Making Waves have been developing their eponymous looping software to include new features such as VST Instrument support and high sample-rate recording, while retaining its core virtues of simplicity and low hardware requirements.
Loop-based music programs have become enormously popular since Sonic Foundry's Acid burst onto the scene back in 1998, and it's not difficult to see why. Automatic pitch and tempo matching is hugely convenient for fans of instant gratification, but it also offers those who prefer more variation in their music a great way of getting a track off the ground, even if you subsequently replace the original parts. Making Waves have been at this game for a while now and have been steadily developing their product range with a more professional feature set, culminating in the top-of-the-range Making Waves Studio reviewed here. For information on previous versions of MW don't hesitate to take a look at John Walden's earlier SOS reviews, available on-line at www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec00/articles/makingwaves.asp and www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug02/articles/makingwaves.asp.
One of Making Waves' distinguishing characteristics is its ability to run on extremely modest hardware: all that's required is a Pentium I with a minimum of 16MB RAM and a stereo soundcard, and all versions of Windows from 95 to XP are supported. Copy protection has changed since version 3, and no longer demands that the installation CD be present in the drive when the program is started. A 21-day authorisation code is provided so users can get started straight away, and Making Waves now use a challenge-and-response system requiring the software serial number and product code. The company also operate a lifetime free update and technical support policy for registered users.
I'll just quickly recap the operational aspects of Making Waves here, but for a more detailed look check out John Walden's review of version 2 from December 2000. Little has changed regarding the program's basic functionality, and starting it up still reveals the same resplendently grey interface divided into a track pane, arrangement grid, and a browsing window for selecting and auditioning sounds.
There are four basic track types consisting of Single Play, Sample Loop, Percussion and Notes, which determine how an audio file is handled once imported into a project. Single Play, as the name suggests, is meant for one-off hits, effects, and other sounds that do not require time-stretching or pitch manipulation. Conversely, if the Sample Loop button is selected when auditioning audio files, the preview should automatically match the project tempo, making it easy to find musically complementary sounds. Once a set of loops has been added to the project they can be drawn, at a one-bar resolution, into the arrangement grid. Because it's not possible to manipulate samples with greater finesse than in single-bar chunks, 'cutoff sequences' can be inserted to rhythmically mute tracks, and it's surprising how intuitive this method becomes after a while.
Moving beyond loop manipulation, MW offers some interesting pattern and drum-arranging features to make use of single-shot hits and notes. Switching a track to Percussion mode reveals a miniature pattern sequence strip offering resolutions up to 1/32nd of a bar. As well as being a good way of programming quick drum fills and patterns, I found this feature handy for creating interesting rhythmic variations on loop-based material.
The rather more elaborate Notes mode accesses a more conventional piano-roll editor (see screen shot above), which allows sequences to be recorded in either real or step time, and includes a simple chord generator and arpeggiator. This is strictly non-real-time and simply adds the appropriate chords or arpeggiations to your sequence on clicking either the Replace or Merge buttons. A separate floating window can be used to fine-tune each note's velocity and various other parameters, and although each track can only contain one individual sequence, the 16-bar limitation in previous versions of Making Waves no longer exists. There are, however, a few caveats and constraints, which I'll cover in the 'Gripes And Moans' section.
Since version 3 project navigation has been improved, with the addition of nameable markers and Section Tracks (MW parlance for groups). Floating palettes are available in the Zoom view, making it easier to jump from one section, bookmark, or tempo change to another. This is a welcome addition, since just about everything in Making Waves — every loop variation, effect, parameter change, group, and so on — requires its own track, and even a medium-sized project can soon amass over 100 (though they won't all be playing simultaneously, of course). If you don't make use of bookmarks or sections, getting around a large project can be tiresome, as the main arrange grid has only two size options and is not zoomable.
Making Waves Studio is capable of recording eight tracks of audio simultaneously from up to three separate sources. The main new refinement added to the Record dialogue is the option to create a track to house the recorded file(s) with one button click, and it would be good if this featurette could be expanded to also add an event to the arrangement grid at the point recording began. I found recording audio alongside loop-based material to be a painless experience, and although you can't see a waveform overview of your files as a visual aid, everything sync'ed up and worked as expected.
The audio engine has been enhanced since v3 and can now play and record files at formats up to 32-bit, 192kHz, depending on hardware capabilities. I don't expect Making Waves will attract many users interested in running their projects at 192kHz or even 96kHz, since the trade-offs tend to outweigh the benefits, but more flexibility never hurt anyone. Those intent on using high sample rates and bit depths would do well to check if their audio hardware supports these modes in non-ASIO applications. I had to enable the Echo-specific 'Purewave' option on my Layla24 before recording would work at 24-bit, and any attempts to use 96kHz resulted in an 'unsupported wave format' message.
The bundled native effects in Making Waves Studio are very simple, and most have only a mix level parameter available for adjustment. The quality is so-so: I wouldn't use the compressor, for example, but several others could come in handy. One particular highlight is the Reverse plug-in, which managed to make my most pedestrian guitar parts sound something like Ben Harper's solo on Beth Orton's 'Stolen Car'. I used it liberally. The best news is that support for VST effects has now been added in addition to Direct X, and although some third-party plug-ins proved a little temperamental, most seemed to work pretty well.
The effects implementation in Making Waves Studio is both simple and powerful, providing you are prepared to put out of your mind those hardware metaphors that predominate in other programs and get into the MW way of thinking. In a nutshell, insert-type effects are placed into their own sequence-grid track directly beneath the loop or sequence they are intended to process. Section tracks are used to process several tracks at a time, and 'master'-type effects placed at the very top of the track window. This may sound confusing — and at first it is if you're used to the conventional way of doing this — but I found I could achieve much of what I wanted, albeit with a little less flexibility than on an orthodox send/insert system. I would suggest, however, that MW lends itself greatly to creative experimentation in the use of VST plug-ins, due to ease of automating effects in interesting, rhythmic ways. Creating a new VST Parameter track beneath a plug-in allows you to automate levels in either whole-bar, pattern or sequence mode, the latter allowing you to draw parameter automation down to 1/96 bar resolution using a variety of wave-shaping and manipulation tools. My only regrets concern the lack of any preset management system, and the fact that plug-ins' GUIs do not update to reflect automated parameter changes, so you won't get that pleasing sensation of watching dials and faders move all on their own...
I found a few aspects of the program's design rather unpolished and somewhat frustrating. The addition of VST Instruments, for example, has great promise — particularly as they can be automated in the same manner as VST effects — but it doesn't seem to work too well as of version 4.7. Most annoying is the fact that notes played or recorded in the sequence window can currently only be held for the duration of one bar before the sound is abruptly cut off, which makes organs, pads — anything but drums, in fact — somewhat incapacitated. Whilst this limitation remains it's difficult to recommend MW as a fully fledged host for VST Instruments, and I also encountered a few stability issues with some third-party VSTis which I hope will be addressed in future updates.
At a more general level, I found recording and editing MIDI sequences something of a chore due to the lack of any visual indication of a note's velocity and length without viewing its properties in the Note Settings panel. Furthermore, as the piano-roll grid is fixed at 1/32nd of the bar, you can only fine-tune note positions by adjusting their offset — not exactly the most intuitive way of editing MIDI. While we're on the subject, I'd better mention that there's no concept of lassoing and dragging notes around, and although you do get accustomed to it after a while, Making Waves' method of selecting, cutting, and pasting notes is initially somewhat wearisome. The MIDI side of the program — little changed from version 3 other than the option to sync external equipment via MTC as well as MIDI clock — is still rather hampered in requiring instrument definition files to be available before sounds can be used in a project. There is still no option to sync Making Waves Studio to a more full-featured MIDI sequencer.
Unfortunately, the manual — though thankfully made of paper — isn't a great deal of help in casting light on the program's more challenging operational aspects, and is merely duplicated in the on-line help. It's adequate at informing you what a given feature is capable of, but poorer at actually explaining how to go about using it. Another annoyance, noted by John Walden in his review of version 2, is the cryptic nature of the icons that make up much of Making Waves' interface, and these have not been made any less obscure in v4.
Making Waves Studio is undoubtedly a powerful product with a lot of good features for the money. In fact, there's nothing with quite the same blend of loop manipulation, pattern creation, audio recording and MIDI sequencing at a comparable price, and it's capable of excellent results on very modest hardware. In an age where the recommended specs for most audio sequencers are approaching the point when they could take on Gary Kasparov and win, it's nice to see something designed for those on a budget, or who are perhaps interested in recycling an old PC. The integration of VST plug-ins with full automation capability is a fantastic addition to version 4, and the enhancements to file-format compatibility and song navigation are definitely welcome.
On the down side, I do feel that the implementation of VST Instruments — one of the most exciting new features — is rather half-baked, particularly with regard to the note duration limitation. The other big area ripe for improvement is the general usability of the interface, especially with regard to the more obscure aspects of the sequence editor, which I found to be the biggest obstacle to exploiting the program's considerable potential.
Making Waves Studio is an attractive proposition if you follow the upgrade path from the Audio and Pro versions, but I think musicians with good PC hardware and the desire to transcend the dance-type genres would do well to check out the demos of some more conventional sequencers before plonking down their cash. Cakewalk's Sonar 2, for example, can now be had for under £200 and includes some powerful looping features and a much better MIDI environment. Taking into account discounted shop prices, however, not to mention the cheaper downloadable versions and generous free update policy, MW Studio looks like a much better deal and is definitely worthy of consideration.
Making Waves strikes me as something of a hybrid application with regard to real-time operation: On one hand, a pre-mixing system is employed (similar to that in Cool Edit Pro) to ensure the maximum efficacy on slow systems. VSTis and audio samples can be triggered via MIDI in either the main workspace or the sequence editor, but the sounds are pre-mixed and can only be played monophonically. To get around this you must select Recording Preview (for some reason represented by the internationally recognised symbol for 'pause'), which allows real-time triggering with the audio interface's latency by pre-loading the sounds into RAM. Although a little clunky, this works adequately in practice, even given the rather high 30ms latency managed by my Echo Layla24 in Making Waves. Overall, I'm inclined to see the manner in which MW pre-mixes songs as a mixed blessing, because although it does contribute to the program's very low hardware requirements, it tends to make adjusting parameters by ear rather difficult, as the changes take a bar or so to enact, depending on the song's complexity. This means that one of the principal benefits of low-latency soundcards — a more 'tactile' and responsive mixing environment — does not apply to most aspects of Making Waves.