Our Music Technology Editor, George Hess, suffered from Gear Acquisition Syndrome at the Winter NAMM show in Los Angeles, which took place in January 2018.
I attended NAMM for the very first time last month and what an experience it was. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, it’s an annual event put on by the National Association of Music Merchants where manufacturers display their wares and announce new products. It’s called the National Association but it’s truly international. There are people and members from all over the world here.
The next generation
I accompanied a student who, along with about 90 other students, received a scholarship from NAMM and the College Music Society to participate in the GenNext programme. This is a great programme, one you should encourage your students to apply to. Students choose sessions to attend in in the morning and then are free to roam the show in the afternoon. A bonus this year was a free pass to the Audio Engineering Society (AES) sessions that were at NAMM for the first time.
Over 5,000 students applied so it’s very competitive. My student was the only one selected who was not from North America and I’m told they are very keen to have more international students. The scholarship includes a stipend that will help but travel expenses are the student’s responsibility. However, there are many non-US companies, both manufacturers and retail, who attend the show and I’m sure some of them would be willing to help sponsor a deserving young student.
On to the show
With my student well taken care of, I was off to enjoy the show myself. I expected it to be fun but there’s no way you can imagine just how awesome it is until you experience it. Way beyond the proverbial kid in a candy store, this was Willy Wonka’s factory! Two huge buildings filled with every possible music-making idea you can imagine from traditional to experimental and beyond.
It’s also one of the loudest places you’ll ever visit. There’s music happening everywhere. There are performances and demonstrations that range from traditional to cutting-edge experimental. Some of the things I heard were:
- A harpist with an array of stomp boxes that would put most guitarists into permanent GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)
- Chris Lord-Alge at the mixing board. If you don’t think that’s performance, you haven’t seen him mix
- Awesome jazz pianist, Jesus Molina, just killing it
- Getting our kicks with Ellis Hall, the Ambassador of Soul
- Countless DJs spinning
- And thousands upon thousands of show attendees trying out all of the gear and instruments
The big impression I took away from the show is just how many facets there are to making music today. Everything from Orff instruments to the most advanced audio networking was represented. It’s also clear that the show is a microcosm of how music is made. It’s expensive to exhibit at the show so most of the vendors here are well established businesses that aren’t going anywhere soon. That’s not to say there aren’t small niche vendors and startups here but what’s on display here is what the public is buying.
What it’s all about
So in that context, here are five takeaways from the show.
Traditional instruments are still an important part of music
- Outside of our niche, it’s easy to get the impression that everything in music is about technology. But teachers will be happy to know that traditional music-making is still a significant part of the music industry. I didn’t expect much in the way of new instruments in this category – though there was a rather strange hybrid of a euphonium and a saxophone – so most of the new products in this section were for accessories. There are more instrument makers out of Asia with whole sections devoted to inexpensive Chinese-made instruments and products. It’s difficult to assess the quality of these at a show like this but budget-conscious music programmes should be able to find some serviceable equipment.
- On the other hand, there was a notable (pun intended) dearth of printed music and notation software. The two largest publishers, Alfred and Hal Leonard, had large displays but there was little else. Notation software was represented but didn’t generate much buzz either as only Sibelius announced an upgrade. This isn’t to say notation is going away but it is not at the heart of a lot of music-making.
The guitar isn’t going anywhere anytime soon
- Guitar sales have dropped significantly in recent years, largely mirroring its decreased prominence in modern popular music. But you wouldn’t know it from this show. There are still more guitars here than anything else. Most of the major guitar-makers had their own rooms and the number of high-end custom-made instruments was surprising. One very notable absence was Gibson. Rumours of financial troubles and odd management decisions rendered one of guitar’s most venerable brands as something of a joke among participants at the show.
Electronic technology is at the core of music-making today and is one of the driving forces
- There’s no escaping it; most modern music is made with technology. A lot of it. Technology had two floors of the hall to itself but still spilled out everywhere. Recording gear was hot this year, especially high-end microphones. Tube microphones are in demand and the number of very high-end mics available was surprising. But there were also a lot of really excellent mics to be found in the entry-level market. In particular, offerings from sE Electronics and Warm Audio were impressive. Couple one with one of the new audio interfaces from Universal Audio, Audient or Focusrite and you have a top-notch recording setup. Most of the major DAWs received upgrades. Logic, BItwig Studio and ProTools debuted new versions for the show while Cubase had released v9.5 last month and Ableton released v.10 a few days after the show. A new sample library, Orchestral Tools, threatens to take the crown in that category. And maybe the most useful device for education is the new handheld Zoom H1 stereo recorder at under £75.
The analogue revival is just beginning
- Hardware analogue synths were red hot at the show. There was only a relatively small area dedicated to modular synths but it was packed with people throughout the show. New analogue synths from Korg and Arturia had lines of people waiting to try them as did the Elektron Digitone. It’s notable that many of these synths don’t have a keyboard, including a show favourite, the Blip Blox, a brightly coloured unit that looks like a children’s toy but is really a pretty sophisticated synth. It’s intended to introduce children as young as three to electronic music. Which leads me to the final point…
Rumours of death of the music business are greatly exaggerated
- We’ve been hearing about the decline of the music industry for some time now. But from what I can see, the music business is incredibly healthy. NAMM was so large this year that it had to expand into a second hall. Someone is buying all this gear. What may have changed is who.
Technology has created an environment where just about anyone can make passable music. Ironically, it was technology that led to the decline of amateur music-making so it’s only fair that it now is responsible for its resurgence.
There’s a tendency to turn our collective noses up at this as something on par with playing video games. But if you’ve watched someone creating electronic dance music, you know a lot of hard work and skill goes into it. So where are these young people learning this? Well, for the most part, it isn’t in our music classrooms. Much like the rock music of the 60s, they are learning to do this informally from peers with little influence from music educators. This looks to be a huge missed opportunity. Fifty years ago, music education spurned rock music and missed the chance to engage entire generations.
Do we really want to make the same mistake twice?
Header photo: A NAMM 2018 showcase
About the author
George Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.
Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.