Tech Thoughts: Quo Vadis, Music Products?

NAMM 2020 has happened a few weeks ago, and followed quickly after a year that, while not being specifically mindblowing, brought us a bunch of new music products.

With that in mind, let’s look at some key trends in the industry. “Industry” here being what I’m mainly interested in (and trend to write about): products for making/producing music with some electronic content – synths, drum machines, effects boxes, interfaces, mixers, software…you name it.

Key Trends

I’ve identified a few trends that I’d like to share my thoughts on. These are (in no specific order):

  1. User Experience first, Feature Set second,
  2. Ubiquitous Creation and Production,
  3. Hardware over Software,
  4. Vintage Digital.

Trend 1 – UX first, Feature Set second – is to return to an intuitive, often one-knob-per-function workflow, rather than including ever more features in a given box (which, out of its proverbial box, is often a laptop with a touchpad and keyboard).

Ubiquitous Creation and Production aims to give you contemporary tools and workflows independently of a studio setup, and at best in a fully portable fashion.

The third trend, Hardware over Software, has been going on for some time. It simply means having hardware boxes (which can very well be complex embedded systems, i.e. computers with a specific UI) rather than doing everything in the computer. This immediately brings additional requirements for connectivity solutions.

Finally, after getting reissues and clones of old analogue synth and also effects boxes, we’re finally seeing clones and reissues or “inspired by/based on” products relating to old digital hardware – the era of Vintage Digital.

Those trends overlap at various points. So rather than discuss them independently, I’ll pick a few products and explain why I believe they support these perceived trends.

Contemporary Grooveboxes

Trends: UX first, Feature Set second; Ubiquitous Creation/Production; Hardware over Software.

A contemporary groovebox. It’s usually a combo of a pattern sequencer, sample- and/or synth-based sound generation, potentially audio recording capabilities, effects. More complex variations offer considerable connectivity, including multiple audio ins and outs, CV/gate, and multiple MIDI and USB ports. The promise? To be able to produce a song with one of these (somewhat) portable boxes only, or with it at the centre of a hardware setup.

True, the potentially biggest player in the field – Akai’s MPC – has never been gone. However, after a time where focus seemed to be on controllers for software solutions and people were grabbing older MPCs with third-party software, Akai are back in the standalone game in a big way. Next to the MPC X (a monster in every possible meaning of the word, and connects to about everything), we have the MPC Live (battery-powered, see trend 2), and the most recent one, the MPC One (smaller still, and with CV/gate connections in Eurorack format).

Roland, whose MC-202 is considered by some the first groovebox ever, have returned with two new products in their MC line: the MC-707 and the MC-101.

Both of them offer a powerful synth engine, sample loop playback, effects and a x0x-inspired pattern sequencer workflow. The MC-707 offers “more of everything” over the 101, and also adds audio recording capabilities and an effects loop, but sadly doesn’t run off batteries like the MC-101.

From the super-small PO (bottom left) to the mighty MPC-X (pretty much all on the right in the background): sizes and feature sets do differ.

Perhaps the first modern groovebox, the OP-1 by Teenage Engineering is still made after nine years. And there’s a simple reason for that: the combo of sequencer, synth, audio tracks and effects makes it able to compete with most any other groovebox at least on the level of top-level features, and a user interface that forgoes tons of tiny parameters to achieve an intuitive workflow really helps.

All other devices, ranked below the OP-1 flagship, share a general groovebox approach (albeit with vastly reduced features). There’s the OP-Z (sequencer, also good for controlling external gear via MIDI or CV/gate, and synth), and a series of Pocket Operators, each one a simple and affordable synth/pattern sequencer combo in a truly portable package.

While none of their products is a full-fledged all-in-one groovebox, a lot of Elektron‘s products bring a lot to the table. Whether it’s multi-track audio recording and MIDI sequencer (Octatrack), FM-style digital synth voices or drums each with a fitting sequencer (Digitakt/Digitone) or an analog/digital drum machine (Analog Rytm), there’s also a few offerings from this company.

Small Synths

Trends: Ubiquitous Creation/Production; Hardware over Software, Vintage Digital.

Back when I grew into the synth world (read late 80s), a respected synthesizer had at least five octaves of full-sized keys, connected to an electrical outlet, transmitted audio with two or more 1/4 outputs and if you had two of them, you already had your hands full.

Which meant that everything with batteries, built-in speakers, less than five octaves or – god forbid – minikeys was accepted as a toy at best.

But a small selection from the Volca Universe

Today, all the big synth makers have at least one of those toys with a few small keys, battery power and speaker in their lineup. There’s the microKorg by Korg (and let’s not forget the Volca series also falls into this category), the Reface series by Yamaha, and, one of Roland’s latest additions, their Jupiter-Xm.

Marketing for the Jupiter-Xm also addresses most of our trends, as shown in Roland’s video:

While I have a clear opinion on polysynths with less than five octaves and on minikeys (both suck), it’s a perfect solution for keyboard-centric songwriters who prefer to hear what they’re writing while they’re writing it. And with battery power, both speakers and headphone jack and the (in case of some devices) small size, the things are more practical on the go as a guitar!

Analogue Mixers with Digital Interface

Trends: UX first, Feature Set second; Ubiquitous Creation/Production; Hardware over Software.

Recording and mixing, if it didn’t happen on a computer, happened in a combo of digital mixer, effects, multitrack recorder and computer interface for a few years now.

In that situation, the Tascam Model 24 was pretty much a revolution. Stick with computer interface, digital recorder and digital effects, but make the mixer analogue – simple as that.

The future of mixing and recording as seen by Tascam and Korg: analogue, one knob per function.

Strangely, it’s the only product (that I’m aware of right now) that gives you the full mixer/recorder/interface package – but the recent Korg MW2408 moves in a similar direction with having a decent analogue console with effects and audio interface (which you might then connect to a portable computer solution, e.g. on a tablet).

So why is this so important? You get (back) a mixer without menu diving, on the way losing a big ton of features, but you get a device that’s equally at home to connect a bunch of synths to your monitors, to mix your band during rehearsals or even concerts, and if you want to, record that as well, all without the need for additional computer-based hassle.

Reissues and the like

Trends: UX first, Feature Set second; Ubiquitous Creation/Production; Hardware over Software, Vintage Digital.

We’ve had synths inspired by/based on/reissue of for decades now in the synth world. First there were VA clones of analogue synths, then analogue recreations.

What’s new is that this has now reached digital synths of the past as well – as a general concept, as a potential improvement, or as an outright clone.

One of the key devices here was the Roland D05. A recreation of the classic D-50 in boutique format (which, btw, is also something rather portable and moving away from the D-50 form factor of old). Yamaha hasn’t done anything big yet (but there’s the reface DX), but the Korg Volca FM is pretty much a feature-wise recreation of the DX7. And speaking of Korg, a highlight of NAMM was definitely their Wavestate – quite openly inspired by, but improved upon, the mighty Wavestation.

FM synths, albeit very basic ones, are all the rage right now. Be it the aforementioned Digitone and Digitakt by Elektron, the reface DX or Volca FM, the Korg Opsix behind a glass screen which looked like a DX/SY synth with improved UI, or continuing rumours about a DX1 clone by Behringer, it’s a good age for FM synthesis. There’s even an Eurorack thing with the Humble Audio Quad Operator, and let’s not forget that Yamaha’s flagship Montage series still contains the most powerful FM engine ever.

Is there a Summary?

I’m not going to discuss if the trends I laid out above are really there – that’s for you to decide. But how do I like what happens?

The thing of moving away from a computer, which was already present in my recent work, is clearly something I like. It’s not that I don’t like computers – it’s rather that I like other things better for tasks those other things are better at. So being able to sample, have a synth, effects, and a sequencer to control other (hardware) synths without having to resort to a computer is really nice to me. I could do without the minikeys, but maybe that’s just me.

I can’t say I really care for 1:1 recreations of old digital synths, the same I don’t care that much for recreations of old analogue synths. But as with the example of the Wavestate – taking an innovative, but then abandoned, concept further – by all means: go for it!

I’m not in a situation that often that I need to electronically realize music while on the go – which in part has to do that I usually do the composing with pen and paper. However I perfectly see the Ubiquitous Creation trend and the devices supporting it as an important enabler for a lot of creators.

One thing I haven’t talked about – surprisingly one might add – and that’s Eurorack. First of all, it’s hardly a novel trend. Furthermore, its an existing trend that perfectly coincides with some of our discussed trends but the User-experience-centric and the the Hardware over Software one.

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