It’s often been said that music is priceless. But the perfect musician’s gift doesn’t have to be expensive. To prove that, we’ve rounded up a collection of essential items for any budding musician’s studio or live rig. All of them are under a hundred bucks, and every one has either been reviewed in Keyboard or tested in real-world conditions by this writer. So without further ado, here are some tried and true essentials for the musicians who are on your “nice” list this year.
One of the most obvious choices for an inexpensive gift for a producer is soundware or sample libraries. Two of our favorite purveyors in 2009 are Big Fish Audio and Puremagnetik, whose value-added Micropaks now span three of the most common formats: Native Instruments Kontakt, Apple Logic, and Ableton Live.
That said, shopping for someone else’s soundware can be as complicated as finding the perfect pair of Adidas shell-toes. Keyboardists and producers are finicky folks, so if you’re going to go the soundware route, be sure to do a bit of research on what your musician buddy is lusting after – or at least their musical genre of choice. Armed with that information, you’ll be better able to snag the perfect collection.
One last word: If you’re looking for dance music soundware, be sure to check out the libraries from Sample Magic and Loopmasters, both distributed in the U.S. by Big Fish. Both developers have an unparalleled attention to detail and top-notch production.
Ableton Live Intro
Price: $99 download / $139 box
While full disclosure requires that I mention my relationship with Ableton as one of their primary sound designers since 2004, there’s no denying that Ableton Live Intro is arguably the only game in town when it comes to cross-platform compatibility – and full-on DAW capabilities – for under a hundred bucks.
What’s more, Live Intro is the only product that delivers Ableton’s legendary Session view, allowing users to interactively record, sequence, and arrange for hours without ever hitting the stop button. Literally.
That means it’s possible to produce, perform, and DJ – all within a single app. And when it comes time to upgrade to the pro versions, there’s a discounted path for that too. If you’re even casually familiar with Live you already know this, but put yourself in the shoes of a teen or aspiring superstar who gets this software for a gift, and you realize what a big deal it is.
Yes, there are other excellent apps out there, but for sheer price to performance ratio, Live Intro nabs the brass ring for cramming in tons of features, 7GB of sampled content, and availability for both Mac and PC for under a hundred bucks.
Native Instruments Audio 2 DJ
Price: $119 MSRP $99 Street
While we’re on the topic of live performance and DJing, let’s chat about Native Instruments’ newest interface, Audio2DJ. For the full scoop, click here for our online-exclusive review.
While the Audio 2 DJ forgoes the inputs of its bigger brothers – the Audio 8 DJ and Audio 4 DJ – its two pairs of stereo outs make it the perfect companion for laptop-based keyboardists looking to send multiple outs to the house mix. This is ideal for modern nu-disco and electro-pop acts who want separate submixes: one for their drums, the other for synths. We tested it with Apple MainStage and Ableton Live, and it worked with both without a hitch.
Blue Microphones Mikey
Price $99 MSRP / $79 street
In the November ’09 issue of Keyboard, we sang the praises of Blue’s new Mikey, especially when used in conjunction with Audiofile Engineering’s FiRe iPhone recording app. So, with a street price of $79, it’s earned its rightful place in this roundup.
When you jack this baby into one of the many compatible iPods – or any of the three generations of iPhone – you’ve got a field recorder that’s perfect for sampling everything from barnyard animals to construction sites. Best of all, it fits into all but the tightest jeans pocket. I keep one in my backpack at all times and have snagged impromptu field audio on more than one occasion. Executive editor Stephen Fortner also swears by his for doing interviews and recording backup audio for the many videos you see on this site. This is good stuff.
While we’re on the topic of Blue’s value-oriented products, let’s also give a shout out to last year’s innovative USB-based portable microphone, the Blue Snowflake. For a street price of around sixty bucks, it’s another killer addition to your laptop bag.
Korg DS-10 Plus
In 2008, Korg threw a curve ball at game-addicted producers with their DS-10 cartridge for the Nintendo DS. While the original included two synths and four drum tracks, this year’s “Plus” model ratchets the fun up a notch with four synths and eight drum tracks.
Granted, you need a Nintendo DSi portable video game unit for the full experience, but if you’ve got one of those, and a measly $29.99, then you’re in business.
While this is a great way to kill time on an airplane or subway, it’s an even better way to infect the little ones with the techno-musicmaking gene, so they can follow in your footsteps someday.
Strangely, we found nothing on Korg's website about this one, but here's the Amazon link.
M-Audio Studiophile AV30
Price: $99 list / approx. $85 street
If you’ve done any production work, you’re obviously familiar with Ye Olde Car Test. That is, burning a CD or grabbing your MP3 player and referencing the mixes in your car.
While this is a tried-and-true method for confirming or refining a mixdown, in many parts of the world the winter months are awfully frigid to be traipsing in and out over and over just to get that snare drum right.
If you want to double-check your mixes on smaller speakers, check out the M-Audio Studiophile AV30s. Don’t expect killer bass from these pint-size desktop monitors. That’s not the point. The purpose of having a second set of smaller monitors is to double check your mix on something that duplicates the vibe of a cheap car stereo or computer monitors, without being shrill or inaccurate.
I’ve been double-checking my remixes on smaller monitors for some time now – and the results are remarkable. Not only does it expand your perspective on the mix, but it’s great for giving your ears a break from the volume too.
Korg Nano Series Controllers
Price: $49-59 street
When they first hit the market, we were blown away by the size and price of Korg’s Nano line of controllers, comprising a miniature keyboard, drum pad bank, and mixing surface. A year later, after gigging around the globe with pint-sized knobs and faders and laying down keys in coffeeshops and airports, these babies are still holding up nicely.
So we’re giving them another shout-out this year, not just because they’re great, but because they’ve proven themselves to be sturdy little beasties as well.
If tiny keys don’t rev your engine, M-Audio’s KeyRig 49 is a four-octave, full-size alternative that won’t break the bank. Disregard the $129 list price, because most retailers sell them for just under a C-note.
Kingston DataTraveler Mini Slim 8GB
Price $34.99 MSRP / approx. $22 street
While a flash drive is nowhere near as glamorous as a slick little DAW or a portable control surface, the Kingston DataTraveler always gets a lot of attention whenever I whip it off my keychain, because this sucker is tiny.
Dispensing with a larger casing has made the Mini Slim a tad more fragile than a standard thumb drive, but having it in your pocket at all times is worth a little extra TLC. With a street price of less than twenty-five smackers at Amazon – for 8GB, to boot – the Mini Slim will leave lots of room in your stocking for the rest of the goodies we’ve covered here.
And on that note, here’s wishing you a joyous holiday and a prosperous new year.