Darwin observed that identical species separated from each other by geographic boundaries (such as oceans and mountains) tend to evolve differently, developing unique characteristics to adapt to their individual habitats. Apparently, the theory of evolution applies to computer programs, as well, because a different type of digital audio sequencer has been evolving in England. With a stunning feature set, many unique and sometimes bizarre ways of doing things and a truly evolved price for the entry-level application (about $35), Making Waves music software is a breed apart.
Users have three versions of Making Waves to choose from: Making Waves Audio, Making Waves Pro and Making Waves Studio. All versions feature as high as 192kHz recording; DirectX plug-in support; hundreds of stock effects; thousands of samples; automatic time stretching and pitch correction; and an impressive, free lifetime of updates and technical support. The program can be purchased in a box or online as a download. Although you don't get the nifty cardboard box and the extra sample CDs by buying online, it is significantly less expensive as a download.
Adding to the features of the entry-level Making Waves Audio package, Making Waves Pro includes as high as 32-bit recording, VST effects and instruments (including 52 bundled VST effects and six instrument plug-ins) and support of multiple I/O soundcards. We reviewed the flagship program, Making Waves Studio, which ups the ante another notch with Standard MIDI File (SMF) and MIDI Time Code (MTC) support, as well as built-in Yamaha SW1000XG support.
ONE WINDOW FITS ALL
The main screen has two basic sections: the Tracklist and the Grid. Sounds are sequenced and playback properties are defined in the Tracklist; the Grid is used to arrange these performances. Clicking on the divider between the two sections hides the Tracklist's track-playback properties and expands the Grid, providing more real estate for creating song arrangements.
A variety of controls — such as sample rate, tempo, half-speed playback, song loop on/off, bounce to disk, zoom, transport keys and a small master volume fader — reside at the top and bottom of the main screen. Browser, Waveform and Song Overview windows can be opened at the bottom of the main screen. The Browser is used for dragging-and-dropping sound files, MIDI files and instrument patch icons into the Tracklist. A sample's length, ADSR envelope and loop points can be adjusted in the Waveform Overview. The Song Overview lets you see your whole project at a glance and doubles as a navigation tool.
Once you really understand how Making Waves works, you come to appreciate the design of its single main screen. After all of your preferences are set (like choosing the location of your default VST folder and creating connections with your MIDI and virtual instruments), almost all composing and mixing can be completed in this screen, with hardly any need for the main menu bar's commands. Consequently, writing a track with Making Waves can be quite fast.
DRAG ME AWAY
Tracks are assembled by a unique combination of drag-and-drop operations and pattern sequencing. From the Browser, you select an audio file (WAV files of all sample rates and bit depths are recognized) and drag it to a track in the Tracklist. A sample's track can be assigned one of five playback modes: Single Play, Sample Loop, Percussion, Timesplice and Notes. Every track, regardless of mode, includes level, pan, pitch, delay (track offset) and tempo-based time-stretching parameters.
Single Play mode is for simple, one-shot sample playback. With Sample Loop mode selected, a sample is automatically looped and time-stretched to match your project's tempo. Timesplice mode automatically cuts your loop into equal segments (from whole to 32nd notes) that you can shuffle about to effectively rearrange the order of a loop's beats.
Percussion mode places a sophisticated pattern sequencer in the track for triggering the sample or loop. The pattern's length is infinite, and Grid spacing can be set from half-note to 32nd triplets. Notes can have a variety of parameters (such as offset, length, velocity and detune) modified individually or by groups of pitch and beat (such as every D3 or all the two and four beats, respectively). Notes can also be set to sustain or cut off when the next note is played.
A Piano Roll Sequencer can be attached to a track using Notes mode. One, two or six octaves can be shown vertically, and the grid resolution is fixed at 16th notes. (It's frustrating that you can't change this resolution.) The Piano Roll's editing controls are identical to the Percussion sequencer. Although these controls work okay for the Percussion Sequencer, it's not ideal for a piano roll. The inability to simply change the length or select a range of notes for editing via traditional click-and-drag operations directly in the Piano Roll itself makes this window feel half-baked.
Although Making Waves Studio (and Pro) can record as many as eight tracks simultaneously, this is not a traditional multitrack recording program: There are no tracks for recording audio. Instead, audio is recorded in its own window, totally separate from the Tracklist. After recording a take, you can add the file to the Tracklist through the Browser or with the ± function in the Record window. The entire process is reminiscent of a software interface for a hardware sampler, and in some strange way, it seems appropriate for this program. However, standard multitrack recording features would be a nice addition at some point.
VST Instruments and external MIDI gear are handled similarly to sound files. Making Waves creates icons of your instruments' patches for you to drag-and-drop into tracks. These patch icons, called Instrument Definitions, are generated automatically when you select a VST plug-ins folder containing VST Instruments or by setting up Making Waves to communicate with your MIDI hardware via SysEx. An Instrument Definition can be assigned to Single Play, Percussion or Notes mode.
Making Waves will not output any MIDI until at least one Instrument Definition has been created. If you're used to plug-and-play MIDI instruments, this system can be frustrating at first. However, once it is set up, the program allows a sample that has been sequenced to be easily interchanged with a synth patch from a VST Instrument or external gear. For example, a bass-note sample being played on a track by the Piano Roll Sequencer can be replaced by a VST Instrument's bass preset. Just drag a bass Instrument Definition to the appropriate track to make the swap, and the Piano Roll Sequencer will then play the VST (or external MIDI) Instrument instead of the sample.
MIDI performances are recorded directly into the Piano Roll using that window's own set of transport controls. Pressing the Record button reveals options for a click that can be assigned to play any WAV file and input quantize settings (quarter to 32nd notes and off). The recording will loop according to your selection in the Grid, and you can accept or reject recording takes on the fly. Oddly, only notes that fall within the Piano Roll's display get recorded, so make sure to play within that range or choose the maximum display of six octaves before recording.
If you don't have a standard MIDI controller nearby to input your performances, Making Waves offers a couple of alternatives. The computer's keyboard can double as a controller, complete with chromatic, major, minor and blues scale settings. Also present is a virtual keyboard that can be used to enter notes, one mouse-click at a time.
Fourteen basic but useful native effects come stock, including compressor, delay, echo, distortion, flanger, modulator, harmonizer, pitch shift, reverb and highpass and lowpass filters. Because many of these effects have only one parameter, don't expect miracles. However, the modulator can produce some twisted results; the distortion is crunchy but musically appealing; and the echo features millisecond or beat-synchronized settings.
Working with effects in Making Waves is really different: There is nothing that even remotely resembles a virtual mixer with traditional effects inserts and sends. Instead, a DirectX, a VST or one of Making Waves native effect plug-ins is assigned directly to an Audio Effect Track in the Tracklist. The plug-in effects the sample or virtual-instrument track that is directly above it. Effects can be chained by putting multiple Audio Effect Tracks below one another; then, changing the order of the effects is a simple cut-and-paste procedure. Tracks called Section Tracks act as group channels for effects. An effect placed immediately after a Section Track will effect everything below it, up to the next Section Track.
An effect's output level appears as a series of green bars in the Grid. These bars can be adjusted directly in the Grid, or you can open a Pattern Sequence Window in the track for more detailed control. This system makes automating an effect's output level a snap. Most parameters of VST plug-ins can also be automated using this same method. But only one parameter can be automated per track, so automating several controls on one plug-in will require a proportionate number of tracks. Each Audio Effect Track can have a Mix Track below it for controlling the wet/dry effect ratio.
Making Waves has the ability to generate periodic automation curves that can control effects in wonderful, rhythmic, repeating ways. You can select from sine, cosine, sawtooth, square and random curves that sync to tempo and cycle for the duration of your selection (like a 128-bar sine sweep using a filter effect). It's even possible to take a snapshot of a WAV file's waveform and employ this shape as an automation curve. An infinite number of curves can be merged together and shifted left, right, up or down. (Incidentally, this feature can be a powerful tool for controlling MIDI synths, as well.)
There's also a type of track called Level Cutoff that is handy for creating cool, sequenced volume dropouts, something like what a DJ might do using a crossfader. Although applying effects in Making Waves takes getting used to, the system is amazingly powerful and especially well-designed for tempo-based effects.
The Grid is one portion of Making Waves that will likely look familiar to anybody who has worked with Roland drum-machine-style pattern sequencers. But instead of for plotting out individual notes, the Grid is used for arranging the sequences of the Tracklist. Each track of the Grid corresponds to a track in the Tracklist, with dots placed on the Grid determining when a track's sequence will play. The Grid is composed of one-bar segments; a dot followed by three dashes signifies that the track's sequence is four bars in length. A sequence can be cut short by changing a dash to an x or retriggered by inserting another dot.
A section of contiguous bars can be selected easily by clicking-and-dragging in the timeline above the Grid. Right-clicking then gives you the option to cut or clear, and if your clipboard is full, insert or paste. Markers, called Bookmarks, can be placed and named in the timeline to help you navigate your arrangement. The Song Overview window provides a global view of your project and lets you navigate (vertically and horizontally) through your entire arrangement. There is no zoom feature; however, you can change the track size from small to large.
Section Tracks, besides working as effect grouping tools, function as simple dividers for keeping your tracks organized in the Tracklist. They can be individually named and color-coded. Luckily, the next revision of Making Waves is slated to include a function in which Section Tracks can act like folders — to fold up an entire group of tracks and then be able to place the folders directly on the Grid for sequencing whole sections at once, for example.
This program is really packed full of features, and there's no way we can cover everything in one review. For example, you can customize the program's appearance using your own bitmap skins; the sample CDs that ship with the boxed versions are quite extensive; and there is a Chord Sequencer that presents interesting ways of creating arpeggios. What is important to know about Making Waves is how amazingly different it is from anything else on the market, especially all of the other copycat digital audio sequencers for sale. Hopefully, we got this point across.
We had a lot of fun with this program. Its unique ways of doing things, though often frustrating, turned out to be inspiring. Although the MIDI and audio-recording features don't compare to a standard digital audio sequencer, if taken in context, they get the job done. Making Waves is particularly suited to the creation of dance music; anybody interested in writing dance tracks needs to check out this software. It will be most appealing to those of you not married to a digital audio sequencer or to anybody who is ready to push their creative boundaries and try composing in a totally different environment. With such a cheap price for the basic Making Waves Audio program, it's worth picking up simply to have in your production arsenal. But don't just take out word for it, download the free demo at www.makingwavesaudio.com and give it a test drive for yourself.
STUDIO > $217 (BOXED); $128 (DOWNLOAD)
Pros: Unique approach to creating tracks. Powerful pattern-based effect-processing and composition tool. Runs on practically any PC. Dirt-cheap entry-level version.
Cons: Confusing if used to working with standard digital audio sequencers. Missing a traditional track mixer interface.
Contact: Web www.makingwavesaudio.com
Pentium; 32MB RAM; Windows 95/98/2000/ME/XP; 1 GB hard-disk space; soundcard