What a week it’s been. Musikmesse in Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest gatherings of the music instruments industry, was host to a range of new gear, new technologies, and new revelations.
I decided it’s finally time to crown my own picks as the most significant appearances at the show. Not because I have any particular right to do so, but I felt strongly enough about who was deserving.
First, some honorable mentions:
TC Electronic (and The Guitar.) Musikmesse’s guitar presence may not be at its peak in terms of floor space. But the standouts of guitar technology are looking brilliant. TC Electronic has a big range of new products, including a very clever looper – their overall latest range of new digital vocal and guitar effects was to me the most impressive. Roland’s BOSS division has a great new guitar synth called the SY-300 (which garnered nearly as much attention from guitarists as Roland’s AIRA did for synth lovers). Orange had an overflowing range of products. Gibson is coupling their guitar stuff with production from Cakewalk, Tascam, and others (making use of those recent acquisitions, in stark contrast to 1990s Gibson). There are even beautiful new Marshall amps.
Roland, for AIRA Modular. This hardly needs an introduction at this point. Roland’s all-in strategy will give us a new SYSTEM-1 with loads of patch points and rack-mount-ability, a bunch of new effects that work standalone or together on a tabletop or in a Eurorack modular, and a 500 series analog series made in collaboration with Malekko. The digital stuff sounds great – wild and unruly, not tame and boring, whatever word association you may have with “digital.” And the analog line with Malekko is also excellent. It’s too soon to judge the finished product; these were prototypes. Several people noted concerns about power draw from the digital units, and I wasn’t very happy with the feel of the controls on the units on the floor. But I’m glad to see Roland be this agile and ambitious, and I look forward to doing a thorough review of the finished models to give them a proper test.
Elektron. Also worth a call-out are Elektron for their approach to Overbridge integration of their analog gear and computers. Yes, it’s over a year since they first promised Overbridge at the last Musikmesse. But I’d rather wait for something done right than used something rushed, and the first look at what’s coming in the summer is promising. Overbridge really makes the line between hardware and software all-but-invisible. The Elektron standalone is as good as ever, but now you can route audio in and out as easily as if it were an extension of your DAW, and dive into deep editing options that are more intuitive and visible onscreen. What wasn’t yet available to demo was the sample loading interface, which on the current Analog line is fairly clumsy. But there’s clearly appetite for this.
Erica Synths. I thought maybe the modular scene had made its big product announcements in January at NAMM. But then makers like 4ms managed to finish still more modules in time to demo prototypes or make announcements this week. The biggest news, though, came from Latvia’s Erica Synths. Even more than Roland, Erica had a complete picture of how their synth line fits together, from DIY kits and weird sounds made from resurrected Soviet-era Polivoks tech to a fashionable “black” line of modules, graphical units, and a case. We’ll have a video walk-through of everything with Erica captain Girts.
oSo, those are the honorable mentions. But who was surprised to win the Golden Nerd Princess, the hitherto-unknown but soon-to-be-coveted prize awarded to the best of the show? (And yes, that trophy is full of bubbles. Seriously.)
Without further adieu, the winners.
CDM BEST OF SHOW: MIDI Polyphonic Expression – Bitwig, ROLI, Roger Linn, et al.
For all the wonderful things happening with modular, it’d be a sad world if our only interface idea were 1960s telephone patch cords. And that’s why MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) matters. It’s not a new spec, per se – everything it does it does with the existing MIDI protocol. And it still leaves room for HD MIDI and OpenSoundControl.
But what MPE does finally do is standardize on a way of adding expression to polyphonic controllers. It works with creative new hardware – initially, the LinnStrument, Haken Continuum, ROLI Seaboard, Eigenharp, and SoundPlane. It works with software, like ROLI’s new Equator soft synth.
And I was impressed that MPE has a lot of backing, including the likes of Apple (Gerhard Lengeling) and Moog (Amos Gaynes) – not just the usual alternative controller scene.
I eventually took the trophy over to Bitwig for the simple reason that there, you could see the technology in action even outside something like the ROLI booth. A Roger Linn Linnstrument was connected to a Bitwig Studio beta, where it was able to easily control a built-in instrument. Bitwig can record and edit the controller data seamlessly.
And being able to play this sort of data – not just draw it with a mouse – to me really humanizes the performance possibilities. It was also nice to see Bitwig showing a product that was not their own, demonstrating the sort of historical connectivity that marked the first connection of MIDI between Dave Smith’s Sequential Circuits and Roland back in the 80s.
So, to all the folks behind MPE – and particularly Bitwig, ROLI, and Roger Linn for making it visible at Messe as a possible future for music making – I’m pleased to award a Best of Show.
CDM BEST OF SHOW: SCHNEIDERSBÜRO.
Roland may have made a big leap into modular and Eurorack. But the company did so right next to the Schneidersbüro “superbooth,” home to Andreas Schneider and his long-running Berlin synth boutique and more recent ALEX4 distributor. There, all manner of synth wildness spilled over table after table of wacky gear. Roland themselves almost seemed like they wanted to crowd in on the action; they were spitting distance from Eurorack originator Dieter Doepfer himself. It seems some Roland product rep even appropriated a large number of colored knob caps out of Dieter’s gumball machine to liven up one of the AIRA demo units.
And at the center of all of this is the legendary Herr Schneider and his team. They have been boldly championing the work of brave independent synth builders on both sides of the sea to anyone who will listen – perhaps over one of their infamous glasses of absinth-plus-bubbly that start to get poured more briskly toward the end of each trade show day. And it seems that even industry heavyweights are now considering the impossible, embracing ideas that were once far too niche, too difficult, and too weird.
The AIRA modular was undoubtedly the most talked-about product of the show. But then it has to be observed that even the AIRA was in orbit around the Schneiders’ booth – and that, invariably, it was that booth that attracted the greatest wide-eyed crowds. There, they got to see devices that would never make it to mass-production, down to even breathalyzer-to-CV inputs or KOMA’s “quad” hat, a construction helmet with portruding speakers.
Full disclosure: CDM’s own MeeBlip is distributed by ALEX4; I’m fortunate to play a duo with Andreas this Thursday in Berlin at the unofficial post-Messe get-together, one spotlighting a lot of the American builders visiting for the show. But then, what I’m describing – this ability to draw people in – is something I’ve experienced first-hand. Andreas is one of the loudest voices (literally) for the industry, to buy stuff that’s lovingly made, that’s weird and wild and not boring.
If you see the trend as Eurorack, you’re missing the point. Schneiders proves again and again that music gear that’s fun and weird and cool can win out in the end. And for creating what was unquestionably the center of gravity in all of Hall 5.1, Andreas and company fully deserve a Best of Show.
And congratulations to Malekko, Endorphin.es, Analogue Systems, Sound Machines, Fraptools, Make Noise, Soulsby, Vermona, E-RM, Tiptop, Verbos, Doepfer, 4MS, Abstract Data, Kenton, Polytec, Pittsburgh, Koma, Haken, Macbeth, Abstract Data, I’m forgetting some and the orchestra is about to play me off — all of the folks who make being in this booth so interesting. (Plus a shout out to our neighbors at Moog, as we’re all continuing a very long legacy.)
CDM BEST OF SHOW: Bastl Instruments.
I don’t know how to put this: Bastl deserve a Best of Best of Show.
Let’s keep this simple:
The Czech-based Bastl Instruments had the single best booth I’ve ever seen at a music trade fair – complete with mechanical, robotically-driven percussion.
They’ve built an entire line of modules in no time flat.
With wood panels and meticulously handmade metal knobs and even a modular wooden booth assembly that would make IKEA jealous, they’ve returned the notion of hand crafting to the world.
Their stuff fits together, works together, and anyone can understand why it exists in the world because – well, it’s fun.
And isn’t that was musical “play” is all about?
And they were apparently glad to win, as this is what happened moments after the awarding of the trophy:
We’ve still got more to share from Messe, but thanks to all of you for giving us a great reason to be there. And of course, stick around CDM to celebrate invention all year round.
Got some picks of your own? Let us know in comments!