Trailblazing artists, genre-blending DJs, and world-class clubs are the forward-facing trends that shape our industry. But behind the scenes, new production tools are the unsung drivers of progress in electronic music. For example, Native Instruments’ Massive softsynth is at the core of both dubstep and complextro, while Roland’s classic TR-808/909/303 boxes arguably served as the launchpad for everything we hear in clubs today.
So, if you want to get the inside track on the future sounds of dance music, you need look no further than the newest toys of the trade. Accordingly, here’s Beatport News’ take on the most interesting and innovative musical products of 2012.
10. MeeBlip SE
Nitpickers can argue that the MeeBlip SE originally arrived in 2011, but as the world’s first user-hackable digital hardware synth, the embedded software was something of a work-in-progress during its first few months on the market. Now that a year has passed and the OS details are ironed out, the MeeBlip SE has come into its own as a truly unique-sounding piece of kit that delivers either digital grunge or analog-style swagger, depending on how you set up its panel of 16 switches and nine knobs.
Hackability and a distinctive sound are the main reasons the MeeBlip made our list, but its surprising price of $150 US/EU sealed the deal.
9. Wolfgang Palm WaveGenerator
Wolfgang Palm is a living legend when it comes to digital synthesizer technology. His first synth—the PPG Wave—effectively launched the technology now known as wavetable synthesis (which is also the same type of engine behind Native Instruments’ Massive, if you’re into tech history).
This year, he’s back with an astonishingly deep iPad app called WaveGenerator that takes wavetable synthesis to insanely complex new heights. By just by swiping your fingers around its interface, you can effortlessly shape the harmonic spectrum, manipulate graphic envelopes, create wavetables, and apply some of the sweetest-sounding filters we’ve heard on an iPad—and that’s really just scratching the surface.
Fortunately this $20 app includes an excellent array of presets, because these synthesis tools are so intricate that even seasoned pros will need some time to explore the full potential lurking within.
8. Universal Audio Apollo
Universal Audio is one of those companies that just plain gets it. In addition to legendary analog effects processors like the Teletronix LA-2A and 1176 compressor/limiters, UA has also been at the forefront of digital tech with their DSP accelerator cards that allow users to run world-class plug-ins without adding to their computers’ CPU overhead. The Apollo interface is the ultimate fusion of UA’s technical prowess. Combining premium preamps and pristine analog-to-digital converters with onboard DSP for their extensive array of pedigree effects—representing companies like Moog, Studer, Lexicon, and Ampex—the Apollo delivers Mercedes-class amenities that truly blur the lines between analog and digital.
7. Korg iPolysix
Full disclosure: Korg tapped me to design a slew of presets for their new iPolysix because they know I’m a die-hard fan of their original analog version. But that’s not why this iPad app is on our list. The truth of the matter is that the iPolysix is a flawless recreation of Korg’s game-changing polysynth from 1982. Its synth engine is big, warm, and extremely lush for a software replica—and the iPad version includes a sequencer with two synth tracks, an 808-style drum machine, clever SoundCloud integration, and a gorgeous interface. It also does the techno-chord-stab sound from “Yang” perfectly.
While a vintage Polysix starts at around $1000 on eBay, the iPolysix app costs less than $20 (until 2013, when the price goes up a bit).
6. Livid CNTRL:R
In a few short years, Livid Instruments has become one of the coolest purveyors of performance controllers. This year alone, they’ve released some of the most innovative MIDI controllers we’ve seen to date. For example, their Elements controller—a completely modular affair that can be custom-configured by users to their exact performance needs—is also Eurorack-compatible, while their new Alias 8 revives the feel of Evolution’s cult fave, the UC-33 controller.
But the CNTRL:R is what really got our attention. Co-designed by none other than Mr. Richie Hawtin, the CNTRL:R is a veritable tour de force of controller options. With a whopping 36 knobs, 32 backlit buttons, eight faders, and 16 backlit pads, this MIDIfied beast has all the bases covered. Even more incredible is its street price of around $700 US.
5. iZotope Iris
iZotope’s Ozone mastering plug-in has become one of the industry standards for finalizing mixes, and their wildly popular processing tools like StutterEdit and Trash are staples for mangling audio tracks. So when they announced they were branching out into softsynths with Iris, producers took notice.
Iris approaches synthesis like no other plug-in on the market. While it can be used as a flexible sampler, Iris’ true strength is its ability to break down an audio recording into its component frequencies via an arcane (and extremely sophisticated) system based on Fourier resynthesis. From there, users can use Photoshop-style painting tools (!) to sculpt the original sound into evolving, atmospheric textures that defy description, then further process the result with more familiar components like filters and envelopes.
To be clear, Iris isn’t for the “modern talking” crowd. It’s for artists who want to break away from the pack and venture into uncharted sonic territory. For that reason alone, it’s made our Top 5 this year.
4. Moog Minitaur
For many producers—notably Deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner, and Gabriel & Dresden—the name Moog is synonymous with “bass.” Until 2012, the name Moog was also synonymous with “expensive.” Fortunately, that’s all changed with the release of Moog’s new Minitaur synth.
Being a direct descendent of Moog’s near-mythical Taurus bass pedals, the Minitaur packs low-frequency firepower like no other synth in its price range. For about 600 clams, you get the genuine Moog sound, a front panel covered with knobs (one for every function), direct USB control, and an external input for processing any audio signal through its filter- and voltage-controlled amplifier sections. The only caveat is that the Minitaur’s keyboard range doesn’t extend fully into the upper octaves—but hey, it’s the ultimate bass synth, so no big.
3. Propellerhead Reason 6.5
In 2011, Propellerhead fused their legendary Reason synth/sequencer software with their über-friendly Record audio DAW and solidified its position as one of the best loved tools for electronic music production.
This year, they finally opened up their previously proprietary system to softsynth and effect manufacturers, via their Rack Extension format for Reason plug-ins. At first, there was a bit of hand-wringing about yet another plug-in format, but that quickly gave way to a deluge of top notch third-party add-ons from big names like iZotope, Rob Papen, and FXpansion, transforming the latest incarnation of Reason into a studio suite that’s capable of truly big-league productions.
2. Dave Smith Instruments Mopho X4
Far more than half a Prophet for half the price, Dave Smith Instruments’ Mopho X4 is the first affordable analog polysynth to hit the market since, well, the ’80s. Based on Mr. Smith’s Mopho synth architecture, the four-voice Mopho X4 includes two sub-oscillators and a filter feedback loop, in addition to the classic Prophet signal path, resulting in a sound that can range from creamy and warm to straight-up dirty—and that flexibility makes it a winner for analog fans who love big chords and pad sounds.
Throw in a front panel with tons of knobs and super-roadworthy construction, and the Mopho X4 is an irresistible combination for both first-time users and pros looking for another secret weapon in their arsenal—all for around $1300 US.
1. Arturia MiniBrute
For close to a decade, Arturia made their name by designing accurate software emulations of vintage gear, so when they unleashed the all-analog MiniBrute at the NAMM event, you could virtually hear a collective gasp from the show floor.
After months of anticipation, the ‘Brute finally shipped last summer, then promptly remained backordered for months. Even now, they’ve barely caught up with demand. Why? Because the MiniBrute picks up where Roland’s classic SH-101 left off, combining 21st-century amenities like USB MIDI and the festival-friendly Ultrasaw waveform with vintage tools like the Steiner-Parker multimode filter, arpeggiator, and a thoroughly nasty feedback circuit in its signal path—for a street price of around $500.