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Finalizing the software package.

After two days of basically collecting data and weighing options, we were starting to reach the finalizing phase for the software. It seems very likely we’ll be able to fit the RIP installer, the Mac and Windows versions of Guitar Rig 3, the Mac and Windows versions of Ableton Live and the Ableton Live content all on one hybrid, cross-platform DVD. When we first thought about how to package the Digital Supplement Pack, we really didn’t want to have separate packages for Windows and Mac — it seemed more fitting (and elegant) to have one guitar and one software package. “One disc to rule them all …”

Also, we finalized the amount of content from Ableton, and I was very happy to find there would be about 268MB—almost 7,000 files. Cool!

Ableton Library
Some of the Ableton Library has been expanded in Windows Explorer so you can get an idea of what’s included. The right pane shows the various folders of clips; folders of samples are shown toward the bottom of the left pane.

The Ableton Live Gibson Studio Edition also includes 16 tracks — again something that adds serious value. Between that and Guitar Rig 3’s extensive library of presets, this means that Dark Fire owners won’t be getting a “teaser” package, but serious software and enough content to be able to have backing tracks and make complete songs. I feel very good about this: Between the generosity of the companies, Gibson’s clout, and (I’ll admit) a little personal lobbying, we now had a solid software package.

But then we were thrown a curve: Dealing with VST plug-ins on Windows. With the Mac, there’s already a place to install AU plug-ins, and of course, Guitar Rig 3 is available in an AU version for the Mac as well as VST for the PC. But, there’s no standard place on a PC to put a VST plug-ins folder. Usually, if there are any Steinberg products installed, they install a VST plug-in folder and other programs find it and install in there. But what if it was a “virgin” computer? What if there weren’t any Steinberg programs on it?

We did a little testing and found that Ableton Live didn’t install a VST plug-ins folder, nor did Guitar Rig 3. Furthermore, with Live you have to choose a VST plug-ins folder and then activate it, and with Guitar Rig, during installation you have to specify the VST plug-ins folder in which you wanted the plug-in installed. This was a drag, because with Live, we had gotten it down to where after opening the program, you only had to do one click and hit the space bar to start recording. We were really pleased about that, but now we had to deal with the VST issue.

After much back and forth with Brian Espinosa and Jesse from Ableton, the idea came up that maybe the installer for the RIP could install a VST folder. That would simplify things somewhat, as it could be specified for Live and Guitar Rig during installation. But could Echo, the RIP’s designers, be able to do that? Well, we’ll find out tomorrow when we meet with them in Hamburg.

We then went to Gibson’s ER (Entertainment Relations) Berlin offices to introduce them to some of the people from Ableton, as well as to see how preparations were going for the press event to be held there on the 15th to introduce Dark Fire. I was just expecting some offices, but it was a beautiful suite of rooms, with a mouth-watering display of guitars, as well as products from Gibson’s other lines (Baldwin, Slingerland, Wurlitzer, etc.). I figured the ER offices would just be some desks and chairs. Wrong — just check out the pictures.

Here’s the reception area for the ER offices.

Wouldn’t you like to go to an office every day that has a grand piano sitting  in the middle of the room?

This is the stage area where the media has been invited to see Dark Fire’s debut on December 15th. Bumblefoot, from Guns ‘n’ Roses, is flying out from New York to demo the guitar.

There are walls of classic and new Gibson guitars.

Ulf Zick, Entertainment Relations Professional of the Berlin office—and a great host, to say the least.

Another guitar wall. I’m going to try to go back on Friday and get some shots of individual guitars.

Wurlitzer is one of Gibson’s many brands, and this is quite a jukebox.

In a way the ER is like Gibson’s “ambassador,” and Ulf and Alex, who run the place, have put together an extremely congenial home for press and artist events. I was very, very impressed both by the facilities and the hospitality.

And then, an unexpected treat: As the offices were closing down for the day. Ulf mentioned that he had extra tickets for a UEFA cup soccer (or as the Europeans call it, football) match that night between Heurtha and Turkey, and would I like to come? Of course! It was being held at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin—the one where Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler big-time. The place was not only filled with history, but about 75,000 screaming fans; and if you think a rock concert is loud, this is LOUD. We had great seats and access to a VIP lounge, with great food and of course, German beer. The game ran late and the traffic getting out of there was pretty serious; I didn’t get to sleep until about 1:30, and had to get up at 6:30 the next morning to make the train to Hamburg. But it was worth it.

A soccer match in Europe is a cross between a sporting event and something approaching a religious revival meeting.

And there was another unexpected treat: Public Enemy was playing in Berlin on Thursday. Their bassist Brian Hardgroove is a great friend as well as a helluva musician and a Gibson artist, so I called and left a message about whether Brian Espinosa and I could get tickets, and maybe get together afterwards because he was staying at a hotel a couple blocks away. He called back while I was at the game (like I was going to hear the phone ring, right?) and left a message saying he was in Manchester England, but would be arriving in Berlin and we’d talk tomorrow.

Me and Brian on DiamondVision at a festival gig. Yes, that’s right—I’m playing the Gibson Digital Guitar.

But now, it’s time to go to sleep. I’m not a big fan of running on 4-6 hours sleep, which has been the story since leaving New Mexico. But hey, it’s only for a week, and we’re being very productive. At least when I fall into the hotel bed at night, it’s with the knowledge that we accomplished a lot each day. And this time, I got to see a great soccer match too (by the way, Turkey beat Berlin 1-0).

Until tomorrow …

Posted: 12/5/2008 2:42:52 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A visit to Native Instruments.

First of all, last night after dinner we walked to the tram station so we could return to the hotel, and went past the historic Brandenburg Gate — so of course, I took a picture. Incidentally, Brian Espinosa and I either walk to get around town or take public transportation, which is excellent and convenient. We never have to wait for more than a few minutes for a bus, subway or tram.

Bradenburg Gate
Here’s the Brandenburg gate, at night in the rain.

Tomorrow we return to Ableton; today we visited Native Instruments. We expected a short meeting, but ended up hammering out a lot of details. With Native Instruments contributing Guitar Rig 3 to the Dark Fire package, one order of business was figuring out who was going to do the Guitar Rig 3 presets for what’s now being called the “Digital Supplement Pack” (Ableton Live, the RIP interface, and Guitar Rig 3). We sat down with Patrick Arp, Director of NI’s Guitar Division, and André Estermann, the Guitar Division’s Product Manager.

Patrick Arp
Patrick Arp of Native Instruments, captured during a rare moment when he wasn’t smiling.

I’d met Patrick before at NAMM, and although (unlike me!) he never got heavily into Gibson’s Digital Les Paul, he was very excited about Dark Fire—in particular the Chameleon Tone Technology aspect, but also the second generation Robot tuning.

NI has a strong sound development team, and so we decided that NI would tweak Guitar Rig 3 presets for the standard magnetic pickup sounds, and I’d handle the presets for the piezo pickup along with the ones for the hex string setups. That suited me just fine, as I’d already done so much work with the digital guitar I had a repertoire of useful hex processing-based presets. As to the piezo sounds, it would be a challenge to try and get some “acoustic”-type sounds, so that definitely interested me.

At that point Brian started getting nervous about what I needed to get done before the launch. But I reassured him that having worked with both Guitar Rig and Ableton Live for years, as well as logging so many hours with the Digital Les Paul, I had a head start that someone just encountering these technologies for the first time wouldn’t have. I think he felt a little less concerned after that …

The rest of the meeting consisted mostly of technical issues, such as the best way to handle installation, the pros and cons of downloading the programs vs. providing them on a DVD (I’m hoping for the DVD, because we can include more content), scheduling, print manuals, when Dark Fire guitars would be shipped to Native Instruments, and the like. It seemed that every question raised another question, but eventually we got a handle on the situation and started setting target dates. I must say, this whole project has been a real education to me about exactly what’s involved in launching a technologically-advanced project on a tight schedule—especially one where there’s no margin for error.

Before leaving, I was able to take some pictures of NI’s facilities, which sprawl over several floors of several buildings. Unfortunately a lot of the company was off limits, because they’re hard at work on products to be introduced at NAMM, and they didn’t want anything to leak out. Still, this should give you an idea of the place.

Like Ableton, NI follows the “European office high-tech company standard” of open space, lots of white to bring light in, and spaciousness — no cubicles here. In general, I get the feeling that European companies tend to treat their employees more like people than “assets.”

NI’s DJ division is a big part of the company, which might come as a surprise to those who know the company mostly from their virtual instruments. Here are just a few of the awards they’ve received for their DJ gear.

This shows a sort of ad hoc “history of Native Instruments,” as expressed by product boxes stacked on top of a wall.

NI’s conference room is for more than just show: Every week or so, they do an extensive video conference with their Los Angeles office.

NI tests their software with a ton of gear, and here’s a sampling. Gibson’s Brian Espinosa is on the left, and NI’s Florian Grote (who handles press relations) is on the right.

In addition to the informal box display, there’s a more official one in the reception area. Hmmm, maybe I should do something similar for the various albums and CDs I’ve done over the years.

I’m beginning to think that the first thing a German software company buys is an espresso machine — then they worry about putting out products. Okay, not really, but I must say NI makes a great cup of cappuccino. In case the music software business ever collapses, NI and Ableton should open a coffee shop.

Walking back to the hotel from NI, we saw the infamous Berlin wall. Berlin is separately naturally into east and west by a river, and the wall was next to the river — basically, East Berlin was cut off from the west by a wall and a moat.

Berlin Wall
The Berlin wall, as viewed across the river from West Berlin. Note the graffitti.

A closeup of the wall. It was thinner and not as tall as I expected, but back in the day, fear and constant surveillance added to its effectiveness. Even today, there’s still something very creepy about it—even though only small fragments remain.

Last night, we saw a place where the wall had been, with crosses commemorating some who died trying to escape from east to west. Visiting Berlin today, it’s hard to imagine that not all that long ago, machine guns, barbed wire, and the wall were a part of everyday life. Those days are gone, and today Berlin is not only a vibrant metropolis, but has become one of the hippest places in Germany. And I must say, despite the tough schedule and the considerable amount of work to be done, this is a fascinating place to be.

Posted: 12/4/2008 2:35:40 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Trial run for Dark Fire's RIP interface.

Today is the first of two days devoted to Ableton, and I’ll be spending them with Jesse Terry from Ableton and Brian Espinosa from Gibson. The main objective is to specify the ideal program to accompany Dark Fire, then see how close we can come to that ideal.

For example, we were hoping there could be an automatic installation routine that would install both Ableton Live Gibson Edition and Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 3 with a single mouse click. However, between the different ways that Microsoft and Apple go about installation, not to mention copy protection issues and how to handle the situation if one program gets updated before the other, it seemed like this would be difficult to pull off.

However, we were luckier when it came to the actual program itself. There are many possible ways to make Live less intimidating to those just getting into recording software, as well as more adaptable to Dark Fire’s advanced output options (standard magnetic pickups, piezo pickup and individual string outputs). We figured out default settings that would be as “friendly” as possible, and decided that rather than expose all of Live’s advanced features, we’d have it open up to a fairly standard linear DAW view so those who weren’t familiar with the program could get up and running right away. Of course, the advanced features would still be there for advanced users, or for beginners who wanted to move on to more complex projects.

The big news for Brian was that we were able to try out an early production model of the RIP interface box, which we can tell you worked perfectly! It can’t be bus-powered (because it also charges the battery while playing) but comes with a really cool little international adapter with plugs that cover any electrical system in the known universe. We also tested out the control panel software – again, no problems. Here are the some photos:

The front of the RIP has a jack for the guitar, and another for headphones, along with a volume control. And in case you’re wondering how Gibson manages to send signals from the standard pickups, the piezo and the six individual string outputs down a stereo TRS-type cable, we’ll talk about that in a future installment of this blog. Rest assured, it’s pretty clever.

From left to right, you see the AC adapter jack, FireWire port, hex pickup output for driving Axon and Roland guitar-to-MIDI converters (really!) and the two stereo line output jacks.

The RIP is quite compact. For a size comparison, here it is next to an iPhone.

We did see a potential tweak, though: Each interface output is numbered, but when using the individual string outputs the actual string number was referenced to the output number, which didn’t correspond. That could prove confusing, so we decided to check with Echo about changing the nomenclature of the control panel (conveniently, the two main designers for the Dark Fire project were in Hamburg tweaking the hex pickup output). A better way to do is (maybe) would be to say “A string” instead of “String 2,” which would eliminate the ambiguity of whether “String 2” means the second-highest or – as it is in this case – the second-lowest string. Small considerations like this can be very important when someone is trying something out for the first time.

There were lots of details that needed to be covered: What if the programs were being installed on a Windows computer that didn’t have a folder for VST plug-ins? Would Guitar Rig create it upon installation? Would Ableton recognize it, or would it have to be specified? What’s a good default value for the sample buffer? Should we trade off safety for more latency, or try to keep the latency as low as possible? How much content would need to be generated, and how much would we need to create? What about instructional videos? At the risk of boring everyone reading this, we won’t get into all these questions. But suffice to say there are many details that require serious consideration.

There was, however, a very pleasant surprise. We loaded up six instances of Guitar Rig 3 with pretty complex patches into a Core Duo-based MacBook Pro running Live and it ran smoothly with a 192 sample buffer. That meant a total latency (input + output) of about 15 milliseconds, which feels like real time. (Note that many DAWs list only the input or output latency; Ableton Live gives “honest” readings. Most DAWs should have listed the latency as 7.5ms.)

In any event, 1ms is about the same as moving 1 foot away from a speaker, so the total delay for a complex patch on a mid-grade computer is about the same delay you’d experience by being 15 feet away from your amp.

Well, that’s enough for today, especially because I’m writing this during a break and we still have a lot to go over. Meanwhile, here’s a photo gallery of Monday at Ableton.

In the reception area is a display with all the versions of Live that have appeared over the years, starting from Version 1 (called a “Sequencing Instrument) all the way to the latest, Ableton Live 7 Suite.

Here’s the reception area. The entire Ableton complex is very open and spacious, and as the company has expanded so has their space in the building.

Dennis DeSantis handles documentation for Ableton. The company’s manuals have always been well-received, so he must be doing something right!

Daniel Büttner is in charge of sound development for Ableton. They generate a lot of content in-house, but also rely on third-party developers.

Here’s Claudia Wiedner of Ableton’s marketing and communications department. She’s always at trade shows, coordinating meetings and setting up interviews.

Here’s the customer care department. And no, it’s not outsourced to phone operators half a continent away.

And here’s the secret ingredient to Ableton’s success: The industrial-strength, nuclear-powered espresso machine. The coffee is indeed excellent.

Posted: 12/1/2008 1:16:48 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Wrapping up things stateside.

Well, that sort of caught me by surprise … in my world, going away for a week with a week’s notice is like turning around a supertanker on a dime because I’m always dealing with my Editor-in-Chief role at Harmony Central, being Executive Editor at EQ, and handling deadlines for magazines – made all the more difficult because EQ’s editor had just left to take a dream-come-true job outside the music industry (good luck, Matt, you’ll be missed!).

But at this point, I was getting more than intrigued. I was fascinated (and getting educated) by the process. I also understood that I was being counted on to help make the software bundle as “guitarist-friendly” as possible. And I liked the idea of visiting NI, Ableton, and Tronical, having never been to their companies. I also appreciated the fact that what Gibson really wanted from me was not to act as a traditional consultant, but instead, as a guitar player being given an option to have input into a guitar that was truly turning the corner from “electric” to “electronic.” They encouraged me to speak my mind, be objective, and call it like I see it – even for this blog, they didn’t want to exercise any editorial control. How cool is that?

Fortunately, I was already ahead on my deadlines for EQ, Keyboard, and Sound on Sound; and ever-mindful of Harmony Central, I received permission to bring my video camera and do some interviews, factory tours, and the like – in other words, something that could benefit the Harmony Central community too.

But then it turned into a triple-purpose trip – “Hey Craig, can you do a blog of what it’s like being on the inside of this project?” Uh … well … sure, okay. I got nothing else to do anyway (!) … and I could get some great material for the blog while in Germany. Hey, maybe if I get my work done on time I can go clubbing some night and report on that – I hear Berlin is the current techno hotbed in Europe, and that’s my kind of music. It might give me some great ideas for presets, too …

Posted: 11/30/2008 12:16:20 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Ableton Live signs on and things get busy.

Henry sent out an email soliciting opinions for a recording application to bundle with Dark Fire. My first thought was that it needed to be cross-platform, which ruled out options like Sonar, Digital Performer, etc. Pro Tools LE was out because it needed its own hardware.

I came up with three main recommendations, and after some back-and-forth discussion, it was decided that a Gibson-specific version of Ableton Live would be a good fit – partly because it’s a great program, but also, partly because it seemed to have the same kind of “paradigm-breaking” vibe as Dark Fire. Having worked with Live since its introduction, I introduced Gibson to Ableton, and the next thing I knew, there was an email saying a deal had been struck to include a custom version of Live with Dark Fire.

This was really getting interesting.

And at this point, I felt like a skateboarder who had grabbed on to the back of a Lamborghini to get a ride, because the pace picked up dramatically: What did I think of the features in the custom version? What about creating templates that would be Dark Fire-ready, both with and without Guitar Rig? What about producing some content for the custom version? How about Quick Starts for the interface, Guitar Rig, and Live? Could I confirm interface installation on XP, Vista, and Mac? Would I look over a press release from a magazine editor’s standpoint?

Oh yes, and could I go to Germany next week for seven days to finalize the software bundle with Ableton and Native Instruments? And see Tronical while I’m there?

Posted: 11/29/2008 12:13:42 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Designing Dark Fire-specific presets.

Henry had a vision of Dark Fire being not just a guitar, but a complete package that would be useable like a standard guitar, and also be computer-friendly. To that end, he had approached Native Instruments about bundling Guitar Rig 3 (the full version, not a “lite” version) with the guitar so that guitarists would have even more tonal options.

If you haven’t worked with Guitar Rig 3, it’s an amazing piece of amp/effects simulation software that has been continuously updated and improved since its introduction several years ago. It has a ton of amp models and effects, but also, has some really cool tricks up its sleeve – like built-in digital recorders so you can record what you’re doing, or play back material through the effects. That’s great for when you want to tweak a guitar sound: Just record your riff, loop it, and play it back while you tweak the controls.

Guitar Rig 3 also has very cool modulation options, like step sequencing that provides AdrenaLinn-type sequenced effects, and nifty routing tools – you can split the guitar into parallel branches, as well as split based on frequency, like putting delays on only the highs. The idea of combining Guitar Rig 3 with Dark Fire made a lot of sense, to say the least. As someone who’s been using Guitar Rig since it was in beta, I probably had more expertise with the software than anyone else at Gibson, so one of my tasks would be to design Dark Fire-specific presets that take full advantage of what Guitar Rig has to offer. This isn’t as easy as it sounds: There have to be separate presets for magnetic pickups only, piezo only, a blend of the two, and presets optimized for the individual string outputs. That’s a lot, and I needed to wrap my head around not just creating the presets, but making them sound great out of the box – no tweaking necessary – and organizing them in a way that made sense.

But Guitar Rig isn’t just for stand-alone applications; it’s a plug-in for a host. And I hadn’t heard anything about a host … yet …

Posted: 11/28/2008 12:11:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A well-oiled machine.

At first, I really kind of wondered why Gibson wanted me involved. There were long email strings about production issues, marketing plans, etc.; all of it seemed right on target, and my involvement was pretty much limited to “uh … looks good to me.” In fact, at one point I was about ready to send an email saying “Hey, you guys seem to have it together, so there’s no real point in having me consult. Good luck with the guitar, it looks really cool.” It’s not like I don’t have plenty of other things I could be doing! Fortunately, I got distracted and didn’t send it.

I might add that I was surprised at how well-oiled a machine was being put into place. Generally, music industry companies are fairly laid-back in their approach, but here there was massive coordination going on among multiple teams – Gibson’s in-house marketing and PR people, those responsible for designing and manufacturing the guitar itself, product launch events, Echo Electronics in California who were handling the interface, and Tronical in Hamburg, who were hard at work updating the tuning system but also had the responsibility of making the hex pickup fly.

The speed with which the team worked was also a surprise. With a launch date of December 15, there was no margin for error, and any wasted time on pursuing things that didn’t work would throw a serious monkey wrench into the machine. It definitely had the potential to be a real pressure-cooker situation, but I have to say people were on top of things – there was a “yes we can” type of attitude that was intense and purposeful. I kept checking my email for progress reports, and there was a nearly constant flow of updates and queries.

And then I found out why Gibson wanted me involved …

Posted: 11/27/2008 12:10:01 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

A most excellent adventure.

So now it’s time to get as much possible done before the trip starts. Let’s see, current passport, enough Euros to last me until I get to a bank, bring the melatonin, try to get a window seat on the flight …

I have no illusions that a very difficult task lies ahead. The software package is supposed to be “brain-dead simple,” and allow someone to get up and running in five minutes. Well, sometimes it seems like it takes five minutes just for my computer to boot up! And we have no control over how Microsoft and Apple implement their operating system for things like installation. The package has to work with Mac and Windows (XP and Vista), so I have to test on at least three computers, and everything has to be obvious enough that even a technophobic guitarist wouldn’t feel out of place. And those templates … they need to cover musicians who like rock, jazz, country, dance, fusion, chill … and they need to be convincing. And the Quick Starts have no room for error; there can’t be anything that discourages a guitarist from partaking of what Live and Guitar Rig have to offer. Yes, much to do … thankfully, the people at the various German partners lean toward the brainiac end of the scale, so I have a pretty sterling safety net.

In the immortal words of Bill and Ted, this is turning into a most excellent adventure …

Posted: 11/26/2008 12:17:18 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The plot thickens.

One of the goals for Dark Fire was to increase the possible tones compared to a standard guitar, but without going the modeling route. This is a very “analog” guitar, even the individual outputs occur through analog multiplexing rather than some kind of digital conversion process.

The Chameleon Tone Technology consists of two four-band EQ chips within the guitar, which have presets for particular guitar sounds, but in theory users will be able to program their own sounds as well. I’m very aware of the power of good EQ to change guitar sounds; when I was doing session work with one guitar and the producer wanted the sound of a different guitar, I could often get the desired sound simply by choosing the right pickup combinations and EQ. Although I had yet to work with the Chameleon technology, the reports coming in from the developers were encouraging in terms of being able to nail iconic tones. But of course, what really interested me was being able to create my own.

Posted: 11/26/2008 12:06:54 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Robot II becomes Dark Fire

Dark Fire originally went by the name Robot II and I figured that’s what it was: an updated Robot guitar. I knew that Tronical, the company behind the Robot technology, was working on a second-generation version. But after a lengthy conversion, it became obvious that Robot II was only a small piece of the puzzle. The new guitar would have individual outputs like the Digital Guitar, using a clever analog multiplexing scheme and a piezo hex pickup. But this would also be in addition to magnetic pickups.

Another part of the package would be an interface box, called RIP (Robot Interface Pack). Overall, you could get nine outputs from the guitar: The straight magnetic pickup sound, the piezo sound, the six individual outputs, and surprisingly, there’s an output connector on the back of the interface that’s compatible with Roland’s guitar synth products. This was definitely getting interesting.

And if it had stopped there, that would have been cool. But then I found out about the Chameleon Tone Technology.

Posted: 11/25/2008 12:05:37 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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