When photography was in the process of being invented, two brilliant gents, Ferdinand Hurter (1844 – 1898) and Vero Charles Driffield (1848 – 1915), using a sewing machine and a candle, discovered what is known as the characteristic curve. It’s the representation of the ideal combination of film, developer solution, time, temperature, and agitation to properly develop a properly exposed piece of film. Their discovery has guided all analog photography ever since. They almost singlehandedly created the studies of sensitometry and densitometry, which every photographer who has ever developed a roll of film has since relied on. It was all about measurements. Measurements that many photographers have learned to ignore when necessary.
What does this have to do with audio, you ask? When Driffield and Hurter announced their discoveries in May, 1890, in the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, their article opened with an amazingly prescient quote: “The production of a perfect picture by means of photography is an art; the production of a technically perfect negative is a science.”
I can’t think of a more apt analogy in which to consider the conundrum that audio reproduction finds itself in. Some folks believe in numbers, tests, stats, and measurements, while others trust their ears. Perhaps the majority embraces a mix of both. Ever since its invention, a slew of technological improvements and techniques involve the recording process itself, but in the end, it’s an art. The NAMM Show (NAMM is short for the National Association of Music Merchants), was and continues to be an emphatic celebration of that art. We have all heard stories of a musician choosing an odd location, like a specific bathroom, to record in. It is because of the room’s measurements? I think not. Every aspect of music is an art, as it every attempt to preserve it.
I’m thinking that few audiophiles have heard of or attended the extravaganza known as NAMM. It’s a twice-yearly conference aimed at musicians, manufacturers, engineers, educators, music business lawyers, and others in the industry. The main conference is held at the Anaheim Convention Center in California, and from the wood used to make instruments, to the tubes that are found in amps, preamps and recording studio gear, it’s all here. And yes, there are audiophile companies, especially from China, showing off their wares; everything from Class A amplifiers to DACs, transports, headphones, speakers, and more.
NAMM’s origins are based in connecting instrument makers with customers, such as your local neighborhood music store. Representatives from K-12 schools often check out the wares on display at NAMM as they select instruments for their music programs. The official show description is, “Founded in 1901, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) has a mission to strengthen the music products industry and promote the pleasures and benefits of making music.”
Over the years it’s grown to become an industry-only gathering of all things related to music. The annual TEC (Technical Excellence and Creativity) Awards, which gives out awards for “the best in audio and sound production”” is joyfully aware of its geekiness. This year’s host was actor, comedian, musician, and producer, Fred Armisen, who made fun of NAMM with skits about the types of people and gear you see during the show. He also laid down some great work on the skins. (You don’t have to be a drummer to enjoy his excellent Netflix documentary, Standup for Drummers.) Music underpins everything, and the love of it helps define what an audiophile is.
Want some stats? First, it’s worth mentioning the impact that COVID-19 has had on the show. I attended the 2020 show, just as folks were being made aware of COVID , so the numbers illustrate the difference a couple of years make.
2020: “The Show welcomed over 2,000 exhibiting member companies, representing 7,000 brands, across all areas of The NAMM Show campus. Of the 115,888 NAMM member and invited registrants, international members accounted for nearly 20 percent growth over two years.”
2022: “With a desire to reignite industry relationships, business and launch new products, the Show welcomed over 1,000 exhibiting members representing 3,500 brands across the campus of the Anaheim Convention Center. As a smaller yet truly global affair, the mix of 46,627 registered attendees represented 111 countries and territories.”
After the pandemic, it took many trade shows and conferences some time to get rolling again, but 46,627 registered attendees representing 111 countries and territories isn’t something to sneeze at. In fact, I thought it was just the right size.
The first time I attended NAMM, someone asked me, “Hey, do you want to have some fun? Just head down a hallway in the Hilton or Marriott, and listen for music.” They weren’t kidding. Musicians are everywhere, in the bars, bathrooms, by the pool, in the convention halls, local venues, you name it. Go around a corner in one of the halls, and you’ll see row after row of gorgeous guitars. Walk into another hall and prepare for an onslaught of drums, cymbals, and more percussion instruments you can shake a stick at (sorry, couldn’t resist), and God help you, don’t come to NAMM with a headache or hangover! It’s one giant cacophonous mess, which is what’s wonderful. Still, you would hope that more drummers would get a collaborative groove on at times.
There are concerts and private parties all the time. This year Gibson wasn’t there, which was a shame, because they usually have one of the best ongoing stages in the show, with top-flight musicians who use Gibson gear performing all day and into the night. A few years ago, for example, D’Angelico Guitars had Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Gibson had Robby Krieger from The Doors, and visitors could watch them from 10 feet away. Outside, an even larger stage, The Yamaha Grand Stage just drips with talent – this year’s performers included the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, jazz vocalist/pianist extraordinaire Kandace Springs, Saddleback Worship, and urban praise and worship artist Fred Hammond.
One the treats of the TEC Awards is always the house band, this year led by Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, performing with astonishing ease on stage. Baxter is not only one of the best guitarists on the planet, he has also lectured Congress on missile defense systems, and is associated with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Next time you cue up Steely Dan, just think of Baxter, and how curious it is that his side-hustle, defending the country is a real thing, all while holding a Telecaster. My son Thomas Fogel and I found it incredibly inspiring. Among this year’s TEC honorees were the amazing bass master, Carol Kaye, who received the Les Paul Innovation Award. Musician/producer/performer/impresario Peter Asher was inducted into the TEC Hall of Fame, and later led the crowd in a singalong to Peter and Gordon’s smash hit “World Without Love,” which he explained was given to him by his roommate, a certain Paul McCartney, who kinda tossed it his way after deciding it wasn’t right for the Beatles. To learn more, click here. You can sample Kaye’s and Asher’s performances on YouTube.
One of the best things about NAMM is that at one moment, you are gazing at a Disney-approved Haunted Mansion handmade guitar, and the next minute you find yourself standing next to a 75-year-old metalhead, complete with tattoos, studs, piercings, and a mohawk, who is happily chatting with a Lutheran church choir director from Minnesota (don’t ya know) and a 20-year-old who plays industrial music, and they’re all discussing a new speaker from Focal. The audiences for the music performances are equally diverse.
While the United Nations claims to bring peace to all, I think NAMM does a much better job. Like most professional conferences, NAMM isn’t just a trade show; however much fun that aspect might be, the show offers far more. There’s NAMM University, where I’ve heard David Solomon of Qobuz hold forth on the future of high-resolution audio, and luminaries of the audio engineering discuss in nitty gritty how they recorded an album. And I mean nitty gritty, from what mics and favorite mic preamps were used to stories about the sessions and how the mixing was done, down to the exact Pro Tools plugins used
Did I mention parties? Yes, lots of fun parties, from small meetups with great music to more lavish events, like the Gibson-sponsored party at the City National Grove of Anaheim concert venue in 2020, known simply as The Grove. That party had the amazing lineup of guitarist Jimmy Vivino (Conan), drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Cougar), and bassist Darryl Jones (the Rolling Stones). Other stars of the night included Slash (Guns N’ Roses), Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Don Felder (formerly of the Eagles), Richie Faulkner (Judas Priest), Chuck Garric (Alice Cooper), Lzzy Hale (Halestorm), Marc Labelle (Dirty Honey), Jared James Nichols, Celisse, Andy Vargas (Santana), Toby Lee, Tash Neal, and…you get the idea. In the courtyard between the Marriott and Hilton hotels, the large Yamaha Grand Plaza stage holds free concerts.
The Grand Rally for Music Education featured special guests including composer/conductor Eric Whitacre, and Gateways Brass Collective. Whitacre brought a live and virtual performance together in “Sing Gently,” featuring Ashley Ballou-Bonnema, creator of sINgSPIRE, a virtual choir for individuals with cystic fibrosis. The event was presented in collaboration with Conn-Selmer, Hal Leonard, JackTrip, and Yamaha.
To say that the audio mixes at these events were superb is to understate it. When you are mixing for a crowd with many of the best live-performance engineers in the world in the audience, you’re not going to do a bad mix. The above listing of performers and events, is just a glimpse of how varied the top-level talent at NAMM is.
Recognizing that not everyone can attend, the show’s new digital extension, NAMM Show+, provided a platform for attendees to connect with each other, and enjoy nearly 100 livestreaming sessions, events, and performances. We tried it and it worked wonderfully. Also, many conference apps are meh, but the NAMM App worked well.
Normally the show takes place in January, but COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the show in 2021, and it was touch and go if the show would occur this year, with the rising rates of COVID infection in Southern California threatening large events and gatherings. Fortunately, the show did go on in June, which everyone seemed to enjoy. Over the next two years NAMM is planning to get back on their twice a year schedule (they also normally have a smaller show in Nashville over the summer, but this year it’s didn’t happen. The dates for the 2023 show will be April 13 – 15, so it’s slowly moving back toward its normal Winter NAMM date in January.
Enjoy these additional photos of The NAMM Show, with more to come in Part Two.
All photos courtesy of Harris Fogel.
Header image: there were ukuleles everywhere at the show. These folks couldn’t resist trying some from Ohana Ukuleles, led by Jeff Linsky.