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EM Editors Choice 2009

January 1, 2009

Got gear? We do — a ton of it! For the past year, EM's editors and authors have worked hard to test and evaluate a large assortment of the new hardware and software we believe to be most important to EM readers. Along the way, we found lots of good stuff and a few disappointing items. We also discovered a relatively small group of amazing products that deserve special recognition, and to these superb devices and applications, we are delighted to present our prized EM Editors' Choice Awards.

To be eligible for an Editors' Choice Award, products must have shipped between September 15, 2007, and October 15, 2008, when we began editing our January issue. We also considered several products that shipped so close to the 2008 Editors' Choice Awards deadline that it was not possible for us to test them in time for that year's awards. If a product shipped too close to this year's deadline for us to properly evaluate it, we'll make it eligible for next year's awards. We give awards to software upgrades only if they were major improvements over the previous version.

All of the winning products have been field-tested by EM's editors and a select group of authors. We also solicited opinions from the editors of our sister publications Mix and Remix. The final selections were made by EM editors Gino Robair, Mike Levine, Len Sasso, and Geary Yelton, and former EM editor in chief Steve Oppenheimer edited the resulting article. All award-winning products have been covered in EM reviews, or the review is in progress and our tests are far enough along that we feel confident about our conclusions (see the online bonus material “The Award Winners in Review” and “The Winning Manufacturers” at emusician.com). Please join us as we applaud the winners of the 17th annual EM Editors' Choice Awards!

Audio-Editing Software

Adobe Audition 3.0 (Win, $349)

Adobe Audition gets more powerful and full featured with each upgrade, and version 3's new features make it a no-brainer for this year's award. Perhaps the biggest surprise is MIDI sequencing and support for VST instrument plug-ins, which takes Audition one step further into the world of digital audio workstations. Just click on a MIDI track to reveal a Sequencer window where you can enter, edit, and route MIDI by channel to up to 16 virtual instruments. Surround support with the new surround encoder is another major addition.

Audition's complement of signal processors has been expanded, adding a convolution reverb, a mastering tool, tube-modeled compression, analog-modeled delay, and guitar effects. IZotope's Radius is included, enabling time-stretching, and the new Top/Tail views make loop editing a snap. The software's already excellent spectral-editing capabilities have been further improved. You also get new noise-reduction and phase-correction tools. For audio editing and basic MIDI sequencing, Audition is an excellent choice for Windows users.

Audio Interface

Apogee Duet (Mac, $495)

Only a few years ago, Apogee released the Mini-Me, which combined the company's sought-after A/D converters with a pair of high-quality mic preamps. However, its $1,500 price point may have kept it out of many personal studios. That certainly won't be the case with the Duet, which puts a pair of Apogee's mic preamps and converters into a FireWire bus-powered audio interface for under $500.

A Mac-only product, the Duet's clean look fits the Apple design aesthetic, with one rotary encoder that covers everything thanks to the included Maestro configuration software. The product does more than look great next to a Mac: Maestro is built into the current versions of Logic Pro, Soundtrack Pro, and GarageBand for easy access. (Apps that support Core Audio are also compatible.) With two XLR mic/line inputs, a pair of unbalanced instrument-level inputs, and two unbalanced ¼-inch outputs, the Duet is a cost-effective way to get the excellent Apogee sound, especially for musicians on the go. That's certainly something worth celebrating.

Auxiliary Software

Cycling '74 Max 5 (Mac/Win, $250 [MSRP])

The Auxiliary Software category includes a diverse range of apps, so it's fitting that the latest update of Max was the winner. Max gives you the tools to do just about anything you can think of with digital signals. With the latest version, Cycling '74 didn't add a ton of new features, but it refined the user interface and documentation. As a result, this powerful programming environment is less intimidating to newbies, while work flow is improved and the inner workings are more transparent to experienced users.

For example, the new Patcher palette gives you a one-stop shop for adding UI Objects to a project. Ticks and traditional musical-note values have been added as timing increments. And the new Presentation mode lets you easily design an interface to hide the internal workings of your patch. Overall, the upgrade is a winner because it makes Max not only more convenient for power users, but also so easy to use that mainstream musicians should finally be convinced to look deeper into an application that they have considered (incorrectly) to be only for artists on the fringe. “Well, if it's good enough for Radiohead …”

Control Surface

Euphonix MC Control ($1,499)

Known for high-end digital consoles and control surfaces, Euphonix made the intriguing decision to release two controllers priced for the personal studio. One, the MC Control, easily took this year's Control Surface category, offering four 100 mm touch-sensitive motorized faders; a color touch screen surrounded by eight Velocity-sensitive knobs and a dozen soft-key buttons; eight navigation buttons; and transport controls, including a Jog/Shuttle wheel. Despite this wealth of controls, the MC Control fits neatly on a desktop, even when mated with the Euphonix MC Mix fader-and-knob bank.

The MC Control uses Ethernet and the Euphonix EuCon protocol to communicate with a Mac, resulting in higher resolution and greater throughput than MIDI- or USB-based controllers. It offers HUI emulation and supports the Mackie Control protocol for non-EuCon-aware applications. Whether it's used to control tracks on a DAW, tweak virtual instruments, or edit video, the MC Control's elegant user interface is powerful and flexible, outshining all contenders this year.

Digital Audio Sequencer

Ableton Live 7 (Mac/Win, $499)

It's been three years since Live won an Editors' Choice Award, and the folks at Ableton have not been sitting idly by. While retaining its signature live-performance-and-tracking duality, Live 7 brings major improvements. Tracking takes a big step forward with multiple time signatures, video export, and automation lanes for simultaneously editing several automation envelopes. On the performance side, the new External Instrument and External Effects plug-ins let you integrate hardware and ReWire devices, with all MIDI and audio routing managed from a single track. Drum Racks let you quickly create complex, 128-pad drum machines with their own foldout mixer and effects buses. And Live now directly supports REX files by automatically building you a Drum Rack and matching MIDI trigger sequence from their slices.

Under-the-hood improvements include a 64-bit audio engine, POW-r dithering, and sidechaining for the Gate, Auto Filter, and new Compressor plug-ins. Premium content includes the Session Drums multisampled drum library, a beefed-up Essential Instruments Collection, and physical-modeled electric piano, analog synth, and string instruments by Applied Acoustics Systems. With its extensive library of instruments, effects, and audio clips, Live is a standout solution for stage and studio.

Download of the Year

u-he MFM2 (Mac/Win, $79)

The winner of the Download of the Year award is chosen from the software featured in our “Download of the Month” column. This year we had a tough time choosing a winner, given such notable runners-up as AlgoMusic's (algomusic.net) Atomic, a creative step-sequencer plug-in with built-in synth, and Glitch, a clever sequenced-effects processor from Illformed (illformed.org). But when the dust settled, we chose MFM2 (More Feedback Machine 2) from Urs Heckmann.

MFM2 provides four stereo delay lines and a four-by-four feedback matrix that lets you route any output to any input. Each delay line has its own multimode filter, and each pair of delays also has a multi-effects processor. You can place the filter at various points in the signal path, whereas the effects always come at the end. A 4-band modulation matrix lets you route MFM2's four LFOs, two multisegment envelope generators, and MIDI continuous controller messages to most MFM2 parameters. Delay times as short as 1 ms make this plug-in ideal for resonator effects. Tempo sync with longer delay times lets you create long multitap sequences. Hundreds of presets get you started, but tweaking is the fun part.

DSP Host

Universal Audio UAD-2 (Mac/Win, from $499)

Universal Audio has raised the ante for DSP host hardware with the UAD-2. The PCIe-2-compatible card features the Analog Devices SHARC 21369 chip and comes in single-, dual-, and quad-processor models, respectively offering 2.5, 5, and 10 times the speed of the original UAD-1 card. UAD-1 sessions can be used with the UAD-2, and you can mix the cards in your system, using up to four of each with a single software license. Current plug-in partners Neve, Roland, SPL, Valley People, and Empirical Labs are actively porting their plug-ins to the new card, with attractive cross-grade pricing, and new partners, including Harrison, Moog, and Little Labs, will be joining forces with UA in the future.

The UAD-2 supports AU and VST software hosts, and RTAS support is in the works. It is Mac OS X Tiger/Leopard and Windows XP/Vista compatible and features a new plug-in GUI with improved preset browsing and card organization. Latency and DSP load are optimized and more easily managed. New features, greater speed, and the convenience of backward compatibility make the UAD-2 an obvious Editors' Choice.

Effects Processor (Hardware)

Eventide ModFactor ($399)

Classic stompboxes like the Cry Baby, Fuzz Face, Bi-Phase, and Uni-Vibe are practically guaranteed to inspire creativity. Now you can add the Eventide ModFactor to your list of must-have effects devices. Borrowing presets from Eventide's rackmount studio processors, the ModFactor combines ten modulation effects ranging from chorus, flanger, and phaser to vibrato, ring mod, and rotary-speaker simulation. This rugged black box accommodates anything from guitar and bass to line-level sources like keyboards and mixers through its ¼-inch stereo inputs and outputs.

With three footswitches and ten knobs, the ModFactor is not your average stompbox. A single auxiliary input handles the three footswitches, and you can plug in an expression pedal for classic wah effects and hands-off parameter control. MIDI and USB 2.0 ports let you use any MIDI source to switch presets, change parameter values, adjust the tempo, enable bypass, and more. The ModFactor has two independent LFOs, and it syncs to MIDI Clock. The USB connection lets you update firmware and back up settings to your computer. The ModFactor is a versatile studio processor that offers clean sound and a wealth of modulation effects. Try it out, and we bet you'll be hooked.

Field Recorder

Sony PCM-D50 ($499)

Two years ago, we gave an Editors' Choice Award to Sony's PCM-D1, a digital stereo recorder remarkable for its portability and outstanding quality. Late that year, we got our hands on the PCM-D50, an even smaller machine possessing nearly all the D1's charms at a fraction of the cost. It was love at first sight. The PCM-D50 is a thing of beauty. Its specs and feature set make it an ideal choice for audio professionals. Though compact, it offers an ample display, lots of buttons, and four AA batteries and can record 24-bit, 96 kHz BWF files for 12 hours without running out of juice.

The PCM-D50 comes loaded with 4 GB of onboard memory, and you can expand it further with a Memory Stick. Like the D1, the D50 has top-mounted mics that swivel to accommodate XY and wide-angle recording. It sets up quickly and offers both analog and digital audio I/O. You can speed up or slow down playback without changing pitch. Dedicated buttons and an easy-to-navigate menu system let you define loop points, split files, and automatically engage an unusually flexible limiter. It can even begin recording 5 seconds before you press Record. In a year when several pocket-size recorders hit the street, the Sony PCM-D50 is at the top of the heap.

Guitar Amp/Effects-Modeling Software

Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3 (Mac/Win; Kontrol edition $499, software only $299)

Native Instruments Guitar Rig is a perennial leader in this very competitive and ever-growing software category. Guitar Rig 3, which is both a standalone program and a multiformat plug-in, offers a wide range of new features. Our reviewer, Babz, described the new version as “an all-around guitarist's toolbox.”

Version 3 adds four new amp models (emulating Orange, Bogner, Hiwatt, and Fender Tweed amplifiers) to its previous total of eight, giving you a wider range of tones. Six new effects include a ring modulator and a tape echo that models the Roland Space Echo. The user interface has been redesigned, offering improvements such as large views for live work, reorganized preset menus, and automatic cabinet matching. The Rig Kontrol pedal — the hardware controller/audio interface that comes with the Kontrol edition — has also been revamped. It sports a new look, additional switches, and new audio converters. So whether you're into simple, straight-ahead rigs or complicated multiamp-and-effects setups with complex custom routing, Guitar Rig 3 — even more so than previous versions — provides an all-in-one software solution.

Microphone

Cascade Microphones

Gomez Michael Joly Edition ($499)

Once again the mic category proved to be quite a horse race, with a variety of mics competing at a wide range of prices. This year's winner is a modestly priced ribbon transducer that offers greater versatility than others in its price class. The Cascade Gomez Michael Joly Edition received kudos from reviewer Rudy Trubitt for its well-rounded sound, relatively open top end, and clarity in the lower midrange. With a frequency response that is relatively flat up to about 5 kHz, recordings made with the Gomez respond well to high EQ boosts without getting harsh.

With its asymmetrical grille basket, this distinctive-looking mic features a symmetrical bidirectional pattern and includes a Lundahl LL2912 output transformer. It also comes with a shockmount and a foam-lined metal case. However, it's how good the mic sounded that got our attention. As ribbon mics continue to grow in popularity for recording electric and acoustic guitar, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, it's fitting that this year's winner is an affordable ribbon with a sound that belies its price.

MIDI/Instrument Controller

Yamaha Tenori-on ($1,199)

When Tenori-ons began to trickle into the United States, we were lucky enough to get our hands on one for a little while. That was all it took to convince us that Yamaha was onto something big — much bigger than the Tenori-on's 8-inch-square magnesium frame filled with 256 pulsating white LED buttons. Weighing about 1.5 pounds, the Tenori-on is multifaceted and one of a kind: a performance instrument with a recognizable sound, combining sample playback with step sequencing; an eye-catching source of kinetic light; and a unique MIDI controller for hardware or software instruments.

Developed by Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai in collaboration with Yamaha, the multitimbral Tenori-on lets you compose in as many as 16 Layers, each containing 16 steps. You can instantly switch among 16 sequences and record your live performances as songs. In addition to the familiar Score Mode, in which you manually specify pitches for every step, you get several modes you've never seen before. You can drag your finger across the buttons to create shimmering, repeating note patterns in Draw Mode, or select a note in Bounce Mode to make it drop to the bottom of the grid and then bounce up and down until you stop it. Whether you rely on the built-in speakers and battery power or integrate the device into your stage or studio rig, the Tenori-on can fire up your imagination and enable you to create music you'd never make without it.

Monitor Speaker

Mackie MR5 ($149.95 each)

There are plenty of powered close-field monitors, but few offer studio-level sound quality at an entry-level price. Fortunately, Mackie created the MR5 for musicians who are upgrading from home-stereo or multimedia speakers. With a 5.25-inch woofer and 1-inch tweeter (powered at 55W and 30W, respectively), the MR5 provides the kind of unhyped balance you need when mixing. Our reviewer, Mark Nelson, enjoyed the monitor's smooth, clear sound, as well as its ample bass. Yet a pair of the monitors fit in a desktop studio.

The MR5 also presents a nice mix of pro features, like balanced inputs (XLR, ¼-inch), along with the entry-level unbalanced inputs (RCA, ¼-inch), not to mention switches for bass boost and high-frequency cut/boost. Mackie added the pro-level features because it sees the MR5 as a companion to its larger MR8 monitor in a surround setup. Either way, a pair of MR5s should help you hear what you've been missing in your mixes.

Most Innovative Product

Moog Music Moog Guitar Paul Vo Collector Edition ($5,895)

It's rare that an instrument gets reinvented, but that's what Moog Music has done with its Moog Guitar. Although it's from Moog, it's not a synth or a MIDI guitar. Rather, it's a super-high-quality electric guitar with extended expressive and sound-altering capabilities. Its most dramatic feature is its infinite sustain capability, which expands the guitar into new performance territory. The Controlled Sustain setting allows up to two notes to sustain, while the Full setting sustains all notes. The Mute mode reduces sustain for staccato articulations. Once you understand the guitar's controls, you'll find yourself playing in ways you've never played before. The guitar also offers built-in filter effects (controlled, along with other parameters, with the included Control Pedal) and Graph Tech piezo bridge saddles to supplement Moog's proprietary pair of single-coil electric pickups. When you want a conventional electric guitar, just turn off the added goodies.

The instrument is first-class all the way, with a gorgeous flame- or quilted-maple top (you can choose from a range of colors), a swamp ash or mahogany body, an ebony fingerboard, a Wilkinson tremolo system, locking Sperzel tuners, a tweed hard-shell case, and more. Yes, it's pricey, but it's a revolutionary new instrument and clearly a deserving winner.

Sample Player (Software)

Heavyocity Evolve (Mac/Win, $399)

Sonic Reality Ocean Way Drums Gold (Mac/Win, $895)

These two groundbreaking products were so good that we decided to declare a tie and award an Editors' Choice to both. Though different in many ways, they have some interesting similarities: both are built on Native Instruments' Kontakt Player 2 platform, and both were the brainchild of a pair of working pros who sensed a need in their respective markets.

Ocean Way Drums (OWD) was developed by producer-engineers Steven Miller and Allen Sides, who frequently use high-quality drum samples in their record-production work. The product, which was brought to market in collaboration with sound developer Sonic Reality, is an incredibly realistic-sounding 40 GB collection of multisampled drum kits recorded by Miller and Sides at the renowned Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood. (A Platinum version is also available, offering 120 GB of samples and its own hard drive, for $1,795.) OWD provides superb sounds and unparalleled sonic control over the samples, allowing you to choose from or mix the signal of a number of mics (including close, overhead, and room) on each element. For those not into tweaking, a selection of Sides's mix presets can be accessed for each of the 19 kits.

Heavyocity Evolve was the creation of New York-based TV and video-game producers Dave Fraser and Neil Goldberg. It's designed for composers and sound designers and is intended to streamline work flow by offering the kinds of textures that are most in demand for game and TV production. You get a range of sounds, including drums and percussion, rhythmic and tonal loops, strings, stings, basses, and sound effects. You can call up individual sounds or work from one of 25 8-channel Multi setups that cover a variety of specific project types.

Signal-Processing Software (Bundle)

McDSP Emerald Pack 3.0 (Mac/Win; $2,599 TDM, $1,399 native)

McDSP has a well-earned reputation for producing quality signal-processing plug-ins for the Digidesign Pro Tools platform. A 10-year veteran of the DSP market, the company has built a legion of loyal users, including many high-profile engineers and producers. Starting with its classic FilterBank and CompressorBank products, and subsequently adding a multiband compressor, a limiter, a convolution reverb, an analog-tape emulator, a channel strip, and even a software synth, McDSP has developed a 12-deep roster of plug-ins, all of which are more than competitive in their respective categories.

Emerald Pack 3.0 gives you McDSP's entire collection of plug-ins (including its newest products, like the lo-fi-effects processor FutzBox) and is available in either TDM or native configurations. If you're looking for a complete signal-processing solution, Emerald Pack 3.0 is a stellar choice. For that, we bestow upon it an Editors' Choice Award.

Signal-Processing Software (Individual)

iZotope RX (Mac/Win, $279)

Audio-restoration software is not generally thought of as sexy in the way that sequencing software or a synth plug-in is. It's considered more of a utilitarian tool that's necessary for ridding recordings of hiss, hum, clicks, crackle, and broadband noise. But with the introduction of RX, which is both a standalone application and a suite of plug-ins for all major formats, iZotope has put the gee-whiz factor into audio restoration.

RX is slickly designed, intuitive, and extremely effective. Its Denoiser, Declicker, and Hum Removal modules are all above average. Its Declipper tool can fix clipped waveforms, and its Spectral Repair module is like nothing else in its price range. If you've got a finger squeak on a guitar track, a stray noise that's intruding on a spoken or sung word, or almost any sonic anomaly, Spectral Repair — which, like the Declipper, uses interpolation technology — seems to always find a way to get rid of the offending noise or reduce it to an acceptable level. In addition, RX offers both waveform and spectral editing. This product is much more than just a tool for fixing recordings transferred from vinyl. From music production to video to Podcasting — any area where audio recording is involved — it's a must-have piece of software and was a hands-down winner in this category.

Software Drums

FXpansion BFD2 2.0.5 (Mac/Win, $399)

FXpansion, winner of the 2005 Editors' Choice Award for BFD, is back on top this year with the long-anticipated and completely redesigned BFD2. The new version starts with a fresh graphical user interface, adds a full-featured mixer, and tops it off with a comprehensive drum-sequencing, editing, and composition environment. You get 50 GB of sample content consisting of ten drum kits that represent a range of vintage and modern styles and manufacturers, along with a broad selection of extra snares and cymbals. And FXpansion has managed to keep all this backward compatible with older BFD content.

BFD2's Kit page offers 10-, 18-, and 32-piece drum kits. You can fill the kit from scratch or customize one of the preset kits. You can have as many as 96 Velocity layers per articulation, and each articulation includes up to 3 stereo and 6 mono mic setups. Each mixer channel strip holds four insert effects and has four effects sends. Aux busing, sidechaining, and submixing are all supported. The Groove window is a sophisticated drum sequencer in which you can create, import, and edit MIDI grooves, and more than 5,000 patterns are provided. When you've created a drum sequence, you can render a multichannel mix of discrete WAV files directly from BFD2. All of this is available standalone or as a plug-in in your favorite host.

Sound Library

SoniVox Anatomy (Mac/Win, $219 [MSRP])

Just when you thought everything under the sun had been sampled — orchestral instruments, vintage keyboards, ethnic ensembles, and burning pianos — SoniVox did something different and sampled human sounds. If you're wondering what's unusual about that, then you've obviously never heard Anatomy, a unique sample library for Kontakt 2 and 3. Have you ever considered the groove potential of burps, farts, coughs, and ululation? SoniVox sampled every one of those sounds, truncated them, looped them, and mapped them to MIDI. Anatomy covers the gamut from icky to ethereal, from comic to downright danceable.

Anatomy's instruments are divided into two categories: Man and Machine. Sounds categorized as Man are unprocessed, without any obvious effects. Machine sounds, though human in origin, are heavily processed and barely recognizable as humanoid. Alongside all the vocal percussion and sampled vowels, you'll find snoring, screaming, moaning, and all manner of breathy mischief. If it's a sound the human body makes, you'll find it in Anatomy. For examples, visit SoniVox's Web site. For sound design, soundtrack enhancement, or simply something completely different, we give it eight thumbs up.

Synthesizer (Hardware)

Dave Smith Instruments

Prophet '08 ($1,999)

Dave Smith has been around the block a few times, and he keeps on contributing. He conceived and helped give birth to MIDI, invented wavetable synthesis, and developed the first commercial soft synth. Beginning in 1978, his company Sequential Circuits produced one of the most desirable synths of all time, the Prophet-5. For years musicians were clamoring for a new Prophet, and in 2008 Smith delivered. The Prophet '08 has all the features you'd hope for in a polyphonic synthesizer — eight voices with two independent layers, a versatile lowpass filter, three envelopes, four LFOs, complex modulation routing, an arpeggiator, and even a 4-channel sequencer — at a price that can scarcely be believed. And if you don't need the 61-note keyboard, a tabletop/rackmount module ($1,499) is also available.

You want to talk about fat? The Prophet '08 is a true analog poly synth, with a voltage-controlled filter (VCF), a voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA), and digitally controlled analog oscillators (DCOs). Even with an entirely analog signal path, the Prophet '08 takes full advantage of digital technology. It stores 256 top-notch factory programs, and you can rewrite any of them. Here's an example of its many useful touches: you can apply its sequencer to control any parameter that's available for modulation. Powerful and fun, the Prophet '08 gives us everything we wanted a modern-day Prophet to be.

Synthesizer (Software)

Spectrasonics Omnisphere (Mac/Win, $499 [MSRP])

How would you describe your dream synth? Lots of everything and then some? The core of any synthesizer is its pool of raw sounds, whether simple waveforms or complex multisamples, and bigger is usually better. If you're like us, you also want the sound-shaping potential of multimode filters and multistage envelope generators. Sophisticated onboard effects and a nice arpeggiator wouldn't hurt, either. Throw in a large assortment of well-designed patches and then organize them for quick recall, and you have Omnisphere, the flagship soft-synth plug-in from Spectrasonics.

A mountain of advance publicity preceded Omnisphere's September release, and for once, the software completely lives up to the hype. Beyond its remarkable assortment of dynamite patches and 42 GB of sample content, Omnisphere's depth and ease of programming are unprecedented. Each part in a multitimbral setup has two layers, and each layer offers real-time control paths and an impressive variety of synthesis techniques, from sample playback and FM to granular and variable waveshaping. Omnisphere wraps all this power in a transparent user interface that feels natural. Giving it an award was easy; leaving it long enough to write about it was hard.

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