Test Drive: The SAW Plus Software Audio Workshop from Innovative Quality Software

The last window on the tour is the Remote Transport window. This is primarily a playback transport control. Like the Recording Control Panel (and other windows), the Remote Transport Control can be run outside of the SAW Plus program, so you can work in another windows program while the Remote Transport Control is active on the screen. There are indicators for Current Time (or cursor time) and Marked Time. You get Stop and Play buttons along with a Play Mark button used to play only the marked area of the MultiTrack View or SoundFile View. Also included is a Play Loop button which loops the marked area. Unlike many disk-based DAWs, this loop function provides seamless loops and is a wonderful way to create looped music beds quickly. Adjusting loop points on the fly is a breeze. You also get a "Z" return to zero button and "B" and "E" buttons to quickly go to the Begin and End points of a marked area.

At this point, it probably sounds like the SAW Plus is loaded with features and functions. It is. And we're just getting to the many pull-down menu functions of the SAW Plus. Under the File Menu are 19 selections. Here is where you open and close EDL files, also known as Edit List Files, also known as Edit Decision Lists. Basically, these are the files that contain the editing information of a project. No actual audio is stored in these files. The audio is stored in .WAV soundfiles, which can also be loaded and saved from the File Menu. This is also where the SAW Plus backup/restore function is accessed. Audio files are backed up in real time by recording each soundfile of a project to DAT then recording the EDL information to floppy. Both the DAT with the audio and the floppy disc are required to restore a project. If you only have analog I/O on your card, backup of audio files will resample the audio to the DAT's sampling rate which can slightly alter timing by a few samples. If you use digital I/O, nothing is altered. You can also bypass the system's backup feature and simply copy files to a Zip disk or other file backup system.

Under the Edit Menu are functions primarily for editing soundfiles using cut and paste commands. This is also where the Undo function resides--one level--or you can press ALT-U.

Under the Regions Menu are a variety of functions for manipulating regions. Some of these are duplicated on the keyboard and others are duplicated on various windows. Same goes for the MultiTrack Menu options. The function and its corresponding keystroke are listed on the menus. Until you get familiar with keyboard shortcuts, this is an easy way to perform the function and see what its shortcut is at the same time.

In the Mix Menu are several functions not available in any of the windows. As mentioned earlier, using the Fader icons on the MultiTrack view might not be the best way to perform accurate level adjustments such as a quick fade out. The Mix Menu provides a variety of fade and crossfade functions that are easy to apply, easy to remove, and are displayed in each track's Mix Entries View.

The Output Track was also mentioned earlier. This is a track on the MultiTrack View that can be used to record mixes of the other tracks to. This comes in handy particularly with slower machines that might not be able to process several tracks at once. The tracks can be mixed to this "17th" track and reside on the MultiTrack View just as the other tracks do. This not only frees up the other tracks, but frees up a ton of processing power. Under the Process/Mix Down file menu are options to record this mix to the Output Track or to its own soundfile. If you run SAW Plus on a fast enough machine and use the program mainly for broadcast production, you might not ever need to concern yourself with mixdowns in order to conserve processing power. With the Pentium 200 used for this review, I was able to load ten tracks with stereo files, five of them with effects patches, before the program halted the live playback and offered the message, "This Machine is Not Fast Enough To Keep Up With This Much Multitrack Processing in Real Time." Think about it; when was the last time you had ten stereo tracks playing something all at once? A sound effect here and there doesn't count. I'm talking about ten STEREO tracks all at once. This is all subject to what effects are patched and how many of them are patched. I removed five of the ten stereo tracks and put one effect on each of the five remaining tracks--two with EQ, two with reverb, and one with Echo/Delay. Sorry, can't do. Both the EQ and especially the Reverberator patches seem to really draw on the processing power. The help screens in the Reverberator did offer a good tip. You can record the wet reverb to another track, then remove the patch and simply mix the two tracks. This takes much less processing power, but a little more of your time. Still, five stereo tracks at once is pretty rare in broadcast production, and if you are conservative with the effects, you may not run into this problem. Considering that these are real-time effects, I was surprised the computer handled as much as it did.

Of course, if you do add an effect to a track, EQ for instance, and you know you're not going to change that setting again, and you're not worried about altering the original file, you can use the "Process Marked Area Back To Original File" function to write the processed audio back to the original file. You're given the choice to write the audio to the file with or without the ability to undo the write. This is probably one of the few times the system actually took some time to process something, but it was still pretty fast. I took a sixty-second stereo track and changed the EQ and added some echo. Writing this file with the undo information saved took only nine seconds. Writing it without the undo information took only seven seconds. And by writing the effects to the file, processing power is freed up for other things on the mix.

Other choices on the Menu bar include MIDI and SMPTE support. SAW Plus will lock to MIDI and SMPTE code and can even generate SMPTE code. There's a collection of system setup options. One of these is the Refresh All Function Keys command. Each of the twelve function keys on the keyboard can be used to store a particular screen setup. Store up to twelve different screen setups. One might have just the MultiTrack View taking up the whole screen. Another might be an 8-track view of the multitrack with the SoundFile View below it, and so on. This is a very handy feature. If for some reason, you'd like to reset all your function keys to the current window setup, use the Refresh All Function Keys command. Other choices on the menu include the Color Setup and options to sacrifice some of the screen redraw functions in exchange for processing power. There are unlimited ways to customize this program to your computer and your personal tastes.

The SAW Plus almost has two learning curves. The program is simply so full of features that you have to take your time getting started. Still, it's easy enough to be recording and mixing within a couple of hours. But unless you read the manual and get to know the program, you'll never enjoy the full power of this program. The manual is over 200 pages long, but it is well written and easy to understand. There are several ways to do many things, and it is important to try them all to find the one that best suits you. I thought it was a bit tedious to have to constantly click on the Select icon to enter and exit the Select Mode. Then I discovered all I had to do was press the "S" key. For me, that's much faster than manipulating a mouse. This same type of functionality unfolds itself slowly as you get to know the program, and after a while, it's easy to see how the SAW and SAW Plus have sold so well and crept into several radio production rooms over the years.

A more versatile file management system would be nice. If you name a voice-over track "VO," it will reside on the drive as VO.WAV. If you start a new project the next day and want to record another voice-over track, you can't use the same name unless you create a new directory for the new project. Otherwise, your new voice track will be appended to the old one or erase it altogether, if you so choose. Radio production involves creating as many as a dozen projects or more a day, and it can be very easy to lose track of files all residing in the same directory. Be prepared to do some file managing, but the upside is that with a file manager like Windows', you'll be able to customize your system in any number of ways. I was also surprised to find there was no Time Compression/Expansion effect. As well as the program crunches numbers, I would expect this to be an easy task.

It's very difficult to find much wrong with the SAW Plus. The literature speaks about the program's speed due to use of "assembly language coding." I remember many years ago watching a friend program an Atari 800XL with 64 kilobytes of RAM (that's kilobytes not megabytes). He had written a jet fighter program in assembly language. (It really worked, and looked pretty good!) He said the assembly language was the only way to get the screens to redraw at the speed he needed. I was impressed then, and I'm impressed now. Almost everything that happens in the SAW Plus happens instantly. The waveforms appear immediately. Editing is instant. Many other disk-based systems perform much of the processing of edits and effects by rewriting files. SAW Plus is a real-time system. There was rarely a moment when I was sitting there waiting for the program to finish doing something. Of course, this may be partly due to the fact that the program is running on a Pentium 200 with 64 meg of RAM. To that I'll say, at today's prices, if you're going to build a professional recording studio around the SAW Plus, do not spare a nickel on the processing power. Get all the computer you can buy. The program runs like a dream on this P200, and I wouldn't want to step down even to a Pentium 133. I'm spoiled. Get the Reverberator plug-in and splurge on the Meter Bridge plug-in if you can. By the way, if you get the Reverberator, the manufacturer's suggested minimum requirements for a computer jump from a 90MHz Pentium to a 133MHz Pentium. It's a power hog, but there's plenty of power available in today's computers.

By the time you read this, the SAW Plus 32 will be available. Apparently, this is a 32-bit version of the program designed for Windows 95 which boasts even more processing power and speed. The upgrade will be available to the first 1000 SAW and SAW Plus users at discounted rates.

Hats off to Bob Lentini and crew at IQS for two very impressive 3-1/2-inch floppy disks. The program ran without a single crash (during the few short weeks I had it) and appeared very stable. The version used for this review was version 3.3.

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