Three pieces of studio kit we'd LOVE to find under the tree this year…
With Father Christmas facing fresh scrutiny from the Monopolies & Mergers Commission, this year could well be his last. With dark forces at work, planning to replace him with thousands of private, zero-hour contract Santas on semi-feral reindeer, it seems only fitting that we do Christmas right this one last time.
So, driven by the ghost of Wham's Last Christmas, I've picked some of the most exciting and useful studio tools from Christmas past, future and present... yes, I said present!
Focal Spirit Professional headphones
First released: 2014
Ave. retail price: £160 approx
With many walls paper-thin and modern building standards soaring to attain the dizzying heights of sound insulation offered by an average post-war prefab, noise can be a big issue for many aspiring producers. Neighbours in general are famously unappreciative of the production subtleties required to create a cracking-sounding 909 kick. Countless mixing sessions have been brought swiftly to a halt by exasperated banging on walls (often shamefully out of time), and in some cases a visit from Her Majesty's boys in blue.
Mixing quietly is now a reality for most of us, and a good pair of headphones are invaluable in the production process. Yet many headphones that I've listened to place what I can only describe as a gauze between me and the music. There's often a thickening of the higher bass register and a vagueness in the midrange that can lead you down the wrong path tonally, and make your mixes translate badly to other systems. Thankfully, French sonic alchemists Focal have an absolute Christmas cracker designed very much with studio monitoring in mind.
What’s immediately apparent is the low-end presentation. The bass is defined and transparent; the detail and clarity down there is astounding, and without the plastic exaggeration common in headphones, which is often just a crude bass boost. The top end is similarly detailed and open - you can practically hear what that 808 ride had for breakfast - and the midrange is open and precise with a slight dip around the 1kHz area. All frequencies appear well represented across the spectrum, making these cans ideal for detailed mixing duties, and the general tone presents on the slightly warm side of neutral.
As well as the mixing tasks they're designed for, they also make a superb general purpose headphone for tracking, DJing and live sound, as the mega-tight isolation of the headphone band ensures little sound gets in or out. They are built to last deployment in a conflict hotspot, and completely justify their slightly cringeworthy name.
Klark Teknik 1176 KT limiter/compressor
First released: 2016
Ave. retail price: £650 approx
The original UREI 1176 was born back in 1967 and has been a rock-solid staple in professional recording studios ever since. It's a very simple design which is almost impossible to coax a bad sound out of, and when used properly will sound punchy as hell, with huge depth and definition. There have been many clones of the 1176 down the years but this is the first time that one has hit the production lines at this price point. So I decided to put it to the test, alongside various software emulations and a much more expensive boutique version by Purple Audio.
Comparing the Klark Teknik 1176 to a variety of software versions revealed more differences than I first anticipated. The software sounded somehow smaller by comparison, and a little veiled. The application of the different compression effects was very similar, but the hardware KT sounded a good bit more forward and a little thicker. This was especially true on drums and bass.
When put up against Purple Audio's boutique 1176, I found at lower ratios - say under 4:1 - both units behaved pretty transparently and were seemingly identical, but once I opened it up and started pushing the compression harder, the tone of the KT started pushing into the face-melting variety. It sounded fantastic and was a hair brighter in the top end than the Purple Audio. With the all-in ratio button engaged and using a drum loop, both sounded absolutely ferocious, with the Purple a little smoother in the midrange and the plug-in sounding much more conservative. The KT itself sounded wonderfully rich in the low end and tight and sharp in the mids.
After many hours of A/B testing I found the differences between the two hardware versions were pretty minimal, and to be fair no two original 1176s sound exactly the same anyway. I still value the convenience that the software provides, and being able to use as many as you can until your CPU melts is a trade-off for the slightly rounded-off sound, but given the choice (and fortune) I’d go for a rack of the full-fat hardware and a large van to carry it around in.
Korg Monologue analogue synthesizer
First released: January 2017
Ave. retail price: £269
Korg have managed to pull off a PR masterstroke by getting Richard D James involved in the development of the Monologue. To say that Master Aphex is not normally given to product endorsement is an understatement, but he's contributed presets and was involved in the micro-tuning parameters.
It's essentially a 25-key mono synth, with main and headphone outs, external audio input, MIDI and sync in and out and USB connector. Snazzy Minilogue features such as the mini-OLED oscilloscope display and diagonal pitch-bend stick have been retained, and it can also be battery powered. While it's inevitable that it will be compared to the Minilogue, it's definitely not to be thought of as a stripped-down version of it, but as a unique synth in it's own right.
In some areas it's much better equipped than it's polyphonic family member. The enhanced step sequencer is one of these areas, and for me one of the real draws. It's very similar to what Elektron has been doing with its parameter locks function, and allows you to capture movements of four different knobs and lock them into the sequence, allowing you to create complex sequences with multiple layers of automation on every step.
The filter is a new two-pole design and has a very aggressive, punchy quality that to my ear is in a similar palette to that of the MS10/ MS20 and the Roland SH101. It's accompanied by a drive circuit that allows you to dial in some distortion, should the need arise. Add in some resonance and you’re in Acidland; dampen the cut-off, and you have some seriously deep bass on your hands. It's an absolute godsend for powerful bass and lead patches, but with the motion sequencer it can do so much more than just mimic the classic mono-synths of yore, and can be used to generate rhythm and FX sequences just as easily.
There's also support for micro-tuning, with factory presets including some by Mr Twin himself. It's good that Korg have allowed the user to get under the hood a little and experiment with some of the more esoteric functions of sound design. The LFO section is another area that is noteworthy of outperforming the Minilogue, by allowing it to adjust into ultra high frequency range for FM timbres and general tweaked-out sonic assaults, or it can be switched into one-shot mode to act as a modulation source. The modulation section is a bit of an oddball which is just another reason to love this synth.
Words: Chris Lyth