I remember seeing Roland’s guitar-to-computer connectivity for the first time. It seemed almost magical. Guitarists could pick up their main instrument and enter lines into notation software, or replace the sound of an instrument with a synthesized one, or track into a sequencer. It didn’t distract from their musicianship, because it showcased that skill. It was remarkable partly because it was so intuitive: why shouldn’t a guitarist benefit from the same flexibility I’d enjoyed as a keyboardist?

The GR-55 is now Roland’s tenth-generation guitar synth. There’s a particular reason to pay attention to this iteration: it’s both a synth and an amp model. And it’s a product category that’s naturally iterative and evolutionary: Roland tells us they’ve greatly improved tracking, the speed at which your playing is translated into MIDI events, and that it’s also a lot easier to use than previous generations. (That’s also true, claims Roland, of their revised Loop Station, so I’ll be interested to learn more.)

It’s funny, because people do complain about trekking to yearly trade shows just to see a revised version of the last model. But if it’s something like a guitar synth, gradual maturity may be just what you need. That’s assuming, of course, Roland is delivering in practice what they’re promising in paper; since this is just a preview, here’s what’s in the specs.

As with previous synths, the GR-55 is both a synth and a MIDI controller for other instruments or input to the computer. What’s new is improved performance and usability combined with a new processing architecture that allows you to more easily add amp simulation and effects to the sound of your guitar. (After all, you really probably don’t want to exclusively treat your guitar like a keyboard even if you are in the market for this box.)

  • COSM, Roland’s analog-modeling tech, applied to guitar effects.
  • Use four sound sources at once: two PCM synths, a COSM guitar model, and guitar input.
  • 900 Roland PCM sounds, so you get access to Roland-sounding presets.
  • Multi-effects engines, global reverb, chorus, delay effects, onboard looping.
  • Use the GR-55 as a MIDI controller.
  • USB audio player with foot control, so you can queue up backing tracks.
  • MIDI and audio data connection via a USB port, too (that’s separate from the port that plays audio.
  • Optional GK-3 divided pickup for use with your instrument.

Independent USB ports provide data connections (audio + MIDI) and your USB memory stick (as seen here, for playback of audio).

The combination really can be expressive in ways a keyboard can’t. At the same time, reading through the architecture of the GR-55, I get a strong sense of deja vu – this is a Roland synth architecture, make no mistake.

I find these kinds of solutions generally do appeal to a subset of guitarists, not everyone, so I’m curious to hear who out there is interested and what else you’d want to know as this gets out into the world.

Photos courtesy Roland.

GR-55 product page [Roland]

  • http://noisepages.com/members/polite/ Polite

    Interesting that it's still using a gk-3, so the tracking issues were on the box, not the pickup, apparently.

    I have a gr-30 at home and i've never really been able to use it in any meaningful way, though i lusted for it for so many years before i finally shelled out for it. Just the laggy tracking coupled with the horrid in-box sounds that i don't really have any control over. Shame i wont really get a chance to compare it to the new version short of ordering it.

    Remarkably, also, the only person i've seen use it and have it sound good is Bill Bailey on his Part Troll stand up dvd.

  • http://www.spillingaudio.com Eric Hausmann

    I was ready to dismiss this as just another Roland guitar synth with not much more than a bunch of new sounds.  I've been using Roland's GK guitar technology since the Gr-1. My current gigging setup is a Roland VG-99 and a GR-20 together–great for layering real guitar sounds with synth sounds.  While the GR-55 doesn't appear to have the deep tweakability of the VG-99's modeling, I'm wondering if this might be the best of all worlds, all in one box.  Still no word yet if there's a software editor for it.  Must. find. pdf. manual.

  • Filip Hnizdo

    It's so sad that the Axon ax100 mkii I own and love has been discontinued so it's nice that Roland have improved the tracking on their system.  The Axon is flawless for MIDI and amazing to play but my dream now is something that can tap into OSC.

    An ideal system would run the separate audio from each string via the hexaphonic pickup system (either through the combined cable or six cables) and then run into a computer where the pitch of each string would be analysed in real time and written to an OSC message you can use on anything.  The pitch bending on my Axon system is pretty good but triggering any possible note, doing slides and such would be amazing.  MIDI just isn't flexible enough to transfer every element of guitar playing.  I suppose I can create this sort of thing with a soldering iron and Bidule but I'm pretty useless at making cables so a readymade way I could get the six inputs into a computer and analyse them quickly enough would be amazing.

  • Michael Coelho

    Does anyone know if this will work with GK-2 pickups? I have a Brian Moore guitar with an integrated GK-2 pickup. Maybe time to upgrade from my GR-33?

  • http://www.twitter.com/amratweets AMRA

    the outboard processing would be great, but I'm holding out for the has-to-be-way-way-cheaper rockband squier pro guitar… that connected to a laptop… mmmmm, and cheap. ???

  • genjutsushi

    The comparison for me has to be between this and the other major midi release of the last few months – the Rock Band squier guitar! Only if this unit has significant improvements over the Squier would i be tempted as this is bound to cost nearer the 400 to 500 UK GBP mark..

  • vanceg

    Two of us from the Future Guitar Now site got a 60 minute private demo of the GR-55 at NAMM. It is a pretty impressive box…and this from someone who never really liked "MIDI Guitar"

    Check out http://www.futureguitarnow.com

    @ Micael: Yes, it will work with the GK-2.

    @ Eric: Roland US said there would be no editor for the GR-55. There is a basic librarian, but this is all that is planned. Also, the editing for the COSM modeling on the GR-55 isn't quite as deep as the VG-99, but it's pretty close. IMHO the editing in the VG-99 should be deeper, too!

    @ Filip Have you checked out the Keith McMillen String Port? It takes a very similar approach to what you are proposing. http://www.stringport.com/

  • http://regend.com Regend

    i knew i should have bought the used Fender with the Midi GK pickups for $350 =(

  • JonYo

    I've been using a strat with a bult in GK2A along with a GI-20 converter for some time, replacing the GR-30 back when the GI-20 first came out.  I don't really have any interest in the COSM stuff from their VG series, nor do I care much about the internal sounds at all.  All I'm wondering is, would the tracking with this new GR-55 be an improvement over my GI-20 unit if I'm using the same GK2A pickup in my strat?  I like my setup ok, although the tracking quality for all MIDI guitars I've ever tried (including stuff far newer than my GI-20) drops off so precipitously in the lower registers, that I've gotten used to getting around those problems by playing low register stuff an octave or 2 higher on the guitar and transposing the MIDI notes back down on the way into the sequencer, or when necessary, after the fact in the sequencer track.

  • vanceg

    @JonYo From a direct statement I got from Roland on this subject: Yes – triggering external synths from the GR-55 should be faster than triggering them from the Gi-20 (and GR-33). They claim to have increased the speed of their pitch to MIDI conversion by almost 50%. What this means in practical terms, I cannot assert. But, they did make a big deal of the increased pitch to MIDI speed.

  • poopoo

    There is always going to be a latency problem with pitch to midi, especially with bass notes. A low E on a guitar is 82Hz which means a full wave cycle is 12ms long. I guess their tracker looks at 1/2 cycles or 1/4 cycles to get the tracking faster. Maybe that is where the 50% figure comes from. Or maybe they look at a harmonic other than the fundamental.

    I'm more interested in hexaphonics. I think it could catch on if they got rid of that awful 13pin connector. Anyone who's ever tried to solder (or even buy) those 13pin things knows what I mean. With a cheaper, easier to use socket, the DIY crowd could build some cool hexaphonic effects.

  • Jeff Brown

    I bought the VG-99 a few years ago for the sole purpose of being able to transpose individual strings in real time.  Its hardware and software is capable of that — but its interface will not allow you to do it.  It will let you switch between two alternate tunings, and will let you bend all strings in parallel, but it won't let you target bends at individual strings.

    It still makes me sad that such an obvious and powerful option was left out.  Roland was my only hope — software solutions introduce too much latency to be useful for real-time pitch-shifting individual strings.  To avoid latency, you really need a pitch-shifting algorithm designed to recognize guitar timbres in particular, and to my knowledge such algorithms only exist in proprietary hardware form.

  • http://debsinha.com deb

    wow, there are a lot of guitar players who read this blog.

  • Peter Kirn

    Yeah, and I suspect there are many, many more guitarists out there who don't necessarily go the MIDI guitar route. The notion that music tech is just for keyboardists is surely long-gone.

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone – this is a really helpful thread. After Roland recovers from NAMM, I'll make sure they give us some more info.

  • bar|none

    It's not the pickups that have the issue. The GI-20 was terrible at tracking and had too much latency. The axon ax-100 was the real deal even using the GK pickups. Completely different experience and even worked on the Bass pretty well. If Roland hasn't made the detection stuff better, this is not going to much fun. What happened to the axon tech? Roland should have bought it.

  • Peter Kirn

    What about using the Brian Moore pickups instead of the GK? I'm sure this remains possible with this new box.

    The Axon did work well, I know. I am curious what happened to it.

  • http://blah@myblah.com pxlxr

    It is a shame they will not be developing an editor for the unit. I have and love an older axon ax100 which, alas, also has no editor, and it is prohibitively time consuming to program patches via the spartan front panel.

    I expect that the GR55 is now equivalent to the axon in terms of tracking speed. It was no contest up till now.

    Still MANY false notes on the axon, though. I am excited to test Keith Mcmillan's Stringport, purported to match axon speed and with less false triggers.

    Aside from poor tracking, the biggest factor keeping users from midi guitar in the past has been the mediocrity of the presets coupled with a hindered ability to change them/start from scratch, in that the units have mostly been small, floor-placed boxes with not much room for knobs/screen to do any easy editing of patches.

    Hopefully, Roland's new offering throws us pick-wielding tonetweakers a bone

  • Kev

    @Peter Kirn 

    The Brian Moore pickups were actually made by RMC Pickup Co. 
    http://www.rmcpickup.com/
    They are excellent and would work well with this box. I have them in my non-Brian Moore guitar. 

    I have 2 Axons which are still the gold standard, IMO. 

    I also purchased Stringport but have yet to get the software working with my studio computer and KMS has been slow to assist, so that is not very promising. 

  • FIlip

    Thanks for pointing out stringport vanceg and others. My axon is great for now but Stringport looks very impressive.

    Although people report false triggering on the axon, most of that is down to not configuring it properly. It can take a while but setting it up properly to your style/guitar is pretty important and can make it incredibly fast and accurate.

    I think a big problem with the MIDI guitar situation is knowing what to trigger with the guitar. Most synth presets are made for keyboards so playing them as a guitarists often sounds wrong. Very often you need to change your playing style in order to make it sound more like the instrument you're triggering.

    I remember seeing Emma Pollock do a gig in London and hearing someone in the crowd mumbling "she's playing the piano like a guitarist". I didn't quite get the comment then but understand fully now and she was on a real piano rather than a triggered one.

  • FIlip

    Actually, I think it was her pianist not Emma herself. Sorry.

  • bb

    Hmm.. odd no mention in the comments of the infamous GR300 (Rolands first usable guitar synth). I had a GR300 in the 80s and it was a completely different animal from anything that came after it. No MIDI though- because everything went straight into its own analog synth circuitry capturing speed and nuances that I never found in successive "GRs". The old GR300s fetch high prices nowadays and I'm sure people like Fripp and Belew keep several extra lying around.

    Here's a nice video on youtube where you can see and hear one of these in action-

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N2tMSMIekc

    And for nitty gritty & gorey details-
    http://www.joness.com/gr300/

    Its too bad Roland didn't "beef up" the whole analog synth module of this setup on successive models (Jupiter!) -instead of going the whole MIDI route offloading the actual sound generation to another device and spending 20+ years trying to get the tracking down and whatnot… The guitar is inherently analog in itself- I think it is was best served by an analog synth as its partner as well.

  • http://www.myspace.com/danielottini DanielO

    Wow…this is the most discussion that I've seen on MIDI Guitar in like 10 years :-) . I always felt "we" were abandoned (save for Roland). For my 2 cents, I use the GI-20 (and have used the GI-10) to trigger softsynths with a Godin Multiac and a GK2A guitar. It works well enough…especially if you play clean and don't string bend. I don't think these things will ever be perfect because of the physics of the vibrating string…but the discussion raises a valid point: a "Guitar Synthesizer" is not a "Guitar" "Synthesizer" :-) …it's an instrument that (though like a guitar) is quite seperate and should be approached as such (latency included). I echo the comment about having to tailer your playing around synth presets…I was running through Reaktor Spark the other day and (as a MIDI guitarist) you get a feel for what will work for "blistering" leads VS. 2-3 notes fills VS Arpeggios VS Chords, etc. So, my comment, I guess, is what's wrong with that? Its not the worst thing in the world. If I don't feel the latency or tracking is up for "blistering" leads than I might just play the processed Guitar tone.

    Don't get me wrong, I look forward to each innovation in this area but when will it be "enough" for regular guitarists to get hooked…when the synth alerady knows what note you're going to play before you play it :-)

    • RAJKUMAR SENGUPTA

      hi…. i got one gi 20 and gk 3 pick ups for my home set up  ….im trying to play thru my laptop with some vsti's…..my application software is cubase 5….i m running trouble with heavy latency problems so cant play real time with any groove….it would be of great help if cud u suggest me how to fix the problem?….i also have an ediroll audio interface…

  • bb

    @DanielO

    "when will it be “enough” for regular guitarists to get hooked"

    I think it WAS enough with the GR-300 and guitarists back then DID get hooked :) With that instrument's (and I do mean *instrument*), tight "mainlining" of the guitarist's actions going straight into the analogue synth. Beautiful. Seriously, check out the video I linked to, especially at the end when the comment "tracks like a motherf*cker" comes up. Roland followed up the GR-300 with one train wreck after another for years attempting to put everything but the kitchen sink into it and stripping the "instrument" (and its connection to the musician) right out of it in my opinion.

    Chords, leads, bends- all possible on that GR300. Kicking myself for selling it back when I was young and broke.. oh vell..

  • vanceg

    @bb: The approach you describe – Using the guitar signal to directly drive a synth engine (avoiding MIDI) is one of the features of the Keith McMillen String Port. I suggest you might want to check that unit out. It ALSO does Pitch to MIDI, of course.

    @Peter Kern: Yes, Piezo based pickups such as the Graphtech and BrianMoore/RMC units which have a 13 pin output should drive the GR-55 very well. Roland even includes a setting that attempts to compensate for the differences between the GK-3 and these Piezo based systems.

    @ Jeff Brown: I feel your pain, man. I did the same thing: I REALLY want to be able to control VG-99 string transposition via MIDI. The real horror is that the first prototype of the VG-99 apparently had this feature in it! But, you CAN use the Bend feature to shift multiple strings up and down using MIDI control..you don't have to set them all to the same transposition value, but they do all change at the same time in response to MIDI.

    @ PooPoo I'm right there with you: The 13 pin connector is a true pain in the butt. That said, it's pretty darn easy to build a converter from 13pin to 7 pin. Many hex experimenters, including Ubertar (http://www.ubertar.com/hexaphonic/) use 7 pin almost exclusively, resorting to 13 pin only when necessary. I'm all for that approach.

  • bb

    @vanceg

    Re: StringPort

    Just now had a look at that. Interesting. Though their audio demos sure need to be upgraded cause I can't really tell if they are pulling it off or not.

    http://www.stringport.com/musical-examples/

    I mean "Greensleeves" & "Amazing Grace"?! Really?! Couldn't they come up with something a little more motivating/modern/inspiring/rocking/et al? It would be cool to go with that type of direct into synth approach for the sound and then fork that MIDI it can output to DMX so you can sync your own personal lightshow and DMX controlled pyro while playing. heh heh. Now that would rock indeed! :)

  • bb

    Re: StringPort-

    Oh no! In 1992- StingPort's Keith McMillen was VP of Gibson according to his website bio. That same Gibson that murdered Opcode! aagghhhh!!!! aaackk..

    I'm totally torn now…

  • Peter Kirn

    I don't know the exact history here, but I'm pretty sure Keith didn't kill Studio Vision. ;)

  • bb

    @peter

    I know, I know.. I was referring humorously to the recent DAW thread that had the Opcode/Gibson comments :)

  • J. Phoenix

    Thank you for the tip on StringPort; I'll be looking into that.

    I currently use a Parker P-38 with a GK-2 pickup along with a GI-20, and although I'll admit I have had tracking issues, in general they are manageable enough for me to use my guitar to control and create using synthesizers and drum machines. I've been using this system since 2005 with hardware and software. It is not ideal, but I am not a keyboardist and would rather use my core instrument.

    I think a large portion of the MIDI guitar problem is rooted in the physics of the guitar (mentioned earlier in comments).

    The other portion seems to be the difference in playing style, just as acoustic and electric guitar have their own inherent feels and styles.

    I know that it took me about two years before I had developed fluency and learned how best to trigger notes–as well as how to properly set up my equipment to read my (outdated) pickups.

    But I'm also not a speed demon player either…I tend to go for accuracy and tone when I play.

    And lastly, I think the largest problem has been that no one really knows what an average guitarist really wants out of a MIDI guitar.

    Roland has tried various synths, instrument & amp modeling, and effects, but hasn't really struck that magical combination that makes people want to bother with it.

    Which is why the GI-20 was such a godsend to me, freeing me from 600 presets I had no interest in performing or editing. I'd love to see an update for the DSP that handles pitch conversion, but I'm not going to hold my breath either.

    I have been investigating the GraphTech Ghost system, and I am hoping their piezo pickups reduce my latency–but I'll say it again: MIDI guitar is a completely different animal than either electric or acoustic guitars are.

  • S.Schultz

    The old Casio MIDI guitars were interesting because the entire sensor/converter were built inside the guitar. I have an old MG-510 to ressurect to see how it stands up for tracking/note transcription. Several years ago someone developed a fiber optic guitar string/sensor system that overcame the inherent analog delay of pitch conversion. The "optic switch" was as sensitive as any digital switch, but the "feel" of the guitar changed with the new string materials and the costs were beyond what the market would tolerate. That and Yamaha's various systems were all interesting approaches, albeit very expensive and unreliable. Research fiber optic guitar strings to learn more… maybe newer materials and a better "optic connector" to the strings in the future will overcome the pitch conversion issue and guitarists can play their instruments with all their bends and attack nuances to capture the notes accurately. True artistry, though, always follows how the "MIDI guitarists" overcome the technical to create their music. As the announcer proclaimed: "Time marches on!"

  • Wheat Williams

    The developer of the Axon guitar-to-MIDI interface went to work for Fishman designing the Aura acoustic imaging products.

  • Gus

    Im still use my Casio MG510 everyday…useful for compose,arranged,etc.

    i love this old sh—!!

    But the new GR55 look amazing…

  • Abba Katte

    @WheatWilliams

    Where did you get this information?

    Asking b'cause doesn't seem to be true. Aura's been in the market for many years now, and Axon was being produced untill late '08.

    Please clarify your post!

    @vanceg and @bb

    Stringport is $995 PLUS a powerful Mac, starting at $1600, totalling $2500. That's overkill for a product that promises the best tracking ever but showcases it with a chord played so slow that even the ancient Avatar would track flawlessly!

  • RAJKUMAR SENGUPTA

    hi…. i got one gi 20 and gk 3 pick ups for my home set up  ….im trying to play thru my laptop with some vsti's…..my application software is cubase 5….i m running trouble with heavy latency problems so cant play real time with any groove….it would be of great help if cud u suggest me how to fix the problem?….i also have an ediroll audio interface…

  • Kria

    Played one at local shop super cool but I didn’t care for the guitar they had hooked to it. Do you have to use the optional midi pickup? Or can I just plug a les Paul into it? Also I was thinking it would be cool to use with a differnt midi interface. So would work on a guitar with and xymidipad and midi port installed? If it
    Did then one could simply control the effects from the guitar directly and that would be super awesome and definitely worth it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marty-Cutler/1113158320 Marty Cutler

    One majorly important feature that isn’t emphasized here is that the COSM capability extends well beyond amp simulation; you get two PCM synths, but you also get modeled guitars, so the big-ticket item for the GR-55 is that it is a combination of controller, synth, and V-guitar.

    The models include several Stratocaster types, Teles, Les Paul, Rickenbacker, guitars, a couple of V-basses, a couple of Martin acoustics, Gibsons, a Guild acoustic, a wonderful electric sitar, several synth models, the ability to do alternate tunings that also transmit via MIDI, a 12-string capability for all models, including synths.

    Roland definitely stepped up to the plate with this instrument.