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2008 Technology Top 10

By Francis Preve
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As the year finally comes to a close, it’s time for one more Beatportal Best Of.

2008 was an extremely innovative year for production tools, so our annual Top 10 of Tech focuses not only on the “best,” but just as important, the most groundbreaking products.

Because, like producers and DJs, tools that seem edgy and odd at first often become the most influential.

Don’t believe us?

Think back to 2001, when a tiny start-up in Berlin called Ableton created a niche software product that delivered time-stretching and audio manipulation via an exotic real-time user interface.

Only a handful of geeky producers “got it” at the time.

So as you ponder the winners, remember that our focus goes beyond features and functionality, taking futurism into consideration, as well.

10. KikAXXE

This year saw the release of several analog-style softsynths priced under $100 US.

In our opinion, the best of this inexpensive emulation array was Way Out Ware’s vintage ARP recreation, the KikAXXE.

Based on one of ARP’s most popular lead synths, the KikAXXE (and its big brother, the TimewARP 2600) have been given the seal of approval from their original inventor, Alan R. Pearlman.

That’s saying a quite a lot.

At a list price of $69.95, the KikAxxe serves nicely as either a synth or effects plug-in.

For a deeper look into this affordable jewel, check out April’s Beatportal review.

9. Korg DS-10

When it comes to hardware audio tech manufacturers, Korg consistently delivers products that are both useful and wholly unique.

One of the bigger surprises of 2008 was their micro-DAW for the Nintendo DS (!!!), the aptly named Korg DS-10.

Comprised of two programmable “analog” synths, a sequencer, a drum machine, and a bunch of effects, the DS-10 is a marvel of functionality that virtually screams “minimal techno.”

So, for a list price of $39.99 (Nintendo DS not included), you can amaze your friends, thwart your enemies, and make subway rides way more productive.

Get the full scoop here.

8. Createdigitalmusic.com

Savvy readers know that our favorite music tech resource is Createdigitalmusic.com.

Peter Kirn’s uber-geeky blog has a way of digging up obscure and useful tidbits that both inspire and enlighten, so it’s not a huge surprise that they’re on our Best-of list for the second straight year.

How Peter also finds time to manage CDM and its sister sites, Createdigitalmotion.com and his definitive Native Instruments’ Kore resource is beyond us, but we’re glad he does.

7. M-Audio Studiophile BX8a Deluxe

When it comes to reader email questions, one inquiry stands out.

“What are the best affordable monitors for EDM production?”

This year, the answer is unequivocally M-Audio’s BX8a Deluxe series.

With killer specs like 8” curved Kevlar low-frequency drivers, 1-1/4” natural silk, waveguide-loaded tweeters, and custom-tuned crossovers distributing 130 watts of bi-amplified power – and a street price of $500 a pair – there’s a reason these monitors are part of Steve Lawler’s mobile studio rig.

6. Blue Snowflake

When inspiration strikes in a hotel room, nothing’s more frustrating than not having the right tools to get the job done.

So when Blue announced their teeny-tiny USB powered condenser microphone – the Snowflake – we were all over it.

About the size of a pregnant iPod Classic, Blue’s Snowflake is perfect for everything from impromptu sampling sessions to last minute vocal overdubs.

For less than eighty bucks, the Snowflake is an indispensable addition to any gig bag.

5. iDrum for iPhone

Some naysayers still think the iPhone is a toy and not a functional production tool, but we’re inclined to disagree.

Strongly.

While much of the industry’s attention went to deeper apps like Intua’s Beatmaker and Sonoma Wire Works’ nifty FourTrack, we were falling in love with iZotope’s iDrum for iPhone.

With current and useful sounds, innovative user interface, and even a Ministry of Sound edition (iTunes Link), iDrum is our favorite drum machine for Apple’s revolutionary new computer platform.

4. Korg Kaossilator

Thanks to its unbeatable combination of real-time playability and ease of use, Korg’s Kaoss Pad has become a staple in many DJ gig bags.

Naturally, we were extremely curious about their Kaoss-enhanced synth, the Kaossilator.

After a few months of living with the little yellow – or if you prefer, pink – beastie, we can state with confidence that the Kaossilator breaks a lot of new ground in several areas.

For starters, the ability to pre-assign keys and modes makes the Kaossilator instantly playable as a musical instrument – even for total newcomers.

Secondly, the array of preset sounds is broad enough that there really is something for everyone, from trance to tech house to electro.

Finally, the size and price – about $150 street – make the Korg Kaossilator fairly irresistible for on-the-go producers.

3. Yamaha Tenori-On

The inclusion of Yamaha’s Tenori-On may ruffle a few feathers, but we’re sticking to our guns.

Here’s why.

We like artists that take chances and come up with game-changing innovations.

While Yamaha itself is a massive corporation that maufactures everything from motorcycles to waverunners, they gambled massively in allowing media artist, Toshio Iwai, the creative freedom to design a completely new type of musical instrument.

Some have said that the Tenori-On is an overpriced Monome, but that’s missing the point entirely.

What the Tenori-On (and Korg Kaossilator, in its own way) represent are a completely new way of thinking about music – and that kind of devotion to innovation is an increasing rarity, especially in these bottom-line-driven times.

Here’s another way of looking at it.

When it was originally released in 1982, Roland’s TB-303 was a massive flop, because its sound defied expectations and had an extremely unusual interface.

Sound familiar?

Though it originally sold for about $250 US, try finding a TB-303 on eBay now for less than a grand.

So even if the Tenori-On doesn’t sell a zillion units like the Yamaha DX7 or Korg M1, it’s an utterly unique glimpse into the production and performance possibilities that lie ahead.

And it’s an alarm clock, to boot.

2. Korg nanoSeries

We know it’s utterly unprecedented for a manufacturer to appear three times in a list like this, but the simple fact is that Korg truly understands the needs of EDM producers better than almost any other synth manufacturer.

From the aforementioned Kaoss line of tools, to the current Radias and OASYS synths, to history-making hardware like the Electribe series of grooveboxes.

Still unconvinced?

Look at the nanoSeries.

While M-Audio has the honor of pioneering the entire category of ultra-portable MIDI controllers nearly a decade ago, no manufacturer stopped to consider that although these USB keyboards were perfect for hotel rooms and small studios, they were anything but ideal for airline tray-tables and coffeehouse counters.

Did it really take years for the industry to realize that if musicians are willing to subsist on note-entry via laptop keyboards, they just might be willing to pay fifty measly bucks for a velocity sensitive micro-controller?

Or teeny-tiny knobs and faders?

So yes, we’re giving Korg a third award in our top ten for taking the initiative and delivering the inevitable for less than the cost of a decent date.

1. Dave Smith Instruments’ Mopho

Last year, the #1 slot went to Dave Smith Instruments for unleashing the Prophet 08 – a fully analog polysynth so flawless that it’s now in the arsenals of Above & Beyond, Deadmau5, and Richie Hawtin.

For a synth that costs two grand, that’s saying something.

So when Dave told us he was releasing the Mopho – a monophonic version of the Prophet that included the ability to process external signals with its analog filter and amp – for a street price of around $400 – we knew instantly that he had an even bigger hit on his hands.

We reviewed the Mopho last month and still stand by our verdict.

It’s going to be the top synth in even more arsenals this year.

At least until Dave outdoes himself again.