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Interview with Colin Labadie on augmented guitar

Colin Labadie is a composer/guitarist who began working on a prototype for an augmented guitar in 2010.  He’s currently working on a second augmented guitar with a wider variety of sensors and more complex signal processing effects. Check out his website for more.

 What does augmented guitar mean for you in your work? Is it a way to create a new sound palette for the instrument? Do you see it as a way to present the guitar in a less conventional light? Do you approach it as a guitar, or do you think of it more generally as a sound-producing interface?


I’ve always loved the potential of the electric guitar for finding new and interesting sounds. When I discovered Max/MSP, I felt that it was a bit of an untapped resource since it hadn’t been used much with the electric guitar despite being extremely powerful in terms of sound processing. The problem was that I when I was performing, the only control I had over the processing was with a computer mouse, and I was tweaking the sounds so often that I felt like I was playing the mouse more than the guitar. Augmenting the guitar was really a solution to that problem, as it freed up my hands from the computer so I could play the guitar while still manipulating its sound the way I was imagining. It has the added benefit of allowing more subtle real-time control than the feet (where processing is usually controlled), since as a guitarist my hands are naturally more dexterous.


The augmented guitar definitely presents the guitar in a less conventional light, not only in terms of sound but also in terms of visuals, since it can look a bit like a Frankenstein. I like pretty guitars as much as the next person, but I also really like the DIY aesthetic of an augmented guitar. There’s something about it that instantly arouses curiosity. But ultimately I don’t see it as being unconventional for its own sake; for me it’s really a byproduct of seeking out new sounds.


For me, I think of the augmented guitar as either a guitar or a sound-making interface to more-or-less degrees depending on the context or even the mood I’m in. When I was first using it, I was so fascinated with the sensors that I would usually just use the guitar as a drone and played more with the effects, but lately I’ve started to incorporate more guitaristic playing. It really varies.


 Have you modified the electronics of the guitar itself? Or have you added controllers/sensors to the guitar? Both? Describe these modifications.


I’ve just added controllers/sensors to the body of the guitar. The first prototype I build had a couple of buttons, knobs, a switch, a force-sensing resistor (FSR) for pressure, and an accelerometer for tilt. I could map these onto the processing parameters however I wanted, and I could also change those mappings on the fly. I’m working on a second version that will have a few more controllers/sensors, and these will be able to communicate wirelessly with the computer via XBee/arduino so that I’m not bogged down with additional cables, and so that the laptop can potentially sit off-stage.


At some point I do want to modify the actual circuitry of the guitar. I work a lot with lo-fi op-amp chips and it would be great to be able to switch into a hard-wired lo-fi guitar mode. I’d also like to wire up the frets and strings so that my body’s capacitance can alter the sound, like a kind of circuit-bent guitar.


 Describe the work that you have done as a performer on augmented guitar.


I’ve used it mainly in improvisation, either in my improv duo MUGBAIT, solo, or ad-hoc performances with other improvisers.


Have you composed any music specifically for augmented guitar, either solo pieces or as part of an ensemble? If so, how would you categorize this work? Improvisation? Ambient? Noise?  All of the above? Other?


I haven’t yet composed anything specifically for augmented guitar; like I mentioned earlier, it’s been mainly for free improvisation in both solo and group settings. But, I’m currently working on integrating the augmented guitar as part of my doctoral thesis, where I’ll compose three structured improvisations that will act as transitional interludes between the larger movements for acoustic instruments.


Is the way that you’ve set up your augmented guitar suited only to an experimental approach, or do you see it as compatible with a variety of  situations (pop, jazz, metal, classical, avante-garde, etc.)?


I’ve used it primarily for an experimental approach since it lends itself to that kind of playing. Because you can control things simultaneously, you sometimes get weird intersections between effects that you wouldn’t have found otherwise, and it becomes a launching point for exploring odd sounds, especially in free improvisation. That being said, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used in other musical situations since it’s really just a system for controlling sound, and you can map that control to whatever you want. It’s not a surprise that Moldover (one of the better known augmented guitar guys) is using it mainly for pop music, or why the commercial augmented guitar product “Guitar Wing” is being marketed to all kinds of genres (check out to see what I’m talking about).


The only potential problem with incorporating it into established genres is that it has a certain aesthetic that doesn’t always fit the mold, and that can be met with different reactions. It’s not as big of a deal in experimental genres since people tend to be more open, but in certain contexts you might not get called back to play again. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it, depending on how bad you need the paycheque.


 Do you think that the electric guitar is better suited to augmentation than other instruments? If so, why?


There are some practical aspects that make it marginally easier to augment than other instruments. Certainly, having the pick ups built in makes for less of a hassle. It’s also relatively easy to integrate the sensors and electronics into the body of the guitar, and being able to find a decent instrument for relatively cheap makes for less qualms about drilling into it. Beyond the practical aspects, there’s also a rich history of experimentation and tinkering with the electric guitar that’s more publically visible than other instruments, which makes it seem somehow more “normal.” All that said, I don’t necessarily think that it’s useful to say whether the electric guitar is better suited for augmentations, since there have been many other fascinating projects that don’t use the guitar. I think we can learn things from people who have augmented instruments other than our own, and we don’t really stand to gain anything by having overly detailed conversations about which instrument is better suited for augmenting.


 Do you think that the idea of an augmented guitar brings the guitar closer to being a type of sound sculpture? In other words, does the idea of the guitar become more abstract, less tied to its conventional performance modes? This is related to the comment above about the guitar as sound-producing interface.


I think it depends to what extent you’re trying to subvert the electric guitar’s strong cultural associations. There are so many different forces at play when it comes to those associations that I don’t think augmentation alone is enough to completely abstract the guitar, though they can help. Ultimately I think the degree to which the guitar is abstracted relies more on the approach of whoever’s playing it, and how they treat things like performance context, playing technique, the types of sounds they’re creating, and all of the idioms therein. In general I see tabletop guitar as being a more abstract form of the guitar, since by laying the guitar flat they’re completely subverting how you’re supposed to even hold a guitar, which is pretty fundamental, not to mention conventional playing techniques and sound.  Augmentations definitely have the potential to abstract the guitar, especially in terms of sound; the types of processing you’re able to get are sometimes so far away from the typical electric guitar sound that those associations becomes blurred. On the other hand, you have artists like Moldover, who has a very sophisticated augmented guitar and interesting effects, but still plays idiomatically in a lot of ways, and so I think the use of augmentations is perceived as a kind of extended virtuosity that doesn’t affect the fundamental essence or “guitarness” of his instrument. For me it really depends on the goals, approach, and perceived intent of the performer that dictates how abstract the guitar is, and it varies from performer to performer.




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