Rawwwwwr, let's talk about Wavosaur

Okay, so I promise I’m actually working on my 2022 media retrospective post, but I’ve also been itching to write about a particular piece of software that I’ve been getting a lot of use out of lately. I’ve been dabbling a bit with music production in tracker software, a style which is built entirely1 around the use of samples. As such, I’ve found myself needing to work directly on waveforms, editing samples out of pieces of media I’ve stolen or recordings I’ve made directly2. Having used Adobe Audition as both a multitracker and a wave editor for a long time, I rather like its approach as a dual-purpose tool. I do not, however, like Adobe, nor do I really want to wait for Audition to start up when I’m just chopping up waves. It’s too much tool for my current needs. I’ve also used Audacity in the past, which is a multitracker that certainly can function as a wave editor if you want it to. But, among other issues, it’s just not pleasant to use. So I’ve looked into a number of wave editors over the past few weeks, and have primarily settled on Wavosaur.

Wavosaur is not perfect software, I have a few quibbles that I’ll bring up in a bit. It is, however, really good software, with a no-nonsense interface that at least tries to be unintrusive, and is largely user-customizable. It’s quick to launch, and quick to load files. By default, it will attempt to3 load everything that was open when it was last exited, this can be disabled to make things even quicker. While this is true of pretty much any audio editing software, it supports the import of raw binary data as well as enough actual media formats that I can open up an MP4 video of an episode of Arthur that I downloaded from some sketchball site and start slicing up its audio without issue.

Navigating waves is pretty straightforward. Scrollwheel is assigned to zoom instead of scroll, which I do not like. An option for this would be great. It’s not a huge deal, however, since I’m moving around more by zooming than by scrolling in the first place. Zoom in and out are not bound to the keyboard by default; I set horizontal zoom to Ctrl+/- and vertical to CtrlAlt+/-. I might remove modifiers from vertical altogether, but my point is more that binding them to something logical makes navigating helpful, along with CtrlE and CtrlR, the default bindings for zooming to selection and zooming out all the way.

Wavosaur can deal with two different sorts of markers, and these are stored within the .wav file itself. Normal markers can be used to identify all manner of thing in the file. No data (like a name, for example) can be stored along with the marker, so a somewhat sparing use is probably best, but to my knowledge there is no limit to the number of markers that can be added. Other software does allow for similar markers to be named and then navigated by name, but to my knowledge none of these store these in a standardized way in the .wav file itself. I also haven’t seen other wave editing software that supports the other sort of marker that Wavosaur supports – loop markers. There can only be one pair of these — an in and an out — per file. Set your loops to the note’s sustain duration, and you have a very basic implementation of envelope control. While I don’t know of other software that writes this information, both trackers that I’m currently playing with — MilkyTracker and Renoise — will read it4. Wavosaur doesn’t really have a way to preview loop points in context, unfortunately, but the fact that it reads and writes them still makes for a useful starting point within the tracker.

My second-most-used wave editor over the past few weeks has been NCH WavePad5. Aside from the aforementioned loops, WavePad lacks two features that really makes Wavosaur shine for sample creation. The first is the ability to snap to zero-crossings. Doing this helps to ensure that samples won’t end up popping when they trigger (or, with loop points, retrigger). This can easily be enabled and disabled in the menus, though toggling it can’t be bound to a key for some reason. The second is the ability to universally display time in audio samples6 instead of hours, minutes, and seconds. When fully zoomed in, WavePad switches to time based on audio samples, but I couldn’t find a way to set it as a permanent display. Often, with trackers, it’s advantageous to have a fairy intimate knowledge of how many audio samples you’re dealing with in a given sample. Being able to permanently set the display this way in Wavosaur is very helpful.

Wavosaur allows for resampling to an arbitrary sample rate. It has inbuilt pitch- and time-shifting, and a few basic effects like filters. For everything else, it supports VST in a straightforward way. You can build up a rack and preview things live, editing VST parameters while playing a looped selection of audio, and applying once things sound right. There’s some MIDI functionality, though I’m not sure the extent of it. Basic volume automation is included and works well enough. A wealth of visualization tools – spectrum analyzers and oscilloscopes and such – are included, and even have little widget versions that can live in the toolbar. It includes calculation tools for note frequency, delay, and BPM; BPM detection can also automatically place markers on beats. If you set markers at beats in this way, or manually, it will scramble audio based on markers for you.

I said I had a few quibbles that I’d like to get to. I already sort of mentioned one – while keyboard control is decent, not everything can be keybound. Like toggling snap-to-zero-crossings, there are quite a few actions that I would really like to have keyboard control over. Currently you can easily select between marker points by double-clicking within them, but the same can’t be done from the keyboard; overall, selection could use more granular control via menus and the keyboard. One very annoying thing is that doing an undo action resets the horizontal zoom out to 100%. If I’ve zoomed in on a section of audio that I’m looking to slice out into a new sample, I don’t want to lose that view if I need to correct a goofball mistake I made. Finally, something that a lot of good software has spoiled me for is a one-step process for making a new file from a selection. Right now it’s a two-step process of copying and pasting-as-new, which is fine. But it does sort of add up when you’re chopping up a bunch of samples. These are all pretty minor issues, and overall I think Wavosaur is a great little waveform editor. If you’re working with samples for trackers, I think it may be the best choice (on Windows, at least).

  1. There are modern trackers like Sunvox and Psycle that incorporate synthesis alongside PCM sampling, and using tracker interfaces for synth chips goes back to at least the SID. I think that overall, however, ‘tracker music’ mainly refers to or evokes software and music that is entirely sample-based. ↩︎
  2. I need to upgrade my contact mics, but I’m still liking the Tascam GT-R1 for its Hi-Z input. I also love the Zoom Handy H2n for its five-microphone MS/XY configuration, and the flexibility that affords. ↩︎
  3. A caveat here is that a lot of the sample slicing that I’m doing involves copying from a lengthy file into a new file for the individual sample. Doing this creates a temporary ‘paste.wav’ that won’t exist next time Wavosaur launches. ↩︎
  4. The Tascam GT-R1 supports overdub recording, and some other functionality for practice and jam recording, and part of this is a basic looping functionality. They cared enough about this that it gets dedicated buttons on the front panel! But alas, however it does this is not the same standard used by Wavosaur and the various trackers. ↩︎
  5. I don’t mind linking to NCH WavePad because it is quite good, but I wanted to bury the link down here for two reasons. First, their marketing is incredibly aggressive, to the point where they’ve bought ads that come up advertising it as a ‘Wavosaur alternative’ when you’re searching for Wavosaur (software that I might actually refer to as a free alternative to the $39.95 WavePad). Frankly, I just don’t like that. Second, they have a history of bundling bloatware in with their software. As far as the internet says, and as far as I can otherwise tell, they don’t do this anymore. But I think it’s worth knowing companies’ histories with these things. That said, I used WavePad and other NCH software many years ago, and it was solid then. WavePad was solid for me now as well, and had some UI tricks up its sleeve that I really liked. So, past the caveats, I do recommend checking out NCH WavePad if you need a wave editor and Wavosaur isn’t cutting it for your needs. ↩︎
  6. So, this is slightly tricky. Sampling in music refers to playing back short recordings of instruments, beats, vocals, &c. But in digital communication, when we’re talking about PCM audio, a sample is one point of audio. So, in a 44.1khz mono audio file, every second worth of audio contains 44,100 samples. For the purpose of this post, I refer to these as audio samples. ↩︎