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Power of Ten

The 10 Best Production Tools of 2013

By Francis Preve
DSI Prophet 12

This year’s crop of production tools focuses heavily on the analog renaissance that’s taken hold of the industry. In fact, with the exception of a software essential or three, this list is basically an homage to the return of warm, organic, one-knob-per-function synths that started the whole electronic music craze in the first place.

So, whether you’re a producer yourself, or just want the inside scoop on how next year’s tracks will be made, check out our annual assessment of what was hot in music technology this year.

10. Waldorf Rocket
Waldorf Rocket
Over the past several years, we’ve seen German synth company Waldorf rise from the ashes and transform itself into one of the cooler hardware manufacturers on the planet—no easy feat. While their new Pulse 2 has captured the attention of analog maniacs, we think their compact and lightweight Rocket synth is a real secret weapon for producers looking to add a dash of hardware to their otherwise digital productions. We’re most jazzed about its analog filter, which includes an external input for using it as an audio processor with your favorite DAW, but that’s just part of the appeal. The Rocket’s digitally derived oscillators deliver some unique tricks, including the ability to perform in paraphonic mode—just like its big brother, the Pulse 2. This means that at a street price of only $329 US, the Rocket was the first truly affordable polyphonic synth of 2013 with proper analog filters. What’s more, the unit’s lack of presets and super-intuitive panel controls make it easy for newbies to get a feel for the concepts behind synthesis itself, allowing them to develop their own unique sound quickly.

9. Novation Bass Station II
Novation Bass Station II
Novation’s original Bass Station was a staple in studios during the early ’90s rave era. With its ability to sound uncannily 303-ish, but with a few added bells and whistles, the first Bass Station’s flexibility made it an irresistible choice in an era dominated by digital synths. Now that analog has returned as an essential part of today’s dance fashions, Novation wisely revived this classic and gave it a zillion more features—like multimode filters and extensive modulation amenities—while keeping the warmth and sizzle intact. There’s even an “acid” mode for producers who can’t quite afford two grand for an original 303 on eBay. Speaking of price, Novation nailed it again, with the Bass Station II retailing for a mere $500 US.

8. Xfer Cthulhu
Xfer Cthulhu
Beatport users will be most familiar with Steve Duda’s work as an artist, collaborating with Deadmau5 and a slew of notable DJs and producers. But engineers know Duda as a purveyor of software secret weapons that top producers rely on for, well, magic. His LFO Tool plugin is a mainstay for adding a visceral throbbing element to tracks. And his Nerve drum-machine plugin takes beatmaking to dizzying new heights. This year’s Cthulhu plugin puts hundreds of time-tested chord progressions at the fingertips of all artists, regardless of their musical background. Want to slice and dice a passage from Bach or Mozart to fold into your next big-room anthem? Cthulhu’s the ticket. Intricate patterns for your epic trance opus? Cthulhu’s ultra-deep arpeggiator has you covered. As every producer knows, true inspiration is music’s most precious element. Fortunately, you can now buy that element for 40 bucks.

7. Korg Volcas
Korg Volcas
Oh, Korg, you rascals. Over the past three years, you’ve carefully tested the waters of the analog market, analyzing and refining your approach based on sales and popularity. First you released the all-analog Monotrons, which included impeccable recreations of the MS20 filter circuits. Then you launched the all-analog Monotribe groove box, which is still quite popular thanks to its slip-n-slide ribbon controller and absolutely musical sonic character. Now, you deliver the finishing blow with your shiny new line of Volcas. With specialized units for bass, polyphonic keys, and classic analog drums—fused with great sequencers and external MIDI control—you’ve raised the analog bar once again. Best of all, each unit is only $150 on the street. That is, if you can get one, because they’re still backordered at many outlets. That’s how cool they are.

6. Arturia MicroBrute
Arturia Microbrute
Last year’s #1 slot went to Arturia’s MiniBrute, which gene-spliced the essence of the Roland SH-101 with a bunch of thoroughly virulent analog circuits, resulting in one of the nastiest-sounding analog synths of all time—so nasty that quite a few vintage fans bemoaned its lack of “smoothness.” But we all know that you don’t call a smooth synth a “Brute,” right? Right. Well, this year, Arturia took the critical bits of the MiniBrute—oscillators, multimode filter, basic LFO, and snappy envelopes—then added an industry-standard modular patch bay and step-sequencer that again reminded us of why a vintage Roland SH-101 is so damn hard to find on eBay. Oh, and they brought all this to market for $200 less than the original Mini: $300.

5. NI Maschine Studio
NI Maschine Studio
Native Instruments’ original Maschine units became darlings of the DJ set thanks to their combination of super-groovy performance control and ultra-flexible sound engine. Pete Tong is a fan. So is Bass Kleph. And that’s not surprising, because NI’s Maschine combines many of the best elements of Ableton Live, Akai’s MPC, and NI’s own Battery drum synth. While we were certainly fans of the previous iterations of Maschine, this year’s new Maschine Studio pushed us over the edge with its festive cacophony of brightly lit LED controls, gorgeous OLED displays, and gigantic jog dial. The Maschine software received a major update also, with multicore support (finally!) and new drum synthesizer engines for designing your own percussion sounds from scratch. While it’s not a true DAW yet, Maschine Studio is definitely encroaching on the compositional flexibility of the MPCs—along with amassing a similarly passionate cult-like following. For producers looking to change their workflow in dramatic ways, Maschine Studio is going to snag a lot of new fans for around a $1000 US.

4. Dave Smith Prophet 12
DSI Prophet 12
Every year, Dave Smith manages to dazzle the music production world with another astonishing product. Last year, he unleashed the Mopho X4 keyboard. A year earlier, he unveiled the Tempest drum sequencer—a collaboration with none other than Roger Linn. This year, he brought it big time with the new Prophet 12, which fused the best of the classic PolyEvolver with the elegance of the original Prophet 08, then added a ton of forward-thinking new amenities. The resulting instrument is the most complex analog-hybrid synth I’ve ever had my hands on. It can sound massive, rich, airy, thick, warm, or straight-up belligerent with just a few twists of its huge array of controls. Yes, the $3000 price tag puts it out of the reach of most bedroom studios, but for power producers, the Prophet 12 is Mercedes-class synthesis and worth every penny.

3. Moog SubPhatty
Moog SubPhatty
Since the reinvention of Moog Music back in 2000, every synth they’ve produced is absolute magic—from the high-end Voyagers, to their exotic Moogerfooger pedals, to the near-ubiquitous Little Phatty and its rackmount twin, the Slim Phatty. So this year’s addition to the Phatty line—the SubPhatty—has caused quite a stir among synth connoisseurs. First off, Moog has covered the SubPhatty with tons of knobs—one for every synth parameter in the beast. Secondly, they added a sub-oscillator to the original dual-oscillator configuration, giving this Phatty even more bass cojones than its predecessors. Finally, they took the original overdrive function and paired it with some truly magical compression properties, resulting in a sound with a lot of sonic impact. Countless reviewers have called this the best Phatty yet because, well, it is.

2. Korg MS20 Mini
Korg MS20
We should have seen it coming at NAMM back in 2011, when Korg hooked up their Legacy MS20 MIDI controller to an iPad running the virtual MS20 app and the combo drew almost as much attention as their Kronos flagship synth that debuted at the same show. All of the clues were there: analog Monotrons, mega-selling iOS versions of their vintage gear, and a clear vision for today’s analog renaissance. Well, they did it. They brought a perfect, fully analog reissue of their legendary MS20 to the masses—for a $600 price tag that had the competition reeling with envy. The MS20 Mini’s combination of semi-modular patchability, in-your-face dual resonant filters, quirky envelopes, and pitch-to-voltage converters give it a sound and flexibility that no synth in this price range has yet matched. Expect to hear it all over the place in 2014, once Korg’s mile-long backorder list has been fulfilled.

1. Ableton Live 9
Ableton Live 9
We got a bit of static for not including Ableton Live 9 in last year’s Top 10, but you know what? It wasn’t shipping yet. Sure, the beta generated more heat than a Tomorrowland fireworks display, but that wasn’t enough. This list is for products that actually shipped that year. With that out of the way, it’s time to give Ableton the praise they deserve for delivering another iteration of their industry-leading performance DAW. With version 9, every aspect of Live has been overhauled in spectacularly musical ways. On the engineering side, Cytomic’s punchy Glue compressor is now baked into the standard array of tools. And the original compressor, gate, and EQ devices have all been brilliantly updated. There are also tools that convert recordings to MIDI data with surprising accuracy when given clean audio, which is something akin to sorcery if you think about it—and those are just the most buzzworthy highlights. On the subtler side, the new browser and search tools make working with massive collections of sound and software data a helluva lot easier. What’s more, Max for Live (and its Convolution Reverb and Buffer Shuffler devices) are now included standard with Suite. There’s a reason that the world’s top producers and DJs rely on Ableton Live every day, and version 9 makes that reason even more clear: Live is the ultimate blend of power, musicality, and intuitive interaction.