2015 NAMM: Show Becoming More High-tech

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It is always interesting and a lot of fun to attend the National Association of Music Merchants show. It is in some ways similar to CES and being so close to CES it brings the inevitable comparisons to mind for those of us who attend and/or cover both. The NAMM show is certainly musical instrument-centric although for the last five or six years technology has crept in and now some of the more interesting exhibits are more and more technology-based. While quite a bit smaller than CES in floor space, the show is still quite large and does fill the entire Anaheim convention center and much of the surrounding territory.

As for attendees, the number has grown and is estimated to be at just under 100,000 people this year. Attendance is not open to the public but you will see musicians of every ilk, from rank amateurs like myself to the accomplished and famous. You will find buyers for large music chains as well as independent retailers, representatives from national entertainment companies, performing art centers, audio technical directors, inventors and educators, manufacturers and writers and just about all in between.

Before we discuss electronics in music, it is apparent that the backbone of the NAMM show is musical instruments. On exhibit were many amazingly beautiful instruments, from classic brass trumpets and trombones to saxophones, keyboards. And there were so many stringed instruments, from violins to guitars and basses, that one has to wonder how this many companies can survive. Of course, there were established companies such as Fender, Gretsch, Gibson, Ibanez, Martin, Taylor and others, but there were many other small and lesser-known companies showing absolutely beautiful instruments.

One example of a company that I had never heard of that was showing some absolutely amazing instruments is Novax. I was introduced to them by my friend and colleague Richard Crowe. Novax was showing some of the most amazing instruments possible, both in look and feel, and they are also somewhat unique in that they were an industry pioneer in using fan frets. If you look at the picture of me trying one of their bass guitars, you can see that the frets actually fan out from the center slightly.

I am told that this is calculated to provide the exact harmonic distance from the nut for each individual note. I asked if that would disorient a musician's muscle memory. In response they set me up with a bass and I became accustomed to the fanned frets in just a few minutes. I understand that now that their patents have become in the public domain and this is something that the more established and famous companies are starting to use. Novax is just one example of the hundreds of companies with truly innovative and amazing musical offerings that most of us have never heard about, unless you visit an event like NAMM. I suspect an event like NAMM helps some of them become known enough to survive and perhaps even prosper.

The focus of I-Connect007 is technology, so let’s look at how technology and the IoT is starting to affect our music, not just how we store and listen to it but also how it is played and produced.

One tech product company that I personally wanted to visit was Beat Buddy. Beat Buddy is touted as the world’s first pedal drum machine. As I play bass with small classic rock and blues groups and we sometimes have no drummer, we often use a drum machine. While I am no expert, the drum machines I have used were all somewhat cumbersome and complicated if you want to do much more than just keep a beat. I saw a press release for the Beat Buddy a few months back and on a whim I bought one.

It is like having a drummer in a box except it's one you can control. This drum machine is not temperamental and it does what you want without a lot of complexity. As a veteran of the electronic manufacturing industry, I was amazed at the quality of the unit's construction. At the booth the device was getting quite a bit of attention. Mike Inez, the bassist of rock band Alice in Chains, is quoted as saying, “I just bought a BeatBuddy a few weeks ago and it’s been my hotel room companion while touring.” This device was my choice of the show and as I write this  I just received an announcement that it was chosen Best in Show at NAMM. Congratulations, and based on my experience, it's well deserved.

There were quite a number of technical innovations, some of them just evolutionary, such as the inclusion in some new Gibson guitars of a built in tuner. Electronic tuners for bass and guitar are nothing new and small clip-on tuners have become the norm for many musicians but having one built in in such an unobtrusive way is really quite useful.

Some others that stood out:

Imitone: This new software introduced at NAMM was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign. It lets anyone hum a few notes, and have them sound like a musical instrument. If you hum a few bars of your favorite song or even something you make up you can sound like a real organ, a violin or trumpet Etc. The software for Windows PC’s as well as Macs is very reasonable priced at $25 at imitone.com.

Casio's portable DJ unit lets you leave the turntable at home and still D J with the new, battery-powered, portable $249 XW-DJ1 unit. It connects directly to a smartphone, and even has a built-in speaker, to bring your party with you wherever you go.

One device that was getting a great deal of attention was the Illuminating piano by McCarthy Music. It is a keyboard that teaches with keys that light up. Download songs from its app and wait for the keys on the keyboard to light up before you play the notes. Watch their demo. it is a fun, short video well worth watching.

For those of us who play bass or guitar, there were effects pedals galore, literally hundreds of them that you can use alone, in parallel or series that will allow you to use your bass of guitar to create an infinite number of unique sounds. Some musicians use so many pedals that many guitarists now use pedal racks with built-in power supplies. I for one wonder how you can remember the location of the various pedals and the literally thousands of settings. Still, this year the increased number of types of effect stomp pedals was almost overwhelming.

There were the usual synthesizers and mixers from well-known companies such as Roland who introduced an analog/digital hybrid, Moog, who revealed their plans to once again offer a remake of their classic synthesizer from the 70’s (is that Retro-Tek?) and mixers from pioneer Korg and others.

A trend that was noted at CES is finding its way into NAMM, that being multi OS availability. Some years ago most devices that were computer friendly were Windows only, then with the advent of the newer Mac and the i-Pad it seemed to go the other way. Now most devices that are computer literate are compatible with Windows, IOS (although not necessarily OSX) and even droid. Even simple hardware such as mounting stands for tablets are no longer limited to just one supplier. I think that is a good thing.

Of course NAMM is loaded with celebrities, some of them seem to want to remain low key and some of them scream “look at me” but for us teckies the star of the show was Steve Woznaik. Those of us that became enamored with personal computers in the late 70’s of course knew him as the technology innovator behind Apple. 

When it was announced that Woz would attend NAMM, he stated "Music is an enormous part of my life. It plays an integral role in creating the whole person, creative innovators that will shape the future. I look forward to witnessing technology and music come together at the NAMM Show. And of course playing a few instruments too!"

Even though he expressed his love for music, it is technology that is his first love and how technology can enable musicians and performers to become even more creative. He also stated that “there are a lot of newcomers with many fresh creations. After all, look at what technology has done for the music industry so far”.

As usual there were many things to see at NAMM, far more than one person can cover. At I-Connect we are happy to note the interest by our readers in how those of us behind the scenes in electronic design, innovation and manufacture have impacted the consumer electronics and music industries. We are planning on increasing our coverage of these topics and we would like to hear more from you on your interests in this fascinating and rapidly evolving area.


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