For a tuned in tech and long-time guitar player, I’m woefully behind in combining the two. A long time ago I made an adapter to see if I could get guitar into a computer via the sound card. It worked to a limited extent but wasn’t exactly a satisfying experiment. Let’s face it – a guitar isn’t made to be plugged into a standard computer soundcard.
Guitars want to see a high impedance input, which a soundcard has not. In addition, soundcards have mic and line inputs, neither of which is suitable for guitars.
Fast forward a few years. There are interesting new ways to get sound into your computer, some made especially for guitars. Line 6 has a few guitar-specific models but I chose to go with a product that was not focused entirely on guitar. I concentrated on lower cost guitar/mic to USB interfaces, preferably two channels so I could use a mic at the same time if necessary.
My trip started and ended at Guitar Center, largely as it was close and some of the staff amuse me. I tend to be a real pro at stopping a conversation: last week I cleared a lunch table of twelve after a joke. My usual technique when guitar shopping is to allow the salesman to get excited then tell him I want one left-handed. That usually inserts a rather pregnant pause. Today was a new and exciting experience: when the guy asked me “Windows or Mac,” I looked him straight in the eye and said Linux.
I have no idea why this amuses me but it does. I guess it’s better to be amused than repeatedly disappointed (plus it makes a better blog entry).
The majority of devices came with software. Since none come with software for Linux, I preferred to look into units that concentrated more on hardware and less on software.
ART, the company that makes those really cool, cheap tube preamps, was the price leader at $79 for a two channel converter that supported both XLR (mic) and 1/4″ (guitar/line) inputs. But here is where reading carefully is important: the 1/4″ input was specified for TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) low impedance inputs (which means no guitars).
M-Audio makes a bunch of converters, starting with a one channel unit. Most come with software (Pro Tools is a favorite). Tascam also has at least two. A Mackie unit came highly recommended but they can’t keep them on the shelves.
I finally wound up with an Alesis i02 Express ($99). It has two channels, either of which will accept an XLR or 1/4″ input (high or low impedance switchable). You can monitor through the headphone jack. It has phantom power for mics, a mono/stereo switch, and you can select between input and USB to monitor. It comes with CubaseLE software (Windows). It also has MIDI in and out and main left and right outs.
Interestingly enough, there is a cheaper way to go, via the Alesis guitarlink. It is a cord with a 1/4″ plug for your guitar and a USB plug for the computer – that’s all, folks. I didn’t see this at GC but it goes for about $49. I would not have purchased it anyway, as I wanted to be able to use a mic also.
The instructions come in five languages, bless their pointy little heads. The fun part is that all they think you need to know comes printed on two pages (in five languages). Oddly enough, there is no mention of what the MIDI jacks are for or do; only that they exist. There are suggestions for Windows and Mac use.
I didn’t pay close attention to the product so I didn’t realize until I got home that the model number starts with a lower case ‘i,’ which means I might have to return it. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was purchasing an i-device or anything. Dear Alesis: can’t you just rename it 02? How about X02?
I started out by plugging the i02 into my HP4525 laptop, running Xubuntu 10.10. One of my Linux buddies runs Rakarrack, which is a free, open source program that emulates an effects rack or floorboard. It looks really cool so I installed it. It came with JACK, which Linux uses to connect inputs and outputs.
I was overjoyed to see that the system recognized the i02, especially as I have never seen Rakarrack and haven’t had a ton of luck with JACK. I brought everything up and hit the strings, noticing that there was absolutely no indication of signal anywhere in the chain. I looked at Rakarrack in case there were any obvious switches that needed to be thrown but there weren’t any. I took a look at JACK, which drove home the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing.
I have the attention span of a gnat and even less patience. My need for immediate gratification spoke rather loudly so I decided to try plugging the i02 into an old Windows XP machine. Much like Linux, Windows recognized the box. Much like Linux, there was absolutely no sound or indication of it.
I brought up Guitar Rig 4 and noticed there was some movement in the meters but no sound. In the control panel is Audio, which I brought up to examine. Everything appeared to be in place. Testing indicated something odd with the soundcard, so I updated the driver first (just for fun). That helped a little, but still no sound.
I use the asio4all driver, which is a popular, free low-latency driver. Latency is the measurement of delay. Suffice it to say that because your system has to process the sound, it takes a certain (short) amount of time to do this. You need to keep this to an absolute minimum or you will wind up having to play in front of what you want to hear.
Asio4all comes with a control panel, with which you should familiarize yourself. You have to make sure your signal is routed correctly or there will be no sound. It took a while but I finally figured it out. Remember that your input is the converter and that your output is the sound card – this will probably be an issue as these things don’t seem to set themselves correctly.
So now I had sound into the computer, which was the point of the exercise. Now I could record or play with sound processors. Guitar Rig is a killer way to waste a few hours, which is apparently what I did 🙂 It emulates a bunch of really popular amplifiers, along with tons of effects. I spent my time just going through the presets (of which there are many) and attempting to play something in the style of the patch.
Due no doubt to rights issues, the amp models are not accurately named. Instead of Marshall, you might see Plexi or 800. The Rat stompbox is the Cat. Orange amps are Citrus, and so on….
I have to hand it to Native Instruments – they did a hell of a job. We dumb guitarists never knew we’d have the horsepower to emulate our favorite setups accurately. They’re not 100% exact but they sure sound good. I would recommend GR4 for any kind of practice and some recording. I’m still a purist and would die before I gave up my vintage Fenders and Marshall but I can see where this would be handy in certain circumstances (especially after midnight when laying guitar tracks in your bedroom).
As we know, presets are generally over the top, so I can’t wait to spend some time composing my own patches. It is traditionally very difficult to get a semi-dirty tone that cleans up well, like a Stevie Ray Vaughan tone, so that will be an interesting task. There is a free demo version for Win or Mac.
Now I need to dig into the manuals and figure out how to get this going under Linux. No operating system is perfect and this chain has so many separate links that I need to figure out which one is passing sound and which isn’t. Once that gets solved, there is no shortage of free, open source software to record and modify the guitar’s tone. There are even ways to run Windows software under WINE, so things should get interesting rather quickly.
Then I’ll have to learn how to program the bleedin’ drums.