Friday, January 23, 2015

Other Thoughts

Random thoughts from the NAMM floor: 

Some devices looked cool, but I was completely unable to figure out how they worked:  The Dave Smith TEMPEST drum machine, the Korg Electribe, the Elekton AnalogDrums - all tech that I think looks cool, but beyond hitting stop and start, couldn't work out how to change patterns, highlight instruments, change sounds..   it may just be something where the manual MUST be consulted, but I try to fancy myself a knowledgeable techie, and not to have ANY idea how to work these was a bit off putting (naturally it's their problem, not mine…. HA!)

There was a huge renaissance in modular synths, between Moog, Vermona, Buchla, Dave Smith (Again), Oberheim, Doepfer, and so many others.  Mini and maxi racks of modules with cables patched all over the place.  Most of the sounds coming from these areas were very beep-boop-bloop-skssssssshhhhh.  I walked up to one and started to play with it - and spent the better part of a minute trying to figure out how to get the wailing siren sound to stop going.  I took off the headphones and walked away - this is not anything I need to concern myself with.  I saw online that I had only just missed Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, who was apparently quite impressed with the same unit.  I am at peace with not knowing this technology.

Rows and rows of extremely high end microphones - my friend Steve had me put on headphones and insisted I sing a little into one of his favorite mics and hear how amazing it sounded.  It sounded like me singing badly in a noisy tradeshow, but I concede it represented that sound VERY ACCURATELY.

There were a thousand variations of a simple theme - a set of glowing pads you plug into your computer to make the drum sounds with your fingers.  I get it.  And nobody could explain why THEIR version was any better or worse than anyone else's.

There was an alternate keyboard called a "Seaboard" - it looks like a keyboard that has been pooped out - it is black, and squishy:  The idea is that you can change the sound by pressing into the soft key - adding a new layer of pressure sensitivity.  I played it briefly and ran screaming looking for Purell:  The thing belonged in a David Cronenberg movie and was PROFOUNDLY CREEPY.

Booth Babes seem to be on the wane, thankfully - I only saw them at 2 booths - one for a DJ lighting booth company, and one for a second-tier heavy metal guitar company (who proudly had Playboy Bunnies at the booth signing guitars, and a huge throng of iPhone wielding fans).  Mostly, it was guys who looked almost exactly like me, earnestly talking about their cool toys.  That's just nice. 

There was one booth of electric guitars that had a distinctively weathered look - they all looked like they had been buried for 50 years, dug up and just had the dirt blown off.  Post apocalyptic guitars - I actually really liked them. 

That's it for now…    

NAMM 2015 Part 2

Steve was on a plane to Asia, but I hooked up with his friend Jerry:  Jerry was an electrical engineer who designed data centers for hospitals back in the day - we chatted about several Houston-area clients we both knew - as well as an incredible keyboardist:  Steve had told me about him 20 years ago, and it was fun to finally meet him:  He now is a full time musician, playing piano on cruise ships and in lounges near his home - he relies on technology, but is very non-technical in his music - never wants to use a computer, just wants good keyboards that make good sounds with a minimum of fuss.  Steve has pressured him for years to get digital, but he's resisted.  Today at NAMM, his white whale was to scour the floor looking for SOMEONE who will make a specific type of floor pedal set so he can play baselines with his feet….  His specific requirements are actually pretty esoteric, and it was fun to watch him talk to the reps and get them to finally understand what and why….

For me, it was about revisiting my favorite booths and going deeper on a few things:  Here's what I loved today:

Of course I went back to the Prophet booth - and played those beautiful synths for quite a while.  I really connected with them, and if I can be said to have one gearlust thing, it's for the Prophet 12.  It's just amazing. 

Right next door was the Moog booth, and I had a chance to watch a legend:  Suzanne Ciani is a synth pioneer who helped create some of the first electronic product IDs - the singing coke bubbles, the beeping GE dishwasher ads:  She formed an ad agency, made a shedload of money in the 1980s, and then retired to do new age music…. But she's famous for her 1970s and 1980s appearances on Letterman and 321 Contact where she explained the coolness of synths….  She was at the Moog booth and did an impromptu concert on the giant modular synths.  I was thrilled.

Around the corner I found a booth by Modus:  This is a red haired synth freak named Paul Maddox who was a total PPG nut like I was, and built his own "versions" of the PPG in the dark days when Waldorf was not doing very well…. He got funding and has made his own beautiful synths called the Modulus 002 - his backer refers to it as "The Aston Martin of Synths" and it is just beautifully made, with a huge distinctive sound.  While I was there, the guys from Waldorf were there praising him for keeping the dream alive.  If I had a spare $5k, I wouldn't mind having that great synth but alas, priorities.  They were just so friendly and kind, I felt like staying there all afternoon.

Up in the Roland booth, I was paying more attention to their marketing - turns out they're making a BIG play at having their entry level electronic drum kits targeted at KIDS - the videos, and in the demo booths were 9-11 year olds hitting the skins.  It inspired me to make sure my kit at home is set up and ready for Isaac, since he said he wants to play.   I played with their other synths, and was just… meh….

I visited the "basement" which is where the smaller companies are, and chatted up French software makers, custom guitar guys, and appreciated the "fringes" of the music industry - these were guys trying to break in, and had good, boutique products. 

I wandered into the DJ and Lighting area - got my fill of smoke machine fog, but it was fun to see how much these little units can do now with lasers and LEDs - so much more flexible than the lights I used to run at the Rogue nightclub in Minneapolis in 1993…

Bottom line:  It was so much fun to be at the show, and I kept my gear lust in check - literally the only things I would have a hard time resisting were the Modulus and the Prophet.  And neither would ever leave my studio - they're as much art as instrument. 

I had a food truck lunch of SAUSAGES, and in the line chatted with two Taiwanese ladies who really wanted to work on their English - we had a fun talk about running, half marathons (proudly told them about Pamela's run), how cold MN can be, how Tokyo is so cool, but how Taiwan is cooler….  It was a fun way to pass the time in a very long line.

We left after 6 hours, and I got a short nap in - to recover from a horrible night where my neighbors literally did not go to sleep the entire night, and boy were they chatting and laughing.  I called the front desk 4 times on them - and was not very well rested.  But now I'm caught up, and need to consider what to do with my evening.  I might just go find an in-n-out burger and a movie theater, or just chill out - no big ambitions. 

And that's the update - I need to get to the airport by noon tomorrow, so I'm thinking of what I can do between now and then.  I may not have big plans. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NAMM 2015

Sometime long long ago (maybe 2001 or 2002) I was invited to a tradeshow for musical instrument manufacturers called NAMM.  This is a twice-a-year event, but the January show is well known as the time when every manufacturer shows off the newest coolest stuff.  And even in cases where the gear isn't particularly NEW, it's a place to see EVERYTHING that is out there. 

I was invited by my friend Steve.  I had met Steve back in 1992 when I was doing midi backing tracks for a living - Steve was a personal client who liked music by Phil Collins, Kenny Rogers, La Cage aux Follies, and John Denver.  I arranged 5 or 6 tracks for his live show (he sang and played guitar, my tracks did the drums, strings, bass, and everything else).  Steve and I decided we liked each other, and as we both moved forward in our lives (me moving into IT consulting, he moving into music tour management), we kept in touch with an annual call.

So in 2001 (or 2002) Steve called and said "hey, let's go to NAMM - I got us some badges".  The show's not open to the public, so you need to be sponsored - back then it was Taylor Guitars that had us as guests (Steve's a huge guitar nut, and had bought a dozen guitars from them over the years).  We only went for one day, but it was one of the most magical days of my geek life - I shot a hundred pictures, played with every single synch, chatted up the manufacturers, and generally had a wonderful time.  

Fast forward to 2015, and Steve called up last month - "I got passes, let's go to NAMM".  In the intervening years, I got higher up in consulting, and he moved into strangely stratospheric levels of the music business.  He had something to do with the Hologram Tupac Shakur (he claims he didn't do any of the design or creative, but he was brought in to land the project and get it working in time for the show at Coachella).  He got the passes, but could only spend one day - he's flying out in the evening to go to Kuala Lumpur to meet a new K-Pop sensation to prepare for their tour of the US.  This is how he rolls.

SO, Pamela and I talked it over, and I said YES, HELL YES I will go to gear Disneyland.  And it is Disneyland - it's in the Anaheim convention center right next to Disneyland.  I got a flight, a hotel, a car, and time off from building the new business....

I flew in late last night, got about 6 hours of sleep, and Steve picked me up bright and early (he was worried about parking, thought getting there 90 min before doors opened would be the smart move). We had a leisurely breakfast and hit the show floor.

It was just as crazy as I remembered it:  If anything it felt a little more hectic, but that may be 14 more years of age on my bones not tolerating the muss and fuss.  That said, Steve and I actually look almost identical to how we did back then - a little more gray, but we are essentially the exact same.  Same can't be said for some of the very strange and creepy big-hair rockers with conspicuous baldspots and obvious plastic surgery.  There was one guy who I swear looked exactly like my dad, but with a leather skull cap and floor length leather duster, trying out acoustic guitars.  (Dad, was that you?)

Steve loves gear even more than I do - with the added lust for very expensive acoustic guitars - he is clearly planning to buy a $12,000 Martin guitar sometime in the next month.  The way he was looking at that thing was flat out INDECENT.  But Steve is also a king schmoozed - he was making connections with the "artist relations" people at all of the manufacturers - the artists he work with will publically use gear, but we only ask for a discount - not freebies.  And of course he was whispering to me the whole time "Do you want one of those?  I could get you that for half off - just say the word".

I am really in a different place right now with gear:  I do acknowledge lustful thoughts, but now that I'm playing with bands, I have a much more realistic view of what I want vs what I need:  I may love that gorgeous keyboard, but I don't want to schlep it out to a gig.  That mixer looks nice, but hey, my band already has one, and if I bought one, I'd be the one responsible for bringing it and setting it up...   So while Steve is a wonderful devil on the shoulder, I've got a lot more realism about gear.  He also has roadies at his beck and call - his gear gets set up for him.  It'll be a few years before Isaac is ready to move my stuff for me. 

THAT all said, there were a few things that I loved, and here they are:

One of the first lust-worthy keyboards from the late 1970s was the Sequential Prophet 5 - Dave Smith designed it, and it was THE keyboard to have.  I never had one, but I respected them.  Well, Dave Smith has a big booth and a lot of very nice instruments - including the Tempest drum machine, the Prophet 12 and Pro-2 Synthesizers, and the new Prophet 6 all-analog.  I spent a LOT of time in that booth playing those things - they would incredible, and they FEEL like well crafted machines - made in the USA with heavy metal fittings and smooth turning knobs...  I am in love with these instruments...  but if I were to get one, it would never leave the house - this is for the studio only.

One of the big manufacturers, KORG, has taken a lot of chances in the past year, and have surpassed old peers Yamaha and Roland in their innovation.  I have a Korg KingKorg synthesizer which sounds great (not as great as a Prophet, truth be told), and I've enjoyed seeing what they're building.  WELL, they just rebuilt a classic synth from the 1970s called the ARP Odyssey - circuit for circuit - and I spent 15 minutes playing with it - it was really cool.

My go-to synths in the 1990s were from Waldorf:  Their founder, Stefan, was there at NAMM in a TINY booth - they've become more of a small boutique group now, but he was showing me his newest IPAD application, which replicates my favorite drum synth they built in 1989 called the Attack.  He took my info and wants me to help test it - so that will be very fun.

I know it sounds like all I like is the Retro, but in truth, it's more about having that immediate access to knobs and sliders and having tools to quickly shape the sound.  The fact that manufacturers are coming back around to that is what makes me so happy. 

There were more than a few "meh" moments:  Steve was talking non-stop about these in-ear molded earphones that people are using for stage monitoring - how the sound is just incredible.  We spent 30 minutes at a booth where he was just chatting them up about the tech, and I was pressured into trying on a pair - they plugged it into this proprietary $2500 iPod (with super duper converters or something) - I listened to a few songs while Steve kept on schmoozing.  The earphones are custom fitted and cost up to $2500 as well.  So I was listening to Steely Dan "Deacon Blues" on $5000 of equipment.  And to tell the truth, it sounded ok... but it did not actually blow my mind. 

I went up to see the Roland booth - I usually like their stuff, but was a bit put off by their new JD-Xi, which as far as I can see is EXACTLY the same thing as two other manufacturers have had out for 4 years (the Novation MiniNova and Korg MicroKorg) with a garish LED job - trailing not leading.  They had a new "flagship" synths on a pedestal (not functioning), and the one other piece of gear that looked promising was hooked up wrong and the keyboard didn't work, so I couldn't even try it. 

The most exciting thing at the Yamaha stand was their "40 years of Synths" museum section - which was basically the same as the "25 years of Synths" section they had last time I was at NAMM.  Their old gear is much cooler than anything they're doing now. 

After 6 hours of padding about, we were both tired, so we headed out and had dinner at Steve's all time favorite restaurant - the Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott's Berry Farm.  Yep.  I had fried chicken, biscuits, and boysenberry pie.  He dropped me back at the hotel and hightailed it to the airport for 18 hours of flights (14 to Hong Kong, then 4 more to Kuala Lumpur).

I have another full day I can be there, and will be meeting one of Steve's other old friends there, to give him the lay of the land...   It will be another fun gear-filled day, and there are a whole lot more things I can't wait to see...   More as it happens!

There were a few