Since 2007 the NAMM Show has grown beyond the National Association of Music Merchants original concept to a global event with musical instrument enthusiasts from throughout the world.
The floor was quite crowded this year as the show has slowly, but steadily moved from being an exclusive manufacturer/retailer trade event to being a consumer show. Back in the day many orders would be written between retailers and vendors, and the NAMM Show was the place to do it, with a congregation of 115,888 manufacturers, retailers and the MI press in one place.
As most business is now done on the Internet, fewer orders are written during the show, so developers are focusing more on demonstrations for endusers. It makes sense to allow more musicians and consumers into event, and NAMM is doing that. With so much of the music and film market in Los Angeles, inviting local musicians makes for a huge crowd. In fact, Thursday, usually a moderate day for the show, was the most crowded in years.
And of course, music is everywhere, as it should be. There are so many venues in the hotels near the convention area and on the main promenade that it feels like a mini ACL or Jazz Fest. The acts range from DJs, to Bluegrass duos, to local cover bands, to headliners like the legendary soul/funk/R&B ensemble Tower of Power who celebrated 50 years of recording and touring with an Anniversary Concert on the main stage. It's become such a happening that one might even call it the Mus musiculus Fest.
Listed on the back of each morning's NAMM Upbeat Daily (but often missed by developers) are the NAMM professional programs, which include many subjects, from launching a personal music career to keeping technology from stifling creativity. Of special note this year was the Accessibility Seminar moderated by Ed Gray, who is suffering from a slow blindness. Many developers know Ed as the evangelist for the Avid plugin platform since the early days of Digidesign, and we wish him the best as he draws attention to accessibility for people who can only hear.
Although Moog Electronics wasn't on the floor showing current Moog products, the brand was well represented by the Bob Moog Foundation. In addition to having a centrally located booth where, in addition to presenting an overview of the newly opened Moogseum in Asheville, NC, Michelle Moog-Kuassa held court greeting her father's many fans (and her own) who came to say hello. A Thursday evening event hosted by the foundation was attended by a Who's Who group of industry inventors, players, educators, and pundits.
Legends of Synth
One of those attendees was synth legend Michael Boddicker. Attendees of the inaugural Synthplex event in 2019 will be pleased to know that it will be back again this year, and with the support of NAMM. Check it out in Burbank March 27-30. You might see Michael leading groups of young enthusiasts around show floor. The industry is lucky to have people like Michael and the Bob Moog Foundation's Doctor Bob Sound School getting young people excited about the science of sound.
Segueing to another legendary brand, Korg added to their many distribution products and brands with the Korg ARP 2600 FS ($3899 - MSRP), a re-invention of the classic 1970 semi-modular synthesizer modernized for 2020. Although the Tolex case and hardware architecture harkens back to the original, there are a number of new features like USB, and MIDI DIN connectors. If you're interested and would rather have a 2600 FS than pay the rent you better move fast because it will be a limited run.
Speaking of professional products PreSonus was celebrating their 25th year in business and showing their new family of Thunderbolt 3 (of course) mixers and I/O boxes like the Quantum 2626 ($599), which is a 26x26.
One of their bold new initiatives (and there have been a lot of them) is partnering with MixTheMusic. Founded by Budd Carr, a longtime music buddy of PreSonus' founder Jim Odom, MixTheMusic has licensed the multitrack files from a wide variety of popular songs and movie soundtrack scores. It's an educational tool, not only for an understanding of the mix balance, but also how the instrumental parts work with each other. Utilizing a special mixer version of PreSonus Studio One (Free with purchased tracks), the user can isolate individual to listen to exactly what was recorded on each track, and learn by creating mixes of their own.
The Krotos brand has been associated with sound design and their Dehumnizer series of vocal processors, but now they have a new Concept ($129). It's a movement oriented softsynth. Krotos founder Orfeas Boteas was demonstrating Concept's 'Tweak It' feature that randomizes the plugin's parameters to create variations on a chosen preset. The affected parameters can be limited, or not...
KV331 was showing version 1.3 of their wavetable synth app, SynthMaster One. With this update, the app is universal running on iPad and iPhone devices ($1.99) as standalone and also as an AUv3 extension. This is a trend that is accelerating although some get frustrated when they try to pinch their laptop screens to zoom in and out.
Spectrasonics didn't have a new product announcement, but they were showing their impressive array of templates for the KVR Reader Choice 2019 winner Omnisphere. In fact their booth looked a bit like a synth museum. One of the coolest templates is for the Korg MS20 mini. In this case the patch cables used on the Korg will connect patch points within Omnisphere.
Arturia was showing their ever-expanding V7 Collection of plugins and the new KeyStep Pro that features the ability to control 4 simultaneous sequences. One of the most surprising and impressive things to be announced at the show was an update to the firmware of the MicroFreak, which adds a Noise oscillator. This makes it clear to MicroFreak owners that their product still has legs because Arturia has left enough DSP overhead to expand its sonic possibilities. And, if that's not enough, they've just announced their new FX Collection.
MIDI 2.0 and Expressivity
One talked about event was the final adoption of the MIDI 2.0 specification and changes at the MIDI Manufacturing Association. There is plenty of published information about the new spec, and Roland has announced the A-88MkII keyboard controller that takes advantage of MIDI 2.0.
At the top of the MMA former president Tom White has moved on, and the interim president is long time industry veteran, and all-around good guy, Gene Joly. Gene has operational experience from building up companies like Musicians Friend, QSC, and others. He'll be joined by Athan Bilius, as CFO, and Craig Anderton as CMO.
Despite KVR's attention to MIDI 2.0 and MPE over the past couple of years, we hadn't seen the Sensel Morph, an amazing piece of touch technology. Although the technology was developed for industries larger than MI, the founders are music enthusiasts and tasked clever engineers to build a family of music products. The Morph ($249 with one overlay) includes a base unit and a choice from a number of overlay options like an MPE keyboard, Drum pads and even a representation of the legendary Buchla Thunder. DIYers can even create their own surfaces by printing them from the Morph's construction software and inserting them under the Innovators overlay. You can collect them and trade them with your friends...
There was an overflow crowd at the Audio Modeling booth. They were showing their new physically modeled SWAM Solo Brass, including Trumpets, Trombone, French Horn, and even Tuba. The packages cost $250 each, and they plan to ship them in late February. Accurately crafting an expressive instrument like a Trumpet is no small undertaking. If they've gotten it right it will be very popular. As with all physically modeled plugins, one needs to know their hardware controller, and subtleties of the particular instrument. If you want to emulate Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie you need to listen closely to their recordings.
There's an increasing number of gesture controllers coming into the market from companies that are happy the MIDI 2.0 spec is finally formal. One of the early entries was a product from Source Audio called the Hot Hand USB that allowed the player to add expression with hand gestures using a ring transmitter. Since that there have been a couple of others, including the Genki Wave, whose inventor, Olafur Bjarki Bogason (say that 5 times fast) was roaming the show, and a new take from French company, Enhancia, called the Neova. The good news is that the Neova product is being distributed by Roland. The bad news is that, like the Hot Hand USB, but unlike the Wave, it requires a separate receiver.
Not to be left out of the MPE trend are drummers and percussionists. One of the most interesting and innovative products from this year's show is the Orba ($99) from Artiphon, which is a fully MPE handheld synthesizer and wireless MIDI accelerometer device. As such it can be tapped, tilted, shaken, stirred, poked, prodded, but most importantly, played by anyone. It has a built in speaker and can communicate with other devices via Bluetooth. This one really needs a video to understand what it does, so here is one.
Haken had a presence in the modular area where they were showing the ContinuuMini, which is designed to be a more portable and affordable USB bus powered version of their Continuum controller. Expressive controller enthusiasts certainly know the Haken name, but they might not know about La Voix du Luthier who have introduced two new acoustic resonators that function like speakers but use traditional wooden soundboards instead of speaker cones. These self-powered resonators, designed in collaboration with Haken Audio, give the sound of a luthier's expertise in acoustics to any electronic musical instrument, guitar (acoustic-electric, or electric), electric violin, Theremin or... Ondes Martenot, and can even be used as a high-end Bluetooth speaker.
If the pressures of politics and global uncertainly are making you crazy it might be time to try out NADA – Meditation Sounds ($199), Eduardo Tarilonte's unique and imaginative new library for Best Service Engine. As the marketing page says: "NADA is a fascinating collection of sounds for Meditation, New Age, and Relaxation Music." That is an entirely accurate description. It includes ambient percussion, piano, winds, voices, etc. all sampled with Eduardo's typical attention to detail, and in many cases, richly layered with natural ambient recordings. There is simply nothing like this out there.
Among other things, Spitfire was showing Albion Neo ($449), the latest in their Albion series. It's a wide-ranging 41-piece orchestral Kontakt library, recorded at AIR Studios in London, with the instruments all designed to blend well with each other in Spitfire's unique way. There's even a Bass Saxophone. Many of the instruments have a gorgeous natural reverb, courtesy of the acoustics of the legendary AIR Room.
Skippy models himself
Talented sound designer John Lehmkuhl, the Plugin Guru, made an appearance at the Ilio booth. He was showing the recently released Unify ($79), a flexible plug-in for working with MIDI effects, Instruments and Audio Effects in a single screen interface. It allows users to combine plugins that they already own with PlugInGuru's 12 sample-based libraries (2.5GB). It ships with 400 patches from Skippy & Company's creative minds.
The most talked about free software announcement
The UA booth was packed with attendees waiting for demos of their new Luna DAW (Free with Apollo hardware), which is the result of several years of development from expatriate Pro Tools engineers. In addition to Neve models at the inserts, and Studer models at the end of the path, it includes UA's first virtual instrument plugins. The application is free for owners of Apollo hardware. The DAW market is a crowded, and high maintenance market, and we have always thought somebody would be crazy to want to write a DAW in the new millennium, but one might have thought the same of Bitwig, and would have been wrong. If it can be done, UA the winner of two 2020 TEC awards for their products, can do it.
The TEC Awards
Originally conceived 35 years ago by Mix Magazine, the TEC Awards (Technical Excellence & Creativity) are an important part of the NAMM weekend. The TEC award was originally a part of Mix Magazine, which primarily targeted the Pro Audio community. Most new audio technologies are first adopted for products in the Pro Audio space and then find their way into products for MI, so winning a TEC award is a particularly important recognition.
This year's event also celebrated the career of the supremely gifted music chameleon Joni Mitchell, who was presented the Les Paul Innovation award by the composer of Chameleon, Herbie Hancock. She has suffered from health issues for several years, so it was a great pleasure to see her there to accept the award. Here's a complete list of the winners.
IK Multimedia had several new products. Key among them was Amplitube Joe Satriani. Over his long and very prolific career, Satch as he is affectionately known among musicians throughout the world, has always been very creative and meticulous in his use of guitars, amps, effects, and even synthesizers, so this is bound to be something special. They were also showing the AX-IO Solo ($249 on pre-order), and the T-RackS Sunset Sound Studio Reverb ($149 pre-order), which was being demoed by Ross Hogarth, who has spent a lot of time in Sunset Sound over his long career. Owners of T-RackS 5 MAX can use JamPoints to take off another up to 30% on the reverb package.
Fresh off the release of their Spring Reverb plug-in, Eventide was showing TriceraChorus, a new algorithm for the H9 multi-effects stompbox. They also unveiled their Pro Tools|HD Expansion Card for the H9000 multi-effects processor platform. Within Pro Tools, the H9000 appears as an HD I/O device (16 or 32 channels, depending on the selected mode). Digital sync selection options are Internal (Loop Sync Master), Word-clock, Loop Sync, AES, SPDIF, and OPTICAL. 16 x 16 analog I/O can be enabled with Pro Tools display monitoring of analog gain control levels.
If he were still with us Michael Hedges would have loved the new Fishman Acoustic PowerTap family. There are two models, the PowerTab Earth ($299) and PowerTap Infinity that combine a Fishman acoustic pickup with an innovative Tab body sensor that captures more definition for the increasing number of players who want to add percussive elements to color their technique.
Neunaber Audio, known as a maker of great sounding stomp boxes, was showing their new Wet Reverberator ($99) plugin. It features the same reverb algorithm as their Wet Reverb pedal, the product that put them on the map, with the addition of brand new features designed to be used on any sound source including guitar, synths, drums and vocals. The Wet Reverberator also offers features like Tilt EQ, Bandpass Filter, Damping Frequency and Damping Attenuation, and there's 120 seconds of decay time while remaining light on CPU.
Because of the expanded NAMM real estate in the last couple of years, and the new place for software companies, Hall E has fewer things you haven't seen before. However, it is one of the few places where one can actually hear a demo, as long as it isn't too close to one of the boutique amplifier booths.
There were a couple of stomp box makers who are doing very cool things. Strymon continues to expand their product line with the new Iridium ($399) amp modeling pedal, which includes 9 cabinet IRs, and great Strymon sound.
Although they have been around for a while, a new discovery was the Source Audio line of stomp boxes. Their new C4 Synth ($239) stomp box, named after their ex-Kurzweil Chief Scientist, Bob Chidlaw is amazing. They like to call it a Eurorack in a pedal, and were demoing it with a bass - not the easiest instrument to track. There was very little discernible latency, it's multi-voiced, and the presets are editable with their Neuro software (Free) that runs on Mac and PC desktops, as well as iOS and Android.
Speaking of clever engineering, a well-deserved shout out should be for the Positive Grid Spark ($224 pre-order). A clever combination of a 40-watt amplifier (with the Positive Grid Bias processing) and a software application called Auto Chord that allows the user to chord/beat/tempo analyze YouTube, Spotify, etc. videos, analyze the harmony, create audio loops, slow them down, etc. A great practice tool for guitar players young and old.
The Apogee Symphony Desktop I/O for Mac, iPad Pro and Windows packs the legendary sound quality of Apogee's rack-mount Symphony I/O Mk II into an elegant and inspiring 10×14 audio interface that sits on your desk and fits in your bag. With Symphony Desktop, musicians and producers are empowered to record, overdub and mix with some of the music industry's most respected AD/DA converters and mic preamps. There's built-in hardware DSP processing of Apogee FX Rack plugins, which Include Symphony ECS Channel Strip Tuned by Bob Clearmountain, and the Native version of Symphony Reverb. If you are ready to give Apogee a try this is their most affordable Symphony series interface yet.