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Sweetwater's GearFest did it again - with a bigger and better than ever gear-head's paradise

 

by Craig Anderton (Gibson Brands)

 

Sweetwater has been putting on GearFest for years, and I've  been attending it for years, usually to present seminars. At least that's my excuse - the main reason I go is because it's a really cool event. I overheard one showgoer say to a friend, "There's nothing about this place that's not cool!" and while I don't approve of double negatives, I have to agree.

 

But this year marked a new level for GearFest attendance. Before the show, I predicted that their attendance would hit close to 10,000 and reach into the same kind of range as Summer NAMM. Of course, I was laughed at - and with good reason, because as it turned out, I was wrong. It was over 10,000. (And by the way, if you want to comment on GearFest or have your own observations, here's a dedicated thread.)

 

The first indication was the parking lot. No smartphone lens is wide-angle enough to capture what I saw. If I'd rotated the camera to the left or right, you would have seen an equal number of cars.

 

When I stepped inside, the place was much more packed than last year...which is all the more interesting, because Sweetwater expanded a whole lot since then. 

 

And then there was the cafeteria. Look closely at the photo - the cafeteria extends all the way back to where the windows are. No one starved at GearFest, that's for sure, and there was even a Starbucks-like place with designer coffee and free (yes, free) bottles of water in plentiful supply to counteract the side effects of Summer in Indiana.

 

Here are some pictures of the revamped Sweetwater retail store. It's beautifully done. Also, the entire building is totally green - it saves huge amounts of energy and water, and the materials are all environmentally healthy. There's plenty of light and windows; the working environment is first-class.

 

That's Chuck Surack, Mr. Sweetwater, on the right. I think I know why he's smiling. 

 

All the workshops and seminars were held inside, while the manufacturer exhibits were set up in tents outside. The weather didn't cooperate on Friday, when it rained like crazy. But toward the end of the day, it abated. This shows just a few of the tents.

 

Oh, and it really is true that Chuck started this business from the back of a VW bus. Here it is.

 

But enough about Sweetwater, let's check out the seminars, gear, and people. I loved the "keyboard museum."

 

And speaking of synths, there was a very, very cool panel discussion moderated by Mitch Gallagher with Roger Linn, Dave Smith, and Tom Oberheim. 

 

In fact it was so cool I recorded the whole thing, and there's a video on the Harmony Central YouTube channel. Check it out!!

 

 

I gave two workshops. Unfortunately they were so packed some people had to sit on the floor in the aisles, and when that filled up, they had to turn people away...

 

But I will say the crowd was extremely engaged and interested in learning. I kind of wish  I could rent them for future seminars...also Jimmy Landry from Cakewalk had a great "Conversation with Ilan Bluestone," who is an extremely hot trance artist and SONAR user. I stayed for the whole thing even though I probably should have been visiting with more manufacturers.

 

As to the gear, Native Instruments was showing their new keyboard and Traktor setup.

 

But the main item of interest is that NI sees stems as the next step in DJing, and this controller is optimized for that function.

 

The biggest news at the show in terms of products was the Line 6 Helix, being introduced here by Marcus Ryle. (Yes, the guy who if you've used anything involving music and electronics in the past several decades, you've almost certainly used something he designed.)

 

The Helix is a built-like-a-tank guitar processor with all-new algorithms and a sweet UI. I was very impressed by the display...not unlike having a computer editor built into an effects unit.

 

There's also a serious amount of I/O, and touch-sensitive footswitches.

 

Arturia had a sweet emulation of the Oberheim Matrix-12, and was also showing off their 88-key keyboard controller. Arturia's controllers do aftertouch really well. It's not polyphonic, but it's smooth.

 

I asked Gerry Bassermann from Propellerheads to give me a crazy look, and he came reasonably close :). By the way starting with Reason 8,1, 32-bit versions are a thing of the past. 64-bit all the way, baby!

 

If you don't know who Dave Smith is, then you never heard of the first polyphonic programmable synthesizer (the Prophet-5) or a little thing called MIDI, which was his brainchild.

 

And here are his latest, the Prophet-12 and Prophet-6 analog synthesizers (with digital control).

 

Speaking of keyboards, there's something new from M-Audio on the horizon called Code 61.

 

How low can you go? I went to the Lakland/ GK booth to get my bass fix.

 

...and to Marshall to say hi to Nick Bowcott, formerly with Grim Reaper. Looks like he's still ready to rock.

 

Of course, equal time for Blackstar. I stopped by at the end of the show when it wasn't mobbed so I could get a better shot of the setup.

 

Novation/Focusrite is always good for cool stuff, and some of the best blinky lights you'll find on any gear. Here the Launch Control and Launch Pad are clearly plotting out dance floor strategies to get everyone up and moving.

 

Focusrite's RedNet continues to be a big deal in the world of pro audio.

 

I would certainly be remiss if I didn't show Gibson's major presence at the show - the bus, the Custom Shop trailer, a tent for Pro Audio, another tent for guitars, and they may have had another tent somewhere for all I know. By the way, that's DJ Spark in the Pro Audio booth. She's not only an excellent DJ, she gives nerds a good name : )

 

Hey! Let's congratulate M magazine on its 5th birthday. A lot of print people talk gloom and doom, but M just keeps moving right along. Maybe it helps to have someone involved whose real name is Merlin.

 

You can't have a trade show without Moog, it's the law. 

 

Why is this man smiling? I had heard rumors that Casio had something up their sleeves, but despite trying to be as persuasive as humanly possible, I guess I'm going to have to wait along with everyone else to find out...

 

GruvGear had something that was kind of like the roller carts you've seen before, but they've taken it to the next level by integrating their backpacks and other cases.

 

This is Frank Wells, editor of Pro Sound News and of course, part of Pro Sound Web. He has some serious cachet, so it was great to sit down and talk shop for a while.

 

And what does everyone need to pack their gear in before they leave? Why, cases of course...like these from SKB.

 

Well, that covers about 1% of the show. But I have a good excuse: I was doing workshops, hanging out with friends, being interviewed, and chowing down at the cafeteria. So let's say bye to Chuck, and all I can say is if you get a chance to go to GearFest, don't miss it. It's not just about the gear and the special, two-day-only prices - it's an immensely social event filled with some wonderful people. The only bored  person I saw was a policeman who was there for security. Apparently even with 10,000+ people, gear-crazed musicians tend not to cause problems. 

 

Oh, and one last bonus picture...while driving back to Nashville, I saw a sign for "Dinosaur World"somewhere in Kentucky. Curiosity got the best of me...take that, Steven Spielberg! Happy GearFest.

 

 

 

 

 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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