NAMM Bits

May 1, 2001 12:00 PM, PAUL D. LEHRMAN

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This past January, the Winter NAMM show returned to Anaheim, Calif., the home of Mickey Mouse, Knott's Berry Farm and countless other institutions dedicated to the proposition that, dammit, you are going to have fun! And I returned, too. The last three years, this gigantic music industry trade show, second only in enormity to Frankfurt's MusikMesse (which I've never been to and have no great desire to go to) has been held in downtown Los Angeles. During that time, the Anaheim Convention Center was undergoing a giant facelift, and, although it was still open for business, the NAMM powers-that-be decided that it would be — believe it or not — safer to hold the show in downtown L.A., a place where even the taxi drivers won't wander at night without a bodyguard. So I have stayed away. But this year, I came back. And, yes, I did have fun.

A lot of other people came back, too, apparently. The number of registrants at the show, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the organization (whose full name is the International Music Products Association), was 65,372, which represents a 10% increase from last year.

Anaheim hasn't changed much in the interim, and the “new” convention center isn't much different from the old one, except there's now an impressive, but not particularly useful, three-story glass lobby occupying the space that used to be outside, between the convention center and the adjacent Hilton Hotel. The remaining sliver of open space, although they've tried to soften it with plants, is something of a claustrophobic concrete wind tunnel.

Inside, the center is much the same as it's always been — a cavernous bunker — only they've removed most of the walls separating the various “halls” so that it feels even larger. And it definitely seemed noisier: Even in the acoustic guitar and saxophone sections of the building, the ambient SPL was well up into the New York-subway-at-rush-hour range.

Anaheim, itself, was unusually cold, even for January. When I left Boston in the morning, it was 37°, and when I arrived that night at my hotel, it was 38°. Southern Californians, who don't understand winter, think that the way to warm up a room is to blow electrically heated air into it. So the relative humidity inside the hotels and convention center, already low to begin with (remember, if it wasn't for all that water coming from north of Sacramento, Orange County would still be a desert), felt like it had dropped to zero. Bottles of water were selling briskly from machines on the show floor at $2.25 a pop. It's no wonder it took me just one day to come down with a nasty case of “convention throat,” or “NAMMyngitis.”

During the week of the NAMM show, there always seems to be some disaster going on in the outside world. One year, the show began two days after the Northridge earthquake. Another year, we went to war with Iraq, and every monitor in the place was tuned to CNN, watching the bombers as if they were a video game. This year, there was the installation of George II in Washington, but everyone ignored that. The threat of rolling electrical blackouts throughout California, however, was harder to ignore, but, thankfully, Orange County was spared that week. I was a little sorry about this — it would have been interesting to see how conventioneers (not to mention Disneyland) would have coped without electricity.

There are two reasons I go to NAMM: I get to see old friends and new technology. I wasn't disappointed on either count this time. I won't bore you with the details of my social calendar, but it was great to see fellow Mix columnist Stephen St.Croix, who, although we are separated by but a few sheets of paper every month, I actually get to see in meatspace infrequently. Stephen was sporting his cool new 21st-century short ’do, and, for a change, you could actually see his face, which is really quite pleasant.

As for new technology, there were, of course, lots. This year, I happened to be on a particular mission to find “alternative” electronic musical controllers for a course I hope to teach in the fall, and the show gave me a terrific opportunity to scope out what folks all over the world, in companies large and small, have been doing in their workshops and laboratories. My sympathies at any trade show tend to be with the smallest and most struggling companies, and there were plenty of those in attendance. Some of them were showing some pretty cool stuff.

Alternative music controllers have a habit of appearing and disappearing quickly. It's tough to get people to agree to learn a new instrument, and making a successful product that requires players to learn a new technique and, God forbid, practice, takes time. That's something that cash-strapped startups don't often have, and so sales of new controllers by small companies, no matter how well-received they might be by the press, rarely reach the critical mass necessary to make their manufacturers viable. For me, every NAMM show brings back fond memories of glorious oddities like Palmtree's AirDrums (also known as the “MIDI maracas”); the SynthAxxe, which looked like a guitar that had been run over by a truck; and the MIDI “tap shoes,” “dog collar” and stringless harp from companies whose names I can't remember.

Larger companies, too, have felt the pressures of the market when it comes to making innovative and unusual instruments, and many of them have pulled out of that side of the business. But a few have hung in.

Yamaha (www.yamaha.com) has been flying the flag of MIDI wind controllers for many years, and the company's latest is the WX5, which, like its predecessors, uses fingerings similar to a flute or saxophone, with additional knobs and keys to change octaves and operate pitch bend and other continuous parameters. The WX5 incorporates most of the features of earlier WX Series controllers, but the price is considerably lower: $699. Of course, to get the most out of it, Yamaha recommends a pairing with its physical-modeling synth module, the VL70M, which is $799.

Roland (www.rolandus.com) has always pursued MIDI drums and guitars, and many of its products have straddled the pro and consumer music worlds successfully. The latest result is the HPD-15 Hand Percussion Pad — let's call it a “MIDI Conga” — and, in fact, they were showing a few of them attached to conga drum shells, but they're hardly required. The HPD-15 is a rubber pad with 15 different sections, each of which can be programmed to play a different sound. All of the pads have pressure sensing, and the larger pads also have positional sensing, so you can change a sound by pushing on the pad or by moving around on it. It also has two ribbon controllers and a “D-Beam” infrared distance sensor, so you can wave your hands in the air and do weird things to the sound. It comes with 600 (!) percussion sounds in ROM and a built-in sequencer, all for $1,300.

Speaking of waving your hands around, Alesis (www.alesis.com) has come up with two nifty little devices, the airSynth and the airFX. Both units look a little like trackballs for an iMac, but the glass ball in the middle doesn't move. Instead, it houses an infrared sensor that detects hand positions in 3-D, using technology that the company has applied for a patent for. They have no other controls except a program-select dial. The airSynth contains 50 sounds, while the airFX has 50 filters, time-based effects, reverbs and a few synth sounds. At $249 each, these are slated for the DJ market: Both devices have RCA outputs and pass-through inputs, so you can put them in the same signal path as, say, a CD player without tying up mixer inputs or aux sends. There are no MIDI jacks, so there's no way to interface the units with anything else, but a company representative told me that Alesis is considering using the technology in MIDI devices in the future. I hope they do — it's way cool, and it would be great to open it up to other types of performers.

Any discussion of musical hand waving would be incomplete without mention of Bob Moog's Theremins. Before there were any Moog synthesizers, there were Moog-built Theremins. Moog has gone back to his roots, and his company, Big Briar (www.bigbriar.com), was showing two of the beasts. The Etherwave Theremin is a classic two-antennae job, housed in a small box with a vertical pole for pitch and a horizontal loop for volume. It goes for $369, but there's also a “Bob Moog Signature” Version for an extra $30, or you can save $70 and buy it as a kit, which comes with an assembled and pre-tested circuit board, in case your soldering chops aren't what they used to be. At the high end is the Ethervox MIDI Theremin ($3,500), which is in a large wood case that's modeled after Leon Theremin's original instrument. It's a very clever design: As you move toward or away from the pitch antenna, it sends MIDI data in the form of either individual note commands or pitch bend commands or some combination of the two that you can program. It also receives MIDI, so you can record (and edit) your swoopings and play them back.

Besides Moog, one of the pre-eminent names in the early days of synthesis was Don Buchla, builder of wonderful nonkeyboard-oriented (which is one reason why it never caught on like Moog's) modular systems, named after their creator. I learned all about voltage control and sequencing on one of those beasts in college. Although the old machines are now collector's items, Buchla, himself, is still very active and has designed some really interesting electronic musical interfaces with names like “Thunder” and “Lightning.” His latest creation, the Marimba Lumina, is being marketed by a company called Nearfield Systems (www.multimedia.nearfield.com), which primarily makes radio antenna measurement products but has formed a new multimedia division just to sell this instrument. Much more than a MIDI xylophone, the Marimba Lumina (and its new $1,000-cheaper little brother, the two-and-a-half-octave ML2500) has a ribbon controller, 10 control pads, storage for 50 setups, a built-in Yamaha XG synthesizer, and inputs for seven trigger or controller pedals. It has all kinds of expression and duration control, arpeggiation, alternative scales and much more. The instrument comes with four color-coded, foam-covered mallets, each of which can be programmed separately; so, for example, hitting a note with the red mallet will play one kind of sound, while hitting the same note with the green mallet will play a different sound. You don't have to be a killer xylophone player to get the most out of this baby, but if the guy demoing it was any indication, it does help.

And speaking of built-in synths, I've been writing about software synthesis for a number of years, but so far I've yet to see anything that I can put on my computer that I would consider to be a reasonable replacement for a good general-purpose hardware synth module. But the latest version of Native Instruments' (www.native-instruments.de) Reaktor is getting awfully close. The $500 software, which works on Mac and Windows platforms, puts a completely configurable polyphonic/polytimbral synth, a sampler, a drum machine and a groove generator onto your computer in one fell swoop. Version 3.0, due out this quarter, has a more intuitive user interface with modules that make the architecture of the system much clearer. To get more than a handful of voices out of it, you need at least a 400MHz computer, but we all know those aren't hard to find anymore. The German company has also released a “Junior” Version of the software, called Dynamo, at $200.

A new company from Victoria, B.C., Tactex Controls, is making “digital skin”: fabrics that can detect position and pressure when they are touched. The technology grew out of the Canadian Space Agency (you didn't even know there was one, did you?) and is now being applied to touch pads, game controllers, cell phones, “wearable” computers and — you guessed it — musical instruments. The company's first music-oriented product, the MTC Express, is a hand-sized touch pad that hooks up to a computer through the serial port (or a serial-to-USB converter). At NAMM, Tactex was demonstrating it on a Mac using custom objects created in the musical programming language, Max, to do interesting things with sound and spatialization. By itself, the MTC Express sells for $495, but the technology was also being shown in a prototype of a configurable music and/or mixing controller, called Surface 1 at the MIDIMan booth around the corner. Tactex also says that its fabric will show up as a left-hand controller on a new analog synthesizer that will soon be introduced by Moog. Max, which was formerly marketed by Opcode, was thankfully spun off before that company's demise to Cycling ’74, which is owned by David Ziccarelli, one of the authors of the software; his booth was right across the aisle.

Besides weird musical instruments, there were a number of other somewhat obscure but very exciting technological developments unveiled at NAMM that bear reporting. The smallest booth with the biggest crowd belonged to Celemony Software (www.celemony.com), a tiny three-month-old German company that was demoing an early-in-development voice-processing program called “Melodyne.” It looks very simple: You record a vocal (or solo instrumental) line into it and it shows up graphically on the screen, with vertical position as pitch, vertical width as volume and horizontal length as duration. So far, no big deal. But then the bearded gentleman doing the demo would grab a note and move it to another pitch, grab another note and change its duration and reverse the order of two other notes, and you'd swear the soprano re-recorded her solo with different sheet music — the algorithm they're using, whatever it is, is that good. For four days, the duo manning the booth played the same demo over and over, but the reaction they got was always, undoubtedly gratifying, the same: jaws dropped. It will be interesting to see how this evolves and what it will look like when it comes to market — not to mention how well it works on other program material.

On the other hand, the biggest company with the smallest booth was Apple Computer. They were in a little room with no chairs upstairs from the show floor, which you had to be told how to find (“turn right at the Pepsi machine”) or else you'd never make it. There, industry veteran Kord Taylor, now the company's music and audio market manager, was demonstrating a G4 hooked up to one of Yamaha's new mLAN8P audio/MIDI interfaces for IEEE-1394, also known as FireWire. The two companies have agreed to cooperate in implementing Yamaha's mLAN “media layer” extension to the Apple-invented 1394 standard, which could be a significant development for our industry: Hopefully, it means a much smoother path for implementation of FireWire — which has already had a tremendous impact on the video world — in music, audio and post-production tools.

Finally, one company was highly conspicuous in its absence from NAMM. Sonic Foundry, maker of products like Sound Forge, Acid and Vegas Pro, which have become standards for audio and video types who use Windows, and who, by any reasonable measure, should be considered highly successful, was supposed to be occupying a 600-square-foot booth in an extremely desirable location right by the entrance doors. Instead, there were just a few potted plants and empty chairs.

Three weeks before the show (i.e., the week before Christmas), the company announced it was cutting spending by $20 million, first by laying off 40% of its staff, and second by canceling its NAMM presence. In fact, according to the company's corporate communications manager, they will not be at any trade shows this year and, instead, will be “concentrating on developing new products.” No doubt the downturn in high-tech stocks last year had a lot to do with their problems, but still, for a company as well established as Sonic Foundry to have its stock lose 91% of its value in the past year was pretty astonishing. Some observers were saying that the company's costly acquisitions — of a streaming media company and a company that “repurposes content for international development” — were too far away from its core strengths, as well as too much for it financially. Let's hope the company survives this bout with economic distress: We've seen too many innovative music software companies bite the dust thanks to greed, recklessness, over-reaching or just plain stupidity.

Speaking of companies that didn't deserve to die, I've received quite a bit of mail regarding my little diatribe against Gibson's treatement of Opcode, all of it from folks, like me, who are trying to continue to use Opcode's software despite the lack of upgrades and support. Two excellent resources are the Vision Info Site, at www.fm-music.com/v/, and a discussion and support group at www.topica.com/lists/opcode-users.


Paul Lehrman is glad to be back home. Visit his home at www.paul-lehrman.com.






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