Digital Modeling, Facts and Fiction

A lot of new gear has been appearing lately touting the ability of digital modeling to recreate the sound of classic musical equipment. Whether they be electronic drums, microphone modelers, or even speaker systems, the results can be varied. We’ll explore the history and current trends in what is now the hot buzzword in music technology.

Yamaha’s Groundbreaking VL-1
So how did it start and what does it mean? Digital modeling arrived publicly at the beginning of the 90’s. Previously, analog (Moog, ARP, Roland, etc..) and FM based synthesizers (Yamaha DX7) relied upon subtractive synthesis to achieve the sounds of acoustic instruments. This meant taking a basi csound wave, and then filtering out parts of the sound to achieve a flute tone, or even drum tones. Digital memory was still quite cost prohibitive, so while sampling technology was available, it had yet to be the all in one solution for musicians. This meant racks full of synths combined to make orchestras, or even the “perfect” piano tone.

Korg’s first digital modeler:
The Wavedrum

Groundbreaking working was made in the basements of many university music departments, where electronic engineers, physicists, and musicians teamed together to analyze all components of how an instrument creates sound. Complicated algorithms were created to simulate the action of dragging a brush across a drum head, wind blown into a tube, or a string plucked by a fingertip. These algorithms were further refined when changes were made based on whether the imaginary brush was plastic or wire, the tube was wooden or metal, or the string was rubber or steel. Every component was analyzed and given it’s own part in the formula.

Yamaha released the very first digital modeling instrument with the VL-1. The VL-1 was as mind-blowing as it was expensive ($7000). Korg was also one the first companies to make this technology commercially available with the “Wave Drum”. This revolutionary instrument allowed a drummer to scratch, tap or beat a single pad, with the output of th4e pad reacting as if it were a gong, conga drum, or tambourine. This all came with a price as the single drum cost close to $2000. Savvy musicians realized the possibility of creating a virtual instrument that could simulate the sound of a 100′ rubber band being gently bowed across a pool of water, or a simple flute that reacted like a true acoustic instrument, but few could actually spend the money for one sound.

The benefit for guitar arrived in the form of Roland’s VG-8 guitar system. The system required a special pickup that processed each string individually. Rather than give guitarists carte blanch in terms of tone, Roland simplified their models to commonly used guitars, amplifiers, and speaker cabinets. This allowed a guitar to switch from sounding like a Telecaster through a Blackfaced Twin, to a roaring Les Paul through a Mesa-Boogie stack with the press of a button. In addition, because each string was processed individually, any manner of tunings could be simulated at the touch of a button. Still cost was prohibitive at $2000 and required the specialized pickup. Line 6 solved these issue with the “POD” By eliminating the tuning features and guitar modeling, the price was cut down to a quarter of what was previously available. The POD quickly became a staple in studios and stages as it allowed electric guitarists to switch amplifier tones quickly with no backbreaking amps to haul.

Roland’s VG-8 guitar system

With the advent of the POD, digitally modeling became a hot buzzword in the music industry, and of course slowly changed the definition of modeling. Modeling became less about creating a sound from scratch, but more about complex filtering. A guitar signal is converted into digital form (0’s and 1’s), and then manipulated by various filtering algorythms, and then converted back to analog form to make an electric guitar sound like a Gibson Jumbo for instance. Thus we are at the same place we were when this story began, taking a signal and processing the sound to get an approximation of another instrument. That’s not to say it hasn’t worked out for the better, however.

Acoustic guitarists have only recently reaped the benefits from this new style of filtering. Roland’s previously mentioned VG-8 system, and the next generation VG-88, allowed guitarists to turn their electric into a nylon guitar, a capoed 12 string guitar, or any acoustic instrument. Yamaha broke ground with its AG Stomp box, that let an acoustic guitar filter their pickup sound to resemble any number of acoustic guitars. Fishman’s recently introduced Aura achieves great results by filtering a pickup sound to get closer to the “mic’d” sound without using a mic. Probably the most unusual is Line 6’s new “acoustic modeling guitar”: a specially designed guitar that approximates the sound of a dobro, banjo, sitar, or even a vintage Martin.

So where does this all leave us today? A guitarist can take one instrument to a gig, and achieve a plethora of sounds that would require tens of thousands of dollars to achieve naturally. A guitarist can record a whole album by plugging directly into a computer, and then manipulating their recorded tone to get the right sound for a track. Do they sound like the real thing? For most casual listeners, yes. But for musicians who sweat hours to achieve the perfect tone, they will fall short of the real thing. So don’t sell your favorite acoustic, condenser mics, or even you mediocre banjo, in the hopes of digital modeling providing all the tools you’ll want. Use your ears, and you will know if you are hearing the sound of inspiration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.