Crosstalk - Bill Aitken and Allan Holdsworth talk about SynthAxe (Guitarist 1985)

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Summary: In this interview, Bill Aitken and Allan Holdsworth discuss the SynthAxe, a unique musical instrument, and their experiences with it. Allan had a positive reaction to the SynthAxe and was impressed by its capabilities. The interview highlights the SynthAxe's ability to change sound textures, registers, and tuning systems rapidly. They mention some limitations but also express excitement about the potential for new musical expressions through this instrument. The SynthAxe's non-standard fingerboard format and its improvements over pitch-to-voltage systems are discussed. The interview concludes with the idea of customizable scale lengths and the need for synth interfaces with other instruments like the Synclavier. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]

Crosstalk: Bill Aitken and Allan Holdsworth talk about SynthAxe.

Guitarist, May 1985

Neville Marten

Bill: A week before the NAMM show I was in LA and Oberheim were kind enough to give me some office space in the demo room, to let some of the prime guys in the LA area have a look at the Synthaxe. Allan was one of the guys who 'phoned me up. He came down, had a look and his reaction was pretty positive - after a couple of hours' rehearsal, he blew an amazing number. It was great!

What was the response from the people?

Allan: It's hard to tell really. I think they were all asking what on earth it was.

Bill: Yeah, that's right. There were shouts from the audience saying "What is it Allan? Tell us what it is." And Allan just turned it on and showed them. The response we had on the stand the next day was great. We had a lot of people coming back asking us how the hell did he do this and what tuning was he using on that bit because, half way through he started pressing buttons and changing sound textures, registers and complete tuning systems - the whole issue.

Allan: Yeah it's a marvellous machine. I'd been experimenting with the guitar tuned in fifths, but with the geometrics of it you can only go dawn so far. Even starting at 'E' and going down to 'C', like a cello, the guitar's a little bit small really but, with this, it looks like string length is a thing of the past. Not only that but you can even get another 'F' below that, which you could never do on a guitar, it's incredible!

So you were simply preprogramming your usual open tunings.

Allan: Well I normally don't use any tunings other than regular guitar tuning. I've never really done anything with other tunings, no.

Bill: What! So that was a new thing you were doing; I thought, when I saw you doing this, that you'd been doing it for years! Amazing!

Allan: Well I was thinking, before I met you and became aware of the SynthAxe, of starting to experiment with tuning the guitar in fifths like a violin, which is amazing because, although you've only got four strings, the range is almost as great as the guitar. Then, when I became more familiar with it, I just stuck on the string below that, the low 'C'. So it really only happened a few weeks before I got hold of the SynthAxe, and it's a mind boggling thing to be able to do it that way, just by pressing a button.

First of all I made myself a double-neck, with one in regular tuning and the other tuned in fifths, just for practicing. I got hold of a lump of wood, cut it up and stuck a couple of necks on it.

Bill: That's great. On the stand the next day, people were coming up and asking what Allan was using and we still had the stuff in the console, so I was able to dial through and say "Well, this is the sound he was using on the first one and this is what he was using on that one" and the people were looking at the tuning systems and just going "wow". But I hadn't realised that you'd never used it seriously before.

Allan: That's why I was so knocked out with it, because I didn't need two necks any more. Actually, that was a piece which I've only just done, which I'm hoping to get on this next record and the whole of the first section is done with the thing tuned in fifths. It just opens out the range because one of the limitations of fifths, obviously, is that you can't play real close voicings so you just have to go the other way, you know, wider. Fifths is a very logical tuning, but it's quite difficult on guitar because it's so big, but on a violin it's very' logical, because of the size of the hand and the size of the instrument. Bill: So, maybe that's a point to the future; if people get into other tunings, maybe there'll be a case for building a SynthAxe with a shorter scale length. I mean, we've been as revolutionary as we can be with this thing, but we had to start from a certain point and we chose a scale length, but what you're saying might mean that people will want different scale lengths in the future.</ P>

How did you get on with the fretting, as it's almost ungraduated?

Allan: Well, that was the only thing I had any real problem with. I just couldn't play some of the chords that I normally play on the guitar, because the frets were just too wide apart at the top of the neck. It's not really a problem, though, because it will eventually be solved.

Bill: You must let me know, when you've had a bit of time to get into it and see if you can define what would be the ideal scale length for it.

Allan: Yeah, I will do that.

I've never really understood the reasoning behind using a non-standard Fingerboard format.

Bill: Well, the logic behind it was that because the positions of the frets were not musically relevant any more, we were able to look at the conventional guitar fingerboard and see if there were any areas, as far as playability was concerned, which could be improved.

This led us to the conclusion that widening the upper fret spaces would allow the player greater freedom at the top of the neck, especially for playing barre chords for instance. We were also able to narrow down, slightly, the spacings at the nut end. The nice thing is that eventually you will be able to define any neck you want - you could even have ordinary' spaces at the nut end and wide ones at the tap if that was what you were after.

What about a modular system, where you could clip in, for instance, the top octave in a totally different scale length?

Bill: Yeah , that would be something. You'd have to decide the size of your hands, the kind of stuff you wanted to play and then say to the SynthAxe manufacturer (smiles) "Look, I want it like that".

Of course the tooling cost would be horrendous, because all of that is numerically controlled - machining the fingerboard, the photographic system on the printed circuits and you're going to have to pay a premium for something like that, but it's not out of the question.

Allan: The thing that knocked me out most of all about it was that, when I first tried the Roland stuff I realised that the pitch to voltage system is absolutely and totally inadequate. That's not to say that people haven't been able to go out there and play music, don't get me wrong, because there are lots of guys doing really amazing things with them. But for me it just seemed to be a crazy thing to do; to open up this door to doing so much more, and yet to close another one immediately- like being able to play all the things that you want to be able to play rhythmically and accurately.

Anything that's pitch to voltage has to sample part of the waveform, so if it's a long note it's twice the size of a light one. If you play a trill on a high string it comes out sounding twice as fast as on a low string. Then if you take a chord and play all the notes at the same time, they don't come out at the same time and, to me, that is totally unacceptable.

What I noticed immediately about the SynthAxe is that, whatever the problems are with it, it was obvious that this was the way to go - and I can't wait to get my hands on it.

I haven't played a SynthAxe For some time now but I remember that the trigger strings, the right hand strings, had a very light tension.

Bill: That gave Allan a problem. It's been modified since then, and Allan hasn't seen the improvements yet, but I think it's fair to say that that was the biggest problem you had wasn't it?

Allan: It was the biggest problem, going to it immediately after a regular guitar, but I found that if I played it for a couple of hours, it became much easier. In fact the strangest thing was going back too regular guitar afterwards, that was really peculiar, because the strings felt so much tighter. But it's just a different action and you soon get used to it.

Bill: Allan's made a good point there. People who pick up the SynthAxe and expect to play their Strat and Gibson licks on it are in for a big disappointment. What Allan's into is doing something new and his perception is amazing, in fact he's the most perceptive guy, musically, that I've come across in terms of looking at what an instrument does. So OK, the SynthAxe won't do everything you can do on a guitar, but it will do a whole pile of things that you'll never do on a guitar - or a keyboard, I might add - in a month of Sundays, and Allan knows that and can get into it.

What you've got to do, if you're interested in synthesis, is sit down with the SynthAxe and give it at least an hour. What you find is this: unlike a lot of so-called guitar synthesisers, where the more you get into them, the more you realise their limitations, with the SynthAxe you instantly recognise some of the limitations, but the more you adapt, the more you realise that there's a whole world there waiting for you to get into.

I imagine that people make the mistake of treating it too much like a guitar, instead of saying "This is a SynthAxe, let's get on with it"!

Bill: Absolutely. That is the point, it's not a guitar.

Allan: It's a way of being able to find new ways of expression in music through the use of a brilliantly designed piece of equipment. Also, I'm totally in awe of the fact that someone has actually done that. I still find it hard to believe that someone has gone to all the trouble of putting it together. It's awesome!

Bill: I find it quite unbelievable hearing this! When I saw Allan play it for the first time on stage I can tell you it was a really strange feeling. I mean, it was 1977 when I first started thinking that I wanted to do something like this, and eight years is a very long gestation period. To see somebody actually doing it- wow! It's an emotion that I've never felt before, and the only thing I can say is that it's similar to is watching my wife have a baby - that's really true - I've got three children, one's called Paul, one's called Lindsay and the other's called SynthAxe! Allan was the midwife!

How near are you to production?

Bill: We're in production now, in a very small way. The ones that we can quote sensible delivery times on are orders by Gary Moore, Steve Levine, Allan, Lee Ritenour, John Farrar. The other guys are just having to wait until we can fulfill their order. In six months time we'll be in serious production.

It has improved immensely since the prototypes and Allan, for instance, is willing to buy it in it's current state of development, but we've told him there's a long way to go yet. The people who get the first SynthAxe in the next few months are automatically going to get any updates or mods we do - mechanical or software. The other nice thing is, because the product is so software based and because we're only at the threshold of what the technology can do, we've got nothing but improvements to offer and that's great.

What's the main difference between your system and any other?

Bill: Basically the only other systems that have been successful commercially have

been based on the pitch to voltage system. There was an old Hagstrom system which was a fret triggering design, similar to our left hand triggering mode; we're not saying that our system is all original - some of it is, while some ideas have come from other places. The Hagstrom one is an example, only that was monophonic and it was very difficult to control. If you're comparing our system to any others, you're talking about pitch to voltage. with that system you start off by hitting a string and trying to figure out what the string is doing in acoustic terms; is it vibrating, if so what frequency is it vibrating at, what level is it vibrating at, when it stops vibrating at a certain level I will switch that note off. All those things are very unpredictable. I'm not knocking companies who have designed products using that system, because technically they're very well designed.

When you start trying to analyse the frequency of a moving guitar string that's a technological hassle! The trouble is, like Allan says, that depending on the frequency you get a different sampling time, a difference in performance according to frequency and problems with

harmonics, so you get spurious pitches sometimes. Then you've got the difficulty of dynamic control, because when the levels of vibration fall below certain thresholds, the notes cease to happen, whether you want them to cease or not. We decided to develop a system which was more predictable, something that a guitar player can get into and make work, with perhaps some slight adaptation to his technique; it may not be 100% like a guitar in presentation and technique, but it is better than something which is presented like a guitar, but only works 50%. We analysed every single parameter like pitch, dynamics, sustain and all of them are independently under software control. If you bend a guitar string halfway across the fingerboard it will raise the pitch by a tone or maybe three semitones. On the SynthAxe you can make it anything you like - it could be an octave if you like

The same applies to the wang Bar - it can be the range you want it to be; when you wang it down an octave, all the strings go down exactly on octave, not just approximately, as on a normal guitar. On the SynthAxe, they all go down absolutely in parallel, so you get a tuned chord wherever you are on the wang bar! You don't have to apply these things to pitch either; you could apply them to filter, attack times, vibrato speeds and depths, whatever you want! All the nice facilities that are available on the synthesiser you are using are available to you on the SynthAxe. If you took a pitch to voltage conversion of the guitar signal, you can only get a limited number of parameters out of that, so you can't take advantage of a lot of the parameters that are available. It would give you a very limited view of synthesis.

Allan: That's what was most apparent to me; the pitch to voltage way of controlling synths, although people have adapted to it very well, is definitely not the way to go. It's gone as for as it can. The SynthAxe is a totally new instrument that I can use to control all the other things I want to do - like sampling for instance.

What about the Synclavier?

Bill: A number of Synclavier users have spoken to us and we're very willing to do on interface, but that's really down to New England Digital to be willing to do their half. We'd love to make a Synclavier interface and people like John Farrar and Al DiMeola have already enquired about it. It doesn't matter how good our interfaces are, if the synth interface isn't there, there's nothing we can do.

There's one important point here. If you analyse the MIDI buss coming off the SynthAxe it is packed solid - we use every available bit in MIDI. and whether keyboard players like it or not, guitarist's language, in terms of the string bending, damping and so on, is far more complex than the keyboard player's. Then again, that's why synths happen to look like piano style keyboards; it's a very easy way of presenting the man/machine interface. They don't have to look like a piano. It's really up to the synth manufacturers to come to us and make sure they can interpret the MIDI information properly.