I haven’t done a gear review in a while – so I thought I’d bring something exciting to the table this time.
Lately, I’ve been thinking more about Midi guitar. Not in the traditional sense of, “wouldn’t it be great to get some flute sounds out of my guitar for this smooth jazz solo?” but using it in (potentially) some more subversive ways.
Midi conversion as an improvisation tool:
The first thought that occurred to me was midi guitar is a glitchy proposition to begin with. Even optimizing everything (picking technique, muting, pick choice, tracking parameters, etc) – there was still a lot that could go “wrong”. This excited me from an improvisational standpoint because it meant that I could have other notes spit out at me that I didn’t play – and that I’d have to actually improvise with what was happening there. To me, this is much more in the spirit of improvising that playing the same 40 licks I’ve worked out over Stella by Starlight.
Midi conversion as a texture:
Additionally, the glitch effect can work really well in sound scape ideas where I might be generating different sounds over (and within) a loop. That’s appealing to me as well.
Midi conversion as a transcriber:
The real interest for this idea though came up with the dvd instructional material that I wanted to generate. After seeing clips of John McLaughlin’s instructional dvd and realizing that he was simply using a midi guitar to capture audio and midi data in Logic. By doing this – he would have a rough transcription of what he was playing and then be able to tweak it to make it more accurate from there. A really good idea and one that stuck with me.
But midi always struck me as a lark. The pickups and converters meant that I was looking at $500-$600 minimum for something that really wasn’t necessary. Then I started seeing the ads for…
The Sonuus i2M musicport:
If you’ve picked up a guitar magazine or been anywhere guitar related on the internet – you have undoubtably seen an ad for one of the Sonuus Midi Converters. Their newest converter the i2M musicport, is a small (read: tiny) monophonic midi converter and a 16bit 48k digital audio interface. Listing for $199 (and selling for $149) this is one of the most intriguing products on the market to me right now.
The unit has a ¼ inch jack on one side and a USB connection on the other which makes it about the size of an adult thumb. It’s bus powered by the USB – so there’s no additional power supply (the green lit SONUUS logo is a nice design touch as well as the key clip.
It’s impossible for me to image a smaller device but how does it sound? Since the i2M acts as an audio interface and an audio midi converter – I’ll address this question in two parts.
The ¼ inch jack is actually a high impedance (hi-Z) input preamp with a 16 bit/44.1 or 48k conversion rate. Even though I typically like higher audio specs when using my guitar the sound is remarkably transparent and I had no issues with quality. In fact, this is an ideal interface for practicing or jotting down ideas and would even consider trying it out on a gig if I needed to. It should also be noted that while I’ve only tested it with a guitar it can be used with bass guitar or other line level sources (like a microphone). There should be no real issue in using a 7 or 8 string guitar with it either.
First: I should state that this unit is a midi converter. It doesn’t have any midi sounds on its own so you’ll need appropriate software (any software with a midi sampler or synth will probably do) to hear and record midi.
Secondly: The midi conversion is monophonic. Anything involving chords or multiple held notes will produce unpredictable results.
Having said that, the i2M does monophonic conversion remarkably well. Tracking was fast, smooth and had very low latency with stock settings (particularly on the higher strings). If you go to the sonuus website, you can download the Desktop Editor software which will allow you to adjust midi settings to suit your style as well.
Rather than just list them, I’d recommend that you go to the Sonuus web site where you can get full specs.
I decided to see if I could use the i2M as both an audio interface and a midi converter to see if I could use the score function in Logic to transcribe what I was playing.
The i2M is class-compliant which means that it’s plug and play. I opened up Logic and had no problem setting it up as a default audio and midi input. To create a real world example of what it sounds like it when you plug-in and play – nothing was optimized. The audio is generated from a FnH Ultrasonic guitar plugging into the i2M at 48k. No amp sims were used in Logic. The guitar track only has LA convolver, some speaker IRs and a reverb on the channel. The midi is generated from the EXS 24 (using the Garageband/Logic Yamaha Piano).
All Logic and i2M settings are stock. I heard the piano sound and decided to improvise in a Cecil Taylor style where caution was just thrown to the wind and I approached ideas as melodic flourishes. I wanted to throw the unit some curve balls so I tried sweep picking, alternate picking and tapping various ideas to see how it reacted.
This video below is just a screen shot of the score pages with an mp3 of both channels so you can compare the difference between the audio and the midi tracking. (You’ll probably want to see it at full screen size – FYI).
Here’s what impressed me:
The tracking was pretty clean. There were a few random glitches on the midi score but those could be easily fixed. For the most part, I got a rough sketch of what I was playing while I was playing it. Very cool.
There are certain open strings ringing and other string noses that were ignored. This was surprising and cool.
The audio signal sounded pretty good out of the box – but to be 100% fair – this was with a clean sound. I ran this through POD Farm to see how the distorted tones were – but for me, the resolution and bit depth weren’t there for a satisfying dirty tone. In other words, as an audio converter – this isn’t going to replace my Apogee Duet – but this is really nit picking as the unit is, first and foremost, a midi converter so the fact that it processes any audio is just as bonus. Additionally, comparing a $150 multifunction unit to a $500 specialized audio interface isn’t a fair comparison. That being said, the i2M has a reasonable starting point for a clean tone.
Also while the unit is plug and play as an audio device for Logic and Garage band, AU lab didn’t recognize it. Not a deal breaker and something I need to research further but it may be something to look into depending on what platform you plan on using.
This unit is just a lot of fun. I probably spent 2 hours just playing the various logic EXS patches. Additionally the piano/guitar sound gave me a lot of compositional ideas in a Maria João idea – which is always a good thing. I tried it with Absynth as well and it worked seamlessly (it even kept tracking as I took liberal swipes at my tremolo arm).
In my opinion this unit is a game changer for guitarists (and hopefully for a lot of other instruments as well). To have something that works this well at this price point while putting an audio interface and a midi converter well within most gear budgets. For this demonstration, I’m essentially using it as a toy, but the potential applications for this are exciting.
Whether you’re looking to lightly tread the waters of midi guitar, get in deep for sonic mangling or just need a decent pocket audio interface, you’re hard pressed to do better than the i2M.
Thanks for reading!