I have been a fan of the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer mastering plug-in since I first heard it running as a Sound Forge plug-in on the PC in early 1996. Since then, I have been amazed at the way it has transformed my recordings, seemingly restoring much important detail that had become lost during the recording process. Subsequently, I have used the L1 on nearly every track I have mastered, and so I was very interested when I first heard about Waves' Native Power Pack, which bundles several plug-ins, including the L1 Ultramaximizer, the TrueVerb reverb, the C1 compressor/gate, the Q10 equaliser, the S1 Stereo Imager, the IDR (Increased Digital Resolution) dithering/noise shaping module and WaveConvert, a very capable stand-alone multimedia audio batch processor application. These Waves processors were originally developed as TDM plug-ins for Mac-based Digidesign Pro Tools HDR systems, and are worldwide industry standards in daily use by top audio recording facilities. In an extremely bold marketing move, Waves have released the Native Power Pack in Mac and PC versions, at the affordably low price of £499.
Although they do not run as stand-alone programs, plug-ins may be used with a variety of different host applications, thus enhancing the editing capabilities of the host software. The Native Power Pack operates with a wide range of host software on both the Mac and PC (see the 'Meet Thine Host' box elsewhere in this article). The Mac version of Native Power Pack can be used on non-DSP systems, and without additional audio hardware on Power Mac computers. For this review, I ran the PC version of the Native Power Pack with Sound Forge 4.0a, but both PC and Mac versions are generally functionally identical and such slight differences as exist merely affect window appearance, installation and so on.
The PC version of Native Power Pack is the first of the new generation of PC audio applications to support the recently introduced Microsoft ActiveMovie audio plug-in standard for Windows 95. This enables software audio effects and processor modules to run in different host applications, irrespective of the original manufacturer (so even Cakewalk's proprietary plug-ins for their own Cakewalk Pro Audio software will be useable with Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge, for example). ActiveMovie plug-ins also have the advantage of real-time preview, which significantly speeds up the audio editing process, as you can hear the results of changes as you make them. This also permits you to perform live mixdown directly from your PC to DAT, depending on processing demands and the power of your computer.
The PC Native Power Pack ships with versions for both Windows 95 and Windows NT, but because the Power Pack is a 32-bit application, it will not run in legacy Windows 3.1. The PC package contains three floppy disks, a slim, ready-authorised copy protection key (dongle), a brief installation guide, and the user registration card, but no printed manual! Fortunately, the on-line Native Power Pack Guide is highly informative, and includes useful tutorials, but its HTML format means that you will need an Internet browser installed on your PC to view it (for example, Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator). I emailed Waves in early March about the manual situation, and Yoav Kali, the Native Power Pack Product Manager, explained that Waves will be including a printed manual in future, and that the first of the updated manuals can now be downloaded from the Waves web site. The Guide includes information on both PC and Macintosh versions, and contains general information about Native Power Pack that is not included in the Windows on-line Help files. I found myself occasionally confused by discrepancies between features described in the Guide, the description in Help, and those actually present in the plug-ins. For example, the Q10 section in the Guide shows the Q10 equaliser with integral IDR dithering/noise shaping, but IDR was neither included in the Help nor in the Q10 itself; similarly the on-line Help refers to Autotrim, a normalisation feature, yet this is nowhere to be found on the Q10 window. Contextual help also contains some blank areas, which I hope will be remedied in future releases.
Installation is straightforward; the Native Power Pack integrates seamlessly into the Sound Forge environment, and an extra menu for ActiveMovie plug-ins appears, listing the Native Power Pack modules. Each plug-in operates from within its own window. These are well designed, with a clear layout and good -- if basic -- use of colour. Changes to parameters are made with the mouse or keyboard, either numerically or by dragging graphical elements. Each plug-in, apart from the IDR, features control of input and output levels, typically with clip and peak hold indicators, and channel faders may be linked to give parallel operation. Your own settings can be named and stored as presets, and a temporary buffer is provided to store and switch between two setups -- a feature that is useful when making comparisons between different versions of the same basic preset. There is a huge amount of editing power in the Native Power Pack, and it may take a little while before inexperienced users become familiar with the more subtle aspects of processor editing, but each module includes a set of preset patches to help you get started, and the real-time processing makes getting to know the Power Pack easy and enjoyable -- after all, what you tweak is what you hear, so your ears can be your guide.
TRUEVERB VIRTUAL SPACE REVERB
To quote the on-line manual: "TrueVerb uses virtual reality techniques to place sounds convincingly within the actual space of a virtual room with good acoustics". TrueVerb is a true stereo device throughout all stages of its internal signal path, including early reflections and reverberation. Each audio element within the input stereo mix maintains the integrity of its original stereo position during processing, to produce a more natural and life-like result than the blanket effect imposed on incoming audio by many reverb devices. In TrueVerb, sounds located in different parts of the virtual room are affected by factors such as their proximity to reflective surfaces, just as would happen in a real room.
The TrueVerb produces its effect through the interaction and combination of three sound components: direct sound, early reflections, and reverberation. During real-time preview, any of these components can be bypassed to allow comparative monitoring. The TrueVerb application window has two main areas -- the Time window and the Frequency Response window -- and parameter settings can be adjusted by clicking on the Numeric displays or by dragging graphic icons. In this way you can define the width, depth, and reflectivity of your virtual room; also, with a feature unique to TrueVerb, you may specify the distance from the listener to the source audio. For more on the general theory and practice of reverb, see 'Reverb from First Principles' in SOS March 1997. The Time window displays time response as a graph of relative amplitude against time in milliseconds and room size in metres. The Room Size button, beneath the Time window, shows the volume of the virtual room in cubic metres; for example, a room 8 metres wide, 10 metres long and 4 metres high would be 320 cubic metres. Room Size and Distance from source parameters are displayed on the Time window as blue and yellow markers respectively, and can be adjusted by dragging. When Distance exceeds the Room size, the marker turns red and the sound is projected beyond the room and into the virtual building next door (honest!). The graph also shows the early reflections as vertical white lines and the reverberation pattern as a turquoise block which moves with the PreDelay value. The Link control automatically matches the PreDelay, Room and Reverb levels to ensure an accurate acoustic space simulation, and can be used as a short-cut in attaining a good basic reverb effect. The lower window is the Frequency Response graph, and this is where the TrueVerb displays the reverb frequency curve, reverb input HF Shelf filter, and the room's early frequency absorption characteristics. Augmenting this are the Reverb Damping controls (which define the high and low frequency qualities of the processed signal, and provide the ear with important information about the surface texture of the room), and the Reverb Tail setting, which can be manually adjusted to last from 0.1 to 198 seconds. Input level gain can be adjusted, and output levels are shown on the VU meters. Above these are the clip indicators, while sample-accurate peak hold levels for each channel are displayed below.
Generally, I have been somewhat underwhelmed with the software reverb modules I have heard -- none of them come close in terms of warmth and character to my trusty old Lexicon LXP15 -- but the TrueVerb is exceptional, and has wonderful clarity and configurability that make it eminently suitable for mastering duties.
I must own up to the fact from the start that the L1 Ultramaximizer is my all-time favourite digital processor, and it is the software limiter most commonly used in premier recording studios. The L1 combines superb look-ahead peak limiting and level optimisation with high-accuracy requantisation routines based on the IDR noise-shaping and redithering process (developed by the late psycho-acoustics pioneer Michael Gerzon). Basically, IDR is a dithering and noise-shaping technology that minimises the non-linear distortion at low levels which is commonly introduced during digital audio processing.
Most digital audio files contain numerous short-duration high-level peaks which can give an overall peak signal level that is way above the average signal level, and whilst some of these are essential to the dynamics of the audio, many can be contained or limited. The art of good limiting is to accomplish this, and simultaneously raise the average signal level to its optimum in as accurate and musical a way as possible, without introducing undesirable side-effects -- a feat far beyond the capabilities of conventional normalisation processing. Subjectively, when a recording is given the L1 treatment, it sounds richer and fuller, with enhanced low-level detail, and the polish and solidity that is associated with top-quality studios. Waves recommend that the L1 is used last in the audio processing chain to preserve the maximum possible resolution of the processed audio.
Although the L1 is an extraordinarily sophisticated and complex program, the user interface is simple and intuitive, especially given the luxury of real-time preview. The application window has controls for limiter threshold, output ceiling, release and input levels. Limiting only occurs when the input signal crosses the threshold, and audio levels below threshold are subject to a constant gain change that is determined by the difference between the threshold and the output ceiling. Once the threshold is set, all you need to do is to define the actual peak level that you want the processed signal to reach -- usually -0.3 dB for mastering. From then on, limiting and level rescaling are automatic. The Release parameter controls the time taken, in milliseconds, to return to constant gain after a peak is encountered, and is usually best left set to 1ms. For heavy limiting, release times between 30 and 100ms may be required, but care is then needed, as long release times may induce distortion. The degree of gain reduction (the amount by which the threshold is exceeded by the input signal level) can be monitored from the attenuation meter display. Domain mode is for selecting the type of duplication medium for your master: for CD duplication, Domain should be set to Digital and for cassette duplication, set Domain to Analogue.
The L1 has excellent requantisation facilities, and combines its level maximisation functions with IDR processing, to actually enhance the perceived quality of audio. The L1 provides two dither types and three noise-shaping curves. Simply put, dithering adds very low-level noise to neutralise artifacts and distortion introduced during digital processing, while noise-shaping shifts noise to frequencies at which the human ear is least sensitive. For the more inquisitive among you, comprehensive information on IDR, and how best to use it, is included in both the on-line Help and in the Power Pack's Guide.
The Native Power Pack also includes a basic IDR module featuring requantisation and type 1 dither (the better dither type for audio files that will pass through multiple edit stages). IDR should be used after effects processing and prior to saving to disk, and will enhance the perceived quality and dynamic range of quiet sounds, which would otherwise be adversely affected by the conversion from the Native Power Pack 24-bit internal resolution back to the 16-bit format of most PC soundcards, DAT machines and CD-Recorders.
S1 STEREO IMAGER
The S1 Stereo Imager provides control over the stereo soundstage of your recordings, and is used for stereo image enhancement through gain balancing, width adjustment, phase correction and channel reversal. As the S1 is fully phase-compensated, it does not add phase errors between the stereo channels during processing. The S1 window depicts the stereo soundstage as a half-circle and the original stereo image is displayed as an inverted triangular stereo vector shape that can be dragged with the mouse to produce changes in gain, balance, stereo width, rotation and asymmetry. The S1 can be a great time-saver when correcting off-centre stereo mixes: the stereo image width may be reduced to mono or stretched so that appears to extend beyond the monitor speakers; central in-phase mono elements may also be repositioned in the stereo image without affecting sounds panned to the left or right; and the relative level of left and right sounds can be varied without affecting those in the centre (the input selector can also be switched from the usual Left/Right mode to M+S to accommodate accurate metering of Middle + Side recordings).
Due to the different ways our ears and brains determine the location of bass and mid-range/treble frequencies, bass components in sounds panned to intermediate stereo positions become directionally less well-defined. The impression of spaciousness in a mix can be enhanced by adjusting three parameters: Shuffling affects bass width; Frequency controls the threshold below which the shuffling width is applied (usually between 600 and 700Hz) and Bass Trim is for extra control of frequencies below about 150Hz (Bass Trim is not mentioned in the Power Pack Guide, or the on-Iine help). The S1 can be used to ensure the mono compatibility of mixes destined for TV and radio -- poor mono compatibility can produce dropouts, excessive colouration and other undesirable effects. With the S1, these problems can be avoided by ensuring that all three vector lines displayed on the S1 stereo soundstage graphic are within 45 degrees of vertical. I like the S1, and in use during a recent mastering session, I found it to be a surprisingly convenient and timesaving way of correcting out-of-balance recordings.
The Q10 is a 10-band paragraphic equaliser, with each band offering a choice of five filter types: bell or band pass, low shelf, high shelf, low pass, and high pass. The Q10 amplitude/frequency graph displays the current frequency curve with the markers for individual bands appearing as a plus symbol when the band is active and a letter O when inactive. Band Markers can be dragged with the mouse to adjust the parameters of individual bands, and may be grouped together and moved en bloc, retaining the original curve patterns with all changes applied to all selected bands simultaneously and reflected in each associated parameter field. Both channels also feature input meters with clip and peak hold indicators, independent phase reverse, and output level control. The Q10's default mode is linked 2-channel operation (or Strapped mode in Waves-speak) which is the usual way of working on a stereo soundfile, but the EQ for each channel can be adjusted individually if required. When 'unstrapped', the Left and Right channel frequency curves are represented on the Q10 graph and coloured yellow and blue respectively. Gain can be adjusted by plus or minus 16dB in increments of 0.1dB over the frequency range from 16Hz-13.57kHz, with control of Q (the width of the frequency band).
Q is a method of expressing the bandwidth covered by a filter relative to its centre frequency measured at the -3dB point (that is, half its original level). Although the basic premise is still 'the higher the Q setting, the narrower the frequency band affected', the numeric Q values in the Q10 differ from those found in traditionally engineered equalisers. This is because the Waves Q10 filter designers felt that calculating the Q value based on constant bandwidth rather than constant Q produced a more musical and intuitive control surface. In all, I found the Q10 a joy to use. It produced top-quality results without any noticeable side effects, and could well become the benchmark for software equalisation on the PC.
The C1 is a high-quality studio stereo dynamics processor and features two fully independent stereo plug-in modules, but unlike the original Mac TDM version, the Native Power Pack C1 does not provide frequency-selective dynamics processing (more's the pity). This means that you can't use it for compressing or gating audio at specific frequency bands, such as when de-essing. Unlike the TDM version, it does not seem possible to link the Native Power Pack C1 Compressor and Gate modules; the documentation is rather muddled on this point, with the Native Power Pack Guide compounding the confusion by describing these unavailable functions at some length! But what you do get is a useful and very capable gate, and a fine-sounding compressor with a few surprises up its figurative sleeve. Briefly, the C1 compressor is a soft-knee processor with a variable compression ratio. When set at maximum, it produces soft-knee limiting, and when set to a negative value, it will produce expansion. There is also a cancellation mode to defeat signals that exceed the threshold level.
The C1's compressor operates in two modes: in Low Reference mode, it acts like a conventional compressor, and when the threshold is lowered, the output automatically drops. In Peak Reference mode, the C1 keeps the output level constant despite changes in threshold. Also of interest is the PDR (or Program-Dependent Release) function, which varies the compressor release time by referencing the length of transient signals in the audio material. If the PDR is set to 15ms, all transients shorter than this will be given a quicker release time, while for longer transients the release time will be that set in the Release field.
The C1 gave run-of-the mill drum loops extra punch and solidity, and vocal recordings gained a presence and clarity not evident in the original recording. In short, the C1 proved to be a fine-sounding processor, capable of producing excellent results across a broad range of source material.
Unlike the Native Power Pack plug-ins, WaveConvert is a stand-alone program, and does not require a host application to perform its roster of important but admittedly rather unexciting tasks, which include file conversion (AIFF/WAV), bit rate conversion (16- and 8-bit), sample rate conversion with super-low aliasing, level maximisation, automatic gain control, gating, brightness and batch conversion. All in all, WaveConvert is a high-quality utilities toolbox that complements the functions of the Native Power Pack plug-ins. It is worth mentioning that I had some problems during the WaveConvert installation routine: a dialogue box opened requesting me to enter the serial number to be found on the Native Power Pack floppy disks -- and there wasn't one! I tried entering the serial number printed on the carton and the registration card, and was informed that it was invalid -- but despite all of this, when I double-clicked on the WaveConvert icon, the application booted and worked normally. Once again, the Power Pack's manual could be more helpful: this time, it provided information for the Mac version, but none for PC. However, the on-line help is fine.
The Native Power Pack plug-ins do differ from their previous TDM incarnations in that you can only use each plug-in one at a time -- in TDM systems, you can run as many as six versions of C1, for example, all with different compressor settings, but not with the Power Pack versions. Furthermore, some of the plug-ins -- most notably the C1 -- offer more limited functions than the TDM versions. The supplied documentation does need tidying up, so that only information relevant to the Native Power Pack plug-in modules is included, but it would be churlish to make too much of this shortcoming in the light of the high-quality processing on offer at such a low cost. It's positively altruistic when you consider that the Windows version of the L1 for Sound Forge on its own was £449, and that the individual Macintosh TDM versions together would have cost in excess of £2000! To conclude, the Waves Native Power Pack is a set of sweeteners and sophisticated audio production tools without current equal. It should boost the editing muscle of all recording facilities involved in post-production, mastering, remixing, audio restoration, or in sound design for games, multimedia and the Internet. Very highly recommended -- sell your granny if necessary!
Although the focus of this review is the Windows 95/NT version, the Native Power Pack is also available for Macs. The minimum recommended requirements are a 68040 machine or better (PowerMac, AV or PCI) with at least 16Mb of RAM, running MacOS version 7.5 or later. To run TrueVerb in real time, however, a minimum of a 120MHz Power Mac is required.
The Mac version ships on four floppy disks. For copy protection, Waves are relying on a slim hardware dongle, or Wavekey, which connects to the ADB (Apple Desktop Buss) port on the keyboard or into the back of the computer. Installation is pain-free; to run the plug-ins in Cubase VST, all you have to do is drag the WaveShell from the newly-created Waves folder into the Cubase Audio FX folder. The individual plug-ins are then accessed via WaveShell from the effects list in the effects modules window. To run the Native Power Pack with Cubase VST, you will need version 3.02 or later of VST.
The Mac version also includes the new Waves Track Pack Lite (a lossless hard disk audio file compression utility that can reduce file sizes by up to 50%), and a freeware Browser to run the Native Power Pack's Guide (just double-click on the file NPP.htm in the Waves folder to launch the html-viewer application.)
There are a few specific points that the prospective Mac user should be aware of: TrueVerb will not process 8-bit sound data; Cubase VST applies processing to audio after it leaves a plug-in, which unfortunately adversely affects files processed with IDR; and finally, the plug-ins do not run in real time on 68K machines, so users with these Macs must first wait while the preview sound buffer is processed.
AudioTrack is a useful, simple-to-use Waves plug-in for Sound Forge and Macromedia Director offering EQ, compression and level balancing. The version I have is not ActiveMovie-compatible, and when I attempted to install it for Sound Forge, it did horrible things to the Power Pack, and rendered it unusable until AudioTrack was removed!. If you have bought AudioTrack and would (not unreasonably...) like to use it without experiencing these problems, contact Waves for further advice.
Opcode Studio Vision Pro v3.5
Steinberg Cubase VST
Digidesign Audio Suite
Sonic Foundry Sound Forge v4.0a
Steinberg WaveLab v1.6
Cakewalk Cakewalk Pro Audio v6
Steinberg Cubase VST PC is due to follow later this year.
The Native Power Pack uses the computer's CPU to emulate DSP functions and consequently, a fast processor is required. Real-time preview functions in the Native Power Pack rely on the more powerful Intel Pentium processors -- I would recommend an Intel P200 PC with a minimum of 24Mb of RAM. This may seem big by today's standards, but in a year or so the P200 will no doubt be the de facto norm, even for smaller office and domestic systems. If you are content to forgo the advantages of real-time previews, you can use a 486DX100 or one of the slower Pentiums, and run the Power Pack's applications off-line. For this review, I used the Power Pack under Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge v4.0a, as this is the first -- and at the time of writing, the only -- audio editing package to implement Microsoft's ActiveMovie technology. However, in the near future we shall see ActiveMovie-compatible versions of Cakewalk's Cakewalk Pro Audio v6 and Steinberg's WaveLab v1.6, with Cubase VST for PC following later this year. No doubt the remaining leading major software developers of PC audio editors and MIDI + Audio sequencers will follow suit soon.
The reference PC used for this article consisted of the following:
Intel Pentium P200 CPU.
48Mb of RAM.
PCI motherboard with Intel Triton 82430 VX version 3 chipset and 256K pipeline burst cache.
2.3Gb hard drive space.
2MB PCI Video card.
17-inch SVGA monitor at 1024x768x64k resolution.
MQX32m SMPTE/MIDI card.
Turtle Beach Multisound Pinnacle soundcard with digital option.
Turtle Beach Multisound Classic soundcard running Windows 95.
I also ran the Native Power Pack on the same PC but with an Intel Pentium 100 and 32Mb of RAM, and although the C1, L1, S1 and WaveConvert ran well, the system could not cope with the complex real-time processing in the Q10 or the TrueVerb.
Special thanks to Stacy Moran at Sonic Foundry.
L1 is probably the best software limiter in the world.
Superb, versatile EQ.
Great stereo imager.
Amazing value for money.
Needs a powerful computer for real-time preview processing.
Documentation muddled in parts.
No printed manual.
Effects cannot be used serially in Sound Forge.
Compressor/Gate not frequency-conscious.
The Native Power Pack provides a stunning set of essential
studio mastering tools at an unbelievably low price -- despite the
inconsistencies in documentation, no audio editing facility with
a PC or (non-TDM-equipped) Mac should miss this one -- it's the business!
£ £499 inc VAT.
A Natural Audio Ltd, Suite 6, Kinetic Business Centre, Theobald Street, Borehamwood, Herts WD6 4PJ.
T 0181 207 1717.
F 0181 207 2727.