Peavey's new, Antares-loaded AT-200 auto-tuning guitar has been talked about as the company's biggest guitar launch in the last decade...
Beloved of economists, Gresham’s Law insists that ‘bad money drives out good’ and much the same principle applies to ideas.
Take the self-tuning guitar. Whether the idea of a guitar that can tune itself is a good one or not - and regardless of whether previous self-tuning guitars have worked - the very idea seems to have gathered a pall of negativity, as various introductions have failed to set the world on fire. Which makes it brave of Peavey to be launching its own auto-tuner, the AT-200.
But as it turns out, the Peavey approach is radically different to both the Tronical/Gibson system, or the Trevor Wilkinson piloted approach used on the Fret-King Super-Matic. Unlike them, the AT-200 relies on software, based on the ubiquitous Antares Auto-Tune system which now dominates vocal recording in studios around the world - not without some controversy, let it be said.
While Peavey isn’t the only guitar company to have adopted the Antares system (Parker has its own version and there are rumours of other lurking in the wings) Peavey’s application is going to be radically different - most dramatically because it will be appearing on a sub-£500 guitar. Could this be the auto-tuning guitar that breaks through to the mass market? The company is confident, though well aware of the scepticism that is likely to encounter from some quarters.
Fred Poole is Peavey’s general manager of product development and has responsibility for the AT-200 project. He comes to it with the benefit of 12 years experience at the sharp end of music retail, so understands the market well.
“The idea for the AT-200 came from a conversation we had with Antares. They developed the technology outside of Peavey, came back and showed it to us, we said Wow! we want to be a part of this, so we’ve been involved from the very concept stage, which has taken a couple of years.
“You have to understand that the guitar is a completely passive guitar, right from the get-go, with two magnetic pickups, a normal pickup sector, normal volume and normal tone, so it works just like a regular guitar does when you insert the 1/4” jack. When you engage the Auto-Tune system it begins to sense the strings from the Piezo elements in the bridge and the tuning of those strings is monitored individually and runs through Auto-Tune, which everybody is familiar with because of its use with vocals. It’s constantly sensing the pitch and making corrections to the note and it does this in real time.”
On the face of it this seems fair enough but a moment’s thought conjurers up the word ‘nuance’. A guitar player’s style is very much based on his or her use of vibrato and tremolo and the even subtler differences in fingering that go to make up what we call a style. So how does the Peavey/Antares system cope with that - will it simply flatten-out the character? Poole says not.
“It’s really amazing and this is where great software engineering comes into play. If you have a bad chord hand, your fingering is not always perfect, you may bend strings slightly out of tune, for example. But the programme is so precise, it can tell the difference between bad chord hand and position, or you trying to have some tremolo or vibrato and that is the result of really fine, fine details when it comes to programming - working out what is a bend from a musician’s standpoint and what is just bad chord hand. The technology is transparent, even to very experienced players.
“Everything is onboard. If you take a look at the guitar, you really couldn’t tell, other than that it has a door on the back to put some batteries in. It looks just like a guitar - that’s what we wanted.
“There have been a lot of attempts in the past to make a guitar into something other than a guitar, by putting a lot of visible technology on a guitar and from our research we concluded that people don’t want that - they want primarily a guitar and the one big problem with a guitar is its ability to stay in tune all the time. Even the best guitars suffer intonation problems - it’s very difficult and time consuming to get a guitar into perfect tune.
“Once you start playing this guitar and you get used to the way a guitar sounds when it’s perfectly in tune, it is very, very dfficult to go and pickup any other guitar and play it without constantly fiddling with the tuning machines.”
Sticking to good Henry Ford principles, Peavey is offering just a single model at the start, available in just two colours, black and red. Poole says that the company is heavily invested in the Antares technology, however, and other models are going to follow. Asked if that included 12-string he says it does, which raises a host of fascinating possibilities for this traditionally troublesome instrument.
First announced at last year’s winter NAMM, the AT-200 is just arriving in the UK, but Peavey’s US mothership has already had experience of retailer and consumer reaction to the idea, so how has it been received?
“The reaction is generally sceptical until you actually put the guitar in their hands. There have been so many false starts with guitars that do lots of other things and dealers have been bitten many, many times, so they are a little hesitant but once they see that it’s a really simple guitar that solves a problem that none of the others do, they are much more receptive to it. From a retail standpoint, anyone who has ever tried one has ordered them.”
There are hidden benefits too, Poole says.
“One of the things I hadn’t even thought about until the NAMM show arose when Buck Dharma from Blue Oyster Cult came by and I gave him a guitar to see what his take on would be. Initially, my thought was that we would go after entry level guys who, typically, have the most problems with tuning, but when I gave it to Buck, he started changing the tension of the strings to how he would like to feel it play and, of course, it was still in tune.
There is even a hidden benefit for retailers, Poole says.
“You know, when I had a shop I had 300 guitars in one small store. You know how hard it is to keep 300 guitars in tune? A guy comes in to try a guitar amp and I have to pull five or six off the wall to find one that’s in tune. This is the ultimate retail guitar - you grab it, push a button and plug it straight into the amplifier.”
Peavey’s decision to make it simple, affordable and as much like a traditional electric guitar as possible is certainly unique and if retailers and consumers can overcome their scepticism - and always assuming it works as flawlessly as claimed - it promises to bring a completely different proposition to the market - not least by virtue of its price.
“It’s unique, so it doesn’t have a lot of price compression - there’s not a bunch of people trying to sell something similar that depress the price. That’s the hard thing today. A power amp that was 800 Watts 10 or 15 years ago was $800, now something triple the power is $300. We all have to make the same living off basically the same consumer base - it hasn’t grown as much as the prices have deflated. So having something unique that doesn’t have a lot of deflationary pricing is awesome. Dealers are going to make their full margin on it and that’s really important. Plus, to Mum and Dad, what’s the difference between a $99 guitar with six strings on it and a $500 guitar with six strings on it? But now the retailer can tell them that you push this button and the guitar is in tune - that, right there, is the way to get them out of buying the cheapest thing in Wal Mart, or the cheapest starter pack. You have to sell people something new and this is the first guitar to come along in a decade that has a definite difference that you can upcharge for.”