12 great gifts for keyboard-playing dads

Fathers’ Day is always a challenge, trying to find something other than the usual cliché “manly” gifts. Fortunately, we’ve picked a few of our favorite things that should put a smile on your dad’s face and a song in his heart (perhaps even captured on his recording platform of choice) this coming Sunday, June 21.

Fathers’ Day is always a challenge, trying to find something other than the usual cliché “manly” gifts. It can be even moreso if your dad is a keyboard player or synth enthusiast, because such people usually have pretty specific ideas of what they’d like, but they don’t want necessarily to make that your problem or anyone else’s.

Fortunately, we’ve picked a few of our favorite things that should put a smile on your dad’s face and a song in his heart (perhaps even captured on his recording platform of choice) this coming Sunday, June 21. 

For the Maker Dad

LittleBits Synth Kit

Image placeholder title

Does your dad like to take things apart and (hopefully) put them back together? Has he taken you to at least one Maker Faire? Did you get the feeling those Lego sets he bought you as a kid were just as much for him as for you? Then the Synth Kit from LittleBits--a collaboration with Korg--is the perfect way for him to apply his tinkerer inclinations musically. The concept behind LittleBits consists of snap-together circuit components that allow you to build useful contraptions with no soldering required. There are kits for smart home control, robotics, and here, different types of playable synthesizer projects. $159 | littlebits.cc

For the Hippie Dad

Hohner Airboard Rasta

Image placeholder title

Okay, so we mean “hippie” loosely here. Does he still have his copy of Bob Marley’s Legend ... on vinyl? Is his idea of a perfectly-spent Sunday simply chilling to music? Would he be at pains to keep a straight face while criticizing your high school-era use of certain recreational botanicals? Then this meolodica from Hohner, a breath-powered keyboard in Rastafarian colors, is just the thing to jam along to the tunes during a backyard barbeque--whether you’re grilling up baby back ribs or kale-stuffed portabellas. Plus it comes from the same company that once made another famous reggae keyboard, the Clavinet. 32 keys: $99 | 37 keys: $119 | us.playhohner.com

For the Scholarly Musician Dad

Polymetric Puzzles by Jeff Fineberg

Image placeholder title

If your dad is or aspires to be a major chopsmeister on piano or any other keyboard instrument, if he woodsheds to Jarrett and Brubeck and Weather Report, then one of the highest levels of accomplishment is being able to play polyryhthms in multiple time signatures at once. Jeff Fineberg, a pianist and synthesist with a Bachelor’s degree in music and a Master’s in computer science, crsytallizes the process of getting there into a series of fun, engaging, and frankly addicting drills presented as “puzzles” to be solved. This is amped-up Hanon meets Beringer with a tweaked-out and thoroughly contemporary twist, and it’s supported with audio and video files on the author’s website. $20.80 at Amazon | polymetricuzzles.com

For the iPad-Toting Dad

Focusrite iTrack Dock

Image placeholder title

The Lightning-connector iterations of the iPad (beginning with the fourth generation and extending through to the latest Air and Mini models) are stellar virtual instrument hosts and idea-capture devices, and there’s no shortage of great soft synth and recording apps available for them. With plug-in support in the upcoming iOS 9, Apple seems to want them to be even more viable than they already are as stand-alone mobile music production studios. But you need a high-quality way to get audio and MIDI in and out. Our current favorite such way is Focusrite’s iTrack Dock, featuring two high-quality mic preamps, stereo line inputs, and balanced monitor outs as well as an A-type USB port so you can attach a MIDI controller keyboard. For really doing pro-level music production on a surface as small as an airline tray table, this is as serious as it gets. $199 | focusrite.com

For the Dad Who Needs Keys Everywhere

CME Xkey

Image placeholder title

We mentioned plugging a MIDI keyboard into that audio interface right above, yes? For ultimate portability (and of course, compatibility with laptops as well as iPads), there’s just about nothing cooler than CME’s Xkey line. For being very thin and having chiclet-like keys, they’re surprisingly smooth and playable--and feature polyphonic aftertouch for software instruments that know how to interpret it. The 25-key model is best at disappearing into a messenger bag, but a recent 37-key addition is better for stretching out and riffing. Xkey 25: $99 | Xkey 37: $199 | cme-pro.com

For the ’80s Dad

Keyboard Presents: The Best of the ’80s

Image placeholder title

Okay, yes, we’re plugging our own book. But today a lot of new and even not-so-new dads were awkwardly asking out their first prom dates back when these artists were popular the first time. Some probably have a skinny tie or two that, in fact, they never took to Goodwill. Some of those skinny ties even had keyboard prints on them. Many got into their own bands and bought their first synths during the ’80s, trying to recreate the sounds of the groundbreaking artists profiled in this title. Hear straight from Duran Duran, Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode, Devo, and other legends about how they did it. Compiled from over ten years of back issues by yours truly and editors emeriti Ernie Rideout and Michael Gallant. $16 | backbeatbooks.com

Dad’s First DAW

Acoustica Mixcraft 7 

Image placeholder title

The features, soft synths, and performance that Mixcraft 7 offers are simply mind-boggling for the price--check our videos from the last NAMM show here. Even the base version offers 15 virtual instruments, whereas the company’s range-topper, called Pro Studio, adds 52 audio processing plug-ins and five more virtual instruments including the virtual grand Pianssimo, which we loved. Some might consider the Windows-only operation to be a downside, but the upside to that is that very well=spec’ed Windows laptops are available under $1,000 and even for as little as $500. If you’re not married to the Mac, we can think of no better way to put a toe in the home-recording-studio water. $89.95 | Pro Studio: $164.95 | acoustica.com

For the Soul Dad

Down The Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story

Image placeholder title

Director Gerald McCauley sits down with a who’s-who of the keyboard-playing universe to discuss the influence of the electro-mechanical tine piano invented by U.S. Airman Harold Rhodes. Whether your dad’s jam is Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, or anything in between, the conversations McCauley has with everyone from Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock to Ray Manzarek are compelling and informative. There are download-only versions, but for a nice keepsake that will be a centerpiece for years to come, spring for the book-and-BluRay combo. $32.90 | fenderrhodesstory.com

 For the Gadget Dad

 Ploytec Pi-L-Squared

Image placeholder title

This is a full-on synthesizer packed into a tiny cube that simply has a MIDI input on one side and an audio output on the other (there’s also a USB-powered version). Every one of a comprehensive palette of synthesis parameters is addressable via MIDI CC messages. You can learn a lot more about its features and signal path in our full review. If your dad is the sort who enjoys the stealth of having a huge amount of sound-making power in a seemingly impossibly small footprint, this box is a blast. $99 | ploytec.com

For the Synth-Obsessed Dad

The Synthesizer by Mark Vail

Image placeholder title

There is no question that synthesizers--analog and modular ones in particular--have enjoyed a huge comeback and cultural renaissance in our still-early phase of the new millennium. Music technology historian and former Keyboard tech editor Mark Vail has written the most comprehensive tome yet on the electronic instrument that changed everything. From historical milestones to how to program sounds, it’s all here. This book should be required reading on the shelf of any true synth enthusiast. $31.50 paperback | $99 hardcover | $15 Kindle | Amazon.com

For the Groove-Making Dad

Korg Volca Series

Image placeholder title

Tiny. Analog. Cheap in price but not in sound. Will help your dad access his inner Deadmau5. The Volca Beats is a drum machine you program in a classic 808 style. The Volca Keys is a polyphonic all-purpose synthesizer. The Volca Bass is, as the name implies, a groove-oriented bass synth and sequencer. We fell in love with them at review time, and one, two, or all three will prove that any DJ- or groove-curious dad only thinks he doesn’t have a little electronic musician in him. $150 each | korg.com

For the Guitar-Playing Dad

Electro-Harmonix C9 Organ Machine

Image placeholder title

Part of being a loving son or daughter means accepting that your dad is not perfect, and in some cases that means he’s really invested in playing guitar and just doesn’t relate to instruments with keys on them. It’s okay, because you can get him the next best thing: A stompbox that makes a guitar sound like a Hammond organ. No, really, it does, and it works surprisingly well. Nine presets and the ability to mix effected and dry signals are on hand, as are separate outputs for the effected and dry signals. This pedal has us a little worried, frankly ... $221 | ehx.com