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Sony Acid Pro 7 (Win) Review

7/1/2009

FIG. 1: Acid Pro 7 offers a slew of enhancements, including a more flexible mixer, better Beatmapping, and superior pitch- and time-shifting.

FIG. 1: Acid Pro 7 offers a slew of enhancements, including a more flexible mixer, better Beatmapping, and superior pitch- and time-shifting.

Acid debuted more than a decade ago and really defined the way so-called “loop music” is produced. From its humble beginnings as a remixing tool, Acid Pro has matured into a full-blown audio workstation featuring multitrack recording with video sync, a robust MIDI sequencing suite with virtual instrument support, mixdown automation and plenty of other production tricks. With all that fully integrated alongside the legendary looping functionality that first made Acid famous, the application is still a staple with DJs, remixers and game music/video/film post-production houses.

But Acid has had some stiff competition along the way. Programs that once specialized strictly in audio recording, editing, sequencing and mixing stepped into Acid's kitchen of time-stretching, pitch shifting and other loop-music features. In a marketplace where being everything to everybody often makes the difference between a sale and no sale, even the classics have to reinvent themselves to remain relevant.

Chemical Breakdown

Acid's greatest reinvention occurred in Version 6. Whereas Acid Pro 6 delivered core functions that launched it into official DAW territory, Acid Pro 7 (see Fig. 1) takes more of a user-centric wish-list approach. This update is all about control.

For example, an all-new mixing environment includes live input buses, real-time rendering and more flexible monitoring. Enhanced Beatmapping with tempo curves, better plug-in management, more flexible hardware labeling and greater import/export options further highlight the user-control options.

Available in boxed and downloadable versions, Acid Pro 7 comes bundled with a larger assortment of freebie plug-ins and sounds than before. The 3GB content DVD hits you up with more than 3,000 Acidized loops and 1,000 MIDI files; registered users can add to that every seven days with free downloads of Sony's weekly “8pack” (eight loops arranged into a song) from Acidplanet.com.

Now that Acid is Microsoft Vista-compatible (this version also runs on Windows XP — SP2 or later — and requires a 1.8GHz or faster CPU), I tested it on my fast, new 3.2GHz Intel Core i7 Processor Extreme Edition with 4GB RAM. The Sony Media Software Preset Manager — which lets you more efficiently save and share Acid projects, loops and effects presets over multiple programs — is strongly suggested for installation.

Drop Beats on a Dime

After my regular daily grind using a typical DAW, building tracks from scratch with Acid Pro 7 was exhilaratingly fast and felt more familiar than in previous versions. Small things can make a big difference. For example, there's finally a metronome count-off that can be set to be always on, on only during playback or on only during recording. There's also a variety of wood blocks, drums, sticks and other sounds for the metronome. Little things.

FIG. 2:  The beefed-up Beatmapping feature makes it easier to conform audio files to projects that have tempo, signature and key changes within a song.

FIG. 2: The beefed-up Beatmapping feature makes it easier to conform audio files to projects that have tempo, signature and key changes within a song.

Though the Beatmapper tool has always been the place to go for adding tempo information to song-length files, you could previously only embed a single set of project information (tempo, signature and key) per file, meaning that audio files that changed over time could not properly conform to session tempo changes. The enhanced Beatmapping in Acid Pro 7 (see Fig. 2) fixes that. Now you can insert Beatmap information anywhere along the timeline for an audio file — perfect for tightening up a drum groove that wasn't recorded to a click. With fully editable Clip Properties at every Beatmap marker, audio files can conform to sessions at countless varying tempos and time signatures, even key changes.

FIG. 3:  The Tempo Curves feature allows you to set up tempo changes between tempo markers using a variety of fade types.

FIG. 3: The Tempo Curves feature allows you to set up tempo changes between tempo markers using a variety of fade types.

Along similar lines, you can now set gradual tempo changes between two tempo markers using Tempo Curves (see Fig. 3). Fade types include linear, fast, slow, smooth, sharp and hold (curve off). Changes can be subtle or dramatic, depending on the duration and degree of the curve, and you can perform them more quickly and easily than before. This really nice enhancement lets you build natural-sounding ritards and accelerando into arrangements that weren't previously possible in Acid Pro.

With all this radical stretching, Sony wisely updated the core time-and-pitch engine with the hot new élastique Pro algorithm from zplane. Selectable from an audio file's Clip Properties window, élastique offers higher-quality time-stretching than the stock Acid algorithm with minimal sonic artifacts. You have a choice between Pro and Efficient methods; Pro's quality reminds me of the time-stretching in Ableton Live, but it doesn't offer the source-material options of Elastic Time in Pro Tools.

Adding to the professional MIDI facilities in Acid Pro 6, V. 7 includes Track Freeze. This feature allows you to render MIDI tracks that are routed to soft synths and as WAV files to save processing power.

At the Post

Although I'm not heavily into video work, I found an extreme-sports montage with very challenging and rhythmic cuts with which to try out Acid Pro 7's new timing features for synching to picture. I began mapping music cues along the timeline, using styles from techno to metal and So-Cal punk rock. The Tempo Curves were extremely helpful here, letting me lock in patterns with radically varying grooves onto the frame edits and adjust for tempo changes in the visuals.

During an aggressive indie-rock pattern, a skier on a crazy downhill mogul run hits a massive jump and the shot changes to slow motion, so I punched in a downward tempo change over two measures and let the enhanced Beatmapping slow the drums and guitar to a crawl along a gradual tempo curve. By adjusting the start and end positions of that curve around the visual sequence, and by trying different curve shapes, I experimented with the feel of the ramp and how it transitioned into the next music cue in real time.

FIG. 4:  The Mixing Console gives you greater flexibility than in previous versions.

FIG. 4: The Mixing Console gives you greater flexibility than in previous versions.

You can't import OMF or AAF sequences from video editors, but Acid supports numerous video formats in the timeline without conversion, including native support for FLAC, AAC, AC-3 Studio and MPEG-2 formats. This provides more options when working with streaming media and hardware devices — including the Apple iPod — and the ability to export mixes in surround format. While the Dolby Digital AC-3 Studio plug-in is included free, advanced users can upgrade to the Pro AC-3 (which gives you access to all of the Dolby metadata) for $199.95.

Mix Mëister

The previous Acid Mix window had only master, group and effects buses, leaving audio and MIDI mix operations to the tracklist parameter controls. The new dedicated audio and MIDI console in Acid Pro 7 (see Fig. 4) makes a world of difference. It provides an integrated view of all tracks and buses, letting you specify routing, assign inserts and control mixdown automation. You can toggle the scalable and customizable console to show all tracks or only certain tracks and types (audio, MIDI, soft synth, groups, etc.), audio buses, input buses, master bus, sends, I/O meters and so on.

The input buses are a new addition. At their simplest, they may be used for live input monitoring of external devices, such as hardware synths/drum machines or a talkback microphone. They could also mix in turntables and CD decks with Acid. When recording, you can select them as an input and apply Acid effects for a wet signal. Naturally, input buses can also act as returns from outboard effects processors.

The new Real-Time Rendering playback mode merges both internal and external signals and renders them to WAV (or W64) format so you can capture impromptu recordings or jams. Any track that is armed for recording will be unarmed, and you cannot arm a track for recording or start recording while in Real-Time Rendering mode. When rendering a project that does not use external audio hardware, real-time and normal rendering produce the same result.

I really like the new track/clip/event switches that now include Normalize, Invert Phase, Mute and Lock functions. There is great convenience in quickly normalizing an event and performing other processes within the Acid Pro workspace. Likewise, audio, MIDI and bus tracks now have customizable meters you can position, scale and set to horizontal or vertical orientation.

Incidentally, the main graphic user interface essentially remains the same as before, so there's no learning curve for current users. If you're totally fresh to the Acid game, definitely check out the exciting new interactive tutorials Sony built into the session environment. These context-sensitive screenshots follow the user with timely prompts to open and close menus, showing what to select and suggesting helpful commands or keystrokes. It's much more effective than the typical HTML sidebar or static PDF because you actually learn by doing.

Though native support for external control surfaces still hasn't gone past the Mackie Control Universal and the Frontier Design TranzPort, you can now use a feature called Channel Tracking to monitor which channels are under external control. ASIO devices and their ports can be customized with labels to match your configuration, rather than relying on the default driver name.

Bundle of Joy

If all this new user control and mixing prowess isn't enough, the included plug-in bundle might seal the deal.

For starters, you get two entirely new effects suites. Developed with iZotope, the Acid Pro 7 Effects Rack is based on its world-class time, pitch and compression/limiting DSP technology. The rack offers phaser, analog delay, chorus/flanger and dynamics effects through four individually selectable processor blocks. The algorithms sound gorgeous — capable of adding luxurious depth, silkiness and an expensive Harmonizer-type quality to Acid Pro.

The second suite is geared more toward making beautiful noise. Originally released on its own several years ago, Guitar Combos by Native Instruments recreates three classic amp/speaker setups, delivering authentic tube warmth and dynamics (see Web Clip 1). AC Combo is modeled after the indie-favorite, Vox AC-30. Paired with a 2512 cabinet and vintage condenser microphone, this delivers an expectedly wide range of clean to crunchy sounds, and includes a treble booster, tremolo and spring reverb. Psychedelics and metal heads will rock out to the Plexi Combo for its take on the Marshall JMP50, pumped through a 4512 and dynamic mic rig, adding fuzz overdrive, distortion pedal and reverse delay. For the rockabilly crowed, Twang Combo is modeled after the Fender Twin Reverb, a 2512 cabinet and tube condenser mic, plus overdrive pedal, chorus, vibrato and spring reverb. More than 100 awesome-sounding presets will inspire you to shred more than just guitar loops.

Sony also teamed up with Plogue Art for the Garritan Aria for Acid Pro Player, a sample playback engine that includes a generous suite of orchestral, big band and general MIDI samples. Finally, Submersible Music's KitCore 2 offers more than 400 MIDI drum files (beats, fills, variations, click tracks, etc.) and MIDI grooves from its acclaimed DrumCore library.

While on the topic of plug-ins, it's great that you can now sort plug-ins into various categories, as well as rename the plugs for better organization. Other DAW makers should add this feature immediately.

A Cheap High

Going from V. 6 to V. 7 isn't the biggest technical leap Acid Pro has ever made, but there's a significant pile of newfound function and control here. It's hard to imagine the program now without the dedicated full-format mixer and tools such as MIDI track freeze; we expect these from DAWs today. The live input buses and enhanced track metering are a big deal if you monitor and mix outboard gear using a computer. But for arrangements with complex timing, the enhanced Beatmapping and new tempo curves really steal the show.

Sony's processor optimization of this update showed up everywhere — even simple playback. Everything felt extremely snappy and more responsive. On a multi-core system, Acid Pro 7 sings, and you'll appreciate what the new effects rack plug-ins can do for your music. Having extra processor headroom is also great when you use the new élastique Pro mode, which can eat up CPU quickly.

I still long for a decent waveform editor in Acid Pro; I'm sure Sony would rather you buy Sound Forge separately, but at least a simple built-in editor would be handy. I'd also like to toggle between various project views (session overview, tracking/arranging, mixing console, editing/chopping, etc.) as in other DAWs.

I've always loved how Acid Pro's signature pick/paint/play interface has allowed me to work with samples in the same way that a composer hears music — as a malleable cloud of sonic colors, instrument phrases and note clusters. Sony hasn't become distracted by the “me-too” competition. It focused on enhancing and complementing the core elements that made Acid unique in the first place. Acid Pro 7 is a classic that's come of age. That it now costs $100 less than before is a gift.


Jason Scott Alexander is a regular contributor to Mix and Remix magazines and runs a world class mix/production facility in Canada's capital, Ottawa, Ontario.

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