Soundtrack Pro, by Apple
Posted: 21-Jul-2006

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Apple Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Lane Smith Class: MULTIMEDIA

Overview
Soundtrack Pro is Apple's premier sound design application bundled in Final Cut Studio. Soundtrack Pro features over 5200 royalty-free audio loops and sound effects that can be put together in any fashion, tempo, or musical key to create unique musical scores. Plug in a microphone, MIDI instrument, or other recordable device and add your own sounds or vocals to the music. You can then take your creation and add any of over 50 customizable audio effects to parts or even the whole song. Soundtrack Pro is integrated with Final Cut Pro 5, a video editor included with Final Cut Studio, to enable you to add your song to your latest film project. Or, take any audio from Final Cut Pro and import it into Soundtrack Pro. You can edit out any pops, squeaks, airplanes, or any funky audio that occurred while filming.

Price
$1,299 as part of Final Cut Studio; various
upgrading prices are offered. It is not offered as a standalone product.

Requirements

  • PowerMac G4 or G5 Processor at 450 MHz (for dual processors) or 500 MHz. 733 MHz or faster recommended
  • 512 MB of RAM. 1 GB or more recommended
  • Mac OS X v10.3.9 or later with QuickTime 7.0 or later
  • 8 GB free disk space required for complete installation
  • DVD drive required for complete installation


Soundtrack Pro is available as an Universal application to those with Intel Macs. It is available with Final Cut Studio 5.1 or as an Apple "Crossgrade" option. Universal Soundtrack Pro will run on all current Intel Macs with Mac OS X v10.4.4 or later.

I reviewed Soundtrack Pro on a PowerMac G5 with dual processors at 2 GHz, 1 GB of RAM, and running Mac OS X v10.3.9.

Setup
Soundtrack Pro and all of its included content comes on 1 CD and 1 double-layer DVD. Soundtrack Pro and an additional program, Apple Loops Utility, are installed with a standard Installer Package on the CD. The DVD contains over 5200 royalty-free audio loops and sound effects for use with Soundtrack Pro and is also installed with an Installer Package. After installation, there were 2 updates for Soundtrack Pro via Software Update.

The first time Soundtrack Pro runs it requires a serial code for activation. The additional application, Apple Loops Utility, does not require activation.

Soundtrack Pro automatically sets the audio input to the System's default. A different input can be selected in Soundtrack Pro's preferences. MIDI, USB, and Firewire control surfaces can also be configured in Soundtrack Pro's preferences.

Interface
Soundtrack Pro features an interface common and consistent to Apple's other professional applications, such as those bundled in Final Cut Studio. This consistency allows those with previous experience with Apple professional applications to be familiar with several aspects of the interface. The standard interface layout features the main project window, a window of 4 tabs that monitor Soundtrack Pro, and a window of 5 tabs that allow you to add or store content to your project. Soundtrack Pro comes with 3 different interface layouts that can be chosen under the 'Window->Layouts' menu. Soundtrack Pro also allows you to arrange and save your own layouts.


Soundtrack Pro Interface


Soundtrack Pro's interface is pretty straightforward. For example, if you need to monitor or adjust the audio levels during a recording session, you just click the 'Recording' tab. Click the 'Crossfade' button to add a crossfade to one or more audio files, use the Browser tab to find and use files on your Hard-drive, and so on.

The down side of having crammed so much in to the main interface window is that many of the applications buttons are too small, making it sometimes difficult to click the intended button. For example, the Close/Minimize/Expand buttons in Soundtrack Pro are only 10 pixels by 10 pixels. This is about 1/2 the normal size of these buttons, and make for a very small target to click.

In most applications with timelines, I click on or near the playhead and drag my way through the timeline, or click on a spot in the timeline to skip to that particular spot. In Soundtrack Pro, it works much the same way except for a thin line that splits the timeline in half. Click above the line and everything works like you would expect. Click and drag below the line, and instead of moving the playhead, you select that part of the timeline. When playing through a project, Soundtrack Pro will infinitely repeat that selected section. I found this difficult to get used to. This is great when you meant to make a selection, but more often than not, I was doing this on accident. This may be something that becomes more of a feature than an annoyance as you grow accustomed to the way it works.

In Use
I found that I became quickly familiar with Soundtrack Pro and had a good grasp of what I could do within a few minutes of use. Typical of an Apple product, Soundtrack features a simple interface, drag-and-drop, presets, and sensible keyboard shortcuts. Much of what can be done in Soundtrack Pro needs little or no prior musical/audio experience. An extensive 311-page PDF manual is included with the installation of Soundtrack Pro, and covers the basics of Soundtrack Pro, keyboard shortcuts, and an interesting section on how sound and digital audio work.

The first thing I had wanted to do with Soundtrack Pro was to plug in my new M-Audio USB Midi keyboard and start composing my own music. I had expected Soundtrack Pro to work much like Apple Garageband, sort of Garageband's "big brother". In some ways, Soundtrack Pro is similar to Garageband, but in many ways they are quite different. While Soundtrack is an excellent sound designer, Garageband gives more options as far audio creation. Garageband comes with virtual software instruments that allow me to use my keyboard to synthesize an instrument. Soundtrack Pro lacks virtual software instruments, so my keyboard was useless as far as an audio device. I was, however, able to use my keyboard as a control surface in Soundtrack Pro. This allowed me to assign certain keys and sliders to different actions, such as adjusting volume or going to the start of the timeline.

In addition to the professional editing features of Soundtrack Pro, Apple also includes a collection of 5200+ loops and sound effects. Some of my favorite sound loops included in Soundtrack Pro are the Designer Synth loops, the Modern Rock Guitar loops, and the always useful Music Bed loops that work great alone or as filler music.

With so many loops at your disposal, Soundtrack Pro provides a 'Search' tab to sort through the audio files. To find a specific loop or sound effect, you have a few options. If you know the name of the file or instrument, you can use the search bar by typing in what you're looking for. Or you can select categories based on groupings of genre, instruments, or sound effects. Soundtrack Pro also allows you limit your search on specific tempos or wether its in the minor or major scale. You can preview the audio file by pressing the spacebar or clicking on the Play arrow. Once you've found what you're looking for, drag it onto the project window to add it to your mix. The audio file appears as a green rectangle in the project window. You can then drag either end of a looping audio file to make it loop as long as you need. Those familiar with Apple Garageband will feel right at home when doing this with Soundtrack Pro.


Searching for Loops


Soundtrack Pro also allows you to create your own loops with Apple Loops Utility. Open any recording or other audio file in Apple Loops Utility to begin the process. You can add any information that you want to be included with your loop, such as the music key your loop will be in, copyright info, genre, and descriptors. Once finished, you may save your new loop and import it into Soundtrack Pro's collection.

Soundtrack Pro features seamless integration with Final Cut Pro 5, and allows you to add synchronized music to your latest film project. While I do not own Final Cut Pro 5, I was able to test many aspects of this integration with Final Cut Express. After I had edited and exported a section of my film from Final Cut, I was able to use the Soundtrack Pro 'Browser' tab to find the exported video and drag it to the project window. I added special effects and loops to the project window and could align each sound, such as a gun shot, to the exact frame in the video. If I found that the loops were too loud, I could then adjust their volume accordingly. Once I had enough gun shots and guitar loops at the right volume, I exported the entire video file uncompressed, imported that file into Final Cut Express, and replaced my original, sans-Soundtrack video with the new video. Without Soundtrack Pro, this process could have taken hours instead of minutes, plus I may have never found acceptable sound effects and music (which I had no problem finding in Soundtrack Pro). (describe


Adding, Editing and Mixing Loops - Integrating with Video


You can edit any audio file with Soundtrack's built-in audio editor by double-clicking the audio you want to edit in the project window or by choosing File->Open. The audio editor allows you to add effects to your sound, such as adjusting the EQ or adding distortion, or otherwise modify your audio with edits and filters.


When you choose to edit sound in Soundtrack Pro, Soundtrack Pro presents you with a dialog-box that allows you to choose whether you want to edit non-destructively or not. Deciding to edit non-destructively will save a copy of your audio file and edit the copy, so that the original sound is never modified. Because Soundtrack Pro gives you the option to edit nondestructively with any audio file, there is no reason to worry about the original file being changed.

Soundtrack Pro supports the 20 audio effects that come built into Mac OS X (part of CoreAudio). These effects are also available in Garageband. Soundtrack Pro also includes an additional 30 audio effects and filters. These range from the swiss-army knife-like Compressor effect to the Vocal Transformer filter. Most audio effects and filters come with a list of presets to help you fine-tune your audio.

The audio editor in Soundtrack Pro is very capable, and allowed me to do things I could not have done before, such as creating music in-sync with my video projects and editing sound files non-destructively. My favorite feature of the audio editor is its actions list. Soundtrack records all actions performed on the audio file, such as adding audio effects or editing the file, and lists them with a check-mark box next to each. If you end up with a large list of actions and wonder what the audio would sound like without a certain effect that you added 4 actions before, simply uncheck the box next to the effect's name. Soundtrack will re-sample the audio as if the action never took place. If you change your mind, check the box and Soundtrack will add it back in again.


Editing Audio in Soundtrack Pro


Soundtrack Pro's editor also has the ability to analyze audio for such audio annoyances as clicks and pops, power line hum, or clipped signals. To use this feature, click the 'Analysis' tab in the project window, check the boxes of what you want to analyze for, and click the 'Analyze' button. Soundtrack will find and list each of what it considered a problem. You can preview each problem by selecting it in the list and hitting play. To fix a problem, click the 'Fix' button, or click the 'Fix All' button to fix all found problems.

Other great features in Soundtrack Pro's editor were the 'Ambient Noise Print' feature and the 'Set Noise Print' feature. By selecting a section of ambient noise in your audio and choosing 'Set Ambient Noise Print' from the 'Process' menu, you are able to replace any section of your audio's unwanted noise with ambient noise. You do this by selecting the unwanted noise and choosing 'Replace with Ambient Noise' from the 'Process' menu. I found this helpful when taking out off-screen coughs and sneezes in my film project. However, this does not help if the unwanted noise takes place during something significant, such as dialog. With Soundtrack you can reduce this noise with the 'Set Noise Print' feature. Isolate just the unwanted noise in the audio, select 'Set Noise Print' from the 'Process' menu. Select the section where you want to reduce the noise and select 'Reduce Noise...' from the 'Process' menu. Soundtrack presents you with a couple of sliders that allow you to adjust how much of the audio will be reduced. It is important to notice that the more you reduce the unwanted noise, the more you will also reduce the "good" audio. With this method, I was able to take out airplanes from my audio with ease, and still retain the dialog.

Soundtrack Pro performed exceptionally well during my review. I was blown away on how fast it was able to render audio. I had several complex effects on different portions of the audio and it was able to render these in seconds. There was only one instance when Soundtrack crashed, and it occurred at a point when I had tried to undo an audio filter.

Soundtrack Pro also includes a mixer with options for working with multiple audio outputs. While I was not able to work with the mixer on an entire project like I had with the rest of Soundtrack, I found the mixer to be a great asset to Soundtrack Pro. The mixer works like any real-life mixer, with sliders to adjust volume and pan of the audio. By adding multiple audio outputs, you are able to assign certain audio to different outputs. You can control the outputs in the mixer, which affect all audio assigned to that output. This would be great if you were to have 1 output with dialog and another with music, so you could adjust each independently. The mixer also allows you to assign outputs to different channels. The default output channels are the 1st and 2nd channels, which creates stereo sound. There is the option to change outputs to a set of 3 different channels (1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6) to allow you to create surround sound. You can also create mono sound by selecting to output from only one channel. Note that in order to export surround sound, you must have Apple Compressor, a compressing utility that comes with Final Cut Studio.


Soundtrack Pro Mixer


While Soundtrack Pro is designed with professionals in mind, it is so easy to use that hobbyists like myself could have a lot of fun with it. Below is a short clip from a project that I created using Soundtrack Pro and Final Cut Express that illustrates some of the capabilities of the software. I did not spend too much time perfecting the audio, but in a very short period of time I did significantly improve the sound. In about an hour, I had filtered out a passing airplane, the director talking off-screen, and most of the noise from an air conditioner. The music and the sound effects were also added using Soundtrack Pro. Click the picture below to view the clip.

While Soundtrack Pro does offer many professional-quality features, Soundtrack Pro is not a replacement for high-end programs like Logic Pro or DSP-Quattro. For example, recording in Soundtrack Pro does not allow you to record more than one sound source at a time, whereas other sound recording apps allow you to record from multiple inputs to different tracks simultaneously. Soundtrack Pro also has a steep learning curve before you can get the most out of the program. For just sound editing, for example, Amadeus II is more intuitive and easier to use.

Given that Soundtrack Pro is only available as part of Final Cut Studio, that presents a huge price tag for a consumer who may only be interested in Soundtrack Pro. For someone in that position, using Amadeus II and Garageband is far more economical. Soundtrack Pro will appeal to hobbyists and professionals who are interested in Final Cut Studio and want to be able to edit, record, and design audio along with the other capabilities Final Cut Studio provides.

My use of Soundtrack Pro is strictly as a hobbyist, but there is another aspect of Soundtrack Pro that will have great appeal to professionals in sound and video. Soundtrack Pro provides powerful integration with other Apple pro apps, creating a bridge between video editing departments and sound editing departments. Because Soundtrack Pro is so easy to use, it enables an editor to quickly create his concept of what the audio should sound like and share it with others. Others can then take this concept and expand on it with their own tools. This allows for a smoother, quicker completion of video and audio projects.

Summary
Apple Soundtrack Pro is a full-featured audio design program that allows a user to create impressive musical scores and audio for integration with Final Cut Studio, for use with other applications, or just for fun. Soundtrack Pro ships with over 5200 royalty-free music loops and sound effects to be used in any way imaginable. To fine-tune your audio, Soundtrack Pro includes a superb audio editor with over 50 audio effects and filters to enhance your audio, or to remove audio problems common to recording. I enjoyed working with Soundtrack Pro (52 different "Impact & Crashes" sound effects can keep you well occupied), and found that it is a great productivity boost to my hobbyist film-making workflow. While Soundtrack Pro does not provide every feature that one might need in a sound editor, it does include some powerful and unique features for both the professional and consumer markets.

Pros

  • Interface is straight-forward and will be familiar to those with experience in Apple's professional applications
  • Library of 5200+ royalty-free audio loops and sound effects
  • Ability to create your own loops
  • Seamless integration with Final Cut Studio
  • Non-destructive editing prevents harm to original audio files
  • Impressive built-in audio editor
  • Stable performance

Cons

  • Is not a stand-alone program; as part of Final Cut Studio, costs $1,299
  • Small annoyances with interface, such as timeline control
  • Does not include virtual software instruments
  • Unable to record from multiple inputs


Overall Rating:

4 out of 5 Mice