Of all the issues that we put together each year here at Electronic Musician, February is the most fun. That’s when our editors and reviewers convene for many, many hours, comparing notes about which products stood out in the previous year. But this isn’t a beauty contest or a way to give undeserved recognition to our advertisers. Rather, the curmudgeons who put their reputations on the line in every issue make sure that each Editors’ Choice Award is earned; the products must be notable and outstanding, either in their exceptional build and sound quality, unique or innovative features, or by providing the best value.
So instead of trolling the gear forums in November, this surly band of stubborn and highly opinionated critics argue about what is and is not award-worthy. Once the dust settled, 31 products (released within the eligibility window between AES 2013 and AES 2014) made the cut this year.
So, let’s hear it for the 2015 Editors’ Choice Award winners, and give an extra round of applause to the creative men and women who developed the tools we use to make our dreams come true.
It’s Extra Spatial!
MAKE NOISE ERBE-VERB
Now you have voltage control over time and space
What do you get when you combine the talents of an innovative DSP engineer with a boundary-stretching hardware company? From the creative coding of soundhack’s Tom Erbe and synth manufacturer Make Noise comes the Erbe-Verb, a stereo reverb module designed for a greater purpose than simply re-creating resonant chambers. With voltage control over every parameter (size, decay, predelay, dampening, wet/dry mix, and even reverse), as well as a built-in modulator and the ability to lock to a pulse, this Eurorack module is a compositional toolkit that can be utilized anywhere within a patch—from sound source to final destination. Although the Erbe-Verb excels in its traditional role of adding spatial dimension to your sounds, once you put this module in your rack, you’ll never look at reverb the same way again.
My First Modular
LITTLEBITS SYNTH KIT
Don’t forget to let the kids use it once in a while
While modular synthesizers are fun and powerful, they can be very intimidating to the uninitiated. littleBits, in collaboration with Korg, tackled that problem single-handedly with the Synth Kit, a collection of 12 magnetically stackable, single-function, color-coded modules. In addition to providing an excellent introduction to synthesis for children and adults, the Synth Kit sounds so good, you won’t hesitate to use it on a production. The kit provides a complete synth voice—a resonant lowpass filter styled on the classic MS-20, a pair of oscillators, a delay, a keyboard and step-sequencer, and a miniature powered speaker, among them—that you can extend with the company’s growing library of modules. Additional modules cost as little as $7.95 and include lights, logic functions, sensors, motors—you name it. The bottom line: It’s a great-sounding synth that everyone can enjoy.
Ribbon Art Nuvo
AEA NUVO N22
An active ribbon mic that anyone can afford and trust
Whether they’re used as drum overheads or on vocals, guitar amp, piano, brass, and woodwinds, ribbon mics are a great asset in the home studio. But to get the best results from a passive ribbon, you need a preamp with enough gain and the correct impedance to keep the tone from suffering—two conditions desktop interfaces rarely meet. With this in mind, AEA developed the Nuvo N22, which combines the company’s popular Big Ribbon technology with phantom-powered JFET electronics and a custom transformer. The result is an active ribbon mic that doesn’t compromise sound quality, yet fits the needs of the personal studio—affordable price and small enough to easily position. And with its ability to handle high SPLs, it works equally well on guitar amps, drums, and percussion.
EveAnna's Greatest Hits
All-in-one channel strip for two Gs
When we heard Manley Labs was releasing a standalone reference channel strip that included some of the best features of its product lines and that it would street for $2k, we were all ears. Core provides the entire signal path you need for cutting pro-level vocals or instrument tracks: a Class A tube-based mic preamp, a solid-state DI (suitable for guitar, bass, and line-level gear), 3-band EQ, a compressor, a limiter, and analog metering. In addition to the excellent sound quality and build that Manley is known for, we were very impressed by the user-friendly design that anyone can figure out. And with the compressor placed ahead of the preamp, as well as a brickwall limiter at the end, you’ll never be caught off guard by sudden level changes that would otherwise ruin a keeper take.
Honey, I Shrunk The Preamp!
FOCUSRITE RED 1 500 SERIES
Add some beef to your Lunchbox
When it came to the 500 Series this year, Focusrite made us see red! With a modular reissue of the highly prized Red 1, the company brings the neutral sound and excellent performance characteristics of this classic single-channel preamp into a format and price range well suited to personal studios and pro facilities, alike. Built to the original design spec, including the same input and output transformers, the Red 1 500 Series has a no-nonsense feature set—a stepped gain control, phantom power, a polarity switch, and backlit VU meter with selectable calibration level—that provides the transparent gain and extra headroom you need to bring out the best in your mics. Now you can find out what your microphones really sound like.
A Kick in The Cans
Active headphones for an active lifestyle
Mobile devices such as iPads and iPods increasingly find their way into the musician’s workflow. Unfortunately, their underpowered headphone output can compromise playback quality. Blue took that as a challenge and designed Mo-Fi, powered headphones designed to sound great with any playback system. Using an all-analog signal path, the amp is designed to get the best performance from the 50mm dynamic drivers, ensuring high output with very low distortion. You can switch on low-end emphasis (no DSP used here!) or turn off the amp and use them in passive mode when listening on a high-output system. The amp’s battery can be recharged via USB. Inspired by the suspension system of Formula One racecars, the headphone’s ergonomics make them comfortable to wear for long periods. Blue pulled out the stops with Mo-Fi, making it a shoo-in for an award this year.
ELEKTRON ANALOG RYTM
Analog with a dash of digital
In order to offer what today’s beat creators need, drum machines arguably require greater flexibility than the average synth. But Elektron went even further with Analog Rytm. More than an eight-voice analog drum machine, Analog Rytm enhances its excellent-sounding electronic percussion with sample playback capabilities, all of which are controlled by a dozen pressure-sensitive pads that provide Aftertouch. Your patterns can have up to 12 tracks, and the Analog Rytm will play eight voices simultaneously, along with a dedicated FX track for each voice, governing delay, reverb, distortion, and compression. Analog overdrive and a multimode filter add even more power to the sound. Because of its malleable timbral capabilities and real-time processing, Elektron Analog Rytm was an obvious standout for an Editors’ Choice Award.
Synths With Moxie
YAMAHA MOXF SERIES
Mo' betta keys
With the MOXF keyboards, Yamaha borrowed many excellent features from its high-end workstations and served them up at roughly half the cost. In addition to sounds from the Motif XF and XS, the MOXF has 128-voice polyphony, circuit-modeling effects, and a Performance mode that lets you combine voices and deploy them through the arpeggiator. The MOXF tops it all with a powerful 16-track sequencer: You can play everything in from start to finish or drop in ideas from the exhaustive library of phrases. Because the keyboard’s USB connection transmits audio data, you can use the workstation’s stereo inputs to record external sources directly to your DAW, simultaneously with your sequences. The MOXF’s affordability, coupled with a wealth of sonic and creative tools, made it a no-brainer for an Editors’ Choice Award.
The new Golden Age of wireless
In the densely populated field of handheld digital recorders, it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd, but this year the DR-44WL has done just that. For starters, it can record up to four tracks at 24-bit, 96kHz resolution using its built-in mics and XLR combo jacks. But the feature that knocked it out of the park is the built-in wi-fi capabilities—no router necessary: The DR-44WL will hook up with a smartphone, iPad, and other mobile gadgets. Tascam offers an app for Android and iOS devices that can control the recorder remotely, publish your tracks directly to social media, or send the data to your computer. Other useful features, such as built-in reverb and simultaneous PCM and MP3 recording, helped propel the DR-44WL to the top of our Editors’ Choice list.
ARTURIA MICROBRUTE SE
Small footprint, big sound
Who knew that so much power could derive from a diminutive, 25-note keyboard? The MicroBrute has a fully analog signal flow that starts with three simultaneously available waveforms and the Overtone Oscillator to thicken the sound. You control the oscillator mix with a Control Voltage. But the tone of the instrument comes from the resonant, multimode Steiner-Parker filter, which is great for creating basses, leads, and rich percussion and effects when you take advantage of all the cross-modulation capabilities of the onboard patchbay. Throw in a step sequencer and a wide-ranging LFO that can sync to it, and you’re in for some excellent frequency or amplitude modulation.
WAVES/ABBEY ROAD REEL ADT
Surpassing Lennon's wildest dreams
Reel ADT emulates the sound of “Artificial Double Tracking,” pioneered at Abbey Road Studios in the ’60s for The Beatles. Because track count was precious, the engineers used a spare tape machine to create doubling effects. The source sound was routed to a secondary tape deck that was recording and playing back in real time. The physical distance between the record and play heads created the doubling effect. But Reel ADT goes further by allowing you to advance or push back the double for pitch variations, with separate tape saturation emulation for the dry and processed signals. And it models the wow and flutter characteristics of those machines, letting you tweak the modulation time to create effects such as flanging and phasing. Try it and you’ll see why it’s a winner this year.
Get Your Kicks On Route 66
Paving the way for AVB networking
Boasting the capability to route a whopping 66 audio channels (32 in x 34 out), the 1248 is the flagship of MOTU’s new line of audio interfaces, and the first Thunderbolt interface to incorporate 48-channel mixing and AVB networking. The 1248’s 48-channel digital mixer provides modeled analog EQ and compression and can source signals from the physical inputs, audio channels from host software or audio network streams while providing seven stereo aux buses, three audio groups, and a reverb bus. AVB networking enables the 1248 to stream hundreds of channels of audio between multiple interfaces and computers. A wi-fi router may be connected directly to the 1248 using a standard Ethernet cable, enabling the 1248’s mixer to be controlled via smart phone or tablet. In a word, wow!
A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Axes
PEAVEY REVALVER 4
How about some guitar models to play through those amp models?
With ReValver 4, Peavey has taken its modeling work to a new level by introducing the stunning ACT (Audio Cloning Technology), which profiles the sound of your guitar and then imbues it with the sonic characteristics of another—either electric or acoustic. The superb new RIR 2 Cabinet Simulation module is another notable addition. With its easy-to-use interface, you can select among many great-sounding speakers while gaining more control over room ambience and mic placement than before. For live use, Peavey added Gig Mode to the standalone version, which lets you load banks of your favorite presets into a large, easy-to-see GUI. Between its impressive new features and its revamped interface, ReValver 4 is bound to shake up the competitive guitar-amp-and-effects-modeling market.
Thunderbolt and Lightning
UNIVERSAL AUDIO APOLLO TWIN
The Apollo has landed ... on your desktop
Many musicians have been waiting for a more affordable model of the Apollo interface to come out, and their patience was rewarded this year. Available in Solo and Duo versions, the Apollo Twin costs less than half the price of the larger units, but offers the same pristine audio quality and UAD-2 plug-in access, along with the speed of Thunderbolt connectivity. And though it’s sized for the desktop, it’s no slouch in the I/O department, offering two mic/line inputs, an instrument input, and six analog outputs. And you can expand the number of inputs via Lightpipe. The included UAD Console application is great for controlling the interface and setting up monitor mixes. Thanks to the speed of the Thunderbolt connection, latency is virtually imperceptible when tracking. The Apollo Twin easily grabbed an award this year.
Winning the Battle of The Bands
Multiband dynamics processing that provides extra flexibility
The Pro-MB compressor/expander plug-in got our attention not only because it offers excellent sound quality, but by virtue of bringing a new and more intuitive approach to the multiband dynamics paradigm. Instead of the customary user-adjustable crossover points to delineate the frequency bands, Pro-MB allows you to create bands at specific center frequencies. This allows you to focus the processing where you want it most. Pro-MB lets you apply either downward or upward compression or expansion to each band, and gives you a great deal of adjustment flexibility. In addition, you can choose between stereo or MS mode for each band you create, and apply sidechain filtering. For simplifying the task of multiband processing, without any sacrifice of power or sound quality, we bestow an Editor’s Choice Award on Pro-MB.
Let’s Be Clear (And Wide)
JBL LSR 305/308
Putting space between your ears
Initially developed for the flagship M2 Master Reference Monitor, JBL’s Image Control Waveguide technology has made its mark on the company’s affordable 300-Series Powered Studio Monitors. Both models feature a 1-inch soft-dome tweeter mounted on the Image Control Waveguide; the 305 employs a 5-inch woofer while the 308 has an 8-inch low-frequency transducer. The speakers are bi-amped using Class D amplification providing maximum SPLs of 108 (LSR305) and 112 dB (LSR308). Radiused edges on the cabinets minimize diffraction and its detrimental effects on stereo imaging. All of this technology contributes to the LSR305/308’s ability to throw a wide yet stable sound stage. A wide sweet spot means that you can listen without placing your head in a vise, and the HF driver’s ability to resolve detail will let you know exactly what’s in your recordings.
Right on Qu
ALLEN AND HEATH QU-24
Cue up multitrack recording—without a computer
Allen & Heath has packed some impressive processing muscle into the Qu-24. Each input features a parametric EQ, compressor, gate, high-pass filter, and phase reverse while each output has a 31-band graphic EQ, compressor, 4-band parametric EQ, and delay for time alignment purposes. The SuperStrip gives you access to these parameters, while a color touch screen provides additional control. Like other live mixers, the Qu-24 features a multichannel USB DAW interface, but it offers something we haven’t yet seen: integrated recording and playback computer. A&H’s Qu-Drive supports recording and playback of up to 18 streams of audio simply by connecting a USB drive to the front panel. Onboard routing and transport control means you can create multitrack recordings of live performances and leave the computer at home. There’s a winner for ya.
The Un-MIDIGated Champ
ICONNECTIVITY ICONNECTMIDI 4+
The last MIDI interface you may ever need
iConnectivity has another hit on its hands. Like last year’s award-winner, the iConnectMIDI4+ helps you integrate iPads and iPhones into your Mac- or Windows-based studio setup. It not only routes data among your MIDI instruments, computers, and iOS devices, but lets you connect as many as 19 pieces of gear into a music-production network. It can also send eight channels of audio between three computers or iOS devices. Use iOS apps as if they were hardware synths in your DAW. Process DAW tracks using iPad effects or instruments using computer plug-ins. With DIN connectors, USB, and Ethernet, you get 64 MIDI ports with 16 channels per port—that’s 1,024 MIDI channels, folks. And the iConnectMIDI4+ pulls it all off with nary a hiccup. Simply put, you won’t find another MIDI interface that does everything it can do.
One Plus One Equals Four
DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS PRO 2
Who knew that digital oscillators could sound so fat?
Thirty years ago, Dave Smith’s Sequential Circuits Pro-One was everything you wanted in a monosynth. But today’s synthesists demand more of everything, and the Pro 2 aims way beyond the Pro-One’s lofty achievements to score a bulls-eye. With the ability to play four notes paraphonically, a user interface designed for real-time expressivity, a multitrack sequencer that records and plays back parameter changes in layers, and a bank of CV connections that give it modular capabilities, the Pro 2 could be the best synth that Smith and company have ever unleashed. Those features wouldn’t amount to much without terrific sound, and that’s where the Pro 2 impresses us most. Versatile analog filters and some of the warmest digital waveforms we’ve ever heard ensure that the Pro 2 is destined to win the hearts and minds of electronic musicians everywhere.
Is That a Grand Piano In Your Pocket?
GARRITAN/MAKEMUSIC ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS CFX CONCERT GRAND
Get Bentley sound on a Hyundai budget
What makes an award-winning virtual piano? Start with Yamaha’s no-holds-barred project to build the world’s finest instrument—the 9-foot, $180,000 CFX concert grand. Next, enlist Abbey Road Studios’ world-class engineering staff, superior acoustics, and massive microphone cabinet to record every sonic detail of every single note. Finally, enlist Gary Garritan’s sample-editing wizards to turn the whole shebang into a software package that costs less than a cheap guitar. The CFX Concert Grand lets you alter mic placement, keyboard touch and tuning, and the listener’s location, as well as dial in just the right amount of sympathetic vibration, sustain resonance, and pedal noise. Then, add a touch of convolution reverb to crank up the realism. Garritan’s CFX is so close to playing the real thing, it’s our number-one choice for recording.
So Easy, Even a Drummer Can Use It
TOONTRACK EZDRUMMER 2
An intuitive way to quickly create customizable drum tracks
Don’t let the name fool you: EZdrummer 2 may be simple to use, but it offers pro-level sounds and features. Included are five drum kits, extra kick and snare drums, a revamped mixer, and a comprehensive library of grooves encompassing a wide range of genres and time signatures. However, the search engine is what makes it special. Tap a rhythm using either a mouse or MIDI controller, and EZdrummer 2 will search its library, find similar grooves, and display them based on how closely they match your original performance. Then, drag and drop your grooves to complete an arrangement without leaving the program. EZdrummer2 has many powerful features that make it an excellent app for writing and arranging, but it’s the killer sounds and intuitive interface that helped it garner an award this year.
One Step Beyond
SAMPLE LOGIC ARPOLOGY
Take your MIDI patterns to the next level
Arpology is more than just a virtual instrument with a large and varied sample collection; it also features Sample Logic’s new Step Animator, a powerful step sequencer/arpeggiator that gives you control over stutter rate, transposition, panning, length, and many other parameters. Arpology’s sample library draws from a range of instruments, as well as sound effects and field recordings. You can even create Step Animator patterns, and then drag and drop them onto MIDI tracks in other virtual instruments in your DAW. Spice up the internal sounds with integrated sonic trigger effects, LFOs, and more. Control the app from a tablet via TouchOSC, providing an even deeper editing interface than you get on the plug-in itself. Arpology is an innovative and inspiring product that we couldn’t help but recognize this year.
You Got the Fever, We Got the Cure
XFER RECORDS SERUM
Wavetable synthesis was never this simple
Electronic musicians are gushing over Serum, one of the hottest soft synths we’ve seen all year. Nothing makes it easier to create unique and usable new sounds in so little time. In addition to delivering dynamite factory presets, this versatile plug-in serves up tone-sculpting capabilities that other synths just can’t match. Start with the included wavetables or build your own from scratch. Split them into frames, shuffle them, and morph between them. Shape your sounds with filters and modulators, as well as drag and drop LFOs and envelopes wherever you need them. You can even import your own samples to use as modulation sources. Serum’s graphic user interface makes it easy to see what you’re doing every step of the way. It all adds up to a fun-filled timbral playground.
A Bazillion Possibilities
An FM synthesizer that makes programming fun for a change
Departing from the DX7 paradigm, Bazille is a modular FM synth that provides virtual cables and multiplexers that you can patch for days. Oscillators are wildly configurable, offering three simultaneously available sound-shaping types— Phase Modulation (FM), Phase Distortion, and Fractal Resonance. You can generate complex and animated single-oscillator sounds before you even modulate one oscillator with another. Add a pair of Lag Generators, a couple of multimode filters, a modulation step-sequencer, and user-drawn waveforms, and you’re still just getting started. The scalable, anti-aliasing user interface is a serious boon for anyone who has to squint at a DAW all day, and the Oscilloscope reflects your every move continuously and clearly. Bazille’s brilliant design and unique sounds put it at the top of a banner year for soft synths.
Get Your Groove on
Bang on the drum (machine) all day
We’ve come to expect great products from Heavyocity, and the DM-307 doesn’t disappoint. Our reviewer called it “Anything but conventional, serving up processed and warped drum sounds with apologies to no one.” The DM-307 offers an impressive collection of more than 60 kits, 1,200 loops, and 300 performance multis. In addition to using MIDI notes to trigger its kit sounds, you can create and stack grooves using a step-sequencer interface. Effects such as distortion, filter, pan, delay, and lo-fi can be added in several different ways, including globally, on individual sounds, or via the Advanced Trigger FX function, which lets you momentarily trigger effects using MIDI notes. Overall, we found DM-307 to be a superb beat-making environment, featuring compelling and musical content, and that’s why we tapped it for an Editors’ Choice.
Warp time with this massive groove editor
One look at Sector’s circular matrix tells you it’s not like any iPad app you’ve seen before. Open a project, press some buttons, and make sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Sector is absolutely the fastest way to slice and sequence samples to add glitch to your groove. Start by importing a beat or a phrase and chop it into time slices called sectors. Connect sectors to other sectors and control the odds that one will automatically play after another, creating a Markov chain of variable probability. Randomize the connections at will, connect all or any of the sectors, and turn the matrix inside out. Apply warp commands to bend time for scratches, chirps, and sweeps. Use the interactive sequencer to override the probability matrix in real time. We like to think of Sector as a game of chance that lets you collaborate with serendipity to make music from the future.
Turn On, Tune In, Plug-Out
ROLAND AIRA SYSTEM-1
Come for the hardware synth; stay for the software host
The crown jewel in Roland’s Aira line is the System- 1, a modeling synth featuring proprietary Analog Circuit Behavior technology that delivers a dizzying array of beautiful synth timbres, all quickly programmable from 73 controls. The 4-voice instrument excels at smooth or crunchy basses, lush pads, screaming filter leads, bell/chime tones, and all manner of noisy and belchy effects, in polyphonic or the immensely dense monophonic Unison modes. The powerful arpeggiator with Scatter variations make System-1 a beast for performance and spontaneous recording. What really puts it over the top is that the keyboard can host a Plug-Out software synth (akin to a DAW’s plug-in instrument) and act as its dedicated MIDI controller—with or without a computer connected. System-1 includes an impeccable re-creation of the classic SH-101 analog monosynth, with SH-2 Plug-Out hot on its heels.
Insert your beats into the Matrix
This year, iZotope BreakTweaker created a buzz by literally creating buzzes, glitches, and insane breakbeats in remarkable new ways. Designed in collaboration with BT, the program is a six-track mini-workstation comprised of a sequencer, the MicroEdit Engine, Generator (a wavetable synth), and a 2GB library of monster one-shot samples suitable for the latest styles. In BreakTweaker’s “isorhythmic” sequencer, you can vary the time signature of tracks so that beats evolve as they loop. You can stretch notes to any length; divide them into 1,024 unique slices; add tension, slopes, and curves to shape the contour and rotation of the slices; and then apply effects. Generator comes with a library full of crazy wavetables, LFO shapes, and envelopes to create drums or other sounds. Once you use it, there’s no going back.
Propelling Your Workflow
PROPELLERHEAD REASON 8
It's never been easier to get into the creative zone
With Reason 8, Propellerhead got back to basics, giving the user interface its biggest overhaul yet, but without deviating from its rack structure. The new searchable Browser houses all of Reason’s instruments, effects, utilities, sounds, and patches for easy access. You can double-click or drag Browser elements to the rack or sequencer to create devices and tracks. New colored highlights on rack devices indicate when, for example, the device is in patch-browsing mode or when parameter changes have been recorded to the sequencer. Control bars have been touched up for a clearer, cleaner look, and the new Amp and Bass Amp devices from Softube sound spectacular and can transform hum-drum sounds. But it’s the simplified workflow that will have you opening Reason 8 instead of your other DAW over and over again— just like it used to.
The Antidote to Screen Stupor
All eyes are on this dual-displayed controller for Serato DJ
While the benefits of DJing with a laptop are evident, over-reliance on the software display leads to the glassy-eyed “Serato Stare,” that can strip some of the luster off of a live DJ performance. Numark’s solution is the NV controller for Serato DJ software (included). The NV integrates two fullcolor displays that sync to Serato DJ and show the most important info for full 4-deck mixing: deck views, effect views, looping, and cue point views. Now you can rock the house with your focus on the DJ decks and mixer. The NV is a complete DJ controller in its own right. Color-coded, velocitysensitive pads with 10 performance modes; touchactivated EQ, effects, and filter knobs with intelligent interactivity; and a full-complement of hardware controls over Serato DJ make this an ideal controller for performance-oriented DJs.
Let’s Get Physical
NATIVE INSTRUMENTS KOMPLETE KONTROL S SERIES KEYBOARDS
Hardware and software soulmates make beautiful music together
The Komplete Kontrol S Series keyboards fulfill the dream of many devoted Komplete software-bundle users by providing an integrated controller and browsing system for the thousands of instrument sounds in Komplete 10 and Komplete 10 Ultimate. Through the Komplete Kontrol software host, the keyboards offer fast hardware browsing and loading, as well as fully mapped plug-in parameters to the eight encoders and mini-displays. The Komplete Kontrol system also adds a deep arpeggiator and brilliant Scale and Chord modes, which assign Komplete Kontrol S keys to play only notes of a selected scale, and/or to play certain chords from a single key. Not only that, but the Kontrol S’s Light Guide LEDs illuminate above each of the keys to enhance the Scale and Chord modes or to indicate zones, or special functionality for Komplete instruments. Now you know why they call it Komplete!