Guitar synthesizers have been around for a long time. From the ARP Avatar to the Synthaxe, the Yamaha GC10 to the Stepp DG-1, and from the original GR-500 to a whole family of successful Roland MIDI guitar products, there's been a never-ending quest for a way to let guitarists control electronic sounds without having to learn to play keyboards.
Fishman, well-known for pickups, acoustic guitar preamp systems, and more, has leaped into the fray with a guitar pickup system called the TriplePlay. It combines a guitar-mounted hexaphonic pickup (one pickup per string so each string's vibrations can be read separately, letting the guitarist play chords), a wireless communication system that attaches to the guitar and to any computer, and dedicated software to make the system transparent and easy to use. It doesn't require a special guitar, installs on many guitars without any need for alteration, works with any software, and is stunningly affordable... well worth a hard look, don't you think?
In the box
The full TriplePlay package includes the wireless controller that mounts on your guitar, the hexaphonic pickup and several styles of mounting brackets, the USB receiver "dongle", a charging power pack and USB charging cable. It will run for 20 hours before needing a recharge of its built-in battery.
On the software side is a comprehensive bundle that will get anyone up and running with just about all they need. It includes Fishman's TriplePlay application (as shown in the screenshots), plus Native Instruments Kontakt Elements and GuitarRig LE, Notion Music Progression 2 notation software, IK Multimedia SampleTank 2 XT and AmpliTube Custom Shop, and even a special TriplePlay Edition of the PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW.
Registration and installation (and a little frustration)
The TriplePlay doesn't come with installer discs. You log onto the website, create a profile for yourself, register the product, and access a personalized user area with download links and serial numbers for all the software. This requires a registration code that's on a card packed with the unit, plus the unit's serial number.
You need to at least download the TriplePlay application in order for the hardware to communicate with the software and pass MIDI to your computer. The additional software is useful, but you may skip installing the rest of the bundled software if you're already well-stocked with plug-ins and virtual instruments, aren't interested in trying a new DAW or notation program... or if you're short on time.
The installation of the third-party software has to be done through Fishman's website, and each authorization has to be done individually through the corresponding manufacturer's instructions. It's a long process, as I found out; a basic install disc might be a nice option for users with limited Internet access, even if a unified installer for everything at once is too much to hope for!
The best thing to do once you open the box is to lay out all the pieces in front of you as one would before starting a jigsaw puzzle. That way, you can identify the variations of the hardware available and choose what needs to be installed. There are so many little pieces that you should store the remaining parts in case you want to mount the TriplePlay on another guitar some day. The important thing to note here is that many common guitar designs are supported, and with luck and the right guitar, you won't have to do anything to permanently alter your guitar when you do the installation, at worst only putting a bit of adhesive on the body or pickguard.
If you happen to need multiple brackets to swap one transmitter/pickup from one guitar to others, they can be purchased separately through the Fishman online store. You can even find spare USB receivers there, in case you lose the original one.
At first I thought of installing this system onto my Gibson Les Paul Standard, using the provided mounting bracket for a standard Tune-O-Matic bridge, but the amount of space between the bridge and the bridge pickup was too narrow for comfort, so I found it prudent to move it onto a Strat.
Once you know what pieces fit your guitar, it's a very simple process. I installed the TriplePlay on my Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster with the included 90-degree endpin bracket for flat top guitars. By simply unscrewing the strap holder you can slide the hardware into place. Then you can quickly clean the pickguard between the bridge and the bridge pickup, peel off the adhesive protector from the bottom of the plastic pickup mounting pad, and carefully place it just after the bridge and before the guitar's bridge pickup. (To make sure that the six sensors corresponding to each string aligned properly, I found it useful to slide the hexaphonic pickup into the mounting pad as I carefully glued it to the pickguard.) Now you can place the plastic controller/transmitter onto the endpin bracket and it will attach with magnets.
Once the hexaphonic pickup is in place, you can use the included mini-screwdriver and string spacer tool in order to further adjust the height of that pickup and optimize its capacity to receive the string vibrations and convert them into MIDI data. The operation is explained very clearly, and if you're at all comfortable with adjusting your guitar, it takes only a few minutes to do well. If not, any competent guitar tech can do it.
Now that you've installed the software and hardware, you need to plug the USB Receiver into an available USB port on your computer, press the button on it, and also press the button on the controller/transmitter. If you dig through Fishman's FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page, you'll find the cryptic statement: "The LED light on the controller is also a button (some people miss this)." I sure did! You have to press the light pretty hard to activate it, and unlike the other controls -- Volume knob, Synth/Mix/Guitar switch, and menu navigation controller -- it's not marked at all. I had a very frustrating time trying to get the devices to pair until I figured it out. Let my delay in reading the manuals now save you time!
There's a red light that blinks on both the USB Receiver and the controller/transmitter as soon as they have power. At first I assumed that the red light would become green when pairing is achieved, but the blinking red on the USB Receiver stops blinking and stays on, and the light on the controller keeps on blinking. Of course, the best indication of successful communication is when you see signal reaching the level meters in the TriplePlay application.
The TriplePlay application
The TriplePlay application works both in standalone mode and as a plug-in in your host DAW. For me, it worked just fine as a virtual instrument insert in Pro Tools 11. The user interface has four different sections: Patch management, Level / Tuner, Mixer, and a fretboard display on the bottom. Take a look at the screenshots and follow along.
With the TriplePlay application open and the hardware paired, I was happy to see the six level meters in the middle of the interface responding to my every note on the guitar. Each meter represents one of the six guitar strings. A great feature is that at the right of each meter there is a numeric value representing the sensitivity with which the software receives signal from each individual string. I found this very useful as, even after lowering the bass end of the hexaphonic pickup with the mini-screwdriver as far as it would go and raising the treble side closer to the strings, I found that the A and low E strings were peaking the signal. So it came quite handy to quickly adjust the levels in the software.
The switch labeled Levels/Tuner, just below the meters, allows you to view the needle tuner that shows precise reading with numeric values for each note. When in tuner mode, you can opt to hear the signal play back by having the switch selector either in Mix or Synth positions, or to tune silently you can simply switch it to Guitar. If you want silent tuning all the time, no matter what position the switch is in, you can go to the Options menu, click on Preferences, and check the box that says "Mute output when tuner active". I found it very useful to have this feature readily available.
To the left we find the patch management section, where one can select the Factory patches and save User patches and scroll through Songs (a group of chained patches that one might use in a single song). To the right is a basic mixer with six tracks -- Guitar (the guitar's sound, fed from an audio interface through the bundled effects plug-ins if desired), up to four Synths, and Pedal for instruments that require foot control like a sustain pedal -- that include Mute & Solo buttons, Pan knob, line fader, and patch select button. There is also a master fader with a Mute button. And on the bottom we find the virtual fretboard that shows the notes being played in real time and lets you set up splits between the four Synth sounds based on strings or neck positions; you can even change the look of the fretboard from Rosewood to Maple.
I found playing a TriplePlay-equipped guitar to be a quite a revealing experience. This thing is the key to the Stargate portal; it lets you travel to another world of sonic possibilities!
There was a slight learning curve for me to feel comfortable with all the routing and features, which I expect will be the case for any guitarist who hasn't embraced MIDI as keyboard players have. But MIDI has become exponentially easier to manage, and it seems like the TriplePlay system has gone out of its way to contribute to this demystification.
Even if you happen to be at the level where you need a professional tech to set up any piece of gear for you, ultimately the main question one must ask is, "Will this MIDI system track fast and precise enough for my performances to come across unaltered and musically?" I say Yes! And an enthusiastic Yes -- this is the best guitar MIDI system I've tried yet, allowing me to trigger my various virtual instruments with DAW integration and music notation programs.
Note that the audio of the guitar is not routed through TriplePlay. You'll still have to connect the guitar via a 1/4" guitar cable to your amp or DAW to access the sound from your guitar's pickups. But for the MIDI controller features, you don't need a heavy custom cable as is common on many hex-pickup guitar controllers; in fact, you don't need a cable at all.
I used the TriplePlay-equipped Strat as a trigger for virtual instruments and to enter notes for music notation and it functioned surprisingly well. One must play with a good level of precision for optimal MIDI tracking. And each virtual instrument offers different capabilities (and suggests different ways of playing); for example, you might have a lead sound that will follow string bends, as opposed to a grand piano sound that would normally only be played in chromatic half steps.
There are other nuances common to guitar players that tend to get lost in translation, mostly due to the inherent limitations of whichever virtual instrument is being triggered. Your guitar will still respond to palm muting, ghost notes, trills, hammer-ons, legato, bends, and slides, but the TriplePlay may not. Consider the limitations of the instrument being triggered, as well as what the MIDI tracking is capable of, in order to obtain the best results. (Oh, and if you have hardware synths, the TriplePlay can send MIDI to them over a standard MIDI interface from your computer.)
The wireless system covers distances up to 80 feet (120 feet under optimal conditions), and can be affected by RF interference on the 2.4 GHz band. I tested it by distancing myself and playing in a different room and it performed flawlessly.
If I was being really picky, I might suggest adding a visual reference -- perhaps on the TriplePlay fretboard display -- of the permissible range of any given virtual instrument. There are sometimes notes that are not in the range of the loaded virtual instrument. But that's not always going to be practical, as the TriplePlay application must get that data from the virtual instrument, which it may not easily provide. I was fine just spending the time to familiarize myself with each patch I loaded through exploration.
Notation with Progression 2
Notion's Progression 2, the included guitar-friendly notation software application, is a great addition to this purchase; it lets you create professional scores and lead sheets to share with bandmates or students. I had used an earlier version, but I'm really enjoying the upgrades like the integrated mixer with amp simulation. It's a program that's easy to use and that has helped me get my music across to other players handily on various occasions.
When using TriplePlay to input notes into Progression, I was a little confused at first by why a D bar chord (with the root on the 6th string), for example, which seemed to track just fine on the TriplePlay app's virtual fretboard, came across as an open D chord (with root on the 5th string) and three simultaneous notes on the high E string, which of course is not possible. That's an indication that Progression receives the MIDI data for the notes you're playing, but no information as to which sensor (there's one for each string) is responsible for each note. So I found that I had to sometimes correct the notation, but it's still better than other alternatives.
And that idea -- that this is a better way for guitarists to work with a DAW than other alternatives -- is at the core of the TriplePlay system. My main instrument is the guitar; up until now, I've always thought that I've managed to use my keyboard controller just fine when using virtual instruments and notation software for composition and tracking with my limited piano chops. But this review made me feel like I've fallen victim to a rude awakening!
What the TriplePlay has done for me is to open the doors to a vast world of possibilities with the tools I already had and loved -- my guitar and my well-trained hands on it. I've been able to use virtual instruments like never before, and I was stunned to find inspiration and hours of enjoyment with sounds that I would quickly discard when auditioning with a keyboard controller!
As I mentioned before, one must remember that TriplePlay and/or the triggered virtual instruments might not track well when playing certain guitar techniques like bends, slides, trills and palm muting. But if you're triggering a grand piano, I doubt you'd expect to hear slides or tapping! The fact that its ability to track accurately depends on the player's technique is a great thing to me. This dependence on good technique helps you recognize and work on any sloppiness when playing, so it could help make you a better player.
There are thousands of patches out of the box that one can use to try out different instrumentation with the guitar. This is fantastic for composing and producing a demo; you can try out a violin part without having to phone a friend. It's even possible to trigger drums with the six strings, but I'll leave that up to the more adventurous souls!
The available third-party downloads don't represent the same value to those who already own Native Instruments, PreSonus, or IK Multimedia (or other similar) software, so I could see the appeal of a basic TriplePlay package that only included the hardware and Fishman application, with a slightly lower cost to the consumer. But that's a small quibble, considering that you're already getting for your money.
Well done, Fishman! TriplePlay offers guitarists a great tool that can stimulate creativity, inspire composers, and please the most avant-garde soundscape explorers. It's a hit in my book.
More from: Fishman, www.fishman.com/tripleplay