I’m writing this column in January just before setting off for the NAMM show in California, which is perhaps the highlight of the music technology calendar in terms of new product announcements. While deep inside I know that I already have far more technology at my disposal than will ever be needed to realise such musical ideas that I have left, I’m still a sucker for new toys, and NAMM is the ultimate musician’s toy store. Exhibition Hall E is where all the startup companies exhibit their wares and it’s a great place to get a feel for the directions our industry will be taking in the future, though there are of course the inevitable, and sometimes blindingly obvious dead ends.
For example, at one Summer NAMM show a guitar designer was very proudly showing us a guitar he’d built with no knobs or switches on the front. He explained that in his view all guitar players wanted to get rid of these controls, so he’d replaced them by a series of digitally scanned buttons set into the back of the neck heel. These tiny buttons could then be held down in various combinations to switch pickups, increment or decrement level and tone settings, and if you got into a mess there was even a panic mode to bring back a default setting. Strangely enough, he wasn’t there at the next NAMM show!
Then there was the live sound foldback system comprising a transparent perspex half-face mask designed to channel the sound of the singer’s voice back to their ear. No matter that it made the wearer look like an economy Phantom Of The Opera, the designers were sure it would catch on. There were even people telling us that you could record and mix music on a mobile phone, clearly ridiculous of course (or so it seemed at the time), but that’s one mad idea that did work out well in the end. Even so, I’m still nervous of any recording device that weighs less than the XLR cables you plug into it.
On the other hand, there have been many great successes that started out in some quiet backwater at the dimly lit end of a music trade show. Companies such as Antares with their revolutionary Auto-Tune sprang out of nowhere and went on to great success, and the most exciting products, like Melodyne DNA for example, were the ones that you just didn’t see coming. That’s what makes it worthwhile wading through the aisles of cheap Chinese metronomes (all chattering at the same time but each set to a different tempo!), Far Eastern amplifiers with ludicrous names, edible plectra, pedals specifically designed to sound as though they are broken and guitars made of fossilised cheese. OK, I made that last one up but the others are all real enough. Maybe one day somebody will even come up with a great-sounding snare drum that isn’t too loud to use at a pub gig! We can but hope.
Paul White Editor In Chief