Okay, I'll admit it: I had lost faith in Sound Forge. I'd used Sound Forge since 1994, when there weren't many audio options for PC users and when people laughed if you said you used a PC for anything music-related. In spite of that general attitude, though, a few years previous, a fledgling company called Sonic Foundry bet the farm that PCs would take off as a viable alternative for media production. Its first mainstream product was Sound Forge, and the program's success and proficiency at doing exactly what it was designed to do was such that many Mac users wished that Sonic Foundry would hurry up and go cross-platform already.
I've followed Sound Forge for close to a decade, and I've seen it evolve from a basic 2-track editor into a multimedia powerhouse that handles tasks such as mastering, CD burning, A/V sync and multiformat encoding with ease. It's always had a friendly user interface that's been consistently regarded as the easiest and most intuitive in the industry. And the company was developing plug-ins for Sound Forge long before the advent of VST and DirectX.
Unfortunately, recent upgrades have been a bit of a disappointment to longtime users. Little changed from version 3 to version 4, and version 5 in particular was a real letdown; around the same time version 5 was released, competitors such as Wavelab were introducing revolutionary tools such as Audio Montage for multitrack editing and mastering, and VST plug-ins were emerging as the industry standard for host-based processing. For reasons unknown, Sonic Foundry elected not to include similar functionality in its flagship product and was, sadly, left in the dust.
The lack of competitive tools in Sound Forge left a number of veteran users wondering if Sonic Foundry had lost its edge; perhaps development had been abandoned in favor of newer applications like Vegas and Acid, or maybe it had simply been bested by the competition. Fortunately for end users, neither case is true — and with version 6, some of my faith in the granddaddy of PC-based audio editing has been renewed. Sound Forge is still very much in the game, and although it isn't the undisputed king anymore, it's still a good choice for editing on the PC.
FIRING UP THE FORGE
Installing Sound Forge is easy: Just pop in the CD, and make the appropriate selection from the screen. Enter the serial number, register the program online, and you are ready to roll.
The key design element that makes Sound Forge so popular with so many users is the clean and ergonomic user interface. Practically unchanged since the program's introduction, the interface in version 6 sticks with the winning formula and seamlessly incorporates all of the new features into its familiar menu structure. The default work space is a radical departure from most audio editors, which pack the screen full of toolbars boasting every feature under the sun. Sound Forge smartly keeps it simple and includes only basic transport and file operations along with a VU meter, leaving it up to you to decide what additional tools suit your style.
Customization freaks will appreciate the ability to change just about everything in the program, from work spaces containing specific toolbar and window layouts all the way down to changing the wave display color for specific channels. Nearly all of the toolbars and windows can be stacked and docked on any side of the screen; drag one to the edge, and it automatically snaps into place.
Sound Forge may be easy to work with, but it's never been considered a speed demon. Its old-fashioned method of editing files destructively, in which all changes are applied directly to the source file as you go, was the culprit. All that has changed with the new nondestructive, pointer-based editing system in which edits are applied to the source file only during a save. That really streamlines work flow when you're doing a lot of experimenting and needing to perform multiple undo and redo operations. With version 6, such operations are instantaneous.
Another great new feature is multitask background rendering, which allows you to apply a long process to a file and continue working on other files as the process completes. In previous versions of Sound Forge, you couldn't do anything but watch the status bar as a file was rendered — an experience somewhat akin to watching a pot of water boil — so this feature is a welcome improvement and a serious time-saver, especially if you're working with large audio files.
INTO THE FIRE
Just as this review came across my desk, I found myself needing to make radio edits of a couple of tracks, and I figured that would be a great way to get reacquainted with Sound Forge and to put the new version through its paces.
Loading a seven-minute song took just under three seconds the first time, and once the peak file was built, subsequent loads were instantaneous. My goal was to trim the seven-minute beast to a more radio-friendly three-and-a-half minutes, so my first order of business was to mark out the segments of the song that I could do without and drag them to Sound Forge's Cutlist, a nondestructive tool for cutting segments of audio files (see Fig. 1).
Marking areas in the Edit window is easy: Position the cursor where you want to drop the marker, and hit the M key. That can be done during playback, so I listened to the track all the way through, dropping markers at the beginning and end of segments that I wanted to cut. Once playback was finished, I opened the Cutlist window, double-clicked between each marker pair to highlight the selection and dragged them onto the Cutlist.
When I played back my cuts, I found that most weren't perfectly seamless and required a little fine-tuning. No problem, thanks to Sound Forge's new and improved 24:1 zoom ratio (24 pixels to one sample), an unprecedented level of detail that really lets you dig way down into your audio data and make adjustments with surgical precision. At that zoom level, it was easy to slide region markers to just the right spot, and in no time, I had a track with seamless edits. I didn't hear any pops or clicks in the audio file, but if I had, it would have been simple to zero in on them and zap them with the Pencil tool.
The Cutlist is a nondestructive editing tool, so none of my edits really cut any audio out of the source file; they were just pointers to skip over certain sections during playback. I needed a final copy with the cut portions discarded, and that turned out to be a simple task — as easy as right-clicking on the Cutlist and selecting “Convert to new.” Voila! I had a new audio file, three minutes and seven seconds long.
HAMMERING ON THE FORGE
So here I was with this great edit, but the track just didn't seem loud enough. Sound Forge's Normalize function managed to squeeze an extra decibel of volume out of my track, but it still didn't have the punch I was looking for. Enter the Wave Hammer.
The Wave Hammer, Sound Forge's answer to similar maximizer plug-ins such as the Waves Ultramaximizer and PSP Audioware's VintageWarmer is a combination compressor/volume maximizer (see Fig. 2). I opened up the Plug-In Chainer, Sound Forge's real-time effects monitoring section, added the Wave Hammer to the chain and selected the Smooth Compression preset. The difference was amazing. Low end was fuller, highs were smoother, and overall volume seemed significantly louder! Third-party plug-ins that do the same job can cost an arm and a leg, so I was ecstatic when this bundled plug-in held its own against more expensive solutions.
Applying plug-ins in Sound Forge is a little roundabout, but once you figure it out, the process makes a lot of sense and is actually pretty efficient. It all centers around the Plug-In Chainer, a real-time processing section that allows you to chain as many as 32 DirectX plug-ins in a serial fashion. Effects can be modified, previewed and rendered from within the Chainer window. If you assemble a chain of plug-ins that you really like or tend to use frequently, you can save it as a preset and recall it later. With the stand-alone Preset Manager, included on the Sound Forge CD, you can also freely exchange Chainer presets between Sound Forge and other Sonic Foundry products such as Acid and Vegas.
One of Sonic Foundry's most respected products is Acoustic Mirror, a plug-in that was once sold separately but is now included free with Sound Forge (see Fig. 3). Introduced in 1997, Acoustic Mirror is a remarkable product that takes the sonic impulse of an acoustic space — say, for instance, a concert hall — and combines it with your source file in such a way that it sounds as if your material were being played back in that same space.
Included on the CD are more than 100 MB of impulse files ranging from mundane bridges and hallways around Sonic Foundry's Madison, Wis., headquarters to exotic impulses like analog synths and rare microphones. Acoustic Mirror is an inspiring source of unique sounds, and the results produced by the preset models' real-world locations are unsettlingly realistic. A nice touch is the photo of the space being modeled, displayed at the bottom of the plug-in window.
Users of other DirectX-compatible audio-software packages will appreciate the inclusion of DirectX versions of nearly every native plug-in that Sound Forge offers, including Wave Hammer and Acoustic Mirror. None of those plug-ins are stellar, but as part of the Sound Forge package, they're a welcome addition and serve perfectly as quick and dirty solutions.
One truly unfortunate drawback to Sound Forge's plug-in architecture is the absence of VST support. Various VST wrappers out there will adapt VST plug-ins for use with DirectX applications, but Sound Forge doesn't come bundled with one. It would be nice if Sonic Foundry tested one and included it on the CD with basic technical support — perhaps in the next release?
Many editing applications balk at loading anything other than standard file types such as WAV and AIFF, but Sound Forge is particularly adept at handling an array of file formats. It can open just about any audio file type you throw at it, including MP3, AIFF, WAV, AVI and Sound Designer files.
Sound Forge also trumps the competition by including native support for Real Media files. The complete spectrum of encoding options that you find in RealProducer are available, and an option to encode video is present, as well (see Fig. 4). The inclusion of Real Media and MP3 capability makes Sound Forge perfect for Internet-related tasks like editing and producing streaming media.
If you're a heavy user of Sonic Foundry's loop-based music tool Acid, you'll appreciate the facilities included in Sound Forge geared specifically toward creating Acid loops. Loop sections can be easily defined by selecting one beat of a measure and then using the Halve and Double commands to quickly render loops of any length. The Shift Selection Left/Right and Rotate Audio commands make it simple to adjust the final loop, and the Acid Properties screen lets you define key, tempo and other relevant info so that your loop is ready to load right into Acid.
Sound Forge also can be defined easily as your external audio editor in Acid, allowing you to simply click on it in Acid rather than exit the program and launch a new application.
One area where Sound Forge seriously lags behind the competition is CD creation (see Fig. 5). Sound Forge includes only the most basic, no-frills CD-burning facilities — just enough to get your music on CD and nothing more.
The lack of CD tools is curious considering that Sonic Foundry once manufactured CD Architect, regarded years ago as the premier CD-creation tool on the PC platform. Why this functionality isn't included in the latest version of Sound Forge is anyone's guess. The ugly truth is that if you're trying to accomplish anything beyond the basic task of getting your music on CD, you're going to have to look elsewhere. Sound Forge simply won't cut it.
So has my faith in the granddaddy of PC audio editors been restored? Yes — to an extent. Sound Forge is, as it always has been, a solid and reliable program with a variety of tools that can easily tackle any editing task. A number of tweaks under the hood make it run faster than ever, and at the very least, it's been modernized and updated so that it can hold its own against the competition. What's more, the program didn't crash once during my entire evaluation period.
Unfortunately, Sound Forge contains a few major drawbacks, such as the lack of real CD tools and multitrack editing. If you're willing to spend an extra $100, you can get those tools — and VST support — with Steinberg's Wavelab. However, if you're aware of Sound Forge's few shortcomings and they aren't significant issues to you, you'll love how it handles. It's quick, the learning curve is virtually nil, and you'll be producing spectacular results in just about as long as it takes to get the box open.
Sound Forge 6.0
($149.95 upgrade for any previous version)
Pros: Significant speed improvement. Acoustic Mirror and Wave Hammer plug-ins included. Extensive file-format support. AVI and Quicktime video support. Acid integration.
Cons: Poor CD-burning tools. No native VST support. No multitrack editing.
Overall Rating: 4