If all goes well for a small band of engineers at Gibson Labs in Sunnyvale, Calif., this will be the year they put commercial electric guitars on an Ethernet network for the first time. The next question: Will anyone want a digital Les Paul?
Jeff Vallier hopes so. He is one of about a dozen Gibson engineers who have been working almost three years to craft Magic a custom digital network technology based on Ethernet that Gibson will build into future guitars, amps, speakers and other gear.
"We expect some people to say 'No thanks,' they just want their 1957 Les Paul. But there will be a group of early adopters for this, and it will be a no-brainer for them," said Vallier, who is part of a three-man design team working on the digital electronics for Gibson's first networked guitar.
"A [musician like progressive rock guitarist] Steve Vai may be interested, but someone like [Rolling Stones lead guitarist] Keith Richards who has played the same guitar for 20 years may not," said Andreas Schmidt, the FPGA guru of the team.
Indeed, as consumer electronics undergoes a historic migration to digital networked systems, many observe the move is happening at a glacial pace as users prove quite comfortable with their analog world. And networked electric guitars may be no exception.
"The mainstream guitar player doesn't have the slightest interest in this," said Art Thompson, a senior editor of GuitarPlayer magazine. (GuitarPlayer and EE Times are both published by CMP Media LLC.)
Thompson said he had not been briefed on Gibson's plans, but he pointed to the unfulfilled promise of such earlier digital-music revolutions as the musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) format. Most interest in digital technology today is limited to small experiments, conducted among artists and consumers, with systems that model effects.
"They are more focused in finding ways to recreate the sounds Led Zeppelin or B.B. King laid down in the '60s or '70s," said Thompson.
"Generally speaking the music industry is very digital-averse," acknowledged Gibson Labs general manager Shri Arora, who helped design the core Magic technology. "But as the technology gets better, the cost-effectiveness is becoming a compelling force. In five to 10 years this [electric instruments and related equipment] will all be digital anyway."
"The average person I ran into at our booth at the Consumer Electronics Show [held earlier this month] understood the concept and thought it was cool," said Vallier. He was speaking in a Sunnyvale, Calif., conference room that will be turned into a demo room for beta testers of the guitar later this year.
The Magic technology will let users apply unique digital effects to each string of the guitar and control remote amps or other devices from the guitar's knobs (and vice versa). It will also simplify stage and studio setup, substituting low-cost Category 5 cables that can be bought at a local computer store for the thick, expensive analog cables used today.
Devices will automatically identify themselves over a Magic network to a mixer that can have custom settings for every instrument in a band loaded onto a CD for fast setup. And home-studio users will be able to plug their guitars directly into a PC.
"There are so many applications," Vallier said.
Gibson showed the first cut of its Magic specification at the Audio Engineering Show in the fall of 1999. The spec authored by five Gibson engineers, including chief executive officer Henry Juszkiewicz is now available online in a version 2.8 for a 10-year royalty-free license.
New team member Alexei Beliaev will help rev the spec to version 3.0 by March, adding support for video and 1-Gbit/second speeds, up from 10/100-Mbit Ethernet today.
Magic uses the Ethernet physical layer and Category 5 cables to provide thirty-two 32-bit bidirectional audio channels with sample rates up to 192 kHz, jitter less than 80 picoseconds and latency as low as 250 microseconds across 100-meter point-to-point links. The protocol uses a UDP-like packet held to a fixed packet length and transmission rate. Magic conforms to the 802.3af spec for providing power over Ethernet.
No jitter allowed
"The protocol itself is kind of complex," said Vallier. "We use the packets themselves to clock each end of the signal because we can't have jitter. We can't have someone hearing a crack."
The current incarnation of the hardware is based on a custom media-access controller developed by Vallier and running on an Analog Devices Sharc DSP working with an FPGA designed by Schmidt and standard 100-Mbit/s Ethernet PHY chips. A separate analog board, designed by Gibson's Mike Dibble, uses multichannel preamps and four-channel A/D converters with integrated op amps.
The team is trying to shrink those development boards down to two small 2 x 2-inch cards that could be sandwiched into a module that would fit comfortably inside the guitar. They will do that, in part, by shrinking the current digital design to an FPGA and later moving that to an ASIC, Arora said.
Gibson partner 3Com Corp. has ported the Magic software to an existing 3Com ASIC that sports an integrated 10/100 Ethernet MAC, an ARM9 processor and an I2C interface. The chip is powering current demo guitars shown at conferences, and 3Com hopes to sell it to other OEMs wanting to make Magic-based systems.
"We see this as something that could go into pianos, keyboards, all kinds of musical instruments and gear," said Barani Subbiah, director of technology strategy for 3Com's Connectivity Division, located just down the road from Gibson Labs.
"It's a new business for us, exploring connectivity beyond the PC," Subbiah said. "We are talking with many people, but we have no contracts signed yet."
Do you believe in Magic?
Gibson shares the hope that Magic technology will someday be used in home automation, consumer products and telecom gear in addition to digital music products. The guitar maker has had discussions with Cisco, Intel, Sony, Philips and others about using Magic. But to date announced partnerships are limited to 3Com, Xilinx (which provides Gibson with FPGAs) and Advanced Micro Devices, which envisions PC-based Magic recording systems using AMD processors.
The company's ambitious visions and marketing have been paired with a relatively Spartan engineering budget and no commercial sales. Gibson Labs consists of only about 12 people including managers and support staff, tucked into a small, simple office complex in Silicon Valley.
"Sometimes we joke that we work for a company that thinks in terms of wood and glue. We don't have gazillions of dollars for all kinds of fancy test equipment," Vallier said.
"If I need a new $25,000 tool, I have to do the paperwork for it myself and wait a couple months to get it. I wind up writing a lot of scripts myself," said Schmidt, who doubles as the EDA administrator at Gibson Labs.
Meanwhile, boxes of Magic audio distribution systems are being warehoused in a room adjoining the lab, waiting for the advent of Magic guitars. Magic speakers and amps announced a year ago should go on sale this spring, Arora said, about the same time that guitars based on the upcoming FPGA will become available in limited quantities.
Those initial Magic guitars will also have traditional analog pickups. "It will essentially be two guitars in one: You don't have to go digital if you don't want to," said Arora.
"The move to digital has been on our CEO's mind for almost 10 years," said Vallier, "but the music industry moves much slower than the consumer or computer industries."