If this list were in any particular order, the Zoom H4n ($350) would be in first place. I love this thing, and I've made no attempt to hide my feelings.
As a high-quality audio recorder with four channels of simultaneous recording, the H4n makes capturing a live show or band rehearsal completely painless. Better yet, the results are actually worth sharing. Musicians with even a hint of recording know-how and inspiration can utilize the device's extra instrument and mic input channels for studio-quality results.
As an alternative to tried and true audio editing and recording software, Ableton Live represents a fresh approach that is beloved by many musicians. Unfortunately, the software's unique grid layout of audio and MIDI clips is difficult to adapt to real-world hardware (many have tried).
Novation is really one of the first manufacturers to deliver a USB hardware interface for Ableton Live that makes sense. The LaunchPad ($199) automatically maps to Ableton Live and offers a bright, colorful grid of buttons that seasoned users will immediately relate to. Also, it just looks really cool.
The Fender amps and reverb tanks of the 1950s and 1960s are some of the most coveted and emulated pieces of vintage guitar gear ever made. Few of us will never be able to play one of these vacuum-tube-based relics (or afford their upkeep), but as digital recreations have grown more sophisticated, amplifier emulators have become a viable and affordable alternative.
The Fender-endorsed BOSS Legend Series of guitar pedals ($130-$160) takes the holy grail tone of vintage '60s Fender tube amps, and packs it into a simple stage pedal. Each pedal in the series tackles a specific sound, including a '65 Deluxe Reverb amp, a tweed '59 Bassman amp, and a '63 Fender Reverb tank.
Sure, purists are still going to prefer the sound of a real vintage tube amp, but the rest of us starving musicians will probably find the Legend pedals to be a more than suitable substitute.
Being a keyboardist comes with two major disadvantages: keyboards weigh a ton, and they make you look nerdy. The Korg MicroSampler ($499) addresses both issues by offering a small, cool-looking keyboard that also happens to have tons of features. Onboard samplers offers recording fidelity above CD quality and an integrated sequencer can quickly weave those samples into a proper song.
I have this recurring fantasy where I'm mixing recordings on my laptop while riding in the subway or flying in a plane. It's not an unattainable fantasy, but the gear involved to really do it properly is just cumbersome.
The Korg NanoKontrol series of USB MIDI controllers is aimed squarely at on-the-go producers. Each of the three models are priced around $60, and are designed to run the width of a standard laptop.
USB audio interfaces are nothing new, and M-Audio has been churning out affordable models for years. What makes the FastTrack MKII ($120) so exceptional (aside from looking pretty slick) is that it comes bundled with AVID's industry-defining ProTools recording software. Granted, it's not full-blown Pro Tools, but it's a great starting point, and the projects created using the included software are natively compatible with the full version of Pro Tools, should you ever want to bring the session into a proper recording studio.
Software-based drum machines are the wave of the future, but there's something about sequencing a beat that demands a nice assortment of buttons and knobs to tweak. The Maschine ($499) from Native Instruments bridges both worlds--combining the endless flexibility of software with the immediacy and physicality of hardware control.
I know it's a stretch, but with the iPod Touch out there for just $199, I'd be lying if I didn't say what a great tool it's turned out to be for musicians. For starters, here are five apps every guitarist should check out.
The JamVOX guitar software/hardware combo made its debut in 2008, but it really came into its own with 2009's 1.5 software update. Compared to products such as Guitar Rig, the JamVOX is definitely an underdog in the world of guitar amp emulation, but in my own personal experience, it does two things better than all the rest: it launches within seconds of plugging in the USB-powered speaker; and it runs smoothly even on slow machines (it's been tested on Netbooks). When I want to play my guitar in the living room without waking the neighbors, I reach for the JamVOX and I'm up and running just as quickly as switching on an amp. Plus, the $199 price is a crazy-good value for what you get.
It has been a turbulent, floundering decade for DJs. In the era of the MP3, everyone knew that DJs and their gear would need to evolve and adapt, but no one was exactly sure how. Retrofitted turntables, cheap MIDI controllers, MP3 CD-based systems, and overpriced sound cards all tried their hand at bridging the divide between vinyl and MP3.
The Numark NS7 ($1,300) digital DJ system isn't the be-all, end-all answer to DJing with MP3s, but it's certainly a sign that we're getting close. You can read our full review (with video) on CNET.