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Another Cool Dark Fire Sound: "Hex Summing"

Reality check: I’ve had a Dark Fire for close to a year now. Admittedly, the first one was a prototype that wasn’t as refined as the production model, but it had the individual string outputs—one of my favorite Dark Fire features. So you might think that by now I would have pretty much figured things out, but that’s not the case; it seems almost every time I pick up Dark Fire I stumble upon something I hadn’t thought of before. So, this blog entry is going to be about a technique, “hex summing,” which uses the hex outputs to create a better sound from a single guitar amp.

Most of the time, when I use Dark Fire’s hex outputs it’s to create splits or layers, or get sounds I couldn’t get any other way. But, there’s another use for the hex outs, which is to make amp sim programs sound absolutely wonderful: Smooth, creamy, and organic rather than digital and spikey. Here’s how.


You’re probably all familiar with what happens when you’re feeding distortion with a guitar and you pull back on the tone control for a bassier sound. Filtering out the highs keeps them from getting distorted, which if unfiltered would generate harsh, ultra-high frequency harmonics. By restricting the sound to the fundamental tone, the harmonics generated by any distortion are sweeter.

The only problem is that a guitar’s tone control is pretty imprecise. It might take too much away from the high strings, or conversely, leave the lower strings too bright. What’s more, the tone control will interact with whatever impedance it’s seeing. As a result, your sound might change depending on whether you’re feeding an amp directly, or going through a chain of effects.


With Dark Fire, it’s possible to use filters to “tune” each string so they produce only their basic, fundamental frequencies. You can then mix the individual outputs into an amp simulator like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig, and end up with a sound that’s totally different than feeding a standard guitar output into an amp sim.

This screen shot shows the basic patch used for each string, with Guitar Rig 3 as the processor and Ableton Live 7 Gibson Studio Edition as the host. It’s quite simple: After the input stage, there’s a Noise Reduction module to keep any hiss out of the sound, a Pro Filter lowpass filter to take off the highs, a Compressor to even out the dynamics a bit, and then the output stage. The only real difference among patches for individual strings is in the Pro Filter settings, which range from about 800Hz for the low E to about 2.7kHz for the high E. Tweak the Pro Filter cutoff for the “roundest” sound when you solo each string.

Note that with Ableton Live Lite, you’re limited to six instances of Guitar Rig. As I needed to reserve one instance for the Aux Return, the high E uses Ableton’s EQ Eight plug-in for the filtering, along with the Ableton compressor.

The screen shot shows the EQ and compressor settings. Note that only one filter stage is enabled—a lowpass filter, which approximates the response of the Pro Filter.

After programming each string, you need to sum them together. In this example, I’ve assigned the send of each channel to pre-fader, and sent the sends to Aux Return 1.

Here’s the signal processing chain for Aux Return 1. It goes through an Ableton Compressor to restrict the dynamic range, Guitar Rig for the amp sound, Ableton EQ Eight to “master” the final sound, then dumps the EQ out into the main bus. I could also have mixed each channel into the main bus, but then I’d be stuck with putting Guitar Rig in the main bus, which would have processed any other channels I might want to add (like drums or bass).

Now let’s take a look at the amp sound, as shown in the above screen shot. This splits the guitar signal into two paths; both have a Cat distortion, cabinet/mic combination, and reverb. The main differences between the splits are the two different reverb types, and also, each uses a different cabinet and mic. The two cabinets are spread to right and left in the stereo field. A noise reduction module follows the mixed signal, and finally, there’s a delay line to add a bit of ambience.

If this patch looks interesting, then check out the set off 44 signature hex patches you can download at (and don’t forget to download the PDF manual, which has important information on how to get the most out of these patches). They illustrate all kinds of ways to generate intriguing, original sounds with Dark Fire.

Posted: 9/29/2009 11:25:55 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A New Way of Recording

Fig. 1 (click image for larger view): This Live project is where I recorded guitar improvisations for about 45 minutes. The project is simplicity itself: one track for each RIP channel, and one drum loop as a tempo reference. On playback, the loop brace isolates a measure or two to decide whether the loop is a “keeper” or not.

Fig. 2 (click image for larger view) : The huge file has now been reduced to a collection of potential loops. Each loop then gets exported as audio so it can be imported back into Live or other DAWs.

Fig. 3 (click image for larger view):: The finished version of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” after doing a hard rock arrangement in Cakewalk Sonar. The heart of the song is one guitar track, one drum track, and one vocal track. There’s an additional percussion track, doubled guitar in a couple sections, and additional vocal harmony tracks. Despite the limited number of tracks, that’s really all it needs.

It’s hard to understand how much Dark Fire can change the way you approach music and guitar playing unless you’ve not only played with it, but used it on a day-to-day basis. It’s like the onion analogy – peel away a layer, and there’s another one right behind it.

This blog entry is exciting for me to write because Dark Fire has opened up a new way of recording that I really like a lot, and is quite inspiring. But first, a little backstory.


When Gibson’s Digital Les Paul was introduced, I immediately saw its potential, and it became the foundation of a duo act with me and Brian Hardgroove from Public Enemy (detailed in the EV2 blog at To summarize, I processed the DLP’s individual hex outs so that the bottom three strings had octave dividers to give solid bass sounds, the top four were bused to a chorus for a clean rhythm sound, and the magnetic pickups went to a DigiTech GNX3000 multieffects for leads. So, even though it was just the two of us, it sounded like a full band (especially because my vocals were going through a DigiTech VL2 to generate harmonies).

But the important aspect of all this was the ability to improvise freely. I never had to worry if the bass player or keyboardist could follow along; as long as Brian and I were in the groove, I could go anywhere – take an extra long solo, modulate keys, even segue into a different song. There were no issues with backing tracks – it was all live, spontaneous, and very liberating.

Unfortunately, Brian needed to move back to New York, which has since limited our live performance options (however, EV2 will continue as a studio project via long-distance collaboration). Nonetheless once I’d had the kind of playing experience EV2 offered, I couldn’t go back to how I played before. Even while working on solo projects, I wanted to maintain that digital guitar/drums duo feel, with the freedom to play in a looser, more improvisational way. But how could I do that without someone else? That’s where the Dark Fire/Ableton Live/NI Guitar Rig trio of tech tools came into play.


The first step in this process is to open Ableton Live with the RIP connected, and load a Dark Fire hex patch (version 1.0 of the 44 best hex patches I’ve programmed so far are available on the Dark Fire site at as a free download; however, check back periodically as I anticipate posting newer patches as they develop). Choose an inspiring patch that makes you want to play! I usually go for a split with bass on the low strings and lead on the high strings to make the loops more “self-contained.”

Next, I delve into my library of drum loops and come up with a pattern that works for the kind of mood I’m in, and is of the appropriate tempo. My go-to loops for this were recorded by Nashville drummer extraordinaire Greg Morrow for Discrete Drums, as his style is not that different from Brian’s. Once Brian finishes his studio, he’s going to record some loops for me but until then, Greg’s stuff is great. (Side note: The idea of recording loops to replace oneself is something I’ve done before. I play “techno guitar” over in Germany with bands like Air Liquide and Dr. Walker’s various projects, but couldn’t exactly commute to all the gigs. So, I created loops of the type of playing I did so the loops could be loaded into an MPC and they’d have a “virtual Craig” onstage. Those loops ended up becoming the AdrenaLinn Guitars sample library that was part of M-Audio’s Pro Session series of sample libraries.)

The next step is to load the drum loop into Ableton Live and start recording (Fig. 1). I typically record for 45 minutes or so, getting deep into the groove and improvising to my heart’s content. Of course, not everything I play works; there are lots of times where I’m reaching for what to play next and don’t quite get there, but there are also sections that, between the inspiration provided by the Dark Fire sounds and the drum loops, really capture some useful musical ideas and playing. This is key, because the process of playing and improvising for long stretches of time produces a fair amount of “nuggets.” The next step is to “mine” them.

Eventually I stop recording, then start playback and listen for sections where the guitar playing really comes together. To do this I set Live’s loop brace for one or two measures, and slide it along the timeline while auditioning various sections. If something sounds cool, I let it loop to confirm it actually works as a loop. If it does, I select it and drag it to join a collection loops, while deleting the unused sections of music before and after it (Fig. 2).

After I’ve mined the performance for the good parts, I do an audio export for each loop (without the drums – just the guitar). This doesn’t mean it actually gets looped in the final arrangement; it may be a relatively long section that ends up being a verse or other song component. But, the ability to loop is there if needed.


At this point, I close Live and open Cakewalk Sonar, set it to approximately the same project tempo as Live, and start bringing in the loops I just recorded to create an arrangement. This is also where the drum part gets fleshed out (either by adding more loops for different song sections, or recording drum parts in real time) and I start recording other parts, like vocals.

Couldn’t this all be done within Live, without the need for Sonar? Absolutely. But over the years, I’ve customized Sonar heavily to fit my needs when doing linear-style recording, and I also have Sonar’s V-700C hardware controller with moving faders. So, Sonar is a very comfortable environment for working on song arrangements, and as I’m equally adept with Sonar and Live, there’s no problem bouncing back and forth between the two programs.

The end result is that the music has a live kind of “feel” because the guitar loops had a level of spontaneity and improvisation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. For example, the first time I tried this technique, I was fooling around with the guitar hook from Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” while setting levels. It had almost nothing to do with the original song in terms of feel, because the guitar sound was set to “stun” (heavy hex distortion), and the drums were more like a heavy, John Bonham type of sound than the light touch of the original song. But I liked it. So I started playing the chords for the verse and chorus, and also did some chord substitutions that grew out of just playing around. Eventually, there was enough material to do a hard rock arrangement of the song. I brought the guitar loops into Sonar, added the drums, laid down the vocals, and kept the sound sparse – just Dark Fire, drums, and vocals (no other bass or keys – see Fig. 3).

I’m working on another tune using this technique (an original composition this time) and I must say, I’m really enjoying this method of working. While it’s not quite the same thing as sitting in a rehearsal space with Brian and jamming, it’s the next best thing – and something that I really couldn’t do without the Dark Fire/Guitar Rig3/Live combination.

Bonus Files: Sonar users, click here to download free Dark Fire track icons – one for each string, one for the magnetic pickup channel (PU), one for the piezo pickup channel (PZ), and one plain, with no labels.

Posted: 8/31/2009 7:27:51 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Dark Fire at Sweetwater GearFest 09

Sorry I’ve been gone for a while…sometimes life gets in the way. But I have to say that as I use Dark Fire more and more, I become increasingly aware that it gives a whole new set of possibilities for guitar. In some ways, I see its relationship to guitar as the relationship synthesizers have with pianos – pianos didn’t become any less cool after synths appeared, but thanks to the synth, keyboard players had a whole new sonic palette.

Which brings us to GearFest, Sweetwater’s annual open-to-the-public event that features seminars, workshops, gear tents, a flea market, and lots of exhibitors showing off cool stuff. For GearFest 09, EQ magazine wanted to sponsor my doing a seminar on amp sims in the Sweetwater Performance Theater (Fig. 1), and of course, how could I say no?

Fig. 1: Part of the seminar included techniques for “mastering” the amp sim sound with EQ to create a smoother, creamier tone. Photo Credit: J. Perry.

Actually, the airlines almost said “no” instead. I was slated to arrive in Fort Wayne, Indiana (where Sweetwater is located) the night before, so I could make sure all the elements were in place for a successful seminar and that if I needed anything else, I could run out the next day before the show and take care of it. But I had two layovers – Denver and Minneapolis. The flight out of Denver kept getting delayed, and delayed, and delayed…finally, I called Sweetwater’s Editorial Director, Mitch Gallagher, and asked him what cities were within driving distance of Fort Wayne, figuring I could fly in and rent a car.

But everything was booked or disrupted by the weather, so the only way I could get to Fort Wayne was to take the last flight out to Chicago, then get another flight out in the morning to Fort Wayne. To make matters worse, I had to check my Dark Fire for part of the haul. That alone was pretty scary (I’ll spare you the suspense: It survived with nary a problem). And just to add an incredibly surreal touch, when I got off the Chicago flight well after midnight, I ran into a camera crew from the local ABC affiliate. They were interviewing former Illinois Governor Rob Blogojevich and his wife Patti, who was returning from being in a reality TV show. You can’t make this stuff up.

To make a long story short (it’s been long enough so far!), I ended up in Fort Wayne around noon, after about four hours’ sleep, with my seminar slated for a 1PM start time. I rushed over and started setting up. All looked good until…I was getting weird, spiky noises on my Vista laptop from the Dark  Fire’s magnetic pickup outs. This was on my PC Audio Labs Rok Box notebook, which has always been solid as a rock. What the ?!? Fortunately Mitch had all the needed software on his MacBook Pro except for the RIP console, so I copied that over with my programs and everything was fine – I started about five minutes late, but given the circumstances, that wasn’t too bad.

As it turned out – and let this be a lesson to you about updating without testing! – I had just updated to Vista 64-bit Service Pack 2 before leaving, as I’d heard it had optimized a lot of audio-related issues. However, the update turned on the background services, indexing, and other CPU-consuming stuff that had been turned off to make my computer a lean, mean audio machine. Once I figured that out, as soon as I got back home I re-tweaked my laptop and all was well again.

Anyway, using Dark Fire with Ableton Live and Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig is a perfect way to demonstrate what amp sims and high-tech guitar can do. I used my 44 signature hex patches that should be posted to the Dark Fire site soon, and it was very interesting to see everyone’s reaction as I played the guitar equivalent of splits and layers, as well as some fun effects like tape style flanging and hex distortion pads (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2: Dark Fire in action. The hex patches (with Live serving as a host program for live performance) were definitely the ones that interested the crowd the most. Photo Credit: J. Perry

I was a little surprised that 72 people attended, especially during a work day, because I had thought of the whole high-tech guitar thing as a bit of a niche. Not so. There was a lot of interest among not just the people who attended, but countless others watching the streamed seminar over the internet. As one person said to me when he left, “You’ve completely changed my mind about amp sims.” I think part of the interest was I didn’t spend much time trying to sound like a synthesizer, or like a conventional guitar for that matter. I mostly used patches that created new types of sounds - clearly “guitaristic” in nature, but not something people had heard before.

And I also made a mental note of one more application for robot tuning: I’ve always felt it was great for the studio as well as live, but it’s also wonderful for seminars, because there’s no “dead air” when you tune your guitar – and besides, the audience loves seeing those tuners turn when you do.

All in all, it was a lot of fun. In the process of preparing for the seminar, I also found a new type of recording technique that’s especially well-suited to Dark Fire – but we’ve covered enough for now, so that will be the subject of the next entry.

[Note: As I write this, it’s just been announced that Les Paul passed away. His impact on the world of guitar, music, and recording is incalculable, and I offer my deepest condolences to his family, friends, associates, and fans, If it wasn’t for him and Bob Moog, I doubt my life would have taken the path it did. Rest in piece, Les.]

Posted: 8/14/2009 12:17:23 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A Dark Fire Update!

A lot has happened since the last blog entry. I’ve been sort of holding off doing any writing because as you all know, Dark Fire production was suspended.  Although I’ve kept using the original Dark Fire (it’s still the only guitar that does what it does), I also knew that Gibson was working on a variety of tweaks for future versions and (I believe) as retrofits for existing owners.

Well, I’m holding in my hands the production prototype of Dark Fire that will be the basis of the next production run. The biggest difference for me is that the overall noise level from the piezo pickup is much quieter. That’s nice in and of itself, but in terms of sound programming, it gives a lot more latitude on the hex patches as it’s possible to use tons of distortion without having an overly noisy sound. In fact, I’ve been reworking all the “signature hex patches” to take advantage of the Dark Fire’s better electronics. The revised versions, which you can load into Ableton Live, will be available on the Dark Fire site when the re-launch occurs.

With the clean sounds, it’s sort of like a film has been removed; with distorted sounds, the noise is low enough that it’s easy to get rid of it with Guitar Rig 3’s Noise Reduction module. Depending on the patch, I typically use a Noise Reduction Threshold setting of –20 to –45.

Another aspect of the lower noise is that with distorted sounds, the noise is no longer part of the sound’s fabric. Previously any noise was masked with high-gain settings, so it wasn’t that big of a deal; but now the noise has been lowered enough to change the piezo tone, and for the better.  From what I understand, there have also been changes in the RIP that affect the multiplexing of the hex outs. For whatever reason the piezo sound is smoother, in a way I’d describe as “more liquid.”

The RIP has some added features too. It’s been optimized for multi-core operation (a good thing, because multi-core computers are becoming more common for musical applications), and lets you choose whether to charge the guitar from the RIP immediately, never, or after five minutes of inactivity. It also has a Live/Hex mode option. I’m still figuring it out, but I think in Live mode you’re charging Dark Fire through the line that normally carries the hex audio; so you can play through the pickups all night without having to worry about the battery running out of juice. However, I often have the Dark Fire running in hex mode for extended periods of time while developing patches, and it does at least a couple hours easily without recharging.

Overall, Gibson has done several little fixes — making sure the MCK has the right feel, adjusting the taper of the piezo/magnetic control in the pickup, etc. I’m sure Gibson would have preferred to incorporate these changes from the beginning, but I think the more important point here is that they did what they said they’d do. While it has surely been frustrating for those who placed orders for Dark Fire and have been waiting for months, those who could afford to be patient will be rewarded with a better guitar than was promised originally.

By the way, I’ve been working a lot with the hex option and have come to the conclusion that where it really shines is rhythm parts, because these parts have lots of strings playing at once. With lead lines, I prefer using the magnetic pickups and running them through particular Guitar Rig 3 programs because you’re usually playing only one string at a time anyway.

The other thing I’ve been experimenting with is “splits,” like putting the pickups through a crunchy amp sound, the bottom two strings each through their own octave divider for a massive bass sound, and busing the top three strings through the aux send, processed with a languid lead sound with delay. Following are the patches I used to do this.

The screen shot on the left shows the octave divider sound used on the bottom two strings. Note the extreme bass boost with the Shelving Equalizer; this precedes the Oktaver, and conditions the string for the most reliable triggering. The shot on the right shows the amp sound that’s applied to the magnetic pickups.

This shows the lead sound used on the top three strings. Applying the Noise Reduction module right after the input makes the piezo sound dead quiet; the Stomp Compressor gives sustain, and Mezone supplies distortion. Taking off some highs with the Equalizer “warms up” the sound, while the Delay Man adds lots of delay for the lead effect.

Doing Dark Fire sound design is a lot easier with the improved electronics, because the revised version has what’s good about Dark Fire while optimizing the areas that needed improvement. I’m impressed, and really having fun — which is the most important part!

Posted: 4/29/2009 5:30:55 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

World Premiere of the first acoustic guitar with Robot Tuning Technology

I'm back in Berlin for a few days to visit friends and check out some new technology. Luck was with me, because I showed up just as Chris Adams and Tony from Tronical were testing out a prototype of an acoustic guitar with the PowerTune Robot tuning—the same technology made famous in the Gibson Robot Guitar and Dark Fire guitar.

It was just a prototype, and I couldn't really nail down an answer as to when it would be available, how much it would cost, and so on. In fact, I'm not really sure I'm supposed to be posting this, but if not, someone from Gibson will take it if it's not here tomorrow, you'll know what happened.

The two main driving forces behind Robot tuning technology: Chris Adams of Tronical (left) and Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz.

The two main driving forces behind Robot tuning technology: Chris Adams of Tronical (left) and Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz.

The first thing you notice about the guitar is an MCK-type knob, as found on the Dark Fire.

The installation inside the guitar was quite unobtrusive; the only obvious giveaway is the MCK knob, which selects different tunings and displays the tuning status.

The installation inside the guitar was quite unobtrusive; the only obvious giveaway is the MCK knob, which selects different tunings and displays the tuning status.

I could see a magnetic pickup in the “neck” position and there's a Piezo underneath the bridge. A stereo jack carries both outs on a stereo cable, like the Dark Fire. There are three three banks of tuning, but the inventors are toying with the idea of adding yet another bank, as alternate tunings are so popular with acoustic guitars...although too much of a good thing can indeed be too much, so that decision remains to be made.

The servo-motor controlled Powerheads are much smaller and lighter than the ones on the first Robot guitar.

The servo-motor controlled Powerheads are much smaller and lighter than the ones on the first Robot guitar.

The main difference compared to the final version is that the current time to get in tune is considerably slower than Dark Fire.. Apparently, there are several optimizations that are needed prior to making a production prototype. Still, everyone who played the guitar was definitely surprised at how well it was working.

Ulf Zick of the Gibson artist relations center in Berlin checks out the Robot acoustic guitar. In the background, Milo Street of Echo Electronics is figuring out something esoteric involving high-tech hardware. Or maybe he's just checking his email.

Ulf Zick of the Gibson artist relations center in Berlin checks out the Robot acoustic guitar. In the background, Milo Street of Echo Electronics is figuring out something esoteric involving high-tech hardware. Or maybe he's just checking his email.

I must admit that when I came to Berlin, the last thing I expected to see was a Robot acoustic guitar. But life is full of surprises, eh? Meanwhile, as a bonus, I snuck in a video camera and did a little video showing the Robot tuning in action and Chris Adams playing stuff!



Posted: 2/26/2009 7:36:22 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Dark Fire Resurrects a Dinosaur

Well, it seems like the final pieces of the Dark Fire puzzle are coming together. First it was the guitar, then the software, then the RIP interface; and now, I’ve had my first chance to drive a piece of Roland synth gear with the RIP’s hex output.

In case you’re not aware of it, the RIP has an output on the back that provides individual outputs for each string, and is compatible with AXON and Roland guitar-to-MIDI converters. It’s the connector labeled hex in the following picture.

Well, actually it’s almost compatible; the signal coming out of Dark Fire is stronger than what these kinds of devices usually expect. So, the guys at Echo Electronics did some analysis and figured that adding a simple resistor voltage divider to reduce the output voltage a bit would insure full compatibility.

I got a call from Milo at Echo, asking if I wanted to try out a prototype cable that included the resistors. I said sure, because I have an old Yamaha G-50 guitar-to-MIDI converter. However, in an email exchange about the testing procedure, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz pointed out that unlike later devices (like the AXON), the Yamaha interface was designed without taking piezo pickups into account. As a result, he cautioned me not to waste my time on something that in all likelihood would not work.

However, I also have a Roland VG-8 (from the original production run—it’s an antique!) whose sounds I’ve used in several applications, including for source material in my “Electronic Guitars” expansion pack for Cakewalk’s Rapture software synthesizer. The VG-8 was a modeling device for guitar that took advantage of the hex output from the Roland GK-6 “divided” pickup, which was originally designed for guitar-to-MIDI conversion. The VG-8 has since been supplanted by the VG-88, but no matter; although the VG-8’s sound is no longer state-of-the-art, it has its own funky charm.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that since the Digital Les Paul came out, the VG-8 just kind of sat on the shelf because for hex sounds, I really couldn’t beat the Digital Les Paul going through amp sims like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube, Waves GTR, etc. Anyway, I dusted off the VG-8 to see if it would work with the RIP’s hex output.

I was initially taken aback that things worked “out of the box”—I plugged the RIP into the VG-8, plugged headphones into the VG-8, played some notes on Dark Fire, and it worked! (Admit it—when was the last time you used a combination of high-tech gear that worked like it was supposed to the first time you tried it?) I did, however, notice a bit of distortion and “harmonic jumping,” so I thought I’d investigate further.

As it turns out, the VG-8 allows setting sensitivity individually for each string. With the GK-6 pickup that I normally used, I had set the string sensitivities between 80 and 100 (out of 100) to produce optimal results. The RIP is much “hotter,” but also more even in its response. Dialing back the sensitivity settings to 50, with the high E at 40, worked well. In fact, it worked really well; with most VG-8 patches, I far preferred the Dark Fire piezo pickup sound to that of the GK-6. There was more “snap” and “presence,” and I also felt the piezo did a better job reproducing transients. On some of the patches with real heavy distortion, the piezo was a bit too bright; but trimming the VG-8’s treble control took care of that.

Once again, Dark Fire threw me a curve: When I became involved with this project, that last thing I expected was to use Dark Fire to breathe new life into a box that I’d basically shelved a couple years ago—yet that’s exactly what happened. The extra dimension that the piezo pickup added to the VG-8 made it sound more contemporary and more defined overall, compared to using the old GK-6 hex pickup.

There’s something ironic about the fact that the very latest high-tech guitar brought an older, and often forgotten, unit into the present…but I’m sure that’s not the last pleasant surprise I’ll be getting from Dark Fire.

Posted: 2/17/2009 11:32:02 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Dark Fire at NAMM

One of my first stops at NAMM was the Gibson booth; as soon as you walked in, there were five “stations” set up, each with a Dark Fire, laptop, software, and headphones. There’s something about getting to sit down at a trade show and just play guitar, and I took full advantage of the situation! And also, it felt like I was “home”…playing Dark Fire takes me back to being in my studio, coming up with patches, writing new songs, and just plain having a good time. 

Craig Anderton

Jon Chappell from Harmony Central was with me, and got a chance to play Dark Fire. He too was very impressed, and I got to show him some of the less obvious features. He put on the headphones, and immediately got lost in the music. Knowing that Dark Fire was in good hands, I went to my next set of appointments.

Then came Friday, and the Dark Fire Community meeting. It was held in the Gibson bus, which was parked just up the street from the convention center. There were four Dark Fire owners, some dealers, many members from the design team (Tronical, Echo Electronics, Ableton, Native Instruments), and Gibson’s CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz. In fact, here’s a photo with Gage Shinoda, a proud Dark Fire owner, and Henry. 

Gage and Henry

Steve Conrad (Elantric) was there, of course, which you already knew if you followed his thread about the party in the Dark Fire forum. Here he’s getting his guitar autographed by Chris Adams, the head of Tronical. 

Dark Fire Party

Here’s another shot from inside the bus, with Steve in the extreme left, Chris and Antonio from Tronical (standing), and me sitting down with a Dark Fire. 

Dark Fire Party

Next, here’s a picture of Chris Adams testing out his latest invention: A “beautiful people attractor” spray. Apparently it works! But seriously … that’s Dave Amato (from REO Speedwagon) and his girlfriend on the left, with Chris Adams and his wife Gwen on the right. 

Arnato & Adams

The best thing about the meeting was that it was a chance to talk about the future of Dark Fire and the wish list Steve had compiled, as well as the opportunity to re-connect with those working on the project. And, Dark Fire owners got to meet the people behind the technology.

I didn’t know whether Henry would be able to make it to the meeting; obviously, he’s pretty busy at NAMM shows. But he made the time, which was a good thing. After all those months sweating deadlines, troubleshooting circuits, and testing the guitar, I’m sure it did him good to see people who use and love the guitar—it helps restore perspective as to what this is all about. One thing I learned at the meeting was that the Dark Fire saga is not yet finished; there are additional improvements and ideas floating around. In fact, I asked Henry if he was interested in my coming up with more Dark Fire-specific programs, and he seemed taken aback that I would even wonder if he wanted more programs. This is all very encouraging, because as much as I like Dark Fire, I know it can be taken further—and I know I can take it further, too.

Well, I’m going to go back to playing Dark Fire for a bit. I’ll report back on whatever I learn about Dark Fire that’s new and interesting in the days and weeks to come.

Posted: 2/7/2009 2:54:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Dark Fire Hits the World

It hardly seems possible that less than two months ago, I was in Germany visiting Ableton, Native Instruments, and Tronical—so much has happened since then. Dark Fire was launched on December 15, and shortly thereafter, the first Dark Fires made it out into the world. A few weeks later came NAMM, which basically takes over my life for a month. This time, though, there was a Dark Fire community meeting at NAMM, and while I had no idea how many people were going to come, I was definitely looking forward to it. I knew that at least Steve Conrad from the Dark Fire forum would be there, and having corresponded with him about Dark Fire, wanted to meet him in person—this guy has his act together. I’ll round up some photos of the party for the next blog post.

Dark Fire in Case

Of course, Dark Fire has now taken on a life of its own. There have been a few bumps along the way, because of various technical issues in the production process. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised; the Dark Fire project is ambitious not just because of the guitar, but because of the additional computer interface and software. As soon as you have so many elements, matters become more complex because they all have to work together.

It was interesting being “on the inside” during all this, as it was obvious from the various emails flying back and forth that the company was relentless about tracking down and exterminating any remaining bugs. I appreciated that customer satisfaction was constantly hammered on as the top priority; not all companies exhibit the same level of concern that I saw. As just one example, the names of the RIP outputs didn’t translate properly in Sonar, so out came another version of the driver that took that into account. Or, Tronical wasn’t happy with the flow of controlling the Chameleon Tone options, so they reworked how the control functioned. A way was implemented to update guitar firmware through the RIP itself, and to charge the battery when Dark Fire wasn’t being played. Some of these changes weren’t part of the original spec, but resulted from someone saying “Hey, you know what else we can do…”

To me, though, these are just fixes that inevitably happen when moving from a “version 1.0” to a “version 1.1” product. I’ve been playing Dark Fire a lot, and the more I play it, the more I’ve come to appreciate what it can do. In particular, the combination of Dark Fire’s hex outs, going into Ableton Live hosting six instances of Guitar Rig 3, is a revelation. So far I’ve been confined to doing this in the studio, but I’m itching to get this out onstage. People will be blown away…or at least, they will be after I explain I’m not using backing tracks!

Posted: 1/30/2009 2:54:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Getting ready to go home ...

Well the last day in Germany, so we're pretty much cleaning up loose ends. The Gibson Entertainment Relations office has open wi-fi, so it's time to hit the email.

My day started with Gerhard Behles of Ableton. He was sick, and had sent me an email the night before basically saying "don't show up, but if you don't reply, I'll come to the office." Well, I didn't see the email so we did ended up having breakfast. He felt better the next day and I never caught what he caught, so all was well.

We discussed many different future subjects that looked beyond Dark Fire, but as that falls under the "cone of silence," I won't say anything.

After Ableton, I meandered over to the Gibson office in Berlin. I took my time, and along with hitting the local Saturn (sort of like a German Best Buy) and picking up a few CDs I couldn't get in the states, I snapped a bunch of photos on the way over. So, enjoy the next 8 pix - I don't know the significance of any of the landmarks, but I figured they'd be a nice break from all the tech shots.

I said in a previous entry I'd take some more pictures of the guitars in the ER offices, so here they are. For starters, here's a mint version of the Digital Les Paul.

You gotta love this 12-string/6-string SG double-neck. I was extremely sad to realize I could not hide it under my coat as I walked out.

Check out this wall of Flying Vs ...

Here's Lucille.

... And here's her headstock.

Of course, there's an infamous Reverse V.

And since Brian Hardgroove is a Steinberger bass fan, I took a picture of this Steinberger guitar.

Speaking of Brian, he Skyped us at the ER offices about getting ahold of some esoteric part that holds his bass strap ... he may not have a mean bone in his body, but straps would disagree with that assessment. He's a very physical player.

Patrick Arp from Native Instruments came over to work out some final details about the presets with Brian Espinoza, and I started work on some of the templates for Ableton Live Lite 7 Gibson studio Edition. But I realized that with a seven AM flight, I needed to get up around 4AM and an early dinner was in order. So that's exactly what happened, followed by packing.

And that's enough for today. For the next entry, I'll be back in the USA ... let's see what happens next!

Posted: 12/16/2008 8:38:24 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Like no guitar I've imagined.

Today, all the pieces came together for Dark Fire, and I have to say, I was blown away. Not as in “impressed,” or thinking “that’s cool,” but seriously blown away. This is like no other guitar I’ve heard or played. In fact, it’s like no guitar I’ve imagined.

Yeah, I know, “don’t believe the hype.” And frankly, I don’t expect anyone to believe me because this is something you don’t really “get” until you’re holding it in your hands and dialing in sounds. I can write all day, but it’s not the same thing as experiencing it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this isn’t just a guitar you play, it’s a guitar you experience.

The Dark Fire
My first view of the nearly-finished Dark Fire, hooked up not to life support equipment but test gear.

The Dark Fire
Here’s a closer look.

Brian Espinosa and I got up bright and early to take the train to Hamburg to see Chris Adams, the guy behind the Tronical tuning system.

Train in Berlin
Trains in Germany are fast, convenient, and relatively inexpensive. The station master apologizes if it’s two minutes late.

Milo and Matt from Echo were there as well, having left the U.S. on Thanksgiving but they were still in Hamburg, continuing to tweak various elements.

Milo Street and Brian Espinosa
Milo and Brian going over scheduling issues. With the launch getting ever-closer, prioritizing was becoming more crucial than ever.

Brian Espinosa and Matt
Brian and Matt discussing the parametric EQ with Milo.

Matt’s checking out some final tweaks to the RIP. He and Milo had to extend their stay, only to find out there was a convention and all the hotels in Hamburg were booked—so they slept on the floor in the Tronical offices.

As to Chris Adams, the first thing you need to understand about him is that he is insane – totally and completely out of his mind. But spend enough time talking to him, and you start to think that maybe he’s the one who’s sane, and it’s everyone else that’s nuts. A friend of mine described Chris as “like a drug” and I know what he means: When Chris walks into a room, reality changes temporarily. I mention this only because after visiting Tronical, it became obvious there’s a lot more of him in Dark Fire than just the second-generation Robot tuning. As Chris said, “If someone tells you something is impossible, it is possible.”

Brian Espinosa and Chris Adams
Brian and Chris going over the second-generation Robot tuning options, and deciding on the best way to present the concept to end users.

Using the Dark Fire Master Control Knob
Chris is using the MCK to change tunings and pickups.

Chris Adams
Chris explaining why the tuning system is so much faster than the original Robot technology.

It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start with the first thing that surprised me: The piezo pickup sound. I didn’t realize it had a precedent, in that the original Robot guitar included a piezo pickup because that’s what provided the signal for the robot tuning technology. However, it never appeared as audio.

Dark Fire’s pickup switch has an ingenious construction where the toggle itself rotates to mix the piezo sound in with the magnetic pickups. I thought that was pretty cool, so I asked Chris to play just the piezo sound. But clearly, there was a language barrier or something because he didn’t; that was obvious because the sound was big, not thin like most piezos. So I politely asked him again to mix in the piezo sound only, no magnetic pickups.

“Yes, that’s the piezo sound.” No, I meant, I wanted to hear only the piezo sound. “Yes, that is only the piezo sound.”

I must have had a totally baffled look on my face, because he then started to explain to me what was going on: He had designed a very different way of using piezos as a transducer. The way these pickups work is that piezo crystals generate a voltage when stressed, such as having a metal string vibrate against the crystal. Chris found a way to increase the energy transferred to the piezo crystal from the string. As a result, more voltage was produced, and the sound was really fat and big.

Dark Fire Piezo Pickup
You can see the large plates under the strings at the bridge.

The ability to blend the sound between the piezo pickups and the magnetic pickups in any proportion gave a huge variety of tones. The two magnetic pickups are a Burstbucker and  P90, and of course, you have the usual ability to switch between them with the pickup switch. But…

This is where the MCK (Master Control Knob) comes into play. There’s a complex system of relays that allows switching the pickups and coils in various combinations—coil tap, series, parallel, etc. The relays don’t alter the tone the way that other types of electronic switches might, and interestingly, the relays latch to your chosen position on power-down. In fact, should the battery lose its charge, you can choose the default relay setting.

Dark Fire has (I think) 9 main preset sounds, but that’s not really representative of reality because of how much you can modify those with the various pickup switching and piezo mixing options. From what I understand a RIP firmware update will allow creating and loading your own custom setups from a computer, with the concept being that it kind of “syncs” like an iPod: You can create a whole library of sounds, then choose a particular subset to load into Dark Fire.

Dark Fire Master Control Knob
The MCK has a display that not only relates to the Robot tuning, but also indicates which sound is selected, the pickup arrangement, and much more. And it looks really cool, too.

Disclaimer: I think most of these facts about numbers of sounds and such are correct, but there are still several days until the launch and they keep adding features, so…who knows. Suffice it to say that out of the box, there are a huge number of sonic options. You can get the iconic Les Paul sounds, but Dark Fire can also do sounds associated with guitars like Strats and Telees, as well as sounds of other guitars. This isn’t modeling; it’s just that particular combinations of pickups and equalization can get those types of sounds. Uncanny, and very analog.

As to the internal battery, I asked long it maintained its charge. That depends on how many times you use the tuner, and Chris didn’t have hard figures, but he said it would last at least for a “Grateful Dead-type set.” But the other thing is that if you use Dark Fire with the RIP interface, which is definitely something you could do on stage, it charges the battery so no worries there. Ever-wary about the infamous “iPod” issue (e.g., when the battery becomes old enough that it can’t hold its charge, you can’t replace it easily yourself), I asked what the situation was with the Dark Fire battery and Chris assured me it was user-replaceable.

Now, about the new Robot tuners. They’re smaller, lighter, and much faster than the original ones.

On the left is the old tuner, and on the right, the new one used in Dark Fire. Note how the body of the new tuner is much smaller (and lighter), while the tuning knob itself is bigger and easier to turn. Unlike the older model, the tuning knob doesn’t have to be disengaged to use it.

Furthermore, they tune all six strings simultaneously; the original robot technology tuned them three at a time. In fact, because the tuning is so much faster, Dark Fire has an option not to mute the strings during the tuning process and it sounded like a pedal steel as the notes changed. I’m not sure of the exact number of onboard tunings, but it’s a lot.

A close-up of the tuners on the headstock. They’re far less obtrusive than the older models but from what I understand, original Robot guitar owners will eventually be able to upgrade to the new technology.

At one point Milo chased me down and said “We need a Quick Start card to pack with the RIP today so it can be sent to Taiwan.” So, I sat down and did just that.

I also thought about the huge number of sounds and suggested having a downloadable “browser” of the sounds and tunings so people could listen to the various options, rather than go through all possible switching combinations (“Wow, I like that fourth tuning! I think I’ll call it up…”). They loved the idea, so I guess I have one more thing to do.

But there was also a problem: The RIP that I was supposed to take back to the US to do presets got kidnapped by Echo because they wanted another one for testing. So which was more important—me doing presets that could be downloaded anyway, or a working RIP for final testing? Well, I guess I answered my own question.

Chris took us on a bit of a factory tour. They have machines for making their own injection molded parts, as well as machining tools and the like. It’s not something I was expecting to see in a quaint part of Hamburg, but there it was. Here are four shots of various machines used in manufacturing the Robot tuners, as well as a bin of injection-molded parts.

The first of four factory shots.

Here’s the bin of injection-molded parts, made at Tronical.

Finally, I got to hear some of the equalized sounds. The parametric equalizer is pretty compact, but also, very versatile.

A Dark Fire with a prototype parametric EQ board mounted on the back.

We also checked whether Echo could install a VST plug-ins folder as part of the RIP installation; Matt did some quick research and found an article online from Sound on Sound magazine that talked about the VST plug-in protocol. He felt it wouldn’t be a problem, so we had backup just in case it was true that neither Guitar Rig nor Live installed a VST plug-ins folder.

Uh…are these blog posts getting longer, or what? Although there were a ton of other details, we’ll skip that for now. We went back to the train station so we could make it back to Berlin at a reasonable hour.

In Europe, train stations are almost like malls with all kinds of shops and food. This is the Hamburg station.

And after all it is the Christmas season, so there were plenty of decorations. These strings of lights were too cool-looking to resist.

We got back to Berlin, and I talked to Brian Hardgroove from Public Enemy: He’d have tickets for me and Brian Espinosa at the PE gig. When we got there, Chuck D announced they were going to play the breakthrough CD “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”…and they did. It rocked. Totally. And it was especially significant: When they first came to Berlin in 1987, the wall was still up. And now, as we left the Postbahnhof venue, we saw what remains of the wall directly in front of us—now powerless to keep the people of Berlin apart.

There’s still one day to go. But I had finally had a chance to see a close-to-finished Dark Fire up close and personal, and it went way beyond my expectations. I mean WAY beyond. This is a guitar that actually lives up to the hype, and it has the potential to be a real game-changer. No, scratch that; if anything, the hype understates the significance of this guitar. Having spent many years in the music industry, I’m somewhat jaded—but it’s impossible to be jaded when you hold Dark Fire in your hand.

Posted: 12/7/2008 8:14:08 AM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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