After the hangover of gear presentations, product announcements, blasting soundsystems and flashing lights, we’ve compiled a select list of the most interesting instruments, synths and studio gear from this year’s winter NAMM.
Anaheim’s NAMM music fair is still the world’s biggest event for pro-audio and instrument specialists (followed closely by its own Nashville-based summer variant). Frankfurt’s Musik-Messe (NAMM’s European “counterpart”) seems to have lost steam in the last few editions and, even if the synth-centric Superbooth meetings are growing each year, most of the big -and not so big- manufacturers still choose NAMM as their go to date for product announcements and presentations of their future developments.
As such NAMM is always interesting, and can even host some rather historic moments (if you haven’t done so yet, just take a look at 1983’s winter show for the first ever public demonstration of MIDI -no less!-). While some could argue that during the 90s and 00s NAMM was a bit too focused towards guitarist, things have definitely changed in recent times. Of course there still a lot of stuff for “six stringed” musicians, but the past three or four editions have certainly been some of the most interesting for synthesizer and electronic music enthusiasts. And this year keeps up with that trend… Don’t believe me? Read on!
French firm Arturia revolutionized the world of inexpensive synths when they entered the analog market back in 2012 with their now classic Minibrute, and they did it again just a year later with the even more affordable Microbrute, both featuring unusual features like wavefolding or saw animation. From then on they seem to have focused on bigger and higher priced models with their newer Minibrute 2 keyboard and 2s module, and -more evidently- with their mighty impressive Matrixbrute.
But with the Microfreak, it looks like Arturia seeks to redefine that affordable segment once again, bringing even more exotic elements to the masses. It’s the same price as the Microbrute, but unlike its cousin it features a digital oscillator section (that takes most of its code from Mutable’s Plaits and even allows paraphony), a capacitive keyboard (that screams Buchla Easel!) with polyphonic aftertouch; and an analog multimode filter that, unlike the Brute line’s VCF, is not based on the Steiner Parker design (looks like it’ll be more like an Oberheim style State Variable Filter, but with self oscillation capabilities).
Also, judging from the demos it sounds amazing. We want one!
And speaking of affordable synths… if there is a brand that is synonymous with inexpensive synthesis tools that has to be Behringer! Yes we know that at the 2019 NAMM there were lots more products from the German giant, such as the RD-808 drum machine, the VC-340 vocoder or the PRO-1 synth module (all of them clones of classic vintage Roland and Sequential gear). But all of those had already been announced and even demoed before, so it was their new Crave synthesizer that really stole the show this time.
We already mentioned in our last article that we’re fans of the Arturia Minibrute 2s. Since it couples a powerful Beatstep-Pro-styled sequencer with a semi-modular patchbay, it’s the perfect companion to an eurorack setup, both to control and to compliment it. Well, behringer seems to have taken note of that same idea, and after chopping off a few features have made an ultra-affordable (almost one third of the price!) sequencer / synth combo.
The Crave boasts a Minimoog filter, 3340-style oscillators (with Cool Audio clones of the original CEM chips) and a very nice sequencer that features ratcheting, slide, gate length and accent per step. And that’s not all, unlike the more expensive Minibrute 2s, this tiny thing also features lots of inputs to modify sequences in real time such as reset, play, stop and hold and tempo (clock).
It’s the perfect companion to a compact modular setup!
Greek synth-meisters Dreadbox not only specialize in desktop synths (like the very succesful Erebus, Abyss or Hades). They’ve also been doing pedals for a long time, with cool and unusual designs like the Lamda, Kappa or Omikron. These pedals are similar in concept to Moog´s Moogerfooger line or some of the Koma Elektronik stompboxes because they feature CV inputs and outputs, bridging the gap between the guitar and synthesizer worlds (and the Dreadbox ones do so with minijack connectors, which are easier to integrate within an eurorack setup).
But all of these are quite expensive for a pedal, with prices often ranging from 300 euros or more. With the Komorebi Chorus/Flanger, Dreadbox have ditched the wooden sides, simplified the unit by reducing the number of patchpoints and used a regular pedal enclosure. The result is a pedalboard friendly (size wise) stompbox with essential CV I/O for modular interfacing and a quite affordable price point for such a well featured product (189 euros).
Did we mention that it also sounds (and looks) great?
KORG VOLCA MODULAR
Ever since they released the Monotron, legendary synth-makers Korg have been championing the concept of affordable and portable, battery-operated synths (recycling this idea that classics like the TB-303 had already explored) with the help of the, then chief engineer, Tatsuya Takahashi. The Monotron eventually led to the Monotribe “analog groovebox”, and that led to the very popular Volca line of synths, drum machines and samplers.
The Volca line had already covered a few types of synthesis like substractive (with the Volca Bass and Keys), DX-style phase modulation synthesis (with the Volca FM) and even rudimentary forms of granular synthesis (with the Volca Sample). With the new Volca Modular Korg seeks to make the line more complete by not only covering the modular synthesis aspect with its many patchpoints (using tiny connectors similar to those used in Bastl’s Kastle or the Tinysizer), but also by going for a more Buchla-esque east-coast approach, featuring low-pass gates and wavefolding.
A 200 euro mini-Easel? We cannot think of a better addition to the Volca line.
QUILTER LABS PANOPTIGON
This was one of the coolest things on the show, yet we’re sure many people still haven’t heard about it. The Panoptigon is essentially a modern version of the Optigan and Orchestron. For those who don’t know, these were primitive sample players similar to the Mellotron in essence, but they used optical discs instead of tape medium for storing and playing the sounds. The Optigan was originally made by Mattel and the Orchestron was the upper end “professional market” version of it (for example, Kraftwerk famously used the Orchestron in albums like Trans Europe Express).
Quilter Labs had found a way to make new Optigan discs, and they soon realized that this could be the perfect occasion to also build a new disc player / instrument, this time with modern advancements like MIDI and digital effects. The Panoptigon is of course not an instrument for the masses (we’re sure it will be quite expensive and of little interest to most), but we can’t help but applaud Robert Becker and the team at Quilter Labs for such a remarkable effort.
Hopefully we will be able to afford one and, if not, please send us a unit for review Mr. Becker! 😉
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.