The other side of NAMM: For a different take on the latest in new music products from last week’s NAMM show, we welcome James Grahame of Retro Thing. James runs Reflex Audio Systems, so he’s able to bring us the perspective of an independent music maker on what goes on behind the scenes at music manufacturers. -PK

Winter NAMM is home to more music product introductions than any
other trade show on Earth. Manufacturers typically plan product
releases anywhere from 6 to 24 months in advance, which means the
stuff being shown today was probably hatched in R&D labs sometime
during 2004. Each manufacturer works in (relative) secrecy in an
attempt to come up with the next Clever Idea. And — occasionally —
they arrive at the show with their shiny new toys only to discover
that everyone else had the same Clever Idea.

This year’s Clever Idea was the 5 octave USB/MIDI keyboard
controller, as companies rushed to fill the “high” end of the home
recording market. The result was a flood of me-too keyboards from
Korg (K61), E-mu (Xboard 61), Behringer (UMX61), M-Audio (Axiom 61),
and Novation’s bizarrely capitalized ReMOTE 61 SL . This is great
news for consumers, since manufacturers will be forced to slash
prices and one-up each other’s software bundles to compete. Ed: I agree, but in fairness: M-Audio and Novation both previously had 61-key keyboards. Looks like these are cheap to manufacture and most have already been selling well; CDM has regularly railed about the lack of more keyboards with a 5 or more octaves. So maybe they’re following our lead. -PK

The computer buzz phrases this year were Universal Binaries (Mac
software that runs natively on the new MacIntel machines) and Dual
Core Support, referring to software that can take full advantage of
multi-core chips from AMD and Intel. Ableton impressed the daylights
out of me by rolling out a Universal Binary version of Live 5.2 in
time for NAMM. They’re promising dual-core support “by the fall.” Ed: In other words, Ableton will have multi-threaded operations in that upcoming release; some audio applications like Logic already contain multithreaded code and thus can take advantage of the new machines once they ship universal binaries, which in Apple’s case will be February. -PK

Other software manufacturers are scrambling to roll out universal and
dual core updates as quickly as possible. Several programmers
mentioned that Apple’s early delivery of Intel-based computers is
painful, because they’re forced to juggle the development of
universal binary versions with work on future releases.

NAMM is first and foremost a wholesale tradeshow. A simple 10×10 foot
booth costs US$2500 to rent, not including signage, brochures, goodies,
transportation and hotel expenses. Major players drop ten times that.
In exchange, manufacturers get a chance to meet one-on-one with music
store owners, purchasers, and international distributors. The
interest shown in new product lines at this show (along with press
coverage) often dictates a product’s success or failure. This is one
reason you’ll often see announcements stating that gear will be
available “In the second quarter” or “In May.” It gives manufacturers
the opportunity to gauge market acceptance before ramping up
production. If it turns out that a dozen other manufacturers
announced competitive products, there’s a good chance that a few will
transform their suddenly uncompetitive toys into vaporware that never
sees the light of day. Of course, the more common reason that
products are available “real soon now” is that programmers and
engineers are feverishly debugging and tweaking products that can’t
wait until next year for release.

Here’s a list of cool gear from the show that might not get the same
press coverage as popular gadgets like Dave Smith’s fantastic new
$1200-ish Evolver Keyboard and Roland’s immensely tweakable $600-ish
SH-201 synth:

Euphonix MC Media Application Controller: Wow. This control
surface could become my next best friend. It includes 56 LCD
definable smart switches, 4 faders, 9 rotary controllers, along with
a full-sized keyboard, trackball and jog wheel.

Edirol R-09: Edirol’s new
24-bit WAV/mp3 recorder includes built-in stereo mics in a sexy and
well thought-out package. Its best feature? An appealing $399 price
tag. Perfect for field recording, film work, or (dare I say it?) bootlegging. Ed: Think that’s $400 street (MAP), $450 list. -PK

Vestax Controller One turntable instrument:
thing is a DJ’s delight. It includes “Note Mode” that play musical
notes from the turntable and offers wicked MIDI speed control in
conjunction with Vestax’s “drone records.” We’ll be hearing this one
everywhere soon. The show unit was decked out in glistening red
paint, like a Ferrari. Ed: See the more boring black below, and CDM’s previous write-up on this odd but intriguing instrument.

Z.Vex Effects Pedals: Zack Vex’s
hand-painted effect units are earning a cult following among guitar
players. They make great hands-on toys for electronic musicians, too.
Besides, Zack is cool.

JoMox M-Resonator: Juergen Michaelis based this
“Analog Filtermachine” on his incredibly weird Resonator Neuronium
(which was also on display at the show). The front panel is slathered
with a random assortment of knobs and cryptic arrows, almost as if a
Learn-to-Dance book slipped into the front panel design.

Alesis DM5 electronic drum kit:
Alesis has done it again.
$699 gets you an affordable percussionist’s delight, perfect for
cramped apartments.

Korg padKONTROL: Korg
is fighting back against Native Instruments domination of the letter
K, and this looks to be a great piece of kit with sixteen backlit
touch-sensitive trigger pads and their famous assignable X-Y
touchpad. For some odd reason, the Korg website shows it with all of
the button backlights on, resulting in salmon pink trigger pads. The
production unit is much more respectable.

Bitstream 3X: The
Bitstream MIDI controller was developed by Wave Idea and is now
marketed by Chinese manufacturer CME. They’re planning to unleash it
for a mere $399.99, which is a fantastic deal for 35 knobs, 8
sliders, and 16 buttons. Includes a dual-axis analog joystick and
infrared controller, so you can wave your hand artistically in front
of your rig while performing.

Special mention goes to Propellerhead Software for their ultra-cool
booth with distinctive low-light bar/lounge ambience. It was the
perfect Ying to the guitar hall’s over-the-edge yang.

Too-Cool-Older-Guy awards go to Dave Smith — who’s sporting a very
distinguished grey beard — and music author/editor Jim Aikin, who
grooved like a teenager during his Live 5 demo.

More on NAMM:

For more of James coverage of NAMM, check out his site:

Roland SH-201 Synthesizer: Affordable Hands-On Synthesis (And yes, I’m with James that this is a cool, fun, cheap synth!)

NAMM SCHMAMM – Where are the Chord Organs? (a headline you probably won’t see on CDM)

Reflex Products:

For more on James’ company, see CDM’s coverage of some of his products:

Another Thing With Knobs: Sonia

Vintage Commodore 64 SID Synthesizers: Reborn on PCI (Mac/PC)