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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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