A Look at the Hottest Items From the 2018 NAMM Show

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The NAMM show was bigger than ever this year, due in large part to a robust economy and to the addition of a brand-new hall filled with companies in the pro audio side of our market. This made sense considering 2018 was the first year that the Audio Engineering Society took part in this annual event, hosting a wide variety of workshops and seminars. But, as always, it was the dizzying array of new products that kept the attendees buzzing throughout the last weekend of January. Electronic Musician was there, keeping an eye out for the best and most exciting hardware and software announcements. The following is a snapshot of what we found, with more to see at emusician.com.

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1. Software developer Antares (antarestech.com) had a steady stream of visitors in its booth checking out its latest release, Auto-Tune Pro. A notable new aspect of it is the Auto-Key plug-in, which automatically detects the scale and key you’re working in. The software also offers real-time MIDI parameter control, provides Audio Random Access capabilities, and includes the Classic Mode for users who crave the sound of Auto-Tune 5.

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2. Applied Acoustics Systems (applied-acoustics.com) remains at the forefront of physical modeling and their Strum GS-2 impressively reflects this. The software re-creates the flavor of true guitar playing—a tough trick to pull off via keyboard technique, even with an arpeggiator. This gave us a reason to check out Christian Laffitte’s superb new Pop Rocks expansion pack for Strum, which includes 12 styles, 68 presets, and 84 strumming patterns.

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3. It’s a credible argument that the Arturia MiniBrute (arturia.com) ushered in the era of the affordable analog monosynth. So it makes perfect sense that the MiniBrute 2 may just as well jumpstart the Eurorack for Everyone movement, with its extensive patchbay and companion RackBrute 3U (pictured) and 6U module cases. However, we’ve got our eyes on the MiniBrute 2S, which has an integrated sequencer.

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4. Hardware and software developer Audified (audified.com) teamed up with Drum Workshop (dwdrums.com) to create a multiprocessing plug-in specifically designed for use with drum tracks. DW Drum Enhancer provides EQ, gating, compression, and tube-like saturation with customizable factory presets tailored for kick, snare, toms, and other drums.

Xtrax Stems from Audionamix (audionamix.com) looks more like real magic than anything else we saw at NAMM. Stems is Mac-only software that analyzes a song, uploads it to the cloud, and automatically splits it into three stems—vocals, drums, and everything else—that are compatible with Native Instruments’ Stems format.

The Avedis Audio KeyPre (avedisaudio.com) is a 6-channel, 12-input rackmount unit made for electronic instruments that have widely varying output levels and impedances. All inputs and outputs are balanced, and the direct-coupled discrete preamps offer a maximum 32 dB of gain.

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5. An amp simulator at heart, the GT-1000 guitar-effects processor incorporates a slew of Boss (boss.info) effects with 32-bit, 96kHz A/D and D/A conversion. Featuring algorithms ported directly from Boss effects pedals, it offers MIDI- and audio-over-USB, user-assignable colors and controls, and iOS and Android editors that connect via Bluetooth.

Casio (casiomusicgear.com) came to NAMM with an updated CT line of electronic keyboards featuring the company’s latest AiX Sound Source. The CT-X700 and CT-X800 are designed to be affordable and portable, and are well-suited for beginning and intermediate players. The CT-X3000 includes additional tones and DSP capabilities, an expression-pedal jack, and a pair of 6W speakers onboard. The largest model, the CT-X5000, has all of that plus two 15W speakers built in.

The CEntrance MixerFace R4 (centrance.com) is a mobile recording interface and mixer with two Neutrik combo inputs, a stereo minijack input, and up to eight hours of battery life. It’s about the size of a smartphone and pairs with a video camera, tablet, or smartphone. An upgraded model includes an integrated recorder that records 16-bit, 48kHz audio in stereo.

As a virtual polyphonic Eurorack modular synth, Cherry Audio Voltage Modular (cherryaudio.com) runs as a plug-in or standalone instrument in Windows and on the Mac. It comes with more than 40 modules that are color-coded to indicate function. The software is intended to be a platform for anyone who wants to develop modules, and it comes with the separate Java-based Module Builder application.

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6. Whether you think of it as a DX7 gene-spliced with an MPC, or as an FM synth for the masses, the Elektron Digitone (elektron.se) is a bold step for the Swedish hardware innovator. Friendly macros, baked-in sequencing, multimode filters, and the company’s trademark intuitive LCD look like another winning combo.

Designed for live performances that incorporate playback tracks, the iConnectivity PlayAudio 12 (connectivity.com) interface routes multitrack audio from your computer to ten balanced 1/4-inch outputs that you connect to your mixing console. You can also connect as many as eight MIDI devices, additional interfaces, and a second computer. If your primary computer fails, Play-Audio 12 will seamlessly and automatically switch to your backup computer.

While in the Hammond booth (hammondorganco.com), we got an excellent demo of the new SKx, a lightweight dual-manual instrument with three sets of drawbars, a digital Leslie effect, vibrato-chorus, and Touch-Response percussion. Gigging players will find the inclusion of bread-and-butter keyboard voices to be a major plus—acoustic grands, electric pianos, Clavs, as well as orchestral and percussion instruments.

IK Multimedia (ikmultimedia.com), in collaboration with Hammond USA and Suzuki Music Corp., have released AmpliTube Leslie and T-RackS Leslie, which adds models of 5 Leslie amps and 6 Leslie rotary-speaker cabinets to the software developer’s platforms. Both products give you control over virtual mic positioning, overdrive, speed of the rotary speaker (including acceleration and deceleration), and much more.

One of NAMM’s biggest introductions was Korg’s new flagship keyboard, the Prologue (korg.com). Like the earlier ’Logues, the Prologue has fully analog oscillators, but adds the new digital Multi Engine, with Variable Phase Modulation (e.g., FM), four noise types, and the ability to roll your own oscillators in C++ using their upcoming SDK. The polysynth is available in 8-and 16-voice models. (A full review of the Prologue is at emusician.com.)

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7. With six Volcas currently on the market, Korg has come up with a way for performers to use more than one in a live situation without having to schlepp a mess of peripherals. The Volca Mix includes sync, power, built-in speakers, and filtered mixing for up to three units, along with an analog send, mastering functions for compression and limiting, and stereo enhancement.

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8. A direct descendent of Line 6’s Helix, the new HX Effects (line6.com) floor processor for guitar and bass delivers similar multi-effects performance for well under half the cost. It features 8 programmable footswitches, dual sends and returns for external gear, more than 100 algorithms, and the ability to run as many as 9 effects simultaneously. Moreover, it was designed for use on a pedalboard.

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9. Mackie (mackie.com) announced a new line of affordable in-ear monitors for the stage. The MP Series includes three models—the MP-120 with a single dynamic driver, the MP-220 with dual dynamic drivers, and the MP-240, which includes a balanced armature driver as well as a dynamic driver.

The company also displayed a full line of low-cost utility products, many of which are priced well below $100. The list includes four items in the MDB series of direct boxes (including passive, powered, and USB models), the MTest-1 cable tester, and the M48 +48V phantom power supply.

If you’ve discovered the unique and powerful softsynth MOK Waverazor (mok.com) you may be frustrated that many parameters are hidden where you can’t access them. That’s about to change with the upcoming release of the Waverazor Sound Designer Edition. The new version promises to put deep programming capabilities at your fingertips, something we have been looking forward to for some time.

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10. Nord (nordkeyboards.com) surprised us all with the announcement of the Electro 6D, which the company designed to be portable yet powerful. Available in 61- and 73-note versions, with semi-weighted waterfall keybeds, as well as in a 73-note version with a hammer-action keybed, the Electro 6D is 3-part multitimbral, offering organ, piano, and synth sounds. The models with the waterfall action include physical drawbars for the organ sound engine.

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11. Electronic percussionists visiting NAMM were excited by Roland’s unveiling of the TM-6 Pro, a trigger module that includes 500 sounds, accepts up to 12 pad and trigger inputs, and provides 4 assignable outputs. The module can import samples and play back audio from an SD card, and the USB port allows you to use the TM-6 Pro as an audio interface and a trigger-to-MIDI converter with a computer-based DAW.

The R-07 (roland.com) is Roland’s latest digital, stereo recorder. The product highlights include integrated stereo microphones, support for resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, and the ability to control it remotely from your Apple Watch or iPhone. The recorder also provides reverb effects and SD card support, and it can be powered with AA batteries.

Spectrasonics (spectrasonics.net) announced that its latest downloadable updates (which are free to current owners) of Omnisphere 2, Trillian, Keyscape, and Stylus RMX now run standalone as well as in plug-in hosts. Additional enhancements include remote-control loading, which lets you select patches and multis using program changes, CC messages, or MIDI notes from your keyboard.

Strymon, (strymon.net), maker of the BigSky reverb and Mobius modulation pedals, introduced its first Eurorack module, Magneto, and it’s a doozy. Functioning as both a complex sound source and an effects processor, the module combines simulated multiple-head tape delay, looping, phrase sampling, spring reverb, clock multiplication and division, and much more.

Tracktion BioTek (tracktion.com) is a virtual instrument that combines field recordings with synthesis. Version 2 delivers a number of new features, such as granular synthesis oscillators, new filter types, an updated browser, and 100 new patches designed by Richard Devine.

Tracktion also previewed the RetroMod Series, an all-new collection of softsynth plug-ins based on samples recorded from classic analog synthesizers such as the Minimoog and Nord Lead. Users have access to basic parameters, numerous effects, an x-y pad, and macro controls for modifying sounds.

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12. Universal Audio (uaudio.com) is once again ahead of the pack with the release of the Arrow, a desktop audio interface for Thunderbolt 3. In addition to support for the company’s UAD-2 plug-ins, the interface includes Unison mic preamps and is bundled with the 610-B Tube Preamp as well as emulations of products by API, Neve, Fender and Marshall.

There’s a reason that the Waldorf Q still has a massive following among vintage-synth fans, but that may soon change. The oscillators on its latest release, the Quantum (waldorfmusic.com), include the company’s iconic wavetables, sampling (with granular options), virtual analog with up to 8 detuned waves, and a resonator. All of this is delivered through true analog lowpass filters. The synth’s modulation and effects are equally epic.

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13. Combining a string synth with a vocoder may be a time-honored approach to design, but Waldorf’s new STVC breaks new ground by including formant shifting, a second Solo synth for layering, and a Freeze mode that is a bit like a baked-in micro sampler for triggering vocoder bits. Moreover, three effects can be used simultaneously at the output.

Software developer Waves (waves.com) showed us two exciting new releases. PRS SuperModels is a virtual amp plug-in that models three high-end Paul Reed Smith guitar amplifiers—the PRS Archon, the PRS Dallas, and the PRS Blue Sierra/V9. The software lets you choose from 8 different speaker cabinets, select and situate different mics, and much more.

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14. The other exciting release from Waves is the Scheps Omni Channel, a software channel strip developed in collaboration with renowned engineer Andrew Scheps. The plug-in includes a compressor, de-esser, EQ, gate, and various types of saturation.

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15. Another product that was the talk of the show was the prototype Yudo Neuman2 touchscreen keyboard, which provided an exciting and intuitive way to adjust the parameters of its sounds and effects. We never thought we’d miss having actual knobs on a synth but the capabilities of this giant touchscreen could make us reconsider.

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16. It’s miraculous that a software vocoder originally released in 1998 remains utterly relevant decades later, but Zynaptiq’s Orange Vocoder (zynaptiq.com) is the real deal. The latest edition features a 32-voice synth, 8 distinctive vocoder algorithms and integrated reverb. However, it’s for Mac users, as it only supports AU.

Acoustic Pianos at NAMM!

The 120-year-old German company Niendorf (niendorf-piano.de) made its first visit to NAMM to showcase its grand pianos, which were some of our surprise favorites of the show. Rich in tone with plenty of depth, these pianos should make an impression on anyone who plays one. With instruments like these, the legacy of fine German piano craftsmanship shows no sign of diminishing.

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The booth was never empty at Ravenscroft (ravenscroftpianos.com) as a parade of eager players kept these crisp, bright pianos in constant use. Ravenscroft has made a name for themselves, and the consensus every year is that they live up to the hype: This is one piano that sounds as good to the player as it does out in front.

Shigeru Kawai (shigerukawai.com) pianos have always vied for our attention at NAMM, and this year, our roving players gave its SK-EX Concert Grand top marks. Only 20 of these 9-foot pianos are produced each year, making them the rarest on the scene. But they are magnificent instruments and worth tracking down and hearing the way they sound in person.

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Following on the heels of the stellar CFX grand from last year’s show, the top-shelf CF Concert Grand piano from Yamaha is a true delight. The brightness of Yamaha pianos, coupled with the fluidity of their action, makes for an enjoyable and very playable instrument. We have never been disappointed by the high quality of tone these pianos produce.

Next to its sister Yamaha grands, the Bösendorfer Vienna Concert Grand (boesendorfer.com) sounded a bit darker and richer in tone. Its vibrancy and character kept players at the keys for quite a long time. Still one of the loveliest grand pianos on the show floor, it is a regal instrument fit for a concert hall, ballroom or your own palatial digs.

Seiler (seilerpianousa.com) pianos have utilized the brand’s magnet technology on their German uprights for years, but the ED132M marks the first time they have offered it in their Asian-made products. The technology is designed to replicate the repetition lever found on grand pianos but within a vertical installation. The system works by having a pair of opposing magnets on every key, rather than a spring system. When a key is pressed, it will suspend the hammer mechanism long enough for the jack to return under the knuckle, allowing the key to be replayed quickly without the player having to release the key all the way to the upper position. The feel is quite fast and fluid, making the job of any player a little easier and more facile. (Visit keyboardmag.com to see a video demonstration of this piano action.)

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QRS Music Technologies (qrsmusic.com) has been creating systems for automating piano playback for years. This year they showed the PNOscan OT, which is designed for “portable optical recording” of acoustic piano performances via MIDI. The bar, which is placed over the keys, is slim and lightweight (less than 5 lbs.), with small rubber-tipped sensors in addition to light sensors. Because it is easy to install and use, this technology is likely to find its way into plenty of studios and living rooms.

We always enjoy the uncompromising tonal quality of Fazioli (fazioli.com) pianos, but this year they upped the ante on the outside with the M. Liminal model. Designed by NYT Line, the piano’s shell has an ultra-modern look, though inside it provides pure Fazioli magic. And while this model will only set you back half a million bucks, imagine the looks on your friends’ faces when they see it in your home!

The MIDI Spec Gets an Update: MIDI-CI and MPE

The MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) and AMEI’s recent ratification of MIDI-Capable Inquiry (MIDI-CI) significantly extends the official MIDI Specification. This allows compatible devices to automatically configure a system by exchanging information about their capabilities. Also adopted was the final MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) specification, which allows individually articulated notes, clearing the way for more expressive instruments and software. Visit MIDI.org for more information.