Electronic Musician editor-in-chief Gino Robair details the wonderful curiosities of the NAMM floor.

This year’s NAMM show is noticeably different from previous events in two significant ways. First, there is an AES (Audio Engineering Society) component to it, which includes workshops, lectures and other special events aimed at working professionals and students. Second, an entirely new hall has been added to the convention, which houses most of the pro-audio exhibitors. Consequently, NAMM feels bigger, busier, and a little more insane and noisy than usual.

And, as usual, the array of new products is dizzying. But here are a couple of items that particularly caught my attention.

Playtime Engineering BlipBlox

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With a color scheme reminiscent of a Playskool toy, the BlipBlox is a surprisingly sophisticated synthesizer created for musically curious people, ages 3 on up. Yet, it’s easy enough for a small child to use, even if they don’t realize all the cool things the instrument does.

And check this out: The control layout was created by famed synth designer Axel Hartmann!

The BlipBlox is built around a microcontroller and includes a looping sequencer to drive its internal drum machine and its 8 “oscillator schemes.” These are modified with a lowpass filter, envelope generators and LFOs. The red lever on the left controls the sequencer speed, while the lever on the right opens and closes the filter.

The dotted lines indicate signal and control flow in the most basic way. For adults who understand what a synth does, the interface only takes a few moments to grok; those who are new to synthesizers will likely enjoy hearing how the sounds change and lights flash as they turn knobs and push buttons.

For us bigger kids, the BlipBlox includes a 1/4” headphone jack and 5-pin MIDI In port, which can be used for tempo sync and Stop/Start commands. There’s even a “secret drum edit” mode if you want to dig a bit deeper. The instrument can be powered by batteries or the included AC adapter.

The BlipBlox will be $159 when it begins shipping in a few months. Check out the video on our Facebook page to hear it in action on the NAMM show floor. 

Synesthesia Corp. Mandala

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Another instrument I was excited to discover is the latest version of the Mandala e-drum controller (synesthesiacorp.com). The head senses velocity and position, as you would expect, but in a very natural way, whether you use sticks or fingers. The rim has 9 assignable zones, and you can set up some fairly sophisticated mappings with it. Tool drummer Danney Carey has reportedly been using a few of the Mandala’s in his kit during the final prototyping phase of the controller.

This new Mandala was being used to demonstrate a software device called Pipes. Synesthesia Corporation refers to is at a “portable MIDI sound computer”—basically it’s a MIDI system dedicated to sample playback that allows you to keep the sampled instruments you want to use loaded so they can be easily recalled. And it comes with 20,000 samples.

The color LCD on Pipes includes meters that show you how MIDI messages are being received, among other things. The unit being shown at NAMM is an early prototype, and there was talk of crowdfunding the final design once it gets to the next stage. But even in this early form, Pipes’ versatility was impressive.

Alesis Vortex Wirelss 2

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Alesis showed me its Vortex Wireless 2 ($299) MIDI/USB keytar controller. Although it’s not heavy, the controller feels substantial with its 37 velocity-sensitive keys. It also provides 8 velocity-sensitive trigger pads, 8 faders (perfect for use as organ drawbars), a bend-wheel, an accelerometer and a touch strip—all of which are MIDI-assignable. USB and 5-pin MIDI Outs are included.

AEA TRP2

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I also got my hands on AEA’s new microphone preamp, the TRP2 ($899). The original TRP was designed for use with the company’s ribbon microphones (the acronym stands for “the ribbon preamp”) so it offered plenty of clean gain, but it did not include phantom power for safety reasons. (Phantom power can damage a ribbon mic).

However, the TRP2 does include switchable phantom power, broadening its usefulness to condenser microphones. But if you plan to only use it with ribbon mics, you can defeat phantom power entirely, so it’s not accidentally engaged, using an internal switch. AEA plans to ship the TRP2 in March.