Best of NAMM - Day 1

The editors' picks for standout instruments and gear at NAMM 2012. On the first day we encountered the game-changing Line 6 StageScape system, Ivory 2's new American Steinway virtual piano, a Nord organ with real drawbars, and tiny but mighty anolog synths from Moog and Arturia.
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ANAHEIM, CA -- If I were to sum up NAMM after only one full show day, I'd say the show this year is characterized by a whole lot of products that answer the perennial question, "Why doesn't somebody make a _____ ?" with "Well, somebody did." As is customary, I got in Wednesday afternoon and, because Keyboard exhibits at NAMM, was able to get into the hall early.

The first sight I came upon was former Korg USA product chief and now Keyboard columnist Jerry Kovarsky just playing beautifully on a Kawai MP-10 at the ILIO booth. The Kawai was only the controller, though, as Joe Ierardi at Synthogy has made a new addition to the Ivory family: American Concert D. German and American Steinways might as well be made by two different piano companies (both good), and this rendition is wonderfully expressive--almost like the one Keith Jarrett played on Rio. (Shameless plug: Check out the initmate interview with Keith in our March issue.) Browse the video player below to check out a bit of Jerry's chops.

One of the aforementioned game-changers at the show is actually in the live sound area, and represents a major expansion beyond the guitar-oriented market for Line 6. This is only a surprise if you don't know that Line 6 founder Marcus Ryle invented the ADAT and is a hell of a piano player. (We so miss his piano-bar sing-alongs at the Hilton.) But I digress. Line 6's new baby is the StageScape live sound system. It consists of "smart" speakers that know which way they're pointing, i.e., vertically for front-of-house or horizontally for monitor use. (Hey, your phone does it, so why not speakers?) These integrate with the M20D digital mixer, which doesn't look or operate like any mixer you've ever seen. It's a totally visual, object-oriented environment with an iPad-like touchscreen. You assign channels by adding instrument icons to a virtual stage, and change what we'd normally think of as channel parameters (EQ, dynamics, reverb, etc.) on an X/Y touchpad page where the four corners have, for example, terms like "bright," "body," "punch," and "open." An expert mode is available for those who prefer a more conventional looking interface, but it's no less slick, with tricks like pinch gestures to adjust the Q on EQ bands. It's modular, scalable, and if you can't get your act sounding great with this system, it's time to take up accounting.

I went hands-on with the Nord C2D combo organ shortly thereafter, but wasn't able to determine whether there are any under-the-hood improvements to complement the four sets of physical drawbars (plus the pedal drawbars, of course) that replace the "drawbuttons" that have been so polarizing on previous Nords. Know what? Doesn't matter. The thing sounds absolutely beautiful, and though the drawbar infrastructure is fader-like, they have the perfect amount of click when you move them. Again, video is in the player below.

With the Doepfer Dark Energy, Tom Oberheim SEM, Dave Smith Tetra, Korg Monotron, and other such items, we've seen a resurgence of what I'll call the "small-but-mighty desktop analog synth" in recent years. That continues in 2012 with a couple of wee beasties that are real standouts. The Moog Minitaur is essentially the guts of the Taurus 3, minus the pedals and presets, and it's completely controllable via MIDI or USB. Check the vids for an example of how absolutely monstrously fat this baby sounds. 

One of the most respected players in the virtual vintage game, Arturia, has now put a toe in the real analog waters with the Minibrute, a monophonic two-octave synth with a sharper sound than the Minitaur. The oscillator uses a waveform mixer, so you can dial in and stack desired amounts of saw, PWM, and so on. Each waveform has a built-on waveshaper, so cranked to extremes, you get some very warm overdrive. Picture an Arp Axxe and an Octave-Plateau cat having a baby, and you've got a good sketch of both the sound and the interface vibe. It has CV and gate inputs in addition to MIDI and USB, and both sounds and handles much more boutique-y than it's $499 street price might lead you to expect. That's right: $499, real analog, killer sound, tons of control.

I saw a lot more, and I'm sure I'm leaving a few things out, but I'll be updating this blog at least daily through Sunday, January 22. Videos and photos go up a lot more quickly than anything involving me sitting down and typing (I'm booked every half hour for four days solid--it's insane but I'm having fun) so check the Twitter and Flickr feeds on this page, or follow us directly on Twitter at @keyboardmag.