2008 EDITORS' CHOICE AWARDS
As EM editors, we are in an enviable position: hundreds of new products are introduced each year, and a majority of them cross our desks. Although testing tons of gear isn't all fun and games — how many manuals do you want to read a year? — the biggest reward is finding something that knocks our socks off, either for its sound quality, feature set, innovativeness, or just plain coolness. To recognize these standout products and the manufacturers that make them, we created the Editors' Choice Awards.
Each fall, we select the crème de la crème that we've tested in the past 12 months based on our own experiences as well as those of our writers. (It is impossible to thoroughly test everything released in a year, but we make an effort to check out the most promising candidates.) All of the winning products have been field-tested by EM's editors and a select group of authors, with additional feedback provided by the editors of our sister publications Mix and Remix. The final selections were made by EM technical editors Mike Levine, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, Len Sasso, and Geary Yelton, with much-appreciated help from EM editor in chief Steve Oppenheimer and Remix technology editor Markkus Rovito. All of the 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 sidebar “The Award Winners in Review”).
To be eligible for an Editors' Choice Award, products must have shipped between October 1, 2006, and October 1, 2007, when we began editing our January issue. We also considered several products that shipped close enough to the 2007 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, it will be considered for an award next year. Awards are given to software upgrades only if we think there were major improvements over the previous version.
And now it's our privilege to introduce to you the winners of the 16th annual EM Editors' Choice Awards.
Dangerous Music D-Box
Though Ancillary Hardware may sound like a boring category, there's nothing dull about this year's winner, the versatile Dangerous Music D-Box. Dangerous Music has a reputation for making high-quality products, but many of them are priced for the pro-audio market rather than the personal studio. But with the introduction of the 1U D-Box, the company has combined some of the key features of two of its top-shelf products — the 2-Bus and the Monitor ST — into a single, surprisingly affordable unit.
Analog summing is touted by many as a way to improve the sound of DAW mixes, and the D-Box offers eight channels of it. But summing is only part of the D-Box's story. Dangerous Music has also included a comprehensive monitoring section that offers speaker switching, D/A conversion through its digital inputs, a talkback mic, an input for an auxiliary talkback mic, an input selector, simultaneous input monitoring, and headphone outputs.
When you consider the D-Box's versatility, compact footprint, vaunted Dangerous Music quality, and reasonable price tag, you've got yourself the makings of an Editors' Choice winner.
(Mac, $273 [MSRP])
Keymap grew out of the need for more convenient and sophisticated multisample editing and mapping in Apple Logic's EXS24 sampler. Although it still targets the EXS24, Keymap has grown into arguably the most advanced utility for creating sampler instruments.
Keymap is useful with any sampler because it is a standalone application, and it imports a variety of audio file formats and exports AIFF and WAV files with looping and multisample mapping information. Samplers that import EXS24 instruments (as most major samplers do) get the full benefit of Keymap's advanced multisample management.
One of the program's standout features is harmonic resynthesis, which lets you modify a sound's pitch, formant, amplitude, and time parameters in the context of a multisampled instrument to shape a new, but still coherent, multisample. A variety of easy-to-use looping algorithms help you identify optimal loop points quickly. Automatic pitch detection algorithms let you create multisample maps in a fraction of the time it takes to do it manually. If you're tired of the tedium and limits of working with multisampled sampler instruments, Keymap will lighten the load.
Although there was no shortage of audio interfaces introduced this year, the PreSonus FireStudio is an all-around winner that offers quality and quantity in almost every feature category. The 24-bit, 96 kHz interface gives you 8 Class A preamps (2 mic/instrument, 6 mic/line), 16 channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, S/PDIF stereo I/O, as well as analog line outs, for a total of 26 simultaneous inputs and outputs.
The unit also offers MIDI I/O, jitter-resistant word clock, and two headphone outputs. If you want additional monitoring and input-switching capabilities along with talkback facilities, the FireStudio is designed to work with the optional Monitor Station Remote.
Also included with the FireStudio is PreSonus's Control Console software, which gives users a 36 × 36 × 18 software mixer/router as well as zero-latency monitoring — a key feature for any audio interface. On top of that, you get a comprehensive software bundle that includes Steinberg Cubase LE, Propellerhead Reason Adapted PreSonus Edition, IK Multimedia AmpliTube LE, FXpansion BFD Lite, Sonoma Wire Works Riffworks Jr., Drumagog LE, and Wave Arts MasterVerb LE and TrackPlug LE. When you take into account all the features and extras, as well as the high audio quality, it's clear that the FireStudio is a winning product.
Universal Audio DCS Remote Preamp
A well-matched pair of mic preamps is something every studio needs for critical recording. Universal Audio, known for its attention to detail in the digital and analog realm, has combined both in its DCS Remote Preamp system, which puts a pair of high-quality transimpedance analog preamps under digital control for accurate gain staging. But what sets this product apart from other preamps released this year is that it adds control room functionality, such as a cue system with effects, that is elegantly designed and easy to use.
Created for studios where space is limited, the Desktop Console System (DCS) uses a Cat-5 cable to connect the analog I/O to the digital controller, allowing you to place them in separate rooms if needed. The preamps can be configured for dual-mono, stereo, and M-S use. Onboard reverb and EQ effects enable you to customize the cue mix to the tastes of the recording talent, and an additional stereo input lets you mix in audio from your DAW. Other features include a pair of VU meters, a built-in talkback mic, and a pair of DI inputs that automatically switch to line inputs when TRS cables are used. Is it any surprise that the DCS Remote Preamp swept this category?
DIGITAL AUDIO SEQUENCER
Apple Logic Studio
(Mac, $499 [MSRP])
Among EM's editors, Apple Logic Studio was the hands-down winner for Digital Audio Sequencer this year. When a company completely redesigns a complex product, making it both easier to use and more powerful, bundles it with other top-notch audio applications (such as MainStage, Soundtrack Pro 2, and WaveBurner), adds 40 GB of content, and cuts the price in half, it certainly deserves a prize.
Although Logic Pro 8 was the recipient of a major face-lift, it is still recognizably Logic Pro. You'll do most of your editing, browsing, and mixing in new pop-up panes in the Arrange window, but separate windows are still available. You can ignore the Environment or harness its considerable power. You record multiple takes in drop-down lanes, then use Quick Swipe Comping to create as many alternate comps as you like. Context-sensitive browsing provides fast access to all your media. Best of all, you can throw your old XSKey in the trash.
For live performance on a laptop using Logic-proprietary and AU instruments and effects, MainStage is a vast improvement over trying to manage Logic and perform at the same time. For audio editing and postproduction, Soundtrack Pro 2 has the bases covered. Compressor 3 and WaveBurner provide surround encoding and CD mastering. Finally, the Studio Instruments and Studio Effects plug-in collections have been both expanded and improved. There's so much to like in this all-encompassing audio solution that we couldn't help but give it the recognition it deserves.
DOWNLOAD OF THE YEAR
Andyware Analog Box 2
We're always on the lookout for unusual and inexpensive music-making tools, and the best of the best appear in our “Download of the Month” column. From those we cull an annual Editors' Choice winner, which this year is Analog Box 2 from Andy Turner of Andyware. Unlike with the other categories, the Download of the Year need not be a new product; we're just happy it's still around. However, the most recent version of Analog Box 2 was released in March 2007.
Analog Box 2 is billed as a modular software synthesizer. It's as much an algorithmic music generator as a synth, though, and that may be where it is most useful. The more than 50 Jambots (jamming robots) in the Andyware online gallery run the gamut from quirky, robotic sound effects to interesting and useful grooves. A little time and attention to the Help documentation will have you happily tweaking the Jambots and other prebuilt devices in the library. If you want to build your own synths and music generators, you'll find tools for that as well.
In a forest of do-it-yourself music software, Analog Box 2 stands out as both unusual and powerful. Putting in the effort and making the results free for the downloading is in the true spirit of our Download of the Year award.
DRUM MACHINE/MODULE (Software)
XLN Audio Addictive Drums
(Mac/Win, $249 [MSRP])
There was plenty of competition in the Software Drum Machine/Module category this year. But the product the editors kept coming back to for its sheer innovation was XLN Audio Addictive Drums. This cross-platform plug-in combines 2 GB of samples, an onscreen mixer with effects, and a collection of MIDI files of live performances. The drum samples are organized in an assortment of layered, multimiked kits (with alternative hits), making it easy to tweak the included performances. A drag-and-drop groove browser provides quick access to the more than 3,000 beats and fills.
The 12-channel mixer gives you even more control over your performances. In addition to using the standard mixer controls, you can invert phrases, create pitch and volume envelopes, and insert filter, EQ, compression, reverb, and other plug-in effects. The content is rounded out with 100 production-ready presets covering a cross-section of styles. Whether you want to create your own drum parts from scratch, layer in a few top-notch performances, or use a preconfigured production setup, Addictive Drums gives you a lot of great material to work with.
Ever since it released the VG-8, Roland has been in the forefront of guitar-modeling technology. However, the company pulled out all the stops for its VG-99 V-Guitar system and produced an outstanding and versatile new processor.
To get the most from the VG-99, you'll need a guitar with a 13-pin output (such as the optional Roland GK-3 pickup), which gives you access to two separate COSM modeling engines that can be layered together. Available models include a range of acoustic and electric guitars, synth sounds (including the GR-300), and amp emulations. You get a dual effects processor to further shape your sounds, and you can choose from a selection of alternate tuning presets or program your own.
One of the most useful features the VG-99 has that its predecessors didn't is a guitar-to-MIDI converter, which turns your 13-pin output into MIDI and allows you to trigger external instruments. And in addition to the ribbon controller, Roland has added a D-Beam controller to the VG-99, which lets you sustain notes, control the filter, create whammy-bar-style effects, and more just by waving your hand over the unit.
VG processors have always been easy to use, but what's impressive about the VG-99 is that it's still quite user friendly despite being more complex than its predecessors. Editing is made even easier with the included software-based graphical editor (Mac/Win) and USB 2.0 connectivity.
With the VG-99, Roland has exceeded the standards that it set with its previous VG products. As a result, it gets a unanimous nod for the Editors' Choice Award in this category.
Handheld stereo digital recorders have been appearing at an unprecedented rate. Two of the most exciting models to come along are the Korg MR-1000 and its pint-size sibling, the MR-1 ($899 [MSRP]). Both offer capabilities you won't find in other field recorders — most notably support for 1-bit audio, the encoding scheme used by Super Audio Compact Discs (SACD) and other ultra-high-fidelity formats. They also record 16- and 24-bit Broadcast WAV files at rates as high as 192 kHz.
The MR-1000 is a compact tabletop recorder that's powered by eight AA batteries or a 12 VDC adapter and comes with a handy padded carrying case. For 1-bit recording, its maximum sampling rate is 5.64 MHz, twice that of the MR-1 and 128 times that of a standard audio CD. But we aren't awarding the MR-1000 for its specs; we're simply knocked out by its sound. With good mics and good technique, just about anything you record with the MR-1000 sounds as natural and lifelike as any recording you've ever heard, at any price.
The MR-1000's 40 GB internal hard drive holds hours of recordings, which you can easily transfer to and from your computer with the unit's built-in USB 2.0 jack and accompanying AudioGate (Mac/Win) software. With balanced XLR/TRS combo inputs, balanced XLR outputs, unbalanced RCA outputs, switchable phantom power, and an onboard limiter, the MR-1000 offers a variety of analog connectivity. A bright LCD lets you easily access the recorder's intuitive user interface, and dedicated transport buttons and level knobs control traditional recorder functions. Because it's ideal for live or field recordings, as well as for archiving recordings in any format with the highest possible accuracy, the MR-1000 gets EM's strongest recommendation.
GUITAR AMP/EFFECTS MODELER
Line 6 GearBox Plug-In Gold 3.10
(Mac/Win, $499 [street])
Every time you turn around, someone is launching software that models guitar amps, speakers, and effects. But Line 6 has stayed on top by constantly bringing new hardware and software to the table. Over the years, the company has pioneered multi-effects pedalboards, standalone computer software, guitar and bass amplifiers and cabinets, and even acoustic and electric guitars that incorporate physical modeling to give you the most sounds in the least amount of space. Now GearBox Plug-In Gold gives you every model and tone in Line 6's extensive collection of virtual stompboxes, rackmount effects, mics, preamps, and amp and cabinet combinations.
Because you can use GearBox Plug-In within AU, RTAS, and VST hosts, all your settings are saved along with your song files. Want to put some Roland Space Echo and Vox Uni-Vibe on your solo guitar part, played through a vintage 1973 Hiwatt 100 and a 4 × 10 Fender Bassman cabinet? Not a problem — and you can save the whole rig as a user preset.
GearBox Plug-In comes with its own low-latency USB audio interface, a direct box called the TonePort DI. It also includes GearBox, a standalone application containing features the streamlined plug-in lacks, such as a rock-solid tuner, a file player, and online access to Line 6's library of tones, tunes, and lessons. Though optimized for guitar and bass, the collection supplies tons of presets suitable for keyboards, drums, vocals — in fact, any sound assigned to any audio track. GearBox Plug-In is available in two bundles, Silver and Gold, which differ in the number of models and tones they include. For the real deal, go for the Gold; it's the best amp and effects modeling software EM has tried in the past year, and it's a winner.
Kurzweil SP2X Stage Piano
Kurzweil is a name that's been synonymous with high-quality piano sounds for years, and the new SP2X Stage Piano stays true to the company's legacy. The instrument provides 64-voice polyphony alongside 16-part multitimbral operation and includes an internal USB interface with MIDI I/O for transferring data to a computer or updating its operating system.
The keyboard will be at home in your studio, onstage, or anywhere in between. At just under 50 pounds, and designed with travel in mind, it's light enough for one person to manage. Its well-designed front panel, complete with four flexible multipurpose knobs, makes it easy to adjust parameters, even in low-light situations.
The SP2X's action is well suited to both rapid staccato passages and smooth lyrical lines, and the 88-key fully weighted action offers just the right amount of response, though you can pick from any of seven Velocity sensitivity levels to configure the axe to your playing style. With a wide range of internal sounds that extends well beyond the basics, not to mention its 64 prerecorded drum grooves and large number of effects, the SP2X will be a great partner in any musical situation.
Mojave Audio MA-100
There were plenty of microphones in the running this year, many of which were ribbon transducers. However, it was a small-diaphragm tube condenser mic that swept the votes. Designed by David Royer, the man behind a handful of top-notch ribbon mics (including two previous Editors' Choice Award winners), the Mojave Audio MA-100 provides a modern take on a classic configuration.
The MA-100 features a 0.8-inch diaphragm and utilizes a JAN 5840 vacuum tube and a Jensen transformer. The mic's frequency response includes peaks around 200 Hz and 6 kHz, which give it a lively presence and bite without sacrificing dimensionality and depth. In fact, the MA-100's presence peak, as well as its ability to handle high SPLs, means it can cover a number of applications, according to reviewer Eli Crews, such as miking drums, electric and acoustic guitars, bowed strings, and vocals.
The MA-100 comes with a pair of interchangeable capsules — omnidirectional and cardioid — to give you additional flexibility. The result is a high-quality, all-around tube microphone with a modern sound that won't break the bank.
Frontier Design Group AlphaTrack
Everyone working with a DAW or soft instrument needs an efficient way to control their programs, and a good control surface is usually the best way to go. The Frontier Design AlphaTrack, a USB control surface with a motorized fader, 3 continuous rotary knobs, and 22 buttons, is our idea of the right tool for the job when desk space is at a premium. The AlphaTrack gives you nearly full control-surface capability with only a small footprint, and because it is bus powered, you'll find it especially suitable for sessions on the go. It also provides a multifunction ribbon controller for situations that require continuous data values, and an LCD that is more legible than most.
The AlphaTrack works in native mode with many popular programs — Cakewalk Sonar 6, MOTU Digital Performer 5, and Steinberg Cubase 4, for starters — and we learned of updated support information even after deciding on its award (Logic Pro 8 has added a plug-in for direct AlphaTrack support). And if your own software is not on its support list, you can probably use it in HUI- or MCU-emulation mode. That news is sure to please Digidesign Pro Tools and Apple Final Cut users, among others.
Once you try an AlphaTrack, you'll be hooked on its ease of use, ergonomic design, and overall efficiency. One thing's for sure: you'll never again find yourself mixing music with a mouse.
Toft Audio Designs ATB 16
As personal-studio technology marches inexorably toward in-the-box solutions, mixers, especially of the analog variety, have become more like specialty items than essential pieces. Still, when an analog mixer comes along that offers features and quality well beyond its price range, we think it's important to tip our cap to it. That's why we bestowed an Editors' Choice Award in the Mixer category on the Toft Audio Designs ATB 16, part of the ATB Series of 8-bus consoles. The boards were designed by Malcolm Toft, who was the brains behind Trident's A Range and 80B, so it should come as little surprise that these are quality units.
The three mixers in the line are identical featurewise except for their channel counts. The most affordable is the ATB 16, but the 24-channel ($5,099.99 [street]) and 32-channel ($6,499.99 [street]) models are still well priced considering what they have to offer.
The ATB mixers have plenty of virtues to extol. For instance, although they have comprehensive feature sets, their footprints — especially on the ATB 16 — are surprisingly compact. They also offer a generous selection of direct outputs, insert points, and aux sends, and they can support two sets of monitors.
Obviously, sound quality is crucial to any mixer, and the ATB gets high marks in that area, too. We were also impressed with the mixer's modular construction, ribbon cables, and socketed ICs, all of which help make repairing or replacing parts easier and less expensive than on many other consoles. All in all, the ATB Series offers a winning mix of quality, value, and smart design.
Dynaudio Acoustics BM 6A MKII
($1,745 per pair [MSRP])
With a number of top-notch entries, such as the KRK VXT6 and Digidesign RM1, the Monitor Speaker category was once again an exciting one. However, when it came down to price versus performance, the Dynaudio Acoustics BM 6A MKII easily swept the votes.
The BM 6A MKII is a 2-way, biamplified close-field monitor that combines a 6.5-inch woofer with a 1.1-inch dome tweeter, driven by 100W and 50W amplifiers, respectively. The monitor features an all-wood cabinet with a rear bass port, highpass settings when using a subwoofer, and low-, mid-, and high-frequency cut/boost switches for tailoring its response to your room. At roughly 24 pounds each, these heavyweight speakers pack a punch, serving a maximum SPL of 115 dB (RMS).
Reviewer Rusty Cutchin praised the BM 6A MKII for its uniformity across the frequency range — at high and low volumes — as well as for its reliability for power handling and its remarkable bass response. Just as important, the BM 6A MKII is capable of revealing the subtleties in a mix, whether it's percussive transients or reverb tails — just what you want from a reference monitor. In a year of stiff competition, these features added up to a winning combination.
MOST INNOVATIVE PRODUCT
Modartt Pianoteq 2
(Mac/Win, $337 [MSRP])
It's been over a decade since Yamaha introduced the VL1, the first commercially viable physical-modeling synth, and the technology has held great promise in becoming the be-all of synthesis methods. This year's Most Innovative Product, Modartt's Pianoteq 2, is a giant step forward toward realizing that dream. Pianoteq 2 is the most advanced physically modeled grand piano available today, and it just might be the Holy Grail for anyone needing high-quality piano sounds in a compact and efficient package.
Altering the impedance, cutoff, and Q factor of your piano's soundboard and modifying the hardness and spectral characteristics of a piano's hammers are definitely not features you'll find in your sampler or sample player. Nor will many sampled pianos let you use the variety of alternate tunings you can employ now that Pianoteq supports the Scala microtuning system. And, unlike a piano sample library, Pianoteq requires a mere 15 MB of drive space to do its magic. A well-designed and intuitive interface makes adjusting the program's parameters a breeze, and the new AU, RTAS, and native Receptor support will make it even easier to use Pianoteq on a track.
Modartt is doing a lot to support its users, including sponsoring a composition contest, maintaining an active users forum, and, best of all, regularly releasing free updates and add-ons to registered owners. So whether you're playing keys in a Top 40 band, earning a living reading charts in a studio, or simply eager to explore a vast range of new keyboard-based sonic landscapes in your music, you'll find Pianoteq 2 a perfect tool for the job.
Sibelius Software Sibelius 5
(Mac/Win, $599 [MSRP])
Sibelius and MakeMusic Finale have been leapfrogging each other for years to be the most full-featured notation program around. This year Sibelius 5 has jumped ahead and leads the race. Packed with loads of great-sounding samples, new fonts, and creative composer's tools, Sibelius 5 is a composition powerhouse ideal for anyone working with standard notation.
Sibelius's new Ideas Hub is a useful tool for keeping track of musical snippets that you want to develop into full-blown themes; use it to turn an original 3-note motif into a main title theme or use one of the thousands of included tagged snippets to jump-start a melody. The new Reprise family of fonts can give your music a hand-drawn look, and new fonts for chord symbols, note names, and alternative performance practices will add realism and accuracy to the look of any score.
Thanks to newly added VST and AU plug-in support, you'll have access to an unlimited number of instrumental timbres for your parts. If you crave an even wider variety of sounds, you can pick up the World Music and Choral sound libraries. Using the new Panorama view, you'll be able to spot minute details in your score and compose in a more intuitive and efficient manner.
We've heard music professionals call Sibelius 5 “the perfect notation program,” and we'd be hard-pressed to find fault with that statement.
PORTABLE DIGITAL STUDIO
Not many companies have as much experience manufacturing self-contained DAWs, groove boxes, and synthesizer workstations as Roland. And not many portable digital studios let you do as much as you can with the MV-8800. Combining a multitrack hard-disk recorder, a 64-track MIDI sequencer, drum pads, sample-playback synthesis, user sampling, and loads of effects, the MV-8800 is a complete production studio in a box. Just add a MIDI keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor, and it can perform virtually any production task a well-equipped computer-based studio can.
With lots of buttons, 8 faders, a data dial, and 16 Aftertouch- and Velocity-sensitive pads, the MV-8800 invites human interaction. You can load as many as 128 simultaneous instruments with 64-voice polyphony, drawing from a large internal sound library on a 40 GB hard drive. Loads of ready-to-use loops and vocal phrases let you build your tracks from scratch and then match their pitch and tempo. You get drum kits with sounds from the TR-808 and 15 other vintage Roland drum machines, as well as an effects collection with classic Roland reverbs, choruses, echoes, and more. When you're finished, take advantage of the parametric EQ, limiter, and multiband compressor designed for mastering, and then burn an audio disc on the built-in CD burner.
With its assortment of I/O ports, connecting to the outside world is a snap. In addition to balanced analog audio inputs and outputs on ¼-inch jacks, turntable inputs on RCA jacks, and a ¼-inch headphone output, the MV-8800 has coaxial and optical S/PDIF out, USB, mouse and VGA ports, a footswitch jack, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru. Need more? The MV-8800 is expandable. Options include multiport analog and digital I/O, additional sample libraries, and many more synth patches. In a product line that has grown more powerful with each generation, the MV-8800 represents just how far tabletop production studios can take you.
Celemony Software Melodyne Studio 3.2.1
(Mac/Win, $699 [MSRP])
We've been big fans of Melodyne since it first appeared, and the 3.2.1 update shows that the program just gets better with age. New algorithms for analyzing percussion material enhance already powerful pitch-shifting and time-stretching tools, and the much-improved control over formants in polyphonic music means you'll be able to use Melodyne for even more musical material than before.
Melodyne provides lots of visual cues about the music you're processing, some of which are enhanced through its new zoom and scroll capabilities. You'll see small marks (called Blobs) that indicate what the base pitch is for the notes in your piece as well as other symbols that indicate pitch events such as scoops, falls, and vibrato. The amplitude of a note is also indicated clearly via the width of the Blob, so even a quick glance shows you what the program has found in the audio you feed it.
Once Melodyne has analyzed your audio, it's simple to edit the note data using the same types of techniques you'd find in a MIDI sequencer. In fact, you can even convert audio events to MIDI notes, and in our experience, the program is amazingly accurate in that task. Celemony now offers a plug-in version that will analyze the audio on a track in your DAW, then let you use its GUI to manipulate that material. Coupled with its support for ReWire and its improvements in many other areas, including work flow and activation, Melodyne will be a great complement to your other audio tools.
SOFTWARE SAMPLE PLAYER
SoniVox Muse 1.04
(Win, $495 [street])
When it comes to sample collections and the software instruments built around them, you'll find no shortage of choices. For most musicians, the best of the bunch offer the greatest variety of sounds, just like the finest keyboard workstations do. SoniVox (formerly Sonic Implants), a company long held in high regard for its outstanding soundware, has launched its first sample player that runs standalone and as a plug-in. Built around Tascam's Giga Virtual Instrument (GVI) platform, Muse comes with nearly 38 GB of 24-bit, 48 kHz content that includes some of SoniVox's finest efforts.
Vintage keyboards, classic synths, electric and acoustic guitars, powerful horns and saxes, and ethnic instruments from around the world are at your beck and call. You also get drum kits to suit any occasion, with percussion instruments from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But the real stars of the show are Muse's orchestral sounds. Culled from the acclaimed Complete Symphonic Collection, the strings, brass, winds, and percussion make up more than half of the content and are among the finest samples you can buy.
Muse organizes its sounds into groups and subgroups you select from a pop-up menu, and you can layer just as many as your computer can handle. Instruments come in all forms, from resource-friendly EZ versions to a grand piano that takes more than 2 GB on your hard drive. If you're looking for a sample player that gives you every instrumental sound you're likely to need, Muse covers all the bases at a price that won't make you sorry.
(Mac/Win, $499 [street])
In 1991, Digidesign became the first manufacturer to introduce a full-fledged sampler you could run on your computer: SampleCell. Since the subsequent Soft SampleCell was discontinued several years ago, however, samplers have been conspicuously absent from the company's offerings. That changed a few months ago.
Digidesign's Advanced Instrument Research division (A.I.R., formerly the wizards at Wizoo Sound Design) has been on a roll ever since Avid acquired the team in 2005. Software instruments specifically for Pro Tools are its stock-in-trade, and certainly the most powerful is Structure, an RTAS sampler plug-in. Structure maintains a tight integration with Pro Tools' audio engine, which manages its distribution of 128 parts and 1,024 simultaneous 24-bit voices at rates as high as 192 kHz. We're especially impressed that Digidesign launched Structure as a full-fledged and relatively mature sampling plug-in, with everything you need to create and refine your own multisampled instruments with drag-and-drop simplicity. It comes complete with more than 16 GB of original and EastWest content, as well as 40 GB that comprise a trial edition of EastWest Goliath.
Together with quick access to just about any parameter you can imagine, Structure's user interface provides keymapping and waveform editors you can stretch to any size. A robust effects-processing matrix delivers 20 algorithms ranging from tremolo and parametric EQ to quad rotation and surround convolution. Reassignable onscreen knobs respond to MIDI Control Changes, and you can use the MIDI Modules feature to control how instruments respond to your performance gestures. Sound-shaping functions run the gamut from 10-stage envelope generators to 20-mode resonant filters. Structure loads unencrypted Native Instruments Kontakt, EXS24, and SampleCell sample libraries, and it also has a sophisticated built-in REX player. All told, it's a powerful instrument, and we're giving it the kudos it deserves.
HandHeld Sound FlyingHand Percussion
A couple of NAMM shows ago, when an early, unpublished version of this sound library was on display, it created quite a buzz among the EM editors who checked it out. We all hoped it would get to market, and in 2007, it did. FlyingHand Percussion is a remarkable hand-percussion library for the Kontakt 2 sampler, developed by HandHeld Sound and distributed by SoniVox. The product aims to make the experience of playing sampled percussion instruments as realistic as possible, and it succeeds.
FlyingHand Percussion comes on four DVDs and includes many thousands of multisamples. Focused primarily on individual hand-percussion instruments, the library's success lies in its excellent-sounding and extraordinarily detailed sound set. Multiple articulations, plentiful Velocity layers, and separate attack and release samples are included for all the instruments. In addition, you can choose samples miked from the top or bottom or through room mics.
You get samples of a range of world percussion instruments, including congas, bongos, djembe, timbales, clay drum, boomwhacker, ashiko, naal, and many others. Also included are a couple of nontraditional instruments: Morphosis is made from found sounds, and Mutants features repitched instruments that produce “cinematic” sounds.
The developer's incredible attention to detail, the multiple options, and, of course, the great-sounding samples make this a must-have library.
Yamaha Motif XS6
Although dozens of synthesizer workstations have come and gone, Yamaha's Motif line has evolved considerably since its launch in 2001. In a field filled with worthy competitors, all three models in the latest Motif XS series deliver serious music-production firepower, but the XS6 stands out as the model that gives you the most cluck for the least buck. Its versatile timbral palette can handle just about any type of music you throw at it, from lounge standards to full-tilt rock 'n' roll, from folk songs to fully orchestrated film soundtracks.
The Motif XS6 furnishes most everything you'd want in a sample-playback synthesizer workstation. Its big, bright color LCD is easy to read, and you'll have no trouble navigating its well-organized operating system. Loads of real-time controls, from front-panel sliders and knobs to assignable footpedal inputs, invite hands-on operation and suggest all manner of expressive possibilities. Thanks to built-in Ethernet and USB 2.0, the XS6 can directly access computers and external drives, and you can download software to extend its parameter-editing faculties. You can also add as much as a gigabyte of RAM for 16-bit stereo user sampling, and install an mLAN expansion card for 128-channel MIDI and 6-channel digital audio connectivity via FireWire.
The XS6 puts a huge assortment of lifelike sounds at your fingertips, from a General MIDI bank to a full concert grand piano. Yamaha's Mega Voice and Expanded Articulation presets add to the realism. The XS6 does everything a synth can do to make songwriting and composition as trouble-free as possible. Its onboard 16-track sequencer records audio and MIDI data, and you can quickly switch from linear multitrack sequencing to arranging patterns with as many as 256 phrases each. Edit sequencer data in an event list with 480 ppqn precision. Four intelligent arpeggiators tap into more than 6,000 patterns, simultaneously and in sync. Put it all together — great sounds, versatile sequencing, excellent effects, computer interactivity, and plenty of hands-on control with lots of visual feedback, all at a reasonable price — and you have this year's Editors' Choice for Hardware Synthesizer.
Native Instruments Massive 1.1
u-he Zebra 2.1
Software Synthesizer is a perennially tough category for the EM editors because there are always several stellar competitors. This year we decided to award a tie to two quite different wavetable-based virtual instruments. Beyond their incredible sound, one important factor in choosing these two synths was their extensive factory preset libraries — more than 500 presets for Native Instruments Massive and more than 1,000 for u-he Zebra.
Zebra is a wireless modular synthesizer; you fill cells in its patch matrix with sound generating and processing modules and then right-click on those modules to choose other cells as their input(s). Modulation is accomplished with drop-down menus on a module's control panel, and virtually anything can modulate anything else. Four onscreen, MIDI remote controllable and automatable x-y controllers facilitate real-time performance.
Zebra offers a full spectrum of sound generators and filters, the most unusual of which is the WaveWarp oscillator. It is based on a table of 16 waveforms through which you either morph or crossfade using built-in modulators, MIDI, and automation. You draw in your own waveforms by waveshape or by additive spectrum, and the ergonomic user interface makes the process relatively easy. Zebra not only gives you your money's worth, but also offers plenty of fodder for those who don't want to program their own sounds.
Massive is a bit less modular than Zebra, but it stays true to its name. It has a typical subtractive-synth configuration of modules, but a signal-path block diagram allows for some rerouting. The oscillators use 89 preconfigured wavetables. Several wavetable traversing options, along with several configurations for Massive's two multimode filters, add considerable flexibility. Beyond that you get a noise source, a dedicated Modulation oscillator capable of audio frequencies, a programmable feedback path, and four effects (two inserts and two at the output).
The key to Massive is its unique, user-friendly modulation scheme. Modulators — four looping breakpoint envelopes, four LFOs that double as pattern sequencers, eight Macro knobs, and various MIDI messages — are numbered and color coded. To apply a modulator, you drag its handle to a slot below the knob or slider you want to target. Dragging up and down on the number produces a ring or bar to indicate the range of modulation. It takes only a quick look at the panel to decipher the modulation scheme, and modulation is the key to this synth.
Whether you stick to their extensive factory libraries or roll up your sleeves and create your own sounds, Zebra and Massive are worthy additions to your virtual rack. Both offer fresh sounds and novel approaches to wavetable synthesis, MIDI modulation, and automation.
Propellerhead Software Reason 4
Every couple of years, Propellerhead Software gives Reason users something to celebrate. This was one of those years, and true to form, the EM editors broke out the champagne.
Reason's flashiest new feature is the semimodular synth, Thor. Not only can you fill its six sound-generator and filter slots with different models, but you also have a fair amount of control over the signal path, you can process audio from other devices, and anything can modulate anything else via Thor's robust modulation matrix. For good measure, the company has thrown in a step sequencer with lanes for pitch, Velocity, gate length, step duration, and two controller curves. Each lane has a back-panel output for driving other modules.
Reason 4's other new module is RPG-8, an excellent arpeggiator with selective note muting and the option to arpeggiate only when two or more notes are held. RPG-8 also functions as a MIDI-to-CV and -Gate converter, a much-needed addition. On the enhancement side, the Combinator and NN-XT sampler get some new programming features, but the big news is the major redesign of Reason's sequencer. Tracks now have separate lanes for notes, automation, and performance data, and all data is organized in clips, making it much easier to manipulate. A 32-channel ReGroove Mixer lets you impose the groove of played or imported clips on other sequencer tracks. Reason just keeps getting better.
Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Special Edition
(Mac/Win, $445 standard, $595 extended, $1,040 full [MSRP])
Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) has earned its excellent reputation by offering some of the best-sounding samples around. Great recordings coupled with a highly intelligent playback engine won the company's Symphonic Cube an Editors' Choice Award last year. But who knew that VSL would wow us again quite so soon? This year's release of Vienna Special Edition was a great move on the company's part; with a high-quality sample collection at a great price, the package was the obvious choice to win in the Virtual Orchestra category.
Vienna Special Edition comes in several flavors and offers fewer layers and samples than its big brother. But there's more than enough here to get excited about. The collection covers all the traditional orchestral families nicely, and you'll also find saxophones, acoustic and electric guitar, and samples from the Vienna Konzerthaus organ if your scoring needs require those resources. In total, the complete library puts 80 GB of 24-bit, 44.1 kHz orchestral samples on your desktop, awaiting your creative direction. Vienna Special Edition also includes the company's vaunted performance-detection algorithms, which make transitions between sampled notes especially smooth and lifelike.
Whether you're doing orchestral mock-ups to demonstrate your orchestration chops or creating ready-to-lay-back scores for films, you'll find all the sounds you need in Vienna Special Edition, at a price that will keep you smiling.
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. Published articles are available online at www.emusician.com.
|Andyware Analog Box 2
|Apple Logic Studio
|Celemony Software Melodyne Studio 3.2.1
|Dangerous Music D-Box
|Dynaudio Acoustics BM 6A MKII
|Frontier Design Group AlphaTrack
|HandHeld Sound FlyingHand Percussion
|Kurzweil SP2X Stage Piano
|Line 6 GearBox Plug-In Gold 3.10
|Modartt Pianoteq 2
|Mojave Audio MA-100
|Native Instruments Massive 1.1
|Propellerhead Software Reason 4
|Sibelius Software Sibelius 5
|SoniVox Muse 1.04
||July 2007 (Web)
|Toft Audio Designs ATB 16
|u-he Zebra 2.1
|Universal Audio DCS Remote Preamp
|Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Special Edition
|XLN Audio Addictive Drums
|Yamaha Motif XS6