Inside The 2011 Summer NAMM Expo: Hot New Gear

NAMM

Musical merchants and vendors packed the Nashville Convention Center Thursday morning for the Summer 2011 National Association of Musical Merchants Show.

The show is not only a venue for merchants and dealers to meet, but also where several of the top music companies can showcase their new products to potential clients, the press and the public.

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After spending an entire day down on the sprawling trade show grounds, I began to notice two distinct directions that music companies seem to be heading. First, I noticed a lot of companies trying to pack as much stuff and as many features into one product as possible. Some companies were able to gracefully and intuitively combine several products into one, while others’ products seemed overwhelming, relying too heavily on digital processing instead of tried and true analog sound.

Another trend I noticed several companies leaning towards was making a simple yet high-quality product at an affordable price. (What a concept!) With all of the boutique and high-end manufacturers out there, it’s really easy to get caught up in the rat race of having the latest and greatest gear. A number of large and small companies, however, are putting out great equipment at an affordable price. I could tell that their employees are proud of these products, even though they don’t carry the hefty price tag of the custom shop instruments that so many of us drool over.

One of the most intuitive and innovative pieces of gear I saw today was the Kemper Profiling Amplifier. Made by a small company out of Recklinghausen, Germany, this amp “uses advanced digital technology to capture the sonic DNA of virtually any amp.” I’m always a bit skeptical of digital processing, and I love my tube amps, but this company obviously put a ton of time and work into this amp. They compared their emulation of a Mesa Dual Rectifier to the real thing, and you’d have to have Superman ears to tell the difference.

(The new Kemper Profiling Amplifier will allow you to digitally model your own amps and save them to different presets that can also use the onboard, compression, EQ and effects.)

Imagine going to your buddy’s place or a studio, hearing a new amp, and being able to implement that exact tone in your own rig in less than a minute just by pressing a few buttons. In addition, you can also set different patches, with various effects, for different parts of a song and alternate between the patches through their footswitch.

Even though they announced it last year, Gibson set up a booth solely to showcase their new Firebird X guitar, which they hope to release in the fall at an MSRP of $5,570. This guitar combines several different technologies, including Gibson’s automatic Robot Tuning and effects built into the guitar, as well as an entire computer interface with recording software.

(Gibson’s new Firebird X incorporates automatic tuning, onboard effects and computer integration, letting users creates an unlimited number of sounds, right from their guitar.)

First off, let me just say that it is awesome to see so many features come together in one product, and seeing those tuning pegs move on their own for the first time was quite a sight — this guitar is ahead of its time. It felt somewhat overwhelming with so many switches and knobs, the computer and the foot controllers, but I’m sure it can all be tamed after spending some time with it. And like all Gibson products, the craftsmanship and playability was top notch. I think Gibson is definitely making moves in the right direction, but it just might take a few iterations of this technology for it to really catch on.

(This close up of the Firebird X’s body shows how much is really going on in this guitar. The different switches and knobs control the effects, the tuning and the various pickup options offered by the guitars three mini humbuckers.)

On the simpler side of things, Cordoba Guitars is doing a great job at reinventing the image of the nylon string guitar. Even though classical musicians traditionally play them, nylon string guitars provide songwriters a similar, yet distinct, timbre from the traditional acoustic guitar that artists such as Bon Iver have implemented in their work. Cordoba Guitars makes finely crafted nylon string instruments using quality tone woods, but with a price tag that most musicians can afford. I spent some time playing their GK Studio Negra model, $649.99, and it was comparable in playability and craftsmanship to several of the Taylors I played. I was also impressed with the pride that their employees took in the instruments, and I highly recommend trying out one of these guitars.

(Cordoba Guitars wants to bring the nylon string guitar to the everyday musician. Artists such as Bon Iver (http://cordobaguitars.com/boniver.php) have heeded this call by opting to play nylon, as opposed to steel string, acoustic guitars.)

Another manufacturer that I noticed took a great pride in their affordable acoustic instruments was Yamaha. Their new A Series touts that they give you “technology where you need it and tradition where you want it.” Like Cordoba, these acoustic-electric guitars give musicians a quality instrument at an affordable price.

(The new Yamaha A Series of acoustic-electrics offers quality instruments at a moderate price level.)

Yamaha also spent over two years creating an acoustic-electric version of the best selling guitar, the FGX700 SC. Retailing at $260, this guitar uses their flagship pickup and made its debut today at Summer NAMM. Once again, I could tell the Yamaha employees were delighted to be able to offer instruments of this quality at such a low price point, so definitely keep these models in mind when you look to purchase your next acoustic-electric.

(The new Yamaha FGX700 SC takes the company’s best-selling acoustic and adds in their flagship pickup, making it a steal at its $260 price point.)

Finally, Fishman introduced its new Loudbox Artist amplifier, which packs a mighty punch despite its diminutive size. The amp, which measures in at 13.5”H x 15.5”W x 11.5”D, was able to clearly project an acoustic guitar over all of the riff-raff of the show, at only a quarter of the available volume. The amp has two microphone or instrument channels, with a 3-band EQ and onboard effects. 120 watts drives an 8” woofer and 1” tweeter, which provides plenty of volume for medium-sized outdoor gigs.

(The new Fishman Loudbox Artist acoustic amp is plenty loud for your mid-sized gigs and offers you two separate channels, as well as onboard effects including flanger, chorus and delay.)

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Phish’s Super Ball IX, Watkins Glen, NY

Summer NAMM 2011 in Nashville