Thursday, December 23, 2010

I'm back again / last-minute digital gifts

Well, it has been a while, hasn't it? Long-story short, I moved to Berlin, Germany in September to start a new job managing social media for Ableton. You can Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube page, and dig around the Forum. Expect to hear more about that as I resume blogging regularly. Nice to see some upgrades to Blogger in the time I've been gone.

It being Christmas Eve-Eve and all, now's an appropriate time to address that wonderful segment of the population who, unlike my lucky Jewish ass, have to buy gifts for pretty much everyone they'll be seeing in the next week. There have already been some great gift guides published - check out some of my favorites, from CDM and Synthtopia, but I figured I'd add some last-minute deals to the pot. Everything here is under $100, does something unique, and, best of all, can be ordered digitally (as in, now). No guarantee that you'll get the license sorted out by Christmas, but at least you'll have a proof of purchase that says "I love you." You can also think of this as a guide for what to do with some of that holiday cash that may be coming your way.

Lastly, let me reiterate that nothing posted here should be seen as an opinion or endorsement of any third party - these opinions are just mine. Check it:

Madrona Labs Aalto
Format: AU plug-in (Mac OSX only)
Price: $99 (~€75)
So what do you get the electronic musician who has everything? This. Hands-down the most unique new synth I encountered this year, the Aalto is a work of art, sonically and visually. Based on classic analog modules (the oscillator in particular is based on Buchla designs), the Aalto provides a unique oscillator, unique delay, excellent sequencer, and great reverb. The architecture is technically semi-modular - you can route anything to anything, but the modules are fixed - but Aalto still feels like an audio toy box. Sound design is a joy, and with the 1.1 update, it no longer devours CPU. Probably not the best synth for someone just getting started - it helps to know a little bit about audio processing and synthesis, though the manual and presets cover this well - but it's a real diamond.

d16 Phoscyon
Format: VST/AU Plug-in (Mac OSX and Windows)
Price: €39 (~$51)
There's nothing new about emulations of the classic Roland techno boxes, but d16's dedication is impressive. There's real soul (and science) behind Phoscyon, an emulation of the classic TB-303 bass synthesizer, most famous for being the sound of acid-[genre]. The quirks of the original 303 have been preserved, including its puzzling-yet-rewarding sequencer and that 3-pole lowpass filter. There are also some enhancements, including greater envelope controls, a distortion effect, and an arpeggiator. On sale for the holidays, Phoscyon is a great deal. If you're making pretty much any kind of dance music (or even if you aren't), a 303 is just a great sound to have access to. Also, if you're into the classic Roland drum machines, you'd also do well to check out Drumazon, Nepheton, and Nithonat, the best modeling I've heard of the 909, 808, and 606, respectively.

Audio Damage (anything)
Format: VST/AU Plug-in (Mac OSX and Windows)
Price: $30-80 (~€23-61)
Audio Damage plug-ins have that perfect combination for this list - they're unique, they're cheap, and you aren't sacrificing quality for price. Are you buying for someone who's into IDM? Replicant and Automaton are excellent choices. Looking for a versatile drum synth? Tattoo packs in a surprising amount of innovation alongside classic analog-style drum sounds. Thoroughly great choices, all around.

Format: DAW/hosting application (Mac OSX and Windows); runs VST and AU plug-ins
Price: $99 / €99
Now's as good a time as any to point out again that, yes, I work for Ableton, and, no, nothing in this post is being done in my capacity as an employee. Live has been my DAW of choice for the past six years (I also enjoy Renoise and Audacity) - I've found it to be the most easy and versatile environment for sketching out ideas, playing live, tweaking tracks to the finishing point, and controlling external hardware instruments. Live Intro makes a great gift for the beginner musician, for the professional who wants to get into working with software, for the DJ who's interested in production - the list goes on. It's definitely the kind of entry point that I wish had existed when I was in high school.

Format: DAW/hosting application (Mac OSX and Windows)
Price: €58 / $76
As mentioned above, Renoise has become another application of choice for me in my own music. It's a tracker, so there's no hiding it - you'll either love this way of working, or absolutely despise it. Breakcore, Chiptune, and Glitch musicians tend to dig what's offered here. Renoise is as sexy as a tracker has ever been, and it's great fun once you get the hang of the key commands. Spend some time learning how to talk to it, and you'll be mashing out dense rhythmic explosions like a pro. It's also excellent as a tool to be rewired into another DAW. It's not the best for Live performance, but the new pattern matrix offers some innovative options for that.

Native Instruments The Mouth
Format: Reaktor instrument (requires Reaktor or Reaktor player, which can be used as VST/AU or standalone)
Price: €69 / $79
Following up on the similarly funny and wild effect scrambler The Finger, Time Exile presents The Mouth, an instrument that turns your voice into nearly anything. This one rates high in uniqueness - there are vocoders out there, and you can replicate what the Mouth does in other other programs, but no others tie it together like this. It also comes with the best introductory video of the year.

Tobor Experiment Gleetchlab 3
Format: Standalone application / can host one VST (Mac OSX only)
Price: €10.69 (~$14)
Let's get one thing out of the way - if the person you're buying for wants to be the next hot progressive house producer, Gleetchlab is not the tool. If, on the other hand, you're buying for someone with a love of sound and a curiosity to really get in there and sculpt it, you can't do much better than this. At its core, Gleetchlab is a granular sample with six sample slots, each with a dedicated filter. The modules it comes with range from the expected (reverb), to the incredible (Mephisto - a sequenced delay, feedback and bitcrushing effect). Gleetchlab has its quirks - saving is disabled by design to encourage improvisation, and it can't be used into a DAW - but it's a deceptively simple tool that I've found very conducive to creativity. It's also worth checking out Berna, another standalone app from Tobor Experiment, which replicates the setup and sounds of a 1950s-era electronic music studio.

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