Gibson Firebird X

Taking a system to the axe

Gibson's new Firebird X guitar is as much an exercise in design integration as any mobile device.

If you want to turn kids on to technology, the electric guitar is your man. You have this stuff called electromagnetic induction which means that when you twang those strings, you get an electric signal that you run through an amplifier. And hey presto, Johnny Marr (or feel free to insert the name of your own lesser hero here). Now, who said engineering wasn't cool.

Similarly, legend has it that what makes a guitar different is its shape, the materials it is made from, and a whole host of other physical details. Much of that is down to the fact that axemen tend not to be science guys themselves - with due respect to Queen's Brian May. But even when they are, what they want is something that both sounds and looks cool. So, we're back to the packaging again.

In recent years, though, this has started to change. In the early days of synth-pop, guitars were anathema. The first incarnation of The Human League proudly trumpeted its refusal to use them, and Kraftwerk ain't exactly known for their licks. By contrast, the last three years have seen guitars take centre-stage at events like the Consumer Electronics Show, and not just because of some or other video game.

This December, Gibson is releasing the $5,000 limited edition Firebird X. It is still a guitar but one with a whole raft of digital technology on-board and peripherals to boot. In one respect, you could cheekily observe that the worlds of Guitar Hero and Rockband have reached back to the instrument itself and influenced what they so vaguely mimic. But, from an electronics point-of-view, the more notable thing about the Firebird is the extent to which it has become a system, an integrated package whose real design influences are as much an iPod or any other multifunctional device. It even has its own app store.

Gibson Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz  didn't hold back on the hyperbole during Firebird's launch at Hard Rock Café, but he also played the 'system' card. "This is new. This is different. This is revolution. Nobody looks and spends the time to reinvent the guitar. This is a new guitar."

What makes the Firebird interesting is its engine. This 'Pure-Analog' box incorporates the company's existing Pro Tools technology and the latest generation of analogue-to-digital converters and processors from Freescale Semiconductor. It takes the analogue, unprocessed or corrected output from the guitar, so you hear the same thing coming off the strings as emerges from the amp. There is no 'disconnect' that some players have complained of with new instruments that apply digital correction earlier.

The analogue signal goes directly into a studio quality preamp and then into the ADCs before being passed to the sound processor. Gibson aims to keep latency to a minimum here and retain bit depth and resolution to avoid truncation errors and other artefacts. Then it passes back through a digital-to-audio converter. Analog in, analog out.

In itself, this doesn't sound special, but what matters is that, first, Gibson has then kept on adding more options and functions to the guitar, all of which that engine can enhance. There are patches to offer tube distortion and such tape effects as modulation and reverb. There are tone control features, noise cancelling technology, tuning, mini-humbuckers with multiple modes and polarities, on-board toggles to let you slip between processed and unprocessed modes, and an option to let each string provide a separate output to a computer or a mixing desk. And the pedals, if you prefer adding your effects the old-fashioned way, are Bluetooth-enabled.

But the Pure Analog box itself is the more intriguing part. In addition to being firmware-upgradable, Gibson is releasing details the architecture so other developers can create applications for this environment - although it will remain proprietary, just like that for the iPhone. Right now, the company says that its own technology pulls on just 20% of the capacity of the processors.

That points to the next important innovation - you can take the Pure Analog box out of the guitar body and ultimately the idea is that you should be able to put it into just about any Gibson product. A comparison here might be with how people now move iPods around various docks from the computer, to the hifi, to a clock radio, to a car. Also, when the processor gets a major hardware upgrade, you just pop it out of the body - no soldering required, it connects to a standard mount - and put in a new one.

At a level of system thinking, Gibson thus goes beyond integration of applications and again the Apple model springs to mind. Stick with the one brand and it will make everything work together smoothly. But for guitar players particularly, the idea that you might be able to replicate the sound and feel of one type of body from another starts to raise some interesting possibilities (although that inevitably includes the one where a player decides he only needs one axe rather than a phalanx ranged behind him).

As such, the Firebird X may be limited to 1,800 pieces - with a tasty price-tag - but this time, it has to be more than a one off. The company itself acknowledges that it will have to sell "hundreds of thousands" of guitars to make its gamble pay off, across its range. Development costs are undisclosed but this kind of integration in a specialist product does not come cheap. In a few weeks, we will get some idea if the market is ready for this type of system play - the good news for Gibson so far is that the discrete digitisation of guitar has gone pretty well. Ultimately, though, Firebird has to move the technology towards the mass market.

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