the joy of kaoss

I have to admit, of all of the few unusual instruments I have run across, the Ibanez RG Series Kaoss model guitar is one of the best in so many ways.  It’s simply fun to play, and what you can do with one electric guitar that interfaces with one set of 100 (yes, that is One HUNDRED) kaossilator effects to give you one of the most tactile and hands on guitar to synth “instant treatments” experiences since Brian Eno ‘treated’ Phil Manzanera‘s guitar on stage with Roxy Music back in the early 1970s.  No longer do you need to run your guitar through a very large and very expensive VCS3 synthesiser, but you can do the ‘treatments” by yourself, as you play – and the sounds you can get out of it are simply amazing if you just work at it….

What more could I ask for?  What more could any guitarist who also happens to be a Kaossilator Pad player, who also is a synthesist – ask for?  This is the inexpensive way into a Kaoss-pad-controlled-by-a-guitar or rather, by-a-guitarist – you.

Before I try to describe the experience of playing this unique instrument, I should probably approach the negatives – of which there are one or two – depending on your viewpoint.  The guitar is deliberately built down to a price, it’s possibly, the cheapest Kaoss guitar on the market – and that is possible the way Ibanez and Korg wanted it – who knows?  So some of the features you might expect in an expensive electric guitar simply aren’t really here in this guitar.  Like super low super easy action.  Not here – you have to work to play this guitar.  I am going to need to take it in, and see what can be done about the action – which is less than ideal.  I end up thrashing the fingers on my left hand every time I play it – but I am determined, so I don’t let something as unimportant as somewhat high action bother me – I just play anyway, and ignore it.

One alleviating factor or solution I have found, is to go to an extra light gauge of string.  This DOES help a little bit, when the guitar you are playing has action that is too high – for me, it seems to help on the higher strings, but no so much on the lower strings.  It was strange – I hadn’t tried an .009 on my high E since I was about 13!  But I find it helpful to switch from, in my case, Regular Slinky, to, Super Slinky – with a .009 top rather than the .010.

The other thing that I really miss, is a whammy bar.  I think that alongside the awesome distortion circuit built into the guitar, that a whammy bar would have been just the ticket – switch on that fuzz and start yourself a crazy whammy solo….but not this time.   So – two negatives; it’s hard to play, and, no whammy fun – but I can easily forgive both – there are actions I can take, I can get the guitar set up, I can put lighter strings on it, I can even get the neck fretted or shaved – I mean, there is room to improve the action, that is for sure – but it needs investment, and a good luthier too.

Getting over the whammy is easier, for one thing, you have 101 on board sounds to replace it with, the first being, the very usable on board distortion circuit which I really like, it isn’t the most amazing distortion box in the world, but, it gives you plenty of sustain when you want a sudden kick-ass solo – and so easy to switch it in!

So that is the 101st effect, I would say, and then what you have is 100 more on the kaoss pad, to make up for that missing whammy.  For example – may I suggest, voice 16, “vinyl break” – that gives you the ultimate dive bomb, and you can have it at any speed imaginable – very quick indeed, or, very very slow…taking a high note down to a low note that my 12 inch guitar speakers have trouble delivering it’s so lowl!

Or really, instead of thinking of it as 101 effects – the built-in distortion plus 100 Kaoss sounds, you could actually look at it as 201 sounds – the built-in distortion is 1, then you have 100 kaoss sounds with clean guitar, and, 100 kaoss sounds with heavy distortion – and some of these Korg sound respond very well to clean or distortion, and, behave differently depending on what is chosen.

So now that I have got through the tricky stuff, I can go on about how much fun it is to actually PLAY this guitar – and, you have to understand, the kaoss pad that is built into it, is not like the kaoss pad “synths” (like the little hand held pink synth kaoss pad I started out playing a few years back) you buy to play on stage – it is instead, an “effects” kaoss pad, a “Mini-Kaoss pad” – and it’s been made into part of the guitar’s circuitry – it has actually been embedded into the guitar’s DNA – being at the end of the guitar’s audio output.

I think that learning how to play this guitar effectively is something that has to be learned over time, and each time I pick up the Kaoss guitar, I learn a little bit more about what is best in terms of technique – and a lot of the sounds aren’t totally suited to using them like a normal effect, they actually seem to work the best as sudden events in between notes, or, at the end of phrases.

Vinyl Break, good old number 16, is suitable for either, and I had a blast just suddenly DROPPING a note, a millisecond after playing it, down a few octaves, and the real beautiful of the Kaoss pad becomes apparent in the amount of control you have over the timing of that event, of that note drop – if you do it at the “top” of the pad (i.e. the edge nearest the strings, rather than the edge near the edge of the guitar’s body) the drop is incredibly fast, and you are at that low, low tone so fast you can hardly believe it.

If you drop it in the centre of the pad, it drops substantially more slowly, but still at a pretty good speed, and you can learn to “time” these smoother, more elegant drop curves to suit your musical taste…it becomes quite an art, can I make this note drop really smoothly down to it’s lowest tone and then still hit the next note in my solo or improv at the “right” moment, and most times, I can.  It’s a huge amount of fun, trying to control the duration of a note drop event, and get it to work in a really musical way.

Finally, if you choose to drop at the bottom of the pad, well then you are going to get the longest drop of all, possibly a bit too slow to be very musical, but just as useful – and everywhere in between, you get all the different speeds. So to put it into phonographic terms, it can be like dropping from 78 to 16 rpm in a millisecond, or from 78 to 16 rpm in a second, or maybe take five seconds to get there – or, you can stop the process anywhere along the way, so maybe you might just go from 78 rpm down to only 33 1/3rd rpm, instead of all the way down to 16 – it’s entirely up to you.

The pad is physically pretty tiny, and you have to learn to use it … sort of… “in between” your notes, or, at the end of a series of notes – it CAN be used while you are playing, but that is hard – it’s possible, with some of the more standard sounds, like a jet flanger or a nice phaser, you can hold a finger on the pad while you are strumming or picking, but – it’s a difficult act of co-ordination, and really, you would be a lot better of concentrating on playing your notes properly, and using your stomp box flangers or phaser, and they very probably will sound better – and, they stay on, too, until you shut them off, whereas, the pad stops working as SOON as your finger or fingers lift off of it – and that makes it tricky to use as a “regular” effect (whatever THAT means lol).

However, the real strength of the Kaoss guitar, isn’t the more “standard” effects, but the ones that work well when used in between notes and in between phrases, like my best friend the vinyl break, but also, the large selection of various loopers are truly useful and give you some remarkable effects if used well.  It’s tricky, but, it’s do-able.

There are different ways to approach it, and I keep trying new things, or picking one of the 100 voices I am not as familiar with, and trying to see what I can do with it over a longer period of time – high pass filter, low pass filter, mid filters, you name it, it’s all there, there is even a decimator, which is an amazing patch – I absolutely love the decimator, it’s a brilliant sounding effect.  Most of the effects sound really good, but some of them are hard to use in the sort of “momentary” way you need to use this guitar to it’s best effect (no pun intended).

One trick I have found helpful, in making sure I co-ordinate playing a note or chord, and then, immediately applying the pad (before the more or chord fades away so much that the pad then does NOTHING to it – very embarrassing!) is by likening the pad to a whammy bar in your brain – a whammy bar used, of course, in the more usual way, where, at the end of a phrase or chord, you use it – well, the Kaoss pad works best that way.

Just as with the whammy, of course, you CAN whammy WHILE you are playing – but it is more difficult to do, and the results might not always be consistent.  So if you tell yourself to use it in the same times you might use your whammy -and if you are fortunate, it will work well – although there is no guarantee.  And that’s where you can have surprising and dismaying failures – let’s say you’ve worked out a part where, you stop playing and then do a move on the pad, a really dramatic move like a drop or a pitch shift of some kind, and you do it say, for four bars in a row, once each bar….and on the fourth one, you are a tiny bit too late on the pad – and out comes….silence.

That can be embarrassing, and even disappointing, because maybe that fourth amazing Kaoss swoop – should have been the most flamboyant and remarkable of the four in a row – but instead, you play three good ones, and the fourth one – just isn’t meant to happen.

So you lose an entire perfect take, because you timed your Kaoss sound off by nanoseconds – and that resulted not in an error, but instead, in a fail – a silence when your audience would clearly be expecting some kind of fantastical Kaossilator effect – and that is annoying!  I have lost solos and takes because of one failed or less than spectacular Kaoss swoop.

The remedy for that, of course – is more practice, and, of course, the more you practice, the less likely these time-based mishaps will haunt your kaoss playing.  No one said this would be easy – but sometimes, it is pretty easy to make the pad sound good, on other occasions, not so much so – but if you work at it, you can play some truly extraordinary and more importantly, utterly unique chord patterns, notes, guitar solos and sound effects – I mean, with 100 sounds to choose from, you have an enormous palette of high quality Korg effects with which to modify your beautifully clean or very distorted Ibanez guitar – and that to me, is a winning combination.

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