Words by Will Brewster
We check out the greatest gear of a not-so-great year.
I think it’s fair to to say that for many of us, music gear was one of the sole things that got us through 2020. Whether it was holing up in the bedroom to learn new scales on the guitar, building a sophisticated home studio to keep working while the world was crumbling around us or getting waaaaayyyy too invested in modular synthesis, this year saw most of us spending a lot more time tinkering with gear at home and trawling the net for new studio additions or tips and tricks.
On top of that, 2020 turned out to a monster year for new gear. Despite many manufacturers being set back by torturous shipping or production delays due to the pandemic, the music community was lucky enough to receive many a new release in the guitar, synth and pro-audio world, from long-awaited reissues of old-school classics to pencil-pushing guitars, mind-blowing effects pedals and beyond.
Today, we’re saying adios to 2020 by taking a look back on 30 of the best musical products that landed on the market this year, celebrating the biggest and best musical innovations that helped us keep creative even throughout the dullest of days.
Sequential Prophet 5
Who would have thought the Prophet 5 would make a return in 2020? The revival of Dave Smith’s greatest gift to the world was one of the biggest music gear launches of the year, giving a whole new generation of players access to an endlessly inspiring polyphonic analogue synth for the ages.
MXR Timmy Overdrive
Based on the classic boutique overdrive circuit from Paul Cochrane, the MXR Custom Shop Timmy received a lot of hype upon being announced at NAMM 2020, yet all for the best reasons. You’ll struggle to find a newly released overdrive at the Timmy’s price-point this responsive and transparent – it’s perfect for any signal chain.
Line 6 Pod Go
Squeezing the sophisticated amp and effects profiling technology of their Helix into a compact, gig-ready chassis, Line 6 safely struck gold with the Pod Go. Simplicity, versatility, power and portability combine to make the Pod Go one of the best value pieces of modelling kit we’ve seen hit the market this year.
Dubbed by the company as a ‘reverberant synthesis machine’, it seems unfair to call the NightSky as just a pedal. Packing three of Strymon’s acclaimed reverb algorithms into a unit with six LFO waveforms, a pitch-shifter, resonant filter and a step-sequencer, the NightSky is an awe-inspiring creation for all things ambient, shoegaze, dream-pop and beyond. Absolutely magical.
Vox Cambridge 50
If 2020 was the year of self-isolation, then the Vox Cambridge 50 was the ultimate companion for bedroom bound guitarists. NuTube tones collide with powerful amp, cab and effects modelling technology to make the Cambridge 50 an essential for amateurs and professionals alike, and the sleek Vox looks just help put the cherry on top.
With a capsule designed in a world-first experiment that collected the feedback of musicians, producers and engineers around the world, the Element was a wild idea that well and truly paid off for Aston. Although there were some doubts, the ‘People’s Microphone’ is incredibly versatile and sounds great across any source, and the story behind its creation is simply sensational.
Warm Audio WA-87 R2
We all know that the Neumann U-87 is one of the best microphones out there – the problem is, few of us can actually afford one. With their second take on this classic condenser, Warm Audio have solved all our woes, providing a point-to-point replica of the world famous FET microphone that improves on the frequency and output response at a price-point that’s all too reasonable.
MPC Live 2
As many took an exodus from their DAWs during lockdown, MPC released the Live 2: a comprehensive update to their all-in-one touchscreen controller that added extra CV functionality, better controls and a new soundbar speaker. By combining classic MPC workflow with the liberties of battery power and modern features, MPC netted themselves a huge win here.
Ableton Live 11
Okay, it’s not technically out yet, but from what we’ve experienced with the beta, we reckon Ableton Live 11 is going to be huge. New features such as tempo-syncing and comping will be welcomed by engineers and live users, while the swathe of updated macros, synth engines and plug-ins on offer will please even the pickiest of producers.
Fender Parallel Universe Troublemaker Telecaster Deluxe
The cream of the crop of Fender’s second run of Parallel Universe models, the Troublemaker Telecaster Deluxe combines the looks, appointments and electronics of the Gibson Black Beauty Les Paul with the feel of a Telecaster Deluxe, packing in a Bigsby for good measure. It’s the best of both worlds, and the tones on offer are truly raucous.
A sequel to one of the sturdiest electric pianos of the preceding decade, Korg’s SV-2 sets a new benchmark for the electric piano in 2020. With its onboard speakers, 128 voices of polyphony, 72 tones and tube-powered effects section, the SV-2 is certainly a class-leader, and we expect to see and hear a lot more from it as players return to the stage in 2021.
This quirky little FM groovebox might represent the entry-level side of the Elektron range, but there’s nothing rudimentary about this bad boy. The Model:Cycles is a mighty little machine that excels in creating glitchy techno and bizarre beats, and the intuitive interface makes it one of the more accessible entires into the weird and wonderful world of FM synthesis.
Taylor Grand Theater Acoustic
The newest design from Taylor Guitars, the Grand Theatre is a unique 24.125” scale acoustic guitar with a brand new C bracing for better low-end and projection. It’s also built from total sustainable tonewoods: reclaimed urban ash comprises the back and sides of the guitar, while the eucalyptus fretboard comes from an ethical timber mill from Cameroon. A commendable step forward for an industry leading brand like Taylor.
Possibly the most exciting new synth design of 2020, Arturia’s flagship Polybrute lives up to its name in every sense. Taking inspiration from classic machines like the Yamaha CS-80 and integrating them with a huge modulation matrix, insane expressive potential and a knob-per-function interface, the Polybrute is sheer inspiration for any sound designer.
Native Instruments Maschine +
Sure, Native Instruments might have lagged behind the rest of their competitors on the standalone train, but the Maschine + was well worth the wait. Although it’s void of battery power, the Maschine + is a near-perfect tool for the modern beatmaker, letting users untether themselves from their laptop to enjoy a whole new lease on production.
Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000
Clubs might have taken a dive this year, but for when they return, we’ve got no doubts the Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000 will be sitting pretty in the DJ booth. An upgraded MPU processor, extra hot cue buttons and a powerful touchscreen interface will be welcome new additions for longtime users, delivering a CDJ experience that’s faster and more intuitive than ever before.
SSL 2 & 2+ Audio Interfaces
SSL’s entry into the home audio interface market was nothing short of a game-changer, with the SSL 2 and 2+ bringing the British manufacturer’s legendary sound quality to bedrooms around the world with its premium AD/DA conversion, 4K switch and sleek desktop looks. And the timing couldn’t have been any better: there’s few doubts here at Mixdown that the SSL 2 is the biggest gear success story of the year.
Gibson Adam Jones Signature Les Paul
When Gibson confirmed that the long rumoured signature guitar for Tool’s Adam Jones was to become a reality in 2020, the guitar-sphere almost went into meltdown. While we’re yet to see any models make their way down under, from what we’ve heard, Gibson’s Adam Jones Signature Silverburst Les Paul is formidable in every sense, and is bound to go down as a classic for the brand.
Chase Bliss Audio Automatone Preamp MKII
Fusing the DNA of Benson’s Chimera into an EQ pedal powered by automated faders, the Class Bliss Audio Automatone is the tone-shaping tool of the future. It’s loaded with variable clipping control and a heap of awesome analogue goodness, and man are those mechanical faders a treat to look at!
Walrus Audio Mako D1 Delay
The first entry into their Mako series, Walrus Audio’s D1 packs five studio-grade delays into a tidy enclosure with expansive controls over modulation, tone, age and subdivisions. MIDI ins and outs makes the D1 Delay as practical on the pedalboard as it is tucked away in the studio, and the sound quality on offer is sublime.
ADAM Audio T8V Monitors
Eight inches might have been overkill for most applications during lockdown, but for those with a big enough room for them, there couldn’t have been a better studio monitor solution released this year than the ADAM Audio T8Vs. The whopping frequency range and the design of the U-ART tweeter helps to make these big boys one of the best modern monitors in their class today.
Affordable, all-analogue acid? Sign us up! Behringer definitely cop a lot of flak for their social media antics – and rightfully so – but the TD-3 is certainly one of the year’s biggest synths. This TB-303 clone wiggled its way into the setups of many an electronic producer throughout 2020, and the overall reception has been nothing but positive among those in the music world.
Ernie Ball Music Man Joe Dart Signature StingRay
The signature model for Vulfpeck funk wizard Joe Dart, this StingRay strips all the usual Ernie Ball bells and whistles for a streamlined instrument best suited for bottom end grooving. The slick aesthetic of this bass, combined with the powerful funky tones afforded by the Music Man humbucker, makes this one a no-brainer for any funk or soul bassist.
Audient EVO 4 + 8 interfaces
Another of the year’s biggest selling audio interfaces, the EVO 4 – and its slightly larger counterpart, the EVO 8 – made a massive splash in just musical communities, but content creation and podcasting spheres too. The intuitive auto-gain function and astounding sound quality, as well as its compact build and affordable price-tag, combine to result in a huge win for Audient.
PRS SE Hollowbody II Piezo
With the Hollowbody II Piezo, PRS managed to bring the SE range up to a new level, adding in a piezo pickup to let players blend acoustic and electric tones to construct one of the most versatile guitars of the year. Expect solid build quality, a slick feel, premium electronics and those killer PRS looks with these new models.
Avid Pro Tools | Carbon
Avid’s return to the consumer audio interface market was a tremendous launch for the longstanding audio pioneers. The Pro Tools | Carbon is the ultimate companion for Pro Tools users, offering powerful DSP acceleration with 192kHz / 32-bit AD/DA conversion and up to 24 inputs and 32 outputs. A formidable contender for the best interface of 2020.
G&L Fallout Short-Scale Bass
Inspired by the Mustang Competition basses of Fender’s golden era, the Fallout saw G&L try their hand at the short-scale format, and suffice to say, they pulled it off wonderfully. These basses are made to last and boast a surprising amount of tonal versatility, and while they may have flown under the radar for the most part, we really hope people catch onto how good they are soon.
Neumann V402 Preamp
As Neumann’s first-ever microphone preamp, the V 402 was met with considerable interest when it was announced back in July, and by all accounts, it’s lived up to the hype. The V 402 will inject life into any sound source with its pristine two-channel preamp interface, and its secondary function as a headphone amplifier is pretty nifty for use in the studio as well.
Fender American Professional II Jazzmaster
The Jazzmaster usually tends to be the Fender guitar that never receives its flowers, but that all looks set to change with Fender’s new American Professional II run. This guitar might even be the Jazzmaster in its purest form, refining the original design with modern contours, overhauled electronics and sleek new finishes to transport it right back into the forefront of what’s needed from a contemporary guitar player.
IK Multimedia iLoud MTM
Small footprint studio monitors usually tend to be met with a raised eyebrow from decibel hungry producers and engineers, but the IK Multimedia iLoud MTM monitor range stakes a great case for why they’re all wrong. DSP calibration and a smooth linear phase response, as well as that all-too-portable enclosure, help sell the iLoud MTM monitor series as an essential tool for any music maker on the go where headphones just won’t do the trick.
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