2020 has delivered a vast array of exciting new VST plug-in releases, Kontakt tools and sample packs, each providing new possibilities to how we write, produce and create music. This year, because we're nosy, we got in touch with some of our artist and composer friends and asked...
What’s been your most useful or favourite music production purchase/s of 2020?
Here's what they said...
Ian is a British Ivor Novello award winning composer, musician and music producer. He has composed over 100 scores for multi million selling titles and franchises, including the popular BBC One show The Repair Shop: Fixing Britain, plus the latest video games Motogp 19 Take your place and Jumanji. Ian has also worked on Harry Potter, Disney & Marvel, Star Trek, Lego, Formula 1, Battlefield and many more. With his 20 years experience he definitely knows a thing or two about composing and producing music! Here's what Ian said was his top purchase of the year...
"That’s an easy one to answer for me actually – I bought a strange percussion instrument called the Mini Marvin – made in USA by Adam Morford of Morfbeats. Hard to explain what it is – it’s kind of a giant cowbell with multiple springs sprouting out of it, sounds a bit like a waterphone on steroids.
Like a waterphone you can bow it, or hit it, or scrape it - the springs are at different pitches so it’s capable of producing some amazing rich horror textures. They make different sizes which I'm planning on getting the full size one in 2021 for a horror project I’m scoring.
I’ve made my own custom sample library from it for very quick sketches but there’s just something about using it live, it’s such an inspiring instrument!"
Check out what Ian made the the day it arrived: - https://twitter.com/ianliv/status/1289161688420253696 - then take a look at its big brother the Mega Marvin...
Dave Gale is an EMMY award-winning media composer, arranger and producer. With interests in acoustic and electronic scoring, Dave continues to develop his interests as a player, composer and electronic musician, with a particular interest in vintage and contemporary synthesisers, alongside digital processing techniques. Visit Dave's website here
"The expansion packs that have been created for Toontrack’s wonderful Superior Drummer 3 really complement the package, and this year has seen the addition of two of their finest. Rooms of Hansa and Legacy of Rock are an absolute goldmine of brilliant samples, captured in some of the best drum recording rooms in the World.
From a production perspective, they are immensely versatile, while offering substantial control of overall sound. I don’t tend to compose or produce a lot of rock music, and despite their name and branding, they are useful for work in many different styles and genres of music. The fact that you can mix and match drums, kits and rooms, means that you can pretty much have any sound you desire, while the MIDI content is superbly played; it’s full of colour and groove, with enormous variety for creating structured compositions.
In terms of general production plug-ins, I remain a huge fan of the Sound Toys suite; Decapitator, despite it’s aggressive name, is superb for adding warmth and colour to just about any instrument you can think of. I’ve recently been putting entire live brass sections though it, and the results are simply glowing!
Hardware wise, my trusty Moog Voyager remains a go-to for adding all sorts of mono-synth sounds, but it’s particularly good at adding sub-bass colour to a string section, as a production detail for soundtrack work. It creates wonderful depth and tone."
Two-time British Academy Award-winning composer Jason Graves is renowned for his textural concept scores and innovative orchestration in cinematic narrative games such as Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, Until Dawn, The Order: 1886 and Dead Space. His repertoire is truly diverse, from aleatoric and sweeping orchestral journeys in space, to haunting soundscapes in historical, gothic and supernatural worlds, to manipulating ancient instruments in a Stone Age natural environment. Find out more about Jason Graves here
Abbey Road One
I’ve had the extreme pleasure of recording in Abbey Road Studio One multiple times. It’s one of the best sounding rooms in the world! Spitfire has really captured that magical sound with every instrument. Seriously, this is probably my favorite sounding orchestral library I’ve ever used, and I have, like, ALL THE LIBRARIES. I even prefer it to my own personal sample library (recorded at Skywalker Sound), which is usually my go-to for mock-ups. No more! First stop now? Abbey Road One.
Butch Vig Drums
So, yes, I’m a drummer. And, yes, I own 3 different drum sets and twice that number of snare drums! But there’s something to be said about the magical sound and ease of use that these incredibly punchy, full-of-attitude drums have. Essentially these are aggressive, in-your-face drum hits that have been processed through an assortment of outboard fx and guitar pedals - yes, please!
Blue Bottle Microphone with Capsule Kit
Blue now has 12 different capsules available for their flagship mic and it’s literally like having 12 different world-class microphones to choose from in a single flight case. I’m a huge fan of “the right mic for the right job” and spend a bit of time getting my signal chains set up to best compliment whatever instrument I’m playing. I’m also a huge fan of tube and ribbon mics for the character and warmth they impart to everything they record, so this amazing tube microphone is a very welcome addition to my collection!
Steinway Baby Grand Piano
Yes, maybe it’s a bit of a cheat because OF COURSE...real piano!! But I’ve wanted a baby grand in the studio ever since I started, well, having studio space to work in so many years ago. I played more than 100 different pianos in 5 different piano shops over the span of about 2 months. In the end, it was down to Yamaha or Steinway (a classic piano debate, I came to realize). I loved them both. Finally, I realized the only way to REALLY know which one had “the sound” I wanted was to actually record them, in the store, and drop them into a current track I was working on in the studio. Both sounded amazing (as one would expect) but the Steinway sat in the mix *exactly* the way I needed, without a single plug-in or effect! Decision = MADE.
RTS Award winning composer Nainita Desai is a BIFA, Ivor Novello 2020 nominee, BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and the IFMCA Breakthrough Composer of 2020
Amongst various BAFTA, Oscar, Emmy acclaimed productions, Nainita’s recent projects include critically acclaimed Oscar 2020 nominated film For Sama, Sundance 2020 winning feature The Reason I Jump, American Murder Netflix’s most watched documentary feature to date, Annapurna Interactive Film-Game Telling Lies and BBC drama series Unprecedented.
Film4 labelled Nainita as one of the top 5 ‘composers of 2020 who should be on your radar’ and her projects have been in the Top 5 Film Scores and Video Games scores lists of 2019 by Scala Radio.
Native Instruments Noire is one of my most unique and favourite piano libraries at the moment. What makes it distinct for me is the particle engine and characterful quality of the sound. It injects motion and an unpredictability to musical parts, so when I’m composing, it’s got this live organic interaction between me and the sample where I’m responding to the notes playing back. There are so many parameters you can sculpt to control the sound there’s nothing quite like it on the market at the moment. There’s huge flexibility and subtlety in how I can alter the sounds to fit in with my tracks. I can literally play around with it for hours – it’s such an inspiring tool.
I’ve used it on a couple of features including The Reason I Jump and various TV scores this year already. I’ve also been using Orchestral Tools Time Macro and Micro - the orchestral textures are a fresh alternative to my current palette. It's become my go to for instant dense orchestra textures.
Native Instruments Straylight is LAO is really flexible and useful tool. Being able to drop in my own samples makes it possible to create really unique sounds.
DJ, Producer, owner of multiple record labels and the fiercest hair in the biz! John B has been a major influence on the scene for almost 20 years, earning the accolade of being the highest ever charting D&B DJ in the DJ Mag Top 100, touring the world and topping dance charts of all genres, as well as co-producing mainstream artists such a Nicki Minaj. Find out more about John B here
"So the most useful thing for me this year has been buying a little bit of hardware - the Elgato Stream Deck - I now actually have a few of them for all my different set ups - I love them that much! I originally got one to use for my live streaming, which has become an important part of my activities now, since there’s no DJ gigs anywhere obviously!
They’re designed to help you easily switch between ’scenes’ in video streaming software, or launch apps, and shortcuts etc - which I use lots in streaming - BUT they are great to use for macros for key commands in your DAW. I have a whole bunch of shortcuts I regularly use in logic now set up on it, have it right in front of me when I’m in the studio and it really speeds up a few things that were bit annoying, and removes the worry of messing up a key command and accidentally doing something weird to my project!"
One of the most familiar names and faces in our industry, Paul White has worked for Sound on Sound magazine for around 30 years. Earlier this year, Paul handed over the baton of Editor in Chief to Sam Inglis but continues in an editorial role, writing reviews and technique features as well as presenting a few videos and taking a more active part in producing online material.
"My favourite physical instrument this year is my DIY fretless guitar conversion, which I play with an eBow. It appears a few times on the last Cydonia Collective album, Nebula, and will no doubt feature even more on the next one.
For creative effects I’m still relying heavily on Output’s Portal, Thermal and Movement as well as Rob Papen’s suite and of course Spectrasonics' Omnisphere. I’ve mentioned Zynaptiq’s Adaptiverb in the past and that still has loads of uses. I’m also a sucker for anything from Eventide while for drums it’s always Toontrack, though I tend to use EZdrummer more than Superior Drummer 3.
Here are two pics of the converted Epiphone. The fret markers were cut from the plastic label for a tomato plant, fixed into the old fret slots with superglue and then the whole fingerboard sanded smooth. It only took me a couple of hours start to finish and it plays really well."
Ty Unwin has created music for numerous prime time TV documentaries, dramas and features for over 30 years. He recently worked with Midge Ure (from Ultravox) to produce Midge Ure: Orchestrated, a collection of classic Ultravox and solo songs, that have been re-made and re-recorded for orchestra. Those of you who tune in to Sonic State's weekly videocast 'Sonic Talk' will know that Ty loves synths with a staggering array of gear residing in his studio.
"I love hardware and 2020 turned into a fairly major synth fest for me! Rediscovering the wonders of digital synthesis again, my favourite purchase was actually a synth that had been around for a couple of years but I'd previously failed to see the charm in!
The Nonlinear-Labs C15 has no midi/usb control and a deceivingly basic dual sine oscillator synth engine and therefore on the surface it seems hard to justify its price. It's an instrument that you have to play and interact with and this is what makes it special. Having no midi means it's a proper performance instrument. With multiple ribbon controllers and pedals, as well as the usual velocity and aftertouch, the amount of control you have is immense. And that "simple" synth engine? It's essentially FM combined with incredibly advanced comb filtering making it incredible at string/plucked/struck sounds as well as immense soundscapes.
It's great at producing organic, synth sounds that SHOULD be real!! It's genuinely an instrument that ONLY makes sense when you actually sit and play it, no amount of demos or spec sheets will ever explain the "feel" of this instrument, in the same way as a piano or guitar or any other "real" instrument. That's my excuse for not "getting" it for years and I'm sticking to it!!!
Walter Mair is an Ivor Novello-nominated and Telly Award-winning composer known for his captivating scores ranging from epic orchestrations recorded with 80-piece choirs to intimate, small ensemble and hybrid electronic pieces that have graced a diverse mix of feature films, documentaries, television dramas, narrative-driven interactive entertainment and video games.
Despite the obvious challenges this year brought, Walter had a very productive one work-wise, putting together the soundtrack release for the film Three Way Junction. His music was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road and will be released in early 2021. As well as numerous other projects, the Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro asked him to re-arrange, orchestrate and produce their song ‘Space’ which was released on their No.1 UK album ‘A Celebration of Endings’. Find out more about Walter Mair here
Slate + Ash Cycles
This is an amazing sounding plugin to shake stuff up.
The presets it comes with are a great starting point. But I love sampling my own material in the search for unique sounds. So I usually run these recordings through the Cycles engine. With the cartesian grid sequencer you can randomize arpeggios and add variation to your sequences. I also use Cycles on tonal pads coming from analog synths such as Lyra-8 or Solar 50 which I run through Cycles to create rhythmical patterns.
These synths have so much power and are very flexible. You can design almost any sound you have in mind. With their modulation and envelopes one can program very analog sounding patches. Add a slight modulation to the pitch, going ever so slightly in and out of perfect pitch, and you create a vintage analog sound that has a life on its own. And Matt of The Unfinished always has the right sound packs available if one needs creative inspiration.
Liquid Sonics – Cinematic Rooms and Seventh Heaven
Having developed a bit of a fetish for sound-mangling I use the pro versions for maximum tweak-ability. Both plug-ins have a solid place in my mix template. With Seventh Heaven providing the lush reflections and deep reverb tail people love from the Bricasti M7, just in a smaller form factor and ready to take on the road. Similarly, Cinematic Rooms generates these rich evolving reverb tails that instantly provide a track with the attribute of sounding ‘cinematic’.
Fabfilter have become my go-to Swiss army knife because of how transparent and creative their plug-ins work in a tight-scheduled work environment.
Pro-R sounds magnificent and creates such a lush sound that is also very flexible and works on orchestral tracks as well as electronic music. The same goes for Pro-Q3 and Pro-C2 which I use a lot on stem busses as well as single instruments. Saturn is another creative asset to shape the character of a sound even more. From subtle harmonic shifts to full-on distortion.
Spitfire Albion ONE
Recorded to analog tape, this orchestral library sounds very different compared to the epic ones we hear most of the time. I like to blend ONE with other orchestral libraries as ONE adds such a warm and intimate sound to the mix. The library also provides electronic textures and rhythms that have a very analog sound to them.
Andy Barlow is a rare breed, an artist and producer – one half of hugely influential, seminal electronic duo LAMB as well as a world class producer with a breathtaking list of credits that has drawn the attention of U2, resulting in several production credits on album Songs of Experience. Find out more about Andy Barlow here
"These are the bits of kit that have caught my ear and eye this year.
The best bass soft synth got that bit better. More instant gratification, awesome new filters and sounds and what seems like an infinite amount of fun possibilities.
This is the latest weighted keyboard from Native Instruments. The feel of the keyboard is gorgeous, just the right amount of resistance. The screen also so much better than the previous native offering, The light up keys although I thought it would be a gimmick are actually extremely useful. The Reds are kicks, yellow snares etc. while also super useful to do complex Kontakt patches with color coded splits
ASUS ROG Swift PG43UQ
I’m not much of a Gamer but this screen works a treat for music production. Super high resolution, easy on the eye and deeply impressive, makes those hours at the computer seem like a dream.
British Film, TV and Video Game composer Stephen Baysted is well known for his versatility and for his emotionally charged and expressively powerful music. Stephen's work has been nominated for three Jerry Goldsmith Awards for best score, two Motion Picture Sound Editors 'Golden Reel' Awards, and two Game Audio Network Guild Awards.
2020 has been a really busy year for Stephen with a variety of game and TV projects. In August, Stephen was involved in composing Fast and Furious: Crossroad – a game based on the movie franchise, along with Project Cars 3 which was composed, recorded and mixed entirely during the first lockdown with all musicians being recorded remotely. For TV, there have been 3 documentaries broadcast on ITV’s Great Art series, and he's just started another 6-part series Ancient Mysteries for Channel 5 and Smithsonian which will continue into February 2021. Find out more about Stephen Baysted here
"This year I’ve been hugely impressed with Moddart’s Pianoteq 7, a modelled piano library. It’s a wonderfully expressive, natural-sounding and flexible instrument that is a joy to play. Unlike all other piano sample libraries, this one takes up just 60MB of hard disk space, so makes it also ideal for mobile writing rigs.
Spitfire’s Abbey Road One and BBC Symphony Orchestra libraries have really begun to move orchestral sampling on to the next level and both have slotted into my template this year.
Not a plug-in, but I have to mention Korg’s Wavestate. I am a bit of a synth head (last count was 24 keyboards and modules), but like the original Korg Wavestation, the Wavestate sounds like no other synthesizer does. The evolving pads and textures it produces are stellar."