Want to make a serious musician really, really angry? There are a few topics that are almost guaranteed to get even the most placid guitarist brimming with rage. Simon Cowell is a good one, for his services to TV talent shows; streaming services are another, because of the pitiful royalty rates; and then there’s Auto-Tune – the controversial `cheating’ tool that means singers don’t even need to be able to sing anymore.
Pour yourself a brandy, take some deep breaths and think about kittens until you’ve calmed down, because we’re about to look at an Auto-Tune product for guitarists, and it really isn’t anything to get angry about. After all, when you think about it, we’re already cheating by using frets.
Antares is the company that brought Auto-Tune to the world, and it’s now using some of that expertise to help guitarists play in tune. But, as you can probably tell by the number of footswitches on the ATG-1, this is no one-trick pony. Auto-Tune works by taking the note you sing or play and replacing it with a digitally corrected version ± and once you’re in that digital domain, it’s just as easy to replace it with something completely different.
So this is a powerful processor that also offers instant alternative tunings, pitch shifting, 12-string effects, and even modelling of different guitar types. There’s an expression pedal for dizzying pitch swoops and room for eight banks of eight presets. The only thing it doesn’t have is an input for your guitar.
Yes, that’s right, it doesn’t have a guitar input. To do all this processing, the ATG-1 needs a separate signal from each of your instrument’s six strings, and for that you’re going to need a hexaphonic pickup with a 13-pin interface, such as the Roland GK-3.
If you don’t have one already, it’ll set you back around £100, and installation can be quite fiddly depending on what sort of guitar you’re using. Our plucky volunteer was a Telecaster, chosen for simplicity: the pickup sticks to the scratchplate with two self-adhesive pads, and the main unit is held in place by the rear strap button, with felt pads protecting the instrument’s finish.
A 13-pin cable takes this digital signal into the Antares unit, and at this point your guitar is not your guitar anymore: if you want Telecaster-like sounds now, you can simply select Nashville Single Coil in the Model menu and work with the emulation. That may seem weird and unnatural to many players, but we’re promised top-class processing with inaudibly low latency, so it should sound and feel just like, well, playing the guitar.
The best way to get your head around a complex machine such as this is, of course, to jab wildly at random footswitches and hope for the best. Actually, there are some calibration steps to go through first – for example, the ATG-1 needs to know your guitar’s scale length so it can judge intonation accurately – but other than that it is pretty much plug and play.
The first footswitch to jab at is probably going to be the String Tune one: strum all six open strings, press this and listen in awe as they all sweep down a tone or two, then up into perfect tuning. It requires a good hard strum to wake it up (or at least our review unit did), but once it gets there the Auto-Tuned playing experience is remarkably normal – and if you slip out of tune again, another strum and stomp will bring it back. There’s no distracting latency, and it’s very effective at not trying to fight against string bends.
And so we move on to the other, even cleverer features of this device. Working with presets is intuitive enough, so we won’t waste too much time talking about the user interface – the important part is the eight numbered functions and what they do.
Volume comes first, and it’s the simplest – allowing you to store presets with different output levels and, more usefully, to turn the onboard expression pedal into a volume control for violin-like swells. It works just as well as it should. Next to that is Alt Tuning, and there are plenty of options, from folky DADGAD to metal-style drop-D.
You can use the expression pedal to scroll through them, but it makes more sense to simply keep pressing the footswitch; when you’ve arrived at the tuning you want, it’s easily stored in a preset. All of the tunings sound uncannily natural; the only strangeness comes when your amp is set so low that you can still hear a little of the guitar’s acoustic sound clashing against it.
Switches 3 and 7 work together, offering a range of guitar types and allowing you to select different pickup positions for each: choose an LP-type and you’ll have three settings, choose an S-type and there’ll be five.
There’s even a bass option and an impressive acoustic – in fact three of them, as in this mode the Pickup footswitch allows you to hop between dreadnought, OM and fingerstyle voices. Like playing a Line 6 Variax, it never quite has the feel of the real thing, but there’s no denying the emulations are technically accurate.
Pitch shift takes you into the freaky world of the DigiTech Whammy, allowing you to set your up and down intervals then screech crazily between the two with the expression pedal. It works faultlessly and is more fun than watching Bergerac in your pyjamas.
Capo works in a similar way, but with fixed one-fret intervals, predictably enough, while Tone is equally self-explanatory; use the expression pedal in this mode and you can get a very mild wah effect.
That just leaves the Double footswitch, home to a wide range of octave, harmony and 12-string effects. These offer a lot of entertainment for the sonically uninhibited; both 12-string sounds have been detuned slightly, which brings a hint of chorus-like modulation, while the harmoniser settings track tightly all over the fretboard.
Like everything else about this unit, the doubling effects work with impressive simplicity and will leave you marvelling at the power of modern digital processing; the only question is whether you want these capabilities enough to make such a big investment in what may or may not be the future of guitar playing.
• Price £699
• Description Digital Auto-Tune and pitch processor, made in The Philippines
• Controls Data wheel, four function buttons, expression pedal; footswitches for string tune, control/preset and bank select; footswitches for selecting presets or modelling functions: Volume, Alt Tuning, Pickup, Pitch Shift, Capo, Double, Model and Tone; 9V power input, left/mono and right analogue outputs, digital guitar input and output, MIDI in, out and thru
• Contact Sonic 8 Limited
033 0202 0160