Anyone who has attended the NAMM Show could attest that the experience can be completely overwhelming. Between the sheer amount of gear on display, the top-tier manufacturers’ gimmicky, eye-catching booths, the endless musical performances and the occasional celebrity sighting, it’s just about impossible to take in all that the show has to offer. And, with so much to see, it is unfortunately very easy for the show’s first-time exhibitors to get lost in the shuffle. (This was especially true at this year’s show, which boasted more than 250 debuting companies!) With that in mind, each year, The Retailer spotlights some of the more promising newcomers to the NAMM Show. In this year’s iteration, you’ll find manufacturers of new, innovative products, music industry stalwarts who have launched exciting new companies, established brands that are seeking new markets and service providers that want to help you improve your store’s retail experience. Let’s see what they have to offer….
Hall E in the Anaheim Convention Center—the stomping ground for many of NAMM’s first-timers—is a great place to discover revolutionary music products that are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. One such product that drew a ton of attention from NAMM Show attendees was the du-touch by dualo [dualo.org]: an eye-popping amalgamation of an accordion, a keyboard, a DJ controller, a synthesizer and a multi-track looper. It looks like something straight out of science fiction. The du-touch has been available on the European market for about a year, and it’s already begun to attract a dedicated user base. And, the product’s unique keyboard layout has already drawn praise from professional musicians, including jazz and funk legend Herbie Hancock.
dualo Managing Director Bruno Verbrugghe explained the concept behind the development of the du-touch. He said, “The main idea is to try to represent and give access to music harmony and music theory in a very easy way…one that’s faster to learn and faster to play. We separate the scale into two parts on two keyboards, and we try to make it easier to play chords. So, if you put your fingers right next to each other, no matter where your fingers are positioned on the keyboard, you will always make a chord.”
The du-touch is supported by an interactive sharing platform curated by dualo, with the intention of building a robust community of “dualists”: the company’s nickname for du-touch players. “Everything that you play on the du-touch, you can export to your computer,” Verbrugghe explained. “Then, you can share that file with your friends on our sharing platform.” He continued, “The really cool thing is that, if you want to learn one of these tracks that have been recorded by someone else, you can download the score. Lights will blink under the keys on the du-touch, showing you where to put your fingers. And, if the tempo is too fast, you just slow the tempo. If it’s still too fast, you go to step-by-step mode, where it waits for you to hit all the lighted keys. So, in the end, it’s also like a video game.”
Not content to bring only one game-changing product to the market, dualo is already looking to the future. The company plans to develop another product centered on a learning method that relies on video tutorials. dualo will launch a Kickstarter campaign next month to support the development of that project. For more information, or to subscribe to updates on the Kickstarter campaign, check out the company’s Web site.
Another Hall E booth that drew quite a bit of foot traffic throughout the NAMM Show’s four days belonged to StompLight International [stomplight.com], the creator of the StompLight line of LED pedals. According to the company’s Founder and CEO, Michael Ahern, “What we’ve created is a line of lighting effect pedals that are designed for all those places that musicians, DJs and theatrical performers do their thing…places where there’s no stage lighting or really crappy stage lighting: taverns, pubs, bars, garages, patios.”
Ahern drew inspiration for the StompLight from his own experiences as a gigging musician. “I play in the San Francisco Bay Area,” he offered, “in these small places that are dimly lit. Theatrical lighting is a must now. There’s so much social media…so much imagery that musicians use to promote themselves. Well, lighting defines the stage. And, it’s exciting. Prior to my invention, you had to schlep in a piecemeal lighting rig that sometimes took up the lion’s share of the stage. I was looking for a simple solution, and the idea came to me five years ago: What if I could build an effect pedal with built-in lights that I could put on stage, or on my pedalboard, that would light me and my band, and that’d maybe do some cool effects?”
StompLights are built using Cree LEDs, and they offer a variety of features that enable musicians to add fun lighting flourishes to their performances. “This thing throws beautiful, colored light, and it’s responsive,” Ahern explained. “It has a built-in microphone and a frequency analyzer that’s great for drummers. A drummer can set that microphone input mode on, trigger the spectrum analyzer and the StompLight will pulse different colors as the drummer plays, based on what he hits on the drum kit.” He continued, “We also have a general color wheel, where it just changes color, and a strobe. DJs love to have that. And, we have an instrument input. So, you can put in any instrument, or a mixer, and the StompLight will respond to it as you play.”
Throughout the show floor, you’ll find many new and emerging companies that are taking an innovative approach to tried-and-true instruments. A case in point is Tensor [tensorbass.com], a manufacturer of bass guitars that feature a unique counter-tensioning system. Tom Lanni, the mastermind behind Tensor, explained the concept, saying, “It’s a self-adjusting system that takes the neck and the wood out of the equation completely, because wood is going to have a different moisture level depending on the humidity and the environment it’s in. So, it’ll expand or contract and throw the setting off.” He continued, “Instead of a truss rod that’s set up to compress the back of the neck to counteract the tension of the strings, our system uses the strings to create their own counter tension. It also adds to the sustain and the tone of the guitar.”
Lanni and his team were able to incorporate the new tensioning system even as they reduced the instrument’s overall weight. “I’ve been a rock ‘n’ roller since back in the early ‘70s,” he revealed, “and I went into engineering to earn money while I supported my music career. When I started playing a five-string, the basses weighed 10, 11, more than 12 pounds. So, I worked really hard to reduce the weight. We now have a five-string that weighs 7.8 pounds.” Lanni elaborated further, saying, “It’s a chambered maple body, so that takes some of the weight out of it. And, the balance is darn near perfect.”
In addition to the tensioning system, Tensor’s products boast some other unique features. “We use Hipshot hardware and Lace Alumitone pickups,” Lanni remarked. “Our system standard is a passive system, so you don’t have any batteries to worry about. And, we have an inset pick guard that we manufacture in our shop using a laminate process that we developed. We actually use textiles and fabrics for the design of the pick guard, which gives us a wide range of design possibilities. And, the bodies are available in an infinite variety of colors.”
Stone Deaf Effects and Amplification
Among the Hall E standouts, U.K.-based Stone Deaf Effects and Amplification [stonedeaffx.com] served as a great example of the effectiveness of strong branding in attracting NAMM Show attendees. Stone Deaf’s products feature art by French graphic artist Mcbess, who combines the satirical style of French cartoonists with a “Steamboat Willie”-era Disney vibe. According to Stone Deaf’s CEO, Luke Hilton, “Mcbess was the first person to buy one of our pedals. We’ve kept in touch since then, and then last year I told him that I wanted to do something new, because our old brand was tired. He’s done adverts for Nissan, adverts for London Underground. So, he said, ‘Yeah, but you can’t afford me, so I’ll just do it for gear.’” Mcbess’ willingness to lend his art to the brand in exchange for gear is a testament to the quality of Stone Deaf’s product offerings. The company also counts some big-name musicians as loyal clients, including Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who has made the Stone Deaf PDF-1 pedal a part of his signature tone.
Stone Deaf had several new products on display at the NAMM Show. “We’ve got the Syncopy, which is an analog delay with full digital controls and analog signal path throughout,” Hilton described. “The Tremotron is an analog tremolo with digital control. We have the PDF-2, which is the followup to the PDF-1. The Kliptonite is a dual fuzz overdrive with a mix control knob. You can mix like 75-percent fuzz, 25-percent overdrive; then, you can use the foot switch to flip it, so you have 75-percent overdrive, 25-percent fuzz. And we’ve also got the Warp Drive—that’s a super-high-gain pedal. Your amp tone on clean might be a light unity gain of almost zero. This is 10,000 times ‘gainier’ than that. It’s like having a triple-rectified amplifier in a pedal. Just super-high gain. I can’t explain how high-gain it is. It’s crushing, in fact.”
In addition to the new pedals, Stone Deaf also unveiled a new amplifier line at the show consisting of three digitally controlled valve amps. “The small one, the SD08, is for bedroom recording and playing,” Hilton explained. “The SD30 is more of a portable gigging amp. It’s based on a British design with nods to VOX, Hiwatt and Selmer. And then, we’ve also got the SD50, which is based on a Transatlantic American tone. That uses 6L6es. Because the amps are all digitally controlled, you can have eight channels of valve tone that you dial in and save to each channel, and then you can bank up another eight times for 64 channels in total on the SD30 and SD50. On the SD08 you’ve got 32 channels total. And you can also digitally control the valve and solid state rectifiers—the Class A/Class AB, cathode bias and fixed bias, FX loop and digital reverb—and you can assign all these to the different channels.”
Hilton also emphasized Stone Deaf’s willingness to work with retailers to sell the company’s products. “If you’re a bricks-and-mortar dealer, we’ll support you in-store,” he stressed. “You just have to ask, and we’ll put together a customized package for your shop. We’re big on people having a plan and working with us, as opposed to just going, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy it.’ It should be a two-way thing. Because, then, the relationship is connected from me to the dealer to the customer and back again.” He added, “Also, I must stress that, in my opinion, it’s not about price: It’s about the quality of the product, the experience of the product and the experience the customer has when he or she walks into a guitar shop to try it. Get those right, because customers will buy products that meet those criteria above all else.”
Masters of Maple
Many NAMM Show first-timers are boutique companies that specialize in producing custom instruments and accessories. Although a lot of the boutique companies exhibiting at NAMM for the first time were recent startups, others were more established. Having been in business since 2002, Masters of Maple [mdrums.com] already boasts an impressive roster of dedicated artists, including Cage the Elephant, AWOLNATION, Walk the Moon and Saint Motel. In addition, the company recently provided legendary Los Angeles recording industry fixture Capitol Studios with a custom-made house drum kit.
Masters of Maple’s CEO, Sahir Hanif, gave The Retailer the scoop on his company’s offering of bespoke drum sets. “We make a very limited amount of drums—50 full drum kits per year—along with a few limited, select snares,” he explained. “We make two distinct lines: We have one with a modern vibe, and we also make a more vintage kind of kit. Our snare line, Bell Brass Black Uglies, is probably what we’re best known for.”
When asked what sets Masters of Maple apart from other drum companies, Hanif pointed to his company’s detail-oriented manufacturing process and the high quality of the materials used. “One of the unique things about us is that we actually press our own ply shells in-house,” he offered. “It’s all American made, and it’s all by hand. The whole goal of our company is to put the control back in the player’s hands. Our drums are like a tailored suit, cheesy as that sounds. They’re for drummers who care about what they’re playing, and who want something unique and different that’s just for them.” Masters of Maple sources woods from around the globe, and it’s built a strong network of logging connections and veneer specialists. “We’re always on the hunt for the next best thing,” Hanif affirmed. “We want to make our one-of-a-kind drums even more special, and you can’t do that without the best ingredients.” He continued, “I compare it to really good food. If you have bad ingredients, you’re going to have a bad meal.” In addition to custom wood shells, Masters of Maple drums also feature hardware from Remo, Zildjian and Paiste.
Black Market Custom
For smaller boutique brands, the NAMM Show presents an opportunity to expose a wider audience to their products. Take, for instance, Black Market Custom [blackmarketcustom.com], which is a Massachusetts-based company that made the four-day drive out to Anaheim to spread the word about its new amplifier line. “This is the first time we’re really showing off the amplifiers,” Alex Paul, Black Market Custom’s Co-Owner and Amp Design Engineer, stated. “Our Dreadnaught 100 is a high-headroom, low-gain amplifier. It’s 100 watts class A/B, and it has an effects loop if you want it. It’s got a half-power setting, which is just a modify on the volume to get more control. And, it’s custom. So, whatever you want to do with it…whatever you want to put it in…we’ll do it.” He continued, “The Hellcat 100 has much higher gain. It pulls some tricks from the Soldano SLO, and it really pushes what you can do with low-end response.”
In addition to its new amps, Black Market Custom offers custom-built cabinets and backlines. “If you think of Orange County Choppers and all their crazy custom bikes, we’re like the same thing,” Paul said. “We can do anything we want. We’ve done a full backline that’s all Pokémon themed. We’ve done a full backline that’s all empty cabs; that’s actually the whole band’s wardrobe, guitar boat, and it stores all their amplifiers and computers. We made cabs recently that are coffin shaped. They’ve got LEDs inside them and wood paneling on the side to look like a coffin. If you want to have a bone crocodile rock ‘n’ roll look like you’re Stevie Ray Vaughan, we’ll get you there.”
In addition to customization options, Black Market Custom also offers some baseline speaker models. “We came out last year with the V Type Series,” Paul commented. “It’s a standard offering with Celestion V-type speakers set to 2-12, 4-12, 6-12, 4-10, 8-10—bass and guitar speakers, with standard tolex, standard grille cloth.” Most of the cabinets are made of vinyl composites or voidless Baltic birch, but the company experiments with some more exotic materials, as well. “At this show, we did a 2-12 cab and head in a cast acrylic that’s completely see through, but the acoustic properties are still there,” Paul recounted. “You can see the circuit board. It’s a cool look that’s really been grabbing people.”
Blackwing Amplifier Company
Some companies that are new to NAMM each year are run by relative newcomers to the music products industry, but a fair amount of first-time exhibitors have industry veterans at the helm: those who have decided to strike out on their own. Blackwing Amplifier Company [blackwingamps.com] is one such example. The company is headed by James Heidrich, the Founder and former Owner of Bad Cat Amplifiers. Heidrich drew upon his years of experience designing amps, as well as the industry trends he observed while working at his old company, when determining Blackwing’s direction. “I’ve seen a lot of companies going overseas for parts because of the bottom line,” he explained, “but I spend more money than ever on my new product.” Heidrich noted, “I want to give the player the best that money can buy. So, I use audio-grade components, one-percent-tolerance parts, CTS pots, Carling toggle switches, Switchcraft metal jacks—not plastic jacks—and American-made transformers.” He added, “My amps are all tube, and that’s the way I like it. And, I have a brand new custom Celestion 60-watt speaker that makes the amps sound really punchy, full and articulate.”
Heidrich detailed his company’s impressive array of products that debuted at NAMM, saying, “The Screamin’ Eagle Class A has dual B+ voltages off the power transformer, so there’s a 50-watt setting and a 30-watt setting. It’s not a half-power switch. I’m not using resistors to drop the power. It’s actual B+ voltage.” He continued, “The Screamin’ Eagle 50 is a Class A/B amp. The BlackHawk Class A has three preamp tube choices, including a triode EF86. I could turn that amp up to full volume—15-watt or 30-watt—and not distort…not have to use any transistor devices or amplification. The Crow is a 20-watt 6V6 single-channel amp, and it’s the only model that comes standard with reverb. It’s got a great, classic American sound, and it’s a favorite recording amp among studios. The Raven has EL84 and EL34 power tubes and a dual-voltage B+ power transformer. The 30-watt runs the 84s; the 50-watt runs the 34s. Then, you have three preamp tube selections and passive or active tone control, so you have 12 distinct settings.”
Don’t be surprised to find established international brands among the NAMM Show newcomers. Many such companies come to NAMM as part of an effort to expand into the U.S. market. This was the case with Ortega Guitars [ortegaguitars.com], a German-based manufacturer of Spanish-style classical guitars. The company specializes in nylon-string guitars, as well as ukuleles, basses, cajons and accessories.
Ortega’s Logan Gross detailed the company’s product offerings, saying, “Our main bread and butter is the nylon-string guitar. The idea is to make that available not only to your classically trained guys, but also to people who play any genre of music.” He continued, “We have electronic cutaways, slim-neck options and fractional options: anywhere from a quarter size all the way up to full size. We also have 15 left-handed models across the line.”
According to Gross, “One of the features unique to our brand is the 12-hole bridge. That allows for easier string changes and better break angles for cleaner, crisper sound and better tuning stability. And, everything in the line comes with a deluxe gig bag.” In addition to its comprehensive offering of nylon-string guitars, Ortega Guitars was showing off quite a few new additions to its product line. “We’ve added a lot to the line this year on the hands-free percussion side,” Gross explained. “We have a cajon bundle that includes a cajon, a pedal so that you can play it with your feet while you’re playing guitar and a gig bag for both. We also added some foot jingles that you strap onto your toes and play by tapping your foot, as well as pedals with digital cajon samples. Finally, we added some new models of bass and ukulele to our lineup.”
Badazz Guitar Stands
If you’re looking for a new way to display guitars in your store or to attract customers who want to add a little personality to their guitar collections, you’ll want to keep an eye on Badazz Guitar Stands [badazzguitarstands.com]. This up-and-coming company has only been around for two years, but it is already attracting major attention, having made stands for Kenny Olson, Dav Mikals and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s private collection. The company also recently designed a display for the Jimi Hendrix exhibit at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Badazz Guitar Stands manufactures custom instrument stands, boasting 13 distinct product lines that will help retailers display inventory in just about any configuration. “I have folding stands, studio stands, home stands, chair stands, wall stands,” the company’s CEO/Owner, Rhawn Boesen, listed. “All our products are high-grade aluminum, solid steel and solid brass. We powder coat. We hydro dip in hundreds of different patterns. We also do customized display cases, and we customize for shops.”
Boesen touted the stability of his stands as a major selling point. “You’re not going to knock my stand over,” he emphasized. “You’re not going to lose a $3,500 Gibson on a bump.” A military veteran, Boesen also emphasized that all his products are made in the U.S.A. and, like many manufacturers, he expressed a desire to see the MI industry scale back on outsourcing. “I served our country,” he explained, “so I keep everything within our borders. I’m looking forward to doing good business selling U.S.A.-made products. I think it’s important for our industry to bring it back home. In fact, it’s vital.”
Rain Retail Software
In addition to gear manufacturers, NAMM also attracts companies that offer services intended to help retailers improve customer interaction, and to make their stores more welcoming. Rain Retail Software [rainpos.com], a recent startup that provides point of sales software and Web development services, was one such company making its debut at the NAMM Show. Although it is new to the music industry, Rain Retail Software received a good amount of exposure at the show thanks to its participation in NAMM’s Retail Boot Camp.
Brian King, Principal at Rain Retail Software, explained how his company’s software can help retailers to streamline their approach to sales and inventory. “We provide a Web-based point of sale and a Web site program,” King said. “When retailers receive new product, they can just add those products to their point-of-sale system. Then, they can just check a box if they want to show it off on their Web site. If they sell items online, the system updates the in-store inventory, ensuring inventory’s always in sync.” The software also helps retailers monitor all their revenue streams via an easy-to-access online interface. According to King, “We do repair tracking. We manage rentals and classes, so you can bring all those different components into one program and manage them from one place.” He continued, “Since it’s cloud-based, you can log in from anywhere you have Internet access and check your numbers, check your reports and see what inventory is looking like.” He also explained how his company tailors its software solutions to each specific retailer, saying, “When we set up a new account, we take a pretty hands-on approach to working with the retailer. We’re involved with helping them migrate their data into our system. We help set up their settings for sales tax, return programs…whatever they need.”
Another newcomer to the NAMM Show that can help retailers revamp their in-store approach to selling product is MI Displays [midisplays.com], an offshoot of Victory Display & Store Fixture Manufacturing. Victory Displays’ Vice President, John Henderson, told The Retailer everything store owners need to know about the company.
“Our new division, MI Displays, offers a line of B&O fixtures that was developed partially in cooperation with a leading expert in the B&O field,” Henderson explained. “What we’ve essentially done is taken the last 20 years of fixtures that Victory Displays has custom made for music companies, compiled them and made them available for independent retailers. Independent retailers make up 75 percent of the music industry when it comes to retail. That’s a market we’ve never really had the opportunity to serve, because we’ve been so corporate focused. So, we want to broaden our reach.”
In addition to B&O fixtures, MI Displays offers a range of displays for other music products, as well. “We’ve learned a lot about how to display everything from guitar picks to drum heads to guitars themselves,” Henderson noted. “Our 20 years of experience helps us to build displays that sell products. We’ve had displays that have increased sales, and we have the numbers to prove it. We’ve also had displays that have flopped, so we know what works and what doesn’t work.” And, the company is more than willing to work with retailers so they can get the most out of their displays.
“We’re developing a new offering right now, an extension of our Victory Retail Support (VRS),” Henderson affirmed. “We have developed new field-management software for rep forces, captured or hired, that is completely optimized for all mobile devices. This is a game changer, and it’s already in use.” He continued, “We not only design, manufacture, produce and distribute our own displays, but we also maintain them. Our VRS program empowers real-time reporting on all things reps do, and even includes a full training suite that is revolutionary to any industry…not just MI.”