Audio / Features

Transmissions from NAMM 2016

         

Thursday, January 21
001: Head West Old Man

07:31 EST, Newark Liberty International Airport

An early-AM Uber has brought me to gate C104 at sprawling Newark Liberty International airport, waiting on a 9:03 AM flight into LAX to attend the NAMM 2016 show to schmooze, network, report back, and provide input to the company’s buying staff. Always fun flying on someone else’s dime.

It’s been well over 10 years since I’ve flown out of Newark, and unlike its city namesake, the airport has an air of gentrification to it—as much as I adore and invest in technology, there is something off-putting about ordering an omelet on an iPad that provides up-to-the minute updates on your flight.

Though I’ve been a musician for more than 15 years and a recording engineer for what seems like forever, this is my first time attending NAMM. Sitting in the terminal, I’m already somewhat overwhelmed, trying to carve out something akin to a game plan for the event that I know will be abandoned the moment I walk into the Anaheim Convention Center. A large cup of coffee and a healthy dose of Alprazolam (I’m a terrible flier) are already vying for dominance in my system. Smart money would be on the latter to win that fight. 

002: We Love to Fly…

11:05 AM EST

Manning an aisle seat on a cramped United flight is a reminder that my physical awkwardness is readily apparent even when sedentary, as no matter how I position myself I’m taking hits from snack carts and the small-bladdered alike. So far I’ve made it through the 59 minutes of one of my favorite albums from 2015, Elder’sLore, which has proven itself to be a great travel record, in addition to about 45 minutes of Guillermo del Torro’s Crimson Peak (thanks, Scary Larry). Initial trepidation upon finding myself in a baby Bermuda Triangle seems to have been thankfully unfounded, as all infants are sleeping soundly, not sharing my entitled rage at the lack of ample charging ports while I’m hurtling through the sky at more than 600 mph. 

Excitement for the show and having my feet back on the ground is growing. I’m eager to see the new ESP lineup in person, to check out the finishes on the Japanese-made Eclipses and count the points on their other guitars. Right up there is to see what’s new from Manley, which has surprisingly few details on the Web so far. Stay tuned for that. Synth showings have been strong this year, and both Korg’s Minilouge and Yamaha’s Montage are at the top of my list in that category. ​


003: “Well I just got into town about an hour ago...”

12:20 PM Pacific Time

Leaving LAX and heading to pick up a rental car. Palm trees are a painfully welcome sight coming from a week of freezing temperatures at B&H base camp, in Manhattan. My phone exploded with messages from the audio writers back at the corporate offices, and I scurried to answer as best I could, waiting for my bags.

Jet lag won't set in until a little later, so until then it'll be caffeine and good intentions. En route to drop my bags off at the hotel and hit the show.

004: But these go to 11

4:59 PM Pacific Time

If you’ve ever walked into a guitar store and experienced the cacophony of kids playing “Stairway to Heaven,” “Enter Sandman,” or “Crazy Train” while competing with a bassist doing his best Bootsy Collins impression to the percussive performance of someone wailing on a cajon, you know  what the NAMM floor sounds like at quarter volume.

The afternoon sees me attempting to make sense of the immediate showroom floor, observing the likes of old friends Universal Audio and Avid to new additions to the B&H lineup, such as Ibanez. I do a quick run through of the floor, and invest 10 dollars American into something resembling pizza at the convention center. Not the last poor dietary decision this weekend, undoubtably. A few bucks more on some coffee and I’m feeling a bit more human and ready to see what 2016 has to offer musicians and engineers. Today is all reconnaissance, and tomorrow will yield the real details.

005: Scotch and Sacrilege

8:34 PM Pacific Time

A generous invitation to the Shure after-party/launch of the company’s new KSM8 dynamic mic, with lovely food and an even lovelier open bar is one that is too good to resist. The headliner of the party is Chris Robinson of Black Crowes fame, with his new band The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. I like a good 1990s nostalgia-fest as much as the next man, so I’m all in.

An opening act, whose name I unfortunately did not catch, is doing their best to warm up a crowd more interested in their drinks and the promise of Chris Robinson potentially performing “Hard to Handle” (spoiler alert: he didn’t). Consisting of acoustic guitar-playing guy and blonde woman dressed like Stevie Nicks, they’re relatively inoffensive until they go into a capo’d, folksy version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The absurdity of it pushed right into self-parody, and could have found itself home in an outtake sketch from Portlandia. There are just some things they got right the first time around, and don’t need to be meddled with. “War Pigs” would be one of them. I felt the least Shure could do for me was buy me a scotch, so I let them do just that.

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood was fun, and the sound was spot-on. As you might assume, everyone was using Shure’s new KSM8 mic, and to good effect I might add. Grateful Dead meets the Black Crowes would sum it up pretty well, with some excellent synth leads and jams. Not completely my speed, but a fun way to start the night.

Friday, January 22 
006: With apologies to my friends in New York City

5:32 AM Pacific Time

The bathroom sink in my hotel room is, in my opinion, connected wrong. Waking up with only a few hours sleep, I stumbled over to the bathroom to splash my face with cold water. A lifetime of “turn the handle right for cold, left for hot” betrayed me, as evidently the plumber is an avante garde artist who will not follow your rules. Scalded hands and a few expletives later, my faith in my intelligence has waned, spending much too long “figuring out” a bathroom sink.

The odd start is quickly rendered irrelevant as I recall where I am, why I’m here and, with apologies to my co-workers and friends back on the East Coast, what I’m currently avoiding. A quick workout, a shower, and a walk to drink in some of the weather before I spend the better portion of the day indoors has me feeling renewed motivations, despite my early morning ouchie. The fact that my room is around the block from the Happiest Place on Earth does help set the mood. Every person walking by me says hello, because they’re nice. My instinct immediately has me thinking, “Do you want… money?” No, just being good people.

Top of my agenda today is checking out the prototype over at the mad synth scientists at Teenage Engineering, checking in with ESP guitars, seeing the new synth line up at Roland, and popping into my personal favorite pickup manufacturers, Lace. As Mel Brooks would say, there’s much to do, and less time to do it in.

007: NAMM is Never Enough, the James Bond Edition

Too many hours, Friday Roundup Pacific Time

NAMM? Yea, there’s an app for that. Since I’m compulsively on my phone most of the time anyway, I realized I should download that app and get organized. Here’s to high hopes.

Today was non-stop from the moment I set foot into the Convention Center to the moment they dimmed the lights to let us know we don’t have to go home, but we can’t stay there. Fun meetings with Seymour Duncan, Ibanez, Fender, Roland, and Wampler (to name a few) show I don’t lack social skills, but just prefer not to use them regularly. As I once told a friend, if being charming is like taking the stairs, I use the elevator. Often.

A super-secret meeting in a back room at Roland’s elaborate setup allowed me to try out an Occulus Rift, and I can comfortably say I have experienced the future of entertainment. This thing has a ton of hype, and it frankly lived up to every bit of it. Regular reality no longer compares. I’ll take the blue pill.

ESP has to take the prize for coolest display, not because of how elaborate their room is, but how wonderfully, unashamedly over the top some of their custom made guitars are. A V covered in jewels with an actual Katana sticking out of it you can remove? The rest of NAMM will be spent asking, is it a guitar with a sword in it, or a sword with the most METAL scabbard of all time? Also not to be missed, an upside down angel covered in spikes, rendering the guitar unplayable.

008: My Top Picks

Friday Evening, Post-Show Time

Needless to say, NAMM showcases thousands upon thousands of products, not all of which I would claim I had a chance to see. However, of what I did get to see, here are my top five picks from the show floor, in no particular order.

ROLI Seaboard RISE 49

Sure, it may be the obvious next step for ROLI from the 25-key version, but the Seaboard RISE 49 is nonetheless impressive in its own right. Giving you a full 49 keywaves (not keys), the squishy, expressive performance the Seaboard RISE is capable of is arguably the most novel and unique controller to come out in a long time. It seems to split opinion pretty sharply; those I know who have been hands-on with it have either loved it, or frankly hated it. I fall into the former camp, and look forward to adding one to my arsenal in the near future.

For more info click here.

ESP E-II Stream G Electric Guitar

ESP never fails to disappoint with its lineup, and 2016 was no different.  The Japanese guitar manufacturer may be more known for its pointy metal guitars, but it was the rounded edges of the newly announced E-II Stream that frankly stood at the most, to my eyes. Its beautiful sleek black finish, coupled with a Gibson-Thunderbird-meets-Fender-Jaguar body, just does it for me. The fact that it’s slightly out of ESP’s typical wheelhouse makes it all the more appealing.

Arturia MatrixBrute Analog Synth

Arturia is a well-known name in the synth world, making some of the most widely used plug-in emulations of classic vintage synths, as well as fantastic affordable analog machines. This year at NAMM the company unveiled the downright monstrous MatrixBrute, a beastly mono synth with a layout as intimidating as its sound. What makes the Brute stand out is its modulation matrix, which allows you to program and modulate sequences, as well as save and recall presets. For those of you counting along at home, stop, that’s crazy. I’ll just tell you. It offers 256 presets.

Warm Audio WA-2A

Warm Audio just does it right. The young company has already established a reputation for building high-quality clones of sought-after gear using high-quality components with a price tag that doesn’t break the bank. The newest addition to its lineup is a clone of the venerable LA-2A with the WA-2A, the optical compressor heard on countless vocal and guitar tracks over the last 50 plus years. Warm continues to democratize outboard gear, and has established a passionate fan base. Kudos to this company.

Korg Minilogue Polyphonic Analog Synth

Simply put, Korg has been crushing it in regard to synthesizers in the last few years. From its popular and affordable Volca line, to its MS-20 reissues, Korg has been offering a little something for everyone, but this year, the company frankly stole the NAMM show for me, with the Minilogue. Though Korg doesn’t come right out and say it, the manufacturer clearly wanted to design an analog polyphonic synth that was straightforward enough that guitarists (like me!) could understand it, but with enough sophisticated control that synth pros would still be at home. Yes, the keys could be a bit better, and the delay leaves something to be desired, but the sounds you can get out of the (analog!) polyphonic synth are amazing, especially when you consider it comes in at about half the price of many polyphonic synths against which it stands. 

009: My Name is Jonas, or Stranded in Paradise

Time Stamp Missing, Pacific Time

Did you know that “winter storms” are not named by any government agency like hurricanes are? It’s just the Weather Channel trying to drum up ratings by putting a face to every weather event that blows across the country. Jonas, or whatever you want to call the storm, has canceled my flight back two days out. With the uncertainty of its severity, and the massive amounts of delayed and cancelled flights, thus far rescheduling has been impossible.

I’m stranded down the street from where the sun sets.

Out of respect for B&H and the Sabbath (the holy day of rest, not the band, but you know what? Them too) I won’t be reporting to NAMM on Saturday. With my return to Manhattan by Monday in question, I’ll likely visit Disneyland. Maybe.

On the plus side, with no flight to catch on Sunday I’ll have the whole day to cover the floor again and there’s no shortage of things I have left wanting to do.

Sunday, January 24
010: Fireworks and Tacos

4:42 AM Pacific Time

I’m not a great sleeper under ideal conditions, so add traveling and jet lag into the equation and sleep becomes a foregone conclusion. A text came in at 4:42 Pacific Time to let me know that the B&H SuperStore will indeed be open this Sunday, blizzard notwithstanding. I’m sure someone needs to pick up a new lens to take advantage of the snowy sights in Manhattan today.

I managed to snag a 7:00 AM flight Monday morning out of LAX to return to Newark. Relieved that the trip home is settled, already tired to get the the airport that early tomorrow.

I met up with some of my colleagues from B&H also attending the show for some excellent cheap Mexican food late Saturday night; just in time to catch the ending of what I assume is the nightly fireworks show at Disney. I tried to snap a picture, but none of them came out presentable. I wonder if it’s fun or depressing to have a massive fireworks show go on around you so regularly. Either way, great tacos.

On tap for today is the last day of NAMM, and then back to the room for an early night. Still feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of the show.

011: Commoditized Creativity—Last Day of NAMM

10:12 AM Pacific Time

The final day of NAMM started off with a breakfast so hearty it bordered on obscene. I topped that off with three cups of coffee to fuel my keeping up with Joel Braver, pro audio buyer for B&H and human hummingbird.

Hall E is downstairs at the Convention Center, and I’ve come to find it’s home to some of the coolest gear at the show. Sure, it’s chock full of random inexpensive, Chinese made pro audio gear, but it since it’s a little out of sight, the booths are a little more affordable, so that’s where the small custom luthiers and up-and-coming manufacturers (for the most part) are located. Stone Deaf amps is a British manufacturer making all tube amps with digital switching, allowing you to store your settings as presets. Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater and general “amazing keyboardist” fame was demoing his iPad app along with a ROLI Seaboard 49.

Around 2:00 PM, complete over-stimulation set in. New guitars. New pickups. New pedals! Variations on a theme. Everyone at the show is a creative type. Everyone at the show is looking to buy or sell something to help themselves or others be creative. A respite involving an excellent food-truck burger, coffee, and a bit of the California sun gives me the wherewithal to head back inside.

Since my flight is set for 7:00 AM, I call it an early night. Back to the hotel for some chicken flautas and an adult beverage to help me wind down. My colleagues who joined me for NAMM were lucky enough to be able to fly out today, so I’m by myself. Eating alone in a restaurant always makes me feel weird, so I shovel the food into my mouth a little faster than usual. Alarm is at 3:00 AM to make it to LAX and through security on time.

Monday, January 25
012: United We Stall

3:05 AM Pacific Time

Isn’t it wonderful how you can get the most restful sleep when you know you it’s going to be interrupted? Well, delayed planes wait for no man, and the security checkpoint is even less patient, so I rise and get ready.

Rental car dropped off and a quick shuttle back to terminal 7. It’s only when I print my ticket out do I realize United bumped me from a seat to standby status. As I’m discussing it with the United rep who has managed to perfect coming off simultaneously caring while not giving a damn about what passes for a problem in my charmed life, the flight gets delayed to 7:44. Then 9:01.

A moment of exhaustion-induced panic thinking “I guess I’ll never get back to the East Coast” is shattered when I remember—I can have someone else solve this problem for me. A quick call to the talented Judy in B&H’s travel department gives me both the sympathy and solution I was looking for. A quick trip over to Terminal 3 to Jet Blue and I have a guaranteed seat home. Well worth going through TSA security a second time within three hours.

Not to just talk trash, but Terminal 3 has its act together. Comfortable seats, a reasonable selection of food I’d only eat at an airport, and a real sense of community among the travelers. One of those I made up, guess which. Regardless, better digs than those amateurs over at Terminal 7. All these first-world problems have me thinking I’ll treat myself to a neck pillow for the flight.

013: To Boldly Go

1:26 PM, Somewhere over Colorado

I’ve never flown Jet Blue before, and the difference between them and United is stark. They pump you full of blue chips and cookies, free Wi-Fi you can use to stream Netflix, and reasonable amounts of legroom. The flight started with a particularly dense, drooling-on-yourself type nap with my $40 neck pillow—worth every penny. I continued to check in with the office in Manhattan where all things audio are being capably handled by Andrew Eisele.

Thanks to the Wi-Fi, I’ve been going over blogs and music news sites to see if I missed anything major at the show. I spent all my time at Korg’s setup playing with the Minilogue, so I missed the new FM synth Volca, among a list of other things. You can’t have it all. You can, however, have Star Trek streaming to your laptop on Jet Blue flights, which is close enough.

013: Final Descent

8:01 PM, Eastern Time

On the ground in New York. As lovely as Anaheim is, this is home, gross black snow and all. Exhausted from the trip but mostly from spending most of the day at the airport, switching flights and terminals and eating bad food because that’s all your options are. Without a doubt, all worth it. To be surrounded by that many people who are passionate about their ideas, their creativity, and their products is a reminder of why I became a recording engineer, and why I whittle away my hours playing guitar.

If you read any of these, my gracious thanks. It was such a pleasure documenting both the show and my neurosis, and if you got a few chuckles, I’m happy. I’d also like to express my gratitude to Mark Zuppe for sending me, Andrew Eisele for holding down the ship at B&H during all this NAMM madness, and Howard Gotfryd, for taking what is me dragging my knuckles across my keyboard while furrowing my brow, and making it readable. Looking forward to NAMM 2017. End Transmission. 

For complete coverage of NAMM 2016 and all the product announcements, please click here.

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Fun article, but methinks you didn't really mean "ESP never fails to disappoint". Or did you? : )