April 2006

Instrumental Innovations

Believe it or not, but Art Tatum played numerous live performances of "Tiger Rag" in Anaheim, Calif., this past January. He played it twice for me, in fact, and both times it was like watching the man race toward that cheeky last bit of staccato punctuation at the rag's end. Amazing.

Naturally, it's impossible for me to have witnessed the real thing--Tatum's been gone since the Eisenhower administration. Perhaps what I witnessed was the next best thing to watching the living Tatum play.

JazzKat guitar amp
eJamming software
Planet Waves Tuners
Ultrasone iCans
Alesis DM5 Electronic Drum Kit
Akai EWI400S
Phil Jones Bass Suitcase Combo Amp
Zildjian K Custom Hybrid Series Cymbals
Yamaha Artist Model Trumpets
LP Lug-Edge Backpack
M-Audio ProKeys 88sx
Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight Amplifier
Roland Juno-G Synthesizer
Rico Reed Vitalizer
Pearl Reference Series Metal Snare Drums
Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight Guitar Amplifier
M-Audio ProKeys88sx Permormance Piano
Pearl Reference Series Drums
Pearl Reference Series Drums
JazzKat Guitar Amp
Zildjian K Custom Hybrid Cymbals
Planet Waves Pro-Winder

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It went down at the 104th NAMM Show, the musical instrument industry show where anyone and everyone with a new instrument, accessory or innovation congregates to show off their stuff. The Zenph Studios booth--actually a corner of the monstrous Yamaha exhibit--was one of the Winter 2006 show's treats, a company with something truly exciting to behold. Using its newly developed software, the North Carolina-based Zenph can take any solo piano recording--say, Tatum's 1940 Decca recording of "Tiger Rag"--straight from a CD and translate the sound into a high-resolution MIDI file (a 10-bit rather than an 8-bit file). The file contains not just information about which notes are played when and for how long, but also microscopically minute details regarding note velocity, piano-pedal depression and key release. When coupled with Yamaha's Disklavier player-piano system, as it was at the show, Zenph's high-resolution MIDI sequence produces what the company claims to be a dead-on re-creation of the performance as heard from the piano on which it was originally played--down to the subtlest touch. Never having witnessed the real Tatum in action, I had to rely on the Zenph folks' assertion that what the Disklavier-equipped piano played was a spot-on reproduction of Tatum's "Tiger Rag." But I was also told that, when played a Zenph re-creation of a Glenn Gould performance, former students of the late classical-piano genius claimed, "Yes, this is how my teacher played the piano." Taking that endorsement into consideration, imagine the possibilities the Zenph technology introduces: Because a hi-res MIDI file can be created even from recordings of questionable fidelity ("As long as you can hear the notes," a company rep told me), scratchy, old Fats Waller and Jelly Roll sides could be recast with top-notch pianos and a nice set of mikes. Technophobes might bristle at the thought of it all, but the scholarly and educational possibilities are too rich to write off Zenph's innovations as novelty or a blasphemous strike against the past's musical giants. Which isn't to say that NAMM isn't without its novelty.

Take for example the bass drum that DDrums pimped out with a spinning rim to mimic the ones you see on the tires of a souped-up Civic. All passing eyes lingered for a sec, hypnotized by what boils down to a pretty darn good NAMM gimmick, but the nondescript Drum Tech booth sitting kitty corner deserved some attention, too. Though this wasn't the first time Drum Tech had showcased its Drum Tuning System (DTS), it begs to be mentioned, as it's just now going on the market, and it solves a problem that's held drummers back forever. In a nutshell, tuning drums is a royal pain, and DTS, an assemblage of brackets and tension cables, renders the chore painless. By ringing a tension cable around a drum head outfitted with the DTS brackets, Drum Tech has found a way to keep even tension on all of a drum's tuning rods. And by incorporating a tuning apparatus adjustable at the turn of an Allen wrench, the DTS allows a drum to be tuned in one step, as opposed to the laborious work of tightening each rod individually. Furthermore it decreases the amount of work needed to adjust the top and bottom drum heads into complementary tension. Deceptively simple, it was easily the best innovation I saw at the show that wasn't computer-based.

Of course, there's tons of high-tech action at the show, ranging from the latest in recording software to pitch-correction plug-ins (check out the wonderful interface on Celemony's Melodyne) to the cutting edge in jam-session aids: eJamming, a software platform that allows, say, a New York musician to noodle with someone on the opposite coast. It's made possible, naturally, via the Internet, and while there have been previous programs on the market similar to eJamming, this one appears to get it right. Eight musicians can play together at the same time by hooking up MIDI-enabled instruments to their computers and logging on to the Net by way of eJamming's subscription-based software. eJamming also enables players to find new and likeminded people to jam with through a communitylike interface.

The lower hall of the Anaheim Convention Center, "Hall E," where a lot of small startup companies hold court, always has some special products awaiting discovery. This year I was happy to discover the JazzKat guitar amp, but probably not as happy as John Pizzarelli was to have discovered it months ago. Pizzarelli has since put his endorsement on his own signature JazzKat, the JP100, which appears to be the same as the original JazzKat amp save for its tweed covering (the original comes in black Tolex): a 16 x 10 x 17-inch box with an 8-inch speaker that weighs all of 23 pounds but, despite its diminutive size and weight, puts out a huge amount of sound (company reps boasted that it'll beat a Fender Twin's volume). Regardless, any amp that fits in an airplane's overhead compartment and delivers such clear tone shouldn't be overlooked. We'll have a full review of the amp in the near future.

Those are just a select few highlights from the show. Enjoy checking out more of the new stuff debuted at Winter NAMM on the next two pages.

Planet Waves Tuners

Planet Waves rolled out a line of five tuners designed for all types and budgets. The S.O.S. (Strobe-on-String) Tuner uses LED lights projected onto the string to tune--no input necessary. The svelte, input/output-equipped in-line Pocket Tuner has the same sweep/strobe rotary display as the multifunctional Pro-Winder Tuner, which itself combines a chromatic tuner with string winder, string cutter, string stretcher and bridge-pin puller. The Full-Function Tuner and Metronome features a deluxe sweep/strobe rotary tuner and a metronome that allows beat subdivision and odd time signatures. Finally, the die-cast Pedal Tuner is a pro-level stompbox with a true hard bypass.

M-Audio ProKeys 88sx

M-Audio's recent foray into stage pianos has produced the ProKeys 88sx, an 88-key digital piano (with semiweighted action) that comes in under 20 pounds. Its 32MB of storage holds seven realistic sounds including stereo grand piano (sampled from a Yamaha C7), Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Yamaha DX7, Hammond B3 and Clavinet. M-Audio also includes reverb and chorus effects, MIDI functions and sustain pedal.

LP Lug-Edge Backpack

If you own a pair of LP's Compact Congas, you'll want this bag. The Lug-Edge Compact Conga backpack ($89) slings over the shoulder and holds two Compact Congas and their stands--whether you use regular snare drum stands or LP's new Compact Conga mounting system. The heavy nylon bag also features a separate compartment for percussion accessories, plus a tiny outside pocket perfect for a drum key.

Yamaha Artist Model Trumpets

Part of a new line of trumpets designed in collaboration with working musicians, Yamaha's Artist Model YTR-9445NYS and YTR-9335NYS are impeccably constructed horns for the professional set. Drawing upon old-world design and modern manufacturing techniques, both trumpets feature a French-bead bell rim with low-dome wire that improves projection from the bell with a refined, sharp-bell rim edge.

Zildjian K Custom Hybrid Series Cymbals

Designed with Japanese drummer Akira Jimbo, the K Custom Hybrid Series cymbals combine the unlathed, brilliant finish of the K Custom ride on their inner halves with the traditionally finished K Zildjian lathing on their outer halves. The separate sections result in the possibility of two different sound dynamics depending where a cymbal is struck. It's like having two cymbals in one. Additionally, the unlathed section helps control wash and sustain.

Ultrasone iCans

The tagline for these shiny headphones is: "Get the most out of MP3." The folks at Ultrasone know what good sound is, having already designed a number of professional headphone sets. But they know what bad sound is, too, and take a stand against it with the iCans, a set of headphones meant to replace those lo-fi stock earbuds included with iPods. The semiopen, innovatively designed iCans create a surround-sound-like experience and feature a much more efficient decibel output, which actually helps protect from hearing damage.

Alesis DM5 Electronic Drum Kit

Likely the least expensive electronic drum kit you'll find on the market ($499 list), Alesis' new DM5 Electronic Drum Kit combines the well-known Alesis DM5 sound module with five playing pads (one is the hi-hat with an included foot controller), two cymbal pads, a kick pedal, tubular support rack and the interconnection cables needed. The DM5 fits in a single rackspace and contains 540 percussion sounds and 21 preprogrammed drum/percussion sets.

Akai EWI4000S

Akai's newly designed electronic wind controller brings several improvements to the MIDI/synth wind instrument, such as a built-in sound module and a direct MIDI input and output. The instrument responds to the player's touch by way of fully adjustable controls over breath, vibrato, glide time and bend width, and multiple MIDI messages can also be sent via breath control. Additionally the EWI4000S offers an octave key and a hold mode, which allows for soloing around a sustained note. It's more than just a wind controller, though; it's also a synth boasting two voltage-controlled oscillators, a noise generator and a dedicated VCF that can emulate breath noise.

Phil Jones Bass Suitcase Combo Amp

About twice the size of the Phil Jones Bass Briefcase amp, the Suitcase is a two-channel, 300-watt combo weighing in at 50 pounds. Its four, five-inch drivers can be bypassed in favor of a headphone output for practice or a balanced direct output for recording or live applications. The Suitcase also features outputs for a tuner, an additional speaker cab and a standard line signal as well as an optical compressor/limiter and a five-band EQ on each channel.

Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight

Usually when someone says "Fender Jazzmaster" it conjures visions of vintage guitars so sought after it takes a second mortgage to get one. That might change as a result of the new Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight amplifier head unit, a two-channel, 250-watt solid-state amp that weighs 7 pounds. In addition to standard EQ controls, the amp has DSP effects on each channel (reverb, delay, chorus, flange, Vibratone, tremolo and combinations) and a tube-emulated overdrive channel.

Pearl Reference Series Metal Snare Drums

While all the other drums in Pearl's wildly popular Reference Series are wooden, the company has introduced four new metal Reference snare drums. Two of the drums, the 14 x 5 inch RFS-1450 and 14 x 6.5 inch RFS-1465, feature three-millimeter, seamless cast-steel shells for enhanced projection, crispness and sensitivity. The other pair, the 14 x 5 inch RFB-1450 and 14 x 6.5 inch RFB-1465, are built from rolled and welded, three-millimeter brass shells and thus offer warmer tone.

Rico Reed Vitalizer

The Reed Vitalizer, which keeps a reed at optimum moistness via humidification control, has been around a for a while now, but Rico has made some design modifications including a resized control bag that has it fitting better into instrument cases. Also, the humidity control packs, available in three humidity levels (58%, 73% and 84%), now come in a foil wrapper that lengthens their shelf life.


For the kids (and the adults who act like kids), Piano Wizard presents piano lessons as a video game, and you know how much the kids like the video games. Available for PC only, the software has a number of modes of play, from an interface that's all-out Mario-style to one more in line with actual notes on the staff. The software comes with a selection of music but can be augmented with any MIDI files you care to use. A MIDI-capable keyboard is required.

Roland Juno-G Synthesizer

Sharing the same processor as keyboards in Roland's Fantom-X series, the Juno-G puts a contemporary spin on the old, beloved Juno synth of yesteryear. Today's Juno adds sequencing and audio recording and a slew of news sounds to its classic design and also sports 128-voice polyphony, a SRX slot for expanding the internal soundest, a USB port for MIDI communication, AIF/WAV file exchange and data transfer, a PC card slot (which accepts CompactFlash or SmartMedia cards via an adapter), Cakewalk SONAR LE software and an infrared D Beam controller.

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