High note for tech

With this new equipment, the bedroom guitarist can now sound like Hendrix, Clapton or B.B. King.

By Christopher Ave, Times Staff Writer
Published May 7, 2007

At 34, Charles Garnett has been playing guitar half his life. Until a couple years back, he was perfectly content with his instrument and his lone amplifier.

Then he found out about a product by a California company called Line 6. For less than $500, the Pod XT Live can mimic up to 70 different amplifiers, allowing bedroom guitarists to replicate the pyrotechnic sounds of Jimi Hendrix, the chain-saw buzz of modern bands like the Foo Fighters and the mournful wail of B.B. King, to name just a few.

Garnett plugged in. He was hooked.

"It just opens the door to so many possibilities you can't get any other way, " said the stay-at-home dad, who lives in Chiefland in Levy County.

"How many people own that many amps? Only somebody who's rich or already made it in the music business."

Garnett personifies the latest trend in the $7.5-billion music products industry: While overall sales are flat, according to Music Trades Magazine, high-tech segments are hot. Especially popular: music hardware and software that digitally creates or manipulates music.

Music software sales were up 35 percent between 2001 and 2006, according to Music Trades. Sales of keyboard "controllers" - mostly inexpensive devices that musicians use to "play" sounds created inside their computers - rose 25 percent over that time. And sales of computer hardware used to record music, such as soundcards, increased 130 percent.

Meanwhile, the price of such technology has fallen, pressing manufacturers to create ever more powerful or distinctive products and sell more of them.

For musicians, it means a bonanza of cheaper music equipment. That goes for non-musicians, too.

"We describe it as democratizing music, " said Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades Magazine. New technology allows novices to produce "pretty credible" music, he said. "If you're good, you can do a pretty amazing job."

Cakewalk, a leading producer of music software, counts on customers from all points on the ability scale.

"The technology in the last few years is so affordable and user friendly, it enables lot of people at varying levels of musicality to get into the music creation experience, " said Steve Thomas, the Boston company's director of publicity.

Cakewalk, which claims more than 1-million users worldwide, sells a sub-$50 software package that allows people with virtually no musical knowledge to create songs by merely dragging and dropping sound files.

At the other extreme, the company's top-level recording software package, Sonar 6, allows users with the right hardware to record multiple albums' worth of material, mixing unlimited music tracks inside the computer, assisted by a bevy of special effects and virtual instruments.

It's that kind of power that attracts Ed McLaughlin, 42, of Brandon. McLaughlin, a classically trained musician, has recorded some 900 original songs using Cakewalk over the past two years.

"It allows me to be free to create and expand on any inspiration, " he said.

In another sign of the pervasiveness of music technology, industry giant Fender Musical Instruments Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., has just added a digital guitar to its product lineup. The VG Stratocaster takes the company's iconic Stratocaster - played by Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, among millions of others - and adds a digital brain made by Roland Corp.

The new electronics translate the string vibrations into digital bits, which an onboard processor whips into new sounds: acoustic guitars, 12-string guitars and electric guitars with a heavier tone than the Stratocaster's trademark "quack."

To Fender, the world's largest guitar maker, the VG Stratocaster was a natural step, said spokesman Justin Norvell.

"We're always looking for new ways to do things, but not just for technology's sake, " he said. "We look at electric guitars ... as a tool for someone to express their musical self."

Perhaps the most surprising new music tools are virtual - that is, they exist only in the digital world. The technology is called "sampling." In its simplest form, every note an instrument can play is recorded and embedded into software. Anyone who plugs a cheap keyboard into a computer can use the software to "play" the sounds.

Doug Rogers, an award-winning West Coast producer, created the world's first drum samples 20 years ago and continues selling high-quality samples through his company EastWest www.soundsonline.com.

He even sells a virtual choir. Rogers used a world-class concert hall to record a real choir singing every consonant and vowel sound in the English language. Users can make the choir "sing" virtually any words and melody.

"You're not going to do it in five minutes, " said Rogers. "But from the people that are good at it - you'd be amazed at the result."

Rogers, whose orchestral samples are used by Paul McCartney's touring band, just released a product that includes some of the distinctive sounds heard in Beatles' recordings.

While no sounds from any Beatles records were used, the recordings were made using vintage instruments and period-correct recording gear. Engineer on the project: Ken Scott, who worked on five Beatle albums.

The reaction, Rogers said, has been stunning.

"This may end up being the biggest selling product in our industry, " he said.

But even Rogers, a true pioneer of music technology, admits that there is a downside to putting such potent musical tools into the hands of rank amateurs.

"These days, you don't have to be a good musician to make music, " he said, noting that the Beatles "were out every night playing till 3 in the morning.

"They were really fine musicians, even before they started making records. I think a lot of it came from that. They didn't have all the gizmos and bells and whistles to help them produce something."

Christopher Ave can be reached at cave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Tools of the trade

Here are a few products that use digital technology to make music:

Line 6 Floor Pod

Price: $199

What it does: Emulates the sound of 12 guitar amplifiers, along with effects like distortion, echo and reverb. Most controls are accessible by foot, like traditional guitar pedals.

Cool factor: Covers the basics of rock and roll with sounds inspired by Marshall, Vox and Fender amplifiers. Upgraded Pod versions offer more amps and effects and a more detailed sound.

More info: www.line6.com/floorpod/index.html

Line 6 Variax

Price: $499 - $1, 499, depending on model

What it does: Guitar that translates string vibrations into digital information to emulate the sounds of 25 instruments. The digital brain then changes that information back to analogue sound.

Cool factor: When used with the company's upper-level Pod XT Live, a user can pick a virtual guitar, amplifier and effects instantly by pushing a foot pedal.

More info: www.line6.com/variax/overview.html

Cakewalk Sonar Home Studio 6

Price: $89-$159, depending upon version

What it does: Software package that allows users to record up to 64 tracks of audio in a single song that can be burned to a compact disc or published to MySpace, YouTube or another online site in a streaming audio format.

Cool factor: Upgraded XL version includes software synthesizers that can emulate many different instruments.

More info: www.cakewalk.com/Products/HomeStudio/default.asp

Fender VG Stratocastor

Price: $1, 699

What it does: Offers a traditional, American-made Stratocastor along with a digital brain that emulates the sounds of other guitars, including acoustic and 12-string models.

Cool factor: It still sounds like a Strat when the digital stuff is bypassed, but the models add flexibility.

More info: www.fender.com/vgstrat/home.html