2001 Editors Choice

Hats off to our 31 favorite products of the past year.Every year at this time, EM editor in chief Steve O considers quitting his job and doing something

Hats off to our 31 favorite products of the past year.

Every year at this time, EM editor in chief Steve O considers quitting his job and doing something simpler and less controversial, such as running for Congress, operating a terrorist group, or leading an extreme religious cult. Being a politician, a gunman, or a self-styled prophet just has to be easier and safer (if less honest) than leading the effort to choose the winners of the EM Editors' Choice Awards. Safer? Well, consider the many fine products that didn't win, and imagine their creators' frustration. That's why the editors usually sit with their backs to a wall when dining out this time of year.

Fortunately, in the end, we always have a full slate of worthy winners, and the ninth annual EM Editors' Choice Awards is no exception. We awarded 31 prizes in 29 categories, twice suffering the agony of an unbreakable tie.

To be eligible, products must have shipped to consumers between October 1, 1999, and October 1, 2000. We make a few exceptions for products that shipped just before October 1999 and arrived too late to test for last year's awards. However, we allow no such slack if we believe that a manufacturer intentionally delayed sending a review unit, as happens occasionally. We give awards to software upgrades only if we think they offer major and significant improvements over the previous version.

To be eligible for an award, products must have been field-tested by EM editors, authors, and a select group of trusted colleagues who have proven technical backgrounds and extensive recording experience. Approximately 25 experts (including the editors of Onstage, Remix, and Mix magazines) contributed to this year's award-selection process, but all final decisions were made by EM's technical editors: Steve O, Marty Cutler, Brian Knave, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, David Rubin, and Scott Wilkinson.

Although most categories are the same as in previous years, we simply dispensed with a category if we were not overwhelmed by the current candidates. In the same spirit, we created new categories if we felt the need, or we morphed an old category into a new form; for instance, this year's broader Mastering Recorder category replaces our awards for DAT machines and standalone CD-Rs. We hate ties, and in most cases we managed to avoid them, but we gave in twice this year - the DSP Plug-in and Most Innovative Product awards - when even Steve O's "gun-to-your-head" approach failed to produce a single winner.

And now, without further ado, we are pleased to announce the 2001 Editors' Choice award winners!

Ancillary HardwareBIG BRIARCP-251 CONTROL PROCESSOR ($299)If you want to integrate several analog synthesizers or other devices that you can manipulate using control voltages, Big Briar's CP-251 Control Processor is virtually a must-have. In fact, we wonder why such a thing was never marketed 15 or 20 years ago.

The CP-251 lets you route control voltage and provides additional modulation sources, such as sample and hold and an LFO. It brings synthesizer-like control to a wide variety of voltage-controlled gear.

The unit features an onboard CV mixer that accepts four CV signals at once. Two of these four inputs deliver +5V to the ring for use with expression pedals; the other two supply -5V to the tip for most other common CV needs. The mixer provides two outputs, one of which is 180 degrees out of phase relative to the other.

Four multiple jacks let you route a single control source to three destinations. You can also route two signals through a pair of attenuators, each having its own input and output; this lets you adjust the CV input's amplitude with the twist of a knob.

The CP-251 offers several onboard modulators. A lag processor with an attack/release envelope generator lets you reshape the control-signal waveform. An LFO that has two output jacks is provided; one output emits a square wave and the other a triangle wave. Grab the LFO knob or plug in an expression pedal, and you can sweep the LFO frequency from 0.2 to 50 Hz. A white-noise generator serves as an audio source or a randomized control signal. The sample-and-hold circuit is great for producing stepped control waveforms; patching in white noise randomizes sample-and-hold effects. This is big fun when controlling pitch or filter frequencies. For kinder, gentler modulation, a second sample-and-hold output sends a smoothed version of the waveform.

The CP-251 brilliantly borrows from the modular analog synthesis tradition and provides enormous flexibility in reshaping modulation. If a device that modulates modulators seems a bit abstract, just connect the CP-251 to a signal processor or two, plug in your guitar, and have fun!

Ancillary SoftwareFXPANSIONVST-DX ADAPTER 2.1 (Win; $60)Although we'd never say that Mac users have all the fun, the Mac has an edge on the PC in certain categories. One of those is the ability to use VST plug-in effects: the plug-in standard on the PC is DirectX, and only a few Windows programs can use the many excellent VST plug-ins on the market.

FXpansion's VST-DX Adapter utility changes all that by converting VST plug-ins into DirectX format, giving PC users access to the same tools their Mac counterparts have enjoyed for some time. As long as your audio software supports DirectX format, as most do, you can enhance your audio toolbox with dozens of free and commercial VST plug-ins.

VST-DX Adapter is mostly transparent to the user. There are no fancy bells or whistles here; just a straightforward, hard-working tool to do an important job. After installing the program, you'll see VST-DX Adapter listed in your software's DirectX plug-in menu. Just click on Adapter, and when its screen appears, load any of the VST plug-ins you have on your system. Don't worry about adding latency to the effects-processing chain; Adapter doesn't affect timing.

VST-DX Adapter is also available in a free version that has fewer features. You won't find MIDI automation or VST Instrument support in the free version, for example. But whichever version you use, this excellent utility will open the door to the world of VST plug-ins for every PC user.

Audio CardDIGIGRAM VXPOCKET (Mac/Win; $729)Using a notebook computer as a digital audio workstation has long been a dream for virtually all musicians who want to travel with their studio. Unfortunately, this dream has been deferred due to a shortage of I/O options. Digigram's easily installable VXpocket PC (PCMCIA) card changes all that for owners of Macintosh and Windows notebook computers, offering 16- or 24-bit, full-duplex, stereo recording capability at up to 48 kHz.

The VXpocket doesn't need a bulky breakout box: its I/O is on a 15-pin connector that attaches to the card. Its analog inputs and outputs are on two pairs of balanced XLR jacks, and S/PDIF I/O is on RCA coax connectors. A handy mixer applet lets you adjust the overall gain and switch between line and mic levels.

The card ships with Sound Manager and ASIO drivers for the Mac and with Wave and ASIO drivers for Windows. Installing the card and its drivers was a breeze, and our reviewer was recording in two minutes. Recording a CD through the VXpocket's analog inputs at 24-bit resolution yielded quiet and uncolored digital audio that was virtually indistinguishable from the source material.

At the time of our review, Digigram was readying the release of a version 2 upgrade for the VXpocket that adds LTC SMPTE input for synchronized recording. Version 2 is now shipping, and owners of the original version need only to spring for an input cable, because the original VXpocket has built-in support for time code. If you have been longing to convert your laptop computer into a digital audio workstation, Digigram's VXpocket is a convenient and elegant way to do it.

Audio-Editing SoftwareSTEINBERGWAVELAB 3.0 (Win; $599)Steinberg's WaveLab entered the world a few years back as a simple, well-designed, 2-track audio editor for Windows. By version 2.0, the program matured into a more sophisticated editor packed with an assortment of cool-looking hardware-style plug-ins. WaveLab 3.0 retains many of its predecessor's features, including support for 24-bit, 96 kHz files; support for WAV, AIFF, AU, MP3, and other formats; real-time 32-bit floating-point processing; audio scrubbing; batch processing with VST and DirectX plug-ins; CD burning; and sampler support.

Despite the similarities, however, WaveLab 3.0 represents a quantum leap beyond earlier versions: Steinberg added a ton of powerful features, improved performance, and transformed the whole program into a hybrid 2-track/multitrack editing system. With the addition of the Audio Montage window, WaveLab lets you assemble multitrack compositions by arranging audio clips in a user-friendly, nondestructive environment.

Without resorting to keyboard commands, you can quickly combine clips, create crossfades, generate volume and pan curves using rubber-band-style envelopes, and apply up to ten VST plug-in effects. Best of all, these features were added to the program without sacrificing WaveLab's intuitive user interface, with its thoughtful layout and excellent use of color. As we pointed out in our feature story on Windows audio editors (see "Making Tracks" in the April 2000 issue of EM), "WaveLab's user interface boasts a level of flexibility and versatility that is seldom seen in audio software."

Versatility is the key word with WaveLab 3.0. For example, if your mouse has a scroll wheel, WaveLab lets you use it to navigate through waveform displays, zoom in and out horizontally or vertically, change values in edit fields, and adjust the master volume faders. The program also offers a bucketful of sophisticated editing tools for surgically altering waveforms, designing sounds, mastering audio for CDs, and preparing broadcast and multimedia soundtracks. The package includes noise reduction, time stretching, pitch shifting, harmonization, SMPTE time-code support, a Marker toolbar, high-quality VU meters, a 600-page printed manual, and the best- looking 3-D FFT display on the market.

We could go on, but you get the idea. WaveLab 3.0 has "winner" written all over it.

DAW Control SurfaceROLAND EDU-8 USB DIGITAL STUDIO (Win; $649)Like so many other areas of technology, studio gear is getting smaller and smaller. But who would have thought that you could pack so much power into a device as compact as Roland ED's U-8 USB Digital Studio? This system combines audio and MIDI I/O with built-in effects and connects to your PC through the ubiquitous USB bus. The system offers a wizardlike EZ Recording feature that makes the recording process nearly foolproof, and it has enough inputs to support almost any type of device you might want to connect to it.

The U-8's nine faders give you a flexible way to control all your recording and mixing moves; mixing with this surface sure beats using a mouse! The dedicated transport controls and scroll wheel provide a far more pleasurable experience than constant clicking with a little rodent. The box contains everything you need: the lightweight and slim U-8, a USB cable, a startup manual, and a copy of the customized digital audio sequencing software you've chosen (several options are available). The unit also ships with a standalone tuning application, which is a nice bonus, especially if you play guitar.

The U-8's onscreen Mixer window gives you numerous routing and mixing options and lets you adjust the levels of incoming audio and existing audio tracks. It also provides access to the Effects screen, where you can edit effects, save presets, and map the unit's physical controls to various effects parameters. Though the U-8 doesn't support audio in any format better than CD quality, it does offer both analog and digital (optical) audio I/O, so you'll have no trouble getting sound to or from anywhere you want. Though the unit is best suited for use with the optimized software that accompanies it, the technical manual provides enough information to let you tweak your own software for use with the U-8.

Whether you're a budding desktop musician looking for a compact system or a professional in need of an auxiliary audio and MIDI interface, the U-8 is a great solution for your needs.

Digital Audio SequencerMARK OF THE UNICORNDIGITAL PERFORMER 2.7 (Mac; $795)Boy oh boy, do we hate this category! It's not that we hate digital audio sequencers; in fact, we love them. We hate the category because it's always so hard to pick a winner.

A good sequencer is the heart and soul of many a desktop studio, and personal preferences inevitably play a big role in choosing a favorite. This year's top vote getters - Emagic's Logic Audio Platinum 4.5 (Mac/Win), Steinberg's Cubase VST/32 5.0 (Win), and MOTU's Digital Performer 2.7 (Mac) - are all powerful, mature programs with amazing depth and mind-boggling feature sets.

Our first instinct was to run in the other direction and not give an award, but on further reflection, we felt that we couldn't wimp out. So we put on our MIDI pith helmets and cautiously entered the software savanna on a quest to bag a winner. After much careful consideration, we emerged with a winner. Although all three programs introduced significant upgrades, Digital Performer 2.7 generated the greatest enthusiasm from the greatest number of judges - and for good reason.

Version 2.7 adds substantial features to a program already lauded for its well-designed and elegant user interface. For example, the new multitrack Drum Editor window provides graphic drum-machine-style composing and editing with four different view modes and unparalleled control over a range of parameters. MOTU also added three new effects to the program's excellent collection of plug-ins: a multimode filter, a stereo delay, and a ring modulator. Moreover, all of Digital Performer's plug-in effects can be fully automated with 32-bit, floating-point, sample-accurate control. The program supports beat/tempo-based automation (so effects changes can happen in time with the music) and also provides real-time MIDI control and sidechain input control over effects parameters.

If timing is everything, MOTU is definitely on top. First it introduced MIDI Time Stamping technology, which boasts a MIDI timing accuracy of well within a millisecond when you combine Digital Performer with one of MOTU's USB MIDI interfaces. In version 2.7, the company gave its flagship program an adjustable display/edit resolution of up to 10,000 ppqn with an internal resolution of about 2 trillion ppqn. Film composers will love Digital Performer's new Find Tempo feature: you set up a hits master list and weight the hits by importance, and the program calculates the best tempo to catch the greatest number of critical hits.

Other new features deserve special mention. For example, Digital Performer now offers exceptional support for Mackie's HUI control surface. The program also added several enhancements to its audio-editing capabilities, including graphic time stretching, scrubbing while trimming, multiple punch-in/out recording, cycle recording, and ReWire support.

The competition was brutal this year, but when we took a close look, Digital Performer's blend of sophistication, power, and innovation really knocked our socks off. This is one tough program to beat.

DSP Plug-InWAVE MECHANICS SPEED 1.0 (Mac/Win; $495)WAVES C4 (Mac/Win; Native $400; TDM $800)This category is always competitive because new DSP plug-ins sprout like grass in the spring. This year, we considered fine offerings from TC Works, Antares, FXpansion, Ultrafunk, and several other companies. We ended up with a tie between Wave Mechanics' Speed and Waves' C4. We argued with each other, we pleaded, we threatened, we tried bribes, but when we flipped a coin and it landed on its edge, we surrendered to the inevitable.

Wave Mechanics' Speed for AudioSuite came out on top because it employs high-quality time compression in creative and useful ways, yet it's easy to use. Speed's user interface makes it simple to process speed and pitch simultaneously and independently: the Speed knob adjusts the tempo, and the Pitch knob changes the pitch in semitones or cents. You can audition your edit before finalizing it. After setting the parameters, you simply click on the Process button and let Speed do its thing.

One of Speed's great beauties is its ability to perform time-compression chores. Calculator mode lets you alter time and pitch by percentages, and in Length mode you can select an ideal audio-file region and use its length to make other regions conform to the same time frame. Perhaps Speed's most intriguing feature is Graphical mode. Here, you are presented with an overview of the audio file and two color-coded lines representing speed or pitch. Grabbing either line creates a handle that you can drag to change tempo or pitch. Drag a point on the time line, and you have accelerando without pitch change. Creating a pitch envelope independent of tempo is equally simple. Clicking on any handle brings up a field where you can type a precise value for fine-tuning your edits.

Speed's combination of elegance, ease of use, and just plain usefulness made it a winner.

At the same time, Waves' C4 really caught our attention with its very impressive combination of professional-level audio quality and extreme flexibility. Available for Mac VST, MAS, RTAS, TDM, and AudioSuite, and for Windows DirectX, C4 goes far beyond the prosaic one-trick-pony compressor/limiter plug-ins that we see so often. It's a true multiband processor, offering four independent bands of compression, expansion, and parametric EQ.

In essence, Waves combined four of its renowned Renaissance Compressors into a single window to provide 4-band upward and downward expansion, limiting, and compression, along with dynamic and standard EQ. Best of all, you can perform these processes independently or simultaneously with complete control over each band's crossover points, gain, and frequency range. Unlike single-band compressors that react to peaks in the bass line by compressing the whole mix, C4 lets you precisely tailor the processing to solve your specific mixing and mastering problems: compress the bass, expand the midrange, and EQ the high-end all at once, and preview the changes as you make them.

We found that C4 is exceptionally good at tightening low frequencies, such as kick drum and bass guitar; de-essing vocals; and adding high-end gloss to vocal harmonies. It also works well for noise reduction, such as removing hiss and hum. What's more, the dynamic, parametric EQ doesn't just boost or cut a range of frequencies all the time by the same amount. Instead, it functions like a compressor, adjusting the EQ in response to the input signal. That lets you do things like make the high-end brighter as the signal gets quieter or EQ the bass only on peaks above a certain threshold. Of course, you can also use C4 as a static EQ.

One of the features we like most about C4 is its innovative DynamicLine graphic display, which shows the actual gain changes as an EQ display with select-and-drag capability. Waves combined the gain-reduction metering with the crossover display to show exactly how the settings affect the audio.

C4 is an impressive desktop studio tool. Its phase-compensated crossover and 48-bit internal processing yield excellent results without coloring the sound. With its well-designed user interface and big bag of processing tricks, C4 easily deserves its share of this award.

Dynamics Processors (hardware)WAVES L2 ULTRAMAXIMIZER ($2,395)For years, mastering engineers relied on computer-based mastering compressors to maximize a mix's overall level. That gives a song destined for radio a competitive level by sending the hottest possible signal to the mastering device to take advantage of the CD's 16-bit capacity. Of the various software solutions, Waves' L1 Ultramaximizer is an established favorite. In 2000, Waves released its first hardware device, the L2 Ultramaximizer, and a praiseworthy entry it is, too (for a review of the L2, see p. 158 in this issue).

Like its software sibling, the L2 performs limiting and normalization without adding coloration. Thanks to Waves' Increased Digital Resolution (IDR) technology, the L2 provides dithering for word-length reduction without audible artifacts, while at the same time bringing low-level information (for example, reverb tails and the room sound) forward in the mix. Unlike the file-based L1, the L2 lets you work in real time, which makes the L2 handy for any situation that requires limiting to avoid digital overs, such as recording rough mixes to DAT or CD-R.

Besides the convenience of real-time processing, the L2 offers individual input level control over each channel, 48-bit internal processing, and support for sampling rates up to 96 Khz and word lengths up to 24 bits. Waves put high quality 24-bit converters in the L2, with XLR and 11/44-inch jacks for analog I/O and standard AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital I/O. You can use both digital outputs simultaneously, letting you master two devices at once. Despite the professional features, however, it's easy to set up and use the L2. Every parameter is available on the front panel, so you don't have to wade through pages and menus.

Granted, the L2's power and transparency don't come cheap. But if you want to fortify your mixes with enough power to compete in the big leagues, the L2 is worth the investment.

Effects Processor, Analog (hardware)METASONIXTS-21 HELLFIRE MODULATOR ($749)The TS-21 Hellfire Modulator harks back to electronic music's roots. This handcrafted, fully analog tube effects processor uses wave-shaping techniques to distort audio signals. The TS-21 has five vacuum tubes and works best with triangular, sawtooth, and square waves ranging from 10 mV to 10V peak to peak. It was designed to use with modular analog synthesizers, and you can set the TS-21 into self-oscillation and use it as a sound generator. The tubes run at a conservative level, which keeps the noise floor to a minimum and the operating temperature down, even after hours of use.

The first stage in the signal path is a pentode tube preamp with an externally controlled VCA for modifying the audio signal's volume contour. Next, the signal travels through a pulse-width modulator and a sheet-beam modulator, both adding considerable nonlinear distortion as they make the signal fold over on itself. An LFO at the end of the signal path gives you stereo panning at the output, with independent control over each channel's pan rate.

The TS-21 is so volatile that you must take great care when adjusting the front-panel controls; even the slightest movement can cause substantial changes in the signal: turn a knob too quickly, and you may miss something interesting.

It's refreshing to find a tube distortion device designed with audiophile sensibilities. If you're looking for something to give your guitar unlimited sustain, you'll have to go elsewhere. The TS-21 was designed with more unusual goals in mind.

Effects Processor, Digital (hardware)LEXICON MPX 500 ($599)Lexicon's MPX 500 fills the price and feature gap between the stellar MPX 1, which snagged an Editors' Choice award in 1998, and the entry-level MPX 100, which, at $299, is arguably the best bargain found in a hardware multi-effects processor. The new machine had to be very good to win this award over hot competition. The TC Electronic M-1 and D-2 gave the MPX 500 a particularly tough run for the gold, but in the end, we couldn't resist the variety and quality of effects Lexicon delivered, especially for such a modest price.

Like its MPX cousins, the MPX 500 derives its power from Lexicon's proprietary Lexichip. It boasts 24-bit digital converters and 24-bit internal processing. Like the MPX 100, the MPX 500's focus remains on presets. What pushes the MPX 500 into the next class is its user interface, which includes a well-organized LCD, a generous editing allowance, and an ability to store up to 30 user programs.

Four dedicated Edit buttons offer easy access to as many as 16 editable parameters per program. A variety of global parameters are available, including Output Level, Input Source, Clock Source (internal 44.1 or 48 kHz, or external S/PDIF), and modes such as Mix, Bypass, Tempo, Program Load, and Digital Output. (You can set the latter to allow independent use of the MPX 500's A/D converter.) The unit also provides a Tap Tempo button, footswitch jack, extensive MIDI implementation (including a Learn mode), and a full bag of I/O options. If you need icing on that cake, you'll be happy to learn that the MPX 500 boasts a built-in power supply rather than a pesky wall wart.

The MPX 500's killer sound and its wealth of useful presets cinch the deal. The unit's 240 programs (including several true stereo effects) are organized logically by type into 25 banks; you can call up any two of the programs simultaneously and position them in one of four routing configurations. Our reviewer - who owns an MPX 1 - was happy with nearly all the presets, and was downright thrilled with several of them. He especially liked the tremolo effects - but then, he's a guitarist, so what can you expect?

Effects Processor, Software (standalone)SOUNDS LOGICALWAVEWARP 1.2 (Win; $199)We haven't seen many new standalone effects processors this year; most new effects-processing programs are plug-ins. But one program gives new meaning to the term effects processor: Sounds Logical's WaveWarp is not just a standalone effects processor, it's an entire processor-construction kit.

WaveWarp's toolkit includes more than 200 components with which you can build an endless number of signal-processing routines. Not happy with your audio editor's reverb? Build your own with the numerous filters and delays. Looking to re-create that classic Hendrix distortion? Grab one of the many wave shapers, and you'll be off to a good start. You'll also find phasers, flangers, pitch shifters, and dynamics processors, along with a massive number of analysis tools to keep you informed about what shape your audio is in.

But that's not the end of WaveWarp's capabilities. Among its many tricks, here's one of our favorites: you can process live audio so that it plays backward in near-real time. (To achieve this, you need a slight buffering of the data, so there's a very slight amount of latency.) To give your sounds that perfect "splice and dice" effect, load up one of the several sound-file granulators, and you're on your way. If building a reverb from scratch is not your idea of a good time, use any of the more than 200 example processors that ship with the system. With all those choices, you'll definitely find something that suits your fancy.

We commend Sounds Logical for pricing WaveWarp so reasonably, and we're impressed with the extensive online help the company offers, which is completely integrated and accessible from within the program. The case studies the company offers show you in great detail how to create numerous types of audio processors from the ground up.

A few weeks before press time, Sounds Logical released a 2.0 version, and we can't wait to get our hands on it. The new version lets you use your own or the example effects (with slight modification) as DirectX plug-ins. (Talk about the "the endless plug-in"!) WaveWarp may be the last effects software you ever buy.

Mastering RecorderALESIS MASTERLINK ML-9600 ($1,699)As a recording project's final destination, the mastering recorder is a critical piece of gear. If you master in software, you have lots of choices. But many people would rather master to a removable-media device that is acceptable to CD replicators, such as DAT or CD-R. CD-R is increasingly popular for this purpose. Unfortunately, CDs are restricted to 16-bit resolution - at least, they were until Alesis introduced the Masterlink ML-9600.

Masterlink is a standalone mastering device that combines a 2-channel hard disk recorder with an internal 4.3 GB hard drive, digital effects, and a built-in CD burner. Right there, you have an extremely useful combination of features rarely found in a stereo device. (How many DAT machines have you seen that have digital effects and a CD burner?) The onboard DSP effects include a compressor, a peak limiter/normalizer, and a 3-band parametric EQ. That's a pretty complete array of mastering effects.

The recorder lets you add fades, organize tracks into multiple playlists, combine audio with different sampling frequencies and word lengths in the same playlist, and perform sample-rate conversion and word-length reduction as you burn a CD. Sure, you can find these features elsewhere, but not in your average DAT deck or CD-R burner.

But what sets Masterlink apart is its ability to deliver 19 minutes of 24-bit, 96 kHz stereo audio on a regular CD-R blank in the Alesis CD24 format or 24-bit AIFF files in the ISO-9660 CD-ROM format. The latter lets any DAW with ISO-9660 CD-ROM capabilities read a Masterlink-created disc. You can't do that with any other CD burner. Of course, the Masterlink can also read and write standard 16-bit Red Book CDs and 16- and 20-bit AIFF files, so it's compatible with your older discs and devices.

This is the first stereo recorder in a long time that completely changes the way we master. It boasts high-quality sound, enough hard drive space for several CDs, all the essential mastering effects, and a straightforward user interface - all at a very reasonable price. Giving it an Editors' Choice award was a no-brainer.

Microphone (less than $1,000)AUDIO-TECHNICA AT4047/SV ($695)Our reviewer called it "heavenly sound at a down-to-earth price" - a description that pretty much sums up why Audio-Technica's new AT4047/SV large-diaphragm condenser mic launched us into orbits of enthusiasm. Of course, we've long been fans of A-T's venerable 40 series of side-address mics. The AT4050/CM5, for example, snagged our 1995 Editors' Choice award, and among our circle of personal-studio friends, the AT4033 is somewhat of a staple.

With a nod to days of old, the 4047 breaks new ground for Audio-Technica. Designed to emulate the sound of vintage F.E.T. microphones, it distinguishes itself from other 40-series, large-diaphragm mics with a generous bass response, and an overall warmer, sweeter sound. This is achieved by means of a transformer-coupled output, a "pre-aged" diaphragm, and - despite its cardioid-only polar response - a dual-diaphragm configuration. Go figure. The mic provides a 10 dB pad and 80 Hz highpass filter and comes equipped with a quality shock-mount and plastic storage case.

Our reviewer loved the 4047 on virtually every source, including male and female vocals, acoustic guitar, trumpet, trombone, tuba, flute, saxophone, and percussion. He was blown away to find that it compared very closely to his best studio mic, the venerable AKG Tube. Indeed, he was so impressed by the 4047 that he ended up buying two of them for his commercial studio. You can't ask for a better endorsement than that.

Microphone (more than $1,000)BALTIC LATVIAN UNIVERSAL ELECTRONICSDRAGONFLY ($1,095)In case you haven't heard the buzz, a Dragonfly could be headed your way - that is, if you're in the market for a premium-quality microphone that won't set you back more than a few car payments. Devoted EM readers may recall that Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics (BLUE) got our Editors' Choice thumbs-up last year for its sleek Blueberry microphone. Well, hang on to your mic cables, because BLUE did it again - and this time with a much more versatile mic at a lower price.

The stylish and aptly named Dragonfly is a dream come true for personal-studio connoisseurs. We're talking old-world, hand-built craftsmanship and Class A, transformerless F.E.T. electronics. The hip design features an integral swivel/shock-mount that makes for quick setup, and the unique, spherical capsule assembly can rotate nearly 360 degrees in either direction, providing easy positioning tweaks even after the mic is locked into place. Professional engineers, too, will love the Dragonfly, if only for its great sound, excellent transient response, and remarkably low (7 dBA) self-noise.

As large-diaphragm condensers go, the Dragonfly is flatter and smoother than most, with a largely uncolored, unhyped sound. Yet the sound has a slight "tube-y" quality. Only in the upper frequencies (10 to 15 kHz) is any boosting evident, resulting in exquisitely airy highs, great detail, and an accurate overall response. That, combined with the mic's exceptional transient response, makes the Dragonfly an excellent choice for a wide range of instruments, including drums and percussion, acoustic guitar, electric-guitar and bass-guitar cabinets, and saxophones. Though it has plenty of presence, the Dragonfly's lack of boosting in the 5 kHz region renders it somewhat less seductive sounding on vocals than certain other, more hyped mics. But even here it performs very admirably.

If you're looking for versatility, superb sound, first-rate construction, and snazzy yet practical styling, the Dragonfly delivers that and more at a very reasonable price.

MIDI ControllerNEARFIELD MULTIMEDIAMARIMBA LUMINA ($3,500)In the past, Don Buchla created a number of instruments that have performance capabilities beyond that of mainstream controllers. His latest creation, the Marimba Lumina (manufactured and distributed by Nearfield Multimedia), continues this trend. Its interface is familiar but strange, yet it offers a welcome challenge to the adventurous musician.

At first glance, the Marimba Lumina resembles a traditional 3 11/42-octave mallet controller. However, the instrument transcends this conventional interface by using radio sensors in the bars, pads, and strips that sense tuned circuitry embedded in each of the four color-coded foam mallets. This radio-frequency antenna technology lets the Marimba Lumina track each of the mallets independently and gives the performer a wide range of control options.

For example, you can program the Marimba Lumina to sustain a note when a mallet is held down on the bar, in the same way a note is sustained on a keyboard. You can map the location where you strike the bar and the subsequent movement of the mallet (for example, sliding it up or down the bar) to control any parameter. One of the factory presets lets you open and close a filter by sliding a mallet along a bar. However, you could program this same gesture to send note messages from a user-defined tuning table, for instance. If you set the instrument's sensitivity to a high enough value, you can trigger notes merely by moving the mallets within the proximity of the bars.

Among the list of user-definable parameters are keymaps, Velocity maps, tuning tables, and transposition options. You can send continuous controller data on two different channels, with the option of inverting the data values in one of the channels. The Marimba Lumina comes with a built-in Yamaha DB51 XG synthesizer, so it's ready to play right out of the box.

The Marimba Lumina's feature set seems exotic at first. However, it was designed to give musicians the flexibility to explore new ways of music making, which is a noble attribute for an instrument designed for the 21st century.

Modular Hard Disk RecorderTASCAM MX-2424 ($3,999)This year's winner in the modular hard disk recorder category was a shoo-in. Okay, it was almost the only candidate in that category, but we wouldn't give an award at all if we didn't feel it was deserved. The Tascam MX-2424 is the first 24-bit, 24-track standalone HDR to fall within the budget of the personal-studio owner. Until recently, a comparable HDR would have set you back three to five times as much.

The MX-2424 has all of the features you would expect on a fully professional recorder. There are 999 virtual tracks, 100 levels of undo/redo, and 99 locate points. Two record modes - destructive (TL-Tape) and nondestructive - are available, as well as editing essentials such as cut, copy, paste, loop, and rehearse. In addition, TL-Tape mode lets you save recorded tracks as Sound Designer II files, so you can export them to any compatible DAW.

The MX-2424 performs real-time sample-rate conversion and offers a wide variety of I/O, clock, and sync options, so you can use it in almost any recording environment. The unit comes with a 9.1 GB drive and a front-loading drive bay for an optional SCSI hard drive, DVD-RAM device, or Travan tape-backup system. The recorder also is bundled with ViewNet, a cross-platform application that gives you computer-keyboard control over editing, naming, and virtual-track features and offers file-management functions. The machine records at up to 48 kHz, but future upgrades will support 88.2 and 96 Khz sampling and add a ViewNet waveform editor.

The MX-2424's list price doesn't include the necessary 24-channel I/O modules required for multitrack recording. These will set you back anywhere from $499 for the ADAT Optical I/O module to $1,699 for the analog I/O module. So it's more realistic to think of this as at least a $5,700 purchase. Another option, the RC-2424 ($1,499), gives you transport-control functions as well as access to features that are otherwise inaccessible from the front panel.

But even with these additions, the MX-2424 is priced well below comparable high-resolution HDRs. Once configured, the MX-2424 puts high-resolution sound quality and professional recording features at your fingertips.

Monitor SpeakerHAFLER M5 ($299 each)Hafler's stunning TRM8 powered monitor was an Editors' Choice award winner in 1998; this past year, Hafler found the sweet spot again with the much smaller - and more passive - M5. Despite their diminutive dimensions, the M5s possess several of the same qualities that we love about the TRM8s, including accurate response, excellent imaging, great depth of field, and first-rate construction. Also like the TRM8s, the M5s proved remarkably nonfatiguing, even after all-day monitoring sessions.

The two models share a proprietary waveguide design - that thing around the tweeter - that widens the sweet spot and helps establish the "phantom" center image. Other features include optical-protection circuitry for the tweeter and a switch that lets you reduce the tweeter's level by 3 Db - located, handily, on the front panel, where you can switch it and listen at the same time.

With 5-inch woofers, the M5s are a bit weak in bass reproduction (low-frequency response is rated at 70 Db), so a subwoofer is recommended if you intend to make these your sole monitors for critical mixing applications. But the M5s don't employ smoke-and-mirrors schemes to try and overcompensate for the laws of physics, like some small monitors we've heard. Of course, their compactness makes them ideal for professional monitoring in tight spaces, and the magnetically shielded woofers ensure worry-free use when the M5s are positioned close to computer monitors.

But don't make the mistake of thinking of these monitors as "multimedia speakers" - at least not in the usual sense of the phrase. The M5s are professional-quality monitors all the way. And with 100W RMS and 200W peak-power ratings, they pack quite a wallop, too.

Most Innovative ProductROLAND VP-9000 VARIPHRASE PROCESSOR ($3,295)TACTEX MTC EXPRESS MIDI CONTROLLER ($495)When it came time to select the Most Innovative Product, we found ourselves with a tie between two very different devices: a hardware-based processor that gives you unprecedented real-time control over samples; and a futuristic, multidimensional control surface.

Roland's VP-9000 VariPhrase Processor is the first hardware device to give you independent control over the pitch, speed, and formant of a sample. For instance, it lets you repitch portions of a sample without affecting the sample's length or alter the sample's time without changing its pitch or resonant characteristics. The Formant function is particularly interesting because it controls the resonant characteristics of a sound. You can use it to transform the gender of a vocal sample or the spectral content of an instrument.

Another important feature of the VP-9000 is its ability to sync a number of unrelated loops to a single, user-specified key and tempo. Furthermore, it includes a Groove control that, in theory, adds or removes swing in a sampled rhythm. You can tweak these functions using the dedicated front-panel controls or through MIDI. This makes the VP-9000 a great device for both studio use and live remixing.

Several other features and extras further sweeten the deal. The VP-9000 has a 250 MB Zip drive and reads AIFF, WAV, Roland S-700, and Akai S1000 files, so it's easy to swap samples between it and other devices. The unit has independent, simultaneously available multi-effects (including COSM guitar-amp modeling), chorus, and reverb processors. To top it all off, Roland bundles a waveform editor with a full complement of editing functions, such as cut, copy, paste, and normalize.

Although it doesn't come cheap, the VariPhrase enables you to do useful and creative things not possible with other hardware devices. That makes it a winner in our book.

To understand our next winner in this category, reach over and touch your mouse pad. Go ahead, do it. Dig all five fingers into its cushy, padded surface and imagine that each finger is sending unique controller data in real time. This is what it's like to use the MTC Express from Tactex.

The touch-sensitive pad on the MTC Express is made from smart fabric, a wear-resistant material developed by the Canadian Space Agency that tracks the location and pressure of five contact points simultaneously. The pad has a positional resolution of 100 dpi and can measure 256 levels of pressure. This gives you a level of gestural subtlety that exceeds MIDI's bandwidth limits.

Here's how it works: an LED generates a measured amount of light, which is sent down a set of fiber-optic cables to an array of tiny pressure sensors called taxels. Taxels restrict the flow of light based on how much pressure is exerted on them. When you press on the pad, each affected taxel returns a reduced amount of light to a light sensor, which in turn instructs the unit's CPU that an amount of pressure z was exerted at location x-y. Certainly the technology is innovative enough.

But this isn't just about technology for technology's sake; the MTC Express has plenty of practical uses. You can use it to change multiple MIDI-controllable parameters simultaneously with the touch of a finger, which offers endless possibilities. For instance, you could have big fun using the Tactex pad to control the many parameters of Kurzweil's K2600, Lexicon's MPX 500, Yamaha's A5000, or Steinberg's PPG Wave 2.V - or a combination of these products.

The unit attaches to a PC's DB9 port or a Mac's serial port, and ships with a cross-platform application-programming interface (API) and an external object for users of Cycling `74's Max and MSP. A collection of Max and MSP patches is available free from the Tactex Controls Web site. It's obvious that Tactex has delivered a highly innovative product - and has done so under pressure.

Notation SoftwareCODA MUSIC TECHNOLOGYFINALE 2000 (Mac/Win; $545)Finale has long been the perennial favorite notation program of film and TV composers, music copyists, educators, commercial arrangers, and publishers. You can sum up the secret to its continued popularity in a single word: power. Surrounded by a growing field of competitors, Finale has retained a loyal following of dedicated users by offering a wide assortment of high-end tools and features unavailable elsewhere. In fact, Finale's great versatility continues to make it the benchmark for musicians seeking true publisher-quality printed output.

To mark its tenth anniversary, Coda introduced Finale 2000, which adds a number of important enhancements to the program. For example, it's now a breeze to get started on a score. A new Setup Wizard lets you choose instruments from a list, and then it automatically creates a blank score with the proper staves, clefs, names, and transpositions. It's very cool, but if you prefer, you can start from one of Finale's more than 40 templates for band, orchestral, and vocal scores. Coda also made the program more accessible in other ways. Novices will especially appreciate the printed step-by-step tutorials, and the Finale CD-ROM includes several excellent QuickStart videos that demonstrate the program's main features.

In spite of boasting some of the best-looking printed output on the market, Finale has once again raised the bar as it enters the new millennium. Finale 2000 features Maestro, a completely new music font that was meticulously designed by Coda in consultation with European music publishers. In addition, the program employs a sophisticated new spacing algorithm that incorporates the Fibonacci series. The result is a highly refined, publisher-quality appearance that rivals the best engraved music. At the other end of the spectrum, Finale 2000 still offers its Jazz font, a handwritten-style font popular with commercial arrangers and session players. In fact, Finale 2000 is one of the few notation programs that supports a wide range of third-party alternate fonts. Finale also supports third-party plug-ins and comes with more than 40 plug-ins that perform tasks like creating piano reductions of orchestral scores, adjusting split points in piano music, checking instrument ranges, and creating tablature.

Although we reviewed Finale 2000 less than a year ago, Coda has already released Finale 2001, which adds several notable features. Among the list are new Internet publishing and distribution capabilities, integrated music-scanning technology, an expanded Setup Wizard, and the ability to transcribe melodies from a microphone input.

Finale's great use of color, extensive editing capabilities, comprehensive documentation, and unparalleled feature set make this cross-platform powerhouse a sure-fire winner in a field of noteworthy competitors.

Portable Digital StudioKORG D16 ($2,395)The D16 packs a host of features into a small package, sounds great, and is easy to learn. Small and light (just 4.4 pounds), it's extremely easy to tote to a gig or session. That's a hard combination to beat.

You can record up to 16 tracks of uncompressed 24- or 16-bit, 44.1 Khz audio. Choosing 24-bit recording will halve the number of available tracks to eight, but if you used up your full complement of tracks, you can free some up by bouncing everything to virtual tracks (eight per track) or overwriting a pair of existing tracks. Want to try that mixdown again? The D16 has up to 99 levels of undo.

You get eight balanced analog line-level inputs with dedicated trim controls. Two of these inputs can accept either XLR or 11/44-inch cables. There's also a dedicated 11/44-inch guitar input - a nice amenity for guitarists - and a built-in microphone for slating. Of course, you have stereo S/PDIF I/O, and both the D/A and A/D converters can do sample-rate conversion.

The editable multi-effects processor sounds great and offers everything from meat-and-potatoes dynamics processing, reverb, chorus, and EQ to wah wah (auto- or pedal-controlled), amp and vinyl simulation, Doppler effects, and ring modulation. You also get effects tailored for mixdown, including multiband dynamics processing. You even receive 215 built-in, high-quality rhythm patterns that you can arrange drum-machine-style.

The MIDI implementation is about as much as you can ask for on a portable unit. The D16 can send and receive MTC, MIDI Machine Control, and continuous controllers, so using it for dynamic mixing automation is a cinch. The unit also supports scene automation through MIDI Program Changes.

The D16 works just fine as a standalone unit, but it's simple to bring your computer into the act. The D16 can save and load WAV files to and from a FAT 16-format hard disk and can also load WAV files from CD. The D16 also supports several common CD-R and CD-RW drives for backing up data or Red Book audio.

Obviously, the D16 has plenty of features, but so do its rivals. What it came down to for us was the unit's combination of sound quality, ease of use, and compactness.

Preamp (less than $1,000)PRESONUS BLUE TUBE ($199)PreSonus is known for offering quality gear at low prices, but the really cool thing is that the company manages to consistently hit low price points for its premium products (such as the MP20 mic preamp, which picked up an EM Editors' Choice award last year) and for those designed more with the novice or budget recordist in mind.

In the amazingly affordable category ("It's the price, stupid!") is the Blue Tube, a half-rackspace, stereo mic/instrument preamp with features galore - not the least of which is a tube circuit with independent drive controls for dialing in tube distortion to taste. The mic preamps share a Sovtek 12AX7 tube and feature dual-servo gain stages, meaning no capacitors. Each channel provides a handy Neutrik combo connector on the front panel that accepts either XLR or 11/44-inch inputs (for mic or DI), as well as phantom power, a 20 dB pad, polarity reversal, and 8-segment output meters. In addition, the rear panel supplies 11/44-inch and XLR outputs for each channel.

We won't fudge by suggesting that this is the quietest preamp we've heard. But considering its price and feature set, we predict the Blue Tube will prove hard to beat. It's great as a quick distortion box for electric guitars or for fattening up digital samples or keyboards, and our reviewer liked being able to dial in a bit of tube warmth when recording stereo direct to DAT. To top it off, the Blue Tube is sturdily constructed and even kind of cute. Let us know if you hear of a better value in tube-based, stereo mic preamps.

Preamp (more than $1,000)LANGEVIN DUAL VOCAL COMBO ($2,000)Premium mic preamps are key ingredients in superlative recordings, and it's no secret that Manley Laboratories makes some of the finest. But until the Dual Vocal Combo (DVC) hit the street, not many people at the personal-studio level could entertain thoughts of owning a voice processor hand-built by the esteemed Manley Labs. (Units bearing the Manley Laboratories imprint are tube models, whereas Manley uses the Langevin name - which it has owned since the early 1990s - to designate its line of solid-state products.)

What makes the DVC so irresistible? Pretty much everything about it: the look, the build, the sound, the features - this box gets it right at nearly every turn. The unit employs a minimalist, all-discrete, Class A circuit design with custom-wound transformers on the mic inputs. Each mic channel provides 45 dB of clean, ultraquiet gain; phantom power (with locking switches); a wonderfully smooth and transparent electro-optical limiter; and some of the sweetest-sounding low- and high-shelving EQ we've heard. The limiter section provides independent, hard-wired bypasses; a Link switch for stereo operation; and two Sifam VU meters that can be independently switched to monitor gain reduction or output levels. Each channel has a direct input, and you'll find two TRS inputs on the rear panel for independent access to the limiter section. About the only features we pined for were phase-reversal switches.

Sonically, the DVC gets our highest marks (except for the DI section, which is a tad noisy). Our hard-to-please reviewer described the sound as "tightly focused and highly detailed" with "excellent tonal balance," and he praised the unit for helping him deliver some of his best-recorded tracks to date. Not only is the DVC a prime piece of audio real estate, it's also a lovely sight to behold.

Indeed, three members of our extended family (including the reviewer and one in-house editor) have already purchased DVCs, and others are saving their dollars. Among the die-hard recordists here at EM (we record, therefore we exist), no hardware processor stirred up quite as much excitement last year.

Sampler (hardware module)YAMAHA A5000 ($2,295)Is it a sampler, a synth, or a remix tool? The Yamaha A5000's strong feature set makes it a great candidate for all these applications. First, of course, this is a sampler, and mighty good one. The 126-voice polyphonic, 32-part multitimbral device comes with 128 MB of sample RAM - more than enough for most purposes - and supports Yamaha SCSI CD-R drives, so you can create your own sample CDs. The unit's consecutive-sampling feature greatly simplifies the task of multisampling musical instruments by automatically recording and mapping samples.

Like several previous and current Editors' Choice award winners (such as the E-mu E4XT Ultra, last year's winner in this category), the A5000 blurs the distinction between samplers and synthesizers. Its deep synthesis architecture sports three envelope generators and an LFO per sample. At the program level, additional LFOs include a programmable, stepped waveform with depth, slope, and duration parameters for each step. Apply steps to oscillator frequency, and you have a reasonable simulation of old-style analog step sequencing.

Furthermore, the A5000 delivers nine different smooth-sounding multimode filters, and you can configure them as dual filters. You also get six independent stereo-effects processors that deliver effects ranging from conventional to downright bizarre. You can arrange the six processors in series, parallel, or combinations of the two for complex animation.

Remixers will appreciate the Loop Divide feature, which creates beat-based slices from sampled grooves. If you can find inspiration in a toss of the dice, the Loop Remix feature has five preset and five user algorithms for randomly rearranging loop segments. If you find a reshuffled groove you like, you can save it as a sample.

The A5000 is also no slouch when it comes to MIDI implementation; you can even assign discrete MIDI Channels at the sample level. Of course, you can synchronize effects and any program's LFO to MIDI Clock for tempo-based fun.

All in all, the combination of sampling, sound design, and remix options made the A5000 the sampler module to beat in 2000.

Sampler (software, standalone)NEMESYS GIGASTUDIO 160 2.0 (Win; $699)When GigaSampler made its debut a couple of years ago, it raised more than a few eyebrows. The original hard-disk-based software turned a garden-variety PC into a monster sampler. Unhindered by the limitations of available RAM, GigaSampler could play loop-free, multisampled instruments of gargantuan size. Never satisfied, NemeSys has continued to tinker with its techno-wonder, and this past year it introduced its next big evolutionary step: GigaStudio 160. And what a step it is!

GigaStudio 160 supports 24-bit, 96 kHz audio, and if you have a multiport MIDI interface, you can pump 64 MIDI channels through the program's four independent ports. What's more, GigaStudio provides a whopping 160-note polyphony, with a high-end system. That's pretty impressive, but it's really just the start. NemeSys has also improved its state-of-the-art kernel-mode GSIF driver software to provide MIDI-to-audio latencies of less than 10 ms. When we first reviewed GigaSampler in 1999, only two sound cards supported the GSIF driver. By the time we reviewed GigaStudio (see p. 146 in this issue), that number had ballooned to 44, and it's still growing.

Aside from improvements under the hood, GigaStudio has also acquired a completely new graphical user interface, which includes a powerful, interactive QuickSound section for organizing, locating, and previewing samples and WAV files. Type in a few descriptive words, and the program searches your hard drive for the most likely matches. GigaStudio's support for 100Base-T networks means you can actually locate and play samples and instruments from remote drives as well.

GigaStudio's other enhancements include a new 32-bit, 32-channel mixer and a DSP section that offers a collection of built-in, high-quality, zero-latency effects such as reverb, chorus, flange, delay, EQ, and auto pan. Of course, you can automate and save your real-time mixes and effects settings. In addition, the improved Instrument Editor offers some impressive sound-design tools, such as multiple envelopes and crossfades, multimode resonant filters, and LFOs.

GigaStudio boasts many other powerful features, but we simply can't list them all here. With its unrivaled set of capabilities, GigaStudio will change the way many people think about sampling.

Sound-Design WorkstationSYMBOLIC SOUNDKYMA 5.0 (Mac/Win; $3,300)We've watched Symbolic Sound's Kyma system develop into an incredibly powerful sound-design workstation over the years, but version 5.0 really puts it over the top. There are so many new and enhanced features that we have to wonder whether there's anything this system can't do!

Using the new Timeline, for example, you can build complex sequences of single or multilayered sound-generating or processing functions. The system could transform from an FM synth into a sampler, then into an effects processor, either under your control or completely unattended. You can draw control values for any of the system's parameters directly in the Timeline and route the outputs of the Timeline's numerous tracks to any of up to eight discrete audio outputs.

It's easy to find your way around because the new Sound Browser displays all the sounds and patches you've saved, no matter where they are on your computer. You can preview sounds and processes from within the Sound Browser without even loading them into the system, and if you're working with a sample and want to try out numerous transformations, just assign the sample to the Default Sound and scroll through the list of different effects to hear how each one sounds.

The new release also features many new categories of sound-processing prototypes, and all of the functions have been organized into more logical groups. Spectral processors, vocoders, pitch shifters, and granulators are just a few of the many processes that contain new or enhanced functions.

Kyma has improved in other areas as well. For example, its developers found ways to get even more power from the hardware in existing systems. Best of all, a recent price reduction put Kyma well within the reach of many desktop musicians. No matter how you cut it, Kyma is still the most powerful sound-design workstation on the planet!

Sound ModuleKORG MS2000R ($799)If you thought that the MS2000R was simply a modeled emulation of Korg's vintage MS-20 synth, you'd be underestimating this new digital synthesizer. Korg modeled the MS-20, sure, but it also sweetened the pot by modeling its VC-10 vocoder and SQ10 analog sequencer, adding new waveforms and effects processing, and throwing in a touch of wave sequencing.

The feature set would be of little value if the synth didn't sound great. Fortunately, the MS2000R produces some of the best synth basses ever heard; in fact, some knowledgeable people prefer its modeled basses over the analog timbres of the MS-20, an opinion bordering on sacrilege these days.

Real-time control is practically a defining feature of analog synthesizers, and the MS2000R doesn't disappoint in this area. Modulation routings abound, and the front panel offers a generous assortment of modulation controls. As if that weren't enough, the MS2000R can capture your moves for posterity and play them back. Using the built-in Mod Sequencer, you can scan through as many as 16 DWGS waveforms, in the tradition of Korg's venerable Wavestation synths.

The Vocoder section is extremely flexible, allowing you to process external audio as well as the onboard sounds. The center frequencies of the 16 bandpass filters can be modulated manually or by any modulation source for some wild sweeping effects. You can also apply any of four preset formant shapes for further sound mangling.

The 16-step Mod Sequencer harks back to analog sequencers of the 1970s, but Korg didn't stop there: every program can hold a three-track sequence, which you can play forward, in reverse, or in a loop that alternates between the two. Each sequence controls a parameter that you can select from a list of 30 possible MIDI messages (including notes, of course). Playing a note from your controller establishes the key of the sequence, and playing a chord triggers parallel, transposed sequences.

The Korg MS2000R may have only four-voice polyphony, but when a synth is as much fun and as cool-sounding as this, it's time to stop counting beans and start playing.

Synthesizer (software, plug-in)STEINBERG/WALDORFPPG WAVE 2.V (Mac/Win; $199)Analog synth collectors, eat your hearts out! This past year brought more virtual versions of legacy sound hardware to the market than ever before. Although we gave careful consideration to Native Instruments' excellent B4 - easily the best Hammond organ emulation software we've heard (for a review of B4, see p. 202 in this issue) - Steinberg/Waldorf's PPG Wave 2.V VST Instrument came out on top.

PPG Wave 2.V offers nearly all of the features of the original PPG Wave 2.3 synthesizer at a price any musician can afford. Unlike many "legacy" hardware synths, the PPG was a hybrid that combined analog and digital circuitry. The unit utilized sets of fairly basic waveforms that were organized into tables, which it scanned over time to produce evolving, evocative timbres. (The Korg Wavestation is based on a similar concept.) The Wave 2.3 also had envelopes and filters in the signal path and was noted for the characteristic aliasing it produced.

Like the hardware synth, each of PPG Wave 2.V's 32 wavetables contains 64 waveforms. You can modify most characteristics of a sound - such as where the playback will start in the table - as the sound plays. Onscreen knobs are available to tweak the parameter values, but you can also map MIDI controller messages to parameters for vastly more powerful real-time manipulations. Modulation routings are numerous, and the addition of graphic envelopes in the virtual version makes it a tweaker's dream. If you have the CPU horsepower, you can run up to eight instances of the plug-in simultaneously. Like any VST Instrument, the audio output of the virtual Wave 2.V can be routed through the VST mixer, where you can treat it like any other audio source in the mix.

So forget about scanning the auctions and advertisements for that rare and expensive piece of PPG hardware. Just pick up a copy of PPG Wave 2.V and click your way to a world of fluttering, shimmering, and sweeping sounds.

Synthesizer (software, standalone)APPLIED ACOUSTICS SYSTEMSTASSMAN 1.2 (Win; $395)An impressive number of new software synthesizers appeared in the past year, but one soft synth stands out from the rest: AAS's Tassman, which offers one of the most unusual ways to generate sounds that you're likely to find. Tassman (see review on p. 186 of this issue) uses physical modeling to create the sounds of both acoustic and electronic instruments and offers a large library of models for your sonic designs.

In that library, you'll find bows, beams, bells, strings, membranes, and more, all of which you can combine and configure into any type of virtual instrument. You can change the characteristics of your instrument as it is playing: for example, you can alter a mallet's strength as it hits a string or change a mouthpiece's shape as you "blow" into a recorder. You can also map an instrument's parameters to any number of MIDI Control Change messages or customize the appearance of your devices in numerous ways. Tassman also offers numerous effects and has more than enough VCOs, VCAs, and envelope generators to build traditional analog-synth models.

Like other modular-synth builders, Tassman provides a Construction window in which you wire together the software's various modules. To build a synth, select a module in the Library window, click in the Construction window where you want the module to appear, then patch the various inputs and outputs of the modules you're using. Once you've created an instrument in Builder, you switch to Player to hear how it sounds. Of course, the more you know about how instruments actually work, the quicker you'll be able to build convincing simulations of instruments. But even with no background in acoustics, you can use the numerous examples as starting points, and, of course, experimentation is half the fun!

Tassman lets you record the output of your instruments directly to disk, and you can also load a WAV file off your drive and play it back straight or processed along with your synthetic designs. Although we wish the software had a single, integrated screen for building virtual instruments and for performing them, we can live with the few extra keystrokes needed to try out our designs because the modules just sound so darn good. We'd also like to see the latency lowered a bit, which apparently is also a top priority for the developer. The tutorials are among the best we've seen, and the Web site features new patches every time we look.

With the forthcoming release of a VST plug-in version of Tassman, you'll have even more ways to use this excellent program, which we think is among the most distinctive sound-design resources around today.

Synthesizer/Sampler (keyboard)KURZWEIL K2600 (88-key $6,820; 76-key $6,256)Kurzweil has earned a reputation for making ongoing and significant evolutionary enhancements to its products, and the K2600 is a perfect case in point. At first glance, you'll wonder what makes the new instrument different from its immediate predecessor, the K2500. Indeed, the changes are less dramatic than the differences between the K2000 and K2500, but they are noteworthy nevertheless.

The K2600's circuit boards were redesigned from scratch to increase the signal-to-noise ratio and double the Flash ROM, which holds the user-installable operating-system software. The analog outputs are now balanced on 11/44-inch TRS connectors.

Kurzweil's KDFX effects and 4 MB stereo-piano ROM are standard in the K2600 (they were optional in the K2500), and there are now four slots for optional waveform ROM blocks instead of two. Interestingly, the K2600 uses the same basic waveform ROM as the K2500, but it includes entirely new programs and setups - and plenty of them. The KDS digital-audio option is available for both the K2500 and K2600, but whereas the K2500 accommodates eight output channels only, the K2600's KDS provides eight channels of input and output.

Among the major new software features is Live Mode, which lets you process incoming audio through the instrument's V.A.S.T. and KDFX sections. Vocoder mode does just what its name implies, and RAM Tracks lets you record audio tracks in a MIDI sequence, much as you can in a digital audio sequencer, except that the recording is RAM-based rather than going directly to hard disk. Triple Mode is an extremely cool feature that provides many new V.A.S.T. algorithms and DSP blocks for each of three layers within a program, and the layers can be chained in various serial configurations, which opens up whole new worlds of sonic possibilities.

The K2600 represents a major upgrade to an already incredibly comprehensive and powerful keyboard instrument. Giving it this award was one of our easiest choices this year.

Alesis Corporation tel. (800) 525-3747 or (310) 255-3400; e-mail info@alesis.com; Web www.alesis.com

Applied Acoustics Systems tel. (888) 441-8277 or (514) 871-4963; e-mail info@applied-acoustics.com; Web www.applied-acoustics.com

Audio-Technica U.S., Inc. tel. (330) 686-2600; e-mail pro@atus.com; Web www.audio-technica.com

Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics (BLUE) tel. (818) 986-BLUE; e-mail blue@bluemic.com; Web www.bluemic.com

Big Briar, Inc. tel. (800) 948-1990 or (828) 251-0090; e-mail info@bigbriar.com; Web www.bigbriar.com

Coda Music Technology tel. (800) 843-2066 or (612) 937-9703; e-mail finalesales@codamusic.com; Web www.codamusic.com

Digigram, Inc. tel. (703) 875-9100; e-mail input@digigram.com; Web www.digigram.com

FXpansion tel. 44-0-7808-157-967; e-mail info@fxpansion.com; Web www.fxpansion.com

Hafler tel. (888) HAFLER1 or (480) 967-3565; e-mail sales@hafler.com; Web www.hafler.com

Korg USA, Inc. tel. (516) 333-9100; Web www.korg.com

Kurzweil Music Systems, Inc./Young Chang tel. (800) 421-9846 or (253) 589-3200; Web www.kurzweilmusicsystems.com

Lexicon, Inc. tel. (781) 280-0300; e-mail info@lexicon.com; Web www.lexicon.com

Manley Laboratories (Langevin) tel. (909) 627-4256; e-mail emanley@manleylabs.com; Web www.manleylabs.com

Mark of the Unicorn, Inc. (MOTU) tel. (617) 576-2760; e-mail info@motu.com; Web www.motu.com

Metasonix e-mail synth@metasonix.com; Web www.metasonix.com

Nearfield Multimedia tel. (310) 518-4277; e-mail multimedia@nearfield.com; Web www.multimedia.nearfield.com

NemeSys Music Technology tel. (877) NEMESYS or (512) 219-9181; e-mail info@nemesysmusic.com; Web www.nemesysmusic.com

PreSonus Audio Electronic tel. (800) 750-0323 or (225) 216-7887; e-mail presonus@presonus.com; Web www.presonus.com

Roland ED/Edirol Corporation North America (distributor) tel. (800) 380-2580 or (360) 332-4211; e-mail edirol@edirol.com; Web www.edirol.com

Roland Corporation U.S. tel. (323) 890-3700; Web www.rolandus.com

Sounds Logical e-mail info@soundslogical.com; Web www.soundslogical.com

Steinberg North America tel. (818) 678-5100; e-mail info@steinberg-na.com; Web www.steinberg-na.com

Symbolic Sound Corp. (Kyma) tel. (217) 355-6273; e-mail info-kyma@symbolicsound.com; Web www.symbolicsound.com

Tactex tel. (250) 480-1132; e-mail sales@tactex.com; Web www.tactex.com

Tascam tel. (323) 726-0303; Web www.tascam.com

Wave Mechanics tel. (877) COOL-EFX or (973) 746-9417; e-mail info@wavemechanics.com; Web www.wavemechanics.com

Waves tel. (865) 546-6115; e-mail sales@waves.com; Web www.waves.com

Yamaha Corporation of America tel. (714) 522-9011; e-mail info@yamaha.com; Web www.yamaha.com or www.yamahasynth.com

Most of our award-winning products have been evaluated in EM, either in reviews or in face-off/roundup-type features. A few reviews are still in progress, but our tests are either completed or far enough under way for us to feel confident about our conclusions.

An article title enclosed in quotes indicates that the product was covered in a feature rather than in a review. All other entries indicate reviews of the award-winning version.

All published articles - with the exception of those in the February 2001 issue - are available for download from the Article Archives section of the EM Web site, www.emusician.com. The February issue will be available online next month.