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Winter NAMM 2008 Show Report
By: Scott Kahn

Once again, musicians the world over converged upon the “holy” city of Anaheim during the annual pilgrimage to pay homage to gear, gear, and more gear. Where else can you worship at the altar of music equipment and Mickey Mouse within two city blocks?

Attending the NAMM show, especially for the first time, can almost feel like a religious experience, or perhaps it’s more like an out-of-body experience. Not many things make you feel like a kid in a candy store these days, but the NAMM convention is probably as close as you can come to that feeling. But this year, we were forced to admit that the candy seemed a bit familiar and without many new flavors to try. And there were no real miracle treats like the first time people discovered Pop Rocks, Gummy Bears, or Sour Patch Kids.

Once again, NAMM reported record-breaking numbers — over 1,500 companies exhibited their products and services, and over 88,000 people registered to attend the show this year. At times, it almost felt like all 88,000 people made it into the building! Despite increased security that required photo IDs for everyone to enter the exhibit halls (no more badge-sharing, folks!), you definitely felt the increased attendance. One thing was evident — no matter how bad the US economy gets (we’ve recently been assured by Dubya that we’re not actually facing a recession), musicians will not be deterred from their quest for musical tools. Hey, when everything else is going to hell, we can always just kick back and play some music, right?

So now that we’ve offended religious zealots and Bush supporters, it’s time to explore the things that made an impression on our editorial team this year. Most of our editorial team made it to the show this year, and while Jason was the only true virgin in the group (in terms of attending the NAMM show, that is), it was equally mesmerizing to staffers who had only seen the Summer show, which is but a pale reflection of the event that consumes an entire city for a week.

Musicians and celebrities were out in full force this year. We’re still trying to figure out why Bill Murray was visiting with the folks at Ernie Ball Music Man… maybe he’s got a heavy metal band on the side and he’s looking for some endorsements? They might be called The Caddyshacks or something. Who knows!

One of our favorite musical events of the show had to be the reunion concert from Extreme, which featured Nuno Bettencourt, Gary Cherone, and Pat Badger, joined by drummer Kevin Figueiredo (who played in Nuno’s most recent band, Dramagods, and Satellite Party). After enduring a painful two-hour show delay (not from the anticipation, but because we’d been walking and standing the previous ten hours straight), Extreme proved worth the wait. They were in top form, played with precision, and executed their vocal harmonies to a tee as they ripped through a collection of tunes and hits spanning their career. If some of this energy shows up in the new album they’re recording, we’re all in for some great stuff!

Of course our guitar contingency wasn’t content to just listen to Nuno’s band, so the next night we were treated to a blistering performance from Joe Satriani. In recognition of the 20th Anniversary of his landmark album, Surfing With The Alien, Joe’s band played Surfing in its entirety, something we’ve never heard before in a Satch set. In between songs he enlightened us with stories about the songs, and his finale all-star jam included appearances (and blistering fretwork) from Ibanez-endorsed pals Paul Gilbert, Herman Li (doing unspeakably cruel things to his hot new signature model), and Marty Friedman.

And now for the gear…

This was definitely an evolutionary year for manufacturers, as there weren’t any major breakthroughs like last year’s Lightwave Saber Bass or the Drumnetics kick pedal innovation, but we still found plenty to be excited about:

This year, perhaps the most revolutionary thing we encountered was Peavey’s entry into the world of guitar amp modeling software, ReValver Mark III. The modeling story has been familiar to all of us for a few years, and while all the popular products continue to improve, ReValver MK III explores new territory sure to be of interest even if you don’t plan to stop playing your tube amp. Of course if you are considering making use of modeled amps, we expect that models of Peavey’s JSX, XXX, and 6505 may prove to be the most authentic produced by any company since their amp designers actually contributed to the engineering effort on this software. (Other popular amps and effects have been modeled, too.)

What blew us away, specifically, was what happens when you leave the basic interface to enter the advanced configuration options within this software. More than just an amp modeler, ReValver MK III looks to be a full-blow amplifier circuit design and prototyping tool! You can actually modify settings at the board level, replace tubes, modifying power amp rectifiers and output transformers, and more. The sample screen shot here shows how you can tweak tube biasing. The possibilities are huge for amateur and professional tube amp builders who want to experiment with “what if?” scenarios and hear the effects in real time. And if you’re just the serious tone tweaker, what a great way to learn tube biasing or experiment with new tubes before you put your prized amp under the knife. We can’t wait to put this software to the test in our studio!

Revisiting the companies that wowed us last year, Drumnetics was on hand to show off a prototype of their double-kick pedal driven by their patented magnetic repulsion technology instead of springs, and Lightwave had a production prototype of the Atlantis, their first acoustic-electric guitar to utilize optical pickup technology. For those of you who just don’t appreciate the sound of a piezo pickup, this year should bring you a new acoustic guitar technology to get excited about, and you can be sure we’ll be reviewing the production guitars as soon as they are ready.

The biggest hype at this year’s show had to come from Fender — with all the announcements about the first major redesign of the classic Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jazz bass, and Precision bass, we expected some radical moves. Perhaps some changes to the body shapes, radical tone differences, and more stuff that made you go “Wow! That’s bold!” but instead the changes left us a bit underwhelmed as the they were mostly under-the-surface. Fender did in fact change out the guts quite a bit, upgraded hardware where it could improve performance and tone of the instruments, and changed the formulation of many of their finishes — all little things that add up to an improved instrument to be sure, but with such significant shouting about the reinvention of these classic instruments, we would have welcomed some really striking changes to the instruments. Nonetheless, who can argue with these industry standard instruments sounding and playing better than the models that came only a year before?

Last year, Gibson impressed us with the HD.6X-Pro digital guitar, and this year, we got to check out their latest creation, the Robot guitar, a typical Les Paul except that it tunes itself! The tuners are quite a bit chunky (they have individual motors in them), but they work great. We had seen the underlying technology demonstrated a year ago, and to see it implemented effectively in this classic rock guitar was great. We especially liked that you can save your own custom tunings in the guitar and call them up with the turn of a knob.

Visiting with engineering legend Dave Smith is always a treat. We were in unanimous agreement that each of us would like to get a Prophet ‘08 synthesizer for our studios — Michael Weeks was almost understated in describing how beautiful the synth sounds in his in-depth review this month. But the other special treat was lurking on the table behind the Prophet… and behind the new Prophet ’08 tabletop unit… a new LinnDrum! Yes, the rumored LinnDrum II was on hand sporting a beautiful blue glow to it. Would Dave let us listen to it? Sorry — it’s not that evolved yet, but it was there to show the world that yes, it is becoming a reality. We can’t wait!

And in case you bassists are feeling left out, leave it to Megadeth’s James Lomenzo, hanging out at Ashdown’s booth, to blow us away with a distortional pedal he designed for bass. What’s so special about it? Frequency-dependent distortion! What an ingenious idea — we’re shocked we haven’t seen more of this for guitar players, even. Imagine setting a frequency point (like a lo-pass or hi-pass filter) above or below which your distortion is applied. Awesome!

But enough with our babling… check out more details on the things that caught our attention this year...

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