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electronic MUSICIAN

APPLE COMPUTER Soundtrack 1.1 (MAC OS X)

By Mike Levine | February 1, 2004

electronic musician webclips additional contentWithits purchase of Emagic, Apple became a major player in the Macmusic-software market. Now comes the release of Soundtrack, its newloop-based music-production application.

Originally bundled with Apple's Final Cut Pro video-editingsoftware, Soundtrack is now being offered as a standalone program.Although it was initially designed to help nonmusical creative typeslike video editors or Web designers produce inexpensive, royalty-freemusic tracks for their projects, it has plenty of utility for recordingmusicians, and is a surprisingly full-featured application for themoney.

Apple'sSoundtrack software offers quck-and-easy loop-based music productionwith integrated video and high-quality audio andeffects.

Soundtrack allows you to easily assemble compositions in a widerange of styles. The program offers automated mixing, high-qualityEmagic plug-ins, tools for scoring to picture, the ability to exportfiles in a number of formats, a 4 GB loop library, and much more.

When you open a loop in Soundtrack, the program automaticallymatches the loop's tempo to the master tempo you've set for yourcomposition. It also detects a loop's key and sets it to match the keyyou've specified. As with many other loop sequencers, you can recordaudio directly into Soundtrack, which opens up the possibilities evenfurther.

Minimum SystemRequirements
Soundtrack1.1

G4/500 MHz or dual 450 MHzor faster; 384 MB RAM (512 MB recommended); Mac OS X 10.2.5 or later;QuickTime 6.1 or later; CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive for Soundtrackinstallation; DVD-ROM drive for Apple Loops (optional) installation; 5GB available disk space

Unlike some similar applications, however, Soundtrack doesn'tsupport MIDI or ReWire, so you can't sync it to an external device orto your sequencer. But it does let you export your creations, either asmixes or as separate tracks, so that you can open them in other audioprograms.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Soundtrack comes on two discs. One is a CD-ROM containing theprogram itself, and the other is a DVD containing the 4 GB loopcollection (which breaks down to over 4,000 individual loops), givingyou an instant library of considerable size to get started with. Ifyour Mac isn't equipped with a DVD drive (as was the case with theG4/733 MHz I initially used to test the program), you'll have to findanother way to get the loop content into your computer. (I networked mymachine with another Mac that had a DVD drive and transferred the loopsover that way.)

Soundtrack can handle up to 24-bit, 96 kHz audio, but it has prettyhefty processor requirements compared to a lot of digital audiosoftware. It needs at least a 500 MHz G4 processor to run on a singleprocessor machine (or 450 MHz on a G4 dual processor), which means thata lot of Macs currently in circulation won't be able to run it.Contrast that to Ableton Live — another loop sequencer that doessimilar time and pitch gymnastics — which can even run on aG3.

Soundtrack ran smoothly on my G4/733 MHz, although, as you wouldexpect with any digital audio program, it slowed down when a lot oftracks with effects were open. When I later tested Soundtrack on adual-processor G5/2 GHz, I noticed no slowdown in performance, evenwith a large number of tracks and effects open.

SEEK AND YOU SHALL FIND

FIG. 1: TheMedia Manager (left) and the Project Workspace (center and right) arethe two main sections of Soundtrack; they can be displayed separatelyor together.

You do most of your work in Soundtrack in its main screen, whichconsists of two parts: the Media Manager and the Project Workspace (seeFig. 1). The Media Manager lets you find and audition loops andother media files, and you actually put your compositions together inthe Project Workspace. These windows can be set to open separately oras one integrated screen.

One of the strengths of Soundtrack is its ability to organize andmanage large libraries of audio files (both looping and one-shot) andallow for multiple types of searches. The program can import AIFF,QuickTime, WAV, and Acidized WAV files — which means Soundtrackusers can take advantage of the many Acid loop libraries available.Soundtrack recognizes instrument and genre types from the file names ofimported loops (as well as any metatags the loops contain) and usesthat information to categorize them.

I tested out Soundtrack's importing capabilities in a couple ofways. First, I imported a disc of Acid loops into Soundtrack. Theprogram successfully read the data from the CD and categorized theloops correctly.

I then tested Soundtrack's ability to handle an audio file with noembedded metadata. On an audio sampling CD, I found a loop of a countrydrum beat that featured a side stick. I ripped the track containing theloop and opened it in my 2-track editor. After tweaking its start andend points, I saved it as an AIFF file and named it “Country SideStick.” When I imported it into Soundtrack, the programautomatically categorized it under both the Drum Kit and Country/Folkcategories.

FIG. 2:Soundtrack Loop Utility, a companion application you can open withSoundtrack, lets you edit a loop's key, tempo, and other properties andadd keywords for better categorization.

Apple has also introduced its own file format, called Apple Loops.An Apple Loop is actually an AIFF file with embedded metatags thatcharacterize the loop by genre, intensity, instrument, and severalother descriptors. That information makes searching for and organizingloops within Soundtrack a lot easier.

If you're importing your own loops, you can do a limited amount ofediting on them in Soundtrack Loop Utility, an included standaloneeditor that you can open from within Soundtrack (see Fig. 2). Itdoesn't do waveform editing, but you can add descriptors, add or editcopyright information, designate the basic key and tempo, and adjusthow Soundtrack interprets a loop's rhythmic transients.

USER-FRIENDLY

FIG. 3: TheButtons View of the Media Manager is just one of several waysSoundtrack can display its loop library.

One of Soundtrack's most impressive attributes is its incrediblyfriendly user interface. You can start making music within seconds oflaunching the program. The default view in the Media Manager's searchwindow (called the Search Pane) is the Buttons view (see Fig.3), which shows four rows of keyword buttons, each with aninstrument type, mood, or other descriptive word.

Click on the Drum button, for instance, and a list of drum loopsappears in the Media Manager's Search Results area, which shows you theloop name, original tempo, original key, number of beats, and more.When you search for specific types of loops (you can also change viewsand search by instrument category, mood, and genre, or simply browsethrough standard directories) the appropriate files show up in thelist.

When you've located a loop that you might want to use, click on itin the list, and it will start playing. If you like it, simply drag itover to a track in the Project Workspace (where it shows up as awaveform display) and hit play, and you're in business. You can drag itto any location along the horizontal Timeline, which shows you bothbars:beats and hours:minutes:seconds. If you have the Snapping featureturned on, a loop that you drag in will automatically snap to thenearest beat (you can select the value, such as quarter note or eighthnote), marker, or grid line. If Snapping is off you can place the loopanywhere.

Soundtrack automatically matches your loop to the master tempo andkey of the song. But if you decide later in the project to change thetempo and key, no problem. You can adjust them to your heart's contentusing the controls in the upper right-hand corner of the ProjectWorkspace. You can even automate master tempo and transposition withbreakpoint-style editing (referred to in Soundtrack as Envelopes).However, the transpose and tempo adjustments don't work on audio thatwas recorded using Soundtrack's audio recording features, so make sureto settle on a key and tempo before you start overdubbing.

PRODUCT SUMMARY
Apple
Soundtrack 1.1
loop editor
$299
FEATURES3.5
EASE OF USE4.5
QUALITY OFSOUNDS4.0
VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO5

PROS: Good sound. Extensiveincluded loop library. Easy to use. Useful for scoring to video. Easyto import loops from other formats. Excellent export options and searchfeatures. High-quality effects. Changes audio tempos flawlessly.Automation of volume, pan, transpose, tempo, and effects parameters.Competitively priced.

CONS: No MIDI or ReWiresupport. OS X only. Requires fast computer. DVD drive needed forloading loop library. Manual isn't well indexed. Not enough fills inincluded drum loops. No click or count-off options. Lack of presets forthe effects. Doesn't support multiple time signatures in a singlecomposition.

Manufacturer

AppleComputer
tel. (408) 996-1010
Web www.apple.com

BUILDING A SONG

Soundtrack offers a number of features designed to help you fleshout full arrangements. For instance, extending a loop beyond itsoriginal length is a snap. Simply hold the mouse over the right edge ofthe waveform display, click, and drag. It makes multiple copies andextends as far as you want. You can also copy a loop and paste itsomewhere else in the song.

You can shorten a loop by dragging from its right edge, and you canchange its Offset Point (where the loop starts) byCommand-Option-dragging it from right to left. You can use Soundtrack'sediting features (which also include commands for splitting and joiningloops) to chop up a loop into small segments and rearrange it, althoughthat operation is a bit more cumbersome than it would be in a digitalaudio sequencer or 2-track editor.

By dragging various instrument loops into separate tracks, you caneasily build grooves. You can then copy and paste sections frommultiple tracks to construct an arrangement.

Although much of Soundtrack's interface is extremely intuitive, youwill sometimes need to consult the included printed manual. It is wellwritten and informative, but I was frustrated by its index, which isskimpy and not cross-referenced well.

THEM CHANGES

The program's ability to change a loop's tempo is quite impressive.You can speed a loop up or slow it down considerably from its originaltempo, without a noticeable difference in sound quality. Soundtrack'stransposition capabilities aren't quite as seamless — I heardsome artifacts and distortion when samples were transposed too far.However, that isn't surprising. Audio transposition is always harder todo convincingly. But as long as you keep it within a reasonable range,Soundtrack's transposition feature works quite well.

As with any loop sequencer, one of the problems with Soundtrack isthat it's hard to put together compositions that feature anything butsimple harmonic structures. Many of the loops vamp on a single chord orcontain simple changes like I-IV or I-V. Trying to put together arhythm track for a song that has a lot of changes is almost impossibleusing the included loops. However, you can do some harmonic adjustmentsusing the Transpose feature.

When you Control-click on a loop's waveform in the ProjectWorkspace, you bring up a dialog box that lets you select a transposevalue from -12 to +12 semitones. (This dialog box also gives you anumber of other edit options including changing the Clip Speed, findingthe loop in the Finder, and more.) I put together a 12-bar bluesprogression by taking bass, guitar, and piano parts that were vampingon the I chord and transposing them by +5 (to create a IV chord) and +7(to create a V chord) at the appropriate points in the progression (listen to Web Clip 1).

For a simple transposition you do have some flexibility. However, ifyou want to put together something that's harmonically complex, you'regoing to be out of luck — unless you import your own loops thathave the correct chord progressions — because you'll never beable to manipulate the loops to play all of those complex changes.

That said, it's astoundingly easy to assemble a great-sounding trackin Soundtrack. I was able to put together a three-chorus, funky blues,replete with bass, piano, drums, and horn section, in about 15minutes.

THE SOUNDS OF APPLE

The quality of the 4 GB loop library that comes with Soundtrack is,by and large, very good. And unlike some other loop-productionprograms, Soundtrack's sound set isn't focused exclusively onelectronic dance music. I estimate that slightly less than 20 percentof the loops that ship with the program are electronica; there's also agood selection of rock, funk, blues, folk, country, jazz, and worldmusic. In addition, the collection provides an assortment of one-shotsound effects and some complete music beds.

The bulk of the included loops were licensed by Apple from PowerFX,although there are also some in the collection that were put togetherby musicians at Apple who worked on the project. The collectionincludes loops of rhythm-section instruments such as guitar (acousticand electric, distorted and clean), bass (electric, upright, andsynth), keyboards (solo pianos, synths, clavinets, organs), and drums(acoustic and electronic in a variety of styles).

I do wish that more of the drum loops had fills to supplement them.There are some fills, but not as many as I would have liked. Whenyou're putting together a song-length drum track and you want it tosound like a live drummer, it's useful to have a variety of fills atyour disposal.

Other loop types include ethnic percussion, vocals, accordions,banjos, mandolins, and flutes. For some reason, there are no solo saxloops included, but there are some killer R&B horn-section partsthat can be easily manipulated within an arrangement.

TRACK YOUR OWN

FIG. 4: Inthe Multiple Take recording window, you can record numerous passes of aspecified section and then choose among them.

As mentioned, you can also record your own audio into Soundtrack tosupplement the looped tracks or to use as raw material to make your ownloops. The program has two recording modes: Single Take and MultipleTake (see Fig. 4). As its name implies, Single Take lets yourecord one pass at a time. Multiple Take allows you to record as manypasses as you want (disk space permitting, of course) over a loopingsection and then choose which one to include in your track.

One of the problems with the recording section is that Soundtrackhas no click available. You have to do some work-arounds to get acount-in, such as sliding all of your tracks forward by one or twomeasures and adding a simple rhythmic loop at the beginning (there's aloop of a clave playing quarter notes that works well for that).Another problem with the recording feature is that you can't record amono track. Everything automatically defaults to stereo. For recordingvocals or instruments it would be nice to have the option to save diskspace by recording in mono.

When doing the initial testing for this review using version 1.01, Idiscovered a bug that made it impossible to accurately sync recordedaudio with the looped tracks. Strangely, the recordings played backconsistently about 125 to 150 ms before the looped audio.

According to Apple, the problem was limited to single-processormachines (such as the G4/733 MHz I was using), although anotherEM reviewer experienced similar problems on a dual G5/2 GHz.When I later tested Soundtrack on a different dual-processor G5/2 GHz,however, I didn't experience any audio problems.

Apple has fixed the sync problem in Soundtrack 1.1. I tested theupdate on both the G4/733 MHz and the dual G5/2 GHz, and the audio andloops synced perfectly every time. (Version 1.1 doesn't add any newuser features, but it does offer what Apple terms as “generalfixes as well as improvements in performance and linking of relocatedproject audio files.”) If you have version 1.01 and asingle-processor machine and you're experiencing sync problems,downloading the free update to version 1.1 from the Apple Web site willtake care of them.

PAINT THE PICTURE

FIG. 5: Youcan import QuickTime movies to Soundtrack by dragging them into theVideo Pane. Once a movie has been opened, you can control the volume ofits audio track.

Soundtrack has much to offer if you're scoring to picture. Since itwas originally designed to go with Final Cut Pro, it has a lot offeatures that are quite helpful, especially in the early stages of ascoring project. You can easily import QuickTime movies into Soundtrackby dragging and dropping them into the Video Pane (see Fig. 5),which is located at the top of the Project Workspace. When a movie isopened, you see it in the video pane, and its audio track shows up withthe others, allowing you to adjust volume and pan and add effects.

Soundtrack lets you set markers, which are useful for marking hitpoints on a video (or just to delineate verse, chorus, and so forth, ina song), and you can set the Snapping feature to snap to the markers.By zooming in on the Project Workspace (and its grid lines), youincrease the resolution at which you can manipulate loops. So in ascoring situation, you can zoom in far enough that each grid linerepresents another frame of video. That makes it easy to shift loops(especially sound effects) a frame at a time to tighten up hitpoints.

The diversity of the loop library lets you put lots of differentflavors into your scores (listen to Web Clip 2). In addition, Soundtrack makes it easy to try out avariety of grooves at a bunch of different tempos in order to find acombination that works well with your picture. However, while theprogram supports a variety of time signatures, each composition canhave only one.

Once you've created the music for your picture, you can save italong with the video as a QuickTime movie. Soundtrack also includesfeatures for importing from and exporting to Final Cut Pro.

MIX AND MATCH

Soundtrack has many useful mixing features, too. Each track has itsown sliders for volume and pan, and you access them right from theProject Workspace, so there's no need to switch to a separate mixerwindow. Breakpoint-style automation is available not only for volume,pan, and transpose on each channel, but for effects parameters aswell.

FIG. 6:Soundtrack comes with 19 plug-ins from Emagic's Logic Platinum,including PlatinumVerb, shown here.

You can add effects on individual tracks or the master bus, andtheir parameters can be automated. Soundtrack comes bundled with 19effects from Emagic's Logic Platinum software, including PlatinumVerb(see Fig. 6), Sub Bass, Overdrive, Compressor, Distortion, andBit Crusher. You also get 12 Apple Audio Unit effects, and you caninstall third-party Audio Unit plug-ins.

I was very impressed with the quality of the Emagic effects, all ofwhich sounded excellent and were easy to use. The Apple effects weregenerally quite good too, although several offered only the most basicparameter control. A very small number of the included plug-ins —whether from Emagic or from Apple — offer presets, which is toobad. I invariably find it easier to use a preset as a starting pointwhen setting up an effect.

APPLE TRACKING

Considering its relatively modest price, Soundtrack is an impressiveand deep program. It's extremely easy to use, offers a huge library ofsounds, and features good-sounding effects and useful mixing andautomation features.

Those who are relatively new to desktop music production will findSoundtrack to be simple tool for putting together nice-sounding tracks.Recording musicians with more experience will find it useful forproducing quick demos, as an arranging sketchpad (you can try out allkinds of instruments in your arrangements), and as a pre-productionprogram for assembling loops into full-length tracks that can then beexported to a digital audio sequencer. Further, it's very handy forscoring to video, especially with its superb time-stretchingfeatures.

My wish list for future versions of Soundtrack would include morefeatures in the recording section (includes click and count-offoptions), more drum fills in the included loops, a better indexedmanual, more presets for the effects, and MIDI and ReWire capability.But as a whole, Soundtrack is a great program and an excitingalternative for those interested in loop-based music production on theMac.

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