Istanbul Music Expo
For the first time, a UK magazine gives coverage to the fair that follows NAMM and Frankfurt. It may not be as big, but it's growing in importance all the time. Dan Goldstein reports from the Bosphorus.
In the shadow of NAMM and Frankfurt is the Istanbul Music Expo, a show gaining in importance as the computer music revolution begins to make headway in the East. It's worth the trip.
IN CASE YOU missed it, last month's issue of MUSIC TECHNOLOGY was something of a show special, with reports of two of the most important exhibitions in the music industry calendar. The first was the NAMM convention in Anaheim, Los Angeles (the biggest ever), while the second was the Frankfurt Musikmesse, easily the largest and best organised event of any in the world.
In all likelihood, though, few of the shop owners, musicians, engineers and liggers who attended either show were aware that a third exhibition was due to take place shortly afterwards. It would not be on the same scale as either NAMM or Frankfurt, but in its own way, it would be just as interesting to anyone interested in modern musical technology.
The show in question is the Istanbul Music Expo, an annual event that is to Asia what the Musikmesse is to Europe. Not surprisingly, the Expo has lived in the shadow of the NAMM and Frankfurt shows ever since it first took place in 1983. When, for example, was the last time you saw any mention of it made in these pages?
However, the growing importance of several Asian markets (India, China, Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states, and Turkey itself) in musical terms has led to some of the world's biggest musical instrument manufacturers taking it more seriously. Result? The likes of Roland, Yamaha, Korg and Technics all had stands at Istanbul this year, in addition to Casio, who've supported the Expo from day one.
How do we know this? Well, the Istanbul Expo usually clashes with this magazine's press week, during which time most of the staff are scurrying around trying to compile our Frankfurt report. This year, however, the assembled Music Maker entourage flew to Frankfurt instead of going by car, with the result that Goldstein and Gilchrist had a small amount of time on their hands once Frankfurt was over and done with. So off to Istanbul we went, tolerating an hour-and-a-half's worth of Turkish Airways catering between Frankfurt and Istanbul, and relaxing at a genuine Turkish bath (no sniggering at the back, Godlington Minor) before the Expo began.
As mentioned, the Istanbul show is nothing like the size of either NAMM or Frankfurt. In fact, the Kemal Atatürk Memorial Palace which played host to this year's Expo was not much bigger than Olympia 2, the boxed-off section of Kensington Olympia that houses the British Music Fair each summer.
But the Istanbul event has more character than any of the fairs mentioned above. The products on show are part of the reason, but so are the people who make the trip across the Bosphorus to look at them.
If you'd been at this year's show, you'd have found yourself mingling in the aisles with Pakistani accounts executives, members of several Chinese cultural delegations, hordes of white-clad Arab businessmen, and a multitude of Japanese engineers and marketing men. Not, rather obviously, yer average music show crowd.
And not, again rather obviously, yer average music show backdrop, either. The Atatürk Palace is an ornate and labyrinthine building that seems ill-suited to housing demonstrations of musical equipment - which indeed it is. So, half-a-mile up the catchily titled Kocamustafa Pasa Cad (sort of Regent Street, but not quite) lies a small, elderly-looking mosque which has been converted internally to provide a series of soundproof booths for demos.
Outside of these cubicles, the main part of the mosque was given over to concerts of varying types of music, each of which took advantage of the building's stunning acoustic properties - I'd like to see Alesis simulating that one.
SPEAKING OF ACOUSTIC properties, digital reverberation is one area of modern music technology that is beginning to make headway into the Asian market. However, the people who make digital reverb systems have had to alter their machines in the light of differing demands and applications.
Hence a unit like the Korg DRV2000 (reviewed elsewhere this issue) may come with preset treatments such as "Small Minaret", "Large Temple" and "Deep Cavern" in addition to the effects on the standard Western equivalent.
From what we could hear at the Expo, these sorts of effects certainly sound interesting, but not as dramatically different from their Western counterparts ("Small Hall" and the rest) as their names would suggest. A slightly longer delay time here, some extra modulation there, and that's about it. Obviously makes a difference to the Eastern buyers, though.
Similar alterations have to be made to some other items of new technology before they are acceptable to Asian musicians. Synthesisers, samplers and other electronic keyboards are often subjected to retuning to the quarter-tone scale, something which Western keyboard players are only just finding out about with the advent of microtonality on the DX7II. In the East, so much popular music is based around quarter-tones that few keyboardists can afford to be without a suitably equipped instrument. And the same principle extends to home keyboards, currently the biggest boom area of the Turkish music industry, and in that of the Gulf states. Hence Casio's unveiling of a number of new home keyboards with quarter-tone tunings, identical in all other respects to their Western stablemates.
Sampling keyboards have yet to capture the imagination of many Asian musicians, but the idea of sampling percussion instruments is catching on fast - particularly in India, where the huge film industry is relying more and more on soundtracks provided by composers using a small amount of electronic equipment to produce a big sound.
As a result of this trend, the Yamaha RX5 - with its promising range of alternative ROM sounds - was one of the biggest hits of the Istanbul Expo, as was Korg's DDD1 and DDD5. Korg's tabla ROMs have been particularly successful in the Indian sub-continent, and rumour has it that a number of other drum sets are currently being recorded for use in the Middle East, where bass, snare, cymbals and handclaps mean less than they do almost anywhere else in the world.
BUT ASIDE FROM adaptations of instruments we in the West are already familiar with, Istanbul was also notable for showcasing a number of unusual new musical devices that were simply nowhere to be seen at either Anaheim or Frankfurt. The ones that caught our attention most were those that fused traditional Eastern technologies with those of the computer world.
Not unnaturally, MIDI plays a large part in joining together these unlikely bedfellows. Witness the Iznik MIDI yapilar, a home-grown (from Western Turkey) instrument that Gilchrist's camera unfortunately missed because its owner spent too long "window-shopping" in a nearby brothel. The original yapilar is a large, 20-string instrument that resembles a cross between a banjo and a concert harp, and which isn't a million miles away, conceptually speaking, from the West African kora. It's an important instrument in Turkish pop, and surprisingly large numbers of musicians seem to be capable of playing it with incredible dexterity. The only problem is its sound, which many producers are complaining is becoming clichéd.
Enter Iznik's MIDI yapilar, a custom-designed instrument that uses two decaphonic pickups, guitar synth-style, to detect the pitch of each string and send that information to be converted into MIDI data. Being a 20-string instrument, however, the MIDI yapilar needs two MIDI Out connections, since there aren't enough MIDI channels to allow each of its strings to trigger a different sound on a multi-timbral synth or sampler in Mono Mode.
Computer music hasn't really caught on in much of Asia, with the obvious exceptions of Japan, Hong Kong, and the Gulf states, where rich kids play with IBM PC clones in luxurious MIDI-based studios that differ little from their counterparts in Britain, Germany or the US.
For these people, software genius Wasim Ali has developed a program called MIDI Virtuoso. Briefly, it's an improvisation package not dissimilar to Intelligent Music's Jam Factory program for the Apple Mac. You define your own set of variables, which are inputtable from any MIDI instrument, and the program comes up with several variations on your original theme. Interestingly, though, Ali has consulted several of the Arab world's best-known modern musicians and performers, and obtained their consent for their own distinctive styles to be imitated by MIDI Virtuoso. Thus, if you want to know what the most successful male singer in Saudi Arabia would make of your composition, you need only load the relevant data file into your PC from disk, and he (or his software counterpart) will come up with his own interpretation, along with an onscreen comment along the lines of "not bad for a drummer, are you?". Luckily, the MIDI Virtuoso uses English characters for its displays (unlike much of the software on show in Istanbul, which used Arabic, Urdu, Mandarin, or whatever), so we may yet see it available in England.
Talking of computers, the newly established music department of technological research in the People's Republic of China - PRK - was making its public debut at the Expo. Why they chose Istanbul above the other, better-established shows is not clear, since their computer music system is more a reflection of Western thinking than a development of traditional Eastern ideas. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that the system - tentatively and confusingly titled DX1 - is still little more than a fledgeling. Truth to tell, it looks like a cross between a Series II Fairlight and a small telephone exchange, and the inside story isn't much better - eight-bit technology stretched to provide low-quality polyphonic sampling, real-time multitrack recording (no MIDI yet), and basic harmonic resynthesis. It didn't sound too good, but you get the feeling that if the Chinese put their minds to it, they could yet be a force to be reckoned with in the music technology stakes, and not just in Asia. There are an awful lot of them, after all.
THERE ARE AN awful lot of Russians, too, but Eastern Bloc exhibits at the Expo were confined to some swish-looking, matt-black balalaikas for image-conscious folk-rock groups in Soviet Georgia and Armenia, and an interesting Romanian stand on which a pan-pipe player was delighting the crowds by using his instrument to control a Roland S50 sampler with the help of the same company's new VP70 voice processor. Probably the nicest sounding moment of a show that often came across as cacophonous to Western ears.
The great Bulgarian music technology co-operative, Zlatna Panega, was listed as having a stand in the Expo show guide (though it took us a while to find out, with not an English translation in sight), but a quick stroll to its listed location revealed only a sleazy kebab bar that had been hurriedly constructed to make the main show area look full.
As a sudden strike by Turkish air-traffic controllers meant we had to return to England by train, I made a point of keeping an eye out for the Zlatna plant as the Istanbul Express passed through the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. It was evening, but there was enough light to see that the factory buildings and laboratories were almost deserted, confirming our fears that the co-operative's innovative work has been all but halted by the nation's killjoy authorities.
But if press week isn't pressing, we shall be going back to Istanbul next year - if only to sample the Turkish bath (not digitally, you understand) one more time.
Show Report by Dan Goldstein
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