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PC Recording.com - IQS SAWPro Review

Manufacturer: Innovative Quality Software
Author: Bob Lentini
Product: SAWPro - Audio Editor, MIDI, multi-track software
Price: $950.00.
System Requirements: Windows 95/98/NT, 128 meg of RAM, 16-bit soundcard

Independent, free-thinking, and out of the box are words that come to mind when I try to categorize SAWPro from Innovative Quality Software. SAW is an acronym for Software Audio Workshop and is the creation of Bob Lentini. SAWPro is a multitrack audio editor/recorder with SMPTE and MIDI capability. Written in native NT/95/98 32 bit Assembly language, SAWPro fits on a floppy disk yet rivals and often exceeds much larger and expensive multi-track software packages in functionality, efficiency and speed. Other than the necessary communication with the Windows API, SAWPro does not enter the Windows environment - - it sits in its own folder on top of Windows and does not deal with the registry or the .dll hell that is so often the source of problems. In a word, it is different.

Difference for differences sake however is not enough to make a product worthwhile. The differences in SAWPro make for an efficient, powerful and ultimately very useful audio recording environment that is very flexible. However, it requires a significant commitment from the musician/technician to learn to use it to its fullest extent. The program is feature-deep and will meet the needs of any size project from a home enthusiast project studio to a large scale production incorporating audio, MIDI, video, screenwriting, etc. The following review includes much of what I used in SAWPro but compared to most my needs are modest. SAWPro is capable of meeting demands far in excess of the ones I put on it. As a result, this review does not represent a complete listing of the features in this system.

My System:

My system is a Celeron 366 (OC'd to 578), 128 meg of RAM, 20gig HD, on a Soyo Motherboard (440BX chipset), all running under Win98 Second Edition. I have optimized my system for DAW use but also use it for the Internet and webpage development. My soundcard of choice for this review was the Aardvark Direct Pro 2496, which I have reviewed separately on this site.

General Features

  • 24-bit/96kHz recording
  • Supports up to 32 mono or stereo files simultaneously
  • Up to 24 simultaneous independent physical inputs and outputs (CPU dependent)
  • Record, edit and play files at the same time
  • Copy, drag and drop regions of audio to any position in a session
  • Select and audition various sections of soundfiles (.wav) at will
  • Real-time effect processing, including EQ, compression, limiting, gating, echo/delay, reversing, and vari-pitch.
  • Up to 99 levels of multiple undoes.
  • Loop scrubbing
  • MIDI trigger within regions or in Multitrack mode
  • SMPTE sync
  • Live format conversion - - play 16, 20, 24 bit files and all samplerates in the same session at the same time.
Manual/Help/CD Support:

IQS provides several different ways to get information on how to use the SAWPro system. First, a downloadable manual in .pdf format is available from their site. Consisting of over 300 pages, it contains reams of helpful information in a well-written and organized manner. From hardware/software settings to actual how-to information, virtually any question can be answered by referring to the manual. The table of contents is a good place to start to pinpoint a reference to a particular problem. Second, IQS provides web-based tutorials on their website that cover a wide array of SAWPro functions with voiceover suggestions via RealAudio accompanying well laid-out graphics. Though not as detailed as the manual they do provide very helpful, quick information on how to get up and running in the SAW environment. Third, IQS sponsors a forum/chatroom where you can post questions and suggestions to other SAW users for comments. Of these, the manual is the most complete and is as portable as your nearest laptop.

Tutorial CD:

In addition to the above, the entire contents of the web-based tutorials are available on a CD which costs $50.00. This option may seem expensive at first but in light of the time savings and instant accessibility of the CD versus the WWW, it is money well-spent. (I used a lot of the images from the CD for this review because they are nicely laid-out and labeled). The CD contains no less than 82 chapters beginning with basic introductions to digital audio and ending with in-depth explanations of how to exploit the power of SAWPro. Nearly all the sessions are narrated in RealAudio and include graphical representations which are referred to in the voice-over. While I have not actually added the number of minutes of narration, a rough estimate is that there is well over two hours of direction on the CD alone. All of it is clearly explained and similar to a private lesson. In sum, the CD is a tremendous time-saver and will greatly accelerate and clarify your understanding of the SAWPro system. IQS has clearly put a great deal of effort into explaining this product and done an excellent job of creating and writing these tutorials.

Tech support:

If you are not able to figure out a problem with the above resources, IQS provides telephone and email tech support. I spoke numerous times with Lewis, Ryan and Bob Lentini over the course of this review and found them to be very helpful, courteous and respectful. I never felt like I was bothering anyone and the suggestions were truly helpful. One might think that since I was reviewing the product that I got special treatment - - this is not something I believe. The folks who work at IQS believe in their product, in the SAW method and are truly excited about this product and the new SAW Studio as well. It is refreshing to work with people who are passionate about what they do and are knowledgeable as well.

Installation:

I downloaded SAWPro from the IQS site at http://www.iqsoft.com - - totaling just over 1.3 meg. I clicked on the install and it whizzed away for about five seconds and was done - - no problem, no reboot, it was just there. On first launch it asked for my password and then was instantly open. I initially had a slight IRQ problem when an interrupt caused the program to seize open during playback (would not turn off). After consulting with tech support I solved it by simply moving the soundcard to a different slot. In fairness to IQS, I also discovered that my Windows registry (.dll hell) had been whacked by another to be unnamed program. I reformatted and ghosted the drive and was back up and running. Since then, it has been rock stable with no crashes at all - - nothing, nada, no way.

First Impressions:

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly fast SAWPro boots. I am used to seeing the little Windows hourglass icon spin for several seconds with most multi-track software. SAWPro literally flashes onto the screen a moment after you click its icon. Click, bang there it was - - a colorful main interface with easily identifiable windows and buttons.


 

A multitrack view window appears on the top with buttons for setting record, levels, panning, fx and such situated in the upper left corner. Here, the user can position and view several tracks at once either in a block form with a name given each one or a graphic representation of the underlying .wav file. The track chosen to record to is designated the "hot" track to which recording/adjustments can be made and it is highlighted in white.

 


Just below this is the full view window where the entire project is displayed in condensed .wav file form. Playback of the file can be started by right clicking here, from any position within the track.

 


 

 

Next, just below, is a soundfile view window where the "hot" track (track to be played back or recorded to) or region is displayed in .wav file format. There are time line display buttons across the top to set zoom levels, positioning your cursor and track display indicator.

 

 


SAWPro uses regions as building blocks for an editing session. A region is simply a link to a marked/named area in the original soundfile (recorded track) containing information about the area such as beginning/end points, the pathname of the underlying soundfile, etc. These are displayed in alphabetical order in the regions window that usually appears to the left bottom of the display screen. A region can be edited, pan and volume levels can be adjusted, and effects can be applied to it without changing the original file. Copies and cuts can be made to regions without having to move the original soundfile around the program. This contributes to the speed of the system because only small amounts of data are manipulated until final mixdown. 


I must admit, at first the default interface looked complicated, complex and crowded. However, the seeming complexity was an impression that soon evaporated when I began to understand the SAW method. The buttons are large with a simple large block font used to label them - - not as elegant as some others I have seen. Of particular note, while there are buttons and sliders there are no knobs in this interface. The interface is not crowded with rows of cryptic icons for each and every possible function. (I did not miss them, turning a knob with a mouse is a bit unintuitive to me). Overall, function over form seems to be the operative theme here, each button is clearly marked with an identifiable function.

As is my practice, I actually read the manual and consult the tips that are on the manufacturer's website. I used the CD extensively as well and found it very helpful. I could see that the desktop environment built into the design of SAWPro gave the user great control over the look, window location and feel of the interface. For instance, the windows can be opened/closed, resized or configured at will by the user. The multi-track view, which contains both recording tracks and output tracks, can be adjusted to display particular tracks within the recording project in any position relative to each other at the discretion of the user. Input track 1 can be followed immediately by input track 17 then output track 2 if the user wishes. In addition, though each track initially gets a number in sequence, the track numbers can be reassigned as well at the whim of the user. Windows for the various functions can be resized, closed or positioned where ever you want on the screen. This type of control of the screen real estate and the elements that appear there can be very useful depending on the nature of the project the user is working on. The caveat is that you need to learn how to do it.

Useability:

As a result of studying the manual and CD tutorials, I learned how to move things around on the screen, try different combinations of the musical elements I was combining in a project and to edit individual elements as needed. I also learned how SAWPro communicated with its user, providing information about beginning and end points, region names, graphical representations of what impact an input command such as a pan or volume change was having on an element. I found that after I got used to it, the method was logical and efficient. There was a number of keystrokes that I needed to learn to fully exploit the power of the system. Many of the keystrokes are unique to this system requiring a bit of a shift from the Windows "culture" when you enter the SAWPro environment. Is this a bad thing? I think not, if the result leads to more control, greater flexibility and a clearer path to the end result. SAWPro does not get in the way of the artist's expression. Is it easy? No. Is it hard? No. Is it powerful? Yes.

For instance, SAWPro provides several ways to keep detailed track of time in a project. In this image the remote transport displays timing information in hours, seconds and milliseconds.
 

In this image, the transport displays timing in tempo, measures and time signature. Clicking on the "T/S" button toggles between these two views. Timing display changes in the transport window change the display in the multi-track timeline as well.

In addition the transport displays a "B" button for marking the beginning of a "marked" section and an "E" button for marking the end of a "marked" section. If you have a marked section in the track, clicking the Play Mark button will play only the marked section. If you have set up a loop section, clicking the Play Loop button will do the same. I found the Play Mark function very useful when I wanted to play specific portions of the project over and over again.

Recording a Project:

I am working on a CD that consists of about seven original tunes. I record primarily acoustic guitar and vocals and was easily able to get down great sounding audio tracks. I was able to configure SAWPro to incorporate some MIDI based synthesizer tracks, work simultaneously with GigaStudio (mostly GigaPiano), and import drum tracks in wave file format.

I began my first song recording project by importing a previously created drumtrack .wav file directly to the multitrack using the Open Soundfile to MT command. The drumtrack was imported to and displayed as the first track in the Multitrack window. On track 2, I clicked on the record button and the record window opened. I selected the bit rate, named the to be recorded file and clicked save. I clicked on the S-R-P (Simultaneous Record Play) on the record window while holding down the Shift key to start contemporaneous playback and recording. (this function can be automated by changing preferences in the system). I was able to monitor the drum track and record the rhythm guitar to it simultaneously with no discernible latency. When I was done with my guitar rhythm track I stopped the recording and then confirmed that I wished to keep it. Following this, I recorded my vocal track on track 3 while monitoring the guitar and drum tracks. I then went on in similar fashion and recorded a couple of harmony vocals and lead guitars. Next, I added a track of bass samples using GigaStudio simultaneously with SAWPro. Lastly, I added a piano background with Nemesys' GigaPiano through GigaStudio. As I did each set of recordings, new regions appeared in the regions window for each take I did and redid.

After a total of about ten satisfactory tracks, I had a pretty full set of Regions in its window, including numerous retakes of my guitar solos. Each of the retakes were numbered sequentially, thus making them easy to identify. (Guitar1 and Guitar2, etc.). I was able to audition the solos one by one by clicking on its name in the Regions window. Since I recorded them originally in the Multitrack view, SAWPro remembered the placement locations and would put the region in the precise location where I had recorded it. I could also slide the take a bit either direction for a bit of delay effect if desired. In this way I was able to build my project by combining the parts of recordings, represented by regions in a non-destructive manner.

Audio Quality:

The first thing I noticed when I played back the initial tracks was how clear and clean the sound was. One may presume that once the converters in the sound card have digitized the signal it should sound the same in whatever software you use. While not a scientific comparison, I noticed a clarity of sound that exceeded my expectations. The difference was noticeable as if there were fewer digital artifacts/errors introduced by the system, resulting in a smoother signal. The overall impression was very pleasing, smooth and easy on the ear.

Editing:

In one or two places I had some hard "P" plosives that needed some work. I was able to isolate the sounds' precise location in the Soundfile mode and highlight them by zooming in. I then entered "Sample Edit Mode" and was able to reduce the amplitude of these sounds by sliding them down with the mouse. As a result, they sounded more normal and did not need to be redone. This was a destructive editing process and I was careful to save a copy via the undo function before I did the editing, just in case I needed to go back to the original track.

Mixdown:

 

SAWPro features popup fader controls for each track in the multitrack window. Each of these can be layered on top of each other during a mixdown session. This window displays controls for panning, volumes, and offset controls. In addition, the slope values are preset fader slopes that differ in the speed with which they fade out the track's signal. They provide a convenient and fast option for fading out the track. If this is not enough, the user can adjust these to taste as well.

As can be seen in the image here, during a multitrack mixdown project numerous fader controls can be opened at once. These can be layered on top of each other or arranged in any fashion on the desktop. The advantage to layering is that it takes up less real estate on the screen - - however, you can line them up like a traditional mixer if you wish to use up desktop space. Clicking anywhere on a covered popup fader makes it the active window along with its associated track. Pan and volume adjustments can be made with their respective sliders. In addition, volume adjustments can be made by manually entering a value in the display window. Fade controls can be done incrementally with a toggle switch. The relative pan and volume levels are displayed in the multitrack window with the red line being for pan levels and the yellow line for volume levels. Any changes in levels results in a new, different colored line being drawn at the new levels making it easy to identify where the changes took place.

I found the fader window layered method to be a bit cumbersome and was willing to give up some desktop space by displaying all my mix fader windows side by side. To me, it felt more like a real mixer board - - others differ I am sure. Nonetheless, I was able to accurately and quickly adjust pan and volume levels for each track. On the first song I recorded, I originally had an introductory highhat beat going to give me the tempo and rhythm for the acoustic guitar. However, I wanted the song to be introduced with just the guitar. After I recorded the guitar while monitoring the drum, I simply went back in and drew a fade-in on the drum track that left the guitar alone as the intro. Simple, fast and easy.

Effects:

SAWPro includes a rather robust set of effects including Echo/Delay, Compressor/Gate/Limiter, Graphic Equalizer, Reverse Audio/Reverse Phase, Vari-Pitch/Speed, Center Channel Eliminator. In addition, SAW Pro is compatible with third-party VST and DirectX based effects which are accessed via the VST Linker and DirectX Linker, respectively. As can be seen in this image, the multitrack window has an effects button which when pressed launches an effects patch builder that displays the available effects in the system. Clicking on the effect of choice in the "choices" window, then on add puts the effect in the "current" window. Adding DirectX Linker and/or VST Linker opens a window for related effects in the system.

 

 

Not unlike SAWPro itself, there is more to the rest of the effects than meets the eye. Each of the effects have distinct functions that are presented in a simple interface. However, the effects each have user-definable functions that enhance their flexibility and effectiveness. The catch is that the user needs to learn how to use them. I will pay particular attention to the Echo/Delay and the ParaGraphic Equalizer effects. 

 

 


Echo/Delay:

When I first laid eyes on the Echo/Delay I was a bit set back by its simple appearance and admittedly wondered just what it could do. Again, after consulting the manual and the excellent CD Tutorial I found that it was very flexible, powerful and ultimately sounded great. However, I needed to get into its method to fully exploit it.


 

As you can see from this image, it looks simple right? Well, this plugin is very powerful and capable. The user can set the delay time by clicking in the time window and holding the left mouse button and moving the mouse left or right. The strength, (read volume) of the echo/delay is controlled by moving the slider for each channel. The relative volume of the original sound source is controlled by the source volume slider. In this way, the user is able to manipulate independent elements individually, yet hear the collective effects. In addition, by employing the advanced editing capabilities of SAWPro in the Soundfile view, the user can actually view the placement of the delay signal relative to the original signal thus adjusting the timing of the Echo/Delay to match the underlying rhythm in the source track.

I used this effect extensively on a second song I have recorded which consists of a simple Drop-D tuned acoustic guitar track and a vocal. The added delay adds a wonder rhythm to the piece. Given the focus of the piece is the lyric and the melody, I thought it appropriate to keep it simple and not add drums or percussion. The delay allowed me to emphasize the inherent rhythm of the song but keep the acoustic sound pristine. The sound quality of the delay was terrific.

ParaGraphic EQ

The ParaGraphic EQ has the look of a graphic equalizer but includes parametric functionality as well. Consisting of seven "bands", the eq provides seven sliders to adjust the levels of seven select frequency ranges - - looking like a typical graphic eq. There are high-cut and low-cut filters as well. Below the sliders is a window indicating the center frequency for that band. Changing the "Center" of the frequency is done by left-clicking on the window and moving the mouse left or right. Clicking on the window immediately below the center frequency window sets the width of the band to be altered on either side of the center frequency. In this way, the user can precisely isolate a frequency to be adjusted.

This effect is very effective, easy to use and sounds great. It is a bit of a CPU hog and I found that it worked best at the end of the chain for final mixdown. Nonetheless, the functionality of it runs deep and its design is simply elegant.


 

Mixdown:

SAWPro mixes down unmuted Multitrack tracks to new output tracks - - tracks that generally appear below the input tracks on the screen. The output tracks will include all the information contained in all tracks that are unmuted, including effects, panning and fade elements resulting in a single stereo .wav file. This function is helpful if you have a less powerful machine and is the functional equivalent of "bouncing tracks" on a multitrack tape machine. For instance, if your machine cannot play back 15 stereo tracks with effects in real-time, it will still be able to process the information down to a single stereo output file. The resulting stereo track can then be imported into one of the multitrack input tracks and new tracks added.

I took the ten tracks I had recorded above, made some adjustments to fade in/fade outs of the various tracks, set levels and panning. I needed a bit of eq work on the acoustic guitar, so I applied a DirectX eq from Ultrafunk to the guitar track and some reverbs to the vocals. I did a mixdown of all to a new stereo .wav file. On the output track itself, I applied some compression using the native compressor included with SAWPro to ensure I used every bit available to me. The system displayed a progress meter of the mixdown and then was quickly done. The resulting .wav file was satisfactory and accurately played back the elements, panning and adjustments I had made to the original tracks. It sounded great, clean and robust. I took this file and burned it to a CD and was ready to move on to the next one.

Special Features:

SAWPro has advanced features that I did not get a chance to exploit. These include tempo mapping which allows the technician to overlay audio tracks over a tempo grid and includes the ability to anticipate/accomodate tempo changes in the midst of a recording. As such, the recording can exactly conform to a decided time signature and bpm rate. It can be used to precisely place drumbeats or specific notes in a piece.

SAWPro accepts SMPTE commands to ensure exact sync of various musical elements. In addition, SAWPro will work well with video to which syncing needs to be made.

 

Lastly, SAWPro can readily be used as a transcription tool by providing a special command that makes the soundfile capable of resting on top of any normal word processor. You can then listen to the recording and transcribe it to the word processor as you go.


Overall Impressions:

SAWPro is very deep with many features I did not touch on in this review. As an audio tool it is very flexible and powerful providing features that will meet virtually any need a technician/musician could have. This includes the project studio musician, the technician wanting to record a symphony, or the composer working a soundtrack. Once you learn the system, control over all aspects of the editing, recording, and mixing process are all just a few mouse clicks and/or keystrokes away.

The overall speed of the system, its methodology and user interface make for an efficient yet powerful solution to audio recording needs. Once you learn it, it will save you time. Another oft unmentioned speed feature is stability. As I often tell folks who email me regarding the latest whizbang soundcard, biggest baddest harddrive or fastest newest CPU, the single greatest time-saver is stability. This system is solid, fast and very stable. Other than the one initial problem, which I believe was due to a non-related registry issue, this system was stable as a rock. Other than initially setting my default settings, I spent zero time messing with it. It just flat out worked.

Conclusions:

If you are willing to commit to learning this system, it will reward you with speed and stability. The system does virtually all you will need to record audio and MIDI. Did I mention it all fits on a floppy? The only thing I want to see more in my system now is SAWStudio, but more on that later.