Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Music gear

Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plustop PRO Electric Guitar
$549 (Sweetwater - if you buy from them, they do a 55-point inspection at no additional charge, and shipping is free. I’m otherwise unaffiliated; just a very happy customer.)
More info:

It’s amazing how many of us techies are also musicians. Maybe it’s something about the same part of the brain being used for both. I don’t know; agronomy wasn’t my best subject. But I do know that many musicians play electric guitar, a fine option until you consider that a really good one that plays and sounds great will set you back $2,000 or (often lots) more.

Fear not. You can put a really, truly excellent electric guitar in the hands of that special person on your gift list for around $550. Excellent in the sense that, for almost everyone, it’s indistinguishable from those $2,000+ models in terms of look, fit, finish, quality, playability, value, and, most importantly, tone.

So add the Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plustop PRO to your gift list. Epiphone has a (very) long and storied history in the guitar business, and they make many excellent models that many pros prefer. And they’re owned by Gibson, a legendary and truly top-notch builder of quality stringed instruments. The Gibson Les Paul is an icon of rock, jazz, blues, and more, but once again there’s the part about these being pretty pricey these days.

The Epiphone Les Paul is gorgeous (beautifully figured maple, available in a variety of colors), it plays great, it sounds great, and it’s a flat-out bargain – again, indistinguishable for most folks from the Gibson equivalent costing many times the price. The only real difference is that Epiphones are built by computers in Asia, and the Gibsons are handmade in the USA.

I originally bought one of these as an engineering mule for a product I’m working on - I’m not going to dismantle a $3,000 Gibson, but I can’t compromise on quality or sound. Taking the Plustop PRO apart pained me so deeply, though, that I bought another one to play as-is – and I now own seven of them. Yes, they’re that good, and that big of a bargain!

So make the guitarist on your list really, really, really happy this year. They have many other models both cheaper and more expensive, but not a lot more expensive – in case you want to splurge a little, the limited-edition 100th Anniversary model currently available is positively stunning, and costs only a little more.

-- C.J. Mathias 

Marshall Code 50 Digital Guitar Amplifier
More info:

Guitar amplifiers are conceptually simple devices – they take the weak electrical signal from an electric guitar and turn it into audible volume of potentially but not necessarily earsplitting levels. Some additional outboard equipment is usually required for distortion, modulation, time delay, reverb, and other audio effects. And each amplifier, like each model of guitar, has its own personality and tone.

So why not, you ask, build an amplifier that can digitally model other amplifiers? We have the technology, and there are a good number of these on the market today. But most of the modeling amps I’ve tried sound, well, terrible. Until now, anyway.

Enter the Marshall Code 50, the first digital modeling amp that sounds, well, like an amp – and in fact a very broad range of amps. It comes from Marshall, the legendary manufacturer of amps used for more than half a century by pros, and includes the ability to model a variety of other Marshall (and more) amplifiers and even speakers. Now, I’m not going to tell you that these are precise emulations of what they claim to duplicate; they’re not, and, regardless, one’s local acoustic environment plays a major role in the ultimate sound one gets. But this inexpensive amp, especially considering the quality embodied, sounds great, includes gobs of effects that could cost hundreds if purchased separately, is very easy to use, and can even be controlled via a Bluetooth app on a mobile device. Cost? Low. Value? Priceless!

Hours of tweaking fun await any electric guitarist lucky enough to get one of these.

-- C.J. Mathias

IK Multimedia iKlip Grip and iKlip Expand Mini
$60 (Grip); $40 (Expand Mini)
More info:

There are several applications where you might need to mount a smartphone in a stationary location. IK Multimedia makes a large number of mounts for all manner of devices, but two of interest for gift-givers everywhere are the iKlip Grip and the iKlip Expand Mini, both perfect for the mobile-device user on your list (and that’s almost everyone, right?).

The iKlip Grip is a selfie stick on steroids, with a couple of interesting twists. In the selfie stick category, you get up to two feet of length and a comfortable grip. A mini-tripod is also included, which doubles as a hand grip that keeps your fingers out of the shot (my personal issue, as my therapist will attest). You can also use the monopod as an extension. The part that holds the iPhone or similar device can be mounted to a standard tripod as well. A huge bonus – a Bluetooth remote for triggering the shutter is also in the box. So just about every field-shoot scenario is addressed by this versatile and inexpensive offering. It’s also useful if you like to keep your device visible while sitting at your desk, both for incoming calls and watching TV when you should be working.

The iKlip Expand Mini is designed to mount a smartphone-type device on a microphone stand, perfect for musicians, podcasters, or remote-control applications. The Expand Mini (the little brother of the version designed for tablets) is easy to adjust, study, and inexpensive.

One other possibility to consider is the $179 iKlip A/V, which includes an input for an XLR microphone. We didn’t test this, however, as it wasn’t available in time for this gift guide.

-- C.J. Mathias

IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitor
More info:

There’s a lot of confusion as to exactly what the difference might be between "monitor speakers" and ordinary loudspeakers. Common everyday speakers have their own personality; most speakers have a unique sound that subtly (or sometimes worse) colors the material in an attempt to extract the best sound in an assumed listening environment. Monitors, on the other hand, are designed to be "flat" – uncolored, presenting the material as recorded, and rugged, as in difficult to blow out when one accidentally gets the volume too high. These are invaluable in studio environments for obvious reasons, and anyone with every a small (as in, home-based) studio needs a good set of monitors.

Unfortunately, most monitors are either too big or too expensive or, way too commonly, both, and many small monitors that I’ve tried that fit just fine in the limited space allocated for said home studio have a distinct coloration even though they’re trying very hard to retain that monitor label. Remember, it’s hard to get good bass response out of a three-inch low-frequency driver (aka "woofer"), but recent advances in speaker technology have improved things here at least a bit.

Case in point: the new (very, very new; these arrived late) iLoud Micro Monitor from IK Multimedia. Sold as a pair, the iLoud Micro is indeed tiny – about 180x90x135 (deep) millimeters. But each speaker contains a solid 50W Class D (sometimes called digital, and these speakers are also based on a 56-bit DSP) amplifier that can indeed get loud, with bass response down to as low as 55 Hz. – not floor-shaking by any means, but very, very good for home-studio purposes. Connectivity is via an RCA pair, a 3.5-mm TRS jack, and, in case you want to use these at your next party, Bluetooth as well. Power is via an included wall-wart, and a proprietary cable connects the pair. Like all good monitors, switches on the back enable a limited degree of tailoring of the frequency response, useful in simulating different end-user speakers and room environments. The tiny size makes portably easy, should such be a requirement.

Setup is easy. And the sound? Well, these are nearfield monitors, meaning they are designed to be placed rather close to the person doing the recording, mixing, and mastering of that next big hit. Assuming this close-to-the-listener placement, though, they indeed sound very good – decent bass, no distortion, and crisp. And some may want these just for the Bluetooth – great for background music for a party, and much better than just about every other Bluetooth speaker out there.

The only real drawback is the lack of visceral bass response, but that’s not what these are for. What they are for is a small home studio, and assuming that application, one could do far worse at the price – and even a bit more.

-- C.J. Mathias

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