I’ve gradually become enamored with the Flaming Lips and Wayne Coyne over the years. They’re a fun band that goes where few bands dare to go. Of particular interest to me is all of Wayne’s glorious toys. I’ve always been a real geek about weird musical devices. I wish I could actually make some of my own… but anyways. I actually wrote a draft of this article about three years but never published it. Since I’ve gotten onto this new writing kick I’ve dug back into my archives to revamp it and finally publish it. So here we go:
I first got a glimpse of some Wayne’s gear when I saw “the Lips” at the free Earth Day concert about 4 years ago (side note: Mr. Coyne argued for them to be allowed to use confetti by saying “if these people really care as much about the earth as they say they do they will pick up the confetti after the concert” and everyone did…)
I later saw more of the “toys” when I got front and center for their performance in DC/ Baltimore later that summer (below is picture of me there).
So anyways I saw two noteworthy and interesting devices. The first is known as the “Guitar Hero” Guitar, and the second has come to be known as the “Airsynth Guitar.” These guitars are pretty easy to spot as bizarre anomalies to anyone who knows guitars, but I’ve been pretty enamored with sorting out what the deal is with them since seeing them. And now after years (actually just a few hours of pointed google searches) of research I’ve gotten to the bottom of them, and here’s the skinny.
“Guitar Hero” Guitar:
So looking at this guitar you can recognize that it is a double neck SG with a “Guitar Hero” style controller inlayed over the 6 string part of it, but I also recognize something a bit more sophisticated on there than a game controller.
My first suspicion was it was some sort of KAOS Pad. Now i’ll admit, I’ve only seen a KAOS Pad once in my life, and it was at my friend and former bandmate Cooper’s apt about 5 years ago, but I’d had the idea of it explained to me, so I recognized the look of one. I theorized at the time that the signal from the 12-string part of the guitar was run through the KAOS pad which was then somehow wired through the GH controller in such a way that the controller buttons would further oscillate the sound….
at about the 2min mark Wayne Coyne explains the idea behind it and sort of how it works. Now I may have been misled cause I still don’t know EXACTLY how it works, but it seems as though my hypothesis was pretty much correct. It’s GH controller with a KAOSilator attached, and that is enough info to satisfy my curiosity for now…
This one had me a bit more perplexed. I recognized and axyz dome of an Alesis device within the sound hole of the acoustic guitar, but couldn’t tell if it was an AirFX or an AirSynth. Allow me to explain.
They both use Alesis’s AXYZ technology, wherein an Infrared beam is emitted from the center of a dome and then you wave your hand (or something else) around it to reflect the beam onto different parts of the dome itself. It’s similar to a keyboard or a wah pedal but the parameters of the processor are goverened by where the beam is reflected to, not by what key you hit or the position of the pedal or the preset program chip in it. In the FX model you can run a signal (like from a turntable or a guitar) through the device and use the AXYZ dome to govern an internal effect like a phase or flange (also it’s purple). In the Synth model you can not run an outside signal through it. The AXYZ dome is used to manipulate sound effects. The Synth Model is essentially a self contained sound device (and it’s orange). See below:
After the first concert, I thought that maybe it was the FX model and he had a pick-up in the guitar that then went through it and then out to the amp, that way the phase or flange or whatever would go in sync with the strumming of the guitar because his hand would be waiving above it the whole time.
When l I got a closer look at the rig at the second concert I could see that the casing of the device within was orange, which means it’s the AirSynth, so the next step was to sort out how it was being used.
I then hypothesized that the AirSynth must be used as an extra texture effect and by Wayne waiving his hand around to play the guitar chords it was manipulating a sound that would go in rythm with the songs… or that perhaps just the vibration of the stings above the dome was creating a strange effect not possible any other way…
Well, I was perplexed, so I started scoping out some videos of them live on Letterman and stuff where Wayne used the guitar. I tried to listen for sounds that sounded like the AirSynth (I own one myself) and try to match them with his hand motions. Still couldn’t figure it out. The only thing I was able to find that showed the AirSynth being obviously utilized was a video from when the Lips acted as the back-up band for Beck in radio gig. You can see that video below:
It is first heard at the 1 min mark and then you can really see (and hear) Wayne playing it at about the 1:44 Mark
I couldn’t figure it out….
THEN, I realized that when Wayne Coyne was “playing” the AirSynth guitar in concert, he wasn’t really playing it, he wasn’t making any chords. So I thought “Ah Ha!! it must be the vibrations of the strings that are manipulating the AirSynth sounds, but then again I still couldn’t hear the sounds. So then I just ran a google search asking the question I wanted answered, “What’s the deal with Wayne Coyne’s AirSynth Guitar?” and I found this interview:
I read the whole thing and quickly realized that the answer is: none of the above… and also all of the above. There is an AirSynth in the guitar and it is hooked up sometimes, but most of the time it’s just a prop guitar. It doesn’t even have all the strings all the time. In this Interview it is mentioned that Wayne will just tape stuff onto his guitars to make them look cool, like a broken iPod (I remembering seeing that too) or an AirSynth. This is also confirmed by others in some posts on this flaming lips chat room.
I think the bottom line is that Wayne Coyne is a genius entertainer. He does stuff like this cause he knows it will drive nerds like me nuts. We’ll drool over what his crazy device is and we’ll want one too. We’ll geek out all night long trying to figure it out and it just adds to the legend of the Flaming Lips……
I think I’m gonna build me an AirSynth Guitar too. Anybody got a busted acoustic they don’t want anymore?