IT WAS THE HOTTEST, MOST “UP”NAMM SHOW IN YEARS—READ THIS, AND YOU’LL KNOW WHY
BY CRAIG ANDERTON AND SARAH JONES
The annual Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, CA, is the second-largest music trade show in our solar system, attracting music and technology manufacturers, retailers, musicians, and hardcore tech groupies from around the world seeking to network, conduct business, jam, enjoy a taxdeductible trip away from winter weather, and play “shipping date betting pool.” The mammoth exhibition sprawls across five exhibit halls and an arena, with each booth revealing just a little more of the totality that is NAMM until nothing is left to the imagination . . . except, of course, for the occasional imaginary shipping dates, specifications, and sometimes, even the products themselves.
Concerts run practically 24-7, with wall-to-wall music filling the Anaheim Convention Center and surrounding hotels, in performance venues throughout Anaheim, and in the artificially surreal town center that is Downtown Disney. Indeed, NAMM provides a fifth, unofficial theme park— Hypeland—to complement Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Adventureland.
You’re reading an article written in February, about a trade show that took place in January, published in an issue that says April and appears in March. That kind of insanity is a perfect counterpart to the insanity that is NAMM, what with a lizard man playing keyboards, decibel levels capable of killing rodents (well, you didn’t see any mice on the show floor, did you?), food that could survive a tactical nuclear weapons device, mohawks that required lights on the tips to warn low-flying airplanes, and of course, the twin bars at the Marriott and Hilton hotels, where deals are made, partnerships are forged, and livers are damaged— often all at the same time. And we haven’t even mentioned Hall E, the basement space where newcomers are initiated, karaoke systems and Chinese PAs co-exist with beautifully-made acoustic guitars and weird (yet cool) effects like the “Cube of Destiny,” and there are more mad scientists per square foot than at a Gyro Gearloose cartoon festival.
Okay, now that we’ve set the stage, let’s look at the gear—but let’s also go beyond the gear, and give some meaning to the trends that will influence us for years to come.
I THINK, THEREFORE iPAD
By now, we all know that iPad apps were huge. Allen & Heath showed the iTweak iPad controller for their iLive mixer; PreSonus’ SL Remote lets you control their Virtual StudioLive software from an iPad (custom monitor mixes done by musicians, anyone?), Yamaha was tweaking parameters on a Motif XF, and IK Multimedia showed their iRig voice processor, which features a unidirectional electret-condenser microphone capsule. Alesis scored a major hit with the StudioDock, which provides pro audio shelter for homeless iPads (balanced I/O, video out, a sturdy frame to hold it in place, and more), while Akai showed the Synth- Station 49—slide your iPad into this keyboard controller’s dock, and you’re good to go, whether you want to play Way Out Ware’s SynthX iPad synth from a real keyboard, or practice scales to an iPad piano method.
Don’t like 49 keys? Then head over to Studio- Logic’s 88-key equivalent, the Acuna 88. There was even an iPad app for a slide trombone you could “play” on the touchscreen. TASCAM ported the PortaStudio over to the iPad, complete with a virtual moving cassette transport. It’s cute, fun, and might help get a new generation into recording—just like the original PortaStudio.
And let’s not forget MOTU’s free DP Control, which gives iPad-based virtual control over Digital Performer. Guitar players weren’t left out, either: Agile Partners, the company behind Peavey’s AmpLink software for the iPhone, showed their Ampkit iPad app.
But we would be shirking our journalistic duties if we did not consider the Dark Side of the iForce, as alluded to in Talkbox. Think about it: We are now dependent on a piece of consumer electronics that was designed more for grandma to read e-books than to be a serious musical instrument. It’s a good thing apps are cheap, because we’ve now entered Disposableland. Think about that Motif XF: You’ll be able to get years and years of use out of it, but will you be able to say the same for the iPad controlling it?
PreSonus SL Remote
Still, the music industry has always ridden the coattails of the real world—that computer you’re using to host your DAW wasn’t designed with musicians in mind, unless you’re still running an Atari 1040ST. So let’s just say, “Thank you, Apple” for creating the iPad (and devaluing software, but hey, it’s just lines of code, right?), and marvel at all the cool stuff you can do with it. If you didn’t want an iPad going into NAMM, you probably wanted one on the way out.
DAWS AND PLUGS
Avid made their big splash with Pro Tools 9 at AES, and the stampede from Cakewalk fans to upgrade to Sonar X1 was already straining Cakewalk’s servers before NAMM started. There was no new Logic, and Ableton wasn’t at the show—but don’t think they’re sleeping.
This meant Steinberg rose way above the noise with their introduction of Cubase 6 (and Cubase 6 Artist for the economically-challenged), which zooms in on workflow improvement and does so very elegantly. And Acoustica, whose Mixcraft is getting the attention it deserves, showed a pro version (Mixcraft Pro Studio 5) with new plugs and new instruments, including a bitchin’ CS-80 emulation. It remains highly cost-effective. We like.
While it’s not exactly a DAW, we were floored by FXpansion’s Geist, a beat-maker/sampler’s dream come true. The “spiritual successor” to their Guru software, Geist makes it easy to take samples, rip them apart, put them back together again, and mutate them in ways both strange and wonderful (and possibly illegal in some states—check with your local law enforcement agencies). They have what they call a “free demo” online, but really, it’s just a sneaky way to get you addicted.
Of course, you need an interface for your DAW, and Roland’s Octa-Capture has a lot going for it aside from the reasonable price: eight very sweet mic pres, and onboard DSP—so yes, you can control dynamic range on the way in to avoid blowing a take, or use equalization to get rid of those nasty subsonics and room rumble. It’s even compact and cute. However, when it comes to looks, the Akai EIE interface (EIE I/O, geddit?) wins the Cool-Looking Steam Punk award, what with its beveled corners, analog VU meters, and general Captain Nemo vibe. Fortunately, it’s a more than just a pretty face.
Loud Technologies followed up their Onyx Blackjack interface (whose specs would still be very impressive—we measured them ourselves—even if the price wasn’t as low as it is) with the Onyx Blackbird, which is like a bigger Blackjack but retains the Onyx preamps and user-friendly ergonomics. And while we’re talking Loud, we just have to slip in that their Ampeg division re-released a limited quantity Ampeg B-15 bass amp. If you know what we’re talking about, we understand completely if this brings tears of joy to your eyes.
Mackie Onyx Blackbird
As to plug-ins, Softube raised a few eyebrows with their TSAR-1 algorithmic reverb and mixing/mastering-oriented Mix Bundle Studio Collection plug-ins. Waves showed an emulation of the original, rent-by-the-minute Aphex Aural Exciter and yes, it does give that sound. And, have you heard? Waves has slashed prices across its entire line. And if you’re in the mood to emulate vintage consoles, check out what Slate Digital is up to with their Virtual Console Collection.
Waldorf had the NAMM debut of their PPG 3.V soft synth, which can emulate all the PPG variants from the original 8-bit grunge monster that birthed serious wavetable synthesis to the state-of-the-art 2011 version. Focusrite, whose plug-ins are sometimes overlooked because people are too busy lusting after their hardware, introduced the Midnight plug-in suite with Compressor and EQ (and there’s good news for fans of Focusrite’s Virtual Reference Monitoring technology that makes mixing on headphones sound like speakers: the technology is now available in a separate VRM Box hardware, not just in their Pro 24 DSP interface).
Electronica fans and DJs will be pulling out credit cards around the world to get iZotope’s Stutter Edit, designed in conjunction with beatmeister BT. It’s s-s-s-s-so cool to be able to warrrrp and tweeeeeeeeeeeeeak sss-sss-sss-sounds to where everything is a potential breakbeat. Get it now, before it’s on a million commercials—and check out the review (along with reviews of the AdrenaLinn Sync plug-in, the outstanding Drumagog 5 drum replacement software, and SONiVOX’s Pulse, all of which made their Winter NAMM debut) in this very issue you’re holding in your hands.
Mastering engineers, listen up: Sonnox introduced a Fraunhofer codec plug-in. You can tweak it in real time, which is just what the Data Compression Doctor ordered.
One major piece of plug-in news was actually a “plug-out”—Universal Audio launched their Satellite, a DSP farm that’s not a card, but connects to your Mac (sorry, Windows fans) via Firewire 400/800. It’s basically like having a UAD-2 Dual or Quad card, but without needing a PCIe slot. Cool.
PAGING MR. MICROPHONE
On the mic front, we’re seeing a continuation of the more-for-your money trend, which frees up some bucks for luxuries like, y’know, food. Audio-Technica’s AT2022 features two condenser capsules in an X/Y pattern, and a 3-pin XLR out. The Blue Reactor multipattern condenser lets you select pickup patterns by adjusting a swiveling capsule head, and it looks so cool that you could always treat it as an objet d’art when not in use. Fans of the venerable EV RE20 will dig the Electro-Voice RE320, which is modeled after the RE20 but adds a switchable EQ curve with a setting optimized for kick drum. The MK4 condenser is Sennheiser’s first large-diaphragm, side-address mic. And DPA’s 2000 Series mics are the company’s first models coming in below $1,000. Meanwhile, Telefunken (we love that name—it’s soooo Kraftwerk meets James Brown) had two new mics at NAMM: the CU-29 “Copperhead” condenser mic with vintage NOS tube, and the M80-WH wireless microphone capsule head.
Samson Meteor USB mic
But NAMM also showed some mic accessory love, with one favorite being the JZ Mics pop filter. You can blow through it, and not see a Kleenex on the other side move. Impressed? No? You say your mic pop filter is almost as good? Then go to their website, where they do the same thing with a blast of compressed air. ’Nuff said.
Of course, you could find USB mics as well. Blue’s Yeti Pro is a high-resolution mic (24-bit, 192kHz) with USB and XLR outs, so you’re covered whether you’re with Team Digital or Team Analog. For those enamored of 1950s sci-fi flicks, Samson’s Meteor USB mic looks totally cool. If this had been around when the original “Star Trek��� was being made, it would have made it on to the set . . . guaranteed.
And the Cloudlifter, from Cloud Microphones, is one of those “so obvious no one ever thought of it before” ideas. It inserts between a ribbon or dynamic mic, and uses phantom power to provide 25dB of extra gain. So it not only protects the mic from accidental phantom power invasions, but it has what plants crave—it has electrolytes. Ooops, wrong movie . . . it has what ribbons crave—it has extra gain.
No, not John Boehner . . . but the cool speakers that bring higher performance at lower cost. Granted, some of these were introduced at AES, but they still were a big deal at NAMM: ADAM Audio’s compact AX Series features the same X-ART ribbon tweeter design as the company’s costlier brethren, and the entire series has garnered rave reviews. Focal showed the SM9, also introduced at AES but still very noteworthy for being switchable between 2-way and 3-way operation. Sonodyne presented the SM50Ak, which is the newest, most compact monitor in the Sonodyne family, and Neumann proved you weren’t hallucinating at AES by having their new monitor speakers at NAMM as well. sE Electronics showed The Egg, a radical new monitor design. Guess what it’s shaped like. . . .
Let’s not forget headphones, either. JH Audio, formed by the founder of Ultimate Ears, introduced a bunch of very high-end in-ear monitors, starting at $399. Meanwhile, Shure had their SRH940 headphones, which, perhaps not surprisingly to those who know how to count, are a step up from their SRH840 phones and cost around $300.
There were several interesting guitar developments at NAMM. The Kemper Profiling Amp analyzes the sound of your amp, then transfers those settings into a power amp that mimics the sound. They did an A-B demo, and yes, it was impressive. And speaking of impressive, Avid Eleven Rack fans can rejoice over the $99 upgrade that adds multiple amp models and other goodies to the surprise hit of 2010.
Sonuus introduced the G2M2, a second-generation of their inexpensive monophonic guitar-to-MIDI converter, as well as the i2M, a small audio interface/ converter. We all know MIDI guitar will never replace “real” guitar, but now guitarists can step into the MIDI world without huge complexity or cost.
BATTLE OF THE BOARDS
Recording isn’t just about mixing boards (although we were rather impressed by the MIDAS Venice series for live or studio use), but keyboards too. One of the coolest and most bizarre is the OMG-1, designed by Eric Persing. It’s one of a kind—literally—and you can’t buy it: It will be the grand prize in a contest Spectrasonics will be running to benefit the Bob Moog Foundation. The OMG- 1 combines a Moog Little Phatty analog synth, Spectasonics’ Omnisphere software synth, a Mac Mini, dual iPads (or is that “dueling iPads”? We must seek clarification), dual iPods, and Spectrasonics’ new Omni TR Omnisphere iPad app, all in a curvy maple cabinet.
ADAM AX-Series Speakers
But that’s not all—the most-hyped keyboard event would have to be Korg’s Kronos. Think of it this way: You know that computer you have that runs a bunch of soft synths? And has Gigabytes of samples, iLoks, a dependency on whatever Microsoft or Apple says we should like, and crashes at inopportune moments? Well, imagine putting that technology into a real keyboard, with a solid-state drive for instant loading and no noise, multiple synth engines, and no reliance on computer operating systems—that’s the Kronos in a nutshell. Think of it as porting studio technology over to live performance, which you can then take back to the studio.
Nord had their Nord Stage 2, and we like Nord keyboards because they come from Sweden, they look great, and they have lots of knobs that impress the heck out of people. Oh yes, and they sound really good.
Arturia continued their Analog Experience line with The Laboratory, a hardware/software combination with a tasty, aftertouch-toting 49-note keyboard, and 3,500 sounds you can edit on the GUI of the instruments from which they came. Very nice.
The synth that got not only buzz, but a little headscratching, was M-Audio’s Venom synth. It’s tailormade for electronica, and delivers rhythm ‘n’ rudeness in spades. Want to get a dance floor moving? This is your baby. Want to drive your nosy neighbors insane? Just turn the volume up to 11. We think it’s really cool, and it’s under $500. It also has an audio interface, along with a great software editor.
And while drum machines aren’t really keyboards, they’re hardware and have buttons, so let’s go for it. The big show-stopper was Dave Smith Instruments’ Tempest, designed in conjunction with Roger Linn. For many people, that’s enough to get them communing with their bank account; for the rest, one good demo is all it takes to define the word “covet.” It’s great for realtime performance, with a killer workflow and great sounds. Not surprising, given the parents.
Speaking of drum machines, Arturia showed Spark, which is basically drum software with a hardware controller. As with Tempest, its strong point is workflow, but with the cost advantages of piggybacking on to a computer.
ALL KINDS OF AWESOME
NAMM is about more than new gear; it’s also about crazy/genius new gear. TASCAM’s solar-powered tuners were darling little multi-colored affairs that looked like tuners Barbie would design, if she designed tuners and had an IQ above that of a banana slug. We were also totally rocked & shocked by the “hybrid” analog/electric cymbals in Zildjian’s Gen 16 line. These perforated metal cymbals model all sorts of sounds through DSP, but we won’t even try to describe it—check out the video at www.eqmag.com.
In terms of cool hardware, SSL showed us a new X-Rack goodie—a stereo dynamics module. TASCAM has collaborated with Antares to produce the TA-1VP, an Auto-Tune rackmount unit. Granted, Auto-Tune sales suffered terribly after the Spice Girls broke up, but with a new generation of singers discovering that they can do really weird stuff to their voice, Auto-Tune is riding a crest of popularity that seems unlikely to go away any time soon.
Dave Smith Instruments Tempest
On a more utilitarian level, Radial Engineering bought Re-Amp. In case you hadn’t noticed, Radial is really on a roll these days . . . and the Workhorse “lunchbox” module frame is just starting to ship, which is going to make them roll considerably faster. Good stuff.
If you’re into wireless, Shure introduced both low-end and high-end systems. We were particularly intrigued by the Axient, which represents the apogee of their wireless technology; it looks like it was meant to survive the most hostile possible stage conditions and come out alive. Also in wireless world, Lectrosonics introduced the Quadra digital wireless monitor (IEM) system, which consists of a belt-pack diversity receiver and half-rack transmitter. The system features digital RF modulation, two or four channels of 24-bit/48kHz digital audio, analog or digital inputs, and a mixing interface so users can create their own monitor mix.
We also dug the Olympus LS-7, their smallest and least-expensive portable recorder yet. It records (in WAV/MP3/WMA formats, with up to 24- bit/96kHz resolution) to 4GB of internal memory (expandable with a microSD card), and incorporates three mics: two condenser stereo mics and a center, omnidirectional mic that can capture bass down to 20Hz. Yes, 20Hz.
So, did we cover everything? Are you insane? NAMM lasts 1,860 minutes, and there were more than 1,400 manufacturers to check out. Assuming an average of at least five relevant new products per booth, that would give us a little under 15 seconds to check out each product, assuming that we didn’t eat, never went to the bathroom, and could teleport ourselves instantly from one booth to another. Then again, we hear that Ableton is working on a teleportation module for Live that will be introduced at Musikmesse . . . so maybe next year, this will be doable. Wait—were we under NDA? Not sure . . . NAMM haze, and all that. Oh well.
Arturia Analog Experience The Laboratory
Meanwhile, two things are obvious from this year’s NAMM show. The music industry never got the memo that there’s a recession going on, probably because even in good times, the music industry is in a perpetual state of recession, so a little more recess won’t make any real difference. The other is that the MI business is no longer in a holding pattern; some companies are making bold moves (like Avid dropping their “world’s biggest dongle” requirement to run Pro Tools, and Cakewalk reinventing Sonar) while exploiting technology to a level that borders on the magical. Stay tuned as we put these new products under the microscope in the months ahead.
Oh, and one last piece of advice: Pack your own lunch for NAMM. We’re serious about this. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.