Numb at NAMM 2004

The Music Industry Descends on Anaheim and Gives it a Hickey

So what else was up at NAMM? The 171-year-old Martin company unveiled it's one-millionth guitar, a commemorative model so ornately resplendent with mother of pearl and jewels that it could double as a lighthouse reflector. One million, by the way, is a lot of guitars: Dave Matthews plays the same brand Mark Twain and Hank Williams did; Martins were played during the Civil War and soldiers today have taken them to Iraq; Dylan and others protested the Vietnam War with a Martin, and Willie Nelson is opposing the current one with his.

Like snack food brands vying for shelf-space, some manufacturers are diluting their product line to the point of bafflement. Fender, for example offers more than 90 variants on its Stratocaster guitar alone. One of those this year is a 100-total limited edition Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat, in which they subjected his gouged, battered #1 Strat to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for the Shroud of Turin, and reproduced it down to every last cigarette burn. As much as I loved Stevie Ray, this is getting too much like exalting the icon instead of the essence.

There probably isn't much left that hasn't been done with a guitar. It's reached the point that one firm offers a Strat called the Flipout where the neck is mounted on the wrong end of the body for comic effect.

How do all these instruments sound? Who knows? There is such a constant wash of noise filling the halls that it's like a wine tasting where you have to slurp the samples off an already wine-soaked carpet. After an hour or two of the audio bedlam, a snootful of rug-wine or any numbing form of NAMM enhancement is the only thing that sounds good.

But there's so much more: trombones, cellos, tympani and then the whole tech side of things. For scarcely more than you'd pay for a good spit-brush for your flute, Apple is now marketing its GarageBand software ($49 as part of Apple's iLife bundle, or free with new computers) that combines music making (with 50 virtual instruments and 1000 loops) with 64-track music recording and editing capabilities. So, for free in your little laptop you'd be getting a built-in orchestra and something like eight times the recording capabilities the Beatles had to make Sgt. Pepper.

Such entry-level bargains aren't negatively affecting the high-end of the business. Costa Mesa's Lynx Studio Technology, for example, is thriving while making the most expensive ($400-to-$1,100) analog-to-digital sound cards in the industry. Their locally made boards are widely praised as the most hi-fidelity sounding way of getting music into your computer, and business is good.

All this perfection is also making folks nostalgic for the human sound of flaws. Bob Moog, who invented the modern synthesizer back in the 1960s, was at the show with gear that replicated the slurpy, glitchy synth sounds of that bygone era. And my favorite ad copy at the show was for the Metasonix Agonizer effects pedal, that warned, "Bad sound. Bad sound. Ouchie. Run away. Run away."

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