We users may sometimes gripe, but music technology gives us an impossibly wide variety for which to be thankful. From free (as in beer, as in freedom) to high-end and spendy, from software plug-in to acoustic instrument to solid-state electronics to toy, you’d run out of time and money long before you ran out of exceptional, music-inspiring choices. I think the passion people feel for music is the cause: economics and logic be damned, we’re all glad to make music part of our life, both as makers and consumers. Tools aren’t everything – it can be hugely helpful to do more with less, to impose restrictions. But that means the tools we do choose can be invaluable.
Now, normally “gift guides” tend to pick items you’d rarely buy as a gift. So, speaking of restrictions, this year I’m imposing a price limit: $200 maximum, meaning the kinds of things you actually would buy as gifts. (There are many worthy items above $200, but I’m assuming anyone spending more than that already has made up their minds.) And, we went to you, the readers, to tip us off on the items that mattered. Pulling those together with some of my own selections, here are a few current tools that have some real musical value, whether you’re giving or receiving.
There’s plenty that didn’t make the cut in this lineup, including some products we talk about a lot. Think of this as a tightly-curated list, one on which I tried to leave things out. We even get some great picks under twenty bucks, and a few surprises. Have a look…
US$60 ($150 commercial); $40 limited-time deal gets upgrades through 4.99 if you purchase this month
Recommended by: John Townsend
Also consider: “light” versions of tools like Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, SONAR, Cubase, etc., if someone on your list has a specific preference
With Windows, Mac, and (WINE) Linux compatibility, no DRM, a clean interface, and a supportive community, Reaper is a general-purpose music production tool you can feel confident giving or receiving. You can even use it to author Rock Band Network content, meaning you can give it to a musician who has everything and they’ll still appreciate it. And the pricing here isn’t a cut-down limited version; it’s the whole enchilada. It’s a gift that’ll keep on giving: buy version 3, get versions 4 (teased last week) through 5.99 free.
Eduard Müller (Taktik)
Geeky but approachable, retro-fun but modern and housebroken, extensible — all the stuff we value here on CDM. With support for Mac, Windows, and (native) Linux, Renoise is a good gift to give or receive for someone wanting a different approach to music.
Recommended by Flick
Mic input and vocals get their due in Tim Exile’s superb Reaktor-based instrument. Whether you use it as a vocoder, a melody generator, a unique effect on percussion, or to perform far-out vocals live, it’s a terrific example of where musical design can go. As contributor Flick puts it, “I could go on, but Mr. Exile does it better than I could.”
Korg Legacy Collection Instruments
So, you’re not winning that eBay bidding war, and there’s no more room for more gear, anyway. Korg’s Legacy Collection Instruments are faithfully-reproduced versions of legendary synths like the Polysix and Mono/Poly. And while the MS-20 has inspired iPad and DS apps, it’s tough to beat the convenience of dropping one of these as a plug-in. At $50, pick out one and install it – any one of them could be a favorite synth. (There are even digital options like the M1 and Wavestation.) In an era of enormous bundles, it’s nice to have instruments you can really spend some time with.
A darned-near perfect drum instrument, Tattoo has an elegant, clear interface, smart sync modes, X0X-style synthesis or MIDI out to any instrument you want, and integrated sequencing. It’s got deep routing options, but unlike a lot of all-in-one drum machines, it’s not overwhelming – making an ideal gift. And, of course, it runs in any host.
EUR23-26 (including shipping, worldwide), or use your own key
Recommended by Kim Cascone
Loaded with free and open source tools, this is about as much software as you can pack into this price or amount of memory. It’s “a USB stick you can boot from that contains all the software anyone would need to make electronic music,” says Kim. If you’re curious about experimenting with free tools, from Processing to Pd to Ardour, this is an easy way to do it without any hassle, on any machine, even if you’re a Linux newcomer. You can get it preloaded onto a USB key, or go out and get some funky USB stick (Mimobot, anyone?) and load it yourself.
Electronics and Gear
Recommended by Andy Foltz
“It’s like a toy, and it’s like a synth. With cool filters,” says Andy. The monotron is an elegant, tiny synth with ribbon input and simplified controls. But it’s not dull: the classic analog Korg filter and spectacular sound make it a pocketable instrument. There’s a modder community out there, but in a way, the fact that it’s so minimal is the appeal. It might even inspire a whole EP.
$55 ($80 built)
The Nebulophone is a great beginner kit / stocking stuffer, a bit like having an Arduino-powered DIY stylophone (complete with stylus control). Nice features like a light-controlled filter, arpeggiator, and multiple waveforms make it good fun to play. There’s also easy-to-read, modifiable Arduino code for those who want it. You can even sync this by infrared. If you don’t mind the lack of a case, that might help the Nebulophone trump the (also excellent) Korg Monotron. And it’s weirder – in a good way.
MeeBlip: The hackable digital synth – SOUND DEMO by cdm
Reflex Audio and Create Digital Music
I have to put the MeeBlip here, because it’s a project I believe in and have worked on: it’s an open source synth you can modify, hack, and play. We’ll be doing a lot more with this in January and throughout 2011. The quick-build version doesn’t require any soldering or knowledge of code; just plug it in and play. Unfortunately, while the kits should still ship in time if you order now, the quick build we can’t ship before Christmas 2010 (unless you live in Canada, in which case you might well get it in time); estimating shipping by December 17 based on current backorders. (MeeBlip is made in Canada.) Current backorders will ship first, if you’ve already ordered one. But if you’re willing to give yourself a New Years’ Gift / Orthodox Christmas Gift / celebrate my birthday in January, you’re good.
It’s tiny, easy to lift, and powered by batteries. But the DA5 is also loud and sounds much better than a $140 amp should. It’s the perfect answer to all those times when you wish you had an amp and didn’t. Heck, laptop users could even get two and go stereo. It even comes with some surprisingly-usable effects and plenty of I/O. For would-be buskers or mobile musicians, couple this with an instrument with battery power (yes, even your laptop), and you can make noise anywhere.
Tascam DR, Zoom H Series Mobiles
Street US$100 and up
All under $200, both Tascam and Zoom have exceptional mobile recorders that have plenty to recommend them. Starting at US$100, you can get a Tascam DR-03 with pitch control and looping to help you transcribe and practice, or a Zoom H1 with broadcast WAV compatibility. Spend a few dollars more for extra features and improved quality. Quick buying advice: for $100, grab the Tascam if you care more about pitch control, the Zoom if you need a tripod stand. For $200, you add a bit more bulk to offerings from each company; choose the Zoom if you want something that doubles as a USB mic. There’s a tie here because they’re all great options and great gifts.
By the way, I like the idea of recording with an iPhone or iPod touch, but there are some serious counts against those options. Mic accessories aren’t guaranteed to be compatible one generation to another, you have your battery to worry about (since it may also be your phone), quality options are more limited, and the price of a mic attachment often rivals the cost of a mobile recorder. And the mobile recorder has removable memory.
Suggested by Nate
Would you believe you might want a $20 toy in your studio? Nate explains: “The Ucreate Music is a little effect box/sampler designed for kids in mind, but it has some really killer features and effects that are useful in all genres of music. It has a built-in mic for recording some samples (albeit the sample length is not very long, and only at 8 bit quality), it allows for connection of an external mic or any other sound gear (via a 1/4 inch stereo jack). It has 8 different effects that are controllable by a cool, lit up ball shaped XY controller. These effects are killer, and the real time manipulation it gives you is awesome. It has lowpass filters, delay, flanger, phaser a pitch looper and my favorite a looper with loop time, repeat and forwards or reverse controlled by the xy thingy! You can glitch, stutter and get all your favorite BT-style effects with this little box. It is really affordable (I bought 2 for separate stereo processing) and easily hackable, great for any CDM reader.”
Pedals get a special category, because whatever instrument you play, they can be a terrific deal and a perfect gift (when most useful hardware sets you back far more than $200). You can use them as effects with your computer, netbook, iPad, synth, guitar, bass, electric violin – anything. There are loads of fantastic options here, but here are a couple of favorites.
Varies; various with street of $200 or less
Even with ridiculously-powerful computer software and phones that can do DSP, sometimes you need to be able to stomp on your tools. (And you probably don’t want to stomp on your iPhone.) Enter BOSS with a number of invaluable tools. The $100 street ST-2 Metal Stack models a Marshall Amp stack. The TU-3 keeps you in tune. And for $150 street, the PS-6 Harmonist adds 3-part harmony and Super Bend. But I might shop around for a deal on the RE-20 Space Echo, which has had street prices as little as US$200 lately. I’ve seen them coupled to laptops, Game Boys, and guitars alike. It’s not quite the same as having a real Space Echo, to be sure, but it does give you the basic utility and design in a compact box that’s absurdly affordable.
Varies; many under $200 (or $100)
Electro-Harmonix makes loads of great-sounding pedals that are a staple of soundmakers the world around. Invariably, when I ask someone about their signal chain, one of these boxes is included, almost by default. This also grants a wish from more than one American-based reader who asked for US-made electronics. Yes, they exist; Electro-Harmonix even makes their stuff inside the five boroughs of New York City. (Wherever you live in the world, supporting local goods is important. That’s not anti-trade or protectionist – even if you’re a free trader, you have to agree, the global marketplace only works when we all make stuff.)
Keyboards and Controllers
Suggested by Cândido Almeida
I can’t ignore this hardware, not after reader Cândido Almeida puts it this way: “Well, it’s everything you need in one small square with a lot of botons, especially if you use Ableton.
I have wet dreams with it…” And yes, there’s some especially nice stuff you can do with the Launchpad and Renoise, one of our software picks. (Credit due to the monome that inspired this grid craze – having set the budget for this piece, here’s hoping you were lucky with recent runs of kits and grayscale 128s. And hey, I’ve seen Launchpads and monomes coexist at monome community meetups.)
DJ Tech Tools
Who says music can’t be button mashing? The 4×4 Midi-Fighter matrix is a perfect first DIY controller project – it’s easy to assemble, easy to customize, and gives you satisfying-feeling arcade buttons. There are great pre-mappings if you DJ with tools like Traktor, or you could easily adapt them to Ableton, Renoise, Maschine, and other tools.
Ultra-compact keyboards on the go or in tight spaces are fantastic, and the LPK-25 from Akai might just have the edge. Derek Morton writes: “I know I am bit of an eccentric gear-oholic. I tend to favor instruments or software that is a bit different, innovative or just helpful in some way. This little cheap USB midi keyboard controller is not the perfect controller by any means. It lacks pitch and mod wheels and the keys are quite tiny which makes it difficult to perform anything complex. THE BIG HOWEVER is… this little guy has a super fun built-in arpeggiator and latch. Bring up a drum machine instrument or samples and the fun begins here! I don’t know any MIDI Key controllers that have this feature. You can spend upwards of a half of a grand on ultra-programmable controllers that have knobs, dials, faders and LCD readouts without a basic arpeggiator.”
Alternatively, consider the Korg nanoSERIES microKEY — as reader Greg puts it, “So I can do some sequencing at Starbucks.” Just try not to spill your Gingerbread Spice Latte on it, okay?
Now, it doesn’t have a MIDI DIN port, which brings us to…
Rock Band 3 Wireless Keyboard
Harmonix / Mad Catz
US$130 street with Rock Band 3 game, $80 for just the keyboard
A keytar for a game may not seem a serious music tool, but make no mistake about it. The Rock Band 3 keyboard works with hardware using standard MIDI DIN output, has a great-feeling keybed for the price, and finally gives you a “keytar” that’s light, ultra-compact, portable, and battery-powered. As a mini keytar, it’s unparalleled. (No word yet on using its wireless Bluetooth features, as works with the Xbox.) Bonus: get the game for fun, and discover something you can actually practice with. That means a serious tool that a musician might game with casually, or a serious game accessory that might convince your friend/family member to explore music production.
Whirly Tube sound hose
Suggested by Dan D.
“Gosh, I would love to sample these and make nice, airy pad with it,” says Dan. I’ve got a similar noisemaker (though not under this name); it’s good fun. Can’t beat the $7 price, either.
Recommended by Ronban
What happens when you combine a guitar and a ukulele? Maybe just the perfect hybrid instrument – take that, keytar. It’s compact, inexpensive, and shares some of the best sonic characteristics of each. It’s the “ultimate travel and fun guitar,” says Ronban.
Fellow North Americans, I’m not actually clear on whether you can buy the GL1 or not; I can only find UK and Europe availability (no idea for Asia/Pacific/South America, either). I think there are some similar models, though; if you know more than I do, which is very possible, shout out in comments.
Wearables, Accessories, and Design
If you could have a gift certificate from anywhere, this might be the place. Gorgeous, music-inspired art. LPs. Digital music. Cool stuff for your desk. It’s probably the worst place to recommend to go shopping for someone else, as you may wind up just gifting a lot of stuff to yourself. Ghostly International was one of the best labels of 2010, but they also are happy to remake your lifestyle and make your walls more artistic and give you inspirational notebooks. It’s so cool, it’s kind of disgusting.
Known both as a designer and by musical alterego Tycho, Scott Hansen is a Renaissance man of tasteful sounds and eye candy. His ISO50 shop matches that aesthetic, with beautiful prints and, yes, fashionable MIDI shirts. If you’re a design nerd and music geek, it’s heaven.
Wearables and Swag from KORG, Moog, Ableton, etc.
Can’t afford to get someone the real deal? Get them a t-shirt instead. (I can wear a Mono/Poly shirt on days when I’m not wearing my Harvard Law School t-shirt or Leer Jet jacket.) Korg has a delightfully-designed set of vintage-inspired t-shirts. Ableton apparel is almost single-handedly responsible for keeping many laptop musicians from freezing, buck naked, and now there’s a clever dance steps t-shirt. (Wear it at your next set to see if someone takes the hint.) Moog Music always has lovely accessories, but this year is special – pick up 40th anniversary pins and apparel to celebrate the Minimoog.
DKK375, or about EUR50
Available at Dijitalfix, US$65
Copenhagen-based design firm and “lifestyle audio” house AIAIAI makes the TMA-1 headphones. The TMAs are brilliant DJ headphones with minimal design and thoughtful features that lie right at the US$200 cusp. But I’m actually going to recommend the Tracks headphones instead for the gift guide, because they’re easy to give to everyone you know. They’re lightweight but rugged enough to carry with you, and share the minimal design essence of the TMAs. They also sound incredible given their cost and size. A built-in mic also means you can comfortably give them to someone who’s listening on an iPhone, and tell them to please, please throw out those awful earbuds. (The mic also means you can listen to reactive environments in RjDj.) The over-the-ear design also fits when earbuds don’t, perfect for hitting the ellipse machine at the gym without your buds falling out all the time. And boys and girls all like the custom colors. At $70, they’re also a lot easier as an impulse buy. I now alternate between these, the TMAs, and for studio monitoring, studio cans.
What Did Santa Miss?
Got more ideas – particularly those in our modest budget? Let us know in comments.