MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the protocol that we use to connect musical instruments together, has officially been around for 30 years now, and the occasion was being marked with an exhibit at NAMM:
There were some of the earliest instruments as well as those demonstrating how it is being used today. The Yamaha Disklavier series was quite prominent, as an instrument that is both acoustic and a MIDI device at the same time. There was also the Prophet 600, a forerunner to the Prophet 12 we reviewed yesterday and the first commercially available instrument to implement MIDI.
In the middle, between “1983” and “2013”, were a few of the devices I remember from the mid-1980s.
I had a Yamaha box (a sequencer) with the same beveled shape as the TX7 pictured here. And I was quite interested in the Atari ST computer, though was never able to get one. Both devices seem quite primitive today. Unlike the analog synthesizers that we have been reviewing, earlier digital devices don’t seem to hold up as well. Nonetheless, the MIDI protocol itself is still vital for much electronic music-making, despite its well-documented limitations in speed and resolution.
Moog Music introduced its latest synthesizer, the Sub Phatty at NAMM this year. Like the Korg MS-20 mini, this was a much discussed instrument in the weeks leading up to the show. And here it is:
As a basic bass analog synth with sub-octaves, it reminded me a bit of my classic Octave Cat, although the filter sound was unmistakably Moog. The feature that made this synth different was the “Multidrive”, which added a timbrally rich but harsher sound that worked well with resonance. It’s definitely grittier than the usually smooth Moog sound.
I did get a video demo of the instrument while at the booth, but unfortunately my video recorder was having issues, but you can find some video demos at MATRIXSYNTH’s NAMM coverage. The MSRP for the Sub Phatty is $999 USD, which isn’t bad.
This was also the 10th anniversary of the flagship Moog Voyager Synth, and for the occasion they had a couple of special editions, including this one with crystal and gold controls:
Of course, I did not get to play this one.
One of the most anticipated synthesizers of this year’s NAMM show is the Korg MS-20 Mini. And here it is:
This is basically a classic MS-20, including the analog circuitry, but in a modern replica of the case that is 86% of the original size. It also has MIDI and USB for external control. But of course it is really about the analog synthesis, and especially the filters. After getting my bearings on the device, I shut off the VCOs and set up both the hi-pass and low-pass filters to self-oscillate. This us the signature sound of the original instrument, and while it’s difficult to tune self-oscillating filters they did seem playable for arpeggios or lines.
The street price appears to by $599, although it is not shipping yet. Korg has been good at reintroducing its classic technologies at affordable prices. And it is certainly a lower price tag than the other covetable instruments I reviewed yesterday.
The Buchla booth may not be that large at NAMM, but it is hard to miss with its colorful array of patch cords and distinctive control panels. They introduced a new instrument labeled “The Electric Music Box”:
Basically, it looks like a new version of the classic Buchla Music Easel. It fits neatly in a suitcase and sports simpler and more intuitive controls than the standard Buchla 200e series, but still provides for quite complex sounds. At least the way it was set up when I tried playing, the sounds were more traditionally instrumental, especially when compared the SKYLAB next to it with the typical crunchy multi-event space sounds that one expects from a Buchla. A nice little instrument, though, both sonically and visually.
Dave Smith Instruments is one of my perennial stops at NAMM. This year they introduced two new keyboard instruments, the Prophet 12 and Mopho X4.
The Prophet 12 is gorgeous, but is also a powerful synthesizer. It’s odd to think of twelve voices of polyphony as a lot, but then one must consider that DSI synths are often monophonic. I did of course have to get my hands on one of these:
It plays very smoothly, both from the keyboard and while turning the knobs. I particularly liked the tuned feedback combined with both the highpass and lowpass filters. It was simultaneously a nasty sound but also very polished and playable.
The Mopho X4 was also fun. It is basically a four-voice version of the popular monosynth with a new physical design:
It plays like the original Mopho, very punchy and thick. It doesn’t quite have the smoothness of the Prophet, but it is not supposed to.
As usual, I wouldn’t mind having one of these myself, but they don’t come cheap. We will have to see…
I tend to oscillate between the very large and the very small when it comes to instruments. On the small scale, I stumbled upon these tiny controllers from Nektar Technology.
These tiny controllers seemed like perfect companions for the iPhone and iPad – and they are quite cute. (Use the stuffed cat for a sense of scale.) The keyboard and continuous controllers both have a small modular footprint, slightly wider than an iPad. I might have gotten either or both, if they were available. Nektar hopes to have these out later this year.
While it is great to be able to show up at a gig with just an iPad, a controller like those from Nektar, and a couple of cables, sometimes one needs a real keyboard. And those aren’t getting any smaller. The Nord Stage 2 is the latest incarnation of my heavy but reliable workhorse keyboard:
The electric pianos (and the primary reason I got the Stage) were the same as ever and felt great. But what is different from the previous version is the synth section, which is now more akin to the Nord Wave. I could definitely use that feature. There are also improvements to the acoustic piano modeling, but that is more incremental. I don’t think I would replace my Stage EX at great expense for these features, though. There are some new acoustic pianos available for the older model, which I will try out at home.
We open our blog coverage of NAMM with our reminder to everyone about protecting one’s ears. The show floor itself can get quite loud, but that’s usually mild compared to what we put our ears through at concerts and rehearsals. This is something I am especially concerned with as I am in two very loud post-punk bands. This year, the company Etymotic Research is presenting new filtering earplugs, and Vic Firth offered complementary editions to members of the media:
The earplugs are designed to reduce overall sound level while preserving frequency response, which allows one to more easily hear speech and musical detail. I using them right now and they do cut background noise, though it is not yet a full test.
When the noise meter hits one hundred, watch out.
Once again, CatSynth will be representing at the big NAMM show, which gets underway this week. I will be on the show floor Friday and Saturday and covering synthesizers, software and mobile apps, controllers, and anything else that piques my interest. Look for articles here on the blog all weekend as well as frequent live updates via @catsynth on Twitter with hashtag #NAMM. Among other things, I will have a bit of time to meet with representatives from Moog in more depth, where I am sure we will talk about the new Sub Phatty as well as AniMoog, which continues to be one of my favorite apps. If there is anything you would like to see in our coverage, or anything you would like to me ask one of the music manufacturers on your behalf, feel free to leave a comment here, or tweet us with hashtag #NAMM.