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2021 in Synth and Software



No doubt these are very strange times, but as the proverbial (wish? curse?) goes, they’re certainly interesting. That applies very much to our world of synths and software, which is vital as ever in spite of the tumult.

Some of what we see is a continuation of trends that started before this year. Musicians are interested in hardware instruments as well as software. Eurorack modules are still a big thing.

What’s old is still new, or something like that. Is there a vintage synth that hasn’t been modeled in software (reflecting that trend)? Many classics are also being revisited and improved upon in hardware.

We’re not yet in the golden age of MIDI 2.0 and MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE), but it’s getting closer. That’s something we’ll be watching and encouraging.

On the opposite track, instruments that do lot of the work for you are popular as ever. It’s become almost standard for every sample library to include loops and other auto-play features. (Whether and when that’s good or bad is a question to be settled at ten paces.)

Will 2022 be the year that 2-channel stereo gets superseded by more-channel audio? Apple Logic Pro 10.7 has added Dolby Atmos production features, and Apple isn’t exactly a mom and pop boutique operation.

But do people want it? After all, manufacturers first started flogging this with quadraphonic stereo back in the 1970s. Then came 5.1, 7.1, and catch-as-catch-can.1.

Surround variations are popular for film and TV set-ups, but how important they become for music remains an open question. And cynics around here will be quick to point out that even Apple sells single-speaker audio systems (the Homepods, never mind that you can now buy two for stereo).

Speaking of Apple, the Mac transition to Apple Silicon – new processors – is well underway. Many software companies have updated their instruments and programs to take advantage of them, all of them almost certainly will. Expect some dust to fly during the changeover, but so far it hasn’t been bad (due to Apple’s Rosetta Intel emulation mode).

And now we get to the year’s more notable product introductions. By the way, we’re quite serious about your letting us know what we’ve missed – not if we’ve missed anything!

Realitone Sunset Strings – This is a real-time playable ensemble strings instrument, rather than one intended only for us orchestration dorks. You set up top and bottom layers to crossfade between, each with an attack and a release. It’s simple to use, extremely expressive, and it’s intended to complement standard string libraries.

Novation Circuit Tracks  – Novation’s take on the groovebox is much more than a 1-finger West Coast-ish instrument. Fun!

Arturia Polybrute Morphing Analog Polysynth – Mark Jenkins contributed both text and video reviews of Arturia’s new flagship analog synth. It builds upon the MatrixBrute, which he describes as the most powerful and impressive-looking mono synth in production – by adding polyphony, of course, but also with a new type of controller called Morphee.

Arturia V Collection 8 Hot on the heels of version 7, Arturia’s behemoth software “anthology” of famous instruments impressed the heck out of Marty Cutler in this review.

Eventide SplitEQ – It’s a new take on EQ.  Eventide’s Structural Split engine divides the incoming audio into separate Transient and Tonal streams that feed the eight bands. The two streams are analogous to human perception of tonal and transient elements, so you can cut or boost only the part of the sound you’re focusing on.

Empirical Labs Arouser Rev 3 – It’s an equalizer, and an impressive-looking one at that. But it makes this list because we miss Aphex’ innuendo-filled product names.

Korg Opsix – Mark Jenkins concludes that those who didn’t experience the arrival of FM synthesis first-hand will find great novelty in the OP6 sounds, while others will welcome the addition of analog-like textures.

Spectrasonics Bob Moog Tribute Library v2.0 for Omnisphere – Because you have to include Spectrasonics in any story of this type. It’s the gold standard of synths.

Applied Acoustic Systems Chromaphone 3 – Applied Acoustic Systems has a history of delivering dramatic upgrades to their physically modeled instruments. It’s described as a percussion synthesizer, and this one features realistic snares and other percussion sounds. But it also contains plaintive leads and glassy, sparking pads.

Cherry Audio synths – Cherry Audio is prolific, to say the least. Among others, they released software versions of the Moog Memorymode and the Korg PS-20 (Jim Aikin’s review here as always is well worth reading; we’re fortunate to have his contributions). Their philosophy seems to be a hybrid of faithfulness to the originals and adding modern features.

GForce Oberheim 8-Voice – This instrument is based around a single Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM) containing two VCOs with Pulse and Sawtooth waveforms, two ADS Envelope Generators, an LFO, and a multimode filter – but the OB-E has eight modules for 8-note polyphony.

Presonus Studio One – This increasingly popular DAW has had at least three big updates over the year. There’s a link to a video showing the numerous important new features in the story below.

Arturia Pigments 3 Polychrome softsynth – It features every shade of synthesis. With colorful sound engines, effortless modulation, professional utilities, and studio-grade FX, explore an infinite spectrum of sound. Pigments blurs the lines between timbres, pushing sound design into new territory.

EastWest Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition with Hollywood Orchestrator – EastWest has been improving their sampled orchestras for well over 20 years. In addition to a new player, new sampled string sections, and updated programming, the latest version adds Hollywood Orchestrator. It lets you create orchestral arrangements pretty much in real time, automatically dividing the notes of chords, playing arpeggios, etc.

Alesis 88-key Prestige Digital Pianos with Graded Hammer Action – Whether these (or any digital pianos) are MIDI controller keyboards that contain bread-and-butter sounds or v.v. is in the fingers of the beholder. But Alesis’ new Prestige series digital pianos are affordable, they’re light, and  their weighted hammer action is graded. That means the action gets a little heavier as you go down the keyboard, just like a real piano.

Behringer MonoPoly 4-Voice Analog Synth – At first Eric Hawk was skeptical of another Behringer clone. But after living with this little monster in his studio for a few weeks, he decided it really is update to the venerable old Korg Mono/Poly at a fraction of the price. Eric did an outstanding job of this review, so be sure to check out the video.

KORG MS-20 FS Monophonic Synthesizer – This is a 1:1 scale reissue of the KORG MS-20, available in green, white, blue, or black. It’s a recreation of the original 37-key analog monosynth with a patch bay, external signal processor, MIDI in, and USB.

Rhizomatic Software Plasmonic Physical Modeling/Subtractive Synth – Marty Cutler found out would it sound like if the person who created Native Instruments Absynth made another synth that combines sampling, physical modeling, and subtractive synthesis.

Waves CLA Nx Plug-in – A software model of Chris Lord-Alge’s control room for your headphones. What’s more, the concept actually makes sense.

Spitfire Brutalist Drums and Percussion: HAMMERS, by Charlie Clouser – Spitfire released a whole lot sample libraries this year. This one has a lot of Clouser’s signature percussion sounds that you won’t find anywhere else. And “Brutalist” describes the sounds very well.

Spitfire Albion: Solstice – Kays Alarakchi reports on a library that focuses mainly on small ensembles of traditional folk instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy, accordions, nyckelharpa, bodhrán, and other Celtic- and Gaelic-inspired tonalities. But it has a lot more.

Cre8audio Eurorack Modules – This company’s latest Eurorack-compatible analog synth modules are Capt’n Big-O (oscillator) and Mr. Phil Ter (filter – get it?). Who says you have to be rich to afford a Eurorack system?

Casiotone CT-S1 Portable Keyboard – It’s almost silly how far $200 goes. Nick Batzdorf is blown away by this 5-octave unweighted keyboard with built-in speakers and good selection of bread and butter keyboard sounds, and built in effects. And more.

Auto-Tune Processors – They’ve spun a lot of very cool processors using the AutoTune bones (please excuse the mixed metaphors). Their Mobile Pitch-Correction App for iPad and iPhone is only $5? There’s Vocodist. And then they introduced Slice, which is sort of a sampler, at a really fun party in Los Angeles (which featured slices of pizza, of course). 

Sequential Take 5 Compact, Five-Voice Poly Synth – It’s a compact and portable 5-voice subtractive VCO/VCF-based poly synth designed with both synth newcomers and space-conscious pros in mind. This synth has two VCOs and a sub-oscillator per voice, a classic 4-pole, resonant analog filter from the Prophet-5 Rev 4 design, 44 full-size keys, and a Fatar keybed.

Overloud Gem Modula Plug-in-Three famous classic chorus/mod units. Note that were able to avoid using brand and model names such as Yamaha SPX-90, Roland Dimension D, or Arp String Ensemble.

Waldorf Generation M Wavetable Synth – It’s the classic Microwave and modern Microwave II tone generation hybrid wavetable synth. This instrument has an analog lowpass 24dB/Oct VCF with resonance and saturation, and a stereo analog VCA with a panning option.

MOTU Digital Performer 11 – Marty Cutler jumps up and down on DP11, the latest version of MOTU’s DAW, while making ape noises and scratching his chest to see whether it breaks (it doesn’t). He also contributed a piece about using its MPE and multichannel tracks features.

Rob Papen Predator 3 – Yet another great synth from one of the top European instrument developers, Jim Aikin decides. Version 3 introduces very little that’s radically new, it just has more of everything. More = better.

iZotope RX 9 and RX Post Production Suite 6 –The latest update to their audio repair and enhancement program includes major improvements to some of the most popular RX modules used in audio post-production. 

It’s easier to extract dialog from the environment in the new version of Dialogue Isolate, while the new Complex mode in Ambience Match connects dialogue and ADR cuts with real background movement and textures – all with multichannel support up to Dolby Atmos 7.1.2.

Orchestral Tools SEQUIS Acoustic Sequencer – Kays Alatrakchi reports on SEQUIS, a new Kontakt instrument with a primary focus of creating stylistic rhythmic loops, using sequenced and randomized patterns. Its percussive articulations cover a variety of instruments ranging from traditional orchestral, ethnic, vocals, winds, and more.

Blackstar Carry-on 49-Key Folding Piano and MIDI Controller – You may have seen ads for folding keyboards in those catalogs on planes. They’re toys. But this one is for real, and there’s an 88-key version as well.

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