Scott McGrath is a guitaraholic watching the NAMM show from the safety of his own home, here he gives his armchair verdict on the show so far...
While the Amped army marches on Anaheim for 2014 NAMM, some of us unlucky enough not to be able to go (or lucky, depending on how you roll) will sit back in our armchairs poring over SonicState coverage - the interviews, the gear, big hair... the gear. Plus, the beer is cheaper here and parking is a lot easier.
Last year, I tried to curate a collection of my favorite coverage and identify a few trends at the show. This year, everyone seems to be sensing a resurgence in the industry. Attendance is high at the show, new products have been launching, hard and soft, for the last week, and it's on.
I came in – no, I sat down – with a few items of interest at the outset. With the Day 1 coverage rolling in, here's what I'm finding interesting in the initial coverage. These are of course my own opinions... not quite a live blog, but not quite dead yet either. A "remote blog"? A NAMM by any other name...
Amped's Rich Beech went straight to the Charvel booth to see the Guthrie Govan signature model. Guthrie spent a long time on the road this year touring with both Steven Wilson as well as with The Aristocrats, and fine-tuning the guitar for roadworthiness and playability with obsessive compulsive tweaking. He's praised Charvel for giving him the time to figure it all out.
(I saw both those shows at the Berklee School of Music this year, and both times left utterly astonished at Guthrie's playing. In the context of the Steven Wilson show, he was able to bring his skills into a more melodic context that raised both his playing as well as that of Wilson's prog-of-the-year The Raven Who Refused to Sing masterpiece. In The Aristocrats, well, let's just say that the Berklee musician crowd completely wigged out in awestruck freak-out mode - made the show a lot of fun. If you haven't heard Culture Clash yet, run don't walk...)
What if you don't like the color of a signature model? Well, I'm not a huge fan of the light color of this guitar, which is perhaps shallow, but in every other respect, this does look like a player's guitar, crafted with fanatic attention to detail. I doubt it will make any of us as great a player as Guthrie, but it is a thing of beauty. MSRPs on two models are in the $3,500-$3,700 US range. But it's a workhorse, not a guitar that would sit in a pretty box on display somewhere.
Fender Strikes Back
Rich spent a fair amount of time with Fender. I was very critical of Fender's NAMM presence last year, and felt they hadn't shown much of high interest other than refinements to the classics. Well, this year, the 60th anniversary of the Stratocaster, Fender appears to be on the rise again with an interesting solderless pickup swap system in a Strat that allows modular pickup modifications (including some interesting chip-based modules that can be swapped in). Taylor's electric guitars have had replaceable pickguards, but the chip-swapping seems like an innovation on its own.
The Vaporizer is an affordable 12-watt sci-fi art deco "pawn shop" amp that looks rather appealing and sounds pretty good in the video. Fender has added more options with a US-made Deluxe Reverb head, adding production capacity to a successful limited edition run.
Trendwatch: Retro Amps
Too early to call trends in amp technology yet, but retro amps seem to be coming on strong, amps that seem to be "add-on" amps – maybe not your main rig, but something interesting and colorful to supplement an amp collection - sound with personality. Fender claims last year's Pawn Shop models have sold well. Besides Fender's offering, Supro is back from the dead with exciting retro styling as well. Haven't heard these yet, but if they sound as good as they look, that could be exciting.
Trendwatch II: Bluetooth Guitar Amps?
Last year, a variety of interesting portable practice amps were released. The Yamaha THR series amps are innovative, and I thought the Marshall 5-watt Slash signature model sounded great last year.
This year, the trend seems to be moving toward steroid-powered higher wattage Bluetooth devices that take the consumer electronics trend for portable Bluetooth speakers and amp them up for guitar players and other musicians. IK Multimedia launched the iLoud "speaker with an iRig interface" and 40 watts of power at CES this month.
In addition to that, the mysterious new amp announcement from Line6 that's been teased for the start of the show is out, and it too is a Bluetooth-enabled "giant speaker of a guitar amp." We want to hear more before believing the "redefines what a guitar can do" claim, but it's certainly an interesting idea.
Vox is playing as well: http://www.sonicstate.com/amped/2014/01/23/namm-2014-vox-announces-soundbox-mini/.
A few other manufacturers are introducing similar devices. Most have strong tied-in functionality with apps on iOS and Android as well, linking these devices into the mobile app space.
The Rest of the Week
It does appear to be an interesting NAMM year and we'll see more from Amped and SonicState throughout the week. Here are some of the items I'm eager to see and hear more about:
Chapman is launching several new guitars, and Rich has already discovered (in his daily liveblog) that Chappers is in the same hotel. These will be very interesting guitars.
Fishman: On the heels of the unique Triple Play wireless midi controller for guitar released last year, Fishman is launching a series of 'new technology' guitar pickups - re-engineering the pickup with some interesting ideas and high tech. I've read about them, but haven't heard them yet...hoping that Amped might get a listen to these.
Lots and Lots of Pedals
We seem to have entered a golden age of great analog and digital boutique guitar pedals, and Amped will be covering them. Amped detailed at least 20 new pedals making a debut at the show, and that estimate is conservative. Let there be much pedal coverage from the Amped team, we want to hear them all!
One pedal that has my eye and ear was announced last year but is shipping just this month: Pigtronix announced a new version of their Echolution pedal - a delay with a lot of interesting modulation options - and it looked and sounded really great. The Echolution 2 still isn't available but reviews are starting to surface, and we should see the production version next week. Confession: I've already ordered one.
More Than Guitar
SonicState has posted several excellent and detailed previews of new products:
The Moog Sub37 First Look - a breathtaking bundle of pure analog awesomeness. Wow.
And the Elektron RYTM Drum Machine.
UAD has launched an interesting 2-channel audio interface UAD that brings Apollo functionality into the sub-$1000 category. It's a Thunderbolt interface, the Apollo Twin, which I would hope is a trend as well this year, but it does not (yet) play well with other Apollo interfaces and doesn't support pass-through Thunderbolt cabling. Yet. It does have a robust editing environment that includes a selection of UAD plug-ins and comes in single and dual DSP editions.
BT hasn't endorsed a product in several hours, so it's a relief to see his signature all over another fascinating iZotope product collaboration – a beat machine called BreakTweaker, which appears to be sort of a drum machine instance of something a bit like the fascinating Stutter Edit. iZotope is a developer that seems to have the ability to realize a vision in a product, and this will be worth a look.
The Centrance Mixerface mobile recording interface looks potentially useful for getting better sound out of smartphone recording: http://www.sonicstate.com/news/2014/01/17/namm-2014-mobile-recording-interface-for-smartphones-and-tablets-centrance-mixerface-/
Software instruments and mobile apps should be coming our way as well, starting with the Korg Gadget Mobile Synth Studio for iPad and then loading up Gaz Williams and Nick Batt with more reviewable software for the Sonic Touch podcast.
Touching on Controllers
And finally, I expect to see some real innovation in hardware controllers, continuing last year's trends and some of the amazing new ideas that emerge in products such as Ableton Push. The controller space seems to intersect with mobile technology, or at the very least is trying to keep our hands busy a mobile platform, whether on smartphone, tablet or laptop-based DAW.
Keith McMillen has a new controller or two to show us, and continues to build out his innovative line of affordable MIDI control surfaces.
I love how my Nektar Panorama P4 controller goes deep with DAWs and surfaces all kinds of software control through the hardware interface. Last year, Nektar (www.nektartech.com) debuted the P1 keyboard-less controller, and a simpler line of very affordable keyboard controllers. This year, Nectar is introducing some new controllers options. But what makes these controllers so exciting is the way Nektar approaches deep DAW integration. Reason and Cubase support runs very deep, and this year they've announced rich integration with Logic Pro X. The controllers themselves appear similar to many others, but the "man-machine-software" interface, if you will, is the standout here.
And that's just the start. I expect we'll see a lot more fascinating new ideas in this space.