I finally cleared the snow away (well, it was warm and it rained all day yesterday so I had some help) and I put together my full NAMM show report for 2016. Visit the Trade Show Reports page to download it, or just jump right to it here. As usual, it’s a PDF that you can read at your leisure. By the way, some of the pictures are at fairly high resolution, so you can blow up the PDF page and see some details. All the links to the product web sites should be good, at least for a while.
Sunday is the best and worst day to visit the show. Best because it’s not as crowded as the other days, worst because, since there’s not much traffic at the booths, the booth staff takes the opportunity to wander around the show floor, leaving a skeleton crew who doesn’t know enough to answer technical questions. I wanted to have a look at the Tactus mixer control surface from Crest (not really new, but I wanted to add it to my control surface ramblings) but nobody there knew anything about it when I got to their room Sunday morning. Oh, well.
While many of the usual plug-in and software manufacturers had booth space in the main halls, this year NAMM devoted one of the upstairs rooms to software, with more than 20 exhibitors in a fairly quiet room. I don’t know enough about the products to learn much there, but I did chat with a couple of the exhibitors about how they liked having that dedicated space. They really liked it, but because it wasn’t all that well publicized, and was at the far end of hallway that spanned the full width of the convention center, a lot of attendees just didn’t make it up there. I only stumbled across it when looking for the Crest Tactus in the Peavey room next door.
Stevie Wonder is a regular visitor at NAMM shows, and this year, not once, but twice, I was overshadowed by The Wonder Experience. Once I had to wait to cross an aisle while his entorage was given the right of way with escorts from security. Not a big deal. But Sunday I wanted to stop back at the Waves booth to get a little quieter demo of the Waves NX, which, as far as I could tell, is a plug-in to simulate listening room environments. Focusrite had something like that a few years ago (there’s a review of it here) and I was curious as to what direction Waves was taking with it. Their blurb was about how you could have a high class mastering room in your headphones. Well, wouldn’t you know it – Just as I snagged someone to give me a demo, he looked around and said “Stevie Wonder is heading over here and I have to give him a tour.” Of course I couldn’t tag along.
I’ll get all this stuff organized into a real report next week. I live in the Washington DC area and I’m not coming home until Saturday. There’ll be plenty of snow to keep me indoors and working. My neighbor got someone to shovel out my walkway, but he didn’t realize that my car was in the garage about 150 feet back from the street. Oops!
Just as a reminder, I’ll be putting together a consolidated report with further details, pictures, and links. It’ll likely be up in a week or so after I get home and get the two feet of snow cleared out of my driveway, so check back again.
Radial Engineering can be counted on to come up with a new problem solver or three a few times a year, and this show was no exception. The Headlight and Headlight Pro route a single instrument input jack to one of four outputs. If you play several instruments on stage, all of which need to go through a DI and you want them on individual mixer channels so each channel can have the proper settings for that instrument, the simple solution is to have a separate DI for each instrument, but that makes for a lot of cable clutter on stage. The Headlight Pro allows you to unplug one instrument, plug in another, and, with a switch, assign the input to its proper console channel. Is this a good solution? I dunno. It puts a lot of responsibility on the player, who has to remember to mute the input so as not to send a blast of noise through the PA system, then has to remember to press the appropriate button for the instrument he’s plugged in lest he drive the house engineer nuts, then un-mute before he starts playing. The just plain Headlight might be a more useful solution, but for a different problem. This is for the electric guitarist who plays one guitar, but wants to switch it among four different amplifiers for different tone setups. It offers a single guitar input and four switchable outputs. It includes Radial’s Drag control to adjust the loading on the pickup.
The Radial JDX Direct Drive combines the JDX (Jensen transformer) DI input with an amplifier simulator (these appear to be frequency response shapers, not saturation simulation) for a Marshall half stack, a clean Fender Twin, and the standard JDX tone, along with a Bright switch.
TASCAM beefed up their line of digital recorders intended as companions to a DSLR camera with the new DR-701D. It’s functionally fairly close to last year’s DR-70D 4 channel recorder, but it adds HDMI sync, time code, a remote start/stop, and a solid magnesium case. Also new from TASCAM is a MADI I/O card for their 64 track capture recorder.
PreSonus introduced the CS18AI, which looks, from a few feet away, quite a bit like their StudioLive consoles, but it’s a control surface designed to be used with their RM32AI and RM16AI “mixer in a stage box” units. The actual mixing and signal processing is done at the RM end of an Ethernet cable via ABV protocol. The CS18AI + RM can stand alone and you’ll find everything you need in order to mix up to 64 channels, but it can be extended with PreSonus’ UC Surface control software for an iPad or Windows 10 touch screen for more visual information and touch control, as well as their Q-mix iOS personal monitor mix controller. The CS18AI offers 100 mm motorized, actual touch sensitive faders, two features that StudioLive users have been requesting for years. When combined with Studio One DAW software, it becomes a powerful and full featured hands-on multitrack recording and mixing workstation. There are a number of these control surfaces on the market today with many features in common, and each one having a few features that make it unique, one important one being close integration with other products from the manufacturer. We don’t really have a universal system yet, so mixing, say, a PreSonus controller with a Mackie mixer-in-a-stagebox is not likely to be a happy marriage yet, you need to pick your features carefully to come up with what’s the best choice for you. The good news is that while there’s arguably significant differences in how processing features sound, the basic sound quality issues like mic preamps, A/D/A converters, and performance specifications are pretty much no longer a significant reason to choose one system over another. This is a good thing, I believe, since it lets you look at functionality first an not worry that one brand might not sound as good as another.
While we’re on a control surface roll here, Avid showed their new Dock controller for Pro Tools. It was actually introduced at last Fall’s AES show but I didn’t get around to seeing it there. This is its first NAMM showing. It’s an iPad dock that features a single fader, a big jog/shuttle wheel, 8 soft knobs surrounding the docked tablet, 16 assignable soft keys, two programmable touch strips (one horizontal, one vertical), a set of buttons for automation control, and a EuCon monitor volume control.
Waves, famous for plug-ins, introduced their take on what I probably should start calling the “modular mixer.” The eMotion LV1 is a software mixer that interfaces with Waves’ own SoundGrid server and I/O modules. They were showing it with a pair of touch screens, one displaying faders, the other displaying channel functions and routing, but this is all customizable. The display can be as simple as a laptop computer running the software, or more complex as required.
Zynaptiq showed a new plug-in called UNMIX::DRUMS. The user interface is really simple, but it really works for doing what they claim. Basically, the big knob in the center is a volume control for the overall level of drums in a stereo mix. You can get pretty close to turning drums off, or boosting them unrealistically, but hopefully you have better taste than that. The other two knobs give you some control over the balance of instruments within the drum kit. It’s not simply another equalizer, but rather, one that looks at the instantaneous spectral content of the mix to identify the drums, and then operates on that in, what I suspect is in a similar manner that you’d do with a spectral editor such as Sony’s Spectral layers or the similar tool in iZotope RX. This seems like a really good tool for a mastering engineer to punch up certain types of mixes, or to tone down an overly enthusiastic drummer that the producer couldn’t tame.
Maybe more tomorrow.
I predicted that analog synthesizers would be alive and well, and by golly, I was right. So well, in fact, that most of the “analog village” was moved out of Hall E and on to the main show floor. The centerpiece was Moog’s large “Tropical Island” booth with a dizzying (both visually and aurally) array of modular and integrated synths, both purely analog and hybrid, as well as effect pedals and their delay and ladder filter 500-series studio processing modules.
Keeping with the retro theme, the Gizmo is back. In the 1980s, Paul Godley and Lol Crème of the band 10 cc (and later Godley & Crème) came up with the “gizmo,” a contraption that attached to an electric guitar near the bridge. Levers pressed motor-driven wheels against the strings, playing the guitar much like the strings were played with a violin bow. There was a short lived commercial version called the Gizmotron, and now 30 years later, a new and less haywire version is being manufactured. The Gizmotron 2.0 has a speed control for varying the attack and tone, and it’s powered through a USB cable (though there’s no data, just power) which can come from a computer if you have one on stage, or from an included wall wart. Construction appears to be quite robust though it’s not very heavy. It’s a nice design and an interesting effect – if you don’t overuse it.
The most retro of retros comes from Stratos Technology, a Japanese company, where they’re really into old computer games. Stratos Technology makes a line of circuit boards that adapt a Compact Flash or SD card to function as the storage device (mostly SCSI) used in obsolete computers and sound modules from years gone by. Need some fresh storage for your Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler or something with a Zip drive? This is the place to go.
Miking a harp, particularly for concert sound, is often difficult. As I was walking past the Dusty Strings booth, I was impressed by the harp sound coming from a small amplifier, so I stopped to see what sort of pickup arrangement they had for it. Indeed they sell a pickup kit which can either be pre-installed when you buy one of their harps or added to any harp that provides enough space to get inside. They have three different models for various sized instruments, employing three or four small piezoelectric pickup elements. It’s not something that you can slap on a harp when someone appears at your folk festival stage with one (I’ve used a C-Ducer for that in the past), but if you’re a harpist, or play in a band with one, you might give it a look. At $250-$400, they’re not cheap, but it’ll give you better sound with less trouble than having a typical stage mic pointed at the instrument. Another darn clever tool from Dusty Strings is a tuning wrench for a harp (they also have a version for a hammer dulcimer) with a digital tuner attached.
Tone Dexter from Audio Sprockets is a new preamp and processor for piezo pickups. This would get a yawn from me except that the design and operating principle is really interesting, and it really works – at least with the guitar they had in the booth. In addition to a jack for the pickup, there’s an XLR connector with phantom power available. This is for a microphone. The way you use it is to connect a mic that’s capable of getting the sound you’re looking for out of the instrument, position it correctly, put the unit in a learning mode, and play for a minute or so. After capturing the sound of the mic and the pickup, an algorithm looks for differences between the two sounds and derives a correction for the pickup that makes it sound like the mic. You can store the result as a preset (there are several slots available for different guitars and/or different miked sounds) so if you play several instruments on stage, selecting the proper correction is simple. There’s a three band equalizer for fine adjustments, and a “focus” control that reduces some of the ambient sound picked up by the mic that goes into the correction algorithm if you want a more close-up sound. That it can do this suggests that the process isn’t simply one of deriving an EQ curve to take the quack out of the pickup, but that it involves processing in the time domain as well. But of course the detailed workings are under cover.
Our friends at Neat Microphones (a Gibson brand) are continuing in their quest to make some of the most visually distinctive but practical you’ll find today, Last year they introduced the “Bee” series of condenser mics with cases striped yellow and black like the body of a bumblebee. New this year are a couple of tabletop mics characterized by their somewhat unconventional shapes and built-in stands (or, should I say, stands with built-in mics. The Widget series presently consists of three models sharing the same stand assembly with one being optimized for voice (podcasting or Skype, for example), one for general purpose work (this is a ball-styled case), and one more musician-oriented with a case that looks like a table lamp. Ya gotta see ‘em.
Switcheroo from Idea Bench is a foot controller for effect pedal routing and switching. It does the typical routing thing of interconnecting groups of pedals in preset series configurations. What it does different from most is that the connectors for the pedals is in a separate chassis from the foot pedal controller unit. The idea here is to clean up the floor – you can place the “stage box” near the pedals, connect their outputs and inputs with short cables, and have just a single control cable going to the controller.
Manley Labs introduced two new lower cost signal processors. The names and functions will be familiar to anyone who knows Manley gear, as will be the sound, but modern components and construction techniques make them less expensive to build, as well as giving the company a shot at making subtle changes in how they sound to be more fitting for contemporary music production. The ELOP+ is an updated stereo electro-optical limiter/compressor with an all-tube audio path. While the original ELOP was a limiter, the + adds a fixed 3:1 ratio compressor, a popular technique for what’s become termed “bus compression.” Classic knobs, nice new VU meters. The NU MU is an update to the classic Manley Variable Mu compressor. It still uses transformers on the input and output and 6BA6 tubes. A new addition is the HIP control that apparently changes the shape of the gain versus level curve that brings in compression at a lower level but retains more high level dynamics. The effect (though I really couldn’t hear it on headphones there on the show floor) is to bring up lower level program material without squashing the high level dynamics in the process. The panel is substantially redesigned with very cool meters with their pivot points to the left and right rather than at the bottom, making it easy to see how the two channels are tracking.
Stay tuned Day 3 is coming up.
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.
For several years, NAMM has held a preview day where a relatively small number of manufacturers display their new wares for the media. This year, the small space set aside for this event was jam packed, with many of the major music web sites there with camera crews, so you’ve probably already seen videos of several new gadgets. In addition, manufacturers are holding press conferences a day before the show, so everyone can get the news before anyone else. Here are some tidbits, with more details to follow over the next few days.
DiGiGrid, a dedicated networked plug-in host plus signal router that’s getting a lot of attention in the live sound field is now hosting plug-ins from a few companies other than Waves, their original partner. They’ve also introduced a series of small boxes that use the DiGiGrid Ethernet protocol, but rather than hosting plug-ins, extend the network to handy little gadgets. There’s a headphone amplifier (there were a couple of those at the recent AES show that used the Dante protocol), a two small recording interfaces, one with 2 inputs and 2 outputs, the other with 4 inputs and 6 outputs, and a PoE switch.
Allen & Heath, following in the steps of a the shrinking breed of analog mixer manufacturers, added several new downsized versions of their ZED series, from 2 up to 8 inputs, with or without effects. They also have a new color scheme.
Last year I reported a flood of Eurorack format analog synthesizer modules. This year I’m sure there will be many more. Roland has a couple of new ones as well as a portable 4-module rack and a complete package of their 500-series (that’s Roland’s 500 series analog synth modules, not the audio “500 series” modules). Roland also introduced a line of accessories, mostly cables. Also interesting is a set of ear-worn binaural microphones designed primarily to be used with a head-worn GoPro video camera. 40 years ago, collecting village folk music in Eastern Europe with head-worn binaural mics produced a series of well respected records. Maybe it’s time to re-visit that project.
HK Audio introduced the Lucas Nano 608i compact PA system, a bass speaker, a mid-high speaker on a pole projecting from it, and a small mixer. The shtick is that the mixer has hardware controls, but it’s also controllable via Bluetooth from an iPad app. It’s about the right size for a soloist or duo, but not a full band.
The Vinylrecorder T580 is actually a family of vinyl (not lacquer) disk cutting products, starting with a stereo cutter head and lathe, RIAA equalizer, groove pitch (spacing between grooves) controller, heated diamond stylus, vacuum chip remover, and vinyl blanks from 7 to 14 inches in diameter, including a thin flexible one like the EvaTone Soundsheets. It’s not cheap, about $3600 for the starter kit, and you have to provide the turntable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few independent mastering engineers and small batch replicators picking up on it to offer custom vinyl phonograph records within the next couple of years if the vinyl craze keeps up.
Happy New Year, folks. I’ve had this interesting book festering on the coffee table for a few months now, picking it up and reading a chapter now and then, and saying to myself, “Self (me, not the book’s author) make sure you get a review of this book out before the end of the year. Well, I wanted to make sure I got it out before the end of this year.
Self on Audio is a collection of articles on the design of small signal and power amplifiers written by designer Douglas Self. The articles are well written, well illustrated where appropriate, and give the reader both technical information about how things work, but equally important, how a designer approaches making a circuit that does what he wants it to do. The bonus material in this book is an extensive preface to each article that provides background on why the author designed it the way he did, and how he improved a common device like a phono preamp or power amplifier.
You can read my full review here.
It’s a little late for a stocking stuffer, but if you’re interested in solid state audio design, and maybe want a couple of DIY projects, you might want to put that Amazon gift card you got for Christmas to work.