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25 Years of WaveLab – A Journey of Innovation

France-based developer and WaveLab mastermind Philippe Goutier invented WaveLab in the mid-1990s. Today he is still co-developing the application, together with Steinberg’s WaveLab team. In this interview, he reveals where his enthusiasm comes from and why, even after a quarter of a century, WaveLab is still the most-used mastering platform.

Philippe, tell us a bit about your life path...

I have been an audiophile since my teenage years. My first audio equipment were a tube radio and a tape recorder, both by Grundig. So, I started with German hardware! (laughs). I still remember the sweet sound of those devices. Later, I studied physics and got a degree in quantum mechanics... as you can see, my path has always been surrounded by waves. I have always worked from home and, today, I try to follow a healthy lifestyle and enjoy living in quiet, natural surroundings in France. Besides audio and computer science, my interests include science, psychology, metaphysics, meditation, cinema, gardening and more.

WaveLab 1.0 was first released about 25 years ago. When did you start developing it?

It was early 1994. Up to that point I had developed several programs for the Atari computer to control synthesizers. These were published by Steinberg under the name Synthworks. But, at the beginning of the 90s, audio samplers were becoming more powerful, affordable and popular than synthesizers. Synth sales were declining, so there was a clear need to create a good audio sample editor. This was not only a new area of expertise for me, but the trend was to use a rising programming language called C++. Windows 95 – the first Microsoft 32-bit operating system – was also approaching.

So, the project was to develop a new program, in a new audio domain, on a new operating system, and with a new programming language! They were exciting times, because everything had to be invented from scratch.

How did you reach the idea of developing an editing and mastering application? Did you see a market requirement or were you approached by studios or artists?

Actually, WaveLab was not started as a mastering application. In 1994, the term ‘mastering’ was not as popular as it is now. But, once affordable CD burners became available, everyone – pros and hobbyists – wanted to make their own CDs and albums. Mastering demands kicked in with the need to make CDs with good-sounding tracks. The result was WaveLab 2.0.

So WaveLab’s shift towards mastering was driven by technological evolution and naturally reinforced by my own audiophile sensibility, which proved a winning blend. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” WaveLab was meant to be dedicated to samplers, but this became a secondary function. Generally, I think it is important in life to choose a general direction in accordance with one's own sensibilities.

What is the biggest challenge when starting to develop something totally new/unique?

You need to be able to master time. Programmers must bear in mind the Pareto principle, that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Translating that to software creation, it means that, after some effort, one could mistakenly believe that the task is mostly done. However, there is still 80% of the effort needed. One can be very enthusiastic after developing the roots of a great new feature, but the road can still be very long before you have finished it.

This is especially true today, because programs are large – there are many aspects to take care of and ecosystems to support, etc. Another challenge is finding a great name for a new feature. This should preferably be found early, because it is a foundation on which to build it. For example, when I started to develop WaveLab 3.0, I didn't want a generic word like ‘project’ for what I had in mind. I spent three whole days walking in my garden, just thinking it over. Eventually, I came up with ‘Audio Montage’.

Do you have a personal highlight that you can share with us?

After releasing WaveLab 6, which I felt was a good achievement, I did not have a clear picture of what its successor, WaveLab 7, should be. But it happened that in January 2006, I took a holiday in the US and decided to go to the NAMM show in California.

There, I realized how important Apple Macintosh computers were for many! Of course, I’d already had requests for a Mac version in the preceding years, but visiting NAMM was the trigger to take the plunge: WaveLab 7 should be available both for Windows and Mac. And so, I started developing WaveLab for Mac. Version 7 was released in 2010.

We’re at number 10 now. Over the years WaveLab has seen some significant improvements and changes. What was the most challenging version to develop and why?

WaveLab 3 was challenging, but also particularly exciting, because it was the advent of the Audio Montage feature. This was a major creative step forward for WaveLab. I remember it started with a blurry image in my mind and, little by little, it came to fruition. Now, the Audio Montage is probably the most-used part of WaveLab.

WaveLab 7 was the most challenging version to develop because, to create a Mac version, I had 12 years of Windows code to convert. And, of course, I also had to learn how the Mac platform works. On top of that, I also had to add new features to justify the ‘new version’ status for Windows users.

All that was supposed to be done in less than three years, to prevent too long a gap between WaveLab versions. In the end it took more than 4 years. It was not always fun and I had to really tap into my inner resources and resilience. I still remember someone at Steinberg who, after only 1.5 years of development, asked me for a testable version… which was very far from being possible at that time!

Fortunately, WaveLab 6 was a solid and popular enough release that users were able to wait.

What is your favorite function in WaveLab? What are WaveLab’s strongest points in general?

I love the batch processor, because it is fast, flexible, powerful and there is no alternative I know of which is so complete. There are some companies which are processing thousands of audio files every day with it.

Apart from that, I would say WaveLab has some very useful features which are not found anywhere else. I claim it is the Swiss army knife of audio processing!

Can you give us a sneak peek of version 11?

I like to believe that WaveLab is the best stereo audio editor. Now the time has come to make it the best multi-channel audio editor. The trend is also towards having more video and podcasting support.

Of course, traditional stereo editing will never be forgotten in WaveLab and all requests from users are always carefully considered. There are many things in the pipeline. Just like when I started developing WaveLab in the mid-90s, these are exciting times!