Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Of Paris 19/12

My trips to and from France are usually a fraught affair. Rushing to get to a station on time, checking in, passport control and all the rest of it. It takes very little to complicate the journey still further - usually it is the late arrival of one of the legs of the journey or just me. 

Waiting at St Pancras International for the 07.55 to Paris
Today I added another complication. I made arrangements to meet the good people at HyVibe Audio to try out the prototype of a guitar I have ordered from them when it comes into production in June. Gimmicks have always a been a weakness of mine, but these days I can mostly resist on account of cost, lack of available space and stopping to think about whether I really need whatever it is.  Increasingly I am of the opinion that I have too much stuff and don’t need anything more. 

I decided to make an exception for HyVibe. I think I first encountered them as one of those irritating suggestions on Facebook as a product that might interest me ... or was it YouTube ... or it could have been an Indiegogo mailshot. Whatever, I did just what Facebook/YouTube/Indiegogo wanted and clicked. I was taken to the Indiegogo website, which you may know means crowdfunding. The product wasn’t the first thing to catch my attention. What initially excited me was that the company was started up by people from IRCAM! IRCAM, as you may also know, is a place in Paris where, in my imagination at least, the most wonderful and magical music is possible. Sometime during a family trip to Paris in the 1990s I insisted we visit places like the Centre Pompidou to experience the architecture of an inside out building and I stood in reverence outside nearby IRCAM. I had wild flights of fancy about the hitherto unimaginable music that must be emerging from experiments in subterranean musical laboratories. I have no idea if that is really what happens, but it felt appropriate that it should. One day I may actually get to find out.

HyVibe have managed to get themselves noticed and, for a small company, they are certainly gathering a lot of attention. That is, they keep popping up in various feeds and threads to which I am subscribed. Good for them. If I ever get a recording together I should tap into their one-man advertising and marketing department. Their own website demonstrates the principles behind their guitar project. Basically the instrument uses the spruce belly of the guitar (the prototype uses a Martin as the starting point ... could do worse!) as an amplifying surface more akin to a speaker than a resonator. As a result sounds, including the acoustic guitar itself, may not only be played and amplified, but also an otherwise acoustic guitar can be played with added effects. I contacted the company a couple of months ago to ask if I could visit on one of my trips through Paris to try it out for myself and they readily agreed. We made a tentative arrangement for December and, having heard what other people have done with the prototype in the interim advertising videos and the guitar’s live launch party webcast a couple of weeks ago, I was even more keen to try it out for myself. 

As much as Monday’s plans went awry, Tuesday’s were super smooth. I woke up in London at 3am in the guest bedroom of my dear friend, M. I thought I might actually manage a little more sleep, but that didn’t happen. However a leisurely stroll to West Hampstead Station at 6am, a train to St Pancras, a spot of breakfast and check-in to my Eurostar booking due to leave at 8am. I maintain that after the multiple abuses one suffers in airports and whilst flying the train is so much more civilised, except when travelling a Sunday of course, but I think I have already expressed those concerns elsewhere in these essays. 

The journey to Paris Nord passed quickly, mainly owing to the friendly woman sitting next to me. We mostly chatted about the lack of promised on-board wi-fi, her job as a massage therapist and the friend she was going to meet in Paris before catching the 9pm train back to London. It was all very cordial. The rest of the journey to HyVibe Audio’s centre of operations close to Montparnasse was also very easy. 

An easy trip from Gare du Nord to Saint-Placide on the Métro

Once there I couldn’t find the actual building and ended up in a school at the same address asking for directions. A quick phone call to Matt Volsky, my contact at HyVibe, soon put me right and he came down the stairs of the adjacent building to meet me at a locked security gate. He and Adrien Mamou-Mani, another of the three founders of the company and a rather gifted and accomplished acoustic scientist, had only arrived back in Paris from their trip to New York to introduce the HyVibe guitar to Guitar World five hours earlier, so I suspect he was not at his best. I was introduced to the team. Apparently I was the first actual customer to try out the guitar. That seemed to make it a significant day for them too. My worries were two-fold. Firstly, would the guitar sound good and play well and was it a serious instrument above everything else? Secondly, the name HyVibe. It reminded me of another “instrument” I bought many decades ago that, at the time I thought so cool, but that turned out to be a musical dead end. That was an Optigan, a chipboard-built keyboard that used twelve-inch floppy discs that looked a bit like big versions of the free discs that came with some music publications in the sixties. These optical floppy discs were printed with stripes and patterns reminiscent of a monochrome Bridget Riley painting, but these patterns could be interpreted by the Optigan to play looped accompaniments to melodies played on the keyboard. The Optigan was unwieldy, required at least two strong people to lift it and Mattel, the manufacturers, let it die. Within a few years the MIDI protocol was established and Optigan would have bitten the dust anyway. However HyVibe is not the Optigan and neither do I see it disappearing in a cloud of indifference unlike my previous purchase. 

The guitar was actually on the workbench and had to be reassembled before I could take it into a smaller adjoining office and play it. I live in hope, but I still haven’t found a Martin I like. This wasn’t it, but I was relieved to see that they are taking seriously the necessity of using a guitar with integrity of its own before adding the electrics. The production models are unlikely to be Martins and neither will they be dreadnoughts. The plan is for a cutaway, which will be good because I don’t have one of those - listen to me, I’m beginning to sound like I have GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome - as sung about about by Sally Ironmonger on Sunday evening’s Jane Clayton Show on West Norfolk Radio. The official video of the song may be found here). 

Matt demonstrated the way to access and use several features which at present include the ability to use the self-amplifying guitar as a Bluetooth speaker for backing tracks, looping and recording, along with effects including reverb, chorus, phaser, delay, tremolo, acoustic boost and distortion. I tried a different song for each setting and was filmed playing and singing some of them. If any of them come out well enough I’ll add it here eventually. Everything worked pretty much as expected although the effects, which are controlled via a phone app are not yet fully developed, so the settings were mostly just on or off. The looping function only applies to its own channel at present, but should work with every effect by the time of production. Effects can be chained via the app and up to nine chains can be sent via Bluetooth to one of nine banks in the electrics on the guitar. It was mad having sustain and distorted feedback coming from an acoustic guitar. I am looking forward to June when I get a HyVibe of my own, although after today I am now the proud owner of a complimentary HyVibe plectrum. I don’t know yet how I shall use the HyVibe with my current repertoire, but it will be fun playing with it to work it out and I think the guitar is very likely to expand the methods I use when I compose songs.

At HyVibe - Dr. Francois Beaulier, Dr. Dmitri Bouche, Matthew Volsky, Marshlander, Dr. Adrien Mamou-Mani

Looking at the video of the Guitar World review in New York a couple of days ago it was striking that some of the comments from people watching were so negative. I thought they were very unfair at the time. There seemed to be two lines of attack, one was criticising the quality of the sound and the other that the technology rips off Tonewood. Firstly I don’t know how anyone could have judged the quality of the sound without being present. The quality of the sound relies, in a video broadcast, on many more factors than simply the quality of the instrument. If someone thought the sound was poor, it was more likely that they were listening through the tiny speakers of their laptop computer or smartphone. The real thing is impressive. I have never played a Tonewood-equipped guitar, but I think the technology involved is significantly different. HyVibe has been designed from the ground up. It uses a number of actuators attached to the underside of the belly of the guitar. Adrien's seven years of research have included finding the optimal placement of these actuators. The system relies also on the communication in software between mobile phone, tablet and HyVibe guitar for the sounds. This is quite unlike the Tonewood, which, is a hardware box attached to the the back of a guitar. That alone is bound to have a massive difference on the sound. I shall research further and let you know, for sure but I think the Tonewood does not attempt to be the same thing as the HyVibe, nor vice versa. At the moment I think that the HyVibe carries the potential to be more flexible in terms of sounds, because all the sounds are in the software. However, the Tonewood device probably scores in operational flexibility because the device can be attached to any guitar more easily, I suspect. The systems, though looking superficially, similar are in fact quite different. I suspect the HyVibe will probably end up being the more desirable device, while the Tonewood will probably win points on cost.

Having tried this prototype, I am looking forward to getting my hands on the finished article. I made one or two comments offering suggestions. It would be useful to have some control over changing patches via a foot-pedal rather than relying on a phone app or on releasing one hand to fiddle with the controls set into the shoulder of the guitar. I think the HyVibe team should be very proud of what they have achieved after many years of research and an excellent marketing campaign. They have reached 100% of their Indigogo target too. I didn’t think to say it at the time, but the worst thing about this innovative product is the name. It may appeal to young hipsters out there, but I can see that a few serious musos may have a bit of a problem owning up to buying something called a "HyVibe". Perhaps I'm just too fussy.

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