NAMM Winter Market, Anaheim
Paul Wiffen, hotfoot from California, reports on the machines that made headlines at the US music industry's winter shindig...
One thing is certain about this year's Winter NAMM Show: three days were not enough to cover it. I spent all the available time gathering a stack of literature and brochures so big I nearly had to pay excess baggage on it, and still came away feeling that I'd only scratched the surface. Still, here are some highlights from a show I'll certainly remember as being the most exciting, yet bewildering, in all my years in music journalism.
Let's begin with the longest awaited product: the Series III Fairlight. The latest version of the world's most successful computer musical instrument seems to be nearing general availability, but apart from the instruments themselves, the star attractions on the Fairlight stand were Herbie Hancock and Thomas Dolby doing the demonstration honours. Frankly, I was less than impressed by the whole thing. The start of the session I attended was delayed by the crashing and subsequent re-booting of the entire system, and in a misguided attempt to cover this embarrassing pause, Dolby was asked what the Fairlight had done for him. He replied: 'It has expanded my musical vocabulary. If I want to try timpani on a song, I can do it in the comfort of my own home. Of course, it's more fun to use a real player on record, but it gives me the means to try out ideas. And if you've got $65,000 that's what the Fairlight can do for you. I know it's tough, but that's how it is!' Love the sales pitch, Tom.
When the system was finally working, our two heroes attempted to jam over a horrendously out-of-time drum part programmed by a Fairlight salesman. And as for the speakers through which the system was being played, they'd have disgraced a home music centre, so there was no way of telling if the samples were the cited 16-bit, 50kHz or the original eight-bit. Software-wise, there was no sign of either the much-heralded CAPS (Composer/Arranger/Performer Software) or the new polyphonic version of Page R.
In contrast, the Fairlight Voicetracker was seen to perform admirably. It tracked sax, flute and human voice without glitching, and has many splendid features to enhance MIDI or CV/Gate control of synths. Just what professional non-keyboard players have been waiting for to give them complete control of synths, but a mite expensive at $2895.
If, like me, you start feeling a bit impoverished at the sight of a Fairlight price list, Casio have got a tonic for you.
Their SK1 sampling keyboard has 1.5 seconds of eight-bit, 8kHz sampling and eight-voice polyphony. Its 32 keys are of the miniature variety, but the machine is set to retail in the UK for the absurdly low price of £99, so there's no cause to complain. We've quipped, in the past, about Casio doing a Fairlight equivalent for silly money, but we never dreamed they would come this close.
Aside from Casio and Yamaha (with their competing VSS100 mini-sampler, in the shops by the time you read this) manufacturers seem to be settling on the middle-ground of the sound-sampling market, as already typified by the Mirage, Prophet 2000 and Akai S612. At NAMM, anyone who was anyone was launching a 12-bit, 31.25kHz sampler somewhere in the £1000-£2500 price bracket.
Sequential, whose machines are of a higher spec anyway, announced an update to the 2000 at the show. This doubles the available memory (and therefore the maximum sample length), and includes a double-sided disk drive to cater for the extra storage and a new software EPROM to allow the Prophet to work with Digidesign's adaptation of their Sound Designer package. The update is due to cost £395, and I've ordered mine already.
Also making its show debut was the rack-mounting Prophet 2002, which has exactly the same spec as the 2000, and should retail for £300 less than the keyboard version. It features several ergonomic improvements over the 2000: a much more tasteful front panel, some proper switches and (sigh of deep joy) sample input and level controls you can get at easily.
Somehow, I found time to bend half an ear toward some new library disks for the 2000/2. American sounds include Choirs, Violin, Vibes, Drum Kit, Xylophone, String Bass, Flutes, Sitar, Tabla and Harp, while European offerings include Beat Box, Stick and Lead Guitar, with more to be announced at Frankfurt. Without exception, they sounded fine.
Despite all this, the most exciting thing on the Sequential stand had nothing to do with sampling at all: the brand new Prophet VS synthesiser. The VS bit stands for Vector Synthesis, a digital system which threatens to eat the PPGs and DX7s of this world for breakfast. See elsewhere this issue for an exclusive preview of this machine.
Several Japanese companies showed new sampling keyboards at NAMM, but none of them exhibited the dramatic price drop so many had been predicting.
The Roland S10 should be among the cheapest, but it has only 128K of memory giving just four seconds of sampling. The bigger S50 looks a much better bet, with a massive 512K memory giving 17.2 seconds of sampling, and in-built software for voice editing on any RGB monitor screen, with no additional hardware required. Very clever.
The new sampling technology is also used in Roland's new digital pianos, the 88-note RD1000 and the rack-mounting MKS20. Most exciting product on the stand for me, though, was the new Roland MIDI sequencer, the MC500. This looks all set to provide the sort of flexibility only disk-based units can, but more cheaply than the current standard MSQ700, which lacks any form of a disk drive at all.
Sampling exhibited itself on the Korg stand, too. Their DSS1 is a sampling synthesiser with some interesting new applications of old standards like oscillator detuning and syncing. More than any of the new breed of samplers, Korg's machine offers great potential to those who want to mix their sampled sounds with synthesised ones, merging the two technologies to produce 'real' voices that sound genuinely different. Only 128K of memory, though.
Comments on how these new samplers actually sound will have to be reserved for the Frankfurt report (coming up in the next couple of pages), as the standard of demonstration at NAMM was lamentably low, and some instruments looked decidedly half-finished to these eyes.
Just about the only thing worthy of attention on the Yamaha stand was the SPX90, a digital effects processor that seems to be able to turn its 16-bit chip to any effect you ever heard of. By storing 30 different internal configurations in ROM, it can become a digital delay, a reverb (with gating), a compressor, a MIDI-controlled harmoniser and sampler, a flanger, a chorus, an auto-panner, and a parametric EQ, all for a miraculous RRP of £599.
Apparently, it is now a worldwide Yamaha policy not to show new gear too far in advance of its general availability. So, the world will have to wait till summertime before it gets a look at the main bulk of Yamaha's new 1986 product. For the time being, well have to make do with the SPX90.
But back to the Americans and Ensoniq. Having established themselves with the Mirage, the company that gave a whole new generation of musicians affordable sampling are now expanding their product range into new areas. The 10-voice Ensoniq Piano, for example, features 12 multi-sampled sounds (including Grand Piano, Electric Piano, Upright and Electric Bass) onboard. All the voices compare favourably with their Mirage counterparts, and the 76-note weighted keyboard also has a favourable price: £960.
Like Sequential, Ensoniq also unveiled a digital synth at NAMM, seemingly from nowhere. Theirs is aimed at a slightly lower price bracket, and is called the ESQ1. Voice-generation consists of three oscillators per voice, each of which can play any of 32 preset waveforms of multi-sampled or synthetic varieties. These are then passed through complex filter and amplifier envelopes, with some old-tech features like ring modulation also available. The internal 40-program memory can be expanded to house 120 via external cartridge.
The ESQ1 has a built-in sequencer in addition to its fine-sounding synth section, and Ensoniq are rightly making great play of this, as it leaves the simplistic version in the Mirage very much in the shadows. Eight tracks of multi-timbral recording are possible, with dynamic assignment (up to full eight-note polyphony) of the internal voices on each track. Alternatively, up to eight voices can be sent out on each MIDI channel for use with other MIDI instruments.
The cost of all this versatility? Again, around £960.
For those who thought the Mirage was the best thing since sliced bread, there's the Ensoniq Multisampler, a rack-mounting version of the Mirage with an extended feature list, including aftertouch and breath control via MIDI. This product should also retail in the UK for, yes, you've guessed it, £960.
Existing Mirage owners need not fear of their machines being made obsolete by these developments, as a new 3.1 operating system makes all the new MIDI features available to old(!) Mirages.
And the Mirage itself also gets a facelift for '86, both internally and externally. There's a new weighted keyboard, and the aesthetics have been altered to incorporate a grey finish with colour-coded yellow and white buttons. Internal modifications ensure a better signal-to-noise ratio and an enhanced frequency response. The price remains unchanged at £1295, which includes the 3.1 operating system, the MASOS software and the Advanced Sampling Guide.
"I'll remember it as being the most exciting, yet bewildering, trade show I've visited in all my years of music journalism."
In addition to the Visual Editing Software for the Apple II shown at Summer NAMM in '85, Ensoniq now have a similar package for the Commodore 64. They're also distributing a faster package for the Apple Macintosh written by the unlikely-sounding Blank Software of San Francisco.
Now to a machine which, though by no means new, certainly turned a lot of heads at Anaheim. The MIDI Bass is a small, innocent-looking box which, when attached to any velocity-sensitive MIDI keyboard, provides you with some truly remarkable sampled bass sounds. The unit comes with straight and slapped Fender Jazz, Plucked Upright and Minimoog Bass samples, in a package that reminds me of a cross between a digital drum machine and the Roland TB303 Bassline. You change sounds simply by inserting new EPROMs, and the MIDI Bass' manufacturers, 360 Systems, are offering a whole library of sounds ranging from Bowed Double Bass, through Steinberger, Rickenbacker, Stick and Eight-String Basses to Keyboard Bass notes taken from Rhodes and DX7 instruments. The chips cost $50 each.
Amazingly, the MIDI Bass has received little distribution in Europe, but a large shipment should have arrived in the UK by the time you read this.
Oberheim's new rack-mounting Matrix 6R looks like being a big seller in the States at its RRP of only $1299 (that's less than a grand in real money). However, it remains to be seen whether the UK price can be made as competitive. The keyboard-equipped version of what is, after all, one of the world's most versatile analogue synths, has suffered in some markets from a dollar-inflated price tag.
Going back to pitch-to-MIDI converters, there were examples of these almost everywhere you looked at Anaheim. Of these, however, only two systems looked to me as if they really worked: the IVL Pitchriders and the Ibanez MIDI guitar system. The IVL models seemed particularly quick and accurate, throughout a range that goes from the 400 and 1000 (which work with the Commodore 64 and Amiga computers respectively) to a rackmounting dedicated unit being demonstrated with Kramer guitars.
They might not be taking off as strongly as predicted in the UK, but computer software packages abounded at Anaheim like at no other show I've visited before. The most popular music micro across the Atlantic is the Apple Macintosh, which is almost laughably cheap in its country of origin.
Amongst the best of the Mac packages are the epically-named Mark of the Unicorn Song Performer and the MacMIDI from MusicWorks, a range that includes interactive real-time sequencing and scorewriting packages.
The Digidesign Sound Designer package (reviewed in its Emulator II version in E&MM December '85) is now available in two other incarnations, for the Prophet 2000 ($495) and Ensoniq Mirage ($395). The good news here is that all files are cross-compatible, so that a sample taken on any of the above machines can be transferred across to a Sound Designer Macintosh disk, and then loaded into either of the other two machines using the appropriate version of the software. This means that EII, 2000 and Mirage owners can swap samples amongst each other without having to wait for E-mu and Ensoniq to implement the newly-established MIDI protocol for transferring sample data.
Other computers which had software and hardware packages announced for them at Anaheim, included the Commodore Amiga and 128, and the Atari 520ST. Hybrid Arts now have their excellent MidiTrack package (honourably mentioned in dispatches from last June's Summer NAMM show) available for all current Ataris, Commodore 64 and 128, and IBM PC.
But Mimetics are the really courageous ones. Despite continued rumours of an impending Commodore collapse, they're going ahead with a complete Amiga Music Studio series, which will take advantage of the Amiga's unrivalled internal sound capabilities, graphics, and high-speed communications. The more software there is available, the more likely the Amiga is to succeed, so Mimetics' endeavours deserve a lot of praise.
Less daringly, Syntech entered the IBM PC field by making their Studio 1 sequencer package (much praised in its C64 format in E&MM November) available in a 48-track version for $449. Their C64 range was expanded by the addition of a Roland JX Editor/Librarian package, with the novel feature of a syncable 'bass-line generator' thrown in. On the hardware side, they had several interesting products, including a 16-into-16 MIDI routing box.
Syntech were also one of several companies showing expanded storage cartridges for the Yamaha DX and RX ranges. Their 64-program RAMs sell at $99, while 128-program ROMs have all-new sounds for the same price.
Other expanded RAM cartridges were shown by Symphony 128, and my personal favourite, the Maartists range, whose four-bank DX7 RAM features the authentic Yamaha edge connector, and LED indication to show which bank you're working on. The same company's Casio CZ RAMs hold two banks (32 programs) for the same price as the 16-sound originals. Personally, I reckon some wise UK distributor should jump on this product range quickly.
Another fascinating offshoot of the FM industry is the Beetle range of add-ons. Their PR7 dedicated programmer, for example, provides a duplicate of the DX7 front panel, complete with RAM cartridge socket, for musicians thinking of buying TX7, TX216 or 816 expanders, but who don't want to have to acquire a DX7 to program them. Ingenious.
Beetle's QR1 RAM Disk has wider appeal, as it plugs directly into any RAM-based synth (DX, CZ, JX and so on). A single quick disk can store 30 RAM cartridges' worth of data, or 960 DX7 sounds. Access is near instantaneous, and each QR1 comes with the adaptor of your choice: Yamaha, Casio or Roland.
Sound storage is one theme being picked up on by E-mu Systems. The company had no new products to offer at NAMM, the update-based support they're now offering to the Emulator II and SP12 drum machine should ensure longevity for both.
The hard disk option for the EII is now fitted as standard to the host machine, and retro-fits are available in the US. However, American restrictions on hard disk exports could cause something like a six-month delay before the update is available in the UK. The hard disk allows the equivalent of 23 floppies to be stored onboard, and accessed in a maximum of two seconds, while floppy disk libraries can still be loaded and stored internally at will. Add about $2000 to the price of a new machine or a retro-fit.
E-mu's CD ROM option is equally intriguing, as it gives access to over 1000 banks of sounds with a load time of just four seconds. All available E-mu sounds have been put on the first CD, and more will be issued as sounds become available. As far as I can see, no other system will be able to compete in terms of mass storage of samples, instantly ready for use.
The SP12 now has an update called Turbo, which is already being delivered and fitted as standard to new machines. It gives a vital update to five seconds of user sampling onboard, but already there's talk of a 'Rambo' revision which would bring this figure up to 15.
Not quite such good news on the Linn stand, where the company that invented the digital drum machine had only more repackaged versions of existing designs to show for their R&D labours. The Linn MIDIstudio is simply a Linn 9000 in a 'workstation' type box, with a detachable remote pad you're supposed to put in your lap. The main box can be rack-mounted, but you need to be able to get at it to change disks and volume levels.
Kurzweil fared no better. The backbone of their operations continues to be the 250 digital keyboard, now available in a variety of modular and dedicated formats. But there's no sign of any new instruments on the horizon, and the only previously unseen items on the Kurzweil stand were a couple of new boxes for the 250: a home version complete with 'furniture-style cabinetry and optimally-matched audio components', and a roll-top model for church and school use. Pretty stunning stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.
As far as the actual keyboard is concerned, there's no change except that the internal sounds have been re-sampled at a better rate, and user-sampling can now be increased to 50kHz, too. Recent software revisions finally allow for SMPTE compatibility and an expanded sequencer capacity. All these features will come as standard in the basic price from now on, but if you've already bought a Kurzweil, you have to fork out a further $3000 for the improvements to be retro-fitted.
All in all, my guess is that Winter NAMM '86 will be remembered as the show which gave the man-in-the street access to the technology rock stars have been playing with for years. Sampling with the Casio SK1; wavetable synthesis with the Prophet VS; digital pianos with Ensoniq, Roland, Korg and Technics; and accurate pitch-to-MIDI conversion with IVL, Ibanez and others.
As a consequence, it may also be remembered as the first nail in the coffin of traditional hi-tech manufacturers such as Linn, Kurzweil, NED, and maybe even Fairlight, who've failed to come up with economically priced alternatives. I sincerely hope this doesn't turn out to be the case, but a reputation doesn't last long if people can buy cheaper elsewhere.
Whatever the results, Winter NAMM '86 was one of the few Californian trade shows that's had so much to offer in the way of innovation, it's dragged me forcibly away from the hotel swimming pools, and prevented me from spending an afternoon in Disneyland. Or even thinking about it.
Show Report by Paul White
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