Whoosh – that was NAMM for another year – the music technology equivalent of a Jackson Pollack. We were splattered by gear, noise, bleeps and flashing lights. How on earth can we know what was good? Well, never fear, I’m here and I’m going to whizz you through what I thought was interesting in this year’s show.
And there was so much of it – i have a massive list of stuff to mention. My overall impression was that Eurorack ruled, synthesizers came in second and computer music hardly even featured. It’s weird how that has evolved.
Anyway, I will try to get through this as quickly and efficiently as i can. Most of the video clips come from Analogue Zone and Perfect Circuit Audio who put some great work into capturing this stuff and you’ll find links to their channels in the description below. let’s start with the two big ones that revealed all their stuff a little bit prematurely before the show – Korg and Arturia.
If you prefer to watch then check out the full video or if you like to read then the text continues below.
What an awesome looking synthesizer. It’s a proper and grown up, looks like the real deal, like something DSI would make. The Prologue has everything you want from a full-sized synth. It’s a polyphonic analogue synthesizer in two versions – a 49-note 8-voice and a 61-note 16-voice. It has 3 oscillators where the 3rd one is special. It’s called a Multi-engine oscillator which can be 4 types of noise, variable phase/FM or a user oscillator which is where this gets really interesting. Korg are releasing a SDK so that we can program and develop our own oscillators – that’s fabulous. Otherwise there’s a bunch of effects, filters, all the usual stuff, that little oscilloscope screen, arpeggiator and the 16-voice version has a master compressor and a little VU meter. All this and you can run two programs at once. I think it looks fabulous – much more balanced layout than the Minilogue and seems to sound awesome. Nice one Korg. 8-voice for 1499, 16-voices 1999.
Arturia MiniBrute 2/2s and RackBrute
Arturia gave us a bumper bundle of three related Brute products – MiniBrute 2, MiniBrute 2s and RackBrute – in a triple whammy assault on modular synthesis without actually releasing any modular modules. The MiniBrute 2 is a great little monosynth in an SH-101 styli. You’ve got one massively controllable oscillator and second simpler one. You have their Steiner-Parker filter and the Brute knob that drives the hell out of it. More remarkable is the waveform mixer so you can have all the outputs of oscillator going at once, and two envelopes one of which is a simple looping AD like you’d find in a Maths. There’s a 25-note keyboard with aftertouch and a sequencer/arpeggiator all built it in So there’s lots to like in this little synth.
The 2S is the same as the 2 but instead of a keyboard they’ve bolted on a row of pads and knobs to make it more sequencer focused. It’s a nice idea particularly if you don’t really play keys.
And then on the right side of both versions is a whacking great bit patch bay. 48 patch sockets for patching into or out of your Eurorack – or other synths and bits and pieces. So, you can run LFOs in to modulate or modulate other stuff with it or just patch signals from here through there to see what happens. All the possibilities that are usually hidden away behind a synth panel become available with a patch cable.
The third part of the story is this unprecedented RackBrute Eurorack case. It’s designed to fit on the MiniBrute with the idea being that you build a modular rig with the MiniBrute as the base – or not, you can use it without. Available in a single 3U row or a large 6U case it’s a brilliant innovative idea, that looks amazing and folds up nicely for safe transporting. The only thing that annoys me is the presence of a 5hp power module. Having a power module is not a cool feature of Eurorack it’s an annoying necessity of its DIY nature. If they’d had any sense, they would have integrated the power module into the case because it eats up valuable HP. And secondly the synth side of the MiniBrute looks like it could drop into a Eurorack case – it’s perfectly sized, but the power module gets in the way – it won’t fit with that in there. So, weird decision I think. Which brings me to the last query. With all this modular stuff why haven’t they released any modules? They could have separated all the parts out as modules for Eurorack – that has to be something they are working on right? Superbooth maybe?
So, MiniBrute 2/2S are £525 and looks like fun. RackBrute £229 for 3U and £318 for 6U with the power supply – great looking case for people wanting to dip their toes into modular from the safety of the MiniBrute – we live in exciting times.
So, sticking with synths what else was at the show?
We finally got a proper look at the Waldorf Quantum. A hybrid analogue and digital synth that has 3 oscillators which can be regular waveforms, wavetable, granular or a resonator. It looks amazing with all these individually lit knobs and encoders and that large touch screen display. Apparently they’ve worked really hard on the workflow – how the display and the controls flow together. Because ultimately for me it’s all about how easy it is to pull sounds out of the machine. All synths can produce a billion sounds but if it’s too much work then it doesn’t really do the job. The Quantum looks complex but also very inviting. It’s lots of money at €3500. Waldorf also had a string machine/vocoder that I couldn’t be less interested in.
Pittsburgh Microvolt 3900
This is a cool little thing – and much smaller than i initially thought. It’s about the size of the 0-Coast – it’s weeny but i am loving the black and those blue LED sliders. It’s a desktop analogue monosynth full of their favourite circuits. What i like about it is that it just seems to have quirky stuff in it. You can blend waveforms but it also has wave folding for generating interesting harmonics and a half way rectifier switch on the sine wave. The filter is “binary state” and has 2 resonance modes which they described a butter and grime. The VCA is also a low pass gate for those plucking sounds. The bottom half is all about modulation with ADSR but also a self-cycling function generator (a bit like some Maths functionality), a dual LFO and sample and hold. It’s a little small if anything and I wish it had a delay to round it off. It’s got a full patch bay over on the right, as is the fashion these days, and 6 curious white buttons which no one seems to talk about but seems to be labelled MIDI Arpeggiator. No built-in sequencer, it’s just a monosynth for $629 available in April.
With still no sign of the OP-Z we had to made do with two new pocket operators. This time it’s all about sampling. These join the Tonic from last year in a new series of pocket operators they are calling “Metal” for no suitably explored reason. The PO-33 KO is a micro sampler with 40 seconds, built-in mic, 8 slots for melodic and 8 for drum samples. All the usual sequencing and effects for silly sample nonsense. PO-35 Speak is a vocal synth, sampler and sequencer with 120 seconds of sampling and effects for messing with your voice. Such fun, 79 quid. No idea what happened to PO-34.
Deckard’s Dream and Expander
I’ve spoken about this before but I’m mentioning again because this is the first time it’s been shown outside of Japan and it has the new 1U expander which no one talked about, demo’ed or used. It’s a fabulous thing – inspired by the Yamaha CS-80 but it’s time someone got into the guts of it.
This was first shown last year, and people kept calling it a groovebox – it’s not, the Manther is a monosynth with a sequencer in that SH-101 style. It’s based on the Curtis CEM3340 VCO which we’re going to be seeing a lot of i think – it was the chip behind the SH-101, Prophet, Oberheim and Jupiter 6 synths along with many many more. So Manther is an analogue monosynth with pretty regular wavemixing, LFO, filter, VCA and envelope – nothing really stands out until you get to the sequencer. This has 64 steps with 64 preset slots which can be chained and played in any order with repeat and probability functions. So perhaps not innovative but should be interesting at $649.
Not strictly at NAMM but announced at the same time is the Behringer Neutron. Now we’ve all been too busy moaning about or celebrating Behringer’s clone schedule to notice that they can also just build synths. And actually for me this is more interesting. Of course, having reissues of classic synths is cool, but why not just make something new and exciting. The Neutron is a semi-modular 2 oscillator analogue synth with wave mixing, paraphonic mode, two envelopes, delay and overdrive – it has a whopping great patch bay on the right. Of course, it’s based on that CEM 3340 chip. Looks fabulous.
Now, I’m really sorry about this but Elektron leave me cold. These little black boxes covered in buttons and blank knobs they completely fail to pull any emotional response out of me other than mild boredom. I know people go bonkers over them – and that’s fabulous, you do that. So what we have is the Digitone FM synthesizer – yay! It looks the same as all their other little boxes and this one sounds like an old complicated digital synth from the 1980’s. It’s got a little screen and a very comprehensive sequencer… Yawn. I’m sure it’s fabulous and i am terribly sorry for $780.
Radikal Delta Cep A
Rounding off the synths and crossing over into Eurorack is the Radikal Technologies Delta CEP A. It’s a classic Eurorack synth voice that they are also releasing as a desktop unit. What’s cool about it is that it has a Swarm oscillator which can employ up to 8 oscillators to create chords, clusters or detuned sounds. It’s paraphonic which means although you have multiple voices they are all going down the same signal path, so although you can tune chords it’s not actually polyphonic. It can store patches and cross fade between them, an LFO with 5 waveforms and a cool effects section. It’s quite a chunk of synth to go in your Eurorack – in some ways i prefer the idea of it as a desktop unit. I do like the patch points being amongst the modules rather than that bay on the right that everyone seems to be doing. $999.
Just before we move on I can bring you the news that Jacob Brashear was seen at the show and said that his Relic-6 Oberheim based synth that wowed us last year was still alive and under massive development. All updates to their website and social media ceased last February and i assumed the project was dead or bought out by someone like Behringer. But no, it’s still going, being refined and improved and they should have some news on it soon.
Right, Eurorack – this is a huge thing, more than ever and many of the manufacturers were entering into the spirit of the whole thing a bit more with proper booths and backdrops and stuff. I will try to pick out 5 of the most awesome things to talk about and then give you a quick run-down of the rest.
What a beautiful module. Strymon usually make guitar pedals. But they found that many electronic musicians had been using their pedals with their modular rigs and so they decided to put together something more designed for those sorts of signals. I hear people all the time recommending the BlueSky reverb and the El Capistan tape echo and Magneto seems to offer the perfect Eurorack solution. They call it an Interstellar space machine and it’s essentially a 4-head digital tap echo and looper. It can do all sorts of looping and phrase sampling, reverb and chaotic oscillations – oh and tape echo. It’s a wonderful thing.
Qu Bit brought three fascinating modules that are just that bit different and interesting – Synapse, Scanned Organic Wavetable VCO and the return of Nebulae. Synpase is a crossfading switch. You have 8 inputs feeding 4 channels where each pair can be crossfaded between. And then it has 4 separate outputs and 3 mix outputs. So, it’s sort of like a mixer where you can switch the routing and modulate what goes to which output. Each crossfade has in internal LFO and patches can be stored and recalled and morphed between. It’s a really interesting way of creating textures with multiple sound sources. The Scanned Organic Wavetable VCO imagines a slowly vibrating string held in space that creates audio by being scanned – somewhat like physical modelling. Pitch and timbre are independent, and it seems to be capable of all sorts of things. Then there’s the Nebulas V2 granular sampler. You stick some samples into and mess them about in fascinating ways. It’s like a cleaner and more well-behaved version of the Make Noise Morphagene. I think you could have a lot of fun with that one. All the Qu Bit stuff looks fabulous in the black and are shaping up to have a fabulous selection of unusual modules these days.
My interest in Noise Engineering is growing all the time. Their best new thing was the Mimetic Digitalis which is a 16 step two-dimensional, 4 output sequencer. What does that mean? I’m not entirely sure, but it has lots of cool randomisation, a Shred button which you can hit and it will randomise whatever step you’re on and a whole bunch of triggers for moving steps in interesting ways. Sounds like it could be a very creative source of mucking about. I don’t like the look – it just looks a bit unbalanced with that off centre black square of LEDs – but that’s me. They also had a cool LFO, a switchable gate sequencer, a quad mute and a tuner.
Vermona had some really simple and fabulous random based modules. The MeloDICEr which was a sequencer where the sliders represented musical notes rather than steps and as you pushed the slider it increased the probability that that note would play. It’s something i could immediately see myself using and enjoying. Same with the RandomRHYTHM – this is a gate sequencer where you set the probability of quarter, eight, sixteenth and triplet notes – so just 4 sliders produced these changing rhythmic patterns – and you’ve got two lots in the one module. But the other thing they had was crosspoint switch and virtual patch manager – this was genius – I’m sure it has really complex functions but for me what you could do was plug 16 sound sources in one end and 16 destinations in the other and setup the routing between anyway you liked. And then use CV to switch them about. So, you could route your oscillators to one filter or an effect or another filter, or to become the FM input to something else – but the point is that you can save that setup – you can save that patch and recall it so you suddenly have a patch manager for your eurorack. Which you could switch on the fly, during performance – suddenly switch filters, switch effects, switch mixes and stuff – I thought it was genius anyway.
WMD were showing a little module called Fracture. It was based on the weird idea of wanting to generate the sound of applause. Possibly they have personal self-esteem issues. Anyway, the Fracture generates particles from micro samples spun together in clouds. The result is that noise based percussion sound ranging from clicks to long snares via claps and yes applause. It’s got a very interesting sound that i imagine will probably be lost in the rhythm of percussion but it’s a really interesting and complex noise maker with a ridiculous amount of tweakability.
There was plenty more good Eurorack like:
Doepfer released a load of polyphony-based modules with a quad VCO, quad VCF, quad envelope etc.
4MS had a more finished version of their Spherical Wavetable Oscillator
Vintage Synth Lab has a CEM3340 based dual VCO and delay envelope
Five12 were showing the latest prototype of their long-awaited Vector Sequencer
Mordax of the DATA oscilloscope fame had a GXN Granular module that either doesn’t do much or just has the worst demonstrator ever
SSF had a full synth voice called Bantam and a Zero Point VCO
Malekko had a Eurorack version of the Manther called Manther Growl which is the same minus the sequencer, plus they had a Quad envelope a Quad LFO and a Quad VCA, a 4-channel drum synth and a ridiculously fun Random module.
2HP had a HAT KCIK and SNARE
Intellijel had a Morgasmatron dual cross fading filter and a new version of the Rubicon and Planar
Verbos had a very wide and complex 8-tap digital delay
Frap Tools had a very wide and complex 16 band filter bank
And lastly, i think, Erica synths, always a favourite, were showing their Graphic VCO, Resonant EQ, Black Hole 2 and the very cool Drum Computer with two new drum sound modules Bass and Snare. But we had seen most of this awesomeness before.
Right, onto the computer music software and hardware side of things.
Pro Tools 2018
Avid announcing that they are dropping all that version number nonsense that people find so helpful and are going for some kind of yearly based convention so that you can always feel obsolete. Pro Tools 2018 brings some nice features. The first is Retrospective MIDI Record. This is the big feature of Ableton Live 10 – but Pro Tools has got in first. It means that there’s a listening mode which is always recording what you play. So, if you are messing about and play something decent you can get Pro Tools to spit it out even though you weren’t recording. Fabulous. Another big thing is Track Presets in which you can create a catalogue of tracks with different effect chains, instruments loaded and other settings include chunks of audio and MIDI if you wish. There’s a “Start collaboration” button which will drag your project online so you can share it with other people. And loads of other enhancements and improvements. And it was ready the download the day of the announcement. Also Sibelius has gone the same way.
Roland announced that they are releasing software plug-in versions of the TR-808 and TR-909. So, after all these decades of everyone else doing it for them they have finally released the definitive version. These will be available as part of the RolandCloud subscription which is getting increasingly attractive – or they will probably be available as plug-ins you can purchase like many of the others are.
Antares Auto Tune Pro
Auto Tune gets a new version called Pro – in order to separate it from all those amateur idiots. It has a redesigned interface making it simper to use with a much-improved graphical mode. They’ve added key and scale detection, realtime MIDI control, ARA compatibility so it can work like Melodyne on the timeline, and there’s a classic mode which makes it sound like Auto-tune 5 – which apparently is a much-requested feature. They’ve put in Flex-tune technology which aims to preserve a singer’s expressive gestures. A humanise function for more natural sustained notes and a low latency mode for realtime tracking.
Celemony ARA 2
Talking of ARA Celemony has released ARA version 2 which means the editing of multiple tracks simultaneously and better and deeper communication and integration. The spec has become more flexible so they hope it will become a standard function in every DAW. Studio One, Reaper and Logic say they have it ready to go.
Native Instruments NKS 2
Another technology update is version 2 of NKS – native instruments protocol for automatic mapping of controls from their keyboards to controls on virtual instruments. Version 2 brings support for plug-in effects. I wonder if that means you can add effects to instruments in the Komplete Kontrol software and access them like you can in the Maschine software. This is good news but Native need to allow other hardware to be compatible if they really want this to become the standard it could be.
Cherry Audio Voltage Modular
Criminally under covered at NAMM was Voltage Modular from Cherry Audio. It’s a virtual Eurorack software instrument like Softube Modular and VCV Rack. It looks pretty and colourful – the man says it’s easy to use and comes with over 40 modules ready to go. Very little other information at the moment. What they are pushing is the idea that Voltage Modular could be a platform for people to develop their own modules. They’ve made a set of tools to make it as simple as possible and are looking for developers. This is exactly what VCV Rack have done so successfully so far with hundreds of people making modules. It’s going to be interesting how this plays out. VCV Rack comes from a community of enthusiasts whereas Voltage Modular comes from a bunch of veteran industry people from Cakewalk, sonic foundry, Bias and Acoustica. So, although VCV Rack has the momentum, does it have the access to the industry developers that Cherry Audio does. Does that matter? Who knows. The one thing they do have is a plug-in version. VCV Rack is still fiddling around with some kind of VST Bridge idea – Voltage Modular will run straight in your DAW – maybe that’s the deal breaker. They say it will be cheap – but how easy will it be to use. I look forward to trying them out.
Bitwig Studio 2.3
Quick update to Bitwig Studio brings a new synth – Phase-4 which is all about modulation and distortion by mashing together FM and phase distortion algorithms. But the most important improvement is the expanded devices view. We are no longer bound to the little devices conveyor belt along the bottom, now we have a much large, full screen editor and animated interface for many of the Bitwig devices. There’s other cool stuff like time signatures, better time stretching, instrument stacking and switching and stuff.
There were only two new audio interfaces at the show I could find, the UAD Arrow and the Audient ID44
It’s the world’s first desktop audio interface bus powered by Thunderbolt 3. It’s portable, made of metal and houses the Universal Audio eco-system of DSP based effects modelling and recording quality. It only has two inputs and outputs making it quite restrictive but it’s a great mobile box for getting stuff done and gives perhaps the home musician a cheaper and easier way to access UAD effects. It supports their Unison technology where you can stick posh mic preamp emulations and guitar amp across the inputs and make it sound like you are using classic bits of gear. It has a single SHARC chip so don’t expect to be running massive mixes stuffed with UAD plug-ins but for getting a great sound into your DAW this seems like an awesome box. At $499 it’s half the price of the Apollo Twin, with half the power and doesn’t look as nice, but hey it’s the cheapest way to get those sounds.
I like to keep an eye on Audient – I quite like the look of their ID audio interfaces but there’s not been the perfect spec for me as yet. So, the new iD44 looks very interesting. This is 20in and 24out in a tidy desktop unit with very high-quality mic preamps from their big consoles. The first two inputs have inserts so you could record through external effects or mix them into your signal chain. There are also JFET inputs for guitars and two sets of headphones. So, in analogue terms you have 4 in/out which is just about enough. But then there’s twin ADAT ports for another 16 in/out. These could be useful for routing to and from Eurorack using the Expert Sleepers ADAT to CV module. And then finally there’s the ID knob that can become a scroll wheel for any parameter you put your own over – just like the Surface Dial should be but isn’t. At $699 that’s not a bad price.
I’m sure there was plenty that I missed so be sure to enlighten me in the comments below. There was a mystery sneak peek at another synth from Black Corporation, there was a load of piano/organ/synth type stage pianos, the DEK grid based MIDI controller for 2 and a half grand, a futuristic touch screen based Neuman synth, IK Multimedia’s leslie plugin, and let’s not forget the Alesis Vortex Wireless 2. But this was what interested me over the NAMM weekend – much more than last year I think. If I’m looking for a star of the show then for me the most desirable is the Strymon Magneto.
Coming along shortly I have a review of the ROLI Seaboard followed by a review of the Arturia AudioFuse 1.1, plus I’m going to check out Pro Tools 2018 on the Surface as soon as I can. Also i have an ambitious plan for March, which I will tell you all about in another video in a week or two, but the basic idea is to make March the Molten Modular music making month where we all (or at least me) commit to publishing a track, a piece of music, a song every other day. Get involved, signup and we’ll promote and encourage one another – use the hashtag #mmmmm – more about that in a week or two.
Anyway, that’ll do – please subscribe, check out Patreon and in the meantime, go and make some tunes!