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Adrian Freed, a bespectacled, middle-aged techie sporting a mop of unruly brown hair, swings open the door of the Guitar Center in El Cerrito with visible delight. Like a mountaineer taking in an exquisite vista, Freed pauses for a few seconds at the threshold of the sales floor to survey the landscape of instruments before beginning to browse.
Wandering the aisles in a worn fleece pullover, faded slacks, and stained brown shoes, Freed looks out of place – like the guy who inevitably requests "Free Bird" at a concert, rather than a legitimate musician. His scrutiny of the equipment on display also seems to bewilder the sales staff.
"Is there a guitar player in the house?" a clerk finally asks Freed, after observing him for a few minutes. Freed, who speaks with a noble British clip that belies his disheveled state, mutters something incomprehensible and continues to inspect an angular "slash" guitar, until the befuddled salesman disappears.
During the course of his hourlong stay, Freed, an amateur guitarist and the research director at UC Berkeley's Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), a music and technology think tank, dismisses a number of sales pitches, strutting through the store like a docent leading a museum tour, stopping only to offer verbose historical commentary on each instrument. He carries himself with an air of self-assurance. Having spent more than two decades dreaming about how technology and music can interact, Freed has a distinct vision of what the future of music might look like. This month, in part due to his own efforts, Freed's dream – the world's first guitar with a digital connection – arrives in stores courtesy of Gibson Guitars, available to the public for about $3,000.
The guitar will look and feel like Gibson's sleek signature Les Paul models, except for one thing: It will have an Ethernet jack where the analog connector used to be. Inside, computer chips will digitize the guitar strings' analog signals, which can then be sent along the Ethernet cable into a computer, an amp, or an effects box. According to Gibson's current sales pitch, the digital guitar (dubbed the Media-accelerated Global Information Carrier, or MaGIC) will allow musicians to do new things, like control each string independently for volume and tone. The instrument will also offer a cleaner sound than is currently possible with analog cables, which may prove to be a boon to music producers.
But for most players of the guitar – the very symbol of cool – the Gibson MaGIC will probably seem like a ridiculous novelty. Who really wants each string to have a different volume, and who cares if the old-school analog cable buzzes a little bit during a show?
"A guitar with an Ethernet jack sounds just like a guitar without an Ethernet jack," Freed acknowledges. "There has to be something [else]. That's what we're working on."
It's impossible to tell what musicians will do with the MaGIC before it hits the marketplace. One player who has used it – and who, though initially skeptical, was won over by the guitar – likens playing it to "twisting seven knobs at once." It can respond to preprogrammed instructions; it can add layers to live play currently realizable only with multiple instruments; it might even make sounds no one's ever heard before. Regardless of how well the MaGIC sells, the fact that a major guitar company has gone digital is victory enough for Freed and his colleagues at CNMAT. Ultimately, they see the MaGIC as a gateway to a philosophy that they and others in the field of computer music have believed for a long time: that with the aid of technology, the musical possibilities are infinite.
The Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, aka CNMAT (pronounced "SIN-mat"), operates out of what used to be home to 1750 Arch Records, a label with an eclectic catalog that often gave its offices over to bustling performances during the 1970s. The white stucco building looks like a medieval cottage, contrasting with the tech geek-meets-bohemian culture of the organization.
Home base to a tribe of brilliant minds, CNMAT is staffed by a crew of mostly male composers, music students, and tech researchers who favor cargo pants and old T-shirts. On a typical day, the place churns with activity. Most of those who work there – usually about eight or nine people at any given hour – are juggling a half-dozen projects simultaneously, giving the space a whirlwind feel accentuated by the frat-house clutter of most of the studios and labs.
Exhibit A: Adrian Freed's office on the basement level. Ninety percent of its floor space is covered in boxes, sheets of paper, and other detritus. Three computer monitors sit on his desk, which is overwhelmed by yet more papers, trash, and abandoned audiotapes; spiders have attached webs to the windowpanes.
"I'm about 25 years behind in my filing," Freed jokes when he invites guests inside.
On the outside of his door, Freed has posted a fortune that he saved from a meal at a Chinese restaurant. It reads: "The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do."
CNMAT is full of people like Adrian Freed doing what others say can't be done.