Traditionally the source of endless disappointment, MIDI guitars have promised the earth - but few have delivered. Until now, says Tom Quayle. And what's even better - you can almost certainly afford this one!
At a first, albeit cursory, glance, the YouRockGuitar, made by Inspired Instruments, looks like a game controller for your Xbox or PS3 console. It resembles a toy and in fact fulfils this purpose very well in all of your favourite music games. So why are we reviewing it here? Because it is much, much more than it appears and represents a very affordable and impressive MIDI controller for the guitarist who is looking to use synth sounds in his or her music..
The YRG, in this case in its second-generation form, ships in two pieces and upon unpacking, the neck must be attached to the body. This is a very simple process and gives you a small form factor instrument that resembles a traditional electric guitar in both feel and design. Whilst being made entirely from plastic, the unit feels solid and well built and the controls function well, without feeling cheap or tacky. The YRG Gen 2 features ribbon like strings on the neck that act as fret sensors allowing the unit to trigger MIDI sounds from its onboard synthesiser and external sounds via its MIDI and USB ports.
The strings feel very good and while they differ significantly from normal guitar strings in that they are fixed in position, feel comfortable and require very little in the way of technical adaptation. The right hand section of the YRG features six string triggers that can be adjusted for a tighter or looser feel depending on the user's preference. Strumming, finger-picking and plectrum techniques can all be used very effectively allowing you to play the YRG just as you would a real guitar, albeit with out more guitar-specific techniques such as vibrato, palm muting and bends that would confuse the MIDI control messages. All of these techniques can be performed in alternative ways, using the onboard whammy bar and joystick controllers, sending pitch bend and modulation data.
A small control panel on the top of the guitar controls a whole swathe of parameters that can be tailored to suit the users playing style, such as hammer-on/pull off delay, slide mode, string trigger sensitivity, tapping mode and many more. From here, the on-board backing tracks and synth/guitar sounds can be selected and played, along with a very useful preset saving facility allowing you to save custom set-ups for recall at a later time. In the video review I used this facility to store one mode for lead playing and another for chordal pads and finger-picking playing.
The level of control does lead to a fairly steep learning curve though and it can take a while to dial in the controls to achieve the best from the unit. The 30 onboard sounds and 20 backing tracks are usable if not inspiring and allow the unit to be used standalone if no better synth sounds are available. Custom tunings are also available with a ton of preset tunings and the ability to create custom ones. There is even a one-shot recorder for capturing ideas on the go. All of the onboard features are astounding given the YRG's price point - it really does compete with controllers costing more than ten times as much!
Using the onboard sounds and with a good 45 minutes of tweaking the controller parameters, the tracking was nothing short of remarkable. Having owned a number of MIDI converter/pickup systems over the years that cost many times more than the YRG, its performance topped them all by some significant margin. The fact that there is no pitch to MIDI conversion means that the tracking process is lightning fast and accurate, allowing a skilled and technically proficient player to perform almost anything from fast legato or picked passages to full on tapping madness.
Once tweaked to match the playing style the YRG is easily the fasted tracking guitar controller I've ever come across. Normally this fast tracking would be less impressive when controlling external synthesisers or VST's in your DAW, but not so for the YRG Gen2. Tracking remains just as consistent and fast, again due to the lack of pitch to MIDI conversion.
It may not look that cool but the YRG really does allow you to play the same things you would play on your guitar through a synth with very little compromise. Of course, sloppy technique will be punished with stray notes and incorrect chords but that isn't a problem with the controller but the player.
As an added bonus the YRG Gen 2 is class compliant, meaning that it can be used with any USB device without the need for drivers. In real world terms this means that you can control anything from Logic or Cubase on your high-end DAW computer to Garage Band on your iPad or iPhone with just a USB cable. Nice!
If you're in the market for a guitar to MIDI controller, I can't think of a single reason why you wouldn't go for the YRG Gen2. It's much cheaper than any of the other offerings from other companies and does the job better. Sure, you're going to look a little less cool than when using your own guitar but you won't need to attach a bulky and ugly pickup unit to your beloved instrument either. You can even play Guitar Hero with it!
The Gi conclusion all round was that this isn't just a fabulous instrument - it's an absolute bargain, too. I want one.