Tingsha Cymbals

I’ve used these humble, handheld cymbals for two years running, and they have become an invaluable part of my meeting facilitation toolkit.

I often convene large groups for collaborative working sessions, brainstorming exercises, PechaKucha presentations and the like. When trying to keep 50-60 creative people to a fixed schedule, transitioning from one activity to the next can easily eat into your productive time. Enter tingsha cymbals: one strike of the cymbals produces a high, pure ringing sound that instantly cuts through the chatter and brings everybody to attention–with a relatively low volume output.

Designed for meditative purposes, these cymbals are a portable, low-tech cool tool for corralling large groups.

-- John Appiah-Duffell  

“Om Nama Shiva” Tingsha Cymbals 2.5-inch
$15

Available from Amazon



Blue Piston Wireless Rechargeable Speaker

One of the drawbacks I have found with iDevices is the limited way they have of sharing sound with others. They work great with an ear bud. You can buy a splitter and have two people listening at the same time, but they have to be close together. Their speaker system is hardly loud enough. You have to be sitting right beside it to hear it. As always, when a problem occurs, industry is quick to find solutions. This problem has been answered with a profusion of speakers that can be used with them. Many of these are not really portable in that you would not carry them around since they are too large. They produce great sound but they are best used in one place. I prefer to have a speaker that is more versatile, one that I can easily take anywhere with me. Logiix has the perfect solution for me, having come up with the Blue Piston Wireless Bluetooth Speaker. I have been using it for about fourteen months and it has worked perfectly for me.

The Blue Piston Speaker gets its name from the compact circular design. You are not limited to the blue color as there are seven colors to choose from, of which blue is one. It is lightweight (180 grams) and compact (Dimensions: Height – 5 cm (2″) Diameter 6 cm (2.5″)), which is perfect for traveling. The Blue Piston even fits in a car’s standard drink coaster. This speaker is designed to communicate seamlessly and wirelessly with any Bluetooth device. The wireless component gives you the freedom to place your speakers anywhere you like. This portable bluetooth speaker has a brushed aluminum military grade shell and built-in low frequency resonance system for a clear sound. The maximum volume that you can get out of it far exceeds what the iPad can give you. You will be able to blast the sound all through the house if you want.

Getting started with the Speaker is a snap. The first thing I had to do was to make sure it was fully charged. I plugged this into my USB plug. It has a special cable that links the speaker to any USB charging plug or your computer. A red LED on the speaker indicated that it was charging. The light turns off when fully charged. It typically takes about two or three hours to fully charge. My biggest complaint with most bluetooth devices is the charging life. The batteries always seem to need recharging. The Blue Piston lasted way longer than any other bluetooth speakers I have tried in the past. The full charge easily lasted 8 hours. The on/off switch helps to decrease the loss of battery life and the speaker is able to turn itself off after about 15 minutes of inactivity. When the speaker’s battery starts running low, an alert tone will sound every 30 seconds and the red LED will start to flash.

This speaker has a couple of extra functions. Besides the charging cable, it comes with an auxiliary cable to link the speaker to any other speaker via the headphone port. This means that the Blue Piston can be used as the speaker for any audio device, even if there is no bluetooth capability. Another plus to this speaker is the ability to control an iPhone. There is a built-in microphone. To answer a call, simply press the multifunction button and start talking. Pressing it again, ends the call. To reject a call, hold down the button until you hear an indicator tone (about 3 seconds). This then provides a hands-free iPhone that you could use when driving.

Lastly, the Blue Piston comes with a small carrying pouch which will hold the speaker and the two cables. That way, you won’t have to look around for the micro USB charging cable when you need it, as infrequently as this occurs. The speaker also has an anti-slip pad attached to the bottom of the base. The only function missing from the speaker that many other bluetooth speakers have is a volume control on the unit itself. You’ll have to rely on the volume control on the source device for that.

The Blue Piston Speaker was mainly made for enjoying stereo sound superior to the iPad’s built-in mono speakers. I like that I can move the speaker to almost anywhere in the house and still enjoy the audio. It has a range of about 10 meters as long as there are no walls in the way. I took it to my basement and there was no loss of fidelity. And the sound quality is superb. It comes with a one year warranty.

For the size, convenience, and price you will not find a better speaker out there.

Logiix Blue Piston Rechargeable Bluetooth Speaker
$30

Available from Amazon



Dime Tech Waistband Portable Voice Amplifier

I earn a living explaining tech to people, but I have a rather soft voice. That can create some challenges, especially when I want to talk for several hours at a mini maker faire. I did some research on Amazon.com and opted for this portable voice amplifier. It worked very well for my needs at a recent mini maker faire. I was able to speak for several hours without going hoarse. It has rechargeable lithium batteries.

The limitations of this device? Sometimes it squeaks with feedback if you turn up the volume to the highest settings. The device is loud enough for my needs without turning it up all the way.

Another useful purpose for this device is for use at CoderDojo meetings — where children sometimes make presentations about computer programming. At one such meeting I attended, a very bright 2nd grader was explaining about the Python program she is working on. If I had owned this device before her presentation, I would have loaned it to her — and her voice would have carried further back into the room.

I’d strongly recommend this device as a purchase for school and public libraries, as some community members might need to use such a device just once or twice a year — and it might not make sense to purchase the device to own privately for such sparing use.

-- Phil Shapiro  

Available from Amazon



Korg nanoKey2

Only 20 years ago, it was almost unimaginable to have the ability to easily carry around an entire recording studio’s worth of high-end music production equipment on a laptop computer, but that is exactly where we are today. Pros and hobbyists alike can create any type of music, anywhere, at any time, by just pulling out their laptop, setting it down on a flat surface in front of them, and digging into any number of the great Digital Audio Workstations out there. Now, one thing that hasn’t changed is that notes still need to be input by hand. If you’re not working with a touch screen or, reasonably so, have a distaste for trying to enter notes on a QWERTY keyboard, a portable MIDI keyboard is a must have.

The Korg nanoKEY2 is a highly portable USB MIDI keyboard that can easily fit into a baggy jacket pocket, or be tucked into a backpack/messenger bag, taking up the same volumetric space as an average paperback. At only about 13″ wide, 3.25″ deep, and .75″ thick, there’s not much of a footprint to keep a mobile composer from having a keyboard on their person at all times. The nanoKEY2 has basic midi functionality, like Octave up and down, Pitch up and down, Sustain, and Modulation, all with back-lit buttons featuring varying levels of intensity to indicate how many steps up or down it is, a great feature to keep things simple but clear. Its 25 keys are organized like a piano, but a clear concession to portability set the sharp/flat (black) keys on a distinct row above the natural (white) keys, which will be odd to piano purists. The keys themselves feel more like laptop QWERTY presses than a natural piano key touch, but are still pressure sensitive. Finally, for connectivity, it has a micro USB port to get it connected to your laptop, simple as that.

Korg’s nanoKEY2 may handle strangely at first touch, but the fact that it can so easily be taken anywhere make it an excuse breaker. There’s no excuse to miss an opportunity to get a musical idea down with this really cool tool tucked into your laptop bag. At about $50, it doesn’t crush the wallet either.

-- Josh Eyre  

Available from Amazon



Noteflight

Within the specialized area of music notation software there’s a holy war between the users of the two most popular packages, Finale and Sibeleus, that nearly rises to the level of Mac v PC. These are expensive and complex applications that can handle any music notation task from creating band arrangements, choral parts, orchestral works, and even movie scores. I won’t add fuel to that fire but if your music scoring needs are a bit simpler, there is a great web app for notation called Noteflight. There are two tiers of features, a free version with up to 10 scores, and a subscription version called Crescendo with unlimited scores and many additional features such as midi input, high-quality playback samples, individual part output, templates, and others. There is a demo of Crescendo available as well. Scores can be shared with other Noteflight users, and they can comment or “favorite” scores that are shared. I’ve used the tool to make quick lead sheets, create practice exercises, and to “clean up” notes from music theory classes. It’s definitely worth a look.

-- David Darrow  



Rugged Rukus Portable Solar Wireless Sound System

I have owned this rugged, splash-proof speaker for about six months. I purchased it for week-long bicycle tours and camping. It is a combination of solar charger, battery and speakers in one unit. I charge my phone and i-pod when off the grid. The speaker has blue-tooth and auxiliary (wired) input and indicator lights for battery status, etc. I use the two loops to strap the speaker to my bike bag for listening on the road. It sounds great for its size. It even fits in a large pocket of cargo pants.

-- Bob Lewis  

Rugged Rukus All-Terrain Portable Solar Wireless Sound System
$66

Available from Amazon



Pianoteq Software Piano

I’m not a musical purist. As a composer for video games and films, I’m totally for electronic instruments that can mimic acoustic instruments. I work on tight budgets and I don’t have, for example, a grand piano sitting in my office. Even if I did, pianos are notoriously difficult to mic — that takes a fair amount of skill and a room with great acoustics, which I also don’t have. Synthesized pianos — meaning sample-based software synthesizers that run on your computer — are a “good enough” alternative, yet less than perfect.

Every time you hit a note on the keyboard, the synthesizer fetches a sample of an actual recorded piano (that resides on the hard drive of your computer) and plays it back for you. The downside to this sort of technology is: a) Sampled pianos never sound absolutely real because they can’t mimic the vast complexity of a real piano, and b) All those large samples take a while to load into your computer’s memory as well as taking up a significant amount of space on your hard drive.

Enter Pianoteq (stand alone or plug-in Mac or Windows). It uses a type of synthesis called physical modeling, which recreates the original instrument mathematically. In the case of the piano, this involves modeling the hammers, the strings, the soundboard, and even the pedals. And it’s hands down the most true-sounding synthesized piano I’ve ever played. Pianoteq captures the sounds of every key at every velocity. It accurately captures harmonics when I press the sustain pedal down. Or that weird (wonderful) buzzing in lowest octave. I’m not a maestro but, in a taste test, I can’t tell tell the difference between a recording of Pianoteq and a recording of a real piano.

But it gets better still. Using sliders, Pianoteq allows me to tweak and adjust practically every aspect of the physical model. No piano or any other synthesized piano that I know of can do this. I can adjust how much hammer noise I want to hear, or what point on the strings the hammers hits. I can change the length of the soundboard or the length of the strings, mute the strings, mic the piano in a virtual space, and on and on. All of this dramatically changes the sound. I can start with a piano that sounds like a Bosendorfer and, in a matter of seconds, I can end up with something with something that sounds almost percussive, but still very acoustic. Or I can tweak the sound toward something more bell-like.

Because Pianoteq is algorithmically based, it’s small… a mere 20 megabytes. Its sampled cousins weigh in at hefty 2 – 4 gigabytes and require around 4 gigabytes of internal memory. The upshot of this: Pianoteq loads lightning fast, which is a nice plus when I’m in the middle of writing music (or just fiddling around).

Before I encountered Pianoteq, I had always partially hid sampled pianos under a veil of other instruments. Using Pianoteq I now tend to feature pianos or even solo pianos, because they sound real. And rich. From my perspective, now I have any number of virtual pianos sitting around in my office, from a wide variety of grands, to uprights, to antique grands, to old detuned pianos, etc….

But a YouTube video paints a thousand words, or something like that. In the short video below using one of my compositions for the film The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, I’ll quickly demonstrate just a few of Pianoteq’s adjustments.

-- Robyn Miller  

Pianoteq 4
$125

Sample Excerpts:

The Condition slider allows you to modify the state of the instrument, from freshly tuned to completely worn out. After a right click on the slider, changing the Random seed parameter will allow you to enjoy thousands of broken instrument variations.

condition

malletbounce




Audioflood Waterprooof iPod Shuffle

I learned how to paddleboard this summer and after a while, out on the water, I wanted music. I bought the Audioflood waterproof iPod. (It’s an iPod Shuffle that has had its interior filled with waterproof sealant). I loaded it up with a lot of Phillip Glass, David Byrne and some Gilbert and Sullivan overtures and I set sail. Audio quality was good. The included breakaway headphones were inspired. All seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then I decided to teach my new Swiss Mountain Dog puppy how to paddleboard with me. That worked out surprisingly well, but the Audioflood iPod got knocked into the salt water bay.

In my mind, I composed several letters to Audioflood, blaming them for their poor quality iPod clips, but, of course the clips were Apple’s and it was really my fault.

Five days later, while landing my dog and paddleboard, I saw the flash of hot pink on the seafloor ( through two feet of salt water). There was my Audioflood. I snatched it from among the hungry, musical-loving crustaceans that had gathered round.

When I got home, I plugged in the headphones and “Einstein on the Beach” came blasting. Five days submerged in salt water! This is a great product.

-- Douglas Gray  

AudioFlood waterproof iPod Shuffle with headphones
$140

Available from Amazon



Radio Journalism Gear

[Transom Story Workshop teaches new students how to create narrative stories for radio. The kind of short stories you might hear on NPR. Their tech guy, Jeff Towne, posts a current recommendation list of the best basic radio journalism tools. He keeps up with testing out new gear and is always the place I (KK) go to find the best inexpensive recording gear. This updates their previous recommendations.]

Students at the Transom Story Workshop tend to be beginners. Many have never picked up a mic or turned on a recorder before. So, it was important for us to choose a field recording pack that both sounded good and was simple for novices to use. Plus, since the workshop started from scratch in the fall of 2011, we needed to find gear that fit our start-up budget. We landed on the following and feel we made the right choices:

sonyRecorder: The Sony M10 ($209). We can’t say enough about how good this recorder sounds. It’s VERY quiet. And, it has a solid, built-in limiter. Those two components were important to us when selecting a recorder for students because new producers often don’t pay close attention to the levels. Having a quiet recorder and a good limiter helps a student make better recordings. I would have preferred, maybe, the Sony D50. It seems more durable. But, the M10 is solid, lightweight, and has fewer bells and whistles to learn — and it’s half the price.

micMics: We have a slew of mics on hand for the students including the Electro-Voice RE-50 ($169), the Beyer-Dynamic MC-58 and MCE-58, and the Audio Technica AT8010. I’m a fan of the RE-50 and the MC-58 for new producers because they are more forgiving of mic handling noise. But, all of these are excellent mics.

headsetHeadphones: For the price — $28 — the Sennheiser HD202 is a good set of “cans.” They help isolate external sound, they’re fairly comfortable, and they reproduce sound well. Yeah, they aren’t the Sony MDR-7506s we love, but we were on a budget and everyone is happy with these headphones. Never a problem.

-- Jeff Towne  



Standtastic Double Keyboard Stand

Thirty years ago keyboard players would stack their second keyboard on top of something sturdy, like a 350-pound Hammond organ, or 150-pound Rhodes piano. The top keyboard (such as a clavinet or monophonic analog synthesizer) did not bounce no matter how hard you played it.

Thankfully today a 20-pound rompler [a keyboard that plays pre-recorded samples instead of generated waveforms] can replace all those old heavy keys, but I don’t like the light bouncy feel of X-type stands.

A few years ago I heard about the Standtastic series, and found it simply does not bounce. It’s as solid as granite. I bought two and keep one in our practice room and another for my gigging rig.

-- Mark Hicks  

Standtastic 122 Double-Tier Keyboard Stand with bag
$150

Available from Amazon