Everyone needs a hobby. And chances are there’s at least one person on your holiday shopping list who fancies themselves a musician. Whether they’re a casual synth noodler, a guitar virtuoso or a singer-songwriter we’ve got recommendations covering a range of price points. Some of these even make a great gift for music lovers who have been considering making the jump to music maker. Perhaps getting their first synth will kickstart a new obsession.
Soma Laboratory Ether
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If you know someone who believes there’s music all around us (if you just train yourself to hear it), I have the perfect gift for them. The Soma Labs Ether is sort of like a microphone. But not one that you sing into. Instead, it picks up electromagnetic interference and radiation from across the entire spectrum from Hertz to Gigahertz. Soma likes to refer to it as an “anti-radio” since it doesn’t tune into one frequency, it tunes into all the frequencies. With the Ether, your sound-loving giftee can eavesdrop on neon signs and sample the silent whine of an AC adapter. It’s literally a gateway to an invisible world of electromagnetic waves. — Terrence O’Brien, Managing Editor
$160 at Perfect Circuit
Fender Mustang Micro
If your giftee is an electric guitar player, they likely struggle trying to squeeze in practice sessions. After all, they require amplification of some kind, and it’s not always the time or place for ear-piercing noise. Enter Fender’s Mustang Micro personal headphone amp. Just plug this little jobby into a guitar and connect headphones. It gives you access to 12 amp models offering a wide range of both clean and ، tones, with 13 effects.
Now here’s the wild part: it actually sounds good. In the past, these kinds of devices sounded, well, like utter garbage, but technology has progressed. The whole thing’s battery powered and charges via a USB port, plus it has Bluetooth for streaming in audio to play along with. This is just a nice little songwriting or practice tool for players of all skill levels. Did we mention little? This thing’s tiny. — Lawrence Bonk, Contributing Reporter
$120 at Amazon
Brand New Noise Spiro
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget
Sometimes the simplest gifts turn out to be the biggest hits. Brand New Noise sells a variety of deceptively simple hand-made instruments that are endless fun. Spiro (which is also available under a few other names, but with different paint jobs) is a small wooden box with microphone and a speaker built in, plus a few controls on the front. There’s a button to record. A button to play back. A switch that loops whatever is recorded. And a ، that changes the speed. Kids will love speeding up their voice to sound like a chipmunk and slowing it down to make it sound like a sedated demon. But it can also be used for actual music making, so long as your giftee is into lo-fi. Pro tip: the ، controls both recording and playback fidelity. So if it’s cranked all the way up when recording, playback can be slowed way down, until it’s almost unrecognizable. It works wonders fast paced drum loops. — T.O.
$85 at Brand New Noise
Bastl Instruments Kastle Arp
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget
Bastl Instruments’ Kastle line of mini modular synths are pretty easy to recommend for almost anyone who dabbles in music making. They’re true modular instruments, but with stripped-down controls and in a package barely ، than the three AA batteries required to power them. Where the original Kastle was primarily built for drones and the Kastle Drum for glitchy percussion, the Kastle Arp is, as you may have guessed, designed for arpeggios. It’s the most melodic entry in the series, and therefore probably the easiest of the bunch to recommend. It actually can make some quite beautiful little musical passages, especially when paired with some delay and reverb. If there is someone on your list who would rather make their own lo-fi beats to study than put on a YouTube playlist, this could make a perfect addition to their desk setup. — T.O.
If you’ve heard rumblings that a special someone wants to get into making their own recordings, they’re going to need an audio interface. And Focusrite’s Scarlett Solo line has long-been a winner, due to a budget-friendly price and useful features. The latest 4th-generation Scarlett Solo connects via USB, can operate on both PCs and Macs and actually uses the same converters as the company’s much more expensive flagship interfaces. So, it sounds good.
There’s a wide 120dB dynamic range to suit various instruments and recording scenarios. It’s called the Solo, but it actually boasts a pair of audio ins, so your giftee can record two things at the same time, like an acoustic guitar and a voice. Focusrite also comes bundled with Ableton Live Lite and a host of other audio tools to help them get started. — L.B.
$140 at Amazon$140 at Walmart
Velcro One-Wrap Cable Ties
Did you know that there are a lot of cables in a recording studio? Even the one cobbled together from Craigslist discards by your teenage niece. Obviously the recording interface needs to be connected to the computer. And any instruments or mics need to be plugged into the audio interface. And then there’s the headphones and studio monitors necessary for playback. And, lord help them if they’ve gotten ، into the world of effects pedals. And then, of course, most of these things need power adapters too. You get the idea: Even the lowliest of recording setups can quickly devolve into a tangle of unidentified cords. That’s why you should consider giving the musician in your life the gift of organization. Velcro ties can clean up that bundle of power cords, help route speaker cables and keep mic cables tidy when they’re not in use. This might end up being the most useful gift you give all year. — T.O.
$10 at Amazon
Samson Q2U USB Microphone
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Microphones are a must-have for any burgeoning musicmaker. There are thousands of mics out there, with some costing thousands of dollars. However, beginners should start with something simple. Samson’s Q2U is at home in a basement practice space, a podcast studio or a bedroom recording setup. It’s budget-friendly at $70(and often on sale for half that) and sounds good for the money. It connects via USB, allowing people to make quick recordings on the fly without having to get any other equipment involved. There’s also a standard XLR port, so it’ll work with audio interfaces and outboard gear, making this a versatile tool no matter where people are on their musical journey. The microphone’s especially useful for beginners, as it ships with a number of accessories, like a windscreen, a mic clip, a desktop stand, a pop filter and all of the cables needed to get started. — L.B.
$60 at Amazon$70 at Walmart
X-Protector Non Slip pad roll
Many synths and pedals come with little rubber feet that are supposed to stop them from sliding around a desk. I can tell you with confidence that they don’t really work. That’s why the musician on your list will probably appreciate some non-slip padding. This huge roll of grippy rubber can easily be cut to fit almost anything from a portable MIDI controller, to a eurorack skiff. If you’re shopping for someone that has a tendency to get a little too into it when they’re jamming, this will be a very welcome addition to their setup. — T.O.
Maybe it’s just me, but one of the things that I often struggle with when trying to put the finishing touches on a track is the transitions from one section to the next. If there’s a bedroom producer in your life who keeps reaching for the same filter sweep over and over again to take them to the chorus, snag them a copy of Baby Audio’s Transit plugin. This collaboration with YouTuber Andrew Huang is a multi-effect VST specifically designed for transitions. The TL;DR version is that Transit lets users create a custom effect chain with things like reverb, delay, distortion and pitch shifting, then control the parameters of all those effects simultaneously with one ،. Sure, someone could do all that manually with a complicated array of plugins and macros in their DAW, but Transit does most of the heavy lifting and lets them focus on making more art. — T.O.
$59 at Baby Audio
Antares AutoTune Access
Like it or not, AutoTune has become a nearly indispensable tool for modern music production. If there’s a hobbyist producer or singer on your list, AutoTune can save them valuable time. When they’re recording in their downtime between work and / or dealing with kids, they might not have the energy to do five, six or seven vocal takes. This can subtly take a vocal performance that’s 95-percent of the way there to note perfect. Or perhaps they want to recreate the over-the-top robotic melodies of Cher’s “Believe” or the garbled raps of Future and Lil Uzi Vert. But, even though AutoTune was designed to be used for vocals (sort of), it can be used on other instruments as well to create strange and otherworldly effects. — T.O.
$15/month at Antares
Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 mk3
Will Lipman Photography for Engadget
There’s a ton of excellent MIDI controllers out there, but I’m partial to Arturia’s. And the KeyLab Essential 49 mk3 might be the sweet spot in its lineup. Its 49 keys should be enough for anyone outside of serious piano players, and it doesn’t take up too much room. Unsurprisingly, the KeyLab series integrates tightly with Arturia’s software instruments, and even comes bundled with a copy of Analog Lab V. But it also has scripts for controlling popular DAWs like Ableton Live, Logic Pro and FL Studio so, regardless of their software preferences the musician on your list should be able to use the KeyLab for more than just plucking out melodies. And, even if they’re more into hardware synths than in-the-box production, the KeyLab Essential has a MIDI out port for controlling other gear. — T.O.
$219 at Amazon
Many synthesizers and drum machines retain their value for decades. The best way to protect that precious gear is with a cover of some kind, and Decksavers make some of the best. These covers are tough and durable, so they offer protection from projectiles in addition to smoke and dust. As an added bonus, the covers are transparent so your giftee can stare longingly at their favorite piece of gear whenever they want. The company makes protective coverings for all kinds of gear, from the aforementioned synthesizers and drum machines, to guitar pedals, turntables and even audio interfaces.
This gift will require a bit of forethought and some “innocent” question asking. You’ll have to find out the exact piece of gear that needs covering and find the appropriate Decksavers product, as each cover is manufactured to exactly fit a specific item of gear. Musicians love talking about gear, so this isn’t the toughest recon mission in the world. — L.B.
From $21 at Decksavers
Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us
Alright, so, confession: I haven’t read this one yet. But, I’m pretty confident recommending it. It’s a New York Times best seller, has received pretty broad praise and has been on my to-read list for a few months now. It looks at how art, regardless of medium or quality, can enhance our lives and even improve our health. If you know someone who wants a better understanding of why they feel so driven to create art, or even someone who could use a little encouragement to keep going when self doubt starts setting in, this could offer them some much needed insight. It used to be that art and science were seen as two completely separate worlds. But this book is just one more compelling argument that the line between the two isn’t so clear cut. It’s perfect for the artist with an unabashedly nerdy streak. — T.O.
A contact microphone is the unsung hero of almost any music producer’s arsenal if you ask me. It can be used to capture acoustic instruments like a ukelele or a dulcimer, but that’s just the start. Musicians with an experimental streak will quickly discover it can be pressed against the throat to capture unique vocal timbres, held against a steam radiator to record eerie ambience or placed on almost any surface you can ، on to build one-of-a-kind percussive sounds. The best part: While this particular model is around $22 and I can vouch for its quality, there are cheaper options where you can stuff a stocking full of five of them for just $15. — T.O.
$16 at Amazon
Synthrotek Atari Punk Console DIY Kit
Most musicians I know have a strong DIY streak. That makes a lot of sense since being a musician is just DIYing music. And there’s no better way to feed those duel impulses than by having them build their own instrument. An Atari Punk Console is a pretty basic noise maker, but it’s loads of fun and, if your giftee is new to the world of soldering, this is an excellent project to help hone those skills. Even if they don’t go on to build their own pedals or more elaborate synths, it will arm them with a necessary ability to repair what they already own, and perhaps save them loads of money down the road. — T.O.
$33 at Amazon
ValleyDesignsND Recording Sign
While you could get your giftee a typical “do not disturb” sign for when they’re locked away in musicville, why not go with a more appropriate bit of signage? This “Recording” sign is the perfect fit for anyone’s home studio. Its bright LEDs deter any visitors from entering the inner sanctum. It’s available in a wide array of colors and in multiple sizes, from 11-inches to 22-inches wide. Like most things in life, the ، you go, the deeper mark it makes in your bank account. Our advice? Head into the bedroom studio on the sly and conduct some measurements before making a decision. — L.B.
$54 at Etsy
Puremagnetik Century Collection
The Century Collection is definitely a splurge, but it’s the gift that keeps on giving. For $400, your giftee will receive every sample pack, virtual instrument and effect plugin that Puremagnetik makes for the next 100 years. On day one they’ll get access to around 100 sample packs covering everything from vintage synths, to circuit bent toys, to early digital drum machines.
But perhaps even more interesting are the over 40 VST plugins that range from lo-fi keys to absolutely out-of-this-world effects. The creative delays and strange micro loopers are highlights – perfect for the person who’s into ambient and experimental music. Then there’s Lore, an “advanced sound design workstation” inspired by musique concrète. It’s updated regularly with new features and effects. Even if someone manages to outlive their Century Collection membership, they’ll probably never be able to fully explore it all. — T.O.