Sonic Foundry Vegas Audio 2.0

There is much to love and nothing to hate about Vegas Audio 2.0. After dominating the stereo audio-editor market for many years with its Sound Forge program,
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There is much to love and nothing to hate about Vegas Audio 2.0.

After dominating the stereo audio-editor market for many years with its Sound Forge program, Sonic Foundry has caught the attention of studio owners everywhere with the release of its multitrack editor, Vegas Audio 2.0. Formerly known as Vegas Pro, Vegas Audio 2.0 features an intuitive, easy-to-use interface; a powerful recording and editing environment; and support for many types of media within the same project file.

In addition to Vegas Audio 2.0, Sonic Foundry now offers Vegas Video 2.0 and Vegas Audio LE 2.0. Whereas Vegas Audio provides comprehensive audio capabilities and a single video track (along with some video-editing tools), Vegas Video includes Vegas Audio and an extensive feature set for complex digital-video editing. The features include specialized video effects, filters and generators, compositing of multiple video signals, and advanced transition effects. (See the Sonic Foundry Web site for a comparison of the versions.) Vegas Audio LE is a streamlined product at a reduced cost that provides eight audio tracks and basic audio-editing capabilities. It also supports still images and includes a video reference track but no video editing.

I'll look at Vegas Audio 2.0 in this review. (See the February 2000 issue for a review of its predecessor, Vegas Pro 1.0a.) I'll start with some Vegas basics but will focus primarily on the software's new and improved features.

VEGAS VACATION

Vegas Audio is available as a Web download or in a boxed CD-ROM version. (Sonic Foundry puts product updates and links to supporting libraries, such as Microsoft's DirectX, on its Web site.) I installed from the CD-ROM and had no trouble setting up.

If you download the software, you can use Vegas Audio for seven days, and then you must register it. There are several painless ways to register, and you can choose options to protect your privacy. You can even register without providing any personal information. If mandatory registration keeps piracy down and prices low, I'm all for it.

Vegas Audio opens to an uncluttered, modern-looking interface (see Fig. 1). It has two status bars, a customizable toolbar, a time display, a scrubbing tool, and transport controls. The remainder of the main window consists of an area for working with tracks and an area for docking windows.

The Vegas Audio user interface is remarkably customizable. You can move things around to an amazing degree and resize nearly every boundary. You can drag ten program windows to the docking area, position them anywhere on the display, or remove them from the screen. You can even relocate the time display that appears by default in the upper-left corner of the screen, but interestingly, you can't move the transport controls.

The docking area is quite flexible. Drop a window onto it, and the window resizes to fill the surrounding space. Drop another one in the same spot, and a tab control appears that lets you switch between the two open windows. If you have a window open and put another window in a different spot, the docking area splits in two, complete with a border that can move to change the relative size of the two window panes. What's more, the second window pane can accept additional windows, which creates an additional set of tab controls. You can continue adding tabbed and split windows until you run out of things to add.

WINDOW-SHOPPING

Given that flexibility, you might wonder what the windows are for. Among the most important is the Explorer window, which is used to select and preview the media files on your system, and the Trimmer window, in which you perform edits on your audio Events. (The term Event refers to a media file or portion of one on disk. Because Events are just pointers to the media file, you can safely manipulate and edit them without affecting the original.) There's also the Mixer window — for controlling the audio on each Vegas bus, the assignable effects, or the entire project — and the Video Preview window, in which you can see what the video portion of your project will look like when you render it. The Plug-In Chooser window provides access to your system's DirectX plug-ins, and the Edit Details window displays a tabular listing of every Event in your Project. Those windows aren't new to version 2.0, so I won't cover them.

Vegas's Explorer window gives you access to the media files on your system, but sometimes you want to see just the files in the current project. For that purpose, Vegas provides the Media Pool window (see Fig. 2). The screen shows how many times each file in the project is used and where it is stored on disk. You can remove or replace media files in the Media Pool, sort the files by attribute, and browse the folder that contains the files. You can also preview files, insert them into tracks, or open them in the Trimmer window.

The Media Pool also shows file attributes that aren't visible in the Explorer window. For example, you can see the sampling rate and bit depth of audio files or the field order and pixel-aspect ratio of video files. Some settings can be altered — if you want to view the images using different dimensions, for example. There are also fields for comments or other text entries. Those get stored with your Vegas project, not with the media file, which means you can use different comments with a file if it appears in multiple Vegas projects.

TICKTOCK

Vegas now includes a built-in metronome to help you stay in tempo during recording. You can use the default metronome sounds built into the program, or you can specify your own audio files for the accented and unaccented beat. Unfortunately, only one time signature and tempo can be specified per project. If your music drops into 3/4 time or accelerates to the end, your metronome and measure/beat displays will get off-kilter. For my material, I really needed the ability to specify a tempo and time signature map.

Once you record your tracks (or build them from audio files on your hard drive), you'll probably want to set up your mix automation before you render the final product. You do that with envelopes.

Vegas Audio offers two kinds of envelopes: Event and Track. Event envelopes control the volume of an Event throughout its duration and are always exactly the same length as the Event itself. You can drag Event envelopes with your mouse to set the overall volume of the Event and to create fade-ins and fade-outs. If you like, Vegas can automatically use the Event envelopes to create crossfades when two Events overlap.

Event envelopes are handy, but they cannot simulate the complex fader moves that you would execute in a typical mixdown session. That's where Track envelopes come in. Track envelopes can span multiple Events in a Track and can control volume and panning. You add nodes to the Track envelope anywhere you wish and then move those nodes to the volume or pan setting you desire. Vegas Audio executes the volume and pan changes as your piece plays by interpolating between the node points. The changes between nodes can take place in a linear fashion, or they can accelerate or decelerate.

New to version 2.0 is the ability to copy and paste envelopes between tracks. Also new is the Lock Envelopes feature. When envelope locking is switched on, each node stays attached to the Event. If you move the Event, the rest of the Envelope adjusts accordingly. So if you drop the gain when your singer belts out that high C, you can ensure that the gain change always occurs in the right place, even if you shift the passage forward or backward in time.

VIDEO IN VEGAS

Vegas Audio includes one type of envelope that is used for editing video. That envelope controls the opacity of a video Event. (Vegas Video offers envelopes for fancy effects such as video velocity and fade to color.) Opacity determines how well you can see whatever is beneath the event you're editing. An event with 0 percent opacity doesn't show at all, whereas one with 100 percent opacity completely obscures a video event below it in a video Track. If you set a video Event to 50 percent opacity and drop it on top of another video Event, both images are equally visible.

Using opacity Event envelopes, you can create video fade-ins and fade-outs just as you do with audio Events. By default, Vegas Audio automatically creates video crossfades when two Events overlap.

Vegas Audio can import AVI and QuickTime movies, but you're not limited to moving pictures — Vegas also imports a number of still-image formats, such as JPEG, Windows Bitmap (BMP), Targa (TGA), GIF, and Portable Network Graphics (PNG). Photography is a hobby of mine, and I was able to easily create a montage of my favorite images (with an original song accompanying the pictures). You can specify how long each still image appears, and you can define the transition between each one. Transitions are limited to cuts, fades, and crossfades, however — you need Vegas Video if you want something more elaborate.

Entire video Events or just portions can be cut, copied, and pasted. For example, you can extract the middle of a video Event and paste it at the end. When you do, you end up with three Events instead of one: the extracted portion, the portion that preceded it, and the portion that followed it. If you want those three Events combined for future editing operations, simply group them together. Once you create a Vegas Group, any movements or edits take place on the Group as a whole.

It's no coincidence that video- and audio-editing operations are similar — Vegas Audio uses the same paradigm for both types of Events. That factor contributes to the program's intuitiveness and ease of use.

IT SLICES, IT DICES

Additional video edits are possible using an Event's Pan/Crop window (see Fig. 3). That window provides a representation of the video Event and offers a frame through which you view it. To conceptualize the viewing frame, think about watching a movie through a rectangular hole in a piece of cardboard. If you hold the cardboard up high, you see the top portion of the movie. If you enlarge the hole, you see more of the movie.

The size of a video Event is fixed in the Pan/Crop window. You can make the image appear larger or smaller (for viewing convenience), but an AVI file at 320-by-240-pixel resolution is always represented as 320 by 240 pixels. So if you zoom in, the image pixelates rather quickly.

The size of the viewing frame is a different matter, however. Shrink it, and you crop the image (the cropped area appears black). Enable the Stretch to Fill Frame option, and you can zoom in or out by making the frame larger or smaller. You can pan the frame left, right, up, or down, and you can also rotate the frame around any center point. Turn the frame upside down, and you invert the image that appears onscreen.

A number of positioning aids appear on the Pan/Crop window. You can restrict frame movements to horizontal or vertical directions, and you can lock the frame's aspect ratio. You can snap the frame to a grid (the grid size is user-definable), and you can force all of the sizing to occur around the center of the frame. If you like, you can distort the aspect ratio of the source material to create stretched or squished video.

But wait: there's more. You can save presets with your favorite settings, and you can make the viewing frame move as time passes. By moving the frame across an image of text — for example, the credits for your video — the text will appear to scroll across the screen. By varying the size, position, and rotation of the frame, you can create a number of zooming, panning, spinning, and spotlighting effects.

To animate those settings, use the keyframe controller at the bottom of the Pan/Crop window. Keyframes are specific points in your movie to which you've assigned a set of size, position, and rotation settings. Vegas smoothly transitions between the settings of two keyframes, so if the image is right side up at one keyframe and upside down at the next, you'll see the image rotate during playback. You can specify rotations greater than 360 degrees, and the image will spin multiple times. The controller presents the Event you're working on as a horizontal bar and provides controls to add, remove, and move among the keyframes.

VEGAS EFFECTS

Vegas Audio provides excellent support for DirectX effects. Any number of DirectX effects can be chained together and applied to Tracks or output buses. You can also create Assignable FX sends. In more familiar terms, Track effects correspond to channel insert effects, effects on buses are equivalent to master channel effects, and Assignable FX are the same as effects sends.

Although those options are not new to Vegas Audio 2.0, previous versions allowed only a limited number of Track Optimized effects to be used. Now you can use an unlimited number of DirectX effects, as many as the limits of your computer allow.

Also new to version 2.0 is the ability to apply non-real-time destructive effects to any Event, which saves CPU power during playback. Destructive is a bit of a misnomer, because Vegas saves the processed audio in a different file by default. Destructive effects are applied only to entire Events. To process a smaller region, you have to break your Event into pieces.

Vegas Audio ships with three Sonic Foundry effects packages, which are also sold separately under the names XFX 1, XFX 2, and XFX 3. If you have no DirectX effects installed on your system, you'll suddenly find yourself with a rather capable set when you install Vegas. Included among the 18 total are common effects such as delay, reverb, chorus, and pitch shifting and some not-so-common ones such as amplitude modulation, vibrato, Gapper/Snipper, and a smoother/enhancer.

Also included are parametric, paragraphic, and graphic EQs and three types of dynamics processors: a noise gate as well as graphic and multiband compressor/limiter/gates. Overall, I had all the effects I needed for a typical work session, and the quality of the effects was good. The reverbs and choruses aren't the silkiest I've heard, but they're usable nonetheless.

Several tools stretch or compress the length of your audio. One appears as a DirectX effect, but my favorite is what Sonic Foundry calls Rubber Audio, which is in the Event Properties page. The tool already knows the length of your Event, so you simply specify the new time and indicate whether the pitch should be altered. That was useful when I needed to change the length of an audio Event to match that of a video Event. You can also press the Control key on your keyboard and drag an Event to make it fit a new time, which is handy for beat matching and for ensuring that audio events stay lined up.

VIVA VEGAS

Once your project plays back just the way you want, render it to its final form. Vegas Audio supports a variety of common and not-so-common audio and video formats. New to version 2.0 is support for RealAudio 8, RealVideo 8, Windows Media 7, QuickTime 4.0, and OpenDML AVI. With each rendering operation, you can specify appropriate settings such as the video frame rate and resolution and the audio sampling frequency (see Fig. 4). You can even create Edit Decision Lists (EDLs) for use with other video applications.

There is much to love and nothing to hate about Vegas Audio 2.0. The user experience is impeccable, and the documentation is thorough. The product is packaged with a separate tutorial CD, a print manual, online help, and a PDF version of the manual. I appreciated having a print manual that I could read anywhere, but I quickly found myself using the PDF manual more than anything else. The PDF file has an index and a table of contents, and it's extensively hyperlinked. I could usually discover what I wanted to know within seconds.

EM's review of Vegas Pro 1.0a noted several omissions, including MIDI-based controller automation, MIDI Machine Control, and the ability to manually punch in after playback had started. Unfortunately, none of those features made it into the new version.

But all in all, Vegas Audio 2.0 is a wonderful program with powerful recording and editing capabilities. I like the fact that a complete set of effects is included, and I was pleasantly surprised by the hefty dose of video-editing capabilities (especially for a product called Vegas Audio). Wanna have some fun? Head to Vegas!

Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software and systems designer, and consultant.

Minimum System Requirements

Vegas Audio

Pentium II/200; 32 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/ME/NT 4.0/2000

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Sonic Foundry
Vegas Audio 2.0 (Win)
multitrack audio editor
$399.95

FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5DOCUMENTATION5.0VALUE3.5

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Intuitive user interface. Capable video editing. Excellent documentation. Numerous DirectX effects included.

CONS: Only one tempo/time signature setting. No on-the-fly punch in. No MIDI-based controller automation.

Manufacturer

Sonic Foundry
tel. (800) 577-6642 or (608) 256-3133
e-mail customerservice@sonicfoundry.com
Web www.sonicfoundry.com