NAMM 2005

Yamaha BBT500-115 Bass Amplifier
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Pearl Reference Series Drums
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Samson CO1U Microphone
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Earthworks Drumkit microphones
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Selmer LaVoix alto saxophone
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In late January I left snowy Washington, D.C., to visit Anaheim, Calif., home of Winter NAMM-the musical instrument industry’s annual product-showcase blowout-and a place with much better weather.

The four-day show, held in the Anaheim Convention Center, officially began at 10 a.m. on January 23. But my first stop there was a half hour before show time, at the Yamaha booth, where a short press conference was held to commemorate the behemoth corporation’s 10 millionth horn (the first was made in 1965). As Yamaha’s Rick Young made remarks about the achievement, one of the first Yamaha trumpets ever made stood nearby in a display case next to a new YTR-2335 trumpet-which I wrongfully assumed was number 10 million. Turns out that Yamaha would soon be producing its 10 millionth horn, but that it actually hadn’t been made yet.

Yamaha had a big display of colorful boxes containing the new Q-Class instruments, which are for beginning students. These inexpensive items are comprised of a silver-plated flute and a trumpet and alto saxophone with matte finishes, implying the look of a vintage instrument. On the more professional end, bassists may find an amplification solution in either of Yamaha’s BBT digital combo amps. Both models use the digital amplification and preamp technology Yamaha introduced last summer with the BBT500H bass head, which includes settings for 11 vintage and modern amp sounds and tone-shaping controls including EQ, compressor and effects. Speakers are included now-a 10-inch and a 15-inch version are available-and both amps also have a small compression driver for high end. It’s a lightweight and versatile amp rig, perfect for gigging.

The Conn-Selmer exhibit had the new LaVoix saxophones on display. These models, in alto and tenor, were made to fill the niche between a starter sax and a pricey Selmer Paris horn. Each is made from red brass and takes advantage of Selmer’s Ultra Bell design; also included is a case and a Selmer S80 C* mouthpiece.

Eastman, a favorite guitar maker of mine, has a prototype for a Gibson 335-style guitar with split humbuckers and a versatile electronics setup that allows for a variety of tones. It’s heavy as a sack of bricks and sounds like it, too. Its meaty tone and ringing sustain was demonstrated by a blind guitarist who laid the guitar on his lap and played not the blues, as I had expected him to, but quick-paced, nimble bebop lines. I left as a frustrated guitarist.

Trumpet maker Callichio moved from California to Tulsa, Okla., two years ago and has proceeded to produce finely crafted instruments, played most notably by David Trigg. Ignoring a couple of high-note-blaring trumpeters who were testing the company’s newest handmade horns, I focused on a case of mouthpieces each labeled with a familiar name: Mangione, Kadleck, Trigg-some 20 of them. Callichio has entered the mouthpiece game with a line of signature pieces, co-designed by artists who actually use them.

In a pleasantly quieter section of the hall, Jody Espina showcased his new JodyJazz DV tenor sax mouthpiece. Named after Leonardo DaVinci, Espina touts the DV as a mouthpiece that uses DaVinci’s golden section, magic number concept (those unfamiliar with it can consult the nearest copy of The DaVinci Code) to create fatter tone, power and projection and what Espina calls an “unbelievable altissimo.”

While checking out Istanbul Agop’s new 25th Anniversary series cymbals and Agop Signature Series rides-seek these out for a vintage Turkish sound-Agop’s Herman Karabulut mentioned a forthcoming addition to the company’s Mel Lewis signature line, a 24-inch ride sporting 30 rivets, just like Mel’s old jangling, hell-raising dish. Across the carpet another set of signature cymbals was on display at Bosphorus, which had a set of cymbals endorsed by Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, each with a rhyming name: Phat Hats, Wide Ride, etc. I spied the new Steve Gadd signature hi-hats at the Zildjian booth, but what resonated most was the company’s foray into cheeky pillowcase design: it’s decorated with a pattern of Zs and the proclamation that it’s “Time to crash.” Cute.

After seeing that I was tempted to take a quick nap in the hotel, but instead opted for a trip up the escalator to the quieter levels of the convention center, where the big guitar companies Fender, Gibson and Taylor exhibit. The Taylor booth has long been my favorite. It’s a large, dimly lit room outfitted with plush sofas, bowls of pretzels and licorice and walls lined with Bob Taylor’s exquisitely crafted acoustic guitars. The ax to inspect this year was a slimline hybrid electric/acoustic called the T5. It can be strung with electric or acoustic strings and has five pickups, offering a wide range of tonal possibilities, from mellow acoustic tone to lock-up-your-daughter rock. Across the hall from Taylor I caught sight of John McLaughlin-not the real John McLaughlin, just a cardboard cutout advertising Godin’s LGXT guitar. McLaughlin used the LGXT to create his recent DVD box set This Is the Way I Do It. Struggling McLaughlin disciples clap hands: The title is literal. For McLaughlin to effectively communicate his ideas and approach to the six-string, he needed an ax that covered the breadth of his style. Thus he employed the LGXT because like the Taylor T5, it combines properties of electric and acoustic guitars, but it also incorporates synth guitar technology. The Fender booth, though, held the grand prize for jazz-leaning ax-slingers. On a section of wall covered with Benedetto archtops, NAMM’s jazz guitar crown jewels, hung a Frank Vignola signature guitar festooned with an ebony tailpiece with art nouveau lettering spelling out Vignola’s name in pearl inlay. Vignola’s own guitar sports a pickup at the end of its fingerboard; the consumer model Benedetto doesn’t.

I was saddened to have missed Jimmy Bruno demonstrating his wicked chops and the sound of the new Sadowsky archtop that bears his name. Appearing somewhat like a smaller version of Sadowsky’s previous Jim Hall model, it’s the guitar Bruno plays on his dazzling latest album Solo. Bruno also lends his name to a set of polished roundwound Sadowsky strings.

Latin Percussion held a presentation of a new Web site that allows for the customization of its conga drums. With 21,000 user-selectable options available, the site is a step-forward in helping players get exactly what they want. I don’t know how LP is going to keep up with it all, but it’s a great idea.

Pearl’s new Reference Series drums buck the notion of what makes sense to a marketing department in favor of championing what pleases the ear. After discovering that mixing wood types within a single shell can result in tones that are better suited for different types of drums, Pearl has gone a step further. The company has designed a line where each tom, snare and bass drum is made from differing woods, in varying thicknesses and cut with unique bearing edges, in order to emphasize the qualities important to an individual drum’s tone. The base 12-inch tom has a 6-ply maple shell with a 45-degree bearing edge to maximize its warmth. The smaller toms have birch added to their shells to increase brightness and projection; the larger toms are augmented with African mahogany to increase low-end resonance. The snare is a thick, 20-ply monster mix of birch (6-ply) and maple (14 -ply) that can crack like a gunshot. Pearl’s Gene Okamoto made the case for the Reference Series concept by reminding me that the very first drum sets were assemblages of drums made individually and not built as a kit of uniform design. Makes sense.

In 2003, Hammond rolled out the New B3, finally reissuing the famed organ, albeit with a modern, digital engine. In 2004 Hammond stripped the New B3’s wooden base away, added a skeletal stand and introduced the Portable B3. Organ players all over thanked Hammond for bringing a great-sounding and considerably less heavy B3 to the market. But organ maestro and Hammond endorser Tony Monaco has helped the company take the game one step further by aiding in the design of the new Hammond XK-3 organ, a unit that features the same New B3 technology (minus the B3’s trademark key-click sound) and puts it into a deceivingly small portable for about half the cost of a New B3. Perfect for the gigging musician who needs something a little lighter and easier to transport.

You can’t sit at a Steinway piano at the Anaheim Convention Center in January. The godfather of musical instrument suppliers chooses to exhibit offsite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. (Those experienced smarties at Steinway must know what Anaheim’s nightlife is like.) So, not having a rental vehicle this year, I missed out on the reintroduction of Steinway’s Model A grand piano. The company discontinued the 6-foot 2-inch Model A in 1914, and until now there’s been a 12-inch gap between the 5-foot 10-inch and 6-foot 10-inch models. The new Model A retains a lot of the original’s design, but Steinway has wisely incorporated into it technical innovations developed since it disappeared from regular production.

Technological innovation was on display at the Korg booth in the form of its new Oasys synth, a follow-up to its wildly popular Triton workstation. The breadth of Oasys is staggering, a confluence of previous Korg technology, plus new ideas, wrapped in one package, with three sound-synthesis engines (a PCM synth, an analog modeling synth and a tonewheel organ modeler), an effects engine that uses 185 algorithms, sampling capabilities (it uses the same system as the Triton Studio) and 16 tracks of hard-disk recording, a built-in, full screen display and CD burner. This all hints that Oasys is for pros; the 88-key version’s $8,500 price tag confirms it. But Oasys is likely the last workstation you’ll need to buy (at least until they roll out the next one).

Perhaps even more innovative, and definitely more appealing to the computer-based recording engineer on a budget, is Samson’s new C01U microphone. It was only a matter of time before someone built a microphone that plugs directly into a computer’s USB port. The cardioid pattern large-diaphragm C0U1 uses power from the USB connection, bypassing the need for a phantom power supply. It streets for around $80, and as such it’s a microphone with limited functionality-no pad and just a single, cardioid pickup pattern-but it’s fair, and the microphone only hints at what could be around the corner.

Earthworks displayed a thought-provoking microphone product as well, one geared more toward sound professionals. The new DrumKit is a three-microphone package-two omni-directional, one cardioid-made especially for capturing the natural sound of the total drum kit. The idea of using just three mikes to pick up a drum set’s sound isn’t new at all, but many engineers have become accustomed to miking every dish and tub in the rig. The simplicity of the DrumKit is refreshing. And Earthworks claims the mikes can be used effectively both in the studio and on stage.

More information on any of the new products mentioned here is available at the respective company’s Web sites. Now, please allow me to register a complaint. At NAMM, bassists slap frets silly, guitarists shred recklessly, keyboardists lay on layer after layer of synth padding. But rarely does an instrument on NAMM premises generate a thoughtful, well-phrased line. There’s a woman at NAMM called the “meter maid.” She’s the show’s own schoolmarm, who monitors decibel levels and issues warnings to deviant players who, cranked to 11, shatter nearby spectacles and wine glasses. (Yes, you can drink while you walk the floor. Sometimes it’s the only way to cope.) I’d like to see a “melody maid” come by and maybe prod a wailing trumpet auditioner into some Mancini. Just a thought for the hard-working NAMM organizers.