The Editor's NAMM 2014 Diary - Day 2

New gear pics and random musings from our editor-in-chief Stephen Fortner.
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Day 2 of NAMM was bookended by Yamaha's dealer breakfast (beginning at 7:30 in the morning--folks who sell musical instruments for a living can't and don't keep musician hours) and Hammond's 80th Anniversary celebration that evening. At the former, one observes just how much effort and research Yamaha puts into educating its dealers--big chains and mom-n-pops alike--about e-commerce, emerging market trends, and the level of customer service necessary in today's world of superabundant online shopping choices. The presentations are impressively rich with data and concrete things dealers can do to increase their sales.

At the latter, I had to emcee, give all the speeches prior to each of Hammond's awards, and serve as ad hoc stage manager for the multi-artist concert we had in the Hilton hotel lobby from 9 to 10:30 that evening. 

With appointments with manufacturers booked every half hour between those two milestones, this was not the kind of day where the night before, one should stay up until 1:30 drinking with Keith Emerson. So I didn't. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

To be perfectly honest, gear-wise 2104 was more of an evolutionary NAMM show than a revolutionary one. I saw plenty of things that made me say, "Hey, I'd use that" or "That's got a ton of functionality for the price." Things that made me say, "If I don't get one of those I'm just gonna DIE"? Not so much.

That said, Universal Audio's new Apollo Twin (shown above) was very solidly in the "cool, useful, and affordable" category. It's essentially a scaled-down Apollo in a very solid and sleek desktop wedge interface, with either one or two DSP chips to run UA's deservedly loved "powered plug-ins." Like on the full Apollo, you can put the DSP in-line just south of the audio inputs, effectively letting you track through it as though it were hardware. (When UA originally announced this capability for the first Apollo, that was certainly an "OMG I must have that" moment.) Most importantly, there's a lightpipe port around back configurable for ADAT format, so if you have one of those eight-channel mic pres with lightpipe out, you can greatly expand the Twin's I/O. Clearly it's taking aim at the Apogee Duet and Quartet, and for $699 and $899 for the single- and dual-chip versions, respectively, you get a lot more features for your money. Only one thing is unfortunate: the rather awkward naming convention that results from UA sticking to "solo" to denote their single-DSP products and "duo" for their two-chippers. This yields "Apollo Twin Solo" and "Apollo Twin Duo."

Over at Focusrite, I got my hands on the most serious and well-made iPad dock I've ever seen, called simply the iTrack Dock. Expected audio interface features such as dual XLR/TRS combo ins, hi-Z instrument input, and zero-latency direct monitoring are all present and accounted for, but the iTrack Dock sports a couple of new twists. There's a USB MIDI input (full-size A-type connector) for hooking up a keyboard controller to play your iPad soft synths. That makes more sense than the old five-pin type, as most of the controllers you'd use with an iPad have USB output only. Also, it's meant to work with Lightning-equipped iPads, and its Lightning plug actually slides and locks into two positions, letting you keep either a full-sized iPad 4 or Air, or an iPad Mini, centered and stable on the dock. Add an app such as WaveMachine's Auria, and you have the most powerful iOS-based studio-on-the-go imaginable. Most keyboardists, though, are using the iPad as a soft synth and virtual instrument host, and there's no question the iTrack Dock makes it a great one.

Speaking of iPad instruments, I was quite impressed with IK Multimedia's iLectric Piano, developed for them by prog keyboard wizard and analog synth guru Erik Norlander. You flip through graphic icons of dozens of variations vintage EPs--Rhodes Wurly, Yamaha CP electric grand, RMI, and even oddities such as the Kustom 88 electronic piano--press on one to make it active, and just start playing. The sounds are not just "great for an iOS app;" they're great, period.

ILIO is the North American distributor for such brands as Synthogy (Ivory), Spectrasonics, Applied Acoustics, and Vienna Symphonic Library. There, we saw a new bank of EDM-oriented patches for Spectrasonics Omnisphere. What stood out about them was how well suited they were to playing in real time on a keyboard, incorporating lots of modulation wheel and other performance controller moves for "playing in" sonic flourishes that a DJ or EDM producer who's not a keyboard player might accomplish via editing and triggering samples. If I were to make an electronic dance track, hitting the black ' n' whites is how I'd go about it, so I appreciate that someone is thinking of making the trendiest sounds workable and musical in this context. Hmmm, come to think of it, I kind of like the sound of "DJ Editor . . . "

Coming in part 2 of day 2: Hosting Hammond's 80th Anniversary bash!