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Wave Arts Power Suite

3/28/2005

Seriously, in any industry, few companies have been able to carve out the kind of niche that Waves has. They were one of the first, if not the first, third-party plug-in companies, and few would disagree that they do awesome work.

Yes, this is an odd way to start a review about a non-Waves product. But bear with me. Waves’ plug-ins are expensive, so recording engineers on a tight budget have been searching for a Waves-style experience, but at an affordable price. Does Wave Arts deliver that Holy Grail?

Well, I’m not going to tell you, and here’s why: You can download a fully functional version of Power Suite and use it for 30 days. Try it with some tracks, and find out for yourself. What I will do, though, is tell you why I think the Wave Arts plug-ins are on the short list of plug-in excellence . . . specifically, affordable plug-in excellence.

Power Suite is a bundle of several Wave Arts products, but each one is available separately. So, we’ll cover each plug-in, then consider the suite as a whole — is it worth getting the package, or will individual plugs do it for you?

GETTING STARTED

You can download the Suite (it’s under 10MB), or buy a boxed version. As one of the few people who actually reads End User License Agreements, I found this little gem: You can install the program on three computers, as long as you’re the only user. Hallelujah! I can put the plugs on my Mac and Windows desktop machines, and my notebook, without having to beg for additional registrations. Cool.

Okay, let’s look at the plugs.

MASTERVERB

I first reviewed MasterVerb back in January 2002, and said “This reverb offers a lush, enveloping sound — perfect for adding reverb to program material. But it does a lot more, and works well on individual tracks. Unlike some reverbs, it seems particularly well suited to delicate instruments such as acoustic guitar because of the sweet decay and warm (not muffled — warm!) sound quality. Despite being a single-algorithm reverb, it’s flexible enough to provide a variety of very useful effects. The fact that it requires very little CPU power is the icing on the cake.” Those opinions remain valid.

I did complain about the lack of a diffusion control and a bit of “flutter” on the early reflections. Well, now there’s a diffusion control, and the early reflections sound smoother. I have several reverbs, but I must say I reach for this one often. It’s still a single-algorithm reverb, but being raised on acoustic reverb, that doesn’t bother me — particularly because the MasterVerb controls can wring out a variety of sounds.

Compared to other plugs I have, only the Waves TrueVerb has a slightly more consistent, smooth tail. However, the reason I know this was because in context, it was hard to tell the two apart, so I ended up soloing each reverb with a single percussion track. Bottom line: MasterVerb is a fine, CPU-friendly, realistic reverb.

TRACKPLUG

This is a 10-band EQ with compressor and gate. I got turned on to it before Cakewalk had folded the Sonitus:fx EQs into Sonar, and found — much to my surprise — that I could load a ton of these things without distressing the CPU.

Each stage of EQ can have any one of seven responses (including parametric), and the EQ as a whole can go pre- or post-compressor. Controls are standard, although a useful “band” control disables a band without deleting it — good for judging how different bands affect the sound.

The compressor is also straightforward, but very complete with parameters for knee, makeup gain on/off, attack, release, peak or RMS detection, and lookahead on/off and time (1, 2, or 5 ms). The superb metering keeps you apprised of variants in input signal power, the amount of compression and gating being applied, and the output peak and average levels.

As most hosts come with their own EQ and dynamics plug-ins, this would likely not be your first choice. But few offer 10 bands of EQ, and the sound quality belies the low CPU drain. TrackPlug’s most striking characteristic is that you don’t hear it working; you have to really push the parameters to get it to sound artificial.

MULTIDYNAMICS

A good multiband dynamics processor is a joy. The biggest problem is the user interface: Adjusting multiple bands of compression can be a pain in the butt, especially as you’re adjusting both EQ and dynamics to get the desired sound. Wave Arts hasn’t really solved the adjustment problem (although it’s equally easy to make a parameter change to all six bands as it is to one band), but they’ve made huge strides in letting you see the results of those adjustments.

The coolest aspect is that the display gives equal weight to displaying what’s happening to the frequency response. The left pane shows the current frequency response (the green line) and threshold (the orange line); the right side shows what’s happening with the dynamics.

The way EQ is handled is a little hard to explain, but the basic idea is that you can set not only a particular frequency range for each band, but also determine how much gain will be applied when the signal is above the threshold, and how much when it’s below. This makes it easy to compress some bands while expanding others, but also makes it easier to see how compression will affect the frequency response.

There’s more — the crossover between bands can be set to 18 or 30dB/octave, and the transitions sound very seamless. Overall, this plug-in is a home run; run through the presets, and you’ll hear everything from hard sounds without harshness to gentle tone-shaping with a dynamics lift. This is one hot plug.

FINALPLUG

Here’s your basic “output-limiter-designed-to-kill-all-traces-of-dynamics-to-conform-to-current-pop-music-standards” type of device; it also includes dithering and noise shaping. So, I immediately A/B’d it with the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer+ (okay, so I’m not totally up to date), which is what I generally use for this type of application.

There was a definite difference between the two. Given equal threshold and release settings (with dynamic equivalency checked by listening and observing meters), FinalPlug sounded thicker, fatter, and “smeared” the signal more. The L1 preserved a sense of dynamics better, and also sounded a bit brighter; however, the limiting action seemed a bit more ragged. These differences were fairly minor with moderate amounts of limiting, but showed up more at settings that frankly, I wouldn’t use anyway.

For most material, I’d give the L1 a slight edge — because I’m not a huge fan of output limiting, so I’d rather have a bit better dynamic preservation. However, I can guarantee some people would A/B the two and choose FinalPlug because of its fatter, less clinical sound.

I guess if I had to summarize, I’d say the L1 is the Beatles, and FinalPlug is the Stones. Another example: I’d use FinalPlug on house music, but the L1 on drum ’n’ bass.

WAVESURROUND

This plug-in gives stereo material increased sound localization. Think of it as panning on steroids: Instead of just blasting sounds between right or left front speakers, sounds can seem to come from the sides, or even behind you. It does this with sophisticated filtering and crosstalk cancellation; there’s also reverb if you want to tart things up a little further.

I haven’t worked much with 3-D audio spatialization, so I went through the presets . . . and was just about ready to write it off. The sound was gimmicky, and I couldn’t imagine subjecting program material to this kind of effect. Wrong! When I started really digging into it, and scaling back the effects (e.g., turning off reverb) for some more subtle results, I was impressed. Before long, imaging sounded wider, there was a certain precision to the sound, and yes, it was an improvement. Not a huge improvement, mind you, but the whole track sounded as if someone had added a “lively and sparkly” control, then turned it up 15 percent.

Encouraged, I tried it on individual tracks. Percussion sounded awesome, and drums perked up too. Distorted guitars sounded too big, though. This is something you want to use sparingly, but it’s a real “secret weapon” kinda plug that I’m sure will have many people saying, “How did you get that sound?”

THE THRILLING CONCLUSION

Clearly, buying the Power Suite is more cost-effective than going à la carte, assuming you want all the plugs. But you have the option of just cherry-picking the ones you want, which is a Good Thing. However, each plug does have its own merits, so if you can afford the whole package, that’s probably the best way to go.

As I said at the beginning, download the bundle and decide for yourself. I’ve made my decision: Power Suite has joined my plug-in A-list.

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