Steinberg's Wavelab has spread its wings to become the only truly cross‑platform stereo editing package — and in the process, it's undergone a comprehensive makeover.
I've been using Steinberg's Wavelab for audio editing, mastering, and restoration on an almost daily basis since version 1.6, way back in 1997 when CD burning and real‑time plug‑ins were first added, and have watched it grow from a good stereo editor, through the excellent sampling, looping and analysis functions of Wavelab 2, the multitrack Montage additions of Wavelab 3 for assembling layered files and compiling albums from individual tracks, the graphic redesign and plug‑in bundle of Wavelab 4 and the DVD‑Audio and video montage support of Wavelab 5, to the eye‑boggling spectrum display and editing options of Wavelab 6.
It's still largely the work of one man, Philippe Goutier, and each time I review a new version I wonder how on earth he can improve it any further, but with Wavelab 7 he's done it again, and in a big way. For the first time ever, Wavelab is now cross‑platform, enabling Mac users to directly experience what all the fuss has been about for so many years, but there are a lot of new features for PC users as well, from a new workflow concept, high‑end restoration tools and 30 VST3 format plug‑ins to a state‑of‑the‑art CD‑burning engine.
Wavelab 7 has a different look to its predecessors, with a rather more subdued, yet sophisticated graphic feel. I found this really helped me focus on the job in hand, compared with the faux metalwork of Wavelab 6. Some long‑term Wavelab users might find the new look and layout disorientating initially, but it didn't take me long to adjust, and having done so I would never go back to the now clunky‑looking Wavelab 6. There are also many graphically enhanced icons to take in on the customisable toolbars, and lots of new customising options to overwhelm the newcomer, although once you get to grips with them all you'll wonder how you ever managed without them!
The most obvious addition is the Windows Switcher, a small and resizeable floating window that remains visible at all times — even, by default, after switching to another application, although you can disable this if you wish — and which lets you leap straight into audio file editing, multitrack montage, batch‑processing or podcasting duties. For instance, even while writing this review I have the Wavelab 7 Switcher superimposed over the title bar of my word processor, and can create a new file, open an existing one, or simply open an empty workspace in any of these categories. I took to this like a duck to water.
While you could launch multiple instances of Wavelab 6 to simultaneously work across several projects, this ability has also been seriously upgraded in Wavelab 7, since each new workspace you open is a separate entity, enabling you to quickly switch between audio editing, album compilation, batch processing and podcast creation at will. There are also several dozen editing, viewing and analysis functions that you can now open in the new Tab area inside tabbed 'tool windows', covering such things as various metering alternatives, marker creation and editing, file browsing, error detection and correction, spectrum editing options and so on. These tool windows provide great versatility: you can open and close them in stand‑alone 'floating' mode above your workspace, as in previous Wavelab versions, or drag them to various on‑screen locations and dock them.
The latter approach is a great improvement, since you can carefully arrange your most‑used tool windows in tabbed sets (see screenshots), using some natty animated options to drag and drop the various tool-window sections where you wish, while all the others move themselves out of the way to make room. Horizontal and vertical zooming functions now have thumbwheel graphics for easier control, and respond to your mouse scroll wheel when the cursor is superimposed on these graphics.
With so many people now working with larger screens, the rather basic Wavelab 6 'cascade', 'tile horizontally' or 'tile vertically' options to arrange the various open windows have now been seriously upgraded by the new 'Tab Group shortcuts', which offer various on‑screen arrangements of up to nine windows, each supporting multiple tabs, so you can easily work with dozens of simultaneous audio files grouped into different batches. You can also create your own Tab Group arrangements by splitting an existing group, horizontally or vertically, using the icons in each workspace area.
If you regularly edit audio alongside other applications, the new 'Position on screen' option also helps to streamline your working methods by offering 25 predefined choices for each instance of the Wavelab 7 application, ranging from the 'Full screen view', to (for example) Wavelab occupying the top or left half of the screen, or the bottom right‑hand quarter of the screen. This flexibility makes it very easy to create split‑screen views with your sequencer application, Internet browser, or even tiling multiple instances of Wavelab 7 itself.
Better still, your multiple window arrangements can now be saved as workspaces, so you can optimise everything to suit different aspects of your work, such as sound recording, editing, restoration and mastering, with everything resized, repositioned and tabbed to perfection. This is particularly helpful to those using multiple monitor screens, but even those with a single monitor will find they make better use of the available space when a selection of carefully tweaked layouts is only a couple of mouse clicks away.
The Montage is also much more streamlined now, partly because of the new Workspace flexibility, but mainly because of the new 'Focused clip' menu: right‑click anywhere over a montage clip and this new menu appears, displaying collapsible 'accordion' panes covering Edit, Cue Point, Envelope, Fade‑in, Fade‑out and Colour options. I found these much quicker to use than Wavelab 6's floating nested menus, since you can always see all relevant parameters. Even better, most of these options now have descriptive graphic icons as well as text descriptions; in the case of the fade‑in/out settings, for instance, this makes choosing the most appropriate one for the task you have in hand far easier.
The Master Section, with its multiple effect plug‑in slots, master faders, metering and dithering sections, also sports some handy new additions. These include dedicated buttons to toggle individual plug‑in windows between visible and invisible status, locking of individual plug‑in slots so they ignore the bypass function and when loading new Master Section presets, and the ability to force the Master Section meters to display the output level at any stage of your plug‑in chain (useful for detecting overloads and so on). Like the other tool windows, the Master Section is now resizeable, so you can finally adjust its width to display plug‑in names in full, or make the master faders and meters as tall as you like.
The smart bypass options that match in/out levels in various ways, so you can A/B with or without effects at the same subjective level, are now part of the Master Section itself, and this function cleverly defaults to the 'A' and 'B' keyboard shortcuts, so you can perform A/B tests without a second thought. Wavelab's Edit menu now also includes the option to store a set of Master Section plug‑in presets alongside an audio file, which is handy if you don't want to permanently render the treated audio: when you reload that audio file, all your plug‑ins and their settings will reappear ready for further use.
Overall, I found this new Master Section a lot more flexible, although a few controls weren't quite as clear as in Wavelab 6, such as the old Bypass button, which has been replaced by a rather anonymous green tick that merges into the background, and the mono button, which is now a simple text label. The general approach in Wavelab 7 seems to be to have visually subtle default settings, while making any non‑default settings more obvious, which does make complete sense once you get used to it.
Some keyboard shortcuts have also changed to more obvious settings, although if, like me, you're too used to the previous shortcuts, it's easy enough to change them back in the 'Customize commands' area of the Options menu. Don't be too hasty, though, as once I got used to the new ones I did find most more logical and easy to remember.
The Dirac processing options offered by Wavelab 6 for time‑stretching, pitch‑correction and pitch quantising were already some of the best around, providing a suite of settings from 'time localisation' to suit solo instruments and drum loops, to 'frequency localisation' for more complex mixes and classical music. I've used them extensively, even on sensitive material such as choir sample libraries, but Wavelab 7 beefs things up still further. Its previous generic lower‑quality options have now been abandoned in favour of the latest Dirac 2.2 algorithms, which offer various code enhancements, as well as additional options to modulate time‑stretching and pitch formant-correction over time in a graphic window, and preserve formants when pitch quantising. For those working in more extreme audio editing environments — such as sound designers, who may routinely pitch-shift by several octaves to create special effects — these tools now also support sample rates up to a massive 384kHz, as does the Crystal Resampler tool.
The intelligent Loop Tweaker has been enhanced with a Stereo Merge option, so you can view both channel loop points superimposed, while 'Display processed audio' lets you visually toggle your before/after tweaks in the Tweaker window to see how much better your looped waveforms 'join up'. I'd still like to see larger zoom options so you can zero in on the join even more, but this remains a very accomplished tool for sample‑library developers. Meanwhile, although the already excellent Global Analysis tool for measuring peak and RMS levels and spotting basic errors is largely unchanged, the Error Correction tools have now moved into the tool window selection options, while the 3D Frequency Analysis display can now be rotated by dragging a thumbwheel, to help you more easily spot audible anomalies.
The majority of the 30 new bundled VST3 plug‑ins will already be familiar to Nuendo users, and many to Cubase users too. For other sequencer users, suffice it to say that they include a very effective selection of EQs, single and multi‑band compressors, chorus/delays, and special effects such as an Envelope Shaper and Octaver, plus tools to (for instance) mix down surround mixes to stereo. Of special note are Nuendo's very flexible Post Filter, with its low/high cut and up to eight notch filters for cleaning up audio material, the four‑band Multi‑band Compressor and four‑band parametric Studio EQ, and the versatile Roomworks reverb.
This was also my first experience of the Sonnox restoration plug‑ins reviewed in SOS March 2010, and although the De‑Noiser, De‑Clicker and De‑Buzzer on offer here are seriously cut‑down compared with the full $2000£1400 Sonnox Restore suite, I nevertheless found them extremely effective and worthwhile additions. In particular, the De‑Noiser, while not the most effective in my personal collection (that accolade still goes to Wave Arts' MR Noise), is a huge improvement over the Spectral Design version offered with previous Wavelab versions. The only thing I still miss in Wavelab 7 is automation for plug‑in parameters: if you want to morph any effects across your audio clips, you'll still have to export them to another application to do so.
Thankfully, for PC users, Wavelab 7 retains support for DirectX plug‑ins in its Audio workspace (though still not in Montages). These may be long in the tooth now, but some of us still have must‑use items that are unavailable in VST format, and it's good to see this continued support, especially considering that DirectX has been abandoned in Steinberg's Cubase. The Apple OS X version of Wavelab can also natively open AAC, M4A and M4P‑format audio files using its proprietary codecs, and PC owners can do the same if they install Apple's free QuickTime (normally installed with iTunes on a PC).
Podcasting was already available to Wavelab 6 users, and the commented 'episodes' in Wavelab 7 offer similar compression options to ensure smooth delivery of streamed audio on‑line, but with the addition of some useful extras, such as suitable extensions to make your podcast compatible with iTunes and its categories, complete with author name and contact details. You can also publish your podcasts directly from Wavelab 7 by entering your FTP site upload details.
Meanwhile, for those wanting to output directly to a CD‑R, Enhanced CD or DVD‑Audio disc, Wavelab 7 features a completely rewritten burning engine designed for greater reliability, which for the first time allows you to burn an audio CD from an industry‑standard DDP (Disc Description Protocol) image file, as well as offering DDP as an output format, for reliable error‑protected transfer of files intended for optical disc duplication that can even be safely transmitted across an Internet link.
Moreover, Wavelab 7 supports the MPEG 1 Layer 2 (Musicam) file format, which is commonly used in digital broadcast systems, as well as Broadcast WAV, the extended WAV format that includes additional information in the file header. Steinberg really do want as many professionals as possible to be able to take advantage of this latest cross‑platform application.
Wavelab 6 could only utilise a single processor core for all the plug‑in effects, while a second core was used for the graphics and other functions, and on machines with four or more cores you could quickly hit a CPU ceiling, even though you still had plenty of processing power in reserve across the other cores. Thankfully Wavelab 7, both on Mac and PC, now makes far more intelligent use of all available cores. For instance, my PC could only run a single instance of 2C Audio's excellent Aether reverb in Wavelab 6 without glitching, even though my CPU had plenty of spare power in its other cores. In Wavelab 7, it easily manages five instances before anything untoward occurs.
Batch processing is an indispensable suite of Wavelab functions for sound designers and editors, letting you apply the same series of editing or conversion processes to folders full of audio files and then save them one by one in your chosen format. The improved multi‑processing engine now runs its batch activities as a background task, so you can carry on editing while your collection of files is processed. You can even specify how many of your cores are allocated to batch processing, to get the desired balance between time taken and user interface responsiveness.
In addition to the normal Master Section plug‑ins, various specialist plug‑in and processes are on offer in the batch section, including trimmer and resizer tools, a DC remover, and the rather clever Meta‑Normalizer, which lets you normalise a batch of files to the same loudness. Overall, batch processing is significantly easier to set up and use in this latest incarnation, and, let's face it, the easier a tool is to use, the more likely you are to use it.
I wasn't expecting this seventh Wavelab iteration to provide such radical benefits, but having used it extensively for various projects over several weeks, I'm loving all the improvements, and fully expect other existing users to do so. With such a major revision, there are inevitably a few teething troubles, including graphic bugs with various plug‑ins (particularly on Macs). However, Philippe is already working on a 7.01 update to deal with those that are due to Wavelab 7 (others will have to be resolved by their respective developers), with a projected release date around mid‑November, so that may already be out by the time you read this. [Tests at the SOS office suggested that there are no major discrepancies between the Mac and PC versions — Ed.]
A few Wavelab 6 PC features have been casualties in the cross‑platform rationalisation, including the backup plan, ultra‑safe (but slow) CD extraction, CD label designer, Audio Database, Montage video track and CPU overhead monitoring; this may annoy some upgraders, but some of these features may apparently reappear in future updates if users insist. Some PC users will also be disappointed that a printed manual is no longer included, as it was with all previous Wavelab versions, while new Mac users may end up lost on what is after all a totally new application to them. However, I'm one of those who really appreciates Wavelab 7's extensive and context‑specific online help, which provides instant feedback on any function or feature when you really need it — ie. when you're about to use it. Steinberg also offer four online 'what's new' video tutorials (www.steinberg.net/en/products/wavelab/whats_new.html) that show most of the old and new features in action and provide a good overview for newcomers.
The full version of Wavelab 7 is expensive, but offers excellent value for money, while those on smaller budgets can investigate the cheaper but somewhat cut‑down feature set of Wavelab Elements 7. However, for those who already own Wavelab 6, the upgrade price is an absolute bargain. I expected Wavelab 7 to be a good upgrade, but not this good!
On the PC, the most obvious competitor for Wavelab is still Sony's Sound Forge (now at version 10), which has (thankfully) reverted to including the excellent CD Architect Red Book CD-mastering functions in its arsenal, or you could look at all‑in‑one applications like Magix Samplitude (or its bigger brother Sequoia), and dedicated and rather more expensive systems like Sonic Solutions and SADiE. On the Mac, the main competition is probably BIAS Peak, arguably the most comprehensive stereo editor available on this platform, and, like most other packages mentioned here, available in various versions. Each of these applications has its own devout following, but Wavelab remains a very strong contender.
Wavelab's minimum requirements are comparatively modest. The box states that it only needs 200MB of hard drive space, and runs on Windows 7 with 2GHz CPU and 1GB RAM, or Mac OS 10.6 'Snow Leopard' with an Intel CPU and 1GB RAM. However, practical day‑to‑day requirements for RAM and CPU may rise considerably if you want to load in lots of simultaneous plug‑ins, and Philippe Goutier himself suggests a minimum of a dual‑core CPU and 2GB RAM, while actually recommending a quad‑core CPU and 4GB of RAM.
One important thing for PC users to note is that only Windows 7 is officially supported — if you're running Vista or XP you're on your own support‑wise, although in practice I experienced absolutely no problems running Wavelab 7 under Windows XP. Existing users of Wavelab 6 can run the two versions side by side, and Wavelab 7 can also import Master Section presets created in its predecessor, but, sadly, no other presets.
Wavelab 6: June 2006
Wavelab 5: February 2005
Wavelab 4: May 2002
Wavelab 3: March 2000
Wavelab 2: June 1998
Wavelab 1.6: October 1997
Wavelab 1.5: February 1997
Wavelab 1.01: August 1996