Mixdown's 2019 Christmas Gift Guide: Keyboards & Controllers

'Tis The Season!

Ho ho ho - where did the year go!? All of a sudden, the festive season has snuck up onto us once again, and if you're anything like us here at Mixdown, there's a good chance that you're probably incredibly disorganised. To prevent you from having to endure the agony of Michael Bublé churning out another frostbitten rendition of a Christmas carol down the aisles of your local department store, we've put together a comprehensive guide of all the hottest musical gifts to keep your eyes peeled for this festive season. If you're an sucker for synths, MIDI controllers and things that go bloop, this is the definitive list for you.

Sonicware ELZ_1

Distributed by: Link Audio | Expect to pay: $999.00

 

 

Recommended For: Those looking for an immersive, portable synthesiser with a myriad of sound engines and sequencing capabilities.

 

Sound/Versatility: Considering this is Sonicware’s synth debut, there’s so much to dive into with the ELZ_1. Simple leads, pads and percussion sounds are easily achieved with the presets. The FM synth engine is awesome for warbling, bell-like tones, while the SiGRINDER Granular Synth and waveform-generating and DNA Explorer modes let you get real gritty for some lo-fi sonic goodness. There’s also modulation options galore, and the inbuilt effects are sublime, especially the reverbs and delays.

 

Usability: I’m not going to lie – it’s definitely worth reading the manual to get properly acquainted everything this bad boy offers. However, the interface of the ELZ-1 is surprisingly inviting, and menu-diving isn’t as tricky as it seems on the surface. The 64 step sequencer is super straightforward and very, very rewarding to play with.

 

Construction: This thing is a little tank! It’s built almost entirely from solid metal, and the 37 mini keys, rotary encoders and buttons all feel pretty sturdy. Some users might not like Sonicware choosing 1/8” input and ouput jacks over standard 1/4”s, but for a unit of this size, you really can’t complain.

 

Overall: What’s not to like? The Sonicware ELZ_1 is definitely here to stay, and even if it doesn’t make it into your band’s setlist, it’s endlessly inspiring to fiddle with. Two thumbs up here.

 

Novation Launchpad X

Distributed by: Innovative Music | Expect to pay: $369.00

 

 

Recommended For: Anyone looking for an intuitive pad-style MIDI controller for production and performance, particularly Ableton 10 users.

 

Sound/Versatility: The Launchpad X features 64 full-sized RGB performance pads, which are both pressure and velocity sensitive to really let you get expressive on the fly. The Capture MIDI button and utility functions also allow for some serious knob tweaking and can present some wonderfully random results, even if you’re just using stock Ableton loops.

 

Usability: If you’re familiar with any kind of MIDI pad controller, operating the Launchpad X will flow like the breeze. Tapping out beats in record mode is simple, inputting sequences into the grid is as easy as multiplying values of four, and even loop tweaking and faux-keys playing is of second nature.

 

Construction: Novation have gone all out with the Launchpad X. The colourful pads are firm and ergonomic - even for lefties - while the dimensions of the unit make it an extremely portable production tool. USB-C connectivity also makes the Launchpad X speedier than ever before - a tweak that’s noticeable immediately.

 

Overall: The X is undoubtedly the best entry in Novation’s longstanding Launchpad series, and I’d consider it an essential production tool if you’re running Ableton Live 10 as your main DAW - these two pair together better than hummus and carrot sticks.

 

 

Novation Launchpad Mini Mk3

Distributed by: Innovative Music | Expect to pay: $189.00

 

 

Recommended For: Short on desk space or looking to make your next hit while traveling on the road? This is what you’ve been looking for.

 

Sounds/Versatility: Like the aforementioned Launchpad X, the Launchpad Mini Mk3 offers a lot in the versatility department. Whether you’re using this thing live, in the studio or even on the go, you’ll find no shortage of tools to shape samples, loops, grooves and even entire tracks with.

 

Usability: Novation are the kings of creating straightforward and user-friendly pieces of production gear, and the Launchpad Mini MkIII really underscores this. Everything here is packaged so even absolute beginners can take the product out of the box and get started on making beats - no need for any YouTube tutorials here.

 

Construction: As the name would imply, the Launchpad Mini Mk3 is pretty small, and while it might take a while to get used to the smaller pads, they don’t detract from how this thing operates whatsoever. USB-C connectivity makes producing faster than ever, and the build quality is very solid to boot.

 

Overall: If you’re fresh to the world of laptop production and want to avoid the chore of inputing MIDI notes into a piano roll with your mouse, the Launchpad Mini Mk3 is perfect for you. It’s relied upon all around the world, and with the right software and sample packs at your disposable, you’ll never be short of inspiration.

 

 

Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3

Distributed by: Innovative Music | Expect to pay: $189

 

 

Recommended For: Another piece of entry-level kit perfect for the budding bedroom producer, particularly those looking to teach themselves the basics of keyboard-based production styles.

 

Sounds/Versatility: While its size and appearance might trick you at first, it’d be foolish to doubt the potential of the Launchkey Mini Mk3. Like many other Novation products, the Launchkey Mini unlocks its full potential when paired with Ableton Live, where you’ll able to trigger events, play samples and create full tracks with ease.

 

Usability: In addition to the 25 mini keys and the 16 backlit performance pads, the Launchkey Mini features new arpeggiator and fixed chord modes, making it extremely practical for generating songwriting ideas and adding some zest to your performances. The eight assignable rotary encoder knobs also make tweaking soft-synth and DAW parameters incredibly intuitive!

 

Construction: Novation have managed to squeeze touch-strips on the Launchkey Mini to control modulation and pitch bends - a very welcome feature for a keyboard of this size! USB-C functionality also makes it super speedy and responsive to CPU hungry DAWs, and obviously, it’s small as well.

 

Overall: You really can’t go wrong with this little guy. It’s the perfect entry-level production tool for electronic and hip-hop producers, and makes learning the basics engaging and fun.

 

 

Novation Summit

Distributed by: Innovative Music | Expect to pay: $3699  

 

 

Recommended For: The serious synthesist looking for the be-all end-all of polysynths without delving too deep into vintage territory.

 

Sounds/Versatility: Similar in sound to Korg’s Prologue synth and at times reminiscent of a Prophet, the Summit really knows no restraints in the sound department. Lush pads, growling basses and trembling leads are easily achievable, and Novation have even managed to cram an FM engine into it to create spooky ambient tones and stack them on top. The Summit definitely has the potential to be the lone, do-it-all synth of your studio setup.

 

Usability: God this thing is good! Essentially fusing two of Novation’s acclaimed Peak engines together, the Summit offers 16 voices of creamy analogue goodness, with three oscillators letting you beef up the sound even further. You can also divide the two engines for layered or split patches, and there’s even a comprehensive digital effects section with distortion, reverb, delay and modulation to make your patches even more exciting.

 

Construction: Analogue enthusiasts will drool at the sight of the Summit: with 50 rotary encoders, dual envelope faders and 55 illuminated push buttons, there’s so much to dive into here.

 

Overall: If you’re using Christmas as a good excuse to splash your cash on some high-end, powerful studio gear, I’d put the Novation Summit at the top of the list. This thing is bananas!

 

 

Ashun Sound Machines Hydra Synth

Distributed by: Innovative Music | Expect to pay: $1449 (desktop) / $2299 (keyboard)

 

 

Recommended For: Performers and producers looking to experiment with whacky wavetable sounds, but still utilise the synth in a practical sense.

 

Sounds/Versatility: You really can’t get much more versatile than wavetable synthesis, and you’ll find no shortage of sonic inspiration here. The ASM Hydra Synth, while daunting at first, is so rewarding, It's great for creating immersive soundscapes, haunting metallic pads and even menacing Decepticon effects that’ll definitely have the FBI knocking at your door. The arpeggiator here is also insanely powerful, and should be considered as its own kooky melodic instrument in itself!

 

Usability: With a whopping 219 waveforms, three oscillators, a Wavestack function for layering five voices and mutators for FM synthesis, pulse width modulation, hard sync and harmonic sweeps, I’ve never played a wavetable synth as usable as the ASM Hydra. There's also two filters which can be run in series or parallel, as well as five LFOs. There’s a lot to unpack, but once you get started, you won’t want to stop.

 

Construction: The thing that I loved the most about the construction of this unit was the ribbon controller, which lets you perform the Hydra almost like a Theremin or Ondes Martenot. The desktop version is also fitted with 24 performance pads, meaning it’s usable even without a MIDI keyboard!

 

Overall: Considering this is ASM’s first ever product, they’re really ticking all the boxes here. The Hydra is powerful, inspirational and incredibly well-designed, and I feel like it’s got the potential to be considered a modern classic.

 

 

Moog Matriarch

Distributed by: Innovative Music | Expect to pay: $3499

 

 

Recommended For: Everybody needs to own a Moog at some stage in their life - this might just be the one for you.

 

Sounds/Versatility: With four VCOs giving you a total of four notes of paraphony, the Matriarch expands on the classic Moog sound and makes it even better. It nails that gooey, ‘70s synth sound heard on classics from Stevie, Marvin and Michael, but can also get pretty snarky when you explore the semi-modular side of things - with the right patch points, you’ll approach Trent Reznor territory, which is a great place to be.

 

Usability: The Matriarch features a dual analogue ladder filter with parallel, series and stereo modes, while two LFOs and six waveforms to create everything from pulsating chordal textures to warbling ring modulation. There's also pulse width modulation, hard sync and FM inputs to modify your signal even further, with a mixer modular also allowing for white noise and an external input.

 

Construction: Taking cues from the colourful layout and retro aesthetics of the Grandmother, the Matriarch is as much as visual treat as it is a sonic one. However, it’d be rude not to mention how much the 90 semi-modular patch points add to the playing experience here - there’s even stereo delay and a 256 step-sequencer to make things extra crazy, just for good measure.

 

Overall: Just like your favourite distant cousin, the Matriarch might just be that long-lost relative that will make this Christmas the best one yet.

 

IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O 25

Distributed by: Sound & Music | RRP: $399

 

 

Recommended For: Producers and keyboard players looking for a self-contained solution for making their tracks in the box.

 

Sounds/Versatility: The iRig Keys I/O 25 is a MIDI controller, so it doesn’t actually output any sound. However, IK Multimedia do bundle this little fella with a bunch of soft-synths such as SampleTank 4 SE, Miroslav Philharmonik 2 CE, Syntronik Pro-V, Ableton Live 10 Lite and the T-RackS 4 Deluxe mix and mastering suite, so you’ll be making tracks straight out of the box in no time.

 

Usability: The iRig Keys I/O 25 combines a MIDI keyboard with a studio-quality audio interface, making it the perfect pairing for producers on the go or those looking to restrict their workflow to the bare minimum. The action of the keys and eight mini sample pads feels good, and the touch strips and preset buttons help to speed up your workflow monumentally. It also boasts phantom power, and is compatible with Apple, PC, Mac and iPads.

 

Construction: The iRig Keys I/O 25 is one of the smallest MIDI controllers available on the market, so the fact that IK Multimedia have managed to squeeze a 24 bit audio interface inside of it as well is phenomenal.

 

Overall: Perfect for spontaneous jams, writing demos and even live performance, the iRig Keys I/O 25 is undeniably one of the coolest production tools a modern producer could have at their disposable.

 

Pioneer DJ DDJ-200 Smart DJ Controller

Distributed by: Jands​ | Expect to pay: $249

 

 

Recommended For: Entry-level DJs, or instrumentalists masquerading as one.

 

Sounds/Versatility: This one’s a bit dependent on your own personal taste and what you’ll be DJing, but in the versatility department, there’s definitely a lot to play with here. A standard three-band EQ and two-channel mixer will let you fade in and transition from track-to-track fluidly, while eight performance pads on each side allow you to flesh out your sets by triggering samples and effects – this is the perfect time to press the airhorn button.

 

Usability: If you’re totally new to the world of DJing, the Pioneer DJ DDJ-200 is the ultimate product to learn the basics with. Bluetooth connectivity lets you eschew the laptop and hook up your phone for a clean, almost screen-free experience, and the Beat and Phrase sync functions will get you out of trouble with no worries if you happen to fall off the grid.

 

Construction: I don’t think the term ‘backpack DJ’ exists yet, but surely it will after people adopt the DDJ-200. It’s incredibly lightweight and tactile, and the jog wheels have a good amount of grip ‘n slip. Pioneer are the masters of modern DJ gear, so I wouldn’t expect anything less here.

 

Overall: If you’re looking to kick off a career as a mixologist, or even just a budding hobby as a house party DJ to gain clout amongst friends, the Pioneer DJ DDJ-200 is a no-brainer.

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