Imagine any acoustic instrument able to act as a synth, and you begin to appreciate the potential instrumental pioneer Paul Vo may be about to unlock.

As we reported last month, music-technological innovation can absolutely involve guitars, not just synths with keyboards. So, it’s fitting that we tun now to a lover of keyboards and guitars alike, Chris Stack, for a look in video at the work of Paul Vo.

Vo may not be a household name in sound tech, but he should be, as the inventor of the impressive Moog Guitar. Here, we get look back at what came before — and what’s next.

Below, Chris gets his hands on a one-of-a-kind prototype that came before the Moog Guitar, in the form of a fretless model. You can see the fruits of the labors on Moog Guitar in the video at bottom, which demonstrates what a versatile electronic instrument this can be – as much a “synth with strings” as anything, beyond only what you might think of in guitar tone.

But having done fretless, electric, bass, and lap steel, Paul Vo’s tech now reaches a truly new frontier: the acoustic guitar and other stringed instruments. And that could be very big news. Watch, at top. It’s still early to fully grasp what this instrument may be like, but already there’s something really special going on:

The Vo-96 Acoustic Synth is the newest innovation from Paul Vo, the inventor of The Moog Guitar. It opens a new method of musical expression called Acoustic Synthesis. Will Rayan and Vincent Crow of The Electric Jazz Project try it out for the first time.

Code-named LEV-96, the concept instrument here uses harmonic content from strings as its source material. The inventor explains:

The numeral 96 refers to the number of individual harmonic control channels. Each channel is capable of controlling the behavior of one harmonic partial of a string’s timbre. 16 such channels are instantiated per string. 6 x 16=96

And if your mind isn’t blown yet, here’s more from Paul on how he’s thinking:

Add-on hardware, says Vo, will unlock the harmonic content of acoustic instruments in a way you haven't ever heard before. Photo courtesy Vo Inventions.

Add-on hardware, says Vo, will unlock the harmonic content of acoustic instruments in a way you haven’t ever heard before. Photo courtesy Vo Inventions.

With Acoustic Synthesis™ any acoustic musical instrument – any object that makes a sound – can be enhanced to bring out its hidden acoustic voice. Think also of potential new instruments – playable objects of acoustic art.
So far I’ve worked mostly with vibrating strings. The musical instrument string is arguably the most ubiquitous means of making music. It’s also the most difficult to vibrate coherently using electronic control. One idea I had back in 1979 turned out to be a great solution. I was amazed to find it was still unknown and patentable 20 years later.
Over the past 50 years or so we have accepted and become familiar with using synthesizers to create an endless variety of sounds electronically. I’m saying we are now beginning to extend this idea into the physical realm. We can make the virtual become real. We can artistically create new sounds by bringing out modes of vibration that have up to now remained hidden within the material objects we call musical instruments. Through Acoustic Synthesis™ the same sonic exploration is possible for other acoustic instruments and even creative objects of acoustic art that no one has imagined – not just yet anyway.
Analog Synthesis. Digital Synthesis. Acoustic Synthesis™: it isn’t empty hype, this really is a distinctly different and new method of voicing instruments, designing new sounds, and making music.

He covers this on his site:

Vo Inventions

Finally, a look back at the best-known Vo project, the Moog Guitar:

Chris’ site has been recently improved, so it’s well worth exploring all that he’s doing with creative instrument adventures and exploring sound design.

  • jamsire

    I hate all of this fretless stuff. I’m a fretless guitarist as well and this stuff is so EASY TO DO! Its not innovative.

    • markLouis

      There seems to be a trend in music tech, wowing people with numbers–108 oscillators or things like this “96 refers to the number of individual harmonic control channels …16 such channels are instantiated per string. 6 x 16=96” I think it’s just a marketing technique. Magazines put numbers on their covers (“Eight ideas to lose weight!”) because studies have shown that there is a demographic that finds numbers in and of themselves persuasive.

      If people buy it they buy it. Music products will soon be like selling cigarettes–just variations on a theme to appeal to impulses.

      But I guess there will still be people who see through and play through the marketing nonsense. I hope.

      On the fretless topic, the very best guitarist I’ve ever known personally once played a fretless bass in a Vegas stage show. He told me it was the most expressive instrument he ever played for soloing, but he found it very difficult to control and play in tune and virtually impossible to chord on. He stayed with fretted instruments for his music outside the show.

      I wonder how much this focus on sound seemingly as an end product itself will distract us as a culture from music as an end product, the way sounds are organized and controlled to express individual emotions and thoughts.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, wait a second here. Yes, of course, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story – here, I’m trying to make sense of a fairly sketchy description on Paul’s part. 😉 I’d say there’s some potential here, though, and not only about the number 96!

      But we regularly have this discussion – whether focusing on the technology somehow distracts from “music.”

      The thing is, building instruments is part of music. The whole point is that they’re inseparable. And the guitar is one of the clearest examples: Les Paul more than anyone tinkered around with how the instrument was built and processed. And he played it. And decades later, people are still wrapping their heads (and fingers, and music) around what he introduced. That’s decades, not *three years* as the comment (not yours, the one above) cynically laments.

      I’m not advocating fretless guitars; this was an interesting precursor of the Moog Guitar to come.

      And this isn’t marketing – it’s the engineer getting a bit proud. I just think he deserves to be.

    • markLouis

      “building instruments is part of music” — Sure, but typically with focus. Valved trumpets were invented to be better than so-called natural trumpets like bugles because they gave a musician more control over the music, the ability to play scales rather than just harmonics. Saxophones were invented to be better than clarinets by giving the musician more control over the music in simpler more clear fingerings. I apologize if I’m repeating myself in questioning whether what seems to be the typical approach to new technology now–uncontrollable and essential pointless multiplication of complexity–is a good thing. (I’m hoping someone will create something as transformative for music complexity as the way bit-mapped displays changed typesetting–Donald Knuth’s TeX was powerful, but bit-mapped displays made it easy to see and control type. Music tech is powerful now, but like TeX, I don’t see it really empowering because I don’t see it bringing sound complexity under control.)

    • GovernorSilver

      If its so easy, we should all be able to play any fretless guitar like this guy right now (especially at 1:56 and onwards):

    • Jamsire

      Some of US can:

      Your video shows a gentleman playing an oud, which is not a guitar.

    • GovernorSilver

      You’re a really good fretless guitarist, but I still disagree that playing any fretless instrument (oud, fretless guitar, violin, cello, etc.) is “too easy”. That would be like Michael Jordan saying it’s too easy to win 6 NBA championships.

    • Jamsire

      You win that point. I certainly have found the cello desireable to learn how to play, but couldn’t get around it. Yeah, that was a big disappointment.

      I really wanted to be good at the cello! Time on the couch reflecting is in order.

    • GovernorSilver

      I had a Fernandes fretless Sustainer guitar, then took up viola and cello. Trying to play both instruments was just too hard for me, and I have too many friends playing cello or bass in my area, so I gave up cello and have been playing just the viola (I continue to play fretted guitar). The bow is the hardest thing for me – getting the tones that I want – no unwanted squeaks or such. I’m occasionally tempted by the Togaman GuitarViols, especially the electro-acoustic and acoustic ones – they are tuned down to B instead of E. In any case, I’d love to have a VO-96 to fool around with on my (fretted) acoustic guitar.

  • Samuele Cornell

    Its more than three years than the Moog guitar is out and still i haven’t heard of anyone able to musically exploit its awesome capabilities succesfully .
    Maybe the high price or the look of the guitar make it not very appealing ;
    also it is poor advertised :
    If you look on youtube for it, most of the videos are lame , too focused on showing the tech rather than show its musical possibilities in an organic way .
    Seems that the guys at moog fail to understand what the average guitarist wants to see, they treat it like it is a synth.
    Anyway the Acoustic synth is awesome !!

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, Chris is treating it like a synth because he’s a synth player and runs a site called Experimental Synth. 😉 And he no longer works for Moog. This is a preview of an idea, not a review.

    • Samuele Cornell

      I wasn’t addressing directly to this video , or to chris’ work ( i knew about experimental synth and its awesome ) but to what that fretless prototype became : the Moog guitar.
      At least that were my intentions, but as i’m not very good in english my posts can be misleading sometimes :)

  • Dave O Mahony

    Pease don’t take this as me being flippant or ignoring the tech behind this as I AM very interested in how this does what it does – it SOUNDS to me like what folks have been doing with pedals and ebows. Realistically, I know the tech is in its early stages and it is very exciting but in my headlong rush for unheard sounds, I can’t hear the innovation here yet…. If that makes sense!

  • pxd

    This sounds like good ol’ real time analysis-resynthesis… If that’s what it is, and the description minus the hype suggests it is, then this is old news and a bunch of people have been doing it for years in the art music world, eg a lot of Miller Puckette’s stuff. What seems unique about this is that it might be dedicated hardware and it is limited to things which sound “good”… Here is an example of analysis-resynthesis by Miller Puckette for his guitar, only from 3:50-4:00 mins –

    • angstrom

      I don’t think this is resynthesis of that sort. This is more akin to
      the Fernandes Sustainiac , where at its most basic a ‘pickup’ output is
      sent through a small amp and then back to drive the strings via a
      magnetic field. In the traditional sustainer there are two modes, a
      ‘natural’ (which sustains the basic note) and a ‘harmonic’ mode (which
      sustains the higher harmonics by phase reversing the returned signal).
      In the case of this Vo system it appears that not only does he use a hexaphonic pickup & drive system, he has put some FFT in that signal path to take the drive beyond simple root / 5th.

    • vanceg

      Nope, this is not at all analysis resynthesis – This is magnetic fields manipulating the vibrating strings…. As Angstrom says: More like a Sustainiac (Nit-picky note: The Sustainiac and the Fernandes Sustainer are actually two different products by different companies. Those interested in sustainer devices might also check out the Vibesware product).

  • Krzysztof Cybulski

    I cannot understand all this negative feedback. Even though real time harmonic analysis/resynthesis isn’t such a new thing, applying it to acoustic instrument seems amazing – it really opens up new possibilities! It’s unexpected from my point of view, that you can make a guitar transmit some harmonics that it normally wouldn’t transmit…

  • Andrew Bahls

    Thats awesome, I’ve actually been considering modding a guitar to create a feedback loop with a magnetic field. It’s nice to know it’ll work, to bad it’s already been done. 😉

  • vanceg

    I am VERY into the LEV-96 concept. I sincerely hope this can/will be developed further. The last I heard from Moog (at NAMM) the unofficial statement was that there is no current plan to make the LEV-96 available as a product….but I really hope this changes. I’d love to see electrics equipped with this technology. I very much share Paul’s enthusiasm and interest in manipulating/enhancing the harmonic content of vibrating strings as a starting point for ‘synthesis’ – I find the subtle interactions that I can have with a vibrating string to really make me feel connected to the sound I’m generating/manipulating….For me it’s entirely unlike my experience working with standard commercial MIDI controlled synths…and even more enjoyable than the process of working with patch-cored based analog synths. I’m glad to see there are others out there with this vision of manipulating harmonics on strings as the basis for a wider sound palette than the electric guitar often provides.

  • RoyMacdonald

    This is awesome! I want that on my guitar.

    Arguing about fretless is senseless since is something just circumstantial to this.

    Why does the ranting on music tech always arise when anything new appears?

    Art and technology have a very tight, and vital, interaction, very much like a symbiotic organism. Just go through art history and you’ll notice that almost always after some new technology appear-directly or indirectly related to art- an artistic refreshment occurs, a new style appears and/or the artistic “language” expands to reach new expressive realms. In some much less usual cases the opposite happens; an artistic need for expression forces technology towards innovation and development of new things to sort out this need. This is a very interesting topic, but not to be discussed here. The whole point of this is that developments such as this Acoustic Synthesis is completely needed to drive arts towards new grounds. It´s withing the artists responsibilities to find the expressiveness thus usefulness of innovations such as the one in question, and just time will determine which ones were worth and which one weren’t. Said so, this blog is about showing whats going on the frontier between art and technology thus just time will be able to tell what was truly innovative. We can’t do such thing right now.

    As someone commented, using as example the valved trumpet and the saxophone, probably at the time of such inventions there were a lot of different approaches to deal with each issue but the one that we finally know is the one that showed up to be the best solution, but for that solution to become the best and the one that remained though time artists had to determine such by using all the other approaches. Besides this, those two mentioned examples were solutions to very specific problems, that also happened to be the solutions that gave extra expressiveness to the instrument, but such expressiveness and usefulness can’t be determined at the time of invention, it’s determined after its use and exploration by artists. It’s very much like Darwin’s species evolution.






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