Synths, Keyboards, and Controllers
This real analog monosynth looks and plays like the love child of an ARP Axxe and an Octave Cat. It has one oscillator, but with blendable waveforms, sub-oscillator, and “Ultrasaw” fattener, that’s like saying a properly mixed zombie is just one drink. The filter from the rare Steiner-Parker Synthacon has an aggressive sound you won’t hear elsewhere, and the arpeggiator is wicked decent. Be warned: If you use the MiniBrute just for dubstep, we will find you.
$549 | arturia.com
CASIO XW-P1 and XW-G1
We mentioned the XW-P1 in February, but having gone hands-on at NAMM, we’re even more impressed with the sound (everything from buzzy synths to organs to orchestral layers is solid), the immediate layering and editing, and the ease and groove of the step sequencer. The G1 ditches the P1’s drawbar organ (which sounds surprisingly good) in favor of a pedal-style looper and more dance-oriented sound set.
XW-P1: $699.99 | XW-G1: $799.99 | casiomusicgear.com
As in, miniature Taurus. Moog crammed all the seismic analog bombast of the Taurus 3 into a practically palmtop package. All that’s missing are the pedals and preset memory, and if anything, you get more hands-on-knobs control with the Minitaur.
$699 | moogmusic.com
Don Buchla famously holds that synthesizers should free our creativity from the 12-note keyboard. Recently acquired by a group of passionate industry veterans, he’s now doing business as Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments. His new Skylab packs true modular power into a fold-up form you can take on a plane with your patch intact—as long as the TSA doesn’t evacuate the airport while they ponder which wire to cut.
$14,950 | buchla.com
Sporting an accelerometer that lets you affect any MIDI destination by titling the neck, the Vortex takes you back to the ’80s in every way except for making your Cavariccis fit again. Th e pitch wheel, ribbon, sustain button, and octave shifters are all in just the right place, the keys sense aftertouch and velocity, and you get templates for popular software, making this a lot of keytar for the money.
$399 | alesis.com
However great Nords sound (and they do), their Achilles’ heel with serious organists has always been the use of up/ down buttons instead of real drawbars. The C2D changes that. Though its drawbars are somewhat fader-like, they have a satisfying but not overdone tactile click, and are laid out like on a vintage B: two sets for the upper manual on the left, two for the lower on the right, and a pair of pedal drawbars in the middle. Like the C1 and C2, it’s light enough to carry under one arm.
$4,195 | nordkeyboards.com
Never mind the MPC drum pads, touch-fader strips that’d be at home onboard NCC-1701D, arpeggiator, and step sequencer. The real story is that a company as large and arguably mainstream as Akai put analog control voltage and gate outs on a MIDI controller. That’s major validation that analog is here to stay and, thanks to a burgeoning number of aff ordable desktop synth modules, not just for fat-walleted enthusiasts anymore.
$549 | akaipro.com
Most Desirable Unattainable
On the final day of NAMM, Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes texted editor Stephen Fortner: “This keyboard is SICK. Get over here!” Agreed. The sound is indescribably huge and lush, and the one-knob-per-function panel makes inventing new sounds surprisingly quick given the instrument’s depth. How much will the ultimate analog polysynth set you back? About 30 grand. Designer Stefan Schmidt has built two so far, and Morris was eyeing this one.
For their sound and keyboard feel, Kawai is a supremely underrated value in digital pianos. With its 192 voices of polyphony, separate multisamples for each key, and a real wooden action, we’d recommend the CE220 to an educator, committed student, or serious pianist with limited space. It also features four-hands (duet) mode and recording to an attached USB stick.
$2,195 | kawaius.com
Designed from the ground up to work with Propellerhead Reason, this controller wowed us with its eye-popping design. With a bright OLED display for separate modes that control Reason’s instruments, mixer, channels, and transport, if you have this and Balance, you have a complete Reason studio.
$599 | nektartech.com
The 2012 Winter NAMM Show was our first chance to get handson with the big brother of the SK1 (reviewed Nov. ’11). Not only is it the most compact dual-manual organ, but the extra non-organ sounds (the same as in the SK1, with very good vintage keys patches in particular) really let you put both manuals to good use, playing organ on one and something else on the other.
$2,895 street | hammondorganco.com
Yamaha Throws Down
In a left turn from their caféweight StagePAS systems, Yamaha wants to be the first name you think of for ballsy powered P.A. speakers. The demo we heard of their new DXR series suggests they might get their way—even the eight-inch baby of the bunch was hella loud and clean, with studio monitor-like detail, and we initially thought the accompanying DXS subwoofers were on when they weren’t. In addition, 10", 12", and 15" models are available, and the low street prices ($549.99–$799.99) surprised us just as much as the sound.
Great Studio Gear Under $500
SAMSON GRAPHITE 49
We didn’t know what to think when we first heard Samson was getting into the black-n-whites game. Then we played the Graphite and loved its keyboard feel. It senses aftertouch, the knobs are the endless kind, it’s USB powerable (including by an iPad), and the fit and finish are surprisingly tight. The price even includes Komplete Elements, a 3GB sound set culled from Native Instruments’ best.
$199 street | samsontech.com
They may not be a brand-new model, but they sound so good, and are so physically comfy and sonically non-fatiguing, that we can think of no better value in cans that you can really use for mixing.
$199 | audio-technica.com
In a crowded field, the 4Pre hits a sweet spot for songwriters: four squeaky-clean mic pres sharing combo jacks with line and guitar inputs, allocated so that you can always have a mic or two plugged in at the same time as a guitar or a stereo keyboard. It goes to 96kHz, sounds more expensive than it is, and is built like your car should be.
$495 | motu.com
Color us impressed with the build and sound of this relative newcomer’s entire line of recording and live mics. While not all models cost under $500, most do, and you could outfit an entire studio for less than the price of a prestige-name European condenser or two.
KORG KAOSSILATOR 2
Just as fun live as it is for inspiring ideas in the studio, the next Kaossilator adds a second loop bank, letting you crossfade between the two in DJ fashion. As before, you can set scales up on the touchpad, making it impossible to hit a wrong note as you mash out synth riffs over your loops. You can even record everything to an internal Micro-SD card.
$230 | korg.com
SYNTHOGY IVORY II AMERICAN CONCERT D
American Steinways are different animals than their Germanmade counterparts. Until now, they’ve also been underrepresented among premium software pianos. Designer Joe Ierardi told us he feels this is his best Ivory piano yet Having heard Mike Garson play it and tried it ourselves (definitely not in that order), we tend to agree.
$199 | ilio.com
Take a Stand
Ultimate Support’s new Apex AX-48 improves upon everything about the long-running line of self-storing keyboard stands. The column is now rounded in back. Deploying the legs is easier. The bottom tier now features 18" tri-bars for deeper ’boards. The Pro version features a top mount for a mic boom or, even cooler, an on-the-go version of their ultra-secure HyperStation laptop holder, as shown.
The Wireless Stage
LINE 6 STAGESCAPE M20D
In our opinion, this is what the future of live sound looks like. We could write pages about how the StageScape does what it does, but you can get that on Line 6’s website. Instead here’s our hands-on takeaway: It’s so powerful, and its all-visual touchscreen approach is so intuitive, that a total newbie could quickly dial in great sound for an entire band. It has everything you’d expect from a digital mixer (like wireless iPad control and EQ and dynamics on every channel) and things you wouldn’t (like feedback suppression and onboard multitrack recording). What it feels like to use, though, has as much in common with mixers as an episode of Top Gear does with traffic school.
$2,799 | line6.com
Fairly or not, the iPad has raised expectations about how user interfaces on keyboards and audio gear should handle. Mackie’s response? A digital mixer where the iPad (version 1 or 2; not included) is the user interface. The DL1608 hardware handles all the processing, though. You can go wireless or docked, or use multiple iPads to give band members individual monitor control.
$999 street | mackie.com
If you have a StudioLive mixer hooked up to a laptop running its remote software, this app lets your band use as many different iOS gadgets as the mixer has aux sends. From your iPhone or iPod Touch, you assign “me” channels to the aux, which you then turn up as a group with the onscreen thumbwheel. Max out your “me” volume, keep turning the wheel, and Qmix turns the rest of the band down in your monitor. Genius ideas are often simple.
Free at Apple App Store | presonus.com
There are a daunting number of choices in wireless vocal systems. If you need one for your band that resists interference and dropouts and includes a great-sounding mic, look no further.
$399.95 street | sennheiser.com
Speakers that Stopped Us Cold
The NAMM Show is so noisy and hectic that it’s impossible to be drawn across an aisle just by the sound of a pair of speakers. At least that’s what we thought until we encountered the Pelonis Model 42 nearfield monitors. The parallelogram-shaped cabinets let you orient them ideally for your room, and they come with their own 400W power amp that bi-amplifies the woofers and tweeters on either side. If talking about sound is like dancing about architecture, then sign us up for the Frank Lloyd Wright memorial swing marathon.
$999 | pelonissound.com
Mobile Recording and Production
UNIVERSAL AUDIO APOLLO
Powered Plug-Ins are just absurdly good recording gear emulations, and they come with their own microchips to crunch the numbers. Now, UA has combined them with their analog expertise in this lovely little box. Of course it’s not strictly for mobile use, but its one-two punch of audiophile-grade recording and CPU relief is ideal for the producer traveling with a laptop. The killer app? Something you can’t do with a separate audio interface and UAD card: tracking and monitoring through the plug-ins before signal hits your computer.
Dual-chip: $2,499 | Quad-chip: $2,999 | uaudio.com
The “i” is for interface. The world’s favorite compact digital mixer now pipes 16 channels at up to 96kHz to your computer over USB2. This means you can do live sound reinforcement and recording at the same time, with no need for expensive mic splitters or associated extra cables. All the usual candy, like Virtual Circuit Modeling effects and DAW control, is still there.
$2,699 | yamaha.com
WAVEMACHINE LABS AURIA
Forty-eight audio tracks on an iPad 2? It’s like Tron, only with that digitizer ray zapping an SSL console and Studer A800 instead of Jeff Bridges. PSP and Drumagog plug-ins sweeten your sound, and in-app Dropbox and SoundCloud support share it with others. Even your first-gen iPad will manage 24 tracks, and Auria records up to 18 tracks at once through any USB audio interface. Honestly, this scares us a little.
$49.95 | wavemachinelabs.com
Ultra-compact recording interfaces are multiplying so fast that we almost think they’re what lost socks turn into. This one stands out because of the completeness of its I/O—for starters, it includes all the breakout cables for iOS or Mac/PC connection, MIDI, and using either of the two phantompowered balanced mic inputs.
$199.99 | tascam.com