After what was perhaps the worst year in memory for the musical instrument industry, the 2010 Winter NAMM show rolled into Anaheim, California January 14-17. NAMM is the premier US trade show for musical instrument manufacturers, and while the fortunes of individual music technology companies ebb and flow, there continues to be interesting products on the horizon. While several major players like Apple and Native Instruments no longer attend trade shows, stalwarts like Korg, Roland, and Yamaha still continue to use NAMM as a showcase for new products. In what’s perhaps a sign of the times, many smaller music technology companies sat this show out, or opted for private, more informal meetings in lounges and coffee shops. So for me, NAMM 2010 was more about talking to people than seeing things, and in some ways, that human connection made this year’s show all the more satisfying. Over my next few blog posts I’ll report on some of the things I observed at the show this year.

Each year at NAMM there’s always one centrally located booth that serves as a reliable rendezvous point for music tech geeks to meet. While in past years this has been the Didgidesign booth, the torch passed to Ableton this year, and the booth they shared with Cycling 74 was this year’s hub for many at the show. In many ways, this was symbolic of the change the industry is experiencing. Avid, the parent company of Digidesign, is phasing out the Digi brand identity. Since they had nothing new to show, their booth was mainly a set up for private meetings, largely devoid of products, and the name Digidesign was nowhere to be found. A well-placed source confided that at the corporate feeling was that the majority of customers really identify with the name “Pro Tools” as the brand identity for that particular family of products, and the Digidesign moniker had little relevance to both new and future customers. Expect about twelve new products from Avid in the coming year, and your new M-Box will clearly be an Avid product.

While one industry goliath is clearly consolidating, Ableton is becoming more of a presence. They’ve done this not by expanding their product line, as is usually the case with any manufacturer, but rather by opening their product architecture and partnering with other companies to extend Live’s capabilities. At this year’s NAMM, Max for Live was a reality, and in the six or so weeks since it was officially released, there’s been a flurry of activity as scores of MAX gurus and aficionados adapt their signature patches for use in Live. Included in the Max for Live release are patches from the stash of Ableton co-founder and electronic music pioneer Robert Henke. While the buzz around Max for Live may be substantial, the truth is that Max programming is not for everyone who uses Live. The value of this collaboration to most users will really be the open architecture that allows forward thinking hackers to expand the capabilities of Live according to their own muse. I expect to see a cottage industry of MAX for Live developers to spring up this year, offering any user access to additional tools that will bring both utility and innovation.

The big new news for Ableton this year was their collaboration with DJ stalwarts Serato called The Bridge. While Live has always had the basic functionality needed by a digital DJ, there’s really a cultural difference between DJs and live electronic music performers that’s defined the tools for each. Some artists, like Richard Devine who’s all over Native Instrument’s Traktor for live performance, can migrate between these tools, but by and large, a DJ’s point of reference will be decks, hardware or otherwise. The collaboration between Live and Serrato respects this and provides users a bridge between their respective programs. Serrato decks show up in Live, and a DJ set done with Serato can be saved as a Live session with three stereo tracks, one for each of two decks and one for a bounced mix of the two. Included here are all effects and realtime moves, so in essence, a DJ set can be further refined or serve as the starting point for a completely new hybrid work. Over the years, Ableton has become a tool that provides a platform for both spontaneous creation and refinement of musical ideas, and this year’s developments expand the scope of users who will benefit from this.

NAMM 2010 Demo of the Bridge

Tight integration with performance controllers is now a big part of Planet Ableton. The AKAI APC40 and the Novation Launchpad, that were released last year, each have a slightly different design approach. While the APC40 provides a complete control solution for both clip launching and mixing and effects, the Launchpad is a more portable device optimized for launching clips in the heat of battle. At a fraction of the size and half the price, the Launchpad has been very successful with performers, but a big complaint has been the lack of faders. AKAI unveiled the APC20 at NAMM that addresses this with the addition of eight fades to a set of “launch pads.” All of this is good news for anyone using Ableton Live, as this is only the start of what will be a number of hardware control products that will be coming out in 2010.

NAMM 2010 Demo of the AKAI APC20

Given the state of the economy current conditions taking a hit on discretionary spending, I was somewhat apprehensive about traveling west for the NAMM show this year. While times are indeed tough, I got a sense of overall optimism from many of the manufacturers and product representatives I spoke with. While there will be consolidation and restructuring in management and sales, all agree that development and innovation will continue. Signs of this abounded at NAMM with a number of cool new products. This was an especially big year for Ableton with the announcement of a number of watershed products.

NAMM 2009

At NAMM 2008, Cycling 74 and Ableton announced a collaboration that would yield new developments for their products. While the goal here was not much of a mystery, this year’s announcement of MAX for Live took the wraps off the fruits of their work. This is indeed big news, and really ushers in a new era for the integration of music technology products. MAX is a programming environment, while Live is performance/production tool; each does what the other doesn’t. With MAX for Live, MAX patches will be able to open in Live, like any other plug-in. There will be direct MIDI and audio input and output connections between the two, and both will share sample accurate timing. While this type of inter-application communication has always been available using Propellerheads’ ReWire technology, MAX for Live will make this much easier, and will undoubtedly spawn a wave of innovative development, particularly in the area of live performance. As is typical with these types of major trade show announcements, no firm release date or price point was mentioned, but my guess is that a final release might happen this fall.

The collaborative spirit must be alive and well in Berlin, as collaboration was a big theme for Ableton this year, While the Cycling 74 partnership centered on software, a partnership with AKAI resulted in the APC40 hardware controller for Live. While Live supports a number of hardware controllers that greatly enhance the performance experience, nothing comes close to the tight integration of these two products. AKAI was once the de facto standard for hardware samplers, but the swift adoption of software samplers nearly signaled the company’s demise. While their MPC series is a must-have tool for hip hop production, the company has had a hard time establishing an identity beyond that. In 2004 AKAI was acquired by DJ supplier Numark, and has since focused on developing performance tools. While Ableton indicates that there are collaborations with other hardware manufacturers, AKAI is the first of these to see the light of day. While pricing and availability were not announced at the show, a street price of 399.00 is listed at some online retailers.

Along with their partnerships with other manufacturers, Ableton announced a new service that will be built into the upcoming Live 8. The Share Live Set feature will allow users to upload their projects to a Ableton server, where they can be accessed by any user on the Net. The technology here takes a cue from the cloud computing concept, where data is stored on a central server where it can be accessed and synced by any number of users. While a number of Web start-ups were founded on the idea of providing resources for musicians to collaborate online, this idea has yet to really take off. Live users are by and large forward-looking musicians, and with a reliable infrastructure in place, this community may take full advantage of the technology. In the area of online eduction, this is profound, and this service could become the backbone of a creative music curriculum, beyond simply learning how to use Live. Again, pricing and availability for this service has yet to be announced.

Significant updates have been an annual event for Ableton, and while the prior three NAMM announcements point to new directions for the company, the upcoming release of Live 8 certainly merits as much attention. Ableton updates are always significant, and manage to expand the program without sacrificing its ease of use. The new features in Live 8 continue this, adding requested features along with capabilities users have come to expect. Live’s new groove engine adds groove quantize functions that are commonly found in other DAWs. Their version allows for both MIDI and audio quantization as well as a groove analysis tool that extracts timing information and creates a groove template from it. Along with this is a new warping engine that allows easy manipulation of individual beats within a clip. While this function has always been a part of Live, the new algorithms used here significantly reduce the related audio artifacts –which may or may not be a good thing for those of the “glitch” persuasion. Ableton has been steadily expanding the collection of effects in Live, and the addition of a vocoder and a multi-band compressor, among others, builds on what’s already available. Finally, while some performers use Live as a kind of looping device, it’s always been more clumsy than hardware loopers on the market. The success of many performers who use looping, like New York’s Battles, has brought a renewed interest in this technique. The looper that comes with Live 8 looks like a capable solution, and further strengthens Live’s position as the premier performance software on the planet.

OK, it’s a month later and people are still asking me about the coolest stuff I saw at the Winter NAMM 2008. So I guess I’ll have to come clean with my top 5. For those of us looking for big music technology news, trade shows are more or less sleepers. These days, fewer manufacturers time their release cycles to trade shows. Even Apple, who tries to set their trajectory in January with Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote, is more about getting products out the door as soon as they’re ready. So, for most music technology companies, major releases and announcements have already hit the street by January. There are some exceptions…

Although I got scooped on this one by my friend and fellow Berkleemusic blogger, Dave Franz, at the top of my list is Spectrasonics, who know a little something about drama. They skipped NAMM altogether last year while working on "something really big." The fruits of that labor saw the light of day at NAMM this year when patron saint of sound design Eric Persing rolled out Omnisphere.

Spectrasonics has been quite successful at creating powerful and evocative sampled instruments such as Atmosphere, Trilogy, and Stylus RMX. These were based on the UVI sound engine which essentially is a platform for sample playback. With the next generation of instruments, the company wanted to develop their own sound engine that would expand on sample playback and get much deeper into synthesis techniques such as granular, waveshaping, and FM. They came up with something they call the "Steam" engine. While the synthesis and modulation functions here are deep, Spectrasonics has made them immediately and easily accessible to any musician. The sound library itself is massive, comprised of the greatest hits of all their previous libraries along with a collection of new and unique samples. They showed one such sampling session for their demo where an upright piano was set on fire and carefully recorded as it went up in smoke. The sound quality was fabulous and the design was ingenious with things like a Farfisa organ graincloud sounding at once unique and familiar. The only downside of their demo was the September 15 release date. With such a build-up I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t want to leave the show with a copy tucked under their arm.

One of the biggest buzzes at the show this year was the Euphonix MC line of hardware DAW controllers. While primarily known for their high end digital consoles, Euphonix is coming out with a more modest line of products that uses their Ethernet-based EuCon DAW control protocol.

These new surfaces, the MC Mix and MC Control, are aimed at the project studio user with 999.00 and 1495.00 price tags, respectively. Currently, their main competition will be the Mackie Control units. However, a sleek, compact design, well-designed functionality, as well as the responsiveness of their high-speed control will make these units serious contenders.

Next on my list is Access. While it took a couple of years to perfect the technology behind the Access TI (totally integrated) line of Virus synthesizers, these instruments have become one the must-haves in current electronic arsenals. This year Access introduced an entry-level, stand-alone module version of the Virus TI called the Snow. To top things off, Richard Devine spent the weekend holding court at their booth, evangelizing the Virus and the newly released Atomizer companion software.

The software works alongside the Virus OS to beat slice audio input coming into the Virus, map the slices across the keyboard and provide addition processing controlled by the mod wheel and pitch bend. In the capable hands of Richard Devine this became a powerful, real-time performance tool. It looks like Access is pushing the envelope of what we can expect from a hardware synthesizer to include functions that we’d normally associate with custom laptop performance software. Atomizer will be free to all Virus TI users.

Korg had one of the coolest gadgets I saw at the show, and the closest thing to what one might call a glitch instrument. The new Kaossilator Dynamic Phrase Synthesizer takes a small Kaos pad controller and adds 100 different sounds and phrases.

An internal sequencer allows the user to assemble simple melodic/rhythmic fragments and manipulate them with the pad. The device itself is pocket sized, and while it offers little in the way of connectivity or pro features, it’s really fun to play, and downright addictive.

Somehow NAMM brings out the guitar player in everyone, and this year, Mackie’s new HotWire guitar amp was what did it for me. Legendary designer Greg Mackie reputedly spent years on this design, and the result is a remarkable combination of high and low tech in a great sounding amp. At the heart of this is analog tube circuitry. Not just one circuit, but a number of them, so that in fact, when switching between the various amp modes, the actual circuit routing changes, along with the selection of tubes used. Think of it like having a collection of tube amps at your disposal, where you can easily switch between them. In addition, the amp comes with a collection of creature comforts from a tuner and metronome, to on-board digital effects. The amp sells for 1500.00 and is expected to be available in March.

Winter NAMM 2008 Top Five Roundup.

1. Spectrasonics Atmosphere
2. Euphonix MC Controllers
3. Access Virus Snow and Atomizer software
3. Korg Kaossilator
5. Mackie HotWire Guitar amp

OK, it’s a month later and people are still asking me about the coolest stuff I saw at the Winter NAMM 2008. So I guess I’ll have to come clean with my top 5. For those of us looking for big music technology news, trade shows are more or less sleepers. These days, fewer manufacturers time their release cycles to trade shows. Even Apple, who tries to set their trajectory in January with Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote, is more about getting products out the door as soon as they’re ready. So, for most music technology companies, major releases and announcements have already hit the street by January. There are some exceptions…

Although I got scooped on this one by my friend and fellow Berkleemusic blogger, Dave Franz, at the top of my list is Spectrasonics, who know a little something about drama. They skipped NAMM altogether last year while working on "something really big." The fruits of that labor saw the light of day at NAMM this year when patron saint of sound design Eric Persing rolled out Omnisphere.

Spectrasonics has been quite successful at creating powerful and evocative sampled instruments such as Atmosphere, Trilogy, and Stylus RMX. These were based on the UVI sound engine which essentially is a platform for sample playback. With the next generation of instruments, the company wanted to develop their own sound engine that would expand on sample playback and get much deeper into synthesis techniques such as granular, waveshaping, and FM. They came up with something they call the "Steam" engine. While the synthesis and modulation functions here are deep, Spectrasonics has made them immediately and easily accessible to any musician. The sound library itself is massive, comprised of the greatest hits of all their previous libraries along with a collection of new and unique samples. They showed one such sampling session for their demo where an upright piano was set on fire and carefully recorded as it went up in smoke. The sound quality was fabulous and the design was ingenious with things like a Farfisa organ graincloud sounding at once unique and familiar. The only downside of their demo was the September 15 release date. With such a build-up I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t want to leave the show with a copy tucked under their arm.

One of the biggest buzzes at the show this year was the Euphonix MC line of hardware DAW controllers. While primarily known for their high end digital consoles, Euphonix is coming out with a more modest line of products that uses their Ethernet-based EuCon DAW control protocol.

These new surfaces, the MC Mix and MC Control, are aimed at the project studio user with 999.00 and 1495.00 price tags, respectively. Currently, their main competition will be the Mackie Control units. However, a sleek, compact design, well-designed functionality, as well as the responsiveness of their high-speed control will make these units serious contenders.

Next on my list is Access. While it took a couple of years to perfect the technology behind the Access TI (totally integrated) line of Virus synthesizers, these instruments have become one the must-haves in current electronic arsenals. This year Access introduced an entry-level, stand-alone module version of the Virus TI called the Snow. To top things off, Richard Devine spent the weekend holding court at their booth, evangelizing the Virus and the newly released Atomizer companion software.

The software works alongside the Virus OS to beat slice audio input coming into the Virus, map the slices across the keyboard and provide addition processing controlled by the mod wheel and pitch bend. In the capable hands of Richard Devine this became a powerful, real-time performance tool. It looks like Access is pushing the envelope of what we can expect from a hardware synthesizer to include functions that we’d normally associate with custom laptop performance software. Atomizer will be free to all Virus TI users.

Korg had one of the coolest gadgets I saw at the show, and the closest thing to what one might call a glitch instrument. The new Kaossilator Dynamic Phrase Synthesizer takes a small Kaos pad controller and adds 100 different sounds and phrases.

An internal sequencer allows the user to assemble simple melodic/rhythmic fragments and manipulate them with the pad. The device itself is pocket sized, and while it offers little in the way of connectivity or pro features, it’s really fun to play, and downright addictive.

Somehow NAMM brings out the guitar player in everyone, and this year, Mackie’s new HotWire guitar amp was what did it for me. Legendary designer Greg Mackie reputedly spent years on this design, and the result is a remarkable combination of high and low tech in a great sounding amp. At the heart of this is analog tube circuitry. Not just one circuit, but a number of them, so that in fact, when switching between the various amp modes, the actual circuit routing changes, along with the selection of tubes used. Think of it like having a collection of tube amps at your disposal, where you can easily switch between them. In addition, the amp comes with a collection of creature comforts from a tuner and metronome, to on-board digital effects. The amp sells for 1500.00 and is expected to be available in March.

Winter NAMM 2008 Top Five Roundup.

1. Spectrasonics Atmosphere
2. Euphonix MC Controllers
3. Access Virus Snow and Atomizer software
3. Korg Kaossilator
5. Mackie HotWire Guitar amp