Britain's biggest, busiest and noisiest music fair is over for another year. So what did we get for our money and our aching feet? Report by Simon Trask.
This year's British Music Fair was the third to which the public had been invited - and they came in their droves. The show was bigger and busier than ever, but what did everyone see?
TRADITIONALLY, SHOWTIME IN the music industry is associated with the launch of new and awesome pieces of equipment. Reporters and punters alike stumble from stand to stand muttering "have you seen the new..." to each other as they pass. But if anything marked this year's British Music Fair, it was the line "have you seen the demo of the..."
New products were there alright, but not in the quantities we've become used to over the last couple of years. Instead, the emphasis was on demonstrations - of established instruments as well as new ones. Simmons had roped in Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham and Chester Thompson to put their SDX through its paces, Kawai made 'Birdland' the theme to the show (because you couldn't help but hear it six times a day), Casio had equipped a six-piece band which played the best songs of the show, and anyone who missed Sal Gallina's performance on the Yamaha wind controller may as well have stayed in bed.
But that's not to say there wasn't plenty of gear to get your hands on, so on to the equipment. Akai were getting in on the live action with their EWI and EVI MIDI wind instruments, along with the Akai/Linn ADR15 12-bit sampling percussion system - now rechristened the MPC60 (MIDI Production Centre rather than A DRum machine). For details on the MPC60 see the NAMM Report in last month's MT. Yet to come from the Akai/Linn collaboration is the ASQ10 sequencer - unless Akai rename it first.
There seems to be no let-up in the flow of audio products from Akai either: the PEQ6 MIDI Programmable Equaliser (£299), MB76 MIDI Programmable Mix Bay (£249) and EX90R Digital Reverb (£199) were all on display. The Equaliser offers six inputs and six outputs with 7-band equalisation programmable for each channel, while the Mix Bay offers seven inputs and six outputs with trim level programmable for each output. The settings of both can be stored in 32 memories which can be called up via MIDI or stepped through from a footswitch.
Korg were showing two new hi-tech products: the DSM1 digital sampling synth module (£2395) and DRM1 digital rhythm module (£749), both 19" rack-mounting units. The DSM1 also appeared in last month's NAMM report, so I'll just mention that it's an enhanced rack-mount version of the DSS1, employing a more sophisticated synth section.
The DRM1 has 22 onboard 12-bit drum sounds, and will take up to four DDD1/DDD5 ROM cards at a time. The rear panel includes stereo outputs and eight "multi-out" jacks. Pitch, decay and output level of each sound, together with output, pad and MIDI assignments and response curve can be stored in up to 16 memories.
Korg are also aiming the DRM1 at drummers and percussionists, as it includes seven trigger inputs for triggering from drum pads. A real-time sequencer capable of storing 5000 notes in up to 16 patterns completes the picture. For programming the DRM1's parameters, you get a neat TV-style remote control module (could this catch on?).
Korg were also showing what was for me the electronic piano of the show: the C5000 (£1799). You may have passed it by because (horror) it's a home keyboard - and looks it. But that will have been your loss. The C5000 has five sounds (two acoustic pianos, electric piano, vibes and harpsichord) and three reverb settings (room, stage and hall), touch-sensitive 88-note piano keyboard with weighted action, 16-note polyphony, MIDI capability and built-in speakers. Not exactly yer stage piano, but it sounds superb. Korg have apparently used an enhanced version of Yamaha's AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) technology, and the result is certainly an improvement on the Yamaha AWM keyboards that I remember from last year's BMF.
Talking of Yamaha, the company go from strength to strength in the home keyboard department. Their latest flagships are the PSR80/90 and DSR1000/2000 which offer FM synthesis packaged in an accessible manner. The DSRs also include PCM percussion voices, programmable rhythm patterns and a sequencer (five-track on the 2000). And of course there's MIDI, without which any serious home keyboard would be just as disadvantaged as a synth in the same position.
Latest pro synth from Yamaha is the DX7S, a single-timbre version of the DX7II selling for around the price of the original DX7. The company are also concentrating on building up a solid complement of products in just about every area of the contemporary hi-tech studio with the DMP7 digital mixer, MSS1 SMPTE/MIDI converter, QX3 sequencer, REV5 digital reverb and multitimbral TX802 FM expander.
But inevitably, the most glamorous product on the Yamaha stand was their wind controller, logically named the WX7. The demo by New York saxophonist Sal Gallina was the hit of the show. Using a TX81Z as his only sound source (through an SPX90II and REV7, with an RX5 for accompaniment), Gallina at one stage in his well-paced demo managed to create the effect of a full string orchestra. The finale (a duet with guitar demonstrator Ronnie Westhead) had him playing "guitar" licks which would put Eddie Van Halen to shame. Stunning stuff.
On the Roland stand, the D50 inevitably attracted a lot of attention. The company were also showing a number of new hi-tech products including the S220 and S550 rack-mount samplers, the D550 (rack-mount version of the D50), S50 sampler with new 2.0 software, and a new drum machine, the TR626, which has tunable sounds and individual outs.
But the instrument which may well have the biggest impact is the new MT32 expander, which provides multi-timbral LA synthesis together with 28 PCM drum voices for less than £500. The MT32 was actually developed by Roland's Contemporary Keyboards division (which explains the style of the demo), but clearly it's going to find its way into many home studios.
The MT32 is just one example of a trend in hi-tech musical instruments towards multi-timbrality (other examples include Kawai's new K5/K5M, Yamaha's FB01, TX81Z and TX802, Korg's DS8 and Ensoniq's ESQ1), which is itself indicative of a much broader trend towards home recording and the use of MIDI sequencers.
The concept of a silent keyboard instrument isn't too easy to swallow, unless your name happens to be Joseph Cooper. Consequently, the MIDI master keyboard has had rather a chequered career. But manufacturers have persisted with the idea, and the BMF saw yet another wave of controllers. From Elka came the five-octave MK55 (£600) and seven-octave MK88 (£1300), both sporting attack and release velocity and polyphonic aftertouch sensitivity - the MK88 on a piano-style keyboard. Elka have opted for sophisticated control features on both models, including six overlappable zones, a choice of touch response scales (including inverse) on velocity and aftertouch for each zone, and remote sequencer control. Also being shown were the ER33 and ER44 rack-mount synths.
Cheetah Marketing, making their debut at the BMF, were displaying three new master keyboards in a bid to follow up on the success of the MK5. Their new top-of-the-range model, the MK7VA, has a seven-octave velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive weighted keyboard, and offers three splitpoints, four MIDI Outs, pitch and mod wheels, patch change keypad, and sustain and patch change footswitch sockets - all for £400. Cheetah were also showing the DP5 electronic drum kit (£160), while the MD8 drum machine (£140) and MS6 MIDI Synthesiser Module (£250) were present but not working, despite the on-the-stand antics of Cheetah's engineers.
Kawai's contribution to the new wave of master keyboards was the 88-note M8000 (£1497), featuring a velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive weighted keyboard, four keyboard zones, four MIDI Outs, remote sequencer control and a built-in arpeggiator.
Although a newcomer to the hi-tech instrument market, Kawai are a long-established name in the piano and home organ markets. The BMF saw the debut of their new multi-timbral additive synth the K5 (and K5M rack-mount version), which to these ears sounds like a cross between PPG's Wave and Yamaha's FM synths. The R50 budget drum machine (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) also proved popular with the punters.
A revolving stage made the Kawai stand unusual, but the award for most eye-catching stand must undoubtedly go to Ensoniq with their giant model ESQ1. Although the company weren't showing anything new, it looks certain that we'll be seeing a new sampling instrument from them later in the year.
Another novelty stand was Sound Technology's "tube-train" - rather appropriate considering the public days were like one continuous rush-hour. Here the Alesis HR16 drum machine could be seen but not heard, apparently a victim of last-minute improvements following its NAMM debut; the company's MMT8 sequencer was similarly indisposed. More positively, the budget SMI SMPTE/MIDI converter from Bokse was up and running.
Farfisa were showing an interesting new range of home keyboards: the TK80 and TK95. These use a technique called Sampled Wave Technology, which appears to be similar to the Cross-table sampling used by Keytek on their impressive digital pianos and synths (debuted at Frankfurt but sadly still to find UK distribution). The TK95 also has a digital synth section for additional sound processing, and although the sounds I heard were varied in quality the best were very impressive. And the onboard PCM drum sounds (now a common feature on home keyboards) were every bit as dynamic as the sounds you might expect from a pro drum machine.
One of the quiet hits of the show was to be found in a small booth on the Elka stand. The Lynx is a 16-bit stereo sampling system based around the Atari ST (520 or 1040). The Lynx unit (a 1U 19" rack-mount) has a maximum sample rate of 50kHz and comes with 1Mb of memory (expandable to 16Mb). It's an eight-voice system with eight individual outs plus an internal digital mixer to mix down to stereo. The standard software allows mouse-based sample editing with a selection of facilities which include zoom, copy, merge, insert, mix, reverse and expand. The Lynx's 61 samples can be played from a MIDI keyboard via the STs MIDI In port, complete with individual note assignments and velocity crossfading.
Because the Lynx doesn't use the STs memory for sample storage, there's room left for other programs to co-exist with the sampler. Lynx's developers were planning to write their own 40-track sequencer, but so many people asked if Steinberg's Pro24 could be used with the sampler that they're now investigating the possibility of a link-up with Steinberg. Now, that would make for an interesting production system.
While the BMF wasn't as inundated with MIDI guitars as the NAMM show, there were a few to be found. Barnes and Mullins were showing the now well-established Shadow MIDI guitar system in a few new guises, together with a multi-timbral FM expander custom-designed for guitarists. Meanwhile Casio have entered the MIDI guitar market with four guitars: the DG10 and DG20 have a home keyboard-style approach, with onboard sounds, PCM auto rhythms, built-in speakers and (on the DG20) four built-in drum pads and a MIDI Out socket. On the other hand, the MG500 and MG510 are conventional electric guitars with built-in pitch-to-voltage-to-MIDI conversion. And all for less than £600.
The Elka stand was home to a new MIDI guitar called the Lazer, which adopts the Synthaxe/Stepp approach of a dedicated set of strings for right-hand triggering together with a fretboard full of switches for pitch detection. The Lazer also adds a rather unusual feature to the lexicon of MIDI guitar tricks: the ability to split MIDI channels partway up the fretboard. Unfortunately, only an experimental model was being exhibited at the show, and that was staying firmly in the hands of designer Alasdair Bryce. Nonetheless, Lazer is scheduled for availability in October at a price of £299.
Computer software was being displayed by retailers rather than manufacturers. Syndromic Music were demoing the new Hybrid Arts ADAP1 16-bit stereo sampling system (£1999) which, like the Lynx, is based around the Atari ST. Also on Syndromic's stand were the Soundbits ST range of voice editors (including a new one for the D50), the intriguing MIDI Performance System from Zyklus, and Hybrid Arts' MIDI software (again for the ubiquitous ST). Latest additions to the Hybrid range are EZ-Score Plus (a music printing program for use with the company's entry-level EZ-Track sequencer) and MIDIplexer (an add-on for the ST which, with the STs own MIDI ports, provides two MIDI Ins and four individually-addressable MIDI Outs). Not exactly "sexy" products, but both address what will be major areas of development in the coming year: desktop music publishing and group-based MIDI recording.
Meanwhile, Argent's were flying the Apple Macintosh flag with new version 2.0 software for the 200-track Mark of the Unicorn Performer sequencing package (£399), which adds such features as multiple track recording, individual track looping, multiple tempo changes within a sequence, and record while looping. All in all, Performer is an extremely impressive package which gives you just about all the features you could want from a sequencer.
Argent's were also demoing the Super-Max upgrade board for Yamaha's venerable DX7, which among many features includes microtonality and one of the best-specified arpeggiators I've ever seen on a synth. Well worth investigating.
Meanwhile the old faithful BBC B has at last been blessed with a music printing program courtesy of EMR, who may also be the first company to come out with a MIDI sequencer for the new powerful Acorn Archimedes computer.
But not all the action was taking place within the confines of Olympia. Sonus UK had ensconced themselves in the Royal Kensington Hotel and were demoing the full range of Sonus products (watch out for a review of their Masterpiece sequencer for the Atari ST soon). A bit nearer to the show, in the sanity of Nomis Studios, Take Note were exhibiting a range of impressive MIDI sequencing and voice-editing software for the Apple Mac and Atari ST from the likes of Dr T, Digidesign, Opcode and Intelligent Music, together with the Mac-based Megamix desk automation package. There's a quiet revolution going on, and computer software such as this is at the heart of it.
After the noise and bustle of Olympia, the air-conditioned silence of Nomis took on the proportions of Heaven. On the other hand, judging by the massive numbers of people that filled the aisles and stands of Olympia on all three public days, I'd say that Heaven's really a very noisy place.