Hanukkah gifts for son's interest in sound engineering--I think?
November 19, 2012 8:15 PM   Subscribe

What exactly is my teen son interested in, and how can I encourage it by buying him an appropriate present?

I'm trying to come up with Hanukkah gifts for my 15-year-old son. He has recently become interested in an area that I'm having a hard time defining. It might be called sound engineering, but maybe not. He recently joined a club at his high school called Electronic Dance Music (or EDM) but it apparently has NOTHING to do with actual dancing. I get the idea that it's a bunch of very geeky boys who play with sound with their computers and who would rather die than actually dance. My son--also a geek--doesn't seem to be interested in making actual music with an instrument, but likes the idea of the computery-ness of it and manipulating sound? Anyway, I want to encourage this interest and would like to give him one or two gifts towards this, but I'm not sure how to find out what to get him. I want it to be a surprise, so that's why I haven't asked him. I vaguely remember my brother, in the mid-70s, playing with synthesizers. Is this the same thing? Is there still such a thing as a synthesizer? Would it be appropriate? Of course, I don't want to spend more than $100, so any equipment might be prohibitively expensive. Software? Computer equipment (like decent speakers for the 'puter, rather than those measly little ones)? Musical equipent? Keyboards? Books? I specifically need ideas on gifts or how to research gifts. Thanks!
posted by primate moon to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Does he have a Nintnedo DS of some sort? If so, KORG DS-10 is pretty awesome.
posted by griphus at 8:22 PM on November 19, 2012

Something like the Bliptronic 5000 might be within his skill ability, sort of cool and also would not break the bank. It's a cheaper simpler version of this crazy thing. I am not a musician but it's sort of a synthesizer, this is one that looks more traditional at about the same price point. And good speakers would be a good idea.
posted by jessamyn at 8:23 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nice cans. (Headphones!)
posted by carsonb at 8:24 PM on November 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

Something like this thing maybe? Thingamagoop 2. Watch the video at the bottom for an idea of what it does. The Maker Shed Music Section in general might be worth browsing.

Edit: The people who make that thing have their own store with some other goofy electronic music toys.
posted by Perthuz at 8:25 PM on November 19, 2012

The Novation Launchpad is really cool and is a bit over $100.
posted by Strass at 8:29 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

ATH-M50 headphones. They're very slightly over your price limit, but they are a relative bargain once you start looking at other studio headphones and the sound quality is very high. They can be thought of as both a tool for his hobby, but also just for general purpose listening if that peters out.

I would describe his hobby as sound production if you are looking for terms.

posted by spatula at 8:35 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You have the basic idea - your son wants to make music with his computer. It's great that you want to encourage him! One of the great applications of personal computing is the ability for anyone to create/produce/distribute music.

EDM means music that's made entirely (or largely) on a computer - if you've ever heard of "house" or "techno" it's similar. It's actually fairly popular on the radio right now - very upbeat and "danceable," i.e. it's hard not to bob your head to it. A lot of pop artists are putting out EDM-ish songs now. Maybe another user can point to some "classic" EDM tracks, I'm not sure exactly how EDM fits in the range of electronic music.

Speakers are not a bad idea, but you as his parent probably don't want to encourage loud music in your house. A nice pair of headphones are probably better.
posted by radioamy at 8:38 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I want it to be a surprise, so that's why I haven't asked him. I vaguely remember my brother, in the mid-70s, playing with synthesizers. Is this the same thing? Is there still such a thing as a synthesizer?

They do, but they tend to be quite varied and mostly in software now. Hardware synthesizers (that look like a keyboard) are more of a prog rock band thing at this point.

If he doesn't already have it (maybe get him to show you his work setup?), he'd probably get a lot of use out of FL Studio. It's a primary tool for sequencing loop-based music like the kind his club about.
posted by ignignokt at 8:39 PM on November 19, 2012

I mean, a computer is an instrument nowadays. There aren't really many analog synths that you can buy anymore (although some people still like them), but a computer can replicate them.

One piece of software that might be good is Reason, which is basically a virtual simulation of a bunch of synthesizers and other audio equipment that you can hook together. But it's probably too expensive unless there's a "lite" version somewhere. I know for a fact that FL Studio (another piece of music-making software) has a version for $99 (there's a $49 version that probably wouldn't do what he wants). Both of these are used by a lot of popular modern electronic musicians who probably could be classified as EDM.

Is he the type that likes to learn new complicated things? Is he a programmer? Because both of these programs are kind of complicated.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:42 PM on November 19, 2012

Ableton Live is very widely used electronic music production and performance software -- basically it is an entire music production studio that runs on your laptop. They sell an 'intro' version for about $100. There's a decent chance he's already got this, but if not, he'd probably be into it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:43 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ableton Live is very widely used electronic music production and performance software -- basically it is an entire music production studio that runs on your laptop. They sell an 'intro' version for about $100. There's a decent chance he's already got this, but if not, he'd probably be into it.

Psst as a former kid, I'd much rather get a piece of hardware (audio equipment/input device/etc) rather than software (which I've probably already pirated)
posted by Strass at 8:53 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I can't believe I've already gotten so many great responses within just a few minutes! And, Radioamy, thanks for your thoughts about what exactly it is he's doing.

He has no equipment at all so far. We did just order him a Bliptronic 5000 from ThinkGeek as a belated birthday present, so I was happy to see that suggested. But that's it. He hasn't bought any software or equipment at all. So all of these are great suggestions. Aside from our very basic PC desktop computer, his video game setup (might be XBox, but I'm not sure), and a regular old tube TV, he's got nothing. So he's starting from scratch.

Even if he's not interested in playing an instrument at all, would it still be helpful to have some kind of keyboard set-up, or is the computer keyboard enough?

Thanks so much for all your great suggestions! Keep 'em coming!
posted by primate moon at 8:53 PM on November 19, 2012

A Korg wave drum
posted by mattoxic at 8:55 PM on November 19, 2012

Some kind of MIDI piano-style keyboard would definitely be helpful, for the simple reason that most computer keyboards can only send a signal from one key at a time, so you can't play chords. But it's not essential.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:57 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

High quality headphones (as suggested by a few people above) would definitely be a great choice.
posted by Perplexity at 9:09 PM on November 19, 2012

Psst as a former kid, I'd much rather get a piece of hardware (audio equipment/input device/etc) rather than software (which I've probably already pirated)

Software is the fundamental tool for composing electronica (see the good suggestions upthread). That's what he needs, unless he's already using a pirate copy.

Audiophile headphones and gadgets are fun and nice, but they're a bit like buying him a really nice palette or artist's smock when he doesn't own a paintbrush yet.

This is a fantastic passion to pursue with a low barrier to entry and there's many many amazing electronica artists (Metronomy, Seekae, etc) that started out just like this, tinkering at the family PC.
posted by dontjumplarry at 9:29 PM on November 19, 2012

The kid probably has pirated software already. Get him a mini-kaoss pad.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:57 PM on November 19, 2012

Also: An Original Furby, an Arduino Starter Kit, something akin to this, and a soldering iron.
posted by carsonb at 10:13 PM on November 19, 2012

Teenage Engineering's OP-1 just recently came out and seems to be very well-liked.

edit: crap, just noticed the budget mismatch. sorry, never mind.
posted by contraption at 10:20 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi there primate moon. Glad to hear your son is getting into EDM. To give you some sense of comparison, it's kind of like saying "I'm getting into video games" or "I'm getting into making web pages" -- what once sounded like a flight of fancy actually turned out pretty well for a lot of kids (myself included).

For the uninitiated, the whole concept of computer-based music can be a bit of a black box, so I'm going to try to walk you through some basic concepts and then make a suggestion at the end. For context, I'm an executive at Beatport.com, the world's largest store for EDM, so not only do I have some relevant experience, your son will probably sell his music there if he works his butt off.

With traditional musical instruments, the interface and sound generation are in the same package, right? There are 88 keys on a piano and when you press one of them, sound comes out. You can press a pedal with your foot to add sustain. That sort of thing. Same thing with a guitar -- you put your fingers on the frets and then strum the strings and, whammo, sound! Flute, sax, drums, french horn, whatever -- you interact with them and they make sounds.

Increasingly with "electronic" "instruments", the thing that you interact with does not make the sounds. The sound maker is a piece of software on your computer and the input device is a physical piece of gear that's plugged into your computer.

In most cases, you can use the software without the physical device, but it's a pain in the butt. Computers are crappy musical input devices by default. Putting it in terms of traditional musical instruments -- you have ten fingers and two feet that can simultaneously press keys and pedals on a piano. You can use all five fingers with your left hand to fret a guitar and you strum with your right hand. Lots of simultaneous input. A computer just has one mouse. And while there are lots of keys on a keyboard, they're either pressed or not. There's not a ton of finesse by default.

I'm going to put a pin in this for a second and take a second train of thought.

If your son is just getting into making electronic music, then you want to spend money on flexibility. You've bought the Bliptronic 5000 and I think he'll really enjoy that. He's going to get eventually figure out everything he can do with it and it may get a bit boring. Don't worry though. Someday he's going to use that Bliptronic 5000 to get a *very* specific sound for a track that wins a Grammy and when he's on stage accepting the award, he's going to trace his entire career back to this first instrument you bought him :)

The next thing you buy him should offer boundless opportunities. You want to buy him the equivalent of a paintbrush as opposed to a Light Bright. You have two options -- software and hardware.

Buying music software for a brand new EDM musician is kind of like sending a fresh high-school graduate to Harvard. Yeah, you can do it, but you may wish you had that money back when he switches majors for the fourth time. Almost all software have trial versions and while they may be hobbled in some fashion (disabling the save function is popular), your son will end up playing with a LOT of different versions before he finds the one that works for him. So stick with free demo versions for now.

So that leaves hardware. Other people have suggested headphones, which are nice, but they not necessary. They neither make the sound nor help you interact with the software. Same thing with speakers. It's kind of like buying a kid a goalie net before you buy him a soccer ball. Only one of them actually enables you to play soccer.

Aaaaand bringing back the original thread...

What I'm going to suggest is a MIDI controller. This is the thing that you put your hands on that tells the computer software what to do. MIDI is the standard way that electronic music hardware and software talks to each other, so your son will be able to use this one piece of hardware with pretty much any piece of software he downloads.

You want something with lots of knobs and "pads" that let you tweak the sound in real-time.

Knobs are the same things as sliders, the former just rotates instead of moving up/down or left/right. If you have to choose between one or the other (and you will for under $100), knobs are better than sliders. Trust me on this one :)

Pads are like buttons. They're also called triggers. Like keys on a keyboard, they are either on or off, although these will be pressure sensitive, so they have more finesse.

Even though you said your son isn't really interested in learning how to "play" an instrument, I'm going to suggest that you get something with keys like a piano. Just not 88 of them. When your son is noodling around trying to figure out a simple melody or bass line or pretty much anything musically, he'll appreciate having an octave or two worth of keys to mess with. Again, it's all about options and flexibility.

I suggest you get the M-Audio Oxygen 25 25-Key USB MIDI Controller (there's a newer version linked to from this page, but this version has all the reviews). It's right at $100 and it should offer your son a ton of flexibility to try out ideas and see all the cool things you can do when creating electronic music (dance or otherwise). There are other options out there, of course, but most are much more expensive or only marginally cheaper with a substantial reduction in features.

I wish your son the best in his new passion. And kudos to you for reaching out to learn about something not in your comfort zone in order to support him. You sound like an awesome mom.
posted by bpm140 at 11:43 PM on November 19, 2012 [35 favorites]

Also, show him this thread so he can see what some old hands were thinking when you give him bpm140's suggestion. Which would be what I'd do!
posted by maxwelton at 1:13 AM on November 20, 2012

Roland's MC 303 (and the higher-grade 505) were great tools for this in 90s. Sure you can make all the same noises on your computer, but the controls on the Rolands are great. He'd *love* one of these.
posted by colin_l at 5:46 AM on November 20, 2012

This is slightly off-topic for your actual question, but if you have a Guitar Center near you, check into whether they offer any classes in "home recording". My local GC offers free classes on Saturdays, taught by a guy who owns his own studio and is a sound engineer by trade.

Things to remember:
+ The class is only as good as the teacher, so YMMV.
+ They want you to buy equipment from them, but it's not a requirement to take the class. Beware of the hard sell.
+ Their stuff is often overpriced.

However, it can be a fun way to try out cool equipment and meet like-minded folks. Plus, free!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:13 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You probably have all the information you need already thanks to bpm140's exhaustive comment and the other great feedback here, but you might also want to read about circuit bending and try to feel out whether your son and his friends are into that sort of electronics hacking. The recommendation from carsonb to get a Furby might not make sense until you realize there are people out there making electronic music by hacking old toys like Furbys and Speak & Spells (and all sorts of other less silly-looking electronics). If you think this is part of what your son and his friends are doing in their club - or if it sounds like something he'd have fun with - a friend of mine absolutely raved about the book Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking as an introduction to this kind of thing.
posted by jessypie at 8:14 AM on November 20, 2012

I have Handmade Electronic Music, and I'd hold off on that for a bit. It definitely requires more engineering know-how and equipment than a 15-year-old generally has (unless there's an electronic engineer/hobbyist in the family or neighborhood with a lot of spare time.) Definitely keep it in the "must-have if he gets really into this" list though.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on November 20, 2012

i'd go with the oxygen 25key keyboard if you're looking for hardware.
ableton live intro if you want software. seriously, ableton can do ANYTHING. i personally love it.

possibly better than the oxygen, you could go with a midi fighter it's slightly out of your price range, but it's a TON of bang for the buck, kid would rock out with his EDM friends, and show them who's boss. also, the midi fighter is hackable, and can be customized.

you would totally be the cool dad!
posted by thatgirld at 2:18 PM on November 20, 2012

Response by poster: More great responses! And, bpm140, you are amazing to take so much time to write such an amazingly helpful and thorough response!

I think I'm going to take bpm140's suggestion and get the M-Audio Oxygen 25 25-Key USB MIDI Controller for my son. He'll be so psyched!

Thank you to all, from a very grateful and more informed mother
posted by primate moon at 2:26 PM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thatgirld, if I were a betting man, i bet that kid will be using Ableton with an APC40 in twelve months.

I LOVE the Midi Fighter, btw. Is there anything more awesome than an EDM / arcade hardware mashup?
posted by bpm140 at 3:06 PM on November 20, 2012

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