Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
In a nutshell, the gTar is a $450 guitar with an iPhone for a brain. We reported earlier this week on how it has raised lots of money.
Many early supporters agree that this thing looks awesome, and it’s not even the first instance of a learning guitar, or even one that runs on MIDI for that matter. But it’s the first we’ve seen that puts it all together the right way, with the right look, and the right brain: a smartphone app on an iPhone.
Idan Beck, Incident founder and CEO, visited a recreation room in New York City with his girlfriend and his director of marketing Josh Stansfield to tell us about gTar; show us how it works; and of course let us play with it (pics or it didn’t happen — see below).
During the course of all this, I found 10 reasons gTar deserves the money and attention being showered on it.
1. First, Check It Out
Here’s the quick video we shot of Idan Beck playing around with his invention:
2. Good Origin Story
Beck grew up in Silicon Valley with old-school technologists for parents (more on them below). A longtime guitarist, he was producing electro-house music in college when he bought a thing to convert guitar to a MIDI signal, so you could use a guitar to control other sounds on a computer or sample bank.
“It cost a lot of money, actually,” recalls Beck. “I spent two weeks eating pasta only, after I bought that. But it didn’t work that well and I was really upset about that. I was in lab all the time working on my master’s thesis, and I thought I could come up with a solution that involves something like the iPhone, which had come out that year. I thought multi-touch applied to the guitar could actually be pretty interesting.”
3. Enter the Monome
During this early period, Beck worked on the concept that would eventually become gTar part-time. His day job was at Microsoft, as an intern for under a year, then as a software development engineer. Then he came across the monome when it was first released, which would have been in April, 2006 (my blurb).
“I was really excited about the monome and what it could do for music, and being able to mash things up — I was also really into Ableton,” said Beck. “A guitar kind of looks like a matrix, if you think about it — [I thought] ‘I bet you can make a monome out of a guitar with this thing I was playing around with.’ But the result of that was realizing, ‘Wait a minute, this is an interactive guitar — it could actually show people how to do things, as well as open up avenues for guitarists and music in general.”
He figured he had something worth pursuing. He quit Microsoft.
Three years later, he and his small team launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hone the final design. By then, the product was past the prototype phase and nearly into production. The crowd went wild.
This was a major Kickstarter success story earlier this week, as word spread through the company’s involvement in the TechCrunch Disrupt NY conference, more and more people pledged to fund the project. The first donation happened on Monday, May 21. reached$153K by Tuesday. $206K when we met on Thursday. $224K on Friday. $238K on Saturday, with 624 backers.
“It’s been nothing less than extraordinary,” said Beck. “We are fighting a lot of battles — Silicon Valley, in the last few years, has not been very receptive to hardware. The fact that it’s opening its doors now is just, to me, really exciting. I grew up in the valley where hardware, and people working on very hard problems, was, like, the norm. My dad was working on the first super-scale processor at National Semiconductor. My mom was working at Sun on some of the early beginnings of what we honestly use every day as the Internet. It’s super cool to kind of be able to do that again, because that’s what I dreamt about doing.”
5. It Solves an Ancient Riddle
It’s no simple matter to convert something as analog as a guitar into MIDI information, the way gTar does, and people have been trying to get it right for years. His solution involves conductive frets, for starters. It mashes that information against analysis of the vibrations of each string, each sampled individually a higher resolution than a CD.
“We have sensors through the neck,” said Beck. “It’s a multi-touch interface… we run the sensors in the neck at about 50 kHZ and our latency as far as tracking is sub-millisecond — it’s actually much lower but we say that because nobody likes to talk about microseconds. Our sensor in the bridge is based on the vibration of the actual string; we’re sampling each string at 50 kHz each, but we’re using a mixed signal design, so a lot of the stuff is done with analog hardware before it’s pushed to a dedicated processor just for that. We do some algorithmic stuff as well in the neck, to figure out hammer-ons and slides in a more intuitive way.”
6. I Played It, and It Really Works
The proof is in the pudding. The pudding tasted good.
Granted, I only spent a few minutes with the gTar, but I bought the concept. Part of the reason this works is the low latency, or the time elapsed between strumming the strings and hearing the sound come out of the iPhone’s speaker, either in a guitar tone, a piano sound, or anything else. The unit I played came from Incident’s factory in China, so it’s “real.” Units will also feature a regular 1/4-inch output for connecting to amplifiers and recording equipment.
Here I am picking my way through the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with gTar.
Granted, many musicians are suspicious of something like this — in part because so many guitar-to-MIDI boxes are subpar, in part because others have tried to do something similar, and in part because dammit if they learned the hard way, so should everyone else.
“We’re also fighting the battle on the music side, trying to battle people’s skepticism, because this really does what it does,” said Beck. “Obviously, people who have been playing guitar for years [wonder], ‘Can it really accomplish this for me?’ because it is a little bit different from playing a regular guitar. But I think it’s a great thing to do, because I wake up in the morning and I know that we’re really trying to change the world, especially with music, which has the power to bring people together.”
I’ve played it, and I think it could really teach you guitar. No, it won’t put guitar teachers out of business.
7. Even Music Teachers Would Use It.
We’ve seen plenty of products and apps promise to replace music teachers, and sometimes we even think it’s possible. But now that we’ve seen this fully-integrated combination of high-quality hardware, solid engineering and design, and a smartphone app, we’re convinced that it could make sense for guitar teachers to buy some of these units and rent them out to students as learning tools.
“If anything, this will make more people music teachers, because more people will be interested in playing music, because the barrier to entry is lower,” is how Beck sees it. “This does not reduce the amazing quality of playing music and how difficult it is; that learning curve is just less steep — that’s all this really accomplishes.”
He said he’s in talks with Little Kids Rock about putting the gTar in classrooms across the country.
8. It Runs Other Apps
The gTar guitar outputs CoreMIDI at a low latency — we’d explain how, but this article is already too long as it is. But what that means is that it can output those MIDI signals to any object that understands it, including an iPhone or a computer.
“Not ever app out there that says it’s MIDI-capable has worked, but any [app] that does work with Core MIDI should function [with gTar],” said Stansfield. “If you have any third-party synthesizer apps or music-making apps [on your iPhone], they can take MIDI input from the guitar through the phone and play that as a standalone application.”
It also supports USB MIDI on its own, so you can plug it straight into a computer to trigger sounds and record information that way. In other words, this isn’t just for noobs learning in their bedroom — it also has a place on stage.
For example, we witnessed gTar making sounds through the NLog Synthesizer:
Beck also demonstrated apps that let you play the guitar and add effects, using the iPhone’s touch screen somewhat like a Kaoss pad. Nice.
9. It’s Future-Proofed Against Android and the Next iPhone
The part of the guitar that holds the iPhone can be popped out and replaced with another fitting for another phone — by the user. This means that when the next iPhone comes out, you’d be able to get the new fitting so it will work with the gTar. It already works with Android via CoreMIDI and a USB output that can connect to supported Android phones. Incident is working on getting Android working with a native app, and the same gTar I played today could potentially fit an Android model with a new fitting.
10. Next: Its Picks It Knows
Like all man-made objects (except the titanium spork) gTar could always improve. The next step, according to Beck, will be to add a pick that will integrate with the fretboard and bridge sensors for even more control, allowing advanced playing styles that wouldn’t even work with a regular guitar, and more precise detection of notes.
“We’re calling it the smart pick,” said Beck. “It’s a multi-conductive pick… the strings are based on vibrations, which means if I play with not enough of a threshold, it’s not going to make a sound, just like with a real guitar. The smart pick solves that, so if the guitarist or non-guitarist wants to be really, really precise, or almost just touching it to the string like a stylus.”
Incident’s Kickstarter campaign ends in 30 days, around the end of June. Incident wants to ship gTar by August or September to people who contributed to the Kickstarter, after which it will be available to everyone else for $450.
Photos: Josh Stansfield