Top Trends at NAMM

Well, we survived NAMM, and a number of trends emerged as sort of overarching themes of the show.  Everything Old Is New Again You could populate a dream keyboard rig entirely with stuff you would have seen in a copy

Well, we survived NAMM, and a number of trends emerged as sort of overarching themes of the show.

Everything Old Is New Again

You could populate a dream keyboard rig entirely with stuff you would have seen in a copy of Keyboard magazine from, say, 1978 — only it would all be new stuff that does exactly what the old stuff did, but for the most part, does it better. We’re not talking about just the same brands, but individual instruments where there’s a one-on-one correspondence between a storied vintage axe and its modern counterpart. Below is a table of what we would have picked to be in a “centerfold” in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and what we’d pick today.

 OLD NEW Hammond B-3
 Hammond New B-3 Mk. II
 Rhodes Mk I or II
 Rhodes Mark 7
 Minimoog D
Moog Minimoog Voyager
 Moog Taurus bass synth
Moog Taurus 3
 Sequential Pro-One
 Dave Smith Mopho Keyboard
 Sequential Prophet-5
 Dave Smith Prophet '08
 Anything involving Oberheim SEMs
 Tom Oberheim SEM
Yamaha CP70 or CP80 electric grand
 Yamaha CP-1 stage piano

We’re Sick of the Recession, So Let’s Stop Having It

NAMM 2009 fell right on the heels of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression: the subprime mortage market disintegrating, “too big to fail” financial institutions going belly-up, a massive taxpayer-funded bailout of America’s high-finance caste, and a wrist-slittingly slow holiday season for retailers — especially retailers of musical instruments. NAMM 2010, by contrast, came right after a year of prudence due to the above factors. Consequently, the overall mood was that manufacturers, distributors, and buyers for retail stores were ready to reap at least some benefits of that prudence. Everyone we talked to indicated that commerce was on the uptick.

“I signed seven new dealers on Wednesday, before the show was even officially open,” beamed Dennis Capiga, president of Hammond-Suzuki USA.

“If the interest shown at NAMM is any indication, my biggest challenge in 2010 is going to be keeping up with demand,” said Joseph Brandstetter, CEO of Rhodes Music Corp, who’s making the new Rhodes electric piano you’ll find on the cover of our Feb. 2010 issue.

Chuck Surack, founder of online music store Sweetwater, summed up the show, “People are upbeat. Our people are writing orders and seeing lots of great products, and I have a good feeling about 2010.”

Getting It Right

You expect that manufacturers will release updated versions of software instruments, DAWs, and OS’s for keyboards at NAMM. What stood out about the ones at this year’s show was the uniform theme of these upgrades directly responding to user requests and/or complaints.

Synthogy Ivory II, for example, doesn’t just double the velocity layers (a major but predictable quantitative improvement), it adds stuff users have been screaming for since Ivory first came out: sympathetic string resonance and support for half-pedaling being the biggest two.

The hardware-machine-that-plays-plug-ins area saw more than its share of improvements of this sort. Would-be Receptor users wanted a more affordable, more easy-to-use version, and they got it in the form of the MuseBox, which we saw demo’ed with impressive results. SM Pro Audio’s V-Machine moved in the other direction: last year, it was cool proof-of-concept but didn’t quite have the muscle to run a lot of the most popular soft synths; this year, a new version substantially ups the memory and CPU power.

Our pick for the most improved product, though, is the Infinite Reponse VAX-77, which has now been on the radar for a couple of years as a MIDI controller keyboard that folds in half, fitting into a carry-on sized airport roller. It also had polyphonic aftertouch and was deeply programmable via a touchscreen. The problem was the action. Though it used a very innovative constant-force leaf spring and was available in a variety of weights, even the heaviest didn’t have enough heft for serious piano playing, and some musicians thought it felt just plain weird. The VAX we saw at NAMM 2010 (and will be reviewing soon) had a much better action — everyone who tried it thought it was suitable for piano, and we were blown away by the textured satin-like finish and the quick key return. Machine-gun trills a la Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” were really easy to play.

Below is a video playlist of our picks for the most improved products at NAMM 2010.