A Conversation with Larry Fishman
By Marty Paule
We couldn’t have found a better subject for our kickoff Gear Pioneer interview. Larry Fishman is a prime example of an American entrepreneur who has harnessed an impressive skill set in staying at the forefront of music gear innovation for better than three decades. He initially staked out his territory in the realm of acoustic-instrument amplification, but he has gone far beyond that domain with a string of astonishing achievements that have taken him into cutting-edge disciplines including a new, game-changing wireless guitar synthesis system. We spoke to Larry in his office at Fishman Transducers, Inc.—the world-spanning business he began in his basement.
The HUB: I understand you started out as a jazz bassist and that led to your involvement with amplifying acoustic instruments using transducers. Can you talk about that?
Larry Fishman: 33 years ago I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and working as a mechanical engineer for the U.S. Department of Transportation, working on high-speed trains. I was also attending Berklee College, working on a composition degree. I was pretty involved in the music scene in Boston.
Larry Fishman has spent more than three decades focusing his infinite curiosity on the challenges of instrument amplification.
I transitioned to full-time studies at Berklee and focused on playing and composition. But I had always been involved in making things as well as racing motorcycles and cars. I was also probably the only bass player in Boston who had a small machine shop in his basement. I was playing double bass in a jazz quintet. Back then groups were starting to use electric pianos since clubs weren’t maintaining acoustic pianos and were expecting the keyboard players to bring their own gear in. Consequently, the band was getting louder and they were having trouble hearing me. My bandmates were asking me to change to electric bass, which I didn’t really want to do.
So I went on a pursuit of bass pickups and bought one of everything that was available at the time. None of them were really very good, and that started me down the road to developing a bass pickup. It was about a two and half year process. My prototypes were tested weekly in the same club, in the same spot on the floor—we were the house band in a jazz club in Cambridge. I finally developed a piezoelectric pickup that I was very happy with.
Other bass players in town were asking me if I would make them pickups, and it developed into a cottage industry. A manufacturer’s rep contacted me saying he could help sell them to stores. So it was quite accidental, but the extra cash was great since jazz bass players didn’t make a lot. I started getting a reputation as someone who knew what was going on with acoustic instrument amplification. I then developed some violin pickups for an electric violin maker in Vermont.
Eventually I was contacted by Guild Guitars who asked if I could design a system for their guitars, which I did. That was our first major guitar customer. About a year and a half later I got a call from a product manager at Martin Guitars. They were looking for a replacement for their original Thinline pickup which they were having supply and quality issues with. That led to an order for 10,000 pieces they wanted over the next year. That bumped me out of my basement into a small manufacturing space in Woburn, Massachusetts.
There was a lot of hand work in these things and I hired musicians I knew looking for extra work, and the business started developing from there. That led to more OEM customers—Gibson, Taylor—companies of that ilk. I started to develop electronic adjuncts to the pickups; preamps, tone units, and so forth. The business just kept perpetuating itself. We never borrowed any money or had any investors. We just kept going, designing for the needs that were out there. For me it was a perfect combination of music, engineering, and craftsmanship. I like to make things and like to teach people how to make things. It was one of those unplanned events in life.
Explore the complete Musician’s Friend collection of Fishman pickups, preamps, and performance tools.
The HUB: How big an operation were you at the stage when you began supplying OEM components to major manufacturers? When did you get your first employee and how fast did you grow?
Larry Fishman: The first employees came in when I was still in my basement serving the Guild order in that first year. One was a drummer and the other was a guitarist I had played with—Reeves Gabrels who went on to tour with David Bowie for many years and then with Tin Machine and The Cure. Once I got the Martin account, I got about eight people when I opened the facility in Woburn. Over the years we’ve grown and we’re currently at about 160 people in the U.S.
The HUB: It’s turning into a full-time gig, huh?
Larry Fishman: Without a doubt. I managed to keep my musical gigging going for about another 15 years because I really enjoyed doing that, but eventually I was forced to give up something. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. I also started traveling a lot—we started doing business in Asia—mostly with guitar manufacturers in Japan and Korea at the time. So I gave up the regular gigging; I still play occasionally but with nowhere near the frequency or level of competency I used to have. But I still keep my hands loose.
We seemed to keep hitting home run after home run. Gaining recognition in the industry; customer relationships; the ability to supply large numbers of units—there just didn’t seem to be an end to the numbers. We seemed to be in a golden age of acoustic instruments being played in the larger venues. Taylor was having a big impact on the acoustic-electric guitar market, and Martin was increasing their involvement, and we were in the thick of it. It was great—lots of fun and opportunities and challenges that allowed me to grow a sizable business.
The HUB: For the guitar player considering amplifying their acoustic guitar, you offer a lot of options including under-saddle and soundhole pickups. What general advice do you have about making such after-market modifications?
Larry Fishman: That’s an interesting question. We offer systems that are under-the-saddle and other systems that combine under-the-saddle pickups with onboard microphones—soundhole magnetic pickups, body-mount soundboard transducers—it’s a matter of need and taste. I like to say it’s a big world and there’s an ass for every seat. Some people prefer the under-saddle solution, which does require an installation by a decent repairman. So many of them have been done over the last decade or so that it’s become commonplace for any good repair person to do a good under-the-saddle installation in a half an hour—it’s not a big deal. It was tough in the beginning, training repairmen how to do a proper installation using the proper materials. But we got over that hump; it was an educational process.
Then there are the guys who just love the magnetic soundhole pickup sound. It’s quite distinctive from an under-saddle. It’s a little grittier, bluesier. And then there’s the player who says “I don’t want to install anything; I don’t play out that much. I’ll just choose a magnetic pickup that I can just pop in and let the cable hang out the side of the guitar rather than do a permanent installation.” There’s certainly that camp out there.
Then there are a plethora of guitars with systems built in. All the major manufacturers are offering acoustic-electric models that range from 40 percent to almost 80 percent of their lines. There are also the off-board preamplifiers and effects pedals we offer. Guitar players are gear junkies and they always want one more knob, one more switch, another effect to give them more color in their sound; you can only cram so much of that into a guitar.
Some people want to get a lot of control on the guitar and that entails a fairly sophisticated system with a lot of knobs. But others will buy an acoustic they like, put in an under-saddle system like our Matrix Infinity system that has small soundhole-mounted volume and tone controls. That gives them a clean, pristine sound coming off the guitar that they then put into a variety of pedals to enhance that sound, to open it up. Something like Aura—our imaging technology that has been adopted by all the top pros for getting a more studio-like sound onstage. There are a lot of ways to approach this amplification process. Some of it’s driven by the needs of the musician from a performance point of view. Other times the guitarist may say, “I have a really sweet near-vintage guitar—let me go with something less permanent that won’t alter its value.”
Some people want to keep their instrument purely acoustic in its basic nature and don’t want to add a transducer. Others want the convenience of onboard systems so they don’t have to fuss with things on the floor. We don’t pass judgment; we look at all those needs and try to offer a range of products for the various tastes and professional needs.
One thing though that we demand of all our products is that it’s a serious piece of gear no matter what the price or level of complexity is. Anything that is sold with the Fishman name on it has to pass muster with the best professional guitarist in the hardest playing environment in any venue in the world. If its a low-cost unit, it still has to meet that criteria. If it’s low cost, we may reduce the features, but not the performance.
The HUB: I think that’s reflected in the fact your systems are installed in guitars that range from very low cost instruments to extremely high-end guitars.
Larry Fishman: Part of that has to do with our being willing to go to the other half of the planet and set up manufacturing and build product locally that cuts the duties, transportation costs, and other barriers out of the equation. So if a guitar is being made in one the hundreds of OEM factories in China, for say a British or U.S. brand, they can afford to offer top-quality Fishman gear in that OEM guitar. If we weren’t willing to do that, the 75 or so brands that install our gear would be more like 10 or 20. There are a limited number of manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe at this point—the Asian manufacturers have really taken over the OEM business. You simply can’t make the gear in the U.S. and deliver at a price level and delivery schedule they absolutely need. Consequently, we’ve built a worldwide organization. I have partners in Southern China where we have office space in their factories, and our engineers are in and out of there all the time. We do rigid inspection and build all the custom equipment used in those plants. I maintain a sourcing office in Hong Kong and an OEM sales office in Beijing to service those types of accounts. It kind of boggles my mind that we’ve had to do this, but we’ve done it quite well, and it allows us to reach a lot of customers.
The HUB: It sounds like you’ve really simplified the logistics for these Asian manufacturers by being there and being more than simply a supplier of parts; becoming a partner in their engineering and building process.
Larry Fishman: It’s for our mutual benefit.
The HUB: You mentioned your Aura imaging technology a few minutes ago. It’s been a game-changer in acoustic amplification, and I wondered if you could talk about its origins and where Aura is today.
Larry Fishman: Aura was a logical next step after building analog electronics to support our transducers for 20-25 years. I sort of hit a wall; I couldn’t really improve the performance of the systems we were building. I could build systems that sounded a little different, but it had become a sort of cork-sniffing process at that point.
I had always known that the absolutely best way to capture an acoustic sound was with really sophisticated recording gear in a really good studio with great mics. That is the sound that we all want. You cannot manage that sound onstage with other instruments performing. And for those who want that sound at home, even if you can manage the other gear, you can’t afford the expensive preamplifiers and microphones. So for me, Aura was a challenge: I knew that the sound developed in front of the instrument; not on it. I had to figure out a way to capture the essence of a great studio condenser microphone in a situation that could be driven by a transducer used onstage and performance volumes. I knew we couldn’t get it on the instrument or from a big mic hung on the instrument; so how do you get from point A to point B? And that’s where the whole Aura quest started.
It was a totally exploratory process for years, and I got a lot of very talented scientists who knew a lot about signal processors, sonar, and the like. I started getting an inkling that we could create a system that used a linear transfer function. After talking to a lot of smart people I realized that it had to be a digital system that could transform the output of a pickup on a guitar so it would mimic the sound of a studio condenser microphone. Armed with that inclination, we started developing a computer-based test system. We got it to work using some really fast plug-in digital signal processing cards in a lab computer. The first time I heard the sound we were looking for, the hair on the back of my neck stood up; I got chills. It was absolutely everything that I wanted it to be and more.
Having said that, it was sitting on a big computer eating up a lot of signal processing power, and I had to figure out how to do this onboard a guitar or in a pedal or something, without the computer. And again, timing was exquisite. The revolution in consumer electronics—iPods, cellular phones, and their ilk had generated a huge amount of development by the major semiconductor manufacturers. Suddenly, very fast, low current-consuming digital signal processing chips were becoming available at very affordable prices. None of that was available when I started the Aura pursuit, but within the time we got it to work on a computer, these devices were becoming part of the toolkit of the digital designer.
But that’s where the rub lay. We were an analog design house. We didn’t really have the digital design capability. But I could see the way the world was going and said we’d better learn how to do this. Through using some consultants and hiring some engineers, we began getting our feet wet in the world of microprocessors, and over the course of several years we developed the capability at Fishman. And voila; we launched Aura in both an off-board and an on-board OEM format. We built a large online gallery with thousands of Aura images that are free to people who buy an Aura system. This process drove us to build a professional-level studio and buy a lot of high-end mics.
The whole concept with Aura had nothing to do with modeling. And that was a big fight for us in the beginning—to convince people we were not modeling acoustic guitar sounds. We were creating this category called imaging, and people said, “Nah, it’s just modeling—who are you kidding?” Modeling was happening at that time. Line 6 came out with the Pod, and indeed they were modeling the behavior of guitar amplifiers and preamplifiers. But you can’t do that with an acoustic instrument because the source is really unknown. If you put a signal into a guitar preamp, it’s got a resonant peak somewhere and it’s got tone controls that move that peak around. It’s got certain amounts of total harmonic and overdrive distortion—those are things you can model. And when you drive that with any guitar signal, they behave accordingly. But in the case of Aura, the individual instrument is so important to what Aura is. You can’t model that—at least we’ve never been able to take a Martin guitar and make it sound like a Gibson guitar—it’s just out of the question. Because not only are there the dynamic and sonic signatures of the instrument, the materials and the construction techniques and the finishes—all the wonderful smorgasbord of things that happen to the instrument are beyond, in my perspective, the ability to model.
Having come to that realization, we realized that to have Aura actually work, the images had to be based on something that was either identical or extremely similar to the instrument the player was using. On the OEM side, this was pretty easy. Martin wanted to come out with a series of Aura instruments. They would ship us that model which they would reproduce faithfully in production. We would record it in the studio, do our transform work, and all the instruments would go out with the characteristics of that production instrument built into the system.
But in the case of the aftermarket buyer who wants to buy an Aura pedal, and they have a pickup in their guitar, and it’s an Alvarez or a Gibson or something of that nature, we’re not clairvoyant, we don’t know what their instrument is. We need to provide those buyers with a library of sounds so they can pick sound images that are as close as possible to the instrument they are driving the pedal with. We’re not saying it will take your large jumbo maple and make it sound like a mahogany 000. If you have a large jumbo maple, you choose one of those Aura images, and your guitar will sound like a large jumbo maple with a great microphone in a pristine environment while being played at performance volumes.
The HUB: So you’re not talking about radical shifts in the guitar’s native tone; Aura aims to capture the subtle nuances of the guitar’s sound.
Larry Fishman: It’s the signature sound of the guitar, which we’re not messing with, because we’re not smart enough to create that from scratch. What we’re doing is to say: recording a jumbo maple with a Neumann U87 in a studio, this is the sound I get. I can choose a little older jumbo maple and it’ll be a little different. But it won’t be radically different. It’ll have a little of that aged personality and sound. But fundamentally, the top and sound hole or F-hole resonances will be captured by that image. And when you drive it with a jumbo maple, you’re going to get something that really sounds like a jumbo maple in a studio. If you use a radically different image and drive it with that jumbo maple; say you pick a 000 mahogany image, it’s going to sound horrible. Because you’re going to have the resonances and projection characteristics of the image totally fighting the resonance and projection characteristics of the driving instrument. Basically, we're not creating instruments, we’re transforming them from one thing to another, but we’re giving you the personality profiles of your instrument as we have captured it in the studio with great mics used in different positions. You get the basic personality of the instrument, the coloration of the microphone, which is highly desirable, the coloration of the preamp, which is highly desirable, and a certain amount of nuance from the room.
The HUB: Can you talk a little more about the pedals and processors that came about as an offshoot of Aura technology?
Larry Fishman: We really got a handle on working with fixed-point processors; you can do it with floating-point processors, but we found fixed-point were much more efficient from a power point of view. Since we were developing gear designed to be powered with a battery, that was our choice. So having developed our chops by designing Aura, we were able to branch out and do a series of effects pedals for acoustic instruments with the same processors.
We just did the second round of a really interesting project for Martin Guitars that demonstrates where Aura has gone. As I said, we can’t really transform one guitar style to another, because there’s just too much going on. But let’s look at Aura’s three steps, or three levels of reality: Level one, the best Aura imaging, is of the instrument itself. So if you buy an Aura pedal and you send us your guitar, and we create images using it, you don’t get any better than that. That’s really top-level Aura performance.
Level two is a built-in Aura system in a manufactured guitar. So if Martin or Gibson has a particular guitar, and they run it through their line, those images that we choose for that model will be created with a very good-sounding example of that model.
The third level resulted from Chris Martin coming to me a few years ago. He said. “Larry, we’re really thrilled with the F1 System you did for us. I have these amazing pre-war Martin guitars in my museum, and they sound different from my current production models because they’re so well aged. Is there any way you can capture that sound in an Aura system so people can experience it?” I said, “Well Chris, that’s imaging, but it’s imaging plus; we’ve got to figure out how to do double imaging transfers.”
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced we could do it since I had access to those instruments and the production models that they wanted me to put it in—models designed to capture the essence of those pre-war instruments. Martin released the first models a year and a half ago at Summer NAMM—they were the Retro Series. We drove these very precious instruments down to Nashville and recorded them in Bil VornDick’s studio using a collection of vintage period-specific ribbon and large-condenser microphones that Bil was able to provide or borrow from people he knew. Martin built the Retro Series using the same bracing as the pre-war models, but they put more modern necks on them to make them more playable. We managed to capture incredible images of these museum guitars and did very faithful transfers of those images into the Retro production guitars. It was a wonderful experience. Someone who buys a Retro Series Martin gets to experience the pre-war Martin as it is recorded in a top-notch studio. And they can do it onstage at performance levels. Or if they’re recording at home, Aura is a huge, huge benefit. They can plug right into their ProTools or Presonus rig, or whatever DAW they’re using, and without having to own any of these microphones or having a controlled recording environment, they get all the benefits in their direct home recording. It’s pretty astonishing how good these things sound.
The Fishman Aura Spectrum works in concert with your guitar’s pickup to create gorgeous studio-quality sound you can use at performance volumes. Included software gives you access to the entire online Aura Gallery of images.
The HUB: Is this level one option in which owners send you their guitar for imaging a significant part of your business?
Larry Fishman: It’s not a significant part, but it’s an ongoing business. We’ve done it for a number of customers over the years. It requires shipping the instrument to us, which makes some people nervous. We’ve had a lot of play from artists in that regard. We’ve done custom imaging for James Taylor on all his Olsons. We’ve done a lot of imaging for guys in Nashville. One of my dear friends, Bil VornDick, is a world-renowned recording engineer in Nashville who is famous for recording acoustic instruments. He’s done lots of stuff for Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and so forth.Bil actually helped us develop Aura; he did the original recordings. He has continued to record images in his studio using a process that we taught him, and he sends us artist recordings from Nashville that we turn into custom images. Bill is sort of like “Fishman South” as far as getting that service done.
The HUB: Moving from Aura technology to something a little more conventional that Musician’s Friend customers seem to embrace with a lot of enthusiasm, you make a series of acoustic guitar amps that you call the Loudbox. What led you into that product line?
Larry Fishman: Our first foray into amplifiers was an experiment. There wasn’t really an acoustic amplifier category out there. We were selling acoustic pickup systems to music shops that had no way to demonstrate them. They had electric guitar amps, and a few had a PA system, but very few acoustic specialty shops had an appropriate system. We developed an amplifier called the Acoustic Performer and planned to produce a hundred of them, and either have them on loan or purchased by our top hundred dealers as a way of demonstrating how well our gear worked.
Coincident with our commencing that 100-amp build, Trace Elliot, a British company at the time, came to market with a specific acoustic guitar amplifier, and put a million dollars into marketing it. So they created the category, and we benefited from all their marketing since we came out with a product simultaneously. But we didn’t have the resources they had to market it. We rode on those coattails with a really nice three-way system with 250 watts. We had a lot of really happy customers with that. Our approach had been no-compromise. We were looking for the best performance possible, and consequently, our system was really too expensive for the average individual. At least too expensive for us to produce.
At first Trace Elliot and we were the only players in the market. But then some of the majors like Peavey and Fender began showing up. That helped solidify the category. But they took a dive in the direction of lowering price and they went too far. They started offering systems that were 30 watts with piezo tweeters—cost-saving decisions that didn’t ultimately work out. They were generally massively underpowered. Power is needed to handle the dynamic range of acoustic instruments. Not necessarily to drive it to ear-splitting volumes, but you buy an acoustic instrument because of its dynamic range. An electric guitar signal is much more level and compressed; an acoustic is much more dynamic and spiky. To succeed in amplifying that instrument without overcoloring it, you really need an amplifier that has the power level to handle the dynamics. We also realized that you needed to have quality, multi-way speaker systems to get a really great sound. A single-driver full-range system just wasn’t going to cut it. It needed a tweeter, and in a lot of cases, in order to get the detail, you needed a midrange as well as a woofer. Acoustic guitars are very complex instruments and you need a very wide, very flat frequency response to deliver that without a lot of coloration.
So we set the bar pretty high and said, “Look—let’s make amplifiers that can faithfully reproduce an acoustic instrument, and as acid test, you should be able to take a mic and sing through this amp and get a very pleasing sound out of it.” I know that if you can capture a voice faithfully, you can capture a guitar faithfully. That’s really the design philosophy behind the Loudbox systems—they’re all multi-way systems with plenty of power. They’re dead flat response-wise. We don’t want to add coloration. The guitar is the sound. With an electric guitar, the sound is the guitar, the pickups, the amp; but with an acoustic guitar, the sound is the instrument itself, and people want to project that sound. I think we’ve done well in that area. We’ve been in it now for 15 years, and we’ve figured out how to make good-sounding gear at affordable prices.
The HUB: I wanted touch bases with you on your Powerbridge systems. They’ve been adopted by a lot of electric guitarists and manufacturers as a way of adding tonal versatility. Can you talk about the system and what’s involved in retrofitting it?
Larry Fishman: Powerbridge came as a direct result of the work I did on saddle-based pickups for acoustic guitars. About 25 years ago, a guy named Ken Parker, who was a repairman in New York at the time, was making some very innovative electric basses. He started making six-string basses, but he couldn’t find pickups that were wide enough or set up for six strings. Most electric basses at that time were four-string and somehow we became connected and became great friends. He came to me looking for pickups and I said that I didn’t really play in the magnetic-pickup space, but I know quite a bit about piezo pickups; let me see what I can do. I developed some saddle-based pickups for his basses, and coincident with that, Ken and I began working on what became the Parker guitar. We ran Parker Guitar together for about 10 years before we sold the company to U.S. Music.
I was happy with the way the bass pickups performed and got involved in making pickups for the Parker guitar; that was the first production guitar that had piezo-based pickups. It gave it a semi-acoustic, or certainly a second sound. While I was developing the Parker pickups, I also a developed a line of aftermarket pickups called Powerbridge that could be retrofitted on most Fender- and Gibson-style instruments.
We now have a quite a few OEMs offering them as built-ins, and we offer a range of fixed- and vibrato-bridge and bass systems for the aftermarket. They’re really not that hard to install. The bridge replacements just drop in place. You take your existing bridge off and put the Powerbridge on. They do require on-board buffering electronics to get the maximum benefit by being able to mix the Powerbridge sound with your electric pickups. We have a system called the Powerchip that has all the mixing and conditioning electronics built onto the back of a volume pot. So you replace your bridge, replace one of your volume pots with a Powerchip, and you need to find a way to power it, so you need a battery in the instrument. I think the toughest part is the battery—but we also offer battery boxes to simplify that step.
The HUB: Speaking of controls, could you also tell us a little about your TriplePlay Wireless Guitar Controller that’s been generating a lot of interest lately?
Larry Fishman: TriplePlay may seem like a hard left turn for a company that’s been involved in acoustic amplification for so long. But for me, it’s not a surprise at all. As a result of making the Powerbridge pickups, I was approached by virtually every guitar synth manufacturer out there looking for pickup solutions. That included the Walter MIDI system, the Pitchrider, the Photon, the Midiacs—you name it. They were looking for divided pickups; in some cases they used magnetic pickups, and in a lot of cases they wanted to use saddle pickups. I had an opportunity to work with all the guitar synth guys for the past 20 or 25 years, and I have a lab full of all the guitar synths that were manufactured. 99 percent of those companies are no longer around—so I have a little museum in my lab.
I’m quite knowledgeable about guitar synthesis and I understood the promise and the challenges from day one. In starting Aura I developed a relationship with a small company in Hungary called Panda Audio. A very talented designer there, András Szalay, is the principal. They’ve been a totally dedicated Fishman-retained company for the past eight years—they just work for us. András as it turned out is the world’s leading authority on rapid pitch detection and guitar synthesis implementation. He developed early synths for Shadow and Yamaha, and most notably, the Axon system, which was the fastest in the world.
Larry has designed amplification systems for renowned jazz and world-music guitarist John McLaughlin’s custom instruments.
About three years ago András told me he’d like Fishman to consider doing a guitar synth. He told me he could do an amazing job running it on the Blackfin processor we developed for Aura. I had originally met András 15 years ago because of guitar synths. I had done a lot of custom work for John McLaughlin, the famous guitar player—he was always fascinated with the guitar synthesizer. I did the amplification systems on all the custom instruments that Abe Wechter had done for John. John had started using Axon and asked me to build the pickups, and that’s how I got involved with András.
When András approached me about doing a guitar synth, I said, “András, you know my history with guitar synths—the promise and the challenges”—it didn’t seem like a great business proposition to me because the systems were always expensive, cumbersome and limited. They have dedicated sounds that people get tired of after a while. I wasn’t that enthused about the notion, but I said, “Look—I’ll fund the development if we prioritize it in-between other projects; if we make it as a space-filler.”
With that agreed, András went ahead and ported and developed pitch detection for guitar synthesis onto the Blackfin and got it working quite well. It was really fast and accurate. I still wasn’t convinced that it was a product that was ready for market. But the more I talked about it and thought about it, I said, “Look—if we can get rid of that 13-pin cable and the other encumbrances, I think we could go to market with it.” At that point we decided, yes, we could go wireless with it. Since we were transmitting MIDI data, not audio data, the bandwidth requirement and latency issues weren’t really a big deal. So that was the spark that made TriplePlay a real product. A wireless guitar controller that could be mounted on any guitar without altering the guitar, that wirelessly could transmit high-speed MIDI data to a receiver.
As we were developing it, the receiver, in our mind, had always been a hardware-based, rack-mounted guitar synth or a keyboard with a MIDI input. Over the two-year development process, I began to realize that you couldn’t even buy a rack-mounted synth expander—that market had dried up completely. So we were actually building something that was going to be sending signals for which there was no host on the other end. I said, “Where is all this going?” Then the lightbulb went on. It was going into soft synthesis in computers. I said, “Here’s our opportunity.” And at that point we began a massive software development process at Fishman, which was unexpected and quite expensive, and really interesting in building up a software department here. We used some outside developers and built an internal software quality assurance team. In 14 months we developed our TriplePlay computer application for Windows and iOS machines.
When TriplePlay was finally released, it became the world’s first wireless guitar controller that was meant to stream data to computers or portable tablets and so forth. It was designed to leverage all the wonderful music applications that were available in that field; that had only been previously usable by keyboard players. So that became a real exciting product for us. I like to say it’s the iPhone for guitarists. Because with the App Store, there are thousands of pieces of software—the VSTs, the plug-ins, sound processors—that guitar players were previously locked out of. TriplePlay allows you to play in that space like any project studio or keyboard player onstage.
We’re starting to see some really novel uses of TriplePlay. The bundle of software we ship with it includes a wonderful DAW that Presonus made available to us. We’ve got great sounds in there from IK Multimedia and Native Instruments. With Kontakt and SampleTank, we’ve got guitar-related modeling in there. There’s also AmpliTube for the audio part of your guitar that you can get in alongside the MIDI guitar. We also include the Fishman TriplePlay App, which is sort of a traffic cop that helps you configure everything and makes it useful onstage. We also bundle it with a transcription package from Notion called Progression that allows a guitar player to sit down and play your guitar and have it transcribe what you play, making it a great teaching adjunct. It transcribes into single notes and chords with both staff and tablature notation.
We’re seeing TriplePlay being adopted by many guitarists who want to record at home, multitracking different sounds, for demos, for band use, and sample triggering. EDM artists who heretofore were using turntables are using it to trigger synth pads for their dance loops with a guitar around their neck rather than standing behind turntables, which is much cooler. We’re seeing people controlling MIDI lighting onstage with it; so it’s really becoming an incredibly useful tool for guitarists. It’s available at a very reasonable price fully configured.
It’s also been adopted in an OEM format. The first one was the series from Godin with built-in TriplePlay—they’ve been out for about eight months. Fender introduced the TriplePlay Strat at the last music trade show with 25HB-single-single configuration. We’ve got many more OEMs coming online this year, so we’re really excited. It’s not a left turn for us; it’s really a right turn, and it puts us smack-dab in the middle of this digital music world that has pretty much guitarists locked out for quite a while.
The HUB: It’s fascinating how you once again were able to harness a confluence of new technologies to come up with a whole new product category.
Larry Fishman: It was pure luck. I was fascinated by the technology, but I wasn’t sure we could do it. But it was when the rackmount synths disappeared and we had to go to the computer, that I realized why we were doing this in the first place—the accidental consequences of having to change product definitions in midstream.
The thing that’s great about what my company does is that we have a group of very, very talented artists and engineers who are infinitely curious about making musical and useful tools for musicians. We’re not just an acoustic company; not just an amplifier company—we’re a gear company, and we set the bar very high for the stuff we’re going to deliver to the world. We don’t want to make toys; we don’t want to make junk; we do want to make things people can afford. It’s a fun space to be in and I’ve got a lot of great contributors in this building that never cease to amaze me with their artistic and creative input.