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Power of Ten

Ableton Live 9, Korg's MS-20 Mini, and Moog's Sub Phatty make our 10 Biggest Announcements at NAMM 2013

By Francis Preve
MS20-Mini

For the uninitiated, The NAMM Show is one of the musical instrument industry’s biggest events. Like the annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit, NAMM (short for the National Association of Music Merchants) is a tradeshow where manufacturers from around the world debut the latest tech toys and musical instruments to literally tens of thousands of attendees—think Winter Music Conference but for production tools, and you have the general idea.

This year’s NAMM was a mashup of recently announced gear combined with some truly incredible surprises from companies like Korg, Dave Smith Instruments, and Moog. After assessing the announcements, we picked our 10 coolest products at NAMM 2013. And here they are…

10. Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer

The popularity of the iPad has become irresistible for all but the most stubborn of software developers. Korg has released no fewer than four powerful production tools, and Moog entered the fray a couple of years ago with their slick and useful Animoog app. This year, Yamaha blew a few minds with their remarkably capable—and aptly named—Mobile Music Sequencer, an alternative to Apple’s ever-popular GarageBand iOS app, but integrated with Steinberg’s Cubase and Yamaha’s own workstations. With 92 sounds (including nine drum kits), capable effects and processing, file export, and SoundCloud tools baked in, it looks like Cubase fans are finally going to be able to compose in subways and coffeeshops to their hearts’ content.


9. Buchla Music Easel

While Don Buchla may not have the name recognition of other synthesis pioneers, his products have a mystique so powerful that artists like Deadmau5 are willing to write five-figure checks for modular synths that include exotic component names like Arbitrary Function Generator and Source of Uncertainty (I swear to god, I did not just make those up).

This year’s landmark reissue of the semi-legendary Buchla Music Easel doesn’t make it any easier for the masses to partake in the fun, thanks to its list price of around $4000, but it does bring the Buchla pedigree within reach of a slightly wider audience. It’s also a fraction of the price of an original unit on eBay. So for that reason alone, it’s worthy of inclusion on this list.


8. Native Instruments Reverb Classics

Twenty years ago, Mercedes-class digital reverb units like the Lexicon 480L cost upwards of 20 grand, and were used on countless major-label releases. Even now, a well-maintained 480L can run upwards of $5000 at auction. So Native Instruments’ new Reverb Classics bundle is practically a steal at $200. While the marketing materials don’t directly state that these software emulatiors are based on the Lexicon, their user interfaces tell a different story with panel layouts that strongly evoke the originals. These are warm, lush, expansive reverbs, tailor-made for trance and progressive users who are willing to shell out a little extra cash for classic and hard-to-find ambiences.

7. Mode Machines SID

Game geeks and synth nerds often speak of the MOS Technology SID chip with extreme reverence. Those 8-bit silicon slivers, with their limited frequency response and oh-so-retro sound, served as core audio components in the groundbreaking Commodore 64 computers of the early ’80s. When Mode Machines’ SID was first announced last fall, it caused quite a stir thanks to its mutant fusion of the classic Roland TB-303 design with the videogame sounds of the SID. As of this NAMM, its shipping date has moved into the very near future, with first units hitting the sweaty palms of gear freaks during the next few months.

6. **TIE Novation Launch Keys and Livid Base

Invariably, there are multiple MIDI-controller announcements at every NAMM event, but this year included two standout products, each with its own unique strengths, making it difficult to chose just one. So we didn’t.

Novation’s new LaunchKey controllers blur the line between Ableton-centric button boxes and full-on keyboards, enabling producers, DJs, and live-PA acts to take their performances up a notch with knobs, sliders, and dedicated launch buttons for Live’s clips.


Never one to disappoint, Livid’s new Base controller eschews moving parts entirely, delivering a grid of 32 backlit launch buttons with integrated LEDs capable of generating pretty much any color in the spectrum. Above that grid are oh-so-sexy touch faders along the lines of Akai’s MAX49. This combination of color, simplicity, and futurism made the Base one of the most talked-about controllers at the event.


5. Moog Sub Phatty

In the past decade, Moog has become the Apple of analog synths, with their world-class pedigree and sought-after sound. Naturally, NAMM is their main event for debuting new combinations of their legendary filters and meaty oscillators. While the 24-karat-gold Voyager in this year’s booth was certainly blingy enough to satisfy the hip-hop and R&B crowd, it was their newest Phatty synth that caught the attention of hardcore Moog devotees. The Sub Phatty synth takes their original Phatty engine, then redlines it with the addition of a sub-oscillator and unique new distortion/overdrive amenities. As if that weren’t enough, they added a panoply of knobs, so the Sub Phatty becomes a tweaker’s delight in ways that its forebears weren’t. Now if they could just crib another note from Apple’s playbook and simplify their product line-up, helping new users more easily decide which genuinely epic Moog synth to buy. Decisions, decisions…


4. Tom Oberheim Two Voice Pro

When Tom Oberheim announced his upcoming Two Voice Pro keyboard last year, the crowd went wild. His SEM reissue has been a huge success with the in-crowd, thanks to its slavish attention to detail, perfect recreation of the original’s sound, and sub $1k pricing. While the new Two Voice Pro wasn’t technically on the NAMM show floor, the Tom Oberheim buzz at the event was still very much in effect, due to his timely announcement that it will be shipping sometime this spring. With an architecture that consists of two discrete SEMs, advanced step-sequencing tools, and a plethora of control voltage ins and outs for integrating it with modular rigs, the Two Voice is poised to be the exoticar of the synth world in 2013—and frankly, I can’t wait to get my hands on one.

3. Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12

One of the biggest surprises of the show was Grammy-winning Dave Smith’s new Prophet 12 polysynth. With four oscillators per voice, resonant low- and high-pass filters, analog and digital waveform generation, four delays per voice, über-cool tuned feedback tools, and the ability to modulate almost every aspect of the synth’s engine with LFOs, envelopes, and/or MIDI control, the Prophet 12 is positioned to be the ultimate hybrid polysynth. Period.

I’ve owned a Prophet 08 since its original release and can testify that it’s one of the most flexible and warm synths in my studio. The Prophet 12′s specs have actually got me wondering whether it’s time to sell it and upgrade to the newer model—and that’s something I didn’t think was possible. This keyboard is yet another reason why Dave Smith is a living legend when it comes to synthesizer design.


2. Korg MS-20 Mini

We had a very hard time deciding between the MS-20 Mini and Prophet 12 for the #2 slot in this line-up, but the MS-20 Mini edged out the Prophet by a hair simply because it came as a complete shock to NAMM attendees. The original Korg MS-20 is truly the stuff of vintage dreams, with its control-voltage amenities, modular-synthesis tools, and (are you seated?) pitch-to-voltage conversion features.

For years, the original models have been steadily increasing in value on eBay, with pristine units routinely commanding over $2000. So while Korg could have cashed in and easily charged over a grand for this note-perfect reissue, they instead dropped the price to an astonishing $599. Those factors combined made the MS-20 Mini a true NAMM show-stopper. Go Korg!


1. Ableton Live 9

C’mon—you knew this was coming. Even though Ableton pre-announced Live 9 last fall, with their beta program and cool upgrade pricing program for new Live 8 buyers, this year’s NAMM event was the big coming-out party for dance music’s favorite DAW platform. After all, Live is the only app that you can both DJ and produce in—and its completely intuitive approach to each has made it #1 in the hearts and minds of electronic artists worldwide.

So Live 9′s new features, like the magical ability to convert recorded instruments, vocals, and even harmonies directly into MIDI information, make it an absolute shoo-in for product of the show, even though it still won’t be on sale for another few months. Throw in Cytomic’s brilliant Glue compression plug-in, vastly improved EQ tools, and a truly awesome feature that can convert any audio drum groove into a ready-to-roll MIDI sequence (complete with intelligent drum-sample assignments) and you’ve got the makings of another production revolution—and maybe even a new genre or two.