One Day in Gear Heaven – NAMM Blog, Day 1

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Approaching the convention center

NAMM Blog: Day 1 (Jan 13, 2011)

Today was my first day at the 2011 Winter NAMM Convention, a gathering of more than 80,000 people involved in the music products industry. Everything from harmonicas to the latest recording hardware and software is on display from more than 1,300 companies, often demoed by the engineers and techs that invented them. This will be the first of three postings about what I discovered at this year’s show.

Karl George of WhoTune

One of the main reasons to come to NAMM is to check out new ideas of how music is being made and shared. The first new company that impressed me was from Australia, called WhoTune. Billed as the “world’s only social network dedicated 100% to music,” WhoTune offers a wide range of mostly free features allowing musicians to share and sell their music. I visited with Karl George, Managing Director of the company, who discussed its steady growth. “We currently have 30,000 registered users all over the world,” he said. One of the most innovative features is WhoTune’s Live Cams, which allow registered users to perform live in real-time with a webcam and microphone. In fact, Karl invited me to drop by his booth tomorrow to hang and see a live web concert by a rising star, Ottawa-based artist, Rick Knowles. Setting up an account is free, and you can sell your tunes via the site, with WhoTune taking a 15% cut of the revenue, a figure much less than most other online retail stores.

WhoTune offers artists a unique chart system driven by listener votes, providing a real-world barometer for popularity among the WhoTune user community. Similar to Facebook, artists have a wall space for sharing messages with fans and other musicians, creating a sense of community that can also foster collaboration. “A few artists that were having trouble finishing a new song, posted their work in progress on the ‘Pimp My Song’ area of the site allowing other WhoTune members to help them complete it,” said Karl, further emphasizing the open and collaborative community that is emerging on whotune. This is definitely a site that any aspiring artist should take advantage of, as it an only help you build your fan base.

The Kitara digital guitar.

The next product that caught my ear and eye is a futuristic looking digital guitar, the Kitara. Rather than the traditional six strings found on a guitar, the Kitara has six small buttons on each fret, each corresponding to where the string would be. In place of the sound hole found on an acoustic guitar, it has an eight-inch multi-touch screen that allows you to play notes and chords by tapping or sliding your fingers. It sounds a bit odd, but at the demo I saw, another musician who had never touched the Kitara was playing smoothly in less than a minute, demonstrating its intuitive design. Unlike some of the earlier generations of guitar synths which had a time lag between when you struck a note and when it was heard, the Kitara has a latency of less than .05 milliseconds, which is virtually nil to the player. With 128 on-board totally assignable sounds, and MIDI, ¼” and headphone direct outputs, the Kitara is ready to be used right out of the package. You can also use its MIDI features to control samplers, synths or computer-based soft synths. Literally hot off the assembly lines, US shipments will begin in April of this year, with pre orders being taken now on the company’s website. Suggested retail is $849.

HAPI founder Grahm Doe.

Finally, I returned to the world of analog sound for a wonderfully pleasing line of percussion instruments from a company called HAPI Drum, located in the foothills of California’s gold country. HAPI stands for Hand Activated Percussion Instrument, and the first instrument I tried had a uniquely warm and resonant sound. Dubbed the HAPI Drum (Original), it’s a 12” wide, 8” high custom made steel drum in a rounded shape. Its eight vibrating steel tongues can be struck by hand or with a mallet to create its tones, producing a mellow, sustained note. HAPI Drum founder, Grahm Doe, picked one up and proceeded to explain to me that it was a great first instrument, totally intuitive for musicians or non-musicians. “There are no wrong notes,” he said, “since it is available in a number of different pentatonic scales.” With a list price of $375, HAPI Drum Original would make an ideal addition to the DIY home studio musician looking for new sounds and textures to distinguish one’s recordings. Grahm also offers a “Slim” version of the HAPI drum which is even more portable ($345 list); a big brother, dubbed the UFO which has 11 notes of the C Major scale (list $675); and the very flexible HAPI Bell, which is a multipurpose instrument that can be used as a bell, gong, tongue drum in F Major, and a singing drum when inverted and played with the supplied wooden dowel.

The thing that impressed me the most about the HAPI Drum products was the richness and sustain that each offered. I could already hear them (in my mind) doubling a vocal melody or plucked bass line, adding a unique texture to my next recording. I’m definitely thinking about adding one to my musical kit.

As I only covered about one-tenth of the exhibitors, I’m looking forward to tomorrow to another day of discovery and another report tomorrow night from the front lines of the musical instrument world.

Read Part II

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