We take a look back at our favourite studio equipment from 2019 and make some predictions for 2020.
The biggest music tech story of the last year was undoubtedly Behringer’s continued assault on the synth market. The German-born brand has always specialised in affordable reimaginations of classic gear, but it made a huge impact in 2019, having set its sights firmly on synths (and the occasional drum machine).
Alongside Behringer’s growth as a force, we’ve also seen interesting trends from all levels of the industry, whether it’s a renewed interest in the gigantic potential of digital synthesis, a willingness for manufacturers to collab with other brands, or the emergence of a new wave of Eurorack module manufacturers.
2020 already looks set to be another big year for studio gear, with a few major players already announcing huge products at the big NAMM trade show in California.
We’ll be covering the big NAMM releases in detail, but let’s take a look back at the broader trends of the last year and see what we can expect in 2020.
Clone Wars continue
At this point it feels like Behringer have been big players in the synth market forever, so it’s hard to believe it was only with the release of the DeepMind 12 in 2016 that the occasionally controversial brand joined the fray. SInce then, the story has centred on Uli Behringer’s apparent mission to clone and remake as many classic synths and drum machines as he possibly can. The last couple of years have seen countless releases as the brand began to work their way through what’s rumoured to be a long list of targets.
The first Behringer synth clones – notably the Minimoog-inspired Model D – proved that the brand could produce authentic-sounding analogue versions of classic models at unprecedented low prices. This year saw the arrival of more impressive models, notably a swathe of Roland-inspired models including the RD-8 drum machine, MS-1 monosynth and TD-3 (based on the TR-808, SH-101 and TB-303 respectively).
Uli has been vocal about his intentions, making announcements about the brand’s intentions on social media. As a result, we already know about lots of Behringer’s plans for 2020. The biggest of all is probably the Poly D, a four-voice polyphonic version of the brand’s Model D synth, itself a clone of the iconic Minimoog.
We’re also expecting to see the arrival of the PRO-1, based on the classic Sequential Circuits Pro-One, and the WASP DELUXE, based on the late 70s EDP Wasp.
That might not even be all. We’ve previously seen a working prototype of an Oberheim OB-X clone and hints at potential Yamaha CS-80 and Solina String Ensemble remakes. In short, if you can name a classic synth, there’s a chance Behringer are working on a version; we don’t know exactly how many we’ll see in 2020, but we wouldn’t be at all surprised if half a dozen new models hit the market over the course of the year. How other brands might respond to that wave of releases is a fascinating subplot to the Behringer story.
Korg juggle analogue and digital
Some brands are secretive about their forthcoming releases, but others love dropping hints in the run-up to NAMM and the start of the new product release season. Korg are usually good value for a few teasers, and true to form the Japanese giant got in on the act early at the end of last year, dropping a big clue about the return of a late 90s classic:
Unfortunately, it looks as though the new Triton might be a soft synth rather than a hardware release, but we’d love to see a Triton-inspired Volca at some point and it doesn’t seem inconceivable that the concept might get repackaged at some point, in much the same way as Korg’s MS-20 plugin and app run in parallel with the brand’s hardware reissues.
After a few years in which analogue felt like the main focus of Korg’s output, 2019 saw a few reminders of how well the brand does digital, most notably with the brilliant Minilogue XD synth, but also with the digital Volca Drum percussion unit, two of our favourites from the year.
Korg haven’t forgotten analogue at all, and the Buchla-inspired Volca Modular came as a pleasant surprise early in the year. If you’d told us a few years ago that Korg would release a semi-modular west coast-inspired analogue synth for little more than £100, we’d have laughed at you. Credit where it’s due, the Volca Modular isn’t the most obviously commercial route the brand could have taken, but the gamble paid off and it’s been a popular choice for anyone wanting an affordable route into the experimental delights of west coast synthesis.
As far as plans for 2020, Korg are set to remind Behringer that they aren’t the only ones who can bring back old synths, unveiling an ARP 2600 reissue at NAMM this week. The 2600 was one of the most important synths of the 1970s, arguably on a par with legends like the Minimoog, but hasn’t really been cloned or reissued in the same way as the Moog. There have been occasional boutique tributes and software emulations, but original models still sell for thousands of pounds. There’s only one minor issue: Behringer also have an Odyssey clone and they’re already working on their own version of the 2600. Looks like we’ll have two versions going head to head at some point, with an official reissue from Korg and what will almost certainly be the cheaper, unofficial option from Behringer.
Brand collabs – Arturia, Mutable Instruments, Dave Smith, Pioneer and more?
Collaborations are still relatively unusual in the music tech world, but we’ve seen a small trend emerge over the last couple of years, including the aforementioned Korg and ARP partnership.
One of our favourite new synths of last year was the Arturia MicroFreak, a refreshingly experimental little keyboard based around an oscillator section borrowed from the Make Noise Braids module. It’s a link-up that makes a lot of sense, bringing the versatile sound of the Braids technology to a more accessible format. The idea of sharing technology in that way seems hugely exciting to us, and it’s a trend we hope to see continue; it would be nice to think that other modular manufacturers in particular could link up with bigger brands, allowing both parties to benefit from each other’s skills and strengths.
On a similar note, one of the most successful collabs in recent years has been the ongoing partnership between Dave Smith/Sequential and Pioneer DJ. (This year’s excellent Toraiz Squid sequencer didn’t have any input from Smith, but we expect to see more in the future.) Interestingly, there have been persistent rumours that Dave Smith might have a collaboration with Japanese giants Roland in the works. Smith first worked with Roland nearly 40 years ago, teaming up to develop the MIDI protocol. Roland isn’t the kind of brand we typically think of when it comes to collaboration, but they do have a bit of form in this area, having worked with Portland Eurorack brand Malekko Heavy Industry Corporation on the System-500 modules and teamed up with Serato for DJ controllers. Rumours are sketchy at this point, but Smith is one of the true legends of synth technology, so that would surely be the focus of any collab.
(For the record, our favourite Roland release of 2019 was the excellent JU-06A synth, which built on the huge success of the original JU-06. Rumours aside, we’re excited by the arrival of the Jupiter-Xm and keen to see where Roland take their new Zen-Core sound engine in 2020.)
On the subject of Eurorack, it’s become a cliche to point out how the modular scene goes from strength to strength. That’s no bad thing, proving the point that the modular revival was no flash in the pan. 2019’s releases were too numerous to count, but our favourite module of the year was the ALM Busy Circuits Squid Salmple, an innovative little eight-channel sampler module that proved to be a hugely fun and creative tool.
After a few years in which large chunks of the Eurorack scene were (justifiably) fascinated by the idea of analogue purism and exhaustive clones of classic hardware, 2019 felt like the pendulum had swung the other way. Unconventional is the new convention and digital is now just as widely loved as analogue. Our predictions for 2020 are that we’ll see more established manufacturers jumping into modular and a gradual move to lower prices as a result. For all its many benefits, affordability still isn’t a strong point for Eurorack.
Bringing us full circle, we return to Behringer, whose Roland System 100m clones might adhere to the old principles of analogue reissues, but most certainly buck the trend in their price points, with all of them strongly rumoured to come in well under £100. Whether you care for clones or not, a general trend for affordability can only be a good thing.