We highlight the best and brightest hardware releases of 2021.

This was a strange year for gear. With full COVID from door to door, plus worldwide shipping woes and supply issues, it’s a wonder we have anything to celebrate at all. And yet we do. This is all down to the perseverance and drive of the companies that make the gear that sparks our creativity. In that spirit, this year’s best-of list is more than just a look back at a year of fancy, shiny products. It’s an absolute celebration of the human spirit.

Did your favourites make the list? Let us know in the comments.

The Best Analogue Synth

Our pick for this year’s best analogue synth is IK Multimedia’s UNO Synth Pro. Or should we say synths, plural, as there are two versions to choose from, a full-size model and a desktop one. We liked them straight out of the box but the more time we spent with them, and the deeper we went, we found more to love. Where else can you get three oscillators, two multimode filters, a mod matrix, a very powerful drive circuit and effects all for under £500? That price also includes a Fatar keybed, something you almost never see on a synth at this price. If you don’t need the fancy keys, go for the desktop. It’s got the same amount of horsepower under the hood and will only set you back around £300.


The Best Digital Synth

We’re in the middle of a digital synthesizer renaissance, with boundary-pushing instruments dropping left, right and centre. Our pick for the best of 2021 is Modwave from Korg. Inspired by the company’s 1985 digital hybrid DW-8000, Modwave takes wavetable synthesis into new territories with modifiers, morph types, and blending between tables. It’s got the usual complement of subtractive synthesis parameters but to this, Korg have added what they call Kaoss Physics via the touchpad, and a new version of their famous motion sequencing. It joins an impressive digital lineup that also includes the Opsix and Wavestate.


The Best Tiny Synth

There’s a lot to be said for portability. Sometimes you want something you can throw in your bag and take on the go. That’s why we’re big fans of tiny keyboards, and this year’s standout small synth is Modal’s SKULPTsynth SE. A refresh of the original SKULPT, the SE is a four-voice virtual analogue polysynth that manages to pack a lot of power in a portable size. The price has also been refreshed and is now an attractive £170.


Fred’s Lab ZeKit

The Best Synth Kit

Dreadbox just keep turning out quality instruments. Whether it’s desktop synths, Eurorack modules, hardware effects, or DIY kits, the boutique Greek company manages to craft unique products that sound incredible. This year’s DIY offering was the Dysphonia DIY Kit, a full-voice Eurorack module that can also be used in a desktop configuration. With a single oscillator with four waveforms, three VCAs, a 24dB lowpass filter, and plenty of patch points, it can serve as a standalone instrument or work as part of a larger Eurorack setup. Unfortunately, it’s already sold out but you may be able to convince someone to sell you theirs.

Dysphonia DIY Kit


Rebel Technology Witch

The Best Drum Machine

Eurorack titans Erica Synths and Sonic Potions teamed up to create the Drum Synthesizer LXR-02, a digital drum machine with six virtual analogue and FM synthesis drum voices. It’s a proper drum machine in the classic sense, with per-voice volume sliders perfect for performance. It’s also got plenty of sound-twisting options, including LFOs for amplitude, filter and oscillator settings, plus sample rate reduction, distortion, and more. It’s a fantastic piece of kit and just what you’d expect from a collaboration of this calibre.


The Best Sampler

Roland finally updated their lo-fi genre-birthing phrase sampler, the SP-404, to mark two and boy, was it ever worth the wait. The SP-404MKII took everything great about the original and added more: 32-note polyphony, 160 samples per project, 16 projects overall. Add to this a graphical display in the form of a snazzy OLED and you’re now able to edit loops with your eyes as well as your ears. It’s still just as customizable and still just as gritty when you want it to be. A real home run from Roland.


Akai Professional MPC One Retro Edition

The Best Standalone Hardware Sequencer

Korg SQ-64

A good hardware sequencer is indispensable. Sure, a DAW can get the job done but having something tactile right in front of you can be very creatively inspiring. This year our favourite sequencer was Korg’s SQ-64 Poly Sequencer, a solid expansion of the SQ-1. In our review, we said it should be “high on your list of options. It’s relatively affordable, fun to use, and looks dead cool. It can also function as a controller in its own right as well as convert MIDI to CV for modular gear and vintage synths”.

The Best Eurorack Module

This year the best Eurorack module is Mutable Instruments’ Beads. An upgrade/reinvention of the venerable Clouds, Beads is a granular effects processor with a number of wild controls. It features knobs for Density, Time and Pitch as well as Size and Shape, but the real power comes from CV and gate patching. It can also act as a delay and – with no audio input – becomes a wavetable synthesizer. Another stunner from Émilie.


The Best Groovebox

What makes a great groovebox? Ideally, something that is portable and light yet heavyweight in the music production department, helpful when sketching out ideas and powerful enough to handle entire track duties on its own. Sounds like we’re describing the Novation Circuit Tracks, doesn’t it? Our pick for best groovebox of 2021 is an update to the company’s Circuit, combining two virtual analogue synth engines based on the Nova, four drum tracks with sample-importing, and two lanes of MIDI to sequence external gear. It’s got a fun workflow, a great sound, and even runs on a built-in rechargeable battery like your phone. Top marks all around.


Dirtywave M8 Tracker

The Best Synth Remake

Say what you will about classic synth recreations, at least they’re getting some pretty rare machines into the hands of musicians. Korg has been at the forefront of the remake/remodel scene, tapping into the DNA of both its own instruments (MS-20, miniKorg 700) as well as those of classic American outfit, ARP. This relationship continues with a mini version of the much revered 2600, now called the Korg ARP 2600 M. It’s got all the power of the original at 60% of the size (and minus the keyboard, unfortunately). You get all the original guts (including two different filters) as well as USB and DIN MIDI. Synthesists, rejoice.


The Best DJ Gear

Rane’s first all-in-one controller, accurately named One, is a marvel. It makes you wonder why the venerated company took so long to release, erm, one. Well, it was certainly worth the wait. The Serato-compatible controller features a battle-style two-channel mixer with crossfader, eight RGB performance pads, three-band EQ and effects, and the piece de resistance, two 7.2-inch motorized platters with variable torque. The build quality is also impressive. A top-notch effort.


The Best Really Expensive Piece Of Kit That We Can’t Justify Buying But Want Anyway

We’re not rich, clearly. That doesn’t stop us from GASing for stupidly expensive gear though. The one piece of kit that had us salivating the most in 2021 was Analogue Solutions’ Colossus Black Version, the night mode reskin of their furniture-sized synthesizer. Just check out these mouth-watering specs: 12 oscillators each with four waveforms, four SEM-style multimode filters and four Moog Ladder-like lowpass filters, four VCAs, eight ADSRs, a 64-step sequencer, two touch panels, a mixer, and two EMS-style pin matrices. There’s even an oscilloscope. Think Santa can fit one down the chimney?

Analogue Solutions Colossus Black Version


The Best Product You Never Knew You Needed

If you’ve got hardware, you’ve got dust. It’s as simple as that. You could hide them under blankets, but where’s the fun in that? You paid for all that gear; may as well look at it. To take care of the dust that invariably builds up, we just love the Befaco Synth Duster, a dedicated hardware duster with super soft bristles and a handle that won’t scratch your precious babies.

The Best Synthesizer Book

You can’t make music on synths all the time. Sometimes you may want to read about them. Bjooks has you covered with their latest, Synth Gems 1, a top-of-the-line coffee table book written by Mike Metlay. If you know Bjooks, you already know what to expect: quality paper, gorgeous photos, and plenty of friendly yet deep information. It’s our pick for the best synth book of the year.

The Best Way To Creatively Procrastinate In The Studio

Stuck in a modular rut? Using the same old patches over and over? Patch: The Card Game is a creative and fun way to expand your Eurorack skills and make new and unexpected patches. It’s also our favourite way to pass the time in the studio when we should be working on our new EP. Less of a game and more of a randomised guide, Patch: The Card Game encourages you to make connections that you wouldn’t have thought to try. Draw a card, follow the instructions, and hear your music change and evolve. Inspiring and fun.

Patch: The Card Game

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Author Adam Douglas
16th December, 2021

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