It's a Guitar. No, It's a Synth. Wait…

Relax, guitarists, you don't need to learn a new instrument

  • Synthesizers offer a huge audio playground, and now you can control them with a guitar.
  • MIDI, the standard way to do this, can be slow and finicky.
  • Guitarist Rabea Massaad’s new app is a synth built for guitar players.
The Atlas Delay and Aeons Reverb.


If you can play piano, you can play any synthesizer or software instrument you like, but if you play guitar, you're stuck with the guitar. Or you were. 

Electric guitars are such expressive instruments that it has proven hard over the years to capture that expression and use it to control software or hardware synthesizers. One approach has been to load up the guitar with special sensors that capture the notes and turn them into MIDI, the international language of musical instrument control. Another has been to use a computer to do the same, but usually with a delay. But now, we have Archetype: Rabea, a plugin that ditches the MIDI and the latency and sounds totally rad in the bargain. 

"A lot of people just make music with guitar instead of keys because they just can't," Neural DSP co-founder and CPO Francisco Cresp told Lifewire in a Zoom interview. "Like, for example, I know that [legendary electronic music artist] Skrillex, in the beginning, started his tracks by writing guitar riffs and that he would just convert those tracks to MIDI in Ableton to trigger the synths."

Mono Magic

Archetype: Rabea is an app from Neural DSP that simulates a guitar amplifier and effects pedals and uses the guitar’s input as a controller for a built-in synthesizer. Designed for and with guitarist and composer Rabea Massaad, it’s an all-in-one place to plug in your guitar and go. 

Closeup on a kayboard synth.

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

Instead of converting the incoming signal to MIDI, which is slow and adds a tiny delay that still makes it hard to play, Rabea’s app/plugin acts more like a guitar tuner. It detects the pitch being played and uses that to control the synth. I’ve tested it, and it’s instant. It feels like you are playing the synth itself, and when you run the synth through the built-in amp and pedals, then, well, let's just say my testing session ended up running a few hours long. 

The synth is monophonic, which means one note at a time, no chords. It is similar in design to Moog synthesizers, with two oscillators, a filter, and an envelope for shaping the attack, delay, and other aspects of the sound. It’s as simple as a hardware mono synth and also as flexible.

Synth Envy

Why bother controlling a synth with a guitar? The most obvious answer is that you get access to an entire universe of sounds that a guitar cannot hope to mimic. Hardware and software synths are usually controlled by a piano-style keyboard, or the music is programmed meticulously, one note at a time.

But outside of a few fancy multi-instrumentalists, most guitar players cannot even read music, let alone play the piano. For us, the ability to play all those synths with a guitar is a dream.

There's another great reason for cross-linking instruments like this. The piano and the guitar are fundamentally different instruments. On a piano, one hand can play bass, the other a music with higher melody or chords. The guitar can't do that. But a guitar player can bend strings to play notes between the keys of a piano, for example.

An EQ from Architype:Rabea


"The most important thing for me with synth is the fact that you can play normally," says Massaad. "In terms of your left hand on the fretboard, it allows you to move around with legato, bending—all your phrasing and articulation is there. "

These and many other small differences mean that you play quite differently on each instrument. A riff that's simple and easy on a guitar might be impossible on a piano. Using the guitar as a controller, you end up with results that a pianist wouldn't have ever come up with. 

Experimental Guitar

Whether you choose something like Rabea’s plugin, or opt for a more complex and flexible setup involving MIDi conversion or hardware, getting into synths is great for guitarists. 

"The Blade Runner [2049] soundtrack for me was huge,” says Massaad, “and the dream was like, I'd love to be able to create that, but I don't have that expertise in sound design and all that stuff. And I think a lot of people can relate to that. Like they would love to be able to create what they hear in their head.”

Guitar players have long used effects pedals to change their sounds, but pedals have gotten way more complex. Synths are the next step, especially if you don’t have to learn keys to play them. And while you can totally roll your own custom solution, a simple app or plugin is a great way to find out of you like it.

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