Later than usual, here’s this year’s Winter NAMM show report. More details than in the daily tidbits, pictures, links, snarky remarks. The usual disclaimer – I write about what I personally find interesting. There was a lot more at the show than I’ve reported here.
Well, either they got the security setup under control or my strategy of getting there at a bit after 10 AM (doors open at 9:30) worked and the line to enter the building was only about a minute long, plus I didn’t see the long waiting lines at the doors during the day that I saw on the first day. That’s a good thing. I’m enjoying the new North addition to the Anaheim Convention Center – it’s nearly all audio products and the only times where there’s too much noise pollution is when there’s a band playing at a booth – much better when you wanted to listen to a compressor and there were three drummers 20 feet away.
Looptrotter is a new company name to me. They were showing a line of signal processors all of which feature “analog character” and distortion of various forms, saturation being their featured tool. They have a monsterous looking compressor appropriately named Monster, as well as an an assortment of 1- and 2-rack space and 500-series modules most of which have “satur….” in their names. I get the drift. But what I found particularly interesting was that they make a fully modular console that takes two 500-series modules in each channel strip, plus some other 500-size spaces, kind of like a more expandable version of the API Box. There must be a saturator in there somewhere.
Retro Instruments showed a new 2-channel compressor, the Revolver, based on the EMI-modified Altec 436 used during the period when The Beatles were making records at Abby Road. Revolver … Revolution – get it?
Waves Distribution always brings a wide range of small audio companies to the show (they’ve been the hone of the Distressor since its inception) and new this show was a pair of preamps from Useful Arts Audio. They showed what’s essentially the same tube amplifier circuitry in two different configurations, in the studio as a two-channel mic preamp and on stage as a direct box. The direct box offers a 20 megohm input impedance and has a simple high and low band equalizer. The studio preamp adds a “Color” control in the output section which appears to adjust the drive to a triode stage which isn’t there for the gain (it adds about 10 dB when cranked up fully), but rather, specifically to add 2nd harmonic distortion. It’s remarkably effective, and brings to mind the early Aphex Aural Exciter which creates 2nd (and higher even order harmonics) and, in its day, was used on nearly every pop music record that reached the charts.
Audio Fusion showed what appears to be a well thought out multi-channel personal monitoring system that uses a mobile device running their app on the listener end and an interface. You have to start with something to bring multi-channel audio into the computer – this can be an audio interface in the studio or a digital console with direct outputs from the channels. The computer sends a multi-channel stream to the connected mobile devices using a WiFi router. Each user can set up his own monitor mix, and the engineer (if there is one) can take over from the computer if they get in trouble. Expected computer features like naming channels and storing mixes, as well as locking things that you don’t want the talent fooling with are incorporated in several clean looking graphic screens. While there are several digital consoles on the market today that incorporate individual personal monitoring, what Audio Fusion offers is the opportunity to bring this capability to other setups.
Bose must be one of the most bashed companies in pro audio circles, but they’re coming around. What caught my eye at their booth, though, wasn’t a speaker system, but rather an educational package called BOSEbuild. Their first product in this line is, as expected, a speaker, but it comes as a bunch of individual components starting with a magnet and a voice coil, and with the help of an iPad, the user is guided through the principles of electromagnetism, how we hear, frequencies and amplitude, resonances and such, assembling components which, when finished, make a fully functional Bluetooth loudspeaker. It can be self-guided, parent-guided, or they have a classroom kit with a teaching curriculum. If you have a kid in the 8 to maybe 14 year old range who has an interest in music and science, this would make a good gift.
Lastly, Zoom has a couple of new small recorders. Their simplest H1 handleld recorder has been updated to the H1n. It’s menu-free with clearly and sensibly labeled buttons of the front panel. It records 24-bit resolution up to 96 kHz sample rate to a micro SD memory card. The F1 is pretty much the same guts in a different package, one in a belt-clip configuration and supplied with with a lavalier mic, the other in a camera mountable configuration and equipped with a a shock mount and their SGH-6 shotgun mic which can be interchanged with other mics for their H5 and H6 recorders. Also new from Zoom is the Livetrak L-12, a 12-channel mixer that can record up to 12 discrete channels plus a stereo mix. It’s like a grown-up TASCAM Portastudio with effects and 5 sub-mixes for individual headphone mixes.
Off to the races for a catch-up day.
Lines to get in the building are longer than ever – where are all these people coming from? It was a good day for chatting but not much new information gathered. But it’s a NAMM show.
The Focusrite Scarlett range is pretty good, but I’ve been pestering them for a couple of years to bring out a 4-input USB audio interface with their higher grade mic preamps like what they’re using in the Thunderbolt-only Claretts, and finally at this show they introduced the Clarett USB line of three interfaces with 2, 4, and 8 mic/line inputs with two switchable for instrument DI. All have ADAT optical input for an additional 8 channels outboard, and there’s an assorted number of outputs. The smaller two are desktop boxes, the large one is a single-space rack mount unit. They weren’t connected to anything (they’re still pushing the Focusrite PRO brand) so I couldn’t see any lights, but the two desktop units didn’t appear to have any metering, not even a clip light or an LED band around the input gain knobs. I’ll try harder before the show is over to find someone who knows for sure.
Maybe patchbays are really coming back, at least to those who can afford this necessary luxury. Flock Audio was showing what’s called a routing switcher in the video and telecommunications business – they call it a digitally controlled patchbay. All of the actual signal flow is through hardware relays, but the input-to-output routing is digitally controlled over USB by a computer application. There are 8 DB-25 TASCAM-wired connectors on the rear panel for 32 inputs and 32 outputs, plus two XLR-1/4″ combo connectors on the front panel to accommodate a couple of visitors. The box also has a 48v phantom power supply so it can be used for microphones as well as line level signals.
Universal Audio was showing their new Arrow desktop audio interface, a scaled down version of their Apollo series with 2 mic/line/instrument inputs, stereo line and headphone outputs, and a UAD 2 DSP engine for running Universal’s plug-ins and Unison mic preamp and amplifier modeling technology. With the same guts (converters and analog circuitry) as their flagship line, this looks like a good upgrade for someone who doesn’t need a lot of inputs but can take advantage of top quality audio. Also new from UA this show is the OX, which they describe as a complete amplifier recording system. There’s a lot of details that I don’t quite have sorted out yet, but it works in conjunction with your amplifier so you don’t lose what you have. It simulates a speaker load to the amplifier so you don’t need to wake up the neighborhood to get the tone you want (there’s a warning label telling you that it gets hot), but also provides a wide range of modeling that’s heavy on speakers and cabinets. They seem particularly proud of their modeling of speaker breakup.
It’s nice to see that recording consoles are still around. Sound Techniques had a 16 foot (measurement not guaranteed) all new re-creation of Trident Studios’ original Sound Techniques console from which the more famous A range was derived. This is one of two that they’ve built so far. Maybe someone else will want one. It looks really classic, even to the inclusion of one bank of the original curved faders (think theater light dimmers) that they built from scratch. Lovely work and I’m sure it sounds as grand as it looks.
Time to go off to the TSA-level entry security scanning to see if I can get into the building for another day of looking for neat stuff. Trust me – airports handle it much better, but then they aren’t dealing with 100,000+ people all trying to catch a 10:00 AM flight.
As has been my custom for a good many years, I started my show tour in Hall E. Traditionally, this has been where they put new exhibitors (both new to the show and new to the business). It’s where you see some really cool stuff as well as really wacky ideas. Some return next year, and after a few years in purgatory (well, it IS in the lower floor) move upstairs. Some find their home in Hall E and stay there years after year rather than move where their regular visitors would have to find them. Others are never seen again. It was a little different this year. With the new exhibit halls, a number of audio companies moved over there, making room for some of the Hall E regulars upstairs, and there was more unoccupied booth space there than in the past. Probably a third of the exhibitors were large Asian companies showing small mixers, power amplifiers, speakers, music accessories (stands, picks, cables, jewelry) and of course microphones. There was nothing particularly interesting to me there, but it’s a clear indication that their products have matured and they’re waiting for someone else to innovate. The brands are the ones you see (new) in pawn shops and mom-and-pop local music stores.
The most innovative and interesting product I saw on my first day at the show came from France, the HyVibe guitar. The showed a dreadnaught size flat top acoustic guitar with effects! There’s a piezoelectric pickup under the bridge, a circuit board mounted inside the body, a control panel on the side, and a group of transducers attached to the underside of the sound board. Reverb, delay, and chorus effects are applied to the signal from the piezo pickup, then fed to the transducers which, by golly, make it sound like a guitar played through an effect processor. But wait! There’s more! It contains a Bluetooth receiver so you can send it a backing track from a mobile device and it plays out of the guitar. You’d think it would sound horrid -I did until I heard it. The trick is that they calibrate the system (which includes the guitar top) and create a DSP equalizer and phase correction so that it’s actually pretty decent. At present, you have to get it with your guitar, but they expect to eventually release a version that can be installed on your favorite guitar.
Another clever electric guitar gadget is the VSquared Tremolo. It’s a replacement piece for a vibrato tailpiece that they showed on their custom version of a Telecaster. It incorporates a magnetic rotation sensor attached to the inboard end of the whammy bar shaft. There’s also a replacement for the guitar’s volume control that incorporates a push-pull switch. Pull out the volume knob and pivoting the whammy bar controls the volume. It’s an alternative to the often practiced “finger swell” technique.
Cable Porter is a new and clever clip for coiling and storing cables. If you use the over-and-under technique for coiling your cables to avoid twisting, you’ve probably unwound the cable the wrong way more than once, ending with a string of knots. The Cable Porter helps to avoid this by guiding each wind of the coil into a slot so that when you uncoil it from the Porter, the cable pays out in an organized manner. It sounds more complicated than it is, but you might find that it makes your setups go smoother if you don’t have to un-do knotty cables.
I left Hall E for a press conference in the new section and, given the distance and hassles involved, spent the afternoon over there.
We have two (so far) new old microphones coming. Sennheiser is re-introducing the Neumann U67, built from original parts and to the original design and manufacturing specifications. I point out that most of us working in recording today have never heard a new U67, and the sound that we associate with it is the sound of one with 40 or more years of use. Will a brand new one deliver the U67 sound to which those lucky enough to have or have access to one have been accustomed? That remains to be seen.
The Sony C37 is one of Joe Chiccarelli’s favorite mics. He went looking for someone to build them again (Sony won’t, for sure) and ended up working with Brent Casey of PMI Audio, the chief cook and bottle washer behind the Studio Projects mics. It will be coming out under the Tonelux brand.
Cranborne Audio showed an expanded 500-series 8-space rack that incorporates an 8-channel mixer below the modules with the sensible layout of knobs directly below their associated module. There are a couple of configurations of the mixer connectivity that I’ll follow up with in my full report.
Software developer Sonnox has a reputation for unique processing plug-ins that are fairly complex and pricey. They’re introducing a new line they call Toolbox, which is a lower cost collection of simple tools. Their first one is the Doubler designed primarily for vocals. It has two modules, Thicken and Width, with simple controls that don’t require a lot of fiddling around to get a usable sound.
Signal Flow is an Android and iOS app for managing stage hookups. It allows you to create a stage diagram and make cable lists (lead vocal plugs into channel 1, etc) including sub-snakes. It involves cloud storage which might turn you off, but if you’re not paranoid about it, I think it could be useful. The advantage of “the cloud” is that it’s easy to share. If you’re the engineer in a club, you can have the band send you a stage plot with their requirements and you can use that to plan ahead for the gig. I’m looking forward to seeing if I can get some use out of it when folk festival season comes around this summer. The basic version is free – you get 16 channels and two “shares,” and you can add more routing and more users for a pretty reasonable monthly fee.
Well, it’s time for Day 2
There’ll be a full report eventually, but as has been my custom, I’ll be dropping little tidbits here daily. If I mention something that you’d like to learn more about, drop me a note before the show is over on Sunday 1/28 and I’ll see if I can dig up more info for you.
The new section of the Anaheim Convention Center that they’ve been building for the past few years is now open and NAMM has moved as many of the audio hardware and software exhibitors as they could into the new section, so things will be in different places this time around. Hopefully I’ll find everyone I’m looking for.
As a pre-pre-show event, I had a visit with the newly opened Harman Experience. Given that this is Disneyland country, Harman re-purposed a large chunk of former manufacturing space to showcase their products and capabilities and show that, under the Samsung umbrella, how many more services they can offer by integrating Samsung’s background in high end video display as well as home products with the pro audio products that we know. The facility has several “showrooms” illustrating such things as applications in retail merchandising, hotel rooms and restaurants, as well as large, small, music, theater, sound and lighting. Given that this was a NAMM tour, the focus was on their ability to quickly set up just about any speaker, mixing, and lighting situation ranging from a small club to an arena, and with the engineers and product specialists right there, get into details that you can’t get from a dealer. If you’re heard rumors (social media can piss on any good idea) that Harman is pulling out of trade shows and replacing them with their in-house facility, that’s not correct. They’ll be at NAMM and other related shows, but they won’t be hauling out as much gear. Anyone is welcome to visit the Experience just for a tour, and when you’re ready to plan for a new sound and/or lighting system, they’re available for any level of support you need.
Since I asked, I got an extra tour of their engineering and test labs at the facility. They don’t build any retail products there any longer but have a well equipped prototype shop, a couple of anechoic chambers, shock and vibration test setup, and a torture chamber where they run speakers and power amplifiers under test at full power plus for extended periods of time. Cool stuff.
I just had a quick run through the NAMM preview and got a look at the new Auto-Tune Pro with ARA integration. If you’re not familiar with that acronym, it’s a software protocol that was initially developed to integrate Melodyne with PreSonus Studio One, allowing it to do its analysis “live” without an additional step before it does its thing. It will speed up work with Auto-tune, too – hopefully for the good of the music. Interestingly, the new Auto-Tune includes a mode that makes it sound like the old Auto-Tune that has found a home in certain kinds of music.
IK Multimedia the iRig I/O, a new foot controller that integrates their Amplitube effect and amplifier modeling with real time feet–on control. It can integrate with a computer via USB for the studio guitarist, and it includes a shelf to plug in an iPad for a lovely graphic user interface for stage work.
Bittree has been making professional patchbays for years and is trying to break into the small studio market with a new 48-jack (if I remember correctly) panel with DB-25 connectors on the rear. It’s sized to fit on top of one of the common sizes of 500-series racks, and has optional ears to extend the width for rack mounting. It’s not cheap, about $600, but I’m a firm believer that every studio should have a patchbay.
It’s pretty darn cold here in the mornings. Hotel prices have nearly doubled over last year during the show, so this year I tried an experiment and tried an Air B’n’B. The room is nice, but the only heat is a space heater in the bedroom and I’m typing this in the living room with my coat on. I’m getting too old for this.
Well, off to Hall E, which is still Hall E. More tomorrow.
Less Wow, more Whoa!
Samson is about as close as it gets to studio gear at CES. Their products fall in low price range and performance is usually better than you’d expect for the cost. Most are oriented toward podcasting or live performance, and their new introduction this year is the G-Track Pro USB microphone which includes a playback interface with a volume control and a switch for direct input monitoring. It’s quite a hefty piece, on a sturdy desk stand, with an optional shock mount available for stand mounting. Unusual for its application is that it’s a three-pattern condenser mic, suggesting that it would be good for across-the-mic interviews when switched to the Figure-8 pattern. It also has a line/instrument input on a 1/4″ jack which becomes active when the mic is switched from mono to stereo (you get the mic on one channel and external input on the other).
Audio Control had a large exhibit in the car audio section of the show. They’re one of the original crop of Seattle area audio companies (Greg Mackie worked for them before starting his own company), and here they were showing their large line of in-car amplifiers and equalizers, as well as the latest generation of one of their origianl products, an audio spectrum analyzer for the test bench. They introduced (but it wasn’t working yet) a new spectrum analyzer that’s just the guts, using a computer or smart phone as the display and control panel. It’s a hand-sized box that connects through USB or Lightning, has mic and line inputs, and doubles as an oscilloscope. It’ll be priced at under $200, available later this year.
Most intelligent reports of this year’s CES will lead you to the conclusion that the cart is well ahead of the horse and we’re seeing solutions to problems we don’t have (and they’re, of course trying to convince us that we DO have those problems). One example is the Iron Guardian Mini, an absolutely gorgeous in-car charger for your phone. Everybody needs one of those, but this one is “smart” and can help you find your parked car, call for roadside assistance in case of a breakdown, share the location of your car with friends and family, alert you when your parking meter is about to run out of time, and light up in fascinating, moving colors. Last but certainly not least, it has a heavy steel base (the part that plugs into the power socket in the car) with a hardened point that can be used to break a window if you need to get out of the car. Except for that last feature, however, it depends on being connected with a smart phone and the Internet. Now, can’t you do all of those things with your phone if you wanted to? I can.
While it has nothing to do with studio gear except buying it, I thought that the Dynamics Inc smart payment card was a really cool idea. It’s the size and shape of a credit card and includes a smart chip. Once they get enough banks and credit card companies on board, you’ll be able to load it with all of your acounts and use the same card for all of them. It has a little LCD on it and a couple of touch-buttons to select the card you want to use. Of all the useless things I saw so far, this seems like it might be the most useful.
I had a short ride (around a parking lot) in a driverless car and learned a good bit about all of the things that go into the Hitachi system. It wasn’t a very exciting ride, but the car was able to maneuver itself into a fairly tight simulated garage, back out, pick us up at the end of the simulated driveway, and take us to a simulated parking structure where it found itself a parking space after we got out. I’ll take one.
Connected. Robotic. Virtual Reality. And a few practical things.
Handheld digital recorders were popping up like weeds when it was a fresh idea, but things have been pretty much dead in the past couple of years. Roland broke the silence with their new R-07, a cigarette pack sized stereo digital recorder that’s quite feature-packed. In addition to the on-board controls, it can be remotely-controlled over Bluetooth with a dedicated app. According to the rep, you can also monitor in real time through the app. It offers the dual-recording feature of optionally recording secondary track 10 dB or so lower than the set level to provide a backup if something gets too loud and clips before you can take care of it. Further, it uses the secondary track as a limiter – when it detects a clip, it replaces the primary track with the secondary track normalized to full scale. I first saw this from Sony, then TASCAM adopted it, and now Roland – most transparent limiter ever.
The Hyper range from Sanho Corp is a comprehensive line of support products for the USB-C interface. They offer several hubs, video adapters to Display Port or HDMI, charging stands and a combination battery pack and hub.
I reported last year that Rane had been resurrected, and they were here at CES this year, along with their partner company, Denon. Rane is mostly concentrating in the installed sound and commercial market, and this year showed a multi-channel processing box that’s software based and computer-controlled. It’s similar to the Peavey Matrix system of a dozen or so years ago in that you can construct and adjust a processing chain by dragging and dropping processors on a screen. Denon has a batch of single rack space audio players with assorted combinations of input sources – CD, USB, memory card, Bluetooth, etc.
In what I call Cosmetic Audio, the Victrola line from Innovative Technology has a large collection of vintage-styled phonograph players, all of which play records, some include a radio, CD player, file player, Bluetooth receiver, etc. Some even have a trumpet or morning glory horn. They also have some decent looking mid-priced turntables that look like turntables.
I didn’t make it to the robots section yet, but it seems that there are a lot of robots to entertain little kids and older folks who can use a companion. There’s a huge wave of integrating smart voice control with things that, just a few years ago, achieved some level of intelligence and connectivity. But along with this, there seems to be a bit of common sense, with people not being too sure if they want all that information about what they do in their private lives to be access to distribution beyond what they’re talking to.