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more... Builder ProfileGearGear HistorySynthNovember 2008Roland

Return of a Legend: Does the VG-99 Live Up to the GR-300?

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Also of concern is the amplitude envelope. The decay of a sustained note using the VG- 99/GR-300 closely followed the actual decay of the unprocessed Strat sound. However, in the GR-300 the sound was a bit more compressed, holding at a fairly steady level before abruptly dropping off. The GR- 300, both real and emulated, does have a compression switch, but I had this turned off for these tests. For moderate to fast playing, you cannot hear the difference, but one of the pleasures of playing a GR-300 is hearing a low note sustain for twenty or thirty seconds before fading out. In the sustained audio samples, the VG-99/GR-300 always fades out before the original GR-300 does.

Return of a Legend
The Roland VG-99
While the GR-300 barely takes three milliseconds to respond, the VG-99/GR-300 took about 23 milliseconds on average. But the delay in the VG-99/GR-300 is different from the dreaded delay players experience in working with pitch-to-MIDI systems. The delay in the VG-99 is about the same with the lowest note on the guitar as it is with the highest note. MIDI tracking systems typically track higher notes faster than lower notes. This behavior indicates to me that the VG-99 delay represents the amount of processing in the VG-99 required to model the analog signal path of the GR-300. Many synthesizers actually work within the 20 to 25 millisecond range, which is comparable to the time it takes sound to travel 20 to 25 feet. And since the delay is consistent, it is easier to adjust to than the ever-varying MIDI delay. Impressively, the tracking of the VG-99/GR- 300 is every bit as good as the GR-300. Players used to the glitching, dead notes and false triggering of MIDI guitar synthesizers will be blown away by the GR-300 emulation in the VG-99. Just like the original GR-300, you do not need to change your playing style: hammer-ons, harmonics, muting, everything works here. It would not be accurate to say the VG-99/GR-300 has better tracking than typical guitar synths, since no “tracking” is really involved. The string vibration drives the process, and there is no invisible electronic bean counter trying to name the note you just played.

A minor note: the VG-99/GR-300 does not specifically mimic the “string select” feature found in the original GR-300. There are three modes of operation in the GR-300. Mode one is hex fuzz only, mode two is a combination of hex fuzz and synth sound, and mode three is synthesizer only. Pat Metheny, for example, only uses his GR-300 in mode three for lead voice. On the original GR-300 you can turn individual strings on and off, but only in mode three. The VG-99/GR-300 does not have this feature in the GR-300 section, but provides a way to switch individual strings on and off through the guitar modeling parameters.

The VG-99/GR-300 certainly recreates the analog fatness and vibe of the original GR-300. Perhaps Roland engineers had an advantage modeling the GR-300. Software emulations often suffer from being too perfect: the oscillators work too precisely, and the MIDI-based keyboard tracking generates perfectly intonated pitches. The VG-99/GR- 300 readily recreates the human quality of the original GR-300 synth, because any flaws in the Roland GK guitar controller are reproduced. The subtle difference between playing the same note on a wound or unwound string is heard, as is the inherent intonation compromises found in any guitar fretboard. It is these subtle differences that make the sound of the GR-300, real or virtual, more complex and interesting to the human ear than typical synthesizers. Unlike most synths, playing the same note twice does not create the exact same sound.

And now for Version 2.0?
My quibbles with the GR-300 emulation are really pretty small. For most GR-300 players, the VG-99 is well worth the money, since you can now keep your pricey vintage gear at home. Also, the VG-99 offers something the GR-300 never had: presets. Players pretty much had to stick to one sound, since there was no way to store and recall settings. Connect the FC-300 to the VG-99, and you can easily changes patches and recreate the octave shifts that are an essential part of the drama of any GR-300 solo. The VG-99 also lets the user assign more than one function to pressing a footswitch or moving a pedal. So hitting the CTL 1 switch can simultaneously change octaves, engage filter modulation and tweak the final output equalizer.

The VG-99 is software based, so there is always the possibility that Roland engineers will address the envelope issue in a future version, but even if that day never comes, I am truly impressed with the work that Roland put into the GR-300 emulation on the VG-99. Unlike most software vintage synthesizers that can exist solely in a CPU, the VG-99, like the GR-300, requires input from the real world to start its engines. And the dual-channel VG-99 will let you actually play two GR- 300s at the same time. Just try to track down the equivalent vintage gear to do that: two GR-300s, a super-rare Roland US-2 splitter, and three of the 24-pin cables. With prices steadily creeping higher and higher in the vintage market, you might be able to afford a new car for the same money!

With the VG-99 now providing my GR-300 tones, my elderly GR-300 is getting some well-deserved rest. Everything old, it seems, is new again.




Roland
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