Guitar Dreams

Adrian Freed's decades-long desire to marry music and technology is finally going public. Will anyone listen?

But Freed hadn't forgotten about the instrument that had piqued his interest as a teen. He began studying acoustic guitar – decidedly outside the realm of computer music – and is still taking lessons and attending guitar camps. (He says he tries to keep his musical pursuits away from his better-trained colleagues at CNMAT.)

At work today, Freed is better known for his expansive tech knowledge and his foresight in the field of computer music. "Adrian is certainly a more reclusive character [than Wessel]," says Ali Momeni, a former CNMAT grad student. "He's very independent-minded. Super, super sharp. Frighteningly sharp – a walking encyclopedia."

"I'm constantly in a dream state," Freed adds, in what at first sounds like a contradiction. "I don't have a dream. I live in a world of potentialities. I'm constantly thinking about the world as it will be."

The MaGIC looks and feels like a standard 
Les Paul model.
Paolo Vescia
The MaGIC looks and feels like a standard Les Paul model.

One day about five years ago, with guitars still on his mind, Freed posted the thoughts and questions he had about the instrument on CNMAT's Web site. He titled the page "Guitar Innovation Group." Several items on the list were related to digitization.

A few months later, Freed approached Henry Juszkiewicz, the CEO of Gibson Guitars, with what the researcher considered an obvious idea begging to be realized. Juszkiewicz, who had worked with CNMAT in the past, says he had also been thinking about building a digital guitar, and he agreed to give CNMAT about $100,000 per year for four years (matched by a state grant in partnership with the University of California) to develop prototypes.

Freed and about a half-dozen other researchers and grad students began building forerunners of guitar pickups and the computer chips that would eventually go inside the MaGIC. Simultaneously, whiz-kid programmer Matt Wright began designing new guitar effects for the not-yet-created instrument (for example, a less muddy fuzz box effect, and one that can simulate a human voice on the guitar strings).

Despite CNMAT's detailed work on the MaGIC, the product's design and development was done at Gibson's labs in Sunnyvale: Freed still hasn't seen the final version of the instrument. Besides, Freed and his colleagues have already moved on, their attention now directed toward producing a 120-channel speaker-amp combo and more new guitar effects.

CNMAT will likely never see a dime from any of the products Gibson develops out of the organization's ideas, but working with a world-famous guitar company has benefits beyond funding: Gibson's connection to industry and consumer markets allows CNMAT to reach a wider audience than it could access from its ivory tower.

Though he's not entirely comfortable admitting it, Freed recognizes that a digital guitar like the MaGIC solves a problem that has vexed him since his childhood: It allows him to be the musician he always wanted to be – to combine the nuance of playing an acoustic guitar with the fantastic sounds he made when he was a kid fiddling around on a synthesizer. In a way, by opening up the realm of musical possibilities for other musicians, he has opened them up for himself.

"I'm actually pretty close to saying, 'Yeah, I can take this guitar around and play it, maybe do a few gigs,'" Freed says. "I'm actually at that point that I dreamed of way back. ... Though I'm not a good player, I'm spending time with people at CNMAT, I'm spending time learning an instrument, and I'm interested in pushing things further ..."

Freed, who usually prattles on, has suddenly drifted off.

Soon he looks up and apologizes. "I was dreaming again," he says sheepishly. "As I was talking to you, I thought of another way to play the guitar."

Like his office, Freed's computer desktop is a mess. But he quickly navigates around it, eager to locate video footage of a local musician demonstrating the Gibson digital guitar.

In the first clip, the musician – jazzman John Schott – is filmed in UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall using the guitar, some foot pedals, and a Tactex touch pad (similar to a touch-sensitive mouse pad) to improvise a soundtrack for an old black-and-white film, The Acrobatic Fly. In the movie, a fly that appears to be lying on its back twirls a number of increasingly ridiculous objects (a blade of grass, a twig, a ball of paper, a mini-barbell); meanwhile, Schott improvises a frantic, animated piece to complement the playful visuals.

With this combination of technologies, Schott is able to improvise in a way that would once have been impossible. The foot pedals, hooked up to a computer, allow him to start or stop recording a loop of high, rapid notes; the Tactex pad, also connected to the computer, then allows him to manipulate the loop with one hand. He plays the guitar over the recording, creating dense layers of sound.

"You wouldn't be able to do this unless you had seven hands, because this is live," Schott says on the video. "It's the equivalent of twisting seven knobs at once. It's so cool."

In a second demonstration, Schott shows how the digital guitar can "listen" to his playing, setting off sound samples he has programmed into a computer. For example, when Schott plays the note D 10 times in the course of a song, the guitar can trigger a sample of Debussy or Coltrane, which provides another level of melody underneath his playing.

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