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electronic MUSICIAN

APPLE COMPUTER Soundtrack Pro 1.0 (Mac)

By Len Sasso | September 1, 2005

Soundtrack Pro is the sound-design and multitrack-audio-editing component of Apple's comprehensive video-production environment called Final Cut Studio. Soundtrack Pro, also available as a standalone product, is an outstanding sound-design and audio-repair tool that sports a huge library of accompanying sounds.

FIG. 1: Soundtrack Pro''s -Multitrack and Waveform -editors share the same Project window. Individual projects are accessed using the tabs along the top.

The program has been completely redesigned, although it shares the name and a number of features with its predecessor, Soundtrack 1.1, which was covered in the February 2004 issue of EM. In this review, I will focus on its new features, such as its Waveform editor, its expanded complement of plug-ins, and its audio library.

What It Is and Isn't

Soundtrack Pro is designed for post-production audio, with an emphasis on arranging and mixing audio to picture. Although its Multitrack editor incorporates many of the features of other digital audio workstations, it is not a substitute for a standalone DAW. For example, there is no MIDI support, scoring capability, or hosting of virtual instruments; Apple's Logic Pro 7 contains those features.

You can, however, use GarageBand ($79 and free with new Macs) to achieve a certain degree of virtual-instrument support by creating Apple Loops from virtual-instrument tracks. GarageBand hosts Audio Units (AU) plug-ins; provides MIDI recording, editing, and basic scoring; and will render software-instrument format Apple Loops using the original instrument. The latter allows you to time-stretch and pitch-shift without the artifacts associated with audio files, and then render the result as a new Apple Loop for use in Soundtrack Pro (see Web Clip 1).

Soundtrack Pro's Waveform editor covers most audio-editing tasks for individual audio files. You might still want a standalone audio editor for robust region management, playlists, and the ability to burn CDs. But Soundtrack Pro's malleable, nondestructive DSP management sets it far ahead of the pack.

The combined features of the Multitrack and Waveform editors, along with their tight integration, are a sound designer's dream. Add the flexible handling of Apple Loops, the inclusion of the Apple Loops Utility for creating Apple Loops from standard audio files, and the huge Apple Loops library, and you have a standalone product whose usefulness extends well beyond post-production and sound for picture.

Get the Picture

Soundtrack Pro's user interface includes two main windows, Inspector-Browser and Project editor, with a multitrack Mixer window thrown in for good measure. Multitracking and audio-file-editing projects share the Projects window and many of the same controls. Individual projects are accessed by clicking on tabs at the top of the Projects window (see Fig. 1).

You can use Soundtrack Pro strictly as a stereo audio-file editor, opening one or more audio-file projects to work on in the Waveform editor. But if you want to take advantage of Soundtrack Pro's multitracking capabilities and their integration with the Waveform editor, it's easiest to start with a blank multitrack project (the default behavior) and add audio files to it before working on them in the Waveform editor. Otherwise, you need to save a file from the Waveform editor before it can be available to a multitrack project.

Over the Waves

Soundtrack Pro's new Waveform editor has a Photoshop-style layered architecture, and combines tools and processes typically found in audio editors (along with some atypical ones). You can add, remove, bypass, and reorder processing nondestructively until you are satisfied, and then print the result to the same or to a new audio file.

FIG. 2: Waveform editor''s Actions list along the left allows you to mute and reorder the processes until you have what you want.

Soundtrack Pro's layers, called Actions, surpass having just an undo-redo history (see Fig 2). Reordering, for example, is a simple matter of moving Actions around by clicking-and-dragging, whereas in an undo-redo environment you need to undo all intermediate processes, and then redo them in the desired order. Furthermore, Actions can be temporarily bypassed rather than undone.

For example, you can start with EQ followed by compression, but then reverse their order to decide which way works best. You can insert two similar plug-ins (or two copies of the same one with different settings), and then use the A/B Last Two Actions key command to compare them on the fly. You can make a copy of the original file, add reverb, add other processing to a 100 percent wet mix, and finally, track the dry and wet files separately in the Multitrack editor (see Web Clip 2).

No Last Chance

Another advantage of Action layers is that Waveform editor projects can be saved with their Actions intact, and you can therefore take up where you left off when you reopen them later. They can also be saved as standard audio files, which requires making the Action sequence permanent (called flattening). Of course, you can save a flattened copy, preserving the original project for future editing.

In a nice touch, you can save Action sequences as AppleScript droplets for drag-and-drop batch processing. (You can also invoke saved scripts from Soundtrack Pro's Scripts menu.) Saving an Action sequence as a droplet involves a simple save operation from within Soundtrack Pro. Action droplet settings can also be edited directly in the AppleScript Script editor, which can save time in making minor changes to batch processes.

Sound Surfing

Soundtrack Pro's DSP processing falls into four categories: manual editing, fixed processes, analysis-based processes, and real-time effects. The Sample Edit and Time Stretch manual editing tools allow you to edit individual samples and time-stretch segments of an audio file. Each action with either tool produces an entry in the Actions list for easy undoing.

The fixed processes, accessed from the Process menu, include the usual suspects — fade, normalize, invert, reverse, convert to mono or stereo, and resample — along with some handy unusual effects such as add or replace with ambient noise; insert silence, noise, or a fixed waveform; and noise-print-based noise reduction. Most of the fixed effects can be applied to selections or the whole audio file, and in all cases, an entry is created in the Actions list.

Analyze This

Analysis-based processes start by analyzing the audio file for common anomalies including clicks and pops, power-line hum (50 and 60 Hz), DC offset, phase problems, and clipping. There's also a silence analyzer, which locates portions of the audio file below a given threshold. Analysis results in a list of found problems, which you can fix individually or as a group. Fixing creates entries in the Actions list for further manipulation.

FIG. 3: The Waveform editor''s Spectral display shows the frequency spectrum of the audio file over time. Here, a parametric EQ has been used to take out a swatch around 10 kHz.

In addition to the standard waveform display, the Waveform editor offers a spectral view, which shows the audio file's changing harmonic content over time (see Fig. 3). Like the waveform display, the spectral display is interactive, showing the effect of all processing as it is applied. That's very useful when working with frequency-based effects such as EQ because you can see exactly what's happening to the sound's frequency spectrum as you edit.

A Plug for the Plugs

Soundtrack's complement of plug-ins has been expanded to include most of Logic Pro 7's effects plug-ins. These 47 top-quality plug-ins have a wide variety of EQ, dynamics, distortion, modulation, and reverb effects, and some interesting special effects. Standouts are the convolution reverb Sound Designer, the formant- and pitch-shifting Vocal Transformer, the frequency-shifting and ring-modulating Ringshifter, and the Matching EQ. In addition, Soundtrack Pro hosts Audio Units effects plug-ins. Plug-ins can be used in both the Multitrack and Waveform editors.

Plug-ins can be applied in two ways in the Waveform editor: they can be inserted directly as Actions, and they can be inserted as real-time effects. As direct Actions, they are applied to the current selection or whole audio file. As real-time effects, their parameters can be automated on the Waveform editor's timeline using automation envelopes. In the latter case, once automation envelopes are set up, you can convert the processing from real time into an Action that incorporates the automation. Furthermore, you can later edit the Action to alter the automation envelopes.

Sound Ideas

Apple has added 3.75 GB of content to Soundtrack's original 4 GB library. The original content, divided into sounds from Swedish producer PowerFX (www.PowerFX.com) and sounds from a variety of musicians working at Apple, has looping and one-shot files in a variety of genres. The new content, contained in the SoundIdeas folder, consists primarily of sound effects, further enhancing Soundtrack Pro's scoring-for-picture capabilities.

The sound-effects library has 1,000 clips ranging from natural sounds (ambiences, animals, people) and special effects (Foley, crashes, mechanical) to a variety of musical and cartoon sounds. Some sci-fi and weapons sounds are thrown in for good measure. Whether or not you're working to picture, you'll find plenty of fodder here to liven your audio tracks.

Integration

Opening clips in the Waveform editor that you've already opened in the Multitrack editor is as simple as double-clicking. If the clip is part of a larger audio file, its boundaries are automatically delimited by Waveform editor markers (although those markers can't be changed or deleted).

Going the other way isn't as simple. If you open and edit a file directly in the Waveform editor, you must save it to disk, and then manually drag it into the Multitrack editor or into its bin of available audio files. Once you get used to adding files to the bin and opening them in the Waveform editor from there, it's no big deal. It would be nice, however, to be able to share the bin between the two editors.

My only other quibbles with the Waveform editor are that there is no region management, and you can't turn scrolling off. The former can be worked around using markers and the handy Create New File From Current Selection key command. That's less convenient, though, than being able to create regions that you can immediately access as clips in the Multitrack editor. Scrolling during playback (which can't be turned off in the Multitrack editor, either) makes it impossible to edit at a high zoom while listening to a larger selection — an ability that is necessary for fine-tuning loop boundaries, for example.

For the Musician

Soundtrack Pro has a great deal to offer the musician. The Waveform editor is the only one I know of that has a Photoshop-like layered architecture. That alone is worth the price of admission. Being able to freely juggle and toggle fixed and real-time effects along with their automation, and to create batch-processing droplets from effects chains is a sound designer's dream.

The Multitrack editor offers a fast and easy environment for multitrack sound design and audio-only composing. Soundtrack Pro supports control surfaces for automation that use the Mackie Control protocol. It would be nice if generic MIDI control surfaces were also supported, but aside from that there is very little missing. It won't replace your DAW, but it's not meant to.

The huge library of Apple Loops, and especially the newly added sound-effects collection is another big bonus. It offers something for every taste and is a welcome alternative to the dance-oriented loop collections that generally accompany audio applications. In short, regardless of whether you work to picture, there are many good reasons to give Soundtrack Pro a listen.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY



APPLE COMPUTER
Soundtrack Pro 1.0

multitrack audio-editing software
$299
upgrade $99

OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4

PROS: Photoshop-like nondestructive effects layering. Tight integration of Multitrack and Waveform editors. Eight gigabyte Apple Loops library. Includes most Logic Pro 7 plug-in effects. Includes Apple Loops Utility for creating Apple Loops from standard audio files.

CONS: Awkward region management. Can't turn scrolling off. Supports only Mackie Control — compatible control surfaces for remote automation.

MANUFACTURER

Apple Computer, Inc.
www.apple.com

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