It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, we're not talking about the French Revolution, we're referring to the seemingly endless hours we spent choosing Editors' Choice award winners. It was the best of times because it's always a blast getting the editorial team and key authors together for lengthy discussions about our favorite new music-production products. And it was the worst of times because we always have to struggle to make our final choices, and sometimes the debate gets pretty heated. But in the end, we are confident we achieved excellent results and are giving our “best of” awards to the best new products that were released in the past year. We gave 28 awards in 27 categories this year, and thankfully we had only one tie, which was predictably for digital audio sequencers.
We give our Editors' Choice Awards to the finest products and upgrades that we've tested in the past 12 months — neither less, nor more. We can't test every possible new product, we work hard to check out the most promising candidates, and we thoroughly field-test everything we get our hands on, so we feel confident in our choices.
Our award categories change each year to reflect what's hot and what's not in personal-studio products. For instance, two years ago we had two microphone categories, divided by price; last year, we gave one award for mics because it was a mediocre year for new mics; and this year we have one award for ribbon mics and one for condensers because of the stunning number of new and affordable ribbon mics. We didn't give an award for mixers last year, but our award-winner this year was impressive enough to revive the category. And whereas last year was a banner year for reverb software, justifying a dedicated category, this year we ended up combining all of the individual (as opposed to bundles) effects software into one category.
All of the winning products have been field-tested by EM's editors and a select group of top authors. We also solicited opinions from the editors of sister publications Mix and Remix. The final selections were made by EM technical editors Steve O, Rusty Cutchin, Mike Levine, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, Len Sasso, and Geary Yelton. All award-winning products have been covered in EM reviews or feature roundups, or the review is in progress and our tests are far enough along that we feel confident about our conclusions (see the sidebar “The Award Winners in Review” on p. 68).
To be eligible for an Editors' Choice award, products must have shipped between October 1, 2004, and October 1, 2005, when we began editing our January issue. We allow slack for products that shipped so close to the 2004 deadline that it was not possible for us to test them in time for last year's awards, but not if we believe a manufacturer could have supplied a review unit in time but intentionally delayed sending it. We give an award to a software upgrade only if we think it offers significant improvements over the previous version.
And now, without further ado, please join us in congratulating the winners of the 14th annual EM Editors' Choice awards!
Audio Editing Software
Soundtrack Pro 1.0 (Mac, $299)
Apple's Soundtrack Pro 1.0 is a huge improvement over the original Soundtrack application. Like its predecessor, Soundtrack Pro gives you a multitrack environment for assembling, editing, and mixing Apple Loops, as well as for recording audio. But that's where the similarity ends.
In Soundtrack Pro, Apple added a waveform editor with an amazing feature called the Actions List that sits on the left of the display and shows all of your edit and effects-processing actions. Using checkboxes, you can turn the individual actions on and off, reorder them at will, and hear — in real time — how each action affects your sound. Sound designers will love this program, because you can use the Actions List to nondestructively experiment until you get the result you want.
The program comes with almost all the effects plug-ins from Logic Pro 7, as well as an 8 GB Apple Loop collection that includes 1,000 sound effects. You also get markers, a dedicated video window, and much more. Although Soundtrack Pro was primarily designed to assemble soundtracks for Apple's Final Cut Pro video-editing software, it provides a new and exciting approach to audio editing.
En-Voice MK II ($799)
MindPrint made an impression with its Trio desktop unit in 2005, but it is the redesigned En-Voice that garnered enthusiasm among more traditional studio types. The En-Voice MK II is a step up from its predecessor in sound quality and functionality. With true tube saturation and a choice of digital interfaces, the MK II became a top contender in a field of mid-priced input devices that offers expanding features and shrinking footprints.
MindPrint packed all of the essential features into the En-Voice MK II's sleek, slim package, which features a well-designed control panel. The unit's sound is extremely quiet and pristine. Its EQ section offers ample overlap between frequency bands, and the compression circuit includes tube saturation and a low-cut filter. The optional DI-Mod USB interface ($249), which plugs into the rear panel, is an essential add-on, turning the unit into an excellent computer interface or, with a second En-Voice patched in, a high-quality stereo ADC.
Reviewer Rusty Cutchin appreciates the En-Voice MK II's high-end sound when used on instruments, especially bass, and in mic-pre applications. When you want extra warmth, dialing in a little of the unit's tube circuit mellows its ultraclean sound, and the DI-Mod expands the En-Voice MK II into an excellent digital converter. For most project-studio jobs, one or two EnVoice MK IIs will add a lot of pro-studio quality.
Digital Audio Sequencer
Live 5 (Mac/Win, $499)
Logic Pro 7 (Mac, $999)
We are reluctant to allow ties for Editors' Choice awards, but more often than not, ties seem inevitable when we choose the Digital Audio Sequencer winner. Each year, there are so many great programs that get major upgrades, and we choose just one. Last year, we had an unbreakable tie between Ableton Live 4 and Apple Logic Pro 6, two high-quality, well-featured programs that take such a different approach to sequencing that it was impossible to declare one superior to the other. This year, we found ourselves in the same situation with the latest versions of the same programs, so our 2006 award goes to Live 5 and Logic Pro 7.
Live 5 is a significant upgrade because of its major improvements in performance and ease of use. At the top of the list are library management and the file browser. The Library now resides in a single location, and the browser supports full alias and shortcut tracking. Those features, taken together, make clips, sets, and presets easy to find and organize.
The new Live Clip format and the introduction of Device Groups are other major user enhancements. Clips, along with their automation envelopes and instrument and effects plug-in settings, can be dragged directly to and from the browser, and the same applies to multiclip selections. Editing enhancements such as arrangement locators, quantized scrubbing, multiclip editing, track freezing, and clip deactivation round out the interface enhancements.
Two of Live's five new plug-ins stand out. Beat Repeat grabs chunks of an audio stream on the fly and repeats them with a variety of useful modifications. The often-requested MIDI arpeggiator has ten arpeggiator patterns, automatic transposition and scale correction, and Velocity decay. And as always, Live's tight integration of performance and tracking tools remains unparalleled.
There have been many new versions of Logic released over its long history, but the jump to version 7 is particularly impressive. The upgrade includes such key improvements as support for Apple Loops; the addition of Global Tracks for master editing of tempo, volume, and more; a shift to Apple's “pro application” look and feel; and the introduction of Distributed Audio Processing, which allows users to tap into the CPUs of multiple Macs to power a single Logic session.
But the most impressive part of the upgrade is the addition of a bevy of new plug-in instruments and effects to augment Logic's already stellar collection. Newcomers on the effects side include Guitar Amp Pro, a full-featured amp modeler; Pitch Correction, for fixing intonation; Vocal Transformer, which shifts vocals and formants for gender-bending and other pitch effects; Match EQ, which can match disparate-sounding audio; a linear phase EQ; and a variety of meters and analyzers.
Equally exciting are the synth additions: Sculpture, an exquisite-sounding physical-modeling instrument; Ultrabeat, a versatile drum machine; and EFM1, an FM synth module. The breadth and depth of Logic's included plug-ins are unprecedented in the DAW arena and more than justify the cost of the application.
Given the excellence of the Ableton Live 5 and Apple Logic Pro 7 upgrades, it's easy to understand how, try as we might, we had to give our highest accolades to both programs. And to be honest, we're downright pleased about it!
Digital Audio Workstation/Audio Interface
FireFace 800 ($1,799)
With the FireFace 800, RME has once again proven itself to be a leader in its field. (The RME Hammerfall DSP was an Editors Choice winner in 2003.) This 1U device offers a wealth of inputs and outputs and is tailor-made for the personal studio. The front-panel holds four mic and line inputs, as well as an instrument input with overdrive and speaker emulation. Around back are eight balanced ¼-inch line inputs and outputs and a variety of digital options: 16-channels of Lightpipe I/O, S/PDIF I/O, word-clock ports, a FireWire 400 port, two FireWire 800 ports, and MIDI I/O.
To manage all this connectivity, the Fireface 800 is bundled with TotalMix (Mac/Win), a virtual mixer and patch bay that can route the hardware inputs to any destination, as well as handle a variety of submixes. The system also offers zero-latency monitoring and supports 24-bit, 192 kHz audio.
In the final analysis, an interface is only as good as it sounds, and this is where the Fireface 800 truly delivers. Reviewer Nick Peck was impressed with the RME interface's resolution, noting that it stood up well against preamps and converters that cost many times as much. The excellent sound quality of the Fireface 800, combined with its routing flexibility, squarely places this DAW audio interface in the winner's circle.
Download of the Year
MusiGenesis 2.5 (Win, $19.95)
The winner of the Download of the Year category is chosen from the software featured in our Download of the Month column. This year's column emphasized tools that are a bit quirky and fun to use. Gunter Hager X-Wheel of Fortune music generator, Plasq Musolomo loop mangler, Sonic Charge µTonic drum machine, and Tobybear MonsterBag off-the-wall effects bundle were all high on the list, but MusiGenesis wound up with top billing for originality, amusement, and price.
MusiGenesis is an interactive, algorithmic pattern generator and editor. At the click of a button, the program adds notes to the generated pattern, which you then have the option to accept, reject, or modify. After you've assembled patterns for a variety of instruments, you switch to Mix mode and follow a similar process to create mixes of your patterns. You can create as many patterns and mixes as you like, and when you're done, you can export them as audio or MIDI files for further work in your DAW. MusiGenesis may not write your next hit, but it will give you some great ideas and a few laughs.
Drum Machine/Module (software)
Stylus RMX 1.2.1 (Mac/Win, $299)
Is it a drum machine? A virtual groove box? A software synth workstation? Although Spectrasonics calls Stylus RMX a real-time groove module, its focus is clearly on creating drum and percussion tracks, and for that, it absolutely shines. Stylus RMX is a multiformat plug-in that gives you the tools to organize, edit, and rearrange loops while they're playing. Five screens let you browse, shape, and mix grooves as you control an assortment of effects and use the exclusive Chaos Designer to randomize and improvise new parts. The program is 8-part multitimbral, too; loops can play in tandem or at different tempos on different MIDI channels. Polyrhythms, anyone?
Stylus RMX comes with hundreds of drum kits and thousands of loops that encompass rock, jazz, electronica, Latin, pop, and quite a few musical styles that are tough to pin a label on, arranged as complete drum parts or as individual instruments. You can supplement its 7.5 GB core library with Spectrasonics SAGE Xpanders, converted Groove Control CD-ROMs, third-party RMX-format content, and (thanks to the included SAGE Converter) any audio loops in REX format. The documentation is excellent, featuring tons of help files and almost eight hours of video tutorials. For whipping up rhythm tracks that can inspire your creativity and sound great, Stylus RMX will get you want to go with speed and style.
Effects Processor (hardware)
Pod XT Live ($559)
We are excited about the Pod XT Live not only because of its excellent modeling capabilities and its sleek, practical design, but also for the way it works in tandem with the company's Variax guitars to create an integrated guitar-tone system.
With a Variax connected through its Cat-5 port, the Pod XT Live recognizes the guitar's active model and tone-knob settings, which you can save as part of a patch, along with the amp, cabinet, and effects-model data. Later, when you recall the patch on the Pod XT Live, it sends the information back to your Variax, which automatically switches the guitar to the model and tone-knob setting that you saved. It's very slick. You can also use the Pod XT Live to interface with a Mac or PC running Line 6's Variax Workbench software, which lets you construct your own guitar models and custom tunings for your Variax.
Even if you don't own a Variax, the Pod XT Live is the most self-contained Pod to date. It is the first in the Pod series to have built-in footswitches and an expression pedal. Add to that its stellar sounds and its ability to act as a USB audio interface, and you've clearly got a winning product.
In an international microphone horse race, it was the Australians by a nose over the Latvians, as the Røde NT2-A won this year's award over the Red Microphones Type B. The NT2-A is a solid-state condenser mic that features omni, cardioid, and figure-8 patterns; a 3-way pad switch; and a 3-position highpass filter. It's based on Røde's HF1, a one-inch, edge-terminated capsule with a gold-sputtered dual diaphragm.
Reviewer Rob Shrock noted the NT2-A's excellent sound, which he described as “a quieter version of a Neumann U 67.” It's especially good for recording background vocals. The NT2-A's slight boost between 8 kHz and 12 kHz in Omni mode added air and openness to the sound, without being harsh, strident, or unnatural. If you're looking for a reasonably priced, high-quality mic, the NT2-A is an outstanding choice.
AUDIO ENGINEERING ASSOCIATES
The world of ribbon microphones took off like a rocket in 2005, including several new mics that cost less than $1,000. Despite the crowded field, the clear winner in terms of sound quality was the AEA R92. Designed by Wes Dooley, one of the world's foremost ribbon-mic experts, the R92 combines the superb transient response of a vintage velocity mic with a reduced proximity effect and a contemporary sound.
In his recent ribbon-mic roundup (“Ribbon Revival,” in the November 2005 issue of EM), author Myles Boisen noted that the R92 has a brighter high end than his favorite premium ribbon mics, such as the AEA R84. Although the upper-frequency response of the R92 approximates the typical presence boost of a condenser mic, the result is a sweet, yet aggressive tone with plenty of definition.
Boisen deemed the R92 a good choice for instruments that have always been problematic for ribbon mics, such as percussion, modern pop vocals, and acoustic guitar. And on clean electric guitar, he noted that the mic's broad midrange boost helped capture plenty of “snarl and sparkle.” As a result, the R92 is an all-around ribbon mic that sounds like it costs much more. That's a winning combination in our book.
MIDI Instrument Controller
As virtual instruments replace keyboard synths for many musicians, the demand for USB MIDI keyboards has increased dramatically, and we now have many good models from which to choose. But we often want more than just a keyboard; we want lots of knobs, sliders, pitch bend and mod wheels, and other means to control soft synths and other software. Add an onboard MIDI interface and a 24-bit, 96 kHz audio interface, and you have a key component for a small personal studio. Combine it with a laptop or notebook computer and software, and you have a nifty portable recording rig.
M-Audio's Ozonic's feature set puts it squarely at the top of this fast-growing heap. It contains a 4 × 4 audio interface with a phantom-powered mic input, a high-impedance instrument input, and two unbalanced line inputs, as well as two balanced and two unbalanced line outputs with independent volume controls. The Ozonic supports Digidesign's Pro Tools M-Powered and is one of the few keyboard/audio interfaces that draws its power from the FireWire bus. With an assignable joystick, 37 keys that generate Velocity and Aftertouch data, footswitch and pedal inputs, 9 assignable sliders, 8 assignable knobs, 14 assignable buttons and 20 locations for storing presets, the Ozonic packs a lot of portable power into a controller that weighs less than seven pounds.
M-Audio won our 2003 award for its Oxygen 8 MIDI keyboard controller, and we suspected the Ozonic would be a contender the first time we saw it. As it turns out, the Ozonic is more than a contender; it's a hands-down winner.
MIDI/DAW Control Surface
FRONTIER DESIGN GROUP
Want to get away? Now you can — with a wireless remote control surface. Frontier Design Group's TranzPort lets you operate your DAW remotely from a maximum of 33 feet. It works with an ever-expanding number of DAWs and is equally suited for desktop use or for attaching to a mic stand.
With the TranzPort and a set of headphones (perhaps wireless as well), you can put a guitar amp or a singer in the bathroom and check the ambience on the spot, or check the mics on a drum set or other instrument without walking back and forth between your computer and the sound area. Or maybe you want to move your mixing station and monitor speakers away from a noisy computer; TranzPort makes it a breeze. You'll undoubtedly find plenty of custom applications for this wireless wonder.
The TranzPort's bright 2 × 20-character LCD screen gives you ample feedback on various parameters of your tracks, and you can easily step or scroll through your tracks in turn. You can use its data wheel and 18 dual-function buttons to perform many common operations remotely, including start, stop, rewind, fast-forward, and more. Visual indicators report on the record, mute, and solo status of each track. And it's all presented in an attractive, handheld device.
We love products that provide a distinctive and elegant solution to a common problem, and TranzPort certainly fits that description. That's why it was one of our favorite new studio tools in 2005.
Onyx 1620 with Onyx FireWire card ($1,519.98)
Mackie's low-cost, high-quality, small-format analog mixers played a big role in the project-studio revolution, but the move to all-inclusive digital audio applications made analog mixing seem almost quaint to some studio owners. Mackie's new Onyx series mixers reawakened many to the joys of affordable, quality, analog sound. And with the optional FireWire card, the Onyx 1620 becomes a flexible digital interface as well. This is a great way to bring the benefits of analog circuitry to a modern personal studio.
Musicians with lots of keyboards and guitars and engineers who record live bands found, in the Onyx mixers, a rock-solid way to connect several inputs while sending as many as 18 channels of 24-bit converted audio to a recorder. The Onyx series also added a talkback circuit, new preamps, new EQs by designer Cal Perkins (co-designer of Mackie's well-regarded XDR preamps), a monitor section that handles the stereo return from the computer and FireWire card, and the ability to connect another Onyx for 32 channels of digital audio from one FireWire card.
By itself, the Onyx is an excellent upgrade of Mackie's groundbreaking designs. With the FireWire card, it's a great front end for simultaneous recording of several inputs and a great back end for monitoring a mix created in a connected DAW. With the card, the Onyx provides the flexibility and sound of a pro mixing board with an easy, reliable, and speedy digital interface that takes a lot of the guesswork out of making analog input work with digital output.
In a year of limited but interesting monitor introductions, a last-minute entry took first prize. Dynaudio Acoustics' BM5A won our accolades over several competitors because of its clean power-handling, transparent highs, and above-average bass response.
The BM5A is a two-way, biamplified, close-field monitor with a 6.9-inch woofer and a 1.1-inch soft dome tweeter, each of which is driven by a 50W amp. Both amplifiers have thermal-overload protection, and the woofer amp also has a built-in limiter. Three equalization switches can be set flat or can provide bass shelving, midrange cut, and treble filtering. The highpass filter can be set to 60 or 80 Hz cutoff points when pairing the BM5A with a subwoofer. A rear two-inch-diameter port aids the monitor's ample bass response.
The BM5A's handling of bass frequencies impressed reviewer Myles Boisen, although if you aren't accustomed to that sort of bass response, you'll need some time to adjust to it. That said, the combination of ample but controlled bass and accurate response from compact drivers is clearly an award-winning accomplishment.
Most Innovative Product
Synful Orchestra 2.2 (Mac/Win, $479)
If you're interested in working with orchestral sounds on a computer, you probably think that a high-quality sample library is the way to go. That is a viable option and the one most people have chosen in recent years, but depending on how you want to work, Synful Orchestra might be a better choice. Although already in version 2.2 as of this writing, the program was introduced in 2005.
The program doesn't use samples; rather, it re-creates the sound of orchestral instruments through analysis and additive resynthesis, a versatile technique that works by combining varying amounts of many dozens of sine waves. But synthesizing convincing orchestral timbres is not Synful's only trick.
Realistic acoustic simulations depend on the transitions between notes as much as they do on the individual timbres, and this is where Synful Orchestra shines. The software uses a databased library of common musical phrases and a set of advanced algorithms to model the proper transitions between notes in each phrase. When you play a MIDI part or open a MIDI file in Synful Orchestra, the software analyzes the part and calculates which phrases and transitions will most accurately produce the desired passage. It then uses its synthesis engine to create the musical passage, complete with realistic transitions.
Because the parts have to be rendered, which takes several milliseconds, the process is less successful when used in real time. But give Synful Orchestra a few seconds to calculate the best approach for any given phrase, and you'll get good results. In addition, because it doesn't use samples, Synful's approach will keep your storage needs to a minimum. That's another reason why we chose it as the winner of this year's Most Innovative Product award.
Music Production Workstation
OASYS (76-key, $7,999; 88-key, $8,499)
Almost two decades after introducing its first keyboard-synthesizer workstation, Korg has given us the most advanced keyboard workstation yet, the OASYS. It begins by integrating all the technologies featured in previous Korg synths — PCM sample playback, subtractive synthesis, physical modeling, multitrack sequencing, KARMA, and more — and takes those technologies to a new level. In addition to an expandable 1,130 MB of wave data devoted to sample playback, OASYS comes with versatile virtual analog, modeled string, and improved CX-3 drawbar-organ emulations.
The concept behind the OASYS (Open Architecture Synthesis Studio), however, is that it's a platform for continuing growth. Korg plans to offer software that brings even greater capabilities to the OASYS, especially in the area of DSP synthesis. And with an assignable ribbon, joysticks, pedals, and a complete onboard control surface, real-time performance control is unprecedented.
With a gorgeous 10.4-inch color touch screen, a built-in 40 GB hard drive, and a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 running a proprietary OS based on Linux, the OASYS treads ground that's traditionally delegated to computer-based setups. Indeed, working with the OASYS has a lot in common with producing music using its PC cousins. Sixteen tracks of 16-bit, 48 kHz hard-disk recording offer as many dynamics and effects processors as any well-equipped arsenal of plug-ins. Four USB 2.0 ports let you connect external an assortment of drives. The OASYS also comes with two phantom-powered mic preamps, four line inputs, ten line outputs, and stereo S/PDIF I/O. You've heard it before, but this time it's true: you can compose, record, mix, master, and burn a finished CD, all within a single machine.
Much has been made about the OASYS's price, which definitely puts it beyond the means of the average struggling musician. But for recording studios, session aces, rock stars, and well-heeled hobbyists, the OASYS represents the pinnacle of achievement in synth-hardware design.
Notion 1.0.6 (Win, $599.99)
This was a good year for notation software, with the release of MakeMusic Finale 2006, Sibelius 4, GenieSoft Overture4, and Adept Music Notation Solutions Nightingale X 5.1. Despite this daunting competition, our winner is VirtuosoWorks Notion, an entirely new program that combines a professional set of notation features with a built-in orchestral sample library featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. Intuitive keyboard shortcuts make music entry quick and easy, or you can use the Sidebar to click on a note duration and place it onto the score by hand. VirtuosoWorks leader Jack Jarrett is first and foremost a composer, and the program reflects his vast musical experience.
Many of Notion's articulation marks don't just modify the MIDI playback characteristics of your music, they actually employ different sampled instruments to give you the most accurate rendition possible. With over 1,000-note polyphony and dynamic resolution many times greater than MIDI's 128 Velocity levels, you'll be able to create music with uncanny realism.
If you've ever had dreams of conducting your own symphony orchestra, you'll appreciate Notion's NTempo feature, which lets you control playback of your scores by tapping on your computer keyboard. This is a great way to check your parts and preview your music at any speed. Part extraction and printing are also part of this extensive package, and new instrument sample packs are being released on a regular basis.
Notion is not just another notation package. It might not be ready to take on Finale and Sibelius when it comes to high-end music engraving and in-depth features for music educators, but it takes a fresh, innovative, and intuit ive approach to the challenges of composing a score.
Onyx 800R ($1,279)
Mackie has long prided itself on the quality of its preamps. With the introduction of the Onyx 800R, the company offers quality and quantity in a single unit. The 8-channel Onyx 800R gives you eight mic preamps, two DI inputs, and eight channels of balanced analog I/O (on DB25 connectors). You also get eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe output, a word-clock input, and support for high-resolution sampling rates as high as 192 kHz. (If you select the 179.4 kHz or 192 kHz rates, the channel count on the ADAT output drops to four.)
Most important, the 800R preamps provide excellent sound quality. Our reviewer referred to its sound as “full bodied, transparent, and noise free, even at the highest levels of gain.” That's extremely impressive for a unit that averages out to a little under $160 per channel.
Sample Player (software)
Symphonic Choirs (Mac/Win, $895)
EastWest and Quantum Leap have been working hard to create a complete set of scoring tools for the desktop composer. This year's Editors Choice winner, Symphonic Choirs, follows in the footsteps of the massive Symphonic Orchestra collection by offering superb sound quality and three phase-aligned stereo mic perspectives for each patch: close, stage, and hall. Having different miking choices lets you add just the right amount of ambience to your track by combining patches, and you can create a surround mix with close mics for the center channel, stage mics for the left and right channels, and ambient mics for the rear speakers.
Symphonic Choirs includes the four classic voice parts — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass — with several articulations, as well as a separate set of boys-choir samples. Like its predecessor, Symphonic Choirs uses Native Instruments Kompakt as its front-end, so it can be used standalone or as a VST 2, DXi 2, Audio Units, or RTAS plug-in.
The feature that puts Symphonic Choirs in a class all its own is the powerful WordBuilder application, which lets you put words and syllables into the mouths of your virtual vocalists. Using a text editor to access a 100,000-word pronunciation dictionary, WordBuilder lets you edit phonetic components in a variety of ways to make each word sound exactly as you want it.
Reviewer David Rubin praised the flexibility, sound quality, and expressiveness of the Symphonic Choirs collection, noting its presence and the smooth transitions between Velocity layers. When you add in the innovative editing capabilities of WordBuilder, Symphonic Choirs is a no-brainer for an Editors Choice award.
GigaStudio 3 (Win, $599)
Tascam's GigaStudio (formerly GigaSampler) revolutionized the world of sampling, but after a series of upgrades leading to version 2.54, users had a long wait before a new version appeared. GigaStudio 3.1 includes enhancements across most areas of the program, from installation to output. Among our favorites are its greatly expanded polyphony, the ease with which you can now create patches from raw samples, and the much-improved MIDI implementation, which includes a huge expansion in the number of Dimensions you can have. Furthermore, the updated DSP mixer now supports up to 128 channels, and for the first time, you can use GigaStudio as a ReWire client.
Perhaps the biggest news in GigaStudio 3.1, though, is GigaPulse Pro, a powerful convolution reverb and surround-mixing tool. GigaPulse Pro allows you to “position” your instruments at numerous mic locations on a virtual stage. It also offers a powerful mic-modeling tool, and it lets you freely mix the resonant qualities of one instrument with another. Although we gave a long and hard look to Native Instruments Kontakt 2 — another major upgrade of an already powerful program — we felt that GigaStudio 3.1 was unbeatable in 2005.
Signal Processing Software (bundle)
Filterscape 1.1 (Mac/Win, $129)
The editors' debate over signal-processing bundles eventually came down to two first-rate packages by small software developers: PSPaudioware.com's excellent EffectsPack and U-he.com's Filterscape. Ultimately the nod went to Filterscape for originality and outstanding value.
The Filterscape bundle contains three plug-ins, each centered around a cleverly designed, morphing multiband equalizer. Morphing produces a smooth transition through as many as eight EQ settings. The primary plug-in, Filterscape, combines two state-variable multiband filters with a 4-band version of the morphing EQ. Filterscape VA is a 2-oscillator subtractive synth containing the same EQ, and Filterscape Q6 is a 6-band version of the morphing EQ.
These plug-ins are all about motion. EQ morphing, as well as state-morphing for the state-variable filters, can be driven by built-in LFOs, envelope generators, envelope followers, and step sequencers, as well as by MIDI and DAW automation. You may get seasick, but you won't get bored. Beyond being unusual, these plug-ins sound great, and the price is right.
Signal-Processing Software (individual)
Altiverb 5 (Mac: native, $595; TDM, $895)
In 2001, Audio Ease turned the recording world on its ear when it launched the first commercial convolution reverb, Altiverb 1.0, which won a 2002 Editors' Choice award. Since then, Audio Ease has steadily improved its flagship plug-in, making it more CPU efficient, creating versions for every popular plug-in format for Mac OS X, and producing dozens of new impulse responses (IRs) at no additional charge.
With Altiverb 5, Audio Ease has delivered more new and useful features than with any previous upgrade. Version 5 sports an all-new graphical user interface with plenty of real-time controls, colorful interactive displays, and loads of interactive parameters at your fingertips. Now you can change the location of your sound source in 3-D space using the new Stage Positions parameter, change the size of that space, run the reverb in reverse, and view a 3-D waterfall diagram of the reverb spectra plotted over time as you change parameters. You also can read details and play VR movies of sampled spaces, and you can choose an IR from a popup menu and test it by triggering onboard sounds with your Mac keyboard.
Altiverb 5 lets you separately adjust input and output gain for front, rear, center bleed, and subwoofer channels. Other features include the ability to separately adjust the gains and delays for the direct signal, early reflections, and the reverb tail; control three bands of damping and four bands of reverb EQ; and save your own presets and switch between them with automation. You can even create your own IRs using the included Altiverb IR Preprocessor application. In a year that has seen an explosion in convolution reverbs, our hat's off to Audio Ease for staying ahead of the pack.
Sound Design Software
MetaSynth (Mac, $499)
In the world of sound-design software, MetaSynth is in a class by itself, and granting the long-awaited OS X version this year's Editors' Choice award was almost mandatory. MetaSynth's way of doing things takes a little while to get used to and a long time to master (if that's even possible), but the journey is enlightening and fun.
MetaSynth's palette of sound-design tools has been greatly expanded, with new effects, more flexible image filtering, image layering, spectrum and note sequencers, and a 16-track audio sequencer to put everything together. Workflow enhancements such as real-time previewing and Preview to Disk recording make sound design in MetaSynth a much easier and more immediate experience.
Although still centered around a graphic approach to additive synthesis, version 4.0 stretches and twists that paradigm to the limit. When you're in a rut and everything is starting to sound the same, MetaSynth is an excellent place to turn.
Discrete Percussion: The Eric Darken Collection ($129)
In a category crowded with worthy entrants, Discrete Percussion: The Eric Darken Collection stood out from the others. Although all of the contenders offered excellent sound quality and stellar performances, this product reached another level due to the sheer creativity of percussionist Darken and the producers at Discrete Drums. Their efforts resulted in a one-of-a-kind percussion library.
The collection features 40 multitrack loops in which Darken plays a combination of such standard percussion instruments as shakers and congas, along with improvised “instruments” such as briefcase latches, toilet seats, watering cans, zippers, and more. Each loop also features an intentionally cheesy drum-machine pattern that somehow glues the whole thing together.
The loops, which draw on Latin, African, and Native American influences, work for straightforward pop songs and more experimental music. In addition to stereo mixes (offered with or without the drum-machine part), you also get multitrack splits of all the elements for greater mixing and arranging flexibility. The result is a collection that's a pleasure to use and hard to beat.
Sound Programming Environment
Reaktor 5 (Mac/Win, $579)
We've long been fans of Native Instruments' powerful synthesis and sampling software, but Reaktor 5 took our breath away. A streamlined user interface makes building complex Ensembles easier, and an expanded set of graphical elements (knobs, sliders, and the like) let you create more colorful, unique soft instruments. You can use the new Bookmark feature to jump quickly between any two Structures you're working on, and locating Instruments or Macros for use in your designs is much easier with the enhanced Browser.
Native Instruments has opened up Reaktor's DSP engine by providing new Core modules, which are written in low-level code you can use to build your own custom oscillators, filters, and so on. Though some programming experience is helpful, that new feature makes Reaktor one of the most powerful software-based toolsets around. The number of user-contributed patches at the Native Instruments Web site has now exceeded 2,000, so whether you like to tweak or just play the presets, Reaktor 5 offers something for everyone.
DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS
Poly Evolver Keyboard ($2,699)
The original Evolver, Dave Smith's tabletop synth module, won an Editors Choice award in 2004. Next came the Poly Evolver, a powerful 4-voice version in a 1U box. Although both instruments offer superb sound quality and a deep feature set, the main drawback was the user interface: hands-on, real-time control was limited. Smith has changed all that with the Poly Evolver Keyboard, a polyphonic performance synth that is destined to become a classic.
The main features of the rack and keyboard versions of the Poly Evolver are the same: 8 analog oscillators, 8 digital oscillators, 16 filters, and 4 independent 4-track sequencers. But the Poly Evolver Keyboard comes alive when you use its 78 knobs and 58 switches to access its powerful feature set. Creating feedback paths, modifying sequences, and shaping modulators can now be easily done on the fly. The front-panel design shows the instrument's signal path clearly, allowing you to grok the synth's full potential immediately.
The 5-octave keyboard gives you plenty of room to stretch out, and the octave-transposition buttons — conveniently located above the illuminated pitch and mod wheels — give you an extra two octaves in either direction. In case your feet want to join in the fun, there are three pedal inputs. A dedicated MIDI output lets you connect additional Poly Evolver Racks to get more voices.
In this era of soft synths and generic controllers, it's a treat to play a hardware instrument that sounds huge and has the features we took for granted in the glory days of the hardware synthesizer. Dave Smith has stepped up to the plate and hit a grand slam with the Poly Evolver Keyboard.
APPLIED ACOUSTICS SYSTEMS
String Studio VS-1 1.0 (Mac/Win, $249)
Virtual-instrument developer Applied Acoustics Systems has made tremendous contributions to the field of physical-modeling software, beginning with Tassman, its flagship modular synth. In 2005, the Canadian company introduced String Studio VS-1, a multiformat plug-in and standalone synth that simulates practically any instrument with strings: violins, guitars, basses, pianos, clavs, harps, sitars, shamisens, and even a few that don't exist in the real world. Among hundreds of included presets are unique pads, unusual sound effects, and amazing digital-synth arpeggios that other software can't touch. The sound is so organic that you might never know you were listening to a software instrument.
Want to pluck piano strings mounted on a violin body with pickups and then process the sound through chorus and distortion? Now you can do that. String Studio VS-1 reproduces all the acoustical nuances of vibrating strings, soundboards, pickups, frets, and all the other details that make up stringed instruments, giving you control over parameters such as intonation, vibrato, body type, damper type, and whether motion is initiated by a bow, pick, or hammer. You also get effects such as chorus and delay, an arpeggiator with programmable patterns, and an audio recorder to capture your performances. Put all the elements together, and String Studio VS-1 delivers a timbral palette and advanced capabilities you won't find anywhere else.
Synth Workstation (software)
Reason 3.0 (Mac/Win, $499)
Reason 3.0 is a huge upgrade. With the addition of the Combinator, combinations of rack modules can be saved for use in other songs. The MClass suite of mastering effects is truly pro quality. MIDI remote control is greatly improved, with support for a variety of popular control surfaces. Best of all, the new interactive browser allows you to rearrange library elements and audition patches on the fly.
Reason has always come with a generous library of sounds and plenty of instrument and effects patches. In version 3, the library has been expanded and reorganized to fit the new browser. The sequencer has also been improved with the addition of track mute and solo buttons, simultaneous automation recording on multiple tracks, and automation copy and paste. Reason excels as a standalone workstation and a ReWire-integrated instrument rack for use with other DAWs. With all these improvements to an already outstanding program, Reason 3.0 was the clear choice for this year's award.
THE WINNING MANUFACTURERS
Audio Engineering Associates (AEA)
Applied Acoustics Systems
Dave Smith Instruments
Dynaudio North America
EastWest Quantum Leap
Frontier Design Group
RME Intelligent Audio Solutions
THE AWARD WINNERS IN REVIEW
Almost 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, if not all, of these reviews will be published in the next two issues.
An article title enclosed in quotes indicates that the product was covered in a feature or a “What's New” column rather than in a review. All other entries indicate reviews of the award-winning version.
All published articles are available for download from the EM article archives at www.emusician.com.
|Ableton Live 5
|AEA R92 “Ribbon Revival”
|Apple Logic Pro 7
|Apple Soundtrack Pro 1.0
|Applied Acoustics Systems String Studio VS-1 1.0
|Audio Ease Altiverb 5
|Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver Keyboard
|Discrete Drums Discrete Percussion: The Eric Darken Collection
|EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs
|Frontier Design TranzPort
|Line 6 PodXT Live
|Mackie Onyx 1620 w/FireWire I/O card
|Mackie Onyx 800R 8-channel
|MindPrint En-Voice MK II
|MusiGenesis MusiGenesis 2.5 “What's New: Download of the Month”
|Native Instruments Reaktor 5
|Propellerhead Software Reason 3.0
|RME FireFace 800
|Spectrasonics Stylus RMX 1.2.1
|Synful Synful Orchestra 2.2
|Tascam GigaStudio 3
|U&I MetaS ynth 4
|U-he.com Filterscape 1.1
|VirtuosoWorks Notion 1.0.6