Sweetwater GearFest 2015

Stone-cold bargains and cool presentations in the Indiana heat
Image placeholder title

Ah, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Known for its aviation and military/defense industry, hot, humid summers and of course as the worldwide headquarters for musical mega retailer Sweetwater, the town delivered on all counts June 12-13, when Sweetwater held its annual GearFest event. As soon as we landed at the small, yet international, airport, a charming Aviation Museum greeted us on the way out, as if to say, "welcome to Fort Wayne. You just may like it here."

The biggest and baddest yet, GearFest 2015 attracted 400 music gear vendors, featured $80,000 in gear giveaways and brought in record crowds. We overhead entrepreneur extraordinaire Chuck Surack, the founder and president of Sweetwater, say he expected 12,000-14,000 attendees, which means it may have exceeded the 12,442 registered attendees for 2014's Summer NAMM!

Image placeholder title

GearFest takes place entirely on Sweetwater's sprawling complex: 320,000 sq. ft. of indoor space on 100 acres of land, including a recently expanded full-service brick-and-mortar music store, a 250-seat performance theater, three recording studios, a spa, salon, health club, and diner. Walking through it all with satisfaction, we see big banners showing the current job openings at Sweetwater, and it's as if to say, "stay in Fort Wayne. You definitely will like it here."

Outside, within a layout of about 20 tents and tour buses, a flea market offered some interesting and reasonably priced used gear finds, a tent of "open box" but new gear sold at deep discount, and all the vendors showing their latest and coolest stuff, some of it still not shipping yet, like Arturia's very cool new BeatStep Pro controller and 4-part performance sequencer for synchronizing analog, digital, and iPad instruments all in one place.

EM readers could easily kill the day in the Electronic Production tent, where they could check out products as well as live presentations from Novation, Native Instruments, Reloop, Ableton, KMI, Roger Linn, Serato, Nord, Propellerhead, and others. That's also where Moog, Dave Smith Instruments, Tom Oberheim, Elektron, Studio Electronics, and Modal Electronics all had their beautiful analog synthesizers up and running. While GearFest was well attended, it was easy to get plenty of hands-on time with these dream machines. Modal had its brand-new 001, the 2-voice version of the 002 12-voice analog/digital hybrid synth. Thanks to their convenient displays and insane inner architectures, the 001 and 002 seem to be some of the most versatile hardware synths ever.

Image placeholder title

Right in the middle of our analog heaven, the heavens opened up a torrent of rain upon GearFest's tents. Now, Sweetwater does everything big, so the tents were in no jeopardy, but the mini flood of water streaming across the pavement caused the synth bonanza to power down temporarily.

Back in the Sweetwater compound, there were more performances, seminars, and tutorials happening in the conference halls and theaters to keep up with them all. Popular Craig Anderton sessions taught mastering within DAWs and dynamics; you could learn vocal tuning and audio restoration from Celemony and iZotope.

The pace was dizzying; the heat blistering. That night, after the minor league baseball game downtown, thunderous fireworks that kept people from sleeping just before midnight seemed to say, "isn't this fun? You're not thinking of leaving Fort Wayne, are you?"

Day 2 was filled with an insightful session on electronic music featuring up-and-coming trance producer/DJ Ilan Bluestone and Cakewalk Sonar software, a cautiously optimistic talk on being successful in today's music business from Sweetwater's own Senior Producer Mark Hornsby, and more blissful tweaking on modular synths both ancient (an Arp 2600 in the Bob Moog Foundation booth) and modern (Pittsburgh Modular).

But all things must pass, and we lifted away from Fort Wayne, Sweetwater and GearFest 2015 in a puddle jumper bound for Chicago O' Hare. There, as Chicago never disappoints, lightning abounded in a violent thunderstorm, delaying and grounding flights far and wide, as if to scream, "you should have stayed in Fort Wayne!"