My usual plan for Day 1 of the show is to start out in Hall E. Traditionally this is where they put the new exhibitors, and after they’ve survived for a few years (many don’t), they “graduate” to one of the upstairs halls. These days, while there are still plenty of wacky new music making stuff, Hall E has also become home for some of the smaller instrument makers (both small production and small instruments like ukes and hand percussion), as well as machine tools like laser cutters and automated milling machines.
My Hall E tour was cut short on Thursday because there was just so many loud guitars demonstrating pedals and other processors that I needed to move on quickly. While I was there, I had a good look at a device that was designed to work in just such an environment, the Soundbrenner Pulse. It’s a wearable metronome that both blinks and vibrates in rhythm. It can operate as a stand-alone device, but it really gets up and dances when connected via Bluetooth Smart (yeah, you might have to wait until it’s time to update your phone) to an iOS or Android device. With the app, you can select from a list of time signatures that reads like an ad for a set of socket wrenches, set accents, construct a set list with rhythms and tempos, and synchronize up to ten metronomes so everyone in the band can get the beat. Though at this point I’m unsure of the hookup, it integrates with Pro Tools, Abelton Live, and Logic Pro X to take tempo information from a project file while you play along. Power is from an internal battery (4-5 hours estimated running time), rechargeable through a mini USB connector.
While seeking shelter from the raucous guitars in Hall E I got a phone call from an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years, I went upstairs to meet him, and we ended up hanging out together for a couple of hours, mostly looking at speakers for his band’s PA system. Once I was upstairs, that’s where I stayed for the rest of the day. I’ll get back to Hall E another day.
However, before the Hall E tour, my day started with a press conference where Mackie introduced the DC16, a new mixing control surface which, when combined with their DL32R 32 channel in-and-out “mixer in a stage box,” becomes the Axis Digital Mixing System. Mackie’s 25+ years of experience in building mixers carries through in this system, with the goal of providing a lot of the visual feedback that gets lost when consoles went from analog to digital design, and knobs and indicators disappeared until you brought them to the display surface. While I think it can be operated “barefoot,” a tray at the back edge of the top surface accommodates up to three iPad tablets with some clever smarts. The one in the center is the primary one and it can be selected to display any of the various sets of screens available. The other tablets can be used as sticky displays for things that you want to see or control without pressing any extra buttons. A particularly cool feature is that, since a tablet can be removed from the console, for example, to walk up to the stage and adjust monitors, it remembers what it was doing when docked at the console, and automatically reverts to that function when put back where it came from. This one will probably hit the stores before Summer.
Mackie also introduced a couple of tiny desktop mixers designed for the soloist or duo. Front panel control is limited to selecting an input and adjusting its volume. The guts include EQ and dynamics on each channel, plus an effect processor and a graphic equalizer on the outputs, all controlled from and iOS or Android portable device. In addition to the analog inputs, the mixer will also take an input stream via Bluetooth for playing backing tracks from the tablet controller. Speakers have been a big part of Mackie’s for the past dozen years or so, and this year they introduced a new subwoofer designed to be a companion to their long standing SRM350 and SRM450 full range speakers. Although it’s been around for a while and has had several reviews already, this was their first showing of their Reach portable PA speaker/mixer which offers a pair of built-in rear/side firing speakers which serve as on-stage monitors.
Neutrik is the first name (or maybe second if you’re a Switchcraft fan) in audio connectors, and this year they surprised us with a different form of connector, a wireless one, with the introduction of their Xirium Pro system. The system consists of a transmitter and a receiver that caries two channels of full bandwidth audio with no companding via a 5 GHz RF channel. Each transmitter and receiver can be mated with one of three I/O modules, – line level analog on XLRs, AES/EBU 24-bit 48 kHz (XLR) and Dante (Neutrik EtherCon locking RJ45). In addition, the receiver can take a fourth module that converts it to a repeater for extended distances. Setup and status monitoring is done via WiFi with an iOS application.
Sonoma Wire Works introduced a hardware family of interfaces, connecting various music sources to a computer via Lightning. A USB OTG cable is included so that Android owners with newer devices with the Samsung Audio Technology firmware. The first out of the gate (and actually available now) is the Guitar JStage, a guitar interface in a 4-switch foot pedal format with a variety of built-in effects and knobs for hands-on control, with further control and editing via an app. Other family members coming later this year are the Studio Jack (2 mic/line inputs), Guitar Jack Mini and Studio Jack Mini.
Miktek started out a few years ago with a couple of studio grade sub-$1K mics that got a good reputation pretty quickly. Like so many of the newer companies, they’ve been expanding in the downward connection, and now have a couple of inexpensive USB mics. One that caught my eye at this show was the ProCast SST. This is an integrated microphone, mixer, and USB interface aimed directly at the podcaster with a nod to the tabletop musician. What puts it in a different category from the many USB mics with a monitor output and possibly a secondary input is its base. It’s heavily weighted and the microphone is mounted on an articulated swing arm very much like what you see in practically any photograph of a radio broadcast studio. The base has three sliders for level control of the mic, an external mic/line/instrument input, and a monitor mix blending the source with playback through the USB port. There’s an LED level meter, phantom power for the external mic, and even a mic mute switch (the “belch button”). The inputs are hard-assigned left and right in the stereo digital stream, with a Mono button to put a single source in the center of the headphone mix if you’re recording a single source. I came away really impressed with the design, though I wish it was a little more of a mixer. While you can record a stereo instrument with the inputs provided, you can’t record a stereo instrument along with a vocal. If there were two line level inputs, even if their levels were controlled with a single ganged slider, it would be possible to record a vocal with stereo accompaniment, or, more important in a broadcast-like situation, have a stereo source such as a CD player connected and quickly move from speaking to playing music.
Shure introduced a new dynamic mic, the KSM8 Dualdyne. Its significant feature is that it has a cardioid pattern, but with substantially less proximity effect than the typical cardioid. They do this with what they call a dual diaphragm design., there’s only one diaphragm that actually has a voice coil, the other is more like a baffle that’s in the acoustical path to the rear of the active diaphragm. It’s similar in concept, though different in execution, to the E-V Variable D mics such as the RE-20. Shure sees applications both on stage and for broadcast.
A curiously named product from Belcat Co. Ltd (China) is the Bluetooth Cable. The company makes a line of instrument preamps, effects, small amplifiers, and accessories. Now I thought that the reason why we have Bluetooth was to get rid of the cable. Well, what this really is, is a Bluetooth receiver with a mic input and mixer, and an analog output. It’s designed for singing along with music streamed via Bluetooth.
In the smoke-and-mirrors department, Morrow Audio cables is yet another company that has found the secret to making a better sounding cable. Their blurb is that with stranded wire, the signal is caused to “jump from strand to strand instead of flowing through a continuum.” Morrow uses only solid wire, though some of their cables use multiple strands of insulated wire for high current applications such as speakers. They are also heavily shielded to minimize RFI and use a small diameter conductor for low shield to conductor capacitance. Good design principles, but no magic here.
A lot of the booths have famous artists dropping by to sign autographs and maybe talk or play a bit, and particularly on weekends, aisled are severely clogged with people standing on line to get their autograph or selfie photo. This is my 28th or maybe 29th Winter NAMM show (plus a few Summer shows), and for the first time ever, I stood in line to meet an artist. Engineer, producer, and writer Sylvia Massey has a new book coming soon from Hal Leonard Publishing, and she was there to talk about some of her experiences and give some hints as to what we’ll find in the book entitled Recording Unhinged. It promises to be a collection of stories from Sylvia herself as well as a number of her industry friends, together with some do-it-yourself tips and techniques that she’s used to capture sounds and solve problems. Having read a fascinating series of articles she wrote in Mix Magazine several years back I just had to meet her. She’s a delightful person and I expect that the book will be both a useful and entertaining read.