Victor Wooten, Blinking Lights and Other Takeaways from NAMM 2019

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A couple weeks ago, I headed down to Anaheim for a four-day music industry convention organized by the National Association of Music Merchants, known more commonly around our circles as NAMM. This wasn’t my first go-around, but it was the first time my badge said MEDIA instead of ARTIST and I was a little curious as to whether that would impact my experience there.

We’re all about active learning at Soundfly, so it was fitting that my companion and documentarian for the convention was our very own Mahea Lee, VP of Learning and Curriculum Development and a first-time NAMM attendee (a NAMM noob). She’s busy with education research, she’s busy with students, she’s got a lot on her plate, and didn’t really want to be here. However, this is kind of where the future of music performance and practice exists, all under one roof, so Mahea sat in the passenger’s seat with sleepy eyes and a preoccupied mind as we approached the Anaheim Convention Center and vowed to soak up what she could.

Those of you who have been to NAMM before know it’s a lot to take in, especially the first time you attend. But by the time we climbed back into the car several hours later, there was a different person sitting in the passenger seat, one with wide eyes mentally revisiting the countless booths, brands, and bass players she had just seen. Luckily, we hit enough traffic to allow her the time she needed to process and synthesize it all (out loud, to yours truly). The following are a few major impressions and takeaways from that mostly one-sided conversation.

Navigating NAMM

We left Los Angeles pretty early, figuring we had given ourselves plenty of time to park, get our badges, and start roaming around the convention. But because we were attending on Thursday, the first official day, parking was at a premium. After about an hour spent looking for a close-ish spot, we followed the signs to Angels Stadium, roughly four miles from the convention center. Luckily, the folks at NAMM think of everything, and there were shuttles taking attendees to and from the parking lot all day.

While on the shuttle, we learned about a little game called “NAMM Bingo” from a couple fellow attendees. As you’d probably guess, the goal was to spot as many expected NAMM tropes as you can — jaded veteran musicians complaining about child prodigies, Victor Wooten out-bassing the rest of us, Spinal Tap references on the tips of every tongue, etc.

I should mention that NAMM is huge. It occupies as much space as Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Toontown combined (and happens across the street from Disneyland) — I know, it was really tempting.

Finding the specific exhibitors you’re looking for on your own is like the ultimate Where’s Waldo? Fortunately, the NAMM staff are pros, and it was pretty easy to find an info desk, directory, or stack of glossy maps from pretty much any point on site. Better yet — there’s an app. We didn’t know to download it until halfway through that day, but man, it was a game-changer.

Panels and Discussions

Everywhere we turned, there was another piece of equipment that would look so good back home at the studio. It was almost criminally easy to get worked up into exhaustion just pondering this dream gear rack I could build, if only… I think the convention was designed to make us salivate all day.

But I’ll fill you in on the ultimate thirst-quenching secret oasis of NAMM: the panels and discussions. 

Okay, these are in no way a secret; in fact, you can find a glossy booklet that lists every one of them on a time grid. But then how did I allow myself to miss these in previous years? All that time, I was out on the floor torturing myself, when all I really wanted and needed was talking into a Shure SM58 in a dark room right next to me.

But this time was different. This time, I was here with Soundfly’s VP of Learning and she’s determined to learn something, gain an edge, and access the wisdom of some of the greatest minds in our industry.

We caught a few panels, but one in particular on home studio build outs featuring Carl Tatz, Eddie Veale, and Steven Klein, really piqued our interest.

Each of these guests has worked with some incredible artists (my ears really perked up upon learning that Eddie Veale built both John Lennon and George Harrison’s home studios). The studios they had worked on were way beyond the scope of anything I could currently put in my home, but there were some key takeaways that even pertain to those of us whose “vocal booths” are empty closets in rented apartments.

When talking about the importance of reference tracks, one panelist reminded the audience that “you could mix in the bottom of an empty swimming pool if you really wanted to.” Essentially, the lesson was that, though the environment you work in is crucial, it is imperative to have a reference point that you trust. All the fancy gear in the world won’t make up for having an untrained set of easily-influenced ears.

Booths and Exhibits

There were so many booths to look at. So many blinking lights.

Despite efforts to walk each and every area, I’m still convinced there are things we missed completely. We saw hardware, software, and demos, guitars in every shape, size, and finish, replacement parts for brass instruments we didn’t even know existed, countless plugins, instruments we’d only ever heard about in sci-fi novels (shout out to Moog). We saw a silent set of music played for an audience in headphones, a drum kit with a demon squid monster atop it. And we even got to see Victor Wooten bassing out… hey wait a minute, NAMM Bingo!

Universal Audio put together a really beautiful exhibit, featuring some amazing live demos of their hardware and software. The setup looked more like a compound than a booth given how massive it was.

The hall of pianos was one of the most peaceful rooms I’ve ever been in. Amidst all the chaos and slap bassery of the NAMM factory floor, a dimly lit room of tranquility filled with the most beautiful pianos I’ve ever seen was a sight for sore ears. And it was eerily quiet, as if everyone there was too in awe of these masterfully constructed instruments to treat them with anything but silent reverence. Here and there, someone would sit down at one of them, and delicately fill the air with rich, warm, ephemeral sound. We spent a few minutes standing in front of a Fazioli so magnificent, Mahea was too shy to even look directly at it.

People at NAMM are generally excited to talk about music no matter who they are or why they’re there. We spent a solid amount of time chatting with Mattias Danielsson from Softube, a company that creates plugins reminiscent of vintage outboard gear. He walked us through a pretty fantastic piece of hardware they make called the Console 1 and it seemed like the stuff of workflow-improving dreams.

And synths… So many synths.

A final note on the booths

Kudos to the folks at Wittner who manned the metronome display: I don’t think I could stay as calm and sane as you appeared to be under those same sonorous conditions. I’d also like to know how you went about starting the metronomes. I heard Alan Parsons manually started all the clocks for Pink Floyd’s “Time” by himself. And does anyone know if that story is true?

And if I start one metronome at 60 BPM and another at 200 BPM — how often will they line up?

And if Victor Wooten plays a bass solo in front of the metronome booth and I’m not there to witness it, does that make me a tree?

As you can see, we left with some very important unanswered questions. But while NAMM may not have all the answers for your musical career — rarely do rooms filled with cutting-edge gear and hundreds of people smarter than you have all the answers — you should still go to NAMM. And go to NAMM more than once. It’s a great opportunity to learn, network, and get inspired, and you’ll do that more comfortably once you push through the initial shock.

Now, if you actually would like some helpful answers as to what direction to point the next stage of your musical career, we can definitely help with that…

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