Studio Wishlist: Top Picks for Offbeat Home Recording Gear
Analog synthesizers, sound devices, and effects processors are back in a big way—we take a look at some of our favorite, unique audio gear for the home or pro studio, along with some useful staples we’ve tested in recent years. Tim Gideon Dec. 11, 2019, 10:45 p.m.
If vinyl’s comeback and subsequent staying power is a testament to the allure of analog technology in the home audio world, perhaps the similarly timed resurgence of analog synthesizers is the, well, analog to vinyl’s comeback in the recording world.
In the 1970s, analog synths from manufacturers like Moog, ARP, and Sequential Circuits had a heyday…and then a May Day. By the 90s, digital synths and effect processors widely replaced analog models, and while there were plenty of solid digital synthesizers made during this time (and there are still plenty being made now), they often lacked the hands-on, joy-of-discovery element that made working with analog synths so much fun—and the analog warmth that also made them sound so fantastic.
Thanks in part to the rejuvenation of Moog Music , the manufacturer founded by electronic instrument pioneer Bob Moog, musicians young and old are getting back into analog synths, as well as modular and semi-modular setups, in a way not seen since the 70 and 80s. For those (like me) who yearned for the return of the analog synths instead of having to rely purely on “vintage” synths that cost an arm and a leg (and are often in less-than-stellar condition), it’s an incredibly exciting turn of events.
To complement the new analog wave of synths, companies like Roland and Korg are again making effects processors and instruments based on analog circuitry—and for affordable prices. Major manufacturers may be truly doubling down on new analog gear, but just as exciting is the sudden swell of excellent boutique manufacturers like Landscape FM and Lorre-Mill making bizarre effects, instruments, and synths in small batches. The result is a mind-boggling new array of audio possibilities for the novice and professional alike, from synths to drum machines to effects processors.
We’ll highlight some of our favorite new analog gear here, from the weird and cool to the essential, and we’ll also highlight some of the not-necessarily-analog studio staples we’ve tested at PCMag that would, regardless, complement any home studio setup. Analog Chaos Devices! (Part 1): Landscape HC-TT
Bizarre, unpredictable, and beautiful to boot— Landscape’s HC-TT and Stereo Field are audio products in leagues of their own.
Let’s start with the HC-TT, which stands for “human-controlled tape transport.” It has a cassette deck (and each HC-TT ships with a randomly selected cassette tape, as well) but lacks any play/pause or rewind/forward buttons. Instead, there are two reels connected to knobs that you, the human in this equation, control with your fingers. This upsets the pitch in dramatic ways, creating warped, garbled, vinyl-scratch-like sounds that, particularly when applied to the human voice, would be perfectly at home in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge.
But you can also connect the HC-TT to a synth or drum machine or anything that outputs audio and use it as an effect—there are touchplates and low-fi filter knobs that allow for further creative degradation of the audio signal. Stereo Field
The Stereo Field , meanwhile, is perhaps the loveliest looking piece of gear I’ve seen in recent memory. Where the HC-TT has several touch-sensitive plates that react with varying degrees of intensity when you make contact with them, the Stereo Field has a multitude of these with reflective gold surfaces, and they can be pressed in what seems like an endless array of combinations, interacting and overlapping like a sonic Venn diagram to create glitchy effects for audio that you feed through it.
And just to keep it chaotic, it’s called the Stereo Field because you can, of course, feed a stereo left/right signal in and out of the box, but you can also feed completely independent audio to each channel, and then the output becomes a married mix of these two sound sources, and whatever havoc you create with the touchplates. Both of these boxes are a delight to play with, and open up creative paths you didn’t know where available. Analog Chaos Devices! (Part 2): Lorre-Mill Double Knot (V2) One wonderful development in the boutique analog synth realm: The people making these synths have redefined what a synth is—from how it works, how it looks, to the functions it performs. Just as the Landscape Audio devices described before this are hard to define, the two offerings from Lorre-Mill, a Baltimore-based synth builder, possess looks, traits, and signal paths that are undeniably unique. Both the Keyed Mosstone (a single-voice analog synth with touchpad “keys” that in no way resemble the layout of a keyboard; pictured above) and the Double Knot (an “all analog sound box for patching and listening to shifting rhythms and textures”; pictured below) operate in a chaotic realm producing addictively unpredictable and bizarre results. Keyed Mosstone Patching cables into various patchpoints and twisting knobs is all the novice needs to get started (after maybe skimming through the online manual)—the sounds can range from classic ’80s video games blips to horrifyingly bit-crushed wails. It’s fair to wonder whether either of these synths is controlled by the user, or the user is simply along for the ride while the synth communicates with itself with every cable patch change or knob twist. Analog Drum Machine: Korg Volca Beats
An original Roland TR-808 drum machine from the early 80s will set you back upwards of $4,000. If you don’t have that kind of budget, Roland is making a newer version of the 808 that may not convince skeptics yearning for the original’s sonics—but at $380, it’s somewhat less of a daunting investment.
However, at $224, we’re fans of the Korg Volca Beats . Korg has been making all sorts of boxes for its Volca lineup—they are all about the same size, but they are not all the same on the inside—the Volca beats is one of the purely analog models in the Volca group. It gets incredibly deep, fat bass drum sounds, and delivers excellent clicks and retro hi-hats as well—and it has a 16-step sequencer and eight memory patches. If you want to go all analog without breaking the bank, this is a great drum machine to consider. Coolest Pocket Synth: Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator Yes, this is a pocket-sized synthesizer made to mimic the look of an old calculator. Not only that, but Teenage Engineering has created multiple iterations, and each one does something notably different. The $89 PO-32 Tonic , for instance, is primarily a drum machine and sampler, while the $89 PO-35 Speak is a vocal synthesizer. The screen displays animated graphics, while the buttons are used to create sequences. For our money, the most useful version might be the $169 Microtonic VST and PO-32 Tonic bundle (pictured)—the real selling point is the Microtonic VST, an app that runs on your laptop and allows you to create sounds, and then load them onto your PO-32. Semi-Modular Synthesizer: Moog Grandmother
Modular synthesis, for those not familiar, is the art of plugging various cables into various inputs and outputs, routing a signal generated by an oscillator through a variety of wave-shaping filters or effects, and often each part of the signal chain is handled by a single box, allowing musicians to mix and match manufacturers and build truly unique setups.
It can be frustratingly complex, and expensive to get a starter rig together—a powered “Euro rack” to house the various modules you purchase can set you back $250 or so on its own. Thus, many musicians who are attracted to the audio, and—let’s face it—visual aesthetic of a synth with cables pouring out of it like spaghetti, often opt for a semi-modular synth instead of building a modular setup from scratch.
A semi-modular synth will typically have its own built-in keyboard, as well as all the basics needed to create a signal and filter and shape it—as well as patch points that can be connected with cables for said spaghetti effect. So, they have the spirit of modular setups, but the all-in-one build of a more typical synthesizer.
And models like the excellent Moog Grandmother ship with enough cables to get you started, as well as inputs and outputs that can be sent to exterior modules and thus incorporated into a modular setup. In other words, the Grandmother is a gateway drug that will also fit right in with a modular setup if (when) you decide to go that route. Vocal Effects Box : Roland AIRA VT-4 Voice Transformer The Roland AIRA series of effects processors has some very useful options for the live or studio musician—we’re particularly smitten with the VT-3 Voice Transformer, which recently was replaced by the VT-4 . Both can be found online, and they are both very cool vocal processors that give you real-time, sought-after voice effects, like Robot Voice or MegaPhone. The new VT-4 operates more like a traditional vocoder, pulling signal from a keyboard and shaping its envelope with your voice. The VT-3 is a little more simple, and has no MIDI functionality, but it still is a useful tool (or a fun toy) for anyone looking to get strange vocal effects—or nostalgic sounds, like the beastie Boys “Another Dimension” robot voice. Kickstarter Project From Heaven: Phonocut
Even with the resurgence of LPs, getting your own record pressed to vinyl is still a pipe dream for many home musicians—the pressing plants are on tight schedules, the process is expensive, and there’s little room for the DIY musician to step in.
Enter: Phonocut. This Austria-based Kickstarter-funded company is building vinyl recorders for the home. Record your music and mix it, then send the mix to the ⅛” input, and your audio will cut direct to a blank vinyl disc. Beyond sending mixes to vinyl, you could also actually record live, direct-to-disc, as studios did in the 40s and earlier—a recording technique being re-introduced by Jack White’s Third Man record label in Nashville, among others. (Though Jack White has a 1953 Scully Lathe, not a Phonocut, at his disposal.)
The Phonocut adds an exciting new dimension to home recording—even if it’s still in Kickstarter crowdfunding mode. A Phonocut machine costs about $1,600, and the estimated ship date is December 2020, so there is a wait involved…but still. …and some PCMag-tested staples to pair them with: Excellent Mixing/Mastering Headphones: Sennheiser HD6 Mix Sennheiser has always made great headphones for the studio, and the HD6 provides the accuracy you need with the bass depth that many flat response headphones often lack—so you’ll hear every bit of the sub-bass havoc you create with your analog gear. They’re a PCMag Editors’ Choice . Excellent Mixing/Mastering Earphones: Etymotic ER3 XR For the times when you need accuracy—and in-ear that you can keep in your pocket, the Etymotic ER3 XR delivers both the flat response you need to evaluate mixes, and a subtle touch of added bass response that will bring out the depth of your analog gear. Best USB Mic: Apogee HypeMiC If you need an all-in-one USB mic —meaning, a mic that has its own dynamic compression built-in, the HypeMiC delivers this with a twist we don’t see in competing USB mic models: The compression here is all analog. Yes, you read that correctly—this is an analog microphone-and compressor combo that terminates in USB. And when it’s time for the audio to be converted to a digital signal, Apogee A-to-D technology is among the best in the business . Affordable USB Mic: Blue Raspberry In keeping with our all (or mostly) analog approach in this roundup, the Blue Raspberry delivers solid USB audio without any DSP (digital signal processing). Everything you hear is pure analog until it’s converted before the USB connection. Unlike the Apogee HypeMiC, it lacks built-in compression—but hey, most mics do. This is the no-nonsense, clean signal path USB mic to get if you’re on a budget. Holiday Travel Survival Kit: Audio Gear to Help You Block Out Noise, Distractions From noise-cancelling headphones to white noise apps, we highlight the audio products that have the best chance of making your holiday travel less stressful. Related Galleries