NAMM Wrapup: The logic of NAMM

The NAMM tradeshow, held last week at the Anaheim Convention Center, is the prime event for music manufacturers to display their upcoming products to distributors and retailers. Five sections of the show are dedicated to instrument-makers and publishers, but the sixth section is all about technology and music. And here, in "the digital ghetto," Apple was at the center of attention, both explicitly and implicitly.

Backstage

Digital music recording and production is managed through applications known as sequencers, much in the same way that page-makeup programs are used in publishing. There are four major sequencers for the Mac. Two of the sequencers -- available for both Mac and PC -- are developed by companies that, within the last few years, have been subsumed by much larger broadcast and video post-production giants.

Digidesign and its Pro Tools hardware/software packages, owned by Avid Technology Inc., is the established leader in high-end music studios for hardware and software recording and production. "Digi's" low-end (M-box) and mid-level products (002, 002R) have also been very successful in the prosumer and consumer spaces, respectively.

Steinberg 's Nuendo audio-video production app and its Cubase SX music sequencer (plus related software such as virtual instruments and sound effects plug-ins, and attendant hardware) are owned by Pinnacle Systems Inc. Nuendo is aimed more at professionals, while SX is a bit more prosumer-ish.

MOTU's Digital Performer (DP) sequencer is Mac-only, but its hardware and software products are cross-platform, and its widely-praised user-friendly interface and MIDI tools have kept it quite popular with musicians and composers.

Warmup

And then there's Apple.

Eighteen months ago, Apple bought Emagic, with its Logic sequencers and hardware interfaces, and brought out Logic 5.3 as the first Mac OS X-capable sequencer. Logic 6 was issued a year ago, and it seemed a sure bet that version 7 would be introduced at NAMM.

Then at Macworld Conference & Expo, Apple introduced GarageBand, an entry-level sequencer that ships free with new Macs and is available as part of the $50 iLife 04 suite, that promises to shake the world digital audio and its marketplace. And in so doing, make music production accessible to the masses while supplying people with levels of tools with which to grow their skills.

On the heels of GarageBand's introduction, music-related bulletin boards buzzed with a rumor that Apple would be showing a "Pro Tools" killer at its NAMM booth, perhaps featuring a GarageBand-like interface.

Main act

Instead, Apple released two "replacement" versions of its Logic 6 sequencer -- Express 6, a bare-bones edition and Pro 6, which includes all of Logic's additional, previously "for-pay," sound effects and virtual instruments. The latter package -- including the new, extremely cool Space Designer reverb -- which would have cost $2,300 before the bundling, was reduced in price to $999.

Apple also demonstrated two new technologies -- Sculpture, a physical-modeling based synthesizer and UltraBeat, a multi-moded percussion synthesizer -- and Guitar Amp, a more robust version of the simulator introduced in GarageBand. The company said that products built on the technologies will be rolled into future versions of Logic Pro, as will the AppleLoops technology featured in the company's Soundtrack film-scoring app. (Soundtrack was also reduced in price from $299 to $199.)

So Apple has repeated the three-segment approach to market-capture that it revealed with its digital video products. Although no representatives of third-party developers wished to speak on the record regarding the effect of Apple's announcements, the immediate impact on the other sequencer developers, and perhaps more importantly, on smaller companies that develop plug-ins, virtual instruments and sounds samples, is clear:

Apple is claiming for itself the "center of the table" position at the music-production feast on the Mac. Developers are free to build a "better widget," but they'd better find a way to market it at $39, $59, or $79 price-points, because Logic's components will be wide, deep and generally "good enough," and they'll be part of an Apple package.

Coda

Some final, and random, points for consideration before I move on:

While the Logic Pro packaging on Apple's and Emagic's sites bears an Emagic logo, Apple's booth was just that -- an Apple booth -- and the Emagic brand was nowhere in sight. And none of Logic Pro's plug-ins or virtual instruments are Audio Units (Apple's OS X technology for such devices) and thus aren't usable with other sequencers.

Tascam released GigaStudio 3, the newest version of the PC-only "world's most advanced ... sampling solution on the planet." That latter bit has previously been true, but since it's added ReWire functionality, and since Chicken Systems' Translator can access and convert its samples, the "world" just got more Mac-friendly.

Digidesign made a mid-show announcement that it had acquired plug-in maker Bomb Factory. Digi's preeminence at the high-end of the Mac music production chain is under fire by Apple. Although Apple's challenge is still a nuisance rather than a major threat, Digi likely is looking more avidly (pun intended) at the PC side-of-things, where Pro Tools runs smoothly on dedicated XP systems, but has been hampered by a lack of quality plug-ins. This announcement changes that equation. Bomb Factory has, heretofore, issued cross-platform plugs. It'll be interesting to see whether (or how long) that pattern continues.

Interludes and interfaces

Although developers appeared taken unawares by Apple's announcements, there are a lot of smart folks with good ideas in this group, and there were plenty of products of note on the show floor. To wit, and in no particular order:

Universal Audio released the Studio Pak, a set of twenty plug-ins for its UAD-1 DSP expansion card, that includes its new Fairchild 670 Compressor plug (also available separately). The company also issued a 3.4 software update for the card that increases OS X compatibility.

FXpansion announced it will soon offer two more DVDs worth of samples for its much-touted BFD drum-sample app and previewed Drum Nine, which extends on the success of the company's DR-008 drum sampler/synthesizer.

IK Multimedia showed its Amplitube guitar amp modeler and versions of its T-Racks mastering app as Audio Units for OS X and -- with sound designer Sonic Reality -- issued the Sonik Synth 2 Plug in Synth-Workstation.

Arturia is following the success of its Moog Modular V synth "software re-issue" with the release of minimoog V, a recreation of another of Bob Moog's classic analog synths and the CS-80V, based on the famous Yamaha synth.

Garritan Personal Orchestra, from Garritan, includes samples of all the major instruments in a symphony orchestra -- strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion -- as well as a Steinway concert grand piano and a Stradivarius violin -- the samples can be used as solo instruments or layered into ensembles. (It's hard to hear too much on the show floor, but these samples do sound very good.)

Synthogy showed Ivory, a great-sounding virtual piano, an instrument that has been lacking in the OS X world.

Waves introduced The Musician Bundle, a set of five plug-ins, aimed primarily at guitarists and vocalists, that focus on dynamics and time-based effects.

And finally, house-favorite Cycling '74 announced support for Audio Units in Pluggo 3.1, the company's set of "unusual" audio effects; M 2.6, an OS X-version of its composition tool; and MODE 1.0, a set of instruments and effect plug-ins: Mono, Poly, Bang, Wash and Spin. Gotta love 'em.

(Please note that, unless noted, all software products mentioned above are available as Audio Units (AU), although some may achieve that state by use of "wrappers," which convert VST plug-ins to make them AU compatible. Additionally, some of these products are available as standalone apps.)

On the non-Audio Unit, but still software-front:

Propellerhead Software announced ReCycle 2.1, an OS X-capable version of its tool-set for working with loops, samples and beats. We were struck more, though, by the company's " Teaching Music with Reason," a curriculum of music lessons for use in high school or college-level introductory classes, using its Reason software.

Minnetonka Audio Software said its SurCode surround-encoding tool (previously PC-only) will make its debut on the Mac next month as a standalone application, to be followed by a VST plug-in version. No AU version is planned at this time.

(More details on some of these, and other software, announcements are available on MacCentral's January 15th and 16th pages.)

On the hardware front:

Apogee showed its AD-16X and DA-16X units, offering 16 channels of analog-to-digital (and vice versa) conversion at 24-bit/192kHz, and Word Clock I/O; with optional cards for connecting to Pro Tools HD systems, to FireWire-enabled systems or to other 16X units.

Lynx Studio Technology announced full Mac OS X support for its LynxTwo, L22 and AES16 I/O cards, and added that the latter are fully compatible with both the standard PCI and new 3.3V PCI-X interfaces.

TC Electronics showed the PowerCore FireWire, its free-standing DSP-based box, that features four Motorola chips and a full complement of on-board plug-ins -- PowerCore works with all native Mac OS X sequencers. (TCE also showed Virus, a 16-voice synthesizer PowerCore plug-in.)

EgoSys also featured a FireWire interface, the QuataFire 610, with two front panel mounted combo connectors that can be switched between Mic, Line and Inst inputs, and dual Mic/Line preamps. But more interestingly, the company showed the A ON, the first FireWire-based Audio/MIDI keyboard controller I've seen. It features 25 touch-sensitive keys, 16 function buttons, 8 assignable wheels and knobs, and 2 channels of analog I/O that supports up to 24-bit/96Khz. Pretty cool, especially for a company that didn't even support Macs eighteen months ago.

Last call

So, lots of noise, lots of products, and lots of hubbub. It's interesting to speculate what might happen at the Musikmesse tradeshow in Frankfurt, Germany, which begins at the end of March. Logic 7? Microsoft aligning somehow with Digidesign? I can't wait!

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