The best gear of 2018: DAWs, hardware instruments, monitors and accessories

What a year of gear it’s been! Fantastic hardware, incredible new software, and dozens of contenders for this year’s MusicTech Gear of the Year Awards. Your votes have been counted and – cue drum roll – it’s time to reveal the winners…

Gear of the Year 2018

As years go, 2018 has been a huge one in terms of studio gear. There have been some massive DAW updates, and even bigger hardware announcements. The continued dominance of analogue gear – whether that be the resumption in manufacture of a certain Neumann microphone or the dozens of synth releases – has meant that the studio of 2018 has become the perfect tech hybrid.

In many cases, it’s been the smaller releases – at least in terms of physical size – that have made the headlines. IK Multimedia’s UNO Synth arguably stole the Superbooth show, while Universal Audio’s diminutive Arrow interface ‘won’ NAMM, the music-gear show that kicks off each and every new year.

So, as we hurtle towards 2019 and this January’s NAMM, it’s time to pause and reflect and indulge in that most traditional of acts… No, not Christmas, we mean the MusicTech Gear Of The Year Awards!

A couple of issues back, we selected nominations for each of more than a dozen categories. All nominations had to score well with our expert team of reviewers. This meant that each nominated product had to score a 9/10, or at least a MusicTech Innovation or Value Award, to be included. We then put that long list of nominees to a public vote and you lot have been doing just that, via the magazine and our website.

We have now – in true Strictly… style – checked and verified that all of the winners were worthy (and, yes, ironed out the odd ‘spurious’ peak in voting) and now present to you the Winners and Highly Commended second places in each category.

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Ladies and gentlemen, sit back and enjoy the best gear of 2018…

Best accessory

Gear of the Year, ISO Acoustics ISO Puck

WINNER: ISO Acoustics ISO-Puck

This year’s winner of Best Accessory is something you might not have considered before, but has emerged as being your most essential purchase of 2018 – and something to keep your monitors stable. ISO Acoustics’ ISO Pucks are small circular rubber pucks, rather like ice-hockey discs, though far more useful. As monitor isolators, they stop vibrations from the surface on which you place your speakers from colouring the sound in any way. They are available in packs of two and realistically, you need at least three under each monitor. But they deliver the results, better even than dedicated isolated speaker stands that cost a lot more.

We said: “These won’t give you the same mind-blowing revelation that a new set of monitors can do, but there is a subtle increase in low-end tightness. Mixing is, of course, all about these subtleties and we’re pretty convinced that the ISO-Pucks offer you a considerable amount of extra clarity. Plus the cost might be a lot less than the speaker upgrade you’ll need to get similar results.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Aston Microphones Swiftshield

Best outboard

 

NEVE 1073 SPX, Gear of the Year 2018

WINNER: Neve 1073 SPX

It’s fair to say that there are a few classic pieces of studio gear that will live on forever. Think Roland TRs, Pultec EQs, Fairchild limiters and Neumann mics… the Neve 1073 would also have to be in any list you come up with – a mic pre that, as part of Neve consoles in the early 1970s, helped define the ‘British sound’ of the era. The 1073 SPX is not the first reimagined version, but one of the best, designed by a team including John Turner and Robin Porter, who have been with the company since the 70s. As John Pickford said in his review, this expertise shines through.

“Time and again, the 1073 SPX delivered the goods, making everything that passed through it sound bigger and better than lesser preamps. It offers the unmistakably big, warm and open sound that has graced thousands of recordings for almost five decades. With its legendary sonic character, coupled with sweet and musical equalisation, the new SPX is the ultimate expression of classic solid-state analogue sound.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Chandler Limited 500 Series

Best software instrument/library

 

Gear of the Year, Toontrack Superior Drummer 3

WINNER: Toontrack Superior Drummer 3

Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3 is not really ‘just’ a drum instrument, it’s a drum ‘world’. Complete with meticulously sampled drum sounds – some 230GB of 44.1kHz/24-bit samples – and a DAW of sorts, this is designed to be everything you need to perfect your acoustic (and also, to a certain extent, your electronic) beats.

The samples are recordings of six acoustic kits – from Gretsch, Ayotte, Pearl, Yamaha, Ludwig, and Premier – made at Galaxy Studios in Belgium, presided over by renowned engineer George Massenburg. Add surround-sound content, plenty of kits, masses of incredible plug-ins and a DAW to put it all together and this is one of the most comprehensive takes on any instrument-type ever recorded.

Martin Delaney said: “Some producers just can’t get enough drums, and if you need that level of detailed control over every aspect of your drum sound, you’ll be all over SD3. Similarly, if you’re into building beats and grooves in a more ‘samplery’ style, you might not be convinced – this isn’t Maschine, for example – but the drum-machine sounds expand on the palette and reduce time spent building hybrid kits in other applications.”

Read our full review here

Highly commended

  • Arturia VC 6
  • KV331 Synth-master One iOS
  • EastWest Voices of the Empire

Best controller

Gear of the Year, Novation SL MkIII

WINNER: Novation SL MkIII

The original Novation SLs had the revolutionary Automap technology that controlled whatever software plug-in was loaded. SL MkIII has ditched that to embrace the hardware that everyone and their dog is now using. Yes, this is a keyboard and controller designed to be at the hub of the kind of hardware/software studio you see the cool kids in loft apartments using.

In his review, a lightly sugared-up Andy Jones said: “Once you get your head around that this is essentially an eight-track multi-channel controller that can take on eight different pieces of hardware and software, sequence each one and then offer you unheard of control over each of their innards, you realise that this, quite simply, the product of the year. SL MkIII is genuinely the most exciting piece of tech I’ve reviewed in 2018. Incredible.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Nektar Pacer
  • PreSonus FaderPort 8

Best monitors

 

Gear of the Year 2018, Adam Audio T5V

WINNER: Adam Audio T5V

The quest to find a decent budget monitor really does make the quest for the Holy Grail look like some kind of child’s Easter-egg hunt, where the parent makes it very easy because they want an ‘in’ on the chocolate action. “Spend as much as you can on monitors!” we therefore always bark. However, Adam Audio may just have built that invisible bridge to a cavern full of cheap monitors, and that withered old knight is there to defend these…

“The Adam T5Vs are astonishingly good monitors which are destined for widespread use – both as nearfields in professional studios and as sole monitors in smaller rooms,” said John Pickford. “They are among the best four-figure mini-monitors on the market, yet – incredibly – cost under £300. The T5V offers superb sound for astonishingly little outlay. Its accurate, wideband delivery betters some designs at many times the price. It’s a brilliant product.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • PMC Result6

Best software effect/utility 

 

Gear of the Year 2018, iZotope Ozone 8

WINNER: iZotope Ozone 8

iZotope with Ozone lets you hear your finished masters at various different compression settings.

Alex Holmes said: “Ozone comes with a host of features aimed at mastering, and 11 modules – Equalizer, Dynamics, Dynamic EQ, Imager, Exciter, Vintage EQ, Vintage Tape, Vintage Compressor, Vintage Limiter, Spectral Shaper and Maximizer. The most exciting new addition is the AI Mastering Assistant, where you select whether you want to aim for streaming or CD target mastering. If you’re in the market for an advanced set of tools to develop your mastering, this covers a lot of bases.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • FabFilter Pro-L 2

Best orchestral instrument

 

Gear of the Year 2018, Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer Strings

WINNER: Spitfire Audio Hans Zimmer Strings

When Hans Zimmer puts his name to something, you know it’s going to be good. Just look at – or rather listen to – the host of Hollywood films he’s been involved with. Likewise, in recent times, when Spitfire puts its name on something, you’re pretty much guaranteed quality. Older (much older) readers who remember the TV series Hart To Hart might start thinking about the phrase: “When they met… it was murder!” (pronounced ‘moider’. Okay, maybe we’re on our own with that one.

But look, Spitfire plus Zimmer should equal ‘top notch’, and Hans Zimmer Strings certainly does not disappoint. Just look at the stats: 344 string players, 200GB download, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass sections, plus a myriad of recorded mic positions and dynamics. “There’s a space and air around the sound which I haven’t heard elsewhere,” Dave Gale said, “achieved through the vast number of players, rather than just expansive ambience and reverberation. It’s also rather wonderful the way that the players blend together, forming a truly organic pad-like layer. Where HZ Strings scores really high is in the sheer scale and breadth of some of the sampling, but the forte of this seems to be far more in the area of subtlety, making it excellent for interesting string colours at the quieter end of the texture spectrum… There’s plenty of scope within the realms of creative soundtrack composition.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Sonokinetic Espressivo

Best interface/mixer

 

Gear of the Year 2018, Steinberg UR-RT range

WINNER: Steinberg UR-RT range

The interface is beautifully built and rock-solid in operation. Andy Jones said: “Thanks to the RND extras, the interface is heavy and not exactly portable. However, this also makes it very rugged in feel and, to be honest, once you sit it on your desktop and start employing those extra features and routing flexibility, you probably won’t want to shift it anyway.

“You start to wonder why more companies don’t offer variable colour on their inputs. Sure, you get dedicated channel strips and preamps to give you different flavours, but few offer both a pristine signal and a variable tone colouring and that’s what makes the UR range stand out.”

Read our full review for UR-RT2  here or the UR-RT4 here.

Highly commended

  • Audient iD44
  • Focusrite Clarett range

Best innovation

Loopmasters Loopcloud

WINNER: Loopmasters Loopcloud

The software is absolutely free and version 2, which we reviewed this year, revealed how Loopmasters is making its cash with the Loopmasters store nicely tied into the Loopcloud GUI/environment. Yes, it is very easy to audition and buy new Loopmasters samples in Loopcloud but you really don’t have to (and if you do, you can buy them from as little as 15p per sample). You even get a GB of samples when you download the software for the first time and a bunch of samples every week while you use it.

So, what’s not to like? Well, perhaps the fact that version 2 still only worked with Loopmasters samples? What about the rest of your samples? That didn’t seem to put you lot off, as you voted in your droves for Loopcloud. Now, version 3.0 lets you add non-Loopmasters samples into the Loopcloud ecosphere.

Here’s what Andy Jones said about Loopcloud 2.0. “The Auto Key auditioning is my highlight and I’ll probably end up using it to finally finish off some tunes I’ve had festering for a while, or turn some old looped ideas into full arrangements.

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Leaf Audio Microphonic Soundbox

Best DAW

 

Gear of the Year 2018, best daw, ableton live

WINNER: Ableton Live

There was one DAW that stole the headlines months before its big update came out, so it was always likely to be the year’s big winner – people were talking about Live 10 for months leading up to its eventual release. It added a new synth, new and updated audio effects, deeper Push integration and several workflow improvements.

And when it came to concluding the sum of the many new parts of Live 10, Martin Delaney was more than effusive: “It’s a great update. Live is always worth buying into if you don’t use it already and for current users of Live 9 or older, this is a no-brainer. If you insist on talking about the more marketing-friendly features, then check out Wavetable, a fantastic synth in itself, and the new Live Packs. But the real value is in the more subtle features, the workflows, and especially those in Arrangement view. You’ve got nothing to lose, except the price of the upgrade – and paying that every five years doesn’t seem too demanding.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Steinberg Cubase

Best microphone

 

Gear of the Year 2018, Neumann U 67

WINNER: Neumann U 67

There really wasn’t another microphone that could win this year’s Best Mic Award, as this is widely considered the best microphone of all time, let alone just 2018. The U 67 was used on many classic recordings – including many by The Beatles and Stones – during the 60s, but was discontinued in 1971. Since then, it has become a classic, and vintage models are still being widely used. However, this year, for obvious reasons given the mic’s standing, Neumann reissued the U 67, using the same capsule and design as the original, and all hand-made in Germany.

“As good as the original?” Mike Hillier asked as he unwrapped the new reissue before his review. His conclusion? “Let’s get one thing straight – the U 67 reissue costs a lot of money. But compared to the older U 67s, the reissue gives you everything you want and more. Each time we were asked to pick between the two, we ended up opting for the reissue over the vintage mic. When it comes to world-class microphones, the Neumann U 67 is up there with the best. This reissue brings the legend back to life, and offers classic tones to a new generation of engineers.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Audio-Technica AT5047

Best hardware instrument

 

Gear of the Year 2018, Yamaha Modx6

WINNER: Yamaha MODX 6

MODX is a cut-down version of MONTAGE, Yamaha’s mothership synth that does, literally, everything (and probably a lot more than everything). This isn’t Eurorack, by any stretch of the imagination, although the sounds these Yamaha synths can produce can take them far beyond any synth realms you think you know about. On the one hand, MODX is old school, in that it’s packed to the rafters with ‘real instrument’ sounds, and damn good ones at that. But on the other hand, it’s new school, in that you can get creative and produce sounds that move, groove, depart this world and come flying back as entirely different beasts. A bit like Avatar, if you like. But a synth.

Andy Jones said: “The real beauty of MODX is that you don’t have to go too deep if you don’t want to – you really can enjoy it on whatever level you want. Explore the many sounds, tweak them here and there, immerse yourself in huge performances, and set up easy setlists for live play. Last, but most definitely not least, there’s the price. No matter how niggled you might be by the lack of Outs, or concerned by some ease-of-use issues as you go deeper underground, put simply, this kind of sonic power and hands-on control for the asking price is fantastic.”

Read our full review here.

Highly commended

  • Korg Prologue

Product of the year: Hardware & software

 

Universal Audio Arrow

Hardware WINNER: Universal Audio Arrow

Don’t you just hate the word ‘literally’ – but, ‘literally’ every successful producer we spoke to for a period of about two years was always banging on about Universal Audio plug-ins. The trouble was always that they were generally out of reach of anyone who wasn’t a successful producer, but all this has changed in recent years with products like Arrow.

“Arrow has been rock-solid in my tests and performs very well indeed,” said Jones. “The plug-ins are fantastic, offering a great taste of every corner of UA emulation. Arrow has certainly been a marvellous introduction to the UA world and those who want an ‘in’ won’t find any cheaper way. Those who require a great, well-built mobile interface should also take note. Vocalists get real-time effects while guitarists can thrash away with an interface that effectively doubles as a stompbox. Now we can see and hear what it is those top producers have been going on about for all these years. Arrow has hit the bullseye.” This is the hardware product readers loved the most this year…

Read our full review here.

 

Leapwing Audio Dynone

Software WINNER: Leapwing Audio Dynone

A bit of a curveball for our final reader vote, but one that very much proves that you lot have been in the driving seat for these particular Awards. Normally, the Software Of The Year accolade would go to something all-singing and all-dancing such as Reason, but this year – and hats off to you – it goes to an (albeit very flexible) compressor. And, when all is said and done, Leapwing Audio’s DynOne really is quite a compressor…

Another great advantage of using DynOne is that it can be equally as useful in both the mixing and mastering processes, but it really comes back to the speed of use, and the quality of the results. If you want to transparently increase an element or mix – especially if you’re working on acoustic, orchestral, dialogue or more nuanced, subtle music – then this is a superb and highly flexible tool. We really enjoyed our time using DynOne. One of the things that really stands out is the speed with which you can get really great-sounding results, and by combining such filters and compression with the ability to balance separate bands, it does the job of several plug-ins at once.”

Read our full review here.

Check out all the previous Gear of the Year winners here.

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