Vol. 25 Issue 3 Reviews
NAMM 2001 International Music Market
International Music Products Association, Convention Center, Anaheim, California, USA, 18-21 January 2001

Reviewed by Frode Holm
Santa Barbara, California, USA

For its 100th anniversary year, the International Music Products Association show moved back to its old haunts in Anaheim, into a completely rebuilt and impressive looking Convention Center. During its years in exile in Los Angeles the organization changed its name from National Association of Music Merchants, but apparently IMPA didn’t have the same punch, so "the NAMM Show" it still is! I, for one, was happy to see it return to Anaheim. There's just a special vibe that occurs when 15,000 or more music industry professionals are stranded within a city block with nowhere else to go.

In any case, here we go with what amounts to a random sampling of some of the more interesting of this year's vast new offerings.

Soft synths and more soft synths
Every year, there is usually a trend that reaches critical mass and really hits you. This time, it seems like everyone and their mother has something to offer in the arena of software synthesizers and samplers, and the sheer number of plug-ins, stand-alones and soundcard adjuncts made the prospect of giving them all a spin a daunting, if not impossible, task.

Strangely, though, there were few new major entries being announced for the show, although nearly everyone had an upgrade up their sleeves. One exception was Steinberg's introduction of HALion, a professional-grade, streaming-from-disk sampler for any VST host (Cubase 3.7 or higher). Shipping date and price are to be announced "soon."

Not to be outdone, arch-rival Emagic announced new versions of their EXS24 sampler, now compatible with VST 2.0 systems and also packaged with disk-streaming capability. Given the already entrenched positions of GigaStudio and Unity, it looks like the battle for the "soft sampler" market is going to be especially fierce, as samplers have become the bread and butter of practically all project studios.

Soft-synth powerhouse Native Instruments was also on the offensive this year with the announcement of an upgrade of their popular Reaktor modular synthesizer (Version 3.0) and Battery, a brand new drum-machine sampler on steroids. In addition, the company also proclaimed support for practically every interface standard in existence: VST 2.0, Digidesign DirectConnect, Mark of the Unicorn's MAS, Cakewalk's new DXi format, and Microsoft’s DirectX.

Also worth mentioning, although not brand new for the show, was Tassman from Applied Acoustics System, the only package I spotted with physical modeling capability, and Reason from Propellerheads, which packs a large virtual rack full of various useful devices into your computer.

One wonders when all of this will finally lead to the demise of the hardware synthesizers we've all known and loved over the years. My personal take is—not quite yet. Most software synthesizers, in my experience, still suffer from latency problems, usually imposed by the computer operating system. With few exceptions, the responsiveness covers the range from just barely acceptable to downright unplayable. There were rumors on the floor that both Windows and Macintosh OS will soon have special kernel "tunneling" channels, driving latencies down below three milliseconds. We'll see.

… but wait—they're still alive!
Just when you thought the dinosaurs from the past were all but gone, wiped out by the asteroid impact of computers, they come roaring back onto the scene, more vigorous than ever. I'm talking about analog modular synthesizers. Remember those walls of knobs and patch-cords? Well, they're back in fashion, with a vengeance. I spotted at least five booths with behemoths on display, a sure sign of financial well-being. Perhaps the most eye-catching offering was the A-100 system from Doepfer. Its sleek, rack-mountable design with accompanying mad scientists in white lab-coats was sure to make any synthesizer enthusiast stop and look. Its catalog of modules is also very impressive. You would be hard pressed to think of a function you couldn't find there.

Also making considerable noise were Analogue Systems with their RS Integrator Series and Synthesis Technology showing off MOTM Analog Modular Synthesizers. My apologies to the other companies who didn't make it onto my (alarmingly large) pile of brochures.

Another major entry to the world of analog synthesis was made by Alesis who introduced the much-anticipated A6 Andromeda synthesizer, four years in the making and sporting a brand new analog chip set. There is no doubt that this is going to be a serious contender in the analog-style synth market. It sports an attractive and intuitive interface and, most importantly, has a killer sound that is sure to satisfy even the most jaded keyboard player.

Sound, to go
Lately I've been on a quest to press my laptop computer into musical service, and have been surprised to learn how little has been offered in the way of professional audio interfaces, certainly compared to the avalanche of desktop audio cards we've seen lately. Fortunately, this situation seems about to change significantly with several new USB interfaces being announced.

The most impressive bid was made by Emagic who presented their 24-bit multi-channel interface, the EMI 2|6. With 2 input channels and 6 output channels, this box should go a long way to satisfy even the most demanding applications for the mobile musician/composer/producer. Hot on their heels is Midiman with their AudioSport Quad PC, a 4-in/4-out 24-bit interface. Although it doesn't have quite as many channels as the EMI, it makes up for that by having an integrated MIDI input/output port, sure to please many. In addition, it can run at a sampling rate of 96 kHz by reducing the operation of the unit to 2-in/2-out.

Finally, Ego-sys was offering their U2A USB interface. Also operating at 24-bit resolution, this box has only a 2 x 2 input/output configuration, but it does come packaged with coaxial and optical S/PDIF inputs and outputs in addition to the analog connections.

More stuff
The big news in the world of hard-disk based recording/sequencing this year was the announcement from Cakewalk of their brand new Sonar package. Cakewalk has previously been, fairly or unfairly, perceived as a semi-professional product, never quite reaching the top distinctions. This year, Cakewalk is setting out to change that permanently, first of all by dropping the Cakewalk name, but more importantly, by introducing a completely revamped product that puts it squarely up against its main competitors from Germany, Logic Audio and Cubase. From the looks of it, these companies should tremble at this "new" kid on the block. Sonar is a complete and supercharged multi-track recording and MIDI sequencing package that rivals anything I've seen on any platform.

If you are a Pro Tools user with deep pockets, you would definitely be salivating over the Control|24 control surface from Focusrite. At US$ 8,000 for 24 motorized faders and a host of other knobs and buttons, you can make your Pro Tools studio look and feel like a million-dollar installation.

Although late to the table, Alesis might yet wrest a significant market-share with their new stand-alone, 24-track hard-disk recorder, the ADAT HD24. It is, of course, fully ADAT-compatible, but its main selling point might be the way the unit utilizes cheap Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) drives for storage. The two caddies house hot-swappable, low-cost, low-RPM drives, bringing the cost per gigabyte down to the level of tape, or so Alesis claims. The rumored price of US$ 2,000 or less is not going to hurt its chances either.

Tascam and Be Inc. announced a new alliance that will make a version of the Be OS the future base operating platform for Tascam products. This development will be worth watching, as Be's platform has always been very audio friendly, though unfortunately has not been able to penetrate the mainstream so far.

The music
Obvious in hindsight, but of the "ah-hah" variety the first time you see it, Antares' demo of Auto-Tune 3 was a continuous crowd gatherer. By feeding the output from a venerable Theremin into Auto-Tune, a whole new dimension is created for the instrument, kind of like putting adjustable frets into thin air. The (regrettably) short performances on this new hybrid were mesmerizing, attesting both to the skill of the musician and the potential of this new combination.

Also on hand again this year, was monstrously talented bass player, Marco Mendoza, who performed a knock-out set at the Hilton with his trio. Also, Spinal Tap was out of mothballs for the occasion, for an enjoyable concert of good, old-fashioned, rock ‘n roll fun. Nigel & Co. were still up to the task, with their special brand of British wit and earthquake-inducing Marshall stacks. And yes, the volume is still set at 11!