Forward By: Scott Kahn
NAMM 2012 was a big show by all accounts, once again setting unprecedented records for attendance (over 95,000 registered guests). That’s enough people to make you feel like if you didn’t get a NAMM invite from someone in the industry then you must be a complete loser with no right to call yourself a serious musician. But take heart — the show really is “for industry,” and even though it’s widely attended by your musician heroes, most of the audience is buyers representing musical instrument retailers and other employees of music stores, attending to check out the new products they intend to purchase for resale in their stores.
Of course, the show is also all about showing the MI industry media folks (that’s Musical Instruments) what’s new, and the manufacturers try really hard to convince us that they’re unleashing the greatest, revolutionary, must-have products for the new year.
Rather than race to publish our findings, we take a few weeks after NAMM each winter to let the hype die down and reflect up on what we saw. What stood out? What was revolutionary vs. what was merely evolutionary? What can’t we wait to get our hands on for review?
Revolutionary Product: Line 6 StageScape
Line 6 has morphed over the past fifteen years from a company providing tools for guitarists recording in their bedroom studios to a powerhouse music technology innovator. StageScape is the culmination of years of engineering development by a team of extremely talented engineers with decades of experience in live sound and recording technology. (Let’s not forget that the company founders were guys who developed significant technologies like Alesis’s ADAT digital recorders and compact mixing boards, classic Oberheim synthesizers, and even the SampleCell software that eventually morphed into what would become Pro Tools.)
If you supply your own sound system for gigs, you may have had to invest separately in P.A. rigs for coffee house gigs that are vastly different than what you need when playing outdoor music festivals or large banquet halls. StageScape can help you address all of these venues without any wasted investment.
Start with a single StageSource powered 3-way speaker for a small gig — it has a built-in four-channel mixer with some onboard DSP for EQ, feedback suppression, compression, reverb, etc. Bigger gig? Just add a second speaker, connect them to each other with a standard XLR cable providing the L6 digital network link, and the speakers automatically reconfigure for stereo operation! Reverbs and delays, panning, become stereo effects, and you can use the inputs on each speaker for additional connections.
Larger gigs? Add the StageScape digital mixer and connect mics, instruments, and your loudspeakers directly to the mixer. It automatically configures itself based on the input source. Plug in a microphone and an icon appears automatically on the touch screen — is it a mic for a singer or a mic being placed on a speaker cabinet? Select one and the system applies proper “default” settings for EQ, compression, and effects (like reverb). Larger gig? Add subwoofers, and the system properly balances the crossover network. Need floor monitors? Just take a loudspeaker and lay it on its side. There’s an internal accelerometer (like in your tablet or smart phone), and when you lay the speaker on its side (built-in stands, too), it reconfigures the sound response for use as a monitor.
The system is pretty remarkable, and the sound quality we heard across the entire range of products was very good, demoed by artists including the country star, Colbie Caillat. If you’re a more involved audio engineer, have no fear. The advanced user controls of the system enable you to tweak EQ curves, compression settings, etc., as if you were working with any familiar digital mixer or DAW software. Expect our most complex, involved product review ever attempted later this year as we put the system to use in multiple real-world scenarios.
Trend: Guitar & Technology Convergence
More revolutionary, perhaps, were the product introductions from Parker Guitars and Peavey Guitars: instruments incorporating Antares Technology’s Auto-Tune technology, via DSP technology embedded inside the guitars. We had a chance to play the Peavey AT-200 guitar, and came away both loving and lusting for more.
We hate robotic tuners and auto-adjusting bridges that other companies have employed for auto-tuning guitars. Those bastardizations rob our guitars of standard/classic hardware bridges and tuners, so this DSP-based solution is much more elegant, as the technology is completely transparent. You have a guitar, tune it up best you can, and when you want to implement “perfect tuning,” push your volume knob, strum the strings, and Shazam! — Perfect tuning and intonation across the entire neck. No dead spots, works with capos (rejoice here), and alternate tunings. We were also pleasantly surprised by just how well the inexpensive Peavey AT-200 guitar played (under $500 street). We don’t ordinarily look at budget-friendly guitars, but this was a nice one.
The Parker Fly incorporating this technology is a more complex beast, incorporating features similar to the Variax and G-5 such as onboard alternate tunings, in addition to featuring the Auto-Tune technology. As a bonus, it also happens to be a Parker Fly, which makes it a premium, versatile shred machine for pro players.
Our love turns to lust, however, due to the one limitation of this first-generation technology… it relies on DSP technology for guitar and pickup modeling, delivered from hex pickups in the bridge saddles. In casual NAMM testing, the tones were authentic, and selecting pickups via the 3- or 5-way switch changed our “virtual” guitar pickup tone appropriately. But for those of you who are tied to the sound of your favorite Duncan or Suhr pickups (or any other favorite), the technology hasn’t arrived just yet. Still, between these new/updated products, Gibson’s Firebird X introduced earlier in 2011, Moog’s E1 guitar, and the Line 6 Variax, one thing is clear: the merging of guitars with modern technology is moving forward at a pretty healthy clip.
Awkward Ideas In the Name of Guitar Technology?
A few months ago, Digitech introduced the iPB-10 Programmable Pedalboard, a multi-effects pedalboard into which you place your beloved iPad device. Really? Besides the hassle of removing it from my nice leather cover/case on the fly, this is an idea clearly of specific value, primarily in the home as a practice tool or as a recording tool for the young crowd on a smaller budget than the pro musician crowd. Would you risk musicians in your band stumbling over your board at a club gig, stomping right in the middle of the display area with their Dr. Martens? How about the buffoon who spills his beer at your feet during that “Freebird” solo? No thanks. Even though it looks like a great concept, we’ll be leaving our iPad at home.
Not content to be a single left-of-center idea company, along comes the Digitech iStomp pedal at NAMM. The premise, again, looks good on paper: make the pedal a blank receptacle, where you use software on your iPhone to download the pedal “guts” of your choice into the rugged metal housing. Today, it’s a chorus pedal. But when you decide that you’d rather have a rotary speaker on your pedalboard, no problem. You just purchase and download the new effect into the iStomp, replacing the chorus effect with the new selection. There are four knobs on the pedal for adjusting whatever various parameters need tweaking. For kids on a tight budget, this is pretty clever. But identifying what your effect is, and what the knobs do, requires placing stickers on the pedal. That’s just too messy and disorganized for those of us who obsess over the smallest rig details. You’re with us on this point, right?
The IK Multimedia iRig Stomp seems like it’s an evil twin of the Digitech iStomp, but it’s actually a completely different creature. This pedal box provides remote control over your AmpliTube guitar rig, bypassing AmpliTube or letting your guitar signal pass through the virtual amp modeling and/or guitar effects.
Alesis took a somewhat similar approach as IK Multimedia with their AmpDock. This system is different because it’s a hardware interface for the iPad, just like their ioDock audio interface, but it connects to a footboard controller that sits on the floor, while the iPad rests on top of your guitar rig or mounted to a mic stand. AmpDock lets you run any guitar apps (including IK Multimedia’s Amplitube), but you could alternately stick your iPad in IK Multimedia’s iKlip and use their new iRig Stomp.
It seems to us like these companies are spending far too many resources dreaming up ways of connecting mobile devices to guitar rigs, but really, serious guitar players see all of these things as glorified practice tools, with limited application in the professional studio or stage world. They all end up presenting a mess of cables and insecure means of holding the gear. The parts may be small, but they just don’t make for truly portable solutions for a gigging musician. Face it… if there were real practical applications for this stuff, Line 6 probably would have done it five years before everyone else!
On the flip side, the techie stuff is fun to play with and sometimes sounds pretty good, so it’s all an evolutionary leap from the ancient Scholz Rockman. But really, I suspect most guitar players do the same thing that all of our editors tend to do: when there’s just a little amount of time to pick up the guitar, (like while watching television in the evening, for example), we just grab the electric guitar — unplugged — and play it. We don’t bother with the hassle and fuss of plugging things in.
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