By Saturday, many of us are moving a bit more slowly than we were on the first day of the NAMM show. Evenings are filled with friends, live music, and a libation – or two. By day three, experienced NAMM attendees have made up a short list of products that we may have heard of from another attendee or read about in the NAMM daily, which is packed with new product announcements.
If you use altered tunings as a key part of your live show, this is something you might want to check out. I headed over to the Peavey booth – actually, it’s more like a large retail store, due to the wide range of music, sound, computer, and hi-tech products the company now manufactures. I had read about the new AT-200 electric guitar with on-board Antares Auto-Tune. I’ll admit, as a multi-decade guitar player capable of keeping my own instrument in tune, I was skeptical of the need for such an invention.
I attended a 5-minute demo that was impressive. Take a pretty standard solid body guitar and add in circuitry so that when the pickups transmit the frequency of each string, it is routed into the Auto-Tune circuit and programmed to always reproduce the proper pitch, E-A-D-G-B-E, of each unfretted guitar string. Peavey’s demo musician detuned each string by a random amount, played it to let us hear how awful it sounded, quipping, “I’m a bass player,” then he clicked on the Auto-Tune and instantly, he had a perfectly in tune guitar without touching a tuning key.
It seemed like a cool novelty. I went over to a side area to play the guitar for myself, mostly out of curiosity, when Peavey Product Manager Michael Smith came over and asked if I had any questions. I chatted with him, and as we talked he mentioned that for players who like to use alternative tunings, the Auto-Tune system could be a real benefit.
He proceeded to demonstrate 2-3 lowered tuning schemes that allowed him to switch between standard guitar tuning and the altered tunings in an instant. In this context, I recognized how this feature was a big plus. Imagine a song with a detuned, dense chordal texture for the verses and choruses, but when it comes time for the solo, switching back to standard tuning for some shredding. Now the AT-200 made perfect sense to me. The DSP software also recognized when I wanted to add my own bends or vibrato with my left hand and didn’t try to “correct” that.
As to the guitar itself, it had good action, sensitive pickups and build quality comparable to any of the five or six brands that make a reliable solid body in the $500 price range. Street price for the AT-200 is $499, and it is due out in July 2012 at Peavey dealers. Like I mentioned, if you use altered tunings, this guitar will allow you to change tunings mid-song and ensure your intonation is always dead on.
Audio-Technica’s new ribbon microphone
My next pick is a new ribbon microphone from Audio-Technica, the AT4080. Look back at classic pictures of Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, or Tony Bennett singing in the studio, and you’ll often see an RCA ribbon microphone. Unlike a condenser mic, ribbon mics operate using a thin strip of corrugated aluminum stretched between two poles of a strong magnet, which act as both a diaphragm and voice coil. Vintage ribbon mics are more delicate than a garden-variety dynamic mic since extreme sound pressure levels can distort the aluminum strip or ribbon. However, the reason artists and engineers love ribbon mics is that their sound is often described as smooth, warm, and very musical.
The AT4080 is a standard design ribbon mic, which means it picks up sound bi-directionally. Audio-Technica splurged at the NAMM show and built a sound isolated listening booth where attendees could listen more critically than out on the show floor with a few hundred musicians banging on drums, congas, cowbells, and yes, playing the intro to “Stairway” over and over. Dan Pelletier of AT gave me free rein to listen to my voice, finger snaps, and jingling car keys, three handy sources I’ll use to quickly judge a mic’s tonal range. After testing the AT4080, and comparing it to another Audio Technica mic I know quite well, the 4050 multi-pattern condenser, I’d say the 4080 would be a great addition to any studio, especially for vocals, horns, brass and anything that would benefit from a slightly darker tonal quality.
Unlike the classic ribbon mics of yesterday, the AT4080 has been designed to handle today’s studio and on-stage sound levels, boasting the ability of handling SPL levels of up to 150 dB. (For reference a jet flying overhead at 100’ is 140dB.) It also has an extended frequency range (20-18,000 Hz) when compared to classic ribbons or modern day clones, adding a bit more definition while retaining the buttery sound ribbons are known for. It also operates on standard phantom power, meaning it has active electronics, which gives higher output levels, better matching recording preamps. Current street price is $999.
Eau Claire Thunder pedal
My third pick for my last day of NAMM-venturing, was . . . another stomp box! Down in Hall E, where I kept returning to check out the often outside the box products and their equally interesting inventors, I was struck by a sound reminiscent of the classic Roland Bee-Baa fuzz box I used when I was gigging in the 70s. Once again, I followed my ears and arrived at the Dwarfcraft booth, where inventor and head geek Ben Hinz was riffing using the Eau Clair Thunder pedal.
Like many inventors you’ll meet at NAMM, Ben started by simply building gear he wanted to use himself. He showed his work to a few friends, sold a pedal here or there, and eventually found himself running a company! Ben proceeded to put the Eau Claire Thunder through its paces, wringing an impressive and extensive variety of distortion sounds out of this one pedal. His Time Warp feature adds a diode to the circuit that allows for more tonal range than a standard fuzz box. Additionally, he added a nice touch I hadn’t seen before, a pre-gain or “trim” potentiometer, which can be used to fine tune the input coming into the Tone Blast, which allows you to tweak for high output pickups which can send a stomp box too much gain.
Quality of build, screen printing and overall sound were all first class on this product and the range of toys that have sprung from Ben’s inventive mind. Highly recommended and well worth the retail price of $275.
I left NAMM inspired to spend more time in 2012 making music, a nice side effect of being immersed for three days and nights, along with 95,000 other music lovers, in a sea of innovative and creative musical devices and instruments designed to help any musician fulfill his or her musical dreams. See you next year!
Eau Claire Thunder Video. Watch a demo of the features of the Eau Claire Thunder, courtesy of Pro Guitar Shop
Ribbon Renaissance. From Mix magazine, an article that explores the new breed of ribbon mics.