Sony Creative Software's Sound Forge has been a mainstay of the Windows audio-editing scene for well over a decade. When similar applications developed alternate personalities to take on multitrack recording and CD production, Sound Forge kept its focus and remained the go-to application for editing or mastering stereo audio files. (For background on Sound Forge, see the review of version 7 in the April 2004 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.)
FIG. 1: Sound Forge 9 adds support for multichannel audio files, with up to 32 channels in each file. The program includes intuitive editing, import/export, and conversion capabilities.
With the recent release of version 9, Sound Forge adds support for multichannel audio, making it well equipped to take on a surround sound mix or audio-for-video project. In addition, the program ships with the latest version of CD Architect, so you can get your project ready for the duplication house using this separate application (and Sound Forge itself can avoid the multiple personality syndrome).
As expected, multichannel support in Sound Forge means you'll see a screen containing six or eight channels of audio (see Fig. 1). The program actually supports files with up to 32 audio channels, but 5.1 and 7.1 are the common surround configurations.
You can record multichannel files, provided your audio hardware has that capability. Any channel from your hardware can be routed to any channel of the file. Once you're set up, clicking on the Record button shows you the standard recording dialog box, only now with more channels. As before, the recording dialog box comes complete with level meters, 30 seconds of preroll recording, and triggering for the recording process using audio thresholds or MIDI Time Code.
Copy and paste operations are supported between channels, as is dragging-and-dropping audio. The behavior of these operations is both flexible and intuitive. For instance, when copying a single channel, the paste operation puts the audio into each selected destination channel (or into all channels if you haven't tagged any as “selected”). When copying multiple channels, the paste operation inserts the audio into selected destination tracks with appropriate warnings if the numbers of source and destination channels are different.
Pasted audio can be inserted or mixed with what is already there. You have the same option when dragging-and-dropping (mixing is performed by default, but holding down the Control key while dragging initiates an insert operation). Interestingly, there is no “move” option when dragging-and-dropping — the source material always remains in place (you can achieve the same effect via cutting and pasting, however).
Sound Forge supports several file formats for multichannel audio, including WAV, AVI, Windows Media (both WMA and WMV), ATRAC (AAC and OMA), and Sony MXF. You can save Dolby AC-3 files, but only at 448 Kbps with a 48 kHz sampling rate. If you want to use anything else, you have to purchase the AC-3 encoder from Sony for $199.95.
Point of View
Sound Forge's Spectrum Analysis view has been upgraded to support multichannel files (see Fig. 2). This window presents a graph representing the frequency content of your file or any portion of it for each channel. The graphs can also update in real time as you play or record audio. I happened to be writing this paragraph while traveling — I switched on real-time input monitoring and found myself watching the frequency content of a Boeing 767's cabin noise, captured using my laptop's microphone.
FIG. 2: Sound Forge''s Spectrum Analysis window is multichannel capable. Several different views are available, as are snapshots that allow comparisons of different program material.
Several display algorithms and sample sizes are available, as is a sync feature that ensures you are viewing the same region of audio in each of the channel graphs. I particularly like the snapshot capability, which allows you to store four different sets of graphs using distinctive colors. The active display (or current real-time display) appears in a fifth color.
Each snapshot can be made visible or invisible independently of the others. What's more, you can use snapshots to compare different regions of audio in the same file, regions in different files, or different spectrum analysis settings of a single region.
The channel converter has also been updated for multichannel capabilities (see Fig. 3). This tool was previously useful for stereo-to-mono conversion and channel swapping. Now it offers conversion capabilities using multichannel files as well.
FIG. 3: Sound Forge''s channel converter supports conversions between any channel configurations imaginable. Negative percentages indicate a phase reversal.
The tool works by presenting a matrix of your source and destination material. Each channel in the source appears as a column, and each channel in the destination appears as a row. You specify how the conversion takes place by entering the amplitude (expressed as a percentage) of each source channel that should appear in each destination channel. Negative numbers indicate a phase reversal, and values greater than 100 percent are allowed.
Presets for common operations (such as converting 5.1 surround to stereo) are provided, as is a handy slider to help you set the values. Unfortunately, graphical pan controls or indicators to help you visualize the operation are missing. This would be a good place to show the spatial placement of an audio channel using a diagram of the stereo or surround field — a chart of percentages doesn't always provide intuitive feedback.
Multichannel capabilities aren't the only addition to Sound Forge. A new Hardware Meters view shows audio levels independently of the file's playback levels and provides a set of sliders for adjusting preview and playback levels.
Each set of Sound Forge meters (channel meters, hardware meters, and record level meters) now includes optional phase scope and mono-compatibility indicators. Four different styles of phase-scope displays are available, and the online help includes illustrations on how to interpret each of them to identify phase cancellation problems.
There are improvements in the area of effects processing. The dialog boxes to control these effects are no longer modal, meaning you can go back to the audio to change the selected region (or open other audio files and effects, although only one effect can be active for a given file at a time). Also new are separate controls for wet and dry gain and fade-in/fade-out times, with 25 different choices for fading curves.
Setting effects fade and wet/dry gains in the dialog box works just fine, but even better is Sound Forge's ability to set these using envelopes in the audio itself. Special handles appear in the selected region. Sliding these back and forth changes the time it takes for the dry signal to fade away and the processed signal to fade in (or vice versa).
You can drag these envelopes up and down to change the wet and dry gain values. Note that these features work for all effects, whether or not you're using a plug-in that supports automation (controlling the automatable parameters of VST and DirectX effects is done using the Plug-in Chainer and a different set of envelopes).
Bundle of Joy
A number of other improvements have been made to the usability and features of Sound Forge. Cursor positions and other settings can be changed by simply double-clicking on the values that appear in the status bar; snapping has been improved; and additional color-customization operations are available. Keyboard shortcuts are now customizable, and the marker and region rulers show some usability enhancements.
Sound Forge comes bundled with additional plug-ins and applications, which in combination provide a formidable package for audio mastering, restoration, and CD preparation. Sony's own Noise Reduction plug-in is included, which comprises four plug-ins (one each for noise reduction, audio restoration, click and crackle removal, and clipped peak restoration). The noise reduction plug-in allows you to capture a noise print for use in subsequent processing.
Also included is Sony's CD Architect software. Though CD burning is nothing new, few applications provide extensive control over the subtle settings involved with Red Book audio CDs and the associated PQ lists. With CD Architect, you can configure index markers, track fading and pause times, and CD Text. CD Architect and Sound Forge have both been upgraded for compatibility with Windows Vista.
The Mastering Effects Bundle Powered by iZotope, a set of four effects, rounds out the Sound Forge package. These effects are provided in DirectX format and include a mastering reverb, a multiband compressor, an IRC limiter/loudness maximizer, and a parametric equalizer. I found each of these to be intuitive to use, with a sound quality that is comparable to that of similar offerings elsewhere.
Like many current applications, Sound Forge's extensive printed manual has been relegated to a PDF file, but Sony has provided a printed quick-start and keyboard-shortcut guide for both Sound Forge and CD Architect. The program's online help is complete, and if you use the “?” toolbar button (not the F1 key as you might expect), it is context sensitive.
Overall, Sound Forge still shines as a comprehensive audio editor. If you've had to leave this old friend because it couldn't handle your surround sound needs, now is the perfect time for a reunion.
Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant. Check him out atwww.sonicbids.com/AllanMetts.
SONY CREATIVE SOFTWARE
Sound Forge 9.0a
multichannel audio editor
FEATURES4EASE OF USE4AUDIO QUALITY4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Extensive audio editing. Intuitive user interface. Support for multichannel audio files. Includes mastering effects and CD Architect application.
CONS: Customizable AC-3 encoding costs extra. No graphical surround panning.
Sony Creative Software