Global Bass Online September 2000
LightWave Systems’ Optical Pickup
Editor’s note this issue, we touch upon the thought that every new century
seems to bring about a new group of creations. Some never seen before, with
others quantum leaps forward on older ideas. In this issue’s Cover Story we
will be talking with Chris Willcox, President and founder of LightWave Systems
and creator of an innovative approach to the amplification of the signal derived
from a stringed instrument, and in particular for this magazine, the bass
guitar. The latter part of this article will also introduce Jim Bruce, VP of Sales, who will go into a few
of the applications for this technology.
A complete reworking of the philosophy of the pickup was what Chris
Willcox had in mind from the start. The conventional magnetic pickup has been in
use in one form or another since the mid 1930s, and though greatly improved over
the years since its creation, in tone, reliability and appearance, the magnetic
pickup remains fairly static in its basic premise. One of the constant efforts
on the part of manufacturers of magnetic pickups has been to find a way to
eliminate as much of the hum or buzz created in using this highly sensitive
pickup, while endeavoring to create as faithful a reproduction of the original
signal from the string itself as was possible.
This is not to say there are not advantages to using the conventional pickup;
its unique qualities and sounds have, without a doubt, shaped the creation and
development of music of the past 60 years. That can’t be denied.
in this “digital” age, with the sheer sound quality of present day CDs and
the impending creation of even newer and more exact methods of reproduction,
many artists will begin searching for a more pristine or ‘truer’
reproduction of the dance between the strings and their hands, with nothing
coming between them and in turn, altering their own unique musical message.
is a philosophy out there carried by home audio enthusiasts with regards to the
speaker cabinets they use in their systems. The goal in recreating sound for the
audiophile is to produce as pure and uncolored a signal as possible. From that
philosophy comes the belief that a speaker system is at its very best when it is
sonically ‘invisible’. The purist is in pursuit of a speaker that does not
color the sound in any way, not exaggerating or canceling any of the tones,
notes or music. Transparency is this principal ideal to the audiophile.
With the new
LightWave pickup, there is now the opportunity to create that same
‘invisibility’ with your musical instrument. Using infrared light instead of
a magnetic field, there is no conduit over which to carry unwanted noise; no
field transmitting messages to wires, to amplifier and to human ear. This
natural isolation, where the only thing being affected by the movement of the
string is an infrared light, makes it sonically ‘invisible’ in conducting
the notes to the amplifier. This inevitably will invite the players to
re-examine their technique, perhaps even their whole approach to playing.
subtleties, nuances, and new techniques in playing will be created here by the
freedom the LightWave pickup allows. This freedom would not be dissimilar to the
freedom given to and felt by users of the Chapman ‘Stick’ when it first
entered the market place. The players will find themselves with a whole new way
to play, with the opportunity to produce sounds in a variety of tones and ranges
We asked Chris where this idea for a new pickup
a builder, I was finding that I could build an electric instrument, make it
sound good, with nice tone, good sustain, but putting magnetic pickups on it
changed everything. Magnetic pickups, as much as I admire them and like a lot of
their characteristics- they’re definitely not transparent.
Bass: So the original
technology for this new pickup is actually 20 years old and was developed for
the military, the infrared light system. Also, are we correct in saying that it
is only in the last 3 years or so that the prices for this technology have moved
down into an area that you could start looking at mass-production while keeping
that’s true, there are so many applications for infrared technology now that
there are quite a few components that are really being mass produced, and
that’s key. The system is still at a premium, but we expect to get costs down
considerably once we get more volume happening. We are also always moving
towards molded parts, surface-mount boards, and other cost-saving measures. When
I first started experimenting with the system, the price was prohibitively high.
GB: When this was first being designed for instruments, your target was more for the Boutique Bass of $1500 or more. Do you hope at some point to make this available to the type of purchaser not yet at that level?
This is our goal; we’re introducing it at first to more medium-to
high-end priced instruments. If you bring out a new technology like this, I
think it is best to introduce it to the public on high-quality, high-end
instruments. You can always lower your price somewhat, however, we are not
likely to get it into the ‘under-$500’ instrument area.
Also by undervaluing a high-tech product, in trying to make it available
for the $200 bass, does no one any good. To this day, I recall walking into my
favorite music shop in Toronto and ogling the Alembic basses. This was back in
the very early 70s, but they were expensive even back then. To me they were the
Lamborghini of basses, and I would gladly pay that price to get that sound. I
knew what I was getting into, but I knew what I was getting in return.
same for me, I was a musician; I started playing guitar when I was eight or nine
years old and it didn’t matter if I had to scrimp and save, I bought the
guitar that I wanted, even if it was expensive. I could only afford one at a
time, so I know what that means to a player.
Some players play at various points across the body of the guitar, over
the pickups, close to the bridge, even over the neck, creating different voices
at each position. How does the LightWave pickup respond to these techniques?
pickup is located at the very end of the string, where the most harmonic content
is available. Magnetic pickups are usually placed at what are thought of as
‘sweet spots’ on the string, but if you think about it, there’s a problem
with that because once you fret that string, that ‘sweet spot’ has moved.
you find playing the LightWave is that if you want a bridge-treble sound, just
play close to the bridge, if you want a neck sound, play there. So the control
is in your hands now, not where the pickup is placed.
You are presently working with manufacturers such as ZON and MODULUS. Any
are working with almost anyone you can think of at this point, the awareness
level of the system has risen dramatically in the past few months, thanks to
Michelle (Michelle Gysan, VP of Marketing) and Jimmy (Jim Bruce, VP of Sales),
and so many companies are at least in the stage of prototyping. We have a large
roster of manufacturers who will be offering LightWave products.
thing that we’re working on as we speak is another design innovation. We found
that working with various players and manufacturers and all different types of
instruments with different woods, neck-through bodies and graphite necks, there
is no real universal EQ system, so what we came up with to remedy that
difficulty is what we call ‘open architecture’.
audio PC board which supports the system now has surface -mount components, so
it’s shrinking in size. It has a socket for a Tone Control daughter board so
that we can offer some basic recipes for tone control. A manufacturer can even
implement their own design. There’s an upgrade path for the end user as well.
We find that with tone control, well, everybody’s got a different opinion, so
because it’s a flat-response pickup, you can put curves anywhere you want
them. With a magnetic pickup (which has a strong inherent curve of its own), you
can’t fight that. It really has one distinct voice. You can vary it a little
bit, but if you push it too far, it sounds artificial. With a completely flat,
transparent pickup, the sky’s the limit.
Some amplifiers, particularly higher-end amps, are being sold
these days with preset controls that attempt to emulate established sounds. Will
this technology you’ve created allow you to preset the pickup to produce the
‘sound’ of distinct basses?
the direction we’re going in, the basics of it will be guided by what exact
controls you want…bass boost and cut, mids, sweepable mids, all of those
recipes are available. The door’s wide open for programmable and presetable or
assignable knobs. With this daughter-board configuration, we are open to
whatever people or manufacturers may approach us with. We’re also talking with
some companies such as Line 6, which are into that whole cabinet and amplifier
emulation thing, so who knows where we may be able to go with all this?
What are some of the other benefits of this new technology for
it uses light and not magnetics, we’re not limited to ferromagnetic strings
anymore. We’ve also been talking to string manufacturers. Some new recipes of
strings are now available to us, so we plan to come out with strings that will
complement the system. For example, copper wound for a real piano wire
GB: Would they be under the banner of LightWave as well?
Chris: Yes, we are planning to private-label them, and sell them on the web site. Eventually the retailers can carry them as well.
GB: If I understand the tech of this, am I right in saying that the receptor picks up the movement of the string in front of the infrared. What happens if you change the gauge of your strings?
doesn’t really matter to the detector. There’s a little adjustment at the
bridge; it’s called an ‘offset’, so when you do your setup, there’s
actually a pair of detectors for each string. The little adjustment just centers
those two detectors on the centerline of the string. It’s very easy to do;
there’s actually an LED on the pickup that goes either green or red when
you’re too far in either direction. When you’re centered up, the LED goes
out. If you do change string gauges, it’s a quick re-adjustment. It’s
something the end user is quite capable of doing.
GB: What brought about the original idea to try to find an alternative to the magnetic pickup?
I had a guitar shop in Santa
Barbara. I was experimenting around a lot with different wood combinations and
different construction techniques. I would end up disappointed, because I would
improve tone or improve sustain and I would lose it as soon as I put magnetic
pickups on. So what occurred to me was that magnetic pickups have that inherent
curve to them and they are also influencing the strings. That magnetic pull
dampens the string, affecting the sustain and causing harmonic distortion.
So what I was trying to create was a method that just looked at a string instead of influencing it. One thing led to another until the idea of using light occurred to me. I experimented with piezos too-they’ve got some virtues, but they’ve got some drawbacks so I wasn’t happy with that sound, standalone either. We do incorporate piezos with the system as an adjunct, though.
ice Tone is included in the system. The majority of players like it. A
few players are not that interested in it, however, it’s a way to achieve a
glassy, brilliant high end without electronically boosting the highs, which (like
magnetics) always brings hiss.
other exciting area for us right now was kind of a result of something that
happened in April. We had a huge amount of interest at a consumer level that was
coming to us from the Internet; a lot of players asked about MIDI. This new
motherboard that we’re working on also has a socket for an optional MIDI
board. Although it doesn’t cure the inherent string physics of ‘how long
does it take for a note to develop, it does improve performance dramatically
because of the complete isolation of the signal from each string, and the fact
that the fundamental is really strongly represented (more
on this when we speak to Jim Bruce, the VP of Sales further on).
We’ve been able to demonstrate with the Roland, the Axon and the Yamaha
systems that LightWave System really works well with hexaphonic applications.
On the cover photo for this issue, we have a picture of you holding a
rather remarkable and radically designed bass. Do you imagine that at one point
you will in fact be releasing a LightWave bass?
GB: Now what happens in the case of a person who has a Fender bass or some other manufacturers bass already fitted with pickups, but he just wants to add on the LightWave system?
Well, there is no retrofit available yet, primarily because it’s not a
simple retrofit you’re replacing the bridge, the cavity is usually not the
right shape, all sorts of complications.
we are trying to do is give the manufacturer the chance to sell a new and
different instrument. Eventually we may come up with a simpler retrofit for
something there is a lot of…for example P Basses or J Basses. We’re not
trying to encourage hybrids with magnetic pickups, because even if you’re not
using that magnetic pickup you’re still having the influence of those pickups
on the strings. We want to get it out there in a pure form so that people
understand it, so retrofit didn’t seem to be the right way to go for now.
not trying to sell this as a replacement technology. It may turn into that over
time, we’ll see. For the manufacturer, it’s the opportunity to offer
something completely new and different.
you think about it, the manufacturers are offering fancy hardwoods or clever
finishes or gold plating but no real performance advantages. It’s also an
opportunity for high-end boutique builders who have the time to experiment to
really find the ‘voice’ an instrument has with the use of exotic woods
rather than just putting them on there because they look good. That’s what we
are offering here.
this point Chris also offers an invitation to luthiers to feel free to contact
LightWave regarding this new pickup and fitting in on their instruments. Contact
numbers will be given below…
Bruce, VP of
Sales for LightWave went into a little bit of the applications for the pickup
and how it has complete marriage-ability with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital
Global Bass: To begin, could you give us an idea of the retail price of the LightWave pickup?
We do not have a suggested retail price and our systems are sold
exclusively to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM).
Our pricing to builders is based on their expected unit volume and the
system components that they choose to include.
The idea here is that as players are eager to explore this limitless
tonal palette, builders have a unique opportunity for business that they would
not have otherwise had. Our web site offers links to a number of builders who
advertise pricing online. (www.lightwave-systems.com)
Otherwise, suffice to say that there is a premium for instruments powered by
So once you are able to start buying some of the parts en masse,
then you can start looking at lowering your costs.
The instruments that are out in the market place now are the first
example of the successful introduction of instrumental, optical pickup
technology. As we make advances and
technology improves daily, those instruments are extremely collectible and
historically significant. Cost of
manufacturing is important; however, as demand increases builders may rightly
increase pricing before they retreat. Early
adopters understand the opportunities that come with an emergent technology that
is proving successful.
Chris Willcox was saying that with things as they are right now he
doesn’t see this technology going on a bass any cheaper than $500 USD. He
comments that if things go well he can see the unit going onto a bass
that will cost $1000 USD in total. But at this time in the technology, these are
designed more for the custom or Boutique bass anyway. Right now it seems more
targeted to the Lamborghinis of the bass world.
starts out with the custom builder and Boutique bass in mind. It turns out that
our early buyers are people who buy from the Boutique builders. These are the
people that are generally less price-sensitive, and this happens to be in the
time frame when the product is at its most expensive for us to build.
far as long-term, we have every expectation of being a Honda. You’ve got to
have high volume in order to sustain yourself. Unfortunately, Ferraris and
Lamborghinis are not high volume and require a bitter pill in terms of price.
Also, we are discussing the purchase of a revolutionary musical tool for
artists and enthusiast as opposed to a luxury item for the wealthy elite.
It’s a fair analogy in the beginning, but over time and with unit
volume we believe we can very quickly move into the market position of being
like a Honda, in terms of volume and in terms of leading-edge technology, Honda
has some amazing stuff out there on the race track that they don’t do right
there on the street, but it works its way in.
Today’s bassist finds that a new set of strings last, if they
are very lucky, for about 5 to 6 hours in playing time, at which point most of
the newness, the warmth, that ‘new car smell’ is gone. How will that
untimely death be interpreted by the LightWave System?
you are referring to is the loss of the upper harmonic content. The fundamental
in my experience is still there, so I think that with the LightWave System, the
strings will still take on a new voice, however, our system brings out those
subtleties even more. Your strings won’t last longer, but the perception of
each stage in a string’s life becomes more pronounced and
Perception is invariably interpreted as reality. Tell us a bit about the new
MIDI capability and it’s advantages of working with the LightWave System.
an optical pickup provides is a discrete output for each string, and totally
flat response. This is the Holy Grail, in terms of pickup technology.
These two features are what virtually eliminate the tracking errors
common to the prior arts. What you
do with it after that is really an OEM’s business. Whether they want to use
DSP, (Digital Signal Processing) or they want to use MIDI, this is the best
front end that they can find. If they decide to use MIDI, then you start getting
into those issues of conversion delay. There
is an emerging technology, that utilizes a neural net to “predict” what note
is coming. We are working with its designers to explore the benefits of using
the pristine signal that LightWave delivers.
It is expected that our pickup in concert with these neural net devices
will yield a MIDI solution that is revolutionary.
That has been pursued for a long time, tried so many times. The chief
complaint of so many hopeful bassists has been the tracking problem and the
response time, where it didn’t take very much to overtake the speed of the
history of MIDI for stringed instruments warrants suspicion.
The tracking problem you mention is the part of the equation that
LightWave solves. The response time
is the result of the time it takes for the fundamental pitch to be reached and
then converted. These neural net
devices are currently the best solution and to clarify: it is believed that our
device, being amplitude sensing, will give these units all of the information
they want and none of what they don’t. The
use of current pickup technology requires the converters to do more then just
convert. They must also compensate
for a less than ideal input.
GB: When do you see this marriage of technology happening between LightWave and MIDI capability?
We are planning to debut our
production on October 15th.
GB: This is working with the manufacturer of this neural net device?
This introduction is independent
of that marriage. We have been approached by the biggest names with an interest
in this technology. Hexaphonic
output is something that people have been wanting for years, and we may not
offer exclusivity to any one company. MIDI
is just one side of the coin. DSP
is a separate world that benefits from our systems as well.
these digital tools may prove to become as relatively popular as say, compact
disc technology, it is important for your readers to know that our system is
purely analog. The purist is
rewarded with a palette of tone that is second to none and for those who wish to
enter the digital domain, they will find no better foundation to start from.
Dann Glenn's Modulus DG-LW
Some pretty important names in today’s music stand behind the Lightwave Optical Pickup. Stanley Clarke, Michael Manring, Dann Glenn, Leland Sklar, Richard Bona, Scott Alexander of Dishwalla, and the list is growing.
Established and accomplished musicians
all, endorsers who feel that this is one of the most innovative ideas to come
down the road in one long time. It is entirely possible that this new
technology, yet still in its infancy, will go a long way towards doing to pickup
technology what CD’s did for vinyl and the recording industry.
Of course, it is safe to say, just as
there will always be true believers who feel vinyl will always be warmer,
more ‘real’, less digital than CD technology, there will be a market for the
magnetic pickup. It is not much of a stretch, however, to imagine that in ten
years or less the Optical Pickup will be sharing a very sizable piece of the
stage. It will be interesting to know whether we were actually present at the
‘re-invention of the wheel’. This may prove to be a turning point in
technology for bassists and other stringed instruments as well.
You can reach the folks at LightWave for
questions and more information at
(805) 684-3216 or go to
their web site at…
and manufacturers are also welcome to inquire.
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