Music making gadgets for self-isolation

Reading time: 4 mins

Contents

Getting Started

Gadgets in this summary are all about helping you to make music by triggering your inspiration. There’s nothing better than a new musical toy to spark your journey off in to new directions. 

However, let’s start by defining our terms: a gadget is a small mechanical or electronic device or tool, (especially an ingenious or novel one) that has a particular function, but is often thought of as a novelty. So, something you don’t need but it would be nice to have. Something that serves a very specific purpose. And, in our case, that purpose contributes in some way to making music in a techie kind of way.  

What does our gadget have to do in a period of self-isolation? We’ve applied some or all of the following criteria in picking out our list of items. 

It has to:

  • be fun, 
  • be innovative, 
  • allow us to do new things, 
  • help while away the hours, 
  • inspire us to produce new music. 

Sadly, most of them cost money! Even the low-tech things. Sorry about that.

Drums & Rhythm

A Hue Drum is one of the coolest-looking and most beautiful-sounding rhythm tools you’ll come across. Think gentle bells and long wind chimes melding with the sound of the universe. If you’re feeling stressed in your isolation, just slip your Hue Drum out of it’s pretty carrying back and gently put the world to rights. There are other tongue drums, some of them have inbuilt microphones and magnets which instantly change the tuning. But none are as pretty as these.

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator Synthesizers Launch ...

From one extreme to the other in the world of rhythm, Teenage Engineering produce a range of electronic beat boxes, synths and samplers that look like the hybrid offspring of a pocket calculator and a mini arcade game. Their range of Pocket Operator gadgets give out professional level sounds for the generation that is used to the 2-thumb method of sending messages. It’s a range of 9 little pieces of music tech magic which complement each other: there’s a rhythm kit, bass synth, robot sounds, arcade machine sounds etc all  leading up to lead synths, vocal synths and samplers. It’s an amazing way to get you in to the language of sequencing, sampling and punch-in effects. They may look it, but these are not toys. They are proper professional music production gadgets. You can even link and sync several items in the range to produce a full electronic pocket orchestra. Master yours and when we come out of lock down, you’ll be able to hook up with the your mates’ Pocket Operators as well.

Synths and Sequencers

Think gadgets in the 21st century and you think electronics. Electronics plus music equals synthesisers. And here are a few 21st century synths.

Starting with a do-it-yourself synth-making kit for the price of a pair of jeans! The Haynes Synth Kit requires you to know how to wield a soldering iron or to learn how to use one. It’s a cardboard box, an instruction manual and everything you need to build something that looks like a home-made Stylophone. It has some nice flashing LEDs, is well presented, good quality and produces realistic simple synth sounds. But it’s main value is the novelty, the fact that you made it yourself and the low price.

Taking a similar DIY approach but upping the level of sophistication, you get Modal CRAFTrhythm and CRAFTsynth. These 2 items can be bought together in a bundle or separately. They take the same kind of self-build approach but ramp up the sound quality and variety over what you can deliver. No need for soldering, just simple slotting and sliding. CRAFTrythm puts you in the world of drum machines and loops: an 8-track, 16-step drum sampler and sequencer. You can connect to an app to customise the soundbanks and output to headphones or standard line out. CRAFTsynth is a similar self-assembly kit  to build a mini-synth with 2 oscillators per voice and a range of controls for fine detuning so you can apply a selection of different waveforms for your sounds. You can sculpt and personalise the sounds in the way you would expect from a more expensive solution.

Seaboard Block & The Roli Blocks - FreshersMag

If you don’t want the experience of building your own, then have a look at the awesome collection of connected units that come with Roli’s Seabord Blocks. For example, their Songmaker Kit Studio Edition gives you a Seaboard keyboard, a Lightpad drumpad and a Live production control block. All of these snap together with magnets and hook into bespoke music production software on your computer. It’s a very analogue feel to creating digital music.

Teenage Engineering also produce the OP-Z. A little box of electronic magic that adds a whole level of sophistication to the way you sequence, sample and sculpt your sound AND visuals. It is described as an advanced fully portable 16-track sequencer and synthesizer: the world's first stand-alone sequencer of its kind, that lets you sequence music, visuals, lights and more. It produces some really rich soundscapes and allows you to control video as well: snap a series of photos and sequence them to your beat. This allows you to compose a song and create a completely synchronised music video all from your smartphone and the OP-Z. 

Keyboards

Air guitar, air drums … we’re used to them. But here is a real-life Air Piano. It’s called the Moog Theremini. It’s a modern update of the Theremin which is one of the spectral-sounding instruments invented in the 1920s in the first era of electronic music. It’s now been updated with clever digital tech. Its design fuses the experience of playing an instrument you don’t actually touch, with the classic synth sounds of Moog’s award winning Animoog. Think of smooth sound transitions, graceful playing moves and all with no wires attached.

 

Guitar Tech

If you’re not into keyboards, you may be a guitarist. If we set aside various ways in which guitars can be hooked into MIDI equipment to access a broad sound palette, there are a couple of analogue gadgets that may trigger your creative juices without breaking the bank. 

The Harmonic Capo is a good way to explore or extend your use of open tunings. It helps you create a new range of sounds on your guitar.  Unlike a regular capo that presses the strings hard down at the desired fret effectively changing the placement of the nut, giving you instant transposition, the Harmonic Capo gently rests on the strings. The effect you make is the sound from placing your finger over the strings at a harmonic node and plucking the strings. The most common and strongest harmonic nodes are at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets. Unlike conventional capos that allow you to only play in-front of where the stings are stopped, the harmonic capo, allows you to play both in-front and behind the capo. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities that are just not possible without it.  The harmonic capo works best with open tunings.

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