Features I by I 02.02.19

All the synths, controllers and gear we’ll be making music with in 2019

How are we going to be making music over the next 12 months and beyond? The synths, controllers and gear from NAMM 2019 offer us a look into the future.

Every year, the music tech industry heads to Anaheim, California for the annual Winter NAMM Show to show off its latest creations. Technology shown at NAMM since its launch in 1901 include the early Chamberlin Rhythmate drum machine, MIDI and, in recent years, lots of tiny synth boxes and Eurorack modules.

So what can we expect to be making music with this year and beyond? Lots of small and affordable synthesizers. This year’s NAMM was filled with just as many surprises as previous editions, with Korg and Teenage Engineering showcasing mini modulars, Akai touting a replacement for the laptop and DAW, an affordable groovebox from Elektron and much more.

Live-style, laptop-free music-making is here. But do we need it?

Producers have long dreamed of some kind of device that offers the experience of music-making in DAWs like Ableton Live without needing a laptop. Such a device could be used for making tracks in the studio without getting distracted by emails and social media, and would, in theory, be easier to set up and use at gigs. Well, Akai Professional has given us the first look at what this brave new world will look like in the shape of its new Force controller.

Force takes its cues from controllers like Ableton Push and Maschine, but adds MIDI and CV connections as well as the touchscreen found on Akai’s MPC Live and MPC X devices. However, you can’t upload your own DAW of choice to Force – you need to use Akai’s proprietary software, which is going to be a tough sell for producers who are used to their favorite DAW. At $1,499 it isn’t much cheaper than a laptop and Live 10 either.

Akai’s Force will probably live or die based on whether the software is user-friendly. At launch it will arrive with four plugin instruments, but you won’t be able to use your own VSTs. Unless musicians are able to use their favored studio software in a future update, it’s hard to see Force fully replacing the laptop anytime soon.

If you’re still happy to use a DAW and laptop, Bitwig launched Bitwig Studio 3 at NAMM this year. Its features include a new “open modular environment” for music production called The Grid – a reminder that a good piece of software can often do more than hardware for a lot less money.

2019 is the year of the mini modular

Two products doesn’t necessarily make a trend, but Korg and Teenage Engineering’s biggest new products for this year pretty much confirm that 2019 will be the year of the mini modular. Both Korg’s Volca Modular and Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator Modular are likely to be runaway successes this year by making the modular experience more compact, affordable and accessible than ever.

Korg’s Volca Modular is the smaller and less expensive of the two devices, occupying the same tiny case as the rest of the Volca range. However, its eight ‘modules’ (technically this is a semi-modular synth) can be patched with tiny jumper wires, while CV ins offer connectability to larger Eurorack setups. It’s not the first tiny West Coast-style synth – Make Noise’s 0-Coast did it a few years ago – but the $199 price is very competitive.

Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator Modular is a little more expensive – $499 for the premium model – but it does offer a fuller and more faithful modular experience than the Volca Modular. Teenage Engineering’s modules all use the same 3.5mm jack inputs as Eurorack modules and are fully compatible with the format, which means it can still be useful if you want to start building a Eurorack system at a later date.

Given the increasing popularity of Eurorack over the past few years, with companies like Arturia and Roland getting in on the act, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for big manufacturers to start making them smaller. If these two devices sell well (and it’s basically a foregone conclusion), expect the market to be flooded with similar devices over the coming years.

Elektron takes aim at the affordable gear market

Sweden’s Elektron has long been the nerd’s choice for synth gear; Autechre were using the Monomachine and Machinedrum long before the resurgence in synth hardware that’s happened over the past five years or so. Elektron’s hardware though – while well crafted and filled with features that make inventive music-making possible – isn’t known for being that affordable; its least expensive tools, the Digitakt and Digitone, still cost $750 each.

Elektron’s new Model:Samples device bucks that trend. It’s six-track sample-based groovebox for €460, which makes it the company’s most affordable device to date. Model:Samples is a little like a slimmed-down Digitakt, but there’s also a focus on accessibility too; the device comes with 300 samples but users can easily upload their own via USB. However, you also get the benefit of Elektron’s composition tools, such as parameter locks and a new chance parameter for randomization, both of which allow anyone to write evolving, unpredictable sequences relatively painlessly.

It’s interesting to see Elektron release something like Model:Samples at the same time as Akai launches its Force unit. Both devices allow users to build whole tracks without a computer, but Elektron’s offering is far less expensive and is likely to be a hit with experienced producers who want a standalone box they can take anywhere. Whether it can make tracks that sound as professional as the Digitakt remains to be seen, but Elektron has a proven track record of making all-in-one systems that producers love.

Customizable digital oscillators are the future

Two of NAMM 2019’s most exciting synths are, on the face of things, just incremental improvements to existing franchises. However, Korg’s Minilogue XD and Arturia’s MicroFreak point to where synths may be headed in the years to come.

Korg’s Minilogue XD is a souped-up version of 2016’s original with lots of improvements, but the key feature is the addition a third digital oscillator inspired by its flagship Prologue synth with a changeable user slot for making hybrid tones. As with the Prologue, this allows anyone to customize and create their own oscillators and digital effects using Korg’s Software Development Kit. Open source technology in synthesizers isn’t new, but to see it in an affordable consumer model like the Minilogue XD suggests that wider adoption of this kind of capability in hardware instruments may be just around the corner.

Arturia’s new MicroFreak synth doesn’t advertise itself as customizable in the same way, but it does include an “integrated open source Plaits engine created by Mutable Instruments”. Plaits is the recent successor to Mutable Instruments’ popular Eurorack module Braids, and runs on open source firmware, which can be hacked if you know what you’re doing. Arturia hasn’t confirmed if this is possible on MicroFreak, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that Arturia may make the synth’s oscillator customizable as part of a future software or hardware update.

Behringer wasn’t kidding about cloning all the synths

Budget gear manufacturer Behringer has attracted adulation and criticism in equal measure for its strategy of cloning old analog synths and selling them for very low prices. Moog’s Model D was the first, and clones of Roland’s TR-808, SH-101 and VC330 got release dates and prices at NAMM 2019 along with its recreations of the ARP Odyssey and Sequential Circuits Pro-One. The reception has been enthusiastic to say the least, so it’s fair to say that the next 12 months will see more old synths from Behringer’s leaked wishlist taking physical form.

However, Behringer’s most interesting announcement of NAMM was actually an original synth, Crave. For $199, Crave gives you a single 3340 analog oscillator (the same found in a Prophet-5 and Behringer’s own Neutron synth) and a Moog-style ladder filter in a small desktop box with a sequencer. The result is something like a TB-303 or SH-101 with semi-modular patching capabilities, all for less money than Roland is selling its Boutique synths for.

Behringer Crave

As with Behringer’s Neutron and Deepmind synth, the Crave is a far more interesting prospect than a clone of something that already exists. Here’s hoping the company continues to develop its own innovations into 2019 as well as mining the hard work of other companies.

Scott Wilson is FACT’s tech editor. Find him on Twitter.

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