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2021 Gear Of The Year!

By SOS Team
Published December 2021

2021 Gear Of The Year logo

The SOS team pick their highlights from recent hardware and software launches.

Audio Interfaces

Avid Pro Tools | CarbonAvid Pro Tools | Carbon

Released right at the very end of 2020, but too late to make it into last year’s round‑up, Avid’s Pro Tools | Carbon is a genuinely brilliant rethink of the role of DSP in computer recording. Not only is it a great‑sounding audio interface, but it effectively eliminates latency as an issue when tracking into Pro Tools — no matter whether you’re laying Down the initial sketches or adding a last‑minute overdub to a complex mix — in a way that’s almost completely invisible to the user. Sam Inglis

HDSPe AIO ProHDSPe AIO ProI’ve long favoured internal sound cards in desktop studio computers for their tidy integration, very low latency, and overall convenience. RME’s all‑new HDSPe AIO Pro card really represents the current state of the art for internal cards with significant technical and practical improvements over its predecessor. The analogue I/O, while limited in channel count, rivals seriously high‑end outboard converters, and with a total of 14 inputs and 16 outputs this compact card provides a lot of connectivity in a very small space. This is a genuinely impressive and hugely capable professional audio interface. Hugh Robjohns

Grace Design m900Grace Design m900Headphone listening is the dominant consumer format today, so whether you’re listening to music in a creative role or just for pleasure, a high‑quality and versatile headphone amplifier is an everyday essential. Grace Design’s delightfully diminutive m900 serves that role admirably, combining a powerful headphone amplifier (optimised for low‑impedance headphones and earbuds), with a mastering‑quality D‑A stage enjoying both S/PDIF and USB interfacing. This ultra‑compact box is absolutely crammed with features, including a crossfeed headphone mode, user‑selectable reconstruction filter types, the ability to handle DSD‑formatted audio, analogue line outputs, and — setting the m900 far above standard headphone amplifiers — a comprehensive set of monitoring controller functions that make analysing stereo material straightforward. The technical performance, monitoring versatility, compact size and sheer practicality, as well as its affordability, make the m900 an absolute delight! Hugh Robjohns

Electronic Instruments

Isla Instruments S2400Isla Instruments S2400Vintage gear. We love it. Just look at the sheer number of vintage synths and drum machines that are cloned and re‑released every year. Yet samplers have mostly been excluded until now. The Isla Instruments S2400 is inspired by, but not a clone of, the legendary E‑mu SP1200. Modern features like USB MIDI and audio, easy WAV import and an excellent OLED screen make it a joy to use. It’s also built like a tank, but above all, it has that indefinable crunchy sound of old digital samplers. As a man who cut his teeth on early E-mu and Akai samplers in the 1990s, it’s the sampler I’ve been waiting for for years. Rory Dow

Sequential Prophet‑10 Rev 4Sequential Prophet‑10 Rev 4

When Sequential announced the Prophet‑5 and 10 Rev 4, my voice was just one in a huge chorus of cheers across the synthesizer community. No longer are we constrained to buying a new synth that’s almost but not quite a Prophet 5 — the Rev 4 is the real deal. It looks great, it sounds great, and it feels just right. With no more tuning issues or mismatched voices but the revered Prophet 5 sound... how could we fail to be excited? And now the latest OS adds splits and layers as well as polyphonic unison so that the 10‑voice version is even closer to the mighty dual‑manual Prophet 10. What’s not to love? Gordon Reid

UDO Audio Super 6UDO Audio Super 6The UDO Super 6 perfectly demonstrates what happens when you take inspiration from the past and drag it kicking and screaming into the future. It looks a lot like a Roland Jupiter synth from the 1980s but inside it’s had quite a makeover. The star of the show is the binaural synth engine, which offers a true stereo signal path throughout. Along with the crystal‑clean FPGA digital oscillators and classy effects section, this turned out to be the most sophisticated synth I’ve played in years. Bravo. Rory Dow

Guitar Technology

Blackstar Dept.10 Dual DriveBlackstar Dept.10 Dual Drive

The Blackstar Dept. 10 Dual Drive ticks all the right boxes for a dual‑channel overdrive that can be used both as a conventional pedal or as a complete ‘amp in a box’. It combines valve circuitry with DSP power‑amp and speaker emulation, with a free software editor to allow changes to the power amp, speaker cab and microphone modelling. It is capable of a wide range of authentic tones and presents a natural playing feel. Paul White

JTC Tones Cyber Driver & Daemon DriverJTC Tones Cyber Driver & Daemon DriverI grew up with tube guitar amps, and I don’t normally get excited about cabinet impulse responses in the way I might the latest piece of audio hardware, but the Daemon Driver and Cyber Driver impulse response collections from JTC Tones are outstanding. Capturing complete signal paths including a huge variety of amps (both tube and solid‑state), cabinets, speakers and microphones, every single IR is a masterpiece of its kind. All are dense, complex, full‑sounding and superbly voiced, and I know that I will be using my favourites amongst them well into the future. Bob Thomas

Origin Effects RD Compact Hot RodOrigin Effects RD Compact Hot RodI didn’t cover the Origin Effects RD Compact Hot Rod myself, but having read the SOS review, I bought mine from a retailer with a branch near me. I loved the sound of the original Revival Drive model, but I felt it was a little too big and complex for a gigging board where you need to adjust things quickly, and I also would have preferred a little more gain on tap for use with vintage single coils. The RD Compact Hot Rod fits the bill perfectly, having a bit more drive when you want it, and only six primary controls. The Origin drive pedals are solid‑state renditions of complete guitar amplifiers, from preamp to output stage. ‘Amp‑in‑a‑box’ pedals can be problematical to use with real amps, but there are no such issues here. The innovative Blend control lets you output ‘processed signal only’ for using with a clean channel, or any amount of clean signal blend for using the pedal with an already distorting channel. An intuitive Post Drive EQ stage lets you match the overall output spectrum to different amplifiers without touching the drive controls. Beautifully built and with all‑analogue circuitry, it has the unique ability to impart the ‘feel’ of a driven tube amp to almost anything, from mediocre modeller to tragic transistor amp, but best of all, for me, it can make any of my tube amplifiers still sound their best at low volume. I wouldn’t want to be without it now. Maybe I even need another one! Dave Lockwood

Vox Valvenergy SeriesVox Valvenergy SeriesThe Vox Valvenergy Series provides complete amp emulations in a single pedal, and includes models inspired by classic amps from Vox, Mesa/Boogie and Marshall. Their hybrid valve circuitry captures the essential sound of the amplifiers they set out to emulate, and they are nicely touch responsive too. Plus, they’re small enough to fit on a compact pedalboard. I’m not usually a fan of DI’ing driven guitar sounds, but with these pedals I think I could make an exception! Paul White

Zivix Jamstik StudioZivix Jamstik StudioIt’s always interesting to see how you feel about something you’ve reviewed 12 months on. In this instance, I wouldn’t want to revise any of it: I still absolutely love the Zivix Jamstik Studio MIDI guitar. It’s the perfect marriage of pitch‑to‑MIDI and DSP intelligence, and I use it on an almost daily basis to provide all my faux keyboard parts. Having owned or used just about every MIDI guitar ever made (and some that weren’t, having failed to get past the prototype stage), this is the one that does what I always wanted — enough guitar to make years of instinctive technique still useful, but enough MIDI to get the job done with a minimum of clean‑up editing. Of course, it’ll do ‘posh MIDI’ too, with MPE very nicely utilised by some of the soft synths within its supporting app, but for me its greatest worth resides in doing the basic task of replicating a MIDI keyboard in guitar form better than anything that has gone before. Dave Lockwood

Microphones & Miking

Classical Recording: A Practical Guide In The Decca TraditionClassical Recording: A Practical Guide In The Decca TraditionFor anyone involved in recording classical material, I can’t recommend Classical Recording: A Practical Guide In The Decca Tradition highly enough. It really should be required reading for anyone interested in this genre as it sets the benchmark in how to explain an enormous range of well‑proven and practical techniques in clear, uncomplicated terms, with copious real‑world details of what happens when aspects of each miking arrangement are altered. Whether looking for practical recommendations to tackle an unfamiliar ensemble, technical education, or just reassurance, this book will satisfy all requirements and expectations. It’s the book I’ve picked up and rummaged in more often than any other this year! Hugh Robjohns

Earthworks Icon ProEarthworks Icon ProI’ve used and reviewed a lot of ‘podcasting microphones’ over the last year, and while many were excellent, the Earthworks Icon Pro was the most impressive. It’s visually stunning, which always helps, but its extended HF response and the general sense of clarity you get from it makes it a real winner — not just for spoken word, but for instruments too. In fact, it’s not just a podcasting mic, it’s an excellent mic in its own right. Chris Korff

The PreSonus DM‑7 drum microphone kit deserves its place here largely because it includes a particularly effective kick drum mic, which is often the weak point in budget microphone kits. Given its low cost, this set of mics performs extremely well and can double as a general‑purpose studio microphone collection. Paul White

PreSonus DM‑7PreSonus DM‑7

Warm Audio WA‑87 R2Warm Audio WA‑87 R2The original WA‑87 was a very respectable‑sounding studio microphone that offered good value for money, but I found it a touch lacking when put up against my own 1971 Neumann U87. The updated Warm Audio WA‑87 R2, on the other hand, sounds spookily similar, and I even ended up preferring it to my own Neumann on some sources. The fact that Warm Audio have been able to dial in the sound of a brand‑new product to match that of a 50‑year‑old one almost identically is very impressive indeed. Neil Rogers

I’ve been putting high‑quality mics of one kind or another on to various instruments on stage and in the studio for more years than I care to remember, and I know of none that are easier or quicker to fit than Remic’s Classic Series. They also sound excellent, and the amount of ambient sound suppression relative to the level of the instrument was most impressive. For recording in home studios where acoustics aren’t perfect, and for playing live at small gigs, Remic’s Classic Series mics are the best solutions currently available. Bob Thomas

Remic Classic SeriesRemic Classic Series


Avantone PlanarAvantone PlanarAvantone’s Planars are not the best headphones I’ve ever heard — but they get remarkably close to the sound of the best headphones I’ve ever heard, and they do so at a fraction of the cost. As long as they are paired with a good enough headphone amp, they realise the richness, extended bass and dynamic excitement that I associate with high‑end planar magnetic designs, at the price of a decent pair of conventional headphones. Sam Inglis

Ex Machina Soundworks PulsarEx Machina Soundworks PulsarCutting‑edge technology and monitors sometimes make uncomfortable bedfellows, so I was a little nervous when I began listening to the Ex Machina Soundworks Pulsar because its dual‑coincident midrange/tweeter driver in particular lifts tech just about as high as tech currently goes. I needn’t have worried, though, because the Pulsar is an extraordinary monitor. It combines enormously extended and insightful bass with midrange and high frequency performance that genuinely has the power to take your breath away with its uncanny realism. Phil Ward

Focal Alpha 65 EvoFocal Alpha 65 EvoProbably the question I am asked most frequently is, “What is the best budget monitor speaker?” And my answer is always that there is no such thing! The definition of a monitor speaker is that it must be beyond reproach in every respect, and that inherently makes it expensive. However, the quality of budget studio speakers has improved dramatically over the years, and I was very impressed with Focal’s new Alpha 65 Evo, which demonstrates just what can be achieved when the R&D and manufacturing budgets are spent in exactly the right places. This all‑analogue speaker consistently punches well above its price, with excellent low‑end extension and control, good detail and clarity through the midrange, and a well‑balanced high end. All in all, a very fine budget monitor speaker. Hugh Robjohns

Genelec 8361AGenelec 8361AGenelec’s The Ones series monitors have always been impressive, but the new flagship 8361A goes even further, adding an air of controlled power to proceedings that brings out even more detail from the source and moves the monitor’s performance up to another level. The increased power and the revised midrange and high‑frequency drivers all help to render the entire soundstage, and the sources within it, with stunning clarity, and the fact that they can be used as close as 1m away makes them highly versatile too. Bob Thomas

Kali Audio IN‑5Kali Audio IN‑5The Kali Audio IN‑5 makes its living at the entry‑level sector for serious active monitoring, but despite that it’s a genuinely well‑conceived and thoughtfully designed speaker. It’s also unique in its market for offering both a three‑way architecture and dual‑coincident drivers. The next monitor up the price ladder that offers a similar set of features is around four times the price. Subjectively the IN‑5 isn’t perfect, but it does the basics of the nearfield monitoring job competently, and its three‑way and dual‑coincident features add an element of sophistication that’s really hard to find anywhere else at the price. Phil Ward


My most impressive hardware acquisition this year was a set of Audeze LCD‑X planar magnetic headphones, and the software I’ve used to get the most out of them, Acustica Audio’s Sienna, has been a revelation. As well as ‘correcting’ your headphones, you can call up dynamic convolution‑based emulations of a range of playback systems in some fantastic studios. It does so much more than ‘flatten the response’ of your headphones and, importantly, allows you to fine‑tune the correction to account for the shape and size of your own head and ears. This combination of LCD‑X and Sienna is the closest thing I’ve yet heard over headphones to sitting in front of a good set of speakers in a great listening space. Matt Houghton

Acustica Audio SiennaAcustica Audio Sienna

Arturia V Collection 8Arturia V Collection 8Soft synths have come a long way in the past 20 years, and nowhere is that better illustrated than in Arturia’s latest V Collection. Not only are the new additions — the Juno 6, Emulator II and Moog‑inspired vocoder — excellent examples of the species, but the company are now working their way through their earlier instruments to incorporate their latest DSP technologies and bring them up to modern standards. With pianos, organs, string synths, samplers and a Mellotron as well as a dazzling array of synthesizers, the Collection offers amazing scope for sound and music creation and, at less than £20 per instrument, it’s excellent value. Gordon Reid

HOFA IQ‑Series Reverb V2HOFA IQ‑Series Reverb V2

When it was launched back in 2013, HOFA’s reverb plug‑in was already one of the most comprehensive IR‑based reverbs on the market. Eight years on, the IQ‑Series Reverb V2 update picks up the goalposts and moves them onto an entirely different pitch! Each instance can run no fewer than four IR and two algorithmic engines simultaneously, with a vast factory library catering for everything from barely‑there ambience to out‑there weirdness. Sam Inglis

Spitfire Audio HammersSpitfire Audio HammersThe world is not short of excellent drum and percussion libraries, but I’m happy that Spitfire thought to add Hammers to the list. Yes, it’s massive (a 100GB Download!) and is priced firmly at the professional end of the market, but it sounds absolutely epic. Developed in collaboration with Charlie Clouser (Nine Inch Nails/Saw horror film franchise), it’s perhaps not surprising that Hammer can do big and brutal. However, dial back the (excellent) ambience options a tad and Hammers has all the dynamic subtlety and detail to deliver something more intimate. Added to the impressive array of sampled drums are the equally impressive, and very creative, loop options. Hammers is a big beast and Hollywood‑ready right out the box. John Walden

The considerable potential of spectral editing software has always been easy to see but often difficult to exploit. Since acquiring SpectraLayers from MAGIX in 2019, Steinberg have performed a massive reboot of the application and, while it has gained some very impressive new features, the most significant improvement has been in accessibility. Powerful editing tasks that were once very difficult to perform have become AI‑fuelled and can often be carried out with a few clicks, including the remarkable stem unmixing process. And, with almost seamless integration into Cubase via the ARA2 extension format, all that user‑friendly power is easily applied to your music production workflow. John Walden

Steinberg SpectraLayers Pro 8Steinberg SpectraLayers Pro 8

Studio & Recording Hardware

Trinnov D‑Mon & La RemoteTrinnov D‑Mon & La RemoteTrinnov’s room and speaker correction technology has always impressed enormously, but integrating the hardware into a typical studio’s complex monitoring arrangements has been daunting, both financially and practically... until now. Rising to the challenge, the French manufacturers have created an ideal solution in the form of the D‑Mon. Partnered with its La Remote desktop controller, this is an exceptionally configurable but simple‑to‑use professional monitoring controller, incorporating fully independent speaker/room‑correction facilities for multiple sets of speakers. The combination makes a highly impressive system capable of extracting the ultimate sonic perfection from any multi‑speaker monitoring system while retaining operational simplicity. Hugh Robjohns

Wes Audio ngBusCompWes Audio ngBusComp

Every time I try one of Wes Audio’s ‘ng’ digitally controlled analogue processors I find myself that little bit more impressed, but they’ve knocked the ball right out of the park with the ngBusComp. This supremely versatile, great‑sounding two‑channel VCA compressor is the most impressive bit of hardware I’ve had for review in a long while. As with all the ng models, the headline feature is that it can be remotely controlled by a DAW plug‑in, but you barely need to use the plug‑in in this case as the front‑panel control has been so marvellously conceived. As for the analogue side of the equation it is, as always with Wes, top‑notch stuff. Matt Houghton

Zoom F6Zoom F6Zoom’s extraordinary F6 recorder has to be included in any Gear Of The Year list, just for being the most ridiculously small yet highly capable audio recorder on the planet! The sound quality and impressive versatility of the ultra‑compact F6 is utterly remarkable. While its diminutive size makes it somewhat fiddly to adjust, its 32‑bit floating‑point recording format means it really doesn’t need to be controlled in the normal sense. It really is just a case of connecting the inputs, arming the tracks, and pressing the record button. There’s nothing else to do! The F6 won’t appeal to everyone, but it fits in spaces where more conventional recorders just can’t go, and it does what it does brilliantly. Hugh Robjohns