Guitar Dreams

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

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.

For decades, Adrian Freed has dreamed of 
using technology to increase the sonic 
possibilities of the electric guitar. The 
MaGIC (above left) is the result.
Paolo Vescia
For decades, Adrian Freed has dreamed of using technology to increase the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar. The MaGIC (above left) is the result.
Adrian Freed (left) and David Wessel both 
worked at Paris' IRCAM, the most influential 
computer music center in the world.
Paolo Vescia
Adrian Freed (left) and David Wessel both worked at Paris' IRCAM, the most influential computer music center in the world.
Edmund Campion, CNMAT's 
composer-in-residence, believes in the 
marriage of music  and technology.
Paolo Vescia
Edmund Campion, CNMAT's composer-in-residence, believes in the marriage of music and technology.
Matt Wright created a number of new guitar 
effects for the MaGIC.
Paolo Vescia
Matt Wright created a number of new guitar effects for the MaGIC.
The MaGIC looks and feels like a standard 
Les Paul model.
Paolo Vescia
The MaGIC looks and feels like a standard Les Paul model.

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.

Founded in 1988 by now-retired UC Berkeley professor Richard Felciano, the organization is an offshoot of the university's music department. It works with students from various academic backgrounds such as physics, engineering, and dance in an effort to find ways that technology can drive music in new directions. CNMAT is just one of numerous computer music research institutions dedicated to this mission, with other notables including Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, MIT's Media Lab, and Paris' Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), founded by famed composer Pierre Boulez. This international community has, for more than four decades, labored to elicit new sonic possibilities from technology, and Freed has based much of his research – including his work on the MaGIC guitar – on this world.

The first computer-synthesized sounds emerged from experiments at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey in 1957. In those early days, artists used mainframe computers at labs or universities to make works on tape. By the late '70s, they had begun building their own "home-brew" computers in order to express their melodic notions. As PCs became more sophisticated in the mid-'80s, computer musicians began writing software (currently, the most popular is a program called Max MSP) to help them express their artistic ideas directly.

The form of computer music most of us are familiar with is electronica, but what Freed and his cohorts produce is more theoretical. Both the research conducted at these centers and the avant-garde compositions that come out of this community remain obscure in the United States; the work is heady, challenging stuff. You could say it's what happens when band geeks and math Ph.D.s join forces.

The digital guitar that Freed worked on may be the most public face of CNMAT right now, but in some ways, the guitar venture couldn't have happened without computer music pioneer David Wessel at the helm of the organization. Because of his jazz background, Wessel is preoccupied with using computers to enhance live, real-time performance, and as a result, much of Freed and CNMAT's research lies in developing new technology and instruments for that purpose.

With the simplicity of the new digital guitar – plug an Ethernet cable from it into a computer or an amp – those at CNMAT believe it empowers musicians in new ways. Though it's currently possible to convert analog guitar sounds to digital ones without the aid of a $3,000 instrument, the complexity of the setup makes it impractical and unreliable for a live show.

"The guitar has to be the instrument of the 20th century," says Wessel, who is also a well-regarded composer. "It was a good place to put technology, from our perspective. Had we done another instrument – the electric trombone, for instance – there wouldn't have been that same opportunity for interesting developments."

Adrian Freed is a dreamer, and for a long time now, he has dreamed about guitars.

His curiosity about the instrument began when he was a teen growing up during the 1960s in High Wycombe, England, about 30 miles north of London. He'd cut school during his required rugby classes to spend hours noodling away at a synthesizer at a local music store. During pauses in these jam sessions, during which he wrenched great and cacophonous sounds from the keys, Freed would stop to look at the stringed instruments displayed around the store, and wonder: Why can't I experiment with sounds in the same way on a guitar?

"The question that never went away was, 'Why can't the guitarist have access to this orchestral, deep, weird – this palette of sounds and possibilities? Why can't those two worlds meet?'"

Freed's hunger for music was nearly insatiable. He spent hours in front of a radio, listening to a pirate station that gave him his first taste of modern rock, pop, and blues.

"Music represented an emotional world for me that did not exist in my day-to-day life," he says.

A note of regret enters his voice when he talks about his lack of childhood music training. "There were many things broken about my enthusiasm for music; it was not cultivated by my parents," he says. "They had decided I had no talent in that area. I fell through the cracks there."

Freed's parents had probably underestimated the breadth of their son's abilities. The mathematically adept Freed had already shown an early knack for engineering (he invented an electronic two-tone doorbell when he was 13, an idea that was subsequently published in a British scientific magazine), but music continued to haunt him. He became so smitten by the blues that he decided to start teaching himself to play the guitar at age 17. While at college in Australia studying computer science, though, he played the instrument infrequently, and turned his scholastic attention to researching synthesizers.

After college, Freed landed his first job as a computer programmer in Paris, and because of his technical skill, he soon found himself employed by Pierre Boulez's IRCAM – hired there by David Wessel, who was the director of pedagogy at the time.

Freed's time at the French institution was his official introduction to computer music. He tried his hand at recording a couple of songs that he'd written on guitar and then transcribed into keyboard music, but he soon became frustrated. He didn't feel he had the training to advance his musical ideas very far, and everyone around him had been playing an instrument for longer than he had. He decided to focus his technical skills on helping musicians, and wrote the first program to let artists do sound editing and mixing on a general-purpose computer, called MacMix (later licensed by a German tape-recording company).

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."

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.

Schott says he's amazed by what the technology can do for his music. At the same time, he confides that he's a borderline Luddite and was initially skeptical of the digital guitar. (He agreed to work with CNMAT in part because it was a paid gig; despite his work on the instrument, he says he won't be able to afford the guitar when it hits music stores this year.)

"As [the guitar] was presented to me, it was along the lines of, 'You can have a fuzz box on the three low strings and a wah-wah on the top three strings!,' and that felt to me like a very uninteresting way of utilizing the technology," says Schott, who has played guitar for 30 years. "And moreover, it was a way of playing that had nothing to do with my experience of playing the guitar."

But Schott says the instrument has opened new musical doors for him. "My interest was not in duplicating things that could already be done with things found at Guitar Center," he says. "My interest was in collaborating with people who really knew what computers could do for me ... [to] collaborate with people who are really interested in the extremes of what computers are capable of, and building a computer interface that could challenge me as a musician."

Like Schott, other guitarists are likely to greet the new Gibson MaGIC with skepticism. "Guitar consumers are notoriously conservative," says Joe Gore, a Noe Valley professional guitar player who has performed with artists like Tom Waits and the Eels, and who used to edit a guitar magazine. "Between the price point [of the digital guitar] and the seeming complexity of doing the setup, I wouldn't imagine there'd be a huge user base. On the plus side, it is an interesting idea. An adventurous, tech-savvy person could no doubt get some really striking sounds out of it."

"Something like this comes out every couple years these days, and it's always resisted by musicians," adds Count, a San Francisco-based music producer. "It could be the coolest thing ever, and totally eliminate every problem ever associated with the original electric guitar, and still, it's going to take a while to catch on. Guitarists don't want to be the guy that looks uncool."

Freed, meanwhile, shrugs at the response. "I don't care [if the guitar is popular]," he says. "But it would be nice if people could enjoy what all the possibilities are there [in music]. I don't care how they get there."

On a rainy Friday evening in mid-December, CNMAT's blue gate remains open to guests for a music performance in the building's main hall. Wessel has stationed himself at a small table next to the entrance, to greet attendees and sell $10 tickets. But as is typical of him, Wessel good-naturedly waves almost everyone in for free.

Freed, his wife, and two of their six children arrive early, taking seats scattered about the room. Donald Buchla, who made some of the first synthesizers (along with Robert Moog) and who designed a Space Age-y keypad-instrument called "Thunder" that Wessel plays, arrives minutes before the music starts. Edmund Campion, CNMAT's composer-in-residence, and his fiancee find spots in the second row. Former and current graduate students and regulars straggle in late, filling the remaining empty seats.

Several minutes after 8, the lights dim and the concert begins. The musicians – CNMAT grad student Roberto Morales Manzanares and the director of Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Chris Chafe – are surrounded by three instruments each, ranging from harps to pianos, Mexican flutes to violas. On a small table next to each performer is a laptop.

In the first piece, Chafe plays the "Stegosaurus," an instrument he made out of a length of wood and protruding metal plates, which gives it a dinosaurlike appearance. He plays it by running a viola bow over the plates, wrenching out low but sharp metallic squawks that are simultaneously manipulated using a computer program. Morales Manzanares, meanwhile, blows viciously into a flute; because he has programmed the laptop to feed the sound from his microphone into speakers around the room in a rotating fashion, the audience hears a fluttering drone similar to that from a dragonfly's wings.

Except for the programming, all the music is improvised.

For about an hour, Morales Manzanares and Chafe serenade the audience with pieces that include quiet buzzing, plucking and scratching, and sounds that sometimes erupt into whirlwinds of thickly layered chords and arpeggios. Some of it is spacey and minimalist; some recalls haunting, long-lost folk melodies. All of it is cinematic.

In this space a week before, a twenty- and thirtysomething crowd had come to a similar "sound-making session" that featured wine and cheese in addition to bizarre and fantastic electronic music. The compositions on that evening felt more urban than those played tonight, but all the music produced at CNMAT has a common element: It's not easily accessible to the Top 40 radio listener. Computer music is more about mood, colors, and images than catchy choruses and danceable rhythms. Even the artists who inhabit this world sometimes have a hard time classifying it: They call it "art music," "avant-garde music," "sound art," and "un-pop."

Technology is the reason these composers and artists are able to realize the strange, complicated, and beautiful things they hear in their heads. "All the aspects of music – rhythm, harmony, pitch – all these things get totally expanded when you work in the area of technology," says CNMAT composer-in-residence Campion, who has written a piece that will be performed by the Berkeley Symphony in June. "The reason I'm interested in technology is certainly not tech for tech's sake. I engage in new technologies in order to question how they can inform and expand the kind of music that is possible to make."

He says the new digital guitar is one piece in the ever-growing tech-music puzzle. "With this guitar, you have possibilities of expanding the sensitivity of certain effects," continues Campion, who dislikes the term "computer music." "The guitar is just one example of an expanded instrument."

As much as he believes in the marriage of technology and music, and as much as he sees the digital guitar as the public's candy-flavored introduction to this idea, Campion knows that not everyone is ready for this future.

"I do encounter – and maybe rightly so – people writing for symphonies or chamber music in a more traditional vein who don't see any need for [this type of music]," Campion says. "What they think is, 'Well, the music that you're doing with technology is not as good as the music I'm writing, or that I love, because there's not as much structure.' I think in a lot of ways, they miss the point."

Evening has arrived at CNMAT, and everyone but Adrian Freed has left the building. Though his wife calls him to tell him that dinner is on the table, Freed continues to putter around the rear basement studio at CNMAT, eager to show off one of the prized digital guitar effects he has created.

CNMAT doesn't have a final version of the MaGIC, so Freed plugs a regular Les Paul into a "Rimus box" (named after the pistachio-munching tech genius who built the thing single-handedly), which is an external version of the chips inside the MaGIC that convert analog signals to digital. (The Rimus box, which CNMAT hopes will someday become its own consumer product, also allows harpists, violinists, and other acoustic musicians to plug more directly and easily into computers than they now can.)

Freed calls up a program on a nearby computer and searches for a patch he has written called the "yeah yeah pedal."

"This is one of my dreams from way back when," he explains, taking the guitar under his arm. "So, you know the wah-wah effect? It's the 'ooh' sound and the 'aah' sound. The question I asked myself was, 'Why only wah-wah?'"

On the computer are two pull-down tabs, each with a list of all five vowels. He selects the letter "A" in one tab and "I" in the other. Freed runs his fingers over the strings, and they ring vibrantly. He steps on a pedal connected to his computer to activate the effect, and suddenly, the distorted chord sounds like the guitar is singing "aaay-aye."

Freed, smiling, switches the vowels to "A" and "O," and strums the guitar again, producing a loud "aaay-owww." He explains that this vowel effect is but one example of something that can be done digitally, but not on analog.

"You want to shift from the realm of 'Damn I wish I could do this' to 'Damn, what could I be doing?'" he says. "That's what this environment and the tools I built are all about. You make the instrument – I don't want to impose my will on you. I want to make as big a palette as possible.

"Every personality reacts to this kind of thing differently," Freed acknowledges. "Some people don't like the fact that they have to throw their wah-wah pedal away; they don't like the fact that they have to buy a new [Ethernet] cable that's blue. Some people spend so long on their technique, they don't want to expand their technique; they don't want to think about something else, they just want to get more expressive, faster. But musicmaking for the people that I'm around all the time is a multidimensional, multilevel, expressive thing."

To demonstrate, Freed abandons the Les Paul and picks up a charango – a ukulele-size instrument from South America with 12 strings – lying on a cluttered table near the door. He shows off some palm-damping techniques that a CNMAT grad student taught him, playing a series of bluesy chord changes and tamping the strings with the fleshy part of his hand.

Warmed up and in full performance mode, Freed puts down the charango and opens up an acoustic guitar case on the floor. "I want to show you one more thing," he says.

He begins playing three notes in a cycle, building chords from that arpeggio and fiddling with the rhythm until he's in the midst of a hypnotic country-blues improvisation. With gusto, he adds in the beginnings of a melody using grace notes, syncopation, new chords, and octave changes. His fingers fly faster along the frets, and as his playing becomes more impassioned, the notes get sloppier as he loses himself in the music.

He stops suddenly, as if embarrassed. "You'll hear better music from David [Wessel] and others," he says, tucking the guitar back into its case.

But Freed is shortchanging himself. He may not be an accomplished musician, but unlike many people, he can hear the depth of sonic potential; he's privy to the sounds that exist on the technological fringes. He's not a composer, but the new digital guitar is his masterpiece.

"It's just exciting to be surrounded by the possibilities of sound," he says.

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