Music gear companies converged in California for NAMM 2020, and they brought new synthesizers with them.
Every January, more than 100,000 musicians descend on the Anaheim Convention Center for four days of peace, love, and music business. I’ve been attending Winter NAMM Shows since the mid-‘80s, because that’s where you can see all the latest synths in one place.
NAMM is an acronym for the National Association of Music Merchandisers. It’s an organization that promotes and supports the musical instruments industry by fostering connections between musicians, businesses that make products for musicians, and businesses that sell those products. Since 1901, one of NAMM’s primary missions has been to host trade shows—in the United States, one in the winter and one in the summer—which are often, like the organization itself, simply called NAMM.
Traditionally, Winter NAMM lasts four days, from Thursday morning until late Sunday afternoon. It isn’t open to the general public, and you have to be qualified to attend. That means you need to be a NAMM member or at least have a valid business reason to gain admission.
In addition to all the business carried out on the show floor, a nonstop party happens outside and in the surrounding hotels, particularly in the Anaheim Hilton and Anaheim Marriott, which adjoin the Convention Center complex. Even if you can’t get into the show, you can enjoy live music, either on outdoor stages in front of the convention hall, or in hotel lobbies late into the night.
Traditionally, NAMM is where gear manufacturers and music software developers unveil their new products and take orders for existing ones. Most companies display their gear on the trade-show floor, but a few hold private meetings behind closed doors, either within the convention center or in nearby hotel suites or meeting rooms. Other companies don’t make an appearance at all but announce new products either just before or during NAMM.
Twenty-twenty is already shaping up to be a remarkable year for new synths. Let’s look at some that either appeared at NAMM, were announced during NAMM, or were popular topics of conversation at NAMM.
Abstrakt Instruments VS-1
Just before opening day, Abstrakt Instruments announced the VS-1, a rackmount re-creation of Oberheim’s classic analog polysynth, the OB-X. Currently the target of a Kickstarter campaign, it features a 64-step polyphonic sequencer, assignable CV inputs, two audio inputs, and USB connectivity. You can order the VS-1 as an 8-voice kit or fully assembled with four, six, or eight voices.
Arturia MicroFreak (update)
On NAMM’s first day, Arturia announced a firmware update to their MicroFreak synthesizer, adding an oscillator that can morph between three types of noise. Along with 64 new factory presets, the update also gives you the ability to define any scale to play on the white keys (scale quantization) and to play any chord with a single key.
Ashun Sound Machines (ASM) was demonstrating the Hydrasynth, a 3-oscillator, 8-voice wavetable synthesizer with polyphonic aftertouch. It’s available in a desktop model with 24 touch-sensitive pads or a 49-note keyboard model with a 4-octave ribbon controller. Other outstanding features include multiple OLED displays, five DAHDSR envelopes, five programmable LFOs, and live performance macros.
Behringer was literally a no-show at NAMM this year, but that didn’t stop the behemoth gear maker from announcing numerous upcoming products that pay homage to electronic instruments of yesteryear. The most talked about was the Behringer 2600, their upcoming compact rackmount take on the classic ARP 2600.
Clavia Nord Wave 2
Combining sample playback with wavetable, FM, and virtual analog synthesis, the 48-note polyphonic Nord Wave 2 looks to be Clavia’s most powerful synth ever. The Wave 2 will let you layer four independent sound engines, route voices through six digital filter types, split the 61-note keyboard into four zones, and import samples you’ve edited with the included computer software.
Erica Synths Bassline DB-01
Erica Synths unveiled the Bassline DB-01, a desktop bass and percussion synth that incorporates the filter from their Acidbox processor module. At the heart of the DB-1 is an interactive 64-step sequencer that lets you automate the filter and randomize its 64 user-programmable patterns in real time, with detuning controlled by a BBD delay circuit for achieving swarm-type timbres.
Expressive E Osmose
Anyone who visited Expressive E’s booth expecting to see the Osmose likely walked away disappointed, because there wasn’t a prototype in sight. Based on the EaganMatrix (the same sound engine as the Haken Continuum) and announced in November, the 24-voice Osmose synthesizer features a unique 49-note keyboard that supports MIDI Polyphonic Expression. Like most MPE controllers, it responds to your fingers’ side-to-side and forward-and-back motion, as well as independent pressure for each key.
Haken Audio Slim Continuum
Speaking of the EaganMatrix, Haken Audio was on hand to demonstrate the new Slim Continuum, available in either the 46-note s46L6x or the 70-note s70L6x model. The Continuum may be the most gesturally sensitive synthesizer made. Its internal EaganMatrix engine handles physical modeling, additive, and granular synthesis.
John Bowen Synth Design Solaris Tabletop and Voice Expander
John Bowen introduced two new products at NAMM. Solaris Tabletop is…you guessed it…a tabletop edition of his remarkable Solaris synthesizer for $949 less than the keyboard version. Also new is the Solaris Voice Expander housed in a 1U cabinet, which gives Solaris owners an additional ten voices. In addition, John announced a major forthcoming OS upgrade, which will add a 4-part multimode function and a phase distortion oscillator type.
Korg ARP 2600 FS
You couldn’t go anywhere in Anaheim without hearing people sing the praises of Korg’s new ARP 2600 FS. Everybody wants one from the limited production run, but most of us don’t want to pay the rather hefty price, road case included. It’s a full-scale accurate reproduction of ARP’s original patchcord-optional monosynth, with modern conveniences like USB and MIDI DIN connectivity, XLR audio outputs, and an arpeggiator/sequencer in the included keyboard.
The ARP 2600 FS wasn’t the only hit attraction that Korg had on its hands, however. The more affordable Wavestate got equal or more attention. An advanced descendent of the Wavestation, circa 1990, the Wavestate sequences sample data to generate beats and timbres brimming with motion. Ample front-panel controls give players direct access to all the wave-sequencing action.
Modal Electronics Argon8
Another synth that everyone’s pumped up about is the Modal Electronics Argon8, for its sounds, its playability, and its bang for the buck. The 8-voice wavetable synthesizer shares many capabilities with Modal’s premium 002 model, including two oscillators and two suboscillators per voice, a state-variable filter, parameter sequencing, wave folders, wave shapers, and joystick modulation.
Moog Subsequent 25
Moog Music held court in a private meeting room in the convention center, where they were taking orders for the new Subsequent 25, a 25-key version of the mono/paraphonic Subsequent 37 synthesizer. With three VCOs, a classic ladder filter, and “under-the-hood” functionality, the very portable Subsequent 25 also comes with free editor/librarian software for creating and storing patches on your computer.
Playtime Engineering Blipblox After Dark
Playtime Engineering certainly made a splash at last year’s NAMM Show. Yes, the Blipblox is a colorful plastic toy, but it’s also a very capable synthesizer. At this year’s show, Playtime announced the Blipblox After Dark, a more deeply user-programmable version with a multimode filter, multitap stereo delay, sophisticated wavetable synthesis, and tons of drum samples.
Roland Fantom 6/7/8
As always, Roland had one of the larger booths at NAMM, with more than one synth competing for attention. Their new flagship, the Fantom, has capabilities far beyond 2003’s Fantom-S and 2004’s Fantom-X series. Designed to integrate seamlessly with computers, the new Fantom has a 16-part sound engine and lets you layer different synthesis types. It also incorporates Zen-Core, a technology to exchange sounds with other compatible Roland synths.
Roland’s Jupiter-X has 61 keys and specializes in emulating classic Roland keyboards and drum machines. Its intelligent arpeggiator automatically generates parts that complement whatever you’re playing, layering as many as four synths and one drum part simultaneously. The smaller Jupiter-Xm has 37 keys, fewer front-panel controls, and costs $1,000 less. Like the Fantom, they both support Zen-Core.
Sequential Pro 3
January 2019 marked one of those rare NAMM Shows when Sequential did not introduce a new synth. This year, however, they more than made up for it with one of the most talked-about instruments at NAMM, the Pro 3. It’s a monophonic/paraphonic model with two analog oscillators, a wavetable oscillator, and three classic analog filters. With an intuitive and versatile 16-track sequencer and 171 mod-matrix destinations, the Pro 3 comes in standard and Special Edition models. (For our conversation with Dave Smith about the Pro 3, look here.)
Sonicware Liven 8bit warps
Hot on the heels of last year’s Sonicware ELZ.1 comes the Liven 8bit warps, a wavetable synth targeting the retro chiptunes genre. Weighing well under two pounds and supported by a Kickstarter campaign, this battery-powered instrument has a 64-step sequencer and 27 buttons instead of keys for musical input.
UDO Super 6
First spotted at last year’s Superbooth, UDO’s unique Super 6 synthesizer combines voltage control, analog filters, and FPGA (field-programmable gate array) circuitry. The result is a binaural, stereo, analog/digital hybrid with the warmth of vintage instruments. Its 7-core wavetable oscillator can import new waveforms, and its second oscillator generates classic waveforms with FM, suboscillator, crossfade, and hard-sync modes. The 12-voice Super 6 also features dual stereo 24-bit effects and a 64-step sequencer.
Yamaha’s Sonogenic keytars target consumers who can’t be bothered with learning an instrument, allowing non-musicians to play along with popular songs. Paired with the Chord Tracker app via Bluetooth, the battery- or USB-powered SHS-300 and SHS-500 make it practically impossible to play the wrong notes or chords.
Don’t get me started on the dozens of new synth modules at NAMM. We could be here all day. Before I go, though, I want to mention just a few.
Along with re-creating entire synthesizers from the past, now Behringer is bringing back synth modules from the ’60s and ’70s in Eurorack format. Their Modular 55, 35 & 15 Series features reproductions of vintage modules from R.A. Moog Co. More than 20 modules include copies of classics like the very desirable Moog CP3A-O oscillator controller, 921 and 921B VCOs, 902 VCA, 911 envelope generator, 903A random signal generator, 914 fixed filter bank, and 903A, 904A, and 923 VCFs.
Behringer is also launching System 100, Eurorack reproductions of Roland System 100M modules, many of them with multiple functions. The system features the 112 dual oscillator, 121 dual filter, 130 dual VCA, 140 dual envelope, 150 ring modulator/noise generator/S&H/LFO, 172 phase shifter/analog delay, and 182 16-step sequencer modules. Four additional modules include the 110, a complete synth voice with a VCO, VCF, and VCA in a single module.
Module maker 4ms unveiled the Ensemble Oscillator, a single module that contains 16 sine-wave generators. Combining additive, FM, phase-distortion, and wave-folding synthesis, the Ensemble Oscillator can memorize as many as 30 harmonics or musical scales and crossfade between those frequencies for rich, shifting timbres.
From EarthQuaker Devices, the Afterneath is a versatile reverb module that borrows its circuitry from their guitar stompbox with the same name. In addition to parameters like decay length, reflect (regeneration), diffuse, and damping, you can control multiple, simultaneous short delays for unique “drag” effects that simulate varispeed tape. In addition, the Afterneath module can self-oscillate, and you can tune it to specific scales and intervals.
One of the more complex and unusual modules at NAMM was the Brenso, from Frap Tools. The manufacturer describes it as an “analog source of articulated waveforms whose degree of entanglement can be precisely set.” It contains two triangle-core oscillators that can modulate each other, along with wave shaping, wave folding, and four modulation buses.
Verbos Electronics’ new Foundation Oscillator reproduces much of the sound and functionality of the Buchla Music Easel’s Complex Oscillator. It’s a transistor-core design with outputs for triangle, square, and three shaped waveforms. Controls labeled Richness and Timbre make the waveforms continuously variable and multiply their output.
Along with new modules, I saw a couple new cases at NAMM. One was the Lunchbox, a 42HP case from the company 2HP in what literally appears to be a lunchbox. It will be available standalone, either powered or unpowered, or as four self-contained systems: the Picnic Basket, Synth Voice, Drum Machine, and Effects Box.
Another case that stood out was the NiftyCase, a powered 84HP case from Cre8audio. It features built-in USB/MIDI-to-CV/gate/clock conversion and a line-level output. It’s also available bundled with six patch cables and Cre8audio’s first two modules, Chipz and Cellz, as the NiftyBundle.
MoMM Synth Showcase
In closing, I want to mention an exhibit at NAMM you may have missed. The Museum of Making Music staged a mobile presentation of its exhibition, Music from the Sound Up: The Creative Tools for Synthesis, called the Synth Showcase. With the participation of companies such as Korg, Roland, Casio, Yamaha, Arturia, and many others, you can still see Music from the Sound Up by visiting the museum in Carlsbad, California, until August 30, 2020.