Review – Wavelab Pro 9 and Wavelab Elements 9 from Steinberg

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Steinberg’s audio editors for the professional and the home studio have new versions, both of them sporting impressive new features which merit your attention.

 

By David Baer, Jan. 2017

 

Wavelab Recap

In this review we will look at the new releases of Steinberg’s high-end audio editor software, Wavelab Pro, and the scaled-down and much more economically-priced “lite” version, Wavelab Elements.  For brevity, hereafter “Wavelab” will be used to denote “Wavelab Pro” and “Elements” to denote “Wavelab Elements”.

I reviewed Wavelab and Elements, in our Jan. 2016 issue.  At that time Wavelab was at version 8.5 and Elements at version 8.  All the functionality present in those versions is still with us and I’m going to focus primarily on new features here.  Those wishing to learn of what’s not new may read the earlier review here:

http://soundbytesmag.net/steinbergwavelab8/

Most of you reading this review will already own at least one fairly capable DAW which no doubt offers some serious audio editing capabilities.  So why would you need more?  The answer is that audio editing software has a slightly different focus than a DAW.  There is certainly some overlap in DAWs and audio editors, but an audio editor can do some essential tasks much more efficiently than a DAW, and in some cases can do things impossible in a DAW, however high-end that DAW might be.  Any studio, even a modest small studio, will benefit considerably from having both a great DAW and a capable audio editor.

Wavelab and Elements certainly qualify as “capable”.  Wavelab, with its list price of $579 USD, will be too expensive for the typical small-studio budget, but Elements price of $99 USD certainly is not.  Upgrades from the previous versions are $99 USD and $25 USD respectively.  I’m confident that owners of those versions will consider an upgrade to be money very well spent.  As with the previous versions, Wavelab requires an eLicenser dongle while Elements requires only a software authorization solution.

Although the previous version of Wavelab had many features needed in a professional operation, Elements was so fully-featured that a small-studio operation would find it completely satisfactory for most activities.  As we’ll see, I think that Steinberg has somewhat gotten away from that generous allocation of goodies.  Wavelab 9 now has some features that would be seriously useful to the small-studio engineer.  Too bad … Elements used to be such an easy choice in terms of costs/benefits.

 

For a Better User Experience

Both Wavelab and Elements continue the tradition of bringing you a great way of visualizing the audio upon which you’re working.  The three example metering windows to the right give you an idea of what can be expected.  But there is so much more to talk about with the new navigational and display capabilities, which have been overhauled in total from the ground up in both versions.

The previous versions offered many features available via shortcut buttons that existed in such profusion all over the screen that only the power user who has spent many hours becoming proficient at “driving” this software could benefit from them.  All of that has been replaced with a ribbon-based organization.  In addition, sophisticated window management capabilities, including a flexible docking system, are now present.  All of this improvement to the user interface would make the upgrade justifiable by itself, even if no other new features were present.  All the non-power uses should now find the experience of working with this software much more straightforward.  Granted, power users will have to relearn the new system and at first may feel a bit disgruntled.  But in the end, I predict that most everyone will end up happy campers.

For your consideration, below can be seen the ribbon contents for the wave editor (the audio montage function likewise has ribbons tailored to the functions there).  All are shown except for the File tab, which occupies a bit more space.

 

Further sophistication comes with the ability to collapse the ribbons and display them only when needed.  All in all, this is an extremely well-thought-out implementation.  The Steinberg design engineers would be justified to be pleased with themselves.

The other UI improvements, docking windows, etc., are not so easily described in words.  Far better to just watch Steinberg’s promotional videos, which can be seen here:

https://www.steinberg.net/en/products/wavelab/new_features.html

 

Master-ful Improvements

Another major development is a composite effect suite for mastering work called the Master Rig.  In this case, Elements owners get the capability but only in a scaled-down fashion.  We’ll look first at the full capabilities in the Wavelab Mastering Rig and then point out the differences in the Elements version.

The Mastering Rig strikes me as a challenge for your mastering software dollars primarily to Izotope’s Ozone, another high-end all-in-one mastering solution.  Here we have a rig into which a number of mastering-type plug-ins can be inserted, all of which are especially suitable for mastering tasks as opposed to general mixing usage.

The image below shows the rig and one of the compressor inserts.  The top bar controls what is present in the rig and in what order the signal is treated.  The rest of the panel is dedicated to, in this case, the compressor function.  You can see that in this one we have four bands active (many of the plug-in options are multi-band, with four bands being the maximum).

 

You will also note that four compressor types are available: Standard, Tube, Vintage and Maximizer.  The differences between them are not so much in-your-face.  Those differences are audible but rather more subtle as is only appropriate with mastering treatment.  This is true in general of all the components of the Master Rig.  All are of excellent quality, just as you would expect, but all can be quite transparent when performing their function.  Yes, you can overdo things with them if you push them too hard.  But if transparency is your goal, as would normally be the case in mastering, Master Rig delivers.

Also note the top middle of each band’s tab.  We see “STEREO”, “M/S” and “L/R”.  In the first mode, we have left and right channels being treated the same.  In the other two, we can adjust both compression attributes and overall band gain independently for each pair (L/R or M/S).

We look next at the Master Rig EQ, seen below.

 

Here we have an eight-band parametric equalizer.  Once again, each band can be STEREO, L/R or M/S.  A variety of filter types is on tap.  The leftmost and rightmost bands can be cut (12, 24 or 48 dB per octave), shelf, peak and notch.  The other filters do not have cut as an option.

I won’t include images of all the other Master Rig components, but here’s a list of what’s included:

  • A highly versatile and powerful multi-band limiter
  • A multi-band saturator (tube or tape)
  • A multi-band dynamic EQ
  • A stereo imager

All have independent L/R and M/S capabilities where it makes sense.

Elements owners are not left out in this area, but the offerings are considerably more scaled-down.  All the components are available, but none have independent L/R and M/S modes.  The number of bands maxes out at two rather than four.  The parametric EQ has only four, not eight, bands.  So, this is still a nice capability to have on hand, but not the luxury model available in Wavelab.

 

Mid/Side Everywhere

M/S capabilities don’t stop with the Master Rig … or at least they don’t in Wavelab.  In Elements no such improvements have been forthcoming.

However, in Wavelab, not only can many of the individual (non-Master-Rig) VST plug-ins do M/S processing, even the editors get in on the action – and I mean both the wave editor and the montage editor.  This is a capability that I never missed before, but now that I know it’s there, I wonder how I ever lived without it.  Check out the following screen image.

 

Do you see that little circled L/R button?  Click that and the entire editor goes into M/S mode.  For normal operation you have independent tracks for left and right which could be manipulated together or individually.  Click the L/R button and you go into M/S mode (seen in the following image), in which you now have independent mid and side tracks.  Ever want to fade from stereo to mono?  Now it’s totally a piece of cake as are a number of other creative possibilities you might never have considered.

 

Much, Much More

The Wavelab manual is over 850 pages long (and Elements over 350 pages), so obviously there’s a great deal more in the software than can be covered in a review of this scope.  But a few things are worth mentioning.

Let’s start with the documentation.  What’s there is quite good – reasonably complete and seemingly quite accurate.  The problem is what’s not there.  As is typical with Steinberg documentation, the Index is entirely inadequate.  If you know what you’re looking for and can navigate to it with the table of contents, you’re in good shape.  Otherwise you’re often out of luck.  But it gets even worse.  Want to find out more about the brilliant new M/S capabilities in Wavelab?  Not only is there no index entry for mid/side or any reasonable variant, there doesn’t seem to be any coverage at all of these features anywhere in the manual itself!  Steinberg has some work to do to bring the manual up to the level of the software.

But that’s a fairly minor complaint in light of everything that actually is there.  Wavelab combines the precision and finesse of a luxury sports car with the heavy-hauling capabilities of a major-sized semi rig.  Elements, while not as capable at either the finesse or heavy-hauling extremes, is nevertheless a superb tool.

I didn’t mention the new project manager (Wavelab only).  It’s not nearly as sexy as some of the other enhancements, but for heavy-hauling tasks, it may be a real time-saver.

Another wonderful feature, but of benefit only to Cubase (and Neundo) users, is the new two-way navigation between Cubase and WaveLab or Elements.  You can now easily bring up Wavelab or Elements from your Cubase session as your audio editor of choice rather than the much more limited native editor.  Disclaimer: my DAW is currently Cubase 8.0, for which the feature does not work.  Therefore I was unable to personally test this capability.

In any case, you can also go the other direction.  Suppose you are mastering some audio that was created in Cubase and discover a mix or rendering flaw that needs correcting.  Believe it or not, you can now invoke Cubase, loaded and ready to serve to make the correction without the need to exit the audio editor.  Admittedly, the Wavelab to Cubase path is not something you’d frequently need, but it’s impressive nevertheless.  Cubase to Wavelab/Elements, however, is another matter.  Rumor has it that much earlier versions of Cubase/Wavelab could do this but the feature was discontinued.  Having it restored is most welcome.

 

So What’s Missing?

Answer: not a whole lot, especially in Wavelab.  But there’s one thing I’d very much like to see.  Wavelab offers the ability to choose one of eight outputs upon which to monitor the audio.  Elements has no such feature, but small-studio engineers are likely to be in need of more than occasional switching between monitors and headphones.  So, at least a couple of output choices in Elements would not be too much to ask.  But we need even more.  Small studios often find benefit from room-correction and/or headphone-correction software.  A single insert slot on each output in which to place such plug-ins would be extremely beneficial.  Importantly, inserts in this position in the signal flow would not be present in rendered audio files.  It’s far too easy to forget disabling correction software when doing an export – just ask anyone who routinely uses it.  And why stop with Elements?  Such a capability would certainly do no harm in Wavelab as well.

I also think that Steinberg should consider unbundling Master Rig and making it available as an optional upgrade for Elements users, Cubase users, or even users of other DAWs to purchase.  If properly priced, it could give Ozone a good run for the money.

Finally, I think Steinberg was a little too stingy in restricting M/S capabilities to just Wavelab.  I doubt that the M/S features alone would be sufficient motivation for potential buyers to spend over 400 bucks extra for the full Wavelab.  Those features might, however, make elements irresistible to a potential Elements buyer who’s otherwise sitting on the fence.

 

Is Wavelab or Elements for You?

Do you have a small studio and are serious about your work?  If you don’t have a decent-quality wave editor, I have no doubt in telling you that you need one.  I believe any DAW owner who also benefits from good audio editing software would agree with this assertion.  I have not worked with a lot of different audio editors, but Wavelab beats everything I’ve seen thus far hands down.  Pricewise, Elements is definitely a good value, even at full list price.  I’m confident that Wavelab could easily be cost justified for any professional (time-is-money) operation with high throughput.

For a more detailed comparison of Wavelab vs. Elements features, go here:

https://www.steinberg.net/en/products/wavelab/line_up.html

Steinberg does have occasional sales, so being on their email distribution list will be worth your while if you don’t want to miss such an event – 30% off offers are likely at some point during the year.  The software can be purchased directly from Steinberg here:

https://www.steinberg.net/en/shop/wavelab.html

It is also available from many other retailers who may have slightly better prices, so do shop around.

 

 

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