Sound Forge 9's streamlined interface incorporates many elements from its original version introduced in the early '90s.
If you were involved in audio production at any point during the '90s, you probably knew about Sound Forge. When it burst onto the fledgling computer audio scene in 1991, this groundbreaking application was manna from heaven for producers and musicians who longed for the power and control of something like Pro Tools but couldn't afford the hefty capital that those big boys required. Sound Forge offered everything the others didn't: a quick, easy, inexpensive way to edit 2-channel audio without pledging your firstborn to the bank.
Now, 17 years later, Sound Forge is still alive and kicking under the Sony umbrella and sporting a fresh coat of paint along with a few new tricks. Multichannel audio is now in the picture, along with bundled mastering plug-ins from iZotope and a gratis copy of Sony Noise Reduction software sweetening the deal. However, the playing field is a lot more crowded and unforgiving these days — other editors such as Steinberg Wavelab and Adobe Audition have upped the ante considerably over the years — but Sound Forge has managed to hang on to a loyal base of customers who swear by its power and simplicity. I put Sound Forge 9 through its paces on a couple of projects to see if it holds its own in the face of today's stiff competition and to see if I could rekindle the spark I had with this program back at the beginning of my career.
Installing Sound Forge is simple, and registration takes a quick online handshake with Sony's authentication servers. Strangely, CD Architect is still a separate program with its own installation procedure, and it doesn't integrate direct with Sound Forge; recording proper discs still requires shuffling data between the two applications.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be a big difference between the old-school Sound Forge and version 9, which is a testament to great design. All the tools you need are close at hand, and menus are familiar without any deep-nested commands, creating the feeling that doing real work won't require sifting through manuals. As with previous versions, Sound Forge's toolbars are completely customizable and freely movable to all four sides of the screen. Most floating windows — such as the plug-in manager, meters and video window — will dock and resize as well, allowing you to create orderly layouts that fit your personal work style.
SLICE AND DICE
Sound Forge 9 offers all the standard kit you'd expect from a top-end audio editor: cut, copy, paste, pencil tools, detailed analysis capabilities, a bevy of standard effects and plenty of audio restoration tools, including the Sony Noise Reduction plug-in. Editing in general is a bit smoother in version 9, thanks to support for drag-and-drop between channels, as well as “snap-to” functionality for grid, marker and selection boundaries. The Plug-in Chainer handles limitless chains of VST and DirectX plug-ins elegantly, and Sony kicks in four of iZotope's mastering plug-ins free of charge, which makes the $319 list price pleasantly palatable.
Sound Forge's pristine audio engine can handle as high as 64-bit/192 kHz files. You can open multiple files with various bit depths and sampling rates in the program's work space, but there's no on-the-fly conversion if you need to actually mix together two separate files with different sampling rates. Instead, the program gently reminds you that the rates are different and suggests using Sound Forge's offline converter to bring the files to common ground.
It's important to note that Sound Forge's multichannel audio isn't quite like the Audio Montage in Wavelab or the VIP workspaces in Magix Samplitude; it is literally multiple audio channels in a single file and not multiple tracks in a project. That's a critical distinction — saving a 12-channel WAV file in Sound Forge is literally a 12-channel file, not a Sound Forge project with 12 separate tracks. You can insert different tracks directly into different channels and save that project as a different FRG file, but ultimately Sony doesn't want Sound Forge to compete with its own Acid Pro and Vegas Pro multitrack apps.
Audio editors are often employed in the post-production process, and good metering is a must when you're prepping material for the public. Sound Forge 9 extends those capabilities with much needed phase and mono compatibility meters, filling a gap that previously required costly third-party plug-ins. The phase meter shows the standard Lissajous curve (harmonic motion) that most people have come to rely on by default, or you can configure it to show a more intuitive polar plot that displays a “real-world” view of the file's stereo image.
For more detailed metering, Sound Forge's spectrum analysis tools put audio files under the equivalent of an electron microscope, offering a staggering level of detail. Spectrum analysis runs offline on a selected range of material, or you can configure it to monitor playback in real time. For superhigh-resolution analysis, however, offline is the way to go — otherwise lag times quickly become unacceptable.
A sonogram view is also available and is particularly useful for zeroing in on pops, clicks, mic thumps and other spurious audio events that can be difficult to locate with a standard waveform view. Unfortunately, Sound Forge doesn't offer any spectral editing tools in the sonogram window. It's somewhat frustrating to see a spot that needs a little cleaning, and then realize you can't clean it up with a pencil or eraser tool. Also, Sound Forge's tendency to stop playback when resizing or zooming in on the spectrum analysis window was somewhat disruptive. (Sony's working on a fix for that).
BUILD IT AND BURN IT
For some reason, Sound Forge still hasn't updated its integrated burning facilities and offers only the most basic track-at-once disc authoring from its Tools menu. Fortunately, the program ships with a companion application, CD Architect, which has long been a standard for burning true Red Book-compatible CDs on a PC. There's nothing new here, but it's a significant element in the Sound Forge package, and it's worth noting that the program remains a capable tool for assembling and burning audio discs. CD index markers are listed separately from generic markers to keep the interface clean, and overlapping audio files automatically create crossfades with six selectable fade curves. The only drawback is a lack of VST support, which is a bummer for anyone hoping to apply any overall compression or EQ to a CD project. You'll need to render each file with VST effects in Sound Forge before exporting to CD Architect for a final burn.
Revisiting Sound Forge after many years was like meeting up with an old girlfriend: I remembered the good times back in the day, but after a while together, the reasons for parting ways became clear. Multitrack and nondestructive editing features have become key elements in audio-editing workflows over the years, and with Sound Forge 9 still focused primarily on working with individual files without comprehensive integrated CD tools, it was more cumbersome to finish a complete mastering session from edit to burn than with other apps. The inclusion of multichannel audio is sure to appeal to anyone mixing surround-sound projects, but some basic multitracking capability would put Sound Forge on par with other editors on the market today.
Despite those drawbacks, Sound Forge's greatest strength continues to be its simple and elegant user interface. For raw audio editing, it remains a powerful tool that's purpose-built to do the job with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. The fact that its general feel has changed little over its nine versions proves that this time-tested tool has been doing something right.
It may no longer be king of the hill, but Sound Forge 9 is still a solid product when you take it for what it is — a single-file editor made to slice, dice and rework audio files. Sound Forge's broad user base and dedication to simplicity still make it a viable competitor.
SONY SOUND FORGE 9 > $319
Pros: Simple, easy-to-use interface. Workflow enhancements. Bundled mastering suite from iZotope. Multichannel audio editing. Noise-reduction software included. Extended metering and spectrum analysis.
Cons: No multitrack capabilities. Comprehensive CD burning not integrated.
PC: 900 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows 2000 SP4/XP/Vista; DVD-ROM drive