In which NZM’s intrepid guitar kit space navigator Mark Bell flies over the intriguing landscape of the DigitechTrio Band Creator pedal.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that the first compact flip-top cellphones were the stuff of Star Trek fantasy – grown men in business suits furtively imagining they are Captain Kirk urging Scotty to find more power, “We need MORE power!” Exciting times indeed.
Now of course nobody pauses to consider that the phone they are carrying has more number-crunching grunt than the NASA mainframe super-computer that calculated Apollo’s trajectory to the moon. This thing filled its own room! We just accept it and expect that our tiny electronic devices can accomplish the most mind-bendingly complex tasks almost instantaneously, and god help ’em if there’s any time-lag getting the information back from space.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to this issue’s review focus, Digitech’s Trio Band Creator. What it does, when you stop to actually think about it, is amazing for a device which looks exactly like, and costs about the same (rrp $399) as, a guitarist’s high-end stomp box.
The Digitech Trio is essentially a rhythm section in a box; it learns your chord progressions as you play them and then plays along with you in a variety of genres and styles of your choosing. This is great news for guitarists trying to hone their craft at home without a rhythm section to feed off, and perhaps hitting the creative wall, as we all do from time to time. And best of all, it won’t drink your beer, hit on your girl/boyfriend or irritate your parents with excessive volume.
The Trio’s control panel is self-explanatory and simple to use, with Bass and Drums volume knobs, a Tempo knob, Genre selector (blues, pop, alt rock, Rock, country, R&B and jazz) and a choice of 12 Style selections, the last two being in ¾ time.
You can assign three separate parts to each song (conventionally that would be verse/chorus/bridge) via push-button LEDs. There’s an Alt Time button which halves/doubles the time, and a Guitar FX button with a choice of two effect options appropriate to each genre. There’s a headphone output for silent practice with its own volume control, Guitar In and Amp Out jack plugs, a Mixer Output for recording, which has an in-built cabinet emulation, an input for the optional FS3X foot controller for hands-free part creation and paging through the three song parts, and a mini USB plug for any future software upgrades. You can also store songs you have created via this connection to your computer.
The quality of the 64-bit drum and bass samples is very good and appropriate to the genre selected, from driving rock and rattley bass to tippy tappy rimshots and authentic double bass. The Trio has a wide selection of feels, drum fills, bass lines and passing notes stored in its memory banks, all sampled from real players and instruments, which it accesses and matches to the Genre and Style that has been selected, and specifically matches to the chord progression played into the device.
You will also notice that each time it cycles through a particular part it will introduce subtle variations in terms of the drum fills, passing notes and turnarounds, lending the backing a much more human element than you might expect from a pre-programmed machine.
Operating the Trio is simplicity itself. Once you’re plugged in the Learn LED will flash, indicating it has its ears on and is awaiting your chordal brilliance. Just hit the stomp button and play in a way that conveys the progression, tempo and feel without any embellishment. Keep it straightforward, as you can get fancy once the rhythm section has got things nutted out.
If the various parts of the song happen to be at different tempos the Trio will recognise this and play back accordingly, so I’d recommend playing to a click if you want all the parts to play back at the same tempo. It will however make allowances for small timing anomalies and quantize everything into good shape.
When the cycle of the first part is complete hit the stomp button at the end of the bar and you’re done. If you screw up, just hold the footswitch down for a couple of seconds and the part will be erased and you can try again. Then hit the Part 2 LED and repeat the process for your chorus or whatever comes next. Be mindful that you’ve only got three parts, so if you have, say, a pre-chorus, you’ll have to build that into the verse part or chorus and it will be there every time you cycle through that part.
So yes, the Trio has its limitations. For example if you have an intro that only happens once in the song, you would have to use up one of your parts to create that, leaving only two for the rest of the track. So prog rock is definitely out of the question, or any songs that have unconventional arrangements, multiple parts, off-beat pushes or wacky time signatures. Oh, and the drummer has no interest in reggae whatsoever.
After a bit of thought I did come up with a way to partially sidestep this problem. By making use of the Trio’s three minutes of sample time you could write a very complex three minute arrangement, but the drum feel would remain the same throughout. Also if you have a riff-based song where you want the bass to double the guitar part, you can’t tell the device to “…just play what I’m playing.” It will let you know, “I can do this, this or this very competently, but I am not going to learn your riff.”
If I were asked to make suggestions for a big brother version of the Trio they would be these; five or even six song parts, the capacity to store songs, and the ability to learn bass parts note-for-note. This would greatly expand the usefulness of the Trio into live performance and demo recording applications.
As it is, where I see the real strength of this device is as an aid to learning how to be a more complete guitarist, who can lock in with a rhythm section and improvise confidently. Unlike the real thing the Trio will never get bored with repeatedly cycling through a chord sequence, and this is what you have to do to gain confidence with your soloing. As a teaching aid I can also see the Trio would be a very useful asset, for example using the Tempo control to slow down a chord sequence then gradually building up speed as the pupil masters the progression.
All in all the Digitech Trio Band Creator is a fantastic tool for learners and accomplished guitarists alike, as a writing and practising tool, for making simple demos or even just to have loads of fun with jamming and making a glorious racket. And let’s face it, anything that increases the fun factor in the sometimes arduous, lonely and repetitive business of mastering the guitar has got to be worth its weight in gold.