Seeing The Lite: Lite Software Roundup: Affordable Versions Come Of Age-And Deliver Serious Value

Cheap and powerful: two words that usually don’t go together. Yet there’s a new breed of software, built on proven foundations, that make this combination a non-oxymoron.
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Cheap and powerful: two words that usually don’t go together. Yet there’s a new breed of software, built on proven foundations, that make this combination a non-oxymoron.

The focus of this roundup isn’t free software, software that’s bundled with other products, or isolated programs that are cost-effective in their own right (e.g., Reaper, Mixcraft). Instead, we’re focusing on derivatives of “flagship” programs that nonetheless exhibit serious value. In fact, many of these were yesterday’s flagship programs. (One exception: We’re not reviewing Pro Tools LE because so many musicians consider that the “standard” version, and Pro Tools|HD more of an “über-version.”)

We can’t cover everything worthy, so we picked some favorites based on two criteria: value and functionality. All these have the “EQ seal of approval” for being big-time overachievers.

However, we must also be realistic about what these programs don’t do. There’s a reason why flagship programs exist, and for many critical applications they have features certain users can’t live without. Fortunately for the budget-minded, though, many of us don’t need those higher-level features.

Most companies that offer full and lite versions provide comparison charts on their websites where you can check out differences. While useful, though, they don’t necessarily relate the subjective element . . . hence this article. (Note that most of these programs have upgrade options to full versions and trial versions available; as these are subject to change without notice, check the websites. Also, all prices given are list prices.)

Ready to do cool stuff and save money? So are we. Here’s what we found.

APPLE LOGIC EXPRESS ($199)

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If you don’t see a lot of differences compared to
Logic Pro 8, that’s because there aren’t. The instrument
that looks like it came from Area 51 is the Ultrabeat
drum module.

With Logic Studio selling for $499, the big question is what do you give up to gain $300? Concerning Logic itself, the answer is: not much.

The main attraction of the Logic Studio package is that it’s a package, with Logic Pro 8, MainStage, Soundtrack Pro 2, QuickTime 7 Pro, six content DVDs (Jam Pack collections, sound effects, surround music beds, etc.), and much more. That’s a lot of stuff; you don’t get anywhere near as much with Logic Express, other than the Apple Loops Utility (which is available as a free download anyway), content for the included instruments, and a DVD with Logic Artist Spotlight demo songs.

But Logic Express is a valuable program in its own right. It uses the same code base and newly-streamlined interface of Logic 8, and includes most of the same functionality—in fact, when you first open Logic Express, you might wonder if Apple slipped you Logic Pro 8 by accident. Even though Express is sold as a “lite” program, you can also think of it as Logic Studio without the accessorizing.

What you don’t get: Like many “lite” programs, Logic Express eschews surround—it’s two-track mixdown only. And while it has most of Logic Studio’s instruments and effects, it doesn’t have some advanced effects (Space Designer and Delay Designer), nor does it have the Sculpture modeling synth or suite of vintage instruments (EVP88 electric piano, EVB3 Hammond clone, and EVD6 clav). Express doesn’t support TDM hardware, Digidesign’s DAE, or distributed audio rendering—admittedly features mostly for hardcore users.

What you get that you didn’t expect: Logic Express has amazingly few performance limitations compared to Logic Pro 8. There’s the same track count (255 tracks maximum), 24-bit/192kHz resolution, notation, control surface support, beat mapping, and the Quick Swipe comping (i.e., all the various bits are assembled automatically into a single track) that everyone loves about Logic Pro. Express also bundles 36 virtual instruments (including the Ultrabeat drum box, ES2 “virtual analog” synth, and oldie-butgoodie EXS24 sampler) and 70 plug-ins, including Guitar Amp Pro—so you really have the plug-in bases covered.

The bottom line: Before the price drop on the Pro version of Logic, Logic Express represented exceptional value. Many musicians realized it was all they needed, and happily pocketed the change.

That’s a harder call to make these days, because an additional $300 buys you a lot more goodies; MainStage alone is almost worth that if you gig with an Apple computer. Throw in all the Jam Packs and the extra instruments, and that’s exceptional value.

On the other hand, Logic Express doesn’t mess around. It has Logic Pro 8’s single-window interface, time-stretching, beat mapping, pitch correction, and the latest plug-ins (like Spectral Gate and Ringshifter). You really aren’t giving up much core functionality at all.

While it’s a tough choice, if you’re strapped for cash and need Logic now, Logic Express will definitely not disappoint. www.apple.com

ABLETON LIVE 7 LE ($149 DOWNLOAD, $199 BOX)

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The lower section shows the Simpler instrument and
its associated MIDI track. The browser on the left
shows some of the devices included with Live 7 LE,
while the upper part shows Session View, which is
optimized for working with loops.

I’m a fan of Ableton Live, so I have mixed feelings about the LE version (which also includes the Operator instrument— a nice touch). Why? Because Live is an extremely versatile program that can be used in many ways. Some people (including myself) use it primarily for live performance, some as a DAW, and others for remixing or generating loops. So we not only need to evaluate Live LE vs. Live, but also, for its intended application.

What you don’t get: Live LE mostly restricts functionality. For example, there’s 64 audio tracks max instead of unlimited—then again, I’ve never needed even close to 64 tracks. Similarly, being limited to two stereo in/out pairs won’t trouble most users. You’re allowed a maximum of eight Ableton instruments/12 Ableton effects/two VST or AU effects per project (instead of unlimited), and two send/return buses instead of 12. Also, you don’t get some sophisticated features like being able to treat virtual instruments or effects as plug-ins, ReWire, complex warp mode (an amazing time-stretcher for program material), track freeze, MIDI sync, MIDI out for external instruments, REX file support, dithering, instrument rack editing (although they can be loaded/played), and video support.

To me, the biggest limitation is having only eight “scenes” instead of unlimited (selecting a scene triggers a collection of loops in sync with the tempo), because the typical live performances I do require several dozen scenes. Those who tend to work within a scene (e.g., enabling/disabling individual loops), use Live as a DAW, or do mostly DJing likely wouldn’t find this limiting.

What you get that you didn’t expect: The audio engine equals the full version: resolution up to 32-bit/192kHz, smart memory management, and multicore/multiprocessor support. Most MIDI functions are present (unlimited MIDI effects/MIDI tracks, superb MIDI mapping to external controllers, time signature changes, etc.). There are also the same generous file import/export options, plugin delay compensation, the full complement of 23 built-in audio effects (many with sidechaining), and the Impulse and Simpler instruments. The boxed version adds a collection of sampled instruments (piano, guitar, bass, drums, harp, woodwinds, etc.), and additional content from Puremagnetik.

The bottom line: With the boxed version costing a third of Ableton Live 7 and a fifth of the Ableton Suite (which bundles cool instruments and lots of content), LE represents a significant savings. Thanks to free trial versions of Live 7 and Live 7 LE, it’s easy to compare them.

If you work a lot with basic MIDI, Live 7 LE is an excellent choice for creating loops (although it won’t drive external MIDI gear). It’s also an excellent compositional tool with a different “feel” than a standard DAW. And even if you have a primary DAW program, Live LE is a useful complement that opens up other musical options—it provides an inexpensive, simple way to get some of that “Live mojo” in your studio.

While LE lacks some features that make Live such an exceptional program, the cost savings are substantial. However, if you download the trials and prefer the full version, you’ll probably regret not getting it over LE. Live 7 still offers savings compared to the Ableton Suite, and you can always add more instruments and content a piece at a time, as your financial situation permits. www.ableton.com

SONY VEGAS MOVIE STUDIO PLATINUM PRO PACK ($129.95 BOXED, $114.95 DOWNLOAD WITH LESS CONTENT)

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Vegas Movie Studio’s brilliant one-window interface
places video, audio, browsing, transitions, and
effects at your fingertips. The floating window is
Cinescore, which is about to generate a high-energy
techno-type soundtrack. Note the extensive crossfading
and automation on the lower audio track.

If you’re thinking “Why is EQ reviewing a video program?,” Vegas Movie Studio is actually five programs in one: video editor, hard disk audio recorder, digital audio editing program (Sound Forge Audio Studio, Sony’s “lite” version of Sound Forge, is included), DVD creator, and Cinescore, an automatic score generator that has to be heard to be believed. However, like Vegas Pro, there’s no support for MIDI.

This is the highest-end version of the Movie Studio series; the lower-level versions (Vegas Movie Studio $69.95 packaged/$ 54.95 download, and Vegas Movie Studio Platinum ($99.95/$84.95) are more video-only and contain less content. However, given the relatively minor price difference and many extra features, EQ recommends the Platinum Pro Pack.

What you don’t get: Compared to Vegas Pro, there are four video and four audio tracks instead of unlimited track counts. (However, you can have an unlimited number of events per video and audio track.) There are also some workflow limitations: You can’t save customized window layouts or create templates, no recording of automation (you can draw envelopes, though), and no control surface support. DVD authoring is basic, but the choice of delivery media sure isn’t: You can burn to video and multimedia CDs, DVD, Blu-Ray(!), and both Disc-At- Once and Track-At-Once Red Book CDs.

Audio-wise, maximum bit depth/resolution is 16/48kHz, whereas Pro does 24/192kHz and 5.1 surround. The same limitations apply to Sound Forge Audio Studio. Pro includes 35 DirectX effects (many automatable) as opposed to Studio’s 25 DirectX effects, which aren’t automatable (nor are 3rd-party DX effects). And there’s no bussing for aux or effects (everything dumps into the master out), or on-the-fly punch-in recording.

More esoteric limitations include no support for certain high-end video boards, Broadcast WAV files, systemwide media management, or 32-bit float video processing. Titling is basic, but adequate; however, Vegas Pro includes the Pro Type titler. Also, only Vegas Pro offers 64-bit Windows Vista compatibility—when time is money, that can be a big deal.

What you get that you didn’t expect: The Cinescore plug-in, which generates soundtracks based on criteria you specify, is very cool, and not included with Vegas Pro (Sony assumes pro users will buy the full Cinescore version, which is more versatile). Also, the inclusion of Sound Forge Audio Studio gives a lot of processing and mastering power (including sound restoration tools that Pro doesn’t have), albeit for up to 16-bit/48kHz files only.

“Consumer-friendly” options not found in Vegas Pro include direct publishing to YouTube, 1,001 sound effects, ten Cinescore themes (others are optional at extra cost), and several extra 3D transitions and effects. And while Pro accommodates HD videos, surprisingly Studio does too; capture and export options are plentiful. Studio also includes several movie-making wizards and interactive tutorials, which Sony presumes the typical Pro user won’t need.

The bottom line: For getting into video, it’s hard to imagine a more cost-effective/beginner-friendly option for Windows—yet there’s enough depth that it’s also hard to outgrow. Vegas Pro has always had a reputation of being particularly easy to use for musicians, due to its heritage as a hard disk audio recording program. Vegas Movie Studio continues that tradition. Furthermore, the ability to do four tracks of hard disk recording, along with ASIO, Sound Forge Audio Studio editing software, and support for VST/DX plug-ins as well as “Acidizing” files and time-stretching, are a huge plus. www.sonycreativesoftware.com

CAKEWALK SONAR HOME STUDIO 7 XL ($209)

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Home Studio has a clean, inviting look that reflects its
identity as a more “prosumer”-oriented application
compared to Sonar. The Studio Instruments module is
in the lower right, and the step sequencer (both are
exclusive to the XL version) in the upper right.

The non-XL version costs $139, but XL is a more complete solution: It includes Cakewalk Studio Instruments collection (drums, bass, electric piano, and strings, along with pre-recorded patterns), Studio Devil guitar amp sim, Boost 11 loudness maximizer, a “lite” version of the Dimension sample-based instruments plus the Garritan Pocket Orchestra sound library, and a step sequencer. If you don’t need these, the regular version saves $70. This compares to $369 for Sonar 8 Studio or $619 for Sonar 8 Producer (S8P), which folds in more instruments, effects, and content compared to Sonar 8 Studio.

Cakewalk has worked hard to give Home Studio its own identity. Despite the shared Sonar code base, the GUI is quite different (and very clean), and the recording process is more streamlined. Still, you can do serious work with it; this is a “prosumer,” not “consumer,” program.

What you don’t get: There’s no Windows Vista 64-bit version, nor S8P’s extensive menu and toolbar customization options. Although MIDI tracks are unlimited, audio maxes out at 64 tracks. Home Studio doesn’t use S8P’s 64-bit audio engine, but with resolution up to 24- bit/192kHz, few will complain. And while there’s a good selection of effects (e.g., the Sonitus:fx and some others), you don’t get the rich assortment in S8P such as advanced reverbs, Guitar Rig LE, Linear Phase mastering EQ and multiband compression, Vintage Channel strip, VST sidechaining, POW-r dithering, etc. However, there’s built-in 6-band EQ for each mixer channel. And aside from Dimension LE, you don’t get the cool S8P instruments like Rapture LE, Psyn II, Pentagon (with vocoder), Beatscape, TruePianos Amber, z3ta+, and Session Drummer 2.

Other limitations include no surround, less sophisticated loop recording (no track layering), no iZotope algorithms for pitch stretching, and no AudioSnap for lining up audio to a grid or other audio, OMF import/export, or the V-Vocal Editor for pitch correction/pitch-to-MIDI.

What you get that you didn’t expect: Home Studio supports Intel Macs running Boot Camp, as well as ReWire slaves. But one of the biggest surprises is the wealth of assistant tools, templates, and content (over 2GB) intended to simplify workflow (the non-XL version of Home Studio has over 1GB). It even includes S8P’s new loop explorer that allows browsing audio loops (and MIDI loops through soft synths), along with loop construction/ editing facilities. You’ll also find the Synth Rack, which allows consolidating crucial instrument controls in one place for simplified tweaking and automation, and REX file support via the included DropZone sample/REX player (other included instruments include GrooveSynth, TTS-1 General MIDI synth, and a simple analog emulation synth). There’s video support (including QuickTime export), notation, Cakewalk’s ACT technology for simplified hardware control, the Cakewalk Publisher module that provides uploadable players for websites, track freeze, audio CD creation, track folders, and more.

The bottom line: Home Studio XL is extremely costeffective— but so is S8P. Adding all those instruments and effects to Home Studio XL would cost far more than the $410 price difference. But S8P is also a deeper program with a steeper learning curve; XL offers more hand-holding and a simpler workflow, with tons of functionality— arguably, more than most people need.

Given S8P’s extras, if you’re into serious production and don’t already have a lot of plug-ins, it’s probably worth scraping together the extra bucks. But if you’re on a tight budget, Home Studio XL offers exceptional bang for the buck and has few “deliberate” limitations—this program easily exceeds expectations. www.cakewalk.com

STEINBERG WAVELAB 6 STUDIO ($399.95) AND WAVELAB ESSENTIAL 6 ($130.99)

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Steinberg’s Wavelab 6 digital audio editor ($699.95) has spawned not one, but two different lite versions. Of the two, Studio is still relatively costly, but incorporates pretty much all the important elements of Wavelab 6. Essential has a considerably stripped-down feature set, but as the name implies, delivers the essentials of audio editing at a very good price.

What you don’t get: Compared to the full version, Studio lacks the “higher end of the bell curve” features, like 64-bit floating point editing (it maxes out at 32-bit floating), no spectrum editing (an esoteric, but very useful, feature for advanced editing techniques), six master section slots instead of eight (four for Essential), limited “montage” (multitracking) features, only two output channels instead of eight, two effects maximum per track/clip instead of 10 (one for Essential), and a maximum of eight audio tracks and one video track— Wavelab has no limits on either. Essential does only two audio tracks.

There’s no option to burn DVD-Audio, but with DVDAudio a fading format, this may be moot. You also won’t find sampler support or audio databasing. However, Studio can do both DVD-ROM and CD-ROM data backups— a feature I’ve found very useful with Wavelab.

As to Essential, anything Studio can’t do, Essential can’t do either. Furthermore, it can’t apply editing to a selection, just a file; and for playback, unlike the others, it doesn’t offer variable speed, jog/shuttle, or a time display window. Audio CD burning is more basic (e.g., no support for Audio CD indexing), and it can’t import a CD image file.

What you get that you didn’t expect: Studio contains a wealth of offline processors, lacking only pitch quantize, error detection/correction, effect morphing, and a pan normalizer compared to the full version. Realtime plug-ins are almost identical, less the high-res Apogee dithering (although the standard Apogee version is included), 192kHz resampling, and the ability to use plugins with externally-input audio or use external hardware as a plug-in. Surprisingly, Essential does almost as well as Studio although there is no Apogee dithering (only the “house brand”), no multiband compressor or ducker, and for offline processing, no loudness normalizer (only peak normalization). Also surprisingly, like its bigger brothers, Essential includes a video window for editing to picture and podcast creation functions.

All Wavelabs support VST and DX plug-ins, Broadcast WAV files, and 24-bit resolution; for sample rate, Wavelab and Studio top out at 192kHz compared to Essential’s 96kHz, and Essential is limited to 2GB files whereas Wavelab and Studio support the w64 format for unlimited file lengths.

The bottom line: Having two “lite” choices may seem to complicate matters, but a careful analysis shows each has its own uses. The full version of Wavelab is a program where no matter what you ask it to do, it’ll probably say “Yes, I can.” However, not everyone is going to ask a program to do DVD-Audio, 192kHz editing, multitrack “montage”-style editing, or take isolated noises out of a track via spectral editing.

If you just need the basics—trim files, process them, and get them ready for prime time or podcasting— Essential will likely offer all you need, although the omission of a multiband compressor is something you’ll want to rectify for serious mastering. If you need a pro-level digital audio editor, unless you’re doing a variety of projects on an almost daily basis where you have no idea what people will throw at you, the Studio version will satisfy all but the most critical applications. www.steinberg.net

BIAS PEAK LE 6 ($129)

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Peak LE 6 not only looks elegant,
but includes a ton of features from
Peak Pro. The menu shows the
available DSP processes; grayed
out ones are available in the Pro
version, but note that these tend
to be the more esoteric functions.

Peak LE—the junior version of the pre-eminent Mac digital audio editor—costs 20% as much as Peak Pro, and 10% the price of Peak Pro XT (which includes an additional collection of mastering-oriented plug-ins). But does the huge price difference also represent a big hit on functionality? Let’s find out by comparing LE to Peak Pro.

What you don’t get: The main difference is no looping tools like Peak’s Loop Tuner (although you can loop selections, and nudge loop points). So if looping is a big part of what you do, Peak LE is not the droid you’re looking for. Also, resolution tops out at 24-bit/96kHz, as opposed to 32-bit/10MHz (not a misprint!).

There are also a few file handling limitations: no batch processing, limited region export, generic MDA dither instead of BIAS’s cool DCAT and POW-r dithering, and no SMDI sample transfers. A bigger limitation is that editing is not RAM-based, but hard-drive based. For short files, this isn’t a big deal but with longer files, your hard drive will get a lot of exercise.

As to plug-ins, there’s AU/VST support but LE doesn’t include the Vbox series/parallel matrix router, which is great for sophisticated editing. Also, there are only three plug-in insert slots compared to five, and for DSP, LE has 17 options—less than half the 40+ DSP processes in other Peaks. But the essentials are there; the only function I really miss is “Find Peak,” which I use in mastering to locate “rogue” peaks so I can bring down their levels. There are also no restoration tools (e.g., repair clicks, SoundSoap LE).

What you get that you didn’t expect: First up: Peak’s superb sample rate converter made the transition to LE; although quality is limited to five out of 10 for offline editing, performance is the same as Pro’s for realtime playback. Editing features are also unexpectedly complete, and there’s a lot of bundled content: WireTap Pro (captures Internet/system audio), SFX Machine LT, sixmonth Broadjam.com membership, sound effects, audio loops, and more. LE also supports 14 formats— including QuickTime with video playback—lacking only the RAW and DDP 2.0 file formats.

And although there are also a few limitations in playlist/CD creation (e.g., no graphical waveform editing— although of course you can do that outside of the playlist), LE can convert that playlist into a fully-compliant Red Book CD. LE even does CD Text, automatic PQ code generation, ISRC and UPC codes, and the like.

Furthermore, LE supports podcast publishing (no additional software needed) and has a handy ducking feature to lower music during voiceovers. And in a nod to consumer- oriented applications, you can export audio directly to iTunes from the playlist.

The bottom line: Given the minimal competition to Peak on the Mac (other than i3’s DSP Quattro), it’s very commendable that BIAS has folded so much into LE yet attached such a low price. You probably wouldn’t even know Peak LE was a lite program if the functions available in Peak Pro weren’t grayed out in the menus.

If you’re into serious 24/7 mastering and sound design, the additional tools in Pro—as well as the suite of plug-ins in the XT version— are worth the extra investment. But for many (maybe even most) users, Peak LE 6 gives everything needed to edit audio on the Mac—and more. www.bias-inc.com

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS GUITAR RIG XE AND SESSION ($119 AND $249)

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Guitar Rig XE has the same
flexible drag-and-drop
interface of Guitar Rig 3,
as well as a subset of the
flagship program’s modules.
Note the browser on
the left, and also, the
advanced “hidden” parameters
under the Delay
Man processor.

Not only DAWs have lite versions: So do plug-ins. Guitar Rig XE isn’t just a “teaser” for the full version, but more of a “Guitar Rig’s greatest hits” that stands on its own.

What you don’t get: For about 1/3 the price compared to Guitar Rig 3, you get about half the amp models, effects, and tools. Although the full version includes six more amps, interestingly XE includes the amps I use the most: Lead 800, Twang Reverb, AC Box (AC30), Gratifier, Citrus, and Bass Pro. GR3 has 44 effects; XE has 21 (including the two modulation sources). While XE has all the basics—distortion, compression, EQ, phaser, autofilter, noise gate, wah, chorus, flanger, etc.—it doesn’t have some of my GR3 favorites: the Psychedelay with its wonderful backward delays, octave divider, harmony synthesizer, synth lowpass filter, and rotating speaker. (The remaining GR3 effects tend to be variations on EQ, delay, octave divider, filters, noise reduction, and the like—good for broadening your palette, but not as “essential.”)

Modulation sources lack the envelope, step sequencer, and analog sequencer, making it difficult to do AdrenaLinn-type synced effects. As to accessories, you get the two “tape decks” that can record/play back riffs and final outputs, tuner, and metronome, but no loop machine, split (essential for parallel effects), or crossover—another powerful tool for parallel processing. There are also only 150 presets compared to 500.

What you get that you didn’t expect: The models and effects included in XE are the same as those in GR3—not junior versions. They even have the “advanced” parameters for tweaking parameters like Sag and Bias on the amps. XE also includes the same drag-and-drop, easy-to-use, rack-oriented interface as GR3; you’re not limited to specific combinations or orders of effects, and you can instantiate multiple versions of the same effects. It also has GR3’s “Live View” mode, a boon for onstage use (yes, XE works in stand-alone mode), and is compatible with NI’s Rig Kontrol optional footswitch/pedal hardware.

An additional variation, Guitar Rig Session, bundles a high-quality, portable, guitar/line/mic interface with XE. Session also includes the Pop Drums sound set (with the Kore Player for playback) and Cubase LE. For an extra $130, if you don’t have guitar-friendly interfacing hardware, this does the job simply, but in style.

The bottom line: Guitar Rig XE actually feels more like an earlier version of Guitar Rig than a ‘lite’ version of GR3. GR1’s list price was $499, but it had only three amps, and about the same number of effects as XE (although it did have the split module). So yes, XE is extremely cost-effective. If you’re deep into amp sims and want the most versatile amp sim on the market, then an investment in GR3 is easy to justify—but XE gives the essentials at a very cost-effective price. www.native-instruments.com

WAVES GTR SOLO ($140)

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Beneath those funky graphics lie Waves’ processing algorithms, and
they sound very good indeed. This example shows two effects before
the amp module and two effects after, but there are no limitations as
to which modules go in which slots.

Similarly to Guitar Rig XE, Solo is the “greatest hits” from Waves’ GTR 3. It has Clean, Drive, and High Gain amps (along with a Bass amp); each has various algorithms, giving 10 amps total, as well as plenty of effects. Solo can also work in stand-alone mode.

What you don’t get: At almost three times the price of GTR Solo, GTR 3 ($380) is clearly the flagship product. But Solo makes the right decisions about what to include. While lacking GTR3’s 25 amps, Solo’s 10 options cover a broad range of sounds. Solo has 10 cabinets instead of 29, and 13 effects instead of 26; but again, they’re the important ones—Solo even includes a harmony synthesizer. The additional effects in GTR3 tend to be variations, such as multiple “flavors” of distortion.

The biggest difference is the architecture. Solo offers a fixed “pedalboard” with four effects and the amp (effects can be placed before or after the amp as desired). GTR3 lets you load up to six effects in “pedalboards” that are plug-ins in their own right, and can go before or after the amp (you can instantiate as many amps and effects as you want). However, while GTR3 is more flexible, some will find Solo more streamlined and less intimidating.

What you get that you didn’t expect: Solo’s effects are based on the same algorithms as Waves’ bigbucks product line. They’re very clean, and work extremely well with other instruments (e.g., vocals and drums). So, you’re getting a bundle of Waves effects at a righteous price. What’s more, luthier Paul Reed Smith—universally recognized as one of the industry’s best—has been heavily involved in the GTR project, from loaning his own amp collection for modeling to doing “reality checks” on sound quality. Although Solo is not as flexible as some other guitar modeling programs, few would argue with the stunning sound quality.

The bottom line: People often wonder what’s “the best” amp sim, but really, each has its own personality— just like real amps. As a result, one program may work better in an application than another. That said, the availability of superior “lite” programs makes it possible to own a “collection” of amp sims wit[' /'hout busting your budget—interestingly, GTR Solo and GR XE cost less than GTR 3 or Guitar Rig 3 by itself, with change left over for strings and picks. GTR Solo gives that great Waves sound quality, and the amp emulations are spot-on. It’s a winner. www.waves.com