Review – Steinberg’s WaveLab 8.5 and WaveLab Elements 8
Many of us use highly capable DAW software, so why would we need another, different audio editor program? Find out why here.
by David Baer, Jan. 2015
In this review, we’re going to look at two impressive audio editing programs from Steinberg: WaveLab 8.5 and its “lite” version, WaveLab Elements 8. For clarity in what follows, “WaveLab” will refer to the full-featured version, “Elements” the “lite” version, and “the WaveLabs” will mean either or both. But let me make something clear from the start, Elements may offer only a subset of WaveLab’s capabilities, but it’s far from deserving of a “lite” designation. Elements is very impressive and capable in its own right.
Most of our readers probably own one or more full-featured DAW programs: Cubase, Logic, SONAR, etc. These have abundant capabilities for editing audio. So why would a DAW owner want to even think about parting with funds to buy a different program that can also do audio editing? One justification would efficient workflow. Kitchen blenders and food processors have some overlap, but either can do things the other cannot, or can at least do certain things much more effectively. The same is true of DAWs and audio editing software.
But it doesn’t stop there. The WaveLabs can do a few things you either could not do in your DAW without much difficulty, or could not do period. Most significantly, the Montage capability can be employed for easy CD track layout, track “leveling” and CD organization. On another front, anyone doing sound capture for the creation of sample sets will also be far better off when advanced looping capabilities are at hand. We’ll be looking at both of these capabilities and much more.
But let’s start by establishing who would be better suited for which version. At $500 USD, WaveLab is not a purchase to be lightly undertaken. Elements, at one fifth of that price, is something most home producers and serious hobbyists would find a lot more palatable. The good news is that Elements has plenty to offer the home producer, and in fact, it’s so rich in functionality that there’s little in WaveLab that would be sorely missed for application at that level.
On the other hand, WaveLab is there for commercial sound studios, mastering shops, and the like. If you used audio editing software, say, six or more hours a week, then some of the heavy-lifting capabilities of WaveLab (compared to Elements) could be readily cost justified. Likewise, features not likely to be required by the home producer, such as surround DVD-Audio production will require the big guns. We’ll spend some time later in comparing the feature sets.
Audio Editing – the Basics
If you have a DAW but also have an audio editor program, then you probably don’t need to be convinced that it’s mighty handy to have that audio editor at your disposal. There are just certain things you need to do from time to time for which you instinctively reach for the audio editor in preference to a DAW, even when the DAW could accomplish the same thing. These can include simple, routine or trivial things like cleaning up a favorite CD so that the applause doesn’t disrupt your listening experience. With a DAW, that task might take half an hour or more. With a good audio editor, it’s just minutes.
I wanted to make that point, because when I list the various editing capabilities of the WaveLabs, a response of “yeah, but I can already do that in my DAW” will often be accurate. But, again, having the right tool for the job can make your life a lot easier.
The wave editor, seen in the image immediately above, should offer little mystery. We can select portions of an audio file and do things to it. Those things can be level adjustments, like fade-in/out, normalization, etc., as can be seen in the Process menu list to the right. We can remove sections, mute sections, reorganize sections, and on and on. We can cut, copy and paste within a wave file or across different files. In other words, we can … you know … edit!
The wave window has two sections: the upper can be used as a master view of the file while the bottom will be where the editing actually takes place. Alternately, you can display audio spectrum or loudness information in either the upper or lower view.
The WaveLabs come with a collection of VST effects that can be used as inserts to process the audio. To the owner of a higher-end DAW, there’s little that will impress. You may well already have a collection of preferred VSTs and won’t care a whit about the WaveLabs’ VSTs. But it you don’t, there’s enough there to accomplish mastering and other audio pursuits. Just as long as your VSTs match the 32/64-bitness of the editor, you’re in business (and the WaveLabs are available in both 32 and 64 bit versions).
Editing is non-destructive; the original file is unchanged until you save back to it. But that’s only one option. You can render an edited file in a variety of formats and resolutions. In fact, conversion between various formats is a particular strength of this software.
If loop construction for creating sample sets is your thing, then the editor becomes indispensable. It’s easy enough to match zero crossings in entry level audio editing software, but creating convincing loops takes a lot more than just making sure there are no clicks at the loop boundaries. Here, we have some special processing that can work wonders on even difficult raw sample data. In fact, the manual has a section entitled “About Looping Seemingly Unloopable Audio” that shows just how this can be accomplished. In playing with these capabilities, I quickly became a believer. It’s still challenging, but the impossible is no longer so.
Analysis, Repair and More
WaveLab comes with audio restoration capabilities in the form of the Sonnox De-Clicker, De-Noiser and De-Buzzer tools. Not something you probably need very often, but indispensable if you do need such a capability. What surprised me was that the Sonnox tools are even present in Elements in the first place. Very nice of you, Steinberg!
Both WaveLabs have plenty of metering and analysis capability: loudness, peaks, pitch and more. WaveLab naturally has deeper capabilities in this area, but Elements doesn’t sell you short. Does Elements deliver more than your DAW? Probably. OK, maybe we don’t really need to look at 3D spectrum analysis all the often – but it’s there and it’s cool, so why not enjoy the possibilities?
The Mighty Montage
Now, let’s move on to a primary feature that is something your DAW will not be providing. The Montage is a multi-track, non-destructive editing environment that is particularly well suited to CD creation (but certainly will have other applications). With the montage view, we can arrange multiple audio files and work on them as a whole. By that I mean that we can further edit such things as relative volume between clips and supply fade-ins/outs so that the composite makes sense as a whole.
With multiple tracks at our disposal, we can also use the montage to do limited mixing. For example, if you were mixing narration and music, this could easily be accomplished in the montage view. Does this then take place of your DAW for mixing purposes? No way. We certainly don’t have the flexibility of multiple buses with sends, groups, et.al. But for simple final assembly, it will do just fine.
If you need to do a bit more in-depth alteration of an audio clip, it’s a simple matter to bring it up in the audio editor view and have at it. Once you’re finished, the modified audio is magically back in the montage. I did have some issues when deleting segments – the montage clip remained at the original total length and I had to manually correct that in the montage. But then, there are so very many preference options, that there’s probably an easy way to make this get taken care of automatically.
What I think home producers will find most appealing is taking the assembled montage and creating a CD from it. Using a CD creation wizard, setting up the montage-to-CD mapping is effortless. Once that’s in place, it’s trivial to adjust the length of the gaps between tracks.
Workflow and the Power User
At first glance, the UI might seem forbidding and scarily complex. And it’s true – the WaveLabs are immensely deep and powerful programs. To fully master even Elements will require much experience. But the good news is that using the software for straightforward pursuits is highly intuitive. The mouse interaction with wave data will be so like what you’re accustomed to with your DAW, that you can be effectively using the software from day one. But you may not be using it as efficiently as you could.
That’s where all the configuration options come into play. The many, many buttons you see at the top, on the sides and on the bottom all do something useful, but everyone is going to have their own notion as to what constitutes “useful”. The WaveLabs offer rich customization options that allow one to put the buttons they need close to where they need them and get the rest out of the way.
There’s another aspect to workflow that’s applicable to WaveLab, but not Elements. With version 8.5, Steinberg added a powerful capability. Not only can WaveLab accomplish much in a batch mode, but watch folders can also be established to make such processing happen automatically. For example, you might need finished wave files to also have sibling mp3 files created. Easily done. A watch folder can be created to automatically invoke an mp3 copy operation. For the high-volume audio shop, this sort of thing could cost-justify the investment in WaveLab in no time at all.
I would like to also point out that Groove3 has a series of quite-good video tutorials that I can recommend. They cover WaveLab but not Elements, but because Elements is just WaveLab minus some steroids, viewing them would not be a waste of time for the Elements owner.
A detailed point-by-point feature comparison between WaveLab and Elements can be found here:
The allocation of features to Elements seems mostly quite reasonable. The only thing that strikes me as somewhat punitive is the limitation of Elements to a maximum of three open tracks, where it’s essentially limitless in WaveLab.
WaveLab gives you over twice as many VST effect plug-ins, but I cannot imagine that this would be of any consequence to the owner of a full-function DAW. You are already going to have the plug-ins on hand, so it’s a non-issue.
Likewise, WaveLab offers more effect insert slots, but is the DAW owner going to care? You’ll likely be going to your DAW for that sort of thing anyway. As to using the WaveLabs for mastering, then maybe it becomes more of an issue, but with four master section insert slots available, how much post-mix processing are you going to be doing? If you need more than four slots, maybe your mixes should be finished a little more completely. I’ll have one other observation about mastering in the next section.
To be honest, having taken a close look at both WaveLab and Elements, the comparison list looks like it was padded a bit to make the considerably higher cost of WaveLabs justified. That’s not to imply WaveLab is overpriced. Rather, I’m asserting that Elements has so very much functionality, it’s amazing to me that it’s sold at just one-fifth the price of WaveLab.
Is One of the WaveLabs for You?
WaveLab and Elements are available for PC and Mac. As stated earlier, they are available as either 32-bit or 64-bit software. By itself, there’s no particular reason why we need a 64-bit version of a program like this, but compatibility with our plug-ins is an important issue, so having these options really is of consequence.
I run two full-function DAWs: Cubase and SONAR. Between them, I’ve got immense capability for sound manipulation. But I would hate to be without a capable audio editor. For some time, I’ve used Sony’s SoundForge, which is certainly a respectable piece of software. But WaveLab has completely made me forget about SoundForge, and even Elements would have caused me to switch go-to audio editors. The WaveLabs are elegant, complete and appealing. Add to that the fact that SoundForge is 32-bit only and all my plug-ins are 64-bit, and it’s no contest.
I would like to share an observation relevant to anyone who runs IK Multimedia’s ARC software or the equivalent. Neither of the WaveLabs offers a good way to incorporate the ARC VST. You can do it inserting ARC as a plug-in (which of course it is), but it will be pre-metering, and it will use up an insert slot, of which there are only four in Elements. This may influence your choice of WaveLab vs. DAW for mastering. I run ARC myself, and while this is a minor disappointment, it’s not a showstopper by any means.
For $100, Elements is already in nearly no-brainer territory. But with patience, there are sales. It was recently offered for 30% off – an incredible value. If I’m not mistaken, Cubase owners had the opportunity to activate a trial copy that came with a previous Cubase release for $50 – now we really would be in no-brainer territory.
Of course, if you need heavy lifting done and run a lot of audio through your operation, WaveLab will be what you want to consider. The price may sting, but I cannot imagine anyone being less than happy once becoming an owner of this software.
WaveLab and Elements is readily available through innumerable outlets, including directly from Steinberg: