Acid Pro has always offered a fabulous environment for loop‑based music creation, but version 7 sees it making a bid for fully fledged DAW status.
If you make extensive use of loops in your music, and you work on a PC, the odds are that you will have tried Acid at some point. Acid Pro has always offered a powerful and creative platform for loop‑based music creation, and with versions 5 and 6, Sony expanded its features for audio and MIDI recording. Version 7 of Acid Pro is now with us and, again, the new features suggest that Sony are still keen to position Acid as a fully fledged DAW. So is Acid Pro now a viable alternative to products such as Cubase or Sonar for PC‑based musicians?
Those new to Acid Pro might like to look through the earlier SOS reviews (see the April 2005 and July 2006 issues) for some background, as all the previous functionality is retained in the new version. In essence, Acid Pro's long‑standing focus has been its ability to provide real‑time pitch‑shifting and tempo‑matching of audio loops. This capability is now built into most mainstream DAWs, but Acid is pretty much where it started, and it is fair to say that the quality of this real‑time process in Acid is about as good as it gets. And thanks to its very straightforward user interface, even non‑musicians can put together plausible results given a suitable collection of pre‑recorded loops — although whether that's good thing is another matter! Other key features include an excellent audio groove quantise function, a range of audio effects, a video window for music‑to‑picture work and the ability to act as a Rewire host or client.
As with most software updates, Acid Pro 7 offers a number of headline additions and numerous smaller refinements. For me, four new features fit into the headline category: the provision of an Input Bus system, a full audio and MIDI mixing window (something that was on my personal wish‑list when I reviewed version 6), improvements to the time‑stretching engine, and the impressive bundle of added extras from Garritan, iZotope, Native Instruments and Submersible Music (see box on the next page).
Also notable, but a bit less dramatic, are features such as MIDI track freeze, the ability to create tempo curves, real‑time rendering of projects (allowing external sound sources to be mixed down as part of the Acid project) and, amongst a range of user‑interface tweaks, customised labelling for ASIO devices and ports.
Acid has always had a Mixer window, but until now, its features have been somewhat limited. Although this didn't stop users from undertaking complex projects with mix automation, it did mean that mixing usually involved both the Track List and the Mixer window. The fully featured audio and MIDI Mixing Console window is, therefore, an obvious highlight in the new release.
As shown in the screenshot above, the general appearance of the mixer channels retains the classic Acid style, which is very functional if perhaps not a thing of great beauty. As well as the output, preview, bus, effects and soft synth mixer channels, the new Mixing Console window now also includes audio and MIDI channels for each track within the Track List, plus the new Input Bus channels. The user can toggle different track type groups or individual tracks on and off via the View pane or Channel List, and both of these options make it easy to configure the mixing environment to suit particular types of task.
Aside from the usual channel fader, level meter and pan controls, tracks now include slots for insert effects and sends, where appropriate. These two areas can be contracted and expanded to show fewer or more slots, as required. Clicking on an empty insert effects slot produces a drop‑down list from which effects can be selected, while clicking on an already filled slot opens the window for that effect so that its parameters can be adjusted. Other features include mute, solo, automation mode, a phase switch, record arming, input monitoring, insert effect chain editing, track freeze and an insert pre‑/post‑fader option, the selection of which depends upon the track type. This is now a well‑specified mixer, and having faders for all track types in one place makes it easier to focus on basic mixing tasks such as fader automation. In version 6, this required working in both the old mixer window (for master outputs, buses and so on) and in the Track List (for the audio and MIDI tracks).
In terms of making Acid a more credible environment for serious audio recording, the new Input Bus tracks are a big plus. They provide the ability to quickly configure which hardware input(s) are to be used, what effects (insert or send) are to be applied to the input signal and whether the input bus is to be returned to an output for monitoring purposes (which, as in most DAWs, works fine if your audio device can function at low enough latency levels).
A few of the other new features are worth highlighting. Like most mainstream DAWs, Acid Pro 7 now includes a Freeze option for MIDI tracks. This simply renders the soft synth output to a WAV file, hence reducing the CPU load when working with a project that is stressing the host computer. This works well and the operation is pretty much invisible to the user. Tracks can be unfrozen if further editing is required.
Acid has always allowed tempo changes within projects, but version 7 sees the introduction of tempo curves for the first time. The approach used offers a number of pre‑defined shapes of tempo change between two tempo markers — not a full‑blown tempo track but a considerable improvement, and easy to use, too. As before, Acid will follow tempo changes (including tempo curves) from another application via Rewire.
For users with hardware MIDI sound sources, the new real‑time rendering option will be welcome. This enables a project to be bounced in real time rather than as quickly as the CPU allows, with MIDI tracks transmitting data out to any hardware sources and the audio being returned via an Input Bus for inclusion within the mix. One other nice detail in this release is the ability to customise the labels for your various ASIO‑based audio inputs and output. These then appear in all the I/O drop‑down options (within the Mixer, for example) — all much neater than the sometimes cryptic default names that appear for some devices.
As a long‑standing user of Acid, I'm obviously something of a fan. In use, I found Acid Pro 7 immediately familiar and, small changes to the interface aside, still a working environment I find simple, efficient and downright fun to use. Sony have made some changes under the hood in terms of the pitch- and tempo‑shifting algorithms (including the new Zplane 'Élastique Pro' time‑stretching that can be used with Beatmapped files), but these are generally invisible to the user. The bottom line here is that the real‑time pitch and tempo manipulation is still as good as it gets, and pretty much effortless when used with pre‑recorded loops.
For anyone familiar with virtual mixers, the new Mixing Console is very easy to find your way around, and it does make final project mixing much easier, both in terms of managing your use of effects plug‑ins and creating track‑level automation data. The new Input Bus system is well implemented and immediately makes Acid an easier environment for standard multitrack audio recording. Having run both version 6 and 7 on the same test system during the course of the review, I didn't see any noticeable difference in performance, and the v7.0a release used for testing seemed very stable.
So is Acid now the perfect DAW? Well, not quite. Rival products such as Cubase and Sonar still have tools for audio and MIDI editing that are missing here. For example, I'd love to see the equivalent of the Cubase 'Detect Silence' command available, as I find this a real time‑saver when I'm editing together multiple takes of vocals. Equally, however, there are areas where Acid outshines the competition, particularly in the mixing and matching of pre‑recorded loops.
In recent years, my impression is that Acid hasn't had quite the profile of some of its obvious competition, particularly in the UK, and this has always been a bit of mystery to me. Perhaps it's something to do with its PC‑only status but, as a tool for working with loops, I think Acid is just about as good as it currently gets. This upgrade is evolutionary rather than revolutionary but I'm sure the majority of existing users will see it as well worthwhile.
What is perhaps more interesting is whether Acid Pro 7 might now be seen as a more serious competitor for the mainstream PC‑based DAWs such as Cubase and Sonar. Sony have continued to move Acid forward in that respect, and it is now also a very capable multitrack audio and MIDI recording and mixing environment. As a regular user of Cubase, I hesitate to undertake a predominately loop‑based project in Cubase knowing I've got Acid on my PC. Equally, if I'm creating a complex MIDI‑based project, I still go with Cubase, simply because I'm more familiar with the MIDI tools it offers. However, for projects that mix and match all three elements — loops, audio tracks and MIDI — I would previously have used Cubase with Acid Rewired in, but now Acid Pro 7 is perfectly capable of handling it all. PC users looking to buy into the top end of the workstation market should certainly give Acid Pro 7 some serious consideration, because this is now a very good DAW that also happens to be great fun to use.
While Acid started life as a loop‑based music production tool, Sony's addition of further mainstream DAW features makes version 7 a credible alternative to the likes of Steinberg's Cubase and Cakewalk's Sonar. The choice may depend upon a combination of price and how you intend to make music, but if loops are likely to feature prominently, Sonar and Ableton Live are perhaps the most obvious competitors for Acid Pro 7.
For those interested in recording electric guitars, the new Input Bus channels will be particular useful, allowing users to take full advantage of the Native Instruments Guitar Combos that are part of the bundled extras. These provide three very decent amp models — AC Box, Plexi and Twang — and each is supplied with a good number of presets. The clean and crunchy sounds are all very useable, although I did find myself taking a little top‑end off some of the high‑gain presets to reduce some of the fizz.
A special version of Garritan's ARIA sample player is also included. This VSTi includes a range of orchestral, jazz/big band, marching band and GM‑type sounds, all subsets of samples taken from Garritan's other products. The player itself is simple but offers some nice features and, although there are not huge numbers of instruments provided, what is here is very good indeed. This includes some nice key‑switched string samples (full strings and sections) and very useable Steinway jazz piano, vintage electric piano and upright bass.
The third element of the bundle is the KitCore drum sample VSTi from Submersible Music. This is a cut‑down version of their flagship DrumCore package and it includes a range of different drum kits and MIDI loops taken from the various DrumCore libraries. While it perhaps serves as a taster for the full product, as with ARIA, the basic set of drum and percussion sounds supplied are good.
The final freebie is the Acid Pro Effects Rack from iZotope. This includes a flanger, phaser, 'analogue' delay and dynamics processor, all of which will be familiar to anyone who has used any of iZotope's full products such as Ozone. I particularly liked the delay, which is both well specified (it offers, tube, tape and 'bucket brigade' models), easy to use and sounds great.