The Future is Here: Swimming Through the Flood of New DJ Gear at NAMM
"It's overwhelming," said Sisely Treasure, vocalist of L.A. synth-rock band Shiny Toy Guns, "how many people are here and all of the new gear."
Treasure and her band mates were at the 2009 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show, held at the Anaheim Convention Center, to demonstrate the Roland AX-Synth, a "remote keyboard" with synthesizer functions that features an internal sound engine, a USB MIDI and a V-LINK button to trigger video.
Every year, tens of thousands of musicians and suits from across the globe descend upon the NAMM Show in search of that perfect piece of gear, whether it be a guitar, mixing board or percussion instrument. Treasure was right, the trade show is overwhelming, from the mix of recognizable people (we saw members of Mötley Crüe, Gwar and The Cure along with the dudes from Z Rock) to the cacophony that erupts in those spot where the guitar, drum and DJ demos overlap to the sheer amount of instruments and equipment available. But, what makes attending the NAMM show a truly mind-boggling experience isn't what physically exists inside the Convention Center, it's the knowledge that a future of music that few anticipated is not only here, but is evolving faster than the time it takes to download an MP3.
I never learned how to play an instrument, but I did learn how to DJ. When I first took that task, the standard equipment consisted of two turntables, two CD players that could not be manipulated by hand (and were, therefore, no fun to play) and one mixer. Any visuals that appeared came courtesy of slide projectors and VCRs. At the dawn of the millennium, those set-ups quickly evolved into CDJs, DVJs and laptop systems. At NAMM 2009, though, even the revolutionary technology of Final Scratch and Serato's Scratch Live, which allow DJs to manipulate digital audio with vinyl and CDs, seemed primitive.
On Saturday, I stopped by Vestax and Numark's respective booths, where the two companies seem to be in head-to-head competition for the next wave of tech-savvy DJs with MIDI platforms that incorporate Serato ITCH technology. Over on the Vestax side, DJ Hideo demonstrated the VCI-300. The Vestax board resembles a CDJ set-up, with two jog wheels, faders and an assortment of buttons and knobs that allow DJs to cue, pitch adjust and add effects. Everything from song selection to crossfading can be done on the hardware itself. There's no need to use the computer as anything more than a virtual record crate. Additionally, VCI-300 utilizes a technology known as the Emergency Thru Switch that keeps the music going even if the computer freezes.
Numark's NS7 is structured like a scaled-down version of the old turntable system and comes complete with two slabs of 7" vinyl. Where part of the allure to spinning vinyl is the ability to look at the groove patterns and discern where the needle should drop, the NS7 has a needle-like Strip Search function that the DJ can align with sound waves that appear on screen. As with the VCI-300, the device features two line faders and one crossfader and requires little interaction with the computer outside of plugging it into the hardware.
"It is an easy transition to go from audio to video if you know how video mixing works," says DJ Pulse, who guided me through the company's latest models. "With any of these venues, you're there listening to the music. Video is an extension, like the club lighting and smoke."
The DVJ-1000 works in a fashion similar to Pioneer's CDJ models and allows for VJs to play footage in real time and manipulate it as one would with audio equipment. The latest in mixing technology is the SVM-1000, a combination audio and visual console that features an LCD touch screen in addition to the usual knobs and faders. This mixer goes far beyond segueing from video to video. VJs can work with photographers and camera operators on the ground to incorporate still shots and live video and utilize text editing and effect functions to create unique, freeform footage.
I left the trade show in a dizzying haze of the new. For roughly two decades, DJ technology remained largely unchanged, now it's in a state of constant flux. Next January, companies like Vestax, Numark and Pioneer will be back at the NAMM Show, and it's quite possible that their booths will be crammed with mechanisms that are more compact and more user-friendly than this year's models. That perfect mix for which every DJ strives will become easier to attain and the future few foresaw will become part of the past.