Editors' Choice Awards, 2018

26 of the best in music technology
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At the end of the year, it’s always useful to reflect on what we’ve accomplished and how we’ve grown, and then consider what’s in store for us in the near future. It’s with this idea in mind that EM’s editors put their heads together each autumn and pick the most inspiring, useful, and important products of the previous 12 months.

Every November, we create a spreadsheet of the items that were released (not simply announced) between October of the previous year and the current year, using the dates of the Audio Engineering Society convention as the cutoff. This gives us enough time to carefully whittle down a long list of contenders and still make our print deadline so that the issue arrives in time for the NAMM show in January.

This year, the award winners were culled by a team of eight editors (including myself ), each of whom has decades of experience reviewing gear, giving them the insight and breadth to pick products that are truly award worthy. Surprisingly, many of the winners were unanimous choices: 2017 was a fertile, and in some cases highly innovative year in the world of musical and pro-audio gear, and the process of narrowing the list down to 26 winners was a real treat.

I invite you to join me and the entire editorial team in congratulating this year’s winners for their inspired designs and dedicated work towards providing tools we can use to bring our musical creations to life.

Arturia MatrixBrute


Some synthesizers are instrumental workhorses, delivering every sound a keyboardist could possibly need onstage or in the studio. The Matrix- Brute, however, is not that kind of synth. Instead, it is an electronic music powerhouse inviting you to explore, experiment, and craft new and original analog timbres. Thanks to the unique grid of buttons that connect any circuit or function to any other, the instrument offers most of the advantages of a modular synthesizer without any need for patch cords.

The MatrixBrute is a stereo monophonic synth, but it lets you split up the oscillators, envelopes, amplifiers, and filters so you can play two or three voices paraphonically, Ample front-panel controls offer instant access to every parameter, with absolutely no menu diving. In fact, its only menus are in the accompanying patch librarian for your computer.

The MatrixBrute delivers electrifying sound, dynamite factory patches, analog bucket-brigade effects, a 64-step sequencer that stores 256 patterns, and one of the highest fun factors we’ve seen all year.

Bram Bos Ripplemaker


The instruments becoming available on the iOS platform continue to be inspiring, but one in particular kept our attention all year. Ripplemaker provides a nice introduction to the timbral flexibility of so-called West Coast synthesis by building on the concepts found in the modular synthesizers by Buchla and Serge. However, Ripplemaker is a semimodular design with built-in step sequencer, so you can begin playing right away, without adding virtual patch cables.

Focusing on waveshaping and modulation, Bram Bos has modeled triangle-core oscillators and provided the tools to fold them into harmonically rich timbres. He also added a 2-stage envelope generator, Slope, that can be used as an oscillator, as well, reminiscent of what you’d find in a Serge system. And to really give it West Coast cred, Ripplemaker includes a Lowpass Gate, the source of the famous Buchla-bongo sound, that combines a VCA and lowpass filter for enticing percussive effects.

All told, Bram Bos has created a standout in the world of synth apps. Unlike sample players and traditional analog-modeling synths, the more you work with Ripplemaker, the more inspiring it becomes.

EastWest MIDI Guitar Instruments Series


Although the art of playing synthesizers with a guitar has improved, the hurdles in setup from guitar to computer to synth have been daunting. But that’s over now: Fishman’s TriplePlay system tracks like a dream, and EastWest has done the heavy lifting on the DAW and synthesizer side of the equation with its MIDI Guitar Instruments Series.

EastWest has rolled some of its best sounds into Fishman’s TriplePlay standalone and plugin app, offering five themes: Ethnic, Guitar and Bass, Keys and Perc, Orchestra, and Soundscapes. EastWest’s Play VI obviates the tedious track-to-string, pitch bend, and additional controller mapping that comes with MIDI guitar territory. With the MIDI Guitar Instruments Series, you simply instantiate the plug-in, load a patch, and play. It’s not only easy, but also it sounds and plays great.

It’s difficult to pick any individual library as the standout—they’re that good. But if you already own a Fishman TriplePlay system, you can get a sense of their breadth by downloading the free EastWest MIDI Guitar Teaser Pack and experiencing the state of the art in MIDI-guitar control for yourself.

Expressive E Touché


Good synthesists have long relied on touch-sensitive keyboards, pitch benders, mod controllers, and expression pedals for playing expressively. Despite them all, when it comes to performing with emotional depth, acoustic players still have tremendous advantages over electronic musicians.

In recent years, a new generation of devices specifically designed for expressive playing has made its way onstage. Polyphonic multidimensional controllers have gotten the most attention, but other alternatives are beginning to emerge.

One such device that may have slipped past your radar is the Touché, from French upstart Expressive E. It is a kind of paddle suspended above a fixed base that you can nudge, jostle, stroke, and tap with one hand, adding nuance to anything you play with the other. It works with all kinds of synths, both software and hardware, and it comes with a generous assortment of patches for popular instruments. What’s more, its accompanying plugin serves as a VST instrument adapter for Mac users whose DAW supports only AU. That’s a winning combination!

IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitors


Like an apartment in San Francisco, where you can choose square footage, location, or price, but not all three, we thought that Bluetooth-capable monitors could offer portability, reasonable price, or sound quality, but never all three.

Then, along came the IK Multimedia iLoud Micro Monitors to put that notion to bed.

Despite their 3" woofers and lightweight materials that add up to less than 4 lbs. for the pair, the 50W iLoud Micros emit impressive clarity and detail across the full frequency range without the midrange mud that often plagues compact monitors. Designed for the confines of small project and bedroom studios, they create a super-nearfield sweet spot with excellent stereo imaging, as well as a surprising amount of bass to pump up small spaces. And priced at $299, the iLoud Micro Monitors are well worth the few extra bucks they cost over normal bookshelf Bluetooth speakers.

iZotope O8N2 Ozone 8 Advanced and Neutron 2 Advanced Bundle


When iZotope launched the original version of its Neutron mixing plug-in, it was one of the first applications to incorporate machine learning—a form of artificial intelligence—into music software. The company has since released a second generation of Neutron and added similar features into the new Ozone 8 mastering software. Neutron 2 analyzes your music and gives you recommended settings for its EQs, compressors and other processors that get you into the ballpark in seconds.

Ozone 8 offers similar features for mastering or master bus processing. You can also use Ozone and Neutron in conjunction with each other, by way of the included Tonal Balance plug-in, which communicates with both plug-ins. Tonal Balance helps you sculpt your mix to fit within preset frequency targets for different musical types, or on the characteristics of musical examples that you upload for the plug-in to analyze. Ozone 8 Advanced and Neutron 2 Advanced are powerful on their own, but used together they will revolutionize and streamline your mixing and mastering workflow.

Keith McMillen Instruments BopPad


While other MIDI drums and trigger sensors offer expressive, multizone drumming from a single surface, the Keith McMillen Instruments BopPad does it in the most affordable and compact package. The super-sensitive BopPad also presents the only solution that works just as well with hands and fingers as it does with sticks or mallets.

The BopPad utilizes KMI’s proven Smart Fabric to provide up to four MIDI quadrants on its 8"-diameter surface, each of which can trigger up to six notes and send MIDI messages for velocity, pitch bend, continuous pressure, polyphonic aftertouch, and radial location as you move toward or away from the center of the pad.

The BopPad gives drummers a compact alternative for creating beats using their existing rhythm skills and styles, as well as a flexible expansion pad for performing with a larger, hybrid drum kit.

But the BopPad is not just for drummers: Any electronic musician will enjoy using it for hand-programming beats; triggering loops, arpeggios, and synth pads; or sending control data to any MIDI destination.

Koma Elektronik Field Kit


The Field Kit seemingly came out of nowhere, yet captured the imagination of thousands over the course of a year (which is remarkable for something considered to be a niche product). When Koma ran its Kickstarter campaign to the fund the first run of the Field Kit, the response was overwhelming, yet the mulifunction module has lived up to its promise.

Contained within a wooden case that is smaller than a cigar box is an expansive toolkit for making electro-acoustic music, such as amplifying everyday objects. At the heart of the Field Kit is a 4-channel mono mixer with an aux send and tone control for each channel and enough gain to work with piezos; a 3-band radio (shortwave, AM, FM) that can be scanned via CV; an LFO and envelope follower; a DC interface for driving motors and solenoids to strike and scrape things; and an analog sensor interface for translating real-world phenomena (heat, sound, pressure) into control voltages. It even has a separate output for driving a speaker. With an optional panel purchase, the whole kit and caboodle slots into a Eurorack case if that’s your preferred format.

What really sealed it for us is that this powerful package is priced around $225. Koma hit it out of the park with the Field Kit: It’s a unique, yet affordable system for exploring sound that is both easy and fun to use, even for beginners.

Korg Gadget


What started out as the perfect iOS sequencing environment in 2014 is starting to look like a play to become a real contender in the next wave of synth-centric DAWs. This year alone, Gadget for iOS added no fewer than 7 new gadgets, including live audio recording via its Zurich and Rosario modules—all while maintaining the ability to export your entire project to Ableton Live for finishing touches.

Things get more interesting when you consider that Korg’s new Gadget for Mac bundles all of its synths (even the in-app options, such as M1 and MonoPoly) as 34 discrete VST and AU plug-ins that can be used in any compatible DAW. So, buying the Mac version offers far more value than just feature parity for your exported projects, along with a super-intuitive production platform. This could be the sneakiest game-changer yet.

Korg iWavestation


Not many keyboardists under the age of 40 know this, but in the early ’90s Dave Smith co-designed one of Korg’s most legendary synths, the Wavestation. Building off of his innovative vector synthesis approach, the original Wavestation blurred the lines between wavetable and vector by introducing a system called “wave sequencing” that allows users to string together up to 255 discrete waveforms, then cycle through them rhythmically or via crossfading. The resulting keyboard won countless awards, so it’s no surprise that the iOS version would make another appearance 27 years later.

In addition to a note-perfect reproduction of the original’s sound, the iWavestation also includes the option to expand its available waveforms and presets through in-app purchases of its predecessor’s ROM expansion cards. Because these are nearly impossible to find, even for hardware Wavestation owners, their availability makes it possible to fully re-create the entire Wavestation experience.

Line 6 Helix Native


With Helix Native, Line 6 has brought the power of its powerful Helix hardware multi-effects pedals to the desktop. This versatile plug-in is not only awesome for emulating guitar amps and effects units, but thanks to its ability to support up to eight different processors in a single patch, does double duty as a studio multieffects plug-in.

Helix Native fills your virtual studio with 51 guitar amps and 9 bass amps, as well as a vast selection of effects and a boatload of excellent presets. A streamlined editing interface makes it easy to dial in custom settings.

Moreover, Helix Native’s patches are interchangeable with the line of Helix hardware pedals, making it possible to create sounds on the desktop to use onstage and vice versa. With this much power and flexibility, Helix Native is destined to become one of the top amp modeling plug-ins on the market.

MOTU 624


In addition to being compact and ruggedly built, the highly portable MOTU 624 is designed for a wide range of users—from singer/songwriters to industry professionals. For the former, MOTU put a pair of ¼-inch, high-impedance inputs (with gain knobs) on the front panel, giving guitarists and bassists easy input access. For the latter, the rear panel includes two XLR mic inputs, sets of four TRS input and output jacks, in addition to its main outs and optical digital connections accommodating S/PDIF or ADAT I/O.

As you would expect, the 624 is capable of 24-bit, 192kHZ resolution with pristine clarity, thanks to the interface’s new converters. But what helps this model pole vault over its competitors is its wealth of interfacing options. The 624 is a hybrid interface sporting USB3, Thunderbolt 2, and AVB connectivity. A recent firmware update allows you to record directly through Ethernet to any Mac that can also support Thunderbolt. And, you can network up to five AVB interfaces via Ethernet, which can support long cable runs and recording setups in multiple rooms.

Compact audio interfaces are in plentiful supply these days, but few can approach the versatility, sonic quality, and generous I/O of the MOTU 624.



Undoubtedly one of the more unusual microphones we’ve encountered in quite a while, the DX-2 from MXL incorporates two dynamic capsules with an adjustable blend control. Designed primarily for close-miking electric guitar, the DX-2 is a side-address mic housed in a D-shaped tube that can lay flat against the grille of an amp when hung over the front of the cabinet.

One of the capsules has a large diaphragm that has a supercardioid pattern tuned to capture the fullness of the amp. The second capsule, with a smaller diaphragm and a cardioid pattern, captures the amp cabinet’s midrange detail. A variable control on the front of the mic allows you to change the mix between the two capsules without worrying about phase cancellation. Because the microphone output is mono, it uses a standard 3-pin XLR cable.

What made the DX-2 a winner this year is that it delivers a clean, solid sound with its dual-mic configuration for less than a C-note. Now that’s a reason to celebrate!

Native Instruments Maschine Mk3


It seems every year Native Instruments makes an even more compelling case to enter its Maschine beat-production ecosystem. The Maschine Mk3 exceeded all expectations by introducing vital workflow enhancements, as well as flashy new features, while maintaining its $599 retail price.

Most noticeably, two crisp and bright color displays make browsing, editing, mixing, and other tasks a breeze without staring at the computer. New capacitive touch-sensitive knobs and a four-direction push-encoder work with the displays to unlock helpful shortcuts. The LED-assisted Smart Strip borrowed from Maschine Jam has four dedicated mode buttons to toggle it between note strumming, effect control, and pitch-bend/mod use. And the larger backlit pads also have four new function buttons for Pad, Keyboard, Chord, and Step (sequencing) modes.

All of that would have been enough, but NI topped it off with a new 24-bit, 96kHz audio interface with mic and line inputs that match the quality and output levels of its professional DJ equipment. That makes the Machine Mk 3 an undeniable winner, all around.

Novation Peak


Designing an entirely new approach to oscillators is something only a company with the experience and pedigree of Novation could pull off. But with their new Oxford oscillators, even experts would be hard pressed to distinguish their sound from real analog. With options for adding idiosyncrasies such as drift, as well as integrated sync and wavetables baked into each oscillator, individually, Novation’s new technology is genuinely innovative and offers incredible presence.

From there, the 8-voice Peak’s oscillators feed a proper analog filter, with both pre- and post-overdrive options. Menu diving is kept to a minimum, thanks to its generous complement of knobs and sliders for real-time experimentation. And the integrated effects add polish to the end result, which is great for live performance. What’s more, it’s got polyphonic aftertouch, which primes it for the next wave of MIDI controllers. The result is a powerful and punchy polysynth module at a surprisingly affordable price.

Propellerhead Reason 9.5 and 10


Last year Propellerhead sent our hearts all aflutter when it finally added VST support to Reason 9.5. Even better, it provided simple, yet powerful integration. Your VST plug-in collection was cleanly added to the browser; plug-ins could be part of Combinator patches and used with Player devices; their parameters could be automated, MIDI mapped, and modulated with device CV outputs; and sandboxing protected your Reason sessions in case a third-party VST crashed.

Just five months later, Propellerhead launched Reason 10 with the program’s most epic update to its instruments and audio content in many years. Version 10 added 3.3 GB of fresh drums and loops and six new instruments. The new sample-based acoustic instruments—Radical Piano, Klang Tuned Percussion, Pangea World Instruments, and Humana Vocal Ensemble—add welcome sophistication.

But Reason’s two new marquee synthesizers—the Europa wavetable-plus-additive synth and the Grain granular-sample manipulator—are a programmer’s dream and capable of spellbinding new sounds. With two major updates falling within our eligibility period, we couldn’t help but recognize both with an award this year.

Radial Engineering Key-Largo


Taking the top spot in our Accessories category is the Key-Largo from Radial Engineering. More than a standard keyboard mixer for the stage, it’s like a Swiss Army Knife for the gigging musician, melding a 3-channel stereo mixer with an audio/MIDI interface, with ground-lift solutions and other useful features thrown in for good measure. But Radial has clearly been listening to professional keyboardists, because it put everything into a compact, road-ready package.

In addition to providing three ¼" stereo input pairs for keyboards or other line-level sources, the Key-Largo adds a fourth input channel for a USB connection, allowing the user either to mix incoming audio just like its other analog inputs, or to route a 2-channel mix to a DAW, all at audio resolutions up to 24-bit, 192kHz. And as if all of that weren’t enough, the Key-Largo can even act as a sustain pedal in a pinch! All this in a stompbox-sized footprint for less than $400 street.

Roland RD-2000


We’ve played and reviewed some great stage keyboards this year, but the Roland RD-2000 takes home our top honors. From its wide array of inspiring sounds to its deep MIDI controller abilities, this is an axe that does many things very well.

It all starts with the RD-2000’s satisfying PHA-50 action, with its simulated “ivory feel” and escapement—a perfect match for the serious selection of sounds this instrument holds. The keyboard packs a plethora of piano patches under its hood, from masterfully modeled concert instruments to vintage electrics, clavs, and much more. It also includes a set of convincing tonewheel and pipe organs, acoustic winds and brass, synths, and pads.

Add-in masterful editing and effects capabilities and heavy-duty MIDI controller functionality (all at nearly half the price of similar stage keyboards), and you’ll see why the RD-2000 is a winning performance instrument for both the stage and studio.

Roland SE-02


More than just another knockoff of the Minimoog, the Roland SE-02 analog monosynth is a true collaboration with Studio Electronics that combines classic Moog-style oscillators with an updated ladder filter circuit, and a set of modern features you wish the original Mini had, such as a dedicated LFO and extensive oscillator cross-modulation options.

From there, things get even more seductive. Like many Roland modules the SE-02 has a wide range of powerful sequencing options and gives you the ability to sync both the LFO and the integrated delay. Whether it’s used as a desktop module or in conjunction with the K-25m Boutique keyboard, the SE-02 will be on many musicians’ short list of analog monophonic synths for years to come.

Roli Seaboard Block


The latest addition to Roli’s Seaboard line is both affordable and portable, and it was designed specifically to integrate easily into the company’s line of mobile music-production controllers called Blocks. That means the Seaboard Block is battery-powered and transmits MIDI over Bluetooth.

But what’s really cool is that the Seaboard Block is a two-octave instrument of Roli’s innovative key-waves, which provide the same five dimensions of tactile control as the larger, more expensive Seaboard Rise and Seaboard Grand Stage models but at a much lower price.

This means that for $299, you get the benefits of a Seaboard’s polyphonic, multidimensional control over the developer’s Equator Player software, with more than 200 expressive patches at your fingertips. Add to that the ability to connect other Block controllers, and you have the potential for creating a highly personalized production setup that can go anywhere you do.

Rossum Electro-Music Morpheus


Filters are a key component in any modular system, and there is no shortage of them in the Eurorack world. While many developers mine the circuits of classic instruments, Rossum Electro-Music has delivered Morpheus, a winning module that improves on one the most desirable filter designs of the early ’90s—the E-mu z-plane filter. Of course, it helps that Dave Rossum, himself, developed the z-plane filter in the original Morpheus synthesizer. But rather than simply rest on his laurels, Rossum reworked the design, taking advantage of three decades of technology advances to create a stereo Eurorack filter like no other.

Starting with a 14-pole filter, Morpheus organizes a set of eight frequency responses that are treated as a 3-dimensional space, called a cube, that you can navigate manually or with CVs to, essentially, morph between multiple filter states. The module lets you save and recall user-created sequences that can be altered in real time, yielding surprisingly complex and musical results. Morpheus comes packed with factory-designed cubes and sequences that you can easily shape to your own needs.

Priced just below $500, the Morpheus is by no means a budget module. But once you dig into it, you’ll find that it’s worth every penny, from its exceptional build quality to its nearly inexhaustible tonal potential. Morpheus is a serious filter for Eurorack users who truly want the best.

Softube Console 1 Mk II


As hard as software developers work toward creating a smooth workflow with their products, using a mouse and keyboard to get things done is rarely the most ergonomic choice. That’s where Softube’s Console 1 Mk II is so successful. This second generation, USB-bus-powered hardware device provides dedicated controls for accessing channel strip parameters such as filters, EQ, compressor, gate, and input gain, and includes basic DAW functionality (including channel select, mute, solo, send level and volume). It also ships with Softube’s emulation of the SSL 4000E channel strip, pre-mapped to the control surface. In fact, over 60 plugs-ins have already been mapped to Console 1 Mk II, including UAD-2 powered plug-ins from Universal Audio.

Console 1 Mk II is Mac/Win compatible and supports AAX, VST, VST3 and AudioUnits plug-ins, making it immediately useful to the users of a wide range of DAWs—Cubase, Pro Tools, StudioOne, Live and Logic Pro X, among them. And the success of the original Console 1 has enabled Softube to lower the price of the Mk II version to $499 without sacrificing features or build quality, making it a robust, yet affordable controller option for personal studios and pro facilities alike.

Steinberg Halion 6


Steinberg Halion 6 starts with a fullbore sampler, complete with easy-access sample recording and editing facilities—stuff you would expect. But Steinberg didn’t stop there.

Halion 6 rolls its prodigious resources into 14 instruments, comprising themed sample libraries, such as Hot Brass, Studio Strings, World Percussion, two new acoustic pianos, and Haliotron, a tape-playback keyboard emulation. To fill out your production needs, it also includes a 3-oscillator analog-modeling synth, a 12-drawbar tonewheel organ model, and a granular synthesizer.

And if that weren’t enough, Halion 6 adds a sweepable wavetable synth with resynthesis capabilities: Anything you can sample, resample, drop in from disks or DAW tracks is fair game. And its spectral analysis tools let you play with phase and amplitude of individual harmonics. All of this sound-design horsepower is amply demonstrated by a profusion of lively presets. In fact, you can think of the entire instrument as a collection of presets. Halion 6 even provides shortcuts for you to construct your own synths.

Halion 6 is a musician and sound-designer’s playground, and it was a shoo-in for an Editor’s Choice Award.

Toontrack Superior Drummer 3


It’s rare that you see a software update as significant as Superior Drummer 3. But this one is a ground-up redo that transforms the product into perhaps the most comprehensive virtual drummer on the market. The sound library is massively expanded, with a slew of new kits, all recorded by George Massenburg. The drum sounds go beyond just sticked samples to include brush, rod, and mallet options, which are frequently neglected on drum instruments. Previous versions of Superior Drummer had only acoustic drum samples, but SD3 adds 350 electronic drum sounds, allowing you to deploy complete electronic kits or hybrid acoustic/electric setups.

SD3 offers quite a few other improvements. Its groove section adopts all the excellent search and song-construction features of Toontrack’s EZdrummer 2 and provides a fairly extensive groove collection. The Mixer has also been supercharged with 35 new effects, ranging from classic hardware to stompboxes. Also new is Tracker, a stunning new subsection of SD3 that gives you powerful tools for converting audio drum tracks to MIDI.

UVI World Suite


Today’s composers and producers have it easy. For instruments from any continent or almost any historical period, all you need is a computer and the right soundware. Want to enhance your tracks with Celtic whistles, West African ngoni, or Indonesian kenong? If you have UVI’s Workstation or Falcon, it’s easier than ever to add ethnic flavors to the mix.

World Suite supplies a 28GB collection of hundreds of multisampled instruments divided by region (Eastern Europe, South America, etc.) and by type (woodwind, fretted strings, etc.), many of them with keyswitches to make your performances sound more natural and realistic. In addition to the playable instruments, you get more than 800 idiomatic loops and phases, including plenty of world beats and vocal passages. You also get nine Traveler instruments, which layer as many as six instruments to create some of the tastiest grooves you’ve heard.

Armed with UVI’s World Suite, a world of indigenous sounds is always within reach.

Zynaptiq Wormhole


Stretching far beyond bread-and-butter multi-effects processors, this plug-in delivers remarkable effects for musicians and sound designers. Wormhole is one of the most versatile tools you can have in your timbral paint box, too. It encompasses three primary effects—spectral warping, reverb, and pitch and frequency shifting—and it blends those core effects in dozens of combinations that yield plenty of surprises. The only reverb that comes close to what you can do with Wormhole is Zynaptiq’s exceptional Adaptiverb, because it harnesses some of the same technology.

Simply auditioning Wormhole’s library of presets will bring new sounds to life that you’d never achieve without it. You can use MIDI to control all major parameters, which means you can alter them dynamically in real time using DAW automation or physical controls. Whether you put it to work sweetening tracks or blowing minds, Wormhole upholds Zynaptiq’s richly deserved reputation for making dynamite plug-ins chock full of unique algorithms other signal processors can’t touch.