Traditionally, we start our Editors' Choice Awards article with a paragraph about how the editors fought like wild animals when choosing our winners. But this year, our meetings were comparatively placid. As always, we had lots of fine products from which to choose, but with a few exceptions, we were able to come to quick agreement right down the line.
In some cases, notably monitor speakers and field recorders, the winner was a slam dunk. In others, such as digital audio sequencers and hardware synths, we debated several products but one candidate kept rising to the top. In the end we settled on 26 awards in 24 categories, with well-deserved ties in the 2 signal-processing-software categories (individual and bundle).
Each year we give our Editors' Choice Awards to the finest products and upgrades that we tested in the past 12 months. We can't test every new product, but we work hard to check out the most promising candidates. Our awards categories change each year to reflect what's happening in personal-studio products: for instance, last year we gave one award for ribbon mics and one for condensers because it was a banner year for ribbons, whereas this year we chose only one mic. On the other hand, last year we chose one hardware synth, and this year we gave separate awards for analog and digital synths.
All of the 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, Mike Levine, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, Len Sasso, and Geary Yelton, with much-appreciated help from Remix technical editor Markkus Rovito. All award-winning products have 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 the sidebar “The Award Winners in Review”).
To be eligible for an Editors' Choice Award, products must have shipped between October 1, 2005, and October 1, 2006, when we began editing our January issue. We also considered several products that shipped so close to the 2006 Editors' Choice Awards deadline that it was not possible for us to test them in time for that year's awards. Similarly, if a product shipped too close to the end deadline for us to properly evaluate it this year, we'll make it eligible for next year's award. We give an award to a software upgrade only if we think it offers major and significant improvements over the previous version.
And now, hats off to the winners of the 15th annual EM Editors' Choice Awards!
WaveLab 6.0b (Win, $699)
We were amazed at the number of enhancements Steinberg added to WaveLab 6. Among its many new recording and monitoring options are improved metering, an audio-input plug-in that lets you apply Master Section effects as you record audio, and an external-gear plug-in for easily creating effects loops with hardware processors. There are now three display modes — Wave, Spectrum Editor, and Loudness Envelope — any two of which can be on the screen simultaneously. For example, you could have a standard waveform showing in the main window while a sonogram view appears above it.
WaveLab 6 has raised the bar in other areas too. The new Dirac pitch-shifting and time-stretching algorithm produces excellent results, and the Crystal Resampler, a high-end sampling-rate converter, is as good as any we've heard. Using the Effect Morphing feature, you can gradually fade an effect in or out over the length of an entire file or crossfade between two different effects on the same audio clip.
Even more radical results are possible with the Spectrum Editor, which allows you to process any arbitrary range of frequencies and times independently. (Adobe's Audition 2 introduced this feature before WaveLab 6, but we particularly like Steinberg's implementation.) Other new features, such as batch renaming and autocreation of files from clips, are great for maintaining and organizing samples on your drive. The main drawback we found is that WaveLab 6 now requires a hardware dongle.
Whether you're recording, editing, mastering, or composing, WaveLab is an all-purpose media-production powerhouse. We can't wait to see what Steinberg will think of next.
MOTU may be best known as the developer of Digital Performer, but a large chunk of its business is manufacturing and selling audio and MIDI interfaces. With classic products like the 2408 and 828mkII, the Massachusetts-based company has shown that it knows how to build affordable front ends that provide a good blend of quality and features.
Such is the case with the UltraLite. Weighing in at 2 pounds, the half-rack audio-and-MIDI interface makes a perfect complement to a laptop-based recording system. But it isn't just the UltraLite's compact size that's noteworthy; it also has an impressive feature set. To begin with, you get dual FireWire ports, allowing daisy chaining of more than one UltraLite; 24-bit, 96 kHz operation; a pair of good-sounding mic preamp/instrument inputs on combo jacks, with individually switched 3-way pads and phantom power; six balanced TRS line ins; ten balanced TRS line outputs; S/PDIF I/O; and MIDI I/O.
MOTU also bundles its CueMix Console software (Mac/Win) for configuring up to four separate low-latency stereo monitor mixes through the UltraLite's outputs. Rounding out the bundle is AudioDesk, a capable audio-recording application that borrows many features from Digital Performer.
To sweeten the deal, the UltraLite can function as a standalone digital mixer; all mixing functions can be accessed from its front panel. You could even bring it on a solo club gig, using it to mix your voice and instrument while feeding a standalone recorder and the house P.A.
Whether you're toting it around as part of a portable rig, using it in your studio, or both, you'll find a lot to like about the MOTU UltraLite.
Digital Audio Sequencer
Sonar 5 Producer Edition (Win, $799)
Several sequencers received major upgrades this year; MOTU Digital Performer 5.1, in particular, got a long look from the editors. But Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition was a huge advance that demanded recognition. The new-features list is so long, we'd need a full page to cover just the basics.
At the top of the list is Sonar's new 64-bit, double-precision floating-point engine. This high-resolution processing results in much more accurate edits and improved sound on reverb tails, effects, multitrack mixes, and more. Best of all, you don't need a 64-bit version of Windows to use it.
Sonar's tools will appeal to users of all stripes. Roland's V-Vocal pitch- and time-correction technology is now part of the toolkit. The PerfectSpace convolution reverb is useful for adding room ambiences to your audio and for creating outrageous cross-synthesis effects. Sonar 5 brings clip-based effects, editing, and automation to the table, as well as new automation features such as tempo-sync patterns and freehand envelope drawing. Soft-instrument users will appreciate the new Psyn II subtractive synth and Pentagon I vintage analog synth, and loopologists will find lots of uses for the new Roland GrooveSynth and RXP REX Player drum machine and groove box.
We could go on about the new bus and synth waveform preview with per-track markers or the integrated in-line audio and MIDI editing and arranging, all in the main Track view. But you'll just have to check out the rest of the story for yourself. That's even easier now that Cakewalk has reduced the price of the new Sonar 6, which was released too late to be considered for this year's award.
Download of the Year
Plug-ins (Mac/Win, $49)
The winner of the Download of the Year category is chosen from the software featured in the Download of the Month section of “What's New,” which highlights a downloadable product that is inexpensive, unusual, and likely to still be around by the time the issue appears. Although we were very happy with Psychic Modulation's effects and with Cycling '74's M 2.6 (the latest resurrection of a classic algorithmic-composition tool), Audio Damage's effects plug-ins won by a nose.
The Audio Damage collection emphasizes emulations of classic hardware boxes ranging from the Moog Modular 914 Filter Bank module to the Mutron Bi-Phase and the (Radio Shack) Realistic Electronic Reverb. It also offers unique creations, such as the Discord 2 pitch-shifter and delay module, a tempo-based gating sequencer called BigSeq, and the do-it-yourself, modular multi-effects processor Ronin, which the company uses for internal development.
All of the Audio Damage effects sound great except for Ratshack Reverb, which was designed to sound awful. Furthermore, they're all good values, and each is easy to use or justifiably complex.
DrumCore 2 (Mac/Win, $249)
When Submersible Music DrumCore was released for the Mac in 2004, it employed an innovative approach to drum looping and included a well-designed librarian and a full-featured drum sampler. But some notable shortcomings hid its true potential. With the release of version 2, which is cross-platform, those shortcomings have been addressed and then some. The software excels as a MIDI drum module, as a sampled drum library, and as a librarian.
DrumCore 2 comes with a large, clearly categorized library of audio and MIDI drum hits, clips, and loops recorded by top professional drummers. A wide variety of popular genres are represented, and you can import REX2 and Acid files, which is new in DrumCore 2. Importing files is a big deal because you can manage them with DrumCore's librarian and use its clever Gabrielizer to process them.
DrumCore 2 introduces two crucial ReWire improvements: tempo sync and multiple audio outputs. It uses a proprietary slice-playback technology for adapting its audio loops to your ReWire host's tempo. When using DrumCore 2 as a drum sample player, you can route each of its drum module outputs to a separate ReWire audio bus. That makes it much easier to integrate the drum module with DrumCore's audio loops.
DrumCore 2 represents a significant step forward. It's hard to find anything not to like about this multipurpose soft drum machine.
Really Nice Levelling Amplifier RNLA7239 ($249)
Following up on its popular RNC1773 Really Nice Compressor and RNP8380 Really Nice Preamp (the latter won a 2004 Editors' Choice Award), FMR Audio has come out with a product that chooses attitude over transparency. The RNLA7239, dubbed a “Levelling Amplifier” to denote its potential for sonic coloration, is a stereo dynamics processor that has a few tricks up its sleeve. For example, the RNLA7239 includes a Log Rel button that automatically accelerates the release time in relation to the amount of gain reduction. This allows you to restore punch on instruments with fast transients, such as electric guitars and drums.
The RNLA7239's front panel is simple and straightforward, with controls for Threshold, Ratio (up to 25:1), Attack, Release, and Gain (±15 dB), as well as a gain-reduction meter to die for. The unit even offers true bypass.
The rear panel offers unbalanced ¼-inch I/O and a separate sidechain jack. The inputs act as inserts when you plug a TRS cable into them, so you won't need Y-cables to hook this baby up to your mixer's insert jacks.
Of course, what really matters is the sound. Reviewer Orren Merton wrote that the RNLA7239 can yield a mild and somewhat transparent compression or completely squash your tracks, or it can impart a “pleasant thickness and roundness.” With a list price under $250, the RNLA7239 is a no-brainer for any studio that uses outboard dynamics processing.
Picking a winner in the Field Recorder category was easy; our two reviewers lavished unequivocal praise on the Sony PCM-D1, and the choice was unanimous. One look at this recorder and you know you want it, though a glance at your line of credit may provide a reality check.
The PCM-D1's beauty is more than skin-deep: it sets up fast, is easy to use, and has some of the clearest metering on the planet. We tested it in the wilds of Alaska as well as in the studio and concert hall. Our reviewers used it for gathering sound effects, narrating travelogues, and recording music. We used its built-in mics and attached high-quality external mics. In all cases, it produced a bright, clear, detailed sound and matched or exceeded Sony's published specs. Aside from some qualms about the implementation of the PCM-D1's novel approach to peak limiting, and a few quibbles, such as wishing for a prerecord buffer and phantom or plug-in power for external mics, the deck excelled.
The PCM-D1 design team included performing musicians, and Sony clearly paid attention to their views. The result is a product of clever design and uncompromised quality.
ReMote 25 SL ($599)
When you're shopping for a compact USB MIDI keyboard with a built-in control surface, you have seemingly endless choices. Nevertheless, selecting this year's award winner was easy. The Novation ReMote 25 SL has everything you need to control software instruments and sequencers. You get 25 Aftertouch- and Velocity-sensitive keys, 8 Velocity-sensitive trigger pads, and 56 assignable controls that include 32 buttons, 8 knobs, 8 sliders, and 8 rotary encoders. The 25 SL also has dedicated transport and octave-transpose buttons, two backlit 144-character displays, a pitch-bend and modulation joystick, and an assignable x-y touch pad.
Like all controllers in the ReMote series, the 25 SL features Novation's exclusive Automap system, which automatically reconfigures the assignable controls to conform to the software or MIDI hardware you want to control. Whenever you switch from sampling in Native Instruments Kontakt 2 to sequencing with Ableton Live, for example, Automap recognizes your software and swaps templates accordingly. After that, pressing a button or clicking your mouse instantly switches ReMote control between applications and instruments. The 25 SL gives you dozens of preinstalled Automap templates and makes it easy to program your own.
The ReMote series offers several models to suit your setup. If you need more keys, you can choose from the 37 SL ($749) or the 61 SL ($899). And if you want the control surface alone, the ReMote Zero SL ($499) forgoes the keyboard, touch pad, and joystick but supplies everything else.
This year M-Audio surprised us with the Sputnik, a tube microphone that is voiced with two classic mics in mind: the Neumann U 47 and the AKG C 12. The Sputnik's price is good for a multipattern large-diaphragm mic, even without the tube circuitry, and it is aimed squarely at the personal studio. Throw in the power supply, cable, shockmount, and flight case, and you've got a package that perks up an editor's ears.
Offering cardioid, figure-8, and omni patterns, as well as a -10 dB pad and an 80 Hz highpass filter, the heavy-duty Sputnik is designed to cover a wide variety of recording tasks. Our reviewer, Babz, found that it excelled on vocals, noting that the Sputnik was clean, quiet, and capable of a smooth sound, rich in harmonic detail. It fared quite favorably when going head-to-head against one of its expensive vintage counterparts.
Multipattern large-diaphragm mics are always a welcome addition to the personal studio, and there are plenty to choose from. But the Sputnik captured the 2007 award for offering vintage tube-mic sound in a multipurpose mic for well under a grand.
Reflexion Filter ($399)
Every once in a while a product comes out that makes you ask, “Why didn't I think of that?” The Reflexion Filter is just such an item. Clamped to any mic stand, this portable baffling system surrounds your microphone with a 7-layer absorptive and diffusive panel that reduces the amount of room ambience reaching the mic while minimizing coloration artifacts. The Reflexion Filter can fit big microphones, with plenty of space left for large shockmounts. A movable mounting post that can support heavy mics allows you to horizontally position the mic within the baffle to fit your needs.
LSR4326P ($1,399 per pair)
Although it is designed for use as a mobile vocal booth, the Reflexion Filter can also be used for instrumental recording when mic bleed or the acoustics of the tracking room are an issue. We tip our cap to sE Electronics for delivering a unique and welcome solution to the age-old problem of dodgy acoustics in personal studios.
The JBL LSR4326P won its Editors' Choice going away because it offers an innovative solution to a problem that vexes many personal-studio recordists: working in an inadequately treated acoustic environment. The LSR4326P's Room Mode Correction (RMC) feature measures a room's acoustics and calculates an EQ curve designed to give the monitors a flat response in that space.
JBL debuted this technology in 2003 with its LSR6300 monitor series, but that series was a bit pricey for the personal-studio market. The LSR4326P is a lot more affordable. It features a 6-inch woofer and a 1-inch tweeter housed in an active biamplified enclosure with both digital and analog inputs. (The LSR4328P, which features an 8-inch woofer, is also available, as is the LSR4312SP subwoofer.)
When you buy a pair of LSR4326Ps, they come with an accessory kit that includes, among other items, a measurement mic. To activate the RMC feature, you simply plug that mic into one of the speakers (which are networked together with a CAT5 cable, using Harman's HiQnet protocol) and press the RMC button. The LSR4326Ps then emit tones that are picked up by the mic and fed back into the monitors' electronics, where a custom EQ curve is generated.
You also get JBL's Control Center software (Mac/Win), which lets you store presets, mute monitors, change EQ frequencies, and more. The LSR4326Ps connect to your computer using USB.
Cool features would be meaningless if the speakers didn't sound good, but they sound great. Not only was our reviewer quite impressed with their sonic characteristics, but he found that the RMC EQ helped make his mixes more accurate.
Most Innovative Product
Few people like to mix with a mouse, and there are a lot of nice control surfaces around. But the JazzMutant Lemur is easily the most unusual and versatile control surface we've seen. The Lemur uses a multitouch screen, which means you can configure it to recognize ten or more points along its surface simultaneously. Not only can it send and receive MIDI data, but it also supports the faster and higher-resolution OSC protocol, which is becoming the communication format of choice for applications that need a high level of real-time control.
It's easy to create your own custom interfaces on the Lemur's large 12-inch LCD. Using the flexible JazzEditor software (Mac/Win), you combine objects — faders, pads, switches, buttons, monitoring elements, and more — to create the layout and look that best suit the task at hand. You can even program objects to respond as if they possessed real physical properties; for example, they can have friction — that is, resistance to your movements. You can also switch between layouts during a session or live performance with the push of a button.
Objects can use mathematical expressions to process data, so single notes could become complex arpeggios or automatic harmonizations, and you can route multiple objects to the same destination, creating very elaborate data streams. The Lemur comes with a number of software templates and can also emulate popular control surfaces such as the Mackie Control, which means you'll be up and running in no time.
Automated stereo and surround mixing, complex and powerful synth-parameter automation, lighting control, and real-time sequencer tempo adjustment are just a few of the Lemur's many applications.
Most music-production workstations have been geared toward power users, so it's worth noting when a company makes a model for the technologically inexperienced musician, yet experienced users find its portability and feature set attractive.
The SP-404 combines a stereo sampler, a pattern sequencer, digital effects, and a drum-machine-style interface in a lightweight but sturdy package. It offers a built-in mic for quick and easy sampling, as well as a pair of RCA line inputs and a ¼-inch microphone jack. The RCA inputs can also be used to process external signals using the SP-404's nearly 30 onboard effects. The effects include delay, filter, pitch-shifting, and processing geared toward DJs, such as a stutterer, record scratching, and a low-frequency sine wave.
Other features include a MIDI In port, support for a 1 GB CompactFlash card, 12 pads for triggering samples and patterns, and dedicated buttons for Gate, Loop, Reverse, and Hold. The SP-404 will run on AA batteries if you can't find a place to plug in the wall wart. Although it doesn't have the bells and whistles of the more expensive products in the SP line, the SP-404 has endeared itself to beginners as well as advanced users who want to take a rugged, portable groove workstation everywhere they go.
Portable Digital Studio
From the early days of cassette-based 4-tracks to today's hard-disk multitrackers, the studio-in-a-box concept has attracted lots of loyal users. Now many portable digital studios are truly self-contained, giving users the facilities to complete virtually every stage of the recording process, including tracking, mixing, and disc burning.
Korg has a history of making portable recorders, so it's no surprise that the D3200 is a well-designed unit. At its 24-bit setting, it offers 12 tracks of simultaneous recording and 16 tracks of simultaneous playback (at either 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz). By lowering the resolution to 16-bit, you can increase the count to 16 recording and 32 playback tracks.
Features include a 40 GB hard drive; a 4 × 4 Knob Matrix, which changes control assignments to correspond with whatever edit screen is active in the LCD; a mixer with 44 channels and 12 buses; and 12 input channels, 8 of which have XLR mic inputs.
The Session Drums feature gives you access to a wide selection of drum patterns, with individual level controls and humanization options. You can put together drum sequences that play along with your song but don't use up any of the audio tracks.
Up to 11 of the D3200's built-in effects can be used at once. Not only do you get staples like reverb, delay, and modulation, but you also get a selection of Korg's modeling effects. A USB port facilitates the transfer of files to and from a computer, and you can import audio from CDs and burn CDs of your final mixes.
We were also impressed with the D3200's ease of use and reasonable price. This is what a portable digital studio should be.
Modeling classic studio gear is a difficult task, especially if you are trying to hit a price point low enough to fit a personal-studio budget, and the original parts are no longer available. But Chameleon Labs is on target with the 7602, which was designed to re-create the sound of the venerable Neve 1073 preamp for under $1,000.
The 7602 offers 3-band EQ, four highpass-filter settings, a front-panel DI input, phantom power, a polarity switch, and an EQ bypass switch. As a 1U device, it doesn't physically resemble a 1073, but it does offer features that allow you to easily set up a 1073-like sound — or go in other directions.
The preamp provides the versatility required in a personal studio, rendering a full-bodied, natural sound on vocals, electric guitar, and acoustic instruments. In addition, the DI delivers plenty of gain, low end, and presence. The 7602 can also get nasty, and the EQ section can be used to shape the distortion.
When going toe-to-toe against a 1073, the 7602 can get surprisingly close in sound. However, a preamp should be judged on its own merits, and this is where the 7602's value is evident. With a quality sound and boutique design (including discrete Class A power with hand-wound transformers and point-to-point wiring), the 7602 is a knockout.
Jazz and Big Band (Mac/Win, $259)
Composing and arranging for jazz band just got a whole lot easier with the release of Garritan's Jazz and Big Band sample library and player. This “band” has groove power that will lift you out of your seat, with wailing saxes, screeching trumpets, and howling trombones, as well as a full rhythm section that never drops a beat. Rounding out the ensemble is a vast assortment of Latin and other percussion. Like previous Garritan releases, Jazz and Big Band uses Native Instruments Kontakt Player, which loads into your favorite sequencer or notation software.
You'll find much more than just stock horns in this collection. Standard doublings, such as flute and clarinet for the sax players and flügelhorn for the trumpets, will add color and variety to your charts. And if you're looking for something completely different, sopranino (sounding a fourth above a soprano) and subcontrabass (sounding two octaves below a tenor) saxes have you covered on the high and low ends.
Don't expect to install the software and simply dial up the hottest licks around. As with any instrument, you'll need to spend some time shedding to get the most out of this collection. That's because Jazz and Big Band uses a “performance-driven” approach to articulation that requires that you shape and sculpt the performances. A healthy dose of MIDI controller data is often needed to create convincing musical passages. But whether you're composing a smokin' swing or bop chart or arranging an ultrasmooth fusion or cool score, Jazz and Big Band will be the only sample library you'll need. Here's a tap on the stand to the Garritan crew!
(software, solo instrument)
Akoustik Piano (Mac/Win, $339)
The solo-instrument side of the Sample Player category had a number of viable contenders, but we all agreed that Akoustik Piano represented a stellar achievement in piano-sampling technology that had to be acknowledged. It is simply the best sampled piano we've come across.
In the October 2006 cover story, “Software Eighty-Eights,” we reviewed several of the best software sampled pianos. Although all of the programs we examined had something to offer, Akoustik Piano stood out from the pack in terms of sound, playability, and ease of use. In particular, its 9-foot Steinway Concert D knocked our socks off.
We consider ease of use very important, and Akoustik Piano's simple, single-panel interface manages to put all controls under your fingertips without creating mass confusion. You just pick a piano, choose a room ambience, and start playing. If you're not entirely happy, you can add a little EQ, lower the “lid,” change the dynamics a bit, or adjust the room size and mic placement. It doesn't get much simpler or better-sounding than this.
Project Studio (Mac/Win, $495)
Native Effects (Mac, $495)
In the past, many of the best third-party plug-ins for the Digidesign Pro Tools platform have been available only for TDM systems. Pro Tools LE and M-Powered users have been excluded from a number of the coolest effects. That changed this year with the release of two excellent and versatile RTAS/AudioSuite plug-in bundles: McDSP Project Studio and SoundToys Native Effects. So good were both of these identically priced collections that we decided to anoint them as cowinners.
McDSP plug-ins have long been a favorite of top-of-the-line producers and engineers. The Project Studio bundle comprises “LE” (light) versions of seven of the company's classic plug-ins, but don't let that fool you. Although the LE versions offer fewer configurations, they use the same algorithms as the flagship versions, so the effects that you do get are identical.
All seven plug-ins are excellent. CompressorBank LE offers a wide range of classic compressors, while FilterBank LE gives you several flexible EQ configurations. Analog Channel LE features emulations of analog tape machines, Revolver LE is a convolution reverb, and Chrome Tone LE offers guitar-amp simulations. Finally, Synthesizer One LE is a virtual instrument, and ML4000 LE is a mastering limiter.
The Native Effects bundle provides full versions of six of SoundToys' best plug-ins. You get FilterFreak, which gives you numerous cool filter effects; EchoBoy, a classic Pro Tools plug-in that models analog delays and more; PhaseMistress, which emulates a range of classic phase shifters; Tremolator, a versatile tremolo and autogating plug-in with MIDI sync; Crystallizer, for reverse echo effects; and Speed, a pitch- and tempo-shifting processor.
Both Project Studio and Native Effects are awesome and aggressively priced bundles, and they're both deserving Editors' Choice Award winners.
Melodyne Studio 3 (Mac/Win, $699)
The Sound Guy
SFX Machine Pro (Mac/Win, $149.99)
We're always reluctant to allow ties for an Editors' Choice Award, but when faced with two stellar products as different as Celemony Melodyne Studio 3 and The Sound Guy SFX Machine Pro, we just couldn't leave one out. Since its introduction in 2001, Melodyne has evolved into the go-to choice for pitch correction and vocal munging. SFX Machine Pro is a lesser-known but no less illustrious effects processor capable of sounds you'll hear nowhere else.
Melodyne Studio 3 is a one-stop shop for manipulating both monophonic and polyphonic vocal parts. Working with polyphonic parts is new to version 3 and was a major factor in our deliberations. Although designed primarily for working with vocals, Melodyne also works well on other pitched instruments, such as winds and brass.
One of the more revolutionary aspects of Melodyne's design is its adaptation of the MIDI-editing paradigm to audio parts. Melodyne analyzes an audio file and lays it out as events (called Blobs) along a horizontally scrolling piano-roll editor. You edit the Blobs as you would MIDI note events, moving them vertically to change pitch and moving or stretching them horizontally to affect timing. You can even change tempo and have event durations automatically adjust to match. By default, Melodyne preserves the formant structure and amplitude envelope of a Blob, but you can modify those parameters. That and a host of other features take Melodyne beyond the realm of vocal repair, making it an impressive creative tool.
SFX Machine started in 1997 as an Adobe Premiere-format audio-processing plug-in for the Mac. Even as a non-real-time effect, it was so impressive that it garnered a 1998 Editors' Choice Award. We were pleased when the real-time, cross-platform SFX Machine RT appeared in 2003, but it lacked the preset editor of the Premiere version. You still got a slew of effects, but you could no longer get under the hood. Loyal users howled, and in 2006 the editor was reintroduced in SFX Machine Pro. The factory presets, now numbering 350, are great, but being able to build your own presets again was key to our choice.
SFX Machine Pro's factory presets run the gamut from straightforward filter- and delay-based processes to pitch-shifting and pitch-following effects to sound-effects generators. You'll find a well-balanced collection of off-the-wall effects; utilities like gating and removing DC offset; and old standbys like auto-wah and sample-and-hold. In short, SFX Machine Pro has something for just about everyone.
Creative Physical Modeling Toolbox for Reaktor 5 (Mac/Win, $189)
Harm Visser's Creative Physical Modeling Toolbox for Reaktor 5 fills a big gap in the Reaktor Ensemble universe. More than 130 Ensembles are organized into 14 categories such as standard orchestral families (Brass and Percussion, for example), articulations (Bowed Strings and Plucked Strings), era (WoodWind_Medieval), and synthesis method. The Ensembles based on traditional instruments are often strikingly realistic, though you may need to do some tweaking to the Brass group.
The real fun begins where traditional instruments leave off. Visser has created a number of hybrid instruments that you won't find on any concert stage, and it's easy to build your own. The Plucked_Wind Ensemble, for instance, will be useful to sound designers and computer-music composers, and the various scraping and scratching creations in the Bounce Roll Scrape category can add realism to your tracks.
Visser uses modal synthesis, one of several modern approaches to physical modeling, to create his virtual instruments. Each model contains multiple resonators to re-create the vibrating components of the original instrument, and Visser calculates the proper frequencies by analyzing actual acoustic instruments. He uses the cross-platform program Praat (www.praat.org), which is in the public domain, so you can undertake your own explorations. But right out of the box, Creative Physical Modeling Toolbox gives you a huge collection of customizable tubes, bars, bows, and bells to enhance your Reaktor workshop.
Analog modular synths are back with a vengeance, and 2006 was a banner year, with numerous new companies and modules. However, one particularly innovative module, the Cyndustries Zeroscillator (ZO), goes where no module has gone before. Designed with FM synthesis in mind, the ZO offers “through zero” exponential and linear modulation capabilities, which introduce phase artifacts that intensify and broaden the oscillator's timbral palette. Add to that a wealth of modulation inputs, a variable sync mode, and the unique Time Reversal mode, and the ZO is already a must-have module. But there's more.
The ZO has ten audio outputs, four of which are morphable quadrature outputs that are 90 degrees out of phase with each other. The waveforms of the quadrature outputs can be continually adjusted — manually or with a control voltage — from a triangle wave, through a sine wave, to a square wave. Not only do the quadrature outputs offer interesting sonic potential, but they can also be put to other uses, such as controlling four VCAs for quad panning effects.
Cyndustries also had the audacity to release the ZO in five different module formats — the only company to attempt such a feat — so that nearly every modular user can have access to this powerful and rich-sounding oscillator. Although it's priced on the upper tier for synth modules, the ZO is well worth the investment, both in sound quality and craftsmanship.
Virus TI Desktop ($1,995)
Since 1997, one of the most popular and successful families in the world of electronic music has been the Access Virus series of digital synthesizers. They sound magnificent, and Access Music continues to offer firmware updates that expand the capabilities of even the oldest models. The most recent generation, dubbed the Virus TI, includes three instruments: the Virus TI Keyboard ($2,765), the Virus TI Polar ($2,765), and the rackmountable Virus TI Desktop. To be honest, we could have given the award to the whole series. We chose the TI Desktop mainly because we appreciate its compact form factor for tabletop or rack applications, and at $770 less than the keyboard models, it gives the best bang for the buck.
All three models bring innovative features to the product line, most notably software that allows you to work with the Virus TI as an instrument plug-in on your computer. (TI stands for Total Integration, a concept that fuses the advantages of hardware and software.) The TI series also features wavetable synthesis and a new HyperSaw engine that can generate nine parallel oscillators per voice, in addition to the classic analog modeling that has been the mainstay of previous models. Access has given the Virus TI twice the processing power of the previous generation and twice the polyphony; greatly expanded program memory, digital audio I/O, and USB ports; an improved display; an enhanced arpeggiator; and a Multi mode that lets you edit all 16 parts without affecting the original Single programs. The Virus TI even functions as an external effects processor and a 2-in/6-out audio interface for your computer.
The AU- and VST-compatible Virus TI plug-in makes controlling the keyboard or desktop synthesizer just like working with a soft synth. It affords complete control of the hardware and delivers new capabilities, from graphically tweaking oscillator waveforms to storing an unlimited number of patches. You can program and edit sounds with one hand on the mouse and another on the front panel. When you save and reload a sequencer file, the software saves and reloads all Virus TI settings.
In a synthesizer family that has grown more powerful with each new generation, the Virus TI represents the most significant upgrade to date.
Prophet-V 1.0 (Mac/Win, $249)
If you aren't lucky enough to own both a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and a Prophet-VS, have no fear: Arturia's Prophet-V 1.0 is a dead ringer for those two classic synths, and you don't need to be a gearhead to appreciate its amazing authenticity. Prophet-V provides a dedicated display for each of the two hardware devices it models and a third display that combines aspects of the two on a single screen. Its flexible modulation options will send you into analog nirvana, and with more than 50 programmable synthesis parameters, you'll be transported to a tweaker's paradise.
Each of the individual emulation modes is stunningly close to the original. The V models the original Prophet-5's analog circuitry down to the last wire. Its two oscillators are coupled with a white-noise generator, an ADSR, and a multiwave LFO. The wavetable-based VS offers 96 sampled waveforms as sources for its 4 oscillators, and the original's joystick, used for vector synthesis, is included in Arturia's emulation.
The Hybrid mode goes beyond anything the original hardware could do. Its straightforward audio matrix lets you enable or disable audio modules from each of the two synths, and its modulation matrix lets you interconnect ins and outs from the control modules of both synths on a single screen. This is one soft synth that will keep you busy for a long time.
Vienna Symphonic Library
Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube (Mac/Win, $10,990)
There are a lot of ways to get a virtual orchestra onto your desktop, but if you're looking for a no-compromise, state-of-the-art approach, Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube, from Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL), is the way to go. This massive sample library consists of more than 800,000 individual samples (550 GB), arranged into 10 Collections, and includes everything you'll need to emulate an orchestra in your studio.
Symphonic Cube offers a huge number of both standard and extended articulations. You'll find nearly every type of string-bowing style, a massive number of wind-playing techniques, and a vast collection of percussion sounds (hits, rolls, flams, and more). In addition to the single samples, there are ready-to-play musical passages, including glissandos, grace notes, and octave runs.
Tying it all together is a user interface with which you design and configure samples for playback from your MIDI tracks. You'll have to get used to some unusual terminology (such as Matrix and Cells) when working with Symphonic Cube, but the overall architecture is very logical and quickly becomes second nature.
Don't assume you need a conservatory degree to make good music with this collection: Symphonic Cube includes your own “personal orchestrator” (which VSL refers to as “Performance Detection” algorithms) that picks the correct sample for the musical passage in question. For example, the Speed Control parameter can switch between two or more samples based solely on the tempo of the notes in your music. Or you can configure the program to choose different samples based on repeated-note patterns, musical intervals, and more. Key- and Velocity switching are just so old school!
We gave a good, long look to MOTU's Symphonic Instrument, which is our favorite new under-$1,000 virtual orchestra, but Symphonic Cube is simply the last word on the subject. And as of this writing, VSL has just released a major upgrade to its user interface, which should make working with this superb collection even easier.
THE WINNING MANUFACTURERS
Access Music www.access-music.de
Arturia/Yamaha Corporation of America (distributor) www.arturia.com
Audio Damage www.audiodamage.com
Celemony Software www.celemony.com
Chameleon Labs www.chameleonlabs.com
FMR Audio http://fmraudio.com
Garritan Orchestral Libraries www.garritan.com
Harm Visser Acoustic Modelling www.hvsynthdesign.com
JBL Professional www.jblpro.com
Korg USA www.korgusa.com
McDSP (McDowell Signal Processing) www.mcdsp.com
Native Instruments www.native-instruments.com
sE Electronics www.seelectronics.com
Sony Pro Audio www.sony.com/proaudio
The Sound Guy www.sfxmachine.com
Submersible Music www.drumcore.com
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
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, if not all, of these reviews will be published in the next two issues. An article title in parentheses indicates that the product was covered in a feature or a department rather than in a review. All other entries indicate reviews of the award-winning version. Published articles are available for download from the EM archives at www.emusician.com.
Access Music Virus TI Desktop July 2006 Arturia Prophet-V 1.0 December 2006 Audio Damage plug-ins (“What's New: Download of the Month”) September 2006 Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition March 2006 Celemony Melodyne Studio 3 in progress Chameleon Labs 7602 May 2006 Cyndustries Zeroscillator (“Analog Renaissance”) June 2006 FMR Audio Really Nice Levelling Amplifier RNLA7239 June 2006 Garritan Jazz and Big Band June 2006 Harm Visser Creative Physical Modeling Toolbox for Reaktor 5 November 2006 JazzMutant Lemur March 2006 JBL Professional LSR4326P November 2006 Korg D3200 March 2006 M-Audio Sputnik January 2007 McDSP Project Studio January 2007 MOTU UltraLite January 2007 Native Instruments Akoustik Piano (“Software Eighty-Eights”) October 2006 Novation ReMote 25 SL in progress Roland SP-404 May 2006 sE Electronics Reflexion Filter in progress Sony PCM-D1 December 2006 The Sound Guy SFX Machine Pro in progress SoundToys Native Effects in progress Steinberg WaveLab 6.0b September 2006 Submersible Music DrumCore 2 in progress Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube in progress