I always look forward to January, and my annual trip to the NAMM show in Anaheim to gawk at the cutting edge of music hardware (and software). When I realized my schedule wouldn’t get me to NAMM this month I was bummed, but kept my ears and eyes peeled online. Despite no significant time on the show floor this year, there were a few announcements and developments at NAMM 2015 that still caught my attention. It should come as no surprise that I’m rather focused on effects & amps for guitar & bass. Here’s my video post-NAMM wishlist, with commentary.
I’m a fan of effects and pedalboard tech – particularly tech that’s reliable on stage – so have been keeping a close eye on Source Audio for a few years now. They’ve been pioneering modular, pedal-based effects systems for guitar and bass that also provide the digital patching and preset management power of “all-in-one” effect pedalboards and MIDI-automated rack effect systems. With their effect units chained together via a hub, you can not only access, recall and edit banks of presets for all your effects via MIDI, but also send standard expression pedal/CV signals (and even control data from their wireless 3-axis ring, the Hot Hand) to control any parameter of any connected pedal in realtime. After 3 years of their gear in my live pedalboards I’m of the opinion that Source Audio is building some cutting-edge, great sounding, roadworthy gear, and 2015 has some big updates in store.
What’s With Neuro?
Source Audio’s flagship Soundblox 2 line of pedals already connected to the Soundblox Hub to both sync presets & scenes, and allow expression pedal and/or Hot Hand parameter control. However, the system didn’t have a spiffy, unified marketing name. The Source Audio hub, network and communication protocol is now referred to as the Neuro Effects System, and will have an iOS app (alongside the existing Mac/Windows Hub scene & preset manager) to help manage and edit attached device parameters. Sounds very cool, but there’s little overview information on the Neuro ecosystem as a whole right now, just details on some of it’s interesting new components. Let’s look at those for a better idea of the big picture.
Solemate MIDI controller
Until now, using the Source Audio Soundblox Hub (the center of a Neuro effects system) was a bit ‘faceless’, requiring a third-party MIDI controller like the Tech 21 MIDI Mouse to access its 128 slots of pedal/scene storage. Source Audio’s new Solemate MIDI controller integrates with the hub directly, and provides a much better interface for up/down/select MIDI switching it… and then flips the whole thing on it’s end. You can now see your Hub’s patch/preset names displayed in a beautiful LED, access scene and set modes (the first, 4 specific patches mapped to the individual footswitches; the second letting you ‘scroll’ through a set list worth of pre-selected effects changes), among other cool features. Want to use the Solemate to also control Ableton Live (or other desktop DAWs)? You’re covered.
Although I’ve enjoyed the basic simplicity of managing my hub & effects with a MIDI Mouse (it’s certainly kept me lean with preset scenes), I’m going to be adding one of these to my rig as soon as they roll off the assembly line. The Solemate just solves so many of those remaining ‘little issues’ I had with basic MIDI control of my Source Audio gear.
Reflex Expression Pedal
Source Audio also updated their venerable passive Dual Expression Pedal (which allows for two simultaneous CV/control signals to be output, along with a Neuro/Hot Hand jack) to be a lot more powerful. The Reflex is a 9V active expression pedal with three simultaneous outputs featuring 6 types of LFO waves, 128 configuration presets of it’s own, and a slew of additional features to fine tune your foot rocking.
I’m not sure I need all the expression control power the Reflex doles out, but if you’ve got a lot of MIDI-controllable third-party pedals this is clearly a juggernaut. The syncable LFO shapes alone will make it worth the purchase, IMO.
Neuro Effects Loop
Source Audio’s recent line of effects pedals all use their Neuro effects control technology, but it’s a safe bet that every other manufacturers’ pedal you own does not. If you’re like me, you’ve got a lot of pedals from a lot of different manufacturers- and they don’t benefit much from the SA Neuro connection, at least yet. Good news- SA announced two ways of integrating existing pedals & tech into a Neuro-powered pedalboard. First (and simplest), by using one or more Neuro Effects Loops, each a small, innocuous grey box that adds a MIDI-controlled, true-bypass loop to your Neuro-powered chain.
This will be incredibly useful for activating groups of third-party effects in a Neuro effects scene. I can see this being super-helpful for bringing in my trusty MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, which I mainly just want to use occasionally in conjunction with my other MIDI fuzz/distortion/envelope effects. Now I can add the MXR Octave pedal in any MIDI scene, no more having to tap two pedals. One drawback- you obviously can’t save presets for third-party effects pedals. Fortunately SA’s been considering that, too.
Neuro retrofit module
For the ultimate in control for those with must-have pedals from other manufacturers you just can’t live without – Source Audio showed off the Neuro module – a pro-install-required circuit board form for integrating into any existing pedal, enabling full MIDI control of all its parameters through the Neuro system.
Now that’s what I’m talking about. Caveat: pro installation (or ninja-level soldering skills) required- customizing a third-party pedal with the Neuro module is not for the faint of heart, or warranty-conscious. I’d imagine that this board – if it makes it to sale – will be a shop-specific option, but worth tracking down if you want a truly integrated pedalboard across all your units.
That wasn’t all from Source Audio this year, they also announced a slew of individual, smaller-profile Neuro pedals available, with deep editing parameters available through the hinted-at upcoming Neuro iOS app. I’m pretty happy with my complete Soundblox 2 collection right now, so am not really headed in that direction, but it was interesting to note that there’s now a Delay within the new Neuro line- a shortcoming of the Soundblox series to date. Here’s a quick peek:
Very cool envelope-pushing for pedalboard freaks by Source Audio this year, no doubt.
I jumped ship to Aguilar last year after 20 years playing SWR’s finest, and haven’t regretted it for a second. Their build quality is impeccable, and their tone is peerless. Although the NYC-based boutique bass amp/gear manufacturer didn’t have any new amps to debut this year (that said, when will we get more SL410 cabs available?), Aguilar announced two new effects pedals that are definitely worth checking out – the Fuzzistor fuzz pedal, and the Chorusaurus chorus pedal. You can bet both are fully blendable for excellent low-frequency retention (as you desire), and built to take a pounding from the heaviest boots you’ve got in your closet. I couldn’t find a video of these two, but if you find one let me know and I’ll add it here- these two pedals are bound to be hot items.
Lightweight bass cabs are all the rage these days. I went from two 4×10 SWR Goliaths that weighed 89lbs apiece to 2 Aguilar SL 112 cabs that weigh a TOTAL of 50lbs. So although I’m not really looking for a new amp manufacturer, TC Electronic’s new K-series bass cabs are incredibly sweet and light, as well as affordable. Coming in 2×10″ ($399), 2×12″ ($449), and 4×10″ ($499) configurations, the 2×10/2×12 cabs weigh under 50lbs and handle 400 watts, with the 4×10″ cab weighing 67lbs(!) and shouldering 600 watt loads. Loud and light, definitely some cabs to check out.
Disclaimer: I don’t own a Kemper Profiler amp, but have gigged on them several times now, and would pick one up in a heartbeat if I played guitar more often month-to-month. Although Line 6 (and their Pod series) and Fractal Audio (makers of the amazing Axe FX) have well-established products in the profiling space, Kemper has a slightly unique product in that their amps not only allow you to customize existing amp profiles, but create new profiles from your existing amps, as well. And they sound damn good, too. However, controlling the Profilers required some custom MIDI tweaking with third-party hardware. This year Kemper’s finally released a dedicated footswitch, the Profiler Remote, for controlling their flagship Profiler amps. ‘Nuff said. The video shows all the great things you can do with it.
But with all that upside comes a significant downside- the Remote will set you back almost $600 USD, which is a huge chunk of change for a MIDI floorboard. I’d hoped they would target the 200-300 dollar range, to be honest. Regardless, the Remote still appears to be a well-built, flexible, and intelligently configured pedalboard option if you’re already rocking a Kemper.
Eric Johnson signature amp
Eric Johnson’s singing, tube-saturated guitar tone is one I’ve admired for years, and his hyper-sensitive ear for details is one of legend. So when I heard that he was launching a new solid-state amp (model?) at this year’s NAMM I was skeptical as hell. And I found Roland an odd choice for manufacturer. But the rumors are true, and here’s the details. It’s actually an Eric Johnson Tone Capsule for last year’s Roland Blues Cube amp. Eric reportedly tried a Blues Cube and was impressed, so worked with Roland to create a Tone Capsule for it, essentially a plug-in module that revoices the Blues Cube to Eric’s custom amp tone.
If this really meets Eric’s standards (a few ears at the show confirmed it sounded great at first listen), it’s an amp to seriously check out. It certainly sounds close in the YouTube video but I’ll need to get hands-on with this for a final verdict, natch.
Sea Machine Mega Chorus
I love a good chorus pedal, and Earthquaker appears to have knocked it out of the park with their new Sea Machine Mega Chorus. The kicker? Deep control over the LFO characteristics for an incredible range of unique chorus effects. The tones this box wreaks are amazingly fab- oh yes, please. Hear for yourself:
Fuzz Master General Octave Fuzz
Nothing makes a good octave effect sing more than a little fuzzy growl mixed in– and Earthquaker’s Fuzz Master General pedal gets some unreal and beautiful variations on this old favorite theme. Have a listen.
I know, overdrives can seem a dime a dozen. Ogre Effects’ Tubaholic sounds like a strong contender. But far more superficially, I absolutely love the housing design – featuring a sliding control cover and twin blue status light ‘eyes’. Sweet.
I own four different Pedaltrain blanks, small to large. Each one continues to be damn near bulletproof under heavy usage. I used to think those four sizes were way too many choices to begin with. And now there’s a whopping 11 choices for Pedaltrain sizes and configurations. My head hurts.
Confused by all those options? You can now use a handy web app – PedalboardPlanner – to plan your next Pedaltrain purchase fine-tuned to your ideal setup. Neat.
DW Drums – Lotsa Stuff Going On
DW has always been a personal favorite for sheer quality, and this year’s NAMM show featured a lot of small and not-so-small updates and innovations to their drums and hardware. Really dig their new pedal and clutch designs this year, in particular.
Numark NS7III DJ Controller
Some of the fiercest innovation in hardware/software controller combos is happening in the DJ space. Numark is coming back strong with an update to the NS7- the NS7III. The NS7III specifically adds three 4.3″ screens to the controller itself, helping you stay focused on performance, not your laptop. Two of the screens are basically control screens for the primary decks, showing waveform location, playhead position, effects status and more. The third, central screen provides both stacked waveform view and library views for managing your media without the laptop handy. We’re really starting to move away from laptop-based DJing, and headed more towards controller-based DJing- which to me helps electronic music feel more like playing music, not a laptop. Good stuff.
Not being in Anaheim in person this year ruined my chance to dig really deeply into more of the software, drums & percussion, and production/recording tech as much as I’d like, but I’m hoping to be back on the scene next year in Anaheim, no doubt. And also so I don’t miss events like this jam I’ll leave you with, featuring bass gods Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten.