Steinberg WaveLab has been one of the biggest names in the Windows multitrack audio-editing world for several years, with a reputation as a solid and reliable performer. Recently, however, it has been losing ground to competitors that provide support for more types of media, MIDI and video, for example. While WaveLab has retained the look and feel and the features of previous editions, version 5 adds important elements that raise it up to the level of the competition — and in some key areas, it even surpasses the competition. Among the most important new features are tools for DVD-Audio (DVD-A) authoring and production, an integrated video track, and track-based effects and level controls. Combined with the large number of professional-quality VST mastering and effects plug-ins, WaveLab 5 is a powerful media production environment.
FIG. 1: Steinberg's WaveLab 5 has a dedicated stereo editor and a multitrack work screen called Audio Montage (shown above). Audio Montage supports audio and video tracks as well as text and picture tracks for use in DVD-audio projects.
EM has covered WaveLab on a number of occasions, most recently in the November 2002 issue. For this review, I'll focus on the new features of version 5 and the patches and updates that have been released since EM's last review.
SPLIT IT UP
WaveLab has somewhat of a split personality, offering a dedicated stereo audio editor called Wave Editor and a multitrack area called Audio Montage (see Fig. 1). It's easy to move files between the two: if you're editing a stereo file, create a new Audio Montage, right-click on a track, and choose Insert All Open Waves (WaveLab supports numerous file types, not just WAV). You can also select an entire file or a region in the Wave Editor and drag it directly onto an existing Audio Montage track (files in the Wave Editor must be the same sampling rate as those in Audio Montage for that to work) or use Create Audio Montage from the Wave Entry option in the Edit menu if you don't have an Audio Montage open.
If you're in the Audio Montage area, choose Source/Edit from the menu that appears when you right-click on a clip, and the file will open in the stereo editor. You can also create a new file from a clip or an entire track by choosing Render Clip to New File, then selecting a destination on your system. Most of WaveLab's windows are not modal, which means you can move to and work in any open window without closing any other. You can even have multiple instances of WaveLab open, but you can't drag-and-drop files from one instance to another.
CATCH THE WAVE
There's not much new in the Wave Editor — you'll find the same Processes (Time Stretch, Pitch Correction, and the like) as the ones in version 4 and the same set of commands in the right-mouse-button menu. I've always liked the fact that WaveLab lets you change many of its interface elements on the fly — just right-click and pick the elements or colors that you want to configure. As in past versions, WaveLab 5 integrates its editing and CD-burning features nicely — to turn an audio file into a CD track, right-click and select Create CD Track from the Selection option. If you already have a CD project open, you can select a file and drag it into the CD Project window. (DVD-A projects are more involved because they need to be “rendered.”) Once you've added tracks to a CD Project, you can convert the Project into a new Audio Montage. WaveLab 5's capabilities are well integrated.
Although each work area has its own unique tool set, a menu bar that gives access to a number of common features appears at the top of the interface regardless of which screen you are working in (see Fig. 1). Here you'll find menus for file and edit functions, view and window options, sampling and analysis work areas, and more. The Options menu has numerous tools for customizing display and performance options and also has a dedicated screen for assigning key commands to control the program's operation. The Tools menu contains WaveLab's powerful batch-processing and batch-encoding features. There are other tools for generating audio signals and DTMF tones, burning a data CD from a disk image, copying CDs, and importing audio from an audio CD or DVD-A.
WaveLab also has utilities for managing the assets of your productions. Its database feature can identify all files of various types on your drive — you can define searches to include only files of a certain sampling rate, duration, and so on. You can set up Categories, which are groups of selected files that you can identify from anywhere on your system. For example, you can have a Category for all samples in a sound-design project, all takes in a recording session, and all drum loops.
One of the biggest deficiencies in previous versions of WaveLab is control of individual track levels. Though you can use envelopes to adjust the level of individual clips, there is no way to work with an entire track (unless you have only one clip on that track). In version 5, there are two small sliders attached to each track that give independent control over the channels in a stereo file. The sliders are linked by default, but you can move them independently with the right mouse button, even when you have a mono file loaded (output control defaults to the left slider for mono).
Also new in version 5 are track-based effects. Past versions of WaveLab let you assign an effects slot to an individual clip but not to an entire track. Now you can click on the small arrow in the Track Control display (to the left of the waveform view) and pick the effect you want (only VST effects are supported using this method). The implementation is not as elegant as it could be — you can't see the name of the effect you've added, nor can you access more than one effect at a time. But the level of control that this feature adds complements the existing options (Master Section and clip-level effects) nicely.
There's still no multitrack mixing console, something that most people would expect in a multitrack editor. That is the most important missing feature in WaveLab.
Desktop musicians working with video will appreciate WaveLab 5's ability to display a video file along with its audio tracks. WaveLab supports many video formats, including QuickTime, AVI, and MPEG. It can load DV-encoded files and display individual video frames directly in the Audio Montage. It won't output video to an external monitor through FireWire or any other means; for scoring purposes, however, in which timing is everything, the current functionality is a huge enhancement. Although you can move through an audio track to locate exact hit points in your video, it would have been nice if you could scrub directly in the video track, as you can in a video editor. (You can scrub an audio track using the Jog/Shuttle feature in the Audio Montage.)
TAKE THE “A” TRAIN
Perhaps the biggest enhancement to WaveLab 5 is the inclusion of DVD-A authoring and burning features. There's some question as to how many musicians are currently working with DVD-A, but playing DVD-As on a PC and elsewhere is becoming easier (the full version of Intervideo's WinDVD 6, for example, will play DVD-A discs made by WaveLab; see www.intervideo.com for more information). WaveLab is clearly ahead of the pack in that area.
Tracks intended for DVD-A are organized into Groups, each of which is represented as an Audio Montage. A Group can contain as many as 99 tracks, and you can have a maximum of nine Groups in a DVD-A project. You can also use different sample and bit rates for the Audio Montages that form each Group. There are an endless number of ways to organize and reference the material on a DVD-A. For example, one Group could contain live versions of your songs, while another could have only slow or fast tunes. You can share material among various Groups and put a surround- and a stereo mix on the same disc — that idea is becoming a common practice. WaveLab 5 has the tools to create these and other configurations.
FIG. 2: WaveLab's DVD Wizard is used to automatically generate markers in tracks that are bound for a DVD-Audio disc.
WaveLab supports the full range of additional content (still images and lyrics, for example) that can be put on a DVD-A (for more information about DVD-A, see the sidebar “What About DVD-Audio?” in the article “The Inside Track” from the May 2003 issue of EM). That type of content is added by inserting Picture or Text tracks in an Audio Montage. You can create slideshows with music or discs that combine different types of media files.
Although DVD-A authoring isn't a trivial pursuit, all of the above would be even more complicated if it weren't for WaveLab's DVD Wizard, which becomes available once you've assigned an Audio Montage to DVD mode (see Fig. 2). The Wizard handles a variety of tasks, such as setting DVD-A track start and end points, adding pauses or silences between tracks, and generating UPC codes. It's a real time-saver and automates many of the steps that are required for creating DVD-A discs.
Once an Audio Montage is configured, the final stop is the DVD-A Project window. That work area gives access to important features such as menu creation, album naming, and TV-format type (NTSC or PAL). If you've ever authored a DVD video, you'll be at home with the options found in WaveLab 5. The authoring tools are as robust as the ones found in most standalone DVD applications, with the exception of some high-end tools from Sony and Sonic.
ON ALL SIDES
WaveLab's surround features have been greatly enhanced in version 5. You can assign tracks to as many as eight discrete output channels, although you must have audio drivers installed that support the number of channels you choose. (Some systems let you assign tracks to surround channels even without the hardware. You can then bring a project to another system for previewing or remixing). To work with multiple outputs, either select one of the Surround modes, which give you a choice of various 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-channel configurations, or pick a setting called Non DVD-Audio Configuration, which gives you eight channels to address freely. When you pick a Surround mode, you can then assign each individual track of an Audio Montage to a surround channel (Lf, Rf, LFE, and so on), whereas the Non DVD-Audio Configuration option lists only ASIO 1-8 as choices.
I tested WaveLab 5 with an E-mu 1212m system that had eight physical outs. When I first installed WaveLab 5, I ran into a problem: all of the output channels read ASIO. There was no way to determine which channel would go to which output (through the E-mu Patch-Mix mixer). Downloading the 5.01a patch, which numbers the ASIO channels but doesn't support E-mu's channel-naming convention, fixed the problem.
FIG. 3: To automate a surround pan, click on an envelope breakpoint in an Audio Montage track (left), then set the position for the sound at that moment in the surround-panning window (right).
Automating a surround mix is easy in WaveLab, but that task is not as intuitive as it is in other programs. To perform automated surround panning, assign tracks to the desired surround channel (while in DVD-A mode). A small surround-panner icon will appear in the Track Control area. Clicking on the icon brings up a larger window in which you can associate specific surround locations with envelope breakpoints that you create on a clip (see Fig. 3). It would be nice if you could enable a “surround-record” feature, then drag the surround-position icon around on a surround stage in real time while your music was playing back.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
WaveLab's support is excellent — the comprehensive printed manual is more than 700 pages. It opens with a useful overview of many of the main features before moving on to more thorough coverage. There is online support through the Help menu option in addition to context-sensitive help for many of the program's features. There is also an active users forum at http://forum.cubase.net, which is moderated by WaveLab's principal developer, Philippe Goutier.
So who needs this upgrade? If you're a WaveLab owner and are interested in exploring DVD-A or are already doing audio for video, release 5 will be right for you. If you aren't planning on using these new features, then there may not be enough incentive to spring for the upgrade. On the other hand, if you're looking to move into a multitrack audio editor that supports many of the hottest new-media technologies available today, has a friendly interface, and can help manage not only your audio assets but also all of the files on your system, WaveLab is an excellent choice.
EM Associate EditorDennis Millerlives in the suburbs of Boston.
Minimum System Requirements
Pentium III/500; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/XP/2000; WaveLab version 5.01a
multitrack audio editor
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.5VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Intuitive interface. Dedicated stereo editor and multitrack capabilities. Track- and clip-level effects. Extensive DVD-A authoring tools.
CONS: No master mixer. Surround-panning envelopes not entirely intuitive.