WAVES Audio Plugins: A Review of the Former King of Digital Audio Plugins
Today I’d like to review the Waves bundle of plugins, and consider the value
it gives the engineer, while considering all variables. By all means, this will
be a FAIR and 100% unbiased review. As always, you have my word on that.
Anyone who has any experience in a professional recording studio, be it on
the tech side or on the client side, has almost undoubtedly seen a slew of
waves plugins splashed across the screen of the engineer’s Digital Audio
Workstation. It’s a company that has been around for a long, long time, and
has rooted itself deep inside not only the minds and thoughts of engineers,
but also planted itself firmly in the arenas of important software
Back in the day, Waves plugins were like the gold standard of audio
processing. There’s a few reasons for this. First, there weren’t a whole
lot of competitors in the arena of digital signal processing. If you were
using pro tools (and back in the day, who WASN’T using Pro Tools, unless
you were that guy – you know, the weirdo using Cubase – because that’s how
many lay people without much experience in DAWs saw such users) the only
options you really had on a mainstream level were either the plugins
developed directly by Avid (formerly Digidesign) or Waves.
I had the luxury of using the Waves Audio MERCURY Bundle when I began
engineering at my first studio other than my own, which I’ve run since I
was 15 years old. This new studio was a friend and business partner’s
recording facility and I was serving as the resident producer and primary
mix and mastering engineer. We had recently invested in about $100,000
worth of recording equipment based around a Control 24 digital recording
console, and a Mac based Pro Tools HD rig. It of course included Waves
plugins, but we also splurged and decided to get the Universal Audio UAD
Now, perhaps this isn’t a fair comparison since we’re reviewing WAVES
plugins, which are native, versus a dedicated DSP card. Perhaps a bit of
history on that process is in order.
Around the time when we purchased all of this gear and built the recording
studio, DSP processing was just beginning to lose it’s edge over native
processing, but it hadn’t quite lost that edge just yet. DSP as some of you
may know stands for Digital Signal Processing, and dedicated DSP was still
faster than native signal processing, and so, the UAD, being a dedicated DSP
card, had an advantage over the WAVES plugins. As computers have grown
more powerful in time, Native is now faster. But everyone around that time
(and many still do,) also thought so. But the WAVES plugins are and still were
very good. But there’s a few things beyond even the DSP options that are
changing that, which I’ll talk about below. You could call it the butterfly effect;
many small things happened that completely changed things for companies like
Waves and Digidesign.
First of all, around the time waves plugins were introduced, as mentioned,
there weren’t many plugin developers around. But since then, VST technology
has increasingly become a standard format for plugin developers, and the
amount of VST processors available now is pretty mind boggling. I’m not a
software developer, but even at the time of RTAS plugins, Digi’s native Pro
Tools format, there weren’t that many plugins released in the format. Waves
was one of the few who jumped onboard and began developing RTAS plugins,
which probably (Edit: Undoubtedly!) has a lot to do with it’s foothold on
In other words, there wasn’t a lot of competition for them back in the day.
They were the best, in part, because there weren’t many competitors. But we
live in an age where there are a ton of competitors in every field now, and
that increases daily. More people are doing more things, and this can be
good for the marketplace.
The second thing that happened, was free information. Freedom of
information has changed *everything.* People who had an interest in coding
can watch YouTube videos or sign up for courses and now learn how to do
code their own audio plugins. It doesn’t a take a rocket scientist to
figure out that this means that some newly developed technology is going to
enter the marketplace, or that some of it will be better, (or at least as
good). It’s called probability in mathematics. The more people you have
baking pies, the more probable it is that some of them are going to be
good… especially with a lot of new people entering the marketplace on a
So these companies who used to have a monopoly of sorts on the marketplace
are now losing a portion of their market share to smaller independent
companies. What’s new, right? That’s happening all around us in today’s
digital age. But back to the plugins.
Waves plugins are good. Make no mistake about it. But there are other
alternatives out there that accomplish essentially the same thing for far,
far less money. But that doesn’t matter for WAVES as a company, for one
reason… the reason why they don’t have to change their prices or their
marketing approach or to be sensitive to the shifts of the world at large
taking place around them. The reason is because they have a firm hold on
the user base that matters to them most. Older, more experienced engineers
who are used to doing things the same old way. They don’t need to change
anything because as long as they put out new products, this portion of the
market will buy. Simple as that. It works for them.
So while on one hand, we can talk about money and how good the plugins are,
you cannot have this discussion without discussing one of the most vital
parts of that discussion: how good they are RELATIVE to how good they cost.
Most modern software DAWs now come bundled with very, very good plugins for
most basic uses, such as EQ, compression, gating, etc. I love the plugins
that come from both PreSonus bundled with their Studio One Professional
software, as well as the sound of the plugins bundled with Roland’s
(formerly Cakewalk) Sonar digital audio workstation. Both sound fantastic
and for very, very good reason.
Remember that VST technology we talked about earlier? The people who
developed Studio One left Steinberg to develop it, and Steinberg is the
inventor of VST technology. Is it really any surprise then that the bundled
processing inside of Studio One sounds fantastic? Not really. And in terms
of Sonar, Roland has been making amazing hardware and software for as long
as I’ve been alive. Actually longer. So is it really any surprise that they
nailed theirs as well? Even Pro Tools comes with plugins that will do the
job. So we really have to ask ourselves, for what we’re getting… is it
So since we’re talking relativity, let’s talk about the Price of Waves
Their flagship product, The Waves Audio Mercury Bundle, will set you back
$7,599. That’s not a misprint.
They want almost $8,000 dollars for their plugins. So you have to ask
yourself. Is the price worth it? Maybe. But how many of us are making what
we used to, engineering for clients full time? Especially considering that
there are plugins that sound just as good for less money? That’s really
what it comes down to I think.
I don’t want the readers here to misunderstand what I’m saying. I think
Waves plugins are good plugins. But contrary to the situation in the old
days, there are other plugins now that are just as good that are much
cheaper. Some are even free, because talented developers have coded them
and decided to gift them to the world and made them free via the VST
format. (Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t many of these free or cheap plugins
that can compete with Waves, but there are some.)
At the end of the day, what I want to say is that Digital Signal Processing
has come a long way since the day that Digidesign/Avid had a monopoly on
the professional Digital Audio Workstation market, and when companies like
Waves Audio had a monopoly on the high end native DSP. We no longer live
in an age where we’re tied to a few options, much like music consumers
aren’t limited to the hand full of artists on the radio that we once were.
The market experience is the same as in that scenario, no matter what
market we discuss. Markets have opened up allover the world equalizing the
buying market place.
Overall, in this review I would give Waves Audio Plugins
a rating of 3 out of 5 stars.
They’re very good, but equally – if not exponentially – more expensive for
what they offer. The rating isn’t for quality – it’s for quality in contrast to value.
What are some plugins you have used that you felt gave you the same bang for
less bucks? Share with the community so we can try them too!