A brief NAMM 2019 Best Of…

The NAMM show is always a whirlwind of seeing old friends, meeting new ones, salivating over new enticing products, avoiding the infamous ‘NAMMthrax’ (an exercise in futility for me this year, unfortunately) and participating in or witnessing epic jams at various booths. I’ve never done a personal report of the show and as a Hammond Artist manning the booth for hours it’s often hard for me to get out and about among the other manufacturers as much as I’d like. But I did get to see some cool stuff and my friends at BookerLAB asked me to list my Top 5 products, so here we go!
5) The DAVE SMITH / SEQUENTIAL SYNTHESIZERS Prophet X. Sequential had a muted presence at this year’s NAMM, forgoing the customary large booth on the show floor in favor of a small room towards the front of the convention center. It was off the beaten path but that turn of phrase is an apt description of the Prophet X itself, of which there were two in the room, including the new Prophet XL. When I entered, Dave Smith was explaining the XL to a pair of fellow synth enthusiasts, so I got a free hands-on demonstration from the man himself.

Sequential Prophet X

It would be easy to write a novella about the capabilities of the Prophet X but instead I’ll keep it short and just say that it is a sound designer’s dream and I’m thankful that Mr. Smith continues to push the boundaries of what synthesizers can do even before musicians realize that’s what we want them to do. It is a worthy successor to the Prophet lineage, combining state of the art analog synthesis with meticulously recorded, beautifully crafted samples by 8dio, all packaged with Smith’s trademark intelligence and class. This is a musician’s instrument, not just a synthesizer.
4) The SynthMaster VST AU AAX iOS Software synthesizer. One of the things I love about NAMM are all the smaller companies representing products of which I am unaware. Located right across from the Mellotron booth and the Lounsberry Pedals booth (more on that later), the SynthMaster banner caught my eye only because of the product’s gloriously 80s sounding name. If only they had put the number 2000 after it! SYNTHMASTER 2000!!!! (cue laser sounds)

But the slightly goofy name belies a very capable and fantastic sounding software synth that first released to acclaim in 2012. In the years since, numerous updates have kept the synth feature laden. The gentleman at the booth was kind enough to show me around the impressive interface.The GUI and layout, reminiscent of my beloved Alchemy, was one thing but the sound is what truly captured my attention. I really don’t need another soft-synth but I have this one on my short-list anyway because of the quality of the sound and the quality of the 1800 presets. Expansion packs are available for a very reasonable fee as well. Virtual analog, wavetable, additive, FM and PM, and even vector synthesis are all represented. It is an extremely powerful and best of all affordable soft-synth that is well worth your consideration.
3) Radial KL-8. The KL-8 is the big brother to the Key Largo, a piece of gear that literally changed my life. Well, my performing life anyway. The bane of every touring keyboardist is ‘the sound guy / gal du jour’. You just never know what you’re going to get when you hit the road and don’t have the budget for your own sound person. Many are very good but many are also really bad. I could regale my fellow musicians for hours with my tales of poor sound guys that have never seen a real Leslie before. The Key Largo allows me to have separate control over my own monitor feed from my keyboards while sending the front of house a clean, isolated feed of their own. So simple and yet so brilliant.

Radial KL-8

The KL-8, like the Key Largo, is a mixer / DI specifically designed for the needs of keyboardists. Four stereo inputs each with ON/OFF buttons and CUE buttons for silent monitoring (“Is this the right patch? Oh, yep… whew!”), balanced monitor outputs with ground lift, balanced isolated main outputs with ground lift, stereo auxiliary inputs and outputs, dual headphone outputs, signal indicator LEDs per channel, and you can link multiple KL-8 units together for more inputs. Oh and it acts as an audio interface to your computer / laptop with two separate USB connections for redundancy. MIDI in and out on standard DIN connections, footswitch remote capability for switching channels, etc. etc. The list just goes on. And all housed in a 1RU metal enclosure built like a tank, with robust, high quality jacks, switches, and knobs, which is the Radial way.

My only negative with the KL-8 is that they didn’t add a panning knob and a mono switch to the input channels. But the main and monitor outputs can be set to mono independently of each other, which is handy.

2) STG Soundlabs Radiophonic One modular synth. For those that prefer their analog synthesis real, monophonic, and in modular form, the synthesizer iconoclast Suit & Tie Guy has introduced his first oscillator module, called the .VCO, which forms the basis of the new Radiophonic One package. The oscillator’s features are the kind of features one expects when an instrument is designed not by an electronics engineer but by a musician. For example, the oscillator range knob has twice the throw around the root, fifth, and octave than the other intervals, because those intervals are the most used when building patches. Smart. Other features include a range knob with a wide function, allowing you to sweep through the entire range of the oscillator with the detune knob, and a drift knob, which the website describes as “drunken walk, or perhaps a random wobbulator”, affecting the pitch of the oscillator in random ways.

With the addition of the .VCO oscillator, STG Soundlabs has the modules to offer a fully functional synthesizer, which is what they’ve done with the Radiophonic One. High quality boutique analog goodness is now in a bite-sized package with all the necessary ingredients present to cook up your own sound recipes. I spent several booth visits with both Suit & Tie Guy and his partner as they demonstrated the features of the Radiophonic One and the range and variety of textures and sounds you can coax out of the synth is awe-inspiring. It’s the perfect synth for those wanting to get into real analog synthesis or the veteran looking for something new and inspiring.

1) Hammond Leslie 142 re-issue. This was a total surprise to almost everyone at the Hammond booth but what a welcome surprise it was! Hammond Japan brought the prototype for a new Leslie to the NAMM show and it made a huge splash among the Hammond Artists like myself. The specifics are still a mystery, such as price, availability, etc. because the prototype was in a very early stage. But what we do know is that it is the same cabinet size as the vintage 142 and it has a newly designed tube amplifier centered around a pair of 6550 power tubes as well as a 12AU7 and a 12BH7 compliment for the preamp section. The motor control is from the 3300 series, so it has STOP / CHORALE / TREMOLO speeds via the 11pin Leslie connector. The horn itself is an alnico driver and there are some other secrets in there that I cannot divulge. But let me just say that the tone is gorgeously vintage.

As a prototype, there’s no information on the Hammond website. But here’s a quick video I did at NAMM, playing the Hammond XK5 through the Leslie.


HONORABLE MENTION – Lounsberry Tall Fat & Wide. I had to include this pedal on the list because even though I’ve had one since October of 2018 and it isn’t really new to me, the more I mess with it, the more I love it. And Lounsberry had a really cool booth this year right next to the Mellotron Booth and some of the small, independent analog synth makers.

This isn’t just a pedal for organ, folks. Using it on analog synths is revelatory. Even better, using it to ‘warm up’ digital synths is transcendent. I’ll be making more videos soon detailing these uses but in the meantime, check it out on a Moog Voyager. The Voyager doesn’t have a built-in overdrive circuit, as many analog synths these days do. Instead, users often take the headphone output and route it into the filter input jack, and that can be a really cool sound (the lead on Game of Ouroborus from my progressive rock project THEO’s album of the same name is a result of that technique). But oftentimes the overdrive from that method is unwieldy and exaggerated in terms of the frequency response. The Tall Fat & Wide, by contrast, is much more even across the spectrum and the range of saturation you can coax out of it is far greater.

Beyond all the gear, the best part of NAMM is seeing re-connecting with friends. I’m looking forward to next year and more good times!