When it comes to creating scores for movies, commercials, industrial videos, and other forms of multimedia, most of EM's readers would rather produce their soundtracks from whole cloth, conjuring up their own melodies, harmonies, and orchestrations. But creating music from scratch can be time-consuming, and sometimes you just need a chunk of music fast to work with picture. That's when many musicians and audio editors turn to music libraries. However, working with a large music library can be daunting in itself. It often involves digging through stacks of CDs, auditioning multiple pieces for style and feel, and then spending a fair amount of time editing the music to fit the picture. There has to be a better way.
Fortunately, there is, thanks to SmartSound. Its Sonicfire Pro is a capable cross-platform soundtrack-generating machine that can spit out a perfectly timed score in less than a minute. Sonicfire Pro's scores are professional-sounding, fully orchestrated, broadcast-quality pieces. Using the program at its basic level is a snap, and if you're willing to dig a little deeper, you'll discover some intriguing music-production tools that offer unexpected creative potential. That's one of the advantages that Sonicfire Pro offers over traditional canned music: you can actually manipulate the content of the soundtrack in a number of ways after it is created (see Fig. 1).
AROUND THE BLOCK
Sonicfire Pro's source material comes on specially prepared and formatted CDs, each of which typically offers a dozen or more musical works in related styles, such as action/techno, rap/rock/pop, Latin, world beat, corporate tech, classical, expressive textures, comedy, jazz/swing, drama, cinema, and country. SmartSound's library includes more than 50 discs, with new ones arriving each month. The royalty-free music is licensed from several well-known production companies including Music Bakery, Killer Tracks, Sound Ideas, and Ilio Entertainments. I could try only a few of the hundreds of possible titles, but I found the overall quality of the performances and of the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz recordings to be consistently high. The standard edition of Sonicfire Pro comes with two CDs, but SmartSound also offers a Bundled Edition with five CDs; you can order other discs from the company's Web site for $99.95 or download individual titles as needed for $19.95.
Sonicfire Pro's tracks are not simply through-composed continuous works of different lengths like the tracks in traditional libraries. Instead, SmartSound takes each of its compositions and chops it into short chunks called Smart Blocks. Some of the blocks are designated as suitable for phrase beginnings, some are designated as endings, and others are labeled as middle segments (see Fig. 2).
When Sonicfire Pro creates a soundtrack of a specified length, its algorithms combine the available blocks in an intelligent way that makes musical sense with a real beginning, middle, and end. The resulting soundtrack appears in the Timeline window where you can view the music in a block or waveform display. If the original piece of music is 35 seconds long and you want a 20 second version, Sonicfire Pro can drop several middle blocks to retain the overall shape of the piece. If you choose a 50 second version, the program repeats some of the blocks to extend the length. In either case, the feel and structure of the music is retained as much as possible.
MAKING THE LIST
The easiest way to use Sonicfire Pro is with SmartSound's Assistant, a simple wizard that helps you nail down the type of music that you're looking for. You first choose a style, such as jazz, techno, or new age, and then select a descriptive keyword — like elegant, energetic, or romantic — from the context-sensitive list that appears. You're then presented with one or more pieces to audition. When you find one that you like, just type in the length that you need, and Sonicfire Pro instantly generates a correctly timed soundtrack.
The Assistant is a breeze to use and it works well, but I prefer the more advanced Infinite Search Maestro feature in the Maestro window. It presents all of the various categories and subcategories in a set of hierarchical lists that make it easy to rapidly dig through dozens of musical options at a glance (see Fig. 3). Above each of three columns, a drop-down menu lets you specify which criteria (such as style, intensity, or instrument) appear in the lists. A separate Search function lets you hunt for music by keywords, descriptions, or other labels.
The Maestro window is quite flexible and surprisingly powerful. You can audition any of the files in your library, view a written description of the music, specify a duration for the cue, and insert the resulting piece at any point along a movie's timeline — all without leaving the window. If you're connected to the Internet, you can also list and preview every piece in the SmartSound library, even the ones you don't own. If you then find a piece that you like, you can purchase it online and immediately add it to your project.
SOUND AND PICTURE
Sonicfire Pro is a handy tool for quickly generating background music for radio spots; the program even includes a “volume line” with adjustable break points for ducking the music to accommodate narration. Recent improvements to the program, however, have emphasized its potential for scoring to picture. You can import video clips in QuickTime, AVI, MPEG, and several other formats and view them in a dedicated Movie window that supports 10, 15, 20, 24, 25, and 30 frames per second (see Fig.4). Music can be inserted at any elapsed-time location, and the program supports cuts and transitions by letting you string together soundtracks of different lengths and styles. Adjustable crossfade/smoothing options keep the transitions from sounding too abrupt by blending the soundtracks on either side of a cut.
In Sonicfire Pro's Timeline window you can add markers along the timeline to locate and identify important hit points or to indicate in and out points for the cue. After creating your customized soundtrack and trying it out with the video, the program lets you fine-tune the results in a variety of ways. For example, you can slide a soundtrack along the timeline, alter a soundtrack by replacing a beginning or ending block with a different block, or extend a soundtrack by dragging its border to lengthen the piece. (This doesn't alter the pitch or tempo; it actually changes the soundtrack arrangement to make it longer or shorter.)
You can even loop a soundtrack to provide continuous play, which could come in handy for scoring Web sites, DVD menus, or games where the playback length varies according to the end user's actions. Sonicfire Pro's looping algorithms automatically find an appropriate loop point and trim the soundtrack to provide a smooth transition at the edit. Keep in mind that if you export your soundtrack as an AIFF or WAV file, it won't loop on its own. However, once you import the file into a video or multimedia authoring program, it should be easy to reestablish the looped playback.
Speaking of authoring software, Sonicfire Pro has been updated to provide direct support for importing and exporting files to and from most popular Mac and PC video and multimedia programs, including Apple's iMovie, iTunes, and Final Cut Pro; Adobe's Premiere and After Effects; Microsoft's PowerPoint; and Sony's Vegas Video.
DOING YOUR OWN THING
Sonicfire Pro is clearly at its best when it's working with its own specially prepared libraries. But the program also lets you import your own music or music clips from standard CD libraries and then employ many of the same editing tools. For example, you can view a soundtrack as a waveform display and trim the dead air at the beginning and end. You can also view the music as a block and slide it along the timeline to change its start time.
If you import an audio clip and then shorten it (by dragging a border or typing in a duration), Sonicfire Pro will automatically chop a section out of the middle of the piece and attempt to cover the edit with a crossfade. I imported a music clip of a woodwind ensemble that I had written in the style of Mozart. As I expected, the edit was quite obvious, and the crossfade was unable to hide the sudden change of material across the transition.
However, Sonicfire Pro provides two sliders that let you modify the edit to improve the results. One slider lets you move the edit point forward and back through the music, and the other slider lets you extend or shorten the crossfade length. After several minutes of experimenting, I was surprised to discover that I could find a combination of location and length that worked pretty well. The transition was not undetectable, but it was a lot better. In fact, if the music were being played along with sound effects and narration, it might just work.
Admittedly, my first test was a tough one. I had a much easier time when I imported a hip-hop rhythm track from Big Fish Audio's Loopzilla library. Instead of using the automatic crossfade feature, I used the Razor tool and the waveform display to chop the track into a collection of blocks. I then dragged different blocks from the Blocks window into the Timeline window, where I strung them together into a custom soundtrack. Although it worked well, it took considerably more effort than simply using one of SmartSound's dedicated libraries.
Most of the SmartSound libraries are fully fleshed-out arrangements, but I did find a few that were sparse enough to serve as the basis of a more elaborate original composition. For example, a track called Afrika offers a great African rhythm section that you could build on. An Indian-influenced rhythm groove called Karma offers similar opportunities. Just create a soundtrack that's the right length for your video project and export it to your multitrack audio sequencer. You can then build up additional parts and know that the timing and style works with the video clip. A few of the background pads might also be useful as musical points of departure.
FAST AND CHEAP
Sonicfire Pro's editing capabilities can't compare to a full-featured audio editing program like BIAS Peak or Sony Sound Forge. For example, its waveform display won't let you zoom in to the single-sample level, and the usual array of high-end editing and processing tools is not available. For me, that made the task of dividing my own tracks into blocks and preparing them for later use a bit cumbersome. Moreover, the documentation, which is provided only in PDF and HTML form, could stand some updating, correcting, and editing of its own.
Nonetheless, if you already have a good editing program or multitrack sequencer, Sonicfire Pro could be a handy adjunct to your studio arsenal, especially if you often work with video. As a quick and easy way to generate a temp track for a movie cue, it can't be beat, and it could be a godsend for those times when you suddenly have to score a cue in a style that you aren't familiar with. The SmartSound libraries that I tried sounded great — very much like top-notch music libraries from other sources.
Sonicfire Pro's combination of high-quality music, effective mix-and-match search functions, flexible auditioning features, and near-instant (and well-timed) score generation makes SmartSound's flagship program smart indeed. For a brief taste, check out the video demo at the company's Web site.
David Rubincomposes, writes, and edits in the Los Angeles area.
Minimum System Requirements
Sonicfire Pro 3.1.1
MAC: PowerPC (G3 or better recommended); 30 MB available RAM (75 MB recommended); Mac OS 9.1 to 9.2.2 or OS X 10.1 or higher
PC: Pentium/500 MHz or equivalent; 96 MB available RAM (128 MB recommended); Windows ME/NT 4/2000/XP
Sonicfire Pro 3.1.1 (Mac/Win)
Bundled Edition $499
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.0DOCUMENTATION2.5VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy to use. Excellent search functions. High-quality libraries. Good integration with multimedia authoring programs. Supports a range of audio and video formats.
CONS: Limited audio-editing tools. Documentation needs improvement.