Four days, 108,000 visitors, 2,400 exhibitors, 120 countries—this was another record year for Musikmesse, the world's biggest music tradeshow, held every March in Frankfurt, Germany. As always, attending Messe was overwhelming, but now that I've recovered somewhat, I'd like to share some of my favorite products—and people!—that I ran into this year.
(Please note that any prices are listed in Euros. At the time of this writing, the exchange rate was about $1.30 to the Euro.)
At this year's NAMM show, Arturia introduced the Origin rackmount hardware synthesizer, based on the company's softsynth emulations of the Minimoog, Yamaha CS-80, ARP 2600, Moog Modular, and Sequential Circuits Prophet-VS. At Messe, Arturia announced a keyboard version of this interesting instrument, the Origin Keyboard. Not only can you play each synth model in its original configuration, you can also combine them into an "Origin" patch by connecting different modules from different synths, e.g., ARP oscillators with Minimoog filters and CS-80 envelopes.
Arturia's Origin virtual analog synth in a spiffy keyboard version. Note the 40cm ribbon controller above the bottom two octaves. The control panel folds flat for transport.
The Origin is a welcome alternative to a laptop-based stage setup, and the Origin Keyboard makes for a stage-ready, all-in-one package. The estimated shipment date for the Origin Keyboard is December 2007, and it will be priced at about 3,000 Euros.
The synthesizer designer who, with Dave Smith, brought us the legendary Sequential Circuits Prophet, contributed to the Korg OASYS über-synth, and worked as a developer for Creamware, has presented a new synthesizer called Solaris based on his softsynth by the same name.
The Solaris sports a super-clean front panel layout as well as sounds designed by the man who programmed the classic Prophet-5.
Bowen told me this was the first time he could freely decide an instrument's feature set without being limited by restraints set by corporate management. Indeed, the Solaris truly looks to be a no-compromise instrument.
Sporting 40 knobs and six LCD panels showing the parameters and settings for each knob, the Solaris has the cleanest synth user interface I've seen in a long time. No more stepping through countless menu levels, guessing what a parameter is set to, or artifacts and controller jumps when moving a knob. Just direct, super-intuitive access to the sound's settings.
The sound engine is modular in that you can choose from a number of oscillator types like CEM (Curtis Electromusic), wavetable, or sample playback, and combine these with a number of filters, including Moog and CEM simulations. A few more buzzwords for the synth geeks out there: 96kHz signal processing throughout the synth engine, vector synthesis, eight envelopes, five LFOs, two AM sections, arpeggiator, pattern sequencer... But most important: The Solaris sounds awesome!
John Bowen (right) demonstrating his new synth to an interested member of the press.
The Solaris should ship by the end of the year and cost around 3,000 Euros, putting it up against the current cream of the virtual-analog crop like the Access Virus and Clavia's Nord Lead. Judging from what I saw and heard at Messe, the Solaris may very well give these established synths a run for their money.
In case you're impressed by neither the Origin nor the Solaris, because, for you, only analog synths are real synths, then the Superbooth, presented by Schneider's Büero, will be more to your liking. Since 2000, Superbooth has been the place for smaller, less mainstream synth designers to show off their instruments, and it's easily the most geeky booth at Messe. If you can endure the cacophony resulting from countless modular synths stepping through their precisely machined sequences, you'll see products like Spectral Audio, Doepfer, Cwejman, and Vermona.
The wonders of analog synthesis at the Superbooth.
One of the main attractions was Doepfer's "wall of modules." The A-100 system isn't as massive as a Moog Modular, but it does have more creatively wacky modules than you can shake a pitch stick at!
A grown-up specimen of the Doepfer A-100 Analog Modular System.
For a complete list of the instruments presented at Superbooth, see the Werke-Liste.
Apart from being a great place to learn about new products, the Musikmesse show floor also points out industry trends. Here are my top three for 2007:
The Year of Universal Binaries
The wait for native Intel Mac music software is over. All major audio software makers have announced, or are already shipping, Universal Binary versions of their software. Finally, we can safely buy that Intel Mac we've been craving.
Why did it take so long? Because porting legacy audio code to the new Intel architecture was no trivial task, as confirmed by Applied Acoustics' Marc-Pierre Verge and Philippe Dérogis, who frankly admitted to spending almost all of 2006 on rewriting their software.
Tactile Control for Everyone
Programming a sound or mixing onscreen via mouse and keyboard just isn't the same as turning a real knob, moving a real fader, or pushing a real button, but control surfaces like the Mackie Control only addressed the pro end of the market in recent years. This year, not only have we seen new keyboards with lots of controls for direct parameter access, but a number of manufacturers have built control devices affordable enough for home users. It's "tactile control for the rest of us."
Podcasting Goes Mainstream
It probably started with the podcasting features in GarageBand, but now you'll find tools and software supporting podcasting in many companies' portfolios, reflecting that what was a niche medium until fairly recently has now entered the mainstream full blast, enabling anyone to become an international radio host.
Take a big helping of GarageBand and a decent chunk of Ableton Live, cover with a stylish UI, let simmer with 5,000 fresh audio loops and 600 soft-synth presets, add a sprinkling of useful tools like a guitar tuner, and what do you get? Steinberg Sequel. Designed to be an easy-to-use music recording program with loop-based performance features, Sequel does not quite live up to Steinberg's claim of being a "revolutionary interface concept with first-class content for music-making in minutes." But it costs just 99 Euros and runs on Mac and Windows, unlike GarageBand.
Like a mashup of Ableton Live and Apple GarageBand, Steinberg Sequel is an inexpensive recording and arranging program that adds live-performance features. Note the phrase-trigger buttons. (Click to enlarge.)
When playing around with the app in Steinberg's cozy Sequel Lounge, I didn't find the UI quite as accessible as GarageBand's, even though many of Sequel's features were very obviously "inspired" by Apple's software. Nevertheless, Sequel is a valid option for aspiring musicians looking for an affordable recording software package. And, considering the vast set of sounds and audio loops that ship with it, it's a very good value.
Probably the comfiest demo area at Messe: Steinberg's Sequel Lounge.
The most popular stereo audio editor on the Mac got a slick new look when BIAS unveiled Peak Pro 6.
BIAS gave visitors a sneak glance at the upcoming update to their flagship Peak audio editor.
Numerous enhancements include vastly improved playlist editing and mastering, volume and pitch(!) envelopes, integration with iTunes, support for audio file metadata, and a new looping algorithm called Perpetual Loop DSP. Also, like many other companies, BIAS added podcasting features to their audio software, allowing you to create and even upload podcasts directly from Peak. Peak Pro 6.0 is scheduled for release in the third quarter of this year.
With personal studios, my favorite solution for getting sound into and out of a digital audio workstation (DAW) is mixers with built-in audio I/O hardware, like Yamaha's MW series or Alesis's MultiMix models. At Messe, Alesis showed a nifty variation on the USB mixer theme: the iMultimix 8 USB.
iMultimix, please meet iPod; iPod, this is iMultimix...
What's special about the iMultimix is its iPod dock, which not only lets you play back tracks from the iPod through the mixer, but also records through the mixer onto the iPod and imports the recordings into iTunes!
Podcasting has entered the mainstream, and so have music products (and product features). Instead of hastily compiling a kit from existing products, Alesis has designed a new microphone that plugs directly into the computer via USB—no separate audio interface necessary. What's more, the mic comes with headphones and a solid stand, has volume control built right in, and looks so sharp that you might want to buy one even if you haven't considered doing a podcast yet.
USB podcasting mics are busting out all over. This model from Alesis comes with a stand and headphones, although it lacks a headphone jack. That means you'll have to monitor through your computer, which will delay the signal you hear.
Three's the charm, so here's a third product from Alesis that I found intriguing: the io|Control, a combination DAW controller and audio interface.
The Alesis io|Control combines a high-quality control surface with FireWire audio I/O.
As much as I enjoy the flexibility of onscreen interfaces like Logic's, I'd rather be turning real knobs than groping with the mouse to hit those tiny facsimiles on the screen. But most of the audio workstation controllers offered so far are either too big or too expensive for home and project studio owners.
Enter the io|Control with its jog-shuttle wheel, transport controls, high-quality 360° rotary encoders, and very clean layout. It also offers a four-channel audio interface, which can be expanded with eight more inputs via its digital ADAT interface.
If you were impressed by Steve Jobs's iPhone demo, you'll be amazed by the Jazzmutant Lemur and Dexter MIDI controllers. Both devices employ a multi-touch LCD on which you can freely place preconfigured controls like sliders, knobs, buttons, and x-y-pads using the configuration software that comes with the device.
"Mr. Data, engage!"
The controls not only look great—think Starship Enterprise bridge come to life—they also let you configure their physical parameters in a way that's feasible only in the virtual world. As an example, you can set the damping of a virtual slider to zero, and it will oscillate: instant LFO! Or set the oscillation speed of such a slider to the x-value of another slider. It's a modulation wonderland.
The Lemur, which has been available for a while, got a software update to version 1.6 at Musikmesse. The Dexter, however, is a new device aimed specifically at controlling DAW software packages. Right out of the box, it has built-in support for Cubase, Logic, Nuendo, and Sonar. It will be interesting to see how the Dexter fares in a side-by-side comparison with traditional controllers like those from the Mackie Control series.
To get a better idea of what these devices can do, browse through the screenshots and explanations on the Jazzmutant website, and watch this YouTube video that shows the Lemur in action.
If you like the concept of the Jazzmutant Dexter (previous page), but prefer more tactile controls, have a look at the Mawzer modular MIDI controllers by Jerash Labs. The Mawzer devices follow the same principle as Jazzmutant's, but are implemented in hardware!
Highly configurable MIDI controller, hardware-style.
Currently, five modules are available: four endless rotary encoders, four knobs, two buttons plus a 6cm fader, a 10cm fader, and four buttons with status LEDs. The modules plug into a controller box, which is available in two sizes, accepting 16 or 32 modules. The box provides the usual MIDI socket trio of In/Out/Thru and connects to a PC or Mac via USB. The sweet thing about the Mawzer controllers is that the settings for each controller module—like MIDI channel, controller number, and controller range—are stored right inside the module, so you can rearrange the modules inside the controller box without having to reconfigure any of the controller-specific settings.
Back in 1994, a software project named ResRocket was the first successful attempt at live jamming over the Internet. In those days, slow Internet access was a big limiting factor, so ResRocket relied solely on exchanging MIDI signals. Today, realtime audio jamming via the Internet is becoming a reality.
At Messe, eJamming introduced its approach to Internet music collaboration: a combination of computer software and community website called AUDiiO. The software is available for both Mac OS X and Windows XP/Vista, and requires a reasonable minimum upload datarate of 300kbps. Currently, the company is running a free-of-charge beta program. Sign up at eJamming.com.
Coming to you live from Frankfurt! And from London. And Cologne. And...
Yes, it looks very weird. But what a cool gadget this is. What you see in the photo is Beyerdynamic's Headzone 5.1 monitoring headphone system.
Headphone encounter of the third kind.
The system uses ultrasound to track the headphones' position. Turn your head, and the Headzone changes your apparent listening position inside the virtual 5.1 speaker setup accordingly. The Headzone unit not only simulates the position of the loudspeakers. You can also configure room size, distance from the speakers, and ambience levels. Maybe it's this complexity that leads to an ever-so-slight latency in the adjustment of the virtual speaker positions when you move your head. Nevertheless, the listening experience is stunning.
The Headzone's official target audience is sound engineers, who can now work on 5.1 mixes "in the comfort of their hotel room," but it may also be an alternative to a 5.1 loudspeaker setup in small studios. And let's not forget the appeal to gamers—if it weren't for the 2,200-Euro price tag....
Some ideas are just too good not to be copied. Obviously inspired by Apple's MagSafe power cord, Jodavi's ZZYZX Snap Jack (that's not a typo) guitar cable features two-piece jacks that are held together by magnets. Forcefully pull the cable, and it safely separates from the actual jack. No more tripping over guitar cables and no more popping or screeching when disconnecting the cable from the instrument or amp, either.
Snap goes the jack.
Musikmesse is to musicians what a toy store is to kids. You learn about tons of new creative tools and have a chance to play around with most of the shiny objects right then and there. But what makes the show really special is seeing how other people get creative with this technology. Some of the booth demonstrations are truly spectacular. Here are my three favorite endorsers for this year.
There are drummers, there are drum machines, there are human beat boxes—and then there's David Haynes. Although David is a "real" drummer too, he's made a name for himself by taking live drum-machine playing to a new level. Hammering away at a battered (no pun intended) Alesis HR-16, he demoed Toontrack's EZdrummer set of products. Check out this 3MB MP4 movie:
To see more of David Haynes's groovebox wizardry, visit his YouTube page.
Most of us associate vocoders with Kraftwerk'ish electronica or hip hop tracks. Don Lewis, however, uses the Roland VP-550 keyboard vocoder for playing gospel songs. Using a two-microphone setup—one for singing into the VP-550, and one for his unprocessed voice—he's both soloist and backing choir at the same time, and his performances are an amazing demonstration of two things: the musical expressivity of a technical thing like the Roland keyboard and the beauty of the human voice.
The joy of playing music: Don Lewis performing at the Roland booth.
Have a look at this YouTube video of Don performing the gospel classic "Swing Low" on the VP-550.
Rico Loop is a wizard with the Roland RC-50 Loop Station. The self-proclaimed "one-man jam" plays bass, guitar, melodica, harp, glass bottle, and human beat-box, and he can sing, too.
Stacking all these instruments into complex arrangements, he records backing loops into the RC-50, improvises over these loops, and even creates a cappella arrangements with himself.
Rico Loop (right) and Gundy Keller jamming away. Away. Away.
To really appreciate his art, you have to see Rico live. His schedule is listed on his website. But the second-best option is to view his YouTube videos. (Three artists, three YouTube sites. Must be a pattern here....)
Messe, yet again, was an overwhelming, inspiring, exhausting, and ultimately enjoyable experience. I'm already looking forward to 2008. Until then, there's ample time to discuss which products, techniques, or artists caught your interest. Comments are open, so please feel free to join in the discussion! You can find more photos and personal commentary in my Musikmesse 2007 set on Flickr.
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