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A Rock Star Gift Guide

June 30, 2014

ONCE AGAIN, ’tis the season when it’s better to give than receive, so make sure to give your music gear wish list to anyone and everyone—early and often. Need ideas? Of course you don’t, but you want them anyway. And there’s no one better to fill your eggnog-and-cookie fueled mind with visions of studio delights than the professionals in the field.

We quizzed artists and producers for their best musical gift ideas, and they came back with dozens of hardware and software suggestions for the studio and the stage. There’s something here for everyone—mostly within modest budgetary constraints. However, a few extravagancies also made the list in case you are extra-deserving this year, like if you happened to cure Lyme disease between recording sessions. Either way, there’s enough here to keep you unwrapping until noon, and to keep your studio fresh long after your New Year’s resolutions fizzle out.

Au Revoir Simone After 10 years and four studio albums, the ladies in Au Revoir Simone know their way around not only harmony-laced indie-pop melodies, but the studio as well. Heather D’Angelo, Annie Hart, and Erika Forster cut an iconic image onstage, standing in a horizontal line behind their carefully chosen keyboards and effects pedals. After co-producing their latest album, Move in Spectrums, these gear geeks in disguise want to make sure your holidays are just as chock full of musical goodies as their mesmerizing, synth-laden tunes.

Heather D’Angelo: “The band Air introduced me to the ARP Solina String Ensemble ($685–850, used) during our tour with them, and I fell in love with it mainly because it feels like the quintessential sound of their band. It’s wistful, warm, and lilting, but also has a distinctively electronic sound. I appreciate how this vintage synth produces more of an interpretation of violins rather than an unabashed mimicry of them—like the sound of a robot weeping. Good luck finding one on Ebay!

“The little Roland SPD-SX ($799) is the great workhorse of many bands today, and the latest model improves greatly over the last one, now that it comes with wave editing software and doesn’t require the crappy memory cards that no one even makes anymore. There are very few computers that can withstand nightly beatings with a stick and still perform like this does. I’m a little in awe of it.

“Yet another go-to keyboard for most touring bands, the Korg MicroKorg ($399) is a fun keyboard to bring, because it’s small, light, well-built, and comes loaded with a bunch of bizarre, and fairly unusable preset techno sounds. I predict the Microkorg will enjoy a popular resurgence with kids of the future as a vintage novelty keyboard. In the meantime, the 3B Vintage preset packs the kind of sub-bass punch that can make an audience pee a little bit in their pants. We use it on several songs. Diapers not included.”

Annie Hart: “I know all of you know this already, but the Shure SM7B ($349) is an unbelievably rich-sounding and affordable microphone. I remember when I used it for the first time when we recorded Still Night Still Light. I didn’t know any mic from Adam and thought that the SM-7 sounded utterly fantastic. I never really liked the sound of my recorded voice until I tried it. You really get your money’s worth.

“Why not surprise yourself and your gift recipient with a fun, vintage Casio or Yamaha keyboard from a garage sale or eBay? I try to stay away from the enormous hulking ’90s models, but that’s just personal preference. It’s always a treat to click through the various sounds, since there’s usually a lurking gem in there.”

Erika Forster: “I use Algoriddim Djay ($19.99, Mac) for DJing professionally. It’s incredibly user friendly and links up to your iTunes library, so it’s worth getting even if you’re just DJing a house party. You can also use it to record playlists to make mixes for friends or create soundtracks for events/videos.

“I did a ton of shopping around before buying my first sampler, the Roland SP-404SX ($499). It does so much, yet is really simple.

“Critter & Guitari is mostly known for its rad pocket pianos, but the Kaleidaloop ($300) is a great instrument. If you’re willing to let go and use it as an improvisation tool, it adds amazing texture and unexpected layers to music. Because it’s essentially recording what you’re doing and playing it back out, it automatically fits into the existing soundscape, just adding lushness and unexpected character.

Cage The Elephant Lincoln Parish plays lead guitar for the ever-evolving Kentucky rock band Cage The Elephant, which just released its third studio album, Melophobia. “I think a great holiday gift for any musician would be a copy of Apple Logic Pro X ($199),” Parish said. “This is the same recording software I started on, and it is very intuitive for musicians and super easy to use. Also there is so much already built into Logic that it doesn’t require a lot of extra software to make the music you want to make.”

Logic Pro X helps to take the sting out of purchasing a full-fledged DAW. Its collection of samplers, synthesizers, effects, and loops could easily fetch $200 alone, but now you get the whole shebang for that price, including Logic Pro X’s new Drummer, Flex Pitch, and Smart Controls features. Maybe Parish will even use Logic’s Main Stage 3 live performance tools to create a virtual guitar rig when Cage the Elephant tours Ireland and the U.K. in February.

Claude Kelly Claude Kelly has snuck his way onto the list of perennial Grammy nominees through the back door, primarily as a songwriter and now as an executive producer, as well. His work with Fantasia, Bruno Mars, Tamia, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Akon, and many others has garnered Kelly a string of chart hits and awards. Now with a seemingly endless parade of artists pouring into his Manhattan studio, Kelly aspires to be one of the next great Quincy Jones-style studio collaborators.

To make his hits, Kelly concentrates on capturing emotionally genuine vocals, being careful not to over-Auto-Tune anything. He also stresses production competence, so you can work quickly to record great vocals when the moment is right. “A great affordable gift for songwriters/producers is the Avid Mbox 3 with Pro Tools Express ($499),” he said. “It’s a basic interface, and a great way to learn how to use Pro Tools (which is a studio standard). Also delivering great quality, it’s an easy one-stop shop for creating a complete song.”

If you’ve been really good this year—like stopping global warming—maybe you can even take Kelly’s high-end suggestion. “If you’re ready to splurge, go for a great microphone,” he said. “As a singer/songwriter and vocal producer to some of the best singers in the industry, I can truly say nothing brings a vocal to life better than a quality microphone. Grab a vintage tube Neumann U47! It’ll cost you around 15K, but that’s a small price to pay to sing on the same mic that Frank Sinatra and The Beatles used. Trust me, you’ll hear and feel the difference. Happy holiday shopping.”

Thanks, Claude. At press time, there was an original Neumann U47 on eBay for $11,000, so we’re saving money already. Or as an alternative, you could always pick up a new Telefunken U47 for “just” $8,495. Your family doesn’t need to eat in 2014, do they?

Greg Kurstin Songwriter, performer, and producer Greg Kurstin doesn’t care. He’ll produce and write for indie-rock heroes just as soon as teeny-bopper Top 40 singers. Moving seamlessly from producing The Shins or Devo to writing for Ke$ha, P!nk, or Kelly Clarkson, the multi-Grammy nominee picked up his first win this year for his work on Clarkson’s “Stronger.” Somehow he also has time to lead his own prolific band, the tropicalia-influenced The Bird and the Bee.

It’s no surprise then that Kurstin recommends you open up a gift box of portable musicality, so you can work on songs anywhere you go. The Critter & Guitari Pocket Piano ($175) mini-synth packs a lot of classic analog and vintage video game sound into a heavy-duty aluminum-and-hardwood case that’s fit to travel. It runs on a 9V battery or optional power supply, and you can use its built-in speaker or 1/4-inch output. “The Pocket Piano is very small, but very effective,” Kurstin said. “Sometimes it’s the missing link/finishing touch you’ve been looking for on a track.”
Jordan Rudess You have to give Jordan Rudess some credit. When we asked the composer/producer/entrepreneur and keyboardist extraordinaire for affordable gift ideas, he didn’t recommend any of the $10 iOS apps from his Wizdom Music company, even though MorphWiz, SampleWiz, or Geo Synthesizer would all make fine additions to any iPad owners’ collection.

Instead, Rudess went down the path of one of his greatest passions: new synthesizers. “I’m very impressed with the Novation Ultranova ($699) keyboard,” he said. “It’s amazing how much synthesizer can be packed inside this small but mighty board!” The Ultranova builds upon the foundation of the classic Supernova II synth engine and adds new technology such as wavetable synthesis and the ability to play the synth from within a DAW using its software editor as a plug-in. An included gooseneck mic provides easy access to the Ultranova’s 12-band vocoder, but stereo analog line inputs also let you process virtually any instrument you choose.

As an extra bonus, Rudess has the jump on next year’s wish list as well. Although they won’t be released until the fall of 2014, it’s never too early to start behaving for a Roli Seaboard Grand Studio ($1,999) or Seaboard Grand Stage ($2,999). “Those who want to know about the evolution of the piano keyboard as we know it should immediately check out the Seaboard,” Rudess said. “It is truly a next-generation musical instrument.” The innovative Seaboard reinvents the keyboard as a soft, continuous surface including polyphonic pitchbend, vibrato, per-note dynamic changes, and glissando pitch ribbons along the top and bottom.

By the time you read this, Rudess’ new project—funded entirely at Pledge Music (pledgemusic/jordanrudess)—should be nearing completion. It is a full orchestral recording of his composition “Explorations for Keyboard and Orchestra.”

Justin Meldal-Johnsen As an in-demand bassist for Beck, Nine Inch Nails, and many others, and now also a producer for hot alt-rock bands such as The Naked and Famous, School of Seven Bells, and M83, Justin Meldal-Johnsen constantly lends out his talents to others. That’s why when the holidays roll around, he wants to be sure there’s some receiving mixed in with all the giving.

“Sometimes I read gift ideas in magazines and get slightly offended at the high-end suggestions,” Meldal-Johnsen said. “As if one’s girlfriend is going to spring for a pair of ATC SCM25 studio monitors (even if she has an amazing job and you do all the cleaning). Be real; these are “gifts” you buy for yourself (like I did) when you get your first decent royalty check or something.”

Meldal-Johnsen’s long holiday list includes mostly budget-friendly suggestions. But you know how it is; musical talent often leads to expensive taste in gear.

• Fingerlab DM1 ($4.99 iPad; $1.99 iPhone): “My favorite iOS drum machine.”    
• Moog Animoog ($29.99 iPad; $9.99 iPhone): “Cheap, interesting, and rich-sounding. If you have an iPad, it’s a must, frankly.”
• Snark Clip-on Chromatic tuners ($19–$39): “Tunes anything with strings, and does it well.”
• ValhallaDSP plug-ins ($50 each): “They work with every DAW, and they are some of the finest-sounding I’ve heard or used. An incredible value.”   
• Keith McMillen QuNexus ($149): “I really like this thing. It’s rugged and isn’t just for soft synths on your laptop. It also works with iOS and talks via CV to modular synths.”
• Korg Volca Bass, Volca Beats, and Volca Keys analog synths ($149 each): “I checked them out early, and they are really, really fun.”   
• Sennheiser HD25-1 II ($249): “Get yourself some decent headphones that you might actually be able to mix something on. These are the cheapest ones I’ve found that are viable for that purpose. They are really excellent.”  
• Eventide H9 Harmonizer multieffects pedal ($499): “Okay, I lied, but this thing is so incredibly innovative and useful for stage and studio, I think it’s a worthy mention.”
• Teenage Engineering OP1 portable synthesizer ($849): “Now I’m really violating my principles and suggesting something expensive. If you do have that rich girlfriend (or parents), do yourself a favor and ask for one of these. I know they are trendy, but that’s because they are in fact enormously useful and functional. I use mine on every project I produce.”

See if you can spot the OP1 on Meldal-Johnsen’s next production, the forthcoming second album from Young the Giant.

Krewella EDM trio Krewella knows all about sharing. The group began its rise to prominence by sharing tracks such as “Life of the Party” on Soundcloud in 2011.  When it comes to sharing studio knowledge and recommendations, Krewella doesn’t hesitate to list Ableton Live 9 ($99–$749) and recommend “the necessary plug-ins” Native Instruments Massive (part of Komplete 9, $499), ReFX Nexus 2 ($299), and Lennar Digital Sylenth1 (139 euros), but also recommends the free plug-ins Audio Damage Fuzz Plus, IK Multimedia Sample Tank Free, King Dubby Dub Delay, Dash Signature Da Hornet, and Ohmforce Frohmage.
Like many other acts doing dance music, Krewella hits the road as a DJ crew, where they rely on Native Instruments Traktor software. “On stage, we love Traktor,” Krewella stated as a group. “But if you don’t want to buy CDJs and a mixer right away, go to your local music gear shop/studio and see if they rent out equipment for you to practice on.”

NERVO Australian twins Miriam and Olivia Nervo began their lives in the spotlight as teenage models. However, the sisters moved their blonde ambition over to the world of pop production, and soon scored a Grammy win for co-writing the David Guetta and Kelly Rowland 2009 single “When Love Takes Over.” Now the sisters, recording and DJing as NERVO, do most of their modeling for the covers of singles such as “We’re All No One,” “You’re Gonna Love Again,” and “Hold On.”

Now working on a debut album while also doing shows, NERVO has the perfect holiday gift for other music producers living the vagabond lifestyle—if they’re ever home to receive it. The Apogee One ($349) compact USB audio interface for Mac and iPad puts Apogee’s famous studio-quality sound in the palm of your hand. “The Apogee One is great for us because we travel a lot, and has a great mic built-in,” NERVO said. When not using the built-in omnidirectional condenser mic, you can plug an XLR mic or 1/4-inch instrument cable into the One’s breakout adapter, and the interface works on USB bus power or two AA batteries.

Nightmare and The Cat When your old man fronted iconic ’80s band Eurythmics, people may expect you to rebel by working in an anonymous government clerical job and going to bed by 9 p.m. every night. That’s not how it panned out for the early twenty-somethings Sam and Django Stewart (sons of Dave); they decided to become rock stars. However, their form of rebellion could be the sound of their band Nightmare and the Cat. Nothing like their father’s duo, the five-piece, L.A.-based Nightmare and the Cat crafts a unique blend of anthemic, baroque power-pop that sounds ready-made for the next Baz Luhrmann flick. The band’s Simple EP on Capitol dropped earlier this year, as a teaser to their full-length debut due in 2014.

While Django’s voice soars like a next-generation Matthew Bellamy or Thom Yorke, Sam holds down the guitar duties. If you’re looking for something to assist your mobile recording this year, Sam put in another vote for one of his and his brother’s favorite tools. “The Apogee One ($349) is a cool little interface that I use a lot for home demo recording,” he said. “It’s super easy to use, affordable, and very portable. It has 1/4-inch and XLR inputs, as well as an internal mic and connects to your computer with a USB. Just simple.”

Phoenix French dance-rock band Phoenix may have hit the big time with 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and kept flying high with this year’s Bankrupt!, but there were a lot of lean years before the band rose from the ashes. Guitarist/keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz (a.k.a. Branco) first brushed shoulders with greatness way back in 1992, when he played in a short-lived band called Darlin’ with Thomas Bangalter. While Darlin’ went nowhere, Bangalter formed Daft Punk and went “Around the World.” Meanwhile, it would take Brancowitz about another decade of struggle before tasting success with Phoenix.

So Brancowitz still feels in touch with his starving-artist roots, and he knows how you can stretch your precious gear dollars. Any musician on the gift list can have fun with the Yamaha PSS-390 vintage FM keyboard. Musicians like Brancowitz prize this cult-classic budget digital synth for its stylish FM sounds (100 onboard patches), set of eight control sliders (rare for the Portasound series) and optional battery power. Best of all, they are still in relatively plentiful supply, and you can find them in good condition on eBay or other second-hand markets for $50–$100.

The Crystal Method 2013 marks the 20-year anniversary of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland’s founding of The Crystal Method, something that seems all the more unbelievable when you revisit their early singles and the trademark sound of filthy analog synths with thunderclap breakbeats still sounds fresh enough to stay on the shelves. The Crystal Method has always dispensed gear advice at will for electronic musicians, and in fact, the duo was one of the first to heartily recommend running analog and other synths through guitar effects pedals as a creative and low-cost way to come up with new sounds.

Some things never change, and why should they? If you’re looking for a fun new toy for about a Benjamin, the Method suggest one of the Electro Harmonix Big Muffs ($80–$120), “a great effect pedal,” they said. “Whether it is a guitar or a keyboard, you need something to make it sound dirty.” Current Big Muffs come in several varieties: the basic Big Muff Pi, Bass Big Muff Pi, Big Muff Pi with Tone Wicker, and the Deluxe Bass Big Muff Pi. No doubt Jordan and Kirkland have at least one of each in every room of their studio, and are using them as you read this on their forthcoming self-titled album. The pair has also produced music for the Bad Robot series, Almost Human, now airing on Fox.

Tucker Martine If you were to look at Grammy-nominated producer/composer Tucker Martine, you may not think that the stylish young gentleman spent a huge chunk of his life determining which mic and preamp would make for the best sound for albums from the likes of Modest Mouse, Spoon, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and others. But luckily for us, Martine has passed along some of the fruits of his studio tan for the record producer on your holiday shopping list.

For recordists who need to compare the merits of different mics, Martine suggests the Radial Engineering Gold Digger 4-channel mic selector ($349). “This thing makes it so much easier to compare different mics on a single source using the same preamp,” he said. “Manley makes one too, but this one is a fraction of the price and very solidly built.” And while he’s at the time-saving soapbox, Martine also recommends the Radial Cherry Picker 4-channel preamp selector ($349), which is “just like the Gold Digger but for mic preamps,” Martine said. “I often don’t have the time or patience to compare four mic pres on a source when I’m in the flow of a session. But this thing makes it painless.”

Tucker’s final studio secret could ensure that the producer on your list has a happier New Year when it comes to recording. “The Cloud Microphones CL-Z ($299) makes it easy to change which impedance is being fed to your mic pre from your mic,” Martine said. “You wouldn’t believe how much better some mics sound with certain preamps once the impedances have been matched (or creatively mismatched).”

Vince Clarke After a legendary career that saw him passing through iconic bands Depeche Mode and Yazoo before settling into the Erasure hit machine, Vince Clarke came full circle by teaming up with Depeche Mode maestro Martin Gore for the 2012 chill, minimal techno album Ssss. Simply put, if you’re a synthophile, when Clarke sounds off with gear advice, you’d best listen.

It should come as no surprise that one of the pioneers of synth pop would recommend a remake of an analog classic for musicians on the proverbial “nice” list. Clarke points to the current Korg MS20 Mini analog monophonic synth ($599), a reproduction of the circuitry of the early ’80s classic MS-20. “It’s a re-creation of a classic analog synth,” Clarke said. “It sounds great, looks cool, and has lots of knobs to twiddle.”

While still enthralled with good ol’ analog sound, Clarke still embraces the ever-marching progress of music technology. So his second gift suggestion may be the best 200 bucks one could spend on enhancing a recording musician’s life, Apple Logic Pro X ($199.99), or as Clarke calls it, “your very own complete recording studio.” The latest version of this full-scale DAW adds a redesigned mixer, score editor, and new instruments and sounds while keeping the price at a level you have to double-check to believe.

Yes, Logic Pro X is a value, but to fully exploit it, Vince suggests you invest in one of those brand new, 12-core Mac Pro computers that still hadn’t been released or priced at press time. While the price is still unknown, it’s safe to say you may need to save Santa from a parachuting accident to deserve one. Otherwise, you could always treat yourself to Erasure’s new holiday-themed album, Snow Globe.
(For reviews of selected products in this feature, click HERE.)

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools and Charged Electric Vehicles.
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