First time in Musicans Heaven by Rob O’Reilly
As I approached the Anaheim Coliseum the signs and banners for the conference were everywhere. I begin to get excited. As a musician, I knew I was about to enter musician’s heaven. First stop, the press booth to pick up my credentials. The check-in process was quick and painless, but as I witnessed the next few days I was very lucky, the lines get very, very long. Two things instantly became apparent, one that I was overdressed, and two - I clearly didn't pack enough leather……
The first day was “press only”, giving us an opportunity to view a small number of vendors assembled in a corralled area that included a small stage. Kenny Wayne Shepherd gave the first demonstration, the new Ampkit + application for the iPad. Some technical difficulties at the beginning of the demonstration but ultimately Kenny Wayne showed the versatility and flexibility of the app. Now, the show has officially begun.
The focus of my visit was to evaluate what was new in both guitar and amplifier technologies. It was apparent Robo tuning is one of the hottest things offered by multiple guitar vendors. Peavey, Epiphone and Gibson all had a series of guitars including “auto” tune, it appears that Robo tuning is the next cool feature that will be seen on most guitars. All of the Robo tuning functions require a battery to be installed in or on the guitar, here is a gap that needs to be addressed by all the guitar manufacturers to ensure they do not affect the weight and balance of the instrument.
Yamaha noiseless instruments were one of the more unique things that I saw at the show. The feel and sound of the guitar through the Yamaha amplifier was one of the better sounding combinations of guitar and amplifier at the conference. Speaking with Martin Adam from Yamaha was an enlightening experience that included discussing different approaches to guitar amplification. The noiseless instruments included guitars, cellos, violas and violins; all had a quality feel and look. The addition of an F hole slot will further improve the acoustic sound of the noiseless instruments. Noiseless does not have to always be noiseless, most if not all of the instruments include a piezo pickup amplification system.
The other big push in guitar technology is to include the guitar effects within the guitar. The Gibson Firebird X is a good example of this to an extreme, although Gibson and Epiphone also have the Ultra III series Les Paul guitars that don’t appear to require PhD training on actually using the instrument. On one hand they’ve taken the ease of stomping on a pedal and make it much more complicated but on the other hand, it made the transportation of the equipment to and from the gig much lighter. I'm not sure that the trade-off is worth it. For most guitars this is a big departure from tradition, so we’ll all have to wait and see what the adaptation rate will be for this technology.
On the amplifier front, not much has changed in terms of the technology. There were two standouts at the show this year. The first was the new Dean Markley line of Ultrasound amplifiers. As I played various size and wattage output amplifiers I noted that when I switched from a solid-state to the tube amp, I really could not discern the difference. The smallest 15 W solid-state amplifier for acoustic guitars had an amazing sound and spatial presence. The output of the speaker appeared to emanate 180° from the amplifier and fill the room with a balanced and smooth sound. This 60 W tube version of amplifier was one of the best sounding amplifiers for its size that we observed at the show. One of the better features of the amplifier was the ability to actually overdrive the speaker combining the tube distortion with the speaker distortion, a musicians dream.
As we approach the Albion booth it was hard to not notice the custom design and detail of the cabinetry that was used for their new amplifier and speakers. The rosewood detail combined with gold piping was the first thing that caught my eye. But what was more impressive was the sound and capabilities of the amplifier. The A/B amps with “mix” amplifiers address a need that many guitarists struggle with today, the ability to have both the clean and distorted signals at the same time. Tradition today is to actually use two different amplifiers, again increasing the amount of wood that has to be carried to a gig. Albion has addressed that with a series of 50 W amplifiers that are feature ridden, powerful and extremely attractive. The 15 W amplifiers are designed for studio use yet had some of the richest tone for both clean and distorted signals that I heard. The Albion speakers were created to improve on some of the issues with current speaker offerings; I was quite impressed with the overall sound and tone of the cabinets. In fact when I arrived home the first thing I did was order the Albion 2 x 12 guitar speaker cabinet.
One of the more important questions that we asked almost all guitar manufacturers were “Where are they going in the future?” “What technologies are manufacturers and designers looking for to help further the technology ramp of musical instruments?” Almost to a man, they're all looking for that next disruptive market application. Alternative approaches to instrument amplification, continuity of effects and controls, and better teaching tools for up-and-coming guitarists seems to be the theme of the conference. All noble goals, yet reachable with the right focus in technology, design and marketing.
People, people everywhere. With thousands and thousands of people, it was interesting that everywhere we went we ran into Mike DiMattio (MikesGig) and his partner. For 3 days we kept running into each other, ultimately sharing a few drinks (thanks EV and Casio) and war stories that was a highlight of the conference. Having a veteran host in Pallab Chatterjee made NAMM a unique experience. His conference pre-planning, knowledge of the industry, and contact abilities allowed us to meet with some of the most respected people in the music industry. Sometimes a 5 min. discussion face-to-face with the right people trumps meeting after meeting, conference call after conference call, and e-mail after e-mail. The unfortunate part of this is that now any other conference that I attended will be compared NAMM 2012, it will be hard if not impossible to beat this experience.