Highly regarded for its Sound Forge and Acid digital audio applications, Sonic Foundry has released Vegas Pro, a "multitrack media-editing system" for Windows. Vegas Pro represents the company's foray into the realm of nonlinear multitrack recording/editing and media management. Targeted for professional musicians and broadcast and audio engineers as well as for multimedia and Internet-content developers, Vegas Pro combines a highly configurable work space with the ability to integrate into numerous production environments.
Vegas Pro supports 24-bit/96 kHz digital audio, and the number of tracks you can play back is limited only by your CPU and RAM. It can perform nondestructive edits during playback and run multiple plug-in effects, all in real time. It addition, it has the ability to import many file formats, including WAV, AIFF, MP3, AVI, and QuickTime. Similarly, it will export to WMA, MP3, WAV, and AIFF, and it also supports file authoring for Internet streaming applications, such as RealNetworks G2 and Windows Media Technologies. As part of this capability, Vegas Pro has facilities for adding timeline metadata, such as URL flips (an embedded link to a URL) and captions.
Not only can Vegas Pro process multitrack audio, but it also allows you to replace dialog in multimedia files. The ability to open an AVI or QuickTime movie, replace the dialog, and add music and sound effects means you can produce very high-quality media files with surprisingly little effort. Moreover, Vegas Pro will work with virtually any Windows sound card, including those with multiple inputs and outputs.
INSTALLATION ISSUESVegas Pro's minimum system requirements include a 200 MHz processor with 32 MB of RAM. The recommended configuration is a 400 MHz processor, 128 MB of RAM, and a 24-bit color display. My test system was a 266 MHz Pentium II, 128 MB of RAM, a 24-bit display, a Seagate Cheetah SCSI hard drive, and the Frontier Design WaveCenter digital audio card.
The application supports multiple processors (if available) when running under Windows NT, and employs asynchronous I/O whenever possible. Asynchronous I/O prevents the processor from stalling while reading from disk and can translate into significant performance gains over normal synchronous I/O.
The installation routine uses a combination of serial and activation numbers to ensure authorization. Entering my serial number authorized me to use the program for seven days, and then I was required to register online or via telephone to obtain a final authorization code so I could run the program beyond the initial period. I opted to register online and receive my code by e-mail. For whatever reason, I never received the e-mail with my authorization code, but a call to tech support immediately rectified the situation.
During my conversation with the technician, I was encouraged to visit the company's Web site and download the version 1.0a upgrade patch, as this would correct some minor bugs that had been discovered. Always wanting to have the latest and greatest, I downloaded and installed the patch and, upon launching the program, was again required to provide my authorization code. After entering the code a second time, I was up and running for good.
Some customers have experienced installation difficulties relating to the authorization code. A repair utility is now available for download from Vegas Pro's Web site that should remedy this.
AN INVITING INTERFACEUpon launching Vegas Pro, you are greeted with a graphic interface that is remarkably open and uncomplicated. The lower left portion of the screen provides an Explorer view for accessing and auditioning files without leaving the work area (see Fig. 1). Double-clicking on a file places it in the first available track slot in the upper area of the screen. To the right is the Mixer view, where you can see and control the various output and effects buses. (Vegas Pro supports 26 output buses and 26 aux sends.) The mixer's leftmost linear fader is a dedicated control for the program's Preview function, which lets you adjust the level of individual audio files that you are auditioning while in the Explorer window. This is a very nice touch.
The lower left area can be toggled to display the Trimmer window. This is a separate work area where you view and manipulate Events, the term Vegas Pro uses to designate an audio segment. Dedicated transport keys control playback, and a hotkey launches your audio-editor software (the default is Sound Forge, if you've installed it). You can place data directly into the Trimmer from the Explorer or by right-clicking on an Event in a track and choosing the Show In Trimmer option. The value of this approach is that you are free to work on a track (or any segment thereof) without having to remember which tracks are muted or soloed. With its hot link to your audio editor, this work area functions as though you had a dedicated editor operating as a plug-in.
The upper area of the screen displays the Track List (upper left) and the Track View area (upper right). Each track sports a series of icons for toggling Mute, Solo, Arm, and other features. There's also a horizontal fader for track volume and a multipurpose fader for pan control, assignable effects, and aux-send levels. A ruler (timeline) with adjustable time increments (measures, measures and beats, frames, and so on) appears above the Track View. Both areas can be collapsed or expanded, providing a tremendous amount of flexibility in configuring the interface. The entire lower area of the workspace also can be resized to your liking (see Fig. 2).
The main transport controls are located just beneath the Track View. The transport bar has controls for Record, Loop, Playback from the beginning of a project, Playback from cursor position, Pause, Stop, Move cursor to project start, Move cursor to project end, Move cursor left at grid increments, and Move cursor right at grid increments.
To the left of the main transport area is the Scrub control. The normal playback rate is 1.0, but Vegas Pro can scrub audio forward or backward at a constantly variable rate from -2.0 (reverse) through 2.0 (forward). Scrubbing is accomplished by grabbing the Scrub control with the mouse and dragging right or left. It works very smoothly and produces excellent results.
One of the more useful interface features is called Window Docking. Window Docking allows you to keep frequently used windows-for example, a video preview or the Trimmer-available yet out of the way while you are working. This is an efficient way to manage your work space. The Docking Area, which is the lower segment of the screen, can display up to three windows at a time.
In addition to its myriad onscreen buttons and switches, Vegas Pro provides a comprehensive list of equivalent keyboard commands. Though the point-and-click approach to operation is quite comfortable during the initial learning phase, I was pleased that I could control many aspects of the program from the keyboard. Among the keyboard commands are basic transport functions; Cut, Copy, and Paste commands; toggling the Explorer and Trimmer windows; resizing track height; and zooming in and out of Event views.
IN SESSIONVegas Pro can record multiple mono or stereo tracks while simultaneously playing back existing tracks, up to the performance capability of your computer and audio hardware. The factor that has the most direct effect on the simultaneous-record capability is your audio card. My Frontier Design WaveCenter supports ten simultaneous signals: eight via ADAT Lightpipe and another two via coaxial S/PDIF. Though I did not attempt a full 10-track transfer, I had no problem transferring data to and from a Tascam DA-88 through a TDIF-to-Lightpipe converter. For the multitude of ADAT or DA-88 owners, Vegas Pro makes a compelling editing station and enables you to extend the functionality of those tape-based systems.
But the real crux of the matter is in using Vegas Pro as a stand-alone recording/editing system. In this context it's important to understand the difference between a track and an Event. A track is nothing more than a container for any number of Events. In Fig. 2, the string music in the first track is continuous, while subsequent tracks consist of numerous smaller "chunks," or Events. A track, therefore, can hold many Events, which can even be of different file formats or sample rates. The fact that Vegas Pro can mix and resample multiple file formats and sample rates in real time is nothing short of astounding.
Recording in Vegas Pro is nondestructive. Unlike tape-based systems, where every new punch wipes out the previously recorded material, Vegas Pro supports multiple takes or record passes that can easily be recalled, auditioned, and assigned to a track at a later time. To begin recording into an empty track, enable the Arm for Record button on the appropriate track, and a level meter appears monitoring the strength of your signal. Click the Record button in the main transport area (or press Ctrl-R), and the recording begins.
You can rerecord onto the same track (to create multiple Events), or even into the same Event if you like. When you rerecord into an Event, the display shows only the most recent (or "active") take, but if you right-click the mouse, you'll see a list of all the takes in the Event (see Fig. 3). Forgot which take was which before you had a chance to name them? Just open the Take Chooser and you can audition all the takes in the Event.
PUNCH AND LOOPPunching in is fast and easy to execute. Select the Event you wish to punch into, then select the preroll and postroll time range around it by dragging the edges of the Selection bar. (If you want to punch into the middle of an Event, simply split it into two or more new Events.) Arm the track and click the Record button, and playback will begin from the preroll point. Recording begins and ends at the edges of the highlighted Event, and the program automatically stops at the end of the postroll (see Fig. 4).
Though the combination of owner's manual and online documentation is, for the most part, adequate, the subject of punch-ins is not clearly defined. For starters, I see little reason to reinvent the nomenclature; "punch-in" is a good term. Unfortunately, you won't find this term in the manual, and though the online index finds "punch-in," it merely gives you a definition. If you enter the term under the online help Search function, it will then call a link to "recording into an Event with a time selection." Once you get there, however, deciphering the process is far from clear.
Disappointingly, Vegas Pro has no provisions for "punch on the fly" recording-you must always tell the program in advance that you wish to record. Though this isn't likely to be an issue for everyone, it does nonetheless take some time to configure an automated punch. It would be more convenient to simply arm a track and then manually punch in and out of Record mode as needed.
You can capture multiple takes quickly and easily using the Loop record feature. After highlighting the region within an Event (or along the timeline if no Event exists) and arming the track, pressing L engages the Loop function. Upon activating Record in the main transport area, the program will loop in Record mode. For each iteration of the loop, a new, nondestructive take is created in the Event that you record into.
MANIPULATING THE MATERIALVegas Pro has all the basic editing provisions you would expect, including Cut, Copy, Paste, and Delete. There's also unlimited Undo and Redo. The Undo and Redo commands have an associated event list in which you can select all or any number of recent actions. This feature makes it very easy to recall a series of actions, should you change your mind about something. The Automatic Crossfade function also works well and is a real time-saver. When enabled, it automatically creates a crossfade wherever there are two overlapped Events, and a graphic display of the crossfade length appears on the screen.
Vegas Pro includes several native effects that you can assign for each track independently. The noise gate, compressor, and 4-band EQ are found under the Track FX icon of each track. The EQ section provides high-shelf, band, and low-shelf options, along with controls for frequency, gain, and rolloff. (A bypass switch is provided.) The EQ sounds very good and is implemented in real time, but due to the buffering process the program uses, it exhibits a tad bit of delay as you adjust the parameters. Similarly, plug-in effects also exhibit a delay.
You access third-party (DirectX) plug-ins by choosing the Assignable FX option from the Insert menu. This opens a Plug-In Chooser window, which shows your available plug-ins, along with any effects chains that you have created. (Vegas Pro supports 32 assignable sends.) When you insert an effect, an effects-bus master slider appears in the mixer area in the lower right portion of the screen. (A scribble strip is included for identification.) Adjusting the level for this effect is done with the individual track's drop-down, multipurpose fader. As noted earlier, you can hot-link to an external audio editor if you need additional editing or processing options.
MIXING AND AUTOMATIONVegas Pro uses breakpoint automation for level and pan control, and you can draw your automation data directly on the waveform display (see Fig. 5). (The primary level fader for each track serves as a coarse level control for adjusting the levels at the start of your mix.) The fact that Vegas Pro does not use a mixer interface for its automation didn't bother me at all.
Vegas Pro supports grouping tracks, but you can't simply mute or solo a group by selecting that group and clicking the Mute or Solo icon. Rather, you need to route the tracks within the group to a dedicated output bus. The entire bus can then be muted or soloed. Though this is easy enough, it seems like an unnecessary extra step.
I was particularly impressed with the program's internal mixing features. You can either mix down to a new track or use Mix to Preview. When you mix to a new track, Vegas Pro processes the entire project to a new stereo track that it places in the first available slot at the bottom of the Track List. This sure beats mixing to DAT or some other external media, only to dump the material back into the computer for eventual mastering. With the Mix to Preview function, you have the opportunity to try out various options, such as compression settings you might use for creating streaming media. Both mix options worked flawlessly.
I also liked the ability to "monitor" a project using the Edit Details window (see Fig. 6). This useful utility provides a precise means of working with your audio, such as inspecting Events by type, viewing Event start and end times, and viewing the number of takes that exist.
IN CONTROLVegas Pro will slave to incoming MIDI Time Code (MTC) and will output both MIDI Clock and MTC. I had no difficulty slaving a Yamaha MD-8 MiniDisc multitrack recorder to Vegas Pro and experienced equally successful results in slaving Vegas Pro to the MD-8. When slaving, location and lockup were instantaneous.
With Vegas Pro, an external mixer no longer has such a vital role in the tracking and mixing process, but one is likely to be used for routing signals into the computer and as a monitoring device. Hence, I was disappointed that the application provides no support for MMC (MIDI Machine Control) transport control. Compact mixers such as Roland's VM-3100Pro and Tascam's TM-D1000 are ideal companions to this type of desktop environment. Because both mixers issue basic transport controls through MMC, it would be nice if Vegas Pro would respond. Similarly, the program has no provisions for arming tracks via MMC.
As a growing number of compact digital mixers also output MIDI continuous controller messages for external fader control, it would be beneficial if Vegas Pro could respond to this information. The ability to control the output buses via MIDI controller messages, for example, is something Sonic Foundry should investigate.
IN A NUTSHELLSonic Foundry's description of Vegas Pro as a "multitrack media-editing system" is about as accurate as I could possibly imagine. I was extremely impressed with its ability to handle music and dialog-replacement tasks on a video file, and the program's support for dual monitors is a rarity on the PC. The interface makes sense, and I truly appreciate the freedom to configure the work space to your liking by way of its dockable windows.
For multimedia content creators, this program shines. Being able to preview various compression options for streaming media is extremely valuable, as is the internal mixdown capability. For the musician, audio professional, and broadcast engineer, Vegas Pro provides a wealth of tools that enable you to record, edit, and mix to just about any destination format imaginable. Everything, is accomplished in real time, minus some slight delays when adjusting EQ and effects, and those delays don't hinder the creative process at all. In addition, the program is remarkably stable; it crashed only once during the month that I worked with it.
It has some limitations, however. I consider the inability to respond to MMC or MIDI continuous controller messages to be among the application's few shortcomings. With the new generation of compact digital mixers that are perfect I/O companions to the desktop multitrack environment, I believe the ability to recognize basic start, stop, and level-adjustment commands would serve the program well.
I'd also like to see "punch on the fly" recording implemented. Though I realize that a random-access system like Vegas Pro must allocate disk space in advance, it seems that a command of some sort could instruct the program to handle this common task. The documentation also isn't quite as comprehensive as I would have liked, but it is acceptable, and there's a useful tutorial that can get you off to a quick start (despite some missing instructions that may leave you guessing at times!).
Vegas Pro is an extremely versatile recording system that makes recording fun. Its ability to accommodate multiple file formats and sampling rates simultaneously can be a tremendous time-saver if you're grabbing music tracks and sound effects from multiple sources. For the company's first multitrack recording and editing venture to be so feature rich, intuitive, and remarkably stable is, in a word, terrific. Bravo!
Roger Maycock is a Los Angeles-based consultant for digital audio and recording applications.