My take on the whole situation. Research findings. Rationales.
I’ve eliminated the Variax from further consideration because:
- The palm-muting problem (most likely due to piexo pickups at the bridge). Users report other problems. One You-tube demonstrates a kind of ugly “scraping sound” on the transients.
- You don’t get 6 tracks of digital audio (DA) out of it. The RJ-45 connector simply allows it to communicate with what are basically expansion modules, it has no DA. The USB is MIDI/data, not DA.
- You have to buy/store/learn/maintain another guitar.
- It’s architecture is too closed. Too much of a black box.
The VG-99 is often considered better than GR-55 or GP-10, and clearly has the best modelling interface. However, they say the GP-10 has important improvements. (As in this 2014 forum post). My criteria are:
- Softsynth (MIDI) control.
- Able to model a short list of favored pluck-string instruments.
- Able to record each string as DA in the DAW. Able to use the module as outboard processor later on.
- Ease of use.
Appropriate Articulation - Questioning Guitar Synths (including the FTP)
The FTP essentially converts the guitar into a guitar MIDI controller. It’s clearly the best guitar MIDI controller around, making it the obvious choice if that’s what you want to do. But I’m not sure I want to do that.
My principle of Appropriate Articulation asserts that the human interface of the MIDI controller should match the human interface of the instrument. A keyboard controller injects keyboard gestures into a saxophone in a way that the AE-10 wouldn’t. Even an unnatural keyboard style designed to mimic sax gestures will still be a little bit off. (It’s easier than trying to mimic a guitar, however. Forget about that. At least the saxophone has keys.)
On the other hand, there are fully synthetic sounds (such as we might find in Dark Planet or Auron) which have no natural counterpart. The principle of appropriate articulation may not apply in these cases. (It applies more strongly as the sound of the MIDI program approaches some familiar instrument.) Fully unnatural sounds are intrinsically linked to sound design, and what I consider to be the elephant in that room. Sound design is basically the historic continuation of instrument design. In the evolution of instruments, we movements both toward and away from automation. The general motivation toward automation was improved playability and pitch accuracy. (For example: the mechanization of woodwinds and brass.) The motivation away from automation was to improve expression. (For example: the viol lost 2 strings and all of its frets to become the violin.) Sound designers often seem to ignore the expression issue. It doesn’t matter how good your controller is if the MIDI program in the synth is unresponsive. It also diminishes the distinction between controller types (keyboard, guitar, wind, drum, or other). Consequently, a guitar controller doesn’t add much if one already has a keyboard controller, unless you’re great on guitar and rotten on keys.
Modelling Plucked Strings
Which brings us to modelling plucked string instruments, where the principle of appropriate articulation strongly guitar controllers over all others. MIDI generated sound is even cleaner than direct injected DA. The obvious payoff of well-simulated fretted instruments is more timbres and less learning. You get the sound of a Rickenbacker, a Martin, a mandolin, a Gretsch, a dolbro, a banjo, a 12-string, etc. without having to buy, store, mic or adapt to any of them.
The guitar processor competes with the guitar synth in this area. I have more interest and faith in COSM technology simply because it’s different and because it uses the sound of the string to capture what’s happening on the string. Since the principal objective is to recreate an alternative plucked string instrument, the reduction of string activity to MIDI strikes me as a step in the wrong direction. Despite the “step in the wrong direction”, I’m very impressed by what I’ve heard in demos of the FTP. Yet I’m left with nagging doubts based on the history of the guitar controllers, especially the need to play guitar in a “controller friendly” manner.
DAW integration - VG-99 seems behind the times
The VG-99 seems worse than the OP-10 in this department, while the FTP is just fine. If the performance of each string is recorded before it’s processed, then it can be edited. This opens many possibilities. MIDI is much easier to edit than DA, but there are fewer opportunities to edit. Sending edited sounds back to the processor might be interesting. It’s also possible to not send the recordings back for processing, but to handle it all in Cubase. For example: Craig Anderton discusses a “hex fuzz” on page 47 of his 1983 book Guitar Gadgets. It involved distorting each string individually, then mixing them, rather than the other way around (as is very common practice). As I recall from listening to his demonstration record back in the day, it sounded like a chorus pedal, but not quite. Who knows where this kind of thing might lead?
Even if you decide to pass on exploring these frontiers, at least you can change the guitar/amp model and effects before completing the mix. I see this option with the OP-10, but not with the VG-99. You’d have to do another take because you didn’t get the dry sound, or if you did, then it was 2 tracks, not 6. This is disappointing because the VG-99 is purported to be in a universe “about 3 times larger than the OP-10” .
Ease of use
I’d rate the FTP at the top, due to its wireless system and less obtrusive pickup wire. The OP-10 has a nice, simple, solid pedal board. The VG-99 requires an additional pedal board, but it’s excellent. The connections and setup seem best for the FTP, worst for the VG-99. Everybody has good software. The FTP is very generous, including a lot of software I’d want to have. The VG-99 has the best modelling interface, but demands the most commitment. The OP-10 software (and Boss tone central) seems surprisingly better than you’d think, especially on ease of use.
Amp modelling also counts. All of the offerings do well. While the Cubase guitar amp simulators are fine, it doesn’t hurt to have a lot more decent options.
Ease of use is an issue, not because I’m not up for the challenge, but because I’m spread too thinly (and always will be). Knowing that, I’m attracted to efficiency in everything I have to learn or use.
Tentative Conclusion - I favor the OP-10
As a MIDI controller it’s inferior to the triple play, but better than the VG-99. However, since I’m primarily interested in simulating plucked string instruments, the MIDI controller role is not my highest priority. DAW integration and DA capture are the primary strengths of the OP-10. Its reduced learning curve and sturdy construction are bonuses.
The OP-10 was a dark horse at the outset. It looks old-fashioned. It carries the Boss name, synonymous with good accessories, but not with serious digital modelling. I’m a bit surprised to be in this position now.