It's one of the great debates in the audio world: Steinberg Wavelab or Sonic Foundry Sound Forge? Syntrillium Cool Edit or SEK'D Samplitude? TC Spark or BIAS Peak? Ask 10 people which one is the best, and you'll get 10 different answers — all with perfectly valid reasons. Often, a user's dedication to his or her editing application can approach religious levels, and considering the number of hours that average producers spend staring at their audio editors, it's no surprise that these programs have developed legions of loyal followers.
The question remains, though: Amid all of these choices and conflicting opinions, does one application really stand head and shoulders above the rest? Is there a package that does everything the others do and then some? Is there really a killer application? If you can afford the best in the business, that killer app is Wavelab 4.0.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was the daunting size of the manual — a heavy, 641-page tome containing just about everything a user might need to know about Wavelab and more. It's well-written, with explanations on procedures in step-by-step detail, and although the index could be slightly more comprehensive, it generally never took me more than five minutes to locate information specific to the task at hand. One of the thoughtful features I really appreciated about the manual was the time taken to explain concepts that many casual users may not already understand. A good example is the description of audio-CD formats on p. 448, which includes a short but informative primer on PQ codes, frames, Red Book format and other esoteric CD terminology.
Installing the software was simple and straightforward on my test machine, an 800MHz Pentium III with 512 MB of RAM. Wavelab recognized my MOTU 2408mkII and Plextor CD-R right off the bat, without any help. Steinberg regularly releases patches and CD-R compatibility updates for Wavelab, so it's a pretty safe bet that if a CD-R isn't supported out-of-the-box, it's probably just a simple matter of downloading and applying the latest update. All of my previously installed VST and DirectX plug-ins were also detected automatically.
Like many other audio applications, Wavelab uses CD-based copy protection and asks for the original CD when an update is installed or changes are made to the system configuration. I didn't find this particularly intrusive while working with the software (I was only asked for the CD while installing an update patch), but it's worth noting that it's important to keep the CD close by and in a safe place. There's nothing more frustrating than losing your keys — especially when there's work to be done.
Wavelab's basic workspace is clean, ergonomically straightforward and highly customizable. Standard features are readily available from the menu bar and context menus, and seven control bars grouping more than 70 frequently used features can be docked to any side of the work area or float freely around the main window.
Windows displaying wave data are divided into two segments, with one small pane at the top to edit tasks (see Fig. 1). Combining a section of the overview zooms to that section in the main view makes it easy to zero in on exactly what you're looking for rather than fiddling with exact zoom ratios.
All things considered, its basic ability to perform everyday tasks is what really counts, and it's here that Wavelab really shines. Standard functions can be assigned to custom keys and are processed at a breakneck pace — opening a 100MB sound file took just seven seconds on my test machine, and once the peak file was built, subsequent opens took just 155 ms!
Many editing functions take place in memory and aren't final until the file is saved to disk, so simple functions like cut, paste and mix are literally instantaneous. Overall, I found that Wavelab operated significantly faster than any other audio editor I've used. It's also worth noting that Wavelab is a true multitasking application, so when you eventually process something that takes a little while, you're free to continue working on other audio while the program crunches numbers in the background.
The Master section is the core of Wavelab's audio architecture, a sort of virtual channel strip boasting effects slots for a total of eight VST or DirectX plug-ins, master-level metering and dithering (see Fig. 2). The Master section has been updated, creating more on-screen real estate; the window has been stylized with a cleaner, more streamlined look; and plug-ins can now be reordered simply by dragging and dropping to a new effects slot.
Like with a real channel strip, the signal flows through the Master section from top to bottom. Effects are processed first, fed to the master fader, and the signal is then passed along to the Dithering section before it is routed to the sound card. Effects can be soloed and bypassed using buttons located next to each slot or with the global Bypass button at the bottom of the Effects section.
If you end up with a long chain of effects that you are particularly happy with, you can store it as a “Master Section Preset” and recall the entire setup later instead of rebuilding the chain from scratch. I really liked this feature and used it often during mastering applications in which I often recalled the same EQ, compression and volume maximizer plug-ins.
THE LOOKING GLASS
If you've ever wanted to take a good look at what your music sounds like, the Wavelab meters can break it down for you (see Fig. 3). The standard toolbox — which includes the Level Meter, the Phase Scope and the 60-band Spectrum Meter — has expanded with the inclusion of a bit meter, wave scope and real-time FFT display.
Users of version 3 will be happy to hear that meters are no longer tied to any one program function; they can be used at any time and can be set to monitor incoming audio or the Master section output. All of the meters except the spectrum analyzer are highly customizable, and most offer preset storage so that you can quickly flip back and forth between your favorite settings. Most users, however, will find that the default settings work just fine.
I used the Level Meter and spectrum analyzer almost exclusively. The Level Meter displays peak and RMS values for both stereo channels, and it is an invaluable tool for measuring the perceived loudness of recordings and for making sure that you're getting good, average levels. Meter range, ballistics, hold times and RMS resolution are user-adjustable. Users of version 3 and earlier will appreciate the inclusion of a pan meter that's useful when checking if mixes are properly balanced in the stereo field.
The Spectrum Meter is perfect for tracking down renegade frequencies in your mix; if you need a more accurate tool, the FFT Meter allows you to define analysis parameters that are as detailed as 0.01 Hz. The other meters are welcome additions to the Wavelab package, but unless you're performing specific tasks that require them, you probably won't even remember they're there.
The plug-ins bundled with Wavelab have always been adequate for everyday use, but version 4.0 includes some truly professional-grade processors that are perfect for clean-up and mastering applications. In fact, two of the plug-ins — Spectralizer and Multiband Compressor — appear to be taken straight from Steinberg's Mastering Edition package, which is a $500 package. The addition of EQ, noise reduction, stereo expansion, vocal removal and Apogee's industry-standard UV22 dithering plug-ins make Wavelab an attractive acquisition for serious mastering houses and professional home users.
Although none of the plug-ins quite stack up to the transparency and flexibility of big-ticket processing plug-ins from companies such as Waves, you can rest assured that Wavelab's toolkit is adept at handling most tasks and will provide satisfactory results for all but the most demanding users.
Users with hardware samplers will appreciate the addition of sample transfer via SDS or SMDI. A variety of popular models are supported by default, and for those few that aren't, a generic form is included. My sampler, an E-MU e6400, was in the default list, so configuring it to communicate with Wavelab was a snap.
Wavelab is also tightly integrated with Steinberg's software sampler Halion: Simply drag and drop samples from Wavelab onto Halion's key-zone editor, or cut and paste using standard Windows shortcut keys.
One particularly noteworthy feature for users who buy sample CDs in audio format is the Auto Split function. Used in conjunction with the Import Audio CD Tracks feature, Auto Split is a godsend that can shave hours off of the laborious process of turning CD audio into sampler-ready material. Just dump all of your sample tracks into one folder, point the Auto Split tool at it, set the split parameters, and enjoy a little free time as Wavelab chops the CD tracks into individual files.
Perhaps the most powerful feature in Wavelab is the Audio Montage, a multitrack playback facility that enables you to quickly create complex collages of audio files and output the results to a variety of formats including mixed WAV and CD audio (see Fig. 4). Audio Montages can contain an unlimited number of tracks, and each track can contain an unlimited number of clips that reference audio files on the hard drive. It's a snap to perform automation features such as pans and volume fades on clips. It is a completely nondestructive process that leaves the source material untouched.
Clips can be crossfaded easily by dragging them on top of each other, and fade curves can be edited by creating new nodes and manually shaping the fade or by using one of the seven envelope curves. If you create a curve that you really like, you can store it to a preset and recall it anywhere in the Montage. And if you really like it, store it as your default curve, replacing the standard linear fade.
Each clip in the Montage can be independently processed by as many as 10 VST effects plug-ins. Individual knob movements within the plug-ins cannot be automated, but it is possible to achieve a rudimentary sort of automation by patching the effects-send level to an envelope curve. It isn't the most flexible system in the world, but it's certainly a useful feature when you don't want to sit with your finger on the Bypass button.
Individuals who are compiling serious audio CDs that require crossfades or segues between tracks will likely spend the bulk of their time in the Audio Montage environment. CD track markers can be positioned anywhere by simply right-clicking on the time ruler and selecting the appropriate marker; creating cool things such as hidden tracks is simple. It is also easy to make CDs that won't play back on home players, but don't worry — Wavelab checks your work before you burn to ensure that your CD is Red Book — compatible. So go ahead and experiment!
In addition to the Audio Montage, Wavelab offers two more ways to get your finished product on a CD. The Basic Audio CD option is adequate for quick burns, but in many ways, it's a hold-over from version 3 that has been superseded by the infinitely more versatile CD Project, which allows you to burn not only audio tracks but also data CDs. This will all but eliminate the need for other CD-burning programs, which is great news for individuals who like to keep the number of extra applications installed on their music computer to a minimum.
The CD Project window is straightforward and uses the familiar Explorer-style interface (see Fig. 5). Once added to the project, audio tracks can be reordered by dragging them to the desired location in the playlist. The resulting CD program can be written directly to CD or stored as an ISO image to be burned at a later time.
It's not often that I'm fortunate enough to review a product that doesn't have glaring flaws, so the time I spent getting to know Wavelab 4.0 was a real pleasure. The differences between version 3 and version 4 aren't monumental, but they're certainly worth the price of admission; established users will find the improvements useful under many circumstances. New Wavelab users will immediately appreciate the quick learning curve, Audio Montage features and the sheer speed of the program. Product support is also outstanding: The program's author answers questions in the Wavelab forum at www.cubase.net — tech support doesn't get any better! Wavelab's first major version upgrade in years doesn't come cheap, but the best seldom does. If you can justify Wavelab's expense, you can be sure that you're getting one of the finest applications the industry has to offer.
$99 upgrade from 3.x • $199 upgrade from 1.x/2.x
Pros: Fast. Intuitive user interface. Flexible real-time Master section integrates VST and DirectX plug-ins. Burns audio and data CDs. Multitrack mixing and automation in Audio Montage. UV22 dithering included. ASIO support. Excellent metering tools. High-quality bundled plug-ins.
Overall Rating: 5