In December 1992, EM's editorial staff — Bob O'Donnell, Michael Molenda, Steve O, and Scott Wilkinson — unveiled the first Editors' Choice Awards. We gave our highest accolade to 14 hardware and 6 software products, including 2 whose descendants triumphed again this year: Digidesign's Pro Tools (now Pro Tools TDM 5.1) and Twelve Tone Systems' Cakewalk Pro for Windows (which evolved into Cakewalk's Sonar XL 1.02). Other now-legendary 1992 winners included the original Alesis ADAT, Steinberg's Cubase Audio 1.01, and the Kurzweil K2000.
The industry obviously has evolved considerably in the ensuing ten years and so have the awards. Every year we have added to or changed the prize categories slightly to reflect the types of products we felt were significant for that year. This year we've selected a record 33 products in 31 categories, of which an unprecedented 7 categories are for various types of synths and samplers (5 software and 2 hardware). We also give honors in three software and four hardware signal-processor categories. Add the Sound Design Software award to the list, and you'll find that a total of 15 categories — nearly half of the awards — are for sound-creation and sound-processing products. Of those, nine are for software.
Although much has changed in the past decade, it's reassuring to note that some things remain the same. As always, the latest batch of award-winning products has been field-tested during the past year by our editors and a select group of top authors. We also solicited opinions from the editors of sister publications Mix, Onstage, and Remix. The final selections were made by our technical editors: Steve O, Marty Cutler, Brian Knave, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, and David Rubin. We went with some of the latest stuff this year, so in several cases, we have not yet published reviews of the winning products, but we will endeavor to do so as soon as possible (see the sidebar “The Award Winners in Review” on p. 88).
Remember, these are our picks among the new products we tested during the past 12 months; we cannot consider the many fine products we never got to check out, and we do not consider older products. We bestow an award on a software upgrade only if we think it offers major and significant improvements upon the previous version.
To be eligible, the product must have shipped between October 1, 2000, and October 1, 2001. To be fair, we allow some slack for products that shipped immediately before October 2000, so close to the deadline that it was impossible for us to test them in time for last year's awards. We do not allow such slack if we believe a manufacturer could have supplied a review unit in time for last year but intentionally delayed sending it — that is, if we have good reason to think the company ducked us.
And now we are proud to present the winners of the tenth annual EM Editors' Choice Awards. Drumroll, please!
AUDIO TOOLBOX PLUS ($1,699)
TerraSonde's Audio Toolbox Plus is one of those items that, once you use it, you can't believe you lived without it. This little wonder packs a wealth of diagnostic functions into a handheld device and can be used to analyze a studio's acoustics as well as to test your gear. Although its price may appear steep at first, it is well below what you would pay for each component separately.
If you want to tune your room, you can use the Audio Toolbox Plus's real-time analyzer. The device can also measure sound-pressure level, reverb decay time (referenced to the RT60 standard), and the background noise in a room. TerraSonde offers Mac- and Windows-compatible software for extracting and printing the graphs created with the unit.
The Audio Toolbox Plus will also help you get the most out of your gear. Use the polarity tester to make sure your speaker components are in phase and the signal-to-noise-ratio function to measure the quality of your mixer and effects processors. The unit also provides a signal generator, an impedance meter, a frequency counter and level meter, and a distortion meter.
For the desktop musician, the Audio Toolbox Plus can read and generate the common SMPTE time-code rates and MIDI Time Code (MTC). The unit allows you to monitor MIDI activity, display MIDI information in hexadecimal or text format, test MIDI cables, or transmit MIDI messages. For more traditional studio chores, it includes a digital oscilloscope and can test cables, phantom power, and batteries. You also get a small built-in speaker, an internal rechargeable battery, and a sturdy case.
In short, TerraSonde's device easily can handle most personal-studio testing situations. If you're serious about your studio and you want to evaluate it at a pro level, the Audio Toolbox Plus is a worthwhile investment.
TRANSLATOR 2.1 (WIN; $149.95)
Desktop musicians who rely on samplers for music production are used to a certain amount of frustration. Perhaps you've just discovered that the perfect sample CD for your next project is not available in your sampler's format or that your extensive Kurzweil library is useless with your new E-mu sampler. As an increasing number of hardware and software samplers enter the marketplace, sample obsolescence has spread like the plague.
What electronic musicians need now more than ever is a Rosetta stone for samplers; fortunately, Chicken Systems heard their pleas and introduced Translator, the ultimate file-format-conversion program for Windows. Version 2.1 boasts a range of new features, but its greatest strength lies in the astounding number of sample formats (more than four dozen) that it can translate to and from, including most hardware models from Akai, E-mu, Ensoniq, Roland, Kurzweil, Korg, and Yamaha as well as software samplers from Tascam (NemeSys), Steinberg, Digidesign, Emagic, and many others.
Translator doesn't just convert raw samples from one device to another; it also converts (as much as possible) keymaps, modulation routings, Velocity switches, envelopes, tuning, loops, filter settings, and various additional parameters. What's more, you can translate a single sample, program, instrument, preset, bank, volume, or whole directory — even an entire disc.
Translator uses a Windows Explorer-style directory tree as its interface for quick and easy browsing, and you can audition any file directly from your hard disk. The program lets you create a virtual drive on your computer and format it for any supported samplers. In fact, you can batch-convert multiple sampler formats into a single format. If you select all of the contents of a sampling CD and drag the files to your hard drive, you can watch in amazement as Translator chugs away, converting your library in record time.
Translator has many more features for managing sample libraries, and the program is constantly being upgraded and expanded. If you work regularly with samples, this is one piece of software you'll want to keep handy. It's the strongest weapon yet in the fight against sample obsolescence, and for that it deserves recognition.
PRO TOOLS TDM 5.1 (MAC/WIN; WITH PRO TOOLS 24/MIX, $7,995)
Pro Tools has been an industry standard for years. With the introduction of the appropriately named version 5.1 software (upgrade $295), Digidesign adds surround-sound capabilities as well as many other enhancements to the software part of its flagship system. (Note that Pro Tools TDM software requires Pro Tools 24/Mix hardware.)
To begin with, Pro Tools TDM 5.1 supports multichannel tracks; you can now record as many as eight channels of audio in a single track. The channels in a track are edited as a unit, and the corresponding regions are conveniently stored hierarchically under a master region name. In addition, you can use multichannel plug-ins with multichannel tracks. For example, Digidesign has introduced the SurroundScope plug-in, which shows you where a sound is placed in the surround environment, with level meters and a phase meter thrown in for good measure. Multiple instances of mono plug-ins can be controlled individually or linked together, and Pro Tools TDM 5.1 lets you open more than one plug-in window at a time.
Pro Tools' MIDI implementation has been beefed up considerably. The Event List is a welcome addition, as is the ability to record multiple MIDI tracks simultaneously and play a MIDI controller through the program without being in Record mode.
High on the list for electronica fans is Beat Detective. By scanning an audio file for transients, Beat Detective can extract groove information and make other files conform to it. It can also quantize and correct timing irregularities in a file, smooth over edits, and create a tempo map.
Pro Tools TDM 5.1 is more stable and robust than earlier versions. If you already use Pro Tools, the upgrade is a no-brainer. If you're considering the purchase of a TDM system, the new features, as well as the program's prominence in the pro-audio world, should provide a convincing enticement to jump in.
MAX 4.0 (MAC; $295)
Rarely does one product totally dominate its class. If you're interested in a graphical music-programming language for the Mac, Cycling '74's Max 4.0 will top your list. Use Max to create elaborate processes that transform your MIDI data in unusual ways. Send Max a series of chords, and it will generate endless variations on your harmonies. Play five notes in succession, and it can record the notes and loop them bidirectionally, randomly changing octaves on each pass. What better credentials to have than Kay Algorithmic Real-time Music Architecture (KARMA), the algorithmic MIDI processing section of the Korg Karma keyboard, which materialized eight years ago as a Max patch? (Its current implementation is in C/C++.)
Max can control almost anything with MIDI: use it to run a video deck from a MIDI controller, to play tracks from an audio CD randomly, or to change the speed of a QuickTime movie. If interactivity is your game — whether for a kiosk, in the concert hall, or on the Web — you'll find Max has everything you need.
Max has always been a vast resource for tweakers, but version 4.0, the first major release in nearly five years, really takes it over the top. First, you'll notice the interface's modernized look; in fact, many of the new graphical elements were created within Max. It's easier to manipulate objects than in the past — the ability to create a background layer, for example, keeps your desktop uncluttered as you build your patches — and the new color-coded patch cords help keep the structure of your patches clear. Version 4.0 also has new objects for data processing. Clearly, this update has more than meets the eye.
To sweeten the pot, you can get Max bundled with MSP 2.0 (also an Editors' Choice award winner; see p. 80) for $495. Here's some good news for PC users: Max and MSP are under active development for Windows. Although no firm release date is set, working versions have appeared at major trade shows, so keep your eyes on the Cycling '74 Web site for news.
If you wonder what a full-on music-programming environment can do for you, Max is your guy!
DAW Control Surface
As music software expands beyond the tasks that were once the exclusive domain of hardware devices, the need for hands-on control is greater than ever. Using a mouse to individually manipulate onscreen sliders and knobs is far inferior to actually pushing real sliders and twisting real knobs. Fortunately, control surfaces are catching up with the need to physically manipulate the details of music production. Although many new control surfaces have been introduced in the past year, deciding on our favorite was easy.
The SAC-2K combines extensive functionality with realistic bang for the buck (for a review of the SAC-2K, see p. 146). With 9 motorized faders; 67 buttons; an assignable Shuttle wheel; 3, 80-character text displays; a separate locator display; and 12 rotary-encoder knobs with 31-segment LED rings, the SAC-2K provides a versatile tactile interface for working with virtual instruments and digital audio sequencers alike. The moving faders can be adjusted to respond to a light touch or a heavy hand. The touch-sensitive rotary encoders respond to how quickly or how slowly you turn them. The text displays keep you oriented at all times and even offer help files when you need them.
SAC stands for Software Assigned Controller. Like any control surface, the degree of control depends on the software support provided by the developer. You don't have to bother with assigning functions to the SAC-2K's controls: everything it needs to know is built into your software and the SAC-2K's firmware.
If your life revolves around Digital Performer or Pro Tools, the SAC-2K is calling your name. You can use every slider, knob, and button to access literally hundreds of parameters. You can even access dozens of plug-in parameters to control effects processors and virtual instruments. Music applications from Steinberg, Emagic, Propellerhead, Native Instruments, CreamWare, and others are also supported, with many more in the works. The release of the SAC-8X should provide further expandability through the SAC-2K's USB port. The SAC-2K is a product to watch, and it's unquestionably the best new control surface of the past year.
Digital Audio Sequencer
SONAR XL 1.02 (WIN; $739)
MARK OF THE UNICORN
DIGITAL PERFORMER 3.01 (MAC; $795)
Picking a winner in this category is never easy. As we did two years ago, we gnashed our teeth and wandered around in circles, mumbling to ourselves, but we couldn't seem to settle on a clear winner. Our Windows-savvy editors wanted to honor Cakewalk's Sonar XL 1.02 for its redesigned user interface and powerful new features. The Mac enthusiasts lined up solidly behind Mark of the Unicorn's (MOTU's) Digital Performer 3.01.
With our house divided sharply along party lines, we avoided bloodshed by declaring a tie. After all, both programs are powerful enough for professional work, offer an unlimited number of tracks, support nondestructive editing, and let you view and edit audio and MIDI data in the same window. It seemed only fair that we share our praise with both camps.
Although Sonar XL owes much to its predecessor, Pro Audio 9, it represents a significant departure from the past in several important areas. Under-the-hood enhancements include support for Microsoft's new WDM technology, which offers dramatically lower latency than the old MME drivers. With WDM drivers, you can use real-time effects while monitoring live input and apply real-time effects during recording. You also can play software synths from an external controller without undue latency.
Another significant development is Sonar XL's support for DirectX 8 plug-ins and the new DX Instruments (DXi) format. They let you incorporate a wide range of powerful processors and software synths into Sonar XL, and with Sonar's new automation features, you can automate processor parameters and synth settings to create exotic morphing effects and sounds. To help you take advantage of all that sonic potential, Sonar XL includes several DX Instruments, including Audio Simulation's DreamStation, Roland's Virtual Sound Canvas, and Applied Acoustics' Tassman (an Editors' Choice award winner last year).
For processing audio, Cakewalk throws in its Audio FX 1 and 2 plug-in collections, five excellent new DirectX effects from Power Technology, and ReValver from Alien Connections. Those make quite a bundle, but Sonar XL has much more to offer. The program's new Loop Construction and Loop Explorer views combined with its Groove Clips feature may give Sonic Foundry's Acid a run for its money. Groove Clips can match the playback tempo and pitch of each loop in a project, and Sonar XL can even import Acid loops for maximum compatibility. The Groove Clips feature allows Sonar XL users to create complex loop-based projects without leaving their primary sequencer — very cool. Sonar XL is an important new tool for Windows-based music production and deserves to be recognized for its clean and friendly design and its collection of powerful tools.
Also deserving to be highlighted is MOTU's Digital Performer, a true titan among sequencers. Its well-crafted user interface and mile-long list of features make it nearly undefeatable in a competition. After it tied with Emagic's Logic Audio two years ago and then won last year's Editors' Choice award outright by pummeling us with myriad new features in version 2.7, we weren't prepared for yet another major upgrade. We were stunned when we got our first look at Digital Performer 3.01 (for a review, see p. 120). For starters, the program has undergone a complete face-lift and sports several new windows, slide-out drawers in the Control panel, and an overall look and feel that coordinates nicely with Apple's new Aqua user interface for Mac OS X.
The changes, however, go far deeper than a jazzy new appearance. For example, Digital Performer is now optimized to get the most from dual-processor G4 Macs, providing blazing speed and newfound power when working on complex mixes and surround-sound projects. Digital Performer 3.01 embraces surround sound in a big way, with lots of versatile tools and support for a broad spectrum of formats. Among other things, the program includes four new surround-panning plug-ins offering sophisticated control of sound placement. Speaking of plug-ins, Digital Performer now includes a whopping 35 great-looking, great-sounding, professional-level plug-ins for tackling just almost any processing task imaginable.
Digital Performer 3.01's new Sequence Editor window is a significant enhancement. It lets you view and edit audio and MIDI tracks in the same window, and if you're using QuickTime movies for scoring or other post-production work, you can view the individual frames along the timeline in the new Movie track as well as in a separate dedicated Movie window. Dragging audio clips, automation points, and other editing elements scrubs the onscreen movie, making frame-accurate placement a snap.
The sequencer boasts far more high-end features than we can cover here. Nevertheless, its automation capabilities are awesome; it can import and export Pro Tools projects via OMF; its redesigned Graphic Editor window can simultaneously display data from multiple tracks in different colors; and its new Audio Bundles window lets you quickly reconfigure hardware assignments as you change projects. Digital Performer 3.01's documentation is among the best in the industry. We could go on, but you get the point. We just had to give this amazing program an award — for the third consecutive year.
MARK OF THE UNICORN
828 (MAC/WIN; $795)
The world is awash in multichannel digital-audio interfaces for desktop music systems. Until recently, however, all of the current multichannel systems — whether for Mac or PC — centered around a PCI card. We saw many excellent audio interfaces with top-notch specs this year, but one product stood noticeably apart from the crowd.
The 828 from MOTU is the first computer-based, multichannel hard-disk recording system to use a high-speed FireWire interface rather than an audio card or pokey USB interface, thereby bringing high-speed multichannel recording to Macs and PCs without using an expansion slot. Whether you have a desktop computer crammed with PCI cards, a FireWire-equipped laptop, or a slotless tabletop computer, you can create a quiet, compact, fanless system that's a cinch to set up.
Of course, there is no glory in being the first to do something if the product you introduce is not up to snuff. Fortunately, the 828 delivers tremendously in spite of its modest price tag. The unit offers eight channels of analog I/O, eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, coax or optical stereo S/PDIF I/O, ADAT sync, zero-latency monitoring, and two mic preamps with switchable phantom power. The balanced ¼-inch analog jacks use 24-bit converters with a 105 dB dynamic range. Inputs 1 and 2 use Neutrik XLR/TRS combo connectors, so you can plug mics as well as guitars and sound modules in to the jacks. When we reviewed the 828 in November 2001, we found the sound quality to be excellent and the mic preamps to be quiet enough for pro-level work.
We are pleased that MOTU includes the same AudioDesk Mac software that comes with the company's popular 2408 PCI-based system. AudioDesk is essentially the audio portion of Digital Performer 2.4, and it turns the 828 into a formidable recording and editing system. The software includes MOTU's PureDSP time-stretching and pitch-shifting technology as well as dozens of powerful 32-bit real-time effects plug-ins.
From its front-panel headphone jack, volume controls, trim controls, and banks of LEDs to its rear panel bristling with I/O options, the card-free MOTU 828 would be a winner all by itself. Add the AudioDesk software to the mix, and you have a solid, affordable, digital audio workstation that is truly hard to beat.
Dynamics Processor (hardware)
DS501 POWER GATE ($550)
Since when is using a noise gate fun? Since Drawmer released the DS501 Power Gate. Typically, gating is regarded as a perfunctory chore, something that must be done to reduce leakage and maintain clarity in a mix. But the new dual-channel Power Gate may change that perception, thanks to its sophisticated design, precision control, and wealth of features. As our surprised reviewer put it, “With the 501, gating is no longer a dreary chore — it's actually creative and fun.” (For the review, see p. 134.)
In addition to the usual envelope-control parameters found on full-featured gates — threshold, attack, hold, decay, and range — Drawmer has outfitted the Power Gate with several useful new features. Most noteworthy is the innovative Peak Punch, a circuit that allows for tunable transient boosting. Designed primarily for drum and percussion gating, Peak Punch provides a 10 ms gain boost each time the gate opens, reinforcing the initial transient of the gated audio — a real problem-solver for wimpy or ill-defined drum hits. Perhaps more useful still is the unit's Key Filter. In addition to permitting standard gate triggering via a key-input source, this section also provides variable low- and high-frequency shelving filters, allowing for “frequency-conscious” gating without the need for an outboard equalizer. How's that for slick?
As great as the Power Gate is for drum-gating duties, we are duly impressed by how well it performs on less percussive sources such as vocals, guitar, saxophone, and synthesizer. Given the depth of control granted by the Power Gate's extensive feature set, the unit's versatility and creative potential should have come as no surprise. The same can be said of other qualities that make it our favorite dynamics processor of the year: quiet operation, minimal coloration, ample headroom, superfast attack times, and noiseless bypass switching.
Effects Processor, Analog (hardware)
FREQUE II ($1,400)
The past year was a good one for analog effects processors, including Demeter's smooth-sounding RV-1 spring reverb and the terminally hip Sherman Filterbank II. However, when it comes to mangling your music in delightful ways, the DACS Freque II takes the prize. The Freque II puts a pair of ring modulators in a 2U rackmount box. The ring modulators can be operated independently — each processor has its own program and carrier inputs and dedicated controls — or linked into Dual-Mono mode, so that both processors are controlled by one set of knobs.
Engage the FM On switch, and oscillator 1 is routed to the CV input of oscillator 2 for instant frequency modulation. A dedicated FM Depth control lets you add modulation to taste. For real tweaking satisfaction, push the Freque button: it transforms the processor into a frequency shifter, which gives you the sum and difference of tones at separate outputs. The amount of shift is controlled by oscillator 2 and can be changed manually or with a control voltage. The frequency shifter gives you a range of effects, from subtle stereo processing to wild timbral shaping.
Compared with the original Freque, DACS has brought Freque II up to a pro level, adding trim controls to the four audio inputs, a CV input jack and oscillator output jack for each ring modulator, separate level controls for each output, and balanced TRS jacks throughout.
To some, ring modulation and frequency shifting may seem like exotic effects. But the simplicity with which you can shape sound using the Freque II, whether subtly or extremely, makes it a joy to use — not to mention a colorful addition to your effects rack.
Effects Processor, Digital (hardware)
MPX 200 ($399)
Nearly all inexpensive effects processors offer compromised control options and effects quality to keep costs down. Lexicon's MPX 200 is an exception. It delivers high-quality effects, a hefty amount of real-time and MIDI control, digital I/O, and an independent stereo compressor.
The single-rackspace processor is useful for both live and studio applications. It has a high-impedance input, so you can plug a guitar or bass directly in to the unit. Its coaxial S/PDIF I/O lets you put it to work as an analog-to-digital converter. As a component in a P.A. system, you can send a processed stereo signal to a monitor mix while sending a dry output to a DAT, for example, through the unit's digital outputs.
The MPX 200 furnishes flexible signal flow settings: Parallel gives you dual stereo I/O, Cascade feeds one effect into the other, Mono Split offers two mono inputs that feed two separate stereo effects, and Dual Mono sends a single mono effect to each output. At the front of the signal chain is a digital stereo compressor with ratio, threshold, attack-time, and release-time parameters. The compressors offer transparent sound with minimal pumping, albeit without the characteristic warmth and grit of analog compressors.
Time-based effects, such as delay, offer several tempo-synchronization options. You can send an analog signal from your instrument to set the tempo, use the front-panel Tap button or a footswitch, or lock the effect to incoming MIDI Clock. Furthermore, the MPX 200 supports real-time MIDI control of parameters using Pitch Bend, Aftertouch, and a variety of Control Change messages. For example, you can send MIDI messages to adjust a room reverb's “liveness” parameters or change the rate of a rotary effect.
The MPX 200's greatest strength is its sound. In addition to its array of sparkling choruses and flangers, pitch shifters, rotary simulators, and more, the unit provides smooth, clean reverbs that sound remarkably close to Lexicon's legendary high-end effects processors. That combination of pristine sound, flexible signal routing, real-time MIDI control, and 24-bit digital I/O is hard to top, especially for less than $400.
ACID PRO 3.0 (WIN; $399)
When you think of loop-assembly tools for the PC, one product comes to mind before all others: Sonic Foundry's Acid. Best known for its real-time tempo-matching and pitch-shifting features, Acid Pro, now in version 3.0, allows you to incorporate MIDI data into your projects and “paint” it onto the work area with ease. What's more, you can add a single video track to the Acid work space, making the program an excellent audio-for-video platform.
Acid 3.0's new Chopper tool lets you easily create complex rhythmic patterns using small segments of your loops. Also new are more than a dozen DirectX plug-ins that give you even more ways to tweak your tunes. If you are ever running short of loops, go to Sonic Foundry's Web page and pick up any of the numerous loop libraries, all of which have been fine-tuned to make your Acid experience more enjoyable.
The program has a number of functions that make interaction with the “outside” world easy. You can rip and burn CDs, transfer files to your hardware sampler, link to Sonic Foundry's Acid Planet Web site (www.acidplanet.com) to upload your files, and more. You'll even find a copy of Sound Forge XP on hand, which allows you to tweak or mangle your samples without quitting the program. Talk about integration!
We've been hooked on Acid since its inception. If you haven't had the pleasure, there's no time like the present to give it a try.
Microphone (over $1,000)
BALTIC LATVIAN UNIVERSAL ELECTRONICS
Once in a great while, a product comes along that sets new standards for excellence in its class. The Kiwi microphone from Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics (BLUE) is such an item. This is the third consecutive year BLUE has captured an Editors' Choice award: the Dragonfly won in the over-$1,000 category last year, and the Blueberry was our pick for large-diaphragm condenser in 2000. Clearly, BLUE is on to something, and we know what it is: the company is building a reputation not on cost-effective mass production, copies of classic vintage designs, or cheap transducer imports from abroad but on distinctive, first-rate microphones that are solidly constructed from the finest components.
Admittedly, EM's emphasis on value rarely permits reviews of mics as pricey as the Kiwi. Considering what you get for your dollars, however, the Kiwi is a bargain. After all, it is BLUE's top-of-the-line solid-state microphone. Treasure that it is, the Kiwi ships nestled in sumptuous purple velvet inside a gorgeously crafted cherry-wood box. A high-quality, spider-type elastic shockmount is included — something you pay handsomely for from other mic makers.
Like all BLUE mics, the Kiwi employs Class A discrete circuitry (no ICs) and a hand-built, hand-tuned capsule that is the main agent of the mic's high-quality sound reproduction. That stands in sharp contrast to designs that use EQ to “improve” an initially substandard sound. In addition, the Kiwi uses transformerless output circuitry and a dual-diaphragm capsule that allows for nine polar patterns, including cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8. The range of patterns, which is unprecedented in a solid-state condenser, greatly extends the Kiwi's versatility, allowing users to fine-tune the frequency response and find the ideal character of sound pickup for a given source.
Without a doubt, the Kiwi sounds wonderful: with open, silky highs that never sound brittle or harsh, it is exceedingly natural and transparent overall, yet surprisingly mellow for a FET design. The images the Kiwi captures have remarkable depth and solidity, a quality only the best transducers seem capable of producing. Not surprisingly, the Kiwi is also supremely quiet, has a huge dynamic range, and exhibits superb transient response. We especially like it on vocals, acoustic guitars, piano, organ, Dobro, dulcimer, mandolin, drums, and all sorts of percussion. Simply put, the Kiwi is both a workhorse mic and a work of art.
Microphone (under $1,000)
Røde has long been on the front lines of the microphone bang-for-buck shift — you know, the one that brought quality large-diaphragm condenser mics within reach of the personal-studio buyer. This is Røde's second EM Editors' Choice award: the company also bagged one in 1998 for the NT1 (originally $499, now $349), a microphone that its maker recently proclaimed “the world's No. 1-selling studio mic.” Although we can't vouch for that claim, we can make one we deem more important: Røde's latest creation, the NTK, is the finest large-diaphragm tube condenser for less than a grand (for a review, see p. 130).
Granted, as tube condensers go, the NTK is pretty bare-bones; it ships in a cardboard case with a zipper pouch, a power supply, a 30-foot cable, and a simple clip. The mic, too, is minimalist, with no pad or filter and only a cardioid polar pattern. What you do get, though, is rock solid (the NTK weighs in at nearly two pounds) and lovely, thanks to a beautiful satin-nickel finish.
But what really turns our heads is its sound. As our reviewer notes, “The NTK was designed to be musically pleasing rather than clinically accurate.” This mic has a big rich sound with solid, unhyped lows and mids as well as a presence boost that peaks at 5 and 12 kHz. The result is a bright, in-your-face sound, yet the brightness is pleasantly tempered by the twin-triode 6922 tube (or valve), which imparts a subtle sheen and roundness of tone.
Something else is going on, too: personality. Rather than a linear response, the NTK's character changes as you work the capsule closer, seeming to blossom with attitude. That makes it a great vocal mic, of course, and excellent on other sources, including piano and acoustic guitar (steel and nylon string). Moreover, the NTK is remarkably quiet for a tube mic, has a substantial dynamic range, and can handle inordinate levels of sound pressure. Considering that all those qualities come together in a tube mic for less than $1,000 — well, we think that's one heck of an achievement.
MIDI Instrument Controller (nonkeyboard)
Z6 AND Z6-S ($1,995; $2,095)
Harvey Starr's guitar-style instruments offer virtually unparalleled MIDI control. The Z6 provides six rubber strum bars, whereas the Z6-S sports a bridge with a set of 6-inch-long string triggers that offer a more guitaristic approach. However, the Z6 and Z6-S go well beyond mere triggering of MIDI note data.
The fingerboard buttons can send Note-On messages, enabling two-handed neck-tapping techniques. The pressure-sensitive buttons can send any MIDI continuous controller message; in fact, you can assign zones to areas of the neck to send different messages for each zone or assign zones to different MIDI channels. Zones can even send entire sequences for self-accompaniment; zoning allows alternate note assignments, so players are not locked into conventional guitar tunings. Thirty-two user locations let you store zone and MIDI control assignments as patches, so you can quickly switch the instrument from one complex setup to another.
The Z6 and Z-6S provide an abundance of ergonomically arranged options for creating stimulating music. In addition to the strings, fingerboard, and strum plate, each instrument has an assignable joystick with which you can send different MIDI messages for the four directions. If that's not enough, the joystick's firing button can send another independent message, but that's not all: you can add an assignable NeckSensor pressure strip, six independent expression pads that sit on the sides of the Z6-S bridge, and a proprietary breath controller. Dedicated MIDI controllers should go beyond the pale to provide tools for expressive music. The Z6 and Z6-S offer the best of guitar and keyboard technologies to wring every last ounce of expression from your MIDI gear.
Modular Hard-Disk Recorder
Two contenders battled for the top spot in the Modular Hard-Disk Recorder category, and it was a close call. The iZ Radar 24 put up a good fight, due in large part to its stability, sound quality, and ease of operation. Notwithstanding, in addition to having similar attributes, this year's winner, the Mackie HDR24/96, adds a DAW-like user interface to its feature collection.
The HDR24/96 is a solid and robust recording system that is about as easy to use as they get. The unit operates much like a tape machine, and you can configure it from the front panel or from within the software graphical user interface. Herein lies one of the HDR24/96's nicest amenities: connect a computer keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the HDR24/96, and you can take the system beyond basic tracking chores.
Although the DAW-style editing features are not as deep as those in a computer-based DAW, the HDR24/96's software supplies the essentials for moving and editing audio files. Mackie chose a favorable amount of redundancy between the software and hardware front-panel functions, so you can easily jump between interfaces.
You'll also appreciate the variety of I/O options, including analog, AES/EBU, TDIF, and Lightpipe. Not surprising, the HDR24/96 integrates well with another important Mackie product, the Digital 8-Bus mixer. The HDR24/96 also can act as an FTP server for easy file transfers to your computer while the device is connected to a Mac or PC through the rear panel's 100Base-T Ethernet port.
The HDR24/96's stability, excellent audio quality, full feature set, and user-friendliness make it worthy of this year's award. To quote Larry the O's HDR24/96 review, “It's a winner.”
CODA MUSIC TECHNOLOGY
FINALE 2002 (MAC/WIN; $545)
When Coda Music Technology introduced Finale 2000, we were mighty impressed by its new Setup Wizard, dozens of templates, sophisticated Maestro font, and great documentation. Just as we were bestowing the 2001 Editors' Choice award on Finale 2000, however, Coda released Finale 2001, which added Internet-publishing capabilities, music-scanning technology, and the ability to transcribe melodies from a mic input.
At that point, you would think Coda would rest on its laurels and catch its breath. Instead, the company promptly introduced Finale 2002, a significant upgrade with an amazing array of exciting new features. Finale 2002 provides enhanced Simple Entry and Speedy Entry modes and a savvier Selection Tool for quicker and more intuitive note entry and score editing. Contextual menus make it easy to set time and key signatures on the spot and offer immediate control of hairpins, expression marks, slurs, and other Smart Shapes objects, which now include more grab handles for better positioning. Slurs are smarter and more beautiful than ever, with options for automatically avoiding collisions with stems, beams, accidentals, and other markings.
Finale 2002's powerful new editing and note-entry features are impressive, but what really surprises us is the program's evolution far beyond the usual music-notation capabilities and emergence into the world of music production. For example, band and orchestra teachers will love the new Exercise Wizard. Just choose from a long list of exercise types, specify the instrumental ensemble and a few other parameters, and Finale 2002 generates a complete exercise lesson with individual parts for each player. But that's just the beginning.
The software also includes ten Composer's Assistant plug-ins — algorithmic music-creation and manipulation tools developed in Paris by IRCAM. The plug-ins can generate smooth transitions between chords or from one melody to another. They can find new placement options for chords, produce a series of chords with increasing complexity and texture, generate four-part triadic harmonies, or create as many as six staves of percussion to accompany a score.
Finale 2002's other new plug-ins help you align markings, create tremolos and string harmonics, and add playback to trills and glissandi. One of our favorites plug-ins is Band-in-a-Box Auto-Harmonizer. Based on the popular auto-accompaniment program from PG Music, it automatically generates two- to six-part harmonies in a range of styles, from Barbershop to Super Sax, for any melody with or without chord symbols.
Finale 2002 boasts far more new features than we can list here, and it has once again amazed us with its scope of notation options, powerful editing tools, and creative music-generating features that push the music-notation-software envelope. Despite some promising new competitors this year, Finale 2002 has triumphed again as the most noteworthy music-scoring program.
Monitor Speaker (close-field)
TA-1P ($999 PAIR)
In recent years, the spotlight has been on powered monitors, mostly made by large well-known manufacturers, but the close-field monitor that made us sit up and take notice this year is a passive design from a small new company called Truth Audio. “But wait, aren't passive monitors passé?” you ask. Not when they sound this good; we were impressed by the TA-1Ps from the moment we laid ears (and eyes) on them.
The TA-1P is distinctive for employing two 5-inch woofers, positioned slightly below and on either side of a 1-inch cloth-dome tweeter. Don't be fooled, though — those two little woofers couple with the TA-1P's rear-ported cabinet to produce tight, focused low end down to 50 Hz. Highs and mids are faithfully represented, too. Indeed, the TA-1P's frequency response fluctuates only ±2 dB from 51 Hz to 22 kHz — a real achievement in a passive monitor at this price.
In the end, sound and performance count, not specs. Reviewer Rob Shrock, a demanding veteran with years of experience evaluating close-field monitors, loved mixing on the TA-1Ps. He was especially impressed by their exceptional low end, excellent imaging, and uncanny ability to present an even-sounding frequency response at different playback levels. Although we detected a slight bump in the low-midrange response, overall the sound was neutral, natural, and wonderfully nonfatiguing, even after hours of close monitoring. Most important, TA-1P mixes translated exceptionally well to other playback systems. If you're ready to hear the truth about your mixes, Truth Audio is a sensible place to go.
Portable Digital Studio
Roland's VS-2480 portable digital studio offers many of the graphical editing benefits of a computer-based digital audio workstation. With its support for an ASCII keyboard and mouse, you can drag and drop track regions as well as select regions for copy, paste, move, and more. Connecting the unit to a VGA monitor provides large-screen views that resemble those of a software digital audio sequencer. For instance, a Track View window provides track numbers and names on the left and a playlist showing recorded regions for each track on the right. The VGA display also provides a view of track channel strips. Dialing in an EQ setting opens up a display that graphically illustrates changes to the selected frequency band in real time.
The mixer section sports 17 motorized faders, and the unit records all moves for posterity. Hopefully, you'll never need all 999 levels of undo, but they're available if you want them. You also get 384 virtual tracks for alternate takes. If you like to work with sample-construction kits, you can use the VS-2480's Phrase Pads, which let you sequence audio by triggering audio regions. You can trigger imported WAV files from CD or trigger selected regions directly from the unit's internal hard drive.
You can record as many as 16 tracks at a time with the recorder's 8 phantom-power XLR jacks and 16 balanced TRS inputs. The VS-2480 gives you a maximum 24 tracks and as much as 24-bit, 96 kHz audio. Internal 64-bit resolution ensures plenty of processing headroom, and the recorder includes two great-sounding stereo multi-effects processors and slots for six more.
The VS-2480 sounds terrific and is capable of producing professional sounding results without outside help. Nonetheless, the unit offers SMPTE and Word Clock input as well as dual R-Bus ports for expanding the digital and analog I/O.
The competition was tough, but with its great sound, expandability, connectivity, and 24-bit, 96 kHz capabilities, the VS-2480 found its way to the head of the pack.
MODEL 101 ($699)
We editors normally balk at manufacturer ad copy, but no one rolled their eyes or muttered “Yeah, right” when Grace Design described its Model 101 as the “ultimate microphone preamplifier for under $1,000.” Why not? Well, for one thing, as a major player in the small but fiercely competitive world of boutique mic preamps, Grace Design has no reason to make exaggerated claims. The solid-state, Class A Model 101 is basically a mono version of the company's highly acclaimed Model 801; as long as Grace was able to fit the same amplifier architecture into a 1-channel box, we figured, it surely had something worth chortling about.
We didn't leave it at that, of course. Rather, we sent the Model 101 to Myles Boisen, one of our toughest reviewers. After putting the unit through a virtual obstacle course of performance tests, including comparisons to legendary preamps costing three and four times as much, he gave the unit top marks across the board; only in the features rating did the device fall a half-point shy of perfection. Boisen pronounced the 101 “predictably neutral in character and impressively close to the technical ideal of a wire with gain.” He was especially struck by the 101's seemingly endless high end, which he described as “extending into realms only dogs and test gear could appreciate.”
But the 101 doesn't stop there: it also provides a ¼-inch jack on the front panel for direct injection duties. Here its performance is every bit as uncompromising as on mic signals; the clarity, articulation, and wonderfully defined low end it delivered on electric guitar and bass are stunning. Naturally, considering its pedigree, the 101 is exceptionally quiet (the signal-to-noise ratio is greater than 92 dB), and it provides plenty of gain, making it a great choice when using ribbon mics or recording quiet sources. As if all that weren't enough, the Model 101 is also ruggedly constructed and beautiful to behold.
GARRITAN ORCHESTRAL STRINGS (GIGASAMPLER; $1,399)
EM looked at more than 75 sample CDs and CD collections this year, and many new offerings were impressive. However, picking a single winner from a year's worth of widely diverse contenders invariably leaves us feeling dazed and confused, so we generally don't give an award for best sample library. This year, however, we discovered a CD collection that truly blew us away. Harps.com's Garritan Orchestral Strings, created by Gary Garritan, is exceptional not only in the depth and breadth of its content but also in the thorough and thoughtful way in which it is presented.
Garritan Orchestral Strings comes on 16 CD-ROMs that focus exclusively on the string sections of the orchestra. The 24-bit recordings were made at New York's Lincoln Center and were performed by top-notch symphonic players. Each section offers a dizzying array of articulations, bowing techniques, and special effects sampled chromatically at multiple dynamic levels and without loops. Clever controller routing maximizes the expressive potential of the patches, which were derived from more than 8,500 individual samples. For example, you can increase a sound's warmth by sliding a fader, you can crossfade from nonvibrato to vibrato samples with the Mod wheel, or you can quickly change bowing techniques with key switches. The overall sound is lush and warm.
But the library itself is not the whole story. Garritan really pushes the sample-library envelope by adding several special benefits to the package. To provide capabilities beyond those in GigaStudio, for example, Garritan created MaestroTools, a program that performs tricks such as automatically alternating between up-bow and down-bow samples as you play. Moreover, the Garritan Orchestral Strings documentation is exemplary; it goes far beyond what we've come to expect with sample libraries. Aside from a complete and detailed listing of presets and controller routings, the 120-page hard-copy owner's manual includes sections about using the library effectively, working with reverb and panning, elements of string writing, instrument ranges, and the layout of the orchestra as well as a glossary of string terminology, a 6-page bibliography, and a great deal more.
But that's not all. The Garritan library is updateable, so you can add new capabilities as they become available. As of this writing, the first update disc has already been sent to registered owners, and more discs are planned. Finally, Garritan provides a helpful and congenial online forum through which his library users can trade tips, help each other out, and generally function as a close-knit community.
Garritan Orchestral Strings is an exceptional product, combining a beautifully rich-sounding string library, supplementary software, intelligent controller programming, unparalleled documentation, open-ended evolving content, and membership in an online community. This sample library clearly stands head and shoulders above the crowd, and that is a very special achievement.
SAMPLERCHAN 1.3 (WIN; $69)
VIRTUAL SAMPLER 2.56 (WIN; $75)
One of the great joys of working at EM is having the chance to spread the word about software from small companies that might not otherwise make it into the big time. Speedsoft/Maz's Virtual Sampler and Nick Whitehurst's SamplerChan are great tools for tweaking and playing samples on a PC, and both offer a number of features that move them well beyond the normal sampler model.
Virtual Sampler, which runs standalone and as a DirectX or VST Instrument, offers an economical interface in which you toggle among the various work areas. At the top of every screen are the tools for file management and program configuration, and along the bottom, you'll find a virtual keyboard to trigger the sounds you're working on. You need a powerful computer to max out the program's 64 available polyphonic notes, but at least you can't complain that Virtual Sampler is holding you back.
Virtual Sampler can load and save files in numerous formats, including WAV, AIFF, TerraTec's TTI instruments, LM4 drum kits, Akai, and SoundFont2. Unlike most software samplers, it streams samples from disk, so no file-size limit is set. Among its other unusual features are the ability to process the audio output of VST Instruments through its effects section, a customizable skin interface, and the inclusion of both a DX7 clone and a classic analog-style software synth. You can also apply VST plug-in effects to your sounds, which gives you a nearly unlimited library of sound-manipulation options.
Cakewalk has just become the exclusive distributor of the DXi version of Virtual Sampler, so you should have no trouble getting updates and patches when needed. A random sampling of the hundreds of messages from users at the Virtual Sampler Forum suggests that this is one very popular package.
Nick Whitehurst's SamplerChan, a VST Instrument for the PC, brings its own strong hand to the table and includes many tools designed to aid in composition and real-time performance. For example, it can process an incoming MIDI note and use it to trigger a long pitch sequence you create in the program's Rhythm Section, or automatically extract the beats from a groove. Setting up a multisampled patch couldn't be easier: just drag your sample files right onto the program's interface. Creating a multitimbral patch is just as simple.
Like Virtual Sampler, many of SamplerChan's features can be controlled via incoming MIDI data, which makes for a lively and spontaneous sampling experience. The program offers as many as 128 polyphonic notes and can route its output on a total of eight separate channels. It offers extensive matrix-modulation options that allow you, for example, to modulate the level of effects sends in your patch. You'll find lots of help for looping your samples in the integrated wave editor, and the excellent manual is a great resource for getting a handle on the program's features.
SamplerChan's Performer is a powerful inclusion that you won't find elsewhere. It acts like a virtual joystick controller and lets you manipulate any number of parameter settings in real time. The Performer is just one of many features that make SamplerChan a great tool for live performance.
ALTIVERB (MAC; $495)
This category always is a tough one. We could have happily given the award to Antares Systems' fabulously popular AutoTune 3, Metric Halo's eminently useful Channel Strip, or Native Instruments' innovative Spektral Delay (which won the award as a stand-alone signal-processing program). But we ended up with Audio Ease's groundbreaking yet easy-to-use Altiverb, a MAS reverb plug-in for the Mac that raises the bar for this type of processor.
The significance of Altiverb is that it uses impulse-response technology to re-create the reverb characteristics of an acoustic space in real time on a stock Mac G4. Using impulse-response technology for that task is nothing new, but to do it in real time is expensive and CPU intensive, and dedicated outboard processors with that capability can cost thousands of dollars. So when Audio Ease successfully brought that technology to the desktop studio, it immediately got our attention.
For those unfamiliar with the technology, here's how an impulse-response-based reverb is created: First, an acoustic space is sampled by recording an impulse (often a shot from a starter's pistol) in the room. Next, the impulse is subtracted from the recording of the acoustic space through deconvolution. The result is a time-variant filter that mathematically represents the characteristics of the room. The impulse-response method is a highly accurate way to re-create an acoustic space, but you can see why it takes a lot of computing power.
Altiverb offers as much as three minutes of reverb based on the room of your choice, and it can be configured for one, two, and four channels. Out of the box, the plug-in includes samples of eight environments, including the famed Amsterdam Concertgebouw. There are more than two dozen variations of this building alone, based on the quantity and type of microphones used in the sampling sessions and their placement in the room. Other spaces include St. Joseph Church and Vredenburg Concert Hall in Utrecht, schoolrooms, and the interiors of various cars and vans. Altiverb also lets you sample your own acoustic spaces.
Remarkably, Altiverb is easy to use. Simply choose the environment you want and tweak the four controls: Predelay, Decay Time, Wet, and Dry. That's it. The result is a highly realistic reverb.
To do the massive amount of convolution required, Audio Ease tapped into the Motorola PowerPC G4's powerful AltiVec Velocity Engine, so you must have a G4-based Mac, and even then the CPU demands are formidable. Compared with the price of the hardware sampled-acoustics processors on the market, you can buy Altiverb and the fastest computer and still have money left over.
Signal-Processing Plug-In Bundle
GOLD NATIVE 3.0 (MAC/WIN; $1,300)
The latest version of Gold Native is more powerful than ever, rivaling the capabilities of the almost 20 hardware devices it emulates, including tools for tracking, tweaking, sweetening, mangling, and mastering live and recorded audio. The package currently supports a variety of plug-in formats, including VST, MAS, RTAS, and AudioSuite for Macintosh and VST, DirectX, and RTAS for Windows.
Although version 3.0 takes full advantage of the processing speed made possible by the latest computers, Waves recently updated its plug-ins to vastly reduce the processing power they require, giving the ability to run more simultaneous plug-ins. In addition to new, improved, and consistent user interfaces and increased parameter resolution, you get automated parameter control, extensive documentation, hundreds of factory setups, and support for 88.2 and 96 kHz audio. Another welcome improvement is the challenge-and-response copy-protection scheme that has replaced the dongle required by earlier versions.
Gold Native 3.0 also introduces two new plug-ins: C4 Multiband Parametric Processor, which offers 4-band compression, expansion, limiting, and EQ, and Renaissance Reverberator, which emulates classic hardware and is certainly the best-sounding native reverb that Waves has ever offered. Add to those the established plug-ins UltraPitch, Enigma, MondoMod, MaxxBass, and PAZ Psychoacoustic Analyzer, and you have a top-notch bundle that is virtually a must-have for serious computer-based musicians.
Signal-Processing Software (standalone)
SPEKTRAL DELAY 1.0 (MAC/WIN; $299)
One look at Native Instruments' Spektral Delay, and you know that this software is unlike anything you've ever seen. Imagine having dozens of delay lines, each controlling a different frequency band, running at the same time. Now throw in real-time control of the amplitude, delay time, and feedback for each band, and you have yourself one awesome program.
Spektral Delay analyzes a stereo audio file or real-time audio input and splits it into as many as 160 individual frequency bands per channel. You can modify each stereo channel independently, or you can link the two to make global adjustments. The graphic interface is easy to work with and fun to use, and you can spend hours tweaking the program's settings as a flood of amazing material pours forth from your speakers. Want to capture your sounds to disk? Turn on the Record function, and you're all set. (Just be sure you have a large hard drive!)
Spektral Delay has numerous tools for altering the delay parameters that control its output. You can apply various envelopes or repeating wave shapes to modulate the delay settings — for example, a sine shape on the feedback amount and a sawtooth on the delay time — and you can randomize one or more settings. You can also quantize, smooth, or average parameter values and use MIDI data to manipulate all parameters in real time. The preset configurations make great starting points for your own explorations, enabling you to quickly generate a huge library of sounds to work with. A wide array of program settings help you get the best performance from your audio interface and computer CPU.
Revolutionary products such as Spektral Delay don't come around often, so grab a copy and start exploring new sonic domains.
MSP 2.0 (MAC; $295)
Imagine a toolkit with dozens of modules for generating and processing sound in real time. Now add a graphical user interface that makes designing patches quick and intuitive, and you'll start to get a sense of what MSP is all about.
Put plainly, MSP does for audio what Max does for MIDI. (Max is required to run MSP; if you don't already have Max, you will need to buy the Max/MSP bundle for $495.) It offers nearly 200 audio objects that you can use in your patches, providing an almost limitless number of combinations. You can run your patches interactively so that a process begins only when it gets the specific trigger it requires, or you can build MSP patches that run completely unattended, perhaps generating random values for one or more objects. Modeling traditional synthesis methods, from FM to subtractive to granular, is simple, and you can use the included version of Cycling '74's Pluggo to turn your MSP patches into VST plug-ins.
Version 2.0 is a major upgrade that adds sample-accurate scheduling as well as polyphony and spectral-processing management. You can record and play audio files of as many as 24 channels with a maximum of 64 bits of resolution. The upgrade adds new objects, including one for designing filters graphically and another for monitoring the status of audio processing on your system; it provides support for even more file formats. Furthermore, the new audio-rate sequencer lets you integrate MIDI data into your patches with greater flexibility.
MSP supports most major Mac audio standards, including Sound Manager, ASIO, VST, DirectConnect, and ReWire; it can also serve as a host for VST Instruments and effects. It ships with a large number of working examples, and its tutorials are second to none. Analyze, granulate, phase warp, or modulate your way to custom sounds with this all-purpose and powerful sound-design toolkit.
When you first consider its obvious features — a six-operator digital FM synthesizer with sampled bass and percussion sounds — the DX200 appears to be a DX7 with sampled rhythm-section sounds. But this impressive new desktop synth module is much more.
For starters, the DX200's work surface offers no less than 16 dedicated knobs for real-time control. You can smoothly move the synth from warm and fuzzy tones to clangorous and bell-like timbres. Real-time control of FM modulator amplitude offers smooth transitions between simple, sine-wave-like sounds to brighter, more distorted-sounding timbres. The resonant, multimode filter adds a cartload of warmth, depth, and animation to the characteristically static, brittle FM sound. You also get a knob for the filter's frequency cutoff and resonance amount, so you can dial up whistling, self-oscillating settings in an instant. Another knob lets you change the intensity of the filter's envelope from full-strength to completely inverted values. You can adjust ADSR envelope parameters in real time for both the filter and amplifier.
Unlike previous FM synths, the DX200 does a surprisingly good job of emulating analog subtractive synth. Furthermore, the harmonic scope of a digital FM engine lets you venture into new sonic territory with a wider palette of sounds.
In addition to real-time control, the DX200's Free EG feature lets you capture and play back your sound-sculpting moves as a sequence of events. With four Free EGs to a patch, it's easy to create pads with sweeping, radically evolving timbral motion. Furthermore, you can engage the Free EG with the start of a DX200 pattern, a MIDI Start message, or a MIDI Note On message. The supplied software editor for Mac and Windows lets you create streams of Free EG events that can range from spiky and random to smooth and periodic.
The DX200 is compatible with the enormous library of six-operator FM sounds amassed since the DX7's heyday, and these sounds can seed tons of variations with a few tweaks of a knob. A modest complement of effects — including reverb, chorus, flange, delay, and distortion — add a final finish to the sounds. The unit's sample-playback engine adds a healthy assortment of exotic and natural drum and percussion sounds.
The sequencing component of the unit works well enough, but power users will want to connect the DX200 to an outboard sequencer. For example, an external sequencer will record the selection of new FM algorithms, providing radical timbre shifts that resemble the classic rhythmic effects of the Korg Wavestation. The synthesis capabilities of the DX200 far outstrip its utility as a groove box, so it's best to think of the onboard sequencer as frosting on an already rich cake.
Synthesizer/Sampler Hybrid (software)
REAKTOR 3 (MAC/WIN; $499)
Native Instruments has established itself as one of the most exciting software companies around, and Reaktor 3 is one of the big reasons the company is on a roll. Among the many new features in this remarkable application are greatly improved performance; new sound-generating and processing modules; a more attractive, customizable interface; and better integration with the host program when running as a plug-in (VST or DXi).
Reaktor 3.0 provides dozens of synths and sample processors that can keep you busy for a long time. The examples are ready to play, with default samples assigned where needed, and many of the synths include internal sequencers that make them primed for the dance floor as soon as they load. When you're ready to create your own virtual instruments, you'll find new modules and macros that will jump-start your creations. The excellent tutorials will help get you up and running quickly.
Check out the user-supplied patches at the Native Instruments Web page. You'll find everything from ARP Quadra emulations to wacky sample processors — all for free! You'll also find quality Reaktor Ensembles from third-party developers.
Whether you want to create your own virtual instruments or prefer ready-made synths, Reaktor 3.0 is a great resource. Processing samples, synthesizing sound, building tuning tables, and analyzing audio are all in a day's work for this sound-design powerhouse.
Synthesizer (keyboard, analog)
A6 ANDROMEDA ($3,499)
For lovers of analog synthesizers, 2001 was a great year, with more than a dozen companies churning out wonderful instruments. But one keyboard synth grabbed everyone's attention more than any other and deservedly so. The Alesis A6 Andromeda marries the classic sound of an analog synthesizer with state-of-the-art digital controls. The instrument is easy to set up and play, yet it provides a deep enough feature set to keep you programming for hours.
The Andromeda has 32 oscillators to help create a 16-note polyphonic, 16-voice multitimbral instrument. The oscillators, filters, and amplifiers are all under voltage control, and each voice has a dedicated output jack. Each voice passes through both a resonant, 24 dB-per-octave, 4-pole, Moog-style, lowpass filter and a resonant, 12 dB-per-octave, 2-pole, Oberheim SEM-style, multimode filter. Three rear-panel inputs allow you to run external signals through the filters. The A6 also includes an arpeggiator, a 16-step sequencer, and onboard effects, including analog distortion and digital chorus, delay, and reverb.
Real-time control is a hallmark of a useful performance synth, and in this respect, the A6 Andromeda delivers. The instrument includes Pitch-Bend and Modulation wheels and a ribbon strip, all of which are assignable to any modulation destination or MIDI continuous controller. The 72 knobs and 144 buttons give you further real-time control of your sounds. Add to this the three six-stage envelope generators, and you can see that the possibilities for modulation are extensive.
Manufacturing an analog synth of this caliber is difficult and expensive, but Alesis has risen to the challenge. Despite a difficult year for the company, Alesis promises to meet the exceptional demand for this amazing keyboard synth. If you yearn for the sound and feel of a classic programmable analog synth, check out the A6 Andromeda while supplies last.
Synthesizer (keyboard, digital)
Based on the synthesis engine of the best-selling Triton, the Korg Karma adds real-time pattern-generating and MIDI-processing muscle that dazzles nearly everyone who touches one. The Karma's complex dynamic algorithms respond to what you play, as you play, by altering tempo, timbre, chord structure, rhythmic density, and dozens of other parameters to produce new riffs, rhythms, and musical effects.
The result is an instrument combining the playability and timbral prowess of a keyboard workstation with the creative interactivity of a groove machine. The Karma is one of the first instruments that collaborates with players to create music in real time. Its collection of Generated Effects transforms performances with more than 400 variable parameters. Hands-on controls provide instant access to 16 simultaneous parameters that most synths don't offer. Korg's voicing professionals created hundreds of sounds that maximize Karma's response to what you play and how you play it.
Like the Triton, the Karma is fully expandable, with two slots for PCM-EXB expansion boards and another for an EXB-MOSS card. The Karma lacks the Triton's large touch-screen LCD and sampling capabilities, but with triple the Triton's processing power, the Karma responds to a slew of performance gestures. All of that technology enables players to execute more authentic arpeggios, realistic rolls, bodacious bass lines, and finer fingerpicking and strumming patterns than they can normally muster with just two hands.
With its evocative sound and groundbreaking playability, the Karma blazes a trail for future instruments.
ABSYNTH 1.02 (MAC; $299)
Native Instruments Absynth is a semimodular software synth that extends the capabilities of the subtractive-synthesizer paradigm. Absynth is not an analog modeling synthesizer; the synth generates digital wavetables and supplies them to unique effects processors and an extremely powerful subtractive-synthesis engine — the concept at the heart of its powerful sound.
Absynth provides three dual oscillators per patch; each pair can act independently or interactively with ring, frequency, or amplitude modulation. A waveform editor lets you use the output of a modulated pair as the source for a single oscillator. Oscillators go beyond the typical sawtooth-, pulse-, and sine-wave choices: you can import the first few samples of an AIFF file, draw waveforms with the mouse, or adjust phase and amplitude settings for the 64 harmonics. You also get several types of filtering options before the signal even reaches the two multimode filters. The package includes preset waveforms, and you can use any of them as an LFO source, so LFO modulation can be sine-wave smooth or jagged. Any wavetable can be used for the synth's waveshaping feature, which provides nonlinear distortion.
Absynth's 12, 68-stage envelope generators are a synthesist's dream. You can loop major portions of the envelope, and envelopes can retrigger in sync with tempo or number of beats. The synth gives you strong real-time MIDI control, too. For instance, you can control the amount of FM, filter frequency, and amplitude for each of the dual oscillators with your choice of Control Change messages, Velocity, and keyboard scaling.
Absynth made its debut as a standalone, single-MIDI-channel synth from Rhizomatic Software. Since its adoption by Native Instruments, the synth is multitimbral and applicable as a VST Instrument or MAS plug-in, as well. Absynth also supports ASIO, Open Music System (OMS), and FreeMIDI.
Synthesizer Workstation (software)
REASON (MAC/WIN; $399.95)
A year ago, if you wanted a rack full of synths, sample players, drum machines, sequencers, mixers, effects processors, and patch bays, you could buy modules and connect them with dozens of cables, attempt to integrate several music programs and plug-ins, or combine the two approaches. Such solutions were often costly, and the software solution might require more processing power than your computer could handle.
Swedish software developer Propellerhead changed that with Reason, the world's first virtual music rack. Now anyone with a reasonably fast computer and a couple weeks' minimum wage can own a software-based stack of gear. Although each instrument is monotimbral, only your computer's horsepower limits the number of devices Reason can handle. If you run out of mixer channels, merely add another mixer. When the rack grows taller than your screen, just scroll down. If dozens of sliders, knobs, and switches grow unwieldy, reduce any module to the height of a half-rackspace with a click. Rearranging Reason's virtual patch cords by pressing the Tab key to flip the rack around and dragging the plugs where you want them.
This much virtual gear wouldn't be worthwhile if it didn't sound great: Reason sounds as impressive as it looks. It ships with over 500 MB of samples, drum kits, and loops, and you can download additional sounds and import sound files. Saving a song file preserves your studio setup, including all the sounds in the song. You can export songs as AIFF or WAV files.
Run Reason by itself or use ReWire to control it with a sequencer. You can play its modules from any MIDI instrument or control external instruments with its multitrack or monophonic sequencers. On playback Reason duplicates every control movement you record.
Reason runs on Mac OS or Windows and is compatible with a variety of audio hardware. It supports ASIO, MME, DirectX, and Apple Sound Manager and is capable of 24-bit, 96 kHz playback.
THE WINNING MANUFACTURERS
Korg USA, Inc. tel. (516) 333-9100; Web www.korg.com
Røde Microphones tel. 61-287-659-333; Web www.rodemicrophones.com
Roland Corporation U.S. tel. (323) 890-3700; Web www.rolandus.com
TerraSonde tel. (888) 433-2821 or (303) 545-5848; Web www.terrasonde.com
THE AWARD WINNERS IN REVIEW
Our award winners have been reviewed in our pages or soon will be. For products with reviews still in progress, we have completed enough tests to feel confident about our conclusions; most of these reviews will be published in the next two issues, though a few might be published a bit later.
An article title enclosed in quotes indicates that the product was covered in a feature rather than in a review. All other entries indicate reviews of the award-winning version.
All published articles are available for download from the EM Web site at www.emusician.com.
Alesis A6 AndromedaIn progressAudio Ease AltiverbIn progressBLUE KiwiIn progressCakewalkSonar XL1.02October 2001Chicken SystemsSoftware Translator2.1In progressCoda Music TechnologyFinale 2002In progressCycling '74Max4.0In progressCycling '74MSP2.0In progressDACS Freque IIJuly 2001DigidesignPro Tools5.1In progressDrawmer DS501 Power GateJanuary 2002Grace Design Model 101December 2001Harps.comGarritan Orchestral StringsIn progressKorg KarmaAugust 2001Lexicon MPX 200, “Master Class: Learning the Lexicon”August 2001Mackie HDR24/96October 2001MOTU 828November 2001MOTUDigital Performer3.01January 2002Native InstrumentsAbsynth1.02March 2001Native InstrumentsReaktor3, “Soft Sampling”October 2001Native InstrumentsSpektral Delay1.0December 2001Nick WhitehurstSamplerChan1.3, “Soft Sampling”October 2001PropellerheadReason1.0July 2001Radikal Technologies SAC-2kJanuary 2002Røde Microphones NTKJanuary 2002Roland VS-2480In progressSonic FoundryAcid Pro3.0In progressSpeedsoft/MazVirtual Sampler2.56, “Soft Sampling”October 2001Starr Labs Z6 and Z6-SIn progressTerraSonde Audio Toolbox PlusIn progressTruth Audio TA-1PJuly 2001Waves Gold Native 3.0November 2001Yamaha DX200December 2001