NAMM, which is short for the National Association of Music Merchants, is an organization that holds an annual conference in Anaheim, California every January. Just like E3 is for the gaming industry or CES is for gadget geeks, the NAMM conference is a chance for the major players in the business to get together and show off what they've been working on for the past year (or more in many cases).
There are many reasons for musicians and producers alike to get excited for it as well. Producers who like to stay current with the latest and greatest gear trends likely spend the weeks preceding NAMM glued to Twitter or blogs to see what's new. Those who might be preparing for a big studio purchase are wise to wait until the NAMM announcements have all been made public to see what options are going to be newly available in the coming months. And if you've been out of the loop for a while, NAMM can be a great place to get a feel for the current pulse in music technology.
After tracking NAMMs gone by from the comfort of my own home for the past few years, I finally made the jump this year and traveled to the west coast to see the spectacle in person. From the crowded and very noisy floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, I sifted through countless demos in order to filter out the most interesting of what I saw and reported back. So without further ado, here's what to get excited about in 2012.
There were quite a few notable synths shown off at NAMM this year. Among these, some like John Bowen's Solaris have been seen before, but are finally on the verge of getting a solid release date. Others, like Stefan Schmidt's epic handmade analog synth remain a thing of beauty but still out of the reach of reality. To me, though, the most interesting of NAMM's synth announcements came from three gear makers who each unveiled new analog hardware synths that look like they will fall comfortably in the range of affordability for those who are in the market.
Moog was first out of the gates with a pre-NAMM announcement that they would be releasing a desktop format version of their legendary Taurus bass pedals. The Minitaur's small 8.5" x 5.25" size and one-knob-per-function interface will make it a big hit for people who want the Moog two-oscillator bass sound at its most affordable price yet, and don't need all of the controls of the Voyager or Phatty lines. Moog reports that the Minitaur will be available in the spring for $679.
There must have been some subconscious alignment in the Arturia and Moog marketing departments, with Arturia delivering a mini-themed analog synth as well. The MINIBrute is a surprising addition to Arturia's product line, which up until this year has been concentrated mostly on software instruments, with the only hardware existing in a support role. This new announcement changes all that though—the MINIBrute is a 100% analog keyboard with a full panel of hands-on control. Additionally, Arturia have developed some interesting new synthesis parameters with names like Metalizer, Ultrasaw and Brute Factor. With that feature set, the announced price point of $549 is pretty amazing; it's safe to say the MINIBrute will be showing up everywhere once it's released in April.
Waldorf Pulse 2
Waldorf was also at NAMM this year with a new addition to their lineup, a re-release of the legendary Pulse synth that had its heyday in the late '90s. The Pulse 2 retains the three-oscillator architecture of the original, adds some new features like paraphonic mode and an arpeggiator, and stuffs all of that into a smaller form that looks to be identical to their Blofeld digital synth. This appears to be the most feature-rich option of the three new analog synthesizers, with an extensive modulation matrix and preset storage. Unfortunately, the prototype at NAMM this year was not working, so we didn't get to hear how it sounds, but it will be reportedly available this summer for 549 euros.
There is always a ton of expensive boutique recording devices among the new releases at NAMM, and this year was no different. Among the usual suspects though, there were a pair of standouts that appeared to provide more utility than just audiophile-grade sparkle.
RME Fireface UCX
The RME booth had a few new interesting options in the higher-end of the recording spectrum, but the one that stuck out was their new UCX audio interface. The UCX has RME's new and very impressive Hammerfall audio core, which means that you can run it with either USB or FireWire, and at the extremely low latency levels that RME are famous for. In addition, there is a pretty substantial DSP engine built into the UCX, which allows you to add effects like reverb and compression to the incoming signal without adding any latency or jitter. Finally, the UCX supports a new breakout box called the Advanced Remote control, which acts like a very smart monitor controller.
Universal Audio Apollo
Universal Audio had a very impressive booth this year at NAMM, with some great demos and live recording sessions that showed off their products. Even more impressive though, was their newest release—a high-end audio interface called Apollo. Like the UCX, the Apollo comes with onboard DSP effects, but takes it to an entirely new level. If you're familiar with UA, their calling card is their UAD Powered line of plugins, which run on DSP breakout boxes like the Duo and Quad. The Apollo comes with these same exact DSP chips built in, so you can apply the effects both pre-DAW and in the plugin form. One of the demos that UA showed off was a video of a live recording session with a band that was tracked directly through an Apollo into ProTools without any additional mixing. It sounded pretty impressive.
AIAIAI TMA-1 Studio
The Copenhagen-based design collaborative AIAIAI was tucked away in an unfortunate spot at this year's NAMM, but the trek through the incredibly noisy drum section was worth it to check out their new TMA-1 Studio headphones. They share much of the same no-nonsense minimal design aesthetic of the TMA-1, but add a few new upgrades. The most notable is that they now employ an over-the-ear design that will allow for more comfort than the original when using them for long periods of time.
In the effects department there were quite a few new releases at NAMM, spanning all ranges of the affordability spectrum. Measured in sheer quantity, guitar pedals seem to have the majority of the floor space when it comes to effects, but there were some interesting options released for the studio or live use as well.
Korg Mini Kaoss Pad 2
Starting at the low end with regards to price and size, Korg unveiled a pair of new ultra-portable additions to their Kaoss family of products. The most intriguing of these is the Mini Kaoss Pad 2, a powerful upgrade to the existing Mini Kaoss Pad. The original was improved in almost every way, with a very nice looking OLED screen, sample playback via microSD slot, a built-in microphone, and a bunch of new effects being added to the normal Kaoss Pad design aesthetic. It's very small size and relatively affordable price of $220 will put this thing in a bunch of people's hands when it is released in May.
KOMA Elektronik BD101 / FT201
The BD101 and FT201 are a pair of interesting new effect units created by Berlin-based KOMA, a relatively new boutique company run by musicians. It's tough for smaller companies like this to have a NAMM presence on their own, so we found these two pieces on display in the booth of the modular specialist store Big City Music. Both of these desktop effect modules feature a 10 socket CV / audio patch bay and an onboard infrared motion controller, which lend them to being used with modular-style analog gear. The BD101 is a gate / delay unit that can create a surprising amount of tone adjustment, and the FT201 is a vactrol state variable filter with a 10 step sequencer. KOMA is already selling the pedals direct from their website for 329 and 349 euros, respectively.
Not surprisingly, MIDI still reigns supreme when it comes to controller announcements—and this year's NAMM lineup was no exception. There were some bizarre options, like MIDI pianos built into a rocket ship, keyboards that fold in half, and a small resurgence of keytars, but on the whole a pretty standard wave of portable and studio MIDI controllers were announced.
Akai came out strong this year with an announcement to partner with iZotope, and a whole new line of computer-based MPC controllers. Perhaps the most interesting announcement they made, though, was the introduction of the MAX49 MIDI keyboard. It features a completely over-hauled keyboard of their own manufacture, and a new set of drum pads which have been redesigned to be much more sensitive (and they felt great during the demo). What's really unique about the MAX49 is the fact that it has CV outputs for trigger and gate, which can be used to drive analog gear either from the keyboard or from the built-in sequencer.
Keith McMillen QuNeo
Keith McMillen, the creator of the SoftStep and 12 Step foot controllers showed off his new drum pad controller, which he calls the QuNeo. At first glance it doesn't look like much, with no labels and a pretty standard layout of pads, faders, and buttons. There is a lot going on under the covers, though: Each of the QuNeo's pads send velocity and continuous pressure info as well as x-y location, and there are multi-touch sensitive encoders and strips that (according to the demo guys) have more resolution than most timecode vinyl. The data can be sent via MIDI without needing a driver, or the QuNeo can be switched into OSC mode and transmit via an intermediary application. Top it all off with the fact that there is multi-color LED feedback on every control, and the thing looks great for $199.
All of the usual suspects had their DJ gear on display this year, and quite a few newcomers made some moves to get involved in the world of digital DJing, with wave after wave of jogwheel-style controllers showing up wherever we went. Once you got past the toys, and the Chinese knock-offs, there were a handful of standouts that could turn out to be big news in the DJ world this year.
Among the interesting new additions found in the Numark booth this year was a new competitor within the high-end Traktor controller market. It sports two very high-resolution jogwheels (3600 ticks per rotation) with two-color LED rings and a huge amount of knobs and buttons, which transmit 14-bit MIDI for super accurate four-channel mixing. Its standout feature, though, is the tilted 12-knob strip that Numark calls the FX Kommand Console. These twelve dedicated knobs give you quick access to the filter and FX devices within Traktor. The 4TRAK rounds things out with a built-in sound card that provides plenty of inputs (4 line, 2 RCA turntable, and 2 microphone) and balanced outputs. It is reportedly going to be available by March with a street price of $1099 (MSRP $1499).
Allen & Heath Xone:DB2 / Xone:K2
At the A&H booth, among the usual lineup of mixers there was a setup of two new devices from the British manufacturer. The Xone:DB2 might already be familiar to you since it was announced back in September. Essentially, it is a stripped down version of the DB4, the powerhouse digital FX mixer that we reviewed this year. The DB2 achieves a lower price point by giving up the dedicated loopers per channel and reducing the FX units from 4 to 2 (now routable by bus). The K2 is a very interesting new release that takes inspiration from Native Instruments' Traktor Kontrol X1, in that it shares the same form factor and size. The biggest difference is that in addition to MIDI control, the K2 also functions as a standalone USB soundcard—a very nice addition.