Review: Steinberg WaveLab 8.5

This update to Steinberg’s workhorse mastering program offers significant new features, but do they represent enough value for current WaveLab users to pay for the upgrade?  

WaveLab has been around for almost 20 years. In that time, it has proven itself a force in the audio editing and mastering industry. I remember using WaveLab 1.0 on my 166 MHz Pentium-based PC and being astounded by its unique real-time processing capabilities. Finally, I could listen to the results of each mastering processor one-by-one, rather than having to render and un-render each process to audition the results. Now in version 8.5, WaveLab includes—among other new features—a real-time auditioning plug-in call the Encoder Checker, which carries on the legacy of innovation that WaveLab users have come to rely on. Let’s look at each new feature to determine if 8.5 is right for you.

AAC-compatibility

The AAC codec is used by many Apple devices including the iPhone and iPad. It is therefore commonly and mistakenly referred to as the Apple Audio Codec. However, the actual representation of the acronym is Advanced Audio Coding. While earlier versions of WaveLab could decode AAC files, the 8.5 update allows you to encode and render to AAC as well. This offers a direct path to iTunes-compatibility, and can also be used in the Encoder Checker.

Encoder Checker

These days, music is delivered in a multitude of different formats, each requiring a different codec (coder-decoder.) The quality of each format can be customized to fit overall file size, sonic quality, and streaming requirements, the variables for which have a direct impact on how much of the original sonic quality is retained. To hear the difference between one encoding and another, you’d typically need to render the files first, then audition the results. But the Encoder Checker plug-in allows you to listen to up to three different encoder settings and compare them to the original audio, all in real-time.

The Encoder Checker control panel allows you to compare encoder settings before rendering.

The Encoder Checker control panel allows you to compare encoder settings before rendering.

The Encoder Checker is a plug-in that you install in the specialized Post-Processing slot of the Master Section. At the top of the control panel, you’ll see an FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) graph that displays the frequency response of the original audio (green line) vs. the response of the encoding (red line). Clicking and dragging across the graph allows you to zoom-in to a desired range of frequencies, while double-clicking (or Control/right-clicking) provides the option to zoom-out fully.

Located below the FFT graph are four buttons: one for the original sound, and three more for different codec settings. To the right of each button, there’s a slot into which you can configure the corresponding codec settings. For example, you could compare high bit rate AAC settings, lower bit rate AAC settings, and extremely low bit rate MP3 settings, all against the original linear audio. You can even use the Blind (encoders) option, which allows you and/or your clients to vote on which encoder sounds best, or the Blind (encoders + original sound) option, which includes the original linear audio file as a contestant in this audio ‘taste test.’ Votes and encoder selections are tallied and compared by using your keyboard + and - keys and arrow keys, respectively, and are calculated and displayed at the end of the comparison. When you’ve chosen the preferred encoder and/or its settings, there’s a Render button in the lower right-hand corner. You can even save a preset for instant recall of your favorite codecs and settings either one-by-one, or recalling all three codec slots simultaneously.

Watch Folders

Ever since version 7.0, WaveLab comes with versatile multi-tasking, which can make batch processing extremely fast. Watch Folders add even more flexibility and speed by defining specific folders that can be processed whenever files are placed within them. Watch Folders aren’t a new idea, but they can truly streamline your WaveLab rendering workflow.

The Watch Folder tab is located in the Batch Processor Workspace. Once you define a Watch Folder and configure it for the batch processing you wish to apply, any audio file type that is placed within the folder will be instantly processed by WaveLab, or during a preconfigured time-of-day window.

A configured Watch Folder (top), and its associated Batch Processor settings (below.)

A configured Watch Folder (top), and its associated Batch Processor settings (below.)

Here’s just one example of how you can use Watch Folders: Let’s say your client needs to have 10 tunes mixed and mastered in both 16-bit WAV, 256 kbps AAC, as well as the original 32-bit floating point format. Once you’ve mixed the first tune in your DAW and created a WaveLab Batch Processor configuration for the types of mastering you want applied, you can simply render (or move/copy) subsequent mixes from your DAW into the Watch Folder. Once the original is placed in the Watch Folder, WaveLab takes over.

(fig 3 missing) Contents of a Watch Folder before batch processing (left) and after (right).

The original file is saved into the Sources folder, while any processed files are saved into the Output folder. There’s even an HTML file that keeps track of processing, along with any errors that WaveLab might encounter in a Batch Processor that’s accidentally misconfigured. (I recommend using the Verify configuration button in the Watch Folder tab to make sure your batch processes run without errors.) The new Multi-format options allow you to save multiple versions of audio formats and codec settings, meaning that you no longer need to have separate Batch Processors for each output type. Additionally, you can configure the Watch Folder to process whether WaveLab is running or not, the settings for which are located in the System tray (Windows) or Menu bar (Mac.) You can even define network masters and slaves to distribute processing tasks across multiple computers.

Other Improvements

In the WaveLab Audio Montage Workspace, you can still add effect plug-ins to individual audio tracks and/or clips, but now you can employ a master bypass button rather than bypassing each plug-in one-by-one. There’s also a new XML file import capability, as well as the ability to save audio files into WavPack format, which allows for lossless compression of audio files. And if you’re upgrading from a previous version, WaveLab 8.5 will ask you if you want to import the older settings, which is a real timesaver.

The import settings dialog box.

The import settings dialog box.

To Upgrade, or Not to Upgrade…

If you don’t need the new features, upgrading is certainly not compulsory. But unlike some companies, Steinberg charges for their point revision upgrades. This has rubbed some WaveLab users the wrong way, and I know it’s been an adjustment for those who dislike paying for anything other than a full version upgrade. While I understand that consternation, Steinberg works very hard to ensure that users are getting the most bang for their buck. For example, the upgrade to 8.5 (from 8.0) costs $49.99, and I feel that any one of the four major new features (AAC, Encoder Checker, Watch Folders, and Multi-Format rendering) are worthy of that investment. But since you get all those new features for the upgrade price, I think this update represents real value for current and new users alike.


Price: $49.99 (upgrade from 8.0), $149.99 (upgrade from 7.0), $499.99 (full version)

Pros: AAC-compatibility, speed and workflow improvements to the Batch Processor Workspace, any many new codec auditioning capabilities.

Cons: It’s not a free upgrade, and the saving of Watch Folder / Batch Processor presets could be more streamlined.

Web: http://www.steinberg.net/en/products/wavelab/new_features/whats_new_in_wavelab_85.html

Matthew Loel T. Hepworth

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MATTHEW LOEL T. HEPWORTH has been teaching music technology since 1984. The son of educators, he has the ability to thoughtfully instruct people to get the most from complicated music products and software. He authors the Cubase and WaveLab tutorials for macProVideo.com and authored several books including WaveLab 7 Power!, The Power i... Read More

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