A few choice cuts from the 2015 collection
Over the course of 2015 we have seen some amazing new hi-tech gear reach the shelves. From all-singing, all-dancing studio centrepieces through to more obscure – but no less fun – oddities, there have been some cracking new releases over the past 12 months. And, with it being award season, we felt it was worth compiling a few of our personal favourite items into one handy list for your delectation.
The DJ and recording world has often been quicker to welcome technological advancements than other instrument sub-genres. Whereas, for example, guitarists still crave amplifiers powered by technology from a century ago, the world of electronic music has moved at a much higher pace. For producers and DJs, technology forms the cornerstone of their entire rig and connectivity, intuitive design and versatility are order of the day. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the best DJ and electronic gear of 2015.
The Teenage Engineering OP-1, reviewed here, was actually released in 2011 so it’s not, in the truest sense of the word, a new product. But 2015 marked the year it arrived at Dawsons so we’ve included it in the list. And what a little box of magic it is. Despite looking like something out of an 80s sci-fi movie, it is in fact an all-in-one production powerhouse dressed in the clothes of a novelty instrument. Don’t let appearances deceive you. The OP-1 is a serious bit of kit. It combines a multi-voice synthesizer, drum machine, sampler and sequencer into one unit, and does it with some style.
When designing the unit, its creators said they saw the OP-1’s limitations (i.e. its size) as its biggest positive. Anyone who has used a DAW will attest to how easy it is to get lost in a sea of possibilities and presets. By cramming everything into a small box with real tactile response, the musician can focus on coming up with music instead of clicking through menu screens and obsessing over the decay rate of a troublesome snare sample.
The Teenage Engineering OP-1 is, at heart, great fun. It’s everything you ever think about when you consider why you enjoy making music. Even a complete novice can pick it up and create interesting, unique compositions simply by ‘having a play’. Isn’t that what we do with instruments? Play them?
It cannot be denied that the OP-1 is expensive. It’s not something too many people will pick up using change they’ve found down the back of the sofa. But, if you’re serious about electronic music making and you have the funds to explore your passion, then the Teenage Engineering OP-1 is highly recommended.
Two years on from the launch of Roland’s exciting, atavistic new range of Aira electronic gear and things are really building up a head of steam. Where first we had a drum machine and bass synth, now we have a fully fledged expandable synth in the System-1, rackmountable modular units and this, the Roland Aira MX-1.
While not an instrument in itself, the MX-1 bridges the gap between audio router, controller and hub. Our review noted the way the MX-1 is clearly designed to act as that centrepiece of any DJ or electronic musician’s entire rig, controlling everything you’d expect from a mixer while adding in a few neat tricks of its own. It’s exceptionally well made, and naturally communicates with Aira devices to open up a new world of creative potential.
Going on the previous review, it’s fair to say that the philosophy of ‘one item to rule them all’ was in full swing in 2015. The Akai Advance keyboard range is designed with the DAW musician in mind, acting as a full-service hub for all of your soft synths, plugins and effects. Yes, it needs a computer hooked up to it to make use of its full potential – although it can be used as a standalone MIDI controller – but with so many artists incorporating laptops and Ableton Live into their setups, it’s not as if its a tiny market.
The Advance range features pretty incredible auto-mapping technology, which quickly and easily maps the settings and parameters of all the major DAWs and plugins to the hardware’s physical buttons, making initial setup a breeze. It has a great combination of MPC-style pads, nicely semi-weighted keys and a set of rotary knobs for precise parameter control. And then there’s the screen – a full colour OLED screen makes such a difference, particularly for anyone playing on a dark stage. For studio musicians and computer music producers, there are few controllers which come close to the Akai Advance.
Roland marked its return to the analogue synth game with a rather splendid new piece of kit this year. The Roland JD-Xi analogue/digital hybrid synth successfully combined the best of both worlds, offering both digital and analogue sound engines to deliver a quality little synth packed full of quite wonderful sounds. Its 37 mini key form put it in the same league as, for example, the Korg Microkorg, but where that was a synth alone the JD-Xi includes a selection of sounds from the famous Roland TR-808 drum machine, and a sequencer so you can create full tunes using only the unit itself. Our review expands on more of the JD-Xi’s well thought out design and functionality.
We’ll round off this list with a now-familiar face in the world of DJ and electronic music creation; the Novation Launchpad . The original Launchpad went some way to creating an entirely new niche in the world of computer music, that of DAW-specific controllers. Hooked up to Ableton Live, the Launchpad offered a highly intuitive, tactile way of controlling Live’s unique session view in a way that effectively made Live into an instrument in its own right.
The 2015 iteration of Launchpad continued the tradition by updating the unit with brighter backlighting, a faster refresh rate and iPad integration, offering anyone not versed in the techniques a simple and cost effective way of getting involved.