Online Review: Sound Forge 4.5, Sonic Foundry





So. We at AudioMac, Mac addicts full speed, have to admit something right away. We are getting a bit addicted to Windows audio software. Be it the user interface is not always that smooth as we are custom to in the Mac world, after having worked with the stuff for a few weeks we click around the software with no problems and find the functionality of Windows audio software by Sonic Foundry surprisingly mature. An interesting discovery voyage of a Mac Addict into That Other Operating System We never Liked Until Now. For the books: we tested SoundForge using Windows 2000 Professional, a nice leap forward compared to Windows 98.

The ease of use and mature functionality may be considered as the first big compliment to Sonic Foundry in this article. We can assure you Windows users, it is not easy to convince a Mac dedicated studio engineer that Windows software works fine and easy too. To be honest: the Mac stayed shut down for two whole days, something that never happened in my studio before.

Maybe the biggest compliment is that Sonic Foundry has made it's point: audio working on Windows is possible on a professional level too, and secondly -very important always- it's fun too. And: Sonic Foundry has put some features in Sound Forge, we really would love to see in Mac software too. We'll come back to that later. We have the strong impression somehow that with Sound Forge, Sonic Foundry has pushed Windows based digital audio recording and engineering straight into the professional production level. Well, I better compliment from a Mac addict to a Windows software supplier is rather unthinkable, right?

So, getting curious about the software we are giving all these compliments at? Read on. Here's the online review of an absolute Mac freak, that did a real-time production for an Internet website using SoundForge 4.5 Pro Studio Edition. On a Windows machine, mind you once again please.

General overview.

SoundForge 4.5 Pro Studio Edition consists of not only the post production software Sound Forge, but also the Noise Reduction plug-in and the audio CD production software CD Architect. Details on these products later on.

First we have a closer look at the main product: Sound Forge 4.5. Below we show it's main screen, with the file AudioMac Tune (can be heard on our index page) loaded. When you pop up the picture in it's real size, have a look at the huge collection of buttons on top. Each button contains a one-click connection to one of the many features of this software. If you put the cursor over a button, a short description of the functionality is given. A Windows standard, but very handy.

All major and important functions, needed for digital audio post production, are there. We will look into some of them them later on. It is impossible to mention and describe all effects and commands here. It would take half a website.


* The main user interface. Click image to see full image in separate window.


Sound Forge appears to be extremely tunable to your personal wishes and needs. The preferences panel (shown below) gives you a total of 13 tabs. Each tab contains a lot of parameters you can set. Can be somewhat confusing in the beginning, but once you get used with the features you can tune Sound Forge completely to your likes. Good.


* The Preferences window. Click image to see full image in separate window.

Switching some parameters off speeds up a lot of processes within Sound Forge, but also enlarges the risks you take. For example: you can set the Undo parameter off in each and every plug-in window. This makes processing pretty fast, but of course lets you not return to the previous state of the audio file. Good thing if you're a professional, but shutting off undo is not very wise when you're a first time user. Take the extra time in the beginning and go for processing speed later when you know what you're doing, would be my advice.


Plug-ins.

Sound Forge comes with a nice collection of plug-ins standard in the box. All functions, basically needed for professional audio production, are there.

Example: there are three types of equalizers (parametric, paragraphic and 10-bands) that enable you to "color" your audio anyway you want. As Sound Forge supports some of the most important web audio formats, you could e.g. preproduce your audio to suit the characteristics of web audio best.

Moreover, Sound Forge comes with important functions. To mention just a few of many: Normalize, DC offset, Reverb, Delay/Echo, Smooth/Enhance. There are many more: too much to mention them all here. And most of them with a nice collection of presets you can use right away to experiment your way through the wonders of digital audio production.

OK, I'll mention some more: Fade In and Out automatically or graphically, graphic and multiband dynamics, time compression and expand (within certain ranges without any distortion or detuning of the audio), Chorus, Flange.

And for those of you that want to make a serious job of producing audio for websites, there is Resample (from 2 Khz to 96 Khz including most common settings like 11,025, 22,050 and 44,1 as presets). Sound Forge does these sample rate conversions very well, with a minimum of quality loss. Of course, a 44,4 file sound much better then a 8, but the resamples we did to lower resolutions sounded still good and usable. All rates with or without anti-aliasing.

All plug-in sub-windows give you the possibility to preview (part of the) the result of chosen effect and preset (or self defined settings). In the preferences window you can determine how many seconds of preview you would like to have. In the example screenshot of the Reverb effect below, the preview button is in the red circle. If you check the Bypass option, the file without effect is heard. This enables you to make quick comparisons between original sound and processed sound.


* Reverb window. Click tot see full image.

If you create your own settings (let's say a small cathedral reverb in your own toilet, yip it can be done), Sound Forge lets you save these settings under a unique name for later use, like "ToiDral"or whatever inventive name you like. If you want to get even more specific in your effects use, Sonic Foundry sells separate DirectX effect series (XFX1 through XFX3, which contain more sophisticated versions of the plug-ins you get with Sound Forge. The XFX-series allow you to preview the effects in true real time. More info on these series can be found at the Sonic Foundry website.


Help.

For those of you that are not so familiar with digital audio techtalk yet, there is a very good Help function in Sound Forge. Out of the box, Sound Forge comes with a thin (30 pages) manual to get started right away and learn some of the most needed basic of the software. Once you got yourself familiar with these basic startups, you'd better switch to the built in digital Help manual.

The explanations in this Help file are very clear and good, and easy to understand for even the biggest no-tech on earth (like most musicians still are). Like in all Windows help functionality, you can either browse through the information using a logically built index page, or search for info through the built-in search engine.

There is also a feature called "Tip of the Day", that reminds you of a collection of important issues and features about Sound Forge, one each time you start the software. Not unique (we've seen this in a lot of software packages), but it illustrates how serious and thorough Sonic Foundry choose it's approach. And in these reminder windows, the explanations are very well written too. With this complete help functionality we have a feature, we would like to see in Mac software. Below -as an example- the help text for Aliasing (did you really know what the term "Aliasing" stands for? If you're a Photoshop user maybe you already got the picture ;-).

Helptext on Aliasing in the Help function of Sonic Foundry.

Aliasing is a type of distortion that occurs when digitally recording high frequencies with a low sample rate. For example, in a motion picture, when a carÍs wheels appear to slowly spin backward while the car is quickly moving forward you are seeing the effects of aliasing. Similarly when you try to record a frequency greater than one half of the sampling rate (the Nyquist Frequency), instead of hearing a high pitch you may hear a low frequency rumble. To prevent aliasing, an anti-aliasing filter is used to remove high-frequencies before recording. Once the sound has been recorded, aliasing distortion is impossible to remove without also removing other frequencies from the sound. This same anti-aliasing filter must be applied when resampling to a lower sample rate.

Spectrum Analysis and Spectrum Graph.

The true audio professional does not only want to hear what he is doing, he also wants to see. That is what the Spectrum Analysis and Spectrum Graph are good for. Analysis performs precise FFT analysis and displays the resulting data in two graphical formats at choice (linegraph and sonogram). While moving the cursor over the plotted curves in the linegraph, you can read the exact dB and Hz values. Here's an example screen shot of Spectrum Analysis, synthesized from our testfile:


* Spectrum Analysis window. Click image to see full image in separate window.

For those of you that prefer to work with sonograms (and actually can read and interpretate them, which is quit a profession in itself), here's a screenshot of the sonogram version of Spectrum Analysis.


* Click image to see full image in separate window.

Batch converter.

Here's another feature we can use in our studio, and which will bring us money (not unimportant for an average studio owner who is fighting against time and money): the Batch Convertor. Put them files-to-be-converted in a batch row, fire up this function, and go do your nice things or other work. No waiting until all converting is done: Sound Forge manages this dull but important job on its own, so you can use your time better. To write new creative music for example, or finish other (better paid maybe) work. The Batch Convertor is fully scriptable and lets you insert effects and audio functions at will. Very strong tool.

Regions, markers, playlists, samples, loops, and a pencil.

If an audio postproduction software package want's to call itself "professional", it needs to contain some features that are just simply unmissable for smooth working. Sonic Foundry understood that very well and has put them tools all in.

A quick overview. Regions can be dragged to a playlist and then edited nondestructive, including multiple history undo. This gives the user high flexibility. The same features are available for complete files too, of course. With the markers option, you can mark and name important points in your recording so you can find them back quickly.


* Click image to see full image in separate window.

In the screenshot above we show you some samples: two markers to indicate the start and end of a chorus effect, and the marker to the right that indicates the start of a fade out.

Playlists enable you -among others- to rearrange the order of playback of complete files and file-regions, thus providing you with maximum flexibility in audio layout. Also unmissable in the professional studio.

Sampling is another nice and strong feature of Sound Forge: you can produce one-shoot samples, or continuous ones, and them transfer them to a sampling device of internal sampler via SCSI/SMDI or MIDI/SDS.

If you happen to work with ACID (Sonic Foundry's music creation software, see website) you can prepare ACID loops in Sound Forge quickly and easily. I must confess we did not try out this feature very deeply, since we don't have ACID, but what we saw was enough to conclude that looping and sampling in Sound Forge works fine.

To match your needs exactly, Sound Forge can display measures in samples, Time, Seconds, Time & Frames, Absolute Frames, Measures & Beats, and SMTP in the variations Non-Crop (30 or 29.97 fps), Drop (30 fps), EBU (25 fps) and Film Sync (24 fps). Enough for all professional needs, as far as we are concerned.

And yes: what most post production packages on Mac platform lack (except for DigiDesign) is a pencil tool, that lets you edit directly the curves in the audio file. Sound Forge has one, and that made me very happy. But a strong warning should be given here: with the pencil tool you can destroy your recording very quickly. So if you not know exactly what you're doing, you'd better leave the pencil where it is: hidden under one of the many buttons.

AVI-video.

If you're in the need to glue some audio and video together in a controlled way, Sound Forge is your software too. Of course it does not offer you the features of software like Adobe Premiere, but there are just enough tools to cut, paste and size your audio right under the scenes where the audio will enlarge the effect you want to reach with your .AVI-video. We did not see an option for opening QuickTime movies, the video standard on the Mac platform. Maybe not because we do not have the Windows-version of QuickTime in the test PC, I could not figure out that one. Well, you can't win them all, can you. The video feature is in any case a nice one, e.g. to match your audio with your video clip.

Sound Forge -as said before- is really loaded with features. It would take a website to describe them all here. Therefor, I now switch to the next goody that comes with the Studio Pro package of Sound Forge 4.5.

Noise Reduction, and MP3 restoration...


The Noise Reduction plug-in has another two sister plug-ins on the CD as well: Click Removal and Vinyl Restoration. It is obvious what you can do with these three: audio restoration of digitized old records. Your old long play records brought to audio-acceptable life again.

But: we discovered and tried another handy use of the Vinyl Restoration plug-in: restoration of MP3 files! When you download MP3 files from the Web you'll find that sometimes glitches can be heard in the audio. This is caused by lost or misformed data during transfer over the Web. These glitches mostly occur when you download through the Napster network. Don't ask me why, but we found it to be that way. MP3 files, downloaded from "regular" MP3 services on the web did not have this.

The data losses are heard as crackle or glitches in the audio. The Vinyl Restoration plug-in can help you here, as strange as it may sound though. The Vinyl Restoration is just software: it does not know if an audio file came from an old record or from the Web. So: it treats a scratch as a scratch so to speak. We repaired several Napster MP3 downloads successfully. I bet Sonic Foundry did not think if this kind of use yet.

In the studio post production environment, the Noise Reduction probably will be used the most. It effectively removes all kinds of unwanted noise out of recordings.


* Noise Reduction plug-in. Click image to see full image in separate window.

The trick of Noise Reduction is easy in fact. First you make a so called noise print (shown above). It basically determines the "distance" between noise and audio to be kept. Do a preview and if you're satisfied, go. Noise gone. The quality of this plug-in is good, though it takes some experimenting sometimes to get the desired result. When to pick the "distance" not right, your music is demolished along with the noise, and that is not what you want of course. My guess is that -if you work a bit longer with this plug and get acquainted to its settings and parameters- the results you get will be better and better.

But I also have to state here: the neural technology denoise plugs we work with under the Macintosh software sonicWORX is very hard if not impossible to beat. On the Windows platform though, Sonic Foundry's Noise Reduction will do your job very well. I'd like to give this plug an 7 to 8. The score is somewhat low, due to the rather long learning curve needed if you want to gain true professional results.

And to be honest: we compared to the sonicWORX DeNoiser on Mac, which is simply a couple of quality classes higher. Maybe not fair to do this comparison, but hey: we users want quality, don't we? Nevertheless: if you're on SoundForge and need noise reduction, thus plug-in will satisfy your needs definitely.

CD Architect.

CD Architect nests itself as an extra function within the SoundForge menus if Sound Forge is installed on your PC, but basically it is a separate application. It lets you arrange audio files in a kind of Audio-CD story board, as shown here:


* CD Architect user interface. Click image to see full image in separate window.

You can arrange the audio's volume by dragging the white dots in the blue line (as in the second audio file shown above) to adjust the levels of the audio files and bring the overall volume of the tracks on the audio CD in the right balance.

CD Architect only reads .WAV files. For a Windows application that is quite natural of course, but I think support for formats like .AIF and SDII (SoundDesigner) is not luxury but a must. In a lot of recording studios equipped with Mac, SDII is the format to work in. If in this studio a PC is installed, SDII readability on this PC would be a great plus. Sound Forge reads Sound Designer I files, but not II. So, if you get delivered Mac born SDII files to be burned on CD, you will not be able to convert these files to .WAV using Sound Forge. If they come in as .AIFF files (the other major format on Mac)), you will be able to read them in Sound Forge. Before burning though, you will have to do a file format conversion to .WAV. Maybe using the Batch Processor discussed before, but still not very handy. These processes take time, and in studio environment time is money. So a tip for Sonic Foundry: let CD Architect read .AIFF files too. And make SDII formatted files available in Sound Forge and CD Architect too. Would be great.

But anyway, when using .WAV files, CD Architect is very workable and useful, though not a substitute for professional software like Adaptec's JAM for example. As far as we could discover, CD Architect has no support for CD burner array's, that enable you to produce multiple CD's at one time. These array's are getting more and more common in the studio environment, as their prices have lowered to an acceptable level. But: who wants to burn a single copy at a time, for example a presentation copy for a new production, has a good and handy tool in CD Architect, well integrated within Sound Forge. When seen in this perspective, a 7 to 8 is a fair rating.

Conclusion.

On a scale of 1 (very bad) to 10 (excellent)  we rate SoundForge 4.5 a 8,5 to 9. I know: that's rather high on the scale. But it is fair: Sonic Foundry deserves this high ranking. They delivered a solid rock product that will help any semi pro and pro audio engineer to produce in a professional pace. The flexibility to insert a huge world of DirectX (from Sonic Foundry and many other suppliers) and VST plugins (like the ones from Waves) gives you a very wide variety of possibilities. You can "paint" your audio in so many ways that only the sky and your creativity are the limit.


All reviews in AudioMac.net are written by Peter J. Bloemendaal. All rights reserved.

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08-07-2001