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Innovators and Entrepreneurs...the 'Hall E' crawl...


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Having been to the Winter NAMM show a number of times over the past twenty plus years, I thought I would approach it differently this year, in no small part because of a thread started on one of the forums that I moderate here at Harmony Central. It seemed to me that every year, 99.9% of what was being shown was not true innovation, but basically re-inventions of the same flat tires. How many different guitars, amps, keyboards, pedals, horns, violins, ukeleles, smoke machines, drums, cables, speakers, cases, stands and so on does the world need? Apparently a never ending supply!

This year, I wanted to see what was new, and particularly, because of my association with the Solo and Duos Forum, what was out there for the small format performers. Oh, there are the usual re-takes on holders for tablets, instrument stands, compact PA arrays, software...but these things are not really 'new'. I was intent on finding the future of the industry: where were the real innovations coming from, who was thinking outside the 'box', who had a new idea?

So I set out looking for my first 'innovator', a fellow by the name of Michael Ahern, who had invented something called the StompLight. One of our forumites had started a thread about the StompLight in December, and it underwent a bit of discussion, and eventually Michael stopped in and engaged us in his process. I was not entirely sold on the idea, to be honest. I liked the basic idea, but had several misgivings, particularly regarding street price [uS$395], capability and durability. I had seen the online videos, but to me the only way to get to the truth was to try one out, touch it, put it through its paces and really get the feel for the intrinsic value.

Michael Ahern is a man driven by a passion for his invention. It is hard to not fall under his spell when he extols the virtues of the StompLight [http://www.stomplight.com/]and regales you with the history of the development process. Michael is totally dedicated to quality, something that I respect, as I am of the same mind. I am, however, not one to be beguiled by mere brilliance and rhetoric, and was fortunate enough to meet with his design engineer Bob Rosenbloom, another passionate man, but more grounded in the nuts and bolts of where the StompLight is going as it continues to evolve. Being from a similar background, Bob and I delved into a myriad of details about the indestructible design, the costs, the features that may or may not be continued in future iterations.

By now you are wondering 'what the heck is he talking about?', and to be fair, the concept is simple yet very unique. As the name implies, it is a light you stomp on. Huh? Well, yes, that... and much more. The StompLight is first and foremost, a foot controllable lighting system the size of a large guitar pedal. It can be set as a wash, or can pulse in time with the music, or pretty much anything else your usual single panel LED systems can do, but with a tiny 3 LED array, and it is there, on your pedal board...or not. It will throw enough light to enhance a solo or duo act's stage show. It also has an optional L-ion battery pack, and multiple units can be slaved off of a master and daisy-chained, if needed.

Bottom line, yes, it is a bit pricey; you could get a different lighting panel for less, but that will take up more real estate, and not give you much more for the space it consumes and the weight it adds to your load-in/out. The beauty of the 'Stompy', as Michael refers to it, is the size and capability, and that, ultimately, is the deciding factor....and yes, I will place an order for one.



Since StompLight was down in 'the basement' they call Hall E, I had a feeling this was going to be fertile hunting grounds for my search, and I was correct. A stone's throw away I noticed some odd looking devices on a table at the corner of a small booth. The one that caught my attention looked sort of like a tiny pipe organ in a cylindrical base, and another that looked like 'the bat signal'. [see pic below]


My curiousity was piqued, and so I examined some of the other cylinders. My first assumption was that these were some form of feedback suppression units. So I asked the affable looking man in the booth if that was what they were. His answer...'kind of yes, but much much more'. This was Rick Keeler of Keeler Sound ["]www.KEELERSOUND.com], another dedicated innovator with a brilliant idea that was so far out of the box, that when it goes into the 'box', it, in fact, fixes the 'box'. Rick explained that his invention, the Performer Series Sound Processor, corrects the sound inside an acoustic guitar body so that the typical piezo 'quack' is corrected, and in fact, the acoustical properties of the instrument are corrected....before the electronics come into play. The result is a far more natural tone, with less electronic effect, and which, in time, will likely make many a recording engineer cry for joy.

Rick explained that what we hear coming from the sound hole of an acoustic guitar [or ukelele or bass] is not the essence of its sound, but the sum. But as such, there is a bit of 'cancellation' occurring inside the instrument, much of which no amount of clever bracing, sound hole positioning or post facto EQ can truly correct. Rick set out to find a way eliminate or reduce that inherent design flaw, in order to make acoustic guitars sound better, and therefor to make amplified acoustics sound better...before they ever get 'transduced'.

Okay, hearing is believing, and Rick was ready for that. Two virtually identical guitars, average budget level instruments, were side by side. Both with factory installed piezo/pre-amps, and one with the addition of Rick's Processor module inserted in the sound hole. These were plugged into a Fishman SA220 'Fish-stick' [a system with which I have years of experience, and I know it adds very little color to the output when everything is set flat]. The difference was like chocolate vs. vanilla.

Where the stock guitar [vanilla] sounded as expected, with the nasal tone we have come to accept from piezo equipped a/e guitars, the Keeler Processor equipped instrument [chocolate] came alive! There was bass, there was treble, there was clarity, there was timbre, there was actual acoustic guitar sound, as if it was not plugged in at all...actually even better!

Rick, however, was not done with having achieved that...no, he also had built a Processor module with a wireless microphone, preamp and battery pack for those of us with 'legacy' acoustics, forever saddled with soundhole pick-ups or external microphones. That was a true game changer. I was beyond intrigued. Rick graciously agreed to sit down and explain it all to me in greater detail, and I was happy to appreciate his knowledge, clever conceptualization and, dare I say, beautiful execution. I fully intend to have at least one of my acoustics fitted with a Keeler Processor!


My search continued through Hall E, and I happened upon a sign at the corner of another booth, explaining how one could control a tablet or laptop directly from the guitar...and I was intrigued, as I have looked at the tablet foot controllers, which seem to get bigger every year, and the fact that I am already 'tap dancing' between the Beat Buddy [another outstanding innovation], the looper and the vocal harmonizer during my solo act, without adding more on the floor. So the idea that I could look at my set list, scroll lyrics, etc. by using a touch sensor panel that replaces the pick guard was just...titillating.

This is the brainchild of Reid Holmes, another inventor who knows he is on to something potentially huge. His innovation, the CyberAxe, has immense potential, but even he admits that it isn't quite all it can be as yet. I expect he will show his updated version of the CyberAxe at summer NAMM to great effect, and I wish him the best with what could be another real game changer.


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