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Report From NAMM 2015: Back To the Future! - EMusician

Report From NAMM 2015: Back To the Future!

The Year of the Synth Kicks Off in Anaheim
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If there was a single film title that described the 2015 NAMM show, it would be Back to the Future: ARP Odyssey, Moog modular, Korg MS-20, Oberheim 2-Voice, Sequential Prophet…wait a minute—what year is this?

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Yes, 2015 was the year of the synth at NAMM, with major leaguers such as Korg, Moog Music, Dave Smith Instruments, and Marion Systems (Tom Oberheim's company) giving musicians what they want: old-school instruments made with modern components and build quality. Read on to learn about our favorite new products, and check out our YouTube channel to watch more than 40 exclusive video demos, direct from the show floor!

SYNTHESIZERS
The synth that had everyone talking was Korg’s (www.korg.com) re-creation of the ARP Odyssey (right). During an invitation-only event on the afternoon before NAMM officially began, the new Odyssey and the latest incarnation of the Kronos were unveiled in grand fashion, with a retrospective by former ARP president David Friend and performances by Jordan Rudess and Cory Henry. Korg reverse-engineered the old Odyssey to build it anew using modern technology while retaining its signature sound. To accomplish this, experienced engineers who were part of the design team for the original MS-20 collaborated with fresh-faced synth designers in their 20s over a period of six years. With keys that are 14 percent smaller than standard size (Korg calls them slimkeys), three filter types, USB, MIDI In, and a price tag just under a grand, the duophonic Odyssey will come in three models that differ only cosmetically, matching the appearance of ARPs introduced in 1972, 1975, and 1978. All three are expected to ship next month.

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Dave Smith Instruments (www.davesmithinstruments.com) not only launched a great-sounding 6-voice analog polysynth at NAMM, the Sequential Prophet-6, but it reintroduced the brand name, which was recently returned to Dave Smith from Yamaha (with the help of Roland's Ikutaro Kakehashi) "in the spirit of MIDI." The keyboard features a 4-octave semi-weighted keyboard, two analog VCOs per voice, analog 4-pole lowpass and 2-pole highpass filters (both with resonance), and digital effects including reverb, delay (standard and BBD), phase shifter, and chorus, all with true bypass. It's finished off with analog distortion, a multimode arpeggiator, and a polyphonic step sequencer.

In terms of high-profile reissues, Moog Music (www.moogmusic.com) proudly displayed a variety of configurations of its classic modular systems (left) as well as a duophonic 61-note keyboard. Available in limited quantities, these systems are priced for serious synth enthusiasts and collectors for whom no other brand will do. Similarly, Tom Oberheim's (www.tomoberheim.com) remake of the classic 2-Voice also got our attention with its familiar sounds and slightly refreshed appearance.

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While the legacy brands were easily recognizable to the uninitiated, the heretofore cottage industry of modular synth makers suddenly surfaced in a big way the year, drawing enthusiastic (though, often baffled) crowds to booths streaming with patch cables and dance beats. The massive presence in Hall A of at least two dozen manufacturers was hosted in a Superbooth by WMD (wmdevices.com), with Schneiders Buero (schneidersbuero.de) and Analogue Haven (analoguehaven.com) in support. It was in here that you could find some truly innovative gear by companies such as 4ms (4mspedals.com), Qu-Bit Electronix (qubitelectrnonix.com), Synthesis Technology (synthtech.com), Koma Elektronik (koma-elektronik.com), Tiptop Audio (tiptopaudio.com), and Doepfer (doepfer.de), among many others.

A few rows away, Big City Music (bigcitymusic.com) provided a slightly quieter place to explore modular synthesis, while highlighting a number of esoteric hardware pieces such as the Mellotron and the Dewanatron Swarmatron (dewanatron.com). As if to further prove that Eurorack modular was exploding, even Tom Oberheim showed two products in that format—a panel hosting a single SEM voice and a dual phase shifter.

As always, Hall E (located downstairs and full of acoustic folk instruments) brimmed with boutique manufacturers in the modular space, such as Make Noise (makenoise.com), The Harvestman (theharvestman.org), Pittsburgh Modular (pittsburghmodular.com), Studio Electronics (studioelectronics.com), and Expert Sleepers (expert-sleepers.co.uk).

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In terms of keyboard synths, Roland (rolandus.com) stirred up some excitement when it unveiled the JD-Xi (right). Describing it as an "interactive crossover synthesizer," it features a fully analog voice, two PCM-based SuperNatural digital voices, and a drum section, all of which can be controlled with the onboard 4-track sequencer and built-in vocoder.

The Nord (nordkeyboards.com) Electro 5, an update of the perennial favorite for stage performers was also announced at the show. Like previous Electros, the 5 excels at emulating classic pianos and organs, but with a few enhancements. For the first time, it can layer organs, synths, and pianos. The organ section now has pipe organ simulation, an updated tonewheel organ engine, and physical drawbars, depending on the model you choose. You can use the two B3 bass drawbars to accompany other sounds, too. The piano library is much larger—a full gigabyte—and sympathetic string resonance adds realism to the grand and upright pianos. Sample memory has been doubled to 256MB, and you get more effects, as well. The Electro 5’s 128 x 64 OLED display is a huge improvement over its predecessor’s 7-segment LED, and you now have 400 locations to store presets instead of 128. The Electro 5 comes in 61- and 73-note models and should be available soon.

Kurzweil’s (kurzweil.com) new flagship Stage Piano is the PC3A8. With 88 weighted keys and a hammer-action keybed, the PC3A8 combines technologies from previous models, including the PC3 keyboard, the Artis German 9’ Grand, and the KORE 64 ROM expansion, as well as the KB3 organ and VAST sound engines. The PC3A8 delivers more than 1,300 factory programs and plenty of versatile effects, along with layer and split setups geared for stage and studio use.

First introduced at the 2012 NAMM Show, the Studiologic (studiologic-music.com) Sledge synthesizer (left) never quite caught fire. With an analog emulation and wavetable synthesis sound engine designed by Waldorf Labs, the original Sledge never sold as well as its competitors. So Studiologic went back to the drawing board and beefed up its sound and capabilities to create a new incarnation, the Sledge 2.0. It can now play two sounds at once, either split or layered, with 24 voices of polyphony. Sixty megabytes of flash memory let you import your own samples to use as oscillator waveforms. Also included is Sledge Spectre, a sample editor that lets you load and plays samples on your computer and then download them to the Sledge’s memory. No ship date was announced, but the price will remain the same as the previous model—$999.

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Spectrasonics (spectrasonics.net) took one of our favorite soft synths and turned it into something way more formidable. Omnisphere 2 lets you import your own audio files to use as sound sources, giving it powerful new timbre-building capabilities. Whereas the previous edition gave you oscillators with 4 static waveforms, the update gives you more than 400 morphable wavetables. Version 2 features eight additional filter types, new effects, and a novel approach to granular synthesis that lets you radically alter audio data to create new sounds. You also get thousands of new factory sounds, including an EDM sound library. Spectrasonics president Eric Persing gave a demo that wowed the crowds and created a buzz throughout each day at NAMM. Omnisphere 2’s projected ship date is April 30. The cost is $499, with upgrades from $199 to $249.

For many NAMM visitors, Teenage Engineering's (teenageengineering.com) collaboration with Cheap Monday was the talk of the show: The Pocket Operators (right), three $59 synths that resemble unadorned pocket calculators—one for rhythm, one for bass, one for melody—are deceptively deep and sound great. And at the price, they're hard to resist.

STUDIO GEAR

Focusrite (focusrite.com) introduced its Clarett line of Thunderbolt audio interfaces. The result is a system featuring ISA-like preamps and latency brought down to 1ms. The four basic models are priced for a variety of home and pro situations and deliver a ton of I/O in easily portable devices. And check out their Red 2 and Red 3 plug-ins, included free.

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While on the topic of deep feature sets, Keith McMillen Instruments (keithmcmillen.com) unveiled K-Mix, combining an 8x10 audio interface, mixer, and MIDI control surface into one slim device. Portable and lightweight, it includes the lighted sliders used in other KMI products, but in a more traditional configuration that will appeal more to mainstream users (while totally knocking out the geekier folks).

Waves (waves.com) showed no less than four new software items that made us standup and take notice. The Butch Vig Vocals plug-in (left) provides a toolkit designed for unusually creative vocal treatment based on the star producer's genre-stretching aesthetics. H-Reverb is based on Finite Impulse Response (FIR) technology to provide greater flexibility and higher sound quality than other reverb plug-ins. The company also showed a model of the dbx160 compressor (yes, you want to hear it on drums) and Waves Tracks Live, multi-track recording software for capturing concert performances easily.

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And while we're on the subject of recording, the big news for Avid (avid.com) Pro Tools users was the announcement of Pro Tools First, a free version of the DAW, as well as Pro Tools 12. Both will be enhanced with the collaborative and cloud-based features promised last year in the Avid Everywhere campaign.

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith made an appearance with soundware maker Spitfire Audio (spitfireaudio.com) to launch its new rock drum sample library, The Grange. Along with Queen’s Roger Taylor and session player Andy Gangadeen (Massive Attack, Jeff Beck, etc.), Smith recorded samples and loops at the legendary Headley Grange in Hampshire, England, where he was the first drummer to record there since John Bonham, 40 years ago. Known for its massive ambience, Headley Grange was a favorite studio of bands like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Genesis, and Fleetwood Mac before it became a private home in 1974. If you want a really big drum sound, you can download the entire Kontakt-compatible collection for the introductory price of £149 until February 5th.

Traffic at the Arturia (arturia.com) booth was nonstop for all four days at NAMM, where the French manufacturer was showing off several new products, including the BeatStep Pro and AudioFuse. The BeatStep Pro is a hardware step sequencer and MIDI controller that gives you loads of options. First of all, it has MIDI, USB, DIN Sync, gate outputs, and control-voltage connectivity, ensuring compatibility with a broad range of synths, drum machines, and computer platforms. Two 64-step melodic sequencers can store 16 projects, each containing 16 sequences. You also get a 16-track drum sequencer, which lets you record in real time using 16 pads. You can also use the pads to trigger onboard sequences or clips in Ableton Live and other software.

Arturia's AudioFuse (left) is a very capable and compact audio interface—Arturia’s first—and it’s all about workflow. It combines two discrete mic preamps with 24-bit, 192kHz A/D/A converters and a stable internal clock. The I/O options on this thing are insane, especially for a box that fits in your hand. You get a pair of balanced TRS/XLR combo inputs, stereo line and phono inputs, two audio inserts, outputs for two speaker pairs, four headphone jacks, S/PDIF I/O, a mini USB connector, a 3-port USB hub, and a jack for the supplied MIDI adapter. Knobs and buttons let you access levels, talkback, and more. With three finishes to choose from, you have to see the AudioFuse to realize just how nice it is.

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Just when you thought iConnectivity’s (iconnectivity.com) product names couldn’t get any longer, the award-winning Canadian company announced the iConnectAudio4+. This four-channel, 24-bit, 96kHz audio interface lets you simultaneously connect two computers or a computer and an iOS device and route audio between them. Connect to the outside world with four balanced TRS/XLR combo inputs, four balanced TRS outputs, and a 1/4-inch headphone jack with its own mix. Each mic input has its own switchable phantom power, too. With a pair of MIDI jacks, a USB host connector, and virtual MIDI ports for your connected computers or iOS devices, the iConnectAudio4+ can also handle as many as 464 (you read that right) MIDI channels.

Ableton Live fans are especially excited by the Novation (novationmusic.com) Launchpad Pro (right), introduced to the press during a gathering at the Anaheim Hilton. Featuring 64 brightly colored pads that sense velocity and pressure, the Pro instantly switches between four modes. Use Session mode to trigger and combine clips, Note mode to create patterns and play the Pro like an instrument, Device mode to apply effects, and User mode to create your own layouts and performances. The pads illuminate to match the color of your Ableton clips, or you can use them like a musical keyboard to play notes and chords on your software or hardware instrument. Control your mix, effects, or instrument parameters at the touch of a button by turning the grid into eight vertical faders. Expect to see LaunchPad Pro take off sometime this spring for $299.

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British manufacturer ATC (atcloudspeakers.co.uk) hosted a press conference at NAMM to announce its top-of-the-line reference monitor, the SCM45A Pro. Sharing design features with ATC’s popular SCM25A, the new model is an active 3-way system with two 6.5-inch woofers, a 3-inch soft dome for mids, and a 1-inch, dual-suspension “super” tweeter. A 3-channel discrete MOSFET Class A/B amplifier pack supplies 150W of low-frequency, 60W of midrange-frequency, and 25W of high-frequency power. The SCM45A Pro is expected to ship early next week and sell for $11,490 a pair.

Other new products that impressed us include:
Electro-Voice (electrovoice.com) unveiled its new EKX portable loudspeaker line, which offers passive and active models as well as subwoofers;
Radial Engineering (radialeng.com) displayed a wide array of new utility boxes and the Tonebone Bassbone 2;
Vienna Symphonic Library (vsl.co.at) showed its Vienna Solo Voices, featuring 6 ranges, all of which sound great; and Solo Whistler—yeah, you read the right! You have to check out this cool virtual instrument—and it's priced at $61!;
The Peavey (peavey.com) AT-series powered stage mixers have Antares Auto-Tune built-in (karaoke night might not be so bad after all);
Universal Audio's (uaudio.com) new Apollo Expanded Software that lets you pimp out your UA system like never before;
Waldorf's (waldorf-music.info) NW-1 Wavetable Synthesizer for Eurorack, which is capable of some really extreme sound shaping;
The Yamaha (usa.yamaha.com) AG06 mixer/interface for serious podcasting versatility in a battery-operated device with a tiny footprint;
The Audio-Technica (audio-technica.com) ATH-R70x open-backed reference headphones;
IZ Technology
's (izcorp.com) integration of Pro Tools into its RADAR system (Take note Mac users who hate that expensive little trash can and who don't want to splurge for a card cage; RADAR has it all built in!)
And the Mackie (Mackie.com) FreePlay stereo PA system, which includes a 4-channel mixer, is Bluetooth enabled, offers speaker voicing and feedback elimination, and can be controlled from your smart device with the FreePlay Connect iOS app.

NAMM EVENTS

30th Annual TEC Awards
One of the highlights of any recent NAMM Show is the TEC Awards (left), in which musicians, sound engineers, and audio manufacturers are recognized by their peers for their technical and creative achievements. The TEC Awards is a little like EM’s Editors’ Choice Awards, but with a much bigger budget and a lot more showmanship. It’s an evening filled with well over a hundred nominees and 30 winners in a variety of categories, as well as video retrospectives, musical performances, and acceptance speeches. Comedian Sinbad was a hilarious emcee, and Harry Shearer, Frank Serafine, and Al Schmitt were among the presenters. Recording engineer Ed Cherney and session bassist Nathan East were inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame, and rock guitarist Slash received the Les Paul Award. Both musicians gave rousing performances, backed up by an all-star band featuring the likes of Don Was, Bob James, Kenny Aranoff, Richie Sambora, Orianthi, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

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Present and Future of Sound Synthesis
The Sound Synthesis Club presented a one-hour panel discussion about the state of electronic music production. Hosted by SSC founder Oscar Caraballo, the participants were Axel Hartmann, Jeff Rona, Marcus Ryle, Kurt Ader, Amin Bathia, Paul Kevin Wiffen, Michel Huygen, and Jim Gilmour—a group that included film composers, sound designers, instrument designers, and a rock star. Everyone agreed that, thanks to MIDI, our machines have reliably done what we wanted them to for 30 years. Hartmann pointed out that analog and digital technologies are converging, while Bathia complained that composers now have too many options. Rona responded by saying we want all the options, but we don’t have to use them all. Ader expressed a desire for more expressivity, but Wiffen countered that we have all the alternate controllers we need, but they never survive in the marketplace. Every member of the roundtable claimed to never use presets except as a starting point for creating new sounds. It was a lively discussion filled with fascinating insight and heartfelt opinions about popular music and musical technology.