TechTalk: Essential Gear to Close Out Your Year

Recapping the Year's Coolest Products
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Audio-heads can be a tough crowd to buy for when you’re looking for holiday gifts. You would most likely wonder, “What’s good? Do they need it? Do I have to spend a fortune?” The answers are all simple. In answer to the first question: If you’re looking for quality, this page will get you started. Second question: Microphones, plug-ins, speakers, and other studio gear—you can’t have too much stuff! Last question: The gear below is all under $500, some well under the mark. So shop on and don’t forget to look for special holiday pricing that may even beat the prices listed here.

The new iZotope Spire ($349) is one of the most innovative products released in 2017. It is perfect for the musician, songwriter and budding engineer in your life. It’s a prosumer recording interface that breaks the mold. You can go simple and layer up to eight tracks with the internal mic, or plug in a stereo pair of mics using the onboard preamps with phantom power from Grace Design. The slick-looking interface can be wall-plugged or runs on batteries for up to four hours. The magic comes when you sync Spire with your iPhone (6 and up) to capture audio in the Spire app. Of course, it wouldn’t be an iZotope product without onboard DSP powering reverbs, delays, amp models and other processing. The app’s mixer uses simple, movable track icons: Move the icon up, down, and side-to-side to make it louder or softer, or pan it left/right. From the app, you can share your work to social media or collaborate with other Spire users.

This year was a great one for those looking for affordable mics. I’m currently reviewing the sE Electronics sE8 microphone, which is stellar. I’ve had it all over sessions at Blackbird, and you can read about my experiences in next month’s NAMM issue. The mic can be purchased separately for $249, or $499 for a stereo pair that comes with hardshell case, stereo bar, pop filters, and mic stand mounting clips. Another winning condenser I reviewed back in April is the Lauten LA-120. At $349 a pair, it’s an incredible buy. From my review: “I know of no other mic in this price range or size that gives you both high and lowpass filters, exchangeable capsules, stand mounts and pop filters.” The LA-120 is versatile and sounds great for a range of applications.

If you’re looking for affordable studio monitors, you need go no further than the Mackie CR Series or iLoud monitors from IK Multimedia. The iLouds ($299.99) look too tiny to be serious, but they are no joke. Not only will they work as a handy reference up against higher-end speakers, but also they also offer a range of features that make them both usable and fun to hear. They offer two 25W amps powering the 3-inch LF driver and ¾-inch silk-dome tweeter. There are three eminently usable EQ switches to tailor them to taste. For example, I found myself low-cutting them, which is counterintuitive for a monitor of this size. They also come with isolation bases for aiming and de-coupling them from a desk or are mic-stand mountable. Add Bluetooth streaming and versatile inputs, and we have a winner.

The Mackie CR series monitors break down the price barrier with the CR3 (3-inch woofer, $89.99), CR4 (4-inch woofer, $149.99) and CR4BT (4-inch w/Bluetooth, $169.99). Common features include a ¾-inch fluid-cooled, silk-dome tweeter, handy front-mounted headphone jack, volume knob and 1/8-inch input, and TRS or RCA inputs. The rear-ported wooden cabinets ship with foam acoustical isolators, 1/8-inch to RCA cable, 1/8-inch to 1/8-inch cable, and a speaker-to-speaker cable. For under $500, you could buy CR4s and still get the LA-120s listed above!

Plug-ins are always a good buy when gifting an audio geek. The Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ just released at AES in NY ($135) brings a whole new attitude to an EQ plug-in. Mix reviewer Barry Rudolph says: “The Sonnox Oxford EQ begins as an excellent parametric equalizer and steps up with a powerful dynamic engine. Super recommended!” Next on the list is the Fabfilter Essentials Bundle featuring EQ, Reverb and Compressor for $399. This company set the bar high for other manufacturers with its visually rich interfaces and innovative feature sets. At this price, you’ll get three processors that I guarantee will be used in any DAW session.

For shaping the final product comes Newfangled Audio’s Elevate mastering plug-in (distributed by Eventide at $199). Reviewer Michael Cooper said: “After getting the spectral balance to sound the way I wanted, I turned off the Auto function to hear the maximizer’s effect. The mix sounded excellent—warmer, fuller, punchier and louder.” Read the rest of Michael’s review in this month’s issue. Another winner for the final polish is the Nugen Audio MasterCheck Pro at $199. Reviewer Brandon Hickey summed it up by saying: “MasterCheck turned out to be the missing piece to my mastering workflow.” Read the rest of his review in this issue as well.

This was such a great year for new gear that I could go on and on. I want to thank every reader for tuning into this column and Mix. We have great new reviews, features and events on tap for 2018 and are looking forward to providing excellent content for all our gear heads. Happy New Year everyone!