There are plenty of brand names that stand for quality in hardware effects units; and some, like TC Electronic, have gone on to bring an established reputation to the field of software plug-ins. Israeli developers Waves, though, are more unusual in having built up a premium brand solely through their software effects and processors. Waves plug-ins have never been cheap, but their reputation is second to none.
Over the last year or two the quality of freeware and budget plug-ins has risen dramatically, and some computer musicians must be wondering whether they really need to spend hundreds of pounds on a suite of basic effects and processors. But Waves haven't been standing still either: as well as developing new plug-ins and optimising existing ones for better performance, they're busy creating new and enticing ways of bundling them. The Renaissance Maxx bundle under review here, for instance, combines the existing Renaissance Collections 1 and 2 and adds a new plug-in, Renaissance Channel. As the name suggests, the emphasis in the Renaissance range is on 'virtual vintage', and adjectives like 'warm', 'rich' and 'fat' feature heavily in the promotional bumph.
Waves do their utmost to make their plug-ins available to all. As well as making them available for download, they seem to give away almost as many CD-ROMs as AOL, so it's very easy to try them out for the free two-week demo period. If you then decide you want to buy them, you then hand over your money in return for a licence number. Feeding this into your computer will generate a challenge, and once you get the appropriate response from the Waves web site, your plug-ins will be unlocked.
One of the best features of Waves' plug-ins is their almost universal compatibility with the bewildering array of formats out there. The effects themselves are accessed through 'shells' which, on the Mac, allow them to be used as RTAS, VST or MAS-format native plug-ins, with Audio Units support promised soon. Pro Tools users can also run them off-line as Audiosuite devices, while those willing to pay out the extra can get TDM versions to run on their Mix or HD cards. One of the advantages of this 'shell' system over some rival plug-ins is that if you run several pieces of audio software which use different native plug-in formats, you should be able to run the Waves plug-ins in all of them. Buying the TDM version, for instance, also gives you access to the native versions of each plug-in in all formats. It's also worth pointing out that the Waves plug-ins use their own system for storing and recalling presets rather than the host sequencer's, so if you do use them in different plug-in formats, you should be able to see all your presets in all the applications you use. Buying the boxed version gives you a printed manual, while PDF-format documentation is accessed by clicking the question mark button on each plug-in (except for Renaissance Channel, where doing so generated an error on my system).
Let Me Count The Waves...
The structure of Waves' range is such that they sometimes appear to have more bundle deals than they have plug-ins. There are six basic bundled products, which are in turn grouped together to make super-bundles such as Gold. Renaissance Maxx supersedes the old Renaissance Collections 1 and 2, and the other basic bundles that are still available are Native Power Pack, Masters, Restoration, and the TDM/HD-only Surround Tools. The ProFX bundle has been discontinued as a separate product, but is still available as part of the Gold bundle, which also includes Native Power Pack and Renaissance Collection 1, plus the additional C4, Audiotrak and Maxx Bass plug-ins. The ultimate Waves bundle is Platinum, which includes everything except Surround Tools.
The Renaissance Maxx bundle features seven plug-ins in total. From the original Renaissance Collection come Renaissance EQ, Renaissance Compressor and Renaissance Reverberator, while the Renaissance Collection 2 yields Renaissance Vox, Renaissance Bass and Renaissance De-esser. The new Renaissance Channel is exclusive to this bundle, and combines elements of the other plug-ins to create a virtual voice channel offering compression, expansion and EQ.
Renaissance Vox and Renaissance Bass are both clever adaptations of other Waves plug-ins intended to fulfil a specific task with the minimum of fuss. Renaissance Vox combines expansion, compression and output limiting, and offers only three controls: expander and compressor thresholds and output attentuation. If you want to get involved with messing around with attack and release times, or if you want to vary the character of the compression, you'll need to choose a different plug-in. More often than not, however, simply inserting Renaissance Vox on a vocal track and lowering the compression threshold to taste leaves you thinking 'Ah yes. That's what I wanted it to sound like.' The results have a thick, slightly middly warmth that suggests classy vintage gear, while the expander is gentle but effective. Renaissance Vox wrenches a vocal track to the front of the mix, and is particularly effective at adding weight to a thin-sounding voice.
Renaissance Bass is a simplified version of Waves' Maxx Bass bass enhancer, and also provides just three sliders. You can specify the frequency cutoff point where the process begins, the Intensity of the artificial harmonics added to the signal, and output attenuation. There's also a button to choose whether the original bass frequencies below the cutoff point are retained or discarded. Again, Renaissance Bass works surprisingly well despite its apparent inflexibility. Compared to Aphex's Big Bottom, for instance, it seems to produce a slightly more punchy sound, although I feel that the lack of controls is more limiting in this case. Despite Waves' claim that Renaissance Bass suffers from "no distortion", I found that Intensity settings above -2dB or so usually produced an ugly fuzz bass effect, so you need to be a little careful.
Renaissance Compressor is one of the most widely used Waves plug-ins, and also works on the principle that most users don't want to spend hours twiddling with controls in order to get results. The main window offers the basic parameters that you'd expect from any compressor — attack and release times, ratio, and threshold and make-up gain levels — plus three radio buttons that change the compressor's behaviour. The first switches between a fully manual release time setting and Waves' proprietary ARC auto-release mode, which uses the manual setting as a starting point, and can make the compression sound less obvious on some material. The second gives you a choice of Opto or Electro, each providing a different flavour of vintage character, while the third offers you the choice of Warm or Smooth, the former acting on low-frequency information to add extra harmonics to the processed signal. Unsurprisingly, the effect of the Warm setting is more noticeable on bass-heavy signals, and in other cases it can be hard to discern much difference. Once again, the general bias is towards compression with a definite sonic character, and Renaissance Compressor tends to add a nice mid-range solidity to most sources. A transparent output limiter means you don't have to worry about boosting the make-up gain too much.
Digital EQ, like compression, can be too transparent for its own good. If you've ever found yourself thinking "But I've cut 12dBs and I still can't hear any difference!", then the Waves Renaissance EQ may be the plug-in for you. As soon as you move any of the coloured dots on the graphical frequency plot, you'll hear a clear change in the character of your source sound — and if you do apply anything like 12dBs of cut or boost, you may end up in special effects territory. The plug-in is supplied in two, four and six-band versions, each band offering a choice of parametric or shelving filter types, with the first and last band adding the options of high- and low-pass filters respectively. Option-clicking and dragging on the coloured dots alters the Q value of the respective bands, and the Q setting works for the shelving filter types as well as the parametrics. In particular, shelf filters with high Q values exhibit a pronounced resonant peak, which Waves say is characteristic of the classic analogue Pultec design. The behaviour of the parametric bands, meanwhile, is asymmetrical, with the same Q value providing a broad frequency boost but a much narrower cut. Waves say that this is because cutting is more often used to eliminate "bothersome artifacts" whereas boost is more usually applied for general tone-shaping. Even if you don't buy this argument, it's always possible to achieve a broad-band cut by lowering the Q value.
In use, Renaissance EQ is another classy plug-in which is not afraid to impose some character on your sources. You need to be more restrained with the gain controls than is the case with most software equalisers, and it's definitely possible to push things into the realm of harshness, but in general it's a musical and very usable tool.
Renaissance De-esser is, as the name would suggest, designed to tone down excessive sibilance in male and female vocals. I'm not quite sure how this fits in with the 'vintage' theme of the other Renaissance plug-ins, but it's very effective. Like any de-esser, you set it up by listening to the side-chain and adjusting the frequency of a high-pass or band-pass filter to home in on the offending esses. Renaissance De-esser then uses Waves' proprietary Adaptive Threshold Control to duck either the entire signal (in Wideband mode), or just the frequencies being let through by the side-chain filter (in Split mode), when a sibilant consonant is encountered. In Split mode, particularly, it's possible to tame rogue esses and tees with very few audible consequences for the rest of the signal. Usually I'd be reluctant to use a de-esser on a lead vocal, but you could certainly get away with using this one in a lot of circumstances. My only complaint is that you can't click and drag in the graphical window to set the filter frequency — instead you have to click on the numerical value and drag it up or down with the mouse, which is a bit of a pain.
The first instance of any Waves plug-in you load into a Process, Mix or DSP Farm chip uses up slightly more of its DSP power than subsequent plug-ins sharing that chip, as it has to load the Waveshell as well as the plug-in itself. Several different types of Waves plug-in can be hosted by a single Mix chip. Here's a rough guide to how many of each plug-in a single Mix card DSP chip can host:
Plug-in - Number per Mix card DSP chip
Renaissance Channel - 2
Renaissance Compressor - 4
Renaissance De-esser - 4
Renaissance EQ (two-band) - 12
Renaissance Reverb - 1
Renaissance Reverb Compact - 1
Renaissance Vox - 5
Renaissance Bass - 4
Renaissance Reverberator is a thoroughly workmanlike reverb plug-in, offering control over most of the parameters you'd expect to find in a mid-priced hardware unit. A 'compact' version, which provides the same controls but uses less DSP power, is also included (but the separate Reverb Tail plug-in described in the electronic documentation is nowhere to be seen). There are 12 algorithms ranging from halls and rooms to plates, chambers and special effects like Resoverb and Echoverb. These, in turn, are linked to a variety of other controls. In essence, you have control over four main aspects of the effect: early reflections, the reverb itself, its damping and its overall equalisation. Other parameters of interest include Decorellation, which affects the relative timing of the early reflections in the left and right speakers, and Decay, which is continuously variable between a 'natural' decay at one end of the spectrum and a sharply gated effect at the other. Predelay offers both negative and positive values, the former delaying the dry signal so that the reverb sounds first.
As usual, Waves use words like 'classic' and 'vintage' to describe the sound of Renaissance Reverb, and it does offer a decent range of plate and spring emulations, if that's your thing. If providing good-sounding halls and large rooms can be considered 'vintage', then it does that too. Surprisingly, though, there's no dedicated ambience algorithm. On the down side, the early reflections can sometimes sound a little ragged, and I occasionally found it hard to avoid a slight ringing in the mid-range. Renaissance Reverberator knocks spots off most native reverbs, but competition on the TDM platform is stronger, and to my mind it doesn't quite match the controllability, smoothness or sense of realism you can get from something like Universal Audio's Realverb Pro.
And so, finally, to Renaissance Channel. The only new plug-in in the Maxx bundle, this combines a four-band EQ, an expander, and a compressor/limiter, drawn respectively from the Renaissance EQ, Vox and Compressor plug-ins. The order of the EQ and dynamics sections can be swapped round as desired, while a single graphical frequency plot shows the EQ response and also the frequency response of optional separate side-chain filters for the compressor and expander. As well as the option to use an external key signal, there's also the option to use the pre-EQ signal as a key if the EQ is before the dynamics section in the signal path. The compressor can be switched to work like Renaissance Compressor or Renaissance Vox, the latter mode denying you the use of a Ratio control. Finally, if the plug-in is used in mono-to-stereo or stereo modes, a Rotation control allows you to pan its output or 'rotate' it through the stereo field.
Renaissance Channel works as well as you'd expect, though it adds little except convenience to the other Waves Renaissance plug-ins. If you already have their Renaissance Collections 1 and 2, there are probably better ways to spend your money than on Renaissance Maxx. If you don't, however, Renaissance Channel provides yet another good reason to try this plug-in bundle out. Once you've tried it, you may find it hard to live without it!