These are a few of my favorite things—which is to say, stuff I dug in 2021 that might make for a good gift for the audio person in your life…or perhaps a gift to yourself when you’re figuring out what to do with those gift cards you found in your stocking. Without further adieu, some ideas.
Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music — Ted Templeman‘s autobiography came out in 2020, but I just finished it the other night and it’s a winner. Templeman produced all the prime era Van Halen and Doobie Brothers albums of the 1970s and 80s, making him one of those rare producers to have helmed not one but two Diamond-selling (10 million) albums in his career. He goes over the creation of all their hits, as well as working with artists like Carly Simon, Aerosmith, Bette Midler, Van Morrison, Sammy Hagar, Eric Clapton, Little Feat, Nicollete Larson, Bullet Boys and plenty of others. While he shares what went into making some of those acts’ biggest successes, he also owns up to the duds he oversaw as well. Beyond the storytelling and behind-the-scenes drama, there’s fantastic between-the-lines takeaways to be learned from Templeman’s triumphs and travails. Can’t recommend this one enough.
Orba — This is a fascinating $99 hand-held synth/looper/controller from Artiphon that can be a simple desk toy for the musically curious or a potentially useful tool for those looking to create music using a different electronic instrument. About the size of 1 1/2 hockey pucks, Orba has eight touch-sensitive pads; a loud built-in speaker; LEDs; haptic feedback; MIDI, USB and headphone outputs; and some simple buttons for playing and various tasks. You can tap, bend and ‘play’ different onboard sounds, ranging from drums to various synths, and since everything is in a given key, you can’t play a ‘bad’ note. Simple looping allows users to make beats and layer sounds, or you can use it as a controller via MIDI. Onboard sounds can be added to and changed via an accompanying smartphone app. Those with a passing interest will enjoy being able to intuitively generate music with little effort, but for those who want to dig deeper, Orba proves to be surprisingly flexible and an interesting creative tool to try when you’re looking to break out of the usual creative routines.
Remain In Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina — In Remain In Love, Chris Frantz, drummer extraordinaire, recounts the tale of Talking Heads’ rise from a loose idea for a band between David Byrne, himself and Tina Weymouth (whom Frantz later married) to the legendary post-punk/alt/funk/world music/everything-else act that virtually invented college rock in the 1970s and 80s. Along the way, we get play-by-play recollections of recording the revolutionary Fear of Music in their loft apartment with Brian Eno; the band’s first tour in Europe; travels to record at Compass Point in Nassau, Bahamas; the creation and evolution of Tom Tom Club; the making of the groundbreaking concert film Stop Making Sense; and much more. The mood throughout is always positive, and while Byrne and the Frantzs have famously had a prickly relationship over the years, thankfully the book avoids the trap of becoming a tedious laundry list of score-settling, opting instead to take the high road more often than not. It’s a fun, fast read and if you dig either band’s music, it’s a must.
Humminguru Ultrasonic Record Cleaner — Cratedigging through old vinyl is fun, but the drawback is that old records are usually covered in dust, dirt, mold or worse. Traditional record brushes can help clean them up a bit, but to really get garbage out of the grooves, you need a record cleaning machine. In recent times, ultrasonic-style machines have particularly caught on—they rotate an album vertically through a bath of water while ultrasonic waves loosen grit in the grooves, washing out the gunk that often creates pops, crackle and the like. Most ultrasonic machines are priced well into four-digits, while ugly-but-thorough homebrew ones can be made for less if you’re handy and have the time. Startup Humminguru, however, has put together a sleek $400-ish ultrasonic machine that cleans and then blow-dries 12”, 10” and 7” records quickly and thoroughly. In real-world use, I’ve found it cleans classic sides nicely, and quietly at that, running below 70 dB.
Prince and the Parade & Sign O’ The Times Studio Sessions 1985 and 1986 — An astounding scholarly work, Duane Tudahl’s massive—more than 700 pages!—book covers two of Prince’s most productive years as it recounts the creation of two classic albums plus multiple tours, writing sessions, recording sessions (both for himself and other acts), jams, rehearsals and more. To call it a deep dive doesn’t do justice to how incredibly thorough this book is. Tudahl interviewed dozens of musicians, engineers, peers and more to create an authoritative breakdown of who recorded what when, highlighting how songs evolved (including unreleased tracks that only ever went into the legendary tape vault at Paisley Park) and more. Deftly—and tastefully—mixing the personal and professional throughout, the book never devolves into mere gossip or becomes a ledger of song titles, and instead creates a well-rounded portrait of a creative genius (over)working at the peak of his powers.
Røde Lavalier II — Røde has been on a tear the last year or two, knocking out product after product for content creators and podcasters; Fall, 2021 alone saw it release the Lavalier Go and smartLav+ lavaliers for those markets, as well as the AI-Micro compact, a dual-3.5mm interface about the size of a half-dollar coin. The year’s final release, however, was the Lavalier II, returning the company’s aim back to the broadcast world, offering a flat, 6 mm capsule with an omnidirectional polar pattern to accommodate hard-to-place scenarios. You get the usual accessories, too, like a pop filter, mini furry, flat cable and a low-profile mic clip and the requisite zip wallet to hold it all.
Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History — I picked this up for the chapter on the Eighties L.A. ska band The Untouchables, who had a fantastic near-hit with “Free Yourself” back in the day, and wound up reading the entire thing because it was fascinating. Each chapter in Ska Boom focuses on a different act—sometimes famous, usually not—and its contributions to the nascent U.S. ska scene of the 70s-90s. It notably stops before the great Ska Punk Scare of the late 90s, so don’t expect to find chapters on The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt or Dance Hall Crashers; no, the focus here is on the artists who paved the way for those acts to flourish in their wake. Author Marc Wasserman covers all the bases, talking with the prime movers in little known also-rans like The Boxboys as well as acts that found success by moving on to other genres, such as Philly’s mid-80s hit-meisters, The Hooters. From scene-building to holding troubled tours together with sheer will power, there’s a lot that will be familiar to industry readers, whether Ska is your cup of tea or not.