One of the wonderful — and at the same time, one of the mostchallenging — aspects of the Western political and economicsystem is that its citizens can and often must make choices. Everyyear, the EM editors take advantage of this freedom of choice to honorthe finest new products we've checked out in the past twelve months.And every year, we struggle to choose the winners, not because theeditors fight about it — we're all friends here, and besides,nobody wants to take on Steve O and his German shepherd — butbecause we have so many hard choices among excellent products.
The number of awards varies slightly each year because we add newcategories and drop or revise old ones, reflecting the creation of newproduct types and the presence or absence of outstanding candidates inexisting categories. Last year, for example, we added a DSP Cardscategory because of hot new cards; this year, that morphed into the DSPHosts category because specialized host processors are now available inexternal boxes as well as on PCI cards. We did not give an award formonitor speakers last year, but the category is back this year becausewe had worthy candidates.
In the end, we gave awards to 27 winners in 26 categories. We hadone tie (Ancillary Software), which we decided not to resolve becausethe two winners were equally deserving and were radically differentfrom each other.
All award-winning products have been field-tested by EM's editorsand a select group of top authors. We also solicited opinions from theeditors of sister publications Mix and Remix. The finalselections were made by our own technical editors: Steve O, MikeLevine, Dennis Miller, Gino Robair, David Rubin, and Geary Yelton. Allaward-winning products have already been covered in reviews or featuresor are far enough along in the review process that we feel confidentabout our conclusions (see the sidebar “The Award Winners inReview” on p. 64).
To be eligible for an Editors' Choice award, products must haveshipped between October 1, 2002, and October 1, 2003, when we beganediting our January issue. We allow some slack for products thatshipped so close to the previous year's deadline that it was notpossible for us to test them in time for the 2003 awards. (This was thecase with our 2004 Hybrid DAW Control Surface/Audio Interface winner,for instance.) We do not allow such leeway if we believe a manufacturercould have supplied a review unit in time but intentionally delayedsending it.
Keep in mind that these are our picks among the new products we haveactually tested; we cannot consider the many products we never got tocheck out, and we do not consider older products. We give an award to asoftware upgrade only if we think it offers major and significantimprovements over the previous version.
And now, without further ado, please join us in congratulating thewinners of the 12th annual EM Editors' Choice awards!
IBP Analog Phase Alignment Tool ($550)
Little Labs has a remarkable track record in creating elegantsolutions to common recording problems. Last year it won an Editors'Choice award for the PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 signal splitter androuter. This time, Little Labs is in the winner's circle for its IBPAnalog Phase Alignment Tool.
IBP stands for In Between Phase, an indication of what this devicehas to offer. Although most mixers and preamps have a phase-reverseswitch, a simple 180-degree change in a signal's polarity may be morephase change than you need in a particular situation. The IBP gives you0 to 180 degrees of continuous control over a mono signal. This allowsyou to fine-tune the phase relationship between a pair of drum mics ora miked guitar amp and a DI signal. The result of such precise controlcan be as subtle as an increase in presence or as obvious as highergain and an improved transient response. The IBP tackles the jobwithout introducing coloration, noise, or gain reduction.
Other useful features include phase-invert and ground-lift switches,and the Phase Center Lo/Hi button, which optimizes the unit forwide-bandwidth or low-frequency signals. The IBP also provides afront-panel DI input and rear-panel XLR and ¼-inch ins and outsfor reamping line-level signals.
Once again, Little Labs has come to the rescue with a product thatis clearly a winner.
FXPANSION AUDIO UK
VST to AudioUnit Adapter 1.0 (Mac, $75)
MacCsound 1.0 (Mac, donationware)
All musicians have bread-and-butter tools that they rely on everyday, but other tools, used to do special jobs, can be equallyimportant. This year, two such occasional-use tools really grabbed ourattention, and although they are intended for very different purposes,both fill important roles.
FXpansion's VST to AudioUnit Adapter converts VST plug-ins to AppleOS X's Audio Units format, expanding the world of VST effects andinstruments on the Mac platform. Logic Audio 6 and Digital Performer 4users will be especially delighted by the ease with which they can addnew plug-ins to their audio arsenals.
Converting VST plug-ins to Audio Units is a one-time operation: justcopy all your plug-ins to a new folder and tell VST-AU Adapter where tofind them, and the program will convert them in a single pass. There'sno added latency when using converted plug-ins, and VST-AU Adapter hasbeen tested with a large number of plug-ins from a variety ofmanufacturers, so you can expect near-universal compatibility. If youdo find a plug-in that is problematic, you can bet that Angus Hewitt,principal developer for FXpansion and one of the hardest-working men inshow business, will help set things straight.
Our second winner is something altogether different. Barry Vercoe'sCsound is by far the most powerful sound-synthesis programming languageon the planet, but few people have the time and patience to type lineafter line of note statements to compose their next masterpiece. MattIngalls's MacCsound puts a graphical front-end on Csound and lets youuse sliders, knobs, and a variety of other widgets to control yourCsound Instruments in real time.
Using MacCsound, you can build custom interfaces for one or even anentire set of Instruments. Need a bunch of buttons for choosing a tablefor your oscillators? That's no problem. How about a row of knobs tocontrol the various parameters of an FM synth? Easily done. Theincluded text editor lets you get at the code beneath your GUIs, andyou can run any of the Csound analysis utilities directly within theMacCsound interface, not to mention compile and play back all of yourdesigns. You can also put Instrument parameters under real-time MIDIcontrol and process audio with the various built-in effects.
If you're still using Csound the old-fashioned way, you're in for avery pleasant surprise. Check out MacCsound to see what a moderninterface can do for the mother of all sound-design tools.
Samplitude 7.11 (Win, $1,250)
A good audio-editing application lies at the heart of mostcomputer-based studios, and this year we looked at several popularstereo and multitrack audio-editing programs. In the end we agreed thatSamplitude Professional 7.11 clearly stood out for its long list ofnoteworthy improvements and its powerful new audio- and video-editingtools.
Version 7 of Samplitude has a more refined user interface and a newaudio engine that supports 24-bit, 192 kHz recording and editing. Italso offers 5.1-surround mixing and supports direct hosting of VSTinstruments and effects, including full parameter automation. Topreserve the highest quality when reducing resolutions for CD burning,Samplitude now includes POW-r Consortium's POW-r dithering algorithm.And speaking of CD burning, Samplitude lets you burn CDs directly fromthe program, applying real-time effects, plug-ins, and crossfades onthe fly — a feature that's pretty amazing.
Several of Samplitude's new tools really caught our attention. Forexample, the program now includes a fully implemented vocoder with itsown FFT filter for editing the signal. The new Room Simulator lets youapply real-time, impulse-response-based reverb effects to your tracksand includes a 450 MB library of impulse responses for a variety ofacoustic spaces. You can even edit the reverb parameters in real timeas the sound plays.
We also loved Samplitude's new Amp Simulator effect for processingguitar sounds. It models an assortment of vintage British and Americanguitar amps, including five different amp models and ten separateloudspeaker models that you can freely mix and match.
Samplitude's many other new offerings include greatly expanded MIDIcapabilities; excellent built-in effects; and Video deLuxe 2.0, afull-featured video-recording, -editing, and -authoring suite; andmore. As you can see, this popular do-it-all program does even morethan it did before — and that's saying a lot.
DAW Control Surface/AudioInterface
Digi 002 (Mac/Win, $2,495)
As audio products combine more features and technologies into onedevice, it's nice to find a jack-of-all-trades product that is a masterof many. Such is the Digidesign Digi 002, which puts a control surface,a FireWire audio and MIDI interface, and a standalone digital mixer inone unit. Add to that the inclusion of Pro Tools LE (Mac/Win) and abundle of plug-ins and you have a powerful DAW and controller capableof 24-bit, 96 kHz recording right out of the box. To sweeten the dealfurther, Pro Tools LE version 6.1.1 has CoreAudio, ASIO, and WAVdrivers, allowing you to use the Digi 002 as an interface for yourfavorite third-party software.
The Digi 002 offers 14 analog inputs: 4 phantom-powered XLR jacks, 4balanced ¼-inch jacks operating at +4 dBu, 4 balanced ¼-inchjacks that operate at +4 dBu or — 10 dBV, and 2 unbalanced RCAjacks for — 10 dBV signals. Digital I/O includes RCA S/PDIF jacksas well as optical jacks that are configurable as 8-channel ADATLightpipe or 2-channel S/PDIF ports. With all that and two FireWireports, one MIDI Input, and two MIDI Outs, the Digi 002 offers quite acomplement of connectivity.
The Digi 002 offers an ergonomic and intuitive control surface forPro Tools LE, with eight touch-sensitive faders and convenientlylocated transport and navigational controls. The interface alsoincludes buttons dedicated to everyday tasks, such as Loop Record,Nudge, and Zoom.
Away from the computer, the Digi 002 can be used as a standalone8×4×2 digital mixer. It includes built-in effects such as EQ,delay, reverb, and dynamics processing, and you can save and recallsnapshots of your favorite settings.
It's always nice to find a product that serves several functionswell. For the musician whose musical life rotates between desktop,laptop, and live performances, Digidesign has given us a clear winnerwith the Digi 002.
Digital Audio Sequencer/MIDISequencer
MARK OF THE UNICORN
Digital Performer 4.1 (Mac, $795)
As in previous years, the voting in the digital-audio/MIDI-sequencercategory was an emotional roller coaster: we laughed, we cried, we sataround the campfire singing “Kumbaya,” and finally we justslugged it out to see which product would win. Remember, with upgrades,we are judging the quality and extent of the upgrade, not just theoverall program. This was not an easy decision to reach.
Emagic Logic 5.5 garnered support for its versatile and customizablearchitecture, solid cross-platform performance, and powerfulmusic-production capabilities. But when the dust cleared, MOTU'sDigital Performer 4.1 edged out the competition by virtue of itselegant and finely crafted new user interface, its intuitive design,and its nearly bottomless feature set.
With version 4.1, Digital Performer has fully embraced Mac OS X,providing extensive support for CoreAudio and CoreMIDI and at lastrelegating OMS and FreeMIDI to the dustbin of history. DigitalPerformer offers easy remapping from FreeMIDI to CoreMIDI, and it nowsupports OS X's MIDI-device patch-lists feature. In fact, all of FreeMIDI's hundreds of patch lists have already been ported to OS X.
Digital Performer's timing accuracy remains impressive, thanks toits support of OS X's MIDI Time Stamping feature. Version 4.1 alsoboasts a number of helpful enhancements, including menu improvements,support for multiple document templates, a new input/output section oneach mixer channel, a greatly improved QuickScribe notation window, andthe program's new, resource-saving Freeze Tracks command.
Arguably the biggest news, however, is MOTU's ever-expanding supportfor other formats and platforms. For example, Digital Performer fullysupports ReWire 2.0 (now with direct MIDI I/O) and also supports AudioUnits as well as its own MAS plug-ins. What's more, in addition to itsearlier OMF support, Digital Performer supports Digidesign hardwarerunning under DAE. In other words, you can now use Digital Performer asa front end for Pro Tools|HD and other TDM-based systems. The list ofimprovements, both large and small, goes on much longer, but the bottomline is that Digital Performer is better than ever, and that's no smallfeat for this perennial award winner.
Digital Audio Workstation/AudioInterface
MARK OF THE UNICORN
828mkII (Mac/Win, $795)
FireWire audio interfaces have become integral parts of manypersonal studios, offering high-quality audio, flexible I/O, and easeof setup. Although plenty of these products were introduced in 2003, wesingled out the MOTU 828mkII for this award because of its impressivecombination of performance, features, and value.
The 828mkII (which is compatible with both Mac and Windows) is anupgraded version of the MOTU 828, which won the Editor's Choice awardin 2002. The new unit offers significant additions and improvements,including 24-bit, 96 kHz audio; front-panel mic-instrument inputs(featuring Trim controls and switchable phantom power) on NeutrikXLR/TRS combo jacks; and MOTU's CueMix DSP system, which allows fornear-zero-latency monitoring. There's also an upgraded front-paneldisplay, consisting of a backlit LCD and an array of LEDs, that makesit easy to keep track of the unit's many functions.
The 828mkII's 8-bus mixing section allows control of parameters likevolume, pan, mute, and solo, just like on a conventional console.Although the mixing features can all be accessed from the front panel(meaning you can use the 828mkII as a standalone unit), some mightprefer to use the included CueMix Console software (Mac/Win), whichgives you onscreen control of the mixing functions.
I/O on the 828mkII is impressive. You get up to 20 simultaneousinputs and 22 outputs. Connections include the aforementioned Neutrikcombo jacks, eight TRS inputs and outputs, two TRS Main outputs, eightchannels of ADAT optical I/O, and two channels of S/PDIF I/O. Otherfeatures include word-clock in and out, ADAT sync in, and even a 1-In,1-Out MIDI interface. Mac users also get MOTU's AudioDesk software,which is essentially the audio-recording section of the company'saward-winning Digital Performer software. Add it all up, and you haveanother winner for MOTU.
Software that imitates musical instruments is nothing new. Nor isthe idea of a chameleon-like hardware device that assumes a newpersonality depending on the software you load into it; in essence,that's what a personal computer does. Just in the last year or so, afew manufacturers have introduced shape-shifting DSP engines that canbe programmed to perform various types of synthesis and effectsprocessing. Roland's implementation of those ideas is a DSP host systemhoused in a single-rackspace module and dubbed the VariOS.
The VariOS models whatever instrument its software tells it to.Connecting it to your computer with a USB cable gives you access tovirtual control panels and to a dedicated graphical audio editor and6-track sequencer called V-Producer (Mac/Win). By performing theheavy-duty number-crunching, the VariOS frees your computer's processorfor other music-production tasks. For stage use, you can also cut theconnection and use the VariOS as a standalone synth and sampler.
The VariOS generates sound using VariPhrase sampling and two typesof analog-synthesis modeling. Its processor analyzes pitch, time, andformant data and encodes it in a proprietary format that allows it tomanipulate samples as only VariPhrase can. That makes it possible, forexample, to stretch a single sample up or down in pitch much fartherthan normal without noticeable artifacts. VariPhrase handles pitchshifting, beat slicing, and time stretching in real time.
A polyphonic synth model called VariOS-8 re-creates the Roland Junoand Jupiter series. On your computer screen, the software looks andoperates much like a Jupiter-8, complete with oscillators, filter, EGs,and effects processing. VariOS 303 is a monophonic model thatduplicates the TB-303 Bass Line, a combination synth and 16-stepsequencer that was largely ignored in its time but is now in hugedemand. VariOS-8 and VariOS 303 both sound terrific.
In the VariOS, Roland has made a rackmount DSP engine that not onlyworks as an advanced VariPhase-based sampler but also resurrects analogsynthesizers of the past — and according to Roland, we ain't seennothing yet. That makes it one of the most promising devices of itskind for electronic-music production. We eagerly anticipate seeing andhearing the VariOS's continuing development as a versatile platform forsound design.
Roland's MicroComposer (MC) series began over a quarter-century agoand continues to thrive in the form of groove-oriented musicworkstations. Every year, groove boxes grow more sophisticated, moreeconomical, and more versatile. The current state-of-the-art isembodied in the MC-909, Roland's flagship Sampling Groovebox. Aimedsquarely at R&B, techno, and hip-hop styles, the MC-909 offers animpressive assortment of musician-friendly features.
At its heart, the MC-909 is a 64-note XV-series synthesizer with theadded advantages of traditional and VariPhrase sampling. You can expandits 16 MB of sample RAM to 272 MB and can store your samples onSmartMedia cards. An interactive 16-track phrase-based sequencerprovides hundreds of first-rate factory patterns. Full-featured effectsinclude reverb, compression, EQ, and two multi-effects processors. Aversatile arpeggiator, an onboard mixer, and a USB interface completethe package.
It's obvious that years of experience went into the user-interfacedesign. A large display and lots of knobs, buttons, and sliders presenta logical layout with plenty of visual feedback and easy access tohundreds of parameters. For musical expression onstage and in thestudio, the MC-909 is endowed with abundant real-time controllers,including 16 Velocity-sensitive pads, twin D Beam infrared proximitycontrollers, and a slider that emulates a turntable by allowing you topush and pull pitch and tempo. With the MC-909, you can meticulouslyassemble your songs, tweak sounds in the studio, and then alter yourmix and rearrange patterns in live performance without pausingplayback.
The world of groove boxes offers plenty of choices to fit anyone'spocketbook. But when we considered the MC-909's sound, flexibility,portability, and cost-to-performance ratio, we discovered that it isnothing short of astounding and an obvious Editors' Choice.
DEVINE MACHINE SOFTWARE
Devine Machine 1.0 (Win, $249)
This is one you have to see to believe: looping software that is sofar out of the box, you'll have to rethink everything you know aboutworking with loops to use it. But that's not a bad thing. In fact,you'll find more options for manipulating loops with Devine Machinethan with almost any other software on the market. And once you getyour head around the x-y graphs that are used to control everyaspect of your loops, you'll be composing music that would be nearlyimpossible to create using more-familiar tools.
Devine Machine can play back up to eight mono or stereo, 16- or32-bit loops simultaneously and lets you manipulate the order of loopslices in real time. You can adjust a variety of parameters —pitch, pan, delay level, and more — for each loop as the loopplays back, and you can save presets containing all the currentsettings at any point.
But that's only half the fun, because while up to eight loops areplaying, you can trigger another 24 loops using a MIDI keyboard and candetermine whether the new loops will replace or sound along with theoriginal 8. Sure, you'll need a powerful computer to take advantage ofall these options, but Devine Machine is up to the task if you are.
Colorful graphics, a good manual, and excellent sound quality roundout this unusual application. Though the unusual interface maytemporarily have you wondering “Where do I find all the goodstuff?” a few hours with Devine Machine will bring your loopsinto entirely new realms.
AUDIO ENGINEERING ASSOCIATES
In some of the Editor's Choice categories this year, there wereclose votes and long debates between editors before a winner wasdeclared. Not in this category, however, because for microphonescosting more than $600, the AEA R84 was a “slam dunk.”
Why all the excitement about this product? The figure-8 R84 is anexcellent-sounding ribbon mic that lists for $1,000, a very reasonableprice in the ribbon world. Although the R84 uses the same long,low-tension ribbon as its sibling the R44C (which is a reproduction ofthe classic RCA 44), the R84 is an original design, not a replica. TheR84 is also surprisingly light, tipping the scales at only 1.75pounds.
Our reviewer was extremely impressed with this mic, describing itstone as “gorgeous.” He tried it on a variety of sources,including guitar amps, drums, sopranino saxophone, bass clarinet, andtrumpet, and he used it as both a close mic and a room mic. In almostevery instance, the R84 produced excellent results. And thanks to themic's surprisingly good (for a ribbon) high-end response, it alsoperformed admirably on vocals.
Our reviewer also tested the R84 against several other well-known(and in some cases much more expensive) ribbon mics, and the AEA micheld its own quite nicely, exhibiting a big sound, lots of low-endpunch, and plenty of high-end clarity. Wes Dooley and the other folksat AEA get a well-deserved round of applause (and, of course, theaward) for the R84.
A number of notable mics costing less than $600 shipped in 2003,including Blue's Ball phantom-powered dynamic and Audix's D6 kick-drummic. But we chose the large-diaphragm, fixed-cardioid Røde NT1-Abecause it represents an amazing value.
The NT1-A didn't take us entirely by surprise: Røde has builtits reputation by making high-quality, affordable microphones. But evenwith the company's history of success in that area, the NT1-A isperhaps Røde's most outstanding achievement from aprice-performance standpoint.
Although it's an offshoot of the NT1, the NT1-A is completelyredesigned on the inside and benefits from new manufacturing processes.One of the mic's most astonishing attributes is its incredibly quietoperation: it has a self-noise spec of 5 dBa, one of the lowest for anymic anywhere. Considering the NT1-A's $349 list price, that spec iseven more remarkable.
But specs only tell part of the story. Ultimately the way to judge amic is by its sound, and our reviewer was knocked out by the NT1-A'ssonic performance. From acoustic guitars to guitar amplifiers to vocalsto percussion, the NT1-A excelled in every application for which it wastested, and it handled high-SPL sources without a problem. Anyoneseeking an affordable large-diaphragm condenser for their studio shouldnot fail to listen to the versatile NT1-A.
ProDesk 2.1 ($1,195)
Several monitor systems were in the running in the close-fieldcategory, including Alesis's budget-priced ProActive 5.1-surroundsystem. But when pressed to choose an overall winner — andfactoring in both price and quality — we gave the nod to BlueSky's ProDesk 2.1 system.
The ProDesk 2.1 combines a pair of biamplified SAT 5 satellitespeakers — each featuring a 5¼-inch woofer, a ¾-inchtweeter, and dual 60W (into 4ž) power amps — with the SUB 8,a 100W (into 4ž) powered subwoofer. The crossover is configured sothat frequency material above 80 Hz goes to the satellites, whileeverything in the 20 to 80 Hz range is routed to the sub.
Each SAT 5 speaker is equipped with an input-level control on therear panel that's calibrated in 3 dB steps. An optional volume-controlunit called the Functional Controller ($100) provides globalattenuation for the system, which, as Blue Sky points out, is helpfulwhen using the speakers with DAW systems that lack a master volumecontrol.
Our reviewer found that the ProDesk 2.1 offered tight bass response,very good transient response, and a wide sound field. He noted that thesubwoofer is “able to reproduce the bone-rattling frequenciesbelow 30 Hz at a very respectable level without breaking up or soundingstrained.” Another important observation was that the system'ssound remained consistent at different volume levels, an attribute thatfacilitates accurate mixing.
We were pleased that Blue Sky — a manufacturer known for itspro-audio products — was able to produce a system priced for thepersonal-studio market that maintained the company's accustomed levelof quality.
Most Innovative Product(hardware)
To get our nod for most innovative product, a manufacturer needs toput forth a product that's not only original, but that captures ourimaginations, as well. With the introduction of the Variax, Line 6 didjust that. The Variax is the first digital-modeling guitar, offering 25convincing emulations of classic electrics and acoustics, as well asseveral other specialized instruments, including dobro, banjo, and evenan electric sitar. What's even more impressive is that the Variaxis a guitar, so there are no timing delays or glitchy notes likeon a guitar synth. The feel is 100 percent authentic.
Although the Variax appears to have no pickups, it's actuallyequipped with piezo pickups embedded in the bridge. These translate thevibrations for each individual string into electrical signals, whichare then routed separately into the guitar's onboard digital processor,where the modeling algorithms are brought to bear. The user choosessounds using a combination of the Model Select knob and theStrat-style, five-position pickup-selector switch. For some of themodeled guitars (such as the '59 Strat models), that switch functionsidentically to the one on the original guitar.
Among the other vintage guitars modeled by the Variax are a '60Fender Telecaster Custom, a '58 Gibson Les Paul Standard, a '61 GibsonES-335, a '56 Gretsch Silver Jet, a '68 Rickenbacker 360-12 12-string,and a '59 Martin D28. Although the Variax would likely come in secondin a head-to-head comparison with any of these instruments, it nailsthe essence of their tones (in almost every case) veryconvincingly.
The Variax is a bonanza for recording guitarists, delivering aninstant arsenal of classic tones for the price of a single instrument.For that feat alone, Line 6 deserves an award.
Most Innovative Product(software)
Cube 1.01 (Mac/Win, $249)
As you might imagine, we see a lot of cool software at EM.But every once in a while, something really stands out that gets ourtotal attention. Such is the case with this year's most innovativesoftware, VirSyn's Cube additive synthesizer.
If you're not up on Fourier's theories of sound, we'll summarize bysaying that all complex sounds can be broken down into sine-wavecomponents. So if you were given, say, hundreds of sine-waveoscillators to work with, you could, in theory, create any sound fromscratch. That's the basic idea with Cube, and it makes the process aseasy as we've ever seen.
Cube's interface provides an editing window for each of the four“sound sources” that make up a patch. Rather than have youcontrol the amplitude and frequency of every individual partial, whichcan be tedious and futile work, Cube combines the upper harmonics intogroups for easy manipulation (higher partials are grouped inever-larger sets). You can draw envelopes for a variety of parameterswhile a sound plays, and the sound will update in real time; you canalso map MIDI controllers to nearly any of the numerous parameters of apatch.
Though the partials of a Cube sound are harmonic by default, aunique Stretch feature lets you change the ratios of the partials tothe fundamental. This opens up a vast realm of nonpitched timbres. Andworking with the Filter parameter, which can be varied over time, addsyet another significant domain for sonic explorations.
Cube runs both standalone and as a VST plug-in and is 8-partmultitimbral. Though the manual is not as comprehensive as it might be,that's a minor quibble — because it's incredibly easy to getamazing sounds from this unique software synth.
RNP8380 Really Nice Preamp ($499)
Although tube warmth is still in vogue in some circles, manyrecordists simply want as clean and transparent a preamp as can be hadfor as little money as possible. This year, two preamps knocked us outwith their excellent sound quality. Coming in a close second was theGrace Design Lunatec V3, an outstanding 2-channel preamp and A/Dconverter designed for field use and costing $1,695. However, in termsof sound and price, the clear winner was the FMR Audio RNP8380Really Nice Preamp.
With a strictly utilitarian look and feature set, the diminutiveRNP8030 offers two channels of high-quality, Class-A amplification in aportable, ⅓U box. The I/O consists of two rear-panel mic inputs,a pair of front-panel instrument inputs, and two balanced ¼-inchoutputs. Remarkably, the RNP8030 includes a rear-panel insert for eachchannel, so you can add an outboard processor (such as FMR Audio'sgreat-sounding 2-channel RNC1773 Really Nice Compressor) into thesignal path. An independent phase-reverse switch, a +48V phantom-powerswitch, and a gain display are included for each channel.
The RNP8030 provides a respectable 66 dB of gain, for a maximumoutput of +28 dBu. The stepped gain controls offer 6 dB per step,making it easy to match levels between channels.
Most important, the RNP8030 sounds great. Every EM editor whohas used it has been impressed by its balanced low end, its high-endclarity, and its resolution, even when comparing it to preamps costingtwice as much. Whether for a mobile-recording rig or for studio use, wethink the RNP8030 is an excellent choice for a preamp in terms of priceand performance.
VIENNA SYMPHONIC LIBRARY
Vienna Symphonic Library Pro Edition (Giga, $5,490)
Sample users were treated this year to several outstandinglibraries, including Big Fish Audio's John Cage Prepared Piano,Dan Dean's Brass Ensembles, and Sonic Implants' SymphonicString Collection. But the Vienna Symphonic Library generated themost enthusiasm for its attention to detail and its ambitiousscope.
Several of the editors were especially pleased by this library'ssound quality, and everyone agreed that it was an impressiveundertaking. The Pro Edition of the library consists of 380,000samples, producing 240 GB of data. The original 24-bit, 96 kHzrecordings were made on a specially constructed, ultraquiet recordingstage near Vienna that was specifically optimized for samplingsessions.
The mammoth collection of multisamples includes a full range ofensemble and solo strings, brass, woodwinds, and a large (31 GB)percussion section. Several unusual instruments, such as contrabasstrombone, Wagner tuba, and glass harmonica, are included in thecollection along with a diverse assortment of exotic percussioninstruments from brake disc and car horn to finger bells and PekingOpera gong.
When we examined the Vienna Symphonic's string section in May, wefound that it compared well to the best of the high-end stringlibraries. Its many articulations and bowing techniques — fromdétaché and spiccato to tremolos and glissandi — offerdesktop orchestrators the means to create lifelike string-ensembleparts. Moreover, Vienna Symphonic Library includes a powerful suite ofperformance utilities that adds real-time expressiveness and moreauthenticity to many of the patches. True legato passages (withnote-transition samples), convincing repetitions (in every instrumentcategory), and user-definable alternation patterns are available toenhance the library's sense of realism.
Vienna Symphonic Library's sheer size, great sound quality,thoughtful organization, future expandability, and high-end featuresmake it a sample collection that's hard to beat.
Groove Agent (Mac/Win, $249.99)
This year we had several intriguing sample-player programs toconsider for an award, but we were finally won over by Groove Agent'sunbeatable combination of versatility and user-friendliness. GrooveAgent is Steinberg's cross-platform drum-machine-on-steroids VSTiplug-in, and when we looked beyond its cleverly designed “frontpanel,” we discovered an amazing array of rhythm-producingcapabilities.
Unlike prefab drum-loop libraries, Groove Agent generates itspatterns by triggering individual 24-bit drum sa mples from its owninternal MIDI tracks. The well-recorded playing is nicely performed,and best of all, you can easily change the tempo, substitute individualdrum sounds, retune instruments, or change the volume of sounds in realtime. Love a particular drum pattern but hate the snare? Just swap itout! You can even replace individual sounds by triggering samples fromexternal devices or record a whole Groove Agent rhythm track into yourMIDI sequencer for further editing. It's not only entertaining, it'ssurprisingly powerful.
Groove Agent's Timeline slider lets you choose from more than 50wide-ranging musical styles listed chronologically from the 1950s tothe present. The plug-in offers four different drum kits along withseveral percussion instruments and electronic drum sounds. Once you'veselected a style and tempo, the fun really begins. You can choose from25 variations arranged in order of increasing complexity or insert anyof 25 fills for that style. You can also apply a compressor or reverbto your track and use the Shuffle and Humanize controls to change thefeel. With Groove Agent's four outputs, you can even add effects toindividual drum sounds.
For nonpercussionists, this virtual drummer offers an easy way tolay down a solid rhythm track in almost any style. And songwriters willlove how Groove Agent can crumble a bad case of writer's block. Song'snot working as a bossa nova? Try salsa or reggae or cha-cha or disco orswing. Musical styles, good all-around quality, versatility, features,affordability, and ease of use — you can't beat that with astick!
MARK OF THE UNICORN
MachFive (Mac, $395)
During the past five years we've seen an exciting parade of softwaresamplers enter the marketplace, but more often than not these virtualinstruments have offered limited support for different formats andplatforms. Not so with MOTU's powerful new MachFive.
This “universal” sampler plug-in includes a utility thatlets you import, audition, and load sound banks in a long list ofsampler formats, including Akai, Roland, E-mu, Kurzweil, SampleCell,EXS24, and Giga. With MachFive you can insert discs and import samplesdirectly from CDs, even if your computer ordinarily wouldn't recognizethe disc formats. Finally, a new sampler that doesn't make your oldlibraries obsolete! And that's not all: MachFive can also importsamples in WAV, Acid, AIFF, SDII, and REX formats. It comes with a 4 GBlibrary of high-quality samples and supports simple drag-and-drop fileimporting and keymapping.
We naturally expected MachFive to support MOTU's native MAS plug-informat, but we were floored to learn that it also supports VST, RTAS,HTDM, Audio Units, and (by the time you read this) DXi, allowing you tomove easily from one platform to another. What's more, MachFivesupports high-definition 24-bit, 192 kHz audio and accepts samples inchannel formats from mono to 5.1 surround, offering incredible soundquality in any studio configuration.
MachFive is also a full-featured all-in-one sound designenvironment. The user interface offers direct access to most editingfeatures, including a multichannel waveform editor, a spectrumanalyzer, a built-in tuner with graphical display, and LFO settings androutings. MachFive can even have up to 136 separate effects going atonce, and of course, you can sync the LFOs and effects parameters tothe sequence tempo.
MachFive is clearly a powerful and versatile sampler, but itsstraightforward user interface and well-designed sound-bank managementfeatures keep it relatively easy to use. Add to that its newdirect-from-disk sample-streaming capability, and MachFive isunquestionably a winner.
GRM Tools ST 2.0 (Mac/Win, $549)
Of the numerous signal-processing bundles available, few match GRMTools ST in terms of innovation and sound quality. GRM Tools ST (whichstands for Spectral Transform) includes four FFT-based real-timeeffects — Contrast, Equalize, Freq Warp, and Shift — thatoffer familiar processing chores enhanced by a powerful featureset.
To take one plug-in as an example, Contrast is a compressor/expanderplug-in that divides the components of an audio signal into threeclasses according to strength: strong, average, and weak. Once divided,you can adjust the relative levels of the signals. This allows you to,for instance, reverse the spectral characteristics of a sound byemphasizing the weakest signals and suppressing the strongest. Imaginethe possibilities this has for processing a loop, let alone mastering aCD!
The other plug-ins in the bundle are equally powerful. Equalize is a31-band graphic EQ divided into one-third-octave bands, each with acut/boost range from -96 dB to +12 dB. Freq Warp uses an x-ytransfer function to remap the frequency content of a signal. Shift isa frequency shifter that also does scalable transposition. Each plug-inis surprisingly simple to use, thanks to a well-designed, intuitiveinterface, and the overall sound quality is superb. The plug-ins areavailable in VST, RTAS, HTDM, and AudioSuite formats.
Like the older GRM Tools plug-ins, the GRM Tools ST plug-ins includethe SuperSlider function, which lets you manually interpolate between ahandful of user-defined presets. You also can automatically movebetween any of the 16 presets at a user-specified time interval. To topit off, a pair of randomizing presets is present in each plug-in,allowing you to inject some juice into a dull session. Whether you wantto subtly tweak a mix or completely obliterate a vocal part, the GRMTools ST bundle makes it fun and easy.
Vokator (Mac OS X/Win, $299)
Vocoders are all the rage these days, and this year's winner forindividual signal-processing software, Vokator, has the features you'llneed to walk the walk and — more to the point — talk thetalk. Vokator has a number of routing options: for example, you cancross a sound coming from your audio interface in real time with a fileon your hard drive or use a prerecorded sound file in conjunction witha number of static waveforms. A variety of sound-design tools enhanceyour vocoding pleasure, including a compressor, an arpeggiator, amorphing filter, and envelope presets. Presets can be stored and usedindependent of the files in which they were created, and a number ofpresets from Native Instruments' Spektral Delay are included.
Vokator includes other signature features from the NativeInstruments lineup, such as the granular sampler found in Reaktor. Italso offers a range of modulation sources for patch parameters,including a step sequencer, LFOs, and envelope followers. The powerfulGroup Mode provides two sets of up to 32 frequency bands forre-creating classic vocoder effects, and a very efficient real-timeanalysis engine keeps data flowing through the program.
Although we wish the interface were more modular — it would begreat if you could hide individual work areas you weren't using, forexample — the range and quality of the sounds you can get arereally quite astounding. We'd be hard-pressed to find anything moreworthy of the title “vocoder workstation” than this year'swinning signal-processing software.
Transient Designer 4 ($1,299)
Synthesists have long had the ability to change the attack andsustain of a sound using envelopes. However, doing this withnonsynthesized instruments is more difficult and requires the patientprogramming of gates, compressors, and limiters. Enter the SPLTransient Designer 4, a 4-channel device that sculpts the attack andrelease characteristics of a signal in ways heretofore impossible witha single device.
The Transient Designer 4 uses SPL's proprietary DifferentialEnvelope Technology to produce two distinct envelopes for the attackportion of a sound and two for the sustain portion. These envelopepairs are used to create a difference signal that controls a VCA. Theresult gives you the ability to shape transient characteristics withonly two controls for each channel: Attack and Sustain. Link switchesare provided for slaving one set of controls to another.
The Attack control allows you to boost or attenuate the attack partof a signal by 15 dB, and the Sustain control gives you 24 dB of cut orboost. With only two controls — note that there is no thresholdor ratio control — it's easy to dial in the right sound everytime. And the Transient Designer 4 lets you go from subtle to extremeprocessing in no time. Need to make a staccato guitar line more legatoor vice versa? You've come to the right place.
Our reviewer noted that the Transient Designer 4 was one of the mostrevolutionary products he has ever worked with, and he gave it topmarks for audio quality and value. When an endorsement like that comesfrom a veteran engineer, we can't help but take notice.
Minimoog Voyager ($2,995)
The Minimoog Model D was the first portable synthesizer, and itssound has endured like that of no other instrument in the electronicarsenal. Now its inventor has given us an analog monosynth for the 21stcentury: the Minimoog Voyager. The Voyager has everything itspredecessor offered and more, such as three VCOs, a fat 4-pole filter,and a 44-note keyboard, all housed in a real wooden cabinet that's ajoy to behold. New features include programmable memory, Velocitysensitivity, plenty of control-voltage inputs, and all the advantagesthat MIDI can offer.
Like the Model D, the Voyager is hand-built and solid as a tree. Iteven looks like a Minimoog; the knobs and switches are the same as theywere in 1971. The tilt-up control panel affords the same ease of use,and most of the controls are just where they've always been. But theVoyager is no mere copy; technological innovations give it anexpressivity and versatility that yesterday's Minimoog couldn't touch.Most noticeable is the Touch Surface Controller, a large 3-axis padthat responds to your fingertips so you can simultaneously controlfilter cutoff, envelope times, and LFO rate, or any three real-timeparameters you choose. With its continuously variable waveforms, stereomultimode filtering, new modulation routings, and lots of otherup-to-date features, the Voyager fulfills the needs of the modernsynthesist.
And the sound? It's a Moog, all right: all those classic timbres areyours to command at the touch of a button, from famous basses toscreaming solos. If the job calls for a monophonic analog synth, youmight have other choices, but we suggest you try this one.
Once in a great while, a musical instrument comes along that takes asuccessful new approach, as the Mellotron, the Moog Minimoog, theSequential Prophet-VS, and the E-mu Emulator each did in its day. Suchinstruments change the way that sound is produced, and hence, the waymusicians work. A fine example is the Hartmann Neuron, brainchild ofWaldorf Q developer Axel Hartmann and Prosoniq developer StephanSprenger. You can tell the Neuron is different just by looking at it:its real-time controllers include 5 joysticks, 13 backlit LCDs, and 14thumbwheels with LED ladder displays. Analog and digital connectionsare all grouped on the side panel, and all the parameters change nameswhen you change programs.
But appearance isn't what makes the Neuron extraordinary. Itsarchitecture and sound are new and different, allowing you to directlymanipulate the building blocks of physical modeling. You begin withsamples that are resynthesized and then classified from a list ofModels. Models might be anything from bowed strings and electric pianosto different types of weather. The selection of parameters depends onthe selected Model, and the front-panel controls are reconfigured foreach Model. A joystick that previously controlled string tension mightnow control room size or temperature.
Mastering the Neuron means learning a new approach to audiosynthesis. Instead of working with simple oscillators and filters, youenter a world of Resynators, Scapes, Spheres, and Silver. The Neuronmakes morphing from one sound to another effortless, and the resultscan be satisfyingly musical. You can sample and resynthesize your ownsounds, and ModelMaker software is included for those who want tocreate their own models. Tired of the same old sounds? The HartmannNeuron is a breath of fresh air.
DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS
Last year, a master synth builder returned to his roots makinghardware-based instruments. Dave Smith — whose accomplishmentsinclude the first programmable polysynth, the first popular soft synth,and an idea that grew to become MIDI — introduced the Evolver, asmall tabletop MIDI module. The Evolver combines real analog anddigital oscillators and filters, an analog-style sequencer, amatrix-style user interface, and the ability to process external audioto create sounds that no other instrument can. What makes the Evolverall the more amazing is that its retail price is less than half agrand.
The Evolver's specialty is generating sounds that evolve over time,from staccato sequences to slowly churning drones. Its sequencer, LFOs,and modulation routings are designed to produce sounds that are alwaysin motion. Every step in a sequence can sound very different from theprevious step. Like any great synth, the Evolver also provides enoughhands-on control that human interaction can always be part of thesound-generation equation.
The Evolver's synthesis architecture is unique, but its functionalcomponents and signal flow are familiar territory. Despite its smallsize, the Evolver has four audio oscillators, two filters, three EGs,four LFOs, an envelope follower, and remarkably sophisticatedmodulation routings. It's a monosynth, but its output is stereo, and itmakes the most of stereo imaging. Its cleverly designed sequencer letsyou program a monophonic synth to play four-part chords. Four 16-stepsequences can run concurrently, with each sequence assigned to adifferent oscillator or modulation source.
The Evolver is also a dandy processor for electric guitars and otherexternal sources. Its effects capabilities include a surprisinglyversatile monophonic delay, envelope-controlled filtering, and severalvarieties of distortion. The Evolver's effects, in combination with itsone-of-a-kind synthesis architecture and real-time controlcapabilities, ensure a timbral palette that no other instrument canproduce.
Moog Modular V 1.1 (Mac/Win, $329)
When French software developer Arturia announced that it hadrealistically modeled vintage Moog synth modules in a computer program,we were naturally a bit skeptical. After all, Moog modular systems arethe epitome of analog sound: fat and thick and capable of satisfyingmusical nuance. When we saw Moog Modular V, it looked convincingenough: all the knobs and jacks were in the right places and worked asexpected. But imagine our delight when we compared its sound to that ofa real Moog synth and heard amazing similarities — notperfection, mind you, but a surprisingly close re-creation for acomputer program — for a price that's a scant fraction of theprice of the real thing.
Moog Modular V offers so many modules that it would take aconsiderable pile of cash to build a corresponding system with hardware(if built-to-order Moog modules were even available). Because themodules are in a fixed configuration, Moog Modular V is an instrumentyou can get to know as well as if you owned a real modular synth.Practically anything you could do with the real thing, you can do withthe emulation, and sometimes more. In addition to tons of virtualoscillators, VCFs, VCAs, EGs, and LFOs, the software provides a stepsequencer, a 14-band filter bank, and an onscreen keyboard. It alsooffers features a real modular can't, such as hundreds of presets and64-note polyphony. You can assign MIDI CCs to control every function,and reassigning virtual patch cords is click-and-drag simple.
Endorsed by Bob Moog himself, Moog Modular V probably comes as closeas any software to re-creating complex analog synthesizer hardware, andit does it on a large scale. It runs standalone or as a plug-in for avariety of formats. We applaud Arturia's significant undertaking andtechnical achievement.
Reaktor 4.03 (Mac/Win, $499)
Who hasn't heard of Native Instruments' category-leading Reaktor?But have you seen what the company has added to the 4.0 release? Wewere knocked out by the number of new features in this alreadysuperpowerful program and spent many hours playing the new andrewritten Ensembles that come with this release.
Not only does Reaktor 4 have an updated, more intuitive graphicinterface, but you can now add Modules and Macros to your designs bysimply dragging them from the new Browser and dropping them onto yourworkspace. And talk about ease of use: the new Randomize feature in theSnapshot menu lets you create presets automatically or morph betweentwo presets over a user-defined time frame.
Enhanced Modules, such as the new anti-aliasing oscillators, can befound throughout Reaktor's toolkit. If you are a visually orientedperson, you'll love the new Multi-Picture Module, which lets you streamimages to the screen while a sound plays. We've long wanted a way toedit samples graphically in Reaktor, and in version 4, our wish hasbeen granted. And how can you beat the fact that this huge update,which was two years in the making, was given to registered users freeof charge?
The number of user-contributed Ensembles at the Native InstrumentsWeb site — currently over 1,200 and growing daily — tellsus that Reaktor is a hugely popular program. It seems that we're notalone in ranking it Best of Show for the past year!
Arturia Moog Modular V1.1January 2004AudioEngineering Associates R84October 2003Blue SkyProDesk 2.1November2003Dave SmithInstruments EvolverJune2003DevineMachine Software Devine Machine 1.0December2003DigidesignDigi 002April2003and“All Fired Up”November2003FMR RNP8380Really Nice PreampJanuary2004FXpansionAudio UK VST to AudioUnit Adapter, “What's New: Download of theMonth”December2003HartmannNeuron, “Seven Deadly Synths”September2003INA-GRM GRMTools ST 2.0December2003Line 6VariaxMay 2003OnstageLittle LabsIBP Analog Phase Alignment ToolJuly2003MagixSamplitude Professional 7.11January2004Moog MusicMinimoog VoyagerOctober2003Matt IngallsMacCsound, “What's New”September2003MOTU 828mkII,“All Fired Up”November2003MOTU DigitalPerformer 4.1InprogressMOTUMachFiveInprogressNativeInstruments Reaktor 4.03December2003NativeInstruments VokatorNovember2003RødeNT1-ADecember2003RolandMC-909September2003RolandVariOSDecember2003SPL TransientDesigner 4October2003SteinbergGroove AgentNovember2003ViennaSymphonic Library, “In Search of the Ultimate StringLibrary”May2003VirSyn Cube1.01Inprogress
Røde Microphones tel. (310) 328-7456; Web www.rodemic.com
Roland Corporation U.S. tel. (323) 890-3700; Web www.rolandus.com
THE AWARD WINNERSIN REVIEW
Almost all of our award winners have been reviewed in our pages orsoon will be. The reviews still in progress should be published in thenext two issues, though one or two might be published a bit later.
Quotation marks enclosing an article title indicate that the productwas not covered in a review but elsewhere in the magazine. All otherentries indicate reviews of the award-winning version.