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Winter NAMM 2002

Outside Winter NAMM 2002

Since its inception in 1902, the National Association of Musical Merchants’ trade show has been a place for members of the musical instrument industry to show off their latest toys, talk with dealers, the music press and each other and discuss what they consider to be their chief mission in life: to make music sound good. Over the years, as the sound of music and the gear that makes that music evolved, the show has become a larger and larger event-or events, actually, a show in winter and one in summer. Winter NAMM finds its home in the Anaheim Convention Center, just a couple blocks from Disneyland where plenty of folk who know nothing of B-3s, Mark VIs, SM57s or 335s wait patiently in the California sun to get their picture taken with strangers in mouse suits.

Of course, at the NAMM show people wait in line to get their picture taken with some funny-looking characters, too, including lysergic funkster George Clinton and drummer Travis Barker from pop-punk trio Blink 182, a kid running short on real estate for more tattoos. Barker’s name may ring unfamiliar to jazz fans, but sitting next to him and his tattoos at a Zildjian-sponsored signing was the ever-swinging Louie Bellson-and his Sharpie was getting just as much action as Barker’s was. NAMM hasn’t forgotten jazz, and there were a number of instruments introduced at this past January’s show that offer jazz musicians a wider realm of possibilities to achieve the perfect sound. Here are some of the highlights.

Guitars and Amps

The NAMM show seems overrun by guitars and their makers.

Cort and Aria both had new archtops to behold. Aria featured three jazz axes in its new D’Aquisto series, and Cort displayed a Larry Coryell signature model. Those guitars would surely hold their own in any jam session, and they’d make perfect student instruments, but the guitars from two smaller companies, Baker Guitars and Eastman Strings, have been mainstays in my post-NAMM dreams.

The Baker BH1, a thin, fully hollow assemblage of maple, mahogany and rosewood, isn’t your standard jazz guitar, and its look might scare traditionalists away, but its tone shouldn’t. Somewhat resembling a Les Paul (albeit with two cutaways and a sharp-looking cat’s-eye hole in the top), the BH1 simply sang due to the thinness of the body. I played one set up with a low action and found the neck addictive to play on. And when I employed a bit of distortion, every note I played seemed to melt into the next. Players especially into John Scofield’s sound ought to check out this guitar.

Like the Bakers, Eastman Strings’ guitars are individually handcrafted products of fine lutherie, but Eastman’s archtops are more in line with classic jazz boxes than the modern Bakers. Eastman’s 810E electric archtop lured me into the booth with its beautiful antique style finish; it looked more like an instrument you’d see on The Antiques Roadshow than something you’d see at a 2002 trade show. An impressively loud sound came from the box itself (a pickup-less model is available), and when amplified it rings clear and full, almost like a harp. And even though it looks old, the electric model has at least one innovative feature: the volume knob is located under the pickguard, barely visible and easier to reach for adjustment.

Fender Musical Instruments, a much larger company, also had a couple of noteworthy additions to its product line at the show. Last year Fender introduced the Cyber-Twin amplifier, a digital/analog monster that can reconfigure its electronics to supply the sounds of who knows how many different amps. This year Fender added the Cyber-Deluxe to the series. With only one 12-inch Celestion speaker, it’s a little smaller than the Twin, but the idea remains the same: the Cyber-Deluxe has effects, MIDI capability and it can mimic the sounds of amps like a ’59 Bassman, those crunchy blackface Fenders from the ’60s and classic British stacks. There was also a new Reggie Hamilton Jazz bass hanging on the wall in the Fender booth. Hamilton has played on many records in many genres, from jazz to soundtracks to pop, but the bass he’s put his name on is all jazz and comes in four- and five-string versions.

Drums and Percussion

Like Eastman Strings’ antique-finished archtops, Maryland Drum Company’s Timepiece drums looked older than they really are. Keith Larsen, owner of the Baltimore-based company, wanted to make drums that would remind us of a time gone by, and the two Timepiece snares he had at the show, with their slightly faded pinstripe paintjobs, could certainly be mistaken for relics from the 1930s. Of course, the drums sounded fantastic, each one made from high-quality wood and hardware and hand finished, inside and out.

Latin Percussion remembered the past as well, paying tribute to the late Tito Puente with a set of bronze-shell timbales. Apparently LP conducted an in-depth analysis of Puente’s famous sound in order to design the shells for these timbales. The work has resulted in increased dynamic range well beyond that of previous models. Tito would be proud.

Two cymbal companies, Sabian and Zildjian, displayed new cymbal lines inspired by top talent. Zildjian’s recent team-up with session star Vinnie Colaiuta has produced the new A. Custom series cymbals. They’re made with a radical rotary hammering technique and deliver a crisp sound flexible enough to be used in swing or more modern music.

Sabian’s HHX Evolution cymbals were designed in part by drummer Dave Weckl, who wanted the cymbals to strike a balance between traditional tone and modern projection, wanting them to sound classic but to respond with less effort. Since Weckl’s signature graces the underside of each Evolution cymbal’s bell, we can assume these cymbals lived up to his expectations. Sabian also debuted an emergency drumhead repair kit for all the heavy-hitters out there.

Recording Gadgets

The beloved 4-track cassette recorder is nearly obsolete. The once revolutionary machines will soon be filling shelves at Goodwill as home recordists warm up to the new breed of digital multitrackers.

Hard-disk based multitrackers have been on the market for a while now, but their prices still don’t compete with cassette 4-tracks and they’ve remained just as clunky in size. Thanks to developments in audio compression and memory-card technology, three new digital multitrackers, from Tascam, Korg and Zoom, have entered the market with reasonable price tags, each one smaller than a cassette 4-track and capable of handling many more track-saving ping-pong operations. Plus, the companies have outfitted their new multitrackers with loads of digital effects. All the 4-track ever had for onboard effects was that pitch-shift knob, fun as it was.

Zoom’s minitracker, the MRS-4, offers the most features with 32 total tracks and MIDI control, but it’s also the largest of the three. Zoom does, however, still offer the PS-02, a digital 3-tracker no larger than a baseball. Korg’s PXR4 is smaller than the Zoom unit, but it’s nearly as functional. The MIDI capability is missing from the PXR4, but it has the same number of tracks and records up to 270 minutes of music. Korg also gave the PXR4 a built-in microphone good for capturing ideas as they happen, provided you carry the thing everywhere you go. Just a little larger than a Palm handheld computer, Tascam’s Pocketstudio 5 is the smallest of the new recorders and seems geared toward musicians who want to make their music available on the Internet. Like the rest of these tiny-trackers, the Pocketstudio 5 records to interchangeable memory cards, but unlike the others its tracks can only be mixed down to MP3 format. That’s a bit of a limitation, but with an internal MIDI tone module for sequencing, effects and its built-in microphone, Tascam’s unit isn’t short on features.

Riff robbers take note: Bird and Django’s fleet-fingered runs need to remain mysterious no longer. Superscope’s new PSD300 CD recording system allows you to adjust the tempo of the music on any CD by -33% to +50% while still preserving the music’s original key, perfect for transcribing solos or studying harmonies. And it goes both ways; it’ll change the key (in half steps or micro tunings) but maintain the tempo. Truth be told, the PSD300 is just an update on Superscope’s PSD230, but the PSD300’s added features of an onboard CD-R/RW drive and a number of input choices for recording make it a creative tool as well as an educational one. Plug in a microphone, even a mixer, and you could record demos or add a solo to a favorite song and burn it to a CD-R.

Horns

Digital technology isn’t being used to make new-fangled gadgets and synthesized instruments only. It’s also being used to make traditional instruments sound better.

By inspecting digital scans of hundreds of vintage brass mouthpieces, Kanstul Musical Instruments is now producing what it calls “exact duplicates” of classic mouthpieces not available for purchase anymore-until now, that is. The nitty-gritty differences between a 1930s and 1960s mouthpiece of the same model have been sorted out, so if you are looking for a favorite Kanstul mouthpiece from yesteryear that so far hasn’t shown up on eBay, here’s your solution.

While Kanstul brings back the designs of the past, Selmer is at work creating the future. Its new Paris “Concept TT” B-flat trumpet innovates horn construction in a slight but crucial way. The trumpet basically has two mouthpipes: a traditional mouthpipe that has been inserted into an outer sheath-“TT” stands for “twin tube.” The space between the tubes, plus the added mass of another hunk of brass, gives the horn greater response over a wide dynamic range.

Though there weren’t many new standout reeded instruments at the show, saxophonists, clarinetists and flutists certainly weren’t left out.

Boosey & Hawkes’ showed off its new SX90R Keilwerth saxophones with nickel-silver bodies. Besides just grabbing attention with a two-tone finish (the keys remain gold lacquered), the new Keilwerths are more responsive and sound more centered than their brass cousins due to nickel silver’s ability to conduct different frequencies faster than any other metal.

The big news at the Leblanc booth was a recent deal making the com-pany the exclusive U.S. distributors of Sankyo flutes, but there were also a couple of Yanagisawa saxophones with “NEW” tags dangling from their necks (the 9937 alto and tenor models).

However great the new horns are, doodads with digital displays impress me the most, so the award for best horn product at Winter NAMM goes to Yamaha, which unveiled the ST5 Digital Effects System to the delight of many forward-thinking horn blowers at the show. Any player worth his or her copy of Bitches Brew has searched for new sounds by sending a sax or a brass instrument through a microphone and into effects pedals made for guitar, but since those pedals aren’t made to process the timbres and frequency ranges of horns, the results are never all they should be. Yamaha made the ST5 specifically for horn players and designed it for use with either a microphone or its Silent Brass products. The handheld unit packs an arsenal of effects, too, including delay, pitch shift, tremolo, compression, reverb, distortion, etc. Miles would have been first in line to get one.

Keyboards

Finally, Hammond is bringing the B-3 back into production. No, not digital synths with near-realistic modeling of the B-3’s screaming sound, but actual replicas of the legendary tone-wheel organ, right down to the key-clicks. Joey DeFrancesco played a few sets on the new B-3 at the show, and while it’s possible he’s just such a great player he could make even the cheesiest toy organ sound marvelous, the new Hammond sounded just as swirly, greasy and magnificent as the real deal. Sadly, the new B-3 is just as heavy as the old one.

For those who can’t lug an organ everywhere they play, Roland’s introduction of the XV-5050 64-voice synthesizer module should come as good news. It’s a low-cost module compared to its flagship XV-5080 and, in fact, the XV-5050 uses the same sound engine and has over 1,000 preset patches from majestic grand pianos to otherworldly synths.

But what about grand pianos? Do they even make them anymore? Well, yes, they do, but it’d be pretty easy to miss the piano exhibits at the NAMM show because they’re upstairs from the main halls, away from all the noise and distractions. Those who did make it upstairs caught a glimpse of and perhaps a tune from some fine pianos made by Bösendorfer, Kawai, Mason & Hamlin and others.

The Weber Piano Company cele-brated its 150th Anniversary at the show with a short reception for its dealers and members of the press. For entertainment, Ernie Cataldo, marketing manager for Weber’s digital products, played a few tunes on one of the company’s electronic keyboards while his son wailed on a tenor sax. The sound of the digital Weber was realistic, better than most I’ve heard, plus it had rhythm and string accompaniment. But truthfully, Cataldo’s son, with his tenor jammed into his mouth Lester Young style, was the most memorable part of the performance.

Originally Published