March 2010

Report From NAMM: Recession Special

Despite the economic writing on the wall, Winter NAMM 2010 was packed with people and affordable new products

"Unlike Chad and the Meatbats, who make you feel all happy, we’re going to throw a wet rag on this sucker and make you listen to some really weird shit.” That was drummer Terry Bozzio at “Sabian Live,” the cymbal company’s annual fete at Winter NAMM, the international musical-instrument tradeshow that took place Jan. 14-17 in Anaheim, Calif. The “Chad” referenced is Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, who performed earlier with his Bombastic Meatbats, an expectedly funk-crazy side project: a Meters/J.B. influence, towering rocks riffs, rapid-fire unison lines and ’70s fusion, all finished in an L.A.-studio sheen. Bozzio was right—it was big, loud and a lot of fun.

But Bozzio, who appeared with second drummer Pat Mastelotto, bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin and guitarist David Torn, made good on his promise, delivering a 50-minute improvised set that would have been better appreciated at L.A.’s avant-friendly Angel City Jazz Festival. Fractured drum ’n’ bass rhythms held up Levin’s vamping and twitchy Chapman fills, and Torn coaxed billowing, surging sustained tones. It was the boldest, most esoteric thing I’ve ever seen performed for a NAMM audience, and it quickly turned the house vibe from party-hearty to focused listening and/or sheer bewilderment. In the end, though, it was totally appropriate.

After all, NAMM celebrates and sustains itself on music’s most materialistic elements, and this group revolved around technology. (Bozzio’s “kit,” with its extravagant circumference of drums and cymbals, evoked a medieval torture device.) And the music—nightmarish avant-groove as performed by prog-rock masters—probably mirrored the recent state of mind of many industry folks. How does a business dependant on discretionary spending thrive during the recession of all recessions? How do you sell a $1,000 guitar to a foreman who just lost his job? These questions were on everyone’s mind, and, overall, the 2010 show offered hope. The attendance and ambience—mobs of interested people everywhere—seemed especially promising after the tumbleweed-town that was the summer show. And an impressive number of new products were launched, many aimed at lower price points.

FINDING THE KEYS

Yamaha, which celebrates its American 50th anniversary this year, launched the CP1, the crown jewel of its revamped line of stage pianos. It’s a sleek, highly portable instrument with 88 weighted wooden keys and a heavy catalogue of sounds, as well as essential effects like wah and flange. Using a hybrid of sampling and modeling techniques, Yamaha has included 17 models of its acoustic and vintage electronic pianos.
Roland announced four new piano voices for the V-Piano (reviewed in full last issue), downloadable for current V-Piano players at www.rolandus.com/v-piano. The company also launched its V-Combo VR-700, a versatile keyboard that incorporates the necessary piano and orchestral sounds but also includes a sharper organ sound via Roland’s Virtual Tone Wheel and COSM modeling. Keyboards this movable rarely have convincing organ tones, much less controls, but the VR-700 features dedicated harmonic drawbars, rotary-speaker simulation and a split function.

For Jimmy Smith disciples who want the real(er) thing, Hammond offers its redesigned B-3 model. The B-3 mk2 boasts a better digital sound engine for a more realistic simulation of a vintage B-3, with tubes in the preamp and overdrive circuits. And to get a rotating-speaker swirl without schlepping an actual Leslie cabinet, there’s an improved digital Leslie simulator.

Incorporating retro, crate-digger-approved key sounds into keyboards of modern dependability and functionality is an ongoing trend, and Korg’s terrific-looking SV-1 Stage Vintage piano has a host of customizable old-school sounds to get musicians in the Headhunters spirit. Playability is also an asset here, with the SV-1’s streamlined, back-in-the-day controls and weighted keys.

Moog is still keeping the space-age synth dream alive, and it launched its new Taurus 3 bass pedals, a faithful reissue of the quirky yet historic Taurus pedals used by many classic rock, prog and fusion players. Cartable yet sturdily constructed (this is Moog we’re talking about), showroom demos yielded low tones that conjured soundtrack music for an especially ominous Kubrick scene. Fewer than 1,000 of these will be manufactured, so get on it. (Also in Moog news, the company’s out-of-this-world guitar, with its impressive sustain and mute functions, is now MIDI compatible.)

ON THE LOW-DOWN

It’s rare nowadays that a manufacturer introduces a product that becomes an industry staple—like the Fender bass, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010. In acoustic basses, David Gage did just that with the Czech-Ease Road Bass, a truncated instrument that was originally marketed as a travel bass but now seems a permanent fixture on the bandstand, whether the artist in question is touring or not. There were three new models of Czech basses at the show. The versatile Hybrid H1, which features a carved top and ply ribs and back, was designed to play arco as well as it does pizzicato; the Carved C1, entirely carved with a flat back, giving it an edge in orchestral settings; and the Vintage Ply K1, which uses laminated tonewoods for better acoustic projection and to recreate the sounds of classic plywood basses. To deftly amplify these (or any) basses, Gage and Ned Steinberger collaborated on the Realist SoundClip, a pickup that clamps to a bass’ bridge, sturdily but without blemishing the instrument, and features an onboard volume knob that allows acoustic players to control their amplified signal as easily as bass guitarists can.

Bunny Brunel, an alum of bands led by Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and other game-changing players, launched his Bunny Brunel Signature Series Electric Upright basses. Three-quarters-sized instruments with a 41 1/4-inch scale length, the Brunel series might especially appeal to the electric bass guitarist looking for something straight up and down. Their ebony Macassar fingerboards have fret markers, and the adjustable Macassar bridge allows for easy action adjustment. With Rick Turner Pressure piezo pickups, a demo model’s pizzicato sound was sturdy. The basses look superb, and come in a glossy mahogany finish or solid colors (though I’m not writing home about the bright-pink version). Also cool is the headstock option: For an additional charge, you can top your Brunel with a wild, custom-carved lion sculpture—or any feral beast, for that matter.

In electric basses, Fender is celebrating that aforementioned 50th anniversary of its Jazz Bass, and a special anniversary model, on display at the show and finished in stunning candy apple red, will be reviewed in full in next month’s bass-themed issue. The company also launched a bunch of new amps. The Rumble series is a recession-priced, brass-tacks, solid-state line available in 15, 30, 75, 150 and 350-watt editions. The new Bassman TV combos should help bass players reclaim Fender’s legendary Bassman amp line from their six-string counterparts. With beautiful tweed casing and tube preamps, the Bassman TVs are available in 150- and 350-watt editions with a couple choices in speaker configurations: 10- and 12-inch for the 150; 15 and 2X10 for the 350.

SAX STUFF

Yamaha likes releasing superb instruments in limited runs: Early in 2009 Chris Kelsey reviewed one of 150 existing altos in the Black Phoenix series, and in 2010 Yamaha had on display its YAS-875EXW alto, an even more exclusive—only 50 will be made—gold-and-white-lacquered horn. JodyJazz was showing its DV CHI (for Chicago), a silver-plated metal tenor mouthpiece whose sound aims somewhere between the modern-minded DV model and the old-school-oriented DV NY. (A full review of the DV CHI has been scheduled for the June issue.)

SIX-STRING THINGS

The Hofner booth featured some quality new China-made budget archtops, and the Canadian brand Godin—whose prices are just plain nutty—launched the 5th Avenue Kingpin CW II, another variation in its affordable 5th Avenue archtop line. The CW II is a single-cutaway guitar with a Canadian Wild Cherry top and body and two Kingpin P-90s. Godin seems to have low-priced options no matter what sort of guitar you’re in the market for: The Session, with its two single coils and a humbucker in the bridge position, is a great modified-Strat-style option at around $500 street.

Of course, Fender itself now offers bargain-priced wonders in its American Special series. By streamlining finish and fretboard options and making certain small concessions—imported hardware, for example—Fender can offer an American-made guitar for around 800 bucks street. (Fans of Fender’s Highway One models will find many similarities, but also some improvements.) The Special series includes Stratocasters (with ’70s-style headstocks), Telecasters and HSS Strats (with a humbucker in the bridge position). Sound-wise the Texas Special pickups could fool even the most discerning gearhead in a blindfold test. All the bluesy, spanky, searing Fender tones you’d want are there. Call it the official guitar of the global economic meltdown.

Paul Reed Smith celebrated his 25th anniversary with a NAMM press conference that featured warm remembrances by some of his earliest and most enduring advocates, among them Al Di Meola, Carlos Santana (who, per usual, waxed philosophical) and Ted Nugent (who told the press, “If you don’t love my music, you must be a member of the Taliban”). Smith is also celebrating the big 2-5 with a line of anniversary guitars, gorgeous pieces covering a good deal of the PRS line, from McCartys to hollowbodies and even a Santana model (all featuring Smith’s new shadow-bird inlays). These guitars are pretty aggressively priced, though by PRS standards: “We can offer a $6,000 guitar for $4,000,” Smith said.

PRS also has a knack for presenting guitar lovers with smart, enriching demos and programs. This year, nighttime events showcased how well modern PRS instruments hold up against fabled instruments of the past. An electric demo pitted a glorious ’58 Les Paul that Smith purchased in Tokyo against a bunch of McCarty models. The PRS axes performed beautifully and consistently, often smoothing out the Paul’s somewhat prickly high end.

DIGITAL RHYTHMS

The big push in drums this year was in electronic kits. Where once these sets seemed like a collection of drum-machine-sounding rubber Frisbees to be used only for volume-free rehearsal, manufacturers are stepping up with great sounding—and great looking—electronic set-ups. Yamaha’s DTX900 Series sounded remarkably lifelike, and Roland’s TD-20SX, with its gleaming silver finish, was a sight to behold. But Pearl’s show-stopping E-Pro Live kit made the biggest strides toward an electro-acoustic ideal: the substantial feel of an acoustic kit with the endless sounds and digital capabilities of an electronic one. Straight up, the E-Pro Live looks like an acoustic kit, which leads to an obvious question: Why not buy a normal drum set? Again, the sounds: On the showroom floor, it delivered all sorts of drum-set sounds, in addition to eerily accurate impressions of world drums and popular production synths. The kit has big one-man-band potential—you can, for example, play some mean clavinet riffs on the hi-hat and then modulate them to the ride. Its r.e.d.BOX module stores loads of customizable kit sounds, play-along tracks and more.

In acoustic drums, some deserving players got signature gear: Cindy Blackman has new sticks out from Vic Firth and Stanton Moore has a snare by Gretsch. And while his name isn’t on it, Kenny Washington donated his design input to Zildjian for the new 22-inch K Constantinople “Bounce” ride.

JAMMING ACROSS CONTINENTS

There are a number of guarantees at NAMM: Booth babes, Sid Jacobs playing sterling solo jazz guitar, hearing loss, exhaustion, Slash—in addition to a few certified wow moments that need no PR justification. To showcase its new partnership with eJamming Inc., Fender held a press conference wherein a guitarist in Anaheim, a keyboardist in Europe and a drummer in the South jammed via streaming audio. Sure, there are precedents with online collaboration, but I’ve never seen it work so efficiently, or with such little gear. The program is eJamming AUDiiO, and it nearly eliminates lag, essentially allowing players to collaborate in real-time; all that’s required is a computer with an audio interface, the eJamming program and a broadband connection. Free trials are available at www.fender.com/ejamming.

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