Our 2015 Rock Star Holiday Gift Guide is Here!

Some of EM's favorite artists, producers, and engineers reveal what's on top of their holiday wish lists and gift lists
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Some of EM's favorite artists, producers, and engineers reveal what's on top of their holiday wish lists and gift lists
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year—when we call up some of our favorite artists, producers, and engineers to ask what’s on the top of their holiday wish lists. Per our own little holiday tradition, we ask each person for a “sky’s the limit” suggestion for those two-percenters out there, and a low-cost alternative for the rest of us. There’s a perfect present here for every special person on your studio shopping list. Maybe pick up a little something for yourself while you’re at it.

Brian Setzer

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This holiday season, The Brian Setzer Orchestra can be found touring the US on their 31-city Christmas Rocks! tour in support of Rockin’ Rudolph, their first studio Christmas album in a decade. So when we caught up with Setzer, he was full swing in the holiday spirit and ready to rock his fantasy wish list.

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“Welcome to your dream ‘sky’s the limit’ jam session! A custom-built rehearsal studio has been built for you made of reclaimed wood from an old barn (adds to the vibe of your gift). Guitars and amps of your choice, new and old, are here. Just imagine plugging your new ’53 Telecaster into your Bassman amp. Your band would be your favorite musicians. Let’s start with Jeff Beck backing you up on guitar, Vince Gill strumming a little mandolin, Flea on the bass, and for a good, solid backbeat, Ringo has agreed to sit in on drums! Let the jam session begin!”

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Setzer brings things back down to earth for his practical gift suggestion—or as he calls it, “your practical, cost-effective idea daily regimen: Pencil, music notation paper, tape recorder (Sears brand circa 1975)! Imagination!”

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Chris Funk

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Multi-instrumentalist, engineer, producer, and studio owner Chris Funk is a member of The Decemberists and Americana group Black Prairie. His recent credits include Red Fang’s Murder the Mountains; Black Prairie’s collaborative album with the Old 97s’ frontman Rhett Miller, The Traveler; and Langhorne Slim’s Be Set Free.

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“On the lower end: a set of Oblique Strategy Cards ($45). It’s a box of playing cards created by Brian Eno and Ben Frost. When Eno was in the studio with Bowie, they would they would use these cards; there were all these random things written down like, ‘Close the door and go listen to it from outside the studio.’ Or the next one would be, ‘Use filters,’ or ‘Start over.’ So when you’re recording, if you’re in a pickle, you can pull something from the Oblique Strategy set. We got into them when we were recording with Chris Walla from Death Cab [for Cutie]. It’s a lighthearted way of approaching a moment of question in the studio, or to get you out of those patterns and ruts you can get into.

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“On the more expensive side, there are some great compressors like the Retro Sta-Level ($2,695). They’re very tactile and simple, and there’s not many options. I really like pieces of gear that don’t have options, because I don’t want to have to spend three days learning how to use it. I like to work fast—something where you’re just capturing the source and it sounds good.”

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Jean-Michel Jarre

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Electronic pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre has been pushing the boundaries of electronic music since he released 1976’s Oxygène, which went on to sell 18 million copies worldwide.

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Part two of his new double album, Electronica, will be released in the spring. Jarre puts the dream in “dream gift”: “A fully equipped ideal electronic music studio, in which you could find a modular Moog beside the Fairlight, a Theremin next to the TR808 & TR909, Memory Moog next to the Nord Lead, Jupiter 8 beside the Korg Polyphonic synth, a Mellotron next to the Synthex, the VCS3 beside the ARP2600 and lots of other toys, connected to giant touchscreen with Ableton Live and all plug-ins, and a pair of big Genelec speakers. This is not so far off from my current studio, but this needs a big bay window overlooking the ocean!

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His down-to-earth picks? “Teenage Engineering OP-1 ($850) or the Animoog app for iPad ($24.99).”

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Kishi Bashi

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Kishi Bashi is the project name of multi-instrumentalist/composer/vocalist Kaoru Ishibashi, who also plays with Of Montreal and was a founding member of Jupiter One. His latest project, Kishi Bashi String Quartet Live is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.

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“I really like this Nudeaudio Move M bluetooth speaker ($69.99) that I have. It was a gift to me, and I would give it as a gift as well. It’s pretty small, but it has incredible bass response and a really even sound. I take it on tour with me all the time—just for my own enjoyment. I have it backstage and everywhere I go. It’s a much better value than some of the other stuff out there; it definitely beats putting your phone in a cup!

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“A gift for dreamers would be the new Moog Modular Synth System 55 ($35,000). I don’t actually have any modular synths, but this is the one I would want if I could have any that I wanted. It’s a replica of the original synth wall-thing that Stevie Wonder used, the Tonto.”

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Sylvia Massy

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Producer Sylvia Massy has recorded albums for the likes of Prince, Johnny Cash, Tool, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; she’s famous for her unconventional studio techniques, which she shares in her new book, Recording Unhinged (Hal Leonard), available in early 2016.

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“My latest discovery is the Soyuz SU-017 tube microphone ($3,500). I put it up against a dozen vintage German microphones and was shocked at how good it was. I would recommend it for vocals, acoustic instruments, and anything else. They are hand-built in Russia, and you’ll pay for that craftsmanship, as they are not inexpensive. But if you want to make an engineer really happy at Christmastime, you’ll wrap up a pair of them!”

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As far as Massy’s practical suggestion goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so she drew us a diagram (right): “If you are on my holiday gift list, you might get a garden hose, a funnel, an old Auratone speaker, duct tape, and an SM57 mic under your tree. This my favorite recipe for a do-it-yourself Cooper Time Cube analog delay. Just tape the funnel to the Auratone, connect the garden hose to the funnel, and tape the 57 on the other end. Put this device on an aux send and listen to it on vocals... a fantastic and economic delay effect!”

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James Towler

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As the studio and FOH engineer for Steve Winwood, James Towler also manages and operates Winwood’s Wincraft studios, where he recently mixed a new album from Black Feathers, and recorded and mixed Public Image Limited’s latest release, What the World Needs Now.

“My low-budget choice would be an item from Overtone Labs; it’s called a Tune Bot ($99.95), and it tunes drums. It clips onto the rim, you tell it what key you want to tune to, and then you just go around the lugs tapping it. It’s absolutely fantastic. I am no drum tuner at all, but with this, I’m good. It was actually PiL’s drum tech, Stephen Cousins, who showed it to me.

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“The big-ticket gift is the Digital Audio Labs Livemix (price range depends on system). Every studio needs a good monitoring system for the musicians, and that’s often the most overlooked item in the studio. If you’ve got a bunch of musicians, you want them to be comfortable, so getting their mix right is the key to a great performance. I love Livemix because it works with my [Audinate] Dante system, and it’s got ambient mics in it. There’s a jack input so you can plug your iPhone into it to play music for other musicians without the person having to take the headphones off. It’s just a really well thought-out box.”

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Wil Baptiste, Black Violin

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Viola player Wil Baptiste is half of the duo Black Violin, which brings together modern hip hop and R&B sounds and virtuosic classical strings. BV’s new album, Stereotypes, includes guest performers Robert Glasper, Kandace Springs, Melanie Fiona, and Black Thought from The Roots.

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“The budget item would be a computer. If you’re a musician starting out doing some recording with a limited budget, you can do a lot with just a laptop, and there are so many free plugins that you can get. You literally have a studio if you have a decent computer—like a 2013 Macbook Pro.

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“A dream gift item—if you’d asked me this a couple of years back, I would have said, ‘an SSL board,’ but now I’m into just warmth and natural, organic sounds. So, I would love to have, from one of the original Universal Audio consoles, the actual channel strip. As a matter of fact, I bought a UA DI preamp last week and I’m going to start using that on the road.”

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Jay Newland

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Jay Newland's career reached new heights after he produced Norah Jones’ Grammy-winning debut, His credits also include Pat Metheny, Etta James, Paul Simon, and many more.

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“The FMR RN 1773 ‘Really Nice’ Compressor ($200) is fantastic. It can go from clean, subtle, and transparent to a really nice smash for drums. Think ‘When the Levee Breaks’.

“On the other end of the spectrum is a Teletronix (now UA) LA-2A Leveling Amplifier ($3,500 new, up to twice that for the original). This is one of my favorite vocal compressors that sounds great on many other things as well. It's a staple at nearly every great recording studio in the world. I can’t remember the last session I’ve done without one.”

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Matt Armstrong, Murder by Death

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Bass player Matt Armstrong is a member of roots-goth band Murder By Death, who have built a devoted national fanbase after playing together for more than a dozen years. Their latest album on the Bloodshot Records label is Big Dark Love.

“For the past couple of years, I’ve been a big fan of the Fuzzrocious pedals. The company is a total family operation: The dad builds them and the wife paints them. Or, for a small charge you can have one of their very young children paint it for you, which not only gets it to you faster, but they set the money aside for a college fund. Overdrives and fuzzes are their meat and potatoes, and they’re totally up for doing custom weird things. I have one that’s called the Grey Stache ($145), which is essentially a big mouth but is designed to be very bass-friendly. They’re really affordable and if their stuff breaks or screws up, they’ll make it right.

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“Lately the big ticket item that has tickled my fancy—though I’ve never gotten the chance to use it—is the AxeFX II preamp/processing unit ($2,249.95) by Fractal. I went to see the band Failure when they got back together last year, and they’re pretty much exclusively using that. It’s an amp-modeling and effect-modeling unit with a floor controller.”

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Qmillion

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Grammy-winning producer/mixer/composer Qmillion, (Robert Glasper, Seun Kuti, Beenie Man) has just completed the mixes on Tweet’s latest album Charlene (due in January), as well as production and mixing on a new release from Kenneth Whalum. Qmillion’s compositions have been licensed for more than 50 film and TV projects.

“My budget item would be the Waves/Abbey Road Reel ADT ($249). This baby is based off the Abbey Road Studios process of creating a double track (without actually doubling), using a tape machine. Of course, the Beatles used this method, and I find it incredibly useful as a tool not only on vocals, but also for spreading certain instruments in the mix to leave more room in the center for the main focus, or with sounds I want to fatten or make more rich. The tape emulation gives you drive and saturation control for more coloring options.

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“If money’s no problem, the Burl Vancouver B32 ($2,299) allows you to mix in the box as you normally would, but then take up to 32 outputs, run them through Class A electronics, and sum the audio in an analog environment, for real headroom and warmth in your stereo mix. This is as close to a secret weapon for your mixes as there is; you’ll get deeper and tighter bass, wider stereo imaging and clarity.”

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Kevin Killen

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In his long and stellar career, five-time Grammy winning engineer/producer Kevin Killen has contributed to the success of a broad range of great artists, including Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, U2, Bryan Ferry, Allen Toussaint, and so many more.

“For an everyday-budget item, I would choose the Sonnox Oxford Inflator plug-in ($169). It’s a most wonderful tool to bring life, presence, and analog warmth to your audio path. And it’s so versatile, it can be used on anything.

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“If the sky’s the limit, I would choose an awesome set of reference monitors. I have always subscribed to the position that if you can truly hear what you are referencing then you will make better audio decisions. One of the best and most expensive purchases I ever made was [to buy] a set of ProAc Studio 100 Monitors, coupled to a Cello Encore Amplifier and Transparent Audio cable . It set me back close to ten grand back in 1993, but I have loved listening to that system each and every day.”

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Ryan Heyner, Small Black

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Guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Ryan Heyner is a member of synth rock group Small Black. The band’s third full-length album, Best Blues (out now on the Jagjaguwar label) was written and recorded in their Brooklyn personal studio called 222.

“A great budget holiday gift is the Arturia Beatstep Pro. It’s a deep, powerful hardware controller and sequencer that can connect to virtually any musical instrument you throw at it—easily connect your favorite vintage synths or drum machines via CV and MIDI, or control all of your virtual instruments over USB. Beat-step Pro quickly becomes the composing engine of your studio. It’s a great tool to spark melodic and rhythmic ideas and is so small and compact you can take it with you anywhere.

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“On a bigger budget, the Studio Electronics Omega CODE 8 ($4,999) is wonderful rackmounted eightvoice poly synth. One of the greatest features with this synth is you can have up to four completely different filters installed at the same time. There’s amazing flexibility for sculpting your sounds with Moog, Oberheim, ARP, Roland, and Yamaha-inspired filters. All the synth you’ll ever need. ”

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Chris Lord-Alge

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Five-time Grammy winner Chris Lord-Alge has mixed albums by Green Day, Tina Turner, Stone Temple Pilots, Stevie Nicks, Bruce Springsteen, Bad Religion, Deftones, James Brown, and My Chemical Romance, to barely scratch the surface of his discography.

“The sky’s-the-limit gift would be a pair of Barefoot MM27 monitors with the stands (around $10,000). These are my favorite new speakers and are so clear and punchy, and are a dream to have. They are set up in front of my couch at my studio, so I can really enjoy the mixes and any music I like. The most fun I had was sitting there with Steven Tyler listening to AC/DC’s ‘Shoot to Thrill’ from Back in Black. We laughed and cheered, and he became an instant fan of the speakers.

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The practical gift would be the Focusrite Claret Series Thunderbolt interface (starting around $499) or the Scarlett USB interface (starting at $99). These sound fantastic. Add them to your laptop and favorite mic and a couple headphones. Having a portable setup is super important to any engineer or producer, and this makes it possible to record anyone anywhere—which is how you can get the gig!

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Gabriel Roth, The Dap-Kings

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Musical multitasker Gabriel Roth is the co-founder of Daptone Records, and the bandleader, producer, songwriter, and bass player for Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, as well as a champion for analog recording.

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His dream gift? “An acetate. The greatest gift I could think of would be to write, arrange, record, mix, and master a song specifically and uniquely intended for somebody I love. I would cut a single acetate and then destroy the multitrack and master tapes, charts, and any other remnant of the recording so that there would be no other trace of the recording or possibility of re-recording it. I might even slip the musicians a few roofies before the session so they don’t even remember how the song went. That’s a one of-a-kind gift.”

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“I’m giving the new holiday LP by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, It’s A Holiday Soul Party, to everyone I know! I can’t imagine a cooler gift than a nice vinyl 12-inch that features Sharon Jones singing a Hanukkah song!”

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Wylie Gelber, Dawes

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Gelber, the bassist for L.A.-based folk-rock band Dawes, is hands-on in the studio, building homemade instruments and gear to achieve his ideal sound.

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Gelber’s sky’s-the-limit gift is “any sort of complete home stereo system by McIntosh. Pretty much everything they make could be put under the category of ‘sky’s the limit.’ (prices run in the thousands). But they sound incredible. And what’s the point of any music gear, if you can’t listen to it right?

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His practical choice: “Sony MDR7506 headphones (about $99). These are a timeless classic for any musician, in or out of the studio. As seen in any studio ever. And they’ve still got that classic look.”

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Robert Mercurio, Galactic

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In addition to playing bass in longtime (20 years and counting!) New Orleans-based funk group Galactic, Robert Mercurio is a partner in the band’s studio. He co-produced (along with bandmate Ben Ellman) Lyrics Born’s recent Real People release. Galactic’s latest is Into the Deep.

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“My any-budget item would be the Ampeg SCR-DI ($199.99). It’s a great overall DI, which is needed in any studio. There’s also the added bonus that it is an exceptionally good bass DI.

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“If the sky’s the limit, I would choose a Telefunken ELAM 251 microphone ($8,995). This is a wonderfully diverse large-diaphragm tube condenser that works great on everything.”

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Duncan Sheik

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Grammy and Tony Award-winning singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik has continually evolved as an artist since his eponymous debut in 1996. He says his latest album, Legerdemain, is his most keyboard-centric to date.

“A reasonably priced gift could be the Yamaha Reface CS ($499.99) Of the four units Yamaha just put out in their Reface Series, it is my favorite. There’s ten or maybe a dozen knobs and sliders, and the instant gratification of being able to get exactly the kind of analog sound you’re looking for is awesome. The interface is great—no menus to scroll through to find out how to change parameters. It’s all right in front of you. There’s also a cool looping feature, and a good effects section.

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“My high-end gift would be the Sequential Circuits Prophet 6 ($2,799), which I actually just got yesterday. I love it because I can get where I need to go really quickly without having to figure a lot out. The sound sets that are in there—there are 500 presets and another 500 that you can program yourself. Some of those presets are actually the same presets I got from the original Prophet 5. To have that in the mix is fantastic.”

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Adam Ayan

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Grammy-winning mastering engineer Adam Ayan has been a fixture at Gateway Mastering since 1998. His recent projects include Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon, Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller, and Paul McCartney’s Out There Tour—Live at the Budokan, and at press time, he was nominated for two Latin Grammy Awards for his work on Juan Luis Guerra’s Todo Tiene Su Hora.

“For the budget gift: Westone flat frequency response ear plugs (pro models start around $100). I am of the opinion that every musician and audio engineer should own a pair of these, and should use them often. They are made custom to your own ears, and because they are flat frequency response, they simply take what you are hearing and lower it in level, by the amount determined by the rating of the filters you purchase with them; I highly recommend the 25dB filters. They are comfortable to wear, and they do not change the color of the sound, making them fun to use. Great for rock shows, band rehearsals, and any other high-SPL situations. Protect your ears!

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Ayan’s sky’s-the limit suggestion: Duntech Sovereign loudspeakers ($13,000 and up). “These are my loudspeakers of choice, and what I have been using in my mastering room since we opened it in 2001. Very neutral, very revealing, and enjoyable to listen to for long periods of time. They will tell you things about your mix/music that you may have never heard before. I believe that the best way to improve any studio is to start with the monitor path. Make it the best it can be and your work will get better by leap and bounds.”

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Carl Broemel, My Morning Jacket

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My Morning Jacket has been touring this fall in support of their newest release, Waterfall. MMJ guitarist Carl Broemel would like a recording room in his stocking this year.

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“The sky’s-the-limit gift for me would be a complete freestanding prefabricated backyard studio space—something similar to the studio-shed.com Summit Series. Please put a bow on it, thanks!”

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A more realistic alternative: “The Radial EXTC ($259). With this, you can dust off any old pedals you already own and use them in an effects send, which is way more fun than an expensive new plug-in.”

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Joe Lester, Silversun Pickups

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L.A.-based Silversun Pickups have been cranking out loud indie rock since they emerged out of the Silverlake scene in 2002; Better Nature, their first record in three years, was released in September. Keyboardist Joe Lester shared his gift picks.

“We have a pretty modest demo studio setup in our rehearsal space and until recently, our demoing process has been pretty basic: Throw up a couple mics and just try to get ideas down. But as we started to work on our new record, I got more interested in the actual recording process and learning to make things sound good. We don’t have too much space for a bunch of outboard gear, so I started looking around at smaller pieces that could be useful and found the Eventide Mixing Link Preamp ($299). Plenty of stuff has been written about this little guy, and you can add me to the list of people who really dig it. It really is a Swiss Army knife of a box. We used it for vocal effects, running instruments through iPad apps and as a nice, transparent preamp for direct guitars and things. The possibilities are pretty limitless. For the money, you get a lot of tools.

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Feeling spendy? Lester recommends the Korg MS-20 Kit ($1,399): “On the pricier side, but not too pricey, there’s this bit of awesomeness. We’ve used an MS-10 or an MS-20 on every record we’ve made in some way or another. They’re just so great sounding and so versatile. You can get the MS-20mini for $500 or so, but I have sausage fingers and mini keyboards are kind of bummer for me. Also, I love building stuff, so when they announced they were putting out a full-sized MS-20 with MIDI and USB functionality that came as a DIY build kit...Sign me up.”

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Jesse Parmet, The Yawpers

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Jesse Parmet plays guitar in Denver-based roots rock outfit The Yawpers, a band he helped found in 2011. The Yawpers’ second full-length album, American Man, is out now.

“On a practical-type budget, I like the Shure 520DX Green Bullet ($119). It was designed as a blues harp microphone, but it can be fun to use on other instruments—anything that you want to give a low-fi kind of dirtiness to. I’ve used it to overdrive acoustic guitars, piano, vocals, anything. Also, there’s a builtin 1/4-inch connector that plugs right into an amp, so you have the option of capturing a second source from the amp. You could run the mic directly through effects pedals, so there’s a lot of room for experimentation there.

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“Something that’s out of my budget—but I have worked with them before—is a pair of Coles 4038s (about $2,800). They’re incredibly sturdy, and they have that classic ribbon microphone warmth to them. They bring out that warmth and depth from acoustic instruments especially, but I would also use them on guitar and bass cabinets. They have provide a unique full-bodied, darker tone, which I love.”

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Lawrence Manchester

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Grammy-winning engineer Lawrence Manchester’s credits include recording orchestral music for Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning film The Departed, and projects for Broadway shows and pop stars such as Beyonce and Bono, in addition to his regular gig as the music mixer/ producer for NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

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“On a lower budget, a pair of Audio-Technica ATH M50 headphones (about $150): As a mixing tool, they sound wonderful, are terrific when recording musicians (both instrumentalists and vocalists), are collapsible and thus easy to travel with, and come in a few color choices. They are a true workhorse for me, and I own several pairs.

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“On the other end of the audio spectrum, my second gift idea would be a professionally built mastering-grade listening room ($all the money in the world). I can’t overstate the joy that comes from hearing music in a room that’s been perfectly designed, tuned, isolated, furnished, and equipped for the sole purpose of listening. It can change one’s life!”

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Robot Koch

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Berlin-based producer Robert Koch, aka Robot Koch, was a member of the band Jahcoozi before venturing on a solo career. His latest album, Hypermoment, was released in November.

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“I agree with Nikola Tesla who said, ‘The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude...be alone; that is the secret of invention.’ That`s why my ideal gift would not be a piece of gear or an instrument but a month or two at a place where one can write music in seclusion, free of outside influences. This can be anything from a cabin in the woods to a house overlooking a cliff—just someplace where ideas can be born in solitude.”

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For a cost-effective gift, Koch says “there are lots of great free plug-ins available online. I use the Tal-Dub delay effect a lot for example; it`s fun and it`s free.”

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Seven Lions

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Producer Seven Lions, born Jeff Montalvo, landed on the map when his remix of Above and Beyond’s “You Got to Go” won a Beatport competition. His Worlds Apart EP debuted at Number One on the iTunes Dance charts, and his latest project, The Throes of Winter, was released earlier this year.

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For a cost-conscious present, “I would get Spectrasonics Omnisphere ($479) just because it’s so versatile,” Montalvo says. “So many different sounds to be made using it.”

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“As someone who’s all in the box, I think monitors are the only really large-ticket item,” he adds. “Probably some high-end Dynaudios (about $1,200), but then I would need to get a larger room also!”

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Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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Ben Jaffe is the creative director of NOLA’s legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band; he plays tuba and upright bass with the ensemble, which can be found touring Cuba this month.

“If Santa Claus showed up tomorrow, I wish he’d have a bag full of vintage Neve preamps. They make everything sound warm, clean, and beautifully natural. I’m always on the hunt for them. And each one has its own personality, so the search never ends! Besides that, I’d love a custom studio desk for all my gear. I’ve got stuff from different eras and nothing on the market fits everything. But that’s part of the fun—making it all work with what you’ve got.

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Jaffe’s low-cost gift? “I’m down with Crosley turntables (prices start around $80). You can buy them at Urban Outfitters! They have a model that converts cassettes to digital. It’s an easy, quick way to pop whatever onto your computer. I still listen to cassettes and LPs—particularly old 78s. They’re inexpensive and you can find the craziest stuff. Every band, big or small, made cassettes back in the ’80s and into the ’90s. It’s crazy what’s out there. I really like finding unmarked homemade cassettes. It fascinates me what people take the time to make.”

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Shana Halligan

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Singer Shana Halligan fronted the pop group Bitter:Sweet before establishing her solo career; her music has appeared in more than 200 movie and television titles, including Orange is the New Black. Halligan’s new album, Back To Me, was released this fall.

“The Neumann U47 microphone (about $4,000) paired with the Universal Audio 6176 preamp/compressor gives me goosebumps—super-warm, old-school deliciousness! I feel like I could channel Billie Holiday with that setup!”

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“If budget allows, I’ve made a few albums with the Neumann TLM 103 mic ($1,099), a beautiful-sounding microphone. Something even easier on the bank account is the AKG C214 (about $250). For the price, it’s a super-solid choice. Very crisp and surprisingly warm. Paired with my most recent and fantastic find, the dbx 676 tube mic preamp ($999), you can really get an incredible sound that won’t set you too far back.”

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Mako

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Veteran DJ Logan Light and Julliard graduate Alex Seaver formed the electronic duo Mako in 2011, and have been churning out high-energy dance music ever since. Their current singles “Smoke Filled Room” and “I Won’t Let You Walk Away” will appear on their debut artist album, out in early 2016.

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Like the rest of us, Mako like to dream big: “For us, oh man, a room full of live instruments would be unbelievable. I’m talking about a Steinway Grand Piano, little upright detuned piano, and fill the place with world instruments—percussion and strummed. There would be so many new flavors in our music, always a great thing.”

The duo suggests a no-cost alternative: “Learn the tools at your disposal! There is a several-year learning curve on many aspects within music production and engineering; you will force yourself to improve your ear dramatically by narrowing down the amount of plug-ins you use.”

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Jeremy Ruzumna, Fitz and the Tantrums

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In 2010, neo-soul band Fitz and the Tantrums reached Number One on the Billboard Heatseekers chart with their debut album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces, and they’ve never looked back. Keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna closes our gift guide with his favorite gear suggestions—and timeless studio advice.

“For the ‘sky’s the limit’ gift idea section, I’d say a Universal Apollo Quad, complete with all the UA plug-ins (starting at $2,000). Native Instruments Maschine (starting at $599) plus all the NI expansion packs would be fantastic. Also, all the plugins by SoundToys—they’re amazing. Decapitator ($179) is a go to for every song. Lastly, a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 6 ($2,799).

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“Cost-effective advice for the everyday engineer… At the very least, if you don’t have access to all the fancy hardware and sexy outboard gear, just make sure you record your source (vocal, instruments, etc) at a healthy, non-distorted level. Capturing the performance is the most important and crucial thing. It’ll give you maximum flexibility and you can always run the tracks through whatever you want to after the fact.

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“All the fancy gear and plug-ins in the world are less important than knowing how use whatever you happen to be working with. Even the most stock plug-ins can give you amazing results if you know how to use them.”