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X Guitar Review - Future Music

Published: Tue September 12, 2006  News Feed

In today's market, there is no shortage of excellent software and hardware available for the guitarist interested in cutting-edge technology. Guitarists no longer have to hide in the back of the class, while the computer musician set gets all the love. In the past few years, several major companies have launched guitar-oriented products including, Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia's Amplitude, and Line 6's Guitar Port & POD.

When the Alesis XGuitar found its way into the Futuremusic TestDrive Studio, I wasn't sure what was in store for me. The XGuitar is not just a guitar; it's an axe with a bionic upgrade. Is this a parasitic or symbiotic relationship? Let's find out.

The XGuitar is a Stratocaster knockoff with a built-in effects unit that resides inside the body. It can currently be found online for only $299.99 so please, keep this in mind as we proceed. The build quality is commensurate to its street cost. It appears to have a rosewood fretboard, which had a slight gap on one side where it overhangs the pick guard. The machine heads are of moderate quality and the intonation was a little off on almost all the strings. There was no fret buzz, mostly because the action was set too high for my taste. Oddly with an instrument that will appeal to the beginning guitarist, there is no mention in the manual of how to set it up, or other important basic information such as the stock string gauge.

The efficient front face consists of one humbucker, two stacked single-coil pickups, and a tremolo bridge. Other controls include a five position Pickup Selector Switch, Volume Knob, Effects On/Off Switch, Effect Program Up/Down Switch, and an Output Jack that gives you a stereo out via a TRS cable. However, there is one thing that is glaringly missing, a tone control knob. This omission could have been addressed by moving the position of the Effects On/Off Switch, and dropping the tone knob into the newly available real estate. Perhaps it is assumed that tone will be addressed through the Pickup Selection Switch, or in the effects EQ unit, but the integrated EQ is just a simplistic high pass filter and not suited to quick alteration. Most guitarists prefer the ability to adjust tone on the fly.

Four AA batteries are required to power the Effects and Tuning unit and are housed in the back of the guitar. The X can also be powered with an optional AC adapter. The manual touts a battery life of about 30 hours. However, if the Effects On/Off Switch is left in the "on" position, the batteries will slowly be drained. Not cool. It would have been a nice touch if the effects unit could automatically power off when removing your cable connection to the Output Jack like many effects pedals. An Effect control and settings cheat sheet can be conveniently found on the back plate and behind the bridge. On the bottom rear edge is where the Expression Pedal Input, and the AC Adapter Jack reside.

The effects unit contains 80 editable program locations, and 9 effect modules at 28-bit resolution that can all be independently turned on or off as desired. Please note that only one effect per module can be used at any given time.

The 9 effect modules consist of:

Compression/Limiting - The Compression adds sustain and smoothness by lowering the dynamic range. Whereas the Limiting retains the original volume, but smoothes out the loudest peaks.

Distortion - Acoustic, Tube Clean, Rhythm, Overdrive, Distortion, Blues, Fuzz, Lead, Metal, Stack Drive, and Combo Drive. The only adjustment that can be made is to the drive/gain.

EQ - This is an adjustable high pass filter.

Noise Reduction - Offers 60Hz Hum Elimination and Noise Reduction that works as a noise gate. The level of noise reduction can be adjusted.

Cabinet Simulator - You can choose from a single 12" driver cabinet, 2 x 12" driver cabinet, or a 4 x 10" driver cabinet.

FX1 - Offers the use of one of the following: Auto Wah, Phaser, Tremolo, Ring Modulation, Cry, Random Sample and Hold Step Filter, Flanger, Rotary Speaker, Chorus, Slow Attack, Auto Pan and Pitch Transpose. All the effects listed above, except for the last three, have one primary parameter of the effect that can be controlled with an expression pedal. Though you cannot choose which parameter will be controlled, they have made that decision for you. This is true for FX2 and FX3 as well.

FX2 - Includes many of the effects of FX1, except for Flanger, Rotary Speaker, Chorus, Pitch Transpose, with the addition of an Auto Phaser. Single parameter expression pedal functionality is offered.

FX3 - Offers the use of one of the following: Doubling, Ping Pong Delay, Tape Delay, Stereo Delay, Echo, Hall Reverb, Room Reverb, Reverse Reverb and Plate Reverb. Single parameter expression pedal functionality is offered.

DIGFX  Which include: Sample Rate Decimation and Bit Reduction. The decimation and reduction rate can be controlled via the expression pedal.

Eight different signal routes are offered, allowing you to change the order of the nine effect modules in the chain listed above. Changing the arrangement of the modules can create a big change in the overall sound.

The hardware control surface of the Effect Processor Controls area, located on the top edge of the guitar, consists of two red seven segment LEDs, which display patch selection, patch values and assist in instrument tuning. The Program Up/Down Buttons serve the same function as the Program Up/Down Switch on the front face, but also provide muting and access to the built-in tuner. The Effect Knob allows you to select one of the nine effects modules and their related parameters, and the Value Knob permits you to change the value of whatever is selected on the Effect Knob, as well as store edited programs.

Enough of all this talk about the appointments of the XGuitar, let's put it through its paces. I plug in my headphones, turn on, tune up, drop out...an hour later I look up at the clock and realize I've done a little non-chemically induced time traveling. The hum elimination and noise reduction worked as advertised, but the distortions frankly didn't sound that much different from each other when tried individually. The single 12" driver cabinet and 2 x 12" driver cabinet simulators sounded very much alike, with emphasis on the high end of the frequency range, where as the 4 x 10" driver cabinet added more midrange. The wah, phaser and flange effects in FX1 and FX2 are very useful and sound great. FX3 is all about delays and reverbs. The reverbs are warm and clean, and the delays, sound quite natural. The DIGFX will remind you of the craptastic days of 8-bit sampling, nasty aliasing and digital grit abound. The effects really shine when you stack them on top of each other. This is showcased in many of the fine presets built into the XGuitar.

The top-edge mounted Effects Processor Controls are extremely easy and convenient to use. My only complaint is the feel of the effect knob used to select the modules. It is made to lightly click into position, but I found it a little sloppy and I would occasionally overshoot my intended module. It's an intuitive process to copy and store edited presets. Most of the nine Effects Modules have parameters that can be edited, or in some cases controlled via the Expression Pedal Input. I assigned several of the modules to the Pedal Control, pressed the pedal to the metal, and experienced the taste of a spicy sonic stew. With live performance in mind, there is a mode called Deferred Program Change, which allows you to quickly change to your favorite programs. One could arrange all the programs used for a performance in sequential order, and select the next program at the flick of a switch. The XGuitar also will retain all of your programs even if the batteries die or are removed.

Many guitarists will also appreciate the ability to almost silently jam out on their axe while wearing headphones. Not the least of which will be parents, significant others, roommates, neighbors and barnyard animals. So how does it stack up to the other offerings on the market? It doesn't even get close to the depth of classic effect, amp and cabinet modeling that some of the competition offers. Though in fairness I don't think Alesis really had effect and amp emulation in mind when they designed the XGuitar. Its strength lies in the convenience of its battery-powered portability. This is the perfect practice guitar that doesn't have to be treated like a valued antiquity.

In a live setting, most guitarists would prefer the time-tested, discrete stomp box. I think Alesis should develop a floor control surface, not unlike the one that comes with Native Instruments Guitar Rig, for additional control so you don't have to take you hands off the strings. This would greatly increase the usefulness of the instruments live performance chops. In truth, the Expression Pedal Input does add some of this functionality, but I was hoping for a little more control. In the home studio, the solid quality of the effects, plus the elimination of the need for a preamp are useful benefits for the user with an economical setup. To conclude, Alesis has once again delivered a solid product, at a low price.

The Future: I'd love to see some of the ideas developed for the XGuitar, refined and implemented in a professional grade guitar. I believe that there's a significant market of guitarists who would be interested in a Bionic Guitar but with a higher quality build and more sophisticated effects, including a substantial floor control surface option. Could Alesis just be testing the waters with the XGuitar?
It may even behoove Alesis to team up with an established Guitar manufacturer to develop a XGuitar Pro version. Serious guitarists want an axe from an established brand they can trust. The Alesis brand doesn't speak to this niche, but a XGuitar Pro from Fender/Alesis would get the attention of both markets.

By David Crouch - Future Music

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