Every year, Electronic Musician’s esteemed panel of judges climbs into the corporate jet, arrives at our executive villa on Kona, and breaks out the no-limit credit cards for a month of fine dining while we discuss—with Zen-like focus—which products merit the prestigious Electronic Musician Editors’ Choice Awards.
And then the alarm clock goes off . . . time to wake up.
Okay, so the process actually involves numerous multi-hour conference calls on Skype. But the part about the Zen-like focus is true; we take this process very seriously as we pore over reviews, product releases, show reports, forum posts, and notes from the past year as we try for a consensus.
For those who have been following the awards, we followed the same basic strategy as last year, when we retooled the two-decade-old process to base the awards around hot products, rather than trying to shoehorn products into fixed categories. This makes the awards a lot more meaningful, and also, more fun for us to choose.
Choosing the winners was not easy. There were lots of really great products released during the eligibility period (post-AES 2011 through AES 2012), so to narrow down the choices somewhat, we tried to focus on innovation—and we still had a hard time choosing only 30 winners.
But one thing’s for certain: Every product is exceptional for some reason, so congratulations to the winners—you deserve these awards and our deepest thanks for making the tools that allow us to express our musical dreams. And the winners are . . .
BLISS DISGUISED AS A SOFT SYNTH
Steinberg Padshop Pro
Taming granular synthesis for new sounds
Padshop was cool enough—a granular synthesizer with an easy-to-use interface, and the ability to create atmospheric pads unlike anything you’d heard before. But then Steinberg dropped the other shoe with Padshop Pro, which allowed loading and deconstructing your own samples—pushing it into a level of coolness that exceeded its predecessor. The sounds it creates range from fascinating to gorgeous; if Enya had Padshop Pro, she probably would have sold twice as many CDs.
AFFORDABLE SYNTH AWESOMENESS
No one’s making jokes about watches and calculators any more
In the ’80s, Casio put a lot of synths on the map, like the CZ-101 and CZ-1000. While the company continued to produce keyboards, no one expected the twin onslaught of the XW-P1 and XW-G1 that stole the show last year at Winter NAMM, and again at Frankfurt Musikmesse. Bold, original, clever, and definitely not “me-too” synths, the XW siblings showed that Casio is back in the synth game with a vengeance.
OVERACHIEVING AUDIO APP
WaveMachine Labs Auria
Busting iPad expectations
Before Auria, iPad apps for audio were primarily about synths, remote control, and useful accessories. But then WaveMachine Labs blew that stereotype out of the water with Auria, a full-featured DAW with up to 48 tracks of playback. And even that wasn’t enough—they bought in ace plug-in programmers PSP Audioware to create a channel strip worthy of the app. After Auria, you’ll never look at an iPad the same way again.
THE P.A. WITH A BIG BRAIN
Line 6 StageSource L3/StageScape M20d
You know you’re in trouble when your sound system is smarter than your band
Line 6 seems to take great enjoyment out of reinventing the ordinary into something extraordinary, whether that’s turning kidney beans into effects, or making a guitar that can sound like 50 other guitars. And now, they’ve pulled the same kind of trick for sound systems by reinventing the mixer, the speakers, how they interact, and even the way you operate them. In the process, the P.A. has gone from a sound system to an ecosystem.
THIS DAW GOES TO 11
MOTU Digital Performer 8
When it comes to DAWs, DP aims to be the guitarist’s pick
Sure, there are lots of great DAWs. But DP8 gets the Editor’s Choice Award for the included guitar effects, with amp sims and processors that are not only the best you’ll find bundled in a DAW, but are also equal to or better than third-party amp sims. Of course, many types of musicians use DP . . . but who would have thought the video community’s favorite audio-for-video DAW was also a hardcore shredder?
TRUST US—THIS IS ACTUALLY A GOOD IDEA
Peavey AT-200 Guitar with Auto-Tune
An unlikely pair gets along extremely well
It would be so easy to make jokes like, “Well, now that Auto-Tune has destroyed music as we know it, guitars are next.” But play an AT-200—while keeping noobies in tune is an appealing feature (especially for the listener!), it’s not the instrument’s only one, by far. From pure intonation to alternate tunings to assisted bends, Auto-Tune adds a new toolkit for creative guitar players—regardless of the level of expertise.
THE iPAD PIGGYBACK MIXING PARTNER
Achieving synergy with consumer electronics
No doubt about it, the DL1608 is a Mackie mixer. But that’s not enough to merit an Editor’s Choice award. It’s not even about the way Mackie has integrated iPad control with rugged hardware and SHARC DSP, clever as that is. The thing that makes the DL1608 special is the app that makes the concept work for live performance and allows for fluid mixing from a multitouch interface. That’s hard to pull off—but Mackie succeeded.
ADVANCING THE CAUSE
Radial 500 Series 2012 Releases
Reaching a module tipping point
We’ve never given an award for a product line before, but this is no ordinary product line. In 2012 Radial Engineering did more than anyone else to popularize API 500 Series setups, both by creating frames in a variety of sizes and prices, and producing a wide range of modules to populate them—from simple and useful to esoteric and lust-worthy. For those who want to add analog mojo to their digital worlds, Radial aims to please.
SOMETIMES THE SEQUEL IS BETTER
Native Instruments Maschine MK2
The total tool for the beat generation
Few products were such immediate hits out of the box as the original Maschine: Its combination of great sounds, fluid workflow, and tight control launched a zillion grooves. NI got it so right the first time, a sequel seemed superfluous; but the workflow tweaks, inclusion of Massive, more sounds, even more sensitive pads, and accessorizing options took Maschine on its path to the next level—and an Editor’s Choice Award.
DJS PLAY INSTRUMENTS, TOO
Don’t just spin—play
Pioneer’s RMX-1000 opened the floodgates for DJ controllers designed specifically as “sidecars” to the more traditional dual-platter controllers. No longer did DJs have to adapt controllers designed for recordists or keyboard players to use with their DAWs or samplers—the RMX-1000 bridged the twin worlds of DJs and electronic musicians, and in the process, created a powerful new instrument for the burgeoning controllerist movement.
HIGH END FOR THE LOW END
TC Electronic BG250
Bassists go high tech
Yes, a few people here wondered what a bass amp was doing as a nominee for an Editor’s Choice Award. Then they checked out what the BG250 was all about. From its light weight and compact size to its internal processing and TonePrint options, the BG250 delivers high-tech amplification disguised as a traditional bass amp . . . that just happens to do a whole lot more than most bass amps.
Responsiveness puts this one over the top
There’s been a bumper crop of fine DJ controllers from a variety of manufacturers, and frankly, it was tough to choose just one. But the NS6 has rugged hardware that’s downright sexy, coupled with being both a high-level controller and mixer. Part of what makes the hardware exemplary is the responsiveness and fluidity of the platters themselves; sometimes it seems the NS6 would be more than happy to play itself if you just nudge it in the right direction.
THE CURE FOR ’80S PRODUCTION EXCESSES
Banish excess ambience back to where it belongs
Zynaptiq had some strong competition from . . . Zynaptiq, for their PitchMap pitch-processing software. But Unveil’s ability to remove ambience, from reverb to room sounds and more, is novel and has applications varying from compensating for mistakes (e.g., remastering cuts with too much reverb) to removing ambience when recording dialog. How do they do it? We have no idea. Possible explanations are a deal with devil, or being magicians in their spare time.
PORTABLE PARTY DJ MACHINE
IK Multimedia iRig Mix
There are so many ways to do iOS wrong, but this company got it right
Some musicians still look at iOS devices as toys—capable toys, but toys nonetheless. That’s why iRig Mix is so interesting. Yes, it’s more expensive than typical apps; but that’s because of the mixer hardware, which despite its diminutive size is eminently useful. Couple that with DJ software that even allows beat-matching with music from external sources like CD players or iPods, make it super-portable and easy to use, and you have a novel DJ rig you can take anywhere.
ALL THE DAW YOU NEED—AND THEN SOME
Acoustica Mixcraft 6
The “little engine that could”—did
Mixcraft was always “good for the price.” But with Version 6, it became “really good, and it’s still the same price.” While it has fast, smooth workflow and tons of content, it’s set apart by video capabilities that beat any music DAW, regardless of price—including text and image inserts, clip crossfades, and automatable video processing. If anything ever qualified as the “direct-from-garage-to-YouTube” program, this is it—for less than $100.
HERE’S YOUR CAREER INSURANCE
Hearing protection joins the 21st century
Yes, these earplugs are expensive ($399)—but your hearing is priceless. The thing that makes them special is the adaptive noise-reduction element; protection doesn’t kick in until the sound exceeds safe levels, at which point they provide gradual attention, at 9dB or 15dB (switch-selectable). They don’t need custom molds—nor do you need to remove them when things quiet down and you want to hear the world around you.
FEATURE CREEP CAN ACTUALLY BE GOOD
PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL
Continuing to blur the line between stage and studio
Why does the 1818VSL deserve an award when there are so many great audio interfaces? This one is different in that it’s an element in a seemingly ever-expanding system that involves PreSonus’ StudoLive mixers, iPad control, Virtual StudioLive software, and our personal favorite—the “Wheel of Me” iPhone app that lets musicians dial in their own monitor mixes (“more me!”). By continuing to add features—mostly free— to mature products, PreSonus has shown that feature creep can be a good thing.
SUPER-SYNTH FOR STAGE AND STUDIO
Rejuvenating the hardware rack synth
The rack synth has fallen out of favor over the years, but Roland has given the genre a major shot in the arm. Whether you’re on stage and need a rugged hardware synth, or in the studio and want to add Roland’s SuperNATURAL sounds without having to buy another keyboard, the Integra-7 does both—while adding a ton of I/O, powerful effects, and a unique ambience engine that places sounds in a 360-degree sound field. Hot.
THE WAR IS OVER, BOTH SIDES WON
Lewitt Audio LCT 940
Tube or FET? Well, why not both . . . and more?
It’s not just that you can select the tube or FET path (and adjust their blend). This mic also has nine polar patterns, along with multiple pad, filtering, and attenuation options—all of which you can adjust remotely from the power supply. But the LCT 940 isn’t only about features; its own flavor of detailed and articulate character makes it well-suited to a wide variety of miking applications. Flexible, innovative, sounds great . . . pass the award.
SO MUCH FROM SO LITTLE
This amp is small in stature, but big in features and sound
The compact THR10 has a lot going on under the hood: five different guitar amp types (and flat, bass and acoustic amp settings), onboard effects with tap tempo, tuner, five user preset slots, and battery/AC power options. But wait—it’s also a USB-equipped DAW interface (bundled with Cubase AI and THR editor software) that offers stereo hi-fi audio playback and direct recording capabilities. Yes, the THR10 sounds great at bedroom-friendly levels . . . but if you want to meet your neighbors, crank it up!
AS IF GUITAR PLAYERS NEEDED MORE EGO
Super sustainer scores big
Your guitar player isn’t the only one who’ll want this. Taking the EHX Freeze pedal’s concept to new levels, the SuperEgo has latch, momentary, and auto switching modes, as well as gliss and speed/layer controls. It even has a handy effects loop for processing the sustaining signal, without affecting your dry sound; the result is a fully-polyphonic, sustaining “synthy pedal of goodness” for accompanying yourself or soloing. Whew!
HEARING THINGS FROM A NEW ANGLE
Speakers designed for serious desktop production
Dynaudio addresses desktop musicians and production suites by approaching speaker design from a different angle: The DBM50 (a two-way bass reflex design with a 7.5” woofer and a 28mm soft-dome tweeter, each with its own 50W amp) sits astride your monitor, and is angled upward so the sound makes a direct path to your ears. Around back, lots of EQ controls let you better match your room or dial in personal preferences; there’s even an optional remote level controller.
THE TOMORROWLAND AUDIO INTERFACE
Universal Audio Apollo
It’s no fantasy—this adventurous interface explores new frontiers
Apollo offers onboard Duo- or Quad-core DSP for running UAD’s acclaimed powered plug-ins, near-real-time processing when tracking or mixing, and less than 2ms of latency. It also offers extensive internal mixing and routing capabilities, lots of digital and analog I/O (18x24), four UA mic preamps, and first-rate converters. The icing on the cake: In addition to handling FireWire 800, its optional Thunderbolt card provides future-friendly interfacing—and we’re ready.
ONCE AGAIN, BOB WOULD HAVE APPROVED
Moog Music 500 Series
Spice up your rack with something from the Moog Cookbook
It’s somewhat ironic that after nearly 50 years, Moog returned to a modular format. With the 500 Series Analog Delay, Moog didn’t simply shoehorn their Moogerfooger MF-104M pedal contents into a module; the company upgraded the hardware specs, added stereo linkage, and coded a studio-friendly editor plug-in to control the unit from your DAW—features that befit a pro-audio environment, as well give some serious incentive to take the plunge for a 500 Series system.
DIGITAL OR ANALOG? YES!
Make Noise SoundHack Echophon
Taking voltage-controllable delay to infinity and beyond
The modular synth scene has long embraced a hybrid approach where CVs control digital signal processors, and Make Noise took full advantage of this when it collaborated with DSP whiz Tom Erbe to create the most inspiring Eurorack module of the year. The Echophon provides patchable control over two octaves of pitch shifting, with multiple feedback paths, tempo sync, a freeze function, and more—resulting in a powerful new delay processor for your patching pleasure.
Fistful of Analog Goodness
Korg Monotron Duo
A superb two-oscillator synth that fits in the palm of your hand
The Monotron Duo pushed Korg’s cred even higher—but not just because it’s a fat-sounding, dual-oscillator analog synth with a hearty MS-series filter and tangy modulation capabilities. As with the original Monotron, the company took the audacious step of posting the instrument’s schematics online, ensuring that DIYers around the world would snatch up several of these babies for circuit bending. It’s the synth in your pocket that everyone’s happy to see (and hear).
VISUAL VIRTUAL SYNTHESIS
Setting the standard for spectral sound manipulation
While audio repair tools have long been subverted for creative purposes, it took iZotope to make that concept a core feature of a virtual synthesizer. With up to four samples loaded into a patch, Iris lets you independently highlight and play portions of each file’s harmonic spectrum using intuitive computer art tools—brush, lasso, magic wand—and further sculpt each sample using synth modules and effects. With Iris, the term “sound painting” is no longer a metaphor.
THE CHAMELEON IN THE PEDALBOARD
Reload your stompbox faster than a NASCAR pit stop
With the right app, an iOS device can be a great guitar processor. However, your iPhone and iPad aren’t exactly stage-ready on their own—so DigiTech created a rugged footpedal that can load any of the company’s great-sounding, DSP-based “e-pedals,” completely untethered from your Apple hardware. Whether you’ve downloaded a delay, reverb, compressor or distortion form the iTunes store, the sound is so good that you’ll forget that the pedal is reconfigurable—until DigiTech releases a new effect.
YES, YOU CAN UNBAKE THE CAKE
Sony SpectraLayers Pro
Fix it in the mix? How about fix it after the mix?
With SpectraLayers Pro, spectral editing has moved beyond the realm of noise reduction to become a powerful creative tool. It’s easy to find parts of a mix that you want to isolate and process, extract and remove, or analyze and repair because the tools will recognize and follow the specific frequency or bandwidth you select—as well as the related harmonics. You can even use VST effects to process layers. Who would have thought repairing mixes can actually be fun?
MODERN MEETS RETRO
Your wish for an affordable analog synth has come true
Are we crazy for giving a monosynth an Editors’ Choice Award in the 21st century? We’d be crazy not to, because the MiniBrute is packed with features, built like a tank and, most importantly, sounds fantastic. What’s more, Arturia boldly ditched the ubiquitous ladder filter for a vintage design by Steiner-Parker; and the MIDI, USB, and CV I/O means it’ll play well with all of your toys—analog modules, soft synths, and DAW environment. Cool—we can all get along!