Musikmesse 2012 Gear Report

March 27, 2012
By Peter Kirn
There are two things you should know about Musikmesse, the international music trade show held every March. First, it's big - really big. The Messe convention center is actually 11 halls; it feels like it ate half of its home of Frankfurt, Germany. That sets the stage for the world's largest music show, of which our beloved keyboards and electronic instruments are just one part. img

Second, Messe is German--though exhibitors from all over the world attend. You can easily wind up rubbing shoulders with Germany's astounding population of electronic sound geeks and producers, all hovering over booths full of oddities and analog gear. Keyboard magazine in California has plenty of reason to be jealous of our German counterparts in music technology journalism, who are graced by epic collections of vintage wonders like the PPG Waveterm. A single escalator separated the new Jupiter-50, which we covered last week, from some original Jupiters.

Third, Messe is big. Wait, covered that.

So, since it's so big, what was the big news that might impact your music making? Here are some highlights.

The Company That Stole the Show: Propellerhead
For producers, the news that dwarfed everything else came the night before Messe started. Propellerhead, makers of Reason, gathered developers and press into a surprise announcement Tuesday evening in a packed hotel conference room. First, there was an iOS app called Figure, due for imminent approval by Apple and with a tidy interface Propellerhead say is designed for working comfortably in places like your bus commute. A new mobile app isn't necessarily earth-shaking, but what's underneath is impressive. Figure is powered by the Reason engine, even though it runs on mobile gadgets rather than desktop.

Propellerhead moved from that news to a bombshell (for them, at least): Reason, long closed to plug-ins, would open its Rack to third-party development. Propellerhead is even taking a page from Apple's app stores. A centralized marketplace will let you buy add-ons from vendors like Korg and SonicCharge, then associate those apps with your Reason license. Unlike a conventional plug-in, these add-ons integrate with Reason as if they were part of the program, sharing the interface, undo functionality, and even the patch cords on the back of the Rack. Very much unlike plug-ins, they'll also be incapable of crashing the host application. (An instrument can crash, but Reason won't crash with it, via a technique called "sandboxing.")

There was nothing to try officially, though there was plenty of buzz and a number of the participating developers were on-hand. (They seemed pleased enough with the prospects for the tech, as I joined them for Frankfurt's signature green sauce and apfelwein. The main work in adapting to the format, they say, is just conforming to Reason's user interface.)

Just as with Reason itself, reactions were divided, but the announcement had lots of people talking. We'll have to watch over coming months to see what the result looks like, and if any other DAWs or production tools catch app store fever.
Lots more after the slide show, so scroll down ...

Roland Wireless Connect
We covered Roland's Jupiter announcement, including our exclusive first look at the new Jupiter-50. So let's talk about the Roland news you might not know: the company is making wireless connectivity with an iPhone a feature of a lot of its keyboards (and drums).

See the hands-on video (below) for how it works, but the idea is that you add a wireless USB adapter to your Roland hardware, then record your playing on your iPhone or iPad - no wires needed, and no computer or other hardware needed. Connection is nearly automatic, and then both notes and audio are recorded by the device. You can also play back that recording and jam along.

You'll mainly use this at home because you need an available wireless LAN network and Internet connection (well, unless you're recording your V-Accordion at the local Starbucks). But it does make recording and playing along a lot of fun. The JUNO-Di and -Gi, new Jupiters, and Lucina AX-09 are all supported, among others.

Evo Series One
The Endeavor Evo Series One is an unconventional keyboard with touch sensors. The expressivity works surprisingly well: you attack a note normally, then slide your fingers up and down the key to add modulation. Sensor data can be routed via MIDI or Open Sound Control to a software instrument of your choice - an Ethernet connection is onboard - or you can use the maker's own synth, built for the keyboard. The keys are lengthened to provide more touch space; that looks difficult to play, but adapts easily to normal hand positions, since you're most likely to bend or modulate notes only after you've played them.

The bad news is that this futuristic instrument will set you back 2,700 Euros (nearly $4,000 US), but Endeavor tells us they'll have a far more affordable small version later this year, more in line with ordinary controller keyboard pricing.

Studiologic Sledge and Numa Compact
NAMM in January played host to a lot of new synths; Messe had one big launch, which was the Studiologic Sledge. The styling may say School Bus, with its big size, massive knobs, and yellow plastic body. But the synth itself, powered by Waldorf technology and full of tasty wavetables and modeling, provides some atypically-deep synthesis with hands-on control. It's a digital synth in the body of an analog synth, in other words, with one-for-one physical control of rich digital DSP, three oscillators, selectable filters, lots of modulation and effects, and 66 original PPG wavetables you can assign to oscillator 1. (One of the demo units didn't yet have the requisite firmware to do this, but you can also morph through that table of 66 with the pot.)

An arpeggiator and MIDI clock seal the deal. Despite the "Sledge" name, it's also under 20 pounds. European pricing is set at a thousand Euros; we're waiting on official US pricing and availability.

Studiologic was also showing off the Numa Compact, which packs a full 88 weighted keys into a keyboard that weighs under 14 pounds. A lot of master keyboards have complicated menus, but even in the slim-line body, Studiologic has managed to include accessible controls for common playback parameters and sounds. There are some nice-sounding piano, electric piano, and organ, pad, and clav sounds, as well, onboard, with up to two layers and effects. Control features (via MIDI connectors and USB) are fairly basic, but you do get five MIDI parameters, including bank, program change, channel, and octave.

Alpha Pianos
The Alpha Piano was perhaps the sexiest resident of the keyboard hall. Designed by Porsche Design Studio, that oversized body houses an entire Bösendorfer concert grand action. While electronic keyboards typically use a combination of weight and levers to simulate a hammer, an actual hammer keyboard necessarily feels different. (Blame physics and your sensitivity.) The Alpha actually attaches that whole action, then uses sensors to translate the hammer action into realistic sound. The keyboard is intended to be used with a computer - you can even have a computer built-in to play the Vienna Symphonic Library-developed sounds, with 1,200 samples per key meticulously recreating a Bösendorfer Imperial.

The Austrian co-designers and co-founders worked for Bösendorfer (one as a product manager, one doing repairs), so take the acoustic instruments seriously. Rock stars, the Alpha could be your keyboard.
Viscount Physis Piano
You might remember Viscount from the late '90s and early 2000s as making some clonewheel organs (such as the OB-3 Squared) and synths (notably the OB-12) under the Oberheim name. They're playing a totally different game now, headed up by the new Physis Piano. This stage piano offers physical modeling-based acoustic piano, Rhodes, Wurly, Clav, and mallet sounds, supplemented by a wide variety of sample-based general-purpose sounds. Most striking is the flush capacitive touch panel, which spans nearly the entire width of the unit. Their currently sparse webpage alludes to this panel facilitating custom user interfaces. We don't know about North American distribution or availability yet, but if it hits our shores at the right price, and amounts to something like a more affordable Roland V-Piano that does more than just acoustic piano sounds, it could get some serious traction with gigging pros and weekend warriors alike. (Physis Piano text by Stephen Fortner.)

Mode Machines
German-built but internationally distributed, Mode Machines had a veritable toy store of electronic goodies. A number of designs are variations on the x0xb0x, the open source hardware originated by Limor Fried that clones the TB-303. The x0xb0x is a great-sounding, well-loved instrument, but it's been hard to get because of supply constraints; the Mode Machines crew have redesigned it around suppliers, many of them German and European, for a more accessible model they claim sounds superior.

If you prefer your groove boxes in a different flavor, you can also use the signature synth of chip music, the Commodore 64's unique SID, via a SID-powered groove box.

But the Mode Machines crew got the most attention for their cheeky clones of classic gear, including the Fairchild model 670 compressor (which now seems truly absurdly large in 2012), and a Minimoog knock-off. These were unfortunately not available for listening, so they remain something of a mystery.

RME on iPad
Alesis was on hand with their ioMIX, a dock with a built-in mixer that looks useful for quick recording to an iPad. But the bigger surprise for iPad recording may be this: RME, makers of high-end multichannel audio, now support Apple's tablet. The Fireface UCX interface connects to your computer, of course, via USB or FireWire, but it also connects to the iPad for mobile recording via USB. Just get ready for some seriously un-iPad-like specs: think 36 channels, 24-bit, 192 kHz audio on an iPad.
Tenth anniversaries were big at NAMM: the microKORG, Yamaha Motif, and Nord Electro all turn ten. The Electro gets quite an anniversary present, though: the 4D SW 61 updates the design with some new features, particularly in the organ department.

Weighing just over 15 pounds, you still get a semi-weighted Waterfall keybed. What you add to the synth side of the Electro's personality is beefed-up organ functionality from Clavia's organ flagship, the C2D. That includes the C2D drawbars and a brand-new tone wheel engine, with enhanced click modeling and rotary speaker emulation and drive. The result, of course: better organ sounds. The 4D also includes new playability features, string resonance, and delay effects.
If you're old enough to remember when Gotye's now-viral Lowrey Cotillion competed with Conns, Yamaha Electones, and other theatre-style console organs to be the centerpiece of your living room, you may also remember Wersi. Since then, they've maintained a far higher profile in Europe than in the USA, but under the new management of, they're looking to change that. The Pegasus Wing, in particular, is a PC-based single-manual keyboard running an embedded OS. Both appearance- and functionality-wise, the first impression is that the genetic engineer from South Park fused a clonewheel organ, arranger workstation, and a Neko. We're getting our hands on a sample soon, and will let you know just how all that DNA splices. At first listen, there are some remarkably pristine, realistic sounds coming out of this beast. (Wersi text by Stephen Fortner).

Contributing editor Peter Kirn is based in Berlin, on the other side of Germany from Frankfurt, where he writes and is (slowly) learning German. 
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