The US musical instrument show NAMM dropped the usual amount of gear news on us – now here’s the highlights reel.
The trend lines are pretty easy to spot. Component prices are coming down, and that’s shifting what’s on the market. Modular gear does more. Polysynths and wavetable synths are suddenly in. Audio interfaces with studio-grade specs are now weirdly cheap.
The historic remake trend is showing no signs of abating – not at the high end (KORG’s ARP 2600) nor the low end (Behringer).
If you wanted some big breakthrough in music-making, probably this isn’t your year. Yes, MIDI 2.0 is here, but it’s too young to see any compelling real-world use yet. Yes, Akai has another MPC that runs standalone as well as with a computer, but we’re still mostly dependent on Windows and macOS. These might be the areas to watch in the coming years, since there’s a limit to how much wavetable synthesis and polyphony you can cram into a keyboard and make a usable product.
That is, watch this space – MIDI 2.0 being adopted could be the first step toward seeing devices that make more use of high-resolution expression and more dynamic connections between different instruments and software.
That’s not to complain, though. Sure, music gear has a lot of 70s and 80s flashbacks, but we’re also spoiled for choice in a business that has loads of offerings that are accessible to a wide range of people.
So let’s have a look – since there’s way too much to watch, a selection of the best videos.
Software doesn’t really demo well and doesn’t need physical distribution, so it makes sense that software news generally spreads year round. But the big software news that did debut was Universal Audio’s Luna recording solution – free software, integrated of course with their hardware. I’ll explain this in a separate article, but here’s a demo:
This NAMM for electronic musicians was dominated by KORG – the first out of the gate with news, the most news, the most different kind of synth products … enough so that it would be easy to even forget their rich-sounding Wavestate synth, even though it was really the flagship new synth product from them. Here’s what it sounds like:
Here’s Cuckoo looking at sound design:
And yeah, of course there’s also Korg’s remake of the ARP 2600 (also labeled “FS” here, meaning maybe there really is a mini version coming):
Sequential’s Pro 3 oddly has some of the toughest competition from Sequential, but as I wrote previously, it is one of the more compelling new instruments out there. Cuckoo got an early look- and you can hear from none other than creator Dave Smith showing it off:
The MPC One is the hybrid computer/standalone MPC you might actually buy – more compact size, lower price, and some of the early kinks worked out from AKAI’s move into a new direction. I’m a little concerned about whether its horsepower will make it worth jumping from using a PC + controller, but someone will eventually nail this sort of hybrid. Synth Anatomy talked to Akai’s Andy Mac; see also how plug-ins work in an official video:
And audio tracks:
If it’s really a controller you want – or a standalone “hub” – Nektar have their new Aura.
The Udo Super 6 I missed in my underground synth round-up – and it’s definitely something new. FPGA-based, it’s an analog/digital hybrid, wrapped in a body that looks like it escaped from another decade, but in an alternative universe. Cuckoo gushes about the sound:
How do you top the mechanical-optical Gamechanger Audio pedal, or their rack-mounted high voltage plasma coil? Why, you need an optical-sensing spring-based reverb pedal, the Light Pedal. I’m sorry, this maker is just damned cool – making stuff you’d expect out of 1960s pulp scifi.
The Moog Subsequent 25 has a lot of the sound powers of the 37, but in a Sub Phatty form factor. Here’s Perfect Circuit with a sound demo:
I didn’t get talk about the Modal Electronics Argon8, but amidst a flurry of new polysynths, this might be the one to beat. Hammering home that point, Modal are now offering three versions, so you can find one that fits your fancy and budget – the 8M and 8X rounding out the line. If comments on this site are to be believed, a lot of you wish synths came in variants with different keybeds and sizes or a keyless version, so here you go. Synthtopia has a nice demo:
Wavetable is everywhere, but Nord are ahead of the curve by moving on to what may be the next returning trend, FM. And the FM engine in their Nordwave 2 looks really powerful, welcome news to fans of their performance synths:
The ASM Hydrasynth is a stupidly powerful new instrument and features the designer/product manager behind some ground-breaking gear from Akai and Arturia (Glen Darcey). I talked about it in September, but this month’s NAMM was its big public showcase, so here are just some sounds:
The Blad Kremier-created PULSAR-23 is also now on sale, which might just be the most interesting drum machine offering of 2020. There’s a big waiting list, and I think (?) it was at NAMM, so I’m counting it here. Honestly, fire your current booking, get some high paid techno gigs, use the cash to buy this. Wait, why am I telling you this? I should just go do that.
Doepfer are back with a joystick module – actually a pleasant surprise, as these sorts of components are not easy to come by these days:
I covered these instruments before, but here are deeper looks at the indie synths debuting this month.
The Liven 8bit Warps looks nicely mental:
Erica Synth’s own Girts debuts the DB-01 bassline in a jam.
Verbos have a full line of new modules:
4ms have a massive creation called the Ensemble Oscillators – 16 complex oscillators in a single unit:
Pittsburgh Modular, for their part, are doing loads of delays instead of loads of oscillators. Meet the Cascading Delay Network:
High-end audio interfaces are no longer an expensive proposition, it seems – but USB is here to stay.
Take the new SSL interfaces, which even include the companies’ 4000 series EQ and saturation. There’s something trippy about seeing a giant SSL knob, but then no one will mistake who these came from. Street price for this thing is just above a couple hundred bucks for the basic model, and comes with SSL software, too.
MOTU’s M Series are also out in the wild, and worth consideration:
There’s also a race to make audio interfaces that are less intimidating to new users. iZotope have tried that with their Spire interface; somewhere in between that kind of radical solution and a bread-and-butter box is the Audient Evo – a stylish box that still does mostly what the other boxes do, but with a “smart gain” feature and more modern looks. Now whether that’s really the biggest problem everyone faces or not, I don’t know. (Not to dismiss this, but I think the issues with desktop OSes and reliability are more daunting than how to set gain properly. Still, this could be a part of a larger puzzle.)
It’s not all USB interfaces, though. Presonus also have a full range of new gear, which SonicState details – including Thunderbolt and lots more IO. But prices of thesefeatures are also coming down.
And from left field…
The dream of alternative keyboard layouts never dies. Now there’s the Lumatone CORTEX, with a whopping 275 keys and RGB. So if you think it’s outrageous to spend four grand on a remake of the ARP 2600 and want something more forward-looking – well, clearly you have to spend your four grand on a microtonal keyboard instead, or you’re a damned hypocrite!
And yes, by far the weirdest new invention: a MIDI harmonica, from Sweden’s Father and Son.
If you dream of playing music on a hockey puck rather than a hamonica, then I suggest instead the Ariphon Orba. (Okay, they say “half an orange” and a gaming controller.) There is actual onboard sound capability, but it’s also a wireless MIDI controller. Like I said, some ideas just don’t go away.