You might think that the EM editors would be jaded after all these years of evaluating products. But we're not because we don't just check out a bunch of capable “me-too” products; we also test an impressive number of extraordinary, innovative, and occasionally mind-blowing devices and programs. Reviewing the better products is a pleasure; choosing the best of the best for our annual Editors' Choice Awards is exhilarating and inspiring.
Clearly, our industry is lucky to have many innovative product designers and product managers who deliver outstanding studio tools for electronic musicians. The Editors' Choice Awards is our way of rewarding those who create our favorite tools by recognizing the finest products and upgrades that we've tested in the past 12 months.
Each year, the number and types of award categories change slightly to reflect the products that we felt were most worthy. For instance, last year we had two microphone categories, divided by price; this year, we gave one award for mics. Last year we gave an award for the best groove box; this year we didn't. When soft instruments arrived on the scene, we had only one category for them; last year and this year we had four such categories — but not the same four.
This year, we gave 25 awards in 23 categories. We had ties in two categories: digital audio sequencers and effects-processing software. As you'll understand when you read the story, the two winners in each of these categories are quite different in approach and are equally deserving of the award.
All award-winning products have been field-tested by EM's editors and a select group of top authors. We also solicited opinions from the editors of sister publications Mix and Remix. The final selections were made by EM technical editors Steve O, Rusty Cutchin, Mike Levine, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, Len Sasso, and Geary Yelton. All award-winning products have already been covered in EM reviews or feature roundups or the review is in progress and our tests are far enough along that we feel confident about our conclusions (see sidebar “The Award Winners in Review” on p. 60).
To be eligible for an EM Editors' Choice award, products must have shipped between October 1, 2003, and October 1, 2004, when we began editing our January issue. We allow some slack for products that shipped so close to the October 2003 deadline that it was not possible for us to test them in time for last year's awards. (This was the case with three of this year's winners.) We do not allow such slack if we believe a manufacturer could have supplied a review unit in time but intentionally delayed sending it. We give an award to a software upgrade only if we think it offers major and significant improvements over the previous version.
And now, please join us in recognizing the winners of the 13th annual EM Editors' Choice Awards!
ArtWonk (Win, $199)
Algorithmic composition may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you have any interest in the field, you should check out Algorithmic Arts' ArtWonk. ArtWonk is a second-generation program (following the company's SoftStep), and it takes computer-assisted composition to new heights. Not only does the software allow you to design processes that will generate MIDI notes in abundance, but it also provides an extensive toolkit for generating video. User-defined macros and functions, support for microtunings, and the ability to read and process Standard MIDI Files are just a few of the features that make ArtWonk a tweaker's paradise.
Applications run from the traditional to the extreme. Maybe you need an ambient background for a movie cue or a few drum riffs to kick-start your creativity. Or perhaps you want to try out dozens of different permutations of a melodic line that doesn't quite work where you need it. On the radical side, suppose you want a random stream of 250 MIDI notes between C2 and C5, all in the space of two measures; or maybe you want to build a device that uses the population density of the U.S. to determine the number of notes that will occur at any given point in a piece. These are just some of the many tricks that ArtWonk can perform. And you can build your contraptions using any of the numerous interface-control modules: sliders, faders, knobs, and the like.
If you have an interest in graphics, ArtWonk can provide a lot of material. Think of it as your artistic collaborator: it will paint 2-D pictures based on characteristics of your music or derive data from a bitmap that can be used to control a sound parameter of your choice. ArtWonk's interface is clean and uncluttered, as it avoids the virtual patch cords that other modular programs rely on.
With more than 200 modules, there's not much in the way of real-time composition that you can't do with this program. If you're a Windows user, check out the demo at the manufacturer's Web site and see what tricks it can do for you.
Audio-Editing Software (2-track)
DSP-Quattro 1.5 (Mac, $129)
True bargains are a rarity in professional-grade music software. When one does come along, it is a compelling candidate for an award. Based on features and price, DSP-Quattro would appear to be a good deal, but it wouldn't be an award-winner if its performance were unimpressive. Fortunately, the program delivers outstanding quality as well. In our estimation, that makes it a true bargain — and an EM Editors' Choice award winner.
DSP-Quattro allows you to open multiple audio files in all the usual formats, offers a typical array of built-in effects plug-ins and destructive DSP, and hosts VST and Audio Units virtual-instrument and effects plug-ins. It allows you to construct complex signal chains including all of the elements just mentioned, and you can record the output. For example, virtual-instrument hosting allows you to bring in a prerecorded backing track and quickly overdub your favorite synth. The software will simultaneously play multiple audio files; however, they can not be synchronized in time, which keeps DSP-Quattro from qualifying as a multitrack editor.
The sample editor is equally full featured, supporting markers, regions, and loops and sporting a high-resolution loop editor. A dual-purpose scrub tool can either control playback speed or act as a bidirectional scrubber. Each open audio file has its own effects rack that can be used nondestructively or burned into the same or a new audio file.
DSP-Quattro saves all settings in Projects, and each Project supports a playlist that can be played in real time or used to burn audio CDs complete with all effects processing. In short, this little monster is one of the best deals of the year.
Audio-Editing Software (multitrack)
WaveLab 5 (Win, $699.99)
Steinberg's WaveLab has consistently maintained its place as a serious competitor in the world of Windows multitrack audio software, but version 5 really brings the program to the head of the pack. Among its many new tricks is support for professional-quality DVD-A burning and authoring, something you won't find in any other Windows multitrack editor on the market.
A number of new multichannel metering options, coupled with what remains our favorite 3-D spectral view, give you many ways to see what's happening in your audio. A new video track makes composing audio for video easier than ever. Track-based effects, which complement Master Section and clip-based effects, are now on hand, as are individual volume faders for every track. Surround support has been greatly enhanced: you can pick from a variety of preset surround configurations or make your own routings of individual tracks to as many as eight physical outputs. There's also a new surround-pan feature; although it still needs a little refining, it allows you to create envelopes that control the flow of your audio in space.
WaveLab 5 adds several new file types (WMA Pro 5.1 and 7.1 and AVI audio, for example) to its ever-growing list of supported formats, making it even better-suited for Web and multimedia use. Its ease of use is legendary, and its help system includes online and context-sensitive support as well as a well-written, thorough, printed manual.
Although it's still missing a global mixer and any form of MIDI support, WaveLab 5 is an excellent tool for nearly any type of audio production. And with all of the new categories of media it can manage (did we mention it has the most powerful database features we've ever seen in an audio application?), you'll be set for the coming years, no matter where your music is headed.
PreSonus's Eureka faced a tough fight with Focusrite's Twin-Track Pro in the channel-strip (integrated preamp and processor) category. Both units possessed excellent sound quality and abundant features. Ultimately, we chose the Eureka because of its fully parametric EQ section and overall value. This unit packs a lot of punch for its price.
The Eureka features a mic preamp, compressor, and 3-band parametric equalizer. The compressor section offers a comprehensive set of controls, including a filter control for frequency-dependent compression applications such as de-essing. You can tailor the compression further with the Soft switch, which toggles between soft- and hard-knee compression curves. A Saturate control emulates the effect that tape saturation and tube warmth have on the even-order harmonics of a sound.
Each of the three parametric EQ bands offers Q, Gain, and Freq controls. For each band, the Q ranges from three octaves to two-thirds of an octave. The Gain knob allows up to 10 dB of boost or cut for each band. The EQ circuit has its own bypass switch and a switch that places it before the compressor in the audio signal path.
We were surprised at how well the Eureka holds its own against more expensive preamps. The unit sounds full in the low end and smooth in the highs. Choosing the correct input-impedance setting for each source (often the 2.5 setting) helped the Eureka shine on several recording tasks.
The Eureka's compressor is subtle, even when pushed to its maximum — better for gentle musical compression than for extreme effects-type limiting. The sidechain highpass filter was handy for de-essing and other frequency-dependent compression techniques. Gain reduction of the compressor can be monitored on the VU meter, a feature usually found only on high-end units.
The Eureka's EQ circuit, like the compressor, is user-friendly and musical. The inclusion of three bands of fully parametric EQ is remarkable for this price range. Overall, the Eureka won the award based on its winning combination of versatility, control, and excellent sound quality.
Digital Audio Sequencer
Live 4 (Mac/Win, $499)
Logic Pro 6 (Mac, $999)
This year we declared a tie in the Digital Audio Sequencer/MIDI Sequencer category, mostly because Ableton and Apple delivered extraordinary upgrades, but also because Live and Logic are so different in design and orientation. The October-to-October period covered by these awards saw two upgrade cycles for each product, but for this article we'll focus only on Live 4 and Logic 6.
The big news for Live 4 is the addition of MIDI clips and virtual-instrument hosting. MIDI clips can be created graphically, recorded from a MIDI keyboard, or imported from Standard MIDI Files. The clips are managed in Live's Session and Arrangement views exactly the same way as audio clips, and as you might expect, MIDI and audio clips can be combined in Scenes. The hosting of VST and Audio Units virtual instruments, the inclusion of two built-in virtual instruments, easy and flexible routing of MIDI data, and included MIDI-processing effects all ensure that Live has one foot planted firmly in MIDI territory.
The new Logic Setup Assistant goes a long way toward taking the pain out of Logic's complex Environment window. The addition of Projects, which collect all data relevant to a song, and the Project Manager, which is a window in to your music database, also simplify things. Arrange window improvements include the ability to hide individual tracks and to lasso and manipulate sections of time spanning multiple tracks using the new Marquee tool. Finally, the addition of channel groups greatly speeds up mixing and automation.
In addition to numerous new features and user-interface improvements, what really put Logic over the top was Apple's decision to bundle of all of the Emagic premium virtual-instrument and effects plug-ins with Logic Pro 6. Virtual instruments include the EXS24 mkII sampler, virtual-analog synths ES1 and ES2, and classic instrument emulations EVB3 (Hammond B3 organ), EVD6 (Hohner Clavinet), and EVP88 (Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos). Effects include the EVOC20 vocoder and the Space Designer convolution reverb. That amounts to roughly $1,500 worth of additional product, all of it first class.
Logic has long been at the forefront of traditional digital-audio and MIDI sequencing with a feature set and attendant complexity to match any in the field. Live breaks new ground in performance-oriented sequencing; it is cleverly designed and streamlined for fast action, while not coming up short on essential features. You would not be likely to choose either over the other.
Digital Audio Workstation/Audio Interface
EmulatorX Studio (Win, $799)
E-mu has long been one of the biggest names in the sampling world, yet is one of the last to bring its hardware expertise to the desktop. It was worth the wait. The new EmulatorX Studio takes the company's EOS operating system, the engine that drives all of its most advanced sampling hardware, and brings it to your computer, complete with the famous morphing filters, original factory presets, and more. Best of all, you can use EmulatorX as a VST plug-in or as a standalone application.
EmulatorX includes a powerful voice editor for tweaking parameters and a sample editor for destructive editing of your audio. The automatic-patch generator can convert many dozens of samples into a single, multisampled voice, and a resampling feature lets you record every sound that the sampler can produce directly to disk. Like most soft samplers, you can trigger multiple patches on a single MIDI channel, but EmulatorX's implementation of this feature is among the easiest to use that we've seen.
Sampling is only half of the story. The system also includes a professional-caliber, 8-channel audio interface, the 1820M, with specs that won't leave you wanting. High-quality, 24-bit/192 kHz converters, dual MIDI I/O, word clock support, SMPTE and MTC sync, and a FireWire interface are just a few features of the 1820M software. The attractive and well-built AudioDock external breakout box gives you quick access to many of the I/O ports, and the 1010 PCI card that installs in your PC adds even more connectors.
We are particularly impressed with the way E-mu integrates its hardware and software — clearly one of the advantages of buying both from the same manufacturer. For starters, the DSP horsepower provided by the 1820M interface gives you a large number of hardware-accelerated effects that won't add to your host CPU's burden. The PatchMix mixer application comes with dozens of presets, including routings that send audio out and then back into the system, an option to allow the hardware effects to be used by any VST host, and a wide range of user-configurable settings to get the most out of your computer.
If you aren't already amazed by the value that this system offers, consider that you also get a bundle of sample libraries, a full version of Steinberg's Cubase VST, and a versatile file-conversion utility. Starting to get the picture? Buying into the EmulatorX fairly well ensures you'll have a system that just keeps growing, and E-mu has already announced ambitious expansion plans for this outstanding bundle. X marks the spot for this year's DAW/audio-interface award.
Download of the Year
AudioFinder 2.4.4 (Mac, $49)
The winner of the Download of the Year category is chosen from the software featured in the “Download of the Month” section of our “What's New” column. We had some fine choices this year, but when the dust settled, the nod went to Iced Audio's AudioFinder, a Mac OS X jack-of-all-trades utility that takes the grind out of managing your audio files. AudioFinder automates and simplifies so many tedious tasks, it's hard to know where to start. And, because something new is added nearly every week (we covered version 2.4, and the program is already at version 3.4), it's almost impossible to keep up.
AudioFinder is a single-window application that opens with a Browser view similar to the Finder's Column view. The difference is that at the file level, AudioFinder displays only audio and MIDI files. Selecting a file immediately starts playback, but that's only the most obvious trick in AudioFinder's bag. For example, you can designate a destination (any location on your hard drive), then step through the files displayed in AudioFinder's Browser and, with a single keystroke, copy, move, or alias the selected file to your chosen destination.
The program can batch-rename files, allowing you, for example, to change the names of tracks imported from audio CDs from “Track” to something more indicative, such as the CD name. Assuming your audio files are properly trimmed, AudioFinder can automatically calculate their tempos and append that to the filenames. AudioFinder also offers typical DSP functions such as normalize and fade, as well as unusual ones, like splicing all selected files or slicing a file into individual hits based on the length of silence separating them. AudioFinder will also convert files to any format supported by iTunes and then automatically add them to your iTunes library.
AudioFinder's Scanner mode displays all audio files on your hard drive, or all files nested within any specified directory, in a single list. You can then refine the list by including or excluding specific text from the filename, the containing folder's name, or the Finder comments. You can even scan an attached iPod and extract its audio content — a feature annoyingly missing from iTunes. If you have audio, you need AudioFinder.
Drum Machine/Module (software)
BFD 1.07 (Mac/Win, $329)
This year's competition was upbeat to say the least, with editors and authors alike drumming up support for their favorite software drum machine or module. But in the end, we agreed that FXPansion's hot new BFD was an outstanding choice for both features and content.
One of BFD's unusual features is the ability to mix the balance between a direct mic and three sets of room mics, allowing you to emulate a variety of real and imagined recording environments. The generous use of Velocity layers, together with long samples that capture the full natural decay of each percussion instrument, add realism to the library. They also add heft: each kit is more than a gigabyte in size.
In addition to its mammoth sample library, BFD comes with an extensive library of MIDI grooves (programmed and recorded live), and you can create or import your own. Grooves can be triggered by MIDI note messages or can be automatically shuffled by BFD. Typical creature comforts, such as Swing and Humanize, are also present.
In case BFD's seven kits, which cover a broad range of instrument manufacturers and styles, are not enough, two expansion kits — BFD XFL and BFD 8 Bit Kit — significantly broaden the selection. And in case the program's mic-mixing options don't offer the exact ambience you're looking for, its 17 outputs allow you to apply your own effects plug-ins to individual instruments. A clever design, a huge and varied percussion-instrument library, and an extensive MIDI groove library make BFD a clear winner.
Dynamics Processor, Digital (hardware)
C4 Quad Compressor/Limiter/De-esser ($699)
Bleary-eyed computer musicians may feel that hardware dynamics processors don't amount to a hill of beans in this world of plug-ins, but pros know that quality hardware still has its place for critical tasks. When the Rane C4 Quad Compressor arrived on the scene, we quickly discovered its award-worthy audio quality, flexibility, and reliability.
The analog-controlled C4 features four identical sets of digital compressor, limiter, and de-esser controls. All four channels can be used independently, and channel pairs 1-2 and 3-4 can be linked for stereo operation. In addition to providing basic compressor parameter controls, the C4 lets users adjust each channel's sidechain signal extensively, using its parametric EQ.
In de-essing mode, bandwidth, frequency, and compression threshold are adjusted to compress only the desired EQ range in the C4's audio output. This process can not only suppress vocal sibilance but also attenuate an unwanted frequency peak in any type of instrument or signal. With Sidechain Listen selected, changes to the EQ of the triggering circuit can be auditioned through the channel's audio output.
We appreciated the C4's range of features and sonic neutrality. No signal muting, switch clicks, or gain changes are apparent when switching between active and bypass modes. The C4 stands out at processing rock-drum overhead mics in stereo-linked mode. The unit's continuously variable knee parameter allows subtle refinement of the compressor's behavior at and around the threshold point. In our tests, the sidechain EQ helped to bring out vocal intelligibility and detail without noticeable coloration on a female lead track. The brickwall limiter worked like a charm at moderate settings.
The C4 treats audio like a quality computer plug-in would, while offering the convenient control of analog gear. Few affordable compressors offer the C4's combination of external sidechain input, built-in de-essing, and parametric equalization of the sidechain signal.
Effects Processor (hardware, analog)
MuRF MF-105 ($439)
Who else but Bob Moog would create an effects pedal that combines a fixed filter bank with a sequencer? The MuRF, short for Multiple Resonance Filter Array, animates eight resonant filters with a pattern generator to provide a wide array of rhythm-based effects that no other analog processor offers.
With a range from 200 Hz to 3.4 kHz, the filter frequencies are concentrated around the tessitura of the guitar, and each filter has its own envelope generator (EG) and dedicated level control. The sequencer triggers the individual EGs in any of 22 patterns, from up and down stair-steps to random, and you can modify the patterns by changing the individual filter levels.
The overall envelope shape is continuously variable, from a sharp downward ramp wave, through a triangle shape, into a sharp upward ramp wave. The result is a gradual morphing that moves between gated percussive sounds and reverse-envelope effects, with unusual rhythmic variations along the way.
Like other Moogerfooger pedals, the MuRF gives you voltage control over key parameters — including envelope, rate, and wet/dry mix — allowing you to use pedals, synth modules, or other Moogerfoogers to tweak the MuRF in real time. To twist the sound further, you can shift the center frequencies of the filters with an external control voltage or using the built-in LFO, depending on the sequence selected. Other nice touches include stereo output for creating ping-pong effects, a drive circuit for adding distortion to the sound, and a tap-tempo feature for synchronizing the patterns to your music. With that many features, on top of a killer sound, it was clear to us that, once again, Moog Music has created a winner.
Effects Processor (hardware, digital)
Copping this year's award for best digital effects processor meant rising above a field of products that ran the gamut from A (Korg ToneWorks' Ampworks) to Z (Z-Systems' Z-Qualizer). The Vox Valvetronix Tone Lab got the nod for being one of the highest-quality amp modelers we've seen and for nailing the features that guitarists hold dear, including real tube-amplifier response.
The ToneLab, a direct descendant of Vox's Valvetronix modeling amplifiers, provides all of the essentials that a serious recording guitarist could want: S/PDIF digital output, a Vox bus pedal-controller jack, MIDI In and Out ports, a Line/Amp level-selector switch, a Standby button, and a ventilation port. The 13 rotary knobs on the face of the unit provide easy access to pedal, modulation, delay, and reverb and tap effects. The ToneLab has 96 rewriteable programs (48 of which are factory presets), broken up into 24 banks of 4. All of this is in support of the heart of the system: Vox's tube-based Valve Reactor power section.
The Valve Reactor section incorporates a real 12AX7 tube and related analog circuitry to more accurately represent the way that a guitar amp interacts with the playing style of the guitarist. The goal is to maintain the “feel and touch dynamics” that are integral components of the final sound. In this section, Vox uses hardware to achieve what other modelers attempt to approximate digitally. Because of the complex gain staging, three parameters (and the master Output Level knob on the rear of the unit) affect the final output level and sound.
After comparing the ToneLab to several of the amps it emulates, reviewer Orren Merton felt that the ToneLab was more responsive than any other modeler he had tried. The unit's touch-sensitivity response is impressive, and the accuracy of the amp models is maintained when the volume settings, pickups, or guitars are changed. The modeled effects are also good, especially chorus and delay, which sound rich and more like guitar effects than digital effects — a good thing for a guitar modeler.
Finally, what the ToneLab lacks in features and variety of sounds, it makes up in quality and authenticity. Its distinctive approach to, and success at, achieving the truest guitar tone in a moveable box made it a standout choice in a crowded field.
Effects Processor (software)
Filter 1.0 (Mac/Win, $199)
Guitar Rig 1.1 (Mac/Win, $499)
We just couldn't decide between Antares Filter 1.0 and Native Instruments Guitar Rig 1.1, so we quit fighting before the police arrived and declared a tie. Although quite different in function, these two outstanding programs have much in common, including intelligent design, flexibility, and great sound.
We'll turn our attention first to Filter. Although the interface for this powerful plug-in appears complex at first glance, it's actually easy to use once you understand its architecture. It offers four separate filter stages and six different routing possibilities: series, parallel, and four combinations of the two. The filters can be configured as lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, or all-pass.
A separate delay line is available for each of the filters, providing up to two seconds of delay per filter. Rhythmic effects can be achieved using a pair of 48-step rhythm generators, and you get four Function Generators containing LFOs and envelope generators. The delay lines, Rhythm Generators, and LFOs can all be independently set to sync to the host tempo or run freely. For even more control you get a 12-row, 39-source modulation matrix. An envelope follower lets you alter the way in which the filters are applied over time.
What really makes Filter fun and easy to use is the colorful graphic display in the center that allows you to adjust, in real time, the cutoff frequencies and resonance settings for each of the four filters. Each filter is represented by a different color; you click on one to select it, drag the horizontal or vertical line (or both), and instantly hear the effect.
Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, is a great-sounding guitar amp- and effects-modeling plug-in that also runs as a standalone application. It is distinguished from the crowd by a super-flexible signal path and a control pedal that comes bundled with the software. We reviewed version 1.1, which features models of Fender, Vox, Marshall, and Mesa/Boogie amps. All sound good and offer a deep editing interface.
In addition to the amps, you get a range of cabinet and speaker models through which you can route your virtual amp. You can use as many cabinets as your CPU can handle. You can further modify your sounds with a selection of mic models and by choosing from several different mic-placement options.
The huge variety of modeled effects includes several types of distortion, delay, EQ, wah, chorus, and more — many of them derived from classic stompboxes. Guitar Rig lets you completely control the order of the effects and even allows you to split signals for parallel processing. By the time you read this, an updated version featuring four additional distortion pedals should have already been released.
Guitar Rig's search features let you hunt through its large library of factory presets, along with any presets that you program or download. Also included are useful utilities, including a tuner, a metronome, and a global noise gate. The software even features dual digital recorders, one of which has pitch- and time-shifting features designed for learning riffs and solos.
The hardware controller includes an expression pedal and four on/off footswitches. You can set it to control or turn on and off virtually any of the effects or parameters. As a result, Guitar Rig is not only handy in the studio, but also as a live-performance tool.
Hybrid Control Surface/Audio Interface
When MIDI control surfaces entered the marketplace, most personal studio owners didn't consider them essential. Over the years, prices have declined and capabilities have expanded. Today, you can buy the powerful Yamaha 01X for what still can be considered a bargain price.
The 01X combines the functionality of several devices in a tabletop unit weighing less than 14 pounds. It is a DAW control surface with nine motorized faders and knobs that you can reassign at the touch of a button. It is an mLAN-based MIDI and audio interface with plenty of analog and digital ins and outs. It's also a 28-channel digital mixer that runs with or without a computer, sporting mLAN I/O, S/PDIF I/O, eight balanced analog inputs, and four unbalanced analog outputs.
Even with its affordable price, there's nothing stripped-down about the 01X. It offers features galore, such as 4-band parametric EQ and dynamics processors on all 28 channels, two stereo multi-effects processors, and a large, graphic LCD. The 01X is solidly built and performs all of its assigned tasks with ease, simplifying life onstage and in the computer-based recording studio. Once you learn your way around the 01X, you may never go back to maneuvering with a mouse again.
Like other mLAN devices, the 01X connects to compatible equipment by means of a standard FireWire cable. The 24/96 A/D converters sound smooth and transparent, and the effects (which include excellent reverb and guitar-amp simulation) are top-notch. The 01X can make working with DAW software feel like working with a real multitrack recorder. It comes with built-in templates for all of the popular audio sequencers, and it can even control plug-in parameters. To sweeten the pot, the bundled software suite includes four stellar VST (for Macintosh and Windows) and AU plug-ins — Channel Module, Vocal Rack, Pitch Fix, and Final Master — that you can use with or without the 01X.
The 01X delivers everything it promises in a well-designed package that's a pleasure to use. The product is the fruit of years of development and richly deserves this award.
The recent proliferation of good large-diaphragm mics has given us a bewildering selection, and it takes something exceptional to rise above the crowd. In terms of sound, feature set, and value, the innovative Røde NT2000 did just that, winning hands down in the microphone category.
Built entirely in Røde's state-of-the-art Australian facility, the NT2000 includes the new HF-1 capsule, which features a 1-inch, gold-sputtered diaphragm of the company's own design. But what makes the NT2000 stand out is its onboard, continuously variable control over the polar pattern, highpass filter, and pad. The mic has omnidirectional, cardioid, and figure-8 patterns and allows you to dial in a hybrid pattern to suit your needs. In addition, you can roll off the frequencies between 150 and 20 Hz and pad the level by 10 dB.
To the ears of reviewer Rob Shrock, the NT2000 has the sound of a mature, vintage microphone, with a full low-end and a pleasant boost in the “air” frequencies above 10 kHz. Shrock also noted that the polar patterns offer good off-axis rejection, and the transformerless electronics are exceptionally quiet: the NT2000's self-noise is rated at a remarkable 7 dB.
For only $100 more, you can go a step further toward a vintage sound and purchase the Røde K2, a variable-pattern, tube-based microphone that uses the same HF-1 capsule. So for less than a grand, you can get a classic sound from either a tube or solid-state mic, but with modern features and specs. The Røde folks hate the phrase “bang for the buck,” but we gleefully apply it here in the best sense of the term: the NT2000 is an outstanding mic that happens to be reasonably priced.
Big Knob ($384)
Because they often mix and process audio inside the computer, many musicians are getting rid of their hardware mixers in an attempt to reclaim space on the desktop. However, you still need a hardware device to simultaneously route a stereo mix to the monitors, mastering deck (if you use one), and headphones. That's where the Mackie Big Knob Studio Command Station comes in.
The Big Knob is an analog device with four stereo inputs, four stereo outputs, three sets of monitor outputs, and one large knob to control the overall level throughout the system. This allows you to route multiple stereo sources (such as a DAT, CD, turntable, and a mix from a DAW) to several destinations. The Big Knob's phono input includes a preamp with RIAA equalization and a grounding post, so you can also ditch your old stereo receiver.
The Big Knob lets you switch between three pairs of studio monitors, giving you the flexibility to check your work on different speakers. Additional audio outputs, with an independent level control, can feed a headphone-distribution system and a set of monitors for remote playback in a separate room. With the exception of the phono input, all inputs and outputs accommodate pro- (+4 dBu) and consumer-level (-10 dBV) gear, which alleviates the need for external level-matching devices.
Mackie further extended the Big Knob's list of professional features by including a built-in mic for talkback or slating, a Mono switch for checking phase, a Dim button for lowering the monitor output by 20 dB, and a Mute button. Not bad for a device that, at 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep, leaves plenty of room on your desktop — not to mention plenty of scratch in your pocket.
Studio Precision 8 Active ($1,499 per pair)
In recent years, some powered monitor speakers have evolved into complete minisystems that offer DSP and dedicated controllers, as well as matching subwoofers and a choice of input connections. In the end, however, it's still sound quality that matters most. Of the nine sets of monitors we looked at and listened to this year, Event Electronics' Studio Precision 8 Active rose to the top because of its stunning audio reproduction. (Incidentally, the Studio Precision line also includes three less-expensive models.)
The Studio Precision 8 Active monitor (ASP8) includes high- and low-frequency trim controls, and an 80 Hz highpass filter can be used when a subwoofer is added to the system. But the speakers sound great in their neutral configuration, and the monitor's low-end response is good enough to mix a record using them in a traditional stereo setup.
Low frequencies are smooth and extended, without any noticeable rippling, and high frequency response is equally impressive. The mids are neither strident nor scooped but simply neutral, owing in part to the ASP8's tweeter (or “radiator,” as Event calls it), which has a concave housing similar to the one used in Mackie's HR824. The result is a smooth top end with a wide sweet spot that sounds accurate.
The ASP8 amplifiers supply a lot of power — 200W (Program) for the 8-inch low-frequency driver and 80W for the tweeter — and offers a fine balance of quick transient response and precise stereo imaging. In our opinion, the Studio Precision 8 Active sounds better than some studio monitors that cost twice as much, so they're a bargain, as well.
Most Innovative Product
Vocaloid 1.02 Leon and Lola (Win, $229.95 each)
Yamaha has raised the bar on vocal synthesis with its Vocaloid technology, now playing in software from Zero-G. Lola and Leon (and the recently released Miriam) incorporate Yamaha's unique new approach to synthesizing realistic vocal parts. Each of the programs offers a library of phonemes (speech building blocks) that are based on real acoustic-voice samples. But this is no ordinary sample library: the tools for adjusting the synthetic voice are like none you'll see elsewhere. If you have the inclination and some time on your hands, you can build your own synthetic language that your virtual singers can sing.
Lola and Leon allow you to enter notes on a multitrack sequencer-like interface, and then add text as you would in a notation program. Once you have finished the notes and text, you can turn to a number of “expression” parameters to add realism to your virtual vocalist. At the bottom of the main screen are settings for standard parameters such as note Velocity and Pitch Bend, but when's the last time you saw Noise, Harmonics, Brightness, or Gender Factor settings? Each of the latter group can make a significant impact on the voice's timbre and can vary over time either note by note or throughout the length of an entire phrase.
Real vocalists use vibrato, and with Vocaloid, you can create exacting amplitude envelopes containing dozens and dozens of breakpoints for each individual note. You can also employ a variety of preset or custom attacks, crescendo and diminuendo marks, and dynamics. If you really want to get to the heart of the matter, the Phoneme Editor provides access to the individual syllables that are used to generate a vocal part, and there are numerous ways to alter the program's operation as it renders your music and lyrics into synthetic speech.
It's not trivial to get a realistic voice part using a Vocaloid program, and we'd like to see a more up-to-date interface for the software. There's no way to enter notes in real time (using a MIDI controller, for example), and a lot of trial and error is required to make a voice sound expressive. But that shouldn't stop you from exploring one of the most distinctive synthesis applications to come along in a while.
Sibelius 3 (Mac/Win, $599)
A professional notation program needs to be powerful and flexible and must smoothly handle the needs of a diverse group of musicians, ranging from songwriters making lead sheets and jazz musicians writing horn charts to classical composers arranging for orchestra. Most important, it must do its job without substantially interrupting the user's creative flow.
There are two perennial leaders in this software category: MakeMusic's Finale and Sibelius Software's Sibelius. Both are stellar products, have legions of loyal followers, and were updated in the past year. But this year's Editors' Choice award goes to Sibelius 3, a superb upgrade that offers an outstanding combination of power and intuitive ease of use.
Of the 170 new features in Sibelius 3, perhaps the most talked-about is the Kontakt Player Silver, a sample player derived from Native Instrument's Kontakt. It gives users the ability to listen to and produce their compositions with 20 quality instrument sounds, including a Bösendorfer piano, strings, brass, percussion, and woodwinds. You can upgrade that to Kontakt Player Gold, which features 64 pitched and 100 unpitched instruments. Once you're satisfied with the sound of your composition, you now can save it as a WAV or AIFF file and burn it to CD. You can also save it as an MP3 for posting to the Web.
Other new features and enhancements in Sibelius 3 include improved beaming, optical spacing, better Flexi-time (notation of MIDI-performances) implementation, and the ability to transpose guitar-chord diagrams. It's also easier to make your score look better in Sibelius 3 because you can globally apply font changes and add color to virtually any object.
The software's plug-ins help you accomplish a wide range of specific tasks and make the program even more user friendly. Version 3.0 adds 30 new plug-ins, including Add Accidentals to All Notes, Realize Figured Bass, Add Drum Pattern, Straighten Swung Eighths, and Convert Folder of Scores to Web Pages.
We often wonder what a developer can add to mature software that hasn't already been provided. Sibelius 3 answers that question with a plethora of new features while maintaining, and even improving, ease of use. We love it!
Eight-channel preamp/converter combos are becoming increasingly popular because musicians want a better sounding DAW front end than small-format mixers and sound-card converters normally offer. In response, M-Audio has combined its experience in digital-audio interface design with its latest preamp technology to create the Octane, a DAW front end that sounds good and won't empty your bank account.
Besides having eight phantom-powered mic preamps, the Octane has an ADAT Lightpipe digital output and eight balanced, ¼-inch analog inputs and outputs. You can use the analog I/O for inserting effects between the preamp and digital output, and it also makes the Octane into a handy, standalone A/D converter for line-level signals. M-Audio didn't forget to include such studio staples as word clock I/O for timing stability, phase-reverse switches, and a highpass filter for removing low-frequency artifacts.
A number of other pro features give the Octane a leg up on the competition. The requisite high-impedance inputs for running your guitar or bass direct have dedicated preamp circuits designed to deliver the best signal-to-noise ratio for those sources. In addition, channels 7 and 8 include an M-S matrix encoder with a Width control, offering post-production stereo adjustability and superior mono compatibility. With such a wealth of features and excellent sound, it should be no surprise that the Octane took the award for best preamp this year.
Reverb Processor (software)
IR-1 1.0 (Mac/Win: $800 native, $1,200 HDTM)
Convolution technology makes it possible to produce a variety of effects by combining the spectra of two audio files. Typically, a source file is convolved with a sample of an actual acoustic space (known as an impulse response, or IR), to produce extraordinarily realistic reverb effects. But as cool as it might be to make an instrument sound like it's being played in a cathedral, a forest, or a circular glass room, some complain that convolution reverbs just don't offer enough traditional reverb parameters.
Waves set out to develop a plug-in that provided the best of both worlds: realistic sampled spaces and familiar reverb controls. The result is IR-1, which runs in a wide range of native plug-in formats for Mac and Windows, yet also offers control of common digital-reverb parameters, such as room size, density, early reflections, and reverb tail. These reverb parameters directly interact with the room sample; they aren't just tacked on. In addition, IR-1 sports a 4-band paragraphic equalizer that gives you precise control of the reverb's frequency spectrum and is similar in look and feel to Waves's EQ plug-ins.
An included library of meticulously sampled IRs allows you to place your audio in spaces such as the Ryman Auditorium (the former Grand Ole Opry), the Sydney Opera House's Concert Hall, the Knitting Factory, the (late-lamented) Bottom Line club in New York, Trinity Church, Cello Studios, Westlake Studio, the interior of a Ford Econoline van, and plenty more. Also included are synthesized IRs and IRs sampled from a classic hardware reverb.
For those who want more IRs or want to use other audio files as IRs to produce unusual effects (another great use for a convolution processor), IR-1 can load WAV files as impulse responses. That is particularly handy because most downloadable IRs on the Web are in WAV format.
Like other convolution processors, IR-1 uses a hefty chunk of processing power. Mindful of that, Waves gives users a low-CPU option and a choice of several configurations, the simpler of which use fewer CPU cycles. Depending on the nature of your source file, IR-1 configurations range from mono-to-mono with one convolution to stereo-to-stereo with four convolutions.
This is one impressive plug-in: IR-1 was an easy award-winner in its category. In the “making a good thing better” department, shortly before we went to press Waves released version 2.0, which offers a number of enhancements and an improved IR library.
Sample Player (software)
SampleTank 2 XL (Mac/Win, $499)
Hardware synths have one major advantage over their software equivalents: you can just turn them on and start playing. If the instrument is a “rompler” — a ROM-based sample-playback synthesizer — you usually can select from dozens of timbres representing every family of instruments. Because of their versatility, romplers have dominated electronic-music production for at least 15 years.
Behold the virtual rompler: SampleTank 2 XL, from IK Multimedia, is the second incarnation of the plug-in that launched a thousand sessions. Boot up your DAW program, open SampleTank, and start playing. Unlike hardware-based synths, its collection of sounds isn't measured in mere MB: we're talking 4.5 GB, a sample library more than twice as large as the previous version's. Acoustic pianos, electric guitars, orchestral instruments, drum ‘n’ bass loops, ethnic percussion grooves — you name it, SampleTank 2 XL has it. If you need more sounds, it can import data from Akai sampler discs as well as WAV, AIFF, and Sound Designer II files, and can automatically assign them to note and Velocity ranges.
Another improvement is that SampleTank can now sync loops to sequencer tempo. In addition to straight sample playback, SampleTank 2 offers two new sound engines. Pitch-Shift/Time-Stretch (PS/TS) lets you alter tempo without affecting pitch, which works best for drums and other unpitched material. The Stretch engine smoothly transposes pitch without changing the formants or tempo; Stretch works miracles with sustained monophonic tones.
SampleTank 2 is 16-part multitimbral and offers more than 50 new user parameters, providing plenty of opportunity to modify its factory-sound library. Dynamics and effects are vastly improved, borrowing algorithms from IK Multimedia's AmpliTube and T-RackS, and you can automate as many as eight effects parameters simultaneously. Put it all together, and SampleTank 2 XL is a worthy replacement for your hardware-based rompler — and an obvious Editors' Choice award winner.
Sound Design Workstation
Kyma X System (Mac/Win: $3,470, base system)
The good folks at Symbolic Sound have been at it again: Kyma X, the newest release of what has been called “the most powerful sound-design workstation on the planet,” is so full of new and updated features that it was the hands-down winner in this year's voting. Not only does the new version sport a dramatically improved user interface, new sound-processing modules, and a massively updated user's manual, but it also has enhancements throughout nearly every main area of the program.
Kyma X is a modular sound-design system offering hundreds of modules for your sampling, synthesizing, and processing pleasure. It uses a box (called the Capybara) full of reconfigurable Motorola DSPs to accelerate the production and processing of sound. The Capybara attaches to a Windows or Mac computer via a new FireWire interface called Flame, which, among other tricks, increases the number of functions that the system can perform at the same time. Kyma X can simultaneously analyze an incoming audio signal and resynthesize it using hundreds of sine waves (or other sound sources); play back 20 different sound files from disk, each of which is stretched or compressed in real time under the control of a MIDI source; and randomly trigger a sequence of MIDI note events that “play” their own synthesis modules.
Kyma X's Virtual Control Surface, a highly customizable, real-time control interface for manipulating sounds, has been greatly enhanced. You can now design custom control surfaces with the number and types of controls you need. Support for more types of input controllers (such as a mouse) further enhances the system's real-time performance capabilities. Working in the Timeline is easier than ever; you can now play back only isolated regions on any number of tracks. And the updated spectral-analysis functions make resynthesizing stereo files quick and easy.
On the new online users' forum, you'll find many dozens of user-contributed Kyma X patches and several new modules, including one module that generates 2-D graphics. And just as we went to press, Symbolic Sound announced yet another significant upgrade, adding an oscillator that can morph between waveshapes over a single cycle!
If you haven't yet heard Kyma X, you can start with the excellent online examples on Symbolic Sound's Web site. But be forewarned, you might get hooked!
impOSCar 1.01 (Mac/Win, $179.95)
One of the most sought-after electronic instruments of all time is the OSCar, a quirky one- or two-voice synth (depending on the version) produced in the mid 1980s by the UK-based Oxford Synthesizer Company (OSC). The OSCar had digital oscillators, analog filters, and an additive-synthesis engine. Its rather bizarre case was made of plastic, wood, and rubber, but it had a sound all its own — all its own, that is, until impOSCar came along.
GForce, makers of the virtual ARP Odyssey (Oddity) and the virtual Mellotron (M-Tron), gave impOSCar powers beyond those of its hardware-based inspiration, including 16-note polyphony, chorus and delay effects, and many filter modes. Create your own additive waveforms graphically using impOSCar's Harmonic Editor and sync the LFOs to tempo. Every control is MIDI-assignable and responds to sequencer automation.
The most outstanding attribute of impOSCar is its sound. It not only sounds like the OSCar, but it also goes beyond the original. Just like its precursor, it makes sounds that are thoroughly unique. Dozens of presets are included, and you can download additional presets from the Web. If you can get your hands on the real McCoy, impOSCar can even import OSCar sounds as SysEx data. The impOSCar sounds great, it's easy to program, and it's tremendously versatile — adding up to a winning choice for EM editors.
Synthesizer Bundle (software)
Legacy Collection (Mac/Win, $625)
Given recent developments in music software, you might expect every vintage synth to be replaced by a software emulation. We have no problem with that if manufacturers do as good a job as Korg has done with its Legacy Collection.
The Legacy Collection reproduces every detail of Korg's classic MS-20, Polysix, and Wavestation synthesizers, adding new user interfaces, more polyphony, easier programming, and assignable MIDI control of every parameter. The sound quality is simply astounding: this cross-platform bundle has absolutely nailed the flavor of the originals. The Legacy Collection also includes the versatile multi-effects plug-in MDE-X and the unique MS-20iC hardware controller. To top everything off, a surprisingly low price makes this software/hardware combination one of the best bargains of the year.
The software version of the Polysix does everything that the hardware version did and more. LFOs and arpeggios sync to tempo, 6 voices have grown into 32, and Unison mode lets you play every voice with a single note. The software Wavestation offers all the niceties of its hardware namesake and adds the convenience of graphical onscreen programming. (Ever wanted to graphically edit wave sequences? Now you can.) Wavestation contains every wave and timbre found in the Wavestation SR (the last hardware model), and it imports SysEx data from any Wavestation.
Ask any serious analog synthesist: the original MS-20 is legendary. This monophonic instrument had a patch bay to interconnect its circuits, giving it most of a modular synth's flexibility and ensuring that it generated sounds that other synths could not. Its software counterpart supplies all of the original's features, including the patch bay. Not content with merely letting you drag virtual cords from one jack to another, however, Korg built the MS-20iC, a miniature hardware emulation of the MS-20 that works in conjunction with the MS-20 software. You can connect virtual circuits using real patch cords, and the software responds to every hardware control. As a bonus, you can use the MS-20iC to control other soft synths, too.
There is more: a new virtual synth called Legacy Cell lets you combine synths and effects processors to create a hybrid. Blend Polysix with MS-20, combine one MS-20 or Polysix with another, or insert either synth into Legacy Cell and add multi-effects to create new timbres. Legacy Cell's Performances supply 21st-century sounds that neither synth could produce on its own. Korg's Legacy Collection goes further than any other synthesizer suite, taking your music forward into the past.
THE WINNING MANUFACTURERS
Apple Computer — tel.: (408) 996-1010; Web: www.apple.com
Korg USA, Inc. — tel.: (631) 390-6500; Web: www.korg.com
Rane Corporation — tel.: (425) 355-6000; Web: www.rane.com
Røde Microphones — tel.: (310) 328-7456; Web: www.rodemic.com
Vox Amplification/Korg USA (distributor) — tel.: (631) 390-6500; Web: www.voxamps.com
THE AWARD WINNERS IN REVIEW
Almost all of our award winners have been reviewed in our pages or soon will be. For products with reviews still in progress, we have completed enough tests to feel confident about our conclusions; most, if not all, of those reviews will be published in the next two issues.
An article title enclosed in quotes indicates that the product was covered in a feature or “What's New” column rather than in a review. All other entries indicate reviews of the award-winning version.
All published articles are available for download from the EM article archives at www.emusician.com.
Ableton Live 4 December 2004 Algorithmic Arts ArtWonk 1.2 September 2004 Antares Filter 1.0 June 2004 Emagic (Apple) Logic Pro 6 June 2004 E-mu EmulatorX In progress Event Electronics Studio Precision 8 May 2004 FXPansion BFD 1.07 May 2004 FXPansion BFD 1.0.811/“Beat Generation” September 2004 GForce impOSCar 1.01 November 2004 i3 Software DSP-Quattro 1.5 June 2004 Iced Audio Software AudioFinder 2.4.4/“What's New: Download of the Month” November 2003 IK Multimedia SampleTank 2 April 2004 Korg Legacy Collection 1.0 October 2004 Mackie Big Knob In progress M-Audio Octane December 2004 Moog MuRF MF-105 In progress Native Instruments Guitar Rig 1.0 January 2005 PreSonus Eureka June 2004 Rane C4 Quad Compressor December 2004 Røde NT2000 June 2004 Sibelius Sibelius 3 June 2004 WaveLab 5.0 December 2004 Symbolic Sound Kyma X October 2004 Vox Valvetronix ToneLab April 2004 Waves IR-1 1.0/“Trading Spaces” October 2004 Yamaha 01X November 2004 Zero-G Vocaloid 1.02 Leon and Lola August 2004