The bulk of this review covers keyboard products, but there were a few standouts in recording and live sound that also caught our eyes and ears.
Ableton Live 9 and the new Push controller interface were huge hits with the keyboard crowd at NAMM—and for good reason! A host of new features and feature improvements/updates make this music production environment both easier to operate and even more capable. We love the audio-to-MIDI capabilities in particular: capture a drum beat, or sing beat-box style into a mic, and Live converts the performance to MIDI data on separate tracks for snare, kick, hi-hat, etc. Then, replace your sounds with new drum and percussion sounds. Or, how about singing a melody into a mic and convert it to MIDI data? Cool.
For creating music from nothing, or running your live performance, Push is a very cool controller. It provides seamless integration with Live and opens up a world of possibilities for “playing” music on the fly, whether notes, harmony, beats, sounds, and more. Akai Professional makes the touch-sensitive pads. If you want to scare your older friends (or parents) who are rooted in “classic” musical instruments, push this in front of them for a good laugh. Modern electronic music makers, however, will be right at home.
Arturia Musical Instruments
Arturia has joined the miniaturization trend with their Sparkle and Minilab controllers. Last year, Arturia released Spark, a hybrid software/hardware drum machine (review coming soon). Sparkle (not Spark LE!) is a more-portable controller for on-the-go musicians with the same full software set as Spark. Sparkle hardware specifications:
Dimensions: 284mm x 171mm x 17 mm - Gross weight: 1.5 Kg
Two banks of eight velocity and pressure sensitive pads
Three user assignable encoders
Touch sensitive XY pad
User mapable MIDI controller mode.
The Minilab is a mini-keyboard controller, which come with the full Analog Lab software package, which is a collection of 5,000 sounds from the Modular V, CS-80V, Mini V, Arp 2600V, Jupiter 8V, Prophet V, Oberheim SEM V, and Wurlitzer V. The keyboard specifications:
Applied Acoustics Systems
Applied Acoustics Systems (AAS) unveiled their updated Lounge Lizard EP-4. We reviewed the excellent EP-3 a few years back [url here]. If you were a fan before, you will be even more so now. The interface has been updated for easier navigation, and more sounds have been added to the library—over two hundred. More effects have been added, including a compressor, limiter, equalizer, and a cool “character control” that provides five classic studio and stage signal path emulations. All previous effects have been updated, and now EP-4 runs in native 64 bit on both Mac OS X and Windows platforms.
It’s amazing that anyone still makes analog wireless products for music when digital wireless products sound so good now. In the “so good now” department, Audio-Technica introduced their next-general wireless product, the System 10 Digital Wireless. Operating in the 2.4 GHz range, it delivers 24-bit audio and up to 20 Hz – 20 kHz frequency response with instruments (most mics have a narrower frequency response). We like the diversity system—two antennas for improved reliability and reduced interference, which we haven’t seen in other digital products at this system’s easily affordable price point (which to us is the $500-$1,000 range). A variety of wireless mics are available to choose from.
Also recently introduced is the AT5040 dynamic condenser microphone. Audio-Technica’s new flagship studio mic for voice, the AT5040 has a proprietary design that employs four rectangular diaphragms that function as a single, combined element that is larger than any traditional, round diaphragm. Internal shock mounting decouples the capsule from the body, and then the microphone itself is further isolated from vibration thanks to a new, external shock mount. We can’t wait to hear what this mic sounds like.
Big Fish Audio
Big Fish Audio has a few new products coming later this year, and one they were demoing that sounded great was called Swagg. Containing over 7 GB of samples and a total of 336 patches designed for urban music production, SWAGG aims to allow you to create top notch productions whether you’re a seasoned pro or soft-synth newbie. SWAGG also has an arpeggiator and “Quick-Strike” effects that make SWAGG efficient in the studio and in live performance, not to mention easy to use. SWAGG runs via the Kontakt 5 engine.
Also discussed, but not yet released, is a an acoustic guitar plug-in. As Big Fish Audio explained it, “it’s like taking all the good parts of AAS’s Strum [url for review here], not using the bad parts, and taking the whole concept to a new level.” We are excited to hear how it sounds and see if it takes us any higher.
While we have done a number of reviews of mini controllers, and interesting newcomer from CME-PRO was the Xkey. Featuring 25 full-sized keys, it is only .62 inches thick! Other features include velocity sensitivity, polyphonic aftertouch, pitchbend and modulation buttons, octave and sustain buttons, and it’s USB powered. For those who want portability but hate using scaled-down keyboards, this might be your answer.
Dave Smith Instruments
Prophet 12: probably the coolest keyboard we saw. Dave has a long line of great synths behind him, and the Prophet 12 is another masterpiece. So much so, even Dave himself said, “It’s my best synthesizer yet.” At twelve voices, the Prophet 12 boasts the greatest polyphony of any instrument designed by Smith. Each voice features four oscillators capable of generating classic and complex waveforms, a sub-oscillator, resonant analog low- and high-pass filters, and analog VCAs. The new Character section adds a variety of wave shaping and sound sculpting options, like Drive, Hack, Decimation, Girth, and Air.
Additional features include a tuned feedback path, a four-tap stereo delay per voice, expanded arpeggiator functionality, deep modulation capabilities, and bi-timbral operation. The LFOs, delay, and arpeggiator can all be synced, either to the internal clock or an external MIDI clock. Two programmable position- and pressure-sensitive touch sliders take the performance controls beyond standard pitch and mod wheels. There is also an analog distortion knob (as well as the previously mentioned dedicated feedback section). Dave himself was nice enough to give us a one-on-one demo, and it’s great to see he still loves what he does. Every knob he turned while demonstrating the synth was usually followed by the comment, “Now this is a lot of fun!” We couldn’t agree more, and can’t wait to get our hands on it—late Q2—when it becomes available. Expected price: $2,999.
Also new from Dave Smith is the Mopho x 4 Keyboard, MAP $1,299. We reviewed the original Mopho a few years back [add URL here] and we liked it a lot, but wished that it had more voices. Now it does! Each of Mopho x4's four voices is composed of two analog oscillators, two sub octave generators, selectable 2- or 4-pole famed Curtis low-pass filters, three 5-stage envelope generators, four LFOs, a re-latchable arpeggiator, and a 16 x 4 step sequencer. The x4's full-sized, 44-note semi-weighted keyboard has aftertouch and velocity sensitivity. The full-sized pitch and mod wheels are freely assignable. You can also expand Mopho x4's polyphony using its Poly Chain port. Mopho, Tetra, and Prophet '08 can all be connected to the x4 to increase its voice count, too. You can Poly Chain up to three Tetras with Mopho x4 to create a 16-voice, analog super synth.
We’re always on the lookout for new developments in hearing protection, and we liked what we heard in the new Earasers. The soft silicone plugs insert snugly into your ear and are virtually invisible to the casual observer. But inside, the filters reduce harmful frequencies — approximately 19 dB reduction around 3150 Hz, and then limited reduction below 1,000 Hz and above 8,000 Hz. The concept is to only apply heavy filtering to the frequencies that are damaging to your ears, and by physically locating the filter closer to the ear drum instead of at the opening of the ear canal, the product achieves better clarity. We wore them around Hall D (the Drum hall) and noted that the difference was subtle in terms of what we perceived we were hearing… until we pulled them out. They made a good first impression and thus we’re telling you about them.
Korg introduce the KingKORG, an analog modeling syth that features a hands-on interface for straightforward sound design. There’s an analog tube circuit to add warmth or distortion as needed, a sound engine that shares commonality with classic Korg synths including the MS-20, Mono/Poly, and more, plus a 61-key keyboard, familiar Korg joystick, and librarian software for use on the computer.
KRK Systems, now owned by Gibson, continues their line of popular studio monitors. We previously reviewed their VXT-8 and Rockit 10-3 monitors [add urls here]. KRK now adds a high-output subwoofer to their monitor collection, the 12sHO. The 12sHO will extend low frequencies down to 29Hz, and measures 20H X 20W X 22.5D inches and weighs in at 109lbs. It has a 12-inch driver with a woven Kevlar cone, and the driver is fully exposed and surrounded by four concentric ports. You could imagine our surprise when Carlito, the KRK pro who helped us out, actually kicked the cone to demonstrate how indestructible they were! The idea was to not have any kind of mesh in front of the speaker that might color the sound, so the decision was made to make the cone hearty so it could be exposed and take an accidental kick once in while, though we’d encourage you to refrain from this behavior in the studio. There is a 400W RMS internal amp with a peak SPL of 123dB and a signal to noise ratio of 92dB.
Moog introduced the Sub-Phatty, a monophonic 25-key synth featuring Moog’s new multidrive, which can add warmth or snarl, depending on how you use it. To quote Moog’s site, “the Sub-Phatty offers innovations of its own, including a sub oscillator that outputs a square wave one octave below Oscillator 1. Use this powerful tool as a third oscillator for added depth, or to craft your own customized incarnation of monstrous Moog bass. Also in the mixer section is a noise generator voiced to deliver low-frequency content, rich with body and punch.” Featuring all the analog control you’d expect from a Moog synth, it should keep tweakers happy for some time.
Just when you thought you were in heaven with the StudioLive 24.4.2 mixing board, along comes the StudioLive 32.4.2. The feature changes aren’t significant enough to justify dumping your 24-channel version—audio quality remains the same, but if you hadn’t jumped in yet, the new board has some nice additions: FireWire 800 has replaced the traditional FireWire 400, and a card slot is going to accept Thunderbolt and Ethernet computer interfaces later this year. And if the 24.4.2’s ten aux sends weren’t enough for your crazy monitor mixes, there are 14 on the new flagship.
Also new: studio monitors and powered PA speakers! PreSonus introduced monitors for both the home and project studio (Eris) as well as the pro studio. The latter’s Sceptre monitors feature a coaxial speaker design and were designed by Fulcrum Acoustic’s Dave Gunness. That’s music to our ears!
Roland was showing their Integra-7, a new flagship sound module introduced a few months prior. With the INTEGRA-7, a “greatest hits” collection of previous Roland synths is built in. All of the sounds from the XV-5080 are on board, plus all twelve titles from the SRX Expansion libraries including: SRX-05 Supreme Dance with essential electro sounds from vintage TR-808 and -909 drum machines, SRX-06 Complete Orchestra, and SRX-09 World Collection, which includes rare, hard to find samples. Roland reports the Integra-7 comes with over six thousand sounds!
The INTEGRA-7 is also equipped with four virtual expansion slots, which can be used to load four SRX libraries simultaneously. The INTEGRA-7 also introduces a new type of sound design called Spatial Sound Design. Motional Surround, derived from Roland’s proprietary RSS (Roland Sound Space) technology, lets you control not only the left/right panning of sounds, but also depth, even placing sounds behind you! A solo instrument can be placed nearby, for example, while the backing or percussion instruments can be placed at a distance, thus creating a sound field with natural width and depth. We observed a great demo of this, the software was easy to use, and the sound was impressive.
On the rear panel is an array of connectors, including stereo XLR outputs, eight individual 1/4-inch phone outs, a digital (coaxial) output, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and a USB port that supports audio streaming at rates up to 24-bit/96 kHz. Input jacks are provided on both the rear and front panels (you can add effects to incoming signals). As owners of multiple classic Roland synths, we loved the idea of putting all the old and new stuff in one box. And yes, it sounded great!
Roland also introduced the V-Combo R-09. This is an obvious alternative to the Nord Stage-series keyboards, in that it reproduces organ sounds (and has drawbars) while still including pianos, electromechanical pianos, synths, strings, and drums. There are a total of 233 sounds using Roland’s SuperNatural technology. There is even a cool iPad app to edit your sounds! Designed to be a pro-level live performance keyboard, it may very well find its way into a lot of rigs as a great-sounding “Swiss army knife” keyboard.
Vocalists looking for an affordable way to step into digital wireless will be excited about the new Shure GLX-D series, which seems to fall somewhere just below SLX, but above the BLX series. Frequency response is 15 Hz – 15/16 kHz (depending on your choice of microphone), and wireless mic capsule options include SM58, SM86, Beta 58a, and Beta 87a.
The GLXD4 fits in a half rack space, uses the 2.4 GHz frequency band (a good thing), and features rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (another good thing). We’re looking forward to getting our hands on review units when they ship sometime in mid-2013.
Solid State Logic
SSL admitted, “we have no new products yet, we’re waiting for Muiskmesse”, but nevertheless were kind enough to review with us their various plug-ins and rack mounted products. One standout, although not new this year, that we had an opportunity to check out, was the Matrix console. Being both an analog mixing console (that boasts SSL specs, of course) and a DAW controller, it elegantly combines old and new to allow great workflow with great sonic results.
Universal Audio in 2012 announced the Apollo interface, a very popular and exciting audio interface for DAWs that includes DSP processing for UA’s highly-regarded plugins. Further, the thunderbolt card, introduced this past fall, adds additional connectivity (firewire is already present) for studios with the latest computer hardware. The software has been upgraded, so you can now daisy chain two Apollo units and have them recognized logically as a single interface.
Some new plugins were introduced. A first for UA is the guitar plugin Softube Amp Room, including Vintage Amp Room, Metal Amp Room, and Bass Amp Room. Softube Amp Room plug-ins will be available as part of an upcoming UAD/Apollo software update, along with the brand new LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection and API 500 Series EQ Collection plug-ins. We heard a demo, and as expected from UA, this stuff sounds great.
Perhaps not as “sexy” as a new plug-in or synth, but Ultimate Support is back! Famous for its 1980’s innovation with the Apex keyboard stand and stackable mic stands, they actually went off the market for roughly one year to “redesign everything.” They have done so in a big way. The Apex-48 Pro stand has been redesigned for a more modern aesthetic, curved instead of triangular. But more durability has been added with a hinged top and a top mount for a mic boon, iPad, or laptop—no more awkward side mounting. The Apex also comes standard with larger tri-bars to hold big keyboards, previously only a option.
Another interesting product from Ultimate Support was the Hyperpad. Labeled a five-in-one stand for the iPad, it supports iPad versions 2 and up. Featuring an adjustable gooseneck, the stand allows attachments of your iPad to mic stands (directly via 5/8” standard threads), Apex keyboard stands, or even your desk.
Vintage Vibe continues to do their modern take on retro electromechanical keyboards. Continuing with great sounding Rhodes and Wurlitzer style keyboards, Vintage Vibe unveiled the Vibanet: their modern take on the classic clavinet. With a built-in auto wah, real strings (not yarn!), a redesigned preamp, and much easier tuning (can be done without taking the instrument apart), Vintage Vibe has a winner here!
Yamaha is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year, and they introduced their new MX49/MX61 keyboards (forty-nine and sixty-one keys respectively). Each contains one thousand sounds from the Motif XS, sixteen voices, 128-note polyphony, and have bi-directional audio and midi capabilities via usb. They are also designed to be used as audio interfaces, and have tight integration with Cubase AI (which comes with the synths). This is an interesting mix of a controller, synthesizer and audio interface, drawing from the rich 10-year history of the Motif line.
Yamaha also released their Mobile Music Sequencer app for the iPad. The App enables composers to combine a range of phrase patterns to create new musical compositions, phrases and songs. It can also mix musical content with audio files and upload the results to SoundCloud. When composing, users can choose from a range of 382 preset phrases, combine them to create user phrases through the input of piano roll accompaniments as well as record sounds in real time through a keyboard on the screen. Using the sequencer's LOOP REMIX function, users can create new phrases. After then outputting to Standard MIDI Files, the phrases can be reproduced and edited on Yamaha synthesizers such as the MOTIF XF and MOX and then refined with other music production DAWs.