Martin Dyster, vice president of business development, TV Solutions Group at the Telos Alliance, was approaching the portal to the North Hall. The new 18,580m2 addition to the Anaheim Convention Center opened in 2018 as the home to the Winter NAMM Show’s growing portfolio of 2,000-plus pro-audio exhibitors at this year’s show (24-27 January). As he walked in on what would be his first visit to the world’s largest MI expo, a colleague who’d been to the show before gave him a concise and trenchant preview: “Prepare to see the AES Show — 1996!” Then, as he gazed out upon the flying banners proclaiming brands like Solid State Logic, Focusrite, Avid, Universal Audio, Dyster, whose own career in pro audio spans over 20 years, happily proclaimed, “These are my people!”
Dyster’s reaction was similar to those of many over the last two years, as the NAMM Show’s core constituency of musicians have further evolved into music production entrepreneurs, enabled by a combination of powerful yet affordable audio platforms — Zylia showed its ZM-1 Portable Recording Studio that can track an entire band with a single microphone and then separate sources into individual tracks, for under $500 — and cloud-based enterprises that let them monetise those recordings through DIY distribution and marketing schema, like that of BandLab, the social media site that bought music production software developer Cakewalk last year, two years after it acquired a 49% interest in Rolling Stone magazine — that have swelled the ranks of producers and engineers.
As that trend progressed over the last decade and a half, the Audio Engineering Society, watching as attendance at its own AES Show expos declined, was compelled to progressively throw more of its lot in with NAMM’s increasing vitality. That began in 2011, when the TEC Awards moved its event from the AES Show to Winter NAMM. Since then, AES has been developing more and more technical training content for NAMM’s main event, under the banner AES@NAMM. In fact, NAMM’s new emphasis on pro audio led to the announcement ahead of this year’s show of a new three-year partnership with the AES, extending through January 2021, through which AES will develop and deliver a wide range of educational offerings, including expert speaker sessions, technical presentations and hands-on training “to benefit current and future industry professionals,” according to the announcement.
The pro audio conference’s more-than 300 offerings included half-day line array loudspeaker system classes augmented by hands-on training, and wireless systems workshops that offered classroom training of hardware- and software-based products.
A Live-ly Place
One thing that really stood out at this year’s expo was the sheer number of live-sound PA systems on display and being demoed, around what was the first of what NAMM has dubbed the Loudspeaker System Showcase. We lost count of the stands occupied by speaker-system manufacturers on the floor in the North Hall pro audio area after hitting the two-dozen mark, but the Loudspeaker System Showcase took that one big step further with system demos in rooms in the main hall. In all, 13 participating companies, including Alcons Audio, Crest Audio, dbTechnologies, L-Acoustics, Martin Audio, RCF and Yorkville demonstrated their flown and portable systems as part of the Showcase. The demo rooms were a bit smaller than those that PA makers have been able to access in Las Vegas and Orlando during the InfoComm Shows, which has also become a major stop in the live-sound tour, but NAMM let them hit a decent SPL level by alternating adjacent rooms, keeping tightly scheduled, simultaneous demos separated by an open space during the Showcase, which ran Thursday, January 24 through Saturday, January 26.
(Noise has always been a factor at NAMM Shows, even before this level of pro-audio presence. NAMM sends two-person teams equipped with dB/SPL meters around the show floor, trying to keep booths within the stated 85-dB maximum sound level. Enforcing that goal remains, at best, a Sisyphean task.)
In what has become a massively crowded market, live-sound system makers are using NAMM to debut the technologies they need to differentiate themselves. For instance, PK Audio, a relatively new entry from Canada, demoed its new Trinity 10 Line Array which uses remotely controlled robotics and motorised hinges between enclosures in the array hangs to allow changes in degrees, and thus coverage, without the need to take the system down for repositioning. Bose Professional used the show to introduce its new ArenaMatch Delta Q Array System which is intended for outdoor installed-sound applications. Meanwhile, d&b audiotechnik launched the KSL System, the new addition to its top-range the SL Series concert line array. “This was d&b audiotechnik’s most significant product release outside of Germany in the company’s history. We chose The NAMM Show for a launch of this stature because the timing and location of NAMM is so well suited to our global market,” said d&b audiotechnik Chief Marketing Officer David Claringbold.
And The Awards Go To…
The NAMM Show has become a locus for pro audio products, which is why it’s also now a destination for the culture around them. The TEC Awards, which moved from the AES Show to the NAMM Show in 2011, were a highlight of the event. Winners of the 23 technical and eight creative-achievement categories included Audio-Technica’s ATH-M60x, Yamaha’s CL/QL StageMix v.7, and JBL’s new VTX A12W. New entrants into the TEC Hall of Fame included the Beyerdynamic M160 ribbon microphone, Bell Labs’ electret microphone patent, and the Modular Moog Synthesizer. The Parnelli Awards, which honour achievement in areas related to live sound and touring, saw plaudits granted to the L-Acoustics/L-ISA immersive audio system and Chauvet Professional’s Maverick MK Pyxis fixture, among others.
Whilst the NAMM Show has turned into a serious setting for the competitive business of pro audio, it has retained a humour about it all that sets it apart from other tech expos. The jokes about big hair and Spandex clothing have survived the demise of those relics of 1980s music culture, but both were in abundance on the main show floor, with no trace of irony whatsoever.
The capper, though, might have been the keystone address in the Anaheim Marriott’s Grand Ballroom by Derek Smalls, formerly bassist with the most hallowed cultural icon of the era, the band formerly known as Spinal Tap, the stars of the first and only mocku-rocku-mentary, 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. In addition to reminiscing about the band, Smalls (who sounds remarkably like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons) ripped his bass into an 11-foot-tall Ampeg SVT bass amp, which went to “11” in more ways than one. Derek went on to host ‘Bass Off’ on the Yamaha main stage on Saturday evening, an event sponsored by long standing NAMM collaborator The John Lennon Bus.
With all of the focus on Pro-Audio, it was easy to forget the usual plethora of instruments and music equipment around the show, and there were certainly still plenty to look at and hear especially in the drum section of the main hall. Also, it was great to see Gibson re-emerging from a tricky period a few months back exhibiting as strongly as ever as if nothing was ever going to knock them off their spot.
One observation we made, echoed by many whom we spoke to, was that it was easier to miss people. With the show spread across more halls, further apart enabling people to spend their whole show in different halls, it was necessary to actually make arrangements to meet when it used to be possible to rely on running into each other. In the wider environs of the show, with endless new hotels, and restaurant constructions it seemed one had to work even harder to find suitable places to eat and talk, and we still found ourselves running into friends or colleagues at even the most out of the way places. The Hilton and the Marriott stages and bars remained busy and vibrant although there was a sense that business was taking over from simply partying for much of the time. But then, perhaps we are just getting older…
This year’s NAMM expo attracted 115,301, slightly topping last year’s NAMM Show draw of 115,085 attendees.
ACC pro audio hall
Chauvet Parnelli winners
Big crowds at Universal Audio
Jazz action at the Marriott stage
Harman announcing JBL product design award
Design My JBL award winning design
d&b SL Series TEC Award nominee
Derek Smalls Bass Off
Derek Smalls formerly of the band formerly known as Spinal Tap, and some bass players...
L-Acoustics win PSW Readers Choice Best Sound Reinforcement System
Lectstrosonics Duet wins FOH Best IEM Hardware Award
Ralph Goldheim and Arturia pulling the crowds
Renkus Heinz stage at the Hilton
RW with Lectrosonics and Marco Mendoza
RW with Susan Wolf and the 11ft Ampeg SVT
RW with Stone Henge at Line 6
The sound police take on a new look