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Sweetwater's GearFest 2017

Sweetwater sure knows how to throw a party


by Craig Anderton



 wouldn’t miss this show for anything.


Yeah, it’s about gear…but it’s also a 100% musician-centric social event, in an accommodating, friendly environment that encourages interaction among people, performers, manufacturers—all facilitated by the ever-courteous and helpful Sweetwater staff. How courteous? Courtesy cart drivers logged about 250 miles shuttling people to and from their cars, and free bottled water was everywhere to make sure attendees stayed hydrated during Indiana’s hot Summer days.


Some people say “Fort Wayne, Indiana? It’s in the middle of nowhere!” Ah, but it’s indeed in the middle—within striking distance of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Lansing, etc. However, GearFest’s notoriety has spread far and wide, and now people fly in from literally all over the country, and increasingly, countries outside the USA.


So that’s why this year, GearFest topped over 14,000 guests, and 15,000 people total. Yes, 15,000—more than the attendance at the 2016 Summer NAMM show. 



But the shows are quite different. NAMM is about dealers and writing business; GearFest is all about the public, making music, workshops, concerts, and offering deals on gear. 500 vendors set up displays in 100,000 square feet of tent space, and more manufacturers are using GearFest to introduce new products. This shows just a fraction of the total number of tents.



Sweetwater really stepped up their social media game this year, and there's no way I can duplicate the massive coverage on Facebook - so search on #gearfest2017, and you'll get lots of photos. But what you might not get is the flavor of the event, and that's what I'll try to convey.


Friday morning brought a heavy rainstorm (1 -3/4 inches!), and there were concerns it would drive people away. But the storms cleared around noon, and weather was great for the rest of GearFest.


Over the past few years, there's been an increase in concerts. A couple years back Sweetwater added an amphitheater, which was the main venue. Despite being outdoors, the sound system was crystal-clear. 


The headliners were Eric Johnson...


...and Dweezil Zappa... 

 The "Sweetwater All-Stars" also played as part of Customer Appreciation night, and yes, Chuck Surack can really play sax...the dude is good. You could also see performers all over the place, like Robben Ford and Andy Timmons. 

Even going for lunch meant you'd probably run into people of interest, like (left to right) guitarist Carl Verheyen, engineer Chris Lord-Alge, and Sweetwater Editorial Director Mitch Gallagher. 

And speaking of lunch, there were food trucks by the Amphitheater...

...as well as Sweetwater's "Downbeat Diner"...  

...and a Starbucks-like coffee and snacks zone. I highly recommend the Mocha Latte :)

The dining area was always packed. 

Sweetwater is the only place I've been where there's a slide to get from the second floor to the first floor. It's faster than stairs...and who needs elevators!

One of the more popular features of GearFest is free guitar re-stringings. The team of luthiers re-strung over 750 instruments.

Of course, the giveaways are always popular! This year Sweetwater gave away $55,000 worth of prizes.

GearFest has tons of workshops, from beginner to expert. Some were done by Sweetwater people; Mitch Gallagher's workshop on guitar tone is always popular.

Others were done by people such as yours truly, who came to GearFest to present a variety of workshops in various venues scattered throughout the Sweetwater campus.

Sweetwater has three conference halls, with dividers so they can be separated into 3 individual halls, or 2+1, or 1 big hall. Here are the attendees in the left half of the hall prior to my workshop on making recorded vocals sound better. By the way, my workshops were recorded, so hopefully they'll be posted on the Harmony Central YouTube channel before too long.

However music education is also ongoing at Sweetwater, it doesn't just happen during GearFest. 

GearFest is also about fun...people love to pose in front of the stack of Marshalls. Unlike Van Halen concerts from the mid-80s, these aren't cardboard but the real thing :)

But of course, this was indeed GearFest, and Sweetwater carries a bazillion different products.

And even though Sweetwater is known primarily as an online retailer, they have a fully equipped store.

However what got the most attention for shoppers is the annual GearFest "Deal Zone," with major discounts. I picked up a pair of Auralex MoPAD-XL speaker isolators for $25; Shure SM58 mics were going for $58.

And yes, Sweetwater does merch.

You can also look at the warehouse from an overlook. It's not the Grand Canyon, but it's pretty darn big.

There's even a graphic with stats...just in case you wondered about the warehouse's size  (it's 4,500,000 cubic feet).

But of course, most of you are here for the gear porn...so let's rock, starting with a huge Moog modular system that Keith Emerson used.

Moog also had a "pop-up" factory...cool concept.

GearFest always has some overachieving famous drum sets, like this one from Eric Singer of Kiss.

Terry Bozzio's DW kit was also off the hook.

Native Instruments was showing off their latest and greatest.

And yes, the rumors are true: Propellerheads' Reason now supports VST plug-ins.

My favorite new product at the show was TC-Helicon's Perform VE, a really clever voice morpher/sampler/manipulator. The best part is when you sing into it, Perform VE recognizes the pitch and maps it across your sampler. I don't know of any other sampler that does this.

You can always count on Novation to show off a bunch of nifty stuff.

And as you would expect, Gibson Brands was well-represented, both for guitars and pro audio. In particular, the new KRK V-Series speakers, new Stanton turntables, and the Neat mics got a lot of attention.

And everyone loves the Gibson tour buses. 

DPA had some very accurate and unobtrusive instrument mics, along with a tiny audio interface that's smaller than a hockey puck.

DPA also had a new hand-held, dynamic mic for live performance. In the true spirit of gear porn, they were kind enough to disassemble it for me.

Cloud showed their new Cloudlifter Zi that gives much more flexibility in terms of choosing impedance.

The Crumar Mojo-61 is a very cool clonewheel, where the two "manuals" can talk to each other.

Torpedo was showing their load boxes and attenuators - they still seem to be a pretty well-kept secret, but they do indeed give you full guitar amp tone at whatever volume you want.

Nektar had their line of keyboard controllers...helpful when you want hands-on control over your DAW.

Of course there was much more gear, but there's info on Sweetwater's site about what was new at GearFest.


And finally, Dendy brought the Harmony Central Airstream up to GearFest, where a ton of people joined up as HC members and also, signed up for the newsletter (which now has a circulation of over 66,000 - a big thank-you to all of you who subscribed!). By the way, no - he's not doing a lobster imitation, It's just what happens when you sit out the sun all day, spreading the word about HC to the GearFesters.

The dates for next year's GearFest have already been set for June 15 and 16, 2018. It seems like for this year, Sweetwater was pretty much bumping up against their capacity for crowds on this level - but I overheard several discussions about how Sweetwater planned to accommodate the inevitable increase in attendance next year. Maybe they'll just buy the state of Indiana, and be done with it.


In any event, GearFest is very, very cool...as anyone who's attended will tell you. If you haven't been there, plan to check it out next year. And if you have, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Kudos to Sweetwater for putting on such a professional, fun, well-run, and positive musician-friendly free event.   -HC-



 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.


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