If you ask any serious musician about their relationship with gear, you’ll probably get a long answer that begins with a heavy sigh.
In short, musicians love gear, and will go to great lengths to justify their ever-growing gear collections. When you sing, play an instrument, or do recording and production work, your eyes are open to a whole wide world of tantalizing products promising to make you better at your craft.
It can be hard to decide exactly where you should direct your budget as a musician (or as someone buying gifts for a musician – you’re in the right place, by the way!), especially when you don’t have the biggest budget to begin with.
The market for music gear is bigger and more thorough than ever, and now that music production is something that can happen in anyone’s bedroom, industry mainstays are ramping up their gadget R&D to try and lock onto the next must-have music tool.
Of course, some classic, useful items remain in demand. And then there are the oddballs. We’ll get to those too.
We’ve gone through the trouble of compiling five old- and new-school gadgets that musicians might find handy, in the hope that you, or some lucky musician in your life, might finally get their hands on that game-changing product and finally generate a streaming hit. Or, at the very least, have a few laughs.
1. Roland TR-08
Even if you’ve never heard of Roland, you’ve definitely heard Roland; the Japanese music technology company has played a major part in the evolution of music since the 1970s, introducing dozens of famous synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines that would help define the music of the last fifty years.
They even had a hand in developing MIDI, the universal digital music language implemented in just about every electronic music instrument today. One piece of Roland gear may just take the prize for most influential, though: the TR-808 rhythm composer.
The 808 may not have seen the most successful release, but it would go on to be featured on more hit records than any other drum box, and can be found in everything from Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing to Kanye West’s aptly named 808s & Heartbreak.
It’s a sound that stubbornly refuses to become obsolete, with artists continuously finding new ways to use it. The only problem is, like all vintage gear, it’s rare, pricey, bulky, and unreliable, and it probably smells. Why wouldn’t it?
So props to Roland for giving us the best possible solution: the TR-08, a miniature 808 that sounds identical to the original, complete with all of its older brother’s controls. Despite being so small it can be powered by AA batteries, the minuscule TR-08 delivers the enormous, boomy kicks, sizzling snares, and adorable little congas we’ve all become so addicted to.
Source Audio should be familiar territory for any electric guitar or bass player who likes to experiment. The company is responsible for some of the most advanced and comprehensive guitar effect units to hit the market.
Source Audio’s various reverb, distortion, delay, and filter pedals are each groundbreaking in their own right, with near-limitless possibilities. If there’s a particular sound you want, Source Audio can probably help you find it.
But we’re not here to talk about pedals. Everyone has pedals. Your mom has pedals. We’re here to talk about gadgets. And if a gadget is what you need and crave, then you’re in for a treat. Atop Source Audio’s pile of painstakingly meticulous effect units sits the company’s crowning achievement. That achievement is the Hot Hand 3.
Hot Hand 3 is a “universal wireless effects controller” designed to work with electronic music gear. Many stage pianos, workstations, synthesizers, sequencers, and even some guitar pedals feature a quarter-inch stereo expression input, with which the Hot Hand is compatible.
And if you’re using any of Source Audio’s own pedals, the control capabilities are doubled, thanks to a 3.5mm TRS connection. Oh, and in case you’re wondering how Hot Hand works… you wear it like a ring and wave it around. Welcome to the future.
Headphones – talk about a flooded market. Big, small, over-ear, in-ear, wired and wireless, noise-canceling, endorsed by rap icons, or featuring skulls; headphones are numerous and diverse, and the truth is that most of them are basically useless for making music.
Consumer headphones are designed for music listening, sure, but they typically feature an extra-bassy audio range that might be good for kicking it, but isn’t so great when you’re trying to tune a kick.
Sometimes you don’t want to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on monitor speakers, stands, isolation pads, and various species of soundproofing products, and sometimes you just want to play as loud as you want without disturbing your family or roommates. That’s when headphones are handy, but it’s important to make sure you’re using studio headphones. That way, you can avoid bad mixes and unpleasant timbres, saving yourself some trouble in the long run.
One of the best pairs of studio headphones currently produced is the Samson Z55. These headphones are perfect for mixing, monitoring, and just regular old practicing. Samson has long been an industry leader when it comes to audio accuracy, and these headphones deliver on that reputation.
With passive sound isolation thanks to their closed-back design, light weight that won’t make your neck ache, and cozy ear pads intended for hours of constant use, the Z55s are worth every penny.
Now that we’ve explored an utterly practical piece of gear that should theoretically help almost anyone progress in their musical endeavors, it’s time to talk about something so impractical that almost nobody will be able to prove its usefulness without first emptying dozens of 180ml bottles of sake into theirs and everyone else’s mouths. Its name is Otamatone.
A product of Japanese firms CUBE Toys and Maywa Denki Design, the Otamatone is a variation of a ribbon synth, a device that produces simple electronic tones controlled by a touch-sensitive film.
In this case, the ribbon synth is embedded in the body of a silicone creature resembling a musical eighth note (as well as a ladle or tadpole – its name comes from the Japanese word for the latter), with the synth’s speaker positioned in the creature’s mouth.
Perhaps creature is too flattering, or not flattering enough. Maybe entity is the right word. Whichever it may be, Otamatone expects its handler to squeeze its mouth as they operate its control ribbon, imparting the resulting tones with a genuinely fantastic wah-wah effect.
In truth, Otamatone-san is a noble, misunderstood being whose mode of sound production greatly resembles how we produce sounds ourselves, and would certainly make for a great music gift. Wah wah wah.
Synthesizers are unique among musical instruments in their total lack of appeal to anyone other than the person playing them. Unlike guitars, drums, trombones, and other “real” instruments, synthesizers aren’t terribly showy.
They’re an intellectual’s instrument, making up for a lack of visual intrigue with an abundance of knobs. So many knobs. And switches. What do they all do? Just ask a synth player. They are literally spending every minute of every day hoping you will ask them how it works.
When you’re an esteemed synthesist, life can sometimes be lonely. You want nothing more than to share with others the joy you hold in your heart, but let’s be real: this stuff is kind of complicated and sounds a little weird, and you can’t blame your kids when they run and hide any time daddy busts out the ARP 2600. It almost ruins the fun of correcting people when they compliment your cool ”piano.” Almost.
Thankfully, the days of spooky, mysterious, and genuinely intimidating analog synthesizers have finally ended, thanks to Blipblox, an instrument that is simultaneously a children’s toy and full-blown analog-style synth, proving once and for all that the line between those two things was only ever in your head.
With the same essential controls common to all synths, Blipblox is a great way to introduce others to the basics of synthesis, or even teach yourself if you’re still just a rookie vaporwave god. Does it sound like a Moog? No, but you’re probably the only person in your zip code who can tell.