A few short weeks ago, Anaheim once again hosted the 2016 edition of the NAMM show. As always, there were many new and exciting innovations being exhibited, and many old favourites returned to give musicians even more reasons to love them. Our friend and colleague Gregory Paxton was there this year, and he brings back his thoughts and observations about the show, exhibitions, and conversations with developers, with a view to what would interest the composer community in particular.
For me, NAMM shows are always a mix of inspiration and information, with a healthy dose of interaction. This year did not disappoint, though it seemed there were fewer launches, with the exception of one developer in particular.
It was also a year of spending time with up-and-coming developers, as well as a few lesser-known (to me) products worthy of mention. Though my time was limited, what I provide here is a brief overview of some of those exchanges.
SPITFIRE AUDIO made quite a statement, with a spacious area stocked with kiosks to try out libraries, and a kind of perch for live demonstrations and new product announcements. Since details of these new and/or imminent releases are now online, I’ll refer readers to Spitfire’s own post-NAMM coverage concerning Olafur Arnalds’ Composer Toolkit, Phobos, Modular Drummer, the Joey Santiago Project, Sacconi Strings Cello, and the upcoming Bernard Hermann Project.
Reactions to Phobos are still coming in (and now explains the flurry of activity I saw the day before when BT stopped by), but it’s worth noting that this particular product marks Spitfire’s first proprietary (non-Kontakt) product release. Even if it doesn’t appeal to you, it’s worth taking a look at what Spitfire projects without Kontakt might aspire to become.
But the real highlight for me was meeting the Spitfire Audio team in person. Taking advantage of their first-day energy, I returned throughout to engage in ongoing conversations, a few of these with Stanley Gabriel, one of Spitfire’s principal developers (and the key developer for Phobos). One of the great things about attending a NAMM show is being able to ask detailed questions about a library, talk about industry trends, convey personal workflow ideas, and still find time to trade jokes and quips that are only peripherally related. Everyone I met was eager to share their respective roles in bringing these products to market.
ORCHESTRAL TOOLS made its presence known as well, and having already had the pleasure of meeting Hendrik Schwarzer and team during NAMM 2014, I had the distinct honor this year of meeting one of the principal mixing engineers from Teldex, as well as composer and Orchestral Tools friend, Sascha Knorr.
Of course, METROPOLIS ARK 1, released late last year, was still generating much of the buzz at the Orchestral Tools booth. I had the pleasure of seeing Hendrik himself demonstrating the incredible and very large horn section from METROPOLIS, and the seamless choral library as well. But it was his explanation of sampled “imperfections”, such those demonstrated playing a faster strings patch, that stood out in terms of conveying the importance of human shortcomings to achieve realism. It was a theme I heard repeated by other developers as well.
Later, Sascha Knorr indulged one of my questions about the evolution of orchestral libraries, even as one of his own demos began to play, providing a backdrop to our discussion about how sample development is no longer just informed by musicians using these tools to mock up for live musicians, but where the demand for authenticity is increasingly informed by those who use the tools themselves as the final medium. It was an insightful conversation, and a dialogue I hope more musicians who work with virtual instruments will continue to have.
Incidentally, both Spitfire and Orchestral tools each conveyed to me that their wildly popular “all in one box” releases, ABLION ONE and METROPOLIS ARK 1 respectively, have been their most successful product launches to date. Read into that what you will, but my take was that more of the same is forthcoming. Naturally, I had to ask what this meant for ongoing development of more expansive and detailed orchestral offerings, and was assured the success of these one-box wonders absolutely undergirds the ongoing development of other larger orchestral offerings as well.
And speaking of detailed strings, VIENNA SYMPHONIC LIBRARY was there previewing Vienna Dimension Strings II. I was actually visiting a booth nearby when the incredibly sublime character of this sotto voce sound drew me in. It was a compelling demonstration emphasizing switching techniques between articulations more seamlessly, the ability to select individual strings (open vs. non-open) and the importance, once again, of a return to sampled “imperfections” for a more human sound.
SCULPTING AND MORPHING IS ALIVE AND WELL
Moving away from orchestral libraries, I was struck by how many are focusing on tools that manipulate multiple audio sources to generate hybrid instruments and/or sounds. From granular synthesis to modeling and other processing tricks, these products are varied, but the emphasis on user-defined hybridity is the common theme. Here are just a few I visited:
SPECTRASONICS – Though I missed seeing Eric Persing himself this year, the masterful demonstrations of OMNISPHERE 2 always gathered a crowd. For anyone not yet convinced of this industry favorite version 2, the video demonstration on the Spectrasonics site perhaps provides a better venue than the chaos and bustle of NAMM videos posted after the show.
APPLIED ACOUSTIC SYSTEMS – One of my all-time favorites is Lounge Lizard, so I had to stop by the AAS booth. Their newest release, CHROMAPHONE 2 (soon to be released), showcases an attractive interface that takes two organic sound sources – acoustic resonators – and combines them to create unique and hybrid instruments. It’s a surprisingly simple approach, where the complex engine underneath provides a very musical result. Their pricing is compelling as well.
ZYNAPTIQ beckoned me to see their current crop of plugins. Though more in the vein of sound design, MORPH does what it claims to do very well, taking two audio sources (in this case, the presenter recording two spoken tracks mimicking distinct characters), and then crunching whatever algorithms to transform these into an impressive hybrid result. In the context of the presenter’s demonstration, Gollum/Smeagol had emerged!
Also demonstrated by Zynaptiq was PITCHMAP, a quite versatile plugin that employs a compelling interface to process two audio sources in real-time, essentially taking melodic content and either applying pitch correction, corrective techniques, or synthesis to generate an altogether unique track. While there may be some aspects of these tools for composers, the suite of tools I saw clearly has both design and mixing considerations in mind.
OUTPUT, a relatively young and very innovative company, falls into a category all its own. For me, seeing REV and EXHALE first-hand, as well as meeting some of their team and observing the quality and enthusiasm for the beautifully designed (and intuitive) plugins, spoke volumes about where this company is headed. In fact, of all the relative newcomers I met at NAMM, OUTPUT definitely stood out as the one to watch. That being said, time will tell what any future products might yield where composers are concerned (and the developers and I talked about this). Clearly, there is already much to like for a broader range of musical genres and producers.
SMALL BOOTHS, BIG SOUNDS
The thing I’ve learned about NAMM exhibitors, is to never assume hall location or booth size is an indication of quality. Indeed, there are a lot of great products exhibiting that seem a bit hidden, not to mention some developers walking the floor of NAMM who are not exhibiting at all. Admittedly, I did not get to all of them.
BEST SERVICE was tucked away in the so-called Software room upstairs, featuring Eduardo Tarilonte on hand to talk about his highly regarded virtual instruments, including the award-winning medieval library, ERA II. Tari is also a personal friend, so it was a treat for us to reconnect as well. After a great lunch and catching up, I asked the million-dollar question about what he was working on next. Though Tari is not one to hype, what I will say is that something is coming, and that he and Best Service are very excited indeed!
CHOCOLATE AUDIO was just around the corner, showcasing their latest “Black Album” drum library (using the original Gretsch kit and studio/mics of the name-sake recording), with some really innovative scripting in Kontakt that caught my eye.
Back in the main hall, and for the second NAMM show I’ve been to recently, I got to chat with REALITONE’s Mike Greene, this time promoting RealiDrums, as well as the Realitone vocal libraries. In a sentiment that reflected my own, Mike shared with me his belief that a sample library need not be saddled with tens of thousands of samples (which some many never need or use) to be musical and expressive. I agree. RealiDrums definitely makes that case.
It’s precisely these discussions about sampling technology and various development considerations, as well as hearing things demoed in person, that I find enlightening while at NAMM, and that I think so many other developers could benefit from, even by attending just one show.
INDIGINUS was one of those first-time exhibitors with some hidden gems to share, though perhaps familiar to some readers already. This one-person development team, along with his wife who helps steer the business, introduced me to the Solid State Symphony, modestly priced at $59. I know, I was dubious as well, until I heard the surprisingly rich and spacial all-in-one orchestra that has to be played to be fully appreciated.
No, Solid State Symphony is not a detailed orchestral library “killer,” nor is it meant to be. But it is the sort of tool that is well-suited for layering with other libraries, without sounding overly synthy, and it’s a tool that I quickly regarded for its smartly and beautifully designed interface. Moreover, INDIGINUS offers a range of sampled guitars and other plucked instruments, as well as small percussion, all developed by this one individual! For the money, INDIGINUS products are definitely worth a look.
KEYBOARDS AND CONTROLLERS
My ambitions to test out as many keyboards and controllers as possible was thwarted by the time (hours) spent talking with software developers. One thing about this already saturated market of knobs, sliders, keyboards, and pads, is the realization of just how subjective individual composers’ needs are. With an online discussion about 88-key semi-weighted dreams in mind, I stopped and tried so many synths and controllers that it’s impossible to name them all here. I walked away realizing that one musician’s weighted keys, or preferences for controls, are another’s not-so weighted feel, and so forth. Consensus is futile.
For me, the seductive favorite was ROLI’s Seaboard RISE 49, unveiled at the preview day before the NAMM show opened. As I touched this controller for the first time, the question wasn’t whether or not the ROLI controllers are compelling to play (they are), or whether the integrated software that responds to the tilt and sideways pressure are not also forward-looking (it is), but how third-party considerations for composers and orchestrators might be envisaged with this controller as well.
It is an open question still, but their rep conveyed to me his belief that third-party development would continue to be a vital part of the evolution of this instrument. Even here, that subjectivity comes into play: another composer I spoke with stated his personal disdain for the feel of the RISE (preferring a more tactile keyboard), a contrast to my own impressions. Having tried the controller myself, however, I keep imaging the potential of doing away with keyswitches entirely, and bridging that gap between dynamics and/or changing articulations with a controller precisely like this. Time will tell.
UNTIL THE NEXT NAMM
Well that wraps up a brief, though not comprehensive overview of my time at NAMM 2016. There were many other developers I wish I could have spent more time with, including a brief handshake and listen to Sam Estes demoing The Foundry, and a quick hello to Alex Davis of Embertone. It was a pleasure to meet Don Bodin also, and a lot of fun traveling down and hanging out with my good friend, Chris Harris, also a recent contributor for Film and Game Composers.
Until next year’s show, here’s to making great music!