Summer NAMM 2015: Gear Highlights from Music City

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Although the Summer NAMM show traditionally leans toward guitar-based products, you're bound to find other gems hidden among the rows of stompboxes, pedal boards, and boutique amplifiers. Two of the most talked about products at this year's event—the Gizmotron and the Yamaha reface keyboards—emphasized classic concepts that have been reimagined to suit modern tastes.

The Gizmotron 2.0is a "mechanical bowing device" that attaches to a guitar or bass with double-stick pads. Back in the '70s, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme of the band 10CC developed a product with the same name that used a set of individual spinning wheels to activate guitar strings, a technology reminiscent of the hurdy gurdy. However, due to design problems and other issues, the original product was a commercial failure.

Some four decades later, however, the name and concept have been revived, but with a complete technological overhaul that worked very well in the demos we were given on the show floor. Although still in the prototype stage, the new USB-powered Gizmotron dedicates a little rubber wheel to each string. Simply push down on the button located above the string you want to play and the spinning wheel makes contact to sustain the note. But unlike the sound you get from a Sustaniac system or Ebow, the timbre is more harmonically complex, as if you were activating the string with a real bow.

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The company also showed a version for electric bass, which sounded magnificent, offering bowed cello and string bass timbres. Prices are TBD, but likely to be well under $500.

The other big news came from Yamaha with the release of its four reface keyboard synths, each of which was designed around a vintage keyboard format—a DX-style FM synth, a combo organ, an electric piano, and a CS-style synth. Unfortunately, the trolls stormed the gates in full force when it was revealed that the instruments were, in fact, designed for desktop and portable use and featured a 37-note mini keyboard and built-in speakers, not to mention an MSRP of $799 each. Someone even made a Hitler-in-the-bunker video complaining about the new line. Oh the humanity!

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But the reality is that Yamaha did not intend these to be stage-oriented performance keyboards with full size keys, but rather, high quality synths for the desktop that you can take anywhere thanks to their battery operation and speakers. And they are, by no means, toys. When plugged into a full-range sound system, each instrument sounds massive, and the user interface matches the intended sound palette for each keyboard.

In addition to the mini keys (which have the HQ-Mini action borrowed from the Motif XF) and speakers, each instrument has a front-panel octave switch, stereo 1/4" outputs, a mini-jack aux input, 1/4" stereo headphone jack, MIDI I/O (via a provided break-out cable), a USB-to-Host port, and the ability to run on 6 AA batteries or AC. Sounds can be stored and retrieved by connecting the aux-input to an iOS device, and then shared using Google Chrome from the Web MIDI-capable Soundmondo site.

The reface DX is a Yamaha-style, 4-operator FM synth that provides 8-note polyphony, 32 voice memories, a pitch-bend stick, a phrase looper, variable feedback on each operator using the multi-touch screen, and an input for a controller pedal.

The reface YC offers the interface and sounds of vintage combo organs—the Yamaha YC-45D; British, Italian, and Japanese transistor organs; and an American tonewheel organ. Included are drawbars, vibrato, rotary speaker emulation, percussion, distortion, reverb, a foot-controller input, and 128-note polyphony.

The reface CP holds six electric piano timbres at a time—the CP-80 and emulations of a Wurlitzer, Clav, toy piano, and two Rhodes-style instruments. Features include reverb, drive, time-based effects (tremolo/wah, chorus/phaser, and analog/digital delay), a sustain-pedal input with half-damper response, and 128-note polyphony.

The reface CS brings back the sound of '70s-era, CS-series Control Synthesizers by utilizing proprietary virtual-analog technology. The five oscillator types—FM, Ring Modulation, Oscillator Sync, Pulse, and Multi-saw—have Texture and Mod controls, an LFO, and a 4-stage envelope generator. The 8-note polyphonic instrument also includes a looper, portamento, controls for filter cutoff and resonance, effects (VCM Phaser, VCM Chorus/Flanger, Distortion, Delay), and a foot-controller input.

Each model streets for about $499, which is a lot less shocking than the MSRP. Anyone who composes on the desktop or likes to travel with a keyboard for songwriting or jamming, but who wants a robust, good sounding instrument, should give these a listen. And as one of those players who prefer full-size keys, I, too, hope that Yamaha puts this technology into a performance oriented instrument sometime soon. 

The day before the show opened, we were treated to a first-look at many of the new Roland and Boss products that will hit the streets over the next few months. Among the most exciting were these:

Roland JC-40 Jazz Chorus guitar amp: Developed in honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of the legendary JC-120, the JC-40 provides stereo input and output and provides the same great tone as the original. However, it's lighter in weight and provides many modern conveniences that would make this great for gigging or the personal studio: line outputs, headphone jack, effects loop.

Boss DD-500 Digital Delay effects pedal: A really powerful stompbox in a surprisingly small format, it includes MIDI and USB, stereo I/O and a lot of programmability. And it sounds great!

Roland is also showing its new fully analog Eurorack modules and we wrapped our ears around them in a relatively quiet setting. Together, the five modules can provide an entire synth voice with two oscillators, two filters and so forth, or you can mix and match them with other Eurorack modules. The delay and phaser effects of the 572 were especially delicious sounding. It's worth noting that these modules are made in Portland, Oregon like other boutique modules, and the build quality feels very solid from what we could tell so far. Look for a full review of these in an upcoming issue of Electronic Musician.

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Casio showed a couple of new keyboards at the show, as well. The CGP-700 (Compact Grand Piano) is designed to provide the sound and feel of an acoustic piano for stage or home use. Priced at $799 street, the instrument includes a color touch-screen for editing and provides a wealth of keyboard sounds, as well as backing tracks in numerous styles, a 17-track MIDI sequencer, an audio recorder that tracks to a USB stick, and a built-in 40W, six-speaker sound system.

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Casio also showed the new Privia PX-360 ($899), which is more of a stage instrument, and the PX-160 ($499), which has a new sound set of electric pianos, strings, and other performance-oriented timbres, as well as upgraded speakers and line outputs.

TheEventide H9 Harmonizer can now add an overdrive/distortion processor to the device. The CrushStation ($19.99) offers a variety of crunchy tones, with the ability to add octave sounds or simulate the sound of a dying battery. A noise gate and sustainer are also included.

Electro-Harmonix unveiled the exciting new 22500 Dual Stereo Looper ($359) which allows you to record and manipulate two loops at once time, parallel or in series. With the included 8GB SD card, you can record up to 12 hours of sound! (Cards up to 32GB are supported.) The unit accepts XLR and 1/4" input, and includes tap tempo, quantized or free-form operation, reverse and octave buttons for each channel, built-in drum loops, and a USB port for file backup. An optional foot controller ($117) is also available.

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Electro-Harmonix also announced the Silencer ($76), a noise gate and effects-loop pedal. The gate's release time ranges from 8ms to 4" and you can use the effects loop with or without the gate.

Other hits of the show include:
The Solomon Mics LoFReQ sub-mic ($179), designed for use on kick drum and bass cabinets, features a 6.5" dynamic driver and bi-directional pickup. It weighs a mere 4.1lbs.

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Together, thePigtronix Echolution Ultra Pro and Echolution 2 Remote are a mighty powerful team. By adding the Remote, you get access to a freeze function as well as interval-jumps on the repeats, which are user selectable and very musical.

Fishman unveiled the FC-1 foot controller ($199 street) for its TriplePlay MIDI guitar system. The unit connects to your computer over USB and includes a built-in tuner, an expression pedal input, and sustain/hold capabilities.

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Tascam showed the DA-6400dp 64-track solid-state recorder, which supports a removable SSD drive, SMPTE time code and Word Clock, and includes rear-panel bays for MADI, DANTE, AVB, and AES/EBU cards. The company also debuted the VL-S3, 2-way powered monitors with 3" paper woofers. The system offers 11W per side and includes RCA and stereo mini-jack inputs.

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Studio Linked VST was demoing its upcoming rompler called Infiniti, which held a nice assortment of keyboards and other instruments designed with urban music production in mind.

Tired of taping down cables at your gigs or recording sessions? Check out the GaffGun ($219): just roll it along the length of the cable to secure and straighten it to the floor—super easy! It ain't cheap, but if you do this kind of chore frequently, you'll see the value in it.

Patchblocks (approximately $69 each) are small devices that can hold whatever synth-related program you load into them from a computer via USB. Use them as single-function "modules" and then connect them together to build a sound. The patches include a MIDI Scale Quantizer, a Chaotic Sequencer, a gate, an arpeggiator—you get the idea.

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MORE NAMM NEWS, AT A GLANCE:
Yamaha Intros Reface Mini Keyboards
Peavey Announces Revalver 4 Amp Modeler with ACT Profiler
Roland Releases Free Customizer App
Akai Launches MPD Pad Controllers
Zivix Partners with Hal Leonard to Distribute Jamstik and PUC
Peavey Unveils PV AT Series Mixers with Antares Auto-Tune
Auralex Shows V2 Upgrades to Gramma Acoustic Isolation Platform
Presonus Unveils Next-Gen Digimax DP88 Preamp/Converter
Boss Debuts RV-6 Reverb Pedal 
Roland Announces JC-40 Jazz Chorus Amplifier
Willcox Guitars Introduces Atlantis Electro-Acoustic Guitar 
Electro-Harmonix Introduces 22500 Dual Stereo Looper