For the sixteenth time in as many years, Sweetwater Sound invited musicians, audio professionals and gear manufacturers to its Fort Wayne, Indiana facility for GearFest 2017. Sweetwater, the world’s busiest online retailer and the largest music store in the U.S., held the two-day event on Friday and Saturday, June 23–24. GearFest is always free of charge and open to the public, and more than 15,000 visitors attended this year, according to estimates. To assure the public their production would be second to none, a battalion of helpful Sweetwater personnel was always on hand.
Spread out across Sweetwater’s sprawling 100-acre campus, nearly 500 gear makers displayed their wares in gigantic tents organized by category. Tents for electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and drums sat alongside tents for electronic production, pro audio, and open-box bargains. Some of the larger companies had their own tents, trucks, trailers or buses including Behringer, Fender, Gibson, Roland, Shure, Studer and Yamaha.
Friday morning got off to a rough start as heavy rains soaked the huddled masses lining up to enter the store. As a precaution, electrical power to the tents was shut off as the show began. But before long, the sun was shining and everything was up and running for the rest of the festival.
Manufacturer reps did product demos, answered questions, and gave their visitors hands-on opportunities to check out whatever gear they wanted. I spent a few blissful moments with two new synths—the Roland SE-02 and Novation Peak—and I was terribly impressed by ATV’s aFrame Electrorganic frame drum and Chandler Limited’s EMI Abbey Road REDD microphone.
Meanwhile, inside Sweetwater’s enormous headquarters, visitors attended workshops, master classes and performances by company clinicians and celebrated recording artists, engineers, and producers. Featured artists included guitarists Robben Ford and Andy Timmons, drummers Terry Bozzio and Omar Hakim, keyboardist Larry Dunn, bassist Rhonda Smith, and EM founding editor Craig Anderton, whose talk was filled to capacity.
My favorite GearFest event is always the producers’ panel. Moderated by Mitch Gallagher, this year’s lineup included heavy hitters Al Schmitt, Chris Lord-Alge, Chuck Ainlay, Fab Dupont, and Neal Cappellino. They discussed where the jobs are, how studios have evolved, and the producer’s role in making records. And they all agreed the only way to land a record deal today is to first gain a following on social media.
Suit & Tie Guy at the Hammond Novachord
One especially popular attraction was Moog Music’s imposing Emerson Moog Modular System, set up and functioning on Sweetwater’s Crescendo Stage. Near the store’s exit, a beautiful Hammond Novachord built in 1941—one of only five that has been fully restored—invited visitors to sit down and play.
Attendees also had many chances to score some of the $55,000 in giveaways, with lucky winners announced every hour. On Friday and Saturday nights, Sweet-water sponsored free concerts by Dweezil Zappa and Eric Johnson in their 2,000-seat outdoor pavilion. As a celebration of Sweetwater’s customers, the music they make, and the gear they use to make it, GearFest 2017 was a rousing success and a splendid time was guaranteed for all.