Steinberg Wavelab5

Audio editing software takes a big leap forward
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By Craig Anderton

Wavelab5 represents a quantum change in digital audio editors - perhaps the most significant since Digi started the ball rolling with Sound Designer.

Sure, there have been some variations on the theme: Sound Forge brought editing to the masses, Cool Edit added multitrack recording to become Cool Edit Pro (now Adobe Audition), Magix's Sequoia skillfully combined multitrack recording, digital audio editing, and high-end mastering into one program, and Wavelab itself previously added a Montage feature to allow multitrack editing.

But Wavelab5 is the first editing program to whole-heartedly embrace DVD-Audio and surround, both of which definitely feel integrated into the core of the program rather than tacked-on. Furthermore, if you're a Wavelab veteran, you'll find a gentle learning curve. Working with the DVD functions resembles working with the CD functions in previous versions, and editing multiple channels for surround is like editing two channels for stereo - except there are more channels.

The CD proves ownership, but you also need to enter a serial number. In any event, copy protection is not onerous - if you're in the middle of a mastering session and your hard drive crashes, you have the security of knowing you can easily re-install. You're also allowed to install on both laptop and desktop (thank you!).

Surround hasn't hit critical mass, yet anyone who's worked with it knows this is audio's future. Part of the problem has been missing pieces of the surround puzzle, like the paucity of surround-oriented digital audio editors. Well, Wavelab has beefed up its Montage (multitrack) feature to handle true surround operation from input to output - record, process, and master in surround, up to eight channels. Even the metering and analysis tools handle surround.

Before continuing, I must confess I'm reviewing a surround-oriented program without the benefits of a full surround system. I have a surround-compatible mixer and sound card, and can listen to the results of messing with all the channels, but I don't have a THX-certified system with a big sub and other niceties.

But now that Wavelab5 is here, decent surround capability for my studio has jumped from "when I get around to it" to "I need this now."

And it wouldn't surprise me if you have the same reaction. Wavelab5 makes the process of working with multiple channels not only bearable, but simple. Meanwhile, at least there's user-definable surround to stereo downmixing, so I can hear surround creations over my 20th-century stereo system.

Of course, with surround comes the need to support additional file types, and Wavelab5 can now export to Windows Media Pro 5.1 and 7.1. Surround plug-ins are also an issue, but Wavelab5 ships with several plug-ins that process all channels in a surround setup: EQ-1, Leveler Multi, Noise Gate, Peakmaster, Puncher, and Silence (adds silent portions at the start and/or end of the file - great if you have an echo or reverb tail that "hangs over"). You can also process individual montage tracks with conventional stereo effects.

The inclusion of DVD-A burning and extraction is a breakthrough, and I'd go so far as to say that Wavelab5 could make a difference in the DVD-A versus SACD contest. Wavelab5 will empower a bunch of musicians to experiment with high-def audio because the program integrates the DVD-A process so effortlessly.

Not only can you burn DVD-A, but there's serious DVD-A menu creation, including onscreen menu design, slide shows, DVD text, transitions, etc. You can even print DVD labels from the program. Of course, CD-R/RW burning hasn't been left behind either. And like CDs, Wavelab5 can extract audio data from DVD-A.

The mechanics of creating a DVD-A are fairly simple. You use the Montage feature to assemble up to nine groups of up to 99 files. This is all explained clearly in the manual, which is a good thing for DVD-A newbies (like me). The groups could be, for example, different combinations of songs: One group could play one set of tunes, while another plays the remixes, and another plays only the downtempo material. Of course, you can also have just one group. All DVD-A file options are available, from two channels of 24-bit/192kHz audio up to multiple channels of audio, at lower bit and sample rates if needed to fit on the disc. You can also burn DVD video data on the same disc as DVD-A. So, one document can have audio, pictures, and video - if nothing else, I've seen the future of electronic press kits.

So does it work? Amazingly enough, by doing the secret "power user" trick of reading the manual, within a couple hours of installing the program I was the proud owner of a burned and verified (no errors!) DVD-Audio disc. Note that DVD and CD burning extends to backup and archiving as well, but this isn't limited to Wavelab projects;

Wavelab5 also serves as an excellent general-purpose archiving application.

Finally - Wavelab can import AVI video files if you're into editing audio for video. As expected, you can't edit the video, but at least being able to do audio-for-video steals a little of the thunder from its video-friendly competition.

Wavelab5's equalizer has been upgraded, and joined by a multiband compressor. There's no "loudness maximization" type of plug-in, and while Wavelab5 does include a DeNoiser and DeClicker plug-in, there's no frequency-based editing as with Audition 1.5, nor "noiseprint"-based noise reduction.

Wavelab5 retains previous features that are worth mentioning: Batch processing, file database, quality dithering, analysis options, MTC sync, and sampler support (for computers equipped with the requisite MIDI and/or SCSI ports). This provides not only loop point editing and crossfade looping; the killer feature here is the "Loop Tone Equalizer." This can loop just about anything thanks to a "slice" mode that cuts the loop into multiple slices, then "averages out" the sound so that the end and beginning transition seamlessly. With sustained tones you have to be careful to tweak crossfades, though, so there's not too much of a sonic transition between the sound's attack and where the loop begins.

I also found this useful for drum loops. For example, suppose you have a 4-bar loop. You "Loop Tone Equalize" it into four slices, so each bar now consists of a mix of the four bars. Isolate one of the bars, and you have a new, complex loop that includes elements of all four bars.

Although Wavelab5 has been a delight to work with, the DVD recording process is still iffy. Some drives like some media and not others, or prefer +RW to -RW (even though they're supposed to read both), or get picky about write speeds. But to put things in perspective, I was able to create DVD-A discs and backups on DVD with less fuss than ever before. I'm willing to put up with a few teething pains, patches, and Service Packs in order to take advantage of what the DVD format offers.

Regarding Windows digital audio editors, for the past several years we've seen a comfortable status quo with Sound Forge, Audition, and Wavelab slugging it out for market share, while Samplitude/Sequoia fans stake out their own turf. Of these, I'm used to bouncing back and forth among programs: Audition for its great noise reduction options, Sequoia for when I need to evolve within one project from recording to mastering, and Sound Forge when creating acidized files. But Wavelab gets the call for most of my straight-ahead mastering projects because it's easy to use and has all the features I need (and then some).

The brains behind the program, Philippe Goutier, deserves props for constantly refining his baby. But Wavelab5 goes beyond "refinement." I've wanted to get into surround and high-definition audio, but with the Red Book CD as the ultimate bottleneck, I never really felt the time had come. With Wavelab5, that time is now. It's not just the latest version of Wavelab; it's the start of a new generation of digital audio editors.