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electronic MUSICIAN


By Roger Maycock | February 1, 2001

New tools make this the best release yet.

Today's audio software tends to be so deep and extensive in capabilities that once you get accustomed to a program, there is generally little incentive to look elsewhere. But finding an application with a user interface that matches your working method while combining the right mix of features can be a daunting task. With the recent introduction of WaveLab 3.0, Steinberg has taken digital-audio editing to a new level and created a compelling tool for desktop musicians and audio engineers.

At its core, WaveLab 3.0 is a digital-audio editor with processing and effects capabilities. The software also includes audio CD-burning features, an audio-file database, batch processing, and spectrum-analysis capabilities. In addition, it serves as a powerful tool for working with samplers. Of particular note is the new Audio Montage feature, which turns WaveLab 3.0 into a multitrack editor and facilitates numerous operations, such as fine-tuning crossfades and arranging musicalmaterial.

THE VIEW FROM ABOVEWaveLab 3.0 supports audio files ranging from 8-bit, 11 kHz up to 24-bit, 96 kHz in WAV, AIFF, AU, and Ensoniq Paris RAW formats. After opening a file, you see a screen that resembles Fig. 1. In that view, the file is displayed in a double-pane window. The lower pane shows the waveform portion that will fit the window's size at the current zoom level. (Zoom tools at the bottom and top right of the screen are continuously variable and easy to adjust.) The green waveform represents the left channel, and the red waveform represents the right. WaveLab 3.0 lets you select color schemes for its interface elements; in fact, it offers tremendous options for customizing and arranging its interface to suit your preferences.

The double-pane display's upper portion shows the entire waveform - called the Overview - which you can also zoom. In both displays, the green vertical cursor represents the virtual playback head and lets you see exactly where you are at any time. In the Overview, the horizontal black-and-white-striped line beneath the playback cursor indicates the overall waveform portion displayed below. As the file plays, the marker updates continuously. The marker's size is variable and relative to the display's zoom level.

In Fig. 1, the window to the right of the waveform display is called the Master Section. That window includes clip indicators, left and right level meters, left and right channel faders, and a Reset button. A Dropout indicator lights up if any samples drop during playback.

With all its effects, the Master Section occupies a considerable amount of onscreen real estate. To get around that, use an option that shows only the window's top bar. Unlike minimizing a window, that leaves the Master Section in its position while freeing valuable viewing space. The Window Controller shown just above the Master Section in Fig. 1 performs a similar function, opening and closing the Markers, Tools, Snaps, and Transport windows as needed.

The Snaps tool is extremely useful. It lets you adjust a waveform's zoom level and then take a snapshot of it for instant recall. Using Snaps, you can jump from a close-up view to a more distant one with a click on the mouse.

TOOLS OF THE TRADEAs an editor, WaveLab 3.0 offers facilities for manipulating audio in just about every conceivable way. The left and right Nudge tools are particularly handy (see the Tools menu at the bottom of Fig. 1). By selecting a portion of the waveform, you can kick the selected range forward or backward in increments from 1 ms to 3 seconds. That lets you reposition a segment such as a spoken phrase without inserting blank space. The Nudge tool is particularly effective for "pacing" dialog. Also, playback starts from any point with the Play tool; you zoom in on an area with the Magnifying Glass, and redraw a portion of a waveform with the Pencil tool.

Interestingly, WaveLab 3.0 lacks one of the most essential tools for any audio editor: a deesser. Dialog editing is a common application for programs such as WaveLab. Of course, the Pencil tool allows you to redraw a waveform and remove sibilance or plosives, but doing so is far more tedious than having a dedicated processor for such purposes. Similarly, notching out the offending sound with the EQ is equally laborious. Steinberg offers SPL Deesser, an optional plug-in that costs $199.

Speaking of plug-ins, WaveLab 3.0 accommodates up to six, which are listed in the left part of the Master Section window (see Fig. 1). There you can load VST and DirectX effects plug-ins in any combination. Although those plug-ins typically process the signal in real time, you can make permanent changes to the waveform using the Apply switch. That is also useful for using WaveLab-created audio files in another audio environment, and it frees up resources by reducing the system's processing load.

Once the audio is edited, EQ'd, normalized, time stretched, and otherwise mangled to your satisfaction, save it in any of the formats the software will load or export it in even more formats, such as MP3 and Windows Media. Unfortunately, you can't encode to RealAudio. In this day of Internet everything, streaming-media formats are becoming increasingly important. The fact that the dominant streaming format is not supported strikes me as a rather serious omission.

WaveLab 3.0 provides an audio-analysis tool for helping identify tricky problem areas within your audio. After selecting the waveform's offending area, instruct the program to analyze the data for information on peaks, loudness, pitch, DC offset, apparent bit resolution, and errors. Then examine the results and use the program's various processing tools or plug-ins to correct problems. You can also store the processor settings and use them as presets for similar situations in the future. For examining the music's spectrum, WaveLab's 3D Analysis window remains the best-looking display of its type (see Fig. 2).

SAMPLE THISMassaging audio files for use in samplers is another common use for an audio editor. Creating a seamless loop in a dedicated editor such as WaveLab is generally easier than struggling with the limited amount of information provided by a sampler's LCD. WaveLab 3.0 provides extensive support for samplers. Depending on your sampler's nature, the program communicates with it in a number of ways, including the generic Sample Dump Standard, SMDI (SCSI Musical Data Interchange), MIDI, SCSI only, and various manufacturer-specific formats.

To help organize your sample library, WaveLab 3.0 provides extensive database capabilities. The database doesn't store the actual sample data but simply maintains pointers to the files in your system. Your computer can store samples anywhere, including hard drives, removable drives, CD-ROMs, and even floppy disks. If you request a sample that resides on a CD not in your CD-ROM drive, WaveLab 3.0 prompts you to insert the appropriate disc.

As expected, the database lets you categorize your library's samples and store them in different folders. Identify those folders any way you choose. Furthermore, the database has excellent search functions (see Fig. 3). On the left of Fig. 3, you see the conditions I set up for the search, and on the right you see the results that appeared moments later. The application accurately identified all corresponding sound files and their locations on my computer.

AUDIO MONTAGEWaveLab 3.0's Audio Montage multitrack editing environment provides an unlimited number of tracks for nondestructive audio editing, playback, and recording. The Audio Montage's graphic approach makes it easy to structure your work and is an excellent way to visualize the entire project prior to burning a CD.

In the Audio Montage, your audio is organized onto tracks using Clips, which are pointers to source audio files on your hard drive and other media. Editing functions - such as crossfades, volume adjustments, and fade-ins/fade-outs - are quick because you never touch the actual audio file.

The Audio Montage window is divided into two sections (see Fig. 4). The lower pane shows the tracks and Clips, and the upper pane shows one of 11 views - in this case, the Meters Spectrum view, which displays the output level as a real-time analyzer would, dividing the audio range into 55 bands. The other views are Edit, Zoom, Clips, Groups, Files, Markers, Snapshots, History, Notes, and CD. The CD view lets you burn a CD directly from the Audio Montage.

Fig. 4 shows a crossfade between two tracks. WaveLab 3.0 provides a number of crossfade options, including automatic crossfades with free overlaps and overlaps that retain specific fade-in or fade-out times. Clips can automatically crossfade in real time as one is dragged across another; not only do you see the crossfade on the screen but also hear it. WaveLab 3.0 uses a technique called Waveform Recognition Technology to eliminate harmonic cancellations within the crossfade by automatically adjusting the Clip position. That results in smooth, pleasing crossfades.

The Audio Montage is a great place for experimenting with the sequence and arrangement of tracks in your project. In Fig. 4, the grayed-out Clips on tracks 1 and 3 represent muted audio. Clips easily slide into position, so rearranging a project's order of events is effortless. It's also easy to move entire tracks up or down in the display.

Each Clip you place in the Audio Montage has a line that spans its entire duration. That line represents the Clip's volume envelope and allows for three primary editing types: fade-in, volume, and fade-out. Clicking on and moving the volume envelope up or down changes the volume. The waveform graphic changes in real time, and a dB value is next to the mouse pointer. However, there is no knob or fader available to change an entire track level.

The Audio Montage provides a selectable time grid, so you can place audio Clips at any time. You can also instruct the system to snap Clips to other Clips or to significant positions within the timeline. For example, by using the Magnetic Bounds feature, you can define whether one Clip snaps to another Clip's start or end.

Another particularly interesting aspect of the Audio Montage is its ability to "duck" the level of one Clip whenever a second Clip's signal is present. Using the Route to Master Section and Upper Track option, one Clip level (such as a music bed) can be reduced when another Clip level (such as dialog) exceeds the threshold defined by the plug-in Ducker.

In addition, there's an easy way to change one Clip's duration to match another. First, align the two Clips' start points and then place the cursor at the end of the Clip whose duration you want to match. Next, highlight the Clip whose duration you want to change and select Time-Stretch to Cursor; in an instant, the two Clips will have the identical duration.

With an extensive array of monitoring, editing, and viewing options - including mute, solo, editable crossfade times, and countless other functions - the Audio Montage creates the look and feel of more expensive digital-audio workstations. Short of Pro Tools, it's perhaps the most sophisticated visual palette for assembling your project.

SYNC, BATCH, AND BURNWaveLab 3.0 syncs to incoming MIDI Time Code (MTC), but only for starting playback and freewheeling. With MTC alone, WaveLab 3.0 and your external source (such as a standalone recorder) will ultimately drift apart. To maintain lock throughout the entire file, your audio card must read the external recorder's incoming word clock in addition to MTC.

WaveLab 3.0's Batch Processor processes multiple files with different settings. You can apply any number of processors and even use plug-ins not available in the Master Section. For example, say you have a number of finished songs and are ready to create a CD. In a single stroke, the Batch Processor balances every song's playback levels, encodes an entire group of files to MP3 format or even renames files. Not only that, the songs don't have to be open in WaveLab.

In addition to burning CDs from within the Audio Montage, WaveLab 3.0 includes the CD Program, a tool for burning discs. It's not much to look at but an excellent tool. You can arrange the tracks' playback order by simply dragging them within the CD Program window. When it's time to create the disc, the Write CD command lets you select your CD-R/RW drive, run a simulation burn, and finally burn the actual CD.

I can't stress enough how important it is to ensure you have the program's latest updates. When I burned my first CD, WaveLab 3.0 correctly identified my CD-R drive, passed the simulation, and created a disc - all without the slightest hiccup. Unfortunately, the disc was unreadable by every CD player I tested it in, including the drive that created the disc. During a call to Steinberg's tech support, I was instructed to download and install an updated list of supported CD burners, along with an update that took the program from version 3.01 to 3.01, Build 12. That was the ticket. The next attempt proved successful.

In addition to supporting the creation of the ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) and the UPC (Universal Product Code, WaveLab 3.0 supports the DDP (Disc Description Protocol) format on an Exabyte tape. Those options are critical for projects that will ultimately pass on to large CD-pressing plants.

THE VERDICTSteinberg's WaveLab 3.0 is an extensive, multitiered program. With support for audio files ranging from "multimedia caliber" to professional 24-bit, 96 kHz quality, plus a broad palette of editing functions, processors, and plug-in effects, its range of capabilities is nothing short of exemplary. Nonetheless, it has shortcomings.

The lack of a dedicated deesser is disappointing. Editing waveforms or notching sibilance with EQ is too time consuming for the busy dialog editor. Yes, SPL Deesser is available, but it's not cheap. The absence of an intuitive way to adjust levels for an entire track is another oversight. No sliders or knobs control track levels in WaveLab 3.0, nor does it offer an integrated track mixer, such as the one found in Cubase VST. Given its suggested retail price of $599, WaveLab 3.0 should include those tools.

With the Internet and streaming media playing an increasingly important role in the lives of musicians and audio professionals, the lack of RealAudio encoding is another odd omission. MP3 encoding is included, but that format is too dense for streaming through conventional dial-up connections. Granted, the program does provide Windows Media encoding, but that is not yet as common as RealAudio format.

On the other hand, WaveLab 3.0's Batch Processor and Audio Access Database are wonderful. The Batch Processor saves countless hours by executing tasks unattended, and the database is one of several terrific features that makes the application well suited for anyone with a sampler.

As a mastering tool, the Audio Montage elevates the personal computer to a level approaching far more expensive DAWs. The visual feedback, combined with nondestructive editing, also impresses. With its ability to burn CDs from within the Audio Montage or separately, WaveLab 3.0 shines. Better yet, the CD burner goes about its business quite expediently.

In the roughly five weeks I worked with WaveLab 3.0, the application did not crash or exhibit any other annoying behavior at all. WaveLab 3.0 is a robust, comprehensive application with a vast array of capabilities. The interface is a bit steep to learn, but it's well designed and makes working with the program an intuitive proposition. Overall, WaveLab 3.0 provides an extensive suite of audio tools for the majority of tasks you're likely to encounter.

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