January 3, 2014

Our 10 Picks for Best Music Tech of 2013

There were a lot of great new musical instruments, audio software developments, and music technology that came out this year. As NAMM 2014 approaches, we wanted to take a retrospective look at some of our favorite releases from the past year. While this is not an exhaustive list, and there were certainly some things that got left off, we encourage you to post your amendments in the comments below so we can all revel in all of the great releases of 2013. As we gear up to cover all the secret new products from NAMM 2014, here are our top 10 picks of 2013 in no particular order.

Ableton Push & Ableton Live 9

Arguably one of the top releases this year was the Ableton Push controller as well as the update to Ableton Live 9. The Push controller was one of the most talked about pieces at Winter NAMM 2013 and for good reason. Ableton Live users now have a dedicated controller to go with its already powerful and widely popular music production software. The 64 pad grid allows you to sequence and perform in real time and it has the ability to keep your notes in the same scale depending on what key you are playing in. Transport and edit controls, along with a set of endless rotary encoders, make song creation very easy and keep you creative without a complex workflow.

Ableton Live users had been waiting four years for an upgrade and they finally got one this year with Ableton Live 9. The upgrade has a familiar look but looks can be deceiving. You can now use two separate monitors to work within Ableton so you can do things like have the session and arrangement views loaded at the same time on two separate screens. There are also workflow improvements such as recording automation into clips as well as editing automation with curves, a new browser for easier access to sounds and samples, a breakout display for the EQ as well as the new glue compressor, the addition of Max for Live, and a host of new control over MIDI notes from stretching to automation.

There’s obviously way more to say about Ableton Live 9 than this “Best of” list could possibly spell out, but Ableton listened to its users and answered with some pretty great upgrades and complimentary equipment this year. If you are in between DAWs or own Ableton Live and don’t have Push, I would highly recommend checking out this software/hardware combo immediately.

Moog Sub Phatty

After checking out a few other “Best of” lists, I was shocked to find the absence of the Moog Sub Phatty on some of these lists (being nominated for a NAMM TEC award should have been all it needed to make these other lists). This is one of the best sounding analog synthesizers on the market today and as its name implies it has some pretty great bass sounds. It’s a Moog so there is a signature sound there that cannot be underestimated. But it’s also a great synthesizer for the beginner or the novice looking to expand their synthesizer knowledge.

Part of what makes the Sub Phatty such a great synthesizer is the MultiDrive control which adds a new level of circuitry to make deep bass sounds, and intense screaming and resonant noises. Its a fun control to push to the extremes as well as delicately manipulate depending on what you want out of your sound. Its a very versatile synthesizer with the ability to craft some fantastic drum, bass, and lead sounds, all with total control from the mixer section.

One of the true advantages of the SubPhatty is its price. Anybody familiar with Moog products knows that their higher end catalog can become very expensive, very quickly. The Sub Phatty has a low enough price point to make it a purchase that won’t wreck your year, but it’s also built like the tank of an analog synthesizer that you can feel good about throwing your cash down for.

Arturia MicroBrute

We were all surprised at NAMM 2012 when we stopped by the Arturia booth to check out the MiniBrute Analog Synthesizer. This spelled the beginning of the affordable synthesizer market that really exploded in 2013 and we project will continue to proliferate well into 2014. Arturia came back with another synthesizer release this year that is smaller, more compact, and even more affordable with the Arturia MicroBrute. Not only is the signal path 100% analog, but they have added a step sequencer and configurable patch cords. There are also other changes from the MiniBrute with a more expressive sub oscillator and an alteration in the wiring for the envelope generator.

The synthesizer enthusiast will love the features on the MicroBrute but what really makes the MicroBrute such a great synth is its price. Additionally the controls are very intuitive and anyone with a general knowledge of synthesizers will have great use for the MicroBrute. If you are a novice, the MicroBrute is equally appealing because its an affordable and easy to use synthesizer that can fit easily into your backpack. If you are a synthesizer virgin, this might be the synth for you.

Maschine Studio & Maschine 2.0

It’s been a few years since Native Instruments has given us anything remotely close to a serious update to their popular groove sequencing software Maschine. Our prayers were finally answered near the close of 2013 with the release of the Maschine 2.0 software along with the brand new Maschine controller, the Maschine Studio. Maschine 2.0 boasts a ton of new features including a mixer section, better library browsing, drum synths, cueing, improvements to the step sequencer, and multicore processing which was one of the key improvements to the software in my opinion. The GUI looks great and as expected, many of the existing layouts have an aesthetically pleasing and updated look.

The Maschine Studio is quite impressive in its own right although you don’t have to buy Maschine Studio to take advantage of all the new Maschine 2.0 features. If you do decide to get both you will be pleasantly surprised at how many functions have been simplified by the design of the controller, and it’s integration with Maschine 2.0. The two, high-resolution colored screens are a great way to keep your eyes on the controller and off the computer screen. This becomes especially useful for those of us that like to run Maschine within a DAW where the software instrument window is impossibly fixed to an unusable size.

There are some new sounds that come with Maschine 2.0 but don’t delete your 1.8 version and samples as those sounds have been known to not be available in the 2.0 library. The great thing about Native Instruments is they are constantly releasing expansion packs for the Maschine library. So frequently in fact that you couldn’t possibly download all of them and use every sound before the next expansion is released. If you are looking for the one groove sequencing controller and software for 2014, look no further than Maschine Studio and Maschine 2.0.

Elektron Analog 4/Analog Keys

Elektron have been releasing some fantastic gear over the past couple of years. This year saw the release of the Analog 4, a four voice analog synthesizer in a sleek and rugged box that is compact and very portable. Future Music Magazine named it Hardware of the Year and for very good reason. Not only do you have the usual synthesizer suspects like 2 analog osciallators, 2 sub oscillators, 2 assignable LFOs, 2 assignable envelopes, 2 dedicated waveshape LFOs, and a whole host of other synth voice features, you also get a sequencer with 6 arpeggiators, chorus, delay, and reverb FX, and a robust I/O for use in the studio and on the stage. The Analog 4 recently got an update to it’s already impressive operating system which has more sounds, improves performance, and adds polyphony. This is definitely a must own for synth heads.

Since early fall Elektron began teasing the release of a brand new product which many speculated over in every gear forum imaginable. When the announcement was made, we got a first look at the Analog Keys. It looks and sounds a lot like the Analog 4 and for good reason. The inclusion of a 37 note key bed, more storage space, and an output for every voice are nice additions but those additions come with a price. If you own an Analog 4, then the Analog Keys might seem a bit redundant. If you don’t own either, then I leave it in your hands about which one to get. Either way, an Elektron product should be in your studio becuase they sound great, you have extensive control over that sound, and they are just down right fun to play.

Reason 7

When Reason 6 was released, it integrated the already celebrated Reason racks with the Record application that allowed for audio tracks and a modular mixer that grows with your arrangement. Reason 7 builds on this integration but adds some new key features including  MIDI out, audio slicing and quantizing, a graphical front end for channel EQ, several important mixer enhancements, and a new effect rack device. MIDI out is the real standout improvement here which allows for the new External MIDI Instrument rack device to be addressed to a single channel of any MIDI output available to your computer.

There are other fantastic production tools like the slicing in sequence controls which allow for things like time stretching or dynamics processing of a specific audio clips within the larger sequence. The Spectrum EQ feature is a breakout window EQ which makes EQ control very easy. There are other little tweaks and design improvements as well as the general improvements to speed and power. The big thing here is that Reason 7 is further planting its flag in the competitive DAW market, bringing all of its fantastic racks and instruments to the masses. Another great DAW to look at if you are looking to make a switch.

Korg MS-20 Mini

Those that have a hefty amount of synthesizer history under their belt will undoubtedly be familiar with the Korg MS-20 which was among the first portable, modular synthesizer to hit shelves in the late 1970s. When we first walked up to the Korg booth at NAMM 2013, we immediately thought this was the infamous synthesizer until we realized it was a new synth inspired by the MS-20, the MS-20 mini. The same engineers who designed the orginal MS-20 worked to perfectly recreate the same circuitry in the MS-20 mini and they did not dissapoint. This synth has been in high demand and those that own one have been very pleased with its sonic depth and various manipulation parameters.

The standout feature on the MS-20 Mini is certainly the patch panel but there are other great features such as 2 voltage controlled oscillarors, high pass and low pass filters, 2 envelope generators, and a modulation generator. The MIDI in and USB I/O makes this a synthesizer for the 21st century but with the sound and control of a vintage synthesizer. This is certainly a synthesizer enthusiasts synthesizer, but its price tag makes it very accessible to even the most novice of instrumentalists. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that Korg does this same thing with the VC-10.

Apple Logic Pro X

Apple have been dragging their feet on this one (or so it seems to Logic users), but we finally have an update to their flagship DAW with Logic Pro X. The original Logic was priced at close to $999 way back when until it was released on the App Store for $199. Logic Pro X follows in those footsteps with the same price point, but with a host of brand new features that Logic users have been on either side of the fence about.

One of the big improvements (and following in the footsteps of ProTools) is the ability to run in 64 bit which is great for recording and mixing large projects. There have been some workflow adjustments with more intuitive mixer controls, track stacking, and the ability to export straight to different media formats like Soundcloud, Final Cut Pro, and iTunes. While there are some cool new instruments, many people have raved about the Drum Kit Designer which has great control for crafting original and dynamic drum beats. This is perfect for the musician who is not a drummer and needs a quick rhythm section to accompany their melodic parts. You also have Flex Pitch to correct out of tune notes, and with Logic Remote you can control Logic right from your iPad.

While there are still some lingering debates out there about whether or not Logic Pro X is a worthy update, there is no question that it is a powerful software and a great tool for making music. This, coupled with the release of the new Mac Pro computers, makes Apple look like a serious choice for the professional audio creator.

JBL LSR 3 Series

There were a plethora of studio monitors released this year from various companies that have been making monitors for years, and from some companies that have never made a studio monitor ever. They have flooded the market with too many choices in my opinion and leaving many of us wondering which ones are “the best.” While I am not a fan of being completely objective when it comes to pro audio equipment (i.e. “This thing is the best so you should buy it and forget everything else on the market”), I can definitively say that the JBL LSR 3 Series studio monitors are the best sounding monitors I have heard this year. In fact they may be the best sounding monitors I have heard in the past 5 years.

This is because JBL have developed a brand new, patented design for a new generation of transducers. They have also developed a waveguide system that allows for even dispersion across the entire frequency range. The bottom line here is that these monitors sound good in nearly every room and at nearly every position, giving you the most accurate representation of your mix. Not only do they sound great, but they are super affordable on nearly every budget. JBL’s goal was to make the best studio monitor on the market for a price that everyone could afford, and they hit a home run.

Novation Bass Station 2

Released in 1993, the original Novation BassStation was built to provide exactly what its name implies: BASS. Nearly a decade later and we have the sequel that is even better than the original with the Novation Bass Station 2. An analog, monophonic synth, the Novation Bass Station 2 is based on the original but has two filters, two oscillators, a sub oscillator, noise generator, step sequencer, arpeggiator, and 25 full sized, and velocity sensitive keys. While it comes loaded with 64 factory presets, storing and loading your own sounds is incredibly easy and encouraged. You have all the I/O to get the Novation Bass Station 2 permanently installed in your studio, or for live performance. The price is low enough to not break the bank too. If you are looking for great sounding bass in an analog synth, you can’t go wrong with the Novation Bass Station 2.

Well there you have it, our top 10 pieces of music technology for 2013. I am sure you readers have your own ideas about which gear was best this year so feel free give us your picks in the comments below. You can pick up this gear and many other professional audio products at