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Gizmos and Stalwarts: A Report from the NAMM 2000 Show

Fueled by too many years of future shock and future think, one might expect that the first National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) show of the 21st century would be the picture of post-modernity, a brave new world of music merchandising unimaginable to someone ten years ago. Has that happened? Well, yes and no, and less so than prognosticators might imagine. The landscape of NAMM, as seen in early February, stays the same the more it changes, advancing its technological bent, with refinements in the software section and-like everywhere-more and more evidence of dot-com culture.

But the staples of the music business still ruled, and NAMM itself embodied reassurance through repetition. There were shameless, convention-kitschy cheesecake displays, as usual, via scantily clad young women at Dean Guitars and DJ-marketed Gemini, in stark contrast with the more staid and button-down piano exhibitors. Nobody told them that using sexist tactics to bait leering conventioneers is on the other side of good taste in the 21st century. Or is it?

There were charming quirks on the floor, like the army of fake Elvises and the cheeky ’50s motif at Ernie Ball/Musicman. And why not? Here in Southern California, show biz is always in the ‘hood. This was NAMM’s last year at the Los Angeles Convention Center, across the street from the leviathan steamship of a new facility, the Staple Center, before heading back to the newly renovated home base of the Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland.

But brasher surfaces and the inevitable noodleroni-making guitarists and bassist who thump, slap, tap and dweedle their way through NAMM are always tempered by saner, subtler factors, as well, evening out the musical microcosm. Companies making drums, brass and reeds are working on making small refinements of known commodities, and companies dealing with guitars, amps and accessories try to push the envelope in modest ways, accepting the fact that instrumentalists are generally conservative and leery of gimmickry.

The trend-bucking L.A. Sax, which still turns out the line with many colors and the odd-looking but straight tenor and alto, this year teamed up with respected saxophone and mouthpiece maker Dave Guardala. L.A. Horns, the brass arm of the expanding company, also saw the introduction of the new LA-TR52L Bb Stage Band Trumpet and the LA-TR58H Bb Artist Concert Trumpet.

The horn wares at Selmer and UMI were less splashy and more steeped in the wisdom of a job well done, a reputation well-earned and polished.

But horn manufacturers, in the main, look less towards the flash of new products and flamboyant new designs than solidity of product line and tests of time. Leblanc, for instance, celebrated the 250th anniversary of its Noblet clarinet. They introduced the 2000 Series clarinets, including the top-of-the-line Larry Combs model Millennium Opus and the Noblet Millennium small bore clarinet. Also from Leblanc came the 2000 Series of Holton French Horns, a limited edition instrument, and the Holton Millennium Bb trumpet, with hand-lapped Monel pistons.

The ongoing interaction of advancing technology and basic, atavistic musical instincts is a fascinating, synergistic and also fragile, tense one. Digital whiz bang goes so far, but maybe not as far as music made in real time and real space, i.e., a well-blown saxophone or a sleekly maneuvered jazz guitar solo (of which there were many this year, courtesy of John Pisano’s guitar jams by night, and the NAMM presence of players like Howard Alden, Jimmy Bruno, John Stowell, Paul Bollenback and many others).

One unwitting illustration of the uneasiness of live-vs.-virtual cross-talk took place on Saturday night/Sunday morning in several different studios, from California to Philadelphia to London. The epicenter was in high in the Hyatt Regency, where a newly launched Internet multi-tracking service called the Rocket Network set up a launch party and live recording session. Live on stage was no less a house band than Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Chico Freeman and Wah Wah Watson.

The idea is a good one, a live Internet variation on e-mailing one’s tracks back and forth to create a modular, virtual studio. Collaborators in discrete studios, using compatible recording software, like Cubase VST and Logic Audio, can communicate live through the Web conduit provided by the Rocket Network (

The party got underway with a undulant groove set up by swaying Powerbook players onstage, followed by a drum ‘n’ bass hoe-down built up from grooves and parts flung across cyberspace from a studio in London, from Joe Satriani’s studio in San Francisco and corralled into the live Hyatt Regency site. Things got sketchier once the celebs showed up. It was a live multi-tracking groove construction lesson, as cool, the players layered interlocking parts. Hancock is as spontaneous as the next living jazz keyboard legend, but he’s not one to be rushed. When Hancock announced that, once a steamy groove was assembled, that he wanted to take time to create a melody, there was palpable tension. News that he wanted to make up a “melody” was greeted with confusion, original melodies being low priority in the world according to electronica. Time went on and the parties in the remote studios, including Teddy Riley in Philadelphia, grew restless or went home.

No matter: the in-person players jammed until midnight, in the house. The tempting promise of Rocket Networks’ gambit remains.

Oddly enough-or maybe not-one of the more ear-catching performances at NAMM had nothing to do with cutting-edge technology, but rather its musty antecedents. Over in the fascinating collection of antique electronic instruments, the Museum of Making Music, the Kurstins strutted their archival-loving stuff. Greg, part of the art-pop group Geggy Tah and also a fine jazzman, played keyboards while Pamelia Kurstin played a new version of the prototypical synthesizer, the Theremin, made by Bob Moog’s company, Big Briar. For the uninitiated, the distance of the players’ hands from its antennae determines the instrument’s pitches. With delicate, dance-like movements of her hands, she coaxed the sound of walking bass lines and, with the more familiar alien violin timbre, weaved the ethereal melody line to “Lush Life,” giving a new kind

of lushness.

As in the past several years, things are always happening at the Roland booth, which presents a little, self-contained show of its own. An array of drum controller devices could be found in the “percussion play room,” set up like a rather comfy padded cell. Outside the cell, noted Los Angeleno percussionist Brad Dutz-a specialist on mallet instruments and all manner of hand drums-could be found demoing an impressive new hand percussion controller, the HPD-15 HandSonic pad. Advanced touch sensitivity on the heads evokes the all-important subtleties of hand drumming, with the advantage of volume and timbre tweaking.

Other Roland items upped the ante of popular, existing products. While the wind has been largely sucked out of the race to make a better guitar synthesizer, given the natural disinclination for the guitar to serve as a good, fast-responding triggering device, Roland’s V-Guitar system continues its status as an industry standard. This year’s model is the VG-88, which offers better brass sounds via its HRM (harmonic restructure modeling) technology, and new tube amp models and overdrive sounds.

The VS-1880 V-Studio is the latest new/improved version of the surprisingly versatile, self-contained virtual studio pioneered by Roland a few years ago. This model is a 24-bit machine with easy CD-burning on-board. It allows eight simultaneous tracks, and the capacity for up to 288 “virtual” tracks, as well a nice complement of on-board effects. And it’s easily luggable, usable as a home studio away from home.

In music publishing news, Hal Leonard introduced The Pat Metheny Songbook, offering clear notation documentation of tunes by one of the most popular and respected of jazz guitarists. And Scher Music Co. unveiled its all-new volume of the Standards Real Book, a functional addendum replete with lyrics, another trusty tome for musicians everywhere.

For miking, ClearSonic presented the Flector, a personal monitoring disc made of acrylic that hooks to a player’s or singer’s mike to allow the artist to hear himself or herself better. SD Systems served up its SDS Modular System shock-free mounted mike, which easily clips over a variety of horns.

In the guitar world, old paradigms prevail, but futurism is not entirely dead. Over in the Fender booth, De Armond offered its seven-stringed instruments, not so strange in a music scene where Charlie Hunter is a heroic commodity.

Parker Guitars is still one of the more striking of new guitar designs with their unique dual pickup system, mixing both acoustic-like piezo and magnetic pickups in a distinctive, lightweight package. This year, they have introduced a jazz model, the Fly Jazz. With its mahogany body joined seamlessly with its basswood neck, and elegant gold inlay, the guitar looks and plays beautifully, with a gamut of semi-acoustic tones appealing to a jazz player. Unlike the other Parker models, this one comes without a vibrato arm, which helps to secure the intonation, and helps to give the instrument a curious blend of lightness of being and solidity of feel.

The New York City-based guitarmaker Roger Sadowsky continues to produce in-demand custom instruments, and has just introduced the Vintage P-J 5-String bass, with pickups akin to both the classic Fender jazz and precision sound. A stalwart amongst high-end bass companies, Pedulla unveiled its own new Rapture 2000 and Rapture-PJ models.

In the specialized world of bodiless electric upright basses, Steve Azola is extending the work that Martin Clevinger began. Like Clevinger, Azola makes instruments with the feel of acoustic basses, without the bulk, aiming at ease of portability and the flexibility of plugged-in basses. The newest addition to the Azola line is the Bug Bass II.

Other guitar news: Rickenbacker, whose semi-hollow body designs have long been pressed into specialty rock and roll service, has issued its Jazzbo model, logically enough. The popular Benedetto Pickups have added the “S” and “B” Ebonova series. The “S” is a humbucking, floating mount for six- and seven-string archtops to help bring out true acoustic warmth. The “B” is a built-in version of the “S.”

In years past, the enterprising folks behind compact foot pedal called the Sans Amp ushered in a new era of amp-sounds-in-a-box, easy to dial up without lugging heavy amplifiers about. The natural evolution shifted over to a higher grade of emulator developed by amp-makers Line 6, which last year introduced the remarkable and flexible amp simulator called the Pod, a very useful, and surprisingly true-sounding studio tool with a bright red design suggesting Venutian plant life.

Now, logically, comes the Bass POD. Electric bassists on the studio scene know, even more than guitarists, the pains-muscular, economic, logistical, etc.-of getting a variety of sounds a gig might require. The Bass POD’s array of sounds include the Ampeg SVT and B-15, the Marshall Major and Plexi Super Bass, SWR, Versatone and the Vox AC 100, close enough to fool discerning listeners with closed eyes. Users can also expand their options on the Internet, visiting the “Tone Transfer Web Library” at

Among guitar effects, nothing new under the sun screamed for attention, although old favorites came back to haunt. Digitech’s red devil, the Whammy Pedal, returns in its full pitch-bending glory, while Hughes and Kettner-makers of fine amps-showed a few impressive tube effects, with the tubes proudly visible beneath a glass panel. Among the new Tube Tools is a Tube Rotosphere, with the Leslie speaker effect available in a foot pedal.

In the slim ranks of new guitar technologies with real potential, the star of the show had to be the Self-Tuning Guitar, the very phrase of which reminds me of lame music store jokes about factory-tuned guitars. But, alas, the gadget-though at $2,600 for fitting the system into your guitar, maybe apparatus is a better description-is something worth noting, and Jimmy Page and Pat Metheny are among those whose ears are perked.

An elaborate system of computer-controlled gears at the proverbial touch of a button, and an almost infinite variety of open tunings can be accessed almost instantly. This is one development-though not for the weak of wallet-with 21st century implications.

The past few years have seen a notable growth in the realm of acoustic guitars, and apparatus’ with which to amplify them. Even Marshall Amps, specializing in the classic rock mythology of its volume-spewing Marshall stacks, has offered the Acoustic Combo Amp, the AS100D. Here, the 100 watts of power conspires towards the goal of clarity, even at high volumes, rather than trademarked, distorted crunch.

Breaking with tradition, Ibanez’s new GA5TCE nylon string model takes the classical guitar and de-classifies it, thinning out the neck and body and creating a cutaway for access to higher frets. It also comes equipped with a piezo pickup and three-band EQ. The goal is to make it suitable for guitarists who like the sound of nylon-strings, if not conventional classical guitar attributes, and is priced moderately, around $400. Pricier, higher-end guitars include Martin’s new, limited edition Eric Clapton model, and Santa Cruz, Taylor and others keep alive the flame of the fastidious cottage industry that is custom acoustic guitar manufacturing.

Crate amps showed a cleverly packaged portable, the 6FX-15, which takes quirky design cues from the iMac-or is it from the new VW Bug, or both? Still, the practical, no-nonsense appeal of an amp like the new Crate GFX-50TT, a sturdy little two-channel amp with a roster of built-in effects, will have a stronger market life. Jazz amps of choice such as Polytone and Mesa-Boogie mostly rested on well-deserved laurels.

The home-based multi-track recording field remains wide open, a rapidly changing world still at odds for industry standards, although certain leaders have established their place ahead of the curve. Cakewalk has an edge in the lower-priced recording software corner, and just released its Pro Audio 9, its affordable Home Studio 9 and, with an eye for guitarists, the user-friendly, entry-level Guitar Tracks.

Last year, the mighty Alesis, which started the ADAT revolution several years ago, introduced their new, higher definition 20-bit ADAT machine, and this year had less new to show. On the finishing end of the recording process, they did bring out the new ML-9600, a two-track mastering, mixing and CD-Burning unit.

Tascam introduced a 24-track, 24-bit digital disk recorder with a built-in hard drive. Another veteran of the home multi-track field, Fostex, has followed apace into the digital realm and added the D824 and D1624 models to the line of hard disk recorders. Into the computer and home-based recording domain, Mackie continues as the supplier of mixing boards-of-choice, although Peavey introduced its compact and versatile RQ 200 mixer, for the road or the studio. For its part, Mackie moved beyond the mixing stage and introduced its own hard-disk recorder, the stand-alone HDR24/96.

Most of the new development news in the drum sector had to do with cymbals, and variations thereof. Sabian’s new Triple Hi-Hat expands the drummer’s sonic vocabulary with its foot-operated, triple-cymbaled stack.

Zildjian’s new Remix Jungle Hats aim, in a reverse emulation of the physical and digital sound realms, at the shimmery effects of drum ‘n’ bass sounds-developed in conjunction with real time, real flesh ‘n’ bone drum ‘n’ bass wizard, drummer Zach Danziger. In another corner of the music market entirely, Zildjian also introduced new, diverse Stadium Series cymbals for marching band set.

Specialty news: DW released a double bass pedal for lefties. Musser, meanwhile, showed its new and improved five-octave marimba, with rose- wood bars.

The identity crisis in digital keyboards continues, as players, especially in jazz, seek more timbral authenticity and warmth from tools which may have functionality and feature-packed designs what they lack in old-fashioned musicality. The new Korg MS2000 wants to have it both ways, harkening back to the old MS keyboards first introduced 20 years ago. It uses DSP technology in older analog Korg models, without losing the advances of digital ease and reliability.

Yamaha made news at NAMM partly for its lavish concert party, an emotional and genuinely all-star tribute to Michael McDonald at the Shrine Auditorium. In the house were McDonald’s own hero, Ray Charles, Steve Winwood, the Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins and, in the back-up band, the likes of Steve Gadd and Steve Turre. Hit parade or not, McDonald’s songbook, not to mention the supple, gritty warmth of his vocal style sounds better than ever.

As expected, Yamaha’s exhibition was another world of its own, covering a greater expanse of instruments and musical implements than any other single manufacturer. They do a lot and, in the main, they do it all very well.

Among the list of new products, Yamaha new Billy Cobham and Sonny Emory signature snare drums, the affordable yet also expansive synths, the s30 and the PSR9000, and the DG80-210A Combo Amp, a better-living-through digital tech which offers built-in effects and impressive emulation of various tube amp sounds in one tidy package. In what might initially seem like an odd choice, they have introduced an acoustic guitar made primarily from bamboo, which has been used in making Asian instruments and has durability, resonance and eco-correctness on its side, since it’s a readily available resource.

The truth is, more than ever before, much of NAMM’s news can be gleaned through the Internet, for the patient surfer who wants to visit the expanding universe of music manufacturer’s sites. Still, there’s nothing quite like being at NAMM, soaking in the frenetic, multi-musical atmosphere and ogling the plenitude of gear, and finding a lyrically-negotiated version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” amidst the marketing mayhem.

At the end of the day, the visitor has to remember the literal meaning of the acronym-National Association of Music Merchandisers. NAMM doesn’t really know what love is, but it has the tools for those who do, or who have the desire to learn.

Originally Published