By Rev. Bill
I have what might be termed as a love/hate relationship with the entire idea of MIDI guitar. After years of gigging with one and spending thousands of dollars on gear, I finally gave it up—I thought for good—about five years ago.
But I knew the second I saw the Fishman TriplePlay at NAMM in 2012 that I would get dragged back in. In fact if the TriplePlay had been around a few years earlier, I would have gladly kept doing gigs as a guitar player, singer and what my friend Larry Hall calls a “key-tar” player. The TriplePlay is so cool that I would have had no reason to ever pack it away.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room.
The words “Fishman” and “MIDI” are going to strike some as being from wholly different lexicons. Fishman makes great acoustic guitar stuff. Pickups and amps and even a very nice little coffee-house sized PA. But MIDI? Well, while we were not looking, Fishman has morphed into a technology company. The TriplePlay may seem out of left field, but only until you think about the amount of tech and the software that is embedded into their proven Aura series of pedals that brings the whole modeling thing to acoustic instruments that is endorsed and used live by names ranging from Jerry Douglas to James Taylor.
Add that to the fact that Fishman is one of the top handful of makers of add-on guitar pickups in the world and the MIDI thing does not feel like a stretch. Or at the very least less of a stretch than the fact that most of the pure tech companies making other MIDI systems have little to no serious experience making stuff that goes on actual guitars. Got it?
Let’s look at that love/hate thing in a little more depth. Maybe it is because of how I got involved in it. Unlike most, I did not come at MIDI guitar because I had artistic aspirations or wanted to explore cool, new sounds. I did it out of desperation.
In the mid ‘80s, I started the band I still play in today. We played some very strange takes on classic rock tunes and a whole bunch of Memphis Soul music. There are huge differences between Memphis and Motown.
And one of those is the prevalence and anchor status of the mighty Hammond B3 organ. The ‘80s were a big time for keyboard players. Synth-pop was everywhere and keyboard players were in huge demand. And we were without one. It was a time of skinny ties, high-top Converse, synths and sequences. And arpeggiators. It was not a time of big, beefy drawbars and wildly spinning Leslies. Which we needed.
I knew what we needed but I am completely incapable of playing keys live. (When I record and need a keyboard part, I have been known to do the part in two passes.
The first pass is the left-hand part played with both hands and the second the right-hand part played with both hands.) So I stumbled somehow into my first MIDI controller. A Casio without actual strings. From there I moved through three or four different instruments and finally settled on a Roland system that was connected to a Squire Strat.
In terms of control and sound modules, I ran the gamut. I was an early adopter of the Ground Control pedal that would send up to eight MIDI commands over eight channels with a single footswitch. I had a bizarre Roland amp that switched speakers on and off to simulate the motion of a Leslie. I had a forgotten and under-appreciated module from Peavey that just did organ sounds. At the height of my craziness, I traded one of the bestest guitars I have ever owned—a great Strat with a purple sunburst paint job done by Wayne Charvel his own bad self—for an E-Mu Proteus module. (I still regret it, Ed Ocean… But at least I know she went to a good home.)
Bottom line is I spent more time and money and effort in getting the MIDI thing together than I have in any other single exercise in gear.
The last “key-tar” gig I played was with the Larry Hall Project at the Blue Water Casino in Parker, AZ. I carried that Roland system with a floor-based sound/control module that connected to a guitar with a special cable with 13-pin connectors. I carried an extra cable because if that one cable failed the whole system was toast. The guitar was a fairly collectible Reverend Avenger whose value has been badly compromised due to a pair of screw-holes drilled in it for the hexaphonic pickup that drove the system. A 20-foot MIDI cable hooked the floor controller to a full-size KORG CX-3 organ emulator sitting in its case backstage. The gear took up half of the cargo space of my old PT Cruiser and it took about 30 mins to set it all up and make sure everything was working.
Today, using the TriplePlay, I could do that gig with a guitar of my choice with no holes drilled in it, a pickup and controller that snap on with magnets, a USB fob the size of a typical flash drive, my laptop and no cables cuz the system is wireless. I can literally fit everything except the guitar and laptop into a pants pocket. And the capabilities and quality of the sounds beats the crap out of that much bigger rig.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
Not a lot. At least not in terms of “stuff.” You get a hexaphonic pickup that is hard-wired into a controller. You get a wireless USB receiver. You get a USB cable for charging the controller. You get what I can only describe as “caddies” that hold the pickup and the controller.
The caddies are one of the coolest parts of the system. The one for the pickup mounts with an adhesive that is supposed to not mar finishes. We have not tried it on anything really delicate but the poly-based finishes that are typical of guitars made in the past 20 years or so have not suffered any ill effects. The caddie for the controller mounts by just loosening the strap pin, sliding it in and tightening the screw again.
You get multiple caddies of different heights for the pickup to work with guitars of differing action heights and two caddies for the controller—one made for flat-top guitars and one made for arch-tops.
Installation took less than 15 mins. Really.
The controller is simple. A volume control, a switch for going between synth, regular guitar and a mix of the two, an on-off switch and a button for pairing the controller to the wireless receiver. There is also a sort of flat joystick type arrangement of four switches that are used for navigating menus in the software or for changing patches. That is the hardware. Easy-peasy.
But there is one more thing in the box. It may not look important, but it is crucial. It’s a plastic card the size and shape of a typical credit card and it unlocks the depth and real value of the whole system. You wanna make sure not to lose it.
A RIDICULOUS VALUE
Like every other thing in music and audio these days, the big change is brought on by sheer computational horsepower. And because the TriplePlay leverages the power of your computer, it is almost stupidly inexpensive.
The TriplePlay lists for a bit over $600. But you can buy it all day from multiple major online retailers for $39
9. And with that you get the TriplePlay controller software. But you also get libraries of sounds from Native Instruments and IK Multimedia. You get amp and pedal modeling from both Native and IK Multimedia. You get a full-featured DAW recording package from PreSonus (Studio One). You get music transcription software called Progression from Notion. The retail value of the software alone is way more than what you will pay for the TriplePlay. Way more. And that card is the secret to unlocking all of it. Like we said, you do NOT want to lose it.
All that software is both the big value and the big pain in the butt. As has become typical with most bundled software in the music and audio worlds, there is no CD or USB thumb drive that contain the software. There is a download code and a URL.
This makes sense on many levels.
Software changes quickly and doing a download at the time of setup is the only way to ensure that the user is getting the right versions of everything. The pain in the TriplePlay is all about time and activation codes. Those software packages, especially the sound libraries, are huge. And if your Internet connection is less than stellar you might want to put aside the better part of an afternoon just for downloading.
The process works like this: You go to the TriplePlay site and register. This process requires both the serial number for the unit (found on the box and the bottom of the controller) AND the registration code on that card we talked about earlier.
When I did my install, I had misplaced the card. That meant I had to call Fishman and give them the serial number so they could look it up and get me the right registration code. Yes, the two are tied together. And, of course, I found the card right after I got the code from Fishman and did the whole install.
There is way too much depth to get into here. Instead, we are including links to several videos demo’ing various parts of the system.
But firing it up and getting it to work was a piece of cake. And the standard sounds are very, very good. If you are more ambitious than I and want to really dig into the TriplePlay, you can do stuff like mapping the fretboard so that playing different strings on different parts of the neck brings up different sounds. There is a looping function and you can set it up for sensitivity based on playing with a pick or with your fingers.
A couple of really cool features include the fact that you can use the TriplePlay software as a standalone interface or as a plugin within Studio One (This is also true for popular DAWs such as: Logic, Ableton Live, Cubase, etc…)
Don’t have a laptop or don’t want to lug it to a gig? TriplePlay does not only trigger soft synths but can be used to trigger sounds from legacy MIDI Hardware devices. You can boot in this Hardware Mode and plug the receiver directly into a MIDI sound module or keyboard.
Back to the computer thing. Apple makes a little dealie called the Camera Connection Kit that was designed to, just like it sounds, connect an iPad to a camera for downloading or viewing photos. It is basically a USB-to-Dock connector. With one of those, the USB receiver for TriplePlay can hook to an iPad and use GarageBand or SampleTank or Alchemy as a sound source
Are there things I would like to see? Of course. But they are kinda minor. The big one is the whole USB dongle-style receiver. As cool and as compact as it is, modern laptops don’t have the number of USB ports they used to. The MacBook Pro I am using has just two. Well, do the math. The dongle takes one and say I want to add a sustain pedal. That has to be a USB device. Which means my ports are full. If I want to record a gig and do it to an external hard drive, I’m screwed unless I go with a Thunderbolt drive and those are still really pricey. I would rather see the receiver be something like a stomp box with an integrated high-power USB bus.
But that is really the only thing I can bitch about. It works. it is easy to setup. The tracking—even given the whole wireless thing—is better than any other MIDI control system I have ever used.
I have started taking my laptop to rehearsals and gigs again and am slowly working some non-guitar sounds into the mix. And unlike my previous experience where I always felt like I was fighting the system, the TriplePlay is really a joy to play. It is worth carrying just for the included Notation software. My transcription skills suck and being able to play a line and have the software spit out actual written notes that my horn players can read is like have the heavens open and a choir of angels sing every time I use it.
If you can’t tell… Yeah, I love the TriplePlay. It is hands down the best guitar-to-MIDI system I have ever used. And I have used a bunch of ‘em.
– Rev Bill
Originally posted 2014-01-08 07:58:56.