Highlights of NAMM 2019: Trends, releases and more

We reveal the tech you must audition – and the new developments that will shape your studio in 2019.

NAMM 2019 show report

NAMM, aka the National Association of Music Merchants, offers us the chance to leave our studios and get some colour on our skin each year. It’s the extravaganza where all the music-gear companies announce their products for the year ahead, across all instrument types: guitar, drums, orchestral, piano, acoustic… you name it.

This year, we saw plenty of innovative products, new software instruments and DAWs, and a slew of synths, samplers and hardware instruments that are worth checking out.

In this Show Report, we rounded up the best bits – the bits you really need to see – and then asked the question: what 10 things did we learn from NAMM 2019 that will affect your music-making?

Read on for a glimpse into your music production future for the year…

1. That the old hardware-versus-software debate could be at an end – hurrah!

I’ve written so much about hardware versus software in music production – possibly, I guess, because I’m old enough to remember when the computer played no part in music production whatsoever.

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Then, when it came along, it eventually dominated and took over somewhat, until we all came to our senses and realised that, in a process as creative as music production, we could do with the tactility and feel of real instruments, controllers, analogue synths, Euroracks, mixers and outboard. And all of these, to varying degrees, have now resurged – and that is a word – and hardware is on the fly again, with software playing an important role.

Akai Force
Akai Force

This year’s NAMM, however, has thrown in a couple of hand grenades that could either end
the debate, or have it hanging around us longer than a Brexit backstop. Akai’s Force, a do-it-all box of goodies that contains clip launching, step sequencing, sampling and synths, looked like a physical incarnation of Ableton Live when we saw the announcement. Heck, some people even said it looked like a Frankenstein merger of Push and Akai’s MPC Live, which requires no computer whatsoever.

Could it really basically just be a hardware version of Ableton Live, one of the most popular and revolutionary software products ever released? In reality, Force features an 8×8 RGB LED Clip Launch Matrix and a seven-inch touchscreen display, so on first glance, it does appear like some hybrid of two very popular devices and obviously features loads of hands-on control.

Other features include real-time pitch-and-time processing, the ability to record eight tracks, four outs, plus CV/Gate outputs to connect this computerless device to your computerlesss modular setup. There’s 16GB of onboard storage, expandable by SD card, 2GB of RAM and two USB 3.0 slots. Force is out this month with an RRP of $1,499.

Even more exciting was the announcement at NAMM of Mind Music Labs’ ELK operating system now being compatible with Reason Rack Extensions. According to MML this will “make it easy for developers of VST and RE plug-ins to support ELK and will usher in a new era where the power, flexibility and selection of audio and music software can be run in real time on embedded hardware”. Read that back if you didn’t get it. Software becoming hardware! It essentially means VST instruments and RE sound can emanate from purpose-built hardware.

Knowing the Eurorack scene as we do, there will be countless hardware developers wanting to be the first to produce a Thor or Serum hardware module, or even, of course, some classic VST or RE effects. As MML says: “ELK empowers musicians and producers by allowing them to leave their computers at home when they go to the gig, bringing all their favourite plug-ins and presets from their DAW with them in their ELK-enabled devices.”

So maybe Yamaha could take an Arturia VST and start producing its CS-80s again?! (Now my mind feels a bit like jelly.) Either way, it’s looking like the whole hardware-versus-software thing is thankfully about to become redundant, or at least far too complicated and convoluted to keep up with – we won’t know what is emanating from where, so it won’t really matter. And perhaps it never really did…

What this means for you this year: The hardware-versus-software debate is over. Or has it just begun?

2. That the NAMM show is now the most important music-gear show. Period

When a company such as Korg rolls out product after product at NAMM, you just know it’s become the show to be at, the show to release at and the show to put all of your efforts into. And so say we all. (And anyway, personally, NAMM falls in what was that awful dead time in January when you’ve just put on two stone and taken down the Christmas lights – what better to do than jet off to LA?)

Anyway, Korg had so many products to announce that the company suggested to us, the press, that we stagger the new releases on a daily basis before NAMM even started – always unlikely, given how our brains function. The download for the press releases was around about 1GB, there were that many products. Indeed, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if Korg even suggests in the future that an extra couple of days are added to NAMM, just to give it space and time for all its announcements!

Korg Volca Modular
Korg Volca Modular

So to the Korg highlights. The first we’ll cover is Volca Modular, the latest in the popular range that includes units for beats, bass, FM and lead sounds. This one focuses on modular synthesis, a kind of intro to it, but takes the concept one or two steps further. It’s actually semi-modular in its approach, with eight modules – including synths, sequencer and effects – that can be used independently, but are also internally connected. However, when the unit is connected by module pin, that takes priority so you can easily go external, too. Volca Modular should be available now, priced at £179.

Korg Minilogue xd
Korg minilogue xd

Minilogue XD is next up – a souped-up Minilogue with digital multi-engine added to the analogue synth along with effects, a powered-up sequencer and micro-tuning. Of these, the multi-engine is the most interesting offering, as it does three different types of sound generation – which are noise, VPM and a user slot which allows you to upload an additional oscillator type into one of 16 slots, with a morphing wavetable oscillator supplied. It’s an intriguing concept that mixes up digital possibilities with Minilogue’s analogue heart and is aimed not only at analogue synthesists wishing to experiment with digital and hybrid leanings, but sound designers, too. It’s available next month, priced at £565.

Last of the majors is Volca Drum (out March, priced £150), the third instalment in the Volca range to do percussion, alongside kick and beats. The emphasis here is on digital sounds, although you get a lot of hands-on control over them, as you might expect with it being a Volca.

It includes up to 16 kits, each with six sounds and two layers per sound, all of which are derived from a newly developed DSP engine, which Korg describes as making Drum the “most unique” offering in the Volca line-up.

Korg Krome EX, Kronos SE
The Korg Krome EX (top) and Kronos SE (bottom)

Other Korg products include KROME EX (available now, price £869-£1,299), a “major refresh” to the bestselling workstation, featuring loads of extra sounds with an emphasis on world and EDM; KRONOS SE (available March, price £2,920-£3,560), a red-gradation special-edition workstation with extra sounds including strings and an Italian piano; KROSS SE (available March, price £725), another special edition available with extra piano and drum sounds and available in four neon colours (green, orange, red, and blue); and finally, there are more Sequenz bags (out April, priced £59-£99), backpacks designed for DJ gear, laptops or Korg gear such as the Monologue.

Will Korg have as many releases at the Frankfurt show in April, I wonder? Or, indeed any?

What this means for you this year: This NAMM Show Report is the only one you will ever need.

3. The guitars are coming

We quite obviously hang (I’m American when I write about NAMM) in the high-tech areas of NAMM and, frankly, spend as little time as possible in the terrifying surroundings of the guitar halls. It’s not as though you can get in them, anyway. There are usually hundreds of fans queuing up to see guitarists who I’m quite ashamed I don’t know the identity of. This year, though, the guitar gear invaded the high-tech halls.

Audient Sono
Audient Sono

First up is Audient’s Sono. This is a company that specialises in interfaces that always score well in our reviews and now it’s teamed up with guitar-cab emulation specialists Two Notes to produce Sono: “The world’s first amp-modelling interface” and “ultimate valve guitar preamp” – two massive claims for the price of one. You get Two Notes doing the amp modelling and cab simulations and Audient doing the interfacing bit.

There’s also a 12AX7 analogue valve in there for added authenticity, plus 3-band tone controls for extra flexibility. There’s a wide range of amps and cabs on offer and you can adjust room size, mic model and placement and then store that as a preset. This can then be played through Sono in standalone mode – “no computer required”, says Audient. Is that the phrase of NAMM 2019? Sono is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2019 and will retail at a USA MAP of $449 (£419).

IK Multimedia AXE I/O Feature
IK Multimedia Axe I/O

IK Multimedia announced Axe I/O at NAMM, another interface designed with guitarists in mind. Its instrument channel offers three modes – Pure, JFET and Active – for recording any type of guitar. There’s a dedicated Amp Out to enable easy re-amping or stompbox connection, two controller inputs for expression pedals or switches, plus an assignable preset knob to control AmpliTube or any other software. IK is bundling in over $1,000 of such software and asking $349 for Axe (plus tax); it should be available now.

What this means for you this year: Better guitar interfacing for everyone…

4. You could be making music with grooveboxes again

I’m not sure grooveboxes – that is to say, self-contained hardware drum machines – ever went away, but they certainly experienced what you might call a ‘low period’ of popularity in the mid 2000s. Back in the 90s, of course, you couldn’t move for the buggers. They were everywhere, with popular models from Korg, Roland – everyone, it seemed – filling studio workspaces and stages.

Perhaps it was the arrival of the computer as a force for in-the-box beatmaking that made them disappear for a bit but now, of course, everyone is going computerless, so the groovebox is back! And since Korg announced the Volca range five years ago now, they have roared back to popularity.

Elektron Model: Samples
Elektron Model: Samples

At this year’s NAMM Show, one of the most exciting releases was the new Elektron groovebox, the Model:Samples, a six-track sample-based and compact device. It features 300 of its own sounds, but you can load whatever you like in, twist it around and program up to 96 Patterns per Project and up to 96 Projects.

Of course, one of the things that grooveboxes were and are famous for is their ease of use. But one of the things Elektron is famous for is its, well, shall we say, ‘idiosyncratic’ approach, meaning newcomers have sometimes had to work harder to adjust to the workflow than with some other products. Model:Samples ships this month. The price is TBA.

What this means for you this year: Get ready to groove…

5. Your studio – and the gear in it – is going to get smaller and smaller

One not-so-obvious trend at NAMM 2019 was that studio gear does seem to be getting smaller and more compact.

DPA’s tiny new mics, for example, could be the world’s smallest. Get ready for some memorable names, too: the mics are called the d:screet CORE 6060, 6061 Subminiature Microphones and the d:fine CORE 6066 Subminiature Headset Microphone. Mics in the Subminiature range are 3mm wide and use the company’s CORE by DPA amplification technology.

 

DPA Microphones 6000 series
DPA Microphones 6000 series

They’re omnidirectional and each boasts a 20Hz to 20kHz range, with noise floors of 24dB(A) or just 26dB(A) for the 6066. Uses? Well, the headset is pretty discreet, so could be used for talks, and the others could be discreet instrument mics for recording in very awkward places (or simply used by spies). No word on price or availability yet…

JBL One Series 104 Monitors
JBL One Series 104

Continuing the trend for more compact gear are the One Series 104 monitors from JBL. Designed as the ideal choice of monitor for recording musicians, podcasters, video producers, or indeed anyone who uses a desktop setup or lacks space and funds for full-size monitors. The 104s feature 4.5-inch coaxial drivers, with contouring using the same principles as as JBL’s larger M2 7-Series monitors.

According to JBL, they offer such a good reproduction no additional sub is needed, and they can even hit high volume levels. They’re shipping this quarter at £149 a pair.

What this means for you this year: Who needs big studios any more?

6. You can now go modular this year

Just when you thought you knew what was going on in the world of music production and studio gear, Teenage Engineering will always throw a curveball at you – and now it’s attempting to redefine modular synthesis. The company has spent the last few years producing some of the coolest leftfield music-making gear out there.

teenage engineering
Pocket Operator Modular 400

Its Pocket Operator series of unfinished calculators produces robot or office bleeps and beats, while its OP-1 synth is everything you could want in a mobile keyboard, plus a bunch of stuff you didn’t think you’d need.

Now the company has announced what it calls “the poor man’s modular” synth system. It’s an extension of the PO range, although bears no resemblance to it. There are three devices, all aimed at people starting out in an area of music production that can be daunting to newcomers.

Teenage Engineering has designed this to be easy to use and (it says) affordable, although the most expensive system is still going to cost you nearly 500 bucks (but does include a lot of modules). What you get is the 16, which is a 16-note keyboard with sequencer that costs $149. Then there’s the 170, a monophonic analogue synthesiser with a keyboard and sequencer, and is made of nine modules.

The $499 system is called the 400 and again comprises a modular synth “with warm natural analogue sound”, but in this case is made of 16 modules, including a 16-step sequencer, three oscillators, filter and LFO.

Teenage Engineering boasts that its PO series compromises on everything except the sound and this new system appears to carry on that ethos. It comes in flat-pack kits, which TE describes as “ready to bend, build and assemble from scratch”. You can’t help thinking the company is taking the mickey somehow, or perhaps simply offering another alternative to a modular scene which takes customisation and individuality to extremes… Along comes TE and does modular for everyone.

What this means for you this year: 2019 could be the year you succumb to modular temptation.

7. You could become an ‘influencer’

A word we heard bandied around the NAMM show more than ever this year was ‘influencer’. Yes, the world of music production has woken up to the concept of using social-media stars to promote their gear online. Previously, our industry had used what it considered ‘big-name artists and producers’ to push its wares in quite obvious ways.

We’ve never had such a big problem with it, as it has such an old-school, quite ridiculous and almost endearing quality to it. This is largely down to the fact that – certainly in music production, compared to guitars – it’s really just the same ruddy three ‘big names’ that do it, making it such an obvious tactic that surely no one is taken in by it all?

NAMM 2019 show report, inflluencers

However, with the focus shifting online and to anyone who boasts 50,000 followers, it becomes a little more mercenary in the process; however, this appears to be the way of the modern world. We’d never insinuate that any of the companies in our industry would simply chuck free gear at people for them to mercilessly promote them on their channels but the influencer is certainly becoming more prevalent.

In fact, we were told at one particular press conference that we couldn’t sit near the front unless we were “an influencer or VIP artist”. Sadly, we looked over during the conference and that area remained largely empty. And the news? No idea, we were sat too far away to hear a thing.

What this means for you this year: Become an influencer! Please don’t. Make some music instead.

8. You could spend 2019 being offended

2019 is shaping up to be a contentious and divisive year across a range of industries. This year’s NAMM was no exception, in fact it served as the launchpad for a huge storm of offence being taken, with arguments raging online, insults being flung and then the whole thing petering out with some speed. It was rather like a winter snowstorm in the UK – fun for a few hours, then boring, over quickly and soon forgotten about.

This ‘offence storm’ centred around the launch of Arturia’s latest synth, the MicroFreak. But before we enter the eye of the rage, let’s take a quick look at what is still the star of NAMM 2019.

MicroFreak is a compact algorithmic synthesiser features a PCB keyboard which, surprisingly, still has both pressure sensitivity and polyphonic aftertouch. It has multiple engines – Karplus-Strong, Wavetable, and Virtual Analog – and what Arturia calls a wild ‘Spice’ and ‘Dice’ sequencer. There’s also CV connectivity, so you can easily connect to your modular setup.

Arturia MicroFreak

Arturia says MicroFreak features “11 awesome oscillators, four bespoke Arturia engines and seven modes from our friends at Mutable Instruments. Modes like Texturer, Karplus-Strong, Harmonic OSC, and Superwave give adventurous musicians the chance to explore totally new, unheard possibilities”. That sounds like a lot of synth in such a compact form, especially given that its price is going to be around $349, putting it fair and square in a crowded part of the synth market, but also with a great armoury with which to fight it out with the big synth boys.

So, here goes. Arturia’s new synth uses an open-source Plaits oscillator, developed by Mutable Instruments, and the furore centred around the wording on the Arturia website suggesting the synth was a “collaboration”.

That single word caused issues with some very vocal people, along the lines of “collaboration means ‘to work with someone’, which is not what Arturia has done”. There followed the usual descent into rage fuelled, of course, by anonymity. Our favourite comment – because it actually uses the word “indignation” – came from someone on the MuffWiggler forum, who said: “After learning that [product designer] Émilie Gillet had no involvement with the MicroFreak, I have no intention of buying this or any other Arturia product. I have written [to] Arturia to express my indignation.”

Guy Perchard from Arturia – the guy who wrote the word – then bravely got involved. He said he’d used it because he thought that there had been more of a collaboration than simply use of an open-source concept; basically, human error. He added: “Sorry for the misunderstanding! For my part, I’ve made some edits to the phrasing of the pages to clear things up.”

This should have been the end of it – but never is on forums – so eventually, Émilie from Mutable wrote an open letter to hopefully end the storm. She said: “My involvement was fairly limited. I don’t feel wronged. It’s their product. If you care about me, move on! Please let Arturia enjoy their release party.” Which should have ended it all (but probably hasn’t).

Anyway, our favourite line from the whole debate (sorry, debacle) was posted by jomomobobo, who summed it all up by saying “But… but what about my righteous indignation? I NEED TO BE ANGRY AT SOMETHING!!!” Thanks to Reddit, MuffWiggler and Sonic State for the quotes and laughs, by the way.

What this means for you this year: That being offended all the time stops you making actual music.

9. Your 2019 could be the cheapest ever

Native Instruments is among the software industry’s biggest players, but one that has been avoiding shows such as NAMM for years now. That doesn’t stop it from cruising in on the event’s coat tails, though, and releasing a bunch of products timed with the event. Suckers like us will still lazily include them in our NAMM round-ups, whether they were actually at the show or not. So, er, here goes…

Native announced seven products or updates at NAMM (sorry, not at NAMM) and they vary in significance and interest, possibly the best being the M32, a new compact (or kompact) keyboard in the Komplete Kontrol range. I recently reviewed the cheap A-series and they represent incredible value, yet this one weighs in at just £99 and you still get a pretty good bundle of instruments. But then combine it with another of NI’s announcements, Komplete Start and you have a monster bundle for less than a hundred quid. That’s because Komplete Start is completely free and now bundled with all of the Komplete Kontrol keyboards.

Native says the bundle will include “a free suite of 15 instruments, two effects and a greatest-hits collection of almost 1,500 sounds from our most popular Expansions.” I just wish I’d got into music making now rather than 1988, as my first synth cost over a grand and did a fraction of this 99-quid bundle. I’m actually starting to get angry! Anyway, I digress. In other NI news are two Komplete Audio interfaces (starting from just £79 – arrrgh!), an update to Komplete Kontrol software (to 2.1), a new Traktor DJ app and something or other about sounds.com. Yes, I could write more, but I’m fuming…

What this means for you this year: That there’s never been a cheaper time to make music. So in 2019, make more music!

10. Making music with technology is becoming cooler

Without wishing to sound like an old timer, I’ve been going to the NAMM show for the best part of quarter of a century now – and pretty much every year, despite being terrified of those guitar halls, I’ve kind of wished I’d gone to see the Sex Pistols rather than Kraftwerk when I was 14. The guitar side of NAMM has always been more glitzy, more showbiz and more rock ’n’ roll, while the high-tech side…

Well, let’s call it ‘nice and technical’. Last year, though, as I said in my intro above, the world of high-tech expanded at NAMM with two extra halls, and now the show has really started recognising – possibly due to the rise of the modular synth from the depths of Hall E, to the most popular hall at school, Hall A – that the world of high-tech music making can be sexy. Well, okay, maybe not ‘sexy’, but certainly no longer just ‘smelly’.

NAMM 2019, Tec Awards

Further evidence of this comes with the annual TEC Awards, an event now so ‘LA’ that it has become the Oscars of the music-gear year, with its own red carpet, its own comedian compere (Demetri Martin who is famous, apparently, and surprisingly good), and a house band that goes ‘boom tiss’ or plays a Seinfeld bass solo in all the right places. Over recent years, the number of high-tech awards has exploded, with 23 in total.

These include TEC Awards NAMM 2019 Computer Audio Hardware (won by UA’s Arrow); Instrument Hardware (DSI Sequential Prophet X), Monitors (won by the JBL 3 Series MkII) and Instrument Software (EastWest Hollywood Sounds). Okay, perhaps it does get a bit too in-depth and narrow when they divide signal processing up into four categories but, hey, it’s a nice sit-down meal and the drinks are free.

What this means for you this year: We’re cooler than we perhaps thought.

Head to this page for all things NAMM 2019.

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