Vol. 33 Issue 3 Reviews

NAMM 2009

International Music Products Association, Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, California, USA, 15-18 January 2009.

Reviewed by Frode Holm
Santa Barbara, California, USA

Judging by the attendance at this year’s NAMM show, the music industry has not been immune to the ongoing global economic downturn. The official number of registrants was down three percent from last year. Still, at a healthy number of over 85,000, there were few signs of the doom and gloom plaguing other industries. Music will be made, regardless of what else might be going on, and this year was no different.

DAW Wars
The quest for digital audio workstation (DAW) supremacy goes on unabated, especially since big guns Yamaha and Roland joined the fray by absorbing Cubase and Sonar respectively. Steinberg announced Cubase 5, a major upgrade to this long-running program. Among the highlights was native 64-bit support for Windows Vista, making a whopping 1 terabyte of RAM a possibility, and a new audio path fully utilizing that platform’s new WASAPI audio driver (claiming a lower latency than ever before). Of the add-ons, the one that caught most people’s attention was the fully integrated pitch-correcting tool that makes tweaking your vocals as easy as dialing in EQ. A brand new convolution reverberation is also a welcome addition to an already impressive plug-in lineup.

Ableton also announced a major upgrade to its flagship product, Live 8. In addition to a slew of new plug-in instruments, loops, and sounds, they also added more tools that is bringing it ever closer to a position of serving as a studio’s nerve-center, in addition to its established role as the go-to live performance software. Also worth noting was the announcement of a dedicated Live control surface developed by Akai, sure to please any electronica performer out there. It was also announced that it will soon be possible to integrate the MAX/MSP environment (Cycling ’74) into Live. That is definitely something to watch out for.

Cakewalk was showing off the new dedicated control surface, the Sonar V-Studio 700, and other hardware for Sonar 8. This is the first tangible result of Cakewalk’s new relationship with Roland and is sure to cement its position as one of the top dogs in studio computer systems, even though it still has not embraced Macintosh as a DAW platform.

On a side note, Logic users had some reason to be concerned this year as Apple was nowhere to be seen. What’s up Apple?

Fans of exotic controllers will be delighted with Moog Music’s new offering, the Etherwave Plus. This device packs Moog’s theremin technology into a suitably retro-looking control-only box (see Figure 1). It will output control voltages for pitch and volume in response to your waving arms, but, of course, you can use these CVs to control anything you like on any synth that has CV inputs. We will probably soon see DJs in full motion running their mixes through filters and other mangling processors.

Violinists aspiring to create new and interesting sonic mayhem are also in luck with a new bow controller that will transmit gestural data over a wireless transmitter. The K-Bow from Keith McMillen Instruments does not output CVs, but control messages can be sent via MIDI or OSC if one wants to use sound-modifying software other than what comes with the bow (see Figure 2). At a projected price of well over US$ 4,000 it will be out of reach for many would-be experimenters, but one can always hope it comes down over time.

Although JazzMutant’s Dexter and Lemur multitouch screens have been around for a while, the big news this year was a dramatic price cut to almost half their previous cost. While still on the upper end of the budget scale, they are now considerably closer to being within the grasp of ordinary mortals. It is truly a delight to use all ten fingers on a touchscreen navigating soft synths and mixers with fluid ease. Hopefully, this price trend will continue, so that we all can put the tired old mouse to rest. New in v2 of the Lemur OS is the inclusion of a scripting language that will allow you to roll your own interface for your projects. This is sure to expand as users jump on the bandwagon.

Down the aisles
Being a keyboard player, I couldn’t help but notice the large number of “gigabyte” grand pianos being offered by just about every company that has a finger in the music software business. One wonders how they can all make a profit, but perhaps the market is bigger than one might think. It would be fun to try them all side by side, but at NAMM one neither has the time nor the available quiet for that.

I did manage, however, to sit down in relative peace with Yahama’s brand new Avant Grand N3 grand piano that sets new standards in “hybrid” digital-analog instrument design. I use that term advisedly because this is much more than simply having great samples or a realistic physical model. The frame, soundboard, speakers, action and pedals all combine with the sound engine to form a true physical experience, where one quickly ceases to notice the digital origin of the sounds themselves. Very impressive.

Also of note was Vienna Instruments’ new Vienna Imperial, an extremely detailed sampling of a Bosendorfer Imperial grand. There is no question that the software version faithfully recreates the majesty of the original, and if you don’t have that at hand, the V.I. will let you play and sound as if you had. For the occasion of the rollout, Vienna Instruments had taken the effort of creating a hardware platform for the new instrument, a kind of spaceship version of the venerable grand piano design (see Figure 3).

It’s always a pleasure to stop by the Dave Smith Instruments booth and see what the legendary analog synthesizer maker has been up to recently (see Figure 4). This year was no exception, as I got to poke around on his new Mopho monophonic synthesizer the size of a slightly large stomp-box. Despite it’s small size (and price) there was absolutely no compromise I could detect in its sound quality compared to its big sibling, the Prophet 08. Anyone having a craving for analog synth sound can’t go wrong with this one. By the way, big synthesizers in very small boxes seemed to be the fashion this year, as almost all major manufacturers had one to offer.

At Celemony, the folks there were demonstrating their now-famous polyphonic pitch extraction and correction technology (Direct Note Access) in their new flagship product, the Melodyne Editor. As most readers will know, polyphonic pitch extraction has remained a notoriously hard problem to crack, and the curiosity is running high as to how exactly Celemony is doing it. I tried to fish for some answers, but the only little nugget I got was the fact that they have applied for a patent, so perhaps by the time this gets to print, we can all read about it on the US Patent Office’s Web pages.

It’s a special treat to witness one of the first performances of a new band with legendary players in it who we haven’t heard from in a long while. Such was the occasion at Korg’s booth when Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame (you do remember them, don’t you?), took the stage playing the Korg M3-88 (with Radias synthesizer module) with two of his new band members: Marc Bonilla on guitar and Travis Davis on bass. Keith has most definitely not gone soft over the years. If anything, his music is now even more intricate and convoluted than it ever was in the ELP days. Prog rock fans rejoice!

More music
One of the frustrations of going to NAMM is to have to miss so much great live music, either because of time or because one didn’t manage to score a ticket or simply because one didn’t know about it. Hearing all those “did you see…?” comments from fellow show-goers can leave you with a pit of envy in the stomach.

However, there is plenty to go around, and in recent years the organizers have stepped up the live scheduling in the Hilton and Marriott lobbies, so there’s a constant stream of great bands and artists to enjoy, mostly of the up-and-coming or not-so-well-known variety.

I did catch one of the main events, the Latin Percussion 45th Anniversary concert, which capped off my NAMM visit and which I’ll close my report with. The headliner, The Giants of Latin Jazz, is truly a powerhouse outfit that is guaranteed to warm you up from the inside out. The music is kind of like Duke Ellington meets Antonio Carlos Jobim meets salsa. It was hard to count the number of musicians on stage, but there must have been at least 20, dominated by horns and percussion.  They certainly made me walk back to my hotel with a smile on my face.