NAMM thoughts, and a gig…

So, this week was NAMM.  NAMM is one of the large music creation / production industry trade shows, held out in California.  Most of the products announced here will show up over the next 6 months to a year.  This is where all the new toys, goodies, and trends start.  After reading a lot of the forums and following as much of the press as possible, I just wanted to sum up what seemed interesting to ME with some editorial on my thoughts (Your Mileage May Vary)…

First off, true Thunderbolt audio interfaces started showing up.  Between Motu‘s 828x, Zoom’s new interface, and Universal Audio‘s Apollo Twin, true Thunderbolt audio interfaces are finally showing up.  There is one small problem will all of the new interfaces though… no pass through.  For me, that’s a deal breaker.  I have 2011 Macbook Pro, which has a Thunderbolt port that pulls double duty as a Thunderbolt to DVI connector.  Which, makes these new audio devices pretty useless for me right now.  Still, it’s GREAT to see the Thunderbolt port being used, and with the Apollo, because the device is also being used to off-load effects, the PCIe bus allows for a LOT of streams to be going back and forth.  I’m surprised that more of the audio interfaces haven’t moved to ‘true’ USB 3.0, as that would open up a lot of bandwidth for higher input track counts.

Second, more and more digital mixers are getting built.  This is kind of a two edged sword.  Personally, I LOVE the new digital mixers and am amazed at what the companies like QSC, Allen and Heath, and Behringer are putting into the price point of what the old basic Mackie boards go for.  The counterpoint to that is the old saying ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.  These mixers can do amazing things if you understand what needs to be done, and you have someone actually running the board.  The Line 6 StageScape mixers are pretty unique in that they focus on doing the mixing as a musician would, not a sound tech.  From what I’ve read about the QSC mixers, they have a similar idea, but not as ‘friendly’ as the StageScape is.  The thing is, you still need someone to run the boards to get an effective mix.  I’ve been moonlighting with my P.A. to mix a friend of mine’s band.  It always amazes me how much adding or removing just 1 or 2 db of sound changes the mix.  Having someone who knows when to push the instruments forward and to pull them back can make the night much more enjoyable for the entire room.  It’s unfortunate that the clubs really aren’t paying groups enough to actually pay a sound tech to run the shows.  It would make a HUGE difference in the performances.  Back to the original subject, the new mixers are getting more and more amazing with each iteration.  The Behringer X18 (was the X16) looks like the biggest winner, if and when they get it out to the public.  It was supposed to be released last year, but a redesign came about, and it certainly looks worth it.  This space is certainly going to get better and better.

Finally, there was some guitar stuff that was interesting.  Fender’s new Strat Deluxe Plus, with it’s easy part replacement plus personality cards look really cool.  Talk about a tweaker’s delight!  Pickups can be changed with no wiring to do, and the characteristics of the pickups, selector switch, and tone knobs can be changed by popping in personality cards.  Very cool.  Everything else was a bit ho-hum.  Line 6’s ‘amplifier redesign’ looks interesting, but there seemed to be some basic features left out, like direct outs, that leave me scratching my head at the market that they are going for.  It’s also interesting that they are using the older Pod X3 technology, rather than the newer HD technology.  One company that wasn’t at NAMM, but had a really interesting beta release is the Fractal Audio Axe-FX II.  The guy who designs and builds those things is crazy about capturing the nuances of a tube amplifier in a DSP, and he is close, if not having already surpassed a good tube amp.  The Axe is on my ‘next to buy’ list.

So, how does this tie into playing a gig this weekend?

The music instrument business seems to be going into two different directions.  You either have insanely specialized equipment that is VERY expensive, or you have things that ‘do everything’ at rock bottom prices with lots of trade-offs.  The middle ground equipment seems to be getting lost.  I’ll go to the Line 6 example.  The new amp is interesting because it’s a digital amp that is controlled via bluetooth with an iPad or iPhone, but it still has some basic controls on the amp itself.  The power wattage is enough to play live, and the price is fairly inexpensive, but I doubt that many people will use them live.  There’s just too much that has to go right to get it to sound good.  Not putting in a line out takes away a lot of the usability.  Heck, I just ran a show for someone who had an old Line 6 Flextone III, and we used the XLR out directly to the board to get a great sound.  I guess it just feels like the companies are really focused on the bedroom musician, and not the performing musician.  Amps are either 100 watt tube monsters or 10 watt recording amps.  Same thing with the guitars, great quality instruments are either insanely expensive or not up to gigging standards.

And, the million dollar question is… do we actually NEED a lot of this stuff?  For my gig this weekend, my power supply that I use to run my pedals went haywire.  I couldn’t run my entire board like I normally do.  Fortunately, I had a backup power supply, but it only allowed me to run my most important pedals. (which were my wah, tuner, compressor, and noise gate) .  I ended up having a pretty stripped down sound, and you know what?  That was all I really needed to play for 4 sets.  (It’s fortunate that we don’t play too many ‘effect-y’ songs).

Still, it’s a great time to be a musician!  Lot’s of great tools to help produce better and better quality music!