The SOS team pick their highlights from the past year of hardware and software launches.
I’m not the only one with a soft spot for high‑end analogue consoles. But they occupy a good chunk of your studio, and in the DAW‑centric age they can seem superfluous or, worse, actively get in the way. Not so with the Harrison 32Classic. At heart, it’s a classy implementation of their much‑loved 32‑series mixer. But with generous space to accommodate laptops, phones and computer screens, and 64 channels of Dante and A‑D/D‑A conversion integrated seamlessly, not to mention the ability to monitor up to 7.1.4 immersive audio, Harrison have every right to bill this as a versatile classic for the DAW era. Matt Houghton
Avid MBox Studio
I’ve moaned more than once in these pages about a lack of daring in the design of audio interfaces. That’s certainly not an accusation you could level at Avid’s MBox Studio. A bigger, bolder and altogether more ambitious device than previous MBoxes, it’s bursting with fresh ideas. Features such as built‑in tuner, variable input impedance and sophisticated re‑amping capabilities make it the ideal platform for serious recording guitarists. Sam Inglis
Pope Audio Pre-BX
The Pope Audio Pre‑BX got my attention, however, offering bucketloads of transistor‑style saturation if used anything more than lightly. This, combined with the integrated and simple but effective Baxandall‑style EQ, has made the Pre‑BX an excellent addition to my 500‑series collection. Neil Rogers
Electric & Company EC5B
I would file the EC5B by Electric & Company under the ‘luxury item’ category of studio outboard, in that you don’t need tools like this to make great recordings or mixes. This take on the valve predecessor to the UA 1176, however, made a great impression during the review period at my studio.
Occasionally unpredictable, the EC5B offers rich, thick valve compression with surprisingly fast attack and release options. Neil Rogers
Heritage Audio’s Herchild 670
Its association with the Beatles and Abbey Road endowed the Fairchild Model 670 with not only near‑legendary status, but also stratospheric prices. Heritage Audio’s Herchild 670 is an enhanced update of that iconic stereo compressor that better suits present‑day workflows.
Like its forbear, the Herchild 670’s superb audio performance adds a tangible sense of presence to material passing through it, and excels at gluing mixes together. Although not exactly low‑cost, in comparison to the current price of an original Fairchild, the Herchild 670 turns out to be a considerable bargain. Bob Thomas
Warm Audio WA‑MPX
Their identical channel circuits feature switchable input transformer impedances that allow for perfect matching with vintage ribbon and dynamic microphones (150Ω) and more modern capacitor microphones (600Ω). Both units deliver a vast, intuitive and easy‑to‑manipulate palette of character and colour with a vintage vibe that can enhance the sound of any source, whether you’re tracking or mixing. Both represent exceptional value for money and yes, dear reader, I did buy one of each. Bob Thomas
As usual, I’ve had fun playing with a lot of microphones this year, but the one that sticks in my mind is the Sony C80. A more affordable, fixed‑cardioid derivative of the flagship C100, it offers a refreshing change from the onslaught of vintage‑inspired clones and me‑too mics. Most importantly, it sounds great and remains relatively affordable to all. Sam Inglis
Black Lion Audio Auteur DT
An impressive, versatile and compact single‑channel, transformer‑equipped microphone preamplifier/DI, the Black Lion Audio Auteur DT has real character, punches well above its relatively modest price, and will look great on your desktop.
Signals passing through it are subtly enhanced by a combination of low‑end warmth, a smooth midrange and a clear, detailed high end. The Auteur DT is an ideal microphone preamplifier for musicians, podcasters and voiceover artists, and has a useful side hustle of adding character to amp and cab modellers. Bob Thomas
Prism Sound Dream ADA‑128
Prism Sound have long been a favourite of high‑end studios and mastering suites, and their ADA‑8XR has been a staple fixture in many, providing ultra‑high‑quality and versatile modular multi‑channel conversion and Pro Tools interfacing. However, the advent of immersive formats like Dolby Atmos, as well as multi‑room facilities, has increased the required channel count massively, and to address that need Prism Sound introduced the Dream ADA‑128.
Like its antecedent, this new model is fully modular, allowing complete customisation, and can be remotely controlled, accommodating up to 128 audio channels either as one system, or subdivided into separate groups with up to four independent clocking domains. Analogue, AES, Dante and Pro Tools modules are already available, with others planned. Hugh Robjohns
Zoom F8n Pro
The F8n Pro is Zoom’s flagship multitrack location recorder, capturing eight inputs as well as a live stereo mixdown. The original 2015 model was well specified, but the F8n, released three years later, added a wealth of enhanced features and extra facilities to make it a really accomplished compact recorder.
That model has now been replaced again by the F8n Pro which is essentially the same, but with redesigned input circuitry comprising dual A‑D converters and clever DSP to allow 32‑bit floating‑point recording — a technology first introduced in the company’s smaller F6 recorder. The 32‑bit floating‑point format completely removes the need to optimise input levels manually, as the digitised signal inherently accommodates the full dynamic range of the mic preamp without human intervention — a real game‑changer for amateur and professional recordists alike. Hugh Robjohns
Strymon BigSky & Deco
Strymon’s BigSky reverb pedal has been around long enough that most musicians are aware of just how good it is, but now it is available as a plug‑in. BigSky offers a variety of traditional and creative reverbs combined with a very friendly user interface, and simply sounds gorgeous. And of course if you have the plug‑in version, you can deploy several in the same mix.
The Deco is the second plug‑in from Strymon, again based on the pedal of the same name, designed to produce authentic sounding ADT and tape flange effects. It really nails the sound of those old‑school tape‑based delay treatments in a way that more conventional flanger pedals fail to do. I can’t wait to see which effect they release as a plug‑in next. Paul White
Accentize DeRoom Pro
This was the year that reverb removal — at least for dialogue — finally got good. Several developers released machine learning‑based reverb removal tools, but for me, Accentize DeRoom Pro is the pick of the crop. It works as a real‑time plug‑in, is capable of brilliant results and offers much greater control over this particular process than their new (and equally impressive) dxRevive. Matt Houghton
Steinberg HALion 7
With a combination of sample‑based instrument building (and this can be as simple as a single sample or as complex as a deeply sampled instrument featuring multiple velocity and articulation layers), powerful engines for analogue, wavetable, spectral, grain, organ and FM synthesis (that sounds truly epic), and options to combine these various engines via layers within a single instrument, it’s a sound‑design candy shop. Yup, it’s also deep, but the dive is most certainly worth it. John Walden
Tokyo Dawn Records SimuLathe
Cutting a vinyl disc is technically challenging and potentially extremely costly if things go wrong. So the ability to experiment with all the key parameters and ‘rehearse’ a cut in the virtual world is a game‑changer for mastering engineers.
Tokyo Dawn’s SimuLathe software does exactly that, being configurable to precisely mimic all standard cutting lathes, allowing the user to work out the best settings to master a single, EP or full album ‑without risking the cutter head or wasting practice lacquers. Moreover, it’s a fabulous tool for interested bystanders to explore the art and science behind the complex world of cutting discs. Hugh Robjohns
Universal Audio Waterfall Rotary
The sound of a Leslie rotary speaker is instantly recognisable and indelibly associated with Hammond organs, as well as adding character to electric pianos, guitars, and even vocals. Software Leslie emulations have evolved massively over the last decade or two and most are now quite realistic, replicating the complexities of amplitude and frequency modulations very well.
However, the best emulation I’ve heard to date is undoubtedly Universal Audio’s Waterfall Rotary, which not only allows selection of different mics and mic positions, but includes subtle but crucial details most others omit. I’m thinking of the relay click when changing speed, the rumbles and wind noise created by the rotors, and even belt slippage. These low‑level mechanical artefacts really bring the Leslie to life, with a character and depth unmatched by anything else I’ve tried. Hugh Robjohns
Melbourne Instruments Nina
The USP of Melbourne Instruments’ Nina may be its (pretty astonishing) motorised knobs, but that’s far from all this spectacular synthesizer, designed from the ground up with discrete circuitry, has to offer. Boasting 12‑voice polyphony with a fully analogue signal path, it has a phenomenally deep modulation matrix and some nifty bonus functions on top, including an excellent‑sounding overdrive. It boasts a highly capable wavetable oscillator as well as two more conventional oscillators, and a wonderful Morph function, which effectively gives any one preset to two extreme ‘ends’ that the Nina can morph between, wholesale.
This is where the motors really come into their own, physically moving in real time to reflect their values, snapping into position with different presets and even taking on different detents for different functions. I said it before and I’ll say it again: even if motorised knobs were a common feature, the Nina would still do it better than most. It’s rightly making a splash across the synthscape, with Jean‑Michel Jarre declaring it one of his top five synths of all time. Oh, and did I mention it’s built like a tank? William Stokes
For me, this year has been a bit of an odd one. There have been all manner of good, solid products, and some that qualify as very good or even a little bit excellent, but nothing that leaps out as change‑my‑life, can’t‑do‑without‑it, tear‑it‑from‑my‑cold‑dead‑fingers wonderful. But if I had to choose the one that brought me closest to tears when the manufacturer arranged for its collection (as they always do), it was the Synclavier Regen.
This was a hugely frustrating synth to learn but, once mastered, it did things in a way that led to all manner of happy musical accidents. Or, to put it another way, there’s something uniquely Synclavier‑ish about a Synclavier. I suspect that it will appeal to very few, and it will undoubtedly sell in tiny numbers when compared with the latest low‑cost synths from elsewhere, but this isn’t a popularity contest. By keeping the Synclavier alive and dragging it kicking and squealing into the 21st Century, Synclavier (the manufacturers) have done something that deserves our recognition and thanks. Gordon Reid
Ableton Push 3
If we had a ‘Most Exceeded Expectations’ category in the Gear Of The Year awards, the Push 3 would likely win the rosette. Ableton left the foundations of the Push design and feature set in place and built upwards, with optional internal processor components that can run Live’s Session mode standalone. Even more of a surprise was making the grid a comprehensive MPE instrument controller. Beyond these headlines there were the welcome additions of onboard audio, MIDI and CV connectivity, and a graphical session view. What most marks Push 3 out for a design award, though, is that it’s upgradable — an innovation that’s both user‑ and planet‑friendly. Simon Sherbourne
Expressive E Osmose
The Expressive E Osmose is a synth that’s truly unique, surprisingly versatile, can be hugely inspiring, and sounds very, very good indeed. The fact that it’s relatively affordable, with a price lower than that of many other conventional polysynths, analogue or not, is the icing on the cake.
In a synth world that sometimes seems fixated with churning out the same old, the Osmose stands as a paragon of strange, wonderful otherness. Robin Bigwood
Vienna Symphonic Library Synchron Duality Strings
Vienna Symphonic Library products have long been known for their high quality, but even by the company’s exemplary standards, Synchron Duality Strings stands out. It offers the unique dual perspective of a 52‑player symphonic string section and a 27‑piece chamber ensemble playing simultaneously in separate rooms, so you can use them separately or in combination. Both groups feature first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses performing a comprehensive menu of superbly executed articulations. The symphonic section was recorded in the large Synchron Stage from multiple microphone positions while the chamber group played in a smaller dry hall, making it easy to switch from a surround‑ready cinematic ambience to a studio acoustic, or layer the two for a huge sound.
While the sound quality is stunning, I was even more taken by the amazingly unified nature of the performances: having spent years recording together in the same building, this team of players have developed a musical empathy and collective feel which allows them to deliver the most precise, expressive and finely coordinated string samples you’re ever likely to encounter. All in all, it’s a unique and versatile collection which will work equally well for cinematic, classical and pop productions. Dave Stewart
Toontrack EZkeys 2
The release of EZkeys 2 was highly anticipated, and Toontrack didn’t disappoint. EZkeys 2 now serves three roles: as a source of acoustic piano sounds, as a virtual pianist (and member of a virtual band), and as a songwriting assistant/collaborator. And it’s simply brilliant in all of them. Additions such as Songwriting Scales and Suggest Chords really do enhance EZkeys as a songwriting platform, while the impressive collection of MIDI performance styles — and the ease with which they can be adapted to your chosen chord progressions — make it hugely creative even if your own piano skills leave something to be desired. A brilliant update to a brilliant product. John Walden
Dreamtonics Synthesizer V
Vocal synthesis has been around for a long time, but Dreamtonics’ Synthesizer V is the first time I’ve heard it actually sound human. Synth V’s vocals might not have all the nuances or character of a truly exceptional vocalist, but it gets remarkably close.
There are a range of virtual vocalists available covering different music styles, a dedicated rap engine, and a what seems like a rapid development programme. Whether you approve of the concept of computer‑generated lead vocals or not, Dreamtonics appear to have taken actual magic and turned it into code. Synth V is groundbreaking music technology. John Walden
HEDD Audio HEDDphone TWO
HEDD Audio’s HEDDphones have been among my favourite monitoring tools since I first heard them. It wasn’t obvious to me how they could be improved on, but the HEDDphone TWO do just that. They’re smaller, lighter, they come in a dedicated case and they sound even better. Make sure you hear them before you dismiss the idea of spending this much money on a pair of headphones! Sam Inglis
PreSonus Eris 3.5 BT
The PreSonus Eris E3.5 BT (non Bluetooth version also available at a lower cost) delivers a very believable ‘big monitor’ sound in a tiny package that is well suited to smaller studio spaces. We’ve seen quite a few compact monitors over the last few years that sound impossibly wide‑ranging given their size, but the Eris E3.5 BTs also tick my cost‑effectiveness box. The low end is impressively deep and solid, and though such a small speaker can’t match the volume levels of its larger counterparts, the Eris E3.5 BTs are more than loud enough for typical desktop use, where they may only be around 75cm from your ears. Check them out and you’ll be impressed. Paul White
Neumann showing an early prototype of the KH150 monitor at the 2022 NAB show triggered much discussion and anticipation, so when the monitor finally arrived around six months later, the ground was fully prepared. What I wasn’t fully prepared for, however, until I got hold of a pair for review, was just how good the KH150 would turn out to be. It effectively recalibrated for me the level of objective and subjective performance that’s possible from a compact nearfield monitor at a relatively affordable price. It’s a truly exceptional example of the speaker designer’s art. Phil Ward
Zivix Jamstik Classic
The original Jamstik Studio MIDI guitar, I believe, marked the single biggest advance in the performance of pitch‑to‑MIDI instruments since… well, the invention of pitch‑to‑MIDI instruments. It was fast enough to let you play it like a ‘real’ expressive musical instrument, and yet it didn’t spray nonsense all over your DAW’s edit screen.
That might sound like the absolute basics, but to anyone steeped in the MIDI guitar world, it is the difference between “I can use this for real work,” and “Maybe I should just learn to play keyboards.” There’s always room for improvement, though, and improve it they did! The small‑bodied, headless design of the original model wasn’t that familiar to everyone and necessitated tuning at the bridge using an Allen key. Not ideal when MIDI guitars do tend to require you to check and retune a lot. The new Zivix Jamstik Classic model, however, pairs the same class‑leading pitch‑to‑MIDI system with a more familiar Strat‑like guitar with a conventional headstock and tuners. At the same time, the Jamstik Creator virtual instrument app received a number of enhancements, and now has access to many more libraries of sounds, while the new Jamstik Control app for mobile devices gives you access to the settings and performance parameters independently of the Jamstik Creator virtual instrument. Dave Lockwood
Universal Audio Del‑Verb
The best of UA’s Golden and Starlight in a single pedal — surely the Universal Audio Del‑Verb was too good to be true? Not this time, unless you absolutely need something in the deeper tweakery of the dedicated pedals. The delay side offers a simply delicious‑sounding ’70s Maestro EP‑III tape echo emulation that’s hard to switch off, except, of course, when you want to use the uncannily accurate emulation of Electro‑Harmonix’s Memory Man bucket‑brigade analogue delay. Simply glorious with a touch of the onboard modulation. For reverb you’ve got the tube‑driven spring tank from UA’s Dream 65 amp sim, their classic EMT Plate 140 emulation, or a Lexicon 224 for an early ’80s low‑bit digital sound. There’s no MIDI and no presets, you have to use the app for some parameters, and you’ll have to budget for a power supply as well, but when the sound is everything, it is hard to look past this generation of UA effects. Dave Lockwood
Walrus Audio Fable
The Walrus Fable produces a range of musically useful granular delay effects and strikes a good balance between adjustability and complexity. A rotary control selects the main effects types while the other knobs dial in variations, and the user interface has been designed so that it is very hard to run into trouble — most of the effects are musically usable, even at quite extreme control settings. While pedals are usually associated with guitar players, granular delays such as this can turn an uninspiring synth sound into something quite special and dynamic. If you have a modular synth system, a Walrus Fable could really liven it up. Paul White
Blackstar St James Plugin
There are lots of amp‑modelling plug‑ins around, but I find that they often offer so much choice that you never actually home in on the sound you want. Rather than serve up dozens of amplifiers, Blackstar’s St James Plugin essentially offers variations on two models, allowing the user to choose from two types of output valve, speaker setup and so on. The amplifiers each have two channels, nominally clean and driven, and the second channel has two switchable voicings, so given the two output stage options, it is effectively like having six different amplifiers. The end result is surprisingly authentic, with great touch‑sensitivity, a solid and punchy low and and singing highs that don’t get too fizzy or brittle. Included is a selection of modelled pre and post effects — again modest in number but very high in quality. Paul White
Boss have had a busy year, with new releases based on their Space Echo, the SDE‑3000D dual digital delay and the DM‑101 true analogue delay. The RE‑202 and RE‑2 Space Echo pedals really nail the sound of the original, but if I had to pick a favourite it would be the DM‑101. There’s just something very satisfying and musical about the way the sound sits perfectly behind your main signal rather than competing with it.
Featuring mono or stereo operation and 12 operational modes, it also has a much longer maximum delay time than most analogue delays, along with some great‑sounding modulation options. Paul White
Roland, and more recently their subsidiary Boss, have been working on guitar synthesizers since the mid‑1970s. This year’s Boss GM‑800 represents a significant improvement in tracking speed and accuracy, as well as simplicity of operation and economy of space.
As the GM‑800 is a pitch‑to‑MIDI synth, it requires a split pickup system to work. There are few limits on the types of sounds that the GM‑800 can control — and there’s the option to load in new sounds courtesy of Roland Cloud’s Zenology feature. It comes with a large repertoire of guitar‑friendly patches on board, and there’a free software editor to make creating new patches or tweaking existing ones very easy. Paul White
Origin Effects Bass Rig Super Vintage
I’ve used a number of ‘warmer‑upper’ bass DIs, but none has impressed me as much as the Origin Effects Bass Rig Super Vintage. The cabinet simulation has a pleasing sense of realism and immediacy (the latter I suspect because it’s an all‑analogue design), while the overdrive and tone stack interact beautifully, giving you a world of sounds to explore, from clean and punchy to seriously roughed‑up. Highly recommended. Chris Korff