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Five affordable new gadgets and apps for bedroom producers

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The best from NAMM 2019

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Image: Elektron

Music production is more accessible than ever, thanks to at-home tools that are as common as your laptop and phone. But it’s no secret that the software and hardware needed to craft professional sounds from your bedroom can still be cost-prohibitive.

That’s why this year’s National Association of Music Merchants show, NAMM, felt like a breath of fresh air. All around, I saw reasonable and, dare I say, cheap options that put even more power into the hands of everyday musicians without asking them to empty their wallet.

Here are five of the best affordable solutions for bedroom producers we saw at this year’s NAMM show.

Adjustable speakers that can tune themselves to your room

So many solutions for bedroom producers focus on how music is made, not on how that music is heard. If you’re making music at home, chances are it’s in a room that’s not the acoustic ideal, likely with glass windows, untreated walls, and perhaps funky angles for sound to bounce off of.

IK Multimedia’s new and compact iLoud MTM speakers aim to fix this by offering the ability to automatically calibrate themselves and compensate for a room’s weirdness. The pair of speakers come with an accompanying reference microphone. All you need to do is set up the monitors, place the mic in the position where you’ll be working and listening, press a button, and the speakers will calibrate to create a sweet spot, no matter what detriments your working room has.

Image: IK Multimedia

The speakers also come with other ease-of-use bonuses like an adjustable base that allows for tilting up to 20 degrees. Ideally, a speaker’s tweeters should be pointed toward your ears, so this is a consideration for modern bedroom producers working with the constraint of close listening ranges.

There have been other self-calibrating speakers, like Genelec’s SAM series, but they tend to be more expensive. IK Multimedia’s iLoud MTM speakers are $349 each with accompanying microphone, and they’re available for preorder now.

Simple and sleek audio interfaces

Native Instruments had loads of announcements at this year’s NAMM show, like the Komplete Kontrol M32 keyboard controller, but overlooked by many were the company’s two new audio interfaces. Essentially, an audio interface is an external sound card with inputs for microphones, instruments, and headphones. It’s the hub between what you’re recording and the computer you’re recording it to.

Simply called the Audio 1 and Audio 2, these audio interfaces are light and palm-sized, with two inputs and two outputs. They’re great for the average home producer who doesn’t need to connect a multitude of instruments at once.

What immediately struck me when holding these tiny black boxes is how clear and purposeful the design is. The top of each audio interface is split into two, with one half occupied by a giant output volume dial, and the other half displaying metering levels. These are the two things you’ll likely desire to have direct access to, and Native Instruments smartly gives uncluttered access to both.

Image: Native Instruments

There are a few key differences between the Audio 1 and Audio 2. The Audio 1 has one XLR mic in with 48V phantom power and one jack input with individual gain control, while the Audio 2 has two combination XLR / jack inputs with 48V phantom power and individual gain control. Also, the Audio 1 has stereo RCA out, while the Audio 2 has stereo jack out. Other than that, they’re about the same. They’re both USB 2.0 powered, support 192 kHz and 24-bit audio, and include software like Ableton 10 Live Lite, Maschine Essentials, and more.

All of this makes these little interfaces a tremendous bang for your buck. The Audio 1 costs $109, while the Audio 2 is $139. Both will be available in March.

A flexible app for remotely recording musicians

Imagine if Skype had support for studio-quality audio and could connect and record into any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). That’s Sessionwire, a live music communication platform that lets you interact with and remotely record other musicians into Ableton, Logic, FL Studio, and other DAWs.

From Anaheim, California, I video chatted with a musician in Vancouver using Sessionwire and recorded some of his vocals right into the computer I was using running Pro Tools. This was amazing. Instead of sending recorded files back and forth, I could record a musician live from anywhere in the world and see them as it happened.

This live aspect speeds up the creative process. You can give real-time feedback to your collaborator, record multiple takes, punch-ins (re-recording only a portion of sound), and more. And because there’s video, I could even, for example, ask a musician to adjust microphone placement for an instrument because I can see where and how they’re working. The app also supports texting back-and-forth and file transfers.

Companies like Splice and Yamaha’s VST Connect Pro have presented solutions for musicians to collaborate, no matter where they are in the world, but Sessionwire ups the ante. I’m used to cloud platforms where I can share DAW projects back and forth with other musicians, but not an app where I can interact with them as we work and use the DAW of my choosing.

Sessionwire is available for macOS for $15 a month, or $150 a year.

Sample platforms in more hardware and DAWs

Both Splice and Sounds.com are cloud-based sample platforms where producers can find royalty-free sounds to use in projects. Integrating these services into hardware and software is a kick in the pants for spontaneous creation, letting musicians access thousands of new sounds without leaving their device or DAW. Splice has led the charge with integrating into products — it’s partnered with Pioneer DJ for the TORAIZ SP-16 sampler and launched a desktop widget for drag and drop into DAWs — but NAMM 2019 brought fresh announcements from both Splice and Sounds.com.

Image: Akai

Beginning in March of this year, Splice integration will come to Akai’s recently announced standalone controller and sampler, Force. This will allow users with Wi-Fi to access their Splice sample library directly from the Force’s touch user interface. Sounds can then be quickly auditioned and dropped into a project.

In a similar fashion, Sounds.com will be integrated into Native Instruments’ Maschine and Komplete Kontrol software in February. Users will then be able to, when working in a DAW, browse the Sounds.com database, audition samples in sync, and then drop selected ones in without ever having to go to the Sounds.com website.

Splice costs $7.99 a month for 100 samples (additional samples can be purchased), while Sounds.com is $9.99 a month with unlimited downloads.

An approachable and economical all-in-one groovebox

For those looking to buy an affordable (and approachable) piece of all-in-one music-making hardware, Elektron’s new Model:Samples was the clear standout at NAMM. It’s a sample-based groovebox for making songs by creating and layering patterns. There’s six audio tracks (which can also be used as MIDI) and six velocity-sensitive pads. It comes preloaded with 300 samples from Splice and has 1GB of onboard storage for you to load additional sounds via USB. For those with limited space, this tidy piece of gear is under a foot in length, so it doesn’t take up much room.

There’s the expected 16-step sequencer, and loads of effects available at your fingertips, like a resonant filter, decay, LFO, and swing. All of the effects can be applied to everything at once, or each sound and step can be assigned totally unique parameters. There are fun things to note, like a chromatic mode for writing bass lines and melodies, and a “control all” option, which lets you have fun twisting and warping all of your sounds to death, then snap it all back to where it was by pressing “reload.”

Image: Elektron

The most impressive part of this sample-based device is how it packs so much direct control into a relatively small surface without having to noodle around in endless submenus. I had constant “wait, what?” moments when playing with the Model:Samples, realizing that things like automating parameters for individual steps and introducing chance (the possibility that steps in a sequence will be missed) are so directly easy to implement. This intuitive interface makes it a wonderful option for those starting out with grooveboxes who don’t want to sacrifice features or tediously memorize a glut of navigation options.

The Elektron Model:Samples will cost $399 and should be available in February.