Erik Hawkins

Hawk’s NAMM 2014 Report

Erik Hawkins

This year’s NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) was off the hook!  A few years ago when the economy was really in the doldrums there were significantly fewer participants. This year saw hundreds of manufacturers displaying their wares, thousands of patrons checking out the newest music gear, and a whole lot of business deals in the works.

Best of all, this year’s NAMM highlighted electronic dance music (EDM) for the first time with DJ sets and audio expos, including panels featuring Crystal Method’s Ken Jordan and Grammy Award-nominated DJ/producer BT hosting the Technical Excellence and Creatively Awards (TEC). Nightly, there were DJs, including Greyboy, QBert and Melo D, spinning on The Venue Stage presented by Pioneer DJ. In short, it was a wild party for music gear addicts.

There are so many products to see in a show of this size that it’s impossible to see them all. So when I’m wandering the floor I usually have a few general categories I’m looking out for. This year, the categories were: innovative mixing control surfaces, MIDI controllers with decent finger drum pads, and interesting new software. Anything else that catches my eye and holds my attention is frosting on the cake.

Mixer Control Surfaces

If you’ve been paying attention it’s obvious that touch screen control of your software is the wave of the future. From iPads to Windows 8, direct interaction with your software using a touch screen is cropping up all around us. Just look at what Mackie has done with its DL806 and DL1608 units. I had a chance to check out the latest control software (Master Fader 2.0) for the iPad and it felt amazing. Very positive and intuitive. Plus, the new EQ and Compressor models were stellar.

The SSL Nucleus is cool, and even though it’s also an audio interface, in my opinion it’s way overpriced. Consider the options (sans audio interface), if you’re on a budget, Behringer introduces the X-TOUCH Universal Control Surface for just $599. It’s due out later this year, features motorized faders, scribble strips, and runs in HUI and Logic control modes. It has some striking similarities to Mackie’s venerable old HUI control surface.

Or, for just half the price of the Nucleus you can pick up Slate Pro Audio’s Raven MTi 27-inch Multitouch DAW Controller ($2,500). It’s like an iPad on steroids! I finely had a chance to sit down with this beast at the show and it was astounding. I will definitely be scrutinizing the Raven MTi more closely and seriously considering one for my home studio. Just think about it, no more delicate motorized faders and knobs to break.

MIDI Controllers & Finger Drum Pads

For a long time there’s only been a few good choices on the market for small, inexpensive keyboard controllers that also feature great finger drum pads. Major kudos go to Alesis for designing the new V Series keyboard controllers with the drum pads to the left of the keyboard rather than above the keyboard. About time! The drum pads felt responsive with a nice velocity curve. The keyboard comes in 25, 49, and 61 key flavors and should be available in a couple of months, starting at $129 for the smallest unit.

I’m a big fan of Nektar keyboards because they feel great and integrate seamlessly with Reason (as well as many other DAW programs). Unfortunately, their keyboards have been out of the price range of many of my students. So I’m very happy to announce that they have a couple of new, less expensive, keyboard controllers, the LX49 (shipping now for $180) and the LX25 (coming soon for $120). Considering how well Naktar’s Panorama keyboard works with Reason, I’m sure the LX series keyboards will integrate just as seamlessly. If it does, the LX25 will be my new top pick for students who need a small MIDI controller keyboard that works great and doesn’t break the bank.

M-Audio’s new Trigger Finger Pro looks interesting but I wasn’t excited about how the drum pads felt. On-the-other-hand—or should I say finger?—Arturia’sBeatStep feels really good, with very responsive pads, and an intriguing built-in 16-step sequencer. For $99 it’s hard to complain about this fun gizmo.

But if you’re looking for a MIDI controller that’s really different, check out theAlphaSphere (about $800).  I had a blast playing with this device. They had it set up to work with Ableton Live. The pads are squishy and send MIDI aftertouch so you can apply pressure on a pad to modulate your sound source. Too cool!

Tweaking & Hero Cams

Hands down the most exciting piece of software I saw was iZotope’s Break Tweaker ($249 but currently on sale for $199), developed with BT. (Interesting, the software’s acronym is the same as the artist’s name, strangely suspicious.) I got the full demo at the show and it looks amazing. I can’t wait to get my hands on this and start tweaking!

GoPro was at the show, yes, the live action camera people. They had an amazing booth set up with a big, see-through isolation booth containing instruments for bands to play. There were GoPro Hero 3+ cameras available for the musicians to attach to their instruments (such as the headstock of a guitar) as they were jamming and the video from each camera was streamed to giant screens outside the booth. Seeing the GoPro cameras being used for musical performances gets me thinking about how these cameras could be used for teaching online and video chats. This is going to be a fun ride!

Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins

Erik Hawkins is a composer, producer, remixer, and author whose talents and technical expertise have leaders in the music industry calling him a "taste maker." He has worked with and remixed a variety of top artists, including Scatman Crothers, Irene Cara, Digital Underground, Conscious Daughters, Strypper, Brenda Russell, and DJ Sasha. His own progressive dance music tracks have been used by major television networks and film studios, including ABC, CBS, FOX, MTV, Nickelodian, and New Line Cinema. His articles and columns have been published in Remix, Mix, Electronic Musician, MC2, Keyboard, and DigiZine. He has also written several books, including The Complete Guide to Remixing (Berklee Press), and Producing Drum Beats (Berklee Press). His Berklee Online course, Programming and Producing Drum Beats, won the UPCEA Best Online Course Award for 2011.