“Multichannel” doesn’t mean an Audition-type multitrack window, but something more like Wavelab’s “montage” feature — although montage is implemented as a separate mode, with limited support for importing or rendering multichannel media files. SF9 now accommodates up to 32 channels (16 stereo), which is obviously aces for surround project editing. But it’s also ideal for those with, say, a couple ADATs who want to bounce all their tracks into a computer. Record them into SF9 then edit heads and tails, add processing, or whatever (Figure 1).
And if you export each track in a multitrack project, you can drag and drop them into SF9 to do DSP that’s likely more sophisticated than what you can do in most host software. Furthermore, when you drag in sounds, they can be mixed and crossfaded (choose from 25 crossfade curves) with existing sounds; this also simplifies doing album assemblies with complex crossfades or layers. (Formerly with SF the only way to mix down multiple files into a final stereo mix was to copy each track to the clipboard and mix it into a destination file — but no more, thanks to the Channel Converter feature mentioned later.)
What about surround authoring? SF9 doesn’t do DVD-A authoring, although given the format’s status, I doubt that many people care. It can, however, export in multichannel WMA and WMV formats, and SF9 also includes the AC-3 Studio Encoder (although if you also have Vegas installed, SF9 can use its AC-3 Pro functionality). For stereo, you can save to the usual suspects (WAV, AIF, MP3, etc.) but also do AAC (MP4), Ogg Vorbis, Sony MXF, and ATRAC (my nominee for most underrated music compression format). But read the fine print: MP3 files can’t be distributed in revenue-generating applications (you need a separate license from Thomson for that), and the rules for Dolby Digital (AAC, AC-3) are similar — Dolby says you have to use “approved Dolby Digital Professional Encoders” to create content intended for commercial distribution.
In terms of effects, there’s nothing like Sonar’s “BitBridge” surround technology that applies any effect across multiple channels; however, nearly all of the included effects (except the iZotope effects, Wave Hammer, Noise Reduction 2, and Acoustic Mirror) can work with multichannel audio files as well as mono/stereo files. Also, as of version 9.0a, multi-channel VST plug-ins are supported.
Aside from the addition a few years back of Wave Hammer and Acoustic Mirror (one of the first convolution reverbs), SF’s lineup of plug-ins hadn’t changed much. Now Sony has teamed up with iZotope, and while you don’t get the full Ozone mastering suite (which costs $249.99, so it’s not surprising it’s not bundled in a $399.99 program), you do get four excellent DirectX effects — all of whose parameters are automatable, which is a Very Good Thing.
The Mastering EQ plug-in has high and low shelf (with adjustable frequency, gain, and Q), four fully parametric bands, and spectrum analysis in the background. Mastering Limiter has threshold and margin parameters, as well as a “character” control and (cool!) an option to prevent inter-sample clips.
The Mastering Reverb adds ambience to sources like narration, and performs other quick “gimme some space” applications. The final member of the quartet, the four-band Multiband Compressor (Figure 2), is very useful, sounds good, and looks good. These plug-ins are “keyed” to SF, and don’t show up in other programs — even CD Architect, although Sony says CDA compatibility will be added in the next update (also, other Sony Creative Software DirectX hosts, like Acid Pro and Vegas, will be updated to show these effects).
The Noise Reduction 2 plug-in is also bundled with SF9. And to go along with the new effects, you can now alter the wet/dry amount more easily, but more importantly, fade an effect in and out over time using various fade-in/fade-out curves. I also like that you can choose whether “spillover” sounds like reverb tails can either stop at the end of the selection, get mixed with the file past the selection, or push the selection to the right to make room.
The Channel Converter seems tailor-made for multichannel projects, as you can downmix to various other formats (mono, stereo, quad, 5.1, 7.1). A dialog box lets you specify the percentage of each channel you want in the final mix, and whether you want to invert a particular output. For example, you could send one channel to the center channel of stereo mix by sending 100% of it to center and 0% to anything else, or add in a little “leakage” to left front and left right to have the center channel sit better in the sonic panorama. And, the Channel Converter upmixes: You can take, say, a stereo file and expand it into a 7.1 mix by putting various amounts of the original file into the eight possible channels.
SF9 also has new diagnostic tools. The Spectrum Analyzer (standard or sonogram display) can handle multichannel files, but one of the features I appreciate the most is the Mono-Compatibility Meter, which shows if mono playback will produce phase cancellation issues; a Phase Scope offers Lissajous and Polar plots (linear or circular).
Finally, there are workflow enhancements: More keyboard shortcut customization options, drag-and-drop pasting and mixing between channels, and more display preferences. Interestingly (wave of the future?), SF9 can link directly to Sony Music Studios Internet Mastering Services, making it easy to upload files for mastering.
APPLYING SOUND FORGE 9
I had just transferred a bunch of old songs from DAT, and wanted to do a “test” mastering job to make them a bit more consistent. I also wanted to create an audio CD of all the sample CD examples I’ve created for EQ over the years.
Many people swear SF is a dead-simple program to navigate, while others claim they don’t “gel” with it. As one of the first pro editors, SF developed its own workflow and by this point, I’m totally comfortable with it. As just one example, one of my favorite features is that if you select a section to cut, and hit Play while holding Ctrl, SF does a pre-roll before the selection, skips the selection, then plays a post-roll after the selection. This makes editing sooo easy. To me, this operation is second-nature; but those who don’t know it’s there might think it’s hard to evaluate splices in SF without actually doing them.
The mastering plug-ins are extremely useful. In particular, the Limiter — if not abused — can give very musical results. About the only plug-in I miss from the full Ozone mastering suite is the multiband harmonic exciter plug-in, but admittedly, I don’t use it much.
I also wanted to restore a couple cuts from LPs I’d done from decades ago where the master tapes could no longer be found. I had DATs from the house that had done a transfer, with restoration, from vinyl for a CD re-issue; but there were still a few vinyl “blemishes.” One was particularly problematic: A major crackle in the middle of the word “stay.” Getting rid of it killed the sibilance of the “s,” but by zeroing in with the Audio Restoration tool on just the crackle and using minimal reduction, it was as if the crackle was never there — check out the example at www.eqmag.com (as well as an excerpt from a song before and after mastering with SF9).
When it was time to create the CD, I opened up CD Architect and popped in 26 tracks of examples. I made a few subtle volume adjustments, but one cut was markedly lower than the others so I used a bit of Wave Hammer. My burner won’t let me test and burn with CDA (I have to test first, then burn); while testing, CDA pointed out some possible digital clipping (who, me?), so I dropped the master volume down 0.1dB. I hit burn, and within a few minutes, the CD was done.
Upgrading is a no-brainer if you do any kind of multichannel editing, and many would likely spring for the upgrade just for the iZotope effects. If you don’t do multichannel and already have Ozone, it’s a tougher choice; however the extra test gear is great, and the workflow enhancements are helpful.
As to the Wavelab/Audition/SF question, much depends upon what you need. For example, both Wavelab and Audition have “spectrum editing” where you can edit specific frequency or volume ranges on a Sonogram display, but neither has the iZotope effects or some of SF’s export options. Also, Wavelab lists for $699.99 — a big price difference — and requires a dongle. Fortunately, demo versions are available for both Audition and SF, so you can resolve that issue yourself.
Personally, I’d been using SF less recently, but SF9 is changing that. It’s a fast, painless, efficient, and simple way to get work done that also represents good value — qualities I always appreciate.