The Electronic Musician Editors'' Choice Awards have become an institution. And there''s a saying that “If it ain''t broke, don''t fix it.” But our slogan is, “If it ain''t broke—then we''re definitely not pushing it hard enough.”
It was time for a makeover, and time for the awards not to be a benediction from on high, but a celebration of the creativity that''s the hallmark of our wacky, wild industry. So we talked, argued, discussed, and threw things at each other in the quest for narrowing down our list to the best products that shipped for the first time between AES 2010 and AES 2011. It''s not easy to narrow a plethora of products down to 30 finalists (and two ties), but we didn''t just keep our own counsel: The opinions of our reviewers, reader comments, and forum buzz were also factored in, not just in choosing products, but in helping decide which ones deserved to be finalists.
We also wanted to break free from force-fitting products into categories. (Really, few concepts are more boring than giving awards for the “Best Chrome-Plated Mic Stand Under $250.”) So we tore down the walls, threw out the rule book, and picked what we thought were the best products, bar none—and then had some fun coming up with award categories for those specific products. So in a sense, these awards are more prestigious than ever because every winner was competing not just against similar products, but against all products released during the eligibility period.
Congratulations to the winners—you deserved your awards. Now, get back to work so we''ll have something to argue about in 2012!
BEST REVERSE ENGINEERING OF ALIEN TECHNOLOGY
Blue Microphones Reactor
This mic is as versatile as it is unusual
Yes, what gets your attention is the look—described by our reviewer as looking like crop circles, or an IUD for a giraffe. But the exceptional pattern versatility (cardioid, omni, and figure-8), Class-A electronics, and an unexpectedly low price got our attention as well. As more studios look to augment their mic lockers, and as the economy continues to sputter, there''s something very appealing about a multi-function microphone that works well with anything from soft vocals to screaming guitar amps, yet doesn''t break the bank—and might even offer an unexpected benefit for those who own pet giraffes.
Blue Microphones Reactor product page
A NEW ANGLE ON SPEAKERS
Pelonis Model 42
Finally—a different kind of monitor for smaller studios and production suites
Chris Pelonis is one of the premier studio designers in the audio industry, and his Signature Series speakers—which he voices personally onsite—are acclaimed for their accuracy. With the two-way Model 42, that expertise is now available to those who own smaller studios. But there''s more to the story than just reputation and price: The speakers'' unique slant design works for pretty much any positioning, which is always a crucial consideration in any room. Combine the price, size, design, and convenience with exceptional frequency response and serious SPL, and the Model 42 represents something truly new for smaller studios.
Pelonis Model 42 product page
TINY TITAN OF TAPELESS TECH
It''s not just an 8-track recorder—it''s also a control surface, USB interface, drum machine, and sampler
There are lots of ways to do portable music, but the R8 is a real overachiever. As an example, it has dual XLR inputs with phantom power—which can be set to 48V, or you can dial back to 24V to save power. However, what really took us aback wasn''t the rich feature set but the transparent operating system—you can do a lot without even reading the manual. And if you do read the manual, you''ll find a seemingly endless array of useful convenience features. Zoom has been at the portable music game for a long time; it shows.
Zoom R8 product page
OKAY, NOW I REALLY DO HAVE TO GET AN iPAD
Program your multi-effects with an iPad, then take the rugged hardware—sans iPad—on stage
Multi-effects, by definition, have a lot of effects—and therefore, a lot of parameters. For managing all those parameters, the traditional choices have been either a typically user-hostile front-panel interface, or an unwieldy computer-based editor. The iPB-10 sidesteps both problems by incorporating an iPad that you can use to program the hardware for a gig; you can then leave the iPad at home, or insert it into the sturdy case for a user-interface experience that''s about as close as you''ll come to having physical knobs and switches sitting in front of you.
DigiTech iPB-10 product page
THE KEYBOARD THAT LETS YOU HAVE IT YOUR WAY
There''s no arguing over whether this is a stage instrument or studio keyboard—it''s both
We don''t normally think of keyboards taking advantage of “computer think” the way virtual instruments do. Except for the Kronos. From the solid-state disk drive to the multiple sound engines—not to mention the ability to sample into expandable sample RAM—the Kronos comes very close to packaging your computer-based setup into a rugged keyboard that''s as good for the road as it is for your audience. It slips effortlessly into studio contexts as well, and what''s more, it doesn''t care what Microsoft or Apple do.
Korg Kronos product page
ABOVE AND BEYOND VIRTUAL ANALOG
It not only sounds incredible, it focuses on live performance like a laser
The star of this show is the way the Jupiter-80 interprets, not just reproduces, the music that you play. Its SuperNatural technology isn''t just about imparting expressiveness to static timbres, but providing a type of realism that''s perhaps best likened to the audio equivalent of CGI—the sound is so clean, it acquires a “personality” of its own. Furthermore, the Jupiter-80 is about much more than sound, given its live-performance orientation; the touchscreen, extensive set of hands-on controls, and comfortable keybed were made for the stage yet also impart that live performance ethic to the studio.
Roland Jupiter-80 product page
DJS ARE MUSICIANS, DEAL WITH IT <
Native Instruments S4
There''s no doubt that this controller crosses over into being a musical instrument
Guitars haven''t changed much in the past 50 years, but DJ controllers have changed dramatically in the past 50 months. Not only is digital DJing here to stay, so is the continuing evolution of DJs as their performance moves become more and more like playing traditional musical instruments. The S4 exemplifies this metamorphosis (especially when coupled with NI''s Traktor software and the X1 effects controller) as DJs find ever-increasing ways to manipulate not just sets, but sounds, on multiple levels. Best of all, the S4 allows for fluid, natural performance moves—essential for the new generation of DJs.
Native Instruments S4 product page
FOOLED YOU! IT''S DIGITAL!
Universal Audio UAD-2 6.0
Analog-modeling mojo rises to a new level
In 1998, Creamware''s SCOPE was ridiculed for using hardware DSP—after all, native processing was going to take over, and DSP would be dead. Apparently Universal Audio didn''t get the memo, electing instead to deploy powerful DSP chips in service of power-hungry algorithms that have the uncanny ability to capture the vibe of analog in the digital world. Now they''re applying that expertise to collaborations with companies like Studer, Ampex, Lexicon, SPL, MXR, Brainworx, and Manley to bring more hardware processors “into the box”—and version 6.0 is their most realized version yet.
Universal Audio UAD-2 6.0 product page
IF I COULD HAVE ONLY ONE VIRTUAL INSTRUMENT
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 1.5
What can we say? Play this and enjoy its awesomeness
Spectrasonics never released a product that was anything less than excellent—and even in a world with a bevy of exceptional virtual instruments, Omnisphere stands out as a combination of the comfortable and the innovative. Of course, it doesn''t hurt to have a soundset with Eric Persing''s imprimatur; he not only knows good sounds, he knows how to capture them—as well as sounds that have never been captured before. The result is a virtual instrument with sound quality and playability so intense that they transform what could be just a great musical instrument into an instrument of inspiration.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere 1.5 product page
SOFTWARE WITHOUT HARDWARE IS LIKE A DAY WITHOUT SUNSHINE
Software is a lot more fun with hardware to control it—a philosophy Arturia has applied with aplomb
Arturia''s been around for more than a decade, and established a well-deserved reputation for creating warm, accurate emulations of classic synthesizers—and now they''re garnering serious cred for their hardware, too. Their Origin synthesizer applies the mindset of software to the physical world, and their Analog Laboratory series combines software with hardware that fits like a glove. But Spark merits an Editors'' Choice Award because of its exceptional controller, high fun factor, and reasonable price: If you like to pound out beats, Spark is not just about sounds, but about the control necessary to bring out the best of those sounds.
Arturia Spark product page
BEST ALTERNATIVE FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN''T AFFORD RECORDING SCHOOL
Alan Parsons Art & Science of Sound Recording
This tour de force DVD set from a Jedi master engineer is instructional, educational, and enlightening
There are hundreds of ways to screw up an instructional video, but fortunately, Alan Parsons and his team seemed incapable of finding any of them. Yes, this is about instruction, and yes, you''ll learn a lot. But this is a video with heart and soul that somehow manages to communicate the intangibles of recording and engineering music in a concrete, hands-on way. The thing that holds it all together is Parsons himself—he''s friendly, even-handed, knowledgeable, and does it all without a trace of condescension. What''s more, he''s assembled a stellar collection of guests who offer their own valuable insights. Most excellent.
Alan Parsons Art & Science of Sound Recording product page
YOU''VE BEEN FRAMED— IN A GOOD WAY
Sure, 500 Series modules need an enclosure—but this one takes the concept further
With all the great 500 Series modules out there, trying to figure out which one deserved an Editors'' Choice Award was daunting—until we realized that you needed something to hold all these goodies, and the Workhorse was clearly designed to be the ne plus ultra of 500 Series frames. The construction is stellar, but it''s the extras that stand out: the ability to accommodate modules in the “wrong” size, the option to forego the mixer section if you''re tight on bucks, and a well-thought-out implementation of the unused connections that''s already attracted third parties. What''s not to love?
Radial Workhorse product page
iPAD''S NEW BFF
Alesis iO Dock
Don''t you wish the iPad was studio-friendly? Now it is
iPads are definitely cool, but they''re not exactly built to “rock and roll” specs—unless you have a flimsy-connector fetish. And the iPad''s I/O is, shall we say, lacking. Alesis decided to do something about it by creating a home for your iPad that provides the necessary I/O for audio applications and a sturdy exoskeleton that lets the iPad take its place with your other studio gear. Couple that with a price that''s more than reasonable, and iPad fans have the solution to its main limitations for audio use.
Alesis iO Dock product page
THE DRUM MACHINE FOR PEOPLE WHO DON''T LIKE DRUM MACHINES
Dave Smith Instruments Tempest
Calling this a drum machine is like calling a Harley a scooter—but it''s one heck of a drum machine
The pedigree on Tempest is enough to get anyone''s attention: Dave Smith, the “father of MIDI,” and Roger Linn, of LinnDrum, MPC, and AdrenaLinn fame. Well, that level of talent certainly didn''t go to waste; Tempest is a remarkable musical instrument, and it''s not just “another drum machine.” Of course the sounds are of the expected level of quality, but the surprising thing about Tempest is the workflow (or perhaps more accurately, “playflow”) that''s smooth as warm butter, to the point where it encourages creativity—and it''s even good for more than just beats.
David Smith Instruments Tempest product page
GUITARS AREN''T JUST ABOUT TUBES AND TELES
Bringing high-tech guitar and MIDI together in a beautifully integrated package
Guitar synthesizers have always sort of poked along, never taking over the world but never quite going away either, as guitarists learned to live with the limitations in order to enjoy the advantages. Surprise: The GR-55 not only tracks better than anything to date, but folds in VG-99-style COSM guitar/amp/multi-effects modeling to complement the MIDI aspects, a basic looper, MIDI outs for driving external gear in addition to the internal sounds, and USB audio interfacing. In the process, Roland has created the most complete package yet for electronic guitarists—and may just have given MIDI guitar a new lease on life.
Roland GR-55 product page
BOB WOULD HAVE APPROVED
There''s a very good reason why this iPad instrument is among the top-selling apps: It''s a great little synth
It''s impossible to overestimate the impact Bob Moog had on this industry, and on the world of music in general. Although he may not be with us physically, his legacy continues as if he were still sitting at his workbench. Fortunately Moog Music has carried on without him—not without a twinge of sadness, but with a commitment to carry on his spirit. The AniMoog continues the Moog tradition, and its iPad platform will bring synthesis to even more people—maybe if we''re really lucky, one of them will go on to become the next Bob Moog.
Moog AniMoog product page
HANDS ARE FOR MIXING, NOT MOUSING
This box provides all the missing hardware elements needed by your DAW software
In a nutshell, Nucleus is an environment for your DAW that incorporates everything a DAW doesn''t have—high-quality monitoring and mic preamps, USB audio interface, sophisticated control surface with custom-configurable motorized faders, metering, instant switching among up to three different DAWs, and bundled Duende Native plug-ins. But perhaps the most important feature doesn''t show up on a spreadsheet: ergonomics. If you were raised in an “in the box” world, Nucleus provides the hands-on experience that was an essential part of the studio gestalt before zeroes and ones ruled recording.
SSL Nucleus product page
EVIDENCE OF INTELLIGENT LIFE ON EARTH
This clever instrument gives beatmeisters an amazingly complete toolbox
When FXpansion decides to do something, they do it right—from the superb sound of their DCAM synths to the BFD drums that revolutionized electronic drum plug-ins to the wrappers that let frustrated DAWmeisters take advantage of “non-supported” plug-ins. With Geist, FXpansion does it again by providing a total “workstation” for beats, sampling, and live performance that recalls Guru colliding with both Ableton Live and a serious sound library. Versatility separates Geist from the pack: Whether you want to use it as a tone module, pattern creator, live performance instrument, or even a song-construction kit, you''re covered.
FXpansion Geist product page
THE BIGGEST DRUM INNOVATION IN 400 YEARS
Zildjian Gen16 AE
As drummers go more high tech, Zildjian is giving them 21st-century cymbals
You don''t like trigger pads, but you like being able to get different sampled sounds. You like real cymbals, but a lot of times they''re way too loud. Gen16 AE tackles both problems by offering real cymbals, but re-designed for lower volume and with embedded miking for processing and triggering. Combine them with the Cymbal Controller, and you have a zillion (or is that a zildjion?) different cymbal sounds without having to carry around a bag of cymbals, and Zildjian is also supporting the system with additional sounds. So why do they play like real cymbals? Because they are.
Zildjian Gen16 AE product page
AN ACOUSTIC P.A. IN COMBO CLOTHING
Fishman Loudbox Artist
It''s a box, it''s loud, it''s loaded with features, and it will fill the room
We''re favorably disposed towards products that simplify the lives of gigging musicians, so cue the Loudbox Artist—it''s portable, fits on today''s down-sized stages, and has everything a solo performer needs. You''ll find inputs for instrument and mic, a bunch o'' processors, inputs for backup-track portable players when you feel like cheating, feedback control, and DI out. And if you didn''t think it was possible to stuff 120W of bi-amplified power into a box that weighs 25.5 pounds, think again. Instrument in one hand, Loudbox Artist in the other—doesn''t get much simpler than that.
Fishman Loudbox Artist product page
MIXERS CAN BE POWERFUL AND CUTE
The junior member of the StudioLive Series packs incredible functionality into a small, affordable mixer for studio or stage
The PreSonus StudioLive series has been extremely successful, which gives a good idea of what happens when the inmates are allowed to run the asylum. Well, it seems someone at PreSonus wanted a mixer with a smaller footprint, but still had the Fat Channel, could serve as a FireWire audio interface, and do the job for live performance but be just as home in a smaller studio. Oh, and have 130 processors. And remote-control software. And MIDI. And recall, and live capture software, and . . . well, you get the idea; they get an Editors'' Choice Award.
PreSonus 16.0.2 product page
GIGGING IS HARD ENOUGH; SIMPLIFY MY SETUP
Going modular with P.A.s means easier load-ins and happier backs
With all the fine portable P.A.s on the market, HK had to do something different, and they did—create a scalable line array for bands, DJs, and solo performers with just six matched elements. Part of the coolness is their online configurator, where you specify the type of application and audience size, and HK recommends a particular system configuration. Beyond its flexibility, HK Elements is a chiropractor''s nightmare—the system is lightweight, easy to set up and tear down, and highly transportable. While it isn''t inexpensive, in today''s recessionary times, a system that lets you expand as your finances permit is a bonus.
HK Elements product page
SO THAT''S WHAT COAT POCKETS ARE FOR
TIE: TASCAM DR-40 and Roland R-26
Field recording is big, and these two are two of the best
We really didn''t want any ties, but what other choice is there when two products fall into the same category yet offer differing visions of excellence? With the DR-40, TASCAM nailed the affordable, multitrack recorder for musicians by including all of the Important Stuff: four tracks, variable speed, long battery life, small size, lower-level “safety track” recording, built-in reverb, and a truly affordable price. The larger R-26 costs considerably more, but hits the high end of field recording, offering up to three stereo tracks for ambient and surround recording, two stereo mic types (omni and directional), and a navigation touchscreen that''s both large and friendly. It''s also compatible with Roland''s CS-10EM binaural mics/earphones package. ''Nuff said. Tie granted.
TASCAM DR-40 product page
Roland R-26 product page
THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF SIGNAL FLOW
And not just any Swiss Army Knife, but the one with a corkscrew and scissors
If the Keymaster was a person, it would be the guy working in the cubicle toward the back of the office, making sure everything gets done, never raising his voice, and never really noticed . . . until he takes a week off and the entire place falls apart. The Keymaster bypasses, crossfades, matches impedances, loops pedals in series or parallel, performs blending transitions between effects, can re-amp, and even includes a gourmet espresso maker. Oh wait . . . it doesn''t have an espresso maker. Well, it gets the award anyway.
Pigtronix Keymaster product page
MOST BADASS INTERFACE
MOTU 828 mk3 Hybrid
In the audio interface wars, the 828 mk3 brings on the heavy artillery
Given the 4,553,600 audio interfaces out there, this wasn''t an easy choice. But in a world where more and more interfaces are being designed for budget studios, this is the interface you bring out when the children have left the room. If the ten basic channels aren''t enough, you''ll appreciate the 16 channels of ADAT I/O—as well as the FireWire/USB hybrid approach, especially if your new laptop forgot that FireWire exists. Add the above-average DSP, built-in diagnostic tools, overload protection on the mic/guitar inputs, and other goodies—all at a surprising price—and the end result is an Editors'' Choice Award.
MOTU 828 mk3 Hybrid product page
EXTREME DAW MAKEOVER
TIE: Cubase 6 and Sonar X1
What do you do with two of the longest-running DAWs in the business? Give them a complete makeover
After granting a tie for field recorders, we figured there wouldn''t be any more—but then we hit the “Extreme DAW Makeover” category. A ground-up switcheroo of a popular program, Sonar X1 was the obvious choice; although the upgrade alienated at first, over time (and with the help of updates to tighten some loose ends), the wisdom of the design choices became clear. But then there was Cubase, which deserves an award if for no other reason than for the continual re-invention that keeps one of the original DAWs fresh, new, and creative. With Cubase 6, although the signature feature is VST Expression 2 (yes, Steinberg can even re-invent MIDI), the workflow improvements have made this venerable program far less opaque.
Cubase 6 product page
Sonar X1 product page
PLAYS NICE WITH OTHERS
Pro Tools 9
Now that Pro Tools works with just about any interface, you can say goodbye to the world''s biggest dongle
With both Pro Tools 9 and 10 released within our eligibility guidelines, which to choose? Easy: Pro Tools 10 was an update, but Pro Tools 9 was an event—and cutting Pro Tools free from Avid interfaces put it at the leading edge of the democracy movement that garnered so many headlines in 2011. Sure, some of the features were about catch-up (who didn''t have delay compensation?), but by opening up Pro Tools to the world, Avid sent a clear signal that it wants to be a player on a much bigger stage—by playing nice with others.
Pro Tools 9 product page
TOO DARN USEFUL NOT TO GET AN AWARD
Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1
Go for the gain, don''t blow up your ribbon mic, and change the impedance—we like it
You get the impression that this is one of those products where someone had a “Why doesn''t someone make something that . . .?” moment, and upon realizing no one did, made it himself. The idea is simple: a phantom-powered preamp that''s ideal for giving extra oomph to ribbon mics, while blocking potentially dangerous phantom power from hitting the ribbon. Sure, it''s a simple idea . . . but it''s not a simplistic one. And it''s a very useful one at that.
Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Cl-1 product page
EXCELLENCE IN DIGITAL DIVEBOMBING
Your tuning stays perfect—and you don''t even have to drill any holes
Realtime, polyphonic pitch-shifting never sounded so good on guitar—the Bomber is like having a vibrato tailpiece on a pedal, except that your strings don''t break, they stay in tune when you shift the pitch, and you don''t ever have to take your fingers off them. Sure, the dive-bombing function is outrageous, and you can get amazingly cool steel guitar-type sounds, but the really big deal here is the quality of the sound—the designers apparently checked Darth Vader and the Munchkins at the door. Still not convinced? It even works on vintage electric pianos and many other pitch-shift-challenged instruments.
Morpheus Bomber product page
WAY C-C-C-COOL PLUG-IN
iZotope Stutter Edit
This amazingly creative app offers entirely new vistas for DJs and groove fans
We have enough plug-ins for Pultec emulations, delays, reverbs, and compressors. Really, we do. But we don''t have one of these, and while Stutter Edit is pretty specialized, it''s also extremely creative both in terms of its design and what it can do for your music. Basically, it''s a realtime sampler that chops, slices, dices, cuts, repeats, loops, and otherwise messes with phrases—anything can become an evolving, fluid rhythmic component. And, it does all this with an interface that initially looks like a 747''s cockpit, but is actually easy to figure out. Creative thinking should be rewarded—so we did.
iZotope Stutter Edit product page