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The Well-Tempered Christmas Tree

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What to get the professional or serious amateur musician for Christmas? Consider some of these gems:

Since November of 2000, Propellerhead's Reason has been one of the best-selling software synthesizers and its graphical user interface is a big reason why. There are two big selling points: the combination of a stylized equipment rack into which any of the Reason's software synths, drum machines and loop players can be inserted; and the capability, with the flick of the TAB key, to rotate it around to switch the virtual patch chords connecting the devices. Those make this equipment irresistible. It's a software synth that allows an absolute beginner to instantly get started making great sounds, and an experienced pro to dig deep for all sorts of wild combinations of sounds.

Reason 4, the latest version of Propellerhead's modular software synthesizer adds a new "Polysonic" synthesizer called Thor, and a terrific arpeggiator. Dubbed RPG-8, and similar in principle to the arpeggiators built into the keyboards of the late 1970s and early 1980s such as Roland's Jupiter-8, it allows any of the built-in software synths to generate arpeggiated runs of one to four octaves, simply by holding down a chord.

Use Sonar To Explore New Musical Terrain

Cakewalk's Sonar has been a leading PC recording program since 2001. As long as your hardware is up to the task, Sonar is capable of just about any project, from a three minute song, to an hour-long podcast, to video post-production work. The "producer" edition of Sonar 7, its latest version, adds a variety of built-in software synthesizers to the mix, including "Light" versions of Cakewalk's popular Dimension and Rapture synths.

Rapture and Dimension were created with significant input from Argentinean synthesizer wizard René Ceballos, who created Z3ta+ at his own RGC: Audio firm before joining Cakewalk in 2005. And Z3ta+ is also included in Sonar 7.

Its sounds are mostly reminiscent of the warm analog synthesizers of the 1970s and 1980s: ARP and Minimoog patches abound (you can hear clips of Z3ta+ in action here). Somewhat similar to Reason's RPG-8, Z3ta+ contains about 100 arpeggio patterns, which are a songwriter's and home recordist's dream. Play one extended note, or hold one chord, get two or three dozen notes, artfully arranged in all sorts of cool sounding sequencer patterns. Which is a rather handy feature for those who lack, say, once wrote, "Polo collars UP, everyone, and THAT'S AN ORDER!"

Mastering The Ozone Layer

Izotope's Ozone 3 mastering plug-in is one of the best-sounding, most versatile applets I've used for music, podcast, and lately radio production on computer. While it's sold as a mastering compressor and does that job extremely well, its presets are terrific for adding compression, EQ and glass on individual tracks, as well. I've used it on everything from bass guitar and lead vocals on songs, to recorded telephone interviews on podcasts. It allows for maximum level without distortion, and its presets making mastering of finished recordings a breeze, as well as endless tweaking and customization. Currently selling for about $184 on Amazon, this is a workhorse product.

Bivouacking The Guitar Army

Electric guitar technology has certainly advanced in many ways since the days when Leo Fender and Roland's VG-99 Virtual Guitar system, which debuted in October. Streeting at about $1200 and packed with 200 presets, the best of which are truly stunning, this is the culmination of a guitar modeling system that Roland has been crafting since the mid-1990s.

To make full use of the VG-99, you'll also need a guitar with a Roland-compatible hexaphonic pickup and 13-pin cable, such as those made by Godin, or Fender's Roland-Ready Stratocaster, which I used to test the unit. Like the predecessor VG-88, it's also possible to plug an electric guitar with a conventional quarter-inch jack into the VG-99. However with that configuration, most of the more extreme modeling patches won't trigger, but it's a great way to make use of a trusty old Les Paul, Tele or any other non-hex-equipped electric guitar, and it does drive the basic amp sounds.

There are dozens of stunning presets in the VG-99, ranging from bluesy Les Paul tones, to 12-string guitars, to an assortment of DADGAD-tuned instruments, to a pretty exact replica of Roland's GR-300 guitar synthesizer from the early 1980s. In other words, if you'd like some of the tones used by Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Robert Fripp or Pat Metheny, they're all here.

Bringing It All Back Home

In the 1980s, when home music recording consisted largely of four- and eight-track recorders, arranging was typically pretty simple: drum machine on track one, bass on track two, keys and rhythm guitar bounced down to track three and track four alternated between the vocal and lead guitar solo. Fade in, three minutes later, fade out.

As you can see by the above list of products–which merely scratch the surface of what's available–the amount of sounds available to the home recordist is near infinite. So it helps to have some basic arranging skills at your disposal.

That's where Rikky Rooksby's new book Arranging Songs can help. Rooksby, who has a near encyclopedic knowledge of American and British rock and pop music from the Beatles onward, explores a variety of arrangements on hit records, and diagrams what makes them work. He provides specific examples to experiment with, in terms of rhythm, song structure and instrumentation. (And Rooksby's earlier How To Write Songs On Guitar is still highly recommended to any guitarist looking to break his customary songwriting habits by exploring all sorts of chord changes. But then, so are all of the books on this list from a year and a half ago, to be honest.)

Any of these gifts would be more than welcome under the Christmas tree of most serious amateur or professional musicians–and unlike fruitcake or new socks, will get loads of use throughout the year.

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