On The Road: NAMM 2017


    Thank you for checking out something that's a little different for us: Tom Hall, Gregory Taylor and Darwin Grosse just finished up going through the NAMM convention, and are pretty exhausted. Gregory had to fly to Europe, but Darwin and Tom sat back for a coffee and a chat about the show. Let’s listen in:
    Darwin: Tom, thanks for setting up all those meetings. Let’s do a pass through the things we did and saw. On Friday, we started off with a drop in on the MOD Devices team, which is that new programmable pedal which I thought was pretty cool. You got a chance to see their system ahead of time, right?
    Tom: Yeah, I've had hands on the MOD Devices pedal since the Loop event in Berlin last year. Immediately out of the box, the UI was pretty impressive. It's the kind of UI you'd expect from a much, much bigger company. The patchability was immediately pretty smooth.
    Darwin: That was really surprising to me. I had heard of them, but I hadn't seen the work before. I'm hoping that we're going to get to spend a little more time on the stuff they're doing, especially since they particularly talk about using Max as one of the development tools. That's pretty awesome.
    From there, we went and saw ROLI, but you had actually been over at the ROLI booth the day before, before I got there, right?
    Tom: That's right. Let's kick it back to Thursday. I dropped down there before the whole Cycling '74 NAMM crew came to town, hoping to see a performance by Telefon Tel Aviv and Deru in a duo using the Seaboard Rise. Josh (Eustis, Telefon Tel Aviv) was using the new Blocks from ROLI in combination with topologies that we only released the day before. Talk about living on the bleeding edge, that guy doesn't mind it.

    Deru + Telefon Tel Aviv - Mini Performance Roli NAMM Booth

    The performance was pretty amazing. I've known Josh’s work for quite a long time, decades in fact, but Deru is pretty new to me, although I've really been enjoying his album “1979” that he released in 2015. Those two combined are just a serious powerhouse duo. Their half-hour performance was pretty captivating. ROLI had a pretty big booth with a lot of stations for people playing the Blocks. But these guys managed to silence the room, which is no mean feat at NAMM.
    Darwin: The other thing that I noticed in their booth was that they actually had a station that was featuring that little drum synth that you'd put together that runs on the Blocks.
    Tom: They were pretty keen on that especially because it shows the new functionality in Max for Live. Now that you can access and use your Blocks directly in a Max for Live device ... It was showing it off quite nicely.
    Darwin: That's pretty interesting. After that, we went to hopefully see the Akai standalone drum machine, and I couldn't believe they wouldn't let us into the room. What kind of joke is that? I didn’t understand.
    We went from that non-welcome down to the Elektron booth and saw their new drum machine, the Digitakt - which is like their version of the MPC. Unlike Akai, they were happy to tell us everything about it (even though the machine stayed under glass). It looked awesome.
    Tom: That was really cool to catch up with Daniel Troberg and get the run-through by the CEO himself. Having eight MIDI tracks and eight audio tracks, oh man, and overbridge support. It looked like about the same size as an Analog Heat, and it had a really sharp display. The whole thing looked awesome, I think they said something like $650 is the price they're shooting for, which also blew me away.
    Darwin: We spent a lot of time there because it was worth it. There was a lot of information to gather. After that, we went and talked to Korg about some of their projects and got to see that new Vox guitar (I didn't even know they were planning a digital guitar). Then I ended up getting pulled into a meeting, while you and Gregory went and hung out at Keith McMillen's booth, right?
    Tom: That's right. We caught up with Evan from KMI. We know that those guys are big advocates for, and users of, Max in their RD. Also, in their post-release scenarios, they use Max a lot and are very supportive. They have a couple of new products. One was the K-Board Pro 4, which I actually saw last year as a prototype. Now it's actually been fully funded via a Kickstarter.
    It's another take on this area of multi-expressional MIDI. Out of all of them, it's probably the most traditional in terms of its shape and key action. It's still uses the KMI smart fabrics, but it’s a little easier to find the keys in the dark perhaps. We'll have to give it a test run soon.
    They also have a little drum pad (the BopPad) that you can use with drumsticks or with your hands. It's split into four sections, and it's round. I was pretty taken aback by it. I'm not a drummer, but I can drum out a little beat on the desk with my fingers, and the BopPad actually lends itself to that quite well.
    Darwin: I interviewed Keith a couple of weeks ago for an AMT/Synthtopia podcast. He was talking specifically about that device and how fun it was for him when he got drummers in as testers. All of a sudden they could use techniques that they used to be able to use on acoustic percussion, but they had to put away because electronic percussion couldn't really support it. He seemed really excited about the amount of expressiveness that it was capable of.
    After that, you and Gregory also went by Yamaha, got a chat about their project pile too. They're coming out with some pretty interesting stuff lately it seems.
    Tom: We caught up with Hiroaki from the research and development London office of Yamaha. He was pretty excited about Max and excited about the use of it in their R&D.
    Darwin: While you were doing that, I was actually at Ableton's educational forum, where it was crazy. They spent a couple of hours doing educational material, mainly talking about different kinds of tools that you can use for teaching stuff. Practically 100% of it was Max for Live related.
    It was nice to see how much Max for Live has gotten enmeshed with how they perceive the bleeding age of work in the Ableton world. That was very interesting.
    After that, it was onto bowling - the Ableton party was actually a bowling party. I know for a fact that nobody in the Cycling team actually bowled, although poor Lilli was so sad because her Michigan roots really drew her toward the bowling alley. Maybe people were scared of the shoes?
    Tom: I don't know about the shoes. I do know that we have a deep root of hyper-competitiveness at Cycling '74. I think it was probably a wise move for us not to unleash that on the Abletons. I don’t think Andrew Pask wanted to rack up a damage bill for throwing balls all the way down the lane.
    Darwin: All of that made for a very full Friday. Saturday was equally full. I know we started off the day doing a fly-by at Arturia, seeing some of their recent stuff. That company is blowing up.
    We then went into that weird arena and saw all the oddball DJ stuff. Although, what was especially weird for me is that somehow Buchla ended up in there, which was weird.
    Tom: That was very strange. It goes smoke machines, smoke machines, indoor firework machines, Buchla, DJ mixer, fog machine. I was like, "Well, I guess we're thinking a little differently about the Buchla system.”
    Darwin: Indeed. After that, we went and saw Tom over at Eventide. They were showing a couple of nice things, but the one that caught both your and my eye was their new little Eurorack Module.
    Tom: Yeah, Eventide - to be honest, I didn't see that coming. Those guys... their pedals seem to be in most people's hardware signal chains one way or another, but I still didn't think they'd bust out a module. We got a chance to handle the prototype. What I really like about it is that per parameter has a modulation input so you can really throw a lot of different CV at it and get some pretty wild things happening I'm sure.
    Darwin: Then after that, we took Os of Expert Sleepers out to lunch. That was interesting, if nothing else, to hear him talk about what his work day is like. He gets so much stuff done. It's amazing.
    Tom: Father of three kids, two of them as twins.
    Darwin: Yikes. After that, we did a bunch of running around and ended up in Novation, which was a really fun visit because we ended up talking to some people that didn't necessarily know a lot about Max, but were interested in talking to us. I feel like they're one of the companies that's really doing the hackable hardware.
    It was fun introducing them to what we do and talking about what happens when you get Max programmers attacking things like the Launchpad, Launch Control or the Circuit.
    Tom: Novation has been on our radar for a long time. I think everyone at Cycling '74 has a couple of Novation controllers kicking around in their studio. It's what happens. Now that they've been open sourcing the backend of a lot of these products, it makes it a lot easier for a Max user to go in and start pushing the gear to its limit.
    Darwin: It was great to talk to them and introduce them to what we're doing and especially what our users tend to do once they get unrestricted access to a controller. Having them explain their history of open sourcing - or at least opening up their hardware to access from the outside world - as a company culture, I think all of us from Cycling '74 could really understand that mentality.
    Then after that was the goofiest thing that's ever happened in a meeting, which is that we met with Russell from iZotope. He’s a cool cat and was just really excited to talk about all of the technology that they're pulling together.
    iZotope - I've always respected their work anyway. It was great to talk to him, but we ended up going outside just to get out of the noise and mustiness of the place. Inexplicably, there was a bunch of empty chairs (there's almost never a place to sit outside); we pull up chairs and we start talking and then all of a sudden, what shows up, but a bunch of people and a ton of drums!
    Tom: We're sitting there talking on about using Max and machine learning within Neutron (iZotope's new product). I look over and along comes this guy and throws a hand drum in each of our laps. I'm like, "Okay, where is this going?" We keep talking away and next thing we're totally in the middle of a drum circle!
    I think that's one of those meetings that you'll never forget for the rest of your life. "Yeah, well, it started talking about machine learning, and it ended up with us all being in a drum circle."
    Darwin: "We ended up in polyrhythms." That was a great wrap up for Saturday.
    Tom: Darwin, what took your eye? What really excited you at NAMM this year? We certainly saw a lot of stuff...
    Darwin: Yeah, we did. Arturia just continues to knock it out of the park. This new gear that Keith McMillen is doing is pretty cool. Obviously, the ROLI stuff was pretty impressive, but the thing that really was fun for me happened on Sunday. We went in for just a little bit in the morning. We didn't actually even have meetings or anything. We just were going to do a drive-by on the modular guys and other friends’ booths. This guy Clifton, who works for Haken, grabs me in the hallway as I'm walking past. He's like, "Darwin, Darwin. I just heard your interview with Lippold. I need to have you play the Continuum!"
    He literally roped me into playing it. I'd done so in the past and thought, "Oh, this is really neat." But this time, I actually got to spend more time on it. That was an incredible experience. What an amazing piece of gear. It's so sensitive while still being very controllable. I wanted to give him five minutes, and I think I ended up spending half an hour playing with it. I couldn't take my hands off it.
    Tom: That thing is pretty amazing. I certainly feel like I could play that thing all day without getting finger cramps and still be in control of what I'm playing. I'm amazed that he was able to spot you among the thousands of people at NAMM. He must have had a beacon out.
    Darwin: He must have. Good point. What did you see that caught your eye?
    Tom: I was pretty excited about NAMM, but you do get to see the YouTube videos beforehand. I've got to say the Digitakt is pretty interesting, and that price point is going to make it incredibly competitive. I finally got a noise-free moment free to have a play on that new Dave Smith REV2. There's something pretty nice about having 16 voices of pure analog signal to layer on top of one another.
    The price point of that is pretty aggressive too, I thought. At $1999, that's going to throw the doors open. I think if you were looking at Behringer's thing (the Deepmind 12), then you'd have to still seriously consider just bumping up the credit card a little more.
    In terms of Eurorack, I've got to say I was really mainly surprised in fact to see that whole area double in size from last year. It's pretty obvious that whole section of the music industry is still really rapidly expanding. It was cool to see the guys at Qu-Bit step up with a much bigger booth. They're really considering the layout of their modules, making them performance-oriented with their jack placement. That was really cool.
    Darwin: Great point. Then the other thing we did is ...
    I think that people who might have never visited NAMM might not understand is how far it is from LA proper. On Sunday night, we actually went to a gig in downtown LA. You mentioned both Josh from Telefon Tel Aviv and Deru performed at the ROLI booth. They were also part of a performance that we went to see downtown. Friday, we stayed in Anaheim, but Saturday night we ended up driving to Pasadena to go out for dinner with a bunch of our colleagues. Then we drove back. Then Sunday, we drove to downtown. Then we drove some more.
    Tom: We covered a couple of hundred miles and just made it a little extra with the raining cats and dogs at the same time.
    I was a little unsure if we were going to make that gig on Sunday night, but it was one of those electronic shows that just happens once a year or once in a blue moon especially because some of those guys were in town for NAMM. We had Hypoxia, who is actually the guy Drumcell doing an ambient act. Then we had Richard Devine, Surachai, Deru...
    Darwin: Richard did one of the best shows I've seen him do in ages. That was a great one.

    Richard Divine - BLK Noise Los Angeles 01.22.17

    Tom: Yeah, the last time I saw Richard, he certainly stayed a lot more in that syncopated modular drum beat area. This time it was incredible, he broke down into some really nice ambient chord passages before ramping it. He ramped it up to 11 at the end there.
    Darwin: He did, but I also liked that he also did some really old school techno, which was fun to see him go back to those roots a little bit too.
    Tom: He's got the chops. It's just incredible that guy can cover so many genres in one set, and do it seamlessly too. It's not forced or anything. He just looks so relaxed up there. It's like, "Ah, I'm down at the coffee shop having a coffee," kind of relaxed. He's pretty cool.
    Darwin: Then Surachai did a thing. He had the full big screen version of that incredible video piece with the flowing cloak thing. He could have played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and the whole set would have come off because that is such a beautiful piece of video.

    Surachais - BLK Noise Los Angeles 01.22.17

    Tom: He's playing around with a camera that shoots 1,500 frames in three seconds. You can just slow that right down and you still just have incredible flow and detail. He weaved that into his set really nicely. Then following him was Deru. It was really cool because it felt like they'd really thought about the way they'd lined up the artists. He took it just to this other realm.
    Darwin: It's funny because you said that you'd just recently been introduced to him. I'd never heard any of his work before. To me, that was one of the highlights of the night. It was beautiful. I didn't know what to expect, but it blew me away. It was so cinematic.
    Then we end up with your friend and a guy who is rapidly becoming my friend, Josh Eustis doing one of his Second Woman sets, which really surprised me. I didn't know what to expect. I had listened to a few Second Woman recordings, but the way that he weaved that together live was really surprising and really intense.
    Tom: Even though I've known Josh for a bit and known his work for a bit, Second Woman is still really new to me. That's my first time seeing him do that live. I didn't know what to expect, and it blew me away. Going in and out of those syncopated systems, it's like he's shifting time both metaphorically and literally.

    Second Woman - BLK Noise Los Angeles 01.22.17

    Darwin: To see him pulling that all off just with Live and a Push that was something else. It wasn't just launching clips. He was sweating the Live play on that. At one point, it croaked on him, and he's like, "Bah, Max!" That was funny. I thought, "Well, I don't mind a shout-out, but that wasn't the one I was looking for."
    Tom: Yeah. I saw him open up for a gig recently as Telefon Tel Aviv. Just after Christmas, I saw him do a Telefon Tel Aviv set for his other group The Black Queen. He also had some kind of crash or something.
    I've seen people have similar situations and they have complete meltdowns on stage. Basically, that's it. They're a jittery mess after that, but he seems to be pretty nonchalant about that.
    Darwin: It's just interesting to see a guy who is willing to walk the tightrope in a pretty high-profile situation like that.
    Tom: I think, for him, it's a matter of just that's what makes it interesting is that risk and that living on the edge of a live performance.
    Darwin: Right. We were exhausted, so we didn't get a chance to see Alessandro Cortini, although that would have been interesting to see as well. In the end, if you think about it, it was a great ending to a NAMM week. It's so easy to get really wrapped up in gear demos, watching all the gear videos and getting all revved up about the gear releases. But having the week end with that gig was a great reminder that the gear is nothing until you put it in the hands of an artist. To me, that really was the perfect end of the sentence when it came to dealing with NAMM.
    Darwin: I don't know about you, but I need a nice post-NAMM rest now. I'm hoping that I don't get the NAMMthrax. Thanks for hanging out at the show. Thanks for opening up the doors, getting things all scheduled nicely. It was a great time.
    Tom: Right on, mate. See you.
    Additional Bonus NAMMery
    Gregory couldn't join us for our chat given his time zone, but he helpfully provided his own impressions after the fact to round things out:
    Gregory: Unlike Tom and Darwin, I’d been away from the NAMM show for a couple of years, so I tended to notice what had changed or moved as much as what was new - the ukelele market seems to have leveled out after its dominance of Hall E several years back, analog synth stuff has really blown up, and software has – with the exception of some large DAW players – found other ways than NAMM to make itself visible.
    That said, there’s no substitute for something like NAMM in terms of not only finding out what’s new, but seeing it, trying it and having a chance to talk with the people who made it (with the occasional lapse into fanboy).
    As one of those Max guys who connects to an analog rig, I wanted to follow up on Darwin’s review of the Expert Sleepers ES-8 by having a look at it myself. In addition to getting a look at how the new device interfaces with their ES-5 to add gate and control voltage expanders, that other serendipitous trade show thing happened: the browsing effect, where you see something next to the thing you were looking for that’s as interesting as what you were looking for – in this case the Disting Mk 4, whose added UI removes my only reason for not having one.
    I’m saving my worst attacks of “I want this NOW” was the Morphagene - Tom Erbe’s newly redesigned follow-on to the Makenoise Phonogene module, which improves on the original by adding stereo inputs and outputs and an SD card, which dramatically increases the sample size you can work with. Impossible to listen to listen to Walker Farrell run me through its paces and not imagine my MSP LFO controllers in that mix.
    The other thing that really caught my attention was Applied Audio Systems’ Objeq Delay plug-in. It combines some of the features of their Chromophone physical modeling synth with a really smart set of delay features – think of it as the rough equivalent of the evolutional path from Mutable Instruments’ Elements physical module module to their Rings resonator module with some cool well-integrated delay stuff, as a way to imagine it. Beautifully done, and a great UI.
    As far as interfaces go, the KMI BopPad really is one of those things that either makes you want to be a drummer (or think back to those Javanese drumming lessons you had a few years back, in my case).

    BopPad Performances: Will Calhoun

    In terms of the drumbox, I was really drawn to the Arturia Drumbrute – especially when Tom ran me through their the thing's polyrhythmic abilities (which are going to show up on a future Beatstep Pro update, by the way).
    But putting my personal desires and covetousness aside for the minute, I'd have to agree with Darwin and Tom that the really great part of the visit was talking with people who use our software as part of their workflow in some really amazing ways.