Vol. 28 Issue 3 Reviews
Believe in Music: NAMM Show 2004

International Music Products Association, Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, California, USA, 15-18 January 2004.

Reviewed by Frode Holm
Santa Barbara, California, USA

According to the official tally, this year’s NAMM show carried an all-time record for both attendance and exhibitors, at over 74,000 and 1,400 respectively. This is good news for the music community, as such numbers should be a reliable indicator that music-making is in a healthy state the world over.

Although I didn’t spot any earth-shattering innovations or developments, as always there was plenty to grab one’s attention and to inspire future musical projects. Here, again, is a “random walk” down the aisles of the Anaheim Convention Center.

The Un-virtual?
For years we have seen physical hardware turn into virtual components in our computers. Perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing the other way? We have seen the trend of control surfaces for digital audio workstations (DAWs) for a while now. The year 2004 has really brought this product category into the mainstream, with several new offerings from major companies, including the B-Control from Behringer and the US-2400 from Tascam. There were also several combination controller-mixer offerings on hand, one of which I’ll return to later.

Newcomer developer Open Labs has decided on a strategy that obliterates all distinctions between computer, control surface, and keyboard with its line of OpenSynths (insert category name here—the company calls it “Super Instrument”). In an elegantly designed synthesizer-style keyboard, they have integrated a complete Wintel-based machine, including a portable computer touch-display+keyboard, running its own specialized application to handle the mapping of all the knobs, faders, keys, etc., and to manage whatever soft-synthesizer you wish to play. This is an appealing solution to the migration from studio to stage, at least for keyboard players.

Also on track for bringing software synthesizers back into the realm of luggable equipment is the Receptor from Muse Research. This rack-mounted unit is designed to house any number of plug-in synthesizers, which you can then bring to your next gig with a minimum of setup and hassle. A very comprehensive management application is provided to give the user maximum flexibility in setting up the parameters and environment to suit one’s needs. Push “power on” and you have your sounds the way you like them, the way you want to control them.

The item that really got my fingers itching, though, was on display in the Korg arena. If you lived through the 1970s wishing for one of the modular behemoths made by Moog or ARP that you could never afford (as was the case for me), you will no doubt be familiar with the MS-20. Despite its low cost, it had plenty of patching capability and a good sound to boot. This year, Korg honored this legendary synthesizer with an identical physical replica (at 84% size), patch cables and all, of the original. Of course, today being 2004, this irresistible piece of hardware is a USB controller: the actual synthesis engine resides on the computer. Hats off to Korg for thinking “outside the box”—literally—on this one. I can’t wait to give my hands some alternative exercises by patching actual cables when making some new and old demented sounds! By the way—this package, The Korg Legacy Collection, gives you software versions of the Polysix and the Wavestation as well. My own personal “Cool” award of the show!

The Massive Sample Instrument
A trend we have seen the beginnings of in recent years continued in full force with the release of several new sample libraries that attempt to solve the problem of realism by sheer brute force, i.e., with a truly massive set of recordings attempting to capture every last squeak and groan of the instrument in question. Because of the vast number of variations available, the designers are forced to also provide customized user-interfaces, in addition to the hard-drive-swallowing libraries themselves. If some sort of automation in sample selection is not available, no one will ever have enough time or patience to make effective use of such sonic minutia. We saw this kind of solution in full mode last year with the Vienna Symphonic Library.

One natural focus for this kind of attention is the acoustic drum kit. Sonic Reality showed off their new I-Drums library, which was truly daunting in its attention to detail and flexibility in setting up all of the parameters that make up a good studio drum sound: drum make and size, microphone brands and positions, bleed-through, tunings, snare tightness, stick placement, and on and on. Other offerings combined somewhat less detailed multi-samples, but with grooves played by professionals added in. One example is the Beats Working collection from Zero-G, in a 10-channel, 5.1-ready version for Pro Tools.

The quest for a natural sounding grand piano is also, of course, never-ending, and there were new contenders in this arena as well. My favorite would have to be Ivory from Synthogy. Although I didn’t have an opportunity to play it myself, the demo was very impressive, with every nuance and combination of pedals, sympathetic strings, hammer noise, and ambience that one could possibly wish for, shown in full action by a very competent pianist doing the honors at their booth.

Impressive as all these libraries are, they are still but natural extensions of concepts we have seen for many years. What we have not seen, however, is a serious attempt to capture that most elusive of all instruments: the human voice. Until now, that is.

Yamaha announced, in cooperation with Zero-G, their new voice sampling/synthesis engine, the Vocaloid, as well as three libraries captured from professional singers: Lola, Leon, and Miriam. As anyone familiar with speech synthesis will know, it is virtually impossible to artificially synthesize phonemic transitions, particularly voiced ones. The solution seems to be to capture this information from an actual human voice and transform the data into some form of parameter-based model for later resynthesis. Yamaha was not forthcoming on the actual details of this implementation, but the end result is indeed quite impressive, given the enormous complexity of the task. The synthesized voice does give a convincing illusion of someone singing, with intelligible lyrics, natural vibratos, spot-on inflections, and more. Still, it is quite some distance away from replacing a singer in a lead position, but for background vocals and other subsidiary vocal tasks, it might very well do an adequate job in many situations. However, my guess is that this package will not initially be known for its natural singing capability at all. By the time this sees print, there will no doubt be “How did they do that?” Vocaloid-generated effects on several hit records. I look forward to seeing how all of this develops in the future.

Other news
Over at Yamaha headquarters at the Marriott Hotel there was high-energy excitement over the debut of several mLAN-capable products. Yamaha has worked hard to bring this new protocol to life for quite some time, and the demos I saw were impressive indeed. The heart of the new offering is the 01X mixer/audio-MIDI interface/controller++ (it is hard to categorize these new boxes!). Through just one mLAN network cable, the 01X was connected to the new Motif ES synthesizer, an i88X audio interface, and a computer running Cubase SX, all in one seamless integrated network. It is still unclear whether this will become a “Yamaha only” standard, or if others will join in. Keep your ears to the ground on this one.

I think this year’s NAMM was the one at which I officially stopped trying to keep track of all the new audio converters/interfaces. There was something new to see at practically every major booth, with quite a few companies new to the field joining the fray.

The same could also be said of software synthesizers. It is simply amazing how many contenders there now are in what is, apparently, a very lucrative business. My guess is that in the soul of many a software developer there lurks a synthesizer enthusiast (or maybe the other way around?), so the sheer fun of making one of these jewels perhaps makes up for the poor odds of competing in this very crowded market.

Worthy of mention, though, is E-MU’s conversion from their long and proud line of hardware samplers into the realm of pure software. Their brand new Emulator X “desktop sampling” package might be late to the sampler wars, but they more than make up for this with what is truly a staggering list of features, unmatched by any other software sampler I can think of. I highly recommend giving this a close look.

Sweet surround
On Sunday, at the end of the very last day, as my feet were refusing to cooperate any longer, I found refuge at the Tannoy booth. This turned into one of the most memorable moments of the show for me! Without realizing it, I had sat down in their small demo theatre for their line of Ellipse iDP studio monitors, which can be used in both near-field and standard studio configurations. After having been thoroughly impressed by listening to a commercial DVD release of Eric Clapton’s acoustic rendition of “Save The World,” I realized that I had not been disturbed in the least by the (extremely loud) background noise of the show floor. Usually, loudspeaker demos are done in sound-proof environments, but not this one. What was even more amazing, though, was the extremely realistic spatial dimension that came through, and also the incredible “solidness” of the high frequencies. According to Tannoy, the frequency response goes all the way up to 50 kHz, so with state-of-the-art converters running at sampling rates of 96/192 kHz, the phase coherency and lack of harmonic distortion is truly a delight to hear. At US$19,000, a full surround system is not exactly cheap, but I can always dream about having one in my studio…