Music gear that struck the right chord in 2014

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Gizmag's pick of the top five music gear innovations of 2014

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It's been another strong year for instrument innovation, making the task of choosing a top five quite a challenge. Though many excellent examples of envelope pushing have popped up on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo during 2014, including the Hammer Jammer and Aalberg's Ekko and Aero, we allowed those to fall gracefully to the cutting room floor in favor of tech that's available now. Join Gizmag as we take a look back at some of the top groove gadgets of the last 12 months.

A power trio from Line 6

In modern music, good things come in threes – the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nirvana, Cream, ZZ Top and The Police to name a very few. California's Line 6, best known for the excellent POD digital amp modelers, released its very own power trio this year sporting the AMPLIFi moniker.

First out of the starting gate were two hybrid amp/speaker systems that were accompanied by claims of reinventing the guitar amplifier. The design features a powerful instrument speaker behind the red grille to the bottom and full range stereo speakers in the black top section, but that's only half the story.

Bluetooth wireless technology caters for music streaming and a free iOS/Android companion app allows players to dial in numerous digital tones while also offering to match the signature sounds of guitar heroes in favorite songs.

A couple of months later, Line 6 expanded the AMPLIFi family with the launch of the FX100 effects unit. The floor stomp allows players to bring the same app-enhanced tone library, tone-matching prowess and Bluetooth connectivity as the speaker systems to any guitar amp. The company added another flavor to the range in November with the TT, a guitar tone processor and Bluetooth audio streamer for the home, office, studio or campus.

A session drummer in a stomp

Solo performers looking for an always-on-call, always reliable and always stone-cold sober percussionist to provide a backdrop of rhythmic beats can be left somewhat wanting by pre-recorded samples or loops or table-top drum machines. About this time last year, musician David Packouz hit Indiegogo with an idea that crammed player-controllable sampled drum sounds into a stomp-sized beat machine.

The crowdfunding effort was successful and the first post-campaign BeatBuddy guitar pedal drum machines started shipping in August. The stomp allows guitarists to play along to over 200 supplied songs spread over 22 genres using one of 10 realistic-sounding drum sets based on samples from session drummer Goran Rista.

Each song provides a steady rhythm to groove along to and lets a musician to add fills, changes and accent hits without taking playing hands away from the instrument. Companion computer software allows for fine-tuning and tweaking, and for drum sets and songs generated in other software to be added to the BeatBuddy.

The entry price of US$349 may seem a little high, but we found that the convenience of the form factor and ease of use, the excellent quality of the supplied beats, and the ability to build on the content provided combined to make it well worth saving up and diving in.

Bringing some much-needed soul to digital music

"Remember back in the early 1980s when pop music started using drum machines, and consequently lost all of its soul and human-ness?" said Roger Linn as he accepted his Technical Grammy in 2011. "Well, that's my fault."

He was of course referring to his widely-used LinnDrum. For a number of years, the electronic instrument designer has been working on a multi-touch MIDI controller aimed at injecting oodles of expression and feeling into digital music making. Despite suffering a number of serious setbacks along the way, the LinnStrument, which you can see in action below, was finally made available for purchase a few months ago at $1,499.

"What we're all trying to do is create a vehicle where people are able to develop virtuoso skills on synthesized instruments and let people create another compelling instrumental voice in popular music," Linn told Gizmag back in July. "Maybe, just maybe, these new instruments will seduce some young musicians away from loops and beats, and back to notes and melodies. I'm kind of on a one-man campaign to save the note from extinction."

The dualo principle comes to life

The dualo principle is based on the fundamentals of tonal harmony. On a dualo keyboard, notes are arranged alternatively to the left and right with notes on staff lines and interlines arranged in a succession of thirds. After much prototyping, mathematician and musician Jules Hotrique developed a twin keyboard digital instrument based on the new arrangement, which began shipping earlier this year.

"We aimed to build an instrument that's as portable as a guitar and as powerful as a synthesizer, and which also includes some features popularized by music on computer," computer engineer and Dualo co-founder Bruno Verbrugghe told Gizmag. "Many musicians say it's a true new instrument because of the layout of keys, which propose something different than a synthesizer based on a piano keyboard. This layout of keys is already validated by hundreds of musicians and teachers."

The accordion-looking du-touch features 116 pressure sensitive keys, three touch sliders and a number of mode or function buttons. It's played by touching the hexagonal keys, stroking any of the three touch sliders and, as it contains a 3-axis gyro, by moving the instrument itself. 112 instruments and four percussion kits are available in synth mode, there's a built-in 8-track sequencer and it includes a follow-me LED learning system. It's available now for €990 (about $1,200).

Fishman powers multi-voice pickup revolution

While Line 6 was busying itself reinventing the guitar amp, Fishman was doing the same for the guitar pickup. Its first truly electric pickup design for over 80 years, the powered Fluence pickups are claimed to offer the kind of hum-free, noise-free, consistent tone and responsive dynamics that today's players demand.

At the heart of the three types initially offered is the Fluence Core, multi-voice electronics comprising two 48-layer interconnected boards sporting printed mini coils. Each pickup can be wired for push/pull switching between different voices – a hum-free vintage 50 single coil sound to an overwound Texas Strat sound, for example.

Seeing and hearing are believing, so have a look at the humbucker demo video featuring Greg Koch below.

The single-width Fluence pickups are available in black or white now at a street price of around $225 for a set of three. A pair of modern humbucking pickups will cost you about $240, while the classic variety neck and bridge combination start from around $225.

So there you have it, our pick of this year's top music gear innovations. Let us know your Top 5 developments in the comments below.

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