Making Waves

Digital Audio Seqencer/Sampler

Published in SOS December 2000
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Reviews : Software: ALL
DIGITAL AUDIO SEQUENCER AND SAMPLER FOR PC

Bucking the trend for elaborate 'virtual studio' graphic interfaces and bloated feature sets, Making Waves is designed to allow you to get into making music quickly and straightforwardly, on even a modestly specified PC. John Walden puts it through its paces.

When it comes to PC digital audio for the masses, Emagic, Steinberg, Cakewalk and Sonic Foundry have a firm grip on the market, and any new product that comes into competition with the established players better have some sort of edge with which to cut its own niche. Making Waves is advertised as a digital audio music sequencer and sampler, and thus falls firmly within the range of existing products from all the companies listed above. However, the specification of Making Waves is distinctive in three ways. First, the software is fairly streamlined. There is no bloated feature set and, like Sonic Foundry's Acid family (with which it shares some similarities), Making Waves is an audio-only environment. Second, because of the way the program handles audio tracks, the PC hardware requirements are pretty modest. Third, at under £40, the package is close to shareware in price.

While all these features are commendable, some credible music making must be possible within these design constraints if it is going to have any significant appeal. So does Making Waves make a splash?

Out Of The Box

As might be expected from a 'digital audio music sequencer and sampler', Making Waves does not have a MIDI sequencing capability. Its audio sequencing side is similar to Acid in that audio files can be looped, tempo-matched and pitch-shifted. There are, however, some obvious differences in approach between Acid and Making Waves. On the sampling side, what is actually provided is a means for creating note sequences for playback of audio files. For example, with an audio file containing a bass or melody sound as your source, notes can be added to a sequence of bars using a note sequencer function. This sequence can then be played back along side other audio loops or sequences. This sample playback feature is easy to use and works well, but there is no way Making Waves could be described as a fully featured software sampler (nor do the company make such claims).

MAKING WAVES £40
pros
Once you have adjusted to the software's way of working, it is pretty easy to use.
Modest PC hardware required.
Good value for money considering the results that can be obtained.
cons
No access to DirectX or VST plug-in effects.
Limited audio file editing means an external editor is required.
No sync capability for hooking up to another sequencer.
summary
Making Waves is a streamlined software tool aimed squarely at dance music production and capable of some excellent results even on a modest PC. It's a little quirky in places and with one or two design limitations, but very stable and good value for money.

The review copy of Making Waves included two CDs and an 80-page printed manual. One CD contained the application plus a collection of mono and stereo audio loops in the usual WAV format, as well as a small number of demo songs. The second CD contained a collection of 10 audio tracks that had been created using Making Waves. The software is clearly aimed at producers, musicians and DJs who work with dance styles, as these dominate both the loops and demo tunes. Given the price, the number of loops provided is impressive (see the 'Please Provide A Sample' box on page 40 for details) and their audio quality good. The audio CD gives a reasonable impression of what the software is capable of, and I could imagine many of the mixes going down well in a club setting.

The First Wave

The minimum system requirements are modest by today's standards, and include a Pentium processor or equivalent, 16Mb of RAM, an SVGA display and, of course, a suitable 16-bit soundcard. Windows 95, 98 and NT4 are all suitable. On my Pentium III-based test system, the installation procedure went very smoothly. As a form of copy protection, the software requires that the CD is present each time Making Waves is started, but it can then be removed.

The program initially uses the default Windows audio setup for playback and recording, but a different audio interface can be selected if required. Making Waves cannot, however, output different tracks to different hardware audio outputs; stereo out is all that is available, and all mixing has to be done within the software itself. My guess is that this is partly what allows a 128-track audio sequencer such as Making Waves to run on a fairly modest PC; the software seems to be 'looking ahead' in the arrangement and pre-mixing the audio to a stereo pair ready for output.

Diving In

As shown in the screenshot on page 38, on start up, the arrangement of the main Making Waves window bears more than a passing resemblance to Sonic Foundry's Acid, Vegas Audio and Vegas Video. The screen is dominated by the Track List (upper left), the Arrange window (upper right) and, along the base, the Audio File window, which allows audio files to be located, previewed and added to a new track.

  Web Waves  
  Making Waves Audio have a web site to support the program. This serves as a sales point but interested users can also download updates, a demo version (1.3Mb) plus a series of MP3 tunes created using the software, all of which is very useful if you want to make an informed decision about purchasing the full product.  
The main screen also contains various menus, buttons and boxes that call up particular functions or allow settings to be made. These do take a little time to become familiar with. In part, this is perhaps a design issue, as not all of the icons used are terribly informative. For example, the small yellow rectangle in the row of buttons at the base of the screen calls up the Percussion Set Editor. Perhaps a drum icon might have been used here? It must also be said that the manual could do a little more to help. It contains many useful screen shots but none of them have additional annotation, and it is often unclear from the text alone which on-screen button or icon is being described. All this is a bit of shame, as it adds an unnecessary hurdle to what would otherwise be a very shallow learning curve.

Surf's Up

The general Acid-like appearance of the main screen hides some considerable differences in the way the two programs actually operate. In some respects, Making Waves is a rather more flexible music production tool than Acid; in others, its more well-known competitor is clearly more sophisticated. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the inclusion of several different track types in Making Waves. Tracks that contain audio can work with one of four different file types — Single Play, Percussion, Notes and Sample Loops — and a button for each type is displayed at the bottom of the main screen. Before you select an audio file to use in a new track, the type of audio track must be specified by clicking on the appropriate button. Double-clicking on a file name in the Audio File window then creates a track of that type at the bottom of the track list. The track type setting then dictates how the particular track behaves.

Single Play audio files are similar to Acid's One Shot files. These files can be triggered any number of times throughout a track, and play through to their end. They are not associated with a particular tempo. One-off chord 'hits' and cymbal crashes fall into this category, but this track type could also be appropriate for pad sounds that last several bars.

  Please Provide A Sample  
  An impressive number of samples (the documentation claims over 1000) are provided with Making Waves. Most of the sounds are dance-oriented. Bass sounds include samples from the Novation BassStation, Minimoog and Roland Juno 106, along with some sub-bass tones. Drum samples perhaps dominate the collection and go from complete loops to single hits. In both cases, real kits and classic drum machine samples are included (ie. single samples from various Roland TR-series beatboxes). Some of the drum samples have effects added or are crunched up a little. The other samples are made up of a very usable collection of classic synth sounds (Roland, Korg and Waldorf sources are all included), some usable as melody sounds and others as pads. A small number of hits and special effects are also included.  
Percussion tracks are used for individual drum samples. The screen shot on page 42 shows a simple example where a kick drum sample has been selected and a one-bar pattern with a 1/16th grid has been created. Patterns of up to 16 bars in length can be specified, allowing a series of percussion tracks to be created to build up a full rhythm pattern.

Notes tracks are used to create note sequences and this track type is one of the features that distinguishes Making Waves from Acid. Notes can be entered into the note sequencer grid via the mouse or a MIDI keyboard (see screen shot, right). These notes then trigger playback of a selected sample at the specified pitch, allowing melody and bass lines to be created. As with Percussion tracks, sequences of up to 16 bars in length can be created. A Chord Sequencer toolbox can also be used with the note sequencer, and arpeggio patterns can be specified as well as various chord types.

It's also possible to build drum parts using Notes tracks. The Percussion Set Editor allows individual drum samples to be assigned to different pitches so that each pitch on the note sequencer grid corresponds to a particular drum sound (see screen shot, right). The end result is something not unlike the Cubase drum grid, but triggering samples loaded from disk rather than a MIDI sound module.



Given some suitable sampled sounds, it is extremely easy to create authentic drum, bass and melody sequences using the note sequencer. However, the way the feature is implemented is not without its limitations. Firstly, when using a MIDI keyboard for real-time note entry, the notes are heard in real time as you play, and added to the note grid in red. However, the notes played on the first pass through the loop are not heard on the second pass, and if you play any new notes, the original notes disappear. Notes are permanently added to the sequence only when you click on the large '+' icon towards the bottom right of the note sequencer window. Secondly, Making Waves does not support multisamples, and as a single audio sample is used for all notes played, the usual audio artefacts start to appear when it is pitch-shifted more than a few semitones above or below its original pitch. For samples of real instruments, the lack of multisamples is an obvious limitation, but the effect of this pitch-shifting is less noticeable with more synthetic sounds.

The fourth track type is based upon Sample Loops and is essentially equivalent to Acid's loop-based tracks. Samples of a known length and tempo can be replayed with suitable time-stretching to match the tempo of the song. To my ears at least, the audio quality of the time-stretching is similar to that in Acid Pro, although the latter (at about five times the price of Making Waves) perhaps has a very slight edge when it comes to pitch-shifting.

One feature that takes a little time to get used to is the way audio effects are handled by Making Waves. Essentially, each effect is added as a separate track immediately below the audio track to which the effect is to apply (you can see this in the earlier screen shot of the main window). There's an additional effects track type called Cutoff Sequence which provides a gate-like means of switching off track level or effects for selected parts of a particular bar. A range of the usual effects types is available (see screen shot on page 44), and while these work quite well, it must be noted that only limited effects editing is available. In addition, the effects are of a proprietary type and the software does not support DirectX or VST plug-ins.

Wave Arranging

Track arranging is done in a similar fashion to Acid. Track details are added to the bar grid that dominates the upper right of the main display. For example, a purple circle indicates the triggering of a sample from its start, and a horizontal purple dash indicates the continuation of that loop or sequence if it is more than one bar in length. A red circle with a cross in it forces a sample or loop to stop playing back before its actual end point. Level changes for a volume or effect track can be drawn directly onto the bar grid in the Arrange window and appear as red boxes, the height of which indicates the volume/effect level. As shown in the screen shot, right, more detailed setting of such levels can be done within a bar or bar sequence if required.

The combination of different track types and the variety of different symbols used in the Arrange window makes for a less elegant visual appearance than Acid's, but the display is very informative.

Other Comments

It is never possible to cover all the functions of a software product like Making Waves in a review of this length, but a few other issues are worth mentioning. A facility for recording audio is provided, and both stereo and mono recording at up to 48kHz are supported. Recordings can be made while the main arrangement is playing, but the new audio file is then simply saved to disk: if you wish to include it in your song, it must be used as the basis for a new track and then triggered at the appropriate position within the arrangement. This is a little clumsy but works well enough.

Three less pleasing aspects of the software need raising. First, and perhaps least significant, is the fact that adjusting the length or level of notes in a note sequence can be a somewhat time-consuming operation. From the note sequencer window, a further editor window (see screen shot, right) needs to be opened, whereupon the mouse is used to adjust the volume or length of each note individually. Secondly, Making Waves has very limited audio editing facilities. A loop-splicing tool is provided, and this is useful for cutting up things like drum loops, but for more sophisticated editing an external audio editor is needed. Finally, Making Waves has no capability to synchronise playback to other software or hardware. This is very much a stand-alone application.


Making Sound Waves

On first sight, Making Waves somehow manages to look both familiar and just a little quirky and, in initial operation at least, that sensation remains. However, it takes very little time to become familiar with the way the software operates and its particular approach to some tasks. Key to this is the fact that the software is not stuffed with features that just get in the way. The main elements needed for track production and arranging are present, and not much beyond that.

Mixing the levels of individual tracks is easy enough and, providing your audio hardware and original samples are of a respectable standard, the audio quality that can be produced is excellent. Stereo mix files of final arrangements can easily be generated to allow, for example, a series of songs to be compiled for CD production. The overall impression is of a package that does some things its own way and with some obvious restrictions, but which is certainly capable of some good results.

Conclusions

At the price, almost anyone could probably afford to buy Making Waves. Those with a system comprising Acid sync'ed up to a MIDI + Audio sequencer and running a full-blown software or hardware sampler will almost certainly not find anything new in Making Waves that would make it an essential purchase. But then if you are running a system like that, the £40 price tag is not going to break the bank either.

If dance/club music is your thing, however, and you are working on a very tight budget (and perhaps with an older PC), then this package could well appeal. With a free demo available for download, Making Waves is well worth a try: it may not be as slick as some of the more established competition but it is a good demonstration of the fact that performance is not always related to price.

 information
£39.99 including VAT.
Making Waves Audio
+44 (0)1264 850666.
+44 (0)1264 850444.
www.makingwavesaudio.com

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