Sonicfire Pro, by SmartSound
Posted: 28-June-2001

2 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: SmartSound Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Tom Leahey Class: MULTIMEDIA

Description:
Sonicfire Pro is an automated soundtrack creation tool that generates royalty-free soundtracks and audio accompaniment to videos. It is designed such that the user doesn't have to be a musician to produce customized music. It provides the ability to create custom track arrangements 'sized-to-fit' time durations or to match to video cutpoints.

Sonicfire Pro is not MIDI or music notation based. It works best with developer-provided/encoded song or soundfx samples. (These are called Audio & Sound SmartSound Palettes, the package comes with 30 selections from a Library called "Dimensions SFP", more are available at an additional cost). One can also add and use your own samples/songs, though the features of the program are reduced somewhat with these versus the vendor-developed libraries. Sonicfire Pro makes extensive use of Quicktime. This cross-platform program was released on Mac-first, and a Windows version is also available. It is a decendent from the well-regarded software package called SmartSound for Multimedia.

Price:
MSRP = $349 -- includes SonicfirePro, Dimensions Library (44k) & Edge Vol1:Techno/Dance Library (44k). Individual Audio/Sound Palette Library CDs are $129 ea (44k) or $69 (22k) - discounts are available if buying 3 or more.

Installation:
Installation was straightforward, but not 'standard' (no Readme file - yep, I read 'em, no Easy vs. Custom Install options, etc.). The installation brought me right into a Product Registration screen. Happily, there were no extensions or other significant System folder additions made -- but I was not informed one way or the other in advance. The documentation would benefit if it noted what will be or was installed where. The installation also did not produce an install log.

Using Sonicfire Pro:
There are two user interface modes provided by SonicfirePro. One, called QuickTracks, is the simpler one, providing just a few simple buttons to start doing the most typical Sonicfire functions. The other is the underlying primary Sonicfire environment through which the full capabilities of the program are accessed.

The Sonicfire Main user interface is divided into the following 3 windows:

  1. The Video window
    • Displays the video you're trying to score
    • View only, no editing
    • Syncs with audio playback
  2. The Sound Editor/Timeline window has 2 major parts accessed by two tabs.
    • The Chop tab
    Provides the ability to break current audio track into custom blocks.
    • The Sequence tab
    Here you access the SmartTools - SmartEnd, SmartHinting, and Smoothing (nondestructive filter with control for length of mix and fading). From here you can enable Smart End/Quick Ending, the feature that uses Smartsounds hinting with block selections to finish a soundtrack. You can also use/apply Quick End, a filter which provides attempts to provide the shortest and most musical ending. It's important to note that Smart tools do not work with chopped Blocks - even if they are made from a Smart Block. They only work with Smart Blocks (i.e blocks from SmartSound library music).
  3. The Blocks window
    Consists of two parts divided into top/bottom panes showing parents and their subset/child blocks.


The application also uses two other important options:

  1. The Maestro - The Sonicfire wizard system which guides the user through music selection and arrangement.
  2. The SmartSound Browser - The interface to review, enable, and copy Palettes from Smartsound music libraries.

The Quicktracks interface provides a more simple method to score a Video/Movie. It automates the opening of a video and the invoking of the Maestro to create a soundtrack for that movie. The program preferences provides the ability to set the pogram to start up in the Quicktracks or the main Sonicfire interface.

The basic conncept behind the program is that each piece of music (a score) is a composed on one/many Blocks (i.e samples). Smartsound Blocks have the additional advantage of having hints which help to indicate where they should be located in a song. The user constructs soundtracks by using the system to generate blocks of audio to fit the video in question (or parts thereof). The program can generate music of any length from the music provided. You basically apply a trial and error process to pick the variant of music to your liking. Sonicfire can output just the track for integration/editting in another external video production environment/tool, or output a combined audio/video movie itself. In more advanced work, the user can set markers to break the video into sections and places where you want tracks to switch music. You can also vary selected tracks volume/dynamics via graphical interaction.

The version of Sonicfire Pro I reviewed included a library of palettes called Dimensions SFP (44.1Khz, 16bit, stereo samples). This consisted of 30 songs in several sample themes/styles. This may seem like a lot, but if you're trying for a little variety in a specific genre/style of music, in my opinion it's gets limiting pretty fast.

Documentation:
The install provides both a PDF doc (enhanced with Bookmarks and intra-doc links), and an HTML-based documentation set. There also appears to be Help accessible from within the program, but it's broken so I couldn't use it. They also provide a Tutorial folder. Overall, this seems adequate, but the PDF is incomplete (evidently also a beta), as there are some missing graphics, inserts, references to "released version will", etc. It appears the PDF is simply a repurposed variant of the HTML docs.

The Help button on the QuickTracks window simply brings up a -43 error message. I also found that the terminology used in Sonicfiore Pro's documentation was inconsistent with the terminology I'm used to with other professional audio/music tools. Lastly, the Tutorial is barely adequate - it is simply 3 sample movies one can play with to learn to build soundtracks. There's no guidance or step-by-step learning activities included.

Comments and Observations:
During my several weeks of testing , I encountered many Type 3 errors, QuickTime display artifacts, lockups and other software instabilities and inconsistencies with this product. On the other hand, I was able to sucessfully complete the majority of the projects and tests I attempted, and I was able to generate usable musical video scores, which were pretty high-quality.

Due to the crashing amd other troubles I was running into, I decided to visit the SmartSound website (www.smartsound.com) to look for an update, as well as to research their support FAQs, etc. They did have an updater from 2.0X to their new 2.01 version, so I downloaded it. But, alas, it would not run against my version 2.0b3, so I was stuck.

Conclusions:
SonicFire Pro is fine-tuned to doing a very specific job, and in that niche it does well (instabilities aside). I found the Sonicfire Pro interface sometimes awkward to use. The advanced features and the means to interact with all the capabilities of the program took a bit of learning and getting used to.

If you create professional/semi-professional movies (tapes of weddings, etc.) and need to quickly find and fit original-yet-generic royalty-free music to your edited video, this is your product. Obviously there's a bit of a 'shavers & razor blades' situation here, as this tool really works best with the vendors purchasable SmartSound palette library CDs - which I think you'd likely need to buy as you might exhaust the included libraries rather quickly. So keep that in mind if you step up to purchase Sonicfire Pro.

It's sad to say that the version I reviewed was truely beta quality - errors/omissions/incompleteness of the application, it's instability, and the incomplete docs severely hampered my experience. But I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and look at it as a beta which needed further polishing. I can only hope the Sonicfire Pro problems I encountered were remedied before it officially released.

Test Setup:
PowerMacintosh G3 266MT, AV, 10GB HD, 512MB RAM
MacOS 9.0.4+
QuickTime Pro v4.1.2

Sonicfire Pro - Macintosh System Requirements:
System 8 or higher (not recommended for MacOS X)
Power PC
CD ROM drive
speakers
8 MB available RAM
8 MB Hard Disk space <note: significantly more required if want to copy aduio sound sets to disk>

Video File Specifications:
DV, AVI, MPEG, Quicktime, Targa, Cinepak, DV NTSC & PAL, Indeo Video, Microsoft Video 1, Motion JPEG, Sorenson Video

Audio File Specifications:
Any sample rate including: 48 kHz, 32 kHz (DV audio), 44.1 kHz, 22 kHz, 11 kHz, 8, 16, 24, 32, 64 Bit, Stereo/Mono, AIFF, WAV, MP3, CD Audio, Quicktime, AU.


Pros

  • Great tool for soundtrack creation
  • Advanced audio features
  • Useful for video/audio professionals


Cons

  • Learning curve to master all features
  • Instability problems
  • Limited libraries included with main product
  • Incomplete documentation (poor tutorials)


Overall Rating

2 1/2 out of 5 Mice