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The Next Generation

At January's NAMM show, Line 6 released a loudspeaker that can think for itself.

At first glance, this 1,400-watt unit, dubbed StageSource, looks like an everyday powered speaker. Tilt it on its side, though, and it automatically becomes a floor monitor. Put it on a stand, and it morphs into a front-of-house P.A. In fact, the StageSource L3t has six unique speaker modes, not to mention the ability to expand into a multi-unit system that can configure automatically to a venue. Oh yeah, and it sounds really good.

"There's obviously a reference P.A. mode," said Marcus Ryle, Line 6's co-founder and senior vice president of new business development. "But let's say you want to use it for acoustic guitar, and you're going to do a little coffeeshop gig. We have a great tuning for that. Or, you can put it on the side and use it as a floor monitor. There's a separate voicing for that."

Line 6 may have led the smart-gear charge at NAMM, but it wasn't the only exhibitor ushering in the next era of techno wonders. This year's expo featured a bevy of products that brought elite technologies down to the masses, in everything from pro audio and recording to the guitar and band instrument categories.

"One of the things that a lot of dealers have picked up on is how great it is to have a solution for the customer that can solve so many of their problems," added Ryle, referring to the StageSource line.

And that doesn't just go for Line 6. This new breed of gear is especially focused on problem-solving, as Ryle put it. Be it Peavey's AT-200 self-tuning guitar or daCarbo's carbon-fiber trumpets, these items mix extreme utility with wow factor. And you're probably going to see more products like them in the future. Here's what to expect.

Next-Generation Audio
Line 6's other big NAMM release, StageScape M20d, is a new concept in live sound mixing and recording. To put it mildly, this is not your dad's mixer.

Instead of a traditional surface with faders, this digital unit offers touchscreen-based visual mixing, with graphics of each instrument onstage, to get musicians up and running quickly. It can also automatically recognize which instruments are which and offers suggested EQ for each.

"You plug a mic cable in, and a microphone on a mic stand shows up on the stage," Ryle said. "If I plug in four things, I'll see four things on the stage.

"You'll see something onstage that's representative of what it is that you actually care about and not a bunch of extra channels that you don't care about."

Drill down deeper, and users can tweak the unit's EQ using a simple XY pad that features terms applicable to particular instruments. (Think "boom," "punch" and "bright.") There's automatic trim adjustment, built-in racks worth of DSP and the ability to record up to 20 seconds of audio from all channels simultaneously. Hook up an iPad, and a musician can replay that 20-second snippet and make tweaks to his band's mix from anywhere in a venue. Hook up StageScape M20d to StageSource, and the speakers will automatically self-configure.

Ryle pointed out that this creates a unique opportunity for music retailers. These new items let dealers build a modular pro audio system in their showrooms, helping eliminate a bunch of excess SKUs.

"You can show a system much more simply, and you can create an opportunity to have follow-up business with that customer as their career grows or as they add more musicians to their band," Ryle said. "They can buy more [StageSource] speakers and be able to perform in any environment they might have."

The challenge, of course, is introducing such a new concept to shoppers. Not surprisingly, Ryle suggested keeping a system set up, ideally in a separate room, "because when people hear these speakers, they're really going to be blown away."

Next-Generation Guitars
Another new concept that took NAMM showgoers by surprise was the gearless self-tuning guitar. Peavey epitomized this development with the AT-200 — the result of a partnership with Antares, which incorporated its Auto-Tune For Guitar technology into the instrument. With the push of a button, the guitar can instantly self-intonate or go into any number of alternate tunings. The kicker? You won't find any gears or moving parts, unlike previous self-tuning guitars. And it streets for only $500.

"The self-tuning feature on the Peavey AT-200 operates in a completely different manner than previous attempts at creating a self-tuning guitar," said Hartley Peavey, founder and CEO of Peavey Electronics.

"The technology constantly monitors the precise pitch of each individual string and electronically makes any corrections necessary to ensure that every note of every chord and riff is always in tune, regardless of variables like finger position or pressure. No previous instrument has had that ability."

Parker also showed the Auto-Tune ATDF842 Maxx Fly, a new version of its high-end DF842 Maxx Fly. As with Peavey's model, the guitar is equipped with Antares technology and offers instant string intonation and alternate tunings, along with a virtual capo feature.

To boot, Roland launched the VG Stratocaster G-5. It can access five alternate tunings and features 20 different sounds — everything from a Strat to a Martin acoustic — by harnessing the company's COSM technology. Like Peavey's and Parker's models, the guitar came about through a partnership, this time with none other than guitar-manufacturing luminary Fender.

"The G-5 is technologically distinct in its powerful built-in VG tunings and guitars models," said Gary Lenaire, product manager for Boss, Roland's guitar products division. "Ease of use also sets the G-5 apart from other electronics instruments. All of the exciting COSM sounds are set on only two knobs."

To music retailers, Lenaire added, "When customers play the guitar and hear the COSM models and tunings, then they will purchase."

Peavey also pointed out that his company's AT-200 has broad appeal, making it an appropriate SKU at a range of different dealerships. He said the instrument has already generated "a lot of positive feedback from retailers who are excited to carry it," but he cautioned dealers that the AT-200 "won't play itself" — it requires a demo.

"It is crucial that dealers show their customers how easy it is to use the instrument," Peavey said. "When you strum the guitar and press the volume and control knob, you can actually hear the guitar lock into tune. It's remarkable to hear, and it absolutely turns heads. The reactions we got from this guitar at NAMM were priceless."

Next-Generation Materials
Hartley Peavey also has his fingers in another burgeoning trend: alternative materials. In particular, his company began embracing carbon fiber in 2010 with the purchase of Composite Acoustics, which produces 100-percent wood-free acoustic guitars. Peavey mentioned that he believes interest in renewable, sustainable materials for guitar making will continue trending up, and not only because they're eco-friendly.

"It is incredibly lightweight but also dense, strong and durable," Peavey said of carbon fiber. "As you know, sound waves propagate best through dense matter. This allows us to make the guitar soundboard very thin and resonant but still project a very rich, dynamic and loud tone. You can't help but be impressed by the ruggedness of these instruments."

Apparently, some dealers are. Teddy Gordon is a trained luthier and owns Make'n Music, a high-end Chicago guitar shop. For him, carbon-fiber guitars not only benefit the environment by helping conserve tonewoods but also represent a noteworthy advancement in guitar manufacturing.

"It's the 21st century — I don't need another traditional-style offshoot," Gordon said. "I am very excited by all the advances in technology we have available today, and I'd like to see more luthiers embrace them and all the benefits they offer to the future of guitar making."

He pointed out that carbon fiber is very consistent and "immune" to changes in temperature and humidity. "With composites, you have the opportunity to refine a design in order to have the sonic signature you are looking for, then replicate it consistently, over and over again."

The band instrument segment is also embracing this shift. DaCarbo began offering its carbon-fiber trumpets for the first time at the recent NAMM show. Andreas Keller, the company's founder, said daCarbo has attracted attention because there hasn't been substantial innovation in trumpet technology since the invention of piston valves. Plus, he added, carbon-fiber just looks cool.

"They make a great visual impact," Keller said. "This will inspire every trumpet player to test-play it when he sees it in the shop window."

Steve Dillard, owner of trumpet specialty retailer, doesn't carry daCarbo trumpets yet — he said their high price is keeping him from stocking them in quantity. Still, he commented that carbon-fiber instruments are important to the future of the brass category, as they can be consistently replicated and let players "dial in" their own horn sound via interchangeable components. And then there's the tone.

"The sound was beautiful and sort of surrounded the player rather than projected away from the player," Dillard said of daCarbo trumpets, adding, "They do not dent!"

And getting purists to accept carbon fiber might not be as difficult as one might think, according to Peavey.

"We guitar players can be traditional in our tastes, but Composite Acoustics guitars have convinced a lot of wood purists otherwise," he said.

"The consumers I have dealt with, regarding Composite Acoustics instruments, seem to be quite happy," Gordon added.

When asked if he could share his strategy for selling these guitars, he said, "To get as many as I possibly can and tell as many people as I can about how great I think they are." MI