by Craig Anderton
When Gibson introduced their Robot self-tuning technology, I took a lot of flak on forums for defending the idea. A typical comment was “I already know how to tune a guitar, that’s a really stupid idea” to which my response was “yes, but can you tune all six strings perfectly in under 15 seconds?”
In my world, time is money. Sure, I can tune a guitar. But when I was recording sample and loop libraries with guitar, I’d spend 30-40% of my time tuning, not playing, because libraries have to be perfectly in tune. To pick up a guitar, pull up a knob, strum, and get back to work was a revelation. And as a side benefit, being able to do alternate tunings live in the blink of an eye, and get back to perfect tuning without making the audience wait, were powerful recommendations for automatic tuning.
Which brings us to the AT-200. It’s based on an entirely different approach and technology compared to Robot tuning, but accomplishes many of the same goals—and has its own unique attributes that are made possible only by clever application of DSP. Robot tuning works by using electronics to monitor the string pitch, and servo motors to tune the strings physically by turning the machine heads. The AT-200 is based on Antares’ Auto-Tune—yes, the same vilified/praised technology used on vocalists to do everything from turn their voices into machine-like gimmicky to touching a vocal line so transparently and subtly you don’t even know it’s being used. Sure, Auto-Tune is used to make lousy singers sound bearable. But it’s also a savior for great singers who nail the vocal performance of a lifetime except for that one flat note at the end of a phrase.
With the AT-200, Auto-Tune uses DSP-based pitch transposition to correct each string’s audio output so it sounds in tune (Fig. 1). As a result, the physical string itself can be out of tune, but it doesn’t matter; what you hear coming out of the amp is in tune. This leads to a disconnect for some people, because the physically vibrating string may not match what comes out of your amp (this also happens with the Line 6 Variax when you do alternate tunings; Robot technology doesn’t do this, because it’s adjusting the actual string pitch).
Fig. 1: The board that serves as the AT-200’s pet brain (click to enlarge).
This is a little bizarre at first, but it simply means turning up the amp to where it’s louder than the strings (not too hard, given that the AT-200 is a solid-body guitar). In the studio, if you’re using headphones while laying down a part, you won’t hear the strings anyway. As a result there can be times when your brain is saying “it’s not in tune” while your ears are telling you “it’s in tune.” Believe your ears! If you tune close enough to begin with, Auto-Tune doesn’t have to work too hard and the most you’ll hear is a chorusing effect if the strings are slightly off-pitch.
There’s a sonic difference between the Auto-Tuned sound and that of the straight pickups; the level is lower, and the sound lacks some of the treble “snap” of the magnetic pickups (I really like the pickups, by the way). However, what you don’t hear are the artifacts typically associated with pitch-shifting. When recording, I simply increased the input level on the interface and added some high-frequency shelving to compensate. More importantly, the “native” Auto-Tuned needs to be fairly neutral to allow for the upcoming guitar emulations; if there’s too much “character” that’s weighted toward a specific guitar, then you have to “undo” that before you can start emulating other guitar sounds.
This might seem like a good time to stop reading if you have other things to do—okay, there are signal processors that tune each string, great, I get it. But keep reading.
One of the side benefits is there’s perfect intonation (what Antares calls “Solid-Tune™”) as you play. You know those chords with really difficult fingerings where you end up pushing a string slightly sharp? No more, as long as you strum the chord after fretting (if the pitch changes after strumming, if the note remains within a small pitch window, the AT-200 will correct it; otherwise it will think you’re bending, and not correct it). It’s freakish to play a guitar where no matter how difficult the fingerings or where you are on the neck, the intonation is perfect. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, but there’s a “domino effect” with distortion: You hear the same kind of “focused” distortion normally associated with simply playing tonics and fifths. Note that it’s not doing Just Intonation; everything still relates to the western 12-tone scale (but I’d love to see an add-on for different intonations).
If you think this would cause problems with bends or vibrato, Antares has figured that out. If a pitch is static, Auto-Tune will correct it. But as soon as the pitch starts to move outside of a small pitch window because you’re bending a note or adding vibrato, the correction “unlocks” automatically for that string. You simply don’t run into situations where Auto-Tune tries to correct something you don’t want corrected.
The system also allows for alternate tunings, as long as the tuning involves shifting down (future add-ones are slated to address alternate tunings where pitches are shifted up from standard). Auto-Tune works based on the pitch at the nut, but you can fool it into thinking the nut is somewhere else. For example, suppose you want a dropped D tuning. Fret the second fret on the sixth string (F#), strum the strings, and initiate tuning. Auto-Tune will “think” the F# is the open E, and tune F# to E. So now when you play the E open string, you’ll hear a D as the string is transposed down two steps.
It gets better. Want that heavy metal drop tuning? Barre on, for example, the fourth fret while tuning, and now whatever you play will be transposed down four semitones. Being a wise guy, I tried this on the 12th fret and—yes, I was now playing bass. What’s more, it actually sounds like a bass. Say what? Or try this: fret the 12th fret on only the 5th and 6th strings. Now when you play chords, you’ll have one helluva bottom end. The manual gives suggested fingering to create various alternate tunings—open G, baritone, DADGAD, open tunings, and the like.
The only caution with alternate tunings is that you need to press lightly on the string when engaging the Auto-Tune process. If you press too hard and the string goes slightly sharp, Auto-Tune will obligingly tune those fretted strings slightly flat to compensate.
Of course, all the technology in the world doesn’t matter if the guitar is sketchy. It seems Peavey wanted to avoid the criticisms the original Variax endured (“great electronics, but what’s with the funky guitar?”). Obviously Line 6 did course corrections fairly quickly with subsequent models, and the recent James Tyler Variax is a honey of a guitar by any standards. But Peavey needed to walk the fine line between a guitar you’d want to play, and a price you’d want to pay.
They choose the basic Predator ST “chassis,” which is pretty much Peavey’s poster child for cost-effectiveness. Read the reviews from owners online; I’ve seen several where someone brought a Predator as a replacement or second guitar, but ended up using it as their main axe. The general consensus—which includes me—is that the Predator is a highly playable, fine-sounding guitar whose quality belies its price, with solid action and out-of-the-box setup. Not surprisingly, so is the AT-200.
Spec-wise, it has a bolt-on, North American rock maple neck with a 25.5" scale, 24 frets, 15.75" radius, and rosewood fingerboard (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: The AT-200 features a bolt-on neck (click to enlarge).
The body is solid bassword, with a quilted maple cap; available finishes are black and candy apple red. The pickups are humbuckers with alnico 5 magnets (Fig. 3), and one of the highly welcome AT-200 features it that you can use it like a regular guitar—if the batteries die during the gig, just pull up on the tone knob and the pickups go straight to the audio output.
Fig. 3: Pickups and the complement of controls (click to enlarge).
Other features are a three-way pickup selector, and string-through-body construction for maximum sustain (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: Detail of the bridge pickup and bridge; note the string-through-body construction (click to enlarge).
The tuners are decent. They’re diecast types with a 15:1 gear ratio, mounted on a functional but plain headstock (Fig. 5). The guitar doesn’t come with a case, so factor that into the price; also figure you’ll want the breakout box, described later.
Fig. 5: AT-200 headstock and tuners (click to enlarge).
The guitar ships with a removable “quick start” overlay and frankly, it could double as the manual (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6: This pretty much tells you everything you need to know to get up and running (click to enlarge).
You make sure four AA cells are inserted (see Fig. 7; alkalines last about nine hours); plugging in the guitar turns on the electronics. Push down on the Tone control to activate the Auto-Tune technology, strum all six strings, and push down on the volume knob ot initiate tuning. Done. Yes, it’s that simple. If you want Auto-Tune out of the picture, pull up on the Tone knob.
Fig. 7: The battery compartment is closed, and to the right of the exposed cavity with the electronics (click to enlarge).
I never advise buying a product for what it “might” do, only for what it does, because you never know what the future will bring. That said, though, it’s clear Peavey and Antares have plans. There’s a clear division of labor here: Peavey provides the platform, while Antares provides the software.
In addition to the standard 1/4" audio output, the AT-200 has a 8-pin connector + ground that connects to an upcoming breakout box. This is expected early in 1Q 2013, and is slated to sell for under $100. It will provide power to the guitar so you don’t need batteries, as well as an audio output. There will also be MIDI for use with external MIDI footswitches for tasks like preset selection, as well as doing updates. If you want to do updates but don’t want the breakout box, a “MIDI update cable” with the 8-pin connector on one end and MIDI on the other will cost $13 and allow doing updates from your computer.
At the Antares end of things, this is a software-based platform so there are quite a few options. They’ve already announced an upcoming editor for live performance that runs on iOS devices; it lets you specify pickup sounds, alternate tunings, pitch shifting, “virtual capo” settings, and the like. I saw this software in prototype form at a press event that introduced the technology, so I would imagine it’s coming very soon. Antares has also announced AT-200 Software Feature Packs that add optional-at-extra-cost capabilities in three versions—Essential, Pro, and Complete. For example, the Essential includes processing for three different guitar sounds, Pro has six, and Complete has nine unique guitar voicings as well as bass. They also include doubling options (including 12 string), various tunings, and the like. These are all described on the www.autotuneforguitar.com web site.
This review wouldn’t be complete without a comparison. Both work and both are effective, but they’re fundamentally different. The biggest difference is that with the Robot system, because it works directly on tuning physical strings, “what you hear is what you get.” With alternate tunings, the guitar is actually tuned to those tunings. Also, the audio output is the sound of the string; there’s no processing. As a result, there’s zero difference between the sound made by the guitar and the sound coming out of the amp. Robot tuning is for those who prioritize tonal purity, and are willing to pay for the privilege.
Auto-Tune trades off the physical string/resulting sound disconnect for more flexibility. You’ll never be able to tune physical strings up or down an octave, but you can do that with virtual strings—and the tuning process is close to instant. Although the audio is processed, the impact on the sound is minimal at best but still, there’s a layer of electronics between the string and you. On that other hand, that’s also what allows for emulating different characteristic guitar sounds. What’s surprising, though, is that there’s no discernible latency. (Well, there has to be some; laws of physics, and all that. But it’s not noticeable, and I’m very sensitive to timing.) Furthermore, the fact that this processing doesn’t add artifacts to the guitar’s tone is, to me, an even more impressive technical accomplishment than changing pitch.
With apologies to Peavey and Antares, there’s something about this concept that makes you want to dismiss it. C’mon . . . Auto-Tune on a guitar? Taking out-of-tune strings and fixing them? Perfect intonation no matter where you play? Add-on software packs? What the heck does this have to do with my PRS or Les Paul or Strat? Now, those are real guitars!
Except for one thing: the AT-200 is a real guitar (Fig. 8). Unless you notice the 8-pin connector, you’d never know there was anything different about this guitar. Play it, and it plays like a guitar . . . and it feels and looks like a guitar. All the magic is “under the hood,” and you don’t know it’s there until you start playing. The ease of use is off the hook. If it takes you more than a minute or two to be up and running, you might want to consider a different career.
Fig. 8: The AT-200 doesn’t exactly look like a high-tech marvel . . .which is one of its strengths (click to enlarge).
Yes, it’s priced so that those getting serious about guitar can afford an AT-200, and derive the benefits of not having to hassle with tuning or worry about intonation. But I suspect a lot of veterans will add this to their guitar collection as well. After I got used to Robot tuning, it was always strange to go back to guitars where I just couldn’t push a button and be in tune. After getting used to the AT-200, it’s disorienting to go back to guitars that don’t have perfect intonation. Nor is it like vocals, where using Auto-Tune arbitrarily to create perfect pitch takes the humanity out of the performance; with guitar chords, out-of-tune notes just sound . . . well, wrong, and well worth fixing. And if you want to bend and slide, go ahead—the correction will wait in the wings until you want it again.
Overall, this is a surprising, intelligent, and novel application of technology with extraordinarily practical consequences. After seeing prototypes, I expected to think the AT-200 was clever; I didn’t expect to think it was brilliant . . . but it is.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.