The Editor's NAMM 2014 Diary - Day 1

New gear favorites and random musings from our editor in chief at NAMM 2014.
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For me, NAMM actually starts on Wednesday evening, which I've come to call "day zero." My exhibitor badge gets me into some exhibits early, and certain companies are set up in demo rooms and on mezzanine levels of the convention center for pre-show media-only events. (I'd highly recommend staying off the main show floor at that time, however, unless you're practicing for a yet-to-be-official Olympic event called "not getting killed by a speeding forklift." Seriously, workers are still building the show, and the last thing they need to deal with is some muso trying to sneak smartphone shots of the new gear while they're rolling out carpet and putting up lighting trusses.)

Such a company was Roland, who showed off their new FA series workstations and RD-800 stage piano, which our own Dave Bryce did some advance video of last week. One can debate the merits of an integrated keyboard workstation in this age of superabundant computing power for multitrack recording, but from my hands-on time with the FA series, I do have to say one can put together a groove extremely fast. Its killer app, though, has to be the ability to render MIDI files internally and export the tracks--up to all 16 of them--as audio stems via a USB flash drive. Most pro keyboards offer some kind of stereo mixdown recording to a USB drive, but this is full multitrack. If you did a sketch on the FA you want to work on further in your DAW, you no longer have to record the audio track by track, nor use the MIDI data to drive entirely different virtual instruments once you're "inside the box." On the downside, the FA's drum pads are triggers only, meaning they're not velocity-sensitive.

Now, do deal with Thursday, the official first day of NAMM. From the crowds and noise level, it sure felt like a Saturday at NAMM. That's great for exhibitors, but for a journalist walking the floor from booth to booth all day, it amounts to the aforementioned forklifts being replace by the less lethal but far more annoying predator, a species known as rubbernecus doucheii. (You can spot them by the sickly jaundiced color of their NAMM badges.)

Still, I managed to lay eyes, ears, and hands on some great gear--that's what I'm here for! Korg made a big splash with their RK-100S keytar controller--whoops, make that self-contained virtual analog synth in keytar's clothing. In fact, it boasts the MMT engine from the MicroKorg XL. Its keys are about three-quarters size, and notably, the body is hardwood. It has a premium feel that implies a premium price, but pricing hasn't been announced yet--and Korg has surprised us before with just how affordably they've made great synths (such as the KingKorg virtual analog synth and Volca real analog groove boxes) available.

Also at the Korg booth was a new build-it-yourself MS-20 kit--no soldering required. It's real analog like the recent and very cool MS-20 Mini, but unlike that synth, it's the same size as the original vintage unit, with full-size keys and a 1/4" patch bay. It comes with a certificate of authenticity signed by the original MS-20 designers. I want one (oh boy do I want one) but given the $1,399 price and limited run of 1000 units, this is clearly a "because you can" collector's item--especially given that the MS-20 Mini sounds and functions identically, and may be even more desirable if the rest of your analog rig is using 1/8" patch cables. That said, owning one will surely make you the coolest synth geek for miles around--except for that guy you know who inexplicably has an ARP 2600 he found for $50 at a garage sale. Bastard.

Two of my coolest finds had to do not with making music, but with doing my job of shooting gear videos at NAMM. Zoom was showing the latest flagship of their popular line of Q-series handy video cameras, the $299 Q4. It features pop-up XY mics and a more camcorder-like form factor (with a fold-out screen) than their previous "vertical pylon" designs. They lent me one, on which I've been shooting the show ever since.

Those XY mics are fabulous for picking up an overall stereo picture (as when recording a band--the main application of Zoom's Q series), but fare less well in an environment where there's lots of background noise and you're trying to pick up the voice of the person standing in front of you. No environment is more challenging in that regard than NAMM, so I augmented the Zoom with one of the new "mobile media micas" from MXL Microphones, the FR-130 mini-shotgun. Though the Q4 provides plug-in power from it's 1/8" stereo line input, the FR-130 doesn't require it--it runs on a single AAA battery. Via adding a bracket, I achieved a comfy grip for the Q4 and was able to swivel the mic, which was great for pointing the camera down at a synth on a table but precisely picking up the voice of the product rep talking just above. And for $129, I'm not aware of a better get-er-done solution for making quick videos in high-noise situations.

Friday starts with a 7:30 AM breakfast with Yamaha, and ends with my emceeing Hammond Organ's 80th anniversary party. In between, I'm booked every half hour. Quick walk through the Marriott Bar this evening to say hi to industry colleagues, maybe a shot and a beer, but that's it. Straight to the room for web uploads and an adult amount of sleep. We'll see how that works out...