As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one solution to go midi with any guitar: the RMC pick up. It looks good, it feels good, it sounds good. An interview with the man behind it all and his vision on midi past and present: Richard McClish.
A shorter version of this interview was printed in the Music Maker may 2003 ‘guitar special’ issue.
Copyright Richard Hallebeek and Music Maker 2003. Copying or use elsewhere striclty prohibited.
:: Can you tell me a bit about your personal history?
I’m a baby boomer who started playing guitar at age five. By the time I was twelve, I had my second electric guitar and was lead guitarist in a band playing Saturday nights in school gyms. About that time, I got into Chet Atkins very seriously and started playing fingerstyle mixed in with regular flatpick picking. Those fingerstyle pieces fostered my interest in the classical guitar and after high school, I spent two years playing professionally in bands, duos and doing solo in small venues, after which I joined the local conservatory of music in order to acquire a better playing technique and get some traditional culture. That lasted about 3 years after which I got more and more interested in music recording, studio effects and the burgeoning audio electronic industry. The advent of the operational amplifier as an integrated circuit changed the way designers addressed audio circuits. I embraced that change with great enthusiasm and built a few sound processors (compressor, parametric EQ, etc..) using schematics that I would borrow from local studios. I gradually adapted the original designs to guitar amplification and after a while, other musicians were asking me where I got the equipment, which led me to build a few units now and then. A few years later, I founded ZETA Music Systems with two partners and my life was never the same again. It was an immersion in analog electronic and electromechanical design. I studied piezo, magnetic and light pickups, did numerous patent searches and came up with the ZETA polyphonic violin pickup and some active electronics to trigger a custom pitch-to-MIDI converter manufactured for ZETA by IVL of Canada. The success of the polyphonic violin led us to bite a bigger chunk than we could chew: we tried making a ‘minimum delay’ MIDIguitar interface which included both a pitch-to-MIDI converter and a string/fret scanning system. We did lots of R&D and licensed the best fret scanning patent of the decade, but we never could build a commercially successful unit. I left the company while they were still trying to get this pink elephant to fly, and started RMC in a very relaxed way, doing custom polyphonic pickups and the related analog electronics. The company has grown slowly but surely and with the aid of the Internet, the brand name has gained recognition in the midiguitar arena.
:: How did the RMC pick up develop?
Trying to amplify the classical guitar with a microphone in an amplifier is an instant nightmare for anyone who needs the kind of volume that you normally get with a hollow-body electric, not to mention solidbody instruments. Performing on large stages with an acoustic left a particularly bad taste in my mouth for a number of years. By the time I started ZETA, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to hear but hadn’t had the time to do the research & developement yet. That time came when I left ZETA. About three years into the RMC startup, I had applied for six US patents and was working on a new piezo sound. Godin caught on to the idea early and designed the MultiAc guitar with 13-pin access around the RMC system. Brian Moore also began featuring our products with good success. We recently started manufacturing pickup systems for Godin’s new version of the LGX-SA and LGXT guitars. In retrospect, mass-production was a turning point for me because it forced me to study production tool design, which in turn influences product design. It’s an interesting position to be in. You don’t get bored, that’s for sure.
:: You don’t have much competition on the market besides the GK2a pickup.
Shadow, L.R.Baggs and Graph-Tech have all made polyphonic piezo pickup systems and it’s a good thing. It gives the customer a baseline for evaluating our products and those manufacturers got a taste of what that market is like. We usually get the customers who favor performance over economy. Not everyone wants to market products in that frame of mind; it’s not the most lucrative way. I’m more of an artist/engineer than a businessman, so my business decisions tend to be dictated mainly by product performance. I believe the right product for the job should essentially sell itself by word-of-mouth. Thirty years ago, you’d lose your shirt with that attitude. Nowadays comunication levels are different, hence our discussion today.
:: Any favorite older pitch-to-midi system you particularly like? For instance the Synthaxe? The ZTAR?
Actually, the ZETA Mirror 6 kicked ass when you played clean, but the fret/string contacts got dirty over time and the performance degraded as this occurred. The ZTAR isn’t a guitar; it’s a switch-based controller in the form of a guitar. I think it’s the only one of its kind that sees any consistent user acceptance over the years. Many users of our pickups on regular guitars also use a ZTAR for programming and entering MIDI data in their sequencers. The two can co-exist in harmony since they tend to be used for performing different tasks.
:: I use the VG-88-GR-33 combo and I think that works great. Any reflections on that combination?
The current trend is definitely to broaden the features of one with the other. Again here, the tasks performed are slightly different. The GR converter excels at producing sounds other than those of a guitar, while the VG-8/88 excels at simulating guitar sounds. Of course as these products evolve, there will be a tendency for the technologies to merge. The Axon shows signs of this attitude by providing pick position detection, while the VG-8/88 will respond to some MIDI commands although it doesn’t respond to MIDI note commands.
:: Any new stuff coming out from the RMC company?
The Schecter C-1 E/A guitars introduced at the last winter NAMM show feature our Hybrid Pro G mono preamp. This particular model highlights the nice amplified sound of our pickups. I hope you you have a chance to try it when yuo visit one of their dealers.The new & improved Godin LGX-SA and LGXT guitars with RMC should hit the stores pretty soon. I was surprised when they recently decided to change piezo pickup suppliers for these successful guitars. I thank them for making such a bold market statement.
:: Can you tell me about the anatomy of the piezo pickup and the differences in quality between the models on the market?
In my research experiments and my patent searches, I was looking for a pickup design that would faithfully reproduce the dynamics of the string. I ended up with one of the very few configurations that can deliver the correct dynamic curve while avoiding undesirable resonances in the audio range. Just about every other piezo pickup on the market works in a compression mode. That is, the piezo element is compressed vertically by the string resting on a stiff string-support. In an RMC, the piezoelectric element is a strain-sensor which is tensioned horizontally by the deflection of a flexible string-support to which it is affixed. It’s in contrast with the previous generation and the sound is correspondingly different. Less compressed, warmer and more musical. I figure the modern player needs that. Pickups of this construction are more expensive to build, but I’m addressing customers who demand superior performance, so cost usually isn’t the problem.
:: A comparison between different designs in midi tranducers. Roland is not piezo. RMC is piezo. What are the pros and cons of each system?
I think the major difference in performance between a GK-2 or similar divided magneticpickup and an RMC stems from three basic operational differences : 1) the RMC is listening to the end of the played portion of the string and that’s where all the harmonics are in-phase with a strong fundamental. The magnetic is listening to a point along the string near the bridge where the fundamental is weak and where loud harmonics are in a random phase relationship with one another. 2) The RMC has a flat frequency response well beyond the audio range while the magnetic has a gradually rising frequency response with a heavy self-resonance in the 5-10KHz range. 3) The GK-2 has significantly more string-to-string crosstalk than the RMC. 4) The electronics of the GK-2 are very cost-effective and designed as a removeable unit. The electronics of the RMC are costlier, designed for performance and permanence in the instrument.
:: Any reflection on the integration of midi in stringed instruments in the coming 10 years?
Twenty years ago, guitar synths were used mostly on stage as a novelty. Most of the guitar synths sold nowadays are used to enter MIDI data in computers. This is a reflection of the fundamental change in the Music Industry which used to cater to professional musicians and now focuses more on semi-pro and music-hobby customers. This trend is bound to continue since midiguitar must now share the stage with a number of other MIDI instruments. Market growth will be very gradual anf performance-driven. Musical instruments are tools and tools have to work really well before you have a culture buit around using them.
:: Amsterdam guitar builder Danny Marcovich talked to you recently and he told me about a midi system that responds to the top of the guitar. What is that system?
‘ I’m presently working on a new version of the Poly-Drive IV which will be featured in some Ramirez guitars. This system will have a soundboard transducer and/or a microphone for capturing the tapping sounds of Flamenco players. The difficulty is maintaining the freedom from feedback of the original product while providing the added acoustic features. The MIDI performance of this preamp will be similar to that of our current Poly-Drive preamps. BTW, if one desires to go MIDI on the tapping, I suggest using individual piezo discs sold by many manufacturers and attaching them to the soundboard of the instrument, then connecting them to a drum MIDI interface through a muli-conductor cable and probably some onboard buffering. This may require some engineering. Just myt 2 cents….
:: Midi is very analytical and a wooden string instrument is very organic. I would like to hear your philosophy about bringing those two together.
‘ The complete string information is present in the pickup sound. MIDI is a communications protocol, a language like English. The musical limitations in MIDI are mostly from hardware and software design. It’s all about what the pitch-to-MIDI converter is responding to and what the remote instrument or processor does with the information received. System Exclusive commands and extended MIDI note generation (a first data set to define pitch and volume, and a second one to define timbre and other relevent musical parameters of the moment) optimize the communication process.Obviously, major companies respond to market demand which usually brings designers to the lowest common denominator, the net result being that features which aren’t used by most users are not likely to be incorporated into a mass-market product. This is the gist of the problem. The situation may improve when good pitch-to-MIDI converter software is available for home computers because upgrades are feature-driven while still backwards compatible.
:: Any other topics or any views you would like to share with the readers?
Music is the ultimate language; in consideration of others, please speak it well. Consider that your life will probably be about thirty years longer than you expect, so don’t be afraid to switch careers and/or lifestyles at any point. No amount of money, glory, fame or power can ever replace good health, so don’t lose it in the first place. Your life achievement is a reflection of how great a person you are. It’s also valid proof that you couldn’t do any better. Be sincere. Have fun. Enjoy the best !