WaveLab has been at the forefront of the dedicated Windows audio-editor scene for several years, and Steinberg has taken great pains to keep it there, breaking new ground with each version. CD burning arrived early with version 1.5, and the program's 2.0 update added sampler support and some high-end audio-analysis tools — all cutting-edge features for their time.
Version 3.0 significantly raised the bar, with support for a wider array of file formats and higher sampling rates. It also introduced the Audio Montage window, a powerful multitrack environment for nondestructive editing. The Montage is central to WaveLab's operational premise; it's a sophisticated tool for assembling individual files into a final project master. (For a more detailed look at the Audio Montage, see the review of WaveLab 3.0 in the February 2001 issue of EM.)
WaveLab 4.0 doesn't introduce anything quite as groundbreaking as the Audio Montage, but it does add more than enough noteworthy features to once again keep it well ahead of the competition. The user interface is nicely redesigned for a more streamlined work flow, performance is significantly improved, and a host of new features and analysis tools firmly establish WaveLab as a true all-in-one mastering suite.
MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
Although version 4.0's graphical interface is definitely a modernization of the previous version's, the changes are minimal enough for users already familiar with the program to maintain their comfort level. Once you poke around beyond the basics, however, it becomes clear just how much thought has gone into this face-lift.
WaveLab now provides a good deal more control over the environment, offering the ability to collapse and redock control panels, customize and save window layouts, and create key-command lists. A number of menu functions have also been added, many with new icons for fast identification. The addition of right-click submenu options and marker functions in the Montage window (see Fig. 1) makes it quick and easy to create and save an entire CD master file with track markers, crossfades, and level information intact. All this contributes to a considerably improved work flow.
WaveLab's Effects pane has also been updated (see Fig. 2). In addition to providing for eight plug-ins (up from six), you can now reorder the effects chain by simply dragging and dropping them into the various slots. That's really handy for playing around with routing combinations.
WaveLab has always boasted a useful package of DSP effects, as well as support for third-party VST and DirectX processors. This update also adds some valuable plug-ins that were previously sold separately, including Spectralizer, Phase Scope, Spectrograph, MultiBand Compressor, Denoizer, and Declicker. In addition, the program provides a good-sounding 4-band mastering EQ and a new 192 kHz resampler plug-in. Those are all great tools.
One minor annoyance is Steinberg's long-time standard user-interface design for most of its effects. You change the value of a plug-in's virtual-data knob, as you would on a Mac, by clicking on the (virtual) data wheel and moving the mouse up or down. No problem, except that the effects always appear by default at the top of the screen, leaving little room for an upward mouse stroke until you drag the effect downward.
Each new instance of a VST effect opens that plug-in's panel at the top of the screen once again, even after you've saved a screen layout. The system of moving the mouse up and down also offers less control than the concentric-circle method used by Steinberg's other VST plug-ins, where moving the mouse in wider circles offers finer resolution. (Oddly, Q — the included mastering EQ — works that way.) I'd like this to be a user-selectable setting; at the very least it should be possible to save a screen layout with the effects open at midscreen.
I also found two notable omissions in an otherwise excellent DSP rack: a de-esser and a professional-level reverb. Reverb-quality assessment is highly subjective, and WaveLab's reverb can easily be replaced with any number of good third-party offerings if necessary. The lack of any de-esser, however, is harder to justify in a mastering program, particularly when a de-noiser and de-clicker are included. Steinberg offers a VST plug-in version of SPL's De-esser as an option, but it seems odd that this one item is missing from an otherwise comprehensive processing rack.
Updates in performance are never as glamorous and enticing as graphics overhauls, new features, and other “wow-factor” updates. It's just not as easy to get people excited about under-the-hood improvements, and performance is particularly subjective and hard to quantify because of the large number of system variables involved. Nevertheless, performance is important to every user, especially in a mastering program.
Steinberg has definitely put some energy into revving the performance of WaveLab's audio engine, and the results are quite noticeable. Screens zoom in and out and redraw with an immediacy and responsiveness that was impressive even on the modest Pentium II/450 MHz laptop that I used for testing. Cutting, pasting, and other mundane editing tasks run faster and more efficiently, with less disruption of the active playback. In earlier versions of the program, clicking some common requests like opening or saving files left you with nothing for company but an hourglass and the slow eastward creep of a progress meter. Those are now thankfully relegated to the background where they belong, allowing you to continue working.
Intelligent batch processing further automates a number of DSP and archiving functions, using some pretty clever shared-information techniques to reduce CPU demands. Entire projects can be processed and archived to disk or CD in the background, and they can even be compressed on the fly as ZIP files.
Alternatively, you can use another new feature, WaveLab's OSQ (Original Sound Quality) lossless encoding. OSQ seems to live up to its name: in my (admittedly less-than-critical) tests, it was difficult to distinguish between an original 44.7 MB WAV file and the same file as a 28.4 MB OSQ version.
WaveLab now supports most major audio formats, including Sound Designer II, AIFF, WAV, Javasound, WMA (export only), and MP3. It's interesting, though, that while it supports some relatively exotic protocols such as US and EU telephony formats, it doesn't support the RealAudio format.
Another welcome performance improvement is the inclusion of ASIO driver support and the updating of MME to include WDM support. Because WaveLab isn't a multiple-output application, the program was previously optimized only for MME drivers. Although that's not a problem in itself, for some audio hardware, the ASIO drivers are preferable to the MME drivers.
LOOK, DITHER, AND BURN
WaveLab has always offered some handy analysis tools, and this update adds a few new items to the menu (see Fig. 3). The program now has a selection of real-time metering functions, including standard fare such as level/pan and spectrum analysis (60-band bar graph and FFT versions), as well as more exotic phase and wave scopes and bit meters. This last item is an exceptionally useful tool in determining the actual word depth of a file, alerting you to potentially underused headroom, which can add noise.
Once you're ready to finalize your project, you'll be very pleased with WaveLab's new version of Apogee's UV22 dithering algorithm. The previous version of the UV22 (which is also still provided in WaveLab 4.0) dithers to only 16 bits, but the new UV22 HR supports dithering to 8-, 16-, 20-, and 24-bit resolution.
WaveLab 4.0 supports an increased range of CD burners for creating Red Book audio CDs. It can also burn mixed-mode and data-backup CDs and has a CD-copy feature that can copy directly between two drives or write to the hard disk first. The program even includes a basic but very usable Label Editor window for designing disc labels, tray inserts, and covers.
WaveLab's interface with samplers has always been excellent, with direct support for most popular hardware units and generic sample-dump support for other sources. MIDI and SCSI communication are covered, and the program's smart looping features, crossfade options, and processing power make it a great alternative to the limited interfaces in most hardware samplers.
For owners of Steinberg's HALion, WaveLab now offers a direct interface. You can even drag loops directly from WaveLab into HALion's Keyzone page. It would be great to see support extended to Tascam GigaStudio and other software samplers as well.
Another new feature, Auto Split, allows some interesting file-manipulation tricks. Aside from automatically splitting files at designated markers or specific time intervals, Auto Split can identify and split at user-specified regions of silence or at beat points. Functionally, that's somewhat akin to Propellerhead's Recycle, though according to Steinberg it is a different technology, based on space, whereas Recycle is amplitude based. In any case, it makes quick work of reordering and rearranging grooves and loops, and it further enhances WaveLab's sampler interface.
NEWER IS BETTER
If you're a Windows-based musician and you're shopping for a high-end audio-editing program, WaveLab 4.0 deserves some serious consideration. If you already own an earlier version of WaveLab, is the upgrade worth it? Perhaps not if you're among the few who see WaveLab as simply a basic audio editor; some of the new features might seem a bit extraneous. But for the other 90 percent of WaveLab users, this overhaul is a very comprehensive one. The combination of new features, streamlined work flow, and significant performance enhancements certainly justify the upgrade and keep WaveLab several giant steps ahead of its competition.
Daniel Kelleris a pro-audio curmudgeon who, when he was your age, had to walk 20 miles in the snow to splice wax cylinders.
Minimum System Requirements
Pentium II/200 (Pentium III/500 recommended); 128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended); Windows 98/2000/ME/XP; 60 MB free hard-disk space
WaveLab 4.0 (Win)
multitrack audio editor
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY4.5VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Improved user interface. Enhanced performance. Additional plug-in processors and analysis tools. Improved dithering algorithm. Tight integration with HALion software sampler. Good hardware sampler support. Handy CD-label editor.
CONS: No de-esser plug-in. Virtual sampler support limited to HALion. Some VST effects still have awkward user interface.