Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec Review

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The Pro-Codec includes multiple tools for graphical analysis of data-compressed signals.

You know how encoding to data-compressed formats works: You want the best fidelity in the least amount of space, so you go through a tedious process of render, compare, render, compare, try different encoding algorithms, and so on. Eventually, you settle on something that works.

Or, you streamline the process with the Fraunhofer Pro-Codec from Sonnox. First, these are real Fraunhofer codecs. Second, you can audition up to five different encoders in real time for not just A-B, but A-B-C-D-E comparisons. Supported codecs for data-compressed formats include MP3, MP3 Surround, AAC-LC, HE-AAC, and HE-AAC v2, as well as MP3-HD and HD-AAC lossless codecs.

The Pro-Codec works as a VST/AU/RTAS plug-in (Mac OS X10.5 or later, Windows XP/7) so it''s suitable for editing/mastering programs, or even a DAW''s master bus—yes, you can tweak a mix to compensate for differences caused by data compression. For example, encoding one file to 96kbps MP3 sounded okay except for the highs. With a slight boost, the results were subjectively similar to encoding at higher rates.

64-bit Windows users may be disappointed it''s a 32-bit plug-in, but Pro-Codec works with 64-bit programs if they have, or you''ve added, a 32-bit bridge program. One caution: Piling on the codecs requires a fair amount of CPU power.

It''s easy to compare different codecs, codec input to codec output, and the difference signal to hear what data is being discarded. You can see how much the bitrate is being reduced, and even set up sophisticated blind comparison/testing procedures. I really appreciate the glitchless switching—you''re not distracted by clicks or pops—and you can automate the master in/out, which is great for setting up tests where people don''t know when you''re switching a codec in or out.

Furthermore, in addition to being able to export up to five files simultaneously from different codecs, you can import encoded files and save them as WAV or AIF, 16- or 24-bit—perfect for bringing a file with a format your DAW doesn''t recognize into a DAW''s track. Export doesn''t have to be offline, as you can record files using a particular codec as you listen—in fact you can record using up to five codecs.

Note that some particular parameter combinations require re-sampling to avoid pitch shifts, which degrades realtime auditioning slightly (although if you write the file to disk or export, a higher-quality alternate codec comes into play). This isn''t something you''ll encounter all that much, and the program makes it clear when these conditions occur.

Plentiful graphic monitoring options include a “Noise to Mask Ratio” indicator, which highlights frequency ranges where the effects of data compression could be most audible. Even more valuable, sometimes data compression can increase levels; not only does Pro-Codec show this, but allows trimming the incoming signal to compensate.

There are additional features, but one important point is this plug-in''s educational aspect. You''ll find out quickly what works best for your music, and also, the documentation is comprehensive. The price might seem high—but this is an extremely highly spec''d encoder/decoder, and you won''t find better.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec product page.