The pretty good MIDI guitar gets better

Hot on the heels of my previous post on the Fishman TriplePlay Connect, here’s another post on the same device, this time focusing on the software for PC and Mac rather than iPad.

On my first review of the TriplePlay Connect MIDI system for a guitar, I gave the hardware an A, and the software a C. Folks at Fishman read the article and were kind enough to give me a code so I could test the device with computer software (I used an iMac) rather than the free iPad software. This normally would have set me back $29.95 through the Fishman store, so the gift is appreciated.

If you want to skip the detail, here’s the one-line review: the Mac software for the TriplePlay Connect is a lot better than that for the iPad. It is also quite different, generally in a good way, although it is a lot harder to install. Frank at Fishman wanted to hold my hand as I installed it so I’d get the best possible experience which, avowedly, is what they do for any customer and not just me writing a review, but I decided to go ahead and not use any extra help. I must add that, being a software developer myself, I believed I could handle whatever came my way during software installation and further tweaks. Here’s what I did:

  1. Logged into the Fishman page with the code they gave me and the serial number of my Connect. This brought me to the private downloads area.
  2. Dowloaded Komplete Elements, SampleTank 3, SampleTank 2 XT, and the TriplePlay software (this last one is always free). Some of these required making a login on other websites (haven’t got any spam so far).
  3. Installed said softwares from the .dmg archives. First Komplete Elements, then SampleTank 3 and 2, and TriplePlay last, as indicated by the tutorials in this page. This is necessary so the TriplePlay software can find all the components it needs.
  4. There were some hitches, though. Komplete Elements needed a more recent licensing app (Native Access Installer), which I had to download from their website and run before Komplete Elements would run. It took the codes supplied by the Fishman downloads page without a problem. Ditto for SampleTank, except that the SampleTank 3 downloaded from Fishman is not the real SampleTank 3 (rather, it’s SampleTank “Custom Shop”), and it took me a while to find a pesky code on the IK website that would allow me to complete the installation.

Before trying those sound-making modules through the TriplePlay app, I tried them on Logic Pro. They all loaded fine and made sound when the Connect was plugged into the computer. But some things were not “perfect” because they weren’t supposed to be. For instance, string bends were not registered as such, but rather as a new (higher) note when the bend gets hard enough, what Fishman calls “trig” bend mode. Bends only get registered as a smooth pitch change when the Connect is in “auto” or “smooth” bend mode, which is typically accompanied by sending the MIDI messages through a separate channel for each string. This is forced by the TriplePlay app, and then the app changes a setting on the hosted synth so the range of semitones affected by a string bend matches what the app is supplying. Apparently, you can also get the Connect to switch bend modes without the app, by sending a MIDI control code 126 or 127 back to the device, but that requires special setup on your synth if you’re not using the TriplePlay app. Tracking was smooth, accurate, and fast. Dynamic range was awesome, from pianissimo to forte.

The TriplePlay software adds the famous “patches” that I was missing so sorely on the iPad app. In Fishman lingo, “patches” are complete configurations, including the synths loaded, their respective settings, and any transposition or additional settings for each one. You can load up to four synths and assign them to different string/fret areas, plus an extra one through a pedal. There are 142 factory patches and you can make your own, or use as a starting point to make your own “user patches” (the factory patches themselves cannot be modified), or make “hardware patches” which are configurations that can be selected with the up and down buttons if you plug the Connect in while holding the up button.

Unfortunately, the iPad app does not allow you to edit the “hardware patches,” only the PC/Mac app does. Since the first 127 default hardware patches are of the “poly” type (Fishman’s lingo for using channel 1 for all strings) and “trig” pitch bend, it’s pretty hard to make this feature usable for realistic string bends. If you want to have realistic pitch bends in an iPad synth, you’ll have to use the PC/Mac app, load the first hardware patch, double click it, and edit it so it is “mono” (one MIDI channel per string) rather than “poly,” and uses “auto” pitch bends rather than “trig,” then save it. Like the string calibration, hardware patches are saved in flash memory within the Connect, so they are usable as soon as you plug it in while holding the up button. Be careful here: if you hold the down button instead, you’ll reset the calibration and who knows what else.

You can also make sets of patches called “songs” and switch between them with the up and down buttons on the Connect. Switching patches on my late 2017 iMac took roughly one second each time, so I think this can be very handy for live performance. By comparison, the iPad app’s “patches” reduce to loading combinations of two sampled instruments, whether layered or on different string/fret areas, and there aren’t too many instruments available.

I was unable, however, to get the settings for VST plugins other than those supplied by Fishman to stick, so that when I loaded a patch based on one of those the synth would load with the default preset rather than the one I had when I saved the patch. Other third-party plugins, notably Roland Sound Canvas, which I was very interested in because I think it’s far superior to SampleTank, loaded showing a blank interface so I couldn’t get out of the default piano sound. SampleTank 2 XT failed to load altogether, but SampleTank 3 has the ability to import SampleTank 2 instruments, so I ended up being able to add a few hundred instruments (which were still there when patches based on them were reloaded) that come with the SampleTank 2 XT installer (they don’t come with SampleTank 3, which is weird).

The TriplePlay software doesn’t even try to load plugins in Audio Unit (AU) format. I guess this is because AU is a Mac-specific format, and Fishman sought to make the Mac and Windows versions of the software as identical as possible. Hopefully this will change now that TriplePlay also has an iPad app, since the iPad OS supports only Audio Units, not VSTs. Once they add the much-needed AU support to the iPad app, it will be relatively easy to add it to the Mac version as well.

The TriplePlay software gave me that “suspension of disbelief” feeling that I mentioned in the other article, right away. “Patches” are a great idea for live performance. But then, you’ll have to lug a laptop to the gig rather than an iPad. I’d rather the iPad app had this ability. I also have a lot more software synths for the iPad, because they are a lot cheaper and still sound as good as the computer-based ones.

I looked for the ability to update the Connect firmware through the Mac software. Sadly, this only seems to work for the wireless TriplePlay, even though the app does support the Connect for everything else. I’m sure this will be fixed with the next update.

If I were the developer, I’d make version 2 of the TriplePlay iPad app to be like the Mac software. I’d get rid of the loops (who needs them?), the layering/splitting of two instruments (would make sense if the selection were better, but not with such a poor set of instruments), and I’d add support for Audio Units, so I could use whatever sounds I already have. This may help to slim down the app (2.5GB is way too much storage for what you get). Once Audio Units are supported, I’d give the iPad app the same “patches” feature as the Mac/PC app, and toss what it has now. For sure, I’d make sure the app is at least capable of updating the firmware without crashing. Oh, and I’d stop charging $19 via IAP to users of the wireless pickup in order to use the iPad app.

Bottom line, though, is that a “pretty good” setup becomes definitely better through the computer software, so I wish the iPad app were like this. Maybe next version…

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