Why do guitarists get all the fancy signature gear – amps, guitars and more – while synth lovers, drum machine hitters and software loaders have to put up with the plain and dull original versions? We want to see more famous hi-tech gear collaborations, and to encourage more graffiti on gear.
What's that? There actually are some?
What do the Brians Setzer and May, Edward Van Halen, Eric Clapton and George Benson have in common? They all have their names on signature guitars - mostly really good ones at that. And, of course, they are all big enough names to put on a guitar, which is then going to shift enough numbers to make the whole exercise worth doing for the guitar manufacturers.
But why does this happen so rarely in the world of synths, drum machines and other (non guitar or drum) music and studio gear? Why no Vangelis CS-80, Numan Minimoog, or Orbital 303? (Aside for the obvious fact that Vangelis is no longer around to sign a Yamaha, that is.)
Well, before you say that the answer is obvious and that synths and drum machines are not as sexy as guitars, hold on! Because there actually have been (albeit rarely) synths, drum machines, and even software, with just a few famous people coming out of the woodwork to scrawl their names across them.
So, let's celebrate these rarities in the hope that, one day, the high-tech signature gear market will be as flooded as that of the signature guitar.
Surprisingly, it's been up to UK synth company Novation to get famous synth heads to sign on the dotted keyboard, and its first entry here is the 2017 Novation Morodernova.
The Italian producer made something of comeback in the 2010s thanks to Daft Punk's 2013 album Random Access Memories, where he appeared on the track Giorgio by Moroder.
So cool was this that Novation collaborated with Moroder for the very limited edition synth, the Novation Morodernova. Based on a Mininova and boasting an 18-voice, three-oscillator virtual analogue engine, the 500-run Morodernova featured 30 sounds approved by Giorgio.
That said, in our review of the synth, we pointed out that it wasn't particularly obvious which presets were the approved ones although, from memory, we recall that the sequenced sound from I Feel Love was present and correct.
Eight years on, the limited edition £320 synth has appreciated slightly in value – one sold on Reverb recently for £516. Morodernova was a neat way of making a very decent small-form synth that bit more attractive with Moroder styling on top of the sounds.
So all in all, it was a good exercise for everyone concerned. Giorgio got some publicity for his latest album and Novation shifted a few hundred extra units. In fact it worked out so well that, as we shall see, Novation did it all again. Kind of.
- Read more: Classic interview - Giorgio Moroder: “If you want to make a good dance song, you still need the 303, an analogue drum machine and a Minimoog”
Soma Laboratories Pulsar-23 Andrew Huang Edition
For our next collaboration we turn briefly away from artists and producers to that new star of the 21st century, the YouTuber. Andrew Huang has made a name with his music production videos, so much so that he has started putting it on limited edition music boxes. Officially that is, not just as graffiti.
Huang bought a white SOMA LABS Pulsar-23 drum synth on its release back in 2021, a unique piece of technology often referred to as an Organismic drum machine. It uses a kind of semi-modular set-up to come up with some incredible drum sounds and sequences. You use crocodile style clips to connect sections or even use body parts to link bits of it together.
"It's still my favourite drum machine," says Huang, "and I was super happy when SOMA LABS reached out and asked if I'd do a custom colour version. I chose my own knobs which look pretty sweet. Honesty it's a huge honour. I grew up thinking I'd never be able to afford an analogue synthesiser so to have the Andrew Huang custom colourway of the Pulsar 23 is wild. I love this machine."
Huang And SOMA came up with a limited run, bright yellow version earlier this year which is sold exclusively through Perfect Circuit for around $2,250.
It not only looks incredibly cool, but makes certain music technology journalists we know wish they'd started YouTube channels, developed personalities and got out a bit more to make a similar deal. Oh well. If anyone from SOMA is reading this, we'll take an orange one.
Korg's Gorillaz iElectribe
A software instrument next but with very obvious input from a famous band: meet the Gorillaz-stamped Korg iElectribe.
The original Korg Electribe was a synth and drum box that specialised in loops and big dance-based sounds. The range did well for Korg throughout the 2000s, and in 2010 the company released iElectribe, an iOS app that featured the sounds and loops of the hardware, all in software and for less than $20.
The Gorillaz version came out just a year later, featuring samples from their then latest album, The Fall, which was apparently produced on an iPad.
The app featured all of the beat- and pattern-creating features that made the original hardware so cool, but added fancy Gorillaz styling and graphics, plus sounds from their album. You got 128 of these - 8 instrument types with 16 sounds in each - plus 64 Gorillaz grooves (32 from the album and 32 remixed).
You can still buy the app from the Apple store for the same $20/£20 price as the original iElectribe.
Novation AFX Station
We did promise another Novation signature edition synth, but who could have predicted this one would be a collab with Aphex Twin, surely the most difficult synth head to meet, let alone get a signature out of?
Novation's AFX Station was effectively a souped up but limited edition Bass Station II, the 2013 successor to the Bass Station synth from the 1990s that emulated the TB-303 so well.
A 2019 firmware update gave the Bass Station II an AFX Mode, designed in conjunction with Aphex Twin (Richard D James), which allowed single keys to play different sounds - drums or any patch you like.
This AFX Mode gave rise to the limited edition AFX Station in 2020. It was essentially the same as the already-updated Bass Station II (which had the AFX mode) but did add a black and purple case and an Aphex logo round the back.
The £399 synth was produced in an unspecified number of limited units although must have sold out as you can't now buy it new. You can pick one up secondhand for £5-600 so we're not sure if either Aphex Twin or Giorgio Moroder wins the 'most investable' artist prize. AFX Station certain looks the cooler of the two Novations.
- Read more: 1997 interview reveals that Aphex Twin owned a tank, wanted to buy a submarine and used the vault of the former bank he owned as a reverb: "It would be great for parties"
Akai MPC Live 2 Beatclub Timbaland Edition
Our most recent collab is the Akai MPC Live 2 Beatclub Timbaland Edition, a version of the standalone music production studio that comes with a set of beats from Beatclub, Timbaland's ‘global marketplace for music creators’.
The extra beats are from the 'Bounce Coming Up' Drum Kit (MPC Edition) which comprises 25 kits and over 400 808 and others beats, beatbox loops and kits. Many of these are from Timbaland produced songs from the likes of Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z.
Basically you get 12GB of what Akai describes as 'the hardest MPC samples ever released', a fact we're sure they've tested in the Akai sound laboratory.
The Timbaland MPC also features a Beatclub/Timbaland boot up screen, a 'personalized numbered plate' - presumably not a car one - a 32GB Beatclub SD Card and a year-long subscription to Beatclub.
The extras sound fantastic, but it looks like the 500-run might be selling fast as we're only seeing it for sale in one outlet. If you do grab one, expect to pay $1,399 as opposed to $1.099 for the standard MPC Live II.
At its launch in April, Timbaland said of the collab: "We have Akai, one of the most legendary music production brands in the game, and the MPC has been an iconic instrument in hip-hop history. Beatclub mixing it up with Akai is taking your potential up several notches. This is the peak of when technology, culture and excellence come together.”
Chris Lord-Alge Signature plugins
Waves' Chris Lord-Alge Signature range contains many great mix plugins. It includes emulations of the gear and settings used by the legendary mix engineer who has worked with Celine Dion and Muse, but is best known for his harder rock leanings.
These are the plugins you go to if you want rock-solid guitars and drums, tearing vocals and pumping basses. They include the CLA-2A, the cleverly named Lord-Alge version of the iconic LA-2A, and CLA Mixhub, which is a set of channels strips with Chris's entire mix expertise built in.
Chris says of the CLA range: "I thought there was a real problem for the musician, for the first time engineer, for the guy that just wants to go. These plugins are completely designed based on my work technique and the simplicity in organization. I like to focus on the music and not the route getting there, just focus on the thing that makes the song happen. I would say my workflow is built right into the design for the Artist Signature plugins."
Check out the entire CLA range at Waves' website.