Musical gifts

Recommendations for what to buy friends and family will be plentiful in the days leading up to the holidays as everyone gives their opinion on what would make the perfect gift. Macworld ’s Gear Guide debuted on the site a couple weeks ago, and Playlist launched a week-long look at iPod-themed gift ideas earlier today.

I thought I’d try a different tack, chiming in with recommendations on gifts for musicians. When I’m not filing stories about the Mac, I play the guitar, so these are all products I’ve used over the past few months.


Guitar Rig 2: My first must-have guitar Christmas present is Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 2 ($579). Guitar Rig sparked a lot of interest in the computer for many guitar players, including me, when it was introduced during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference two years ago. With the recent release of Guitar Rig 2, Native Instruments will take the hardware-software combination to new audiences with the addition of several new amps including the Marshall JCM 800 emulation that delivers the powerful hi-gain tone that defined the sound of many metal bands.

There is a lot more to like about Guitar Rig 2, too. Among the 36 stomp box emulations, Native Instruments has included a new compressor, a classic Autofilter model and a true-to-life emulation of the Dunlop Cry Baby Wah pedal.


PodXT Live: If I had to pick one product that impressed me the most in 2005 it would definitely be the PodXT Live from Line 6. The PodXT Live is a guitar effects stompbox that has some of the best effects and amp modeling I have ever heard. With over 80 stompbox effects, 36 amps, 24 cabinet and 4 mic models, the POD allows a guitarist to build an almost limitless amount of tones.

In addition to the hardware, Line 6 also has a Mac OS X Tiger -compatible software application that allows you to build tones on your computer and then save them to hardware unit over a USB connection. You can also login over the Internet and download tones from the company or submitted by other users. The PodXT Live packs a punch and does it very well. (The PodXT Live lists for US$600, but I have seen it at many music retailers for $399).


GNX4: Digitech knows tone. Partnering with some of the most popular guitarists in the world (Eric Clapton among them) it is no surprise the company could come up with the GNX4, the workhorse of digital effects guitar processors.

What sets the GNX4 apart from other products is the extras that are built into the hardware unit. The GNX4 includes a MIDI drum machine—unlike many MIDI drum machines, this one sounds very realistic—and also plays MP3 files. While you can record on your computer from the USB connection, you can also record on the GNX4 with its built-in 8-track recording capabilities.

All in all the GNX4 lives up to its tagline of being the “Guitar Workstation.” (The GNX4 lists for $699, but is available for $499).


Black Box: I haven’t been using this guitar effects processor as long as the other products mentioned above. But I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen so far from M-Audio’s $329 Black Box. M-Audio managed to pack a lot of features into quite a small package. If you are traveling and need some great tone when you get to your hotel, the Black Box will suit your needs perfectly. That’s not say it doesn’t work well at home too—I have mine hooked up to my G5 and output to a pair of M-Audio Studiophile BX8a monitors. The tone and volume is very good.

The unit emulates 12 guitar amps, and includes a built-in drum machines with 100 drum patters in a variety of styles, with the ability to set tempo manually, tap tempo, or synchronize to an external MIDI clock.

One hundred factory presets come with the Black Box, along with 100 user programs. The device features a large LCD panel, buttons and rotary encoders and programmable expression pedal input, and two momentary pedal inputs.


Software There are a lot of software applications available to help pro and amateur musicians record and manipulate their work. The easiest of these to recommend is Apple’s GarageBand ($79 as part of iLife ’05 ).

For the price and the features, GarageBand 2 is probably one of the best bargains out there. I don’t know of a single musician that doesn’t like to record riffs while they are sitting back, relaxing and just playing whatever comes into their head—some of the most popular songs every written started out this way. I used to have a cassette deck for that, but that was a long time ago. GarageBand is a quick, easy and powerful alternative to some of the higher-end applications.

If you are getting more serious about music and want to move up from GarageBand, Logic ($999—Logic Express 7 costs $299) is probably your next step. The good thing about moving to Logic is that all of those GarageBand projects you made will just open in Logic without any crazy importing or messing around with the files.

Make no mistake about it, Logic is a pro-level application, but once you get over the learning curve there are some amazing things you can do with your music.

The other pro-level application I’ve been using a lot these past few months is Steinberg’s Cubase ($799; Cubase SE $149). I like Cubase and Logic equally—they both include high-end features and are intuitive once the learning curve has been overcome. I don’t think you could go wrong with either one.


Music Loops: After recording your own works with any of the applications listed above, you’ll want to lay down backing tracks. I have gone on a music-loop shopping spree, buying all kinds of different tracks and instruments.

Being a guitar player, I opted to purchase mostly drums. I have Blues, Rock, Hard Rock, Jazz and mixtures of most other genres. Sometimes I add a drum loop to a track and play along with that, matching the default tempo of the loop. Other times, I work the other way and match the drums to my playing. No matter how you do it, there is no substitute for recording a riff and then hearing a full song with drums, bass and perhaps some keyboards.

Apple does have loops available for GarageBand and Logic, but I found the drum loops at Beta Monkey Music to be second to none. These loops are created with a real drummer in the studio, so what you hear is real, not synthesized in any way.

The other quality loop site that I visit often is Bandmateloops.com. That site has some incredible sounding drum loops that I use, but what I like more about it is the variety of instruments. It features synth, drums, electric guitar, electric bass, and Sound FX—basically anything else you can think of in many different genres.

Well, there you have my musician’s holiday picks for 2005. I hope you find them useful for that special musician in your life.

  
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