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The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) holds two shows each year; the first is in Anaheim in January, and the second in Nashville in July. The January show is huge, attracting 100,000 visitors during its four-day run. NAMM is said to be to the music industry what the Consumer Electronics Show is to electronic innovation.
Electronics play a huge role in the music industry today. Amplifiers, soundboards, preamplifiers in acoustic guitars, and a host of other applications abound throughout the halls. This year the newly expanded Anaheim Convention Center played host once again, and the event was just mind-boggling, especially for someone like me who plays a bit of guitar and harmonica. My friend and editor (and bass player) Dan Feinberg has discussed how difficult it was to cover the CES show in a few days, and I must echo that sentiment about NAMM. It’s a gigantic show.
I started off at the Taylor Guitars booth. Taylor Guitars started in business in 1974 and has become arguably the largest manufacturer of guitars in the world. Some 500 guitars per day leave their factories in El Cajon, California and Tecate, Mexico each day! In a soft market, Taylor continues to gain market share and bring about innovation.
Bob Taylor introduced Andy Powers, Taylor’s master guitar designer, who in turn introduced a newly designed V-style sound board bracing system, as opposed to the conventional X-style bracing. This is not merely a relocation of the carefully arranged little sticks of spruce that are glued to the underside of the guitar’s top and back. This is a small but revolutionary innovation in sound translation, and an excellent example of consistent improvement and minute attention to detail.
In addition to the consistent improvement aspect of the culture at Taylor, there is no better example of the benefit of process control when over 500 guitars are shipped each day, every day providing the same look, feel and playability of the first guitar.
Another example of innovation has come through the upstart company Quilter Labs. We interviewed founder Pat Quilter, who also founded QSC Audio, and I was struck by how his relatively new amplifier company has entered a mature industry and grown in such a soft market. COO Christopher Parks told me that Quilter Amplifiers has grown tremendously in this past year, while older entrenched companies have lost market share and declined.
Quilter and his staff are never satisfied with the status quo, and are constantly innovating. Quilter himself, at a time in his life where he could just sit in Newport Beach and relax in the sun, is a sparkplug of innovation. Being passionate about sound and amplifiers, Quilter continues to think of new ideas to bring to market. His new MicroBlock 45 amp head is but one example. This 40-watt, $150 product is small enough to fit on a guitarist’s pedal board and provides more than ample power to fill a room of sound.
By the way, that amp’s circuit board is a double-sided FR-4 substrate. Quilter designs his own PCBs using an old version of P-CAD. He told me that he loves this program, because he doesn’t have to fight his way through complex interfaces to be able to get his design complete. He would rather innovate than fight his way through a complicated program. This is my thinking exactly as I fight through Excel trying to find things that were at one time easy to locate.
My last stop was at another small company innovating, of all things, speakers, another mature product that has been around for years. Sonusphere uses a hemispherical shape with no corners, or edges to “limit, or otherwise effect sound projection.” The design was focused on a speaker providing a flat response. After testing several enclosure examples, including cubical shapes, rectangular boxes and similar enclosures that we are all familiar with, the sphere was proven to provide the highest level of response.
At Taylor, Quilter, and Sonusphere, technologists have found thinking outside of the box can generate product innovation. These companies have adopted process controls and advanced R&D that one might expect to find in a Tier 1 electronics manufacturing company. One might not expect to find this level of innovation in musical instruments, but it is there.
You may have read about the decline of the music business, with guitar sales dropping each year as millennials embrace electronic dance music and companies like Guitar Center posting millions in debt. But there is hope for this beleaguered industry, and it rests on the shoulders of technologists at companies such as Taylor Guitars, Quilter Labs and Sonusphere.