2016 has been another strong year for envelope-pushing musical instrument innovation. Each year it gets harder and harder to choose favorites, but there have been a few products, creations and ideas that simply jumped out from the stack of contenders. Read on for our pick of the year's best music-making gear.
We're going to split our selection into three sections. The first is for gear that was released this year, the second wave is reserved for gear that's been announced but is still to be made available, and the final items are a little off-the-wall.
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Already in the wild
Aalberg Audio's modulation stomps with wireless control
Changing effects parameters or selecting presets mid-song is not the easiest of tasks, with players having to crouch down to twist some knobs in the dark or maybe perform a bit of a quick step dance on some footswitches. Norway's Aalberg Audio began developing a system that placed such control at a musician's fingertips in 2014, and released a pair of modulation stomps and a wireless controller the following year.
More additions to the range became available this year, and we got the opportunity to put the company's TR-1 tremolo pedal and Aero controller to the test. The Aero controller is attached to the body of the guitar with adhesive-backed Velcro and is paired with the floor stomp over Bluetooth. It has its own internal battery, a rotary encoder knob up top and five click buttons dotted around its edges. Effects parameters on the paired Aalberg stomp can be wirelessly adjusted in real-time and presets saved and selected on the fly.
We found the system easy to set up and use, and activating, tweaking and activating presets without needing to step in front of the pedalboard to be quite liberating. Wireless stomp control is not cheap though. The Aero comes in at $129, and the pedals are priced at $299 each.
Zoom's ARQ Aero RhythmTrak
The ARQ is a two part music creation station comprising a mains-powered base and an LED-packed, battery powered ring. The base hosts a sonic library, polyphonic synth and digital effects. The ring controller can be mounted on the base and tapped, slapped and whacked like a tabletop instrument or removed and waved around like a tambourine, pairing with the base over Bluetooth LE.
The ring's 3-axis accelerometer can be used to alter the sounds generated by the base or used to send real-time MIDI control messages to music production software running on an OS X computer or iOS mobile device. There's quite literally something here for everyone. And, as you can see from the following video, it looks like lots of fun, too.
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British gear maker Roli has impressed us before with expressive electronic instruments developed around Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression technology, turning piano keyboard into continuous, parameter controlling touch surfaces. The company describes its Blocks system as the "most versatile music-making system ever made."
At the heart of Blocks is a free iOS app called Noise that serves as the system sound engine, and comes with its own sound library and recording capabilities. The iPhone or iPad running the app is paired with the main Lightpad Block, which has an LED backlit, pressure sensitive upper surface that's used to generate drum beats, synth sounds or play virtual instruments.
The Live Block connects to the Lightpad via magnetic connectors and is used to select sounds and activate playback performance features. The Loop Block also uses magnetic connectors for power and data transfer between modules and caters for the recording and playback of sequences. The playing surface can be expanded with the addition of more Lightpads.
The Lightpad Block retails at $179, and the Live Block and Loop Block modules are priced at $79 each. You can get a good feel for the possibilities offered by this system in the video below.
Announced, but still to come
JamStack snap-on guitar amp and effects
The JamStack is the first of two crowdfunding projects to appear in our year-end roundup, meaning that this is still at the pre-production phase of development with no guarantee of market availability. It is a cool idea though, and has already attracted enough backers to surpass its funding goal with about a week left on the Kickstarter clock.
The JamStack pretty much solves a common problem for mobile guitarists looking to belt out scorching solos on the beach, power chord down the street or just take an electric guitar to a friend's house for an impromptu jam session. Normally, in addition to the instrument, a portable amplifier needs to be lugged along, then a power source needs to be found, and any number of cables and connectors run through whatever stomps happen to be in the gig bag. Not so with the JamStack, which is clipped onto a guitar's strap peg and locked into place.
It has two speakers driven by a 10 W amp, a built-in battery for up to 8 hours of continuous use and allows players to access an almost infinite world of app-based digital effects by interfacing with a mounted smartphone. All in all, this seems like a great idea for noodlers on the move who want to shred in public without having to trade their favorite instrument for a dedicated digitized six string.
FretX learning sleeve
We've been following the progress of the FretX guitar chord learning sleeve for quite a while now, and even got to see a working prototype in action at the Futur en Seine expo in Paris last year. Last month, the system went live on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to fund production.
The business end of the FretX is a paper thin sleeve embedded with circuitry and LEDs that's slotted under the strings at the headstock end of the neck. A control box attached to the back of the head wirelessly connects to a smart device running an iOS/Android mobile app. The student starts a song in the app and then plays a game of follow-me with the sleeve, where LED dots show where and when to place fretting fingers.
We've seen a few learning sleeves come and go in the past, but creator Federico Rodriguez and team are enthusiastic that the FretX will be the one learners will want to play with. The Indiegogo campaign has proven successful and shipping to backers is estimated to start in May 2017, if all goes according to schedule.
Kadabra from Tribal Tools
This crazy-looking wireless wooden electronic music creator was supposed to start shipping during the second half of this year, but is still shown as up for pre-order. It looks more like something a Klingon warrior would take into battle than a digital tone machine, is more than a meter in length and tips the scales at 5 kg (11 lb).
The bottom part of the instrument is home to 24 capacitive copper pipe keys and multi-color LEDs, while 12 control buttons three thumb buttons and three pressure sensors, six utility buttons and a wheel encoder are located at the top of the Kadabra. Up to 16 different sounds can be played at the same time, and motion sensors have also been cooked in for firing sounds/effects or controlling settings.
The Kadabra certainly looks like fun to experiment with, as you can see in the video below.
Weird and wonderful creations
The Candela Vibrophase
The first port of call on our brief voyage into craziness is the Candela Vibrophase, a wonderful example of steampunk oddness. The elaborate guitar effects unit sees a tea light candle powering a Stirling engine, which drives a flywheel that spins a patterned disc. The patterns on the disc determine how much candle light hits four photo cells.
An audio circuit then mashes the flickering light patterns with the signal coming from a guitar on its way to a powered amplifier, resulting in pulsed output ranging from subtle vibrato to Leslie-like phase. It's wholly impractical and definitely more of a talking point than stage equipment, but it's nonetheless impressive, it works and if you want one of your very own, ZVex Effects can build you one for $5,900.
No roundup of 2016 music creation highlights would be complete without Martin Molin's Musical Marble Machine. Built by hand using 3,000 components, it's a tuneful and mesmerizing mix of wooden cogs, wheels and belts – and definitely worth another look.