Saturday, February 9, 2013

Top Nine: Tales from Winter NAMM 2013

One of the largest musical instrument, software, and now even app (!) trade shows in the world, NAMM, was in my neck of the woods recently, peddling its wares on the side of Harbor Boulevard for a couple of days at the end of January.

What was originally named the National Association of Music Merchants was founded in 1901 and has been held yearly at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California directly across the street from Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure and an IHOP.

Containing thousands of booths showcasing the latest in musical instruments, books, and accessories, NAMM is the number one location not only for checking out what's new and exciting in the world of music, but also a way to possibly brush elbows with some famous musicians as well.

During past years, I've met Richard Devine, Mick Fleetwood, Joey DeFrancesco, Kyle Gass, Jimmy Smith, Carlos Santana, and more scantily clad women than you would think would ever want to pose next to off-brand guitar straps.

And boy were they excited to meet me

But it's not all about the celebrities, the large-scale business deals going down, or even the gorgeous girls they pay just to show up. Even if you think conventions aren't for you, consider sticking around to check out the Top Nine Tales from Winter NAMM 2013, and maybe find out a few things you might not have learned elsewhere:

9. Chord Dice

Oddly enough, despite the thousands of new and popular products at NAMM, it's rare to find anything that deals with the actual creation of music. Sure, some new instrument might spark something inside of you, but they aren't created solely for that purpose.

Enter: Chord Dice, a company from Texas whose product focuses specifically on two things rarely represented at a musical instrument convention: tackling writer's block, and to a lesser degree, imparting a bit of music theory. Sure, Alfred Music Publishing comes to mind, but they aren't half as fun as these dice can be.

Trying to write a catchy song but feel like you are all out of ideas? Just give these dice a roll and get a new progression every time. Don't like what you get? It's as simple as re-rolling. These dice can be an wonderful aid for guitarists, pianists and especially anyone who focuses on writing songs, but might feel creatively bereft from time to time.

As of this writing, Chord Dice unfortunately only come in a limited variety, with only two keys available for purchase: C major and G major, but they also offer a special "extended chords" accessory to make your standard voicings more complex.

While it would seem to be a no-brainer to expand their line to include all 12 major keys, it might be a bit unwieldy for the average songwriter to carry along so many dice and not end up in a dungeon or fighting a dragon.

Still, considering the price, it's definitely worth a look if you are a songwriter, no matter what genre you happen to play.

For More Information:

8. Auria

It might be old news to some, but after making a showing at last years NAMM, Wavemachine Labs returned again this year with their flagship creation: Auria. It's an app exclusive to Apple's online store that provides a full recording experience on your iPad, including 24 simultaneous tracks of 24bit / 96kHz and a sound quality that rivals most DAWs.

What makes Auria even more impressive is that there are lots of quality plug-ins from top tier companies like PSP and Drumagog, extensive features like side-chaining and advanced editing, and the ability to export directly to SoundCloud, Dropbox, mp3 and more...all from the comfort of your portable device.

Combined with Apple's recently released 128Gb 4th generation iPad, all you need to do to have a pretty decent recording set-up is to get some microphones, a half-decent mic pre or two and some cables and you are good to go...well, just about anywhere.

So what this means for all the lazy recording engineers out there is that you could technically record your next album entirely while you were on your toilet.

Not bad, huh?

For More Information:

7. Fairlight CMI

While the Auria might reflect the future of the music industry, this next item definitely has it's footing firmly in the past.

The Fairlight CMI was the worlds first digital sampler, costing over $20,000 and was used by artists such as: Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Yes, Peter Gabriel ("Shock The Monkey"), and lots and lots more before becoming discontinued in the mid-80's.

A few years ago however, the original creator of the Fairlight, Peter Vogel, announced for their thirtieth anniversary a "retro" CMI-30A to be released that has the look and feel of the original 1979 version but has been updated to rely on the latest technology, what they refer to as a "Crystal Core Media Engine".

Sounds good to me.

As is the case with everything that comes out nowadays, there is also an corresponding app available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and the iPad.

For More Information:

6. DJ TechTools

One of the few booths at NAMM that focused on something other than a particular instrument or brand is DJTechtools, a website that contains an amazing wealth of knowledge for the DJ and electronic music community, including reviews, instructional videos and an active and loyal fan base consisting of over 50,000 members.

Birthed from the now-defunct pages of REMIX magazine, DJTT not only reports on the music but also helps to make it, creating and selling a plethora of their own Midi controllers and accessories for users and fans worldwide.

One of their newest Midi controllers is the Midi Fighter Spectra, with new features like full-color lighting and popular arcade-style quick fire buttons which make it very nearly the next generation of MPC-style pad performing, only this time you'd think you were trying to input the cheat to play Sheng Long instead of making a beat.

The older, but still pretty awesome Midi Fighter 3D allows you to morph and change the sounds based on the movement of the controller itself, basically tilting and turning it changes any Midi-based parameter on your DAW, so people will now think you are extra insane when you perform live.

Which really isn't a bad thing.

For More Information:

5. Livid Instruments

Created in Austin, Texas in 2004, Livid Instruments has been making a name for themselves as a company that excels in producing Midi controllers for all types of musical applications. Some of their products are used by such artists as: DJ Shadow, Jamie Lidell, Eliot Lipp, Henry Strange, ill.Gates, and many more.

Livid premiered their brand new midi controller called BASE at NAMM this year, and BASE boasts 32 pressure-sensitive pads that light up in a wild array of colors, 9 touch-sensitive sliders, 8 touch-sensitive buttons, and 8 momentary buttons all of which are completely assignable to fit your style of play, whether you are using the BASE for drums, synths, or even just navigating your set.

Of course it works effortlessly with Ableton Live, Max MSP, Traktor (and more) and is available right now for pre-sale for the price of $399 until March 1.

But what makes Livid really stand out isn't just their line of pre-assembled controllers, but the possibility of creating your very own controller exactly the way you want it.

Livid has taken out the guesswork and tedious schematic researching and can deliver to you a reasonably priced kit based on your desired specifications. Need more buttons than knobs? Or no knobs at all? Or nothing but knobs? Or something even crazier?

Pictured: Pretty crazy.

With their "Builder" line of make-it-yourself parts and pieces, Livid Instruments allows you to make a midi controller the way you want, using customizable modules like the Brain Jr., the Brain v1 or the Brain v2. With all these possibilities you could be well on your way to making something that fits your style of playing perfectly without making any compromises along the way.

If you have a little know-how and some money, Livid has you covered.

For More Information:

4. 3-D Cube

The age of additive manufacturing is here, making an appearance at NAMM showcasing the inevitable future of design and production, and believe it or not, what they were showing in this small booth downstairs is going to change how we do business in music.

3d Systems, a company from South Carolina, specializes in 3-D Imaging and printers, which includes their Cubify brand of physical desktop printers, are notable within the industry for developing stereolithography, an additive manufacturing process that involves UV rays back in the 80's, but today are focusing on the future.

But you're a musician, right? So what's in it for you?

How about a custom-made guitar with your band's logo on it? No problem at all. Lose a pick? Make a new one right now, in any shape or thickness you want. Break a keyboard key or knob? Don't send it in for repair, replace it yourself and make it exact way the original knobs looked and felt, only better.

With one of these babies you could make a new iPhone case exactly the way you want it, or quickly replace that missing Lego piece you lost under the couch. It's as simple as learning a program like Google SketchUp, firing up your printer and popping out whatever you can dream of.

Companies like 3d Systems and Makerbot are pioneers in the 3-D manufacturing world, changing not only the entertainment industry with their consumer-sized printers, but even affecting the fields of aerospace, health care, education, and the automotive industry among many others. Even dentistry and architecture could all benefit from the innovations of 3-D printing.

Come on people, we are literally one step closer to a real-life replicator! I knew I shouldn't have put this at only #4!

For More Information:

3. Holloway Harp Guitars

Sure, they have plenty of guitars at NAMM, lots of em. But not many that looked like this:

What's that you say? You've never heard of a Harp Guitar before? Well, are you in for a treat.

A Harp Guitar is a 200-year-old stringed instrument used by the likes of Pat Metheny, Robbie Robertson, Jimmy Page and many others, and look like an acoustic guitar got frisky with a harp and this abhorrent aberration shot out of the union. In reality, they are hand-made and manufactured in the modern era by companies like Holloway Harp Guitars.

What makes a one of these so special is that it uses additional (usually six) open-tuned strings in addition to the six regular strings a normal acoustic guitar would have.

Pretty crazy, right? Why don't we take another look at a Harp Guitar in action, before we ruin this beautiful acoustical moment with some more electronic noise making machines:

For More Information:

2. ElectroFaustus

Something I've always thought about: Why do guitarists always get the best stomp boxes and pedals?

Well, New York based ElectroFaustus is making huge strides in rectifying that situation, creating a small line of creative noise makers that expand the boundaries of what a stomp box can be, and leaving behind the idea that they are only for guitarists.

Great sounding effects and sound modules like the Dual Oscillator, the Quad Oscillator, the Photo Theremin, the Drum Thing, the Drum Thing Mini, the bitchin' Guitar Disruptor, and my favorite, the Regurgitator, are all high-quality, affordable and most importantly sound good.

Watch the Photo-Theremin in action, direct from the show:

Unfortunately, they don't sell direct from their website, but I'm sure if someone from ElectroFaustus is reading this they can just send me a Regurgitator or the awesome Guitar Disruptor directly to my house for free, and we'll just call it even.

For More Information:

1. Vocaloid

Do you like your favorite musical artists to always be in perfect pitch, never miss a show, and well, never even age?

You don't know it yet, but the product you might be interested in is called "Vocaloid", developed initially by Yamaha to be a "singing voice synthesizer" as a way to replicate not only the pitches and timbre of the human voice, but also the words and lyrics as well.

At this stage, it's too rough around the edges to be a complete replacement for your lead singer, but after a few years there is no doubt how this could, can and most likely will change the music industry.

Because, in fact, the change is already beginning.

Meet Miku Hatsune. She's a 16 year old girl from Japan with green hair dolled up in pigtails, born at the end of August. Like most teenage girls, she loves to sing and dance, but unlike most girls I know, she just so happens to be a famous Japanese pop star, singing to millions of fans worldwide.

But that's not what sets her apart.

Miku isn't a girl. Not really, at least. She's actually a synthesized marketing tool that utilizes the Vocaloid software, and when she performs live in front of the thousands of adoring fans who sing along to every word of her songs, she appears like Tupac does nowadays: as a hologram.

Here's a rousing look at Miku Hatsune performing live:

Certainly, her fans couldn't care less about the fact that she has been mass-marketed, utilizes an obscure slice of vocal software, or is slightly opaque. They love the music, and a part of them must adore the idea that she will never age, or fumble her lines, or even end up on TMZ, drunken and belligerent.

In many ways, she is the perfect product for the music industry.

Miku Hatsune, which is Japanese for first (初 hatsu), sound (音 ne) and future (Miku (ミク), might very well be the first of many "processed" pop stars that could infiltrate our radio stations, our TV commercials, and adorn our children's walls.

Like a streamlined, incredibly efficient version of the same processes that created the boy and girl bands of the last twenty years (such as The Backstreet Boys, The Spice Girls and One Direction), this use of the Vocaloid software to create the perfect pop idol only further expands the boundaries of what being an "artist" really means.

But does this truly change the music business?

Check out this video below comparing Miku Hatsune to Tumblr phenom Lana Del Rey, and see if even being human is a pre-requisite for being a musician anymore:

So it's settled: Lana Del Rey isn't a real person.

For More Information: or Vocaloid - Wikipedia


That's it for NAMM 2013, it's been great checking out the newest and weirdest stuff of the show, and I hope you learned something that didn't push something else out of your brain, like how to drive, or how to eat an Oreo.

A very special thanks goes out to Volterock for his collaborative and inspirational processes regarding this month's Top Nine(s).

Please check out for an exclusive additional Top Nine blog post from undocument about NAMM 2013, in addition to Volterock's own outstanding coverage of the event.

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