The wave editor/computer multitrack market is an interesting mix of the latest, well-marketed Beta releases as well as older, more established products. One package that falls into the latter category is the upscale Innovative Quality Software (IQS) SAWPro (Software Audio Workshop), the latest in a successful line of PC-based multitrack software. Like all IQS products, SAWPro is only available directly from the manufacturer.
SAWPro lets one combine, edit and mix up to 32 tracks of audio on its timeline. Tracks can be stereo or mono, making SAWPro’s theoretical track limit a whopping 64 tracks. (Due to hardware limitations of specific machines, mileage will vary.) SAWPro will even combine files of different sample rates and bit depths on the fly.
SAWPro performs all its processing with the computer’s CPU, relying on clean code instead of custom hardware to get the job done. Any Windows soundcard is fair game with SAW, and the software works with up to 12 soundcards simultaneously for 24 discrete outputs. If your soundcards are up to the task, SAWPro also offers multichannel recording.
SAWPro’s prime directive is to provide complete nondestructive control over audio. Virtually every process or edit happens on a RAM-based copy of the original file – the user must really go out of his or her way to affect the audio data on the drive.
The basic building block of a SAWPro production is the region. A region is simply a portion of an audio file or the file in its entirety. Numerous regions from the audio files can be defined, and there is no practical limit on the number of regions that can be used in a project. SAWPro permits up to 200 audio files to be open at once.
Once regions are defined and named (if desired), place them on the multitrack timeline for playback. SAWPro offers the usual multitrack editing functions such as adjusting start and end points, vertical and horizontal moves, range selection, etc. The timeline can be zoomed both horizontally and vertically, and region waveform displays can be toggled on and off.
Unlike some software packages, SAWPro does not have a separate mixer to complement the timeline. Instead, the left-most edge of each standard timeline track has buttons for solo, mute, fader, output assignment, FX and record. The fader button brings up a small control panel that offers a fader, pan slider and a few other controls.
Any fader and pan moves are recorded into the track whenever SAWPro is playing. Fader and pan changes are associated with the specific region they affect – move the region, and they move with it. This is much preferred over software that requires moving the audio data and control data separately.
A neat offset mode lets one move the track fader to shift all the volume data by the same amount. One can also select just a single region of fader and pan changes and move them as a group. SAW generates smooth and stepless fades and crossfades in real time, letting the user choose from four useful slope shapes.
In addition to fader and pan automation, one can add real time effects to each SAWPro track by clicking on the FX button. Provided effects include graphic EQ with variable frequency and bandwidth, compressor/limiter/noise gate/normalize, center channel eliminator, phase reverse, time reverse, pitch/speed shift and delay. All the effects for a given track can be placed pre- or post-fader, but SAWPro does not offer auxiliary send-style effects in its standard form.
More plug-ins (reverb, meter bridge and others) are available directly from IQS, including one that adds the auxiliary send/return feature. The software also supports DirectX and VST plug-ins, which open up the creative potential of SAWPro considerably.
When your masterpiece is finished, output it to a stereo or mono file in any of the supported bit depths and resolutions. This file can just sit on the drive, or it can appear in one of SAWPro’s 12 stereo output tracks. One track is active for each stereo soundcard in the system, and any file in the output track takes precedence over the normal tracks. The cool part is SAWPro’s ability to apply both pre- and post-fader effects to this submix, as well as automate fader and pan controls. Think of these as mastering tracks for polishing a finished mix.
The software supports sample rates up to 96 kHz, and word lengths to 24 bits. SAWPro addresses the expanding wordlength problem by supplying three different types of dither (although the manual and online help are silent on how these differ). The manual gives an overview on dither and bit depth, a nice contrast to software packages that don’t address the issue at all.
SAWPro has several nice features for down-and-dirty waveform editing. The software will detect and snap to zero crossings, and also offers what I call a stutter scrub mode that plays a short snippet of audio around the current cursor location. Waveform displays are very nice, and SAWPro even takes the user to the sample level for graphical editing of individual samples.
SAWPro allows one to assign up to 12 screen and window layouts to the keyboard function keys. These layouts remember the zoom scale, which windows are open and how large they are, making the various editing tasks much more efficient. Another time saver is SAWPro’s multiple-level undo feature.
There are several other niceties in SAWPro. The package’s SMPTE support is topnotch, offering numerous sync modes and options. MIDI support is also extensive, with the ability to generate MIDI SYSEX and program change messages within a track. SAWPro will also trigger regions or markers in response to incoming MIDI notes. Add the optional AVI viewer plug-in ($100), and you’re all set for doing high-level audio post production.
The folks at Innovative Quality Software are justifiably proud of the handwritten 32-bit code that gives SAW its muscle. Although NT users are the only ones that will see all the benefits of this code, SAWPro is fast and stable on Windows 95 and 98 as well.
Whenever I evaluate a software package like SAWPro, I like to stack up tracks and effects until the computer reaches its limit. In this case, I actually got tired of adding tracks and effects before the computer gave up.
With more than 32 tracks playing back and nearly 20 effects applied, playback was just starting to get flaky on my 500 MHz Micron Max computer (256 MB RAM). This was with a volume change on every track, and a mix of sample rates and bit depths. Folks with less studly computers will still be impressed with SAWPro’s performance, especially if they take seriously its 266 MHz Pentium processor and 128 MB RAM requirements.
SAWPro’s effects sounded very good, and I appreciated the added flexibility of bandwidth and frequency controls on the graphic EQ. I would love to see a low-pass filter on the echo/delay effect, and a true pitch-shift algorithm added to the SAWPro effects bundle.
I found that SAWPro’s real time sample rate conversion glitched and skipped badly on playback. A single 44.1 kHz region played back at 48 kHz, for example, had a loud skip about every second.
Several of SAWPro’s algorithms could benefit from some metering and control value labels. Setting up SAWPro’s compressor is a bit unnerving; for example, there is no metering and no values attached to the attack time, release time, threshold or makeup gain controls. Without the optional plug-in, SAWPro is seriously lacking in meters across the board – the only place those wonderful indicators appear is in the record-mode window.
SAWPro relies almost entirely on menus and keyboard shortcuts instead of toolbars, which isn’t a bad thing if the interface make sense. Unfortunately, I have a hunch most people will find SAWPro’s interface confusing or even downright frustrating.
In the multitrack window, for example, one must switch repeatedly between two pointer modes to move regions (one mode) and trim their start and end points (the other mode). Right-click is a handy (and nearly universal) SAWPro shortcut to begin playback, but the right button does something else in one of the two modes.
Many Windows conventions also go out the window in SAWPro (pardon the pun). Undo is CTRL-<, drag-copy requires a right-button tapdance instead of the normal CTRL key drag, and you can only save your project with SAVE AS. The arrow keys nudge the playback pointer, but there’s no way to nudge or bump regions in the multitrack window. At least double-click is well-supported in SAWPro, bringing the selected region or file up in the large soundfile view window.
SAWPro is a very powerful software package, one that will eke the last bit of performance from a suitable PC computer. Run SAWPro on a really fast PC, and it will actually play more tracks and apply more effects than many hardware-based systems out there. The software is solid, never crashing even once during the testing period. The supplied effects sound nice, the mixer automation is great, and the clever output track scheme makes limitless submix-and-overdub cycles easy.
SAWPro’s interface isn’t quite as friendly or well-conceived as it could be. In my opinion, certain processes seem arbitrary and unnecessarily complex, and the lack of adherence to certain Windows standards may make for “software shock” as users switch between applications.
Also, I believe the $950 price tag should include functional metering and auxiliary send/return features. For nearly a thousand dollars, I think it’s realistic to expect those features and more.
The folks at IQS argue that the software is a bargain even with the fee-for-features pricing, especially considering that SAWPro may be capable of replacing a more expensive hardware-based system. Based on my review, SAWPro can stand side-by-side with $10,000 to $30,000+ hardware-based systems and do the same work – just as well or better in some cases but you will pay more money for that capability as compared to other home/project studio software.
SAWPro is clearly going after the high-end software market, one populated by radio production engineers, video/film sound mixer/designers and other professionals. Folks in the home and semi-pro recording trenches may want to check out some of the less-expensive IQS products such as SAW32 ($500, 16 stereo tracks).
I liken SAWPro to a classic, expensive V8 muscle car. It has gobs of power under the hood, but lacks some of the creature comforts you may want for the day-to-day commute. If power and speed are the end-all for you, and you’ve got a healthy software budget, SAWPro may be just the package you need.
Contact: Innovative Quality Software at 702-435-9077.