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.