Compact MIDI guitar on a tight budget: too much to ask?

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If you’ve been following my musical activities on here and elsewhere, you’ll probably have picked up that I’m especially keen on what one could call “mobile music-technology”—specifically: producing, performing and recording music on mobile phones and tablets (especially Apple ones).

I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and most of the music I’ve released via my Bandcamp page since 2012 was produced and/or recorded largely (or mostly) on a combination of iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. For example, with the exception of a couple of synth overdubs, my EP “The Rockpool Files” from last year was recorded entirely on an iPhone:

(I still mixed the tracks in Logic Pro on our Mac—I think I can take things further now, but that’s a topic for another time…)

It’s been a long-term goal of mine, to find out whether I can assemble a recording setup capable of producing “decent” (i.e. fully-arranged, not necessarily lo-fi-sounding) demos, but which could be easily carried by one person (say, in a rucksack). To cut a long story short: I feel I’m getting close with my current setup, based around my Ministar Testar electric travel guitar, an iDevice and a Samson G-Track combo USB condenser mike and audio interface.

Screenshot of iFretless Bass on iPhone 4S

iFretless Bass on iPhone 4S

One item missing from that list, is any kind of MIDI controller. Now, I’m not really a keyboard-player (though I can find my way around the blacks-and-whites in sort-of John Lennon-style if I have to), and there are iOS touchscreen-based MIDI controller-apps like SoundPrism Pro which are fine for triggering chords on iOS synths. (I’m also very impressed indeed with iFretless Bass, a highly-serviceable bass instrument/controller app, and it’s worth you bearing this one in mind for later.)

But… what I’d really like—and I’m painfully aware I may be on “moon-on-a-stick” territory here—is some kind of guitar-to-MIDI solution (for playing synths and other MIDI sound sources from a guitar), which is affordable, compact and (as the Americans might phrase it) doesn’t suck like a Dyson on steroids. At the very least, I’m after accurate monophonic (one note at a time) guitar pitch-conversion, so I can play mainly bass- and lead-synth parts on demos using a normal electric guitar and iOS synth instrument apps.

Some possible alternatives:

  • I have a “vintage” Roland GI-10 guitar-MIDI interface, which I use at home with my GK pickup-equipped Steinberger. Works really well, but sadly it’s not really rucksack-able.
  • There are two very portable guitar-like MIDI controllers I like the look of: the JamStik and the You Rock Guitar. No room to go into them here, but although I’d like either, they’re both some way outside the kind of cash I could spend on them, at least for the foreseeable future.
  • Some kind of modification to my Ministar guitar, to give it MIDI-controller capability. Again, probably not an option, due to both financial and practical considerations (a Ministar has very little room for “modding”). If only my Ministar could have an internal Fishman TriplePlay installed…
  • A pitch-to-MIDI app running on the iDevice. Much cheaper (usually the price of a coffee or two), and no extra hardware needed…

…well, no prizes for guessing which option I’m looking at, if only by default.

At time of writing, there are actually quite a few pitch/guitar-to-MIDI apps on the iOS platform—these include SHREDDER, MIDImorphosis, Jam Synth, Sonuus G2M and MIDI Guitar. I have tried MIDI control with all of these (with the exception of the last, which requires a £14 in-app purchase to unlock MIDI control), and except for G2M and MIDI Guitar (the latter in “tracking test” mode), they were awful. Yes, I know the guitar-setup tricks—use the neck pickup, tone control at zero, play cleanly, etc. etc.—and tried the lot. G2M and MIDI Guitar came closest to being at all usable—and the former might “get there” after some more tweaking from me and a few bug-fixes from them—but as things stand, not one of these apps meet my need for a way to play MIDI parts accurately and cleanly from a regular electric guitar.

At time of writing, I’ve been experimenting further with G2M, and it’s getting close to the point where, for certain uses, I might be able to record with it. (If that sounds like lukewarm praise, bear in mind that the apps competing with it—for me—had such poor note-tracking that they are totally unusable for my needs. At least G2M takes a good stab at the task, and isn’t that far off.)

So, if I find a pitch-to-MIDI app can’t ultimately give me accurate-enough MIDI-guitar capability: what then? Well, as the main reason I want MIDI guitar, is probably for playing bass parts on demos when I won’t have access to a bass guitar (and I would rather not use a tiny keyboard for this), I could probably get by with iFretless Bass. Its sounds are very usable—and with the right processing/mixing, could almost pass for the “real thing”—and the app makes a nicely-tactile touchscreen controller for playing other MIDI synths I like, such as iMini or Modular, with some useful synth-bass patches.

Perhaps, in the end, I’m being a bit unrealistic—how can a ~£5 iOS app hope to match a £500 Roland hardware setup?—but for all the frustrations, it’s interesting to find out what kind of guitar-MIDI kit is possible, within the limitations I’ve mentioned here. Maybe it’s time to start saving for a JamStik after all…

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