage, and like they have android stand-ins when they’re on the show. In fact, if you disagree with those uses, please – go use some of Antares’ terrific software for good, not evil, and I’ll write about it.)

Auto-Tune as a name, then, has come to symbolize a revolution, an extraordinary blockbuster of software – and the butt of a joke. So, it’s hard not to see a product called “Auto-Tune for Guitar” and carry some of that bias. Sometimes, as writers we actually need our readers to add some perspective.

Auto-Tune for Guitars could likewise be misused to smooth out some of the guitar’s natural intonation subtleties, though I think the danger is far less so than it is with the voice. But it’s more than that.

Reader Jesse Engel reflects on what it could mean. He notes that the significant advance is building the intelligence into the guitar, not just the computer, and that applications could be varied:

Don’t know if you saw this, but Antares has taken a fresh swipe at HEX guitar, putting a processor in the guitar and using it to do some more modern (Auto-Tune, emulation, etc.) processing. [Ed.: Hex refers to the practice of adding individual pick-ups to each of six strings. -PK]

The hex has been around for a while, but it’s a big deal to use it in this way for guitarists since you don’t need to try to do any polyphonic pitch recognition. Literally direct note access. Also, signals add nonlinearly, so effecting each string individually has a different sound than doing emulation on the mix.

The tech looks like it will help a lot of people fake being better than they are (especially bending to the right note), at the expense of the beautiful imperfections of great playing, but the potential of using hex pickups in these new ways is fun to think about.

The digital guitar has been a vision for a long time, from working out MIDI output to multichannel output. Gibson has been the name behind many of those efforts. Back in January 2004, Wired ran a glowing portrait of Gibson’s efforts in print:

The 100-Megabit Guitar: Gibson’s maverick CEO wants to shove Ethernet up your ax and rock the music world. [Wired 12.1]

It’s worth reading the whole article; the technical limitations of the Gibson system immediately come to light. Suffice to say, that vision never quite came to fruition; Wired even this year claimed that the project had been killed – at least at Gibson. None other than Adrian Freed, OpenSoundControl and alternative instrument design guru at the University of California Berkeley’s CNMAT research center, led the group – he, his colleagues, and his many students go right on innovating with or without Gibson. Updated: I’m not able to find the reference for that story, which I read in print. See comments for commentary by Adrian Freed, who sees otherwise.

At the time, CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, oddly speaking in the third person, pronounced, “Progress will happen. If Henry Juszkiewicz didn’t build a digital guitar, I can assure you the digital guitar would still happen.” That prediction may prove prescient.

The 2007 video below shows the debut of Gibson’s HD.6x-Pro Digital Les Paul – working with individual strings. I also saw a demo with Gibson, Intel, and Cakewalk that used each string in a surround speaker diffusion. It was a psychedelic effect, if not necessarily the most practical demo, but proof that a technology like this could have many uses.

For their part, here’s how Antares describes their technology. Notice that they aren’t only talking intonation, but other applications, as well.

Incorporating our world-renowned Auto-Tune pitch detection and manipulation along with our proprietary modeling technologies, ATG-6 is an entirely DSP-based suite of functions that offer everything you’ve always wanted from a guitar, along with capabilities you never imagined possible. From flawless intonation to astonishing tonal flexibility to alternate tunings that open up entirely new areas of inspiration and creativity, ATG-6 technology seriously expands the flexibility and range of the electric guitar while letting you continue to play your own way.

… Using our new Solid-Tuneā„¢ Intonation system, an ATG-6 equipped guitar constantly monitors the precise pitch of each individual string and makes any corrections necessary to ensure that every note of every chord and riff is always in tune, regardless of variables like finger position or pressure or physical limitations of the instrument. As a result, listening to a guitar with Solid-Tune is a revelation, offering a purity of intonation that has simply never before been possible.

Of course, Solid-Tune is smart enough to know when you want to manipulate pitch, so you can play bends and vibrato exactly as you always do. In fact, Solid-Tune Intonation makes it even easier to bend to the right pitch every time.

Antares ATG-6

Updated: Chris Randall chides me on Twitter (and I agree) for not mentioning Roland, specifically — that’s the reference above in Jesse’s from-the-hips comments to “hex” guitar. Roland has built a whole business around products that track notes played on a guitar, adding polyphonic pitch shifters, open tunings, note-by-note replacement, MIDI output, and even DSP effects processing. The difference in the Roland offering is that Roland has done all this work in a separate processing box you connect to their pick-up; Antares appears to be promising something that’s all-in-one in the guitar. And the analysis Antares is doing may well prove more sophisticated than what we’ve seen in the past in terms of distinguishing, say, a bend from different notes. That could open up additional and radically-new expressive possibilities, even if the underlying fundamental concept is more or less the same.

On the other hand, the other difference with the Roland offering relative to both Gibson’s past attempts and Antares’ upcoming ones: Roland successfully shipped and sold theirs. Until Antares does the same, advantage: Roland. We’ll be watching.