The Frankfurt Musikmesse is the world's biggest trade show for musical instruments and accessories, and it will leave just about any visitor (and exhibitor, too) with burned-out ears, sore feet, and the desire to go on vacation for at least a week. So why attend? Because there simply is no other music-related event that brings this much artistic, ethnic, and technological variety and inspiration together in one spot.

Among all that was to see and hear at this year's Messe, here's what, in my humble opinion, stood out from the crowd.

Up, Periscope! Sonic Core Raises SCOPE

Way back in 1993, a small German company called CreamWare arrived on the scene with a low-cost hard-disk recording system called Triple DAT. It became a major success. Five years later, CreamWare unveiled the SCOPE Fusion Platform.

SCOPE used Analog Devices SHARC DSP chips on PCI cards to create a complete studio environment — with softsynths, sampling, recording, effects, mixing, and more — implemented purely in software. Nowadays, we're used to running such environments natively on any current PC or Mac. Ten years ago, however, SCOPE caused quite a stir and managed to give the big players of the music technology industry a decent scare. And rightfully so.

In the years since, CreamWare went through some ups and downs. Nevertheless, it released some well-regarded products, including the Authentic Sound Box series: DSP-powered hardware synths that emulated classic analog synthesizers.

Last year, two former CreamWare developers bought out the company's intellectual property and launched a new company, Sonic Core. At this year's Messe, Sonic Core introduced the next generation of the SCOPE platform, called SCOPE XITE-1, which provides ten times the processing power of the old SCOPE PRO system. Housed in a 19" rack enclosure, it does not require a PCI slot and, thus, will also work with laptop computers. SCOPE to go!

Sonic Core SCOPE XITE-1
Sonic Core's hardware synths (top shelf) are based on software emulations of keyboard classics: the B4000 (Hammond organ), Prodyssey (ARP Odyssey), and System 1200 (a Minimoog and Prophet in one case).

Sonic Core plans to release SCOPE XITE-1 next month, along with a new 5.0 version of the Sonic Core Platform software. This software update is free for users of v4.5, and brings with it a polished, more up-to-date look and feel as well as new functionality.

Judging from Sonic Core's product announcements, its ongoing collaboration with John Bowen on the Solaris hardware synth (which will ship later this year!), and the confidence shown by its booth staff at Messe, it seems as though this company, and its innovative products, will stick around for a while. Welcome back, guys!

Get Back: Moog Minimoog Voyager OS

A new hardware synth that doesn't have patch memory or even MIDI? What would provoke instant thumbs-down reactions if it were introduced by any other manufacturer gets a whole-hearted "back to the roots, man!" nod of the head here, as we're talking about a new Minimoog!

The "OS" in Minimoog Voyager OS aptly stands for "Old School," and this instrument is, without doubt, the purest synth introduced in recent years: all the legendary Moog analog goodness without a single digital bit, packaged in the classical fold-up-panel Minimoog enclosure, and price-tagged at $2,595.

Minimoog Voyager OS
Adam Holzman and the new Minimoog Voyager "Old School."

Ironically, one of the drawbacks of the Voyager OS's lack of MIDI was demonstrated right there at the Moog booth: you can't play the Voyager OS polyphonically. MIDI up a standard Minimoog Voyager and a few Voyager Rack synths, on the other hand, et voila! Polyphonic Minimoog. Any patch changes and settings are synchronized via MIDI as well. It's a bit of a drag to haul around, but, hey, so were Dr. Bob Moog's classic modular synths.

Round Tones: Future Audio Workshop Circle

Look at almost any software synthesizer, and you'll find an intricately designed user interface overflowing with fake 3D knobs, sliders, and buttons. Future Audio Workshop's new synth, Circle, is different. Doubtlessly inspired by Ableton Live's aesthetics, Circle has a minimalistic, super-clean UI.

With the exception of some less-often-accessed functions like the preset browser or master effects (which are hidden in a drawer), all controls relevant to sound design are shown in Circle's single window. Each control has a single function, and there are nifty new ways to access features that are impossible to implement in hardware. To assign modulation for example, you drag and drop a colored dot from the modulation source to a "modulation input circle" in the target module. You can also set the modulation depth in that circle. Drag-and-hover the dot over the target, and you hear a real-time preview of the modulation's effect. Very slick.

FAW Circle
Circle's no-frills, single-window UI looks simple, but it controls a great-sounding virtual instrument.

But Circle doesn't just look nice, it also sounds great. Based on four oscillators of different types, including wavetable, and featuring two effect slots that include the formant-bending Mouth Filter, Circle has lots of sonic potential. To see and hear it in action, visit the Guided Tours on the Future Audio Workshop site.

Circle is still in beta, but is supposed to ship this month. It runs on both Mac OS X and Windows, and it has an MSRP of $199/149€.

Sounds Gamy: AQ Interactive Korg DS-10

No, that's not a typo: this synth is, indeed, called DS-10, not MS-10. But they're essentially the same thing. While the M is one of the most celebrated analog hardware synths, the D is its little brother — so little that it fits into a Nintendo DS handheld gaming console! (Thanks to its dual-oscillator setup, DS-20 would have been a more appropriate name, but anyway....)

Korg DS-10 Game Boy Synth
Honey, I shrunk the Korg!

The DS-10 packs a dual-oscillator, virtual analog synth; a four-track drum machine; and a six-track, 16-step sequencer into this incredibly small package, which can be controlled in real-time. You can even hook up several DS-10s and play them in sync via Wi-Fi.

The DS-10 accepts direct input via something akin to an x-y-touch pad; there's a step-sequencer matrix and an on-screen keyboard as well.

Although the DS-10 sounds very cool and its UI is clever, I wonder how far musicians will be able to take it. It could be just the thing if you're into loop-based/sequenced music. But if you want to actually play it, I'm not so sure. The DS-10 is scheduled for release in July. You can see it in action on AQ Interactive's site.

Blizzard of Sound: The Access Virus TI Snow

In the "small package, huge sound" department, the Access Virus TI Snow joined the Waldorf Blofeld synthesizer module. Housed in a sturdy metal case, the TI Snow uses the same internals as its bigger siblings. Apart from the smaller number of knobs and buttons, the technical differences are limited to lower polyphony (10–50 voices vs. 20–90) and memory (512 RAM and ROM patches vs. 1,024/3,382). But, soundwise, the Snow is just as mighty as the Virus Keyboard and Desktop models.

Access Virus TI-Snow
Huge sound in a small, yet sturdy and elegant package: the Access Virus TI Snow. (Yes, that is a Kensington lock at the right.)

What's more, although the reduced number of control elements may make the Snow a little less ACCESSible (lousy pun, I know), the Total Integration (TI) technology opens up the sound editing parameters on the computer screen, which should alleviate some of the concerns of potential Snow-men (even lousier pun). The USB interface and TI software plugin make the Snow slot right into your sequencer like a software synth.

The Virus TI Snow drops into the wild this spring.

New Heights: BIAS Peak Pro 6

Announced at last year's Musikmesse, BIAS Peak Pro 6 is now shipping. Let's have a look at some of the highlights.

  • The playlist now has a true stereo view and can store up to four transition snapshots so you can compare crossfades between tracks.
  • To speed up editing and plug-in processing, Peak Pro 6 can cache complete audio files in RAM. (BIAS suggests a minimum of 2GB.).
  • Instead of just using plain crossfades, the Perpetual Looper tool smooths the transitions in frequency and amplitude at the beginning and end of a loop for a much smoother sustain phase.
  • Thanks to DCAT (Dither Cloning Audio Technology), Peak Pro 6 offers a choice selection of industry-standard dithering algorithms without the price tag.
Perpetual Looper
Peak Pro's refined UI and improved Perpetual Looper tool marked a big step forward for this leading Mac audio editor.

For a complete list of all the new features found in Peak Pro 6, head over to BIAS's Peak Pro product page. Peak Pro 6 costs $599 and includes the Peak Pro Production Pack (Peak-only versions of the Reveal audio analysis tool, SoundSoap audio cleaner, Freq-4 EQ, Sqweez-1 compressor/limiter/expander, Vbox 3 plug-in matrix, WireTap pro audio capture, SFX Machine effects plug-in, and a gigabyte of audio samples). The XT Edition, which also ships with SoundSoap Pro, the Master Perfection Suite, and DDP Export, retails for $1,199.

Go Inside the Music: Celemony Melodyne

According to Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In that sense, the Direct Note Access feature in Celemony's Melodyne software definitely deserves the "magic" moniker.

When it was released in 2001, Melodyne was "just" a pitch-shifting and time-stretching tool with an unusually elegant and intuitive interface, and it worked great with monophonic audio signals. The latest release now allows editing of polyphonic sound material, too: just select the audio track and have Melodyne extract chords into their separate notes, displayed in the software's piano-roll interface.

Don't miss the demo videos on Celemony's website; you'll agree that this is probably the closest any audio editor has ever come to true magic. For more information on the different editions of this software, and related pricing, please consult the Melodyne product page.

Trend Alert: Staying in Control

The sheer number of control-surface-this, master-keyboard-that at Messe this year was overwhelming.

Although it may not be a trend in the usual meaning of the word, it is an ongoing phenomenon that more and more companies, especially some new-to-the-market manufacturers from China, come up with innovative ideas on how, and what, to control via good old MIDI.

Keyboards, knobs, faders, buttons, drum pads, touch-pads, even theremins — you name it, it's available as a controller. But there are also some truly far-out ideas that have been coaxed into functional hardware, like the Percussa AudioCubes and the Eowave Eobody2 interfaces. (See below.)

There is still life in MIDI, and it's inspiring to see what methods we musicians can choose from to perform our tunes.

Control Yourself: Eowave Eobody2 Wireless

If there were an award for most far-out MIDI controller, Eowave's Eobody2 sensor box would definitely be on the short list. The Eobody2 has eight inputs to which you can connect the most diverse range of sensors: ribbon controller, infrared distance sensor (similar to Roland's D-Beam), potentiometer, accelerometer, pressure sensor, switches, luminance sensor, and many more.

Eowave Eobody
An Eobody2 sensor box with a selection of sensors: touch pad in front of the MacBook, tension strip at the upper right corner of the monitor, infrared sensor at the upper left, and more.

Connected to a PC or Mac, the sensor inputs are assigned to MIDI control signals via Eowave's configuration software, providing a resolution of 12 bits via USB and 7 bits via MIDI (internally, the box always uses 12-bit resolution).

The product newly announced at Messe '08 is the Eobody2 Wireless: offering the same functionality as the Eobody2, but without requiring any cables to hook it up to the host computer, this is just the device you need to build that music performance body-suit you always dreamed of.

For the complete list of available sensors, and information on other interesting gadgets like a ribbon controller-based standalone instrument, see Eowave's website.

Hip To Be Square: Percussa AudioCubes

Often, the most inspiring products are the hardest to describe, and the Percussa AudioCubes are no exception: they're a MIDI controller, audio generator, and effects processor built into illuminated plastic cubes that can sense the proximity of your hands and communicate with each other wirelessly.

You can connect up to four "base" cubes to a computer via USB and then configure those to communicate bidirectionally with other cubes. Each cube has 1/4" audio inputs and outputs, and can synthesize or process audio with 32kHz, 9-bit resolution, aptly tagged "lo-fi" by the manufacturer. They can even beam audio between themselves via infrared.

Well, I told you this product is unusual. To get a glimpse of what you can do with the AudioCubes, check out this short video I shot (apologies for the background noise):

Highslide JS
The Percussa AudioCubes feature four infrared sensors and four transmitters that allow them to communicate with your computer and each other. (Click to watch video.)

The cubes are sold in packs of two or four, which retail for $399 and $699, respectively.

Performance as Art: Yamaha Tenori-On

Like the Percussa AudioCubes, the Yamaha Tenori-On is hard to describe. A little harder, even.

Reminiscent of Korg's Kaoss Pad series, the Tenori-On, according to Yamaha, is a "unique 16x16 LED button matrix performance controller with a stunning visual display. For DJs and producers it is a unique performance tool enabling them to perform using MIDI and load Tenori-On with samples to 'jam/improvise' within their set BPMs." Oh-kayyy....

Well, why not follow the example from the AudioCubes and show a little video. And, yes, that visual display is stunning. I'm not quite sure how the guy in the video does what he does with the Tenori-On, but the device sure does belong in the "Dude, I so gotta play with this thing next time I visit my music store" category.

Highslide JS
Proving you can chew gum and play music at the same time, Yamaha's demonstrator rocks the new Tenori-On, a Space Invader of sound. (Click to watch video.)

Trend Alert: Solid-state Recorders Everywhere

Remember DAT, MD, or — gasp! — audio cassettes as media for recording your audio? Well, those days are over.

For both portable and stationary applications, solid-state memory in the form of SD flash-RAM cards or Compact Flash modules has come to replace tape and discs, and a broad range of recorders using these media is already being offered by a number of companies.

Edirol R-09
The Edirol R-09HR is the latest version of Roland's popular flash recorder, now with higher resolution.

O'Reilly Digital Media has reviewed at least seven of these devices so far, and we have four more reviews underway. At Messe, Roland released a new spin in this category, the CD-2e, a palmtop device that records to either SD or CD, while M-Audio presented mock-ups of their flash-based MicroTrack II.

Compared to other media, solid-state memory is easier to handle, makes for quieter operation, provides faster transfer rates from the recording device to a computer, is less prone to data loss, and is often cheaper per megabyte, too. What's not to like?

Sell Your Songs: Rebeat Music Distribution

You seriously enjoy making music, writing your own songs and performing live, but what about selling your music? Rebeat Digital is a software package that promises to let you sell your songs via more than 250 online music stores, including iTunes, Musicload, and Napster.

It's not just the software, but a software-plus-distribution-contract package: you grant Rebeat exclusive distribution rights to your music for at least one year. Once you upload your tracks to Rebeat's servers, the company will encode them as required for the respective online outlet and upload them to the respective websites, making the songs available for purchase within 3–90 days after you uploaded them.

The price? A one-off fee of 99€ for the software, 1€ per uploaded song, and 15% of the revenue you make on your sales. All in all, this sounds like a compelling way to sell your own music with little administrative overhead at reasonable costs. It's also is a gateway into the major players among the online music stores for those who have not signed any "normal" record deal.

The Top Three Messe Performances

Think of Steve Jobs what you may, but the man's right when he claims that "It's all about the music."

The gear you get to see at Musikmesse each year is fascinating, some of it truly mindblowing. But what it really comes down to is what artists create with all that technology. My personal top-three for 2008 were a bad-ass groovin' studio musician combo, a teenage prog-rock cover band, and a keyboarder who masterfully interpreted a Piazzolla piece on a masterfully crafted synth.

#3: Studio Musicians Extraordinaires

PreSonus Booth Jam
PreSonus had the best in-booth jam session band at Musikmesse 2008. Period!

To demonstrate its audio recording hardware, the folks at PreSonus presented a little daily concert at 5pm, one hour before the show floor closed, and the musicians were great, as was the music they played. With Lydia from Holland on bass and vocals, Alvin (?) from Frankfurt on bass, John from Baton Rouge on guitar, and David Haynes on beat box, the band performed a fine selection of funky tunes like Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good" and Prince's "Kiss."

This band's sessions were the perfect opportunity to wind down at the end of an exhausting day at Messe, tapping your foot to the rhythm and realizing again why you're in music in the first place.

Unfortunately, PreSonus did not give out any more information on the musicians (if you do recognize them, please leave a comment below). And, although all sessions were recorded, I could not find any of them on the PreSonus website.

#2: Awake

German Dream Theater tribute band "Awake" lit up the stage.

It wasn't too long ago that I rediscovered my interest in hard rock after focusing solely on jazz and fusion for a while, and one of the bands I most enjoy listening to — both for their playing skills and for the music they write — is Dream Theater. Some of their playing, especially the high-speed unison lines between John Petrucci on guitar and Jordan Rudess on keys, is pretty darn impressive. Enter "Awake."

This German Dream Theater tribute band is comprised of musicians between the ages of 17 and 21, and the musical prowess they demonstrated onstage at Messe was jaw-dropping. Thanks to a receptive audience, this was one of the few sessions that made for a true concert experience. I hope that these guys will see the bright musical future they deserve.

If you like prog-rock a la DT, do have a go at the media files on their website. And if you don't, check them out anyway just to see how talented these guys are.

#1: Adam Holzman

Adam Holzman
Minimoog Voyager, Minimoog Voyager OS, and Little Phatty, all surrendering to the fine playing by Adam Holzman.

On the morning of my last day at Messe, I skipped breakfast at the hotel and just grabbed a bite and a coffee at a food stall in the aptly named hall 5.1, where most of the electronic keyboards, recording software, and, unfortunately, DJ electronics like turntables and mixers were shown this year. The ensuing cacophony makes for an interesting wake-up call, so I was quite touched when I realized that a beautiful melody played with a rich, lush sound managed to cut through all that 140+ BPM looped noise and pleasantly caress my ears. The substantial, organic tone somehow pushed all those other sound waves aside, dividing the sound carpet in the hall like Moses divided the Red Sea.

I realized that I had heard that melody before, and, sure enough, it was that moving piece by Astor Piazzolla that Adam Holzman had so masterfully played the day before. This experience, to me, was further proof that there is something one-of-a-kind about a Moog synth: there is an organic quality in a Moog's sound that no other electronic instrument has. And Adam Holzman, who demoed at the Moog booth for the first time this year, knew how to tap into that "organicity" to truly make the instruments shine. Thanks, Adam!

Don't Messe with Success

So, there you have it: the lasting impressions I took home with me from Musikmesse 2008 in some 4,000 words. Just 11.5 more months until next year's Messe. Can't wait!

Been to Musikmesse, too? Found more noteworthy stuff there? Then please share: comments are open below.