Since 1901, the (kinda sorta inappropriately named at this point) National Association of Music Merchants has been welcoming music product retailers and distributors from around the globe to meet, greet, and tap those feet while rolling out the year’s hottest new products and innovations once or twice a year. The 2019 Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim was once again stuffed to the gills with rock stars, recording engineers, sales reps, and knob-twisting, fader-pushing, string-bending, rubbernecking music aficionados from every conceivable genre, all looking to catch a glimpse of the next big thing in music making and the people who make it, as well as the makers of music themselves. Folded into that (or piled onto, depending upon one’s perspective) was the addition of a whole other large and equally enthusiastically attended music-making product convention for the AES, otherwise known as the Audio Engineering Society. Together, these two organizations combined into an amazing opportunity to see, hear, and touch a huge assortment of products that felt to this musician and producer like being unleashed into the world’s largest toy box… all of which is to say that I entered its glassed and guarded doors on a dead run.
The first impression I was overwhelmed by (and I’m not saying that this is even remotely accurate, just a vibe) was that most manufacturers weren’t putting forth something I’d never seen or heard before, just a stronger and more stable version of it. Mostly, I think that’s actually a good thing. While the newness and novelty of the latest and greatest gadgets can make for an exciting and even exotic experience, there’s a lot to be said for the “slow and steady wins the race” approach of simply making familiar things better.
One manufacturer that stood out in this way does so by making new products, based upon time-honored tools, that are known to be both excellent performers and highly prized (read highly priced) flagship models, only these products have been made affordable. Warm Audio (warmaudio.com) makes the kind of audio-recording hardware that sends a recording enthusiast’s salivary glands into overdrive by the mere mention of the products they emulate, be it the WA76 Discrete Compressor that performs on a level with the Urei/Universal Audio 1176 Limiting Amplifier by employing custom Cine/Mag USA transformers and a fully discrete signal path for only $599, as compared to $2000 for the original. Or the WA-2A Opto Compressor, which nails the sound and specs of a UA Teletronix LA-2A Opto-Compressor for $899, instead of the original’s steeper tag of $3799. How about the EQP-WA Tube Equalizer, a Pultec-style EQ unit that runs a cool $699 instead of $3,895? Several hand-wired, Class A microphone preamps and channel strips are similarly represented with Warm’s own original design, the Tone Beast ($599), setting itself apart as a tone-shaping mic pre/DI, which colors and saturates the signal in myriad ways, including selectable output transformers, capacitors, opamps and input impedances! From clean to distorted and everything in between, this is one beast that seems to do it all. But what stopped me in my tracks were the microphones on display. It’s a loud showroom floor, but I could still tell that the sound of Warm Audio’s mics were absolutely revelatory across the board. Their AKG 414EB and Neumann U87 tributes (The WA-14 at $499 and the WA-87 for $599) were comfortably familiar sounding and I could almost smell Sinatra’s cigarette smoke coming off of the $899 WA-47 Tube Condenser Mic! Suddenly, the buzz and din from the tens of thousands of attendees, wailing guitars, explosive drum hits, plucked ukuleles, and trombone slurs seemed to simply fall away… replaced by a choir of angels that accompanied a halo of light emanating from the cream and chrome-appointed WA-251 Tube Condenser Microphone ($899). I have made no secret of my love of the gorgeous, open and pristine sound of Telefunken 251 ELA M over the years nor my disappointment at its out-of-reach $10,000+ price tag…but those days may soon be over.
While I was particularly impressed by what I saw and heard from Warm Audio, there were plenty of other standouts showing their impressive wares and I look forward to sharing them with you throughout the year.
Known for making ”winged” foot pedal replacement knobs that enable more creative onstage manipulation of effects, WingMan (wingmanfx.com) stood out from a particularly crowded field of stompbox competitors with Danger Zone ($249.95), an analog Tremolo/Phaser with a clever, playful look (knobs with names like “Arm,” “Fire,” and “Jet Wash”) as well as an “inverted flight” feature that can seriously twist your tone into audio macramÃ©.
Longtime developer of excellent software effects McDSP (mcdsp.com) looks to take digital recording into the future with a hefty stride via the APB-16 Analog Processing Box (price TBA), a 16-channel hardware unit that allows users to manipulate a plugin’s parameters via ProTools whilst running the signal through premium analog components and saturation circuits, “providing true digital workflow with genuine analog performance.” Digital processors scheduled to be bundled with the APB-16 include compressors, mastering limiters, transient enhancers and multi-band/ multi-channel devices, making this a must-watch product rollout.
Overall, I felt this particular NAMM show was the most organized and well-run of all the 20 or so I’d attended previously. I give a hearty and well-earned tip ‘o the chapeau to all involved in turning this monumental task into a very memorable trade show experience. Thank you and see you next year!
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an independent record producer, singer, songwriter and music journalist. (www.kaspro.com)