The Future Is Loud

Facing the music at NAMM

Hey, there's dapper Gram Nash of Hollies/CSN/etc. fame at NAMM for the unveiling of his signature model Martin guitar! Gram, do you suppose war with Iraq will be good for the music business, aside from faux buglers?

"I don't think war is good for any business except the people who create the wars to make money: the energy companies and military industrial complex," he says. "Those are the only people who benefit. Most Americans, unfortunately, are snowed by the war rhetoric, but I think it's a drastic, drastic mistake."

And what about the death of the music industry predicted by many sources, such as the current Wired magazine?

"The record companies are upset just because technology's doing what it's always done—changing, as it always will," says Nash. "Obviously the industry is in a giant tailspin now, trying to figure how to make money from all the downloading going on. But who are they to complain? In very few cases have they ever taken the cause of the artist to heart. So it'll be interesting to see what emerges from this change."

Though Nash has been making music since the days when transistor radios were cutting-edge technology, he has kept up on advances. That includes traveling with a 198-track computer recording studio.

And that's where the real excitement has been at NAMM for years now. While lacking the phallic fun of guitars, PC-based recording systems have become the most empowering musical tool in decades. For less than a good guitar costs, there's software (from Cakewalk, Steinberg, Digidesign and others) that gives you recording capabilities equal to most recording studios. Spend a couple of grand more on a CD duplicator from a company like Disc Makers, learn Internet marketing skills, and you can be your own record company without the "company store" practices that keep musicians broke.

While programs make your computer more like a studio's mixing board, companies such as Roland approach things the other way, making hard-drive-endowed mixing boards and keyboard synths more like computers. Built-in CD burners let you go from initial idea to fully mastered product on the same machine.

There's no Astroturf or go-go girls at these booths—just sleek rows of Apple flat-screen monitors or drab synths unfortunately dubbed "workstations." No wonder they don't get the respect they deserve. Like the digital marvels in films post-Terminator II, people take for granted technological achievements that were unthinkable two decades ago. In 1983, the sampling capabilities of the Kurzweil 250 were considered miraculous. It weighed 95 pounds, cost $20,000, and is utterly eclipsed these days by inexpensive programs you can load onto your home PC. Ho-hum.

As someone pointed out back then, Stevie Wonder (who was strolling last weekend's show as well) sounded great playing a Kurzweil, but he sounded just as great playing an $8 harmonica.

There was so much other fun at NAMM: hemp-coned speakers, wild effects boxes, high-tech earplugs to keep the other products you were buying from driving you deaf. Nearly every seller I spoke with at the packed show reported brisk business. Is the economy on the rebound or just taking a last gasp? If Armageddon is looming, will your home computer play "Taps" for you? Will I have saved up for my Chinese archtop by then?

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