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A photonic guitar for photonic sounds

Hans-Peter Loock is a researcher with the Canadian Institute for Photonics Innovations (CIPI), a network of the Networks of Centres of Excellence Program. He has teamed up with PARTEQ Innovations, QPS Photronics and Dagmar Guitars, to develop a compact photonic guitar pick-up that will rival existing piezoelectric pick-ups in quality of sound and robustness and will surpass them in terms of versatility of tone. They are working on two custom instruments for demonstration purposes that are equipped with their innovative photonic pick-up technology; one is an electric guitar (or bass guitar) and the other is an acoustic instrument, such as a violin or acoustic guitar.

The photonic guitar pickups will represent a paradigm shift in instrument recording technology. For the first time, luthiers and discriminating musicians will be able to capture the true sound of their instrument originating from the different resonant regions of a guitar’s body, and reproduce the true sound of the wood.

When recording the sound of musical instruments, musicians face a limited number of choices. For acoustic instruments, professional and serious amateur musicians prefer using a microphone over a “pick-up”, a device which captures mechanical vibrations, and converts them to an electrical signal which can then be amplified, recorded and broadcast.

When ambient noise levels are high or acoustic feedback is a concern, musicians will frequently resort to piezoelectric pickups. Piezoelectricity is electricity or electric polarity due to pressure.  Piezoelectric pickups have the advantage of not picking up any other magnetic fields, such as feedback from monitoring loops. For “electrical” instruments (mostly electrical guitars) the motion of the strings is recorded using magnetic induction. Both technologies have their drawbacks such as distortion of sound, and sensitivity to interferences from electrical circuitry (the “60 Hz hum”).

Their new technology, developed using a CIPI TEN grant, is based on fiber Bragg gratings (FBGs), which are very small and light fiber optic devices that are vibration sensitive and have been used for many years in structural health monitoring and as acoustic transducers. FBGs have the potential to displace piezoelectric pickups on musical instruments, for a number of reasons such as their weight and size.

By the end of the funding term, Loock and collaborators plan the establishment of a new start-up company that will commercialize the technology. This new Canadian company will complete the design and development of specialized guitars utilizing this technology. As a second option, they will explore licensing this innovative technology to existing musical instrument manufacturers.

What photonic pick-ups can do

  • They may be distributed over the entire body of the instrument for high control over the recorded sound;
  • They are light and therefore do not alter the vibrations of the resonating body of the instrument;
  • They are small and may be attached to (or embedded into) the body of many types of instruments from grand pianos to drum shells;
  • Being all-optical devices, FBGs are not susceptible to electromagnetic interferences;
  • Existing instruments are readily retro-fitted with photonic pick-ups, giving the musician the capability to enhance the sound of even vintage instruments;
  • Preliminary recordings show that even the sound of purely “electric” instruments is enhanced by mixing the sound of a photonic pick-up into the recording.
  • For electrical string instruments the choice of strings is no longer limited to ferroelectric materials.

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