Chris Lyth presents his guide to some of this season’s most droolworthy studio tech
Well, it’s that time of the year again: you know, the one when we’re all encouraged to spend beyond our means and eat until we pop. It’s also a time when thoughts turn to family, and more specifically getting them to fill our studios with lot of new toys.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas you can’t really go wrong with… now get crossing those fingers!
Dynaudio have been making high quality professional monitors for a long time now. Their latest LYD-5s are designed to deliver high levels of precision at low volumes, which for producers with unforgiving neighbours is like all our Christmases come at once. Typically for Dynaudio, they output a non-fatiguing sound that delivers punchy, controlled bass and a midrange that’s perfect for analytically examining recordings. The separation is also excellent, everything coming through clean and clear without a trace of muddiness. They are very much a modern monitor with a contemporary sound, in that they have a slightly forward voicing, but without at all being flattering. They’re not the cheapest five-inch monitors on the market, but if – and only if – you’ve been very, VERY good all year, you never know…
Akai MPC Live
While often thought of as the hip-hop producer’s weapon of choice, the MPC isn’t short of friends in the house and techno arenas, either. It also just recently had a firmware update that’s taken its standalone functionality through the roof, adding three soft synths, an arpeggiator and a very useful auto-sampling mode which is great for helping you take your studio sound to the stage. The new touchscreen interface offers a much better user experience than other generations of MPC, and with great storage options and long life battery it really is a DAW in a box. There are many advantages to not writing music with a mouse and computer: the main one being that as we tend to use our eyes rather than our ears when working on a PC or Mac, a standalone unit like this streamlines our workflow while making it more tactile and responsive. A recent iPhone app has also been released that gives you a glimpse at what this puppy can do (whose results can be imported into the main unit), for those moments when beats just can’t wait.
£99 (sale price)
I absolutely love Soundtoys plug-ins, and I’m not alone in this particular worldview. Decapitator is not just an approximation of analogue, as some plug-ins often are, but is made up of painstakingly accurate models of vintage and modern high-end studio hardware such as pre-amps, compressors and EQs that have been specially selected for their tone. The sonic potential here is manifest: it will span the range from mellow hazy warmth and a little added chunk, through to thrillingly dismembered sonic oblivion. The Decapitator is a singular piece of filth alchemy, like a selection box of high-end studio grit.
Teenage Engineering PO-28 Robot
For a stocking filler or a small treat to yourself, you really can’t do much better than any one of the diminutive Pocket Operators, but the PO-28 in particular is a lot of fun. It has an eight-bit synth engine which is great for raw and gritty bass, lead and FX timbres. It’s got an arpeggiator and glissando function, and you can set up cool stuff like auto vibratos and filters. Its built-in sequencer is way cooler than it has any right to be for the price, and it can send and receive a pulse clock signal, allowing it to act as a master or slave when hooked up to other pulse-compatible gear such as Volcas and other Pocket Operators. There’s even a cheeky nod to Elektron, as they've taken a little slice of the jazzy Parameter Lock function, which is a very fast and powerful way to lock changes in patterns such as envelope and filter cut-off.
Rakit Drum Synth
£45 (kit) / £78 (pre-built)
Another fab and admittedly diminutive stocking filler is the Rakit Drum Synth, which is based on the now rare Boss PC-2/Amdek percussion module. It comes in two forms: a suitably festive kit version for those sentimental souls who hark back to playing with Lego on Christmas Day, or pre-built for those whose soldering is more reminiscent of Picasso when he was drinking a lot. It takes a CV in as well as having a trigger pad for fingertaps, plus it has six tweakable knobs for manipulation. As for sounds, well, it sounds pretty great: all manner of basses, kicks, hats, electro snares and acid wonk are to be had here. Check out the YouTube videos on that t’internet.
Yamaha monitors are without doubt among the most recognisable speakers in the world. The legendary NS10s have been a staple in professional studios for 25 years, and the love affair seems set to continue, with Yamaha’s updated model the HS series becoming natural successors. It’s clear that they’ve been tweaked for the modern ear and, to my ears, they sound much better for it. The midrange is still incredibly detailed, but the bass is now much more evident. I do feel that the lower midrange is slightly recessed, but it's not to an extent that will cause real issues. If you do find that you need more bass, then simply hook up the sub, which will give you a full-range set up. The old NS10 cliché applies equally to the HS series – if it sounds good on these, it’ll sound good on anything.
While not the most versatile synth on the planet, there is something about the way an SH-101 sits in a mix that just feels right. Whether it’s a lower-than-UKIP bassline, a sharp acidic lead or wobbly LFO FX, it just works. One thing that doesn’t work quite as well, though, is the relative fragility and size if you want to gig it – so it’s just as well that Roland have reissued it, in boutique format, as the SH-01A. Time is short, so let’s cut to the chase: in extensive head-to-head tests, they sound near enough indistinguishable! From leads to basses to more complex modulated FX, the SH-01A spat out the goods time after time, and you have to really dig deep to find the differences. It also comes with very welcome mod cons such as Poly mode, patch and sequencer memory, chord mode, improved arpeggiator and MIDI over USB. Yes please, Santa!
Words: Chris Lyth