An inexpensive guitar/uke Midi setup that works

This may not be for every amateur musician out there, but I’m sure there are some that have felt quite frustrated over the apparent inability to have a guitar or uke that will sound like anything else (for a reasonable budget) and still be playable. Sure, you can always add a Fishman or Roland Midi pickup to an electric guitar for a lot of dough, only to find that they work well only for fingerpicking but not for strumming (the essence of uke playing) because of lag or inability to pick up every single string. Well, I think I finally licked it, and quite inexpensively. You can see it at right. The yellow tape on the “strings,” which is quite optional, is a simple tactile aid so I can use only strings 1 through 4 for ukulele playing.

First you must get a guitar/uke that will output Midi. For best results, each “string” must be sensed individually. For best playing feel, the left hand should rest on something resembling strings (sorry, DU-One, YouRock Guitar, and Artiphon: little ridges on a rubber membrane don’t make the cut). Real strings work best in this regard, as in the Rock Band 3 Squier Strat controller or even the JamStik (simulated strings, though), but I’ve found and thin buttons work pretty good too, once you get the feel. This is why I based my setup on the Rock Band 3 Mustang Pro controller, which you can still get (new) for less than 40 bucks. Here’s a link (early 2019):

To get the Midi data out of the guitar, you need a 5-pin Midi to USB cable. I have a ten-year-old M-one cable that still works fine, but here’s a link to a more recent offering ($16 at Amazon):

If, like me, you have your synths and sounds in an iPad/iPhone, you also need a converter to connect USB to the device. Here’s one that also allows you to keep your device charged ($16 at Amazon):

I’ve found that the Mustang Pro controller is fairly nonlinear when it comes to sensing velocity (volume) played on its simulated strings, so I recommend using a soft pick, plus an additional software trick to iron that out. Here’s my favorite soft pick:

That’s it for the hardware. Total cost $75 (not including the headphones and the iPhone SE).

Now the software. Once you get Midi data into your device (an iPhone SE in this case, though I also use an iPad quite a bit), you use it to drive the apps that make the actual sound. There are hundreds of apps that will do this, but here I will talk about one of them only. It is rather expensive at $20  (on sale at $13 rather infrequently, I didn’t want to wait), but the number and quality of the sounds it produces make it worth it. I’m talking about Roland’s Sound Canvas app:

Earlier I mentioned that some velocity correction is needed. I do this with MidiFlow ($7 when not on sale):  This app also allows you to turn off strings in order to turn the guitar into a uke, and to re-tune each string so you can make your instrument a bass, a mandolin, or whatever else you want. Quite worth the investment. All told, the budget adds up to $102, which is still significantly cheaper and way more capable (I presume, since the manufacturer won’t let me have a unit for a while in order to test it) than the much-touted Jamstik.

Now, how to connect everything. You can see in the first picture how the hardware is connected, so I won’t expand that very much. If you want big sound, plug in your stereo in place of the headphones. Remember that the Mustang needs batteries and has a switch in the back that must be turned on (blue light will appear on the guitar face). On the software side, go ahead and start Sound Canvas. The Mustang sends each string data on separate Midi channels, 1 through 6, so Sound Canvas may end up playing a different instrument for each string, if you so choose. This is not my cup of tea, especially since I’d have to change each string if I wanted to switch to a different instrument, so here’s where Midiflow comes in.

Midiflow works by filtering the incoming Midi data, and perhaps altering its values, before it gets to the software instrument. Therefore, I make six filters (four only if you want to play uke, bass, or mandolin) where the input is the “Input Keyboard,” the output is a new virtual Midi port that I make with the software (you can also send to Sound Canvas directly if it’s running), and for each filter I designate a different input channel from 1 to 6, and for output I redirect all of them to channel 7. I go back to Sound Canvas and mute tracks 1 through 6, and pick the playing instrument on track 7, as you can see in the second image. Voila!

Since I notice that the softest note I can play is actually not that soft (after all, the Mustang controller was designed for banging away within a video game), I add a “Velocity Remapping” like that in the picture at left to every filter in Midiflow. Now it’s complete.

Does it sound good? You be the judge. Below is a quick recording of some strumming (uke style, so only four “strings”) using one of the guitar patches in Sound Canvas. Notice how the strums contain several near-simultaneous sounds that nevertheless get rendered quite effectively (pardon my strumming, though), just like the separate notes at start and end.

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