Holiday Gear Guide

Each year our Pro Studio expert seeks out a range of products which might make for a welcome addition to your music-making or home studio recording in the new year. This year is no exception, as he spoke with a pro audio expert to learn about some great additions to your home recording rig, and also visited a local music store to try out some new music-making toys that deliver outstanding results.

I started my research by driving about two miles over to my music store of choice, The Music Box, in Stockton, CA. I had called ahead and store manager Bill Stevens had already ID’ed a few items that he thought were worth demonstrating.

The Pitch Pocket tuner offers an easy-to-read display that changes colors to confirm proper tuning.
The Pitch Pocket tuner offers an easy-to-read display that changes colors to confirm proper tuning.

“We’ve been selling a lot of the Pitch Pocket tuners,” he said, “in part, because they are a big improvement over many of the other products on the market. They clip on to the headstock of your acoustic guitar and the entire display switches from red to green the second any string you play is in tune.” I picked up the guitar that Bill handed me and de-tuned all six strings about a half step. Sure enough, the Pitch Pocket’s display was glowing red and showing me the target pitch as I plucked each string. As I tuned that string up, the whole display flipped to green, instantly alerting me I was “there.” The size and brightness of the display is large enough to be visible without having to squint. The price for this simple, but effective tuner? $19.95 including battery. A perfect stocking stuffer for anyone who plays an acoustic instrument and wants to be able to confirm tunings in a matter of a few seconds, even on the darkest stage.

Vox's amPlug AC-30 headphone amp delivers realistic modeling sounds of the legenday 60s tube amplifier that won't drive your neighbors to complain.
Vox's amPlug AC-30 headphone amp delivers realistic modeling sounds of the legenday 60s tube amplifier that won't drive your neighbors to complain.

Bill’s colleague, Alan Burton, pulled a Stratocaster off the wall to show me how the Vox AC-30 amPlug worked. The amPlug is a palm-sized headphone guitar amp that includes an amp-modeling circuit to replicate the classic AC-30 sound made famous by groups like the Beatles (think the opening riff of “Day Tripper”) and Brian May’s signature sound. Call me a skeptic, but I doubted that the shimmer and crunch that a classic AC-30 produces would come out of a tiny 3” circuit board.

Surprisingly, the AC-30 amPlug, priced at $39.99, worked exactly as Bill promised. I plugged in a set of headphones and proceeded to crank up the controls which include two gain stages that reproduced the classic sound you’ve heard on so many great recordings of the 60s and 70s. That chime-like tone was evident as I played single-note lines and descending thirds, while the reassuring crunch that an AC-30 produces with its “Top Boost” switch on came through the headphones nicely when I adjusted the gain stage slightly and hit some power chords — a la The Who. The designers added a 1/8” stereo input jack, so you can plug your MP3 or CD player into the amPlug to practice along with your favorite songs. In addition to the AC-30 version, other amPlug variants include an Acoustic guitar modeler, Classic rock (similar in sound to a Marshall stack), and Metal (similar to a Mesa high gain). With a reported battery life of twenty-plus hours and its tiny size, the amPlugs fill a need for a great-sounding practice amp that won’t annoy your neighbors.

The Vypyr 15 is a fully-featured guitar modeling amp from Peavey that is perfect for home use, small gigs or studio recording.
The Vypyr 15 is a fully-featured guitar modeling amp from Peavey that is perfect for home use, small gigs or studio recording.

Next up, Alan plugged into the new Peavey Vypyr 15 modeling amplifier. Modeling amps and so-called “pods” have been around for a number of years, but just like many other areas of music technology, the evolution of faster and cheaper processing power has had a dramatic impact on the newest generation of modeling amps. Simply put, of the dozens of incredible guitar amps from the Fender Deluxe Reverb, Marshall Plexi, Roland Jazz Chorus, Vox AC-30, and so on, most guitar players can afford one or two high quality or vintage amplifiers. Amp modeling systems make it possible to have the sound of literally dozens of such amps and accompanying rack effects at one’s finger tips.

What makes the Vypyr 15 stand out is the price-performance ratio that it delivers. At a price of $99, you have access to 24 amp channels (12 amps, with a clean and distorted channel for each); 11 editable rack effects including delay, flanging, ring modulation, overdrive and many others; 12 onboard fully programmable pre-sets; the ability to overlay up to three effects simultaneously; tap tempo switch; on board tuner and many more features including a handy headphone output to once again help you avoid eviction from your apartment.

Alan demoed the Vypyr for me and when he first plugged in, the master volume control was up near 10 and I was literally blown back by just how loud this small but powerful 15-watt amp was! I also noticed that it had the classic analog growl. Peavey engineers utilized analog designs in the gain structure, as well as their own proprietary TransTube circuitry. Once we backed down the gain, Alan proceeded to walk me through the variables in sound and color that this small (16 lb.) amp delivered.

He started out with a classic Marshall sound, the crunch and grit that one associates with hard rock and metal. Crisp, responsive and believable. Next, he went for the Santana-like singing tone, added a phase shifter, and by adjusting the gain stages, demonstrated the near infinite sustain the Vypyr was capable of producing. We then spent the next ten minutes getting lost in the 11 different rack effects, most of which were easy to adjust so that you quickly arrived at a usable sound.

All in all, this $99 mighty mite actually had me thinking about putting it on my own holiday shopping list and replacing my reliable Peavey Bandit amp with a Vypyr. The Vypyr 15 is the most affordable of the six amp series, with the large and more powerful models incorporating a few more features such as direct USB connection to your computer, adding stomp box effects to the rack effects and in two models an actual tube to help create an even fatter tone.

The Night Train tube amp delivers the rich, full tube tones reminiscent of Clapton, Stevie Ray and Jeff Healey.
The Night Train tube amp delivers the rich, full tube tones reminiscent of Clapton, Stevie Ray and Jeff Healey.

Two more items with higher price points caught my eye and ear while at The Music Box. One was the Vox Night Train amp head, a classic tube amp that delivers the kind of tone you hear on dozens of classic rock and blues albums such as Stevie Ray Vaughn or the Rolling Stones. Its see-through design is a classic. Two 12AX7 preamp tubes and two EL84 power tubes glow as you power it up. It performs as a 15 watt amp (Pentode power) and is switchable down to a 7.5 watt amp (Triode power) each of which gives a slightly different tone characteristic. The controls on the Night Train are the opposite of the Vypyr’s nearly unlimited options – just the necessities for this type of tube amp. It has two gain stages, Volume and Gain, so you can keep your level of distortion and just adjust the overall sound output level. Three tone controls, treble, middle and bass, allow you to shape your sound easily, while the unique preamp “Mode” switch provides a Bright or Thick setting: Bright boosts the high frequency characteristics delivering that clear-bell-like tone that class Vox AC-series tube amps are renowned for, while Thick bypasses the tone circuits completely and boosts the overall gain for a chunkier, heavier sound perfect for Texas roadhouse blues or classic hard rock a la Zeppelin.

You’ll need to use an external speaker cabinet, but overall this amp is delicious sounding, very portable and built to travel with a well-padded case included in the $499 street price. A specially matched open-back cabinet with a 12” Celestion speaker goes for $249.

A relative newcomer to the hand made acoustic guitar scene, Baden's A-Mahogany delivered exquisite sound for a surprisingly affordable price.
A relative newcomer to the hand made acoustic guitar scene, Baden's A-Mahogany delivered exquisite sound for a surprisingly affordable price.

The last item Bill led me to was a newly added line of hand made acoustic guitars from Baden. He placed the A-Mahogany model in my hands and said “Tell me what you think.” I sat down and began playing the full-sized acoustic and was immediately struck by how beautiful it sounded and how masterful the construction and joinery was in this guitar. It features an all-mahogany body and a cedar top. It played with the ease of my Taylor but with more punch and power, more like a classic Martin D-series. The neck also had the feel of a classic Martin cut. The instrument is strikingly plain-looking with no inlays on the fret board, no etching or rosettes on the top and only small dot markers on the side of the fret board to mark playing positions. Interestingly, rather than a traditional cut away on the treble side of the strings, the guitar body is simply made smaller, which results in a slightly off-balance look, but it was very easy to play all the way up its register. The more I played the A-Mahogany, the more I liked it, but of course, hand made guitars of this quality generally run in the $3,000 and up price range.

Bill asked me how much I thought it cost and I made a wild guess of about $2,000+, and he smiled and told me that The Music Box was offering a small number of these outstanding instruments for $879 including a hard shell case and the factory installed Fishman Ellipse Aura pickup system (the Mercedes-Benz of acoustic pickups). The Baden is truly an amazing value for an instrument of such quality and craftsmanship.

Home Recording Tools
Next, I spoke with my pro audio gear go-to guy, Michael Groh of San Francisco’s Cutting Edge Audio Group. I asked him what new products he was most excited about this holiday season. He started out mentioning a very affordable pocket digital recorder that has really caught fire, the Sony PCM M10 (street price $299.)

Sony's PCM M10 is the latest generation of portable high resolution digital recorders and is offered in red or black finish.
Sony's PCM M10 is the latest generation of portable high resolution digital recorders and is offered in red or black finish.

“This is the third generation of Sony pocket recorders, and at each step, the price has become more affordable,” he said. “This records at 24-bit resolution and 96K sampling rate, so the fidelity is outstanding. Like the other competitors in this product category, it comes with built-in stereo condenser mics, external mic inputs and a USB port for easy transfers to your laptop or DAW. You can choose to record in native .WAV or MP3 file formats. It comes with 4GB internal memory and a Micro-SD card slot for added recording capacity. It ships with Sound Forge software so you can be up a running doing recordings and then editing them on your computer in no time at all. Some other nice touches include a built-in speaker, cross-memory recording, track mark functionality, and a five-second recording buffer,” he added. All in all, a very powerful and handy system, capable of making a great live recording at your next gig or rehearsal or taking on the road with your band to record a daily podcast of life on the road.

Cascade Audio's Fat Head II ribbon mic offers outstanding sonic performance for home and professional studio recording.
Cascade Audio's Fat Head II ribbon mic offers outstanding sonic performance for home and professional studio recording.

When I asked about microphones, something that no self-respecting home studio gear head can ever have too many of, Michael mentioned that one of the most popular mics that people continue to discover is the Cascade Fat Head II ribbon mic. “It’s been around for awhile, but for a lot of people who have home studios might have started out with a few dynamic mics and a nice condenser or two. The Fat Head makes a great next mic to add to a home studio collection. We sell a lot of the Fat Heads from our web site, and almost everyone is impressed by their sound once they try them at their studio. They are really very flexible in what they can capture,” he stated. A stereo pair retails for $399, while a single Fat Head II runs $219.

I can personally attest to the Fat Head’s “bang for the buck” factor, as when we were selecting mics for our campus recording studio, I felt it was essential to have at least one good quality ribbon mic, but the most well-regarded US-made ribbon mic would have used way too much of our overall mic budget. A home studio pal from So Cal tipped me off to the Fat Heads and we’ve been using them on everything from acoustic guitar to cello to hand percussion at the campus studio with outstanding results.

The Daking FET III stereo limiter offers true Class A perfomance at a reasonable price point.
The Daking FET III stereo limiter offers true Class A perfomance at a reasonable price point.

Last up in the world of recording toys is a new stereo compressor from well-respected audio gear whiz Geoff Daking. The Daking FET (Field Effect Transistor) III Stereo Compressor is a new dual-channel limiter built in the US with the same audio path and detector circuitry as the often-praised Daking FET II (single channel) model. Michael explained, “The story behind the Dakings is that we have a rack of various signal processors that we make available to our clients to try out at their home studio. And it’s big enough so that we can always put in one or two pieces of gear that they might not have heard, but can check out at their own studio. The Daking FET II was a piece that we usually included in that test rack, and quite often home recordists who tried it would call up and say, ‘I can’t believe how good this Daking limiter sounds, I think I’d like to keep it.’ It’s a Class-A, fully discrete unit that outperforms almost every other limiter, regardless of price. Unlike some other limiters which may sound very good on one type of program material, the FET II and III sound great on an extraordinary range of sound sources.

Now the stereo model is here. It features dual mono or linked stereo operation, continuously variable ratio controls which allow you to fine tune settings and a totally uncolored sound that makes it ideal for limiting your stereo bus or individual tracks,” Michael concluded. Street price for the FET III stereo unit is $1,950 while the single channel FET II goes for $1,425.

So no matter what your budget is for music purchases this holiday season there are a range of useful and innovative products on the market that can help you make the most of your musical ideas. Happy Holidays!

Story Links

Pocket Pitch Tuner
Vox amPlug Series Headphone Practice Amps
Peavey Vypyr 15
Vox Night Train Amp Head (be sure to check out the YouTube demo on this page to hear the tone combinations this head produces)
Baden Guitars
Sony PCM M10
Cascade Fat Head II Ribbon Mics
Daking FET Series Limiters
Cutting Edge Audio Group

In his thirty-plus years working in the music business, Keith Hatschek has been a musician, educator, recording engineer, producer and marketing exec. He currently teaches Music Management at the University of the Pacific, where he recently helped install a Pro Tools HD recording studio as part of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. He’s the author of The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry.

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