Monday, September 19, 2011

Fender VG Stratocaster

Fender have married Roland's VG technology with the timeless design of the Stratocaster. The result is a cutting-edge classic.

Fender VG Stratocaster To understand the concept behind the VG Strat, you have to go back a few years to when Roland invented the concept of guitar and amp modelling and implemented it in their pioneering VG range of processors.

The VG modelling system can emulate different guitar body types, different pickup types and layouts, various amplifier and speaker combinations and, of course, all the familiar effects and stomp boxes. It can even make an electric guitar sound like an acoustic guitar or bass and emulate various miking options.

Providing there is room enough to fit Roland's GK six-pole pickup close to the bridge, VG systems can work with pretty much any electric guitar (the pickups are available separately, so you are not restricted to using them with the Strat). It needs to be a six-pole pickup in order to process each string separately — which you need to do if you want to create accurate guitar models where, for example, the pickups might be mounted at an angle, or, more importantly, to allow the tunings of individual strings to be changed for more complex models, such as drop tunings or simulations of 12-string guitars. The pickup goes so close to the bridge because, positioned there, it can pick up a relatively predictable sound from the strings and string bending doesn't push the string too far away from the pickup. The same GK pickup can also be used to drive Roland's range of GR synthesizers, via the multi-pin DIN socket on the output of the GK pickup's control box.

Fender VG Stratocaster Roland's latest hardware VG processor is the VG99, which is far more powerful than its predecessors and allows for a huge amount of user customisation. They are great systems, but the flip side for many traditional guitarists is that the sheer scope of such a device can be daunting.

Fender & Roland
Apparently Roland have been working behind the scenes with Fender for some 10 years now, and the partnership is begining to bear fruit, in the form of a series of Boss pedals that model specific Fender amplifiers (so far, the Deluxe and the Bassman), and the Fender VG Strat reviewed here.
The VG Strat concept is pretty straightforward — marry Roland's cutting edge technology with a good, tried-and-tested Fender guitar. But while Roland were the first to bring guitar and amp modelling to the market, they're not the first to put guitar modelling into a physical instrument: that accolade belongs to Line 6, with their Variax guitars.
The Fender-Roland approach is a little different from that of Line 6. Most importantly, the Variax has no conventional pickups, so all the sounds that are available are modelled from the signals picked up by the piezo sensors, set into the bridge saddles. This actually works pretty well (I have a Variax myself and I'm always surprised by how good it can sound). However, if you don't like the look or feel of the Variax guitars, you can't benefit from the technology unless you pay a guitar tech to cannibalise a perfectly good Variax and then fit all the parts and bridge into a heavily modified guitar of your choice.

With the VG Strat, all the necessary electronics are discreetly hidden inside a very nice American Standard Stratocaster, which still has its own three original single-coil pickups, as well as a Roland GK pickup. The benefit of this approach is that you can always switch back to using the guitar as a regular Strat if your batteries go flat during a gig — you'll never be left unable to get a sound out of your guitar. You'd also probably want to use the regular Strat sound for playing straight Strat parts, because, let's face it, no model is going to get closer than the sound of the real thing!
The other main difference between the VG Strat and the Variax is that the Variax allows you to model a whole range of familiar electric, semi-acoustic and acoustic guitars (as well as a few oddball choices such as banjo, sitar and resonator guitars) and, if you have a computer, you can load up their intuitive Variax Workshop software and build your own custom guitars (by changing bodies or pickups). With the Variax you can also set up your own choice of alternative tunings, though these are tied to individual patches rather than being accessible globally.

By comparison, the VG Strat offers less flexibility but, as we'll see, that isn't the idea. In addition to the 'normal' Strat, you get models of a slightly warmer-sounding Strat, a Telecaster, a selection of five acoustic guitars (from resonator to dreadnought, selected using the five-way pickup switch) and a humbucker guitar. There's no obvious intention to model any specific other make or model of guitar, but the Fender variations cover most tonal bases. You select them simply by turning the rotary model-selector switch (which is neatly disguised as a small, standard Strat knob). The first position is the normal Strat, which bypasses all the electronics, then the models start off with the alternative Strat. If you think that modelling a Strat seems like a bit of a waste of time when the real thing is just a switch-click away, remember that once you switch to modelling you can use the alternate tunings or 12-string emulation, which you can't do with the regular pickups.

A second small knob controls the rotary switch used to select the alternative tuning options. These are Normal, Drop D, Open G (for all those 'Keef' rhythm parts), DADGAD (for the folkies and the Gordon Giltrap fans), Baritone/Low B (for that earthy Seattle grunge vibe) and a very plausible 12-string. Any of these tunings can be selected for any of the guitar models, though they all assume your guitar is tuned normally to start with. To save the control section from getting too crowded, the normal 'volume and two tone controls' arrangement has been simplified to a master volume and a single master tone control. As with the Variax, the modelling is confined to guitar types — there's no amp or effect modelling built-in, other than a little ambience reverb for the acoustic models.

Nuts & Bolts
The review model, which came in a high-quality ABS moulded case, is actually one of the nicest Strats I've played. It has a three-colour sunburst finish, three-piece ash body with sumptuously deep contours, a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard (though a maple board option is also available) and chrome hardware, including the new US two-point vibrato bridge with solid, stainless-steel saddles. The three-ply parchment pickguard gives the guitar a slightly aged look (which I prefer to the usual stark white) and the neck has a slender C-section with medium jumbo frets that feel exactly right. Out of the box, the setup of the review model was extremely good, with no string choking, even though the action was lower than I'd normally set it. As expected, the fingerboard radius is the 9.5 inches used for most current Strat models. The only thing I'd change is that I'd probably cut the nut slots a few thousands of an inch deeper. Fender have fitted their current heavy-duty Fender/Schaller Deluxe staggered, sealed tuning machines. (If anyone from Fender is reading this, I'd like to suggest using slotted shafts on all your tuners, as they give almost as good tuning stability as locking machine-heads. Given that that's what the original Strats were fitted with, they also look more authentic.)
From the front, the only real giveaway that this isn't a straightforward Strat is the slightly changed control-knob layout, though if you look more closely you'll also spot the GK pickup. This blends in pretty well with the pick-guard, but would have blended even better had it been made in cream, rather than white. There's also a bright-blue power LED that comes on when a lead is plugged into the guitar. Power comes from four AA batteries that are fitted from the rear of the instrument, covered by a plate. A second plate on the rear covers the electronics, but from the front there are few clues as to the technology that lies within.

Fender VG Stratocaster Fender claim that four decent rechargeable NiMH batteries will give an operating time of up to 10 hours. If the batteries do die on you, you get an early warning, as the blue power light starts to flash for a while before everything stops, giving you time to switch to the standard pickups for the next song. There is no obvious way to stop the battery draining when the normal Strat pickups are selected, as the system needs to be powered up to let you make an instantaneous change to an alternative model during performance, and there's no external PSU option. When I tested the battery life using the supplied alkaline cells, the blue light started to flash after less than a couple of hours, and though the NiMH batteries will certainly perform better, I don't think I'd want to risk using them for more than one gig.

Once you've chosen a model, the five-way switch is used to to select either five or three pickup combinations, depending on the model. In acoustic guitar mode, the same switch selects between five different acoustic guitar types, including the resonator, and when any acoustic model is selected, the tone control instead functions as a reverb control, to allow you to add a bit of 'space' to the sound.

One thing that really surprised me when the instrument was first announced was that it didn't include the multi-pin DIN socket that would allow it to drive other GK-compatible devices, such as Roland's range of guitar synths. My guess is that Fender were worried that too much fancy technology might put off potential buyers, but in reality they could have hidden it under a blanking bung, as Line 6 did with their CAT5 connector on the Variax guitar. According to Justin Norvell, Senior Marketing Manager for Fender, "We felt strongly that keeping the instrument simple was the way to go. Usually, the more functionality you add, the more complicated an instrument becomes, so we kept the VG Stratocaster pared down to the essentials, making it easy to pick up and play. After all, playing a Fender Strat shouldn't require the study of a phone-book-sized owner's manual".

I think this is fair enough up to a point, but putting in the extra socket and offering USB editability, so that those who wanted to could set up their own custom tunings, would have made the instrument far more appealing to those who've already bought into the VG/GK concept, and it could easily have been arranged so that the casual user needn't deal with it. As it is, it is very much a case of 'you get what you're given'. On the other hand, I suppose there's an equally valid argument that says if you're into programming you should look towards Roland's VG88 or VG99 systems and fit a GK pickup on your own Strat (or buy a VG-ready Strat).


Sounds

Comparing the modelled Strat sound with the natural Strat sound (from the conventional pickups), the model is slightly warmer, with a bit less of the characteristic Strat 'jangle', so it makes a useful alternative without straying too far from the familiar Strat tonality. The Telecaster sound is coloured slightly by the resonance of the tremolo springs, but the pickup sounds are modelled very plausibly, with a smooth-sounding neck pickup and a wonderfully brash, bright bridge pickup. When you switch to the Humbucker model, the sound you get is very similar to what you'd expect from a Strat fitted with two humbuckers, with the bridge pickup sounding not dissimilar to that of an HSS Fat Strat. Because the Roland GK pickup is magnetic, the dynamic response is very much in line with what you'd expect from conventional pickups. This also sidesteps the main weakness of the Line 6 Variax, which is that heavy-handed vibrato use can result in thumps being picked up by the bridge piezo transducers. Also, if you're into really serious vibrato abuse, piezo pickups tend to lose output when the strings go slack during dive bombing, whereas magnetic pickups such as those on the VG Strat keep on going.

Turning to the acoustic sounds, there are three rather nice sounding 'conventional' acoustics, ranging from small to large body, plus a very bassy option that sounds to me like a miked steel-string, with all the top turned off for the top three strings, and a warm resonator sound on the bottom three strings (I couldn't find any details in the manual to describe what the individual acoustic models are based on so I've no idea what this one is supposed to be). There's also a very sweet-sounding resonator model. However, it is important that you play the acoustic sounds through a full-range amp such as an acoustic guitar combo or PA in order to reproduce the correct tonal balance. For recording, you can, of course, simply DI the acoustic sounds, but on stage some form of footswitch to allow you to redirect the signal to a different amplifier when playing the acoustic sounds would be pretty much essential. Line 6 include a switch and a remote powering system with their Variax, which makes a lot of sense but, again, Fender wanted to keep their VG Strat as simple to use as a conventional guitar, and they've certainly succeeded in that. The acoustic sounds are as good as any modelled acoustic sounds I've heard, and in a live band context they'd be pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing. Even played solo they're pretty impressive, and any tonal shortcomings are balanced by the lack of acoustic feedback problems. Turning up the Tone knob, as mentioned earlier, adds a little reverb, which takes away the DI'd dryness of the basic sound.

Alternate Tunings

The 'open tunings' are achieved using pitch-shifting technology. Because of the way pitch-shifting works (by splicing and looping very short segments of audio), it rarely sounds entirely natural, but done well (as it is here) it gets close enough to fool the ear in most situations. This process always sounds smoothest on monophonic sounds, and the VG Strat benefits in this respect from the split-pickup system mentioned earlier. This also allows each string to be pitch-shifted by a different amount. In addition to the preset alternate tunings mentioned earlier, there's the 12-string model, which follows the tuning pattern for a real 12-string instrument (in that the bottom four string pairs are tuned in octaves, while the top two are in unison). This sonic illusion works very well, as it combines the unshifted sound with the doubled parts, resulting in a very plausible 12-string sound. The open tunings also sound pretty good, though if you pick the individual notes and really listen, you can occasionally spot a few pitch-shifting artifacts — but this is true of any such system, and in normal performance you'd be hard pushed to hear the 'trickery'. You do, however, have to play loudly enough so that you don't also hear the acoustic sound from the guitar strings as this can really confuse you, though this situation is really only likely to arise in the studio, where you're working at lower monitoring levels.


Practicalities
The sound quality of the VG Strat is as good as from any guitar modelling system I've heard, and there's no denying its ease of use, but there are a few practical issues.

The battery life is something of an achilles heel: as there's no mains PSU option, this is something you have to think about very seriously. Of course, you have the fall-back option of switching to the regular pickups, but it would be worth investing in a set of eight good-quality NiMH batteries and a charger that can deal with four at once, so that you'll always have a spare set.

Personally, I find the lack of a DIN output to drive my GR33 guitar synth rather limiting, and I'd like to be able to set up different tunings or more sophisticated guitar models — but then I'm more typical of a VG99 customer than a VG Strat customer. For the straight-ahead guitar player who simply wants a quality US Strat but needs the tonal flexibility to cover more electric sounds and a range of acoustic sounds, the VG Strat pretty much nails it. Those open-tuning options make perfect sense for anyone who wants to use any of the standard tunings on offer, because if you play a guitar with a floating vibrato, even retuning to a drop D is impractical, as all the other strings go sharp, due to the change in tension on the vibrato springs. Being able to switch to an alternate tuning for any of the guitar sounds is also very practical in comparison with the Variax, where you have to save the tuning as part of a patch, with the sound to which it relates.

Verdict

The on-board electronics of the VG Strat add, in a very organic, intuitive way, to what is already a first-class, beautiful instrument. It isn't cheap, and it won't meet the needs of everyone interested in guitar modelling, or those who want the ability to drive a Roland guitar synth, but those users will probably go the VG99 route anyway. The practicalities discussed above are exactly that (practicalities) and are not insurmountable by any means. Ultimately, the VG Strat does exactly what its designers intended: it brings together a great guitar and a great guitar modelling system, in a very accessible way that won't scare off even the the most technology-shy guitarist

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