Wave Arts was founded in 1998 by MIT Media Lab Ph.D. William Gardner. Before founding the company, which focuses on a broad range of DSP technology for the consumer plug-in market and for licensing in other products by heavy hitters like Motorola, Intel, Texas Instruments, and Denon, Gardner received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from MIT; shortly thereafter he joined Kurzweil Music Systems as a software engineer and, for the next seven years, helped develop software and signal processing algorithms for Kurzweil synthesizers. He left Kurzweil in 1990 to enter graduate school at the MIT Media Lab, where he completed his Ph.D. on the topic of 3-D audio using loudspeakers. He was awarded a Motorola Fellowship at the Media Lab, and was recipient of the 1997 Audio Engineering Society Publications Award. Wave Arts has steadily built up a reputation for high-end audio processing at a competitive price. This review will focus on one of their core bundles, Power Suite 5, which is a multi-application suite of tools designed to aid in mixing and mastering environments.
Power Suite 5 is comprised of 5 high-end plugins: Track Plug, Masterverb, Final Plug, MultiDynamics and Panorama. Each of these tools, while designed for uses with specific needs, has a broad range of applications and comes with a robust series of presets that enable you to simply plug them in and go. If you don't want to use a preset, the interfaces are laid-out in an intuitive, easy-to-understand fashion which enables you to zero in on what you need quickly and efficiently. Nearly all parameters are automatable (and well labeled) for complex dynamic changes in a mix.
Track Plug 5
Track Plug 5 is a channel strip, but to say it is only a channel strip would be misleading. It features a configurable EQ with a unique brickwall feature, a gate, two compressors, and a limiter. These are laid out in a logical chain where each feature functions like a module that you can turn on and off. If you don't need the EQ, for example, you can turn it off. If you only want one compressor, you can disable one of them. You can use as many or as few of the features in the chain that you need.
EQ: The EQ defaults to 4 bands but you can add more bands as necessary. Parameters can be adjusted in the graph itself or by moving the corresponding frequency, height, and width dials below the graph. The plot points can be customized by EQ type (shelf, parameteric, etc.) which affect the behavior of the rendered area in the graph accordingly (the light green "fill area" in the graph), so that you can see immediately how the spectrum is affected.
Brickwall: This is a very useful option that allows you to effectively kill frequencies below or above certain points. As with the individual bands, the affected area can be adjusted on the graph or with their respective dials. For example, if you wanted to remove the signal below 50 HZ, you could activate the lower brickwall and either move the "L" shaped cursor in the grid to 50 or select 50HZ in the frequency dial. Brickwalls can be enabled for both lower and/or upper frequencies.
Compressors: Trackplug 5 has 2 identical, side-chainable compressors. The compressors come with the usual attack, release, threshold, ratio, and gain controls, as well as RMS and peak modes, look-ahead, and soft, medium and hard knees. As with the EQ and brickwall modules, parameters can be adjusted in the graph or the corresponding dials.
Limiter: In the final stage, there is a very simple, no frills limiter.
This is a very useful plug-in, sort of a swiss army knife for problems in a mix. Because of its modular nature, you can activate the entire chain or use only those portions that you need. Each of the modules has separate preset options you can not only select which modules to use but you can completely customize the behavior of the plug-in.
The graphs are a bit small for my taste, and don't provide enough granular detail. I wish there were a "full-size" mode or separate way to view the graphs for the EQ and Compressor modules; still, this plug-in is the workhorse of the suite and has a variety of applications - everything from vocals to drums to submixes.
One of the things Wave Arts plugs does exceptionally well is define stunningly believable artificial spaces. In Masterverb 5, this is accomplished through a unique mixture of early reflection and late reflection reverbs. Wave Arts describes the process like this: "When a sound is emitted in a particular room, the ear first picks up on the individual echos that occur within the first several hundred milliseconds. These reflections help define the character of a room and the new Early Reflection section in MasterVerb 5 provides a library of several reflection patterns as well as control for delay, size and diffusion of the pattern. These discrete echoes build up and blend into a diffuse reverb sound (the Late Reverb). MasterVerb provides two different late reverb types and complete size, decay time and damping control to sculpt the perfect ambience!"
The early reflection reverb initially defines the type of reverb so that your ear can establish the "quality" of the space; this is then blended with a late reflection reverb that defines the size of the space in which the reverb algorithms occur. It's difficult to conceptualize, but it is a very convincing way to fully define the reverb space.
There are a number of visual aids on the plug-in that aid in sound sculpting. There are graphs for early and late damping, character, and time response; the centerpiece is a 3-D representation of the reverbs in terms of frequency response, which aid in visualizing the time, length, height, and other critical factors of the reverb. All changes are reflected in real-time and instantly provide feedback about what is happening in the reverb space. In fact, this is the perfect example of the time and attention that's gone into the development of these tools. They address, in a very simple and direct way, different ways of learning and visualizing the behavior of the tools. Some are more visual than others. For those that are visual, the tools provide quick and accurate representation of the sound in such a way that it minimizes confusion and speeds up the time it takes to learn the tool and thereafter make informed choices about how it reacts to sound design decisions. As with Track Plug, I wish that there were a more detailed view of visual representation, but here it is less important than earlier because it is more of a "high-level" view.
Masterverb 5 is particularly well suited as a mastering grade reverb. But it is also very useful as a send effect for mixing. As with all of their plug-ins, it comes with an extensive library of useful presets.
Final Plug 5
The main module is a limiter with the familiar threshold and ceiling options as well as an option for auto release or user-defined releases.
The last module in this plug-in is for truncating / dithering options. Truncating, of course, just cuts off any bits above 16 (or any other bit depth). Dithering comes in a variety of flavors. There is straight dither and a variety of noise-shaping varieties. The noise shaping algorithms are displayed in a frequency graph so you can immediately see which frequencies are more affected than others.
Though this plug is designed in the modular way that TrackPlug is (that is by enabling one or more of its functions separate from the whole), the presets are for the whole plug-in. I think the functionality of the plug-in is simple enough that this isn't really an issue, but it would be nice to have the ability to load separate presets for the modules the way you can with Track Plug.
Uses include placement as the final effect in the master bus or as the final plug for mastering (users should be aware that dithering should be turned off if the plug-in is used for mixing (unless of course it is for a reference mix) because you'd never want to dither an audio file twice or master after dithering.
For those who work with multi-band compressors, this plug-in should look familiar. It's a tool to compress sound based on frequency. The cool thing with this tool is that you can add or delete up to six bands. You can use a single band, so that it functions more like a standard compressor, you can use two bands and divide the spectrum in half, or use any number of bands up to six. Many mastering grade multi-compressors provide five fixed bands or only offer a user-selected amount up to five. It may not seem like a big deal, but having that extra band available is real luxury. You can, for example, subdivide each of the traditional EQ areas -- lows, mids, and highs -- into a "low" and "high" for each range.
Each frequency band comes with its own set of controls. You can define the gain parameters by setting an upper and lower threshold. You can threshold and ratio, attack and release, as well as the type of knee. Each of the bands can be soloed, so that you can listen to each band separately as you tweak the settings. The plug-in also features a clean and vintage mode, as well as lookahead and cross-over settings. This is, hands down, the best multi-band compressor I've used yet.
Uses for this plug-in include the master bus for mixing, mastering, or on submix channels.
This plug-in has to be heard to truly appreciate what it can do. It emulates, in a two-dimensional environment, three-dimensional sound. It does this through a combination of three major sound shaping parameters (each with its own set of tweakable parameters) -- a direct sound, an early reflection, and a "container" reverb. You can place a sound anywhere, and with any height, in a created space in front of or behind the listener. You can configure the distance of the speakers from the listener as well as the degree at which they are placed. This effect, arguably, has more power when used with headphones, when there is more separation of sound. The closer the speakers to the listener, the more present the effect.
When I first started using Panorama 5, I thought, Well this is cool, you can place sounds anywhere, sort of like a complicated spatial reverb, and you can tweak layers of sounds using separate instances on different buses. And you can. But the real power of this plug-in really starts to become apparent when you begin automating its parameters. You can for example, have a sound that begins low and behind to the left, then flies over the listener and ends up ahead and far to the right. You can have layers of tracks that move to various locations, play for awhile and then move to other locations. I know of no other plug-in that has this capability. You can have sounds at different heights and different locations forward and back.
Because of the complexity of this plug-in, it uses significantly more CPU than other plug-ins in the bundle. You can use it in real-time, but it's best used, if you are going to use multiple instantiations of it, as a mix effect (with enough buffer to handle the load).
The Power Suite 5 bundle is available directly from Wave Arts for $599. Plug-ins can be purchased individually for $199 each, any two for $299, or any three for $399. An educational discount of 50% is available for all plug-ins and bundles.
OS X 10.4 or later.
A host program that supports the AU, MAS, VST, or RTAS plug-in architecture.
All Mac plug-in formats compatible with Intel-based Macintosh computers (Universal Binary).
Windows 2000, XP or later.
A host program that supports the DirectX, VST, or RTAS plug-in architecture.
Final Thoughts and Recommenations
For the quality of plug-ins, it's not an unreasonable price. But the bundle is, to be sure, expensive. If you are a sound designer, I'd say get the bundle. You won't regret it. If you are an individual artist and need some components but not others, I'd say that, pragmatically speaking, the essential plug-ins are, in order, Track Plug and MultiDynamics, followed closely by Masterverb. If they are purchased as a Duo or Trio, the price comes down to $150 and $133 per plug-in respectively (dividing the package price by the number of plug-ins). These are, in my mind, "best of breed" plug-ins, so when you are comparison shopping, compare with plug-ins of the same caliber. There are cheaper plug-ins, but you have to compare apples to apples.
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