SUPERBOOTH 2023: Berlin's Superbooth, once a somewhat ramshackle meet-up of Europe's synth heads, is now firmly established as one of the biggest events in the electronic music making calendar.
The show returned once again to its regular home at Berlin's FEZ complex, a kids' educational centre complete with swimming pool, gym and a mini railway. The choice of location results in odd sights such as black-clad techno fans busting out pounding modular jams amidst the swings and slides of a children's playground, or Richie Hawtin's PlayDifferently brand serving sake out of a multicoloured house labelled 'Villa Kunterbunt'. We wouldn't have it any other way though.
Pleasingly, Superbooth 2023 was also an absolute hive of new gear releases. From high-end synths to compact effect processors, plus – of course – a whole lot of modular gear, there was a lot to get excited about on this year's show floor. Head over to our live blog to catch up with all the action as it happened. For now, it's time to crown a few highlights...
Best synth: UDO Super Gemini
We've not been shy about our love of the Super 6, the debut instrument from Bristol-based synth brand UDO Audio. With its innovative binaural signal path and hands-on, Jupiter-influenced layout, the Super 6 has comfortably established itself as one of the best hardware synths of recent years.
Now UDO is returning with a follow-up instrument, Super Gemini, which takes many of the ideas that made the 6 such a success but expands upon them in almost every way.
Where Super 6 plays like a modern spin on vintage Jupiters and Junos, the Gemini takes a little inspiration for Yamaha's behemoth CS-80. The most obvious point of comparison is in the inclusion of a front panel touch strip, which can facilitate diving pitch bends and sweeps. But in action, there's also a clear similarity in sound between that vintage machine and this modern one. With 20 voices – which can be used in two distinct timbral layers – Super Gemini is a rich and complex machine, easily capable of stacked Vangelis-like chords, mammoth soundtrack drones or arena-filling pads.
This is more than a vintage tribute piece though; for one thing, that binaural design returns here, once again capable of creating unique, modulated stereo images. The Super 6's digital, hi-res Super Wave oscillators make a return too.
With flexible modulation sources and characterful digital effects – including a lovely freeze-able delay – Super Gemini can do modern edginess as well as rich vintage tones. For anyone looking for soundtrack worthy synth lines or emotion-stirring ambience, this looks like a must try!
Honourable mention: PWM Mantis
Another British newcomer, PWM impressed us last year with its debut monosynth, Malevolent. The brand's follow-up Mantis is a hybrid paraphonic instrument designed in collaboration with late synth design icon Chris Huggett.
Mantis is actually the final project Huggett worked on, and fittingly it acts almost like a greatest hits tribute, taking heavy influence from Huggett's cult classic WASP. Sonically, it's meaty and powerful, with lots of character, a distinct aggressive edge and powerful low end.
Most unique instrument: Erica Synths Steampipe
Okay, technically speaking Steampipe might not be the most 'unique' instrument to be found at Superbooth. From synthesisers built into blocks of wood to electro-acoustic oddities we barely understand, there's no shortage of weird and wonderful gear on display at Superbooth every year. However, within the realm of relatively-conventional, widely-available instruments, Steampipe stands out as something genuinely out-of-the-ordinary.
This brilliantly-named machine is a digital synthesiser based on physical modelling principles. Rather than start the sound engine with conventional oscillators, Steampipe uses a noise source, envelopes and resonators to emulate the characteristics of various wind instruments. The end of the signal chain makes use of a characterful reverberator effect for added ambience.
Sonically, results range from lightweight (and impressively realistic) flutes and clarinets, through to slightly raspy tuned noise and into wonky circus organs. It’s something very different, not just for Erica Synths, but the hardware synth market as a whole. It’s certainly a specialised machine – don’t expect this to become your next synth workhorse – but we can see creative musicians getting some really interesting results out of it.
Design award: Superlative Monolab
If we're handing out awards for slick and aesthetically-pleasing instrument design, you might expect Teenage Engineering to be a shoe-in. True, the Swedish brand is renown for its precisely-engineered, pocket-sized production tools-come-objets d'art, and this year's TP-7 recorder and CM-15 mic are as stylish as anything the company has ever produced.
We love an underdog though, and we were hugely impressed by the stylish design of Monolab, a new compact modular from upstart US brand Superlative. You may remember Superlative for the equally-stylish SH-101-alike SB-01, which launched on Kickstarter a few years ago (we're told new units of this will be ready to ship later this year).
Monolab is the company's second product, it's an all-analogue compact semi-modular that takes a healthy amount of influence from classic instruments from the likes of Roland and ARP. It sounded impressive from our demo, but we were most impressed by its physical design.
Built into Superlative's new System 1000 format, Monolab has an ultra-thin profile for an all-analogue synth, and a UI that's compact, but neatly and clearly laid out enough to be easily navigable to synth heads and newbies alike. What's more. it's all USB powered and compatible with you exisiting Eurorack gear.
Best effect unit: Elektron Analog Heat +FX
We appreciate a product release that lives up to its name, and Elektron’s Analog Heat +FX does exactly that. This is the Swedish brand’s already impressive Analog Heat distortion/filter... now enhanced with an added crop of flexible digital effects.
Elektron’s booth saw the company hooking the unit up to a range of interesting acoustic instruments, which provided a smart basis for exploring just how much AH+FX can mangle sound. Combining drawn-out reverbs, tape-like delays, compression and bit crushing, all alongside the existing distortion circuits, resonant filter and EQ, this is a seriously powerful box of effects.
With a few twists and turns we transformed simple acoustic tones into crunchy, wavering soundscapes. Onboard modulation adds to the usability by keeping things moving. AH+FX also allows users to rearrange the flow of its effects too, which is great fun for exploring extreme effect combinations.
Best Eurorack: Make Noise Spectraphon
Make Noise’s Spectraphon is another collaboration between the US brand and Soundhack’s Tom Erbe, who previously contributed to the company’s excellent Erbe Verb and Morphagene modules.
Spectraphon is a complex dual oscillator capable of additive, vocoder and spectral synthesis-style sounds. This results in brilliantly bright and characterful digital synth tones. As with the best Eurorack voices though, it really comes to life with modulation, with plenty of CV to keep the synthesis techniques and timbres moving. From our demos it seems like another experimental powerhouse.
Best software: Reason Studios Objekt
Not to be confused with the artist of the same name (who, confusingly, works in software development for rival brand Native Instruments), Objekt is a unique and powerful-looking software synth available within Reason.
Designed to emulate real-life acoustic sounds, Objekt promises to “open the hood on physical modelling” and present it like a synthesiser. As well as enabling you to create bell, mallet, percussion and string sounds, you can also use it to produce natural textures, organic pads and more.
Objekt gives you three resonating objects to work with. These form the basis of your sounds, and can replicate the likes of strings, skins and bells. The Exciter section dictates how the instrument is played, and there are plenty of parameters that can easily be tweaked to create entirely new tones. More than 500 presets come included, and you also have a randomiser for fast inspiration.
From the demos we've heard, it sounds fantastic, and should play well when paired with other devices in Reason's famous virtual rack setup. Of course, since the Reason Rack now runs as a plugin, users can also take advantage of its capabilities within out DAWs.
Most efficient use of modular space: Oxi Coral
Getting polyphony in Eurorack can often be costly and awkward. Oxi Instruments Coral looks like an extremely efficient and good value solution though.
This is an eight voice synth and WAV sample player, which can lend its hand to melodic and percussive sounds all at once. You could, for example, use three voices for a chord progression, one for a bassline and the rest for drums. Filters and envelopes help shape the sounds, while reverb and chorus effects round out the signal chain.
It’s all controllable via MIDI or CV. At a price around €400 and a 14hp size, it seems like a smart investment.
Best freebie: Arturia MicroFreak v5
We love a good free update. It's always great to see brands enhance or refresh products for existing users, and Arturia's v5 firmware for its oddball compact MicroFreak is a great example of doing exactly that.
The free update adds new sample-based engines to the synth. Users can now import, play back and loop their own samples, which can be manipulated using the three new granular engines. The MicroFreak’s keyboard can be transformed into a S&H modulation source, and the synth’s envelopes can now have even shorter attack values for a little extra snap.
Finally, you can now access 512 preset slots, and the factory preset count has risen to more than 300. Not bad for a free update.