As 2016 draws to a close, we look back on the year’s developments in music technology.
2016 will go down in history as a year of political turmoil and unrest, but on a slightly less serious note we can also say it’s been an incredible year for music tech.
The roots of any major trend run deep, but this year we’ve really seen the impact of the great analogue hardware revival of the last few years. Buoyed by the resurgence of interest in analogue, more manufacturers than ever have launched exciting new hardware. Even if we just focus on the high-profile synths released this year, it’s an impressive collection: we’ve had the Korg Minilogue and Volca FM (with the Monologue due early next year), the Oberheim OB-6 and Two Voice Pro and the reissued Minimoog Model D among others. That’s a list which would stand out in any decade, let alone in the current era of powerful DAWs and affordable synth plugins.
If we had to pick a favourite synth from the last 12 months, it would be the Minilogue. It’s not the most powerful or the most glamorous synth released this year, but it’s the most affordable analogue polysynth ever made and Korg have to be applauded for bringing such an impressive package to the masses. The Minilogue is a game changer, and its success this year was thoroughly deserved. We’ve already had time to get acquainted with its little brother, the Monologue, which is due out imminently, and we have no doubt that it’ll be just as popular.
The modular synth sector feels more mature than ever, with many of the companies that sprang up over the last few years really finding their feet and establishing even stronger identities in 2016. Make Noise, of course, were already one of the strongest of the lot, but the 0-Coast feels like a big step up in terms of forging a unique path for the company. As the name suggests, the 0-Coast blends the best of east coast (Moog) and west coast (Buchla) approaches to modular synthesis, coming up with something inspired by the greats but original in its own right. There’s no doubt that the synth is designed to play nicely with Eurorack gear, but as a standalone desktop module it’s a user-friendly entry point to modular synthesis. If you’re one of the few remaining modular sceptics, check it out.
2016 has also been a vintage year for hardware drum machines, a sector which has been a little slower to take off following the great analogue synth revival, but shows every sign of becoming just as competitive. The standout is undoubtedly the Arturia DrumBrute, which pretty much does for analogue drum machines what the Korg Minilogue did for analogue synths. At just €449/$499 for a 17-voice drum machine it’s an unprecedented bargain. We wouldn’t be surprised to see other manufacturers follow suit in 2017. Roland caused waves with the Boutique TR-09, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for more analogue options in the next 12 months.
The biggest sampler release of the year doesn’t yet feel quite like a fully finished product but is interesting and enjoyable nonetheless. It’s a long time since we’ve seen any manufacturer release a new high-end sampler, so for the latest to come from a company who typically don’t specialise in instruments was something of a surprise. But the Pioneer Toraiz was a welcome surprise, despite the fact that the slightly limited feature set doesn’t quite justify the price tag at this point. With new Akai MPCs on the way and the Elektron Octatrack still going strong, we could be entering a new era for hardware samplers.
We’re big fans of vintage hardware effects, from the Roland Space Echo to the Eventide Harmonizer, but the hardware effect market has been slow for the last few years. It’s too early to say whether that’s changing as a result of the hardware synth and drum machine resurgence, but the signs are good. The arrival of units such as OTO’s BAM retro reverb showed that there’s still life in the market, but the big news was Elektron hopping on board with the Analog Drive and our favourite hardware effect of the year, the Analog Heat. We’d love to see more manufacturers exploring the possibilities of hardware effects in 2017.
DJ gear doesn’t tend to evolve as quickly as synths and studio hardware, which is borne out by the fact that the one piece of DJ equipment that garnered the most headlines this year was a reissue. The return of the Technics SL-1200 feels superficially important, reflecting the much-hyped comeback of vinyl, but it’s not really as significant as it first appears. OK, we’ve seen a lot of interest in reissued synths over recent years, but the reason a reissued Minimoog or ARP Odyssey matters is that the originals are rare, valuable and fragile.
By comparison, SL-1200s tick none of those boxes. Glance at eBay, Craigslist or your local newspaper and you’ll find plenty for sale. Anecdotally, prices seem to have risen slowly and steadily over the last couple of years, but that seems to be driven more by increasing demand than any scarcity of the turntables themselves. Unfortunately for Panasonic, SL-1200s were built so well first time around that a second-hand pair will still be the go-to option for most potential buyers. It’s nice to have the originals back on the market, but it doesn’t feel like much will change in practical terms.
But there have been a few interesting trends for DJ tech in 2016. The most significant for us is the unexpected glut of new mixers to hit the market this year, from Richie Hawtin’s PLAYdifferently Model 1 to Formula Sound and Funktion-One’s FF6.2 L, to hand-crafted rotary mixers in the form of Varia Instruments’ RDM20 and Mastersounds’ Radius 2. This is definitely a case where it’s pointless trying to pick ‘the best’ out of the four, not least because they’re each impressive in their own way, but also because they all do things so differently. It’s truly a case of more choice being a good thing.
As to what’s coming for 2017, time will tell. We’ll happily take a little more choice in the world of production and DJ hardware, and maybe a slightly quieter year in terms of global politics.