The Marvelous Music Machine

An Asheville musician/inventor/entrepreneur develops a device transforming how the acoustic guitar physically makes sounds. Called an acoustic synthesizer, it alters how the strings vibrate, adding nearly 100 new sounds to the instrument.

ASHEVILLE - Close your eyes, use your imagination, and in your mind, listen to your favorite artist play an acoustic guitar.

Listen to the strumming, and the musician’s fingers glide across the strings.

Listen to the individual strings sound out the notes.

Listen to the fingers on the other hand glide across the strings on the neck of the guitar.

It’s all because of physics. The string is plucked and the vibrating string produces a sound. The location of the musician’s fingers on the neck changes the length of the string that is vibrating, which is what alters the sound.  

The acoustic guitar creates beautiful sounds. However, there is a finite amount of sounds it can produce, even with the most talented musician playing it, but Paul Vo wants to change that.

Vo is a musician, entrepreneur and inventor who lives in Asheville. He loves his acoustic guitar, but he also believes the guitar is capable of making so many more sounds with a little help from science. He developed the Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesizer to do just that. Think acoustic guitar on steroids.

“It’s a very complex, delicate, nuanced situation, and that’s why I call it the Vo-96,” explains Vo. “There are 96 different channels, tuned to different harmonics, and the tuning follows. So far, with the Vo-96, I’ve produced 96 new sounds on an acoustic guitar.”

Imagine an acoustic guitar that sounds like a church organ, a harp or a reed instrument; it is possible with Vo’s music machine.

“Whatever the sound is you’re hearing, it’s what the string is actually doing,” says Vo, who adds he wants to stay true to an acoustic guitar while at the same time seeing what more can be done with the strings. “Neurologically, that sound is under your fingertips and you can feel the vibration, so you have this connection to the sound.”

Vo is best known as the inventor of the infinite sustaining technology inside the Moog Guitar. The wall near his workshop shows the patents behind that work. The technology allows the strings of an electric guitar to vibrate forever. A quick explanation of how an electric guitar works can explain why.

When the metal strings of an electric guitar are strummed, the vibrating strings disturb the magnetic field that is created by the pickups, which are a series of magnetic coils just below the strings.  Pluck the string, and the vibration creates an electric current in the coils. The current is the same frequency as the string. The amp turns it into sound.

Paul Vo’s invention actually changes the physics of how a guitar makes sound. The Vo-96 creates a magnetic field around the strings, but this magnetic field listens to the strings and then applies energy back to the string to physically change the way it vibrates. Because it is an acoustic guitar, there is no signal to electronically manipulate, which is what happens with an electric guitar. The Vo-96 physically alters the way the strings vibrate.

“I’m actually adding energy at some harmonics and subtracting energy at other harmonics, in order to propel the string to the particular tonality and the particular timber that I’m looking for,” says Vo. “So, to create this reedy sound, I’m playing the odd harmonics — 1,3,5,7,9 — and actively suppressing the even harmonics. In the same way, when I play the even harmonics, I’m suppressing the odd.” 

In other words, the magnetic field created by the Vo-96 is adding to, or removing, the specific vibrating energy in the strings that is connected to specific harmonics.

The Vo-96 is battery powered, which allows the musician to play the guitar anywhere, the same as can be done with a traditional acoustic guitar. A black plate with touch pads sits behind the strings and becomes the user interface. The rest of the device slips through the sounds hole of the guitar and wraps around the inside. The maze of circuits on the inside computes the energy needs of the strings while the transducers do the work of adding or subtracting the energy of the strings to alter the vibration and affect the harmonics, which creates the sounds.

A Kickstarter campaign funded Vo’s original production of the devices. He sold them all. Vo is now waiting to hear what the music world thinks of his devices and what additional sounds musicians may want to play. He’s confident more sounds can be found, and heard.

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