As a musician, I've known about NAMM for years, but until this year, I never had an opportunity to attend. With many, many thanks to REMO for making me their guest, I'm here in my hotel room at the Hilton in Anaheim, nursing ridiculously sore feet from a day of way more musical information, sights and sounds than I can process. For my fellow drummers curious what the industry themes, trends and offerings are this year, and for other musicians curious about the NAMM experience in general, I offer the following, somewhat stream of conciousness thoughts on what I've seen so far, along with a feed of my TwitPic photos at the end of this post.
First, some misc. kudos and credits:
The Hilton is terrific and the staff very professional and helpful. I honestly think this is the fastest room service in the business. Food is very good and I can't believe how quickly that get it to my room, especially considering the place is at capacity. I booked just about three weeks ago, by the way, and was thrilled that I was able to book my entire four-night stay on points: No black-out due to the show, which I feared and -- with show rates around $419 a night -- which must have been tempting for the Hilton HHonors folks to put into place.
NAMM registration was a breeze. Plenty of advance emails gave me all the information I needed and once I hit the hotel, it was a matter of just a few minutes in line, and then I had my badge and was good to go.
The NAMM iPhone app is absolutely first class and far more robust than I expected. Easily navigated listings of exhibitors, concerts, special events, presenters, venue maps, etc. are helpful, but I'm really delighted with the one-click add-to-calendar functionality that lets me build and revise my personal show schedule on the fly. This is more than a happy convenience. With so much going on at the same time, planning your booth visits and other activities is a must for people like me who are predisposed to wanting a little structure. The exhibitor listings include a one-click "find on map" function which is quite helpful. I haven't had cause to use other conference or trade show apps, so I can't say how this compares, but I can say that it'll be the standard I hold others to in the future.
As exceptional as the app is, however, there's still room for improvement. Using booth numbers for the main show floor makes perfect sense, but when an exhibitor occupies a separate room with an existing designation, it doesn't help me to call it booth 100 when it would be easier to simply call it what it is: the Marquis Ballroom. My search for Yamaha bounced me between two buildings before I decoded the right information. Also, the app's artist and event descriptions could use some beefing up. I suspect it's hard to get all the right promotional copy from all the exhibitors and sponsors, but as it is, I have almost no information to go on when evaluating which special events I want to go.
Congrats to fellow drummer Joe Lamond, NAMM president and CEO, for a great opening session. His "Breakfast with Champions" program this morning was entertaining, inspiring, informative and very well conceived. With guests ranging from the inventor of MIDI, to a baseball player, a politician, icons of manufacturing and leaders in retailing, Joe asked simple, but direct and thought-provoking questions about the state of the music business and engaged in brief but meaningful and compelling interviews. It set a warm and welcoming tone.
Plus, it started and ended on time, videos played when they were supposed to, people came on stage on cue, and the production values -- with one exception -- were quite good. In my profession as a communciations executive I've attended countless meetings, shows, conference, and the like where that wasn't the case. Keeping the trains running smoothly is the hardest part of a show like this and it's impressive to see it done right. The one dissapointment of the morning session was the audio quality, ironically enough. Mics weren't always hot when they should have been and someone seemed to be playing teeter-totter with the volume controls. It was just plain hard to hear too much of the time. In light of all the other positives, though, this was a minor annoyance at best.
Okay, on to the show floor. My time was divided betwen my own booth-surfing and a couple hours visiting a handful of industry VIPs with Dr. Charles T. Menghini, president of VanderCook College of Music, and George Quinlan, chairman of the board of trustees at VanderCook. I'm also a member of the board. Together we visited several industry friends of the college. Drummers will be interested in particular in our friends at REMO, founder Remo Beli and president Brock Kaericher, and Vic Firth. All three of these gentlemen are simply first-class individuals, great story-tellers, and savvy, savvy busines professionals.
Let's start with their booths to dig into the gear-sightings.
REMO's big news is its debut of the Powerstroke Pro bass drum head. Essentially an answer to Evans' long-popular EMADs, the new Powerstroke Pros are constructed with 10 mil film and feature a permanently mounted foam ring resulting in canon shots from your pedal. I played one and got everything out of it I would want for a big, articulate, thumping concert sound on stage. It was responsive at all dynamic levels and boomed without being muddy. The new heads are available in 18" through 24" sizes.
I was also impressed with an innovation nurtured from brainstorm to production by Remo Beli himself: "NSL Drums." Mr. Beli is one of the world's preiminent advocates for integrating drums into healthcare and community settings (drum circles, etc.) and it occured to him recently that while the healing gospel of drums is well-founded in science and research, there was one potential vulnerability: Drums can get loud. The last thing you want to do in, say, a music therapy setting, is overwhelm the participants with volume. NSL stands for "Not So Loud" and is a brilliant line of hand drums with heads that have been specially constructed to eliminate various overtones and keep the overall dynamic level of the instruments at a nearly conversational level. It's a smart idea and one that I imagine will be welcomed by many in the therapeutic and recreational drumming movements.
While not strictly "new" for NAMM 2011, REMO's Skyntone line is worth mentioning here as well. Brock recently turned me onto the the Skyntone snare head, which is the company's best effort to date in capturing the sound of real calf. And it's a hell of an effort. (You can find my previous review of Skyntone heads here.) As a primarily jazz drummer, I'm absolutely thrilled with this head. However, when I called a variety of retailers to order up a full set of the heads for my toms, no one could get them for me, and in fact said they were available in snare sizes only. Well, I'm happy to say Skytones are now available in 10", 12", 13", 14", 15" and 16" sizes. I'm placing my order as soon as I get home ...
Over at Vic Firth's booth the first thing I saw literally fulfilled my latest stick bag dream. On my New Year's eve gig I was thinking how much I dislike my current set mallets. They're an old set of Vic's SD1s with full-size mallet heads on the butt end. The bead's too big and the mallet is too heavy to be comfortable using either end on set really. I made a mental note to start looking for a solution.
Vic's new 5A-Dual Tone puts a small felt head on the butt end of a more set-appropriate 5A stick. The balance is terrific and I felt comfortable using either end. Can't wait to add a pair to my stick bag.
Two other new items looked intriguing, though I didn't get a chance to try them out. First is the Russ Miller "Hi-Def" stick. It features a half-acorn bead that is supposed to add extra clarity to cymbal strokes, but what caught my attention the most is that the "Hi-Def" logo is printed, according to the sales guys, precisely at the sweet spot nodal point on the back end of the shaft so that you have a visual reference of where to play your cross sticks for perfect tone and resonance every time. Interesting idea.
Finally, there's a new brush in the VF line called "Legacy Brush." It's retractable with a large fan and features a traditional wooden shaft, but adds a rubber sheath on the roughly last three inches where the shaft gives way to the wires. This is intended to protect the stick and add punch for those who like to play rim shots with their brushes. Again, didn't get a chance to try these out, but they looked promising.
BTW, for those who haven't yet heard the industry announcement, Vic has merged his company with Zildjian, who will keep the full Vic Firth brand intact.
A few quicker and perhaps even random observations:
Kickport has expanded beyond their bass drum accessory and now offers small ports built upon the same resonance amplification idea that can be used on snares and toms.
RimRiser aims to accomplish the same thing Vic Firth's new "Hi-Def" nodal logo and Yamaha's old Russ Miller Wedge seek to do: create bigger, better, more reliable cross stick sounds. The metal RimRiser is a much smaller accessory than the wedge and produced a very reliable, round, resonante tone on the drum I tried it on.
Gig Grips. Those rubber loops you've seen advertised that you can add to any stick and then slide on your finger like a ring to prevent dropping your sticks seem a lot less gimmicky and a little more reasonable now that I've tried them at the show. If you find yourself death-gripping your sticks for heavy-hitting situations, I can see where the Gig Grips might let you loosen up without sacrificing control.
Fairly quick tours of the major drum booths: Yamaha, Mapex, Ludwig, Taye, DW, Tama, Gretsch, Sonor, and several others didn't point to any one major theme or trend, at least not to my eyes and ears. There's a mix of retro sizes, configurations, and finishes as well as contemporary designs. Bebop and club kits are on display next to monster set-ups like Neil Peart's custom "Time Machine" kit. Wood finishes appear to be very popular and to my knowledge there's never been a wider variety of shell compositions and finishes: oak, bubinga, birch, maple, mahogany -- all the usual suspects seem to be in play along with misc. exotic varities. And the finishes are beautiful indeed.
Craviotto, of course, excels with its fine wood marquetry.
Yamaha appears to be expanding it's entry-level price points while maintaining it's great pro lines as well.
Dream Cymbals is one of the newer players and I'd say one worth watching. I've had a Dream splash in my jazz set up for about a year and love it. A tried a few new models in the Dream booth and continue to be impressed with their sonic range and low pricing. If you get a chance, their new "Earth" series is offering an interesting range of tonal and visual choices. Without positioning themselves as Turkish wannabes, they manage to capture a lot of the warmth, wash and depth jazz players in particular are interested in.
Zildjian's Gen AE Cymbals are fascinating. Space-age in appearance, these cymbals are "Acoustic Electric" meaning they're actually cymbals and not just trigger devices, but they're purposely designed to produce low volume levels and are mounted on a system that includes a mic and a processing unit to capture and model the sound waves real time according to the player's desire.
And finally, some music to check out.
Bernie Williams "Take me out to the ballgame" -- This former Yankee is a killer guitarist and was an inspirational part of the "Breakfast of Champions" session this morning. Interesting harmonic approach to this tune.
The Ugli Stick -- They were new to me, and if they are to you too, it's worth taking a minute to "discover" them. The bass player is simply outrageous in his unconventional technique (he plays mostly with his hand coming from underneath the bass rather than from above it) and complex grooves, hammering as much as plucking. Their indie rock/hip-hop sound is infectous and energetic. Just caught them tonight in one of the Hilton's lobby performances and became completely enamored with them.
Russ Miller demo'd Yamaha's DTX 950K electronic package with Zildjian's new Gen AE cymbals. Here's an iPhone video of the first tune he played on the kit: