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Superbooth 2021: the best synths, drum machines, modular gear and out-there oddities

Moog at Superbooth 21
(Image credit: Future)

Superbooth 2021 was always going to be a little bit different. To put it mildly, some things have happened in the world since we last decamped to Berlin’s FEZ centre in 2019, meaning a forced fallow year for Europe’s most influential synth conference. In fact, for us Superbooth 2021 marked not just a return to Berlin, but our first in-person event in nearly two years.

Even by the usual business-conference-meets-illegal-rave standards of Superbooth, 2021’s event had a notably ‘chill’ vibe. Unsurprisingly, there were slightly fewer exhibitors and attendees than we’ve seen in previous years, and those that were in attendance were significantly more spread out. The usual cluster of booths crammed into the FEZ’s tight hallways and classroom-like spaces had this year spilled out into the outdoor areas, occupying space in the woods and – in Moog’s case – a circus tent.

That being said, there was also a reassuring familiarity to Superbooth 2021. It was great to see a few familiar faces again and, more importantly, a healthy flow of new electronic music gear. Far from being the washout some had feared, Superbooth came back out the blocks with the usual mix of exciting new instruments, oddball innovations and more Eurorack modules than you can shake a fistful of patch leads at.

Best synth – PWM Malevolent

Malevolent is the debut instrument from UK brand PWM. It’s something of a collaborative project, having been created with input from Bristol’s Future Sound Systems and former ROLI and Focusrite employee Ben Supper.

Malevolent is an analogue semi-modular monosynth (although it can be patched to work paraphonically). It features two multi-wave VCOs equipped for FM, plus a resonant VCF, two ADSR envelopes and an LFO. 

While the normalised signal path is fairly straightforward, it comes equipped with 19  outputs and 19 inputs on its front panel, allowing users to get creative with its synthesis engine. 

Malevolent also boasts a control joystick, arpeggiator and some handy MIDI-to-CV capabilities. Most importantly it sounds great, and we were thoroughly impressed from our first look. With a price point just shy of £500, Malevolent looks great for musicians looking to dip a toe into the modular realm.

PWM Malevolent

(Image credit: Future)

Honourable mentions: Despite being overshadowed by its creator's well-meaning if arguably clumsy message of feminist support, Dreadbox's surprisingly tiny Nymphes is a gorgeous-sounding analogue poly. Away from the analogue realm, Mayer's MD900 is a neat-looking VA/wavetable synth built on the success of the company's Eurorack modules.

Best drum machine – Erica Synth Perkons

There seems to be no stopping Latvian brand Erica Synths. Having already impressed us this year with the LXR-02 drum machine, the company stole the show with its hybrid Perkons percussion synth

This latest drum machine throws the clarity of digital oscillators into a heady mix of analogue filtering and modulation. The authentic BBD and compressor add to the noisy nature of Perkons. It’s all topped off with some proper x0x sequencing with plenty of extra tricks up its sleeve.

Superbooth 2021 gallery

(Image credit: Future)

Most plant pots – Moog

Moog has developed a distinct style for its trade show booths in recent times, one that walks a line between wood-panelled chillout room and festival merch stand. 

This year’s Superbooth saw them taking things to another level, decamping into the great outdoors in a circus tent with a branded mini blimp tethered above its entrance. The space inside housed a mix of synth demo zones, a modular performance space and, typically, an abundance of foliage. Oh, and Moog even had something new to show off too – a three-tiered addition to the company’s excellent Sound Studio bundles.

Superbooth 2021 gallery

(Image credit: Future)

Best Eurorack – Winter Plankton ZAPS

This collab between Plankton Electronics and Winter Modular is a percussive synth voice designed to create organic grooves that evolve and mutate over time. The synth voice itself is a digitally controlled, two-oscillator analogue generator geared up for FM and AM synthesis. 

This comes equipped with an assortment of creative tools such as freeze/snapshot capabilities, accents, morphing, randomisation and – naturally – plenty of CV control. From what we can tell, it all adds up to a whole load of rhythmic fun.

Winter Plankton ZAPS

(Image credit: Future)

Honourable mention: The 6m0d6 from LPZW.modules and Tubbutec is essentially a classic TR-606 beefed up with extra control and added grittiness. Hard to argue with that.

Most welcome revival – Waldorf M

It wouldn’t be a synth show without the surprise revival of some piece of vintage gear. This year’s comeback arrives from Waldorf, which is returning to the wavetable roots of its ’80s and ’90s instruments with M.

M is a dual-oscillator wavetable synth that can be switched between two modes based on Waldorf's Microwave and Microwave II instruments. Rather than being a pure reissue, M is a hybrid instrument in its own right, one which shares several key traits with Waldorf’s more recent Iridium.

Here those wavetable oscillators are paired with an analogue low-pass 24dB/Oct VCF, complete with resonance and analogue saturation. It also packs a true stereo analogue VCA with panning option.

Waldorf M

(Image credit: Future)

Honourable mention: If M's £1800 price tag is a bit much for you, Arturia's new Ensoniq-inspired  SQ80 V is set to capture a similarly gritty, analogue-meets-digital vibe albeit in software form.

Most creative use of a panna cotta – Playtronica

Superbooth is never short on eccentric products, but innovative electronics brand Playtronica stood out this year. Blurring the lines between education, accessibility and music making, Playtronica specialises in control devices built for unusual and intuitive interaction. Of particular interest is the forthcoming Orbita, a turntable-like device designed to sequence music by moving coloured markers around a revolving platter. 

Just as eye-catching is Playtron – a crocodile clip-based system that allows assorted conductive objects to be used as control surfaces. Demo videos show it being used with various fruits and vegetables. The Superbooth stand had Playtron hooked up to a pair of jelly-like mounds resembling classic Italian desserts (they were actually made from soap, we think). Perfect for all your wobbly modulation needs. 

Playtronica Playtron

(Image credit: Future)

Best controller – Intech Studio

There’s no lack of ‘modular’ things at Superbooth, but Intech’s controller system is a little different. The design reminds us of (the late) ROLI’s Blocks range  – an assortment of square units that clip together magnetically to form a larger control surface. However, where Blocks made use of silicon surfaces, Intech Studio is all about proper tactile controls. 

The current range has four options, sporting banks of bi-directional knobs, endless rotaries, clicky buttons or fader-equipped channel strips. Each is equipped with a USB C connection, and it’s possible to chain multiple units from a single connection by snapping them together.

The modules are class compliant and ready for MIDI-mapping. The system comes with its own Grid Editor application too, for advanced configuration and visual customisation of the units’ coloured LEDs.

Intech Studio

(Image credit: Future)

Outstanding contribution to signage award – Superbooth banner

As all true devotees know, the real hero of Superbooth is the long-serving and much-altered banner that hangs above the show’s entrance. Originally debuted in 2018, we last saw our old friend as it welcomed us to Superbooth ‘19, crudely updated through the use of gaffer tape

Despite worries the pandemic may have forced it into retirement, it was reassuring to be greeted by a familiar face at this year’s show – somewhat more professionally updated now, but still showing its roots through the faintly visible outline of an ‘18’. Kudos to Superbooth organisers SchneidersLaden on their commitment to recycling. 

Superbooth 2021 banner

(Image credit: Future)
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