By Lou Washington

Technology has always been a major force within the music industry. It is, sometimes, a rocky marriage. Just ask Steinway, the iconic maker of pianos.

In the late 1960’s Steinway introduced teflon as a replacement for felt as a material used for bushings in the construction of their actions. An action, for those not familiar with piano construction is the complex assembly of levers and hinges that responds to the player pushing down on a key by lifting the hammer to strike the strings.

Teflon was a great idea, poorly executed. Field technicians responsible for servicing these pianos were not properly trained in the techniques required to maintain the teflon bushings. The result was a clicking sound that was audible whenever the instrument was played.

Steinway responded quickly and recovered from this adventure. They continue on today as one of the premier piano manufacturers in the world.

This year, at NAMM 2012, technology was the big story. Almost every manufacturer displaying is introducing new and innovative products. For musicians, this is our equivalent of the Paris Air Show or the Detroit Auto Show.

I took a look at the Guitar Center website yesterday. They are listing about 250 new products in a special NAMM promotional sale. Looking over this and a ton of NAMM press releases, most of the new offering fall into two major categories. First is what I’ll call Retro and the second is Technology. Technology is the frontman this year however, because so many of the retro offerings are “powered by” new technology.

What’s New?

On the retro side of the coin both Fender and Gibson are introducing more throwback models to their Guitar lines. These things really fascinate me. The guitars are actually built to specs used in previous models dating from long gone musical eras. Then the instrument is factory aged, complete with nicks, scrapes and factory installed rust spots. They are finally finished in a darker, yellowed shellac or varnish type topcoat.

The effect is amazing. You have a brand new musical instrument that mimics the sounds from say a 1950s Telecaster played in some rural juke joint roadhouse. The illusion is made complete by an appearance one would associate with leaving a guitar unprotected in the back of a pick up truck for several years. When you pick one up, you would swear you were holding a 50 year old Telecaster.

Fender introduced two new tube amps this year under the Pawn Shop Special banner. These are aimed at jammers or small venue performers. They are tube driven and are stylistically tied to the late 1940s or early 1950s. The Greta model even features a functional VU meter. Tube amps are a must have for guitar players looking to emulate the mid 20th century sounds that many of the older blues artists and early rockers produced.

I have a Fender Blues Junior Deluxe and I can attest that the sound produced by these amps is incredible. You simple can not get the same warmth of tone from a solid state, digitally produced signal.

All of the new models interface directly with iPod and iPads or other MP3 players. More on that later.

In the area of amplification another big star is the battery powered amp. These things are really coming on strong. I picked up a Pignose amp the other day and it’s quickly become one of my favorite toys. It runs on a handful of AA batteries and is well under a hundred bucks. It produces a great blues sound with just the right amount of distortion.

Lots of new modeling amps, those with built in effects, were introduced as well. This is pure digital technology. Effects like reverb, vibrato, rectifier, blues drivers, fuzz and wah are all there ready to go with the flick of switch on the amp itself or on a foot pedal.

iPad Heaven

Apple has made a name for itself as the go to PC for graphical applications as well as sound processing. A huge number of music apps are available for the iPad. Garageband, Apples hugely successful, easy to use, sound recording studio is getting lots of company from third party apps these days.

Wave Machine Labs introduced Auria this year and it promises to step things up for those of us who like to record live music. Auria is a fully functional 48 track DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that runs on iPad. This is a pro-grade recording studio that features a Steinberg VST effects plugin to complete the offering.

You really have to wonder if the local recording studio is an endangered species. Will they go the way of the photo kiosk? Probably not entirely, but I see these tools affecting the price charged for services rendered.

The great thing that technology has done for the music business is provide accessibility. Local musicians can promote themselves also record their concerts or studio sessions. They can produce and sell their own work in CD format or downloadable MP3s. People can actually make a living today as musicians working on a local basis.

Technology has made music egalitarian and the music business a viable, locally focused industry. No longer do musicians have to “go to LA” or New York to gain a market that can support them. The best part is we as consumers win big. Thousands of musicians that would have otherwise been locked out of the market place can now be heard.

There will always be more talent than audience, but technology is significantly closing that gap.

The music business is alive well today because most of the industry has embraced technology. NAMM 2012 has demonstrated that quite well.