In 1992, then-managing editor Steve O and associate publisher Carrie
Anderson dreamed up the Editors' Choice Awards. We were convinced that
we had a good idea; we were less certain that our bosses would agree.
Indeed, publisher Peter Hirschfeld initially feared that companies who
didn't win would be infuriated, but we convinced him that if the awards
were carefully researched and honestly selected, the manufacturers
would respect the awards and the spirit in which they were given.
Editor Bob O'Donnell agreed, and away we went. The first set of awards
was announced in the December 1992 issue; after that, we shifted the
annual awards to our January issue, where they have become an honored
This year, we have 31 categories and 33 winners. (We had two ties we
were unable to resolve.) The number of awards varies slightly each year
because we add new categories and drop old ones, reflecting the
creation of new product types and the presence or absence of
outstanding candidates in existing categories. For example, this year
we added a DSP Cards category because of hot new cards that we felt
were especially noteworthy. The Monitor Speakers category is on
sabbatical, while MIDI Keyboard Controllers appear for the first time
since 1995. Some categories have changed fundamentally: Voice Processor
used to mean a channel strip for mics, combining a mic preamp, EQ, and
compressor; now the term indicates a vocal-harmony processor and/or
On the other hand, the way we select the winners has remained
constant. All award-winning products have been field-tested by our
editors and a select group of top authors. We also solicited opinions
from the editors of sister publications Mix, Onstage, and Remix. The
final selections were made by our technical editors: Steve O, Marty
Cutler, Brian Knave, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, David Rubin, and Geary
Yelton. All award-winning products either have already been reviewed in
EM or are far enough along in review tests that we feel
confident about our conclusions (see the sidebar "The Award Winners in
To be eligible, the products must have shipped between October 1,
2001, and October 1, 2002, when we prepare our January issue. We allow
some slack for products that shipped so close to last year's deadline
that it was not possible for us to test them in time for the 2002
awards. We do not allow such slack if we believe a manufacturer could
have supplied a review unit in time for last year but intentionally
delayed sending it.
Keep in mind that these are our picks among the new products we have
actually tested; we cannot consider the many products we never got to
check out, and we do not consider older products. We give an award to a
software upgrade only if we think it offers major and significant
improvements over the previous version.
And now, please join us in congratulating the winners of the 11th
annual EM Editors' Choice awards!
PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 ($950)
For more than a decade, Little Labs has been quietly creating a
collection of well-designed tools for professional recording engineers.
The PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 signal splitter and router is a master of
many trades and could easily be an integral part of a personal studio
that tracks live instruments.
To begin with, the PCP Instrument Distro allows you to send a
high-impedance signal to three separate destinations without a loss in
audio quality or sound coloration. If you ever want to send a guitar
signal to three amplifiers and record them simultaneously, the
half-rack PCP Instrument Distro will help you get the job done.
However, it's not just for guitars, basses, and keyboards. For
instance, you can feed the PCP Instrument Distro a low-impedance
signal-such as a previously recorded track-and route it to some of your
favorite stompboxes. Each output has its own trim control, phase
switch, and ground lift. Quarter-inch inputs and a matrix of controls
are readily available on the front panel.
The PCP Instrument Distro can also be used as a line driver, helping
you maintain the timbral quality of your instrument over long cable
distances. To top it off, you can use the unit as an active DI, so you
can interface any instrument with your pro-level gear. Its range of
applications make it a clear winner in this category.
Infinity 2.05 (Win; $399)
With the release of Infinity 2.0, Sound Quest took what used to be a
very fancy toolkit for assembling MIDI plug-in effects and self-playing
devices and made it a robust construction set for building MIDI and
audio effects and processes. In addition, you can now create your own
soft synths and use them in any DirectX or VST host. That makes
Infinity an excellent programming environment for anyone interested in
expanding his or her desktop arsenal.
Infinity has enough audio modules to keep you busy for a long time.
String together any number of oscillators, filters, and delays to build
a synth to your specs. Take advantage of the SubPatch and macro options
to make your instruments more efficient, and add transformers or
converters to shape the signal as it moves through the pipeline. Then
experiment with a wide range of math functions if, for example, you
want the pitch of a sample to be lowered as you send it ascending notes
from a MIDI controller. The possibilities are endless.
If watching the sidebands produced by frequency-modulation rise and
fall is your game, just add an Audio Display Object to your FM patch;
be sure to use an Interface object so your patch can receive data from
a VST or DirectX host. Also feel free to roll your existing VST and
DirectX plug-ins into new Infinity patches to create "super" effects or
instruments. When you're done, dress up your instrument or effect with
graphic elements to suit your needs, then send it out to the world over
Sound Quest's Web site.
Unlike many small companies these days, Sound Quest supplies both
physical media and a printed manual with its software. Call us
old-fashioned, but we love to have a real manual for those moments when
we have to tear ourselves away from the computer.
We're already seeing a number of great-sounding and elegant
user-created Infinity instruments, such as Luigi Felici's The Rocking
lead (an electric-guitar emulation) and WilliamK's daDashJuno. Both are
available at Dash Synthesis (www.dashsynthesis.com). But whether you
consider yourself a tweaker or not, you'll enjoy playing with the
built-in synths, sequencers, and effects processors included with
Infinity's vast toolkit.
Cool Edit Pro 2.0 (Win; $249)
The marketplace for multitrack audio programs has always been a
cutthroat arena where companies play feature-set leapfrog, trying to
stay one step ahead of the competition. With several strong contenders
for this year's award, the voting, as expected, was divided. However,
when we took a close look at the cost-benefit ratios offered by the
programs, one product really stood out: Cool Edit Pro 2.0.
For less than $250, Cool Edit Pro 2.0 offers desktop musicians a
gateway into the world of professional-level multitrack editing. And in
spite of its modest price tag, the software wraps its 32-bit processing
power in a polished, user-friendly environment that sports a new
hierarchical Organizer section, a new customizable user interface, a
long list of useful keyboard shortcuts, and multiple undo levels.
With version 2.0, Cool Edit Pro greatly expands its flexibility. The
program supports 24-bit, 192 kHz recording on as many as 128 audio
tracks with real-time EQ on each track and buses for track grouping.
The program fully supports DirectX plug-ins and includes more than 45
DSP effects, ranging from the practical (reverb, limiter, noise
reduction) to the offbeat ("brainwave synchronizer"). Cool Edit Pro now
supports more than 20 file formats, including MP3, and the program's
CD-ripping feature and its new CD-burning plug-in let you to take a
project from start to finish.
Other noteworthy additions include the ability to import and play
back MIDI files, view and sync to video (AVI) files, and have your mix
serve as either a master or slave when working with SMPTE time code.
Remixers and loopmeisters will appreciate Cool Edit Pro's extensive new
looping capabilities. The new Cool Edit Loop (CEL) file format stores
tempo, beat, and key information. Just insert CEL files into your
multitrack mix, and the program handles the tempo- and key-matching for
you. You can even perform beat slicing and a variety of other
loop-manipulation tricks. Best of all, Syntrillium offers more than
2,000 free, downloadable CEL files in 15 different styles.
Cool Edit Pro's list of features and effects is too long to cover in
this short space, but many thoughtful touches, such as the built-in
metronome, add value to the program. In fact, value is the operative
word in this case. Cool Edit Pro 2.0 competes well with the other
power-hitters in this category, but it does so without completely
flattening your wallet. We think that deserves an award.
DAW Control Surface/Interface
Each year we see a product that almost defies categorization because
a manufacturer has assembled a variety of technologies into a single
device. Event's EZbus is a great example, combining an audio and MIDI
interface, a control surface, and a digital mixer into such a small
space that there is sure to be room left on your desktop. To sweeten
the deal, the EZbus does all this for a very reasonable price.
As a digital mixer, the EZbus begins with 16 analog inputs: two
phantom-powered mic/line inputs and four groups of three summed TRS
inputs. Although you will have to do some synth programming to balance
each of the three inputs per channel strip, it's a small sacrifice in
return for the mixer's diminutive footprint.
Once your signal is flowing into the EZbus, you can use the onboard
EQ and dynamics processing on each channel. At the other end, three
pairs of balanced 1⁄4-inch outputs give you plenty of routing
flexibility. Across the board, the signal goes through 24-bit, 96 kHz
Entering the EZbus from the digital domain is also convenient,
because the device offers S/PDIF and ADAT Lightpipe I/O and a USB port.
Connectivity is further enhanced by two pairs of MIDI ins and outs and
a word-clock output.
When you are ready to use your DAW or favorite software synth, you
can use the EZbus as a control surface. It offers nine faders,
transport controls, a data wheel, and plenty of virtual buttons, many
of which are user assignable. Controller profiles are available for
products from BIAS, Cakewalk, Digidesign, Emagic, IK Multimedia, MOTU,
Native Instruments, Propellerhead, Steinberg, and Syntrillium. If your
favorite software isn't supported yet, use the EZbus's Profile Editor
to adapt one of the maps to your needs.
In the desktop studio where space is at a premium, a device that can
handle an assortment of tasks while keeping a low profile is of great
value. So much value at a bargain price makes for a very compelling
Digital Audio Sequencer
Cubase SX (Win; $799.99)
Steinberg's popular Cubase sequencer may turn out to be the last
high-end digital audio sequencer to be offered in nearly identical
versions for the Mac and PC. The program's latest incarnation, Cubase
SX, sports a jazzy new user interface and supports Windows XP and Mac
OS X. But this is not your typical update; according to Steinberg, it's
practically a whole new program. At this writing, the Mac version of SX
had just been released, so we've given the award based on the Windows
The Cubase SX audio engine is built from the same all-new code base
as Steinberg's flagship Nuendo application, which enables Cubase SX to
handle six channels of surround-sound mixing in a variety of formats.
The new-and-improved interface does away with Songs and Arrangements; a
new Project window replaces the old Arrange window and offers real-time
drag-and-drop placement of audio, video, and MIDI parts.
The Track Inspector has also been significantly improved; it now
lets you insert effects and adjust pan, volume, and aux sends without
opening the mixer. Plug-in effects can be used in real time, as before,
but they can also be applied offline. Cubase SX introduces a powerful
new unlimited-Undo feature with a full edit history. A separate Offline
Process history lets you remove, change, or replace applied processing
from earlier edits without changing the edits themselves.
Cubase SX boasts a new 32-bit floating-point "adaptive" mixer that
integrates audio and MIDI tracks and lets you individually size the
channel strips. It supports 5.1-surround mixing and panning as well as
sample-accurate automation of all parameters.
Another innovative feature in Cubase SX is its full support for
Steinberg's new VST System Link. VST System Link lets you network two
or more computers (including mixed platforms) to distribute the
processor load from different tasks in complex projects. For example,
you can run all your VST instruments on one computer and your audio
tracks on another.(For more on VST System Link, see "Tech Page: The
Missing Link" in the September 2002 issue of EM.)
Obviously, Cubase SX is more than just another pretty face. It's
deeper, much more powerful, and better designed than any of its Cubase
progenitors. We were favorably impressed with the new look and feel of
the program, not to mention all of the changes under the hood.
Steinberg has introduced a genuine winner.
Digital Audio Workstation/Audio Interface
Hammerfall DSP (PCI $315; CardBus $355; Digiface $650; Multiface
The market is flooded with top-quality audio interfaces, and this
year's competitors reflect that fact. From high-end, card-based
hardware-and-software combos costing thousands of dollars to external
plug-and-play USB and FireWire boxes, there's something for everyone.
Amid all the jostling for attention, however, RME stands out as a
winner this year for offering a moderately priced, have-it-your-way
audio system with unparalleled connectivity.
Based on the popular Project Hammerfall system, the new and improved
Hammerfall DSP system offers great versatility through its modular
design. You can choose from two types of computer cards-PCI or
CardBus-and connect them (with a standard FireWire cable) to either of
two half-rackspace breakout boxes. The 32-bit Busmaster PCI card works
with desktop Macs and PCs, and the CardBus card provides the same
capabilities to laptop users. That should be welcome news to traveling
musicians who have been frustrated by the bandwidth limitations of USB
The two breakout boxes are stuffed to the gills with inputs and
outputs. The all-digital Digiface starts with a 2-In/2-Out, 32-channel
MIDI interface and adds three optical ADAT I/O pairs, ADAT-sync, stereo
S/PDIF, and word-clock I/O. The front-panel headphone jack can also
serve as a stereo analog output jack. The accompanying TotalMix
software includes an unbelievable 1,456-channel virtual mixer with
40-bit internal resolution!
The analog/digital Multiface sports a 1-In/1-Out MIDI interface, one
optical ADAT I/O pair, and the same ADAT-sync, word-clock, and S/PDIF
I/O found in the Digiface. A front-panel headphone jack is also
provided. To fill the remaining back-panel space, the Multiface deftly
squeezes in eight analog inputs and outputs with 24-bit, 96 kHz
converters. The TotalMix software offers a still-amazing 720-channel
Either of the two Hammerfall DSP interfaces would be a formidable
centerpiece for a computer-based studio, and with any combination of
cards and interfaces, RME claims latencies as low as 1.5 ms (depending
on your CPU). If you have both a desktop and a laptop computer, you can
buy the PCI and the CardBus cards, and they can share a Digiface or
Multiface to keep costs down.
However you set it up, you'll get solid ASIO, MME, and GSIF support
in a system that can't be beat for versatility and flexibility. That's
especially exciting for laptop-based traveling musicians, who can now
assemble a compact, rugged, high-resolution multitrack recording system
with pro-level specs all the way.
Direct-Injection Box, Tube
Tube Amplified Direct Box ($400)
Two very different but equally outstanding tube DI boxes came across
our desks-that's mixing desks-this past year: the Summit Audio TD-100
Tube Direct Instrument Preamp and the Valvotronics Tube Amplified
Direct Box. Each unit received the highest praise, both from the
reviewer and everyone else who got a chance to try it out. Each
provides a distinctive feature set and performs beautifully in a range
of applications. Given how awed we were by both units, choosing a
favorite proved impossible, so we called it a tie.
The Summit Audio TD-100 is a winner for a number of reasons, not
least of which is the fact that Summit found a way to bring its exalted
name-a de facto mark of audio quality-within reach of the personal
studio. The half-rack TD-100 is a hybrid device employing a vacuum tube
in the signal path and a discrete solid-state output amplifier. Several
uncommon but useful features set it apart from the pack, most notably a
continuously variable impedance control that lets you adjust how the
unit affects pickup loading. Variable from 10 kΩ to 2 MΩ,
this handy front-panel control allows for subtle to drastic tonal
modifications on direct-injected electric guitars and basses. Other
front-panel features include a polarity-reverse and a ground-lift
switch and a 1⁄4-inch, high-impedance direct output for
connection to a stompbox or amplifier.
One thing that makes the TD-100 so versatile is its array of
outputs: in addition to the unbalanced 1⁄4-inch direct out, you
also get a balanced 1⁄4-inch line-level output, a mic-level XLR
output, and even a 1⁄4-inch headphone out to accommodate wee-hour
visits from the Muse. In addition to the obvious studio applications,
you could also get great mileage from the TD-100 onstage, by, for
example, feeding your tube-treated tone to the house via the XLR mic
output while sending signal to your guitar or bass amp from the unit's
direct out (which is unaffected by the main signal path).
Needless to say, we were thrilled with the sound of the TD-100. It
was clean, airy, and detailed on direct electric guitar, and on
electric bass it compared favorably to boutique and vintage tube DIs
costing twice the money. Our reviewer was also impressed by the vintage
punch it added to an electric piano patch.
The Valvotronics Tube Amplified Direct Box is one of those rare
devices EM editors love to discover: lovingly hand built, one at
a time, in a garage somewhere, by a lone designer with a passion for
superior audio, a pining for a particular (and unavailable) sound, and
the know-how and industry to make that sound a reality. An all-tube
unit with a custom-wound transformer output, the Valvotronics is a
beast of a box with a hot output and attitude to spare, both visually
Unusual features include a Bass Tilt switch that engages a 6
dB-per-octave lowpass filter with a corner frequency at 500 Hz, great
for producing pillowy electric-bass tracks devoid of high frequencies
(think reggae); a continuously variable, defeatable passive filter that
provides up to 20 dB of bell-curve cut (centered at 7.5 kHz) with a
bandwidth of roughly 1.25 octaves (great for diminishing pick noise);
and a continuously variable attenuator knob that provides up to 6 dB of
level cut. The unit provides three unbalanced 1⁄4-inch TS jacks:
a high-impedance instrument input, an unbuffered Thru jack wired in
parallel with the input jack to provide a mult you can route to your
guitar amp, and a buffered jack for connection to a tuner. The output
is on a balanced, low-impedance XLR jack, and there's a Pin 1 Lift
switch in case you need to break the signal ground.
"Phenomenal" is the word our reviewer used to describe the sound of
the Valvotronics DI; he proclaimed it "easily the biggest-sounding DI
I've heard on electric-bass guitar, dishing out insane amounts of rich
tube saturation and corpulent bass frequencies." Though bass seems to
be the unit's primary raison d'être, we also got wonderful results
running electronic keyboards through the Valvotronics, and electric
guitars fared nicely, too. If you're looking for a versatile and beefy
tube DI with a sound and look all its own, we suspect you'll be just as
knocked out by the Valvotronics Tube Amplified Direct Box as we
UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins 2.2.2
PowerCore 1.5 (Mac/Win; $1,299)
Despite amazing increases in computer CPU speed in recent years,
audio software's insatiable appetite for CPU cycles continues to strain
native hardware resources. Today's power-hungry electronic musicians
depend on more simultaneous plug-ins-and many of the latest plug-ins
require more processing power-than ever before.
To alleviate the load, two manufacturers have developed
digital-signal-processing (DSP) acceleration boards bundled with an
impressive assortment of plug-ins. Although the TC PowerCore and UAD-1
Powered Plug-Ins might seem expensive at first glance, first-rate
plug-ins make either product an attractive value. Both include MAS
plug-ins that work with MOTU Digital Performer on the Macintosh and VST
plug-ins that work with VST hosts on Macs and PCs alike. Both can
handle up to 24-bit, 96 kHz audio. However, the types of plug-ins each
card can handle are quite different.
Plug-ins must be written to run on a particular card; you can't run
a native VST plug-in on either one, and the UAD-1 and PowerCore formats
are mutually incompatible. Nonetheless, both cards are indispensable
tools for computer-based recording.
The TC Works PowerCore contains a Motorola PowerPC and four Motorola
56362 digital signal processors on a full-length PCI card. It comes
bundled with TC Tools, a collection of professional-quality dynamics
and effects plug-ins, as well as a virtual monophonic synthesizer.
Plug-ins run the gamut from TC Work's popular MegaReverb and EQsat to
MasterX3, a three-band compressor, limiter, and expander that emulates
the TC Electronic Finalizer. Third-party plug-ins are available from
Sony, D-Sound, and Waldorf, and several others are forthcoming.
UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins, developed by Universal Audio and distributed
by Mackie Designs, combines a suite of proprietary plug-ins with a
7-inch PCI card that employs a single, proprietary DSP chip. Some
plug-ins emulate specific studio hardware, such as the Universal Audio
1176LN and Teletronic LA-2A compressors and the Pultec EQP-1A
equalizer. Other notable plug-ins are Nigel, which simulates guitar
amps, cabinets, and effects, and Kind of Loud's RealVerb Pro, which has
a graphic interface that simulates the physical characteristics of
acoustic spaces built of various real-world materials.
In the end, we're dealing with two equally good DSP cards that work
with very different sets of plug-ins. If you want emulations of classic
signal processors, the UAD-1 has the edge. However, the PowerCore
currently has more third party support. You pay your money and you take
your choice; either way, you'll get what you paid for and then
Effects Processor, Analog
Few analog effects devices on the market make as big a statement as
those by Metasonix, and the TM-2 Tube Bandpass Filter VCA is no
exception. Like the company's TS-21 Hellfire Modulator (a 2002 Editors'
Choice Award winner), the rugged, stompbox-size TM-2 was designed to
take advantage of the entire operating range of each of its tubes.
However, this processor was designed with guitarists and synthesists in
mind: it can be used on the floor or a tabletop; be mounted vertically
in a 5U Moog-style synth cabinet for use with Synthesis Technology/MOTM
and Synthesizers.com modules; or be mounted horizontally in a 3U Euro
subrack to work with Analogue Solutions, Analogue Systems, and Doepfer
If it's tube coloration you want, you've come to the right place.
The TM-2 is perfect for rounding off the edges of harsh synth signals
or fattening up drum machines. The device incorporates a trio of
pentode tubes: the first pair act as parallel bandpass filters tuned
two octaves apart (80 to 200 Hz and 300 Hz to 1 kHz, respectively), and
the third tube is used as a VCA. As with other Metasonix products, you
have to set the controls slowly on the TM-2 if you want to hear
everything the tubes can do.
The TM-2 gives you voltage control over the filter frequency and the
VCA. That means you can easily interface the device with vintage and
contemporary analog synths. In addition, you can plug an expression
pedal in to the Filter CV input and create wah-wah effects. But unlike
your run-of-the-mill wah, the TM-2 lets you set the filter frequency:
set it high enough, and the filter will resonate when the pedal is
fully forward. Put a distortion box before the TM-2, and you get a
wah-wah that screams!
If you think you've heard everything a vacuum tube can do, be
prepared for a surprise. The TM-2 is the latest winner from a company
that is successfully subverting the dominant digital paradigm.
Effects Processor, Digital (hardware, over $1,000)
Ready to process your tracks for mixdown? The 8-channel KSP8 effects
processor is loaded with high-quality effects and extensive
programmability, allowing you to independently process each channel of
a 5.1 mix and a stereo mix, among many other applications. Kurzweil
pulled out all the stops on this one.
Building on the KDFX signal processor in its flagship K2600
synthesizer, Kurzweil put 249 effects algorithms in the KSP8 that allow
it to create more than 600 effects. Many of these are multichannel
effects, including surround reverbs, and the KSP8 lets you run mono,
stereo, and surround effects simultaneously. You can submix the effects
buses internally or send them to the outputs. In addition, each channel
has a dedicated multiband EQ and multichannel panner.
The KSP8 is professional all the way and offers four balanced analog
inputs and outputs and two channels of AES/EBU digital I/O right out of
the box. Expansion cards allow you to add four more analog channels or
eight more digital channels in your choice of AES/EBU, ADAT Lightpipe,
TDIF, or Kurzweil's KDS format. Fully loaded, the KSP8 lets you process
eight channels of audio with as many as 14 inputs from which to
Every editable parameter in the KSP8 can be controlled by MIDI, and
you can use envelope generators, LFOs, or user-programmable control
sources for modulation. Imagine using an LFO to slowly pan several
sounds around the surround space independently. As many as 36 LFOs and
36 envelope generators can be used for modulation, which should satisfy
just about any craving.
The KSP8 also excels in everyday processing jobs. With its generous
I/O, flexible routing, MIDI control, and hands-on editing capabilities,
the KSP8 can handle an entire mix. Anyone serious about their effects
processing should take a serious look at the KSP8.
Effects Processor, Digital (hardware, under $1,000)
Roger Linn Design
The AdrenaLinn is one of those products that makes you wonder why
someone didn't think of this sooner. Roger Linn Design has cleverly
combined a sequencer-controlled filter, an amp modeler, a drum machine,
and a collection of effects into one device. The components of the
AdrenaLinn all sound great on their own, but together they're
The filter is controlled by a programmable 32-step sequencer, which
works wonders on just about anything you put through it: guitars,
keyboards, even vocals. You have your choice of a 2- or 4-pole lowpass
filter, and you can set modulation and envelope-triggering parameters
for each step. An LFO is included if you want to animate your sounds
with filter sweeps or stereo panning. You can also use the AdrenaLinn
as an envelope filter if you're in a funky mood.
Because Roger Linn made his name with drum machines, you would
expect the AdrenaLinn to deliver in the this department. You can build
your patterns using any of the nine great-sounding kick drums, snare
drums, and hi-hats, not to mention toms and assorted percussion. Once
your pattern is happening, you can route the drum mix through the
filter, effects, and amp models.
The stellar collection of amp models completes the scene. You have
your pick of a variety of Fender and Marshall amps, as well as examples
of other vintage (Vox and Mesa/Boogie) and boutique (Matchless and
Soldano) amp varieties. The AdrenaLinn includes a host of modulation
and time-based effects that can be combined to create still more
effects. Because the AdrenaLinn has MIDI I/O, you can sync effects from
an external source or use Emagic's SoundDiver if you're in a tweaky
Technical details aside, the AdrenaLinn is extremely addictive and
playing with it is a whole lot of fun. It covers a wide range of sonic
territory, from the subtle to the completely whacked out, and the
deeper you dive into it, the more you'll discover. Considering it costs
less than $400, you'll want more than one.
Live 1.5 (Mac/Win; $300)
Few products have caught on or generated a buzz more quickly than
Ableton's loop sequencer, Live. More than just a construction tool for
sample loops, Live is a musical instrument that holds tremendous
potential for the performing musician. DJs, video jockeys, and even
bands around the world are using Live in concert settings, and no
wonder: absolutely every parameter it offers can be updated in real
Live offers two main working areas. First is the Arranger, which is
a track interface on which you drop and arrange Clips (loops or other
samples). You can move Clips around, change loop start or end points,
and add and tweak effects while playing back, and you can have any
number of Clips on the same track, even if they have different sampling
rates and bit resolutions. Audio is read directly from the hard drive,
so there's no limit on the length of the files you can use in a
The second work area, called the Session, is more of a mixing
environment and offers controls for send levels, gain, pan position,
and audio routing. You can record audio from an external source
directly into the Session, or you can bounce down multiple existing
tracks and immediately use the bounced audio in the current project.
The Session also gives you access to the Clip Pool, where you collect
all the samples you're going to use in a project and assign the MIDI
notes that you want to trigger the samples.
Live includes a number of internal plug-ins and can also serve as a
VST host. Among the included plug-ins are Grain Delay, which has
controls for altering the Spray, Pitch, Frequency, Random Pitch, and
Feedback parameters of the granulation process. You can adjust values
by typing or scrolling with the mouse in a text-entry box or by
dragging your mouse around a graphic interface. For hands-free control,
you can also draw automation data directly on a track.
Among the many other new features in Live 1.5 (a free upgrade for
1.0 users) are full ReWire (master and slave) support, more robust
handling of MIDI Control Change messages, a new internal reverb effect,
and overall optimizations. All of these make Live 1.5 even better for
the performing musician. But lest we forget, Live has tremendous
potential as a production tool as well. This combination makes it the
overwhelming winner in this year's loop-sequencer category.
Microphone (over $1,000)
Royer Labs has breathed new life into ribbon mics, updating the
technology to overcome liabilities that had long plagued traditional
ribbon designs-low output, high self-noise, nominal high-frequency
response, and inability to handle high SPLs, among others. The R-121,
which won a 2000 Editors' Choice Award, not only delighted old-timers
and vintage buffs who lamented the decline of ribbon mics, it also
introduced new generations to the benefits of recording with them.
Now Royer has made yet another technological leap: the R-122 is the
world's first active ribbon mic. The design is so novel that the R-122
even got votes in our "Most Innovative Product" category. Unlike a
standard condenser microphone, which uses phantom power to electrically
charge a diaphragm and backplate, the R-122 uses phantom power to
provide impedance matching and allow for increased gain. (Impedance
mismatching and insufficient gain are two problems inherent to
traditional-design ribbon mics.) Before the R-122, ribbon users seeking
optimum results had to use high-quality, high-gain (read "expensive")
mic preamps, preferably with high impedance (or a variable-impedance
control-a rarity), especially when recording quiet sound sources. The
impedance issue was particularly troublesome: an impedance mismatch
"loads" a ribbon improperly, resulting in loss of low end, diminished
body, lowered sensitivity, and overall compromised performance.
By designing the mic to receive external power, Royer Labs was able
to give the R-122 a fully balanced, discrete head-amplifier system that
utilizes ultra-low-noise FETs, providing a perfect load on the ribbon
element at all times. The result is a high-output, low-noise ribbon mic
that doesn't require a high-gain or "ribbon-friendly" preamp and allows
for long cable runs with minimal signal loss. In short, the R-122
embodies the most significant improvement to ribbon-mic technology in
Of course, it takes more than technological innovation to make a
superior product. The R-122 employs the same ribbon element found in
the R-121 but has a flatter, smoother response overall, with sweeter
highs and a bit less upper-midrange bite. Like the R-121, the R-122
exhibits excellent off-axis rejection, and our reviewer loved it on a
range of instruments, including strings, saxes, woodwinds, flutes,
brass, percussion, and especially electric-guitar cabinets. But the
critical achievements are the mic's low noise and high output, which
together significantly increase its versatility and usability.
Microphone (under $1,000)
Baby Bottle ($649)
The past year was exceptional for microphone lovers. We were
especially impressed by several affordable new large-diaphragm
condensers, notably the Audix SCX-25 and the Audio-Technica AT4040.
CAD, too, wowed us with a remarkably affordable new tube mic, the M9.
But in the end, the mic that had all of us salivating was the Baby
Bottle-yet another Class A class act from the folks at Blue
Microphones. Remarkably, this is the fourth year in a row the company
has snagged an EM Editors' Choice award.
Blue's least-expensive microphone to date, the Baby Bottle breaks
rank with the budget-microphone paradigm on several fronts, most
notably sound. As our reviewer put it, the Baby Bottle "doesn't give
you what isn't there." Rather than crispy highs, scooped mids, and
bumped-up lows-a curve that characterizes the majority of inexpensive
condenser mics we've heard in the past few years-the Baby Bottle offers
a more honest, unaffected sound: the response is basically flat, with a
slight bump around 2 kHz, and highs and lows that start rolling off
smoothly at 12 kHz and 80 Hz, respectively. The result is a rich,
detailed midrange and overall warm, full sound. The Baby Bottle also
exhibits excellent transient response-not surprising, given its
pedigree-allowing for a sense of depth and dimensionality conjured only
by the finest of transducers.
Like all Blue mics, the cardioid-pattern, solid-state Baby Bottle is
minimalist in design, distinctive in appearance, and constructed only
from the highest-grade components. Its Class A discrete electronics and
transformerless output achieve incredibly low self-noise (5.5 dBA!),
high sensitivity, and a superhot output, making the mic well suited to
the peculiarities of the personal studio. We loved the Baby Bottle on a
range of instruments, including vocals and voices (broadcast), electric
guitars (including bass), percussion, and piano, and found it
particularly effective for softening potentially strident sources such
as harmonica, strings, and wind instruments.
Though the Baby Bottle's sonic bent might not lead us to recommend
it for someone looking to acquire their first or only large-diaphragm
condenser, we feel strongly that this mic fills a gaping hole, both in
terms of frequency response and price, and as such is a terrific pick
for extending the tonal palette of your microphone cabinet without
breaking the bank.
MIDI Keyboard Controller
Oxygen 8 ($179)
With the emergence of USB as a conduit for MIDI, the plethora of
USB-enabled MIDI keyboards is a welcome development for the desktop
musician. The M-Audio Oxygen 8 is particularly versatile because it can
draw power from the included AC adapter, pull phantom power from its
USB connector, or run on six AA batteries, making it useful in the
studio or in the field. The keyboard's MIDI Out port also lets you use
the Oxygen 8 as a MIDI controller without a USB connector.
The solidly built Oxygen 8 packs a pitch-bend wheel, an assignable
mod wheel, a programmable slider, and eight assignable knobs into a
chunk of real estate that you can fit in a briefcase. The instrument
provides octave-shift buttons, which help compensate for its limited
25-key span. Every knob can have a different Control Change message and
can send on a different MIDI channel, an extremely handy feature if you
need to tweak multiple instruments. Our reviewer found an undocumented
trick that gives you access to a total of 40 knob assignments. The
Oxygen 8 retains your assignments when powered down.
The Oxygen 8 can go well beyond managing software synths. You can
easily configure the unit to manage effects devices, MIDI-enabled
mixers, loop-sequencing software, and plug-ins.
Here at EM, we're suckers for devices that dish up
versatility in small and portable containers. With its diminutive form,
solid construction, extensive control capabilities, and flat-out bang
for the buck, M-Audio's Oxygen 8 was an easy winner.
Behringer got our attention in a big way this past year with the
DDX3216, a fully automated, 32-channel, 16-bus, 24-bit digital-mixing
console. The DDX3216 offers one of the more comprehensive and
user-friendly feature sets we've seen in a compact digital mixer, yet
at a price so low we could hardly contain our wonder. Clearly,
Behringer did its homework before stepping out with the DDX3216.
The DDX3216 is very clean and quiet, and our reviewer was impressed
that it sounded as good as or better than digital mixers costing two
and three times as much. In addition to its potential 32 inputs, 20
outputs, 16 internal buses, and 8 aux sends, the DDX3216 provides
parametric EQ, a sweepable highpass filter, dynamics processors, and
phase inversion on every channel; channel delay on all analog inputs;
full dynamic and snapshot automation; four effects processors; 100 mm
motorized faders; and two levels of Undo.
Equally bounteous is the DDX3216's I/O. On the analog side you get
12 XLR mic inputs, 4 1⁄4-inch line inputs, 12 inserts, 2 balanced
XLR main outputs, 4 balanced 1⁄4-inch TRS outputs (switchable),
and 2 balanced 1⁄4-inch TRS outputs. Other ports include
word-clock in and out, a SMPTE input, an RS232 serial port, a PC Card
slot for storing settings and mixes, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru.
Digital I/O is S/PDIF on a pair of RCA connectors. For the two
rear-panel card slots, Behringer offers three optional digital I/O
cards: 16-channel ADAT, 16-channel TDIF, and 8-channel AES/EBU. You can
assign these inputs and outputs in blocks of eight, mixing and matching
to suit your needs.
We were delighted by the intuitive layout of the DDX3216's user
interface, which is similar enough to other digital mixers that
experienced users can dig right in. Lighted, multifunction rotary knobs
on all channels help make for an analog feel, and 16-segment LED meters
beside each fader provide easy signal monitoring. The unit's LCD screen
is small, but the menus are well organized and the graphics clear, and
screen navigation is a breeze thanks to dedicated knobs and buttons. We
were also very impressed by the DDX's motorized faders, which are
quieter than most we've used and feel as good as those on many
higher-end digital mixers. Still another thing that turned our heads
was the high quality of the unit's onboard effects, which include
reverbs, delays, delay modulation, pitch shifting, ring modulation, an
enhancer, and an autofilter.
No matter what your application, the versatile DDX3216 likely has
you covered, and at a very impressive price. When it comes to
small-format digital mixers, we aren't aware of a better value.
Modular Hard-Disk Recorder
ADAT HD24 ($2,499)
Alesis has plenty of experience when it comes to designing and
building digital audio recorders. The Alesis ADAT modular digital
multitrack tape deck has long been a staple of personal studios, but in
recent years, low-cost, high-quality modular hard-disk recorders,
portable digital studios, and computer-based DAWs have stolen its
thunder. Heeding the old saying "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,"
Alesis introduced its first multitrack hard-disk recorder, the ADAT
HD24. The HD24 offers all the advantages of random-access recording,
including cut-and-paste editing with 99 levels of Undo.
The HD24 is superior to its tape-based predecessors in every way,
but we certainly didn't give it an award for outperforming 10-year-old
technology. Alesis comes out a winner because when compared to the
other M-HDRs we've seen in the past year, the HD24's cost-to-feature
ratio is outstanding. It records 24 tracks, supports 24-bit recording
at 44.1 and 48 kHz, and records 12 tracks from digital sources at 96
kHz. The HD24 comes standard with 24 channels of analog audio I/O over
1⁄4-inch TRS jacks and 24 channels of digital audio I/O over
Lightpipe. A built-in 10Base-T Ethernet port lets you network the HD24
with computers, so you can exchange audio files with your favorite
audio sequencer. Two removable drive caddies make it easy to swap IDE
Again, that's all standard equipment, not a set of pricey options.
This baby is ready to record straight out of the box. But several
options are available, including the EC2 96 kHz analog I/O board
($1,249) and the FirePort ($249) for connecting the HD24's hard disks
on caddies to your computer's FireWire port.
Operating the HD24 is remarkably similar to using earlier ADATs, so
it's familiar territory to a whole generation of digital-tape jockeys.
Word clock, MIDI Time Code, and MIDI Machine Control are all supported,
and solid construction ensures that the HD24 is built to last.
When you get down to the bottom line, where else can you find 24
tracks of good-sounding 24-bit recording, 24 quality A/D/A converters,
and room for two removable hard drives in a box that weighs 20 pounds
and costs less than $2,500? With its wealth of thoughtful features and
its excellent value, the Alesis ADAT HD24 is simply hard to beat.
Most Innovative Product
Hardware MIDI control devices are in plentiful supply these days.
Some dedicate functions to specific software or hardware, and most are
designed to sit on your desktop. Few, if any, are equally at home in
the studio and on the stage. In contrast, the C-Mexx MIR can go
anywhere, and it can control just about anything with MIDI jacks,
including DAWs, mixers, effects, lights, and a MIDI-equipped coffee
maker if you have one.
The palm-size MIR sports five buttons and two rotary encoders that
also serve as buttons. Its Analog button is really an additional
encoder. If you run out of digits, you can opt for the company's Live
Paq ($195), which replaces the Analog knob with a foot controller and a
couple of footswitches. To make the MIR stage-ready, you can add Live
Base ($75), a kit for mounting the MIR on a mic stand.
The MIR's small size belies its excellent control capabilities; if
its complement of knobs and buttons isn't enough for you, you can
assign a button to access other control banks. The MIR holds banks in
Any MIDI message is fair game for the MIR's arsenal, from System
Exclusive to entire sequences stored in SMF format. C-Mexx even offers
Starlight ($545), a DMX adapter for controlling stage lights with MIDI.
The manufacturer offers scads of downloadable control templates for
products ranging from Yamaha's venerable DX7 to Sequential Circuits
synths to Steinberg Nuendo.
The MIR Edit software (Mac/Win) comes with the unit and allows you
to program your own control assignments. You aren't restricted to
linear control of your data either; MIR Edit lets you scale and apply
curves to your encoder data, including sine, cosine, and square shapes.
You can also offset or invert data.
With all of the control options the MIR presents, it's good to know
that the unit possesses a big and bright display. Moreover, you can set
up user-friendly names for parameters under control rather than
attempting to decipher arcane names or bank and program numbers for
The MIR is adaptable, flexible, and simple to use, and if your
device isn't supported, you can roll your own controllers. The gadget
is already inspiring a host of user groups and third-party developers.
If you'd like to break loose from the desktop controller paradigm, be
sure to check out the MIR's innovative approach.
Sibelius 2 (Mac/Win; $599)
In spite of stiff competition from MakeMusic (formerly Coda) Finale,
Sibelius 2's recent upgrade really impressed us with its long list of
new features and enhancements. In addition, Sibelius got the jump on
Finale when it became one of the first music programs to be fully
Carbonized for Mac OS X. (It supports Windows XP on the PC side.)
The program's new Aqua-style user interface is bright and friendly.
A new Properties window (with pop-out panels) offers direct access to
layout parameters, and a new Mixer window provides control over
playback levels. If you hate using the mouse, you'll especially love
the program's expanded list of keyboard shortcuts.
The playback capabilities in Sibelius 2 are quite extensive. The
program recognizes tempo markings, repeat signs, pedal indications, and
crescendos and properly performs glissandi, tremolos, trills, and many
other symbols. The same applies to guitar tablature and markings such
as bends. You can even apply any of 16 rhythmic feels (from reggae and
swing to Viennese waltz) to better approximate how the piece will sound
when actually performed in the proper style. And that's not all: for
large ensembles, Sibelius's SoundStage feature uses panning, reverb,
and volume settings to automatically position the instruments in a 3-D
sound field that simulates a concert stage.
Sibelius 2's powerful new Arrange feature can take a piano piece and
automatically expand it into a full score with typical instrumentation
and doublings. You can choose from more than 130 customizable arranging
and orchestration styles, including band, choir, and jazz quintet. You
can also "explode" notes from chords onto separate staves or create
If you write music for film or TV, you'll really appreciate Sibelius
2's new time-code features. You can now display the time-code position
above each bar line, and the playback display can show elapsed time in
SMPTE format. Sibelius automatically displays the score's total
duration and updates the display as you add or subtract notes.
Sibelius 2 includes more than 300 instruments, 130 manuscript
templates, a 10,000-level Undo command, a new Inkpen2 handwritten-style
font, a 500-page hard-copy manual, and 37 "plug-ins" to clean up scores
and perform other helpful tasks. Sibelius can even import Finale
scores, and the included PhotoScore Lite 2 software adds powerful
scanning capabilities. With so many amazing features packed into such a
great-looking, user-friendly workspace, it's easy to see why Sibelius 2
deserves this year's award.
Portable Digital Studio
The past year brought several good new portable digital studios,
although, to be honest, there were fewer killer candidates than in the
year before. Many of this year's contenders were miniature, low-cost
recorders with reduced feature sets, but our big winner was not among
them. Instead, the Yamaha AW2816 follows in the footsteps of a
conventional PDS, Yamaha's AW4416. The new unit stands out not because
of its small size or its track count; rather, it succeeds thanks to its
flexibility, versatility, and attractive expansion possibilities.
The AW2816 offers four times the audio-processing power of the
AW4416, along with improved effects and useful expansion options. The
recorder offers eight simultaneous recording tracks and 16-track
playback, with 4-band parametric EQ and dynamics processing on each
channel. You can choose 24- or 16-bit recording with sampling rates of
48 or 44.1 kHz.
The unit holds a hefty library of effects-processing presets. Many
effects are tailored to specific applications such as processing snares
or recording guitars, and there's plenty of room to add your own. The
two multi-effects processors offer reverb, delay, distortion, filters,
Parameter changes and all fader movement send MIDI Control Change
messages, providing dynamic MIDI automation when used with a sequencer.
Because most controls can send MIDI messages, you can use the unit as a
MIDI control surface. Among the templates you can download from
Yamaha's AW2816 Web site are MIDI remote-control templates for a goodly
number of digital audio sequencing programs and controller setups for a
number of hardware and soft synths.
The AW2816 offers nine motorized 60 mm faders and scene-based
automation with 96 scenes to capture your moves, and you get a healthy
array of analog and digital I/O. But it's the unit's expandability that
distinguishes it from other portable digital studios at its price
point. The rear of the unit holds a slot for adding one of Yamaha's
YGDAI cards, letting you expand the analog I/O or add a Waves Y56K card
to expand the unit's DSP capabilities. The unit offers plenty more,
such as Red Book audio import and WAV file import and export. You can
see why the AW2816 made it to the top of our list.
Sample Player (software)
Drums & Percs (Mac/Win; $100)
Electronic musicians who aren't drummers have a long history of
creating their own percussion parts using drum machines, samplers, and
synth workstations. But it's not so easy choosing a product that offers
good sound, flexibility, ease of use, and solid programming power, all
for a very good price. Plugsound, however, provides exactly that with
Drums & Percs, a drum-sample plug-in for VST, MAS, and RTAS.
Drums & Percs sounds great, especially its electronic percussion
sounds, and its features give you the power you to elicit some
incredibly expressive and musical drum programming, assuming your chops
are up to the task. Because Plugsound has done the sampling and mapping
for you, you can load a program, select your drum kit, and make music,
just that fast. What a concept!
The software flexes its power in the form of multilayered samples
that crossfade smoothly and naturally. For instance, the cymbals ring
beautifully, with none of the wobbly timbral artifacts that you get
from overly truncated and looped cymbals.
Drums & Percs offers fully mapped drum kits with
Velocity-switched samples, but you also get single-instrument-type
layouts (such as snares) with an extensive collection of variations and
articulations mapped across the keyboard. The sound set includes
acoustic and electronic instruments, as well as a nice assortment of
hand-percussion instruments, such as congas, djembe, bongos, shakers,
triangle, tambourine, castanets, wind chimes, and darbuka. Some of
these are also multisampled, Velocity-switched instruments.
If you tire of the software's 5,500 samples, you'll find a
surprisingly flexible synth engine under the program's hood, which
provides a healthy degree of sonic variety. Because each Plugsound
sample voice is governed by its own synth engine, you can tweak pitch,
envelope, filter, or amplitude settings for each instrument. Plugsound
instruments support MIDI Control Change messages, so you can tweak
filter resonance and cutoff (for instance) on the fly while recording
changes into your sequencer.
The user interface is simple and scalable. You can choose Basic or
Expert mode; each offers more controls than you would find on the
average drum machine. Apart from filter settings, you can adjust
instrument tuning, LFO rate and depth, envelope attack rate, release
time, and more. The screen also has sensitivity controls that let you
scale instrument response to Velocity.
All this power does have its price, but in this case, it's not the
list price. Drums & Percs puts heavy demands on your CPU, so if you
don't have a fast processor, you aren't going to be as happy as we
were. But it's affordable, flexible, and simple, and it sounds great.
It's time to stop squinting at keymaps and start drumming.
Kontakt (Mac/Win; $399)
Software samplers are common these days, but you'll find more than
just run-of-the-mill features in Native Instruments Kontakt. Drawing on
technology used in the company's Reaktor, Kontakt provides ways to
process samples that you won't find in even the most advanced hardware
samplers and a sophisticated modulation matrix that allows you to
animate every parameter of a patch.
Creating a new patch doesn't get any easier: just double-click on a
sample in the Browser window that appears at the left of the main
screen, and a new Instrument will appear in the Rack at the right. In
the Rack, pick which of the three basic sampling algorithms will be at
the core of your patch: Sampler, Tone Machine, or Time Machine.
The Sampler algorithm is a basic pitch-shifting process; the other
two give you far more options for creative control. In the Tone
Machine, for example, you can modify the formant characteristics of
your sound without changing its pitch. Put that parameter under the
control of a mod source, such as the Step Modulator, and you can draw
patterns of up to 32 steps, each with its own amplitude (amount) value,
that will control the formant transposition level.
Like the Tone Machine, the Time Machine uses granular resynthesis as
its basic operating principle and offers, among other things, a
real-time time-stretching function that can be nearly free of artifacts
or as nasty as you want. Just adjust its Smooth and Grain parameters to
suit your taste.
It's easy to assign MIDI Control Change messages for real-time or
automated control of any Instrument parameter, and a graphic overview
of the structure of your patch, complete with one-click access to any
element, is also on hand.
Kontakt has a few interface issues that we'd like to see addressed:
you can only use one of three default sizes for its working window,
which often makes reading text somewhat difficult, and there's no way
to change its basic color scheme, which could use a bit more contrast
among the elements. We also wish that you could record directly to disk
when using the standalone version, but that's easy enough to do when
using Kontakt as a VST or DirectX plug-in, which also allows you to run
multiple instances of the sampler.
By the time you read this, Kontakt should be able to read samples
directly from the hard drive. That feature will help keep this award
winner at the top of its class for a good time to come.
Signal-Processing Plug-ins (bundles)
Pluggo 3.0 (Mac; $199)
We've always been big fans of Cycling '74's Pluggo, but version 3
really took us by surprise. Not only are there more than 100 effects
plug-ins, many of which are either new or redesigned, but the release
includes 19 new soft synths and significant enhancements to the user
interface. And, if you own Cycling '74's Max/MSP, you can now make your
own Pluggo plug-ins and distribute them to other users. Will the
plug-ins never end?
Pluggo's offerings fall into a number of categories. There are
reverbs, filters, delays, and distortion effects for starters. If you
like to splice and dice your samples, then the large number of
granulation tools will keep you busy. Get to know the inside of your
sounds with spectral effects, such as the Convolver and Spectral
Filter, and build your own color organs with the Visual Display group.
Add to that a number of "utilities," such as the audio-routing and
modulation tools, and you've got a plug-in workstation that can serve
all your needs.
Pluggo 3 works with VST, RTAS, and MAS hosts. What's more, it adds
features to your existing non-Pluggo plug-ins that they didn't have
previously, such as the ability to randomize or modulate their
parameters. You'll also appreciate having sample-accurate control over
your plug-ins, which allows you to, for example, sync their tempo to an
external audio control source acting as an LFO.
We have no idea how the folks at Cycling '74 keep coming up with so
many new and unique audio-processing tools, but, as far as we're
concerned, the more the merrier. Plug it in and turn it on!
Signal-Processing Plug-ins (individual)
AmpliTube (Mac/Win; $399)
At a time when guitar-amp modeling is all the rage, one software
product stands out from the crowd. AmpliTube, from Italian software
developer IK Multimedia, is a VST and RTAS plug-in that brings a
virtual guitar amplifier, speakers, and guitar-oriented effects to your
AmpliTube is organized in three onscreen control panels: the Amp
Module, the Stomp Module, and the Post FX Module. Ample onscreen
controls let you precisely tailor your sound. The plug-in realistically
emulates seven different preamps, four power amps, and nine speaker
cabinets. Models range from British crunch to vintage clean. In its
quest to replicate a guitarist's complete studio rig, AmpliTube also
models tremolo and spring reverb, five different EQ stages, and five
stompbox effects: wah-wah, flanger, delay, chorus, and overdrive.
Dynamic- and condenser-mic modeling let you customize your
electric-guitar sound even further. Virtual preamps, power amps, EQs,
cabinets, microphones, and effects can be freely mixed and matched into
well over a thousand combinations. Dozens of presets are included, and
every month, you can download new ones from the AmpliTube Web site
AmpliTube drastically reduces a guitarist's setup time and
guarantees consistency from one recording session to the next. The
promise of AmpliTube means no more lugging your amp, speakers, and
effects from studio to studio. AmpliTube reduces the size of your
onstage rig to a laptop computer routed through the house monitors. For
the computer-based recordist, AmpliTube is EM's choice for
putting yet another element of the virtual recording studio on your
Signal-Processing Software (standalone)
Composers Desktop Project 4.5
Sometimes the most interesting software comes from the most obscure
sources. Composers Desktop Project (CDP) is the effort of a small group
of independent British composers and programmers and has its roots back
in the mid-1980s. The system is a collection of hundreds of
sound-generating and sound-processing routines that cover most every
technique you can think of and many that you could never have
CDP's offerings fall into two main categories. One set operates
directly on WAV files and allows you to modify sounds in numerous ways.
Colorful and exotic names, such as Scramble, Zig-Zag, Drunk, Shred, and
Motifs, suggest some of the more unusual processes you will find. All
of the processes are nondestructive, so be sure you have a large hard
drive on hand to save the numerous great-sounding files you'll come up
The second set of routines uses analysis and resynthesis as its main
modus operandi and operates on the analysis of a sound's spectrum,
which you create using the included Phase Vocoder analysis tool. Once
you have a file analyzed, you can perform a vast range of modifications
on it, such as time-stretching it without changing its pitch, freezing
the sound on a single analysis frame, altering the amplitude envelopes
of the sound's partials using LFOs or other types of functions, and
morphing between the spectra of two different sounds.
Because all of the processes run as individual command-line
routines, getting a handle on the tremendous range of options can be
daunting. But there are several graphic interfaces for the system,
including Sound Shaper by Robert Fraser and Sound Loom by CDP developer
Trevor Wishart, that can serve as command central. These interfaces
collect all the routines into a unified front-end and allow you to set
parameters, save presets, view and edit your audio files, and more.
CDP's low cost and excellent documentation, coupled with its enormous
feature set, make it a winner in our book.
Sound Module (digital)
Nord Rack 3 ($2,499)
What's fat, rackmountable, and red all over? Although we loved the
Access Virus C, E-mu Proteus 2500, and Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1, the
Nord Rack 3 is our pick for most desirable sound module. Even in the
face of such stiff competition, the Rack 3's awesome sound, impressive
feature set, and real-time programming depth bowled us over.
The Rack 3-a rackmount version of the Nord Lead 3-is a direct
descendent of the very first analog-modeling synthesizer, which was
introduced by Clavia in 1995. By harnessing its increased DSP power,
the latest model combines two- and four-operator FM synthesis with
analog modeling in a technology that Clavia calls Advanced Subtractive.
With 24-note polyphony, a sophisticated arpeggiator, and the ability to
simultaneously morph as many as 26 parameters in real time, the Rack 3
is a live-performance powerhouse.
The Rack 3 adds a 32-character LCD to the Rack 2's 3-digit LED
display. Instead of 100 Programs and 100 Performances, the Rack 3 has
enough locations for 1,024 Programs and 256 Performances. The onboard
sounds are rich, complex, and versatile, offering a tremendous palette
of virtual analog and FM timbres, even without onboard effects
processing. Other enhancements include polyphonic glide and new
creative capabilities in the dual-multimode-filter section.
The Rack 3's most exceptional advantage is real-time control. You
can tweak almost any parameter by simply pressing a button or turning a
knob to alter sounds either subtly or radically. On the front panel,
dozens of infinite rotary encoders and buttons are accompanied by
enough red and green indicator LEDs to light up a Christmas tree. All
told, the Nord Rack 3 is a synthesizer that will carry you well into
the new year-and the next decade.
Despite the easy availability of hardware and software digital
synths, analog instruments remain popular. The field is dominated by
small, dedicated companies providing unique instruments for
discriminating tastes. This year, one such company, England's Analogue
Solutions, came up with an instrument that provides the modularity
analog synthesists love in a compact and portable instrument.
The Vostok combines a wealth of modules in a single suitcase: two
voltage-controlled analog oscillators, a voltage-controlled digital
wavetable oscillator, two voltage-controlled LFOs, a noise source, two
filters (based on the filters in the Korg MS-20), a VCA, two envelope
generators, a ring modulator, a sample-and-hold module, an 8-step
sequencer, a MIDI-to-CV converter, a joystick, a mixer, and a meter.
Not bad for a analog synth measuring 101⁄2 inches tall and 17
One of the most surprising features of the Vostok is the 22522 patch
matrix, which is reminiscent of those found on the venerable EMS Synthi
A and VCS3 synthesizers. The modules in the system are connected by
inserting pins into the holes of the patch matrix. Such a system allows
you to patch multiple sources to one destination. And because the
Vostok patch matrix is buffered, you won't experience an offset in
voltage or level in a multiple-source patch like you would with an EMS
synth. You can also patch the Vostok the old-fashioned way, using the
front-panel 1⁄8-inch jacks. It's the best of both worlds.
Such a robust combination of synth elements, especially with the
step sequencer and MIDI-to-CV converter, means the Vostok will cover a
lot of musical bases. It's a great-sounding instrument that is, just as
importantly, a lot of fun to play.
Synthesizer (keyboard, digital)
Triton Studio ($2,600)
The Triton Studio is the latest and greatest incarnation of Korg's
flagship line of workstations, incorporating a synthesizer, sampler,
sequencer, and effects. Compared to the original Triton, the Triton
Studio offers more of everything: six times the processing power, twice
the polyphony, 48 MB of expandable waveform ROM, and enough onboard
memory locations for 1,792 Programs, 1,536 Combinations, and 153 drum
kits. With the optional CD-RW drive, the Triton Studio is the first
keyboard workstation that can take your musical ideas all the way to a
finished audio CD.
Still available in 61-, 76-, and 88-key models, the Triton Studio is
physically larger than previous Tritons. Inside the case are a 5 GB
hard drive and 16 MB of sample RAM that's expandable to 96 MB. Five
insert effects, two master effects, and a 3-band EQ are always
available. Optical S/PDIF ports are now standard, and the Studio still
boasts Korg's large, bright TouchView display.
The Triton's sequencer, no longer content with handling only MIDI
tracks, can now record two tracks of digital audio. Its cue-list
feature is a real convenience onstage, and importing Combis into the
sequencer is easier than ever. What's more, the Triton Studio can
sample itself in any mode and chop up samples with its new time-slice
All that technology wouldn't impress us if the Triton Studio didn't
sound good. Fortunately, it sounds amazing! The onboard Programs and
Combinations are inspiring and diverse, and you can expand them by
installing as many as seven PCM expansion boards and a MOSS synthesis
board. Probably the most impressive sound is the 16 MB Bösendorfer
piano, which is realistically detailed enough to please discriminating
ears. For many musicians, the Triton Studio truly fulfills the promise
of a one-stop solution.
Kantos 1.0 (Mac/Win; $395)
Synthesizers that process audio input are nothing new, but Antares
Kantos reverses the typical audio-to-synth relationship. Whereas a
synthesizer's internal workings typically process incoming audio and
rely on MIDI for pitch information or modulation, Kantos extracts pitch
data from the incoming audio and uses that information to control its
extensive synthesizer architecture.
You would think that Kantos would need monophonic audio input to
pull off this neat trick. But in fact, the results of polyphonic input,
while unpredictable, are almost always interesting and are often
useful. If you like, you can constrain Kantos' output to pitches of
your choosing. You can also remove or impart vibrato.
The instrument's oscillators play back sounds from wavetables, and
the program offers a hefty supply to get you going. You can add your
own AIFF and WAV files to provide custom oscillator fodder, but make no
mistake: Kantos is no mere vehicle for sample-playback.
The synth's Timbral Articulator derives information in real time
from the audio signal's dynamics, harmonic content, and formants to
reshape the sonic characteristics of the oscillator wavetables. You can
limit or scale the effect of the audio signal's parameters and adjust
the amount of the original audio going directly to the output. If that
isn't enough, you can deploy multimode resonant filters-one for each
If you need a more traditional synthesizer approach, Kantos offers a
formidable modulation matrix, including two LFOs and two ADSR envelope
generators: one is for amplitude, and one is an assignable EG.
Nonetheless, for all of its architectural depth and flexibility, using
the synth is a relatively intuitive process.
A spooky and beautiful user interface laden with biomechanical
overtones controls the synth's powerful engine. Artistic considerations
aside, the interface provides excellent visual feedback of signal flow
and synthesis parameters.
The software excels as a sound-design tool, producing unique and
often jaw-dropping hybrids of organic and synthetic sounds. If you're
looking for fresh adventures in synthesis and sound design, you owe
yourself a look at Kantos.
Synthesizer Workstation (software, standalone)
Reason 2.0 (Mac/Win; $399)
When Propellerhead Software introduced Reason, we were so impressed
with the program's power and flexibility that we gave it a 2002
Editors' Choice Award. We were amazed that for less than the cost of a
typical General MIDI sound module, Reason could provide an expandable
virtual rack stuffed with synthesizers, samplers, drum machines,
mixers, effects processors, patch bays, and a whole lot more. The
software even included a built-in sequencer and a great library of
A year later, the second generation of Reason arrived, and once
again it really knocked our socks off. Especially on the Mac platform,
Reason has made significant gains. It is now completely compatible with
Mac OS X, with full support for Core Audio and CoreMIDI, obviating the
need for OMS and ASIO extensions. And Reason's already low latency can
drop to less than a millisecond under OS X. Moreover, Reason's support
for multiprocessing in the new Macs enables it to run audio on one
processor while running graphics on the other, yielding even more power
and better efficiency.
Speaking of efficiency, Reason's main sequencer (which has several
new tools) can now be detached from the rack. If you're running a
dual-monitor system, you can view the sequencer on one screen while
setting up your rack on the other screen.
The most exciting additions to Reason 2.0, however, are the two
powerful new virtual instruments. The Malström Graintable
Synthesizer is a novel two-oscillator/two-filter software synth that
creates its unique sounds through "graintable" technology, a cross
between granular and wavetable synthesis.
The other new instrument is the 32-bit NN-XT, a much more advanced
sampler module than Reason's original NN-19. For more realistic
re-creations of acoustic instruments, the NN-XT includes a function
that randomly switches between alternate samples when a note is
repeated, so the same sample isn't triggered twice in a row. The NN-XT
also supports Velocity switching and crossfading and provides two
tempo-syncable LFOs (as do all of Reason's updated instruments), along
with filter and envelope controls. To top things off, Reason 2.0
includes a completely new high-quality orchestral sample library
replete with brass, woodwinds, strings, and much more.
Reason's impressive collection of synths, samplers, ReCycle loop
players, mixers, effects, and other goodies makes it the ultimate
one-stop music-production workstation. With its newly redesigned
colorful 3-D interface and its greatly expanded feature set, Reason is
clearly a winner once again.
A significant upgrade to the VoicePrism, which was introduced in
2001, the VoicePrismPlus offers the same microphone preamp, dynamics
processing, effects processing, and four-part harmonization. The "Plus"
is TC-Helicon's patented voice-modeling technology, and it's a big plus
indeed. For years, physical modeling has been applied to synthesizing
complex instrumental voices but only rarely to the human voice, and
never to this extent in a high-profile commercial product.
Through the miracle of formant processing, real-time vocal
resynthesis can change the perceived shape of a singer's mouth, throat,
or chest cavity. It can turn a tenor into a soprano or a marginal
singer into a more powerful vocal performer. By emulating the human
vocal tract, the VoicePrismPlus can manipulate inflection and add
vibrato, breath, rasp, growl, and resonance to anyone's voice. A
collection of 128 well-designed factory presets takes full advantage of
Other new features of VoicePrismPlus include AES/EBU I/O, 24-bit
A/D/A converters, better compression and EQ, and an expanded effects
selection. Owners of the original VoicePrism can upgrade to the Plus by
adding the VoiceCraft card ($599). TC-Helicon has practically
accomplished a miracle in advancing the state of audio technology, and
we are happy to acknowledge the company's contributions by bestowing an
Editors' Choice Award upon the VoicePrismPlus.
We welcome your feedback. E-mail us at
The Winning Manufacturers
Ableton AG/M-Audio (distributor) tel. (800)
969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail email@example.com; Web
Alesis tel. (401) 295-9000; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web
Analogue Solutions/Sweet Noise (distributor) tel. (818)
980-6983; e-mail email@example.com; Web
Antares Audio Technologies tel. (888) 332-2636
or (831) 461-7800; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web
Behringer U.S.A. tel. (425) 672-0816; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.behringer.com
Blue Microphones tel. (805) 370-1599; e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.bluemic.com
CDP tel. 44-1249-461-361 or 44-117-903-1147; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.bath.ac.uk/~masjpf/CDP/CDP.htm
Clavia/Armadillo Enterprises (distributor) tel.
(727) 519-9669; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.clavia.se
C-Mexx Software/X-Vision Audio U.S. (distributor) tel.
(330) 747-3857; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.c-mexx.com
Cycling '74 tel. (415) 974-1818; e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.cycling74.com
Event Electronics tel. (805) 566-7777; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.event1.com or www.eventelectronics.com
IK Multimedia tel. (866) 243-1718 or (561) 466-9763;
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.ikmultimedia.com
Korg U.S.A., Inc. tel. (516) 333-9100; Web
Kurzweil Music Systems, Inc./Young Chang America
(distributor) tel. (800) 874-2880 or (253) 589-3200; Web
Little Labs tel. (323) 851-6860; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.littlelabs.com
Mackie Designs tel. (800) 898-3211 or (425) 487-4333;
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.mackie.com
M-Audio tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.m-audio.com
Metasonix tel. (707) 263-5343; e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.metasonix.com
Native Instruments U.S.A. tel. (866) 556-6488; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.native-instruments.com
Plugsound/Big Fish Audio (distributor) tel.
(800) 717-FISH or (818) 768-6115; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web
Propellerhead Software/M-Audio (distributor)
tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail email@example.com;
RME Intelligent Audio Solutions/X-Vision Audio U.S.
(distributor) tel. (330) 747-3857; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org;
Roger Linn Design tel. (510) 898-5433; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.rogerlinndesign.com
Royer Labs tel. (818) 760-8472; e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.royerlabs.com
Sibelius Software tel. (888) 474-2354 or (972)
930-9552; e-mail infoUSA@sibelius.com; Web www.sibelius.com
Sound Quest, Inc. tel. (800) 667-3998 or (250)
478-4337; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.squest.com
Steinberg North America tel. (818) 678-5100; e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.us.steinberg.net
Summit Audio, Inc. tel. (831) 728-1302; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.summitaudio.com
Syntrillium Software tel. (888) 941-7100 or
(480) 941-4327; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web
TC-Helicon tel. (805) 373-1828; email
email@example.com; Web www.tc-helicon.com
TC Works/TC Electronic (distributor) tel. (805)
373-1828; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.tcworks.de
Valvotronics tel. (908) 704-9562; e-mail
email@example.com; Web www.valvotronics.com
Yamaha Corporation of America tel. (714) 522-9011;
e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.yamaha.com
The Award Winners in Review
All of our award winners have been reviewed in our pages or soon
will be. For products with reviews still in progress, we have completed
enough tests to feel confident about our conclusions; most of these
reviews will be published in the next two issues, though a few might be
published a bit later.
An article title enclosed in QUOTEs indicates that the product was
covered in a feature rather than in a review. All other entries
indicate reviews of the award-winning version except in the case of
All published articles are available for download from the EM
Web site at www.emusician.com.
Alesis ADAT HD24 July
Analogue Solutions Vostok In
Antares Kantos 1.0 In
Behringer DDX3216 October 2002
Blue Baby Bottle June
CDP Composers Desktop Project
Clavia Nord Rack 3, "Analog
C-Mexx MIR June
Cycling '74 Pluggo
Event Electronics EZbus
IK Multimedia AmpliTube In
Korg Triton Studio November
Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro
3.0 March 2002
Mackie Designs UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins
M-Audio Oxygen 8, "Surfin' USB" September 2002
Metasonix TM-2 In
Native Instruments Kontakt In
Plugsound Drums & Percs In
Propellerhead Software Reason 2.0 In
Roger Linn Design
Royer Labs R-122 January
Sibelius Software Sibelius 2 In
Sound Quest Infinity 2.05
Steinberg Cubase SX In
Summit Audio TD-100 Tube Direct Instrument
Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro 2.0 December
TC-Helicon VoicePrismPlus September
TC Works PowerCore 1.5 April
Valvotronics Tube Amplified Direct
Yamaha AW2816 In