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Winter NAMM 2011: What Really Mattered
Now that the dust has settled, here's what really mattered this year.
Forward By: Scott Kahn


Every year the typical NAMM features start with the same old story: major industry event, if you’re not there you’re a loser, this year’s show was the best ever, the industry is doing great, and so on. But in this age of instant news reporting, press releases the day of the show (or just before) were already telling you about the new gear being introduced.

We like to do things a bit differently. Rather than racing to tell you about all the latest gear, we allowed some time to pass so that the dust could settle and we could see what stuck with us as the truly special things discovered at this year’s show.

Overall, this was an evolutionary show vs. a revolutionary show. There were very few new items that really blew us away this year as most products were just typical upgrades and improvements to existing lines, and of course various new models of products from companies who were basically repackaging existing knowledge in new boxes.

That’s not to say things weren’t exciting, of course, and it was great to see the industry showing a healthy pulse. But we were just as excited by a few items we first saw last year as we were by many new items this year. That said, what follows are the things that left an impression on us this year.

  NAMM 2011 Overview

Guitar Highlights
Drums Highlights
Keyboard Highlights
Recording Highlights
Live Sound Highlights

Guitar Highlights

Kemper Profiling Amplifier
Leave it to the brains behind the Access Virus synthesizer to deliver a revolutionary approach to amp modeling. Rather than another box with models of famous amps, they took an entirely new approach: model your amp. And they’ve come up with a brilliant solution.

The idea is clever. You cut an album with some delicate vintage amps in the studio or some expensive boutique gear and want to bring your studio tone on the road without risking damage to your gear. Connect the KPA to your amp’s input jack, place a microphone in your favorite location in front of a speaker, and connect the mic to the KPA. The unit sends a series of test signals through your amp and, similar to capturing impulse responses for a convolution reverb processor, the KPA builds a profile of the tone generated by your amp.

Once the profile is created and saved in the KPA, you can tweak gain and EQ controls just as if it were a more traditional amp model, and output can go straight to a PA system — nice for players who rely on in-ear monitoring. Further, the KPA has onboard effects for things like delays and modulation, so the lunchbox-sized unit can really be the only thing you bring to the gig.

Our initial experience with the device profiling a Mesa/Boogie amp at the NAMM show really impressed us! Playing through the KPA sounded like playing through the real amp (which we happen to own and know extremely well), and it had the appropriate feel and response. The sound even cleaned up when using the guitar’s volume knob! This is a truly revolutionary musical device that we can’t wait to spend more time with.

3rd Power Amplification
Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries this year was the incredible sound of 3rd Power Amplification.  In fact, each of the three amps we demoed were so distinct and versatile, it’s easy to see how someone would want to own all of them. 

The HD100 head is perfect for that live “circa 1973” Zeppelin tone or the ultimate “brown sound.”  The American Dream (two-channel 1x12 combo) delivers spanky Fender Brownface and Blackface tones, while the new-for-2011 British Dream (also a two-channel  1x12) delivers the iconic tones of the fabled Vox AC30 and 1968 Marshall Plexi!

But wait, there’s more!  The good folks at 3rd Power are also innovators of a unique cabinet design that eradicates the age-old shortcomings of rectangular cabinets such as beaming and mud-inducing comb filtering.  For example, the HLH 312 is a triangular 3-speaker cabinet that, due to its unique design, presents a stable point source.  When three of these triangular cabs are stacked together, not only does it look super cool, but it provides the ultimate wet/dry/wet sound and a room filling, almost 3D sound while maintaining a relatively small footprint.  3rd Power’s 2x12 cabs (as well as 1x12 combo amps) utilize proprietary dual triangular chambers, each with separate removable vent lids for open- or closed-back operation.

May the tone gods hear our prayers – we want these amps for review!

Tyler Variax
Imagine our surprise to find American boutique guitar builder, James Tyler, partnered with Line 6! With the next evolutionary leap in Variax technology, Line 6 knew they had to get serious about guitar quality if more pros were going to embrace their technology. So, they got Tyler to design their new line of instruments, which are all built to Tyle Guitars specifications. We played a few of these guitars and came away extremely satisfied.

Dar Amplification
Hit me baby one more time!  They knocked our socks off last year with the two-channel Tuzzia amplifier and this year they did it again with the impressive four-channel Forza Quattro.

Sporting military grade 63CC Power Tubes (these make your 6L6 and EL34 tubes look like babies), a distressed nickel faceplate, carbon fiber tolex, machined aluminum knobs and even a programmable LED illumination system, the Forza straddles the line between beauty and brawn!

The LED illumination system (featured on both amps and cabs) is one of the coolest things we have seen in a while.  By utilizing the system, you can choose any color in the visible spectrum, and set it to pulsate and modulate with your playing.  Dar speaker cabinets even feature connectors that allow you to connect to a lighting rig for the ultimate in trippy effects!

All that flash would mean nothing if the gear didn’t sound supreme, and it does! From the sparkling cleans and headroom aplenty of channel one, to the light crunch of channel two, right up to the insane gain of channels three and four, the Forza never once lost its articulation, note definition or tightness during our extensive demoing.  In fact, channels three and four almost caused us to miss the remainder of the show – it was just so darn fun jamming Metallica riffs!

And if great sound and swell looks were not enough, the amps boast many useful additional features such as: Full MIDI control, preamp and buffered instruments send/return, recording mode, loudspeaker simulation, headphone out, tuner out, and more. Look for a full review of the amazing Forza later this year.

RJM Music Technology MasterMind GT
Ron Menelli of RJM Music Technology was showing off a prototype of his upcoming MIDI foot controller, the MasterMind GT, which promises to be one of the most powerful — and easy to use — foot controllers ever built. The MasterMind GT is unique in a few ways.

irst, every switch has its own individual display for custom labels. And since you can assign any function to any switch, this is very handy. You can even select the colors for On and Off status! And if you’re wondering how tough it will be to program this foot controller for your rig, a desktop computer won’t even be needed thanks to the large touch-screen display in the middle. Very cool!

Seymour Duncan
Seymour Duncan LiberatorOur friends at Seymour Duncan have some great things on tap for 2011, like the Liberator solderless pickup change system with volume pot.  Essentially a bare wire “lockdown” system, with a Liberator equipped axe, you no longer need to heat up a soldering gun or take your guitar to a tech to perform pickup swaps. In fact, all you need is a screwdriver.  The system also includes a high quality Bourns volume pot (available in either 250K or 500K) and it’s all quite the bargain at thirty-five bucks.  Pre-wired pick guards will also be available soon.
Want the sound of Duncan’s active Blackout set without the look of passive pickups?  Then you need the new Blackouts Modular Preamp and Coil Pack setup.  The preamp is exactly the same as the one used with the original Blackout set, but removed from within the pickup housing and integrated with a replacement volume pot.  Connection of the preamp is done via the same solderless wire lockdown process used by the Liberator.  The Coil Pack is actually a set of open coiled passive humbuckers voiced to reproduce the exact sound of the original Blackouts. 

Additionally, you can “Blackout” any pickup and turn your passive guitar into a very unique active instrument. The new system lets you attach the discrete Blackout preamp to any of your favorite passive humbucker pickups.

Fans of the classic JB/Jazz pickup combination will be “jazzed” to know that 2011 will see the release of a 35th Anniversary Commemorative as well as a Custom Shop set.  The former is simply a version of the set before modern appointments were implemented; therefore it will utilize butyrate bobbins, rough-cast Alnico magnets, single conductor wires and a long legged bottom plate.  The Custom Shop set is designed to mimic precisely the set installed in Jeff Beck’s fabled “TeleGib” with one key difference being an Alnico II magnet in the Jazz neck pickup.   

Billed as “The Next Great Sound of Guitar,” Duncan Zephyr pickups utilize real silver wire for sonic excellence in addition to Cryogenic treatment, nickel and stainless steel pole pieces and glass Fiberfill nylon bobbins.  And all this can be yours for a measly $1,195 per set!!!

Aristides Instruments
Built from a proprietary material called Arium and endorsed by Dutch Axe-Slinger Adrian Vandenburg, we were first introduced to the Aristides 010 during the 2010 NAMM show, but sadly did not get a chance to check out its plugged in sound.  This year was different, and worth the wait!

The 010 is a beautiful instrument, aesthetically and tonally.  Powered by a Duncan TB5 bridge humbucker and Duncan single coils in the middle and neck slots, the 010 can crank out anything from the heaviest of metal to the funkiest funk.  We were most impressed by the guitar’s sustain and note bloom as well as its great playability and impeccable fretwork.

Other appointments include a Wilkinson Vibrato, Sperzel locking tuners, Schaller strap locks and a GraphTech nut. Look for a full review of this unique guitar later in the year.

Aristides 010

Lots of great stuff at the Ibanez booth this year, in fact too much to list as usual!  The new RG Premium series really caught our attention.  This new line is meant to straddle the price point between standard RG models and the Prestige series instruments. Available in six hot colors with quilted tops and sporting American Basswood bodies, Edge Zero II bridges, jumbo frets and bound Rosewood necks, these beauties can be had for under $1,000 making them quite the deal. Review units are already in our studio for immediate testing.

Also announced at this year’s show were two new Steve Vai Euphoria acoustics, the EP5BP and EP10BP, each featuring thinline bodies and mahogany necks.  The EP5BP has a mahogany laminate back and sides with a solid Engelmann spruce top and a Fishman Sonicore Pickup while the higher-end EP10BP has solid mahogany back and sides, Fishman Acoustic Matrix Pickup, and Vai’s  “Tree Of Life” Inlay.
Also on the hot list: the new S Prestige guitars. Wow! We’re really talking about boutique quality here, and you’ll be seeing reviews next month

.Ibanez Premium Series

Tom Anderson Guitars
Boutique guitar maker Tom Anderson had lots of fantastic guitars on display, and his new batch of seven-string guitars definitely caught our eyes. For the serious seven string player, these are definitely worth checking out!

Do you loathe carrying around multiple guitars to gigs to facilitate different tunings?  Think capos are just for cowboys?  Then the Morpheus DropTune and Capo pedals may be just what the Doctor ordered! 

Featuring proprietary polyphonic pitch drop, the DropTune can tune down up to 3 ½ steps in half step decrements or full octave drop. Tired of tuning down?  Then tune “up” with the Capo pedal!  This nifty device features the ability to tune up 3 ½ steps in half step increments, full octave up and even features a twelve-string guitar effect. 

We demoed both pedals at the show and they are the real deal. The DropTune has a new firmware update that significantly improves on the sound of the first generation model. The updates sounded very authentic without digital artifacts, and we look forward to testing them in our various rigs to see if they really are as good as they seem to be.

Marshall Amplification
Marshall premiered their new Yngwie Malmsteen YJM 100 Signature amp at the show this year and given the fact that many of us are longtime fans of the “maestro” we were keen to check it out. 

The YJM 100 is a 100 Watt head based on a “1959” Model Plexi  (we thought Yngwie uses 1987 50 watt “small box” Plexis?).  Features include: Footswitchable boost (volume and gain), studio quality reverb, noise gate and effects loop. A half-power switch takes the amp from 100 to 50 watts as well as an infinitely variable attenuator control, which can take the output stage from 100% to 1% and anywhere in-between.  If that wasn’t enough, the amp is self-biasing and even includes Valve Failure Technology which in the event of tube failure, a visual indicator on the back of the amp shows you which tube is faulty!

Marshall YJM100

We would love to get our hands on one of these amps for a full review, but we must admit to having a bit of a chuckle over how Yngwie has long professed his simplistic “old school” approach to gear and now has his name on an amp with more bells and whistles than a Swiss Army knife!

Two-Notes Torpedo
Two-Notes is making perhaps the most advanced cabinet and amp simulators on the market, and this year they introduced a two-channel VM-202, which provides both power amp and speaker cabinet simulation, and the LB-202 Load Box for players seeking a good way to turn down the volume while still pushing their power amp tubes. We have it in the studio right now, so expect a review this spring.

Flaxwood Guitars
Nothing new to repor in particular over last year's showt, but for those of you unfamiliar with this unique material, here's some video of Senior Editor John Quigley getting his hands on one of their guitars. Learn more about these great guitars from this in-depth review.

Drums Highlights

Zildjian Gen 16
One of only two truly revolutionary things we saw at Winter NAMM 2011 had to be the new line of Gen 16 cymbals from Zildjian. The world’s first electro-acoustic cymbals, these cymbals are the missing link that has kept so many rock drummers from embracing electronic drum kits.

While eDrums have improved significantly over the years and now feature great feeling drum heads (or real drums with acoustic triggers), cymbals have primarily been slabs of plastic or rubber, which not only lack the feel of real cymbals, but also their response.

Zildjian Gen 16

Enter Gen 16, real metallic cymbals engineered to be quiet enough for playing while your kids are asleep in the next room. They are paired with a special microphone-equipped cymbal mount that attaches to any cymbal stand, and these microphones (think of them more like sensors or pickups) capture the acoustic response of the cymbal and transmit that data to an intelligent control module that applies DSP technology to create a variety of cymbal sounds. The net result is real cymbals that can be played quietly in an electronic kit and which can trigger a variety of acoustic cymbal tones. Amazing!

And for music composers, Zildjian’s Gen 16 also recently released the Digital Vault, which is essentially a huge sample library of every Zildjian cymbal ever made, all controlled via a custom BFD software interface. This package brings unprecedented realism to scores that rely upon drum loops and samples in place of live musicians.

Keyboard Highlights

Izotope & BT: Stutter Edit

Yes, it's another glitch, beat-mangling plug-in, but its in-depth control gives it a serious twist that sets it apart from other similar software on the market. Set up your own rhythms and assign them to keys to be played back from your controller. These can be stored as sets, so you have a virtually unlimited supply of glitch options right at your fingertips.

You might think that the last thing the world needs is another glitch plugin, and at $249, it's not the cheapest one on the market. But, with its numerous preset settings and user programability, this glitch effect is definitely on a different level from the rest on the market.

Stutter Edit

Teenage Engineering OP2

At first glance, this new synth/sampler workstation looks like the micro MIDI controllers by Korg and Akai, but the small size holds a serious processor and a great synth engine. Features include tape-like recording, effects, great sounds, the ability to sample (and easily resample), looping, and other audio mangling tools.

This is the device we recommended to all our friends at NAMM to check out. It seems to be a synth geared toward not just making sounds — or recording and playing them back, but it also has a serious creative edge. It's almost like the Ableton Live of the hardware synth/sampler world in that it takes an old idea (in this case, workstation synths), and makes it fresh with a new perspective. This keyboard will seriously change the way you make music and create sounds, and we don’t say that about many of them.

Unfortunately for all you synth enthusiasts out there, this piece's first run is already sold out. Hopefully the success will encourage the company to make more of these truly innovative synth/samplers.

IK Multimedia: VocaLive and iMic

IK Multimedia VocaLiveCoupled with the VocaLive app, this interesting mic option for the iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch takes care of a much needed gap in the iOS devices: vocal recording. Plus, the software can be added into the iPad Amplitube 2 app, for a complete mobile recording solution. The mic cable is a bit flimsy so you're not likely to be running around a stage with it, but that's not the point. Combined with the iKlip iPad mount for mic stands, this can be a great fixed position vocal tool for singer/songwriters.

The VocaLive software includes many necessary vocal effects, such as compression, EQ, reverb, chorus, and even some fun effects such as pitch shift, auto tune, and a vocal mangler. These effects can easily be controlled from the touch screen of the iPad.

Spectrasonics: Omnisphere 1.5 update, Omni TR iPad App

This one took us by surprise. Usually an update is welcome for any software, but this 1.5 update adds serious functionality and sound deign changes to an already great softsynth. Highlights are the granular synthesis effects and a feature called The Orb.

The granular synthesis effect allows you to completely warp sounds into synth landscapes by running the sound through a real-time graintable synthesizer. With the available controls you can twist the sound into something new with just a few mouse clicks. The demonstration by Eris Persing himself was quite impressive, and gave us something to look forward to getting into the testing studio.

The Orb is a fun new tool that allows you to set sound variations up and move between them fluidly. Its setup is kind of like the joystick on the classic Korg Wavestation synth. A circle is divided up into four quadrants, with each representing a different variation of the sound's parameters. Using your mouse (or an iPad — see OmniTR below), you can move the controller around to different quadrants, to change those parameters in real-time. The changes are fluid, as the sound morphs into something related, but noticeably different. When used with the iPad control, it is an extremely cool setup.

Omni TR is an iPad app that allows almost complete control over the multi setup in Omnisphere. Choose presets, select which part you're controlling, mix the parts, control The Orb, and more all from the iPad.

FXpansion: Geist

This remake of FXpansion's Guru is a serious MPC-style sequencer that can be used standalone or as a plug-in in your favorite DAW. Eight tracks, with 16 pads on each track, and six layers per pad mean awesome sonic power. The effects are taken from BFD2 and the DCAM synths and can be layered immensely: four per sample layer, four per pad, four per track, four overall master effects. The only limitation is your computer's processor. Sequences are easy to program by playing or clicking with the mouse, and the sequences can be dragged and dropped right from the Geist screen to your DAW's track (or to a folder of choice to be saved as a MIDI file).

All this power can deliver some serious beat programming capabilities. It seems like Geist will be a great tool for laying out loop-based tracks.

Alesis iO Dock Station

Finally! A dedicated, full-featured audio interface comes to the iPad. This is the birth of the iPad as a serious pro-level recording device.

The following specs make it not just an entry-level interface, but actually something that can be used in many situations with the iPad:

• 2 phantom powered mic inputs (which can also be used as TRS inputs)
• 2 TRS outs
• Headphone out
• Video out

All of this comes with a footprint that's no bigger than the iPad itself. Plus, it angles your iPad to a natural slant, which makes it easier to use on a table or desk.

The iPad slides in from the side and locks in to place, so no worries about it wiggling loose. The bad news? No software comes with it, but we're sure that some should be ready by the time it launches this summer.Alesis iO Dock

Akai: SynthStation49

This new keyboard from Akai turns your iPad into a full-featured synth and sequencer. Slide your iPad into the dock connector and use the 49 full size keys and 16 pads to control Akai's iSynth app or any other apps that use the MIDI standard built into iOS 4.2. It's built around the same keyboard and pads that are used in the KPC series controllers, which means good feeling keys and sturdy pads. Plus, the SynthStation can double as a MIDI controller for your DAW synths.

The biggest drawback is that there are no faders or knobs on the hardware, which is a problem as a computer controller, but when used with the iPad, all of that is taken care of on the iPad’s touch screen interface.

If you're familiar with the current Synthstation25 that docks with the iPhone/iPod Touch then you'll immediately know what this thing can do. But it seriously upgrades the Synthstation25 with full sized keys and the screen real-estate of the iPad.

Akai SynthStation

Dave Smith Instruments and Roger Linn: Tempest Drum Machine

After being talked about for a very long time, Dave Smith's tempting new drum machine looks like it's finally about to see the light of day, and its development with Roger Linn gives it a double dose of coolness.

The Tempest, a 16 pad, analog drum machine brings back the feel of old school machines of the Eighties, with a few decidedly modern twists. These seem to mainly take place in the sequence section of the machine. In various sequencing modes, the pads trigger patterns and sound muting in a unique and intuitive way that opens doors for some seriously cool live sets. To call it a drum machine seems so limiting given the range of sounds we heard emanating from the machine while Roger Linn himself demoed the really cool box.

We can't wait to get our hands on this. Hurry up and build those production models, Dave!
 DSI Tempest

Recording Highlights

Avid Pro Tools 9
Although introduced prior to the NAMM show, the most exciting thing in recording for 2011 has got to be the latest version of Pro Tools, which now works natively with all third-party audio hardware. Finally, you can use any audio interface to your computer, which not only makes it easy to mix records in the local coffee shop on a laptop, but it also opens the door wide open for using digital mixing consoles as your Pro Tools Interface.

Live Sound Highlights

In-ear Monitoring keeps getting better and better. New models from Ultimate Ears and JH Audio feature six drivers in each ear! Wow! Separating frequencies into multiple drivers keeps the signal extremely clean. If you have older single or dual driver IEMs, it’s very easy to distort the audio when you’re pumping a full-range signal through a couple of small drivers. Taking the lows out of the mid and high frequency drivers really cleans up what you’re hearing. Some of these IEMs even have audio specs making them suitable for studio use!

In-ear monitors from JH Audio and Ultimate Ears





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