In Review: The Waves Native Power Pack II

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in March 1999, contributed by then Mixing and Mastering Editor Lionel Dumond. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

The landscape of Marketing History is littered with ill-fated products, saddled by their well-meaning creators with monikers meant to cash in on the glittering reputation of their legendary namesakes. As we’ve all learned, however, sharing a name with a classic isn’t necessarily an indication of repeated glory. Remember the Mustang II? The Exorcist II? Or, God forbid… New Coke?

The lesson learned here is that, if you’re going to adopt a name synonymous with Greatness, that you’d better be able to walk your talk. The pressure to excel, to succeed, to live up to heightened expectations is tremendous. Many have tried. Many have failed. Few are up to the task. But every so often, these untested heroes with the oh-so-familiar names surprise, delight, and even astound us. It can be done. Just ask Ken Grffey, Jr.

Or, for that matter, ask the developers at Waves Ltd., who are calling their latest bundle the “Native Power Pack II.” Whoa… wait just a minute here! Heck, we all know that this new bundle of plug-ins has got to be good — after all, they’re from Waves, arguably the best known and most highly regarded developer of audio plug-in effects in the world. But do they attain the rarefied “can’t-live-without-it” status of the original NPP? Are they really that good? That’s the thing I was determined to find out the minute I read the press release — “Waves Announces the Native Power Pack II.” “Indeed,” I muttered skeptically. “We shall see about that.” I could hardly wait to put these new plug-ins through their paces!

The Basics

The Native Power Pack II contains four plug-ins: The Renaissance Equalizer, the Renaissance Compressor, the MaxxBass, and the DeEsser. These plug-ins have been available for a while now in their Pro Tools/TDM versions, which require a proprietary DSP card to run. These new versions can run on the host processor of either a Mac or PC, hence the term “native.”

These plug ins do not actually replace, but are meant instead to complement the C1 compressor, L1 Ultramaximizer, and Q10 Equalizer in the original Native Power Pack, a feat they accomplish quite nicely. While you’ll find many similarities among these new plug-ins to the C1, L1, and Q10, the NPP II can pull off some stuff their venerable siblings never dreamed of. Once you load the NPP II into your system, you may find yourself relying on those original plug-ins a lot less in the future. I know I certainly have!

System requirements are fairly modest. For Macintosh, a Power Mac running MacOS 7.6.1 or higher, with a 603 CPU (120 MHz or faster) and at least 32 MB or RAM is required. For PC, a Windows 95/98, Pentium II (166 MHz or better) machine with at least 16 MB of RAM is required. Keep in mind that these are the minimum requirements, which means you’ll have to have at least this much horsepower to get the software to load and run. If you plan on actually doing anything very useful with your audio, you’ll probably need more juice that what I’ve described here. Full system requirements are available at the Waves website, http://www.waves.com . Another thing you’ll want to keep in mind is that the Renaissance plug-ins use floating point architecture, so the FPU performance of the host processor is of utmost importance.

The four plug-ins in the NPP II are just that — plug-ins, which means they require a host program to run. The Mac NPP II supports most popular Mac-based DAW and multitrack audio sequencer software, such as Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, AudioSuite, and others. The PC plug-ins are all DirectX applications, which means they are supported by just about all the PC audio software out there, including Sound Forge, Cakewalk, WaveLab, Samplitude, and more. Again, if you’re not sure if the host software you plan to use has the right stuff, check the website for more comprehensive information.

Sweet Anticipation!

Simply can’t wait to try them out? Waves allows you to download a full version of the NPP II right from their website, which is what I did. You’ll also need to download the small WaveKey utility which, when run, identifies your dongle and generates a data file which you email to Waves. Waves will then email you back data and instructions to authorize your dongle to run the program. I know, I know… all of this sounds like a major pain in the butt, but trust me, it’s very easy. Once I emailed the required file to Waves, I had the necessary stuff the next day and was up and running in no time. The installation was flawless. Of course, you can always buy the retail version from your favorite dealer, which comes with a disc, a WaveKey (if you don’t already have one), and printed documentation.

And now, on with the show!

The Renaissance EQ

The Waves Renaissance EQ (like it’s predecessor the Q10) comes in a “full size” version (in the case of the Renaissance EQ, six bands of EQ) as well as smaller, more efficient versions (four-band and two-band, respectively), with the only difference between them being the number of available bands. If you don’t need all the power of the six-band version, you can save some CPU horsepower by utilizing one of the smaller versions. In terms of sonic output, all of them sound the same.

You’ll notice a familiar Q10-type interface here; an interactive response-graph with movable band markers, and precise numerical control of all parameters. But that, my friend, is pretty much where the similarities with the Q10 end.

The first thing you might notice is that there is no input trim control. That’s because of the floating point architecture that these plug-ins use. With 32-bit floating point I/O and 48-bit internal processing, headroom is virtually unlimited (it’s literally in the thousands of dB) so it’s impossible to overload the input, regardless of the incoming signal level. (In case you;re wondering, Waves uses a proprietary dithering process to convert it’s internal 48-bit data to 32 bits on output.) The other advantage gained by using such high resolution in processing and I/O is to minimize artifacts and to maintain accuracy of the finest details in the audio data. (In fact, both Renaissance plug-ins in the NPP II use this ultra-high resolution floating point architecture.)

The other major differences between this EQ plug-in and any others you may have used before won’t be apparent until you actually start playing with it, and listening to the results. Unlike most parametric EQ plug ins, where all the bands are the same, each band of the Renaissance EQ is unique, optimized for doing a specific job in a specific part of the frequency spectrum. For example, Band 2 supports bell-type and low-shelf filters, but not high shelf or cut filters. This band/filter specialization greatly increases the resulting accuracy of the effect — precise settings of bandwidth, range, and gain were not only possible, but actually audible as a real world result.

I’ll bet I know what you’re asking right about now: “with only six bands, and with each band being different, how can steep slopes on cut or shelf filters be achieved?” On most plug-ins, including the Q10 (and, in fact, with most analog parametric EQ hardware as well) filter slope is fixed, and sharper filters are created by “stacking” multiple filters within the same frequency band. But here is the very cool thing about the Renaissance EQ: the steepness of a cut or shelf filter can be controlled by using the Q control! This means that very sharp, and very precise, cut or shelf filtering can be created using only a single band on the Renaissance EQ. This is an extremely cool feature! I have found that I can create filters using a single band of Renaissance EQ that used to take four bands with the Q10.

The other really neat thing about the Renaissance EQ is that the bell filters are both asymmetrical and fully parametric at the same time. Asymmetrical means that at any given value of Q, a cut in gain has a narrower bandwidth than a gain boost. This is the way that many classic, vintage equalizers work; however, most of those (for example, old Pultecs and such) aren’t fully parametric. The Renaissance EQ provides the best of both worlds — amazingly realistic analog-type response, with exacting parametric control. Very sweet stuff!

Pros: Includes smaller two and four band versions to save CPU cycles. 32-bit float 1/0 and 48-bit processing sounds incredible. Extreme filter accuracy. Adjustable-slope on shelving filters. Asymmetric bell filters impart true-to-life analog-type characteristics. All in all, just about the finest software equalizer plug-in you’ll find out there.

Cons: I’m thinking, I’m thinking…

Renaissance Compressor

Waves claims that the Renaissance Compressor “combines the technologies of Waves’ C1 Compressor/Gate and the famed L1 Ultramaximizer.” Describing it in this way doesn’t nearly do it justice. While it lacks some of the detailed features of either of those plug-ins, it more than makes up for that by doing some amazing things neither the C1 nor the L1 can.

The Renaissance Compressor makes no attempt to copy the classic “gain-response” graph normally found on compressor plug-ins, opting instead for a simpler, cleaner, and (in my opinion) far more functional approach. Sliders are provided for the basic five compressor controls, with numeric entry available for each one, of course. In the middle is the gain reduction meter. When trying to set dynamics levels, this is the most important piece of feedback you can get — it tells you how much compression or expansion is actually taking place — so you want that meter to be clear, responsive, and easy to read, and this one is. The rectangle above the output meters is a limiting display. The amount of limiting that is actually taking place is indicated by its color — it turns yellow whenever the limiter kicks in, followed by a brighter yellow for heavier limiting and red for very hard limiting.

When writing reviews, I’m not generally given to superlatives, but I really have to say that very first time I heard it, I was completely floored by this plug-in! Sure, it compresses, like the name says. But where this baby really shines is how uncannily it emulates the sound of just about any and every classic piece of dynamics-processing hardware there is. By careful setting of the parameters, this thing can be an LA2A, an 1176, or a 1960! It can act like a tube EQ or a solid state one; with snappy VCA-like response, or more forgiving opto-coupled behavior. The Opto setting really is gorgeous — the release time actually gets a little slower as you ease up on the threshold, just like a honest-to-God piece of real vintage iron!

One more feature that deserves a mention is the Automatic Release Control (ARC). Let’s say you’re attempting to use a compressor as a dynamics “leveler,” just gently smoothing out the transients in a mix. For a situation like this, you want to set a fairly long release time. This setup works great as long as the dynamics remain fairly consistent and predictable. But what if, all of a sudden, you get a really big fast peak coming at you? That long release time you’ve so carefully set is gonna mean trouble — pump city! The common solution is to use two compressors in a chain — one with a fast release to handle those quick peaks, and another to act as the leveler. But with the Renaissance Compressor’s ARC control, this case is handled automatically. In fact, with the ARC and the built-in limiter, the Renaissance Compressor can act as three dynamics processors simultaneously — something not even those multi-megabuck behemoths can do!

The only real drawbacks of the Renaissance Compressor is that is lacks a sidechain input, so it can’t do split-mode, EQ-dependent compression like the C1. If it did, I don’t think I’d ever have a reason to touch another compression plug-in ever.

Pros: Killer dead-on emulation of just about any vintage compressor ever made, including tube, solid state, opto-coupled, and VCA-controlled sounds and behaviors. ARC function makes it almost impossible to screw up. Functional, no-nonsense display. Built-in limiter. Hands-down the best software compressor I’ve ever had the pleasure of using… and trust me, I’ve heard them all.

Cons: No sidechain.

MaxxBass

Let’s say you want to enhance and smooth out the low-end response of a mix, or to prepare material for playback on a specialized system, such as a kiosk, interactive exhibit, or small multimedia-type computer speakers. For a job like this, you might reach for an equalizer, or perhaps a sidechain compressor. Next time, you might give this handy little plug-in a try instead.

The MaxxBass is a versatile tool that purports to beef up and add punch to the low end of program material. However, unlike the more traditional approaches, it achieves the desired result by rolling off some of the existing low end and “replacing” it with higher-frequency harmonics that are related to the rolled-off portion of the signal. By doing this, all sorts of effects can be achieved — including the preservation of low end that might exceed the physical limits of certain systems.

You’ll notice several sections in this plug in. The critical parameters are Frequency, which is the crossover point below which the plug-in treats material as “bass”. The other critical parameters are the sliders, which allow the user to attenuate the original bass, and to determine how much generated harmonic material is added. There are also settings which allow control over the nature of the harmonics generated, and to achieve compression of the added harmonic material.

The one thing I really wanted to test was Waves’ claim that this plug-in can actually increase the perceived bass response of smaller systems, by “fooling” the ear into thinking it was hearing low frequencies that aren’t really there. As the theory goes, when the listener hears related low-frequency harmonics, the ear and brain will fill in the missing low-end information — information the playback system isn’t actually capable of reproducing.

Luckily, I had a pair of Optimus multimedia-type computer speakers handy. I also ran the test through a Zenith clock radio equipped with an auxiliary input. I ran the stereo buss of my mixer into both of these systems. Then, for each one, I determined its low-end frequency response by monitoring just the “Bass” portion of the signal (MaxxBass allows you to do this easily) and set the Frequency accordingly. I then cut the bass slider all the way (thus completely removing the non-reproducible part of the signal) and started moving the MaxxBass slider up, listening closely to the results.

I was pretty impressed by what I heard. When I switched in the MaxxBass, I could somehow “magically” hear the stuff that I darn well knew was below the low-end response of the system! It was actually a bit weird at first — sort of like the feeling you get when staring at an optical illusion, when you know what you’re seeing is not real, but you “see” it anyway. In fact, that’s a great way to describe what the MaxxBass did — it created an “auditory” illusion, right there on those little 2-inch speakers. Wow!

This is simply NOT a trick you can pull off with any equalizer; in fact, there’s no other plug-in I know of at all that does exactly what the MaxxBass does. With an EQ, you can roll off bass, but once you do, it’s gone. Subsequently boosting the low end of the remaining signal isn’t going to help much in that situation. The MaxxBass preserves frequency response by actually creating new sonic material that is precisely related to the rolled-off low-end. All I can say is, if you are producing audio for any specialized system — television, radio broadcast, CD-ROM, computer games, public installations — wherever you fear bass response may suffer, you need the MaxxBass!

Pros: Smoothes out and enhances low-end response. Extends perceived bass response well below the physical limitations of smaller systems. Easy to set up and operate.

Cons: Very easy (and sometimes, very tempting!) to “overdo” this effect.

DeEsser

The fourth plug-in included in the Waves NPP II is the DeEsser. This does exactly what you’d expect — it attenuates sibilant sounds in a recording. It’s basically a EQ-sensitive compressor, but it comes pre-equipped to handle this rather specialized task, with a hard knee, fast attack, high ratio, and optimal sidechain EQ bandwidth already set up for you.

Setting this one up is a lot quicker and easier than setting up a general-purpose multiband compressor to handle this job. By monitoring the Sidechain output, one can easily set the frequency (from 2kHz to 16 kHz) that best captures the “ess” sounds one wants to tame. The Threshold is then lowered to taste. That’s it… brain-dead simple.

It also works in either Split or Wideband mode. Wideband mode is the behavior most of us are already familiar with, and the one would likely opt to use for a solo track. In Wideband mode, when the track contains material that falls within the selected sidechain band and which exceeds the threshold, the entire track is attenuated at that point. This is the old tried-and-true method, and when done right, it works splendidly.

But wait… what if you’re attempting to control sibilance in, let’s say, the vocal track of an entire mix? You certainly do not want the volume of the whole track being turned down at that point. Try it and see what happens. Serious pumpage! (In fact, with the hard knee behavior and high ratio of this effect, it’s really easy to make a full spectrum track bob like a cork on the water. This isn’t desirable in most cases… but it could lend itself to some really wild effects, too!) Fortunately, Split Mode takes care of this case. In Split Mode, only the portion of the meterial that falls within the sidechain bandwidth (and that exceeds the threshold, of course) is attenuated, not the whole spectrum. This is a real boon to mastering engineers, who have to deal with sibilant vocal tracks, out-of-control crash cymbals, and too-harsh string or horn sections all the time in the context of a full mix, with no opportunity to treat the individual tracks at that point. I gave the DeEsser a real workout by digging up some rock mixes I mastered about two years ago that I remembered had some really harsh sibilance, due to a hashy, overdriven mic pre. It worked so well on these mixes that I found myself thinking how many hours I could have saved if I had access to the DeEsser back then! The optimized setup and the ability to monitor the sidechain signal takes an incredible amount of guesswork out of this all-too-common audio task.

Pros: Optimized for sibilance control. Split Mode works great, and can be a real lifesaver in many full-mix situations. Ability to monitor sidechain makes for super-easy operation.

Cons: Fixed bandwidth on sidechain. Though I didn’t run into any material where this was a problem, it’s something to keep in mind.

The Big Finish

No review of a Waves product is complete without the obligatory mention of… well, you know, that… that… infernal… thing. Waves calls it a WaveKey, but in computer circles it’s more commonly referred to as a “dongle,” a little piece of hardware that connects to your parallel port. It’s a copy-protection device, or more accurately, a “license” protection device, since you can’t run any Waves plug-in without it, and you obviously can’t attach it to but one computer at a time. You can actually copy the software all you want, but without the dongle, you can’t run any of it.

Let me say now that I have been using Waves software for more than three years, and never, ever have I given the dongle a second thought (except once when I misplaced it during a move, but that’s another story). It passes data right through, and has never interfered with, nor diminished the performance of, anything I have ever hooked to the same parallel port. Nor has any other Waves user I know ever reported trouble with their dongle. (Nope — I’m not even gonna go there…) It’s completely innocuous. Heck, it even comes in a nice neutral color (white), so it goes with everything!

In spite of that, I know there are those among you that have a moral objection to dongles — not to mention key authorization disks, CD-key codes, or any other copy protection scheme of any kind whatsoever. I’ve noticed this a lot more among longtime PC users; Mac users are pretty used to dealing with things like this, but the freewheeling, do-it-yourself PC culture is only now starting to come face-to-face with the harsh realities of hard-core software protection, especially as more and more companies that started out developing for Mac (of which Waves is one) port their stuff over.

All I can say is; if this is you, then you’re really missing out. If you pass up the NPP II just because of an objection to the necessary dongle, I feel sorry for you; the Waves stuff — not just the NPP II stuff, but all of it — is just too damn good to deprive yourself of just because you suffer from a case of Dongle Aversion. So do yourself a favor. Buy it, slap the dongle on your computer, and like me, you’ll never think about it again. Trust me.

The Native Power Pack II is an amazing bundle of software plug-ins. The Renaissance Equalizer and Compressor are, hands down, the best of their kind money can buy; well worth the price of the NPP II all by themselves. The MaxxBass and the DeEsser could almost be thought of as freebies — but they shine too; and as far as I know, there’s no other plug-in out there that does what either of these does nearly as efficiently or as well. The Native Power Pack II truly does live up to its legendary name. Ease of use, an abundance of cool features, and above all, great sound is what the NPP II is all about!

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