In 1992, then-managing editor Steve O and associate publisher Carrie Anderson dreamed up the Editors' Choice Awards. We were convinced that we had a good idea; we were less certain that our bosses would agree. Indeed, publisher Peter Hirschfeld initially feared that companies who didn't win would be infuriated, but we convinced him that if the awards were carefully researched and honestly selected, the manufacturers would respect the awards and the spirit in which they were given. Editor Bob O'Donnell agreed, and away we went. The first set of awards was announced in the December 1992 issue; after that, we shifted the annual awards to our January issue, where they have become an honored tradition.
This year, we have 31 categories and 33 winners. (We had two ties we were unable to resolve.) The number of awards varies slightly each year because we add new categories and drop old ones, reflecting the creation of new product types and the presence or absence of outstanding candidates in existing categories. For example, this year we added a DSP Cards category because of hot new cards that we felt were especially noteworthy. The Monitor Speakers category is on sabbatical, while MIDI Keyboard Controllers appear for the first time since 1995. Some categories have changed fundamentally: Voice Processor used to mean a channel strip for mics, combining a mic preamp, EQ, and compressor; now the term indicates a vocal-harmony processor and/or pitch corrector.
On the other hand, the way we select the winners has remained constant. All award-winning products have been field-tested by our editors and a select group of top authors. We also solicited opinions from the editors of sister publications Mix, Onstage, and Remix. The final selections were made by our technical editors: Steve O, Marty Cutler, Brian Knave, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, David Rubin, and Geary Yelton. All award-winning products either have already been reviewed in EM or are far enough along in review tests that we feel confident about our conclusions (see the sidebar "The Award Winners in Review").
To be eligible, the products must have shipped between October 1, 2001, and October 1, 2002, when we prepare our January issue. We allow some slack for products that shipped so close to last year's deadline that it was not possible for us to test them in time for the 2002 awards. We do not allow such slack if we believe a manufacturer could have supplied a review unit in time for last year but intentionally delayed sending it.
Keep in mind that these are our picks among the new products we have actually tested; we cannot consider the many products we never got to check out, and we do not consider older products. We give an award to a software upgrade only if we think it offers major and significant improvements over the previous version.
And now, please join us in congratulating the winners of the 11th annual EM Editors' Choice awards!
PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 ($950)
For more than a decade, Little Labs has been quietly creating a collection of well-designed tools for professional recording engineers. The PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 signal splitter and router is a master of many trades and could easily be an integral part of a personal studio that tracks live instruments.
To begin with, the PCP Instrument Distro allows you to send a high-impedance signal to three separate destinations without a loss in audio quality or sound coloration. If you ever want to send a guitar signal to three amplifiers and record them simultaneously, the half-rack PCP Instrument Distro will help you get the job done.
However, it's not just for guitars, basses, and keyboards. For instance, you can feed the PCP Instrument Distro a low-impedance signal-such as a previously recorded track-and route it to some of your favorite stompboxes. Each output has its own trim control, phase switch, and ground lift. Quarter-inch inputs and a matrix of controls are readily available on the front panel.
The PCP Instrument Distro can also be used as a line driver, helping you maintain the timbral quality of your instrument over long cable distances. To top it off, you can use the unit as an active DI, so you can interface any instrument with your pro-level gear. Its range of applications make it a clear winner in this category.
Infinity 2.05 (Win; $399)
With the release of Infinity 2.0, Sound Quest took what used to be a very fancy toolkit for assembling MIDI plug-in effects and self-playing devices and made it a robust construction set for building MIDI and audio effects and processes. In addition, you can now create your own soft synths and use them in any DirectX or VST host. That makes Infinity an excellent programming environment for anyone interested in expanding his or her desktop arsenal.
Infinity has enough audio modules to keep you busy for a long time. String together any number of oscillators, filters, and delays to build a synth to your specs. Take advantage of the SubPatch and macro options to make your instruments more efficient, and add transformers or converters to shape the signal as it moves through the pipeline. Then experiment with a wide range of math functions if, for example, you want the pitch of a sample to be lowered as you send it ascending notes from a MIDI controller. The possibilities are endless.
If watching the sidebands produced by frequency-modulation rise and fall is your game, just add an Audio Display Object to your FM patch; be sure to use an Interface object so your patch can receive data from a VST or DirectX host. Also feel free to roll your existing VST and DirectX plug-ins into new Infinity patches to create "super" effects or instruments. When you're done, dress up your instrument or effect with graphic elements to suit your needs, then send it out to the world over Sound Quest's Web site.
Unlike many small companies these days, Sound Quest supplies both physical media and a printed manual with its software. Call us old-fashioned, but we love to have a real manual for those moments when we have to tear ourselves away from the computer.
We're already seeing a number of great-sounding and elegant user-created Infinity instruments, such as Luigi Felici's The Rocking lead (an electric-guitar emulation) and WilliamK's daDashJuno. Both are available at Dash Synthesis (www.dashsynthesis.com). But whether you consider yourself a tweaker or not, you'll enjoy playing with the built-in synths, sequencers, and effects processors included with Infinity's vast toolkit.
Cool Edit Pro 2.0 (Win; $249)
The marketplace for multitrack audio programs has always been a cutthroat arena where companies play feature-set leapfrog, trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. With several strong contenders for this year's award, the voting, as expected, was divided. However, when we took a close look at the cost-benefit ratios offered by the programs, one product really stood out: Cool Edit Pro 2.0.
For less than $250, Cool Edit Pro 2.0 offers desktop musicians a gateway into the world of professional-level multitrack editing. And in spite of its modest price tag, the software wraps its 32-bit processing power in a polished, user-friendly environment that sports a new hierarchical Organizer section, a new customizable user interface, a long list of useful keyboard shortcuts, and multiple undo levels.
With version 2.0, Cool Edit Pro greatly expands its flexibility. The program supports 24-bit, 192 kHz recording on as many as 128 audio tracks with real-time EQ on each track and buses for track grouping. The program fully supports DirectX plug-ins and includes more than 45 DSP effects, ranging from the practical (reverb, limiter, noise reduction) to the offbeat ("brainwave synchronizer"). Cool Edit Pro now supports more than 20 file formats, including MP3, and the program's CD-ripping feature and its new CD-burning plug-in let you to take a project from start to finish.
Other noteworthy additions include the ability to import and play back MIDI files, view and sync to video (AVI) files, and have your mix serve as either a master or slave when working with SMPTE time code. Remixers and loopmeisters will appreciate Cool Edit Pro's extensive new looping capabilities. The new Cool Edit Loop (CEL) file format stores tempo, beat, and key information. Just insert CEL files into your multitrack mix, and the program handles the tempo- and key-matching for you. You can even perform beat slicing and a variety of other loop-manipulation tricks. Best of all, Syntrillium offers more than 2,000 free, downloadable CEL files in 15 different styles.
Cool Edit Pro's list of features and effects is too long to cover in this short space, but many thoughtful touches, such as the built-in metronome, add value to the program. In fact, value is the operative word in this case. Cool Edit Pro 2.0 competes well with the other power-hitters in this category, but it does so without completely flattening your wallet. We think that deserves an award.
DAW Control Surface/Interface
Each year we see a product that almost defies categorization because a manufacturer has assembled a variety of technologies into a single device. Event's EZbus is a great example, combining an audio and MIDI interface, a control surface, and a digital mixer into such a small space that there is sure to be room left on your desktop. To sweeten the deal, the EZbus does all this for a very reasonable price.
As a digital mixer, the EZbus begins with 16 analog inputs: two phantom-powered mic/line inputs and four groups of three summed TRS inputs. Although you will have to do some synth programming to balance each of the three inputs per channel strip, it's a small sacrifice in return for the mixer's diminutive footprint.
Once your signal is flowing into the EZbus, you can use the onboard EQ and dynamics processing on each channel. At the other end, three pairs of balanced 1⁄4-inch outputs give you plenty of routing flexibility. Across the board, the signal goes through 24-bit, 96 kHz converters.
Entering the EZbus from the digital domain is also convenient, because the device offers S/PDIF and ADAT Lightpipe I/O and a USB port. Connectivity is further enhanced by two pairs of MIDI ins and outs and a word-clock output.
When you are ready to use your DAW or favorite software synth, you can use the EZbus as a control surface. It offers nine faders, transport controls, a data wheel, and plenty of virtual buttons, many of which are user assignable. Controller profiles are available for products from BIAS, Cakewalk, Digidesign, Emagic, IK Multimedia, MOTU, Native Instruments, Propellerhead, Steinberg, and Syntrillium. If your favorite software isn't supported yet, use the EZbus's Profile Editor to adapt one of the maps to your needs.
In the desktop studio where space is at a premium, a device that can handle an assortment of tasks while keeping a low profile is of great value. So much value at a bargain price makes for a very compelling product.
Digital Audio Sequencer
Cubase SX (Win; $799.99)
Steinberg's popular Cubase sequencer may turn out to be the last high-end digital audio sequencer to be offered in nearly identical versions for the Mac and PC. The program's latest incarnation, Cubase SX, sports a jazzy new user interface and supports Windows XP and Mac OS X. But this is not your typical update; according to Steinberg, it's practically a whole new program. At this writing, the Mac version of SX had just been released, so we've given the award based on the Windows version alone.
The Cubase SX audio engine is built from the same all-new code base as Steinberg's flagship Nuendo application, which enables Cubase SX to handle six channels of surround-sound mixing in a variety of formats. The new-and-improved interface does away with Songs and Arrangements; a new Project window replaces the old Arrange window and offers real-time drag-and-drop placement of audio, video, and MIDI parts.
The Track Inspector has also been significantly improved; it now lets you insert effects and adjust pan, volume, and aux sends without opening the mixer. Plug-in effects can be used in real time, as before, but they can also be applied offline. Cubase SX introduces a powerful new unlimited-Undo feature with a full edit history. A separate Offline Process history lets you remove, change, or replace applied processing from earlier edits without changing the edits themselves.
Cubase SX boasts a new 32-bit floating-point "adaptive" mixer that integrates audio and MIDI tracks and lets you individually size the channel strips. It supports 5.1-surround mixing and panning as well as sample-accurate automation of all parameters.
Another innovative feature in Cubase SX is its full support for Steinberg's new VST System Link. VST System Link lets you network two or more computers (including mixed platforms) to distribute the processor load from different tasks in complex projects. For example, you can run all your VST instruments on one computer and your audio tracks on another.(For more on VST System Link, see "Tech Page: The Missing Link" in the September 2002 issue of EM.)
Obviously, Cubase SX is more than just another pretty face. It's deeper, much more powerful, and better designed than any of its Cubase progenitors. We were favorably impressed with the new look and feel of the program, not to mention all of the changes under the hood. Steinberg has introduced a genuine winner.
Digital Audio Workstation/Audio Interface
Hammerfall DSP (PCI $315; CardBus $355; Digiface $650; Multiface $860)
The market is flooded with top-quality audio interfaces, and this year's competitors reflect that fact. From high-end, card-based hardware-and-software combos costing thousands of dollars to external plug-and-play USB and FireWire boxes, there's something for everyone. Amid all the jostling for attention, however, RME stands out as a winner this year for offering a moderately priced, have-it-your-way audio system with unparalleled connectivity.
Based on the popular Project Hammerfall system, the new and improved Hammerfall DSP system offers great versatility through its modular design. You can choose from two types of computer cards-PCI or CardBus-and connect them (with a standard FireWire cable) to either of two half-rackspace breakout boxes. The 32-bit Busmaster PCI card works with desktop Macs and PCs, and the CardBus card provides the same capabilities to laptop users. That should be welcome news to traveling musicians who have been frustrated by the bandwidth limitations of USB interfaces.
The two breakout boxes are stuffed to the gills with inputs and outputs. The all-digital Digiface starts with a 2-In/2-Out, 32-channel MIDI interface and adds three optical ADAT I/O pairs, ADAT-sync, stereo S/PDIF, and word-clock I/O. The front-panel headphone jack can also serve as a stereo analog output jack. The accompanying TotalMix software includes an unbelievable 1,456-channel virtual mixer with 40-bit internal resolution!
The analog/digital Multiface sports a 1-In/1-Out MIDI interface, one optical ADAT I/O pair, and the same ADAT-sync, word-clock, and S/PDIF I/O found in the Digiface. A front-panel headphone jack is also provided. To fill the remaining back-panel space, the Multiface deftly squeezes in eight analog inputs and outputs with 24-bit, 96 kHz converters. The TotalMix software offers a still-amazing 720-channel mixer.
Either of the two Hammerfall DSP interfaces would be a formidable centerpiece for a computer-based studio, and with any combination of cards and interfaces, RME claims latencies as low as 1.5 ms (depending on your CPU). If you have both a desktop and a laptop computer, you can buy the PCI and the CardBus cards, and they can share a Digiface or Multiface to keep costs down.
However you set it up, you'll get solid ASIO, MME, and GSIF support in a system that can't be beat for versatility and flexibility. That's especially exciting for laptop-based traveling musicians, who can now assemble a compact, rugged, high-resolution multitrack recording system with pro-level specs all the way.
Direct-Injection Box, Tube
Tube Amplified Direct Box ($400)
Two very different but equally outstanding tube DI boxes came across our desks-that's mixing desks-this past year: the Summit Audio TD-100 Tube Direct Instrument Preamp and the Valvotronics Tube Amplified Direct Box. Each unit received the highest praise, both from the reviewer and everyone else who got a chance to try it out. Each provides a distinctive feature set and performs beautifully in a range of applications. Given how awed we were by both units, choosing a favorite proved impossible, so we called it a tie.
The Summit Audio TD-100 is a winner for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Summit found a way to bring its exalted name-a de facto mark of audio quality-within reach of the personal studio. The half-rack TD-100 is a hybrid device employing a vacuum tube in the signal path and a discrete solid-state output amplifier. Several uncommon but useful features set it apart from the pack, most notably a continuously variable impedance control that lets you adjust how the unit affects pickup loading. Variable from 10 kΩ to 2 MΩ, this handy front-panel control allows for subtle to drastic tonal modifications on direct-injected electric guitars and basses. Other front-panel features include a polarity-reverse and a ground-lift switch and a 1⁄4-inch, high-impedance direct output for connection to a stompbox or amplifier.
One thing that makes the TD-100 so versatile is its array of outputs: in addition to the unbalanced 1⁄4-inch direct out, you also get a balanced 1⁄4-inch line-level output, a mic-level XLR output, and even a 1⁄4-inch headphone out to accommodate wee-hour visits from the Muse. In addition to the obvious studio applications, you could also get great mileage from the TD-100 onstage, by, for example, feeding your tube-treated tone to the house via the XLR mic output while sending signal to your guitar or bass amp from the unit's direct out (which is unaffected by the main signal path).
Needless to say, we were thrilled with the sound of the TD-100. It was clean, airy, and detailed on direct electric guitar, and on electric bass it compared favorably to boutique and vintage tube DIs costing twice the money. Our reviewer was also impressed by the vintage punch it added to an electric piano patch.
The Valvotronics Tube Amplified Direct Box is one of those rare devices EM editors love to discover: lovingly hand built, one at a time, in a garage somewhere, by a lone designer with a passion for superior audio, a pining for a particular (and unavailable) sound, and the know-how and industry to make that sound a reality. An all-tube unit with a custom-wound transformer output, the Valvotronics is a beast of a box with a hot output and attitude to spare, both visually and sonically.
Unusual features include a Bass Tilt switch that engages a 6 dB-per-octave lowpass filter with a corner frequency at 500 Hz, great for producing pillowy electric-bass tracks devoid of high frequencies (think reggae); a continuously variable, defeatable passive filter that provides up to 20 dB of bell-curve cut (centered at 7.5 kHz) with a bandwidth of roughly 1.25 octaves (great for diminishing pick noise); and a continuously variable attenuator knob that provides up to 6 dB of level cut. The unit provides three unbalanced 1⁄4-inch TS jacks: a high-impedance instrument input, an unbuffered Thru jack wired in parallel with the input jack to provide a mult you can route to your guitar amp, and a buffered jack for connection to a tuner. The output is on a balanced, low-impedance XLR jack, and there's a Pin 1 Lift switch in case you need to break the signal ground.
"Phenomenal" is the word our reviewer used to describe the sound of the Valvotronics DI; he proclaimed it "easily the biggest-sounding DI I've heard on electric-bass guitar, dishing out insane amounts of rich tube saturation and corpulent bass frequencies." Though bass seems to be the unit's primary raison d'être, we also got wonderful results running electronic keyboards through the Valvotronics, and electric guitars fared nicely, too. If you're looking for a versatile and beefy tube DI with a sound and look all its own, we suspect you'll be just as knocked out by the Valvotronics Tube Amplified Direct Box as we were.
UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins 2.2.2
PowerCore 1.5 (Mac/Win; $1,299)
Despite amazing increases in computer CPU speed in recent years, audio software's insatiable appetite for CPU cycles continues to strain native hardware resources. Today's power-hungry electronic musicians depend on more simultaneous plug-ins-and many of the latest plug-ins require more processing power-than ever before.
To alleviate the load, two manufacturers have developed digital-signal-processing (DSP) acceleration boards bundled with an impressive assortment of plug-ins. Although the TC PowerCore and UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins might seem expensive at first glance, first-rate plug-ins make either product an attractive value. Both include MAS plug-ins that work with MOTU Digital Performer on the Macintosh and VST plug-ins that work with VST hosts on Macs and PCs alike. Both can handle up to 24-bit, 96 kHz audio. However, the types of plug-ins each card can handle are quite different.
Plug-ins must be written to run on a particular card; you can't run a native VST plug-in on either one, and the UAD-1 and PowerCore formats are mutually incompatible. Nonetheless, both cards are indispensable tools for computer-based recording.
The TC Works PowerCore contains a Motorola PowerPC and four Motorola 56362 digital signal processors on a full-length PCI card. It comes bundled with TC Tools, a collection of professional-quality dynamics and effects plug-ins, as well as a virtual monophonic synthesizer. Plug-ins run the gamut from TC Work's popular MegaReverb and EQsat to MasterX3, a three-band compressor, limiter, and expander that emulates the TC Electronic Finalizer. Third-party plug-ins are available from Sony, D-Sound, and Waldorf, and several others are forthcoming.
UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins, developed by Universal Audio and distributed by Mackie Designs, combines a suite of proprietary plug-ins with a 7-inch PCI card that employs a single, proprietary DSP chip. Some plug-ins emulate specific studio hardware, such as the Universal Audio 1176LN and Teletronic LA-2A compressors and the Pultec EQP-1A equalizer. Other notable plug-ins are Nigel, which simulates guitar amps, cabinets, and effects, and Kind of Loud's RealVerb Pro, which has a graphic interface that simulates the physical characteristics of acoustic spaces built of various real-world materials.
In the end, we're dealing with two equally good DSP cards that work with very different sets of plug-ins. If you want emulations of classic signal processors, the UAD-1 has the edge. However, the PowerCore currently has more third party support. You pay your money and you take your choice; either way, you'll get what you paid for and then some.
Effects Processor, Analog
Few analog effects devices on the market make as big a statement as those by Metasonix, and the TM-2 Tube Bandpass Filter VCA is no exception. Like the company's TS-21 Hellfire Modulator (a 2002 Editors' Choice Award winner), the rugged, stompbox-size TM-2 was designed to take advantage of the entire operating range of each of its tubes. However, this processor was designed with guitarists and synthesists in mind: it can be used on the floor or a tabletop; be mounted vertically in a 5U Moog-style synth cabinet for use with Synthesis Technology/MOTM and Synthesizers.com modules; or be mounted horizontally in a 3U Euro subrack to work with Analogue Solutions, Analogue Systems, and Doepfer gear.
If it's tube coloration you want, you've come to the right place. The TM-2 is perfect for rounding off the edges of harsh synth signals or fattening up drum machines. The device incorporates a trio of pentode tubes: the first pair act as parallel bandpass filters tuned two octaves apart (80 to 200 Hz and 300 Hz to 1 kHz, respectively), and the third tube is used as a VCA. As with other Metasonix products, you have to set the controls slowly on the TM-2 if you want to hear everything the tubes can do.
The TM-2 gives you voltage control over the filter frequency and the VCA. That means you can easily interface the device with vintage and contemporary analog synths. In addition, you can plug an expression pedal in to the Filter CV input and create wah-wah effects. But unlike your run-of-the-mill wah, the TM-2 lets you set the filter frequency: set it high enough, and the filter will resonate when the pedal is fully forward. Put a distortion box before the TM-2, and you get a wah-wah that screams!
If you think you've heard everything a vacuum tube can do, be prepared for a surprise. The TM-2 is the latest winner from a company that is successfully subverting the dominant digital paradigm.
Effects Processor, Digital (hardware, over $1,000)
Ready to process your tracks for mixdown? The 8-channel KSP8 effects processor is loaded with high-quality effects and extensive programmability, allowing you to independently process each channel of a 5.1 mix and a stereo mix, among many other applications. Kurzweil pulled out all the stops on this one.
Building on the KDFX signal processor in its flagship K2600 synthesizer, Kurzweil put 249 effects algorithms in the KSP8 that allow it to create more than 600 effects. Many of these are multichannel effects, including surround reverbs, and the KSP8 lets you run mono, stereo, and surround effects simultaneously. You can submix the effects buses internally or send them to the outputs. In addition, each channel has a dedicated multiband EQ and multichannel panner.
The KSP8 is professional all the way and offers four balanced analog inputs and outputs and two channels of AES/EBU digital I/O right out of the box. Expansion cards allow you to add four more analog channels or eight more digital channels in your choice of AES/EBU, ADAT Lightpipe, TDIF, or Kurzweil's KDS format. Fully loaded, the KSP8 lets you process eight channels of audio with as many as 14 inputs from which to choose.
Every editable parameter in the KSP8 can be controlled by MIDI, and you can use envelope generators, LFOs, or user-programmable control sources for modulation. Imagine using an LFO to slowly pan several sounds around the surround space independently. As many as 36 LFOs and 36 envelope generators can be used for modulation, which should satisfy just about any craving.
The KSP8 also excels in everyday processing jobs. With its generous I/O, flexible routing, MIDI control, and hands-on editing capabilities, the KSP8 can handle an entire mix. Anyone serious about their effects processing should take a serious look at the KSP8.
Effects Processor, Digital (hardware, under $1,000)
Roger Linn Design
The AdrenaLinn is one of those products that makes you wonder why someone didn't think of this sooner. Roger Linn Design has cleverly combined a sequencer-controlled filter, an amp modeler, a drum machine, and a collection of effects into one device. The components of the AdrenaLinn all sound great on their own, but together they're amazing.
The filter is controlled by a programmable 32-step sequencer, which works wonders on just about anything you put through it: guitars, keyboards, even vocals. You have your choice of a 2- or 4-pole lowpass filter, and you can set modulation and envelope-triggering parameters for each step. An LFO is included if you want to animate your sounds with filter sweeps or stereo panning. You can also use the AdrenaLinn as an envelope filter if you're in a funky mood.
Because Roger Linn made his name with drum machines, you would expect the AdrenaLinn to deliver in the this department. You can build your patterns using any of the nine great-sounding kick drums, snare drums, and hi-hats, not to mention toms and assorted percussion. Once your pattern is happening, you can route the drum mix through the filter, effects, and amp models.
The stellar collection of amp models completes the scene. You have your pick of a variety of Fender and Marshall amps, as well as examples of other vintage (Vox and Mesa/Boogie) and boutique (Matchless and Soldano) amp varieties. The AdrenaLinn includes a host of modulation and time-based effects that can be combined to create still more effects. Because the AdrenaLinn has MIDI I/O, you can sync effects from an external source or use Emagic's SoundDiver if you're in a tweaky mood.
Technical details aside, the AdrenaLinn is extremely addictive and playing with it is a whole lot of fun. It covers a wide range of sonic territory, from the subtle to the completely whacked out, and the deeper you dive into it, the more you'll discover. Considering it costs less than $400, you'll want more than one.
Live 1.5 (Mac/Win; $300)
Few products have caught on or generated a buzz more quickly than Ableton's loop sequencer, Live. More than just a construction tool for sample loops, Live is a musical instrument that holds tremendous potential for the performing musician. DJs, video jockeys, and even bands around the world are using Live in concert settings, and no wonder: absolutely every parameter it offers can be updated in real time.
Live offers two main working areas. First is the Arranger, which is a track interface on which you drop and arrange Clips (loops or other samples). You can move Clips around, change loop start or end points, and add and tweak effects while playing back, and you can have any number of Clips on the same track, even if they have different sampling rates and bit resolutions. Audio is read directly from the hard drive, so there's no limit on the length of the files you can use in a project.
The second work area, called the Session, is more of a mixing environment and offers controls for send levels, gain, pan position, and audio routing. You can record audio from an external source directly into the Session, or you can bounce down multiple existing tracks and immediately use the bounced audio in the current project. The Session also gives you access to the Clip Pool, where you collect all the samples you're going to use in a project and assign the MIDI notes that you want to trigger the samples.
Live includes a number of internal plug-ins and can also serve as a VST host. Among the included plug-ins are Grain Delay, which has controls for altering the Spray, Pitch, Frequency, Random Pitch, and Feedback parameters of the granulation process. You can adjust values by typing or scrolling with the mouse in a text-entry box or by dragging your mouse around a graphic interface. For hands-free control, you can also draw automation data directly on a track.
Among the many other new features in Live 1.5 (a free upgrade for 1.0 users) are full ReWire (master and slave) support, more robust handling of MIDI Control Change messages, a new internal reverb effect, and overall optimizations. All of these make Live 1.5 even better for the performing musician. But lest we forget, Live has tremendous potential as a production tool as well. This combination makes it the overwhelming winner in this year's loop-sequencer category.
Microphone (over $1,000)
Royer Labs has breathed new life into ribbon mics, updating the technology to overcome liabilities that had long plagued traditional ribbon designs-low output, high self-noise, nominal high-frequency response, and inability to handle high SPLs, among others. The R-121, which won a 2000 Editors' Choice Award, not only delighted old-timers and vintage buffs who lamented the decline of ribbon mics, it also introduced new generations to the benefits of recording with them.
Now Royer has made yet another technological leap: the R-122 is the world's first active ribbon mic. The design is so novel that the R-122 even got votes in our "Most Innovative Product" category. Unlike a standard condenser microphone, which uses phantom power to electrically charge a diaphragm and backplate, the R-122 uses phantom power to provide impedance matching and allow for increased gain. (Impedance mismatching and insufficient gain are two problems inherent to traditional-design ribbon mics.) Before the R-122, ribbon users seeking optimum results had to use high-quality, high-gain (read "expensive") mic preamps, preferably with high impedance (or a variable-impedance control-a rarity), especially when recording quiet sound sources. The impedance issue was particularly troublesome: an impedance mismatch "loads" a ribbon improperly, resulting in loss of low end, diminished body, lowered sensitivity, and overall compromised performance.
By designing the mic to receive external power, Royer Labs was able to give the R-122 a fully balanced, discrete head-amplifier system that utilizes ultra-low-noise FETs, providing a perfect load on the ribbon element at all times. The result is a high-output, low-noise ribbon mic that doesn't require a high-gain or "ribbon-friendly" preamp and allows for long cable runs with minimal signal loss. In short, the R-122 embodies the most significant improvement to ribbon-mic technology in 50 years.
Of course, it takes more than technological innovation to make a superior product. The R-122 employs the same ribbon element found in the R-121 but has a flatter, smoother response overall, with sweeter highs and a bit less upper-midrange bite. Like the R-121, the R-122 exhibits excellent off-axis rejection, and our reviewer loved it on a range of instruments, including strings, saxes, woodwinds, flutes, brass, percussion, and especially electric-guitar cabinets. But the critical achievements are the mic's low noise and high output, which together significantly increase its versatility and usability.
Microphone (under $1,000)
Baby Bottle ($649)
The past year was exceptional for microphone lovers. We were especially impressed by several affordable new large-diaphragm condensers, notably the Audix SCX-25 and the Audio-Technica AT4040. CAD, too, wowed us with a remarkably affordable new tube mic, the M9. But in the end, the mic that had all of us salivating was the Baby Bottle-yet another Class A class act from the folks at Blue Microphones. Remarkably, this is the fourth year in a row the company has snagged an EM Editors' Choice award.
Blue's least-expensive microphone to date, the Baby Bottle breaks rank with the budget-microphone paradigm on several fronts, most notably sound. As our reviewer put it, the Baby Bottle "doesn't give you what isn't there." Rather than crispy highs, scooped mids, and bumped-up lows-a curve that characterizes the majority of inexpensive condenser mics we've heard in the past few years-the Baby Bottle offers a more honest, unaffected sound: the response is basically flat, with a slight bump around 2 kHz, and highs and lows that start rolling off smoothly at 12 kHz and 80 Hz, respectively. The result is a rich, detailed midrange and overall warm, full sound. The Baby Bottle also exhibits excellent transient response-not surprising, given its pedigree-allowing for a sense of depth and dimensionality conjured only by the finest of transducers.
Like all Blue mics, the cardioid-pattern, solid-state Baby Bottle is minimalist in design, distinctive in appearance, and constructed only from the highest-grade components. Its Class A discrete electronics and transformerless output achieve incredibly low self-noise (5.5 dBA!), high sensitivity, and a superhot output, making the mic well suited to the peculiarities of the personal studio. We loved the Baby Bottle on a range of instruments, including vocals and voices (broadcast), electric guitars (including bass), percussion, and piano, and found it particularly effective for softening potentially strident sources such as harmonica, strings, and wind instruments.
Though the Baby Bottle's sonic bent might not lead us to recommend it for someone looking to acquire their first or only large-diaphragm condenser, we feel strongly that this mic fills a gaping hole, both in terms of frequency response and price, and as such is a terrific pick for extending the tonal palette of your microphone cabinet without breaking the bank.
MIDI Keyboard Controller
Oxygen 8 ($179)
With the emergence of USB as a conduit for MIDI, the plethora of USB-enabled MIDI keyboards is a welcome development for the desktop musician. The M-Audio Oxygen 8 is particularly versatile because it can draw power from the included AC adapter, pull phantom power from its USB connector, or run on six AA batteries, making it useful in the studio or in the field. The keyboard's MIDI Out port also lets you use the Oxygen 8 as a MIDI controller without a USB connector.
The solidly built Oxygen 8 packs a pitch-bend wheel, an assignable mod wheel, a programmable slider, and eight assignable knobs into a chunk of real estate that you can fit in a briefcase. The instrument provides octave-shift buttons, which help compensate for its limited 25-key span. Every knob can have a different Control Change message and can send on a different MIDI channel, an extremely handy feature if you need to tweak multiple instruments. Our reviewer found an undocumented trick that gives you access to a total of 40 knob assignments. The Oxygen 8 retains your assignments when powered down.
The Oxygen 8 can go well beyond managing software synths. You can easily configure the unit to manage effects devices, MIDI-enabled mixers, loop-sequencing software, and plug-ins.
Here at EM, we're suckers for devices that dish up versatility in small and portable containers. With its diminutive form, solid construction, extensive control capabilities, and flat-out bang for the buck, M-Audio's Oxygen 8 was an easy winner.
Behringer got our attention in a big way this past year with the DDX3216, a fully automated, 32-channel, 16-bus, 24-bit digital-mixing console. The DDX3216 offers one of the more comprehensive and user-friendly feature sets we've seen in a compact digital mixer, yet at a price so low we could hardly contain our wonder. Clearly, Behringer did its homework before stepping out with the DDX3216.
The DDX3216 is very clean and quiet, and our reviewer was impressed that it sounded as good as or better than digital mixers costing two and three times as much. In addition to its potential 32 inputs, 20 outputs, 16 internal buses, and 8 aux sends, the DDX3216 provides parametric EQ, a sweepable highpass filter, dynamics processors, and phase inversion on every channel; channel delay on all analog inputs; full dynamic and snapshot automation; four effects processors; 100 mm motorized faders; and two levels of Undo.
Equally bounteous is the DDX3216's I/O. On the analog side you get 12 XLR mic inputs, 4 1⁄4-inch line inputs, 12 inserts, 2 balanced XLR main outputs, 4 balanced 1⁄4-inch TRS outputs (switchable), and 2 balanced 1⁄4-inch TRS outputs. Other ports include word-clock in and out, a SMPTE input, an RS232 serial port, a PC Card slot for storing settings and mixes, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru. Digital I/O is S/PDIF on a pair of RCA connectors. For the two rear-panel card slots, Behringer offers three optional digital I/O cards: 16-channel ADAT, 16-channel TDIF, and 8-channel AES/EBU. You can assign these inputs and outputs in blocks of eight, mixing and matching to suit your needs.
We were delighted by the intuitive layout of the DDX3216's user interface, which is similar enough to other digital mixers that experienced users can dig right in. Lighted, multifunction rotary knobs on all channels help make for an analog feel, and 16-segment LED meters beside each fader provide easy signal monitoring. The unit's LCD screen is small, but the menus are well organized and the graphics clear, and screen navigation is a breeze thanks to dedicated knobs and buttons. We were also very impressed by the DDX's motorized faders, which are quieter than most we've used and feel as good as those on many higher-end digital mixers. Still another thing that turned our heads was the high quality of the unit's onboard effects, which include reverbs, delays, delay modulation, pitch shifting, ring modulation, an enhancer, and an autofilter.
No matter what your application, the versatile DDX3216 likely has you covered, and at a very impressive price. When it comes to small-format digital mixers, we aren't aware of a better value.
Modular Hard-Disk Recorder
ADAT HD24 ($2,499)
Alesis has plenty of experience when it comes to designing and building digital audio recorders. The Alesis ADAT modular digital multitrack tape deck has long been a staple of personal studios, but in recent years, low-cost, high-quality modular hard-disk recorders, portable digital studios, and computer-based DAWs have stolen its thunder. Heeding the old saying "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Alesis introduced its first multitrack hard-disk recorder, the ADAT HD24. The HD24 offers all the advantages of random-access recording, including cut-and-paste editing with 99 levels of Undo.
The HD24 is superior to its tape-based predecessors in every way, but we certainly didn't give it an award for outperforming 10-year-old technology. Alesis comes out a winner because when compared to the other M-HDRs we've seen in the past year, the HD24's cost-to-feature ratio is outstanding. It records 24 tracks, supports 24-bit recording at 44.1 and 48 kHz, and records 12 tracks from digital sources at 96 kHz. The HD24 comes standard with 24 channels of analog audio I/O over 1⁄4-inch TRS jacks and 24 channels of digital audio I/O over Lightpipe. A built-in 10Base-T Ethernet port lets you network the HD24 with computers, so you can exchange audio files with your favorite audio sequencer. Two removable drive caddies make it easy to swap IDE hard disks.
Again, that's all standard equipment, not a set of pricey options. This baby is ready to record straight out of the box. But several options are available, including the EC2 96 kHz analog I/O board ($1,249) and the FirePort ($249) for connecting the HD24's hard disks on caddies to your computer's FireWire port.
Operating the HD24 is remarkably similar to using earlier ADATs, so it's familiar territory to a whole generation of digital-tape jockeys. Word clock, MIDI Time Code, and MIDI Machine Control are all supported, and solid construction ensures that the HD24 is built to last.
When you get down to the bottom line, where else can you find 24 tracks of good-sounding 24-bit recording, 24 quality A/D/A converters, and room for two removable hard drives in a box that weighs 20 pounds and costs less than $2,500? With its wealth of thoughtful features and its excellent value, the Alesis ADAT HD24 is simply hard to beat.
Most Innovative Product
Hardware MIDI control devices are in plentiful supply these days. Some dedicate functions to specific software or hardware, and most are designed to sit on your desktop. Few, if any, are equally at home in the studio and on the stage. In contrast, the C-Mexx MIR can go anywhere, and it can control just about anything with MIDI jacks, including DAWs, mixers, effects, lights, and a MIDI-equipped coffee maker if you have one.
The palm-size MIR sports five buttons and two rotary encoders that also serve as buttons. Its Analog button is really an additional encoder. If you run out of digits, you can opt for the company's Live Paq ($195), which replaces the Analog knob with a foot controller and a couple of footswitches. To make the MIR stage-ready, you can add Live Base ($75), a kit for mounting the MIR on a mic stand.
The MIR's small size belies its excellent control capabilities; if its complement of knobs and buttons isn't enough for you, you can assign a button to access other control banks. The MIR holds banks in nonvolatile RAM.
Any MIDI message is fair game for the MIR's arsenal, from System Exclusive to entire sequences stored in SMF format. C-Mexx even offers Starlight ($545), a DMX adapter for controlling stage lights with MIDI. The manufacturer offers scads of downloadable control templates for products ranging from Yamaha's venerable DX7 to Sequential Circuits synths to Steinberg Nuendo.
The MIR Edit software (Mac/Win) comes with the unit and allows you to program your own control assignments. You aren't restricted to linear control of your data either; MIR Edit lets you scale and apply curves to your encoder data, including sine, cosine, and square shapes. You can also offset or invert data.
With all of the control options the MIR presents, it's good to know that the unit possesses a big and bright display. Moreover, you can set up user-friendly names for parameters under control rather than attempting to decipher arcane names or bank and program numbers for your assignments.
The MIR is adaptable, flexible, and simple to use, and if your device isn't supported, you can roll your own controllers. The gadget is already inspiring a host of user groups and third-party developers. If you'd like to break loose from the desktop controller paradigm, be sure to check out the MIR's innovative approach.
Sibelius 2 (Mac/Win; $599)
In spite of stiff competition from MakeMusic (formerly Coda) Finale, Sibelius 2's recent upgrade really impressed us with its long list of new features and enhancements. In addition, Sibelius got the jump on Finale when it became one of the first music programs to be fully Carbonized for Mac OS X. (It supports Windows XP on the PC side.)
The program's new Aqua-style user interface is bright and friendly. A new Properties window (with pop-out panels) offers direct access to layout parameters, and a new Mixer window provides control over playback levels. If you hate using the mouse, you'll especially love the program's expanded list of keyboard shortcuts.
The playback capabilities in Sibelius 2 are quite extensive. The program recognizes tempo markings, repeat signs, pedal indications, and crescendos and properly performs glissandi, tremolos, trills, and many other symbols. The same applies to guitar tablature and markings such as bends. You can even apply any of 16 rhythmic feels (from reggae and swing to Viennese waltz) to better approximate how the piece will sound when actually performed in the proper style. And that's not all: for large ensembles, Sibelius's SoundStage feature uses panning, reverb, and volume settings to automatically position the instruments in a 3-D sound field that simulates a concert stage.
Sibelius 2's powerful new Arrange feature can take a piano piece and automatically expand it into a full score with typical instrumentation and doublings. You can choose from more than 130 customizable arranging and orchestration styles, including band, choir, and jazz quintet. You can also "explode" notes from chords onto separate staves or create keyboard reductions.
If you write music for film or TV, you'll really appreciate Sibelius 2's new time-code features. You can now display the time-code position above each bar line, and the playback display can show elapsed time in SMPTE format. Sibelius automatically displays the score's total duration and updates the display as you add or subtract notes.
Sibelius 2 includes more than 300 instruments, 130 manuscript templates, a 10,000-level Undo command, a new Inkpen2 handwritten-style font, a 500-page hard-copy manual, and 37 "plug-ins" to clean up scores and perform other helpful tasks. Sibelius can even import Finale scores, and the included PhotoScore Lite 2 software adds powerful scanning capabilities. With so many amazing features packed into such a great-looking, user-friendly workspace, it's easy to see why Sibelius 2 deserves this year's award.
Portable Digital Studio
The past year brought several good new portable digital studios, although, to be honest, there were fewer killer candidates than in the year before. Many of this year's contenders were miniature, low-cost recorders with reduced feature sets, but our big winner was not among them. Instead, the Yamaha AW2816 follows in the footsteps of a conventional PDS, Yamaha's AW4416. The new unit stands out not because of its small size or its track count; rather, it succeeds thanks to its flexibility, versatility, and attractive expansion possibilities.
The AW2816 offers four times the audio-processing power of the AW4416, along with improved effects and useful expansion options. The recorder offers eight simultaneous recording tracks and 16-track playback, with 4-band parametric EQ and dynamics processing on each channel. You can choose 24- or 16-bit recording with sampling rates of 48 or 44.1 kHz.
The unit holds a hefty library of effects-processing presets. Many effects are tailored to specific applications such as processing snares or recording guitars, and there's plenty of room to add your own. The two multi-effects processors offer reverb, delay, distortion, filters, and more.
Parameter changes and all fader movement send MIDI Control Change messages, providing dynamic MIDI automation when used with a sequencer. Because most controls can send MIDI messages, you can use the unit as a MIDI control surface. Among the templates you can download from Yamaha's AW2816 Web site are MIDI remote-control templates for a goodly number of digital audio sequencing programs and controller setups for a number of hardware and soft synths.
The AW2816 offers nine motorized 60 mm faders and scene-based automation with 96 scenes to capture your moves, and you get a healthy array of analog and digital I/O. But it's the unit's expandability that distinguishes it from other portable digital studios at its price point. The rear of the unit holds a slot for adding one of Yamaha's YGDAI cards, letting you expand the analog I/O or add a Waves Y56K card to expand the unit's DSP capabilities. The unit offers plenty more, such as Red Book audio import and WAV file import and export. You can see why the AW2816 made it to the top of our list.
Sample Player (software)
Drums & Percs (Mac/Win; $100)
Electronic musicians who aren't drummers have a long history of creating their own percussion parts using drum machines, samplers, and synth workstations. But it's not so easy choosing a product that offers good sound, flexibility, ease of use, and solid programming power, all for a very good price. Plugsound, however, provides exactly that with Drums & Percs, a drum-sample plug-in for VST, MAS, and RTAS.
Drums & Percs sounds great, especially its electronic percussion sounds, and its features give you the power you to elicit some incredibly expressive and musical drum programming, assuming your chops are up to the task. Because Plugsound has done the sampling and mapping for you, you can load a program, select your drum kit, and make music, just that fast. What a concept!
The software flexes its power in the form of multilayered samples that crossfade smoothly and naturally. For instance, the cymbals ring beautifully, with none of the wobbly timbral artifacts that you get from overly truncated and looped cymbals.
Drums & Percs offers fully mapped drum kits with Velocity-switched samples, but you also get single-instrument-type layouts (such as snares) with an extensive collection of variations and articulations mapped across the keyboard. The sound set includes acoustic and electronic instruments, as well as a nice assortment of hand-percussion instruments, such as congas, djembe, bongos, shakers, triangle, tambourine, castanets, wind chimes, and darbuka. Some of these are also multisampled, Velocity-switched instruments.
If you tire of the software's 5,500 samples, you'll find a surprisingly flexible synth engine under the program's hood, which provides a healthy degree of sonic variety. Because each Plugsound sample voice is governed by its own synth engine, you can tweak pitch, envelope, filter, or amplitude settings for each instrument. Plugsound instruments support MIDI Control Change messages, so you can tweak filter resonance and cutoff (for instance) on the fly while recording changes into your sequencer.
The user interface is simple and scalable. You can choose Basic or Expert mode; each offers more controls than you would find on the average drum machine. Apart from filter settings, you can adjust instrument tuning, LFO rate and depth, envelope attack rate, release time, and more. The screen also has sensitivity controls that let you scale instrument response to Velocity.
All this power does have its price, but in this case, it's not the list price. Drums & Percs puts heavy demands on your CPU, so if you don't have a fast processor, you aren't going to be as happy as we were. But it's affordable, flexible, and simple, and it sounds great. It's time to stop squinting at keymaps and start drumming.
Kontakt (Mac/Win; $399)
Software samplers are common these days, but you'll find more than just run-of-the-mill features in Native Instruments Kontakt. Drawing on technology used in the company's Reaktor, Kontakt provides ways to process samples that you won't find in even the most advanced hardware samplers and a sophisticated modulation matrix that allows you to animate every parameter of a patch.
Creating a new patch doesn't get any easier: just double-click on a sample in the Browser window that appears at the left of the main screen, and a new Instrument will appear in the Rack at the right. In the Rack, pick which of the three basic sampling algorithms will be at the core of your patch: Sampler, Tone Machine, or Time Machine.
The Sampler algorithm is a basic pitch-shifting process; the other two give you far more options for creative control. In the Tone Machine, for example, you can modify the formant characteristics of your sound without changing its pitch. Put that parameter under the control of a mod source, such as the Step Modulator, and you can draw patterns of up to 32 steps, each with its own amplitude (amount) value, that will control the formant transposition level.
Like the Tone Machine, the Time Machine uses granular resynthesis as its basic operating principle and offers, among other things, a real-time time-stretching function that can be nearly free of artifacts or as nasty as you want. Just adjust its Smooth and Grain parameters to suit your taste.
It's easy to assign MIDI Control Change messages for real-time or automated control of any Instrument parameter, and a graphic overview of the structure of your patch, complete with one-click access to any element, is also on hand.
Kontakt has a few interface issues that we'd like to see addressed: you can only use one of three default sizes for its working window, which often makes reading text somewhat difficult, and there's no way to change its basic color scheme, which could use a bit more contrast among the elements. We also wish that you could record directly to disk when using the standalone version, but that's easy enough to do when using Kontakt as a VST or DirectX plug-in, which also allows you to run multiple instances of the sampler.
By the time you read this, Kontakt should be able to read samples directly from the hard drive. That feature will help keep this award winner at the top of its class for a good time to come.
Signal-Processing Plug-ins (bundles)
Pluggo 3.0 (Mac; $199)
We've always been big fans of Cycling '74's Pluggo, but version 3 really took us by surprise. Not only are there more than 100 effects plug-ins, many of which are either new or redesigned, but the release includes 19 new soft synths and significant enhancements to the user interface. And, if you own Cycling '74's Max/MSP, you can now make your own Pluggo plug-ins and distribute them to other users. Will the plug-ins never end?
Pluggo's offerings fall into a number of categories. There are reverbs, filters, delays, and distortion effects for starters. If you like to splice and dice your samples, then the large number of granulation tools will keep you busy. Get to know the inside of your sounds with spectral effects, such as the Convolver and Spectral Filter, and build your own color organs with the Visual Display group. Add to that a number of "utilities," such as the audio-routing and modulation tools, and you've got a plug-in workstation that can serve all your needs.
Pluggo 3 works with VST, RTAS, and MAS hosts. What's more, it adds features to your existing non-Pluggo plug-ins that they didn't have previously, such as the ability to randomize or modulate their parameters. You'll also appreciate having sample-accurate control over your plug-ins, which allows you to, for example, sync their tempo to an external audio control source acting as an LFO.
We have no idea how the folks at Cycling '74 keep coming up with so many new and unique audio-processing tools, but, as far as we're concerned, the more the merrier. Plug it in and turn it on!
Signal-Processing Plug-ins (individual)
AmpliTube (Mac/Win; $399)
At a time when guitar-amp modeling is all the rage, one software product stands out from the crowd. AmpliTube, from Italian software developer IK Multimedia, is a VST and RTAS plug-in that brings a virtual guitar amplifier, speakers, and guitar-oriented effects to your computer.
AmpliTube is organized in three onscreen control panels: the Amp Module, the Stomp Module, and the Post FX Module. Ample onscreen controls let you precisely tailor your sound. The plug-in realistically emulates seven different preamps, four power amps, and nine speaker cabinets. Models range from British crunch to vintage clean. In its quest to replicate a guitarist's complete studio rig, AmpliTube also models tremolo and spring reverb, five different EQ stages, and five stompbox effects: wah-wah, flanger, delay, chorus, and overdrive.
Dynamic- and condenser-mic modeling let you customize your electric-guitar sound even further. Virtual preamps, power amps, EQs, cabinets, microphones, and effects can be freely mixed and matched into well over a thousand combinations. Dozens of presets are included, and every month, you can download new ones from the AmpliTube Web site (www.amplitube.com).
AmpliTube drastically reduces a guitarist's setup time and guarantees consistency from one recording session to the next. The promise of AmpliTube means no more lugging your amp, speakers, and effects from studio to studio. AmpliTube reduces the size of your onstage rig to a laptop computer routed through the house monitors. For the computer-based recordist, AmpliTube is EM's choice for putting yet another element of the virtual recording studio on your desktop.
Signal-Processing Software (standalone)
Composers Desktop Project 4.5
Sometimes the most interesting software comes from the most obscure sources. Composers Desktop Project (CDP) is the effort of a small group of independent British composers and programmers and has its roots back in the mid-1980s. The system is a collection of hundreds of sound-generating and sound-processing routines that cover most every technique you can think of and many that you could never have imagined.
CDP's offerings fall into two main categories. One set operates directly on WAV files and allows you to modify sounds in numerous ways. Colorful and exotic names, such as Scramble, Zig-Zag, Drunk, Shred, and Motifs, suggest some of the more unusual processes you will find. All of the processes are nondestructive, so be sure you have a large hard drive on hand to save the numerous great-sounding files you'll come up with.
The second set of routines uses analysis and resynthesis as its main modus operandi and operates on the analysis of a sound's spectrum, which you create using the included Phase Vocoder analysis tool. Once you have a file analyzed, you can perform a vast range of modifications on it, such as time-stretching it without changing its pitch, freezing the sound on a single analysis frame, altering the amplitude envelopes of the sound's partials using LFOs or other types of functions, and morphing between the spectra of two different sounds.
Because all of the processes run as individual command-line routines, getting a handle on the tremendous range of options can be daunting. But there are several graphic interfaces for the system, including Sound Shaper by Robert Fraser and Sound Loom by CDP developer Trevor Wishart, that can serve as command central. These interfaces collect all the routines into a unified front-end and allow you to set parameters, save presets, view and edit your audio files, and more. CDP's low cost and excellent documentation, coupled with its enormous feature set, make it a winner in our book.
Sound Module (digital)
Nord Rack 3 ($2,499)
What's fat, rackmountable, and red all over? Although we loved the Access Virus C, E-mu Proteus 2500, and Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1, the Nord Rack 3 is our pick for most desirable sound module. Even in the face of such stiff competition, the Rack 3's awesome sound, impressive feature set, and real-time programming depth bowled us over.
The Rack 3-a rackmount version of the Nord Lead 3-is a direct descendent of the very first analog-modeling synthesizer, which was introduced by Clavia in 1995. By harnessing its increased DSP power, the latest model combines two- and four-operator FM synthesis with analog modeling in a technology that Clavia calls Advanced Subtractive. With 24-note polyphony, a sophisticated arpeggiator, and the ability to simultaneously morph as many as 26 parameters in real time, the Rack 3 is a live-performance powerhouse.
The Rack 3 adds a 32-character LCD to the Rack 2's 3-digit LED display. Instead of 100 Programs and 100 Performances, the Rack 3 has enough locations for 1,024 Programs and 256 Performances. The onboard sounds are rich, complex, and versatile, offering a tremendous palette of virtual analog and FM timbres, even without onboard effects processing. Other enhancements include polyphonic glide and new creative capabilities in the dual-multimode-filter section.
The Rack 3's most exceptional advantage is real-time control. You can tweak almost any parameter by simply pressing a button or turning a knob to alter sounds either subtly or radically. On the front panel, dozens of infinite rotary encoders and buttons are accompanied by enough red and green indicator LEDs to light up a Christmas tree. All told, the Nord Rack 3 is a synthesizer that will carry you well into the new year-and the next decade.
Despite the easy availability of hardware and software digital synths, analog instruments remain popular. The field is dominated by small, dedicated companies providing unique instruments for discriminating tastes. This year, one such company, England's Analogue Solutions, came up with an instrument that provides the modularity analog synthesists love in a compact and portable instrument.
The Vostok combines a wealth of modules in a single suitcase: two voltage-controlled analog oscillators, a voltage-controlled digital wavetable oscillator, two voltage-controlled LFOs, a noise source, two filters (based on the filters in the Korg MS-20), a VCA, two envelope generators, a ring modulator, a sample-and-hold module, an 8-step sequencer, a MIDI-to-CV converter, a joystick, a mixer, and a meter. Not bad for a analog synth measuring 101⁄2 inches tall and 17 inches wide.
One of the most surprising features of the Vostok is the 22522 patch matrix, which is reminiscent of those found on the venerable EMS Synthi A and VCS3 synthesizers. The modules in the system are connected by inserting pins into the holes of the patch matrix. Such a system allows you to patch multiple sources to one destination. And because the Vostok patch matrix is buffered, you won't experience an offset in voltage or level in a multiple-source patch like you would with an EMS synth. You can also patch the Vostok the old-fashioned way, using the front-panel 1⁄8-inch jacks. It's the best of both worlds.
Such a robust combination of synth elements, especially with the step sequencer and MIDI-to-CV converter, means the Vostok will cover a lot of musical bases. It's a great-sounding instrument that is, just as importantly, a lot of fun to play.
Synthesizer (keyboard, digital)
Triton Studio ($2,600)
The Triton Studio is the latest and greatest incarnation of Korg's flagship line of workstations, incorporating a synthesizer, sampler, sequencer, and effects. Compared to the original Triton, the Triton Studio offers more of everything: six times the processing power, twice the polyphony, 48 MB of expandable waveform ROM, and enough onboard memory locations for 1,792 Programs, 1,536 Combinations, and 153 drum kits. With the optional CD-RW drive, the Triton Studio is the first keyboard workstation that can take your musical ideas all the way to a finished audio CD.
Still available in 61-, 76-, and 88-key models, the Triton Studio is physically larger than previous Tritons. Inside the case are a 5 GB hard drive and 16 MB of sample RAM that's expandable to 96 MB. Five insert effects, two master effects, and a 3-band EQ are always available. Optical S/PDIF ports are now standard, and the Studio still boasts Korg's large, bright TouchView display.
The Triton's sequencer, no longer content with handling only MIDI tracks, can now record two tracks of digital audio. Its cue-list feature is a real convenience onstage, and importing Combis into the sequencer is easier than ever. What's more, the Triton Studio can sample itself in any mode and chop up samples with its new time-slice capabilities.
All that technology wouldn't impress us if the Triton Studio didn't sound good. Fortunately, it sounds amazing! The onboard Programs and Combinations are inspiring and diverse, and you can expand them by installing as many as seven PCM expansion boards and a MOSS synthesis board. Probably the most impressive sound is the 16 MB Bösendorfer piano, which is realistically detailed enough to please discriminating ears. For many musicians, the Triton Studio truly fulfills the promise of a one-stop solution.
Kantos 1.0 (Mac/Win; $395)
Synthesizers that process audio input are nothing new, but Antares Kantos reverses the typical audio-to-synth relationship. Whereas a synthesizer's internal workings typically process incoming audio and rely on MIDI for pitch information or modulation, Kantos extracts pitch data from the incoming audio and uses that information to control its extensive synthesizer architecture.
You would think that Kantos would need monophonic audio input to pull off this neat trick. But in fact, the results of polyphonic input, while unpredictable, are almost always interesting and are often useful. If you like, you can constrain Kantos' output to pitches of your choosing. You can also remove or impart vibrato.
The instrument's oscillators play back sounds from wavetables, and the program offers a hefty supply to get you going. You can add your own AIFF and WAV files to provide custom oscillator fodder, but make no mistake: Kantos is no mere vehicle for sample-playback.
The synth's Timbral Articulator derives information in real time from the audio signal's dynamics, harmonic content, and formants to reshape the sonic characteristics of the oscillator wavetables. You can limit or scale the effect of the audio signal's parameters and adjust the amount of the original audio going directly to the output. If that isn't enough, you can deploy multimode resonant filters-one for each oscillator.
If you need a more traditional synthesizer approach, Kantos offers a formidable modulation matrix, including two LFOs and two ADSR envelope generators: one is for amplitude, and one is an assignable EG. Nonetheless, for all of its architectural depth and flexibility, using the synth is a relatively intuitive process.
A spooky and beautiful user interface laden with biomechanical overtones controls the synth's powerful engine. Artistic considerations aside, the interface provides excellent visual feedback of signal flow and synthesis parameters.
The software excels as a sound-design tool, producing unique and often jaw-dropping hybrids of organic and synthetic sounds. If you're looking for fresh adventures in synthesis and sound design, you owe yourself a look at Kantos.
Synthesizer Workstation (software, standalone)
Reason 2.0 (Mac/Win; $399)
When Propellerhead Software introduced Reason, we were so impressed with the program's power and flexibility that we gave it a 2002 Editors' Choice Award. We were amazed that for less than the cost of a typical General MIDI sound module, Reason could provide an expandable virtual rack stuffed with synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, mixers, effects processors, patch bays, and a whole lot more. The software even included a built-in sequencer and a great library of sounds.
A year later, the second generation of Reason arrived, and once again it really knocked our socks off. Especially on the Mac platform, Reason has made significant gains. It is now completely compatible with Mac OS X, with full support for Core Audio and CoreMIDI, obviating the need for OMS and ASIO extensions. And Reason's already low latency can drop to less than a millisecond under OS X. Moreover, Reason's support for multiprocessing in the new Macs enables it to run audio on one processor while running graphics on the other, yielding even more power and better efficiency.
Speaking of efficiency, Reason's main sequencer (which has several new tools) can now be detached from the rack. If you're running a dual-monitor system, you can view the sequencer on one screen while setting up your rack on the other screen.
The most exciting additions to Reason 2.0, however, are the two powerful new virtual instruments. The Malström Graintable Synthesizer is a novel two-oscillator/two-filter software synth that creates its unique sounds through "graintable" technology, a cross between granular and wavetable synthesis.
The other new instrument is the 32-bit NN-XT, a much more advanced sampler module than Reason's original NN-19. For more realistic re-creations of acoustic instruments, the NN-XT includes a function that randomly switches between alternate samples when a note is repeated, so the same sample isn't triggered twice in a row. The NN-XT also supports Velocity switching and crossfading and provides two tempo-syncable LFOs (as do all of Reason's updated instruments), along with filter and envelope controls. To top things off, Reason 2.0 includes a completely new high-quality orchestral sample library replete with brass, woodwinds, strings, and much more.
Reason's impressive collection of synths, samplers, ReCycle loop players, mixers, effects, and other goodies makes it the ultimate one-stop music-production workstation. With its newly redesigned colorful 3-D interface and its greatly expanded feature set, Reason is clearly a winner once again.
A significant upgrade to the VoicePrism, which was introduced in 2001, the VoicePrismPlus offers the same microphone preamp, dynamics processing, effects processing, and four-part harmonization. The "Plus" is TC-Helicon's patented voice-modeling technology, and it's a big plus indeed. For years, physical modeling has been applied to synthesizing complex instrumental voices but only rarely to the human voice, and never to this extent in a high-profile commercial product.
Through the miracle of formant processing, real-time vocal resynthesis can change the perceived shape of a singer's mouth, throat, or chest cavity. It can turn a tenor into a soprano or a marginal singer into a more powerful vocal performer. By emulating the human vocal tract, the VoicePrismPlus can manipulate inflection and add vibrato, breath, rasp, growl, and resonance to anyone's voice. A collection of 128 well-designed factory presets takes full advantage of those capabilities.
Other new features of VoicePrismPlus include AES/EBU I/O, 24-bit A/D/A converters, better compression and EQ, and an expanded effects selection. Owners of the original VoicePrism can upgrade to the Plus by adding the VoiceCraft card ($599). TC-Helicon has practically accomplished a miracle in advancing the state of audio technology, and we are happy to acknowledge the company's contributions by bestowing an Editors' Choice Award upon the VoicePrismPlus.
We welcome your feedback. E-mail us at email@example.com.
The Winning Manufacturers
AbletonAG/M-Audio (distributor) tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.ableton.com
Alesis tel. (401) 295-9000; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.alesis.com
Analogue Solutions/Sweet Noise (distributor) tel. (818) 980-6983; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.analoguesolutions.com
AntaresAudio Technologies tel. (888) 332-2636 or (831) 461-7800; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.antarestech.com
BehringerU.S.A. tel. (425) 672-0816; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.behringer.com
Blue Microphones tel. (805) 370-1599; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.bluemic.com
CDP tel. 44-1249-461-361 or 44-117-903-1147; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.bath.ac.uk/~masjpf/CDP/CDP.htm
Clavia/Armadillo Enterprises (distributor) tel. (727) 519-9669; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.clavia.se
C-Mexx Software/X-Vision Audio U.S. (distributor) tel. (330) 747-3857; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.c-mexx.com
Cycling '74 tel. (415) 974-1818; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.cycling74.com
Event Electronics tel. (805) 566-7777; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.event1.com or www.eventelectronics.com
IK Multimedia tel. (866) 243-1718 or (561) 466-9763; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.ikmultimedia.com
KorgU.S.A., Inc. tel. (516) 333-9100; Web www.korg.com
KurzweilMusic Systems, Inc./Young Chang America (distributor) tel. (800) 874-2880 or (253) 589-3200; Web www.kurzweilmusicsystems.com
Little Labs tel. (323) 851-6860; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.littlelabs.com
Mackie Designs tel. (800) 898-3211 or (425) 487-4333; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.mackie.com
M-Audio tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.m-audio.com
Metasonix tel. (707) 263-5343; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.metasonix.com
Native Instruments U.S.A. tel. (866) 556-6488; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.native-instruments.com
Plugsound/Big Fish Audio (distributor) tel. (800) 717-FISH or (818) 768-6115; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.plugsound.com
PropellerheadSoftware/M-Audio (distributor) tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.propellerheads.se
RME Intelligent Audio Solutions/X-Vision Audio U.S. (distributor) tel. (330) 747-3857; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.rme-audio.com
Roger Linn Design tel. (510) 898-5433; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.rogerlinndesign.com
Royer Labs tel. (818) 760-8472; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.royerlabs.com
SibeliusSoftware tel. (888) 474-2354 or (972) 930-9552; e-mail infoUSA@sibelius.com; Web www.sibelius.com
Sound Quest, Inc. tel. (800) 667-3998 or (250) 478-4337; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.squest.com
Steinberg North America tel. (818) 678-5100; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.us.steinberg.net
Summit Audio, Inc. tel. (831) 728-1302; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.summitaudio.com
SyntrilliumSoftware tel. (888) 941-7100 or (480) 941-4327; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.syntrillium.com
TC-Helicon tel. (805) 373-1828; email firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.tc-helicon.com
TC Works/TC Electronic (distributor) tel. (805) 373-1828; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.tcworks.de
Valvotronics tel. (908) 704-9562; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.valvotronics.com
Yamaha Corporation of America tel. (714) 522-9011; e-mail email@example.com; Web www.yamaha.com
The Award Winners in Review
All of our award winners have been reviewed in our pages or soon will be. For products with reviews still in progress, we have completed enough tests to feel confident about our conclusions; most of these reviews will be published in the next two issues, though a few might be published a bit later.
An article title enclosed in quotes indicates that the product was covered in a feature rather than in a review. All other entries indicate reviews of the award-winning version except in the case of Ableton Live.
All published articles are available for download from the EM Web site at www.emusician.com.
AbletonLive 1.1 June 2002
AlesisADAT HD24 July 2002
Analogue Solutions Vostok In progress
AntaresKantos 1.0 In progress
BehringerDDX3216 October 2002
Blue Baby Bottle June 2002
CDP Composers Desktop Project 4.5 December 2002
ClaviaNord Rack 3, "Analog Supermodels" August 2002
C-Mexx MIR June 2002
Cycling '74 Pluggo 3.0 January 2003
Event Electronics EZbus September 2002
IK Multimedia AmpliTube In progress
KorgTriton Studio November 2002
KurzweilKSP8 �� In progress
Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 March 2002
Mackie Designs UAD-1 Powered Plug-Ins 2.2.2 November 2002
M-Audio Oxygen 8, "Surfin' USB" September 2002
MetasonixTM-2 In progress
Native Instruments Kontakt In progress
PlugsoundDrums & Percs In progress
PropellerheadSoftware Reason 2.0 In progress
RME Hammerfall DSP April 2002
Roger Linn Design AdrenaLinn August 2002
Royer Labs R-122 January 2003
SibeliusSoftware Sibelius 2 In progress
Sound Quest Infinity 2.05 August 2002
Steinberg Cubase SX In progress
Summit Audio TD-100 Tube Direct Instrument Preamp April 2002
SyntrilliumCool Edit Pro 2.0 December 2002
TC-Helicon VoicePrismPlus September 2002
TC Works PowerCore 1.5 April 2002
ValvotronicsTube Amplified Direct Box November 2002
Yamaha AW2816 In progress