Five Days in Frankfurt
Reports from the musical instrument exhibition plus interviews with five of the world's top designers, researchers and experts.
No sooner are we inside the vast Messe hangers than the word Bond is being bandied about. The graphite Bond guitar, previewed in February's One Two, has an unusual staircase like stepped fingerboard in place of the normal fretted board – and rumour quickly came up with a purported 14th century copy lute "somewhere in the exhibition" that had just the same feature. We couldn't find it. Playing a real Bond, however, we came to realise how our almost subconscious techniques 'use' the frets, and how slippery this Bond's fingerboard felt. A Bond person mentioned tens of thousands of their guitars coming along in the first year. Prepare yourself.
Odd guitars elsewhere, match, though often paint jobs passed as innovation. ESP had their usual flash line of finishes, including a fashionable bound, coloured Telecaster but with a coloured fingerboard too. Tasteful. Rick Derringer pouted and posed for B C Rich, particularly with his self-designed and in production Stealth six-string — two octaves, active, optional Kahler, and a shape like a lazy lightning bolt. Which would go well with Silver Eagle's Zap Strap, complete with Brilliant Gold or Stunning Silver flash of electricity and NO METAL PARTS.
No cheap real time samplers turned up, after all, but two digital thingies caught our noses. Digidrums are making replacement chips for Drumulators, kicking off with two electronic drum set-ups, a Latin set, and an "African/Miscellaneous" battery. And there was TED's Digisound modules, each with a buried digital percussion sound linked to a play button or external trigger, and available soon from JHS in the UK at about £125 each.
Poring over the day's brochure haul in the busy Eurobar, we noticed in the we are-craftsmen Gretsch pamphlet that they still have a drum kit called the Broadkaster, the one that caused Fender to change the name of their first solid six-string to Telecaster. "Did I show you that lovely Broad I picked up in New York?" Wouldn't have been the same, would it.
Dan Smith Director, Marketing
What's happening to guitars in America?
There's been a resurgence this past year for the electric guitar. In 1982 through the first part of 1983 there was a lot of this synth thing – not that that's died down any, but it was overshadowing other things, almost anti-guitar. In the last year or so, specially because of MTV, people seem to be getting interested in playing guitar again. There's still a certain sex appeal the electric guitar has that the keyboard doesn't.
"As far as business itself is concerned, it seems to be getting better. We're having some difficulties marketing products from the US into Europe because of the dollar. We've spent a lot of time and effort to get our costs down, picked up about a 30 or 40% advantage, and then saw a 50% turn on the dollar. So we didn't gain anything."
What are you changing?
"The biggest resistance to making changes has been guitarists themselves – they would still for the most part like to see the same electronics and the same instruments they've been dealing with for 30 or 40 years. The two most popular electric guitars still are the Les Paul and the Stratocaster, and in the last three years the Stratocaster has been it. Probably 70% of the electric guitars sold in the world in the last three years have been Stratocaster-style. I wish they'd all been ours."
Have you considered using non-wood materials?
"We've looked at materials. You can't avoid things that are happening like the Steinberger bass and the new Bond guitar. Bond approached Fender about two years ago with that fretboard: we had some reservations about the fretboard, and also we were in a rebuilding process which used up most of our available funds. We invested over $2,000,000 in equipment, so there's not a lot of money around to go on ideas you're not sure of."
What are you working on now?
"We've been experimenting in the last few years, with synthesisers and so on. Experimentation is very expensive. Our R&D team in total is about 30 or 40 people; dedicated directly to electric guitars we have four people. We have a lot of information from the electronics people too. The scary thing about getting involved in synths is that you may be looking at two, three or $400,000 worth of research, and the instruments end up so expensive that it might take you 25 years to get a return on your investment.
"On the tremolo we're developing, some of the feedback we've got from players is that, as good as the Floyd Rose and Kahler systems are, they're highly complex with extra tools needed and so on. We're working on making it as simple as possible and relatively inexpensive.
"There are two keys to the guitar synth thing: the first person to develop a guitar synth that involves no change of technique for the guitarist, and secondly at a reasonable price, is going to have a market. Roland have done a lot to advance it and I respect them very much for that – other companies have fallen by the wayside. I still don't think its reached the optimum."
And the future?
"The other direction we'd like to take, or we'd like someone to take, is to come up with an instrument at an extremely low price, for the beginner, more of a synthesiser instrument, that would allow you with the minimum of pain and torture to develop certain techniques that would lead you into wanting to become a guitar player. An educational instrument, $100 or $150, like the miniature keyboards but an instrument that kids are interested in. It would develop left and right hand technique, perhaps not have real strings, but produce similar sounds, and get you over the first months and push you into playing guitar. It's only in the idea stage – it's something that I've personally been thinking about for maybe 10 years."
Not a day of rest at all so let's go and hit a few things. Cactus Drums were in an up-and-running scenario: the standard kit will consist of five of the ABS pads (complete with tacky desert scene on front) and (sensibly) no bass pedal. The control console will come with a handy five modules: usually snare, bass and three other choices (analogue/digital toms, say). The salesperson will come with a bill of around £800 for the standard kit and console. So you'd like a rumour today as well, even before lunch? OK: Selmer wanted to market Cactus in the US under the name "Ludwig". Must be a real drum sound.
AHB were having trouble with the software (aren't we all) on their new Impulse One, an eight pad suitcase drum machine with a planned 15 song, 999-bars-each programmable memory, eight on-board digitally sampled sounds and eight more per plug-in cartridge, plus tape sync via SMPTE. We shall hear. Talking of SMPTE, SRC of Berlin had a baffling SMPTE Reading Clock on show which looked like it would probably sync Buddy Rich to a Walkman if asked properly.
Zildjian remained real by showing off their new hammered Impulse cymbals, including a couple of Power Beat hi-hats which have notches cut into the edge of the bottom cymbal to aid volume and what cymbalists call "chick".
A quick look around and it's safe to go on the Korg stand, where their new PSS50 "programmable super section" seems rather a handful, allowing you to program digital drum sounds, bass, chords and other accompaniment into eight songs.
Just before close of play today, Gibson tell us they are soon to close the historic Kalamazoo plant in Michigan — this is, we are told, a sensible business decision for a company that has already made wide staffing cuts in recent years. Gibson Number Two David Leed put it this way: "Ghosts don't make guitars." But the question most people were asking concerned the future of R&D head Bruce Bolen — without reply. Production in future will be at Gibson's Nashville factory, opened there in 1975. New from Nashville was a cheaper range of Les Pauls called the Studio Series — UK distributors Rosetti had no plans for these at press time.
The European Division
Of all the Japanese musical instrument manufacturers, Yamaha are certainly the most inscrutable.
Though undoubtedly adhering to fastidious oriental logic, their developments are often perceived by the Western mind as inspirational, with unconnected leaps of technology and thinking.
The familiar marketing techniques of expanding existing models or releasing cheaper versions have never been practised by Yamaha with any dogged determination.
And they are, to be honest, a somewhat secretive corporation. Few titbits of information are ever allowed to leak from their headquarters. Even important European distributors tend to be taken aback when the R and D department eventually unveil their pet creations.
So talking to Yamaha designers, testers and researchers, even at their specially arranged press conference, is reminiscent of a game of battleships. One or two questions will elicit fascinating and sometimes completely unexpected answers, but there'll be a lot of blank squares in between.
For example, every new product at Yamaha is the responsibility of one man. There are no teeming R and D departments all chipping away at the same problem. You can walk into the Yamaha factory and tap Mr PF10 piano on the shoulder and ask him where DX9-san is sitting.
And forward planning is a matter not of months but of years. They say that when the GS1 was launched three or four years ago, the present DX1 was already completed, ready and waiting in the computer, until someone had the time to build it.
Demonstrator and programming advisor Dave Bristow came close to the Yamaha ideal when he said they were developing musical instruments as another branch of science. They brought musicians in to do the final 'lab tests'. It's probably the purity of electronic research that sets Yamaha off on such creative tangents.
A few developments are easy to guess. At Frankfurt they were exhibiting the TP8 – essentially eight DX7s in one rack mounted box, ready to be linked to their QX1 sequencer. It's not hard to predict that a single DX7 module ought to become available to make the best use of its MIDI compatibility.
And since the Yamaha ethos is so strongly based on subtlety and independence, there are two likely advances in store for the DX series. First, complete independence for all the operators so they are all self contained and programmable, and secondly, the ability to define your own algorithms (the arrangements of carriers and modulators at present preset on the DX7 and DX9). After that, it's anyone's guess.
Breakfast was confused by Akai and their 12 track cassette recorder. That's right 12, on a special Akai made half in. tape cartridge looking like a cross between an audio and a video cassette. The 7½ips maximum transport is built into a fairly sophisticated mixer (three band eq. two effects channels, etc) with plenty of metering and a specially developed tape location system.
What will they think of next? I'll tell you, an eight voice 96 memory programmable poly called the AX80 and a 10,000 note sequencer with on board keyboard lovingly titled the MS16. Akai obviously hope you'll invest in the whole package, but the poly (looks digital, but sounds analogue) has a Midriff... sorry MIDI.
As has the new Juno 106, an expanded and cosmetically slicked up version of Roland's Juno 60 now with 128 memories and fewer ackers on the price tag — about £800. Polyphonic glide, too, but no arpeggiator.
Almost lunch and only 3,000 drum synths to go. There's the new Simmons SDS7 and SDS8; the more expensive 7 includes digitally sampled sounds alongside it's analogue voices, and is expressed (nice word that) via a set of pads with 'real' feel skins. Bill Bruford thwacked in the demo booth. Eight thousand Germans and us sweated.
Also Dynacord who not only have a kit of five sided pads with sampled sounds, but also a sampler, called the Boomer, which lets you record your own drums onto a blank chip, then slot the chip into the drum synth.
Casio build machine with everything on it except shampoo dispenser, shock. The KX10 is a mini keyboard, drum machine, portable stereo cassette player, FM/AM radio and three channel auto chord recorder. The batteries last for 15 seconds. No, we lie. They've got a hand held computer too, but Bacon and I couldn't make it work. Retired to the bar.
On the way, stumbled across the new Japanese made Vox guitars, very angular, angry young Strat sort of thing, but much cheaper than previous Voxes (Veau??) Alligator (British through and through) had extra combos such as the 75W with a single 12in, a 4 x 10 cab rated at 300W and a 150W PA top with twin 2 x 10 cabs, each copping a high frequency horn.
Yoshi Hoshino Sales Manager
What's happening now?
"Among the drum companies, I don't think there is the copying which goes on among guitar companies, say. Every drum company has a different way, a different taste. We'd like to be the company who can deliver drums for any event – if people want a different style of head, or heavy duty drums, we want to have all those types."
How have electronic drums affected you?
"Last 12 months, electronic drums are becoming very popular. We understand, because every instrument has had so much demand for electronic involvement. I think it is natural, and also it is understandable. Maybe I can say it was too late – why didn't completely solid electronic drums come out before? It took so long. There's one, the Simmons drum, which created the demand. It's still not exactly a solid idea how the drummer uses electronic drums – there's still 180 degrees you can go. It's a good start, and it will become more popular."
As a maker of acoustic drums, what do you intend to do about that popularity?
"In next two years, electronic drums will still be part of acoustic drum kits. For example, a five-piece kit plus maybe four electronic drums. That will be the style that people want and use for a while. After that we don't know exactly. But piece by piece I think 25-30% will be electronic drums. We understand exactly what the music wants, even the percussion department. We don't hesitate to go into electronic drums."
Acoustic drums have changed so little – are you working on anything new there?
"Last couple of years, improvements and new ideas have really slowed down. Many ideas have been too unusual, not the kind that the normal drummer use. Five years ago we had lots of things we can jump up and down about, but the last couple of years we have slowed. Maybe it's our fault, maybe we're not working hard enough! We introduced a new bass drum pedal and some accessories recently, but this year we have no new ideas."
How many people are involved in your R&D department?
"Altogether with Ibanez electronics too, we have about eight, plus outside contracts and so on. They're working on the electronic drums at the moment, and, on the Ibanez side, on digital effects. Nothing on acoustic drums."
What form will the Tama electronic drums take?
"We don't have an exact idea yet, because we don't know which way the drummer wants to use electronic drums, what kind of sound – the same as others? Maybe people want an electronic cymbal – we have to research more about what drummers want. We have made no prototypes yet. It shouldn't take too long. We'd like to see one of them in production this year. The idea is becoming complete, but not yet finalised. Maybe this summer or fall we'll have one. We are a drum company, not just an electronics company, so we will probably go for a drum-type unit as opposed to a box-type unit with pads. Also important with electronic drums is the cosmetics – sound is of course important, but you could say that 30 to 40% of the reason Simmons drums are sold is that shape, the image, and the colour. It's unique. We're working on about 10 different types, so I cannot say which we will use. I'm not trying to hide anything, we just have to decide after a lot of tests."
Back yet again to the Yamaha stand first thing to see another demo of the wondrous CX5 computer system being demo'd by peripatetically-accented Dave Bristow. He left the best thing to the end: "Oh, it'll cost less than 2000 Deutschmarks." To us Brits that's £559 retail and an arrival time as vague as "later this year". For your dosh you'll get the CX5 32k computer, a YK01 music keyboard, and an SFG01 FM sound synth unit. In short (many words will follow, have no fear), this was the most exciting product at Frankfurt this year. A sort of built-in DX9 and a powerful computer that'll run Yamaha-written MSX musical software are the principle delights – the Music Composer program for instance, gives eight displayed musical parts for you to write on to with QWERTY or black-and-white keys, and then insert a very wide range of emphases and accents. The CX5 system puts most other micro sound generation into intense shade, and our orders are already in.
You want outboard stuff? We fell over the stuff today. MXR's new 01 Digital Reverb had besuited chaps thereabouts comparing it to the Lexicon-price, however, will be about £1500. Six room-set factories... no, six factory-set "rooms" come with it and a further three with decay time varying relative to input level, all of which can be further modified and remembered. Delay times go up from 0.2s minimum in growing steps to 24s maximum. A damping control rolls off highs over the delay period, and a pre-delay controls the "gap" between dry and effected signal. Other outboards: Ursa Major's StarGate 323 digital reverb, non-programmable but, they say, competitively priced and with UM's impeccable Space Station reputation attached. And the Electrospace Time Matrix will be hauled into the UK by Musimex — it's an eight-tap, 1.6s, 16kHz bandwidth digital delay, and it's a big 'un all right.
I. Kakehashi President
What's happening today?
"The most important point these days is compatability; MIDI. In the past year all the manufacturers have worked together... that's wonderful, unusual, but wonderful. Everybody agreed and already it's 100 per cent sure that MIDI is an industry standard.
"With MIDI, the synth market especially will change because until now each instrument has been independent. There will be a move back to modular synthesisers, we have already introduced the synth module and the piano module, soon there will be a guitar module, and many others."
What about a sampling system?
"Not yet... very soon."
Can analogue synths survive the arrival of digital synthesis?
"Yes, we only use 20 per cent of analogue capability, the other 80 per cent has not been used yet. People think digital is final, but it is not, anyhow, MUSIC is analogue. Now, digital systems are much cheaper so all prices going down, everybody going digital, but for music, analogue is much warmer... like tube and transistor amplifiers – same thing.
"Many companies have now started to develop analogue and digital in one chip – digital is so much better for control but if analogue sound sources are better, we must use analogue, even if it is a little more expensive."
But can analogue synths become cheaper to match digital prices?
"That depends on analogue chip development by semiconductor companies."
What else can new technology do for us? There have been suggestions of a music writing system, a computer that listens to what you're playing and prints out a musical score:
"Yes, it already exists, but human beings are not so accurate... people probably don't want to see how bad they are, so we have to develop a correcting system. It's possible, the technology is no problem, but as a commercial base, it's not so easy.
"We need three levels: the first for professional orchestration, the second for melody lines, chords and bass notes and the third for just the melody."
What about a computer that reads sheet music?
"Yes, that's possible."
But is anyone working on it?
"I don't think so: Voice recognition is more important, it's much better, but the main problem is cost, very expensive, technical problems are not so bad, you can already write letters by speech so why not music? Two or three years, perhaps."
Is the way we record music likely to change?
"For recording I think analogue is still necessary, digital is too cold... too realistic. But for electronic music, digital recording will be important, because now even digital must go to tape, but electro-music doesn't have to... it is direct data controlling the synthesiser so you always get first generation sound."
How close are we to recording directly onto a chip, instead of tape?
"A long way away. Now, one minute is the maximum because of cost."
How do you see Roland developing over the next two years?
"Don't know. You tell me, ha, ha... Even two years ago I never thought of today's products. I prefer freedom. Today, if we insist on one direction there is no freedom... FM is a very nice system, but it has its limitations, all systems have weak points and good points."
Fender flaunted a new batch of prototypes called the Master Series – and not quite the blatant Yamaha copies we'd been led to expect. Finishes weren't too exciting, but Fender UK hope to change that. The D'Aquisto's were big specialist semis, while the Esprit and Flame models were double cutaway numbers.
Headless guitars were everywhere. Discarded saws festooned the Frankfurt show walkways as proud salespersons stood ankle-deep in sawdust with their hip new product. Few will make our critical shores, though two brands which will are Cort and Riverhead. Cort have the advantage of a licence to use the Steinberger tuning system – today's rumour has it that Steinberger rushed out the licence in an attempt to stem the copy tide. Rosetti should bring in four Corts: a Steinberger-ish (in shape) bass and six-string at just over £200 each, and a "with-body" version of each at just under the two ton. Riverhead, initially publicised by One Two last December, are coming to the UK in June via a company new to us called Craftsmaster: four new Unicorn models that look like the old Burns "twin winged" Flyte model will be around-three basses and one six-string-at roughly £500.
Washburn had their renamed "plain" Riverheads, including the new six-string, plus some very attractively finished copies, particularly a black Tele with red binding. And a wang bar on a similarly-coloured Precision-like bass. Silly.
OhmyGodit'sWednesdayandIstillHaven'tseenallthesepeople: two new British mixers, the ugly Promark MX3 8|4|2 and the interesting Seck 122 12|2; the Rockinger wang bar is coming to the UK thanks to the selflessness of the Manson Bros — they'll be offering it separately and attaching it to their fine gee-tars; Superwound have concocted a new bass-string set to be called Funkmaster after Mark King's use of light-gauge uppers (.030, .050) and medium gauge lowers (.070, .090). The King person did set the Status stand alight with a LOUD demo today, too — he appears to be somewhere higher than God in Deutschland.
Aria have a five-string bass called the RSB5, but UK agents Gigsville say they'll only bring them in if dealers order enough; yet another Rockman type headphone amp, the Nanyo "Personal Studio", will be coming from Rose-Morris at about a hundred quid; an improved 360 Systems sampled-sounds keyboard will be available from Atlantex at getting on for four grand; some new Hondo models from Korea will be on sale later in the year via UK distributors JHS; and lastly, our favourite pedal name was the "Deluxe Exciter" from Coron, giving, as you might expect, gehorte Transparenz in Ihren Sound. Pass out.
Akira Takei Marketing Director
Why did Matsumoku introduce its own brand Westone?
"We have almost 20 years experience in making guitars. Westone the brand name is owned 100% by Matsumoku. We are making other names: at present in the UK you will see two products from our factory. One is Westone, the other Aria Pro. Our original idea for Westone was finalised three years ago. Until that time we were a totally OEM manufacturer (Original Equipment Manufacturer – a Japanese factory building instruments to its customers specs). Sometimes we were making maybe more than 10 brands for different customers. Almost all the specifications were instructed from the purchaser – different purchasers wanted many kinds of features, making it very complicated.
"And so we couldn't tell what were the correct trends for today's market, finally we decided three years ago to introduce our own name, getting so much information by ourselves."
Have you experimented with new materials?
"Today already we have started to use a graphite nut instead of bone or brass. This material is very hard and very effective to produce better sustain. That's on nearly all models, except jazz electric guitars which need the traditional sound; we use a bone nut for those. Of course wood is our main material for our guitars. We are buying mainly from north America – hard maple. Sometimes we buy alder wood from the west coast of the States."
Who do you see as your competition?
"Our main competition, the strongest one, is Ibanez in world markets, including the domestic Japanese market. Second is probably the Fender Squier, which is made by the same factory who are also making Ibanez, the Fuji factory. Those two factories, Fuji and our factory, Matsumoku, are located in the same town, Matsumoto City. Today I would think 70% of total guitar production in Japan is being made in Matsumoto City. So you can see that Matsumoto City is the home town of electric guitars today."
What about American brands?
"We have no comment about American guitars really, because their quality is slightly going down compared with before. And their costs are always going up. We cannot see any kind of value for money from American guitars."
What ideas are you working on now?
"We are proceeding actively with the development of hardware, particularly a tremolo unit, to sell separately. Today, as you know, such trends are coming from America. They have a few famous makers building new tremolo mechanisms – we can see a demand for guitars with this on, so our staff is trying to develop this new kind of unit.
"The other idea for the future we are working on is the guitar synthesiser. As of today it's still too early to make any comment, with a company as big as Roland trying to develop markets for guitar synth. But in the future, my feeling is that guitar synthesiser will take a big market share.
"So we are trying very hard to develop the circuit. We have new engineers involved in this kind of electronics. In our area of Japan we have very famous companies such as Seiko, and they are doing computer business today and have very capable technicians there. So sometimes we are co-operating with each other. I think it's very possible that we may co-operate with them on a guitar synthesiser. I think that will come in two or three years.
"We are also looking at cosmetics – the painting. One in 20 guitars today has the steel, metallic finish. This trend comes from the automobile industry. We are always watching the trends in the automobile industry, particularly the appearance of the cars. This makes guitars more attractive."
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