Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 3

Digital Audio Editing Software

Published in SOS May 1996
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Reviews : Software: ALL

A major upgrade of this PC program makes it appeal to amateurs and professionals alike -- but also provides some exciting pointers to the future of desktop audio. DENNIS MILLER takes a quantum leap in the dark...

 

The American software company Sonic Foundry is behind this 16-bit, stereo soundfile recorder/editor for Windows. Version 3.0 is a major upgrade, and combines dozens of processing options, an extensive editing toolkit, external sampler support, and MIDI and time code triggers, making it one of the most powerful Windows software applications in recent memory.

GRAND DESIGNS

Most wave editors are used to record, manipulate and play back sounds for audio projects on disk, but Sound Forge has designs on your entire studio. For starters, its Sampler Tool can be used to move Wave files between your PC and a sampler using either MIDI Sample Dump (SDS) or, if your sampler supports it, the newer SMDI interchange format. (You must have a SCSI card in your PC for SMDI, though it doesn't have to be your main disk controller.) The Sampler Tool provides setups for many popular samplers, including Digidesign's SampleCell II, and if yours is not on the list, an intuitive configuration menu will help you get started. You'll also find numerous loop control features in the Loop Tuner, to help you locate the perfect start and end points.

Next, you can synchronise the start of digital audio files and MIDI tracks by sending a Note On message from your sequencer or controller. Forge comes with a 'virtual' MIDI Router, which is a driver that allows you to send MIDI data directly across the PC buss, so you won't need a second computer to use this option. If you work with audio for video, you'll also appreciate the ability to use SMPTE and MTC to trigger files. To synthesize your own samples, there's a powerful FM synthesis engine that offers four operators, each with its own amplitude envelope, and 13 different algorithms for designing sounds. You can also create static waveforms, using an additive synthesis feature.

Whether or not you can squeeze all your work onto the desktop is scarcely a material consideration, when there's so many great tools for carefully crafting your music. Among the more familiar options are effects such as reverb and delay, as well as processing options like normalisation, time compression and expansion, and EQ. There's support for a wide range of sound file formats, which makes it easy to move your work among different computing platforms, as well as numerous unique editing options. Furthermore, nearly every aspect of the user interface can be configured to your liking. If you happen to find a must-have feature that's missing from this version, don't despair, as a number of plug-ins that extend the program's operation have recently been released (see the 'Plug And Play' boxout).

SUGGESTED USES

In case you've not realised by now, Sound Forge is well-suited to numerous digital audio applications. If you're a multimedia composer and need to create or process audio for presentations, computer games, or CD-ROMs, Sound Forge can do the job -- and if your main interest is sound design for your own home studio projects, it can fit the bill there as well. If you own Digidesign's Session 8 or a Spectral AudioPrisma system, you could use Forge to enhance the options those systems offer, or maybe you just want to expand the editing capabilities of your sampler. Need to add a voiceover to a music bed for a radio jingle? Forge's Mixer option makes that easy, and if your business is triggering live sound effects for stage productions, load up your portable with samples and bring Forge along to the gig.

 

"Most wave editors are used to record, manipulate and play back sounds for audio projects on disk, but Sound Forge has designs on your entire studio."

 

I've had a lot of time to work with Sound Forge. Most recently, I used it to edit nearly one hour of audio for a theatrical project, and I've also put it to work designing sound effects for a computer game. I tested it extensively with my sampler, a Kurzweil K2000, and was very impressed with the speed of the SMDI transfer. I've also had the chance to use Forge to trigger files during a live concert, and for that, a Toshiba laptop, with its 16-bit audio output, was just right. I tested its SMPTE capabilities by making a number of recordings of some original film music, and then performing them using elaborate playlists whose events were triggered by time code coming from my video deck. Really quite a workout, I would say.

SETTING UP

Load up Forge and open its Preferences menu, and you'll encounter more options than you're likely to find in any other program (See figure 1). Here are the numerous settings that determine the program's appearance, plus MIDI and sync options, which Tool icons will appear on your screen, and much more. Sound Forge won't leave you wondering which settings are best for your system. Instead, it provides online help for every choice. If you need even more help, an extensive section in the user's manual is also devoted to maximizing performance. One useful tip Forge gave me related to screen redraw time: I was annoyed by the time it was taking to draw the waveform on screen when I first loaded a large file. By using the suggestion to alter the maximum zoom ratio when a file first loads, I cut the redraw time by a dramatic amount.

After a file is loaded, you'll also have access to short text messages that remind you what each icon's function is. These messages are displayed as you move the mouse over each button.

Sound Forge's main screen includes an Overview bar that displays an entire file, regardless of what segment is currently displayed on the screen (see figure 2). This is very useful for moving rapidly to any part of a large file. There are also buttons that allow you to zoom in and out, though this same task can be accomplished using the right mouse button. When you have many files open at once (the maximum depends upon how much RAM you have, but is approximately 50), the screen can easily become a bit crowded, but happily, Forge supports the Windows protocol in its use of automatic tiling and cascading of all open soundfile windows.

Elsewhere on the main screen you'll find a menu bar, a status line, several position and time indicators, plus tape-style transport controls. Toolbars, which are small groups of icons that provide access to most of the program's functions, are also displayed. You can move them anywhere you like, and even decide which will appear when the program first loads.

While working with Sound Forge, I was repeatedly struck by the flexible nature of its interface. There are many examples of this, but one worth noting is the ability to perform the same operation from different work areas. For example, if you've highlighted an area in a file from the main screen, and then open a menu item for altering the data, you can change the selection length direct from the open menu. Another example is the way in which you can access commands using different methods, including keyboard short cuts, mouse-click combinations, menu entries, or clicking on parts of the display itself. Forge also makes extensive use of the right-hand mouse button, which is rare in my experience. In most cases, this button brings up a menu of tasks that are suited to the area in which you are working. While so many options can be a bit perplexing at first, I soon found that the program's flexibility was truly exceptional.

RECORDING

Recording new files will surely be one of the most common uses for Sound Forge, and it is well-suited to the task. The two main recording options are Record to a new file, and Punch In and Out (with adjustable pre- and post-roll) of an existing one. There are also several modes available when recording, including Automatic Retake, where the program rewinds to the start of your selection after recording stops; and Multiple Take with Regions, in which a new region is created for every take. To use these options, open the Record window from the special menu, and choose from the settings displayed there (See figure 3). Select the Record mode you want, then choose a length for the recording -- or use the default, which is to fill all remaining disk space.

To test your levels before recording, check the Monitor Input button, and you'll see both graphic meters and text-based peak and margin indicators. You can't monitor during recording, but it's quick and easy to scan a waveform afterwards, to detect any clipping -- or you might use the Statistics tool to find the file's maximum amplitude if you think there's a problem. (I must admit that a clip report would be a handy addition!). Forge has a feature called Remote Recording that closes all windows except a small recording control dialogue. This makes it easier to work with other programs such as a sequencer or a soundcard mixer, which you might use during recording.

EDITING

The fun really begins when you explore Forge's numerous editing options. More than just the simple cut, copy and paste functions many programs offer, Sound Forge provides a number of more advanced editing features such as dragging data from one file and dropping it into another, where it can be mixed, pasted or cross-faded with the existing material. For creating loops or echo effects, there's a Replicate option, which fills a predefined area with as many copies of data from the clipboard as will fit. Though there's only a single level of Undo -- one of the program's few real deficiencies -- it's easy to preview most edit options before they're performed.

 

"One day, Forge might even become a 'virtual sampler', where disk-based sample files could be altered in real time."

 

Among the other edit features, one of my favourites is the ability to create an entirely new file by simply highlighting a range in an existing file, and dragging it to the desktop. To select the range, you could drag over it with the mouse cursor, but for more detailed selecting, you can also use keystroke combinations: shift+right arrow, for example, will move the selection a single pixel to the right; while shift+the number pad minus key (-) extends the highlighted range a single sample to the left. In many cases, you can alter or process data from either or both channels in a stereo file. But if you choose editing or effects processing which could change the channel's length (for example cutting, pasting or time expansion), you cannot apply it to a single channel. I got around this restriction by creating a new file from one channel, making the alteration in the new file, then replacing the original channel with the processed version. The whole operation required only a few steps.

PROCESSING

Processing functions are at the heart of any waveform editor, and Sound Forge provides the most elaborate toolkit of any program I've seen. These features are grouped into three main categories entitled Process, Effects and Tools, and whether you've spent lots of time with hardware effects units or are completely new to the process, you'll get the hang of them in no time. Each area includes both preset effects for getting started quickly, and adjustable parameters for creating your own unique sounds -- and of course you can save any custom effects you create. By default, all operations work on an entire file, but you can also select a range in the data window, or directly in the window of the function you're using. Forge even provides you with numerous preset regions to choose from, such as from the current cursor position to the beginning or end of the file. Like many hardware effects units, Forge has a Bypass button that allows you to toggle between the original and a processed version of a sound, even while the file is playing!

Among the functions in the Process menu are format conversion utilities like resample and dither to 8-bit (for reducing the quantisation noise that results from bit conversion), as well as tools for altering a file's amplitude, such as fade, mute, normalise, panning, and gain adjust. You can reverse a file or swap its channels, and use the Auto Trim/Crop feature to automatically remove segments of a file whose amplitudes fall below a set threshold. I needed to edit out long pauses in a recording of a speech for a recent project, and the Auto Trim option saved me considerable time over doing the edits manually.

There are many familiar favourites in the Effects menu, such as chorus, flange, reverb, and delay, as well as more unique effects like amplitude modulation, noise gate and a great-sounding compressor/expander. A Gapper/Snipper option that cuts segments out of a file at regular intervals is a great tool if you're into granular synthesis, while the Whammy Bar preset in the Pitch Bend feature will no doubt become a favourite of guitar players everywhere. Like the program's other menus, the effects menus offer numerous adjustable parameters, and the various sliders and knobs respond well. Though you can create some time-varying effects with the LFOs and envelopes of certain of the effects, it would be useful to see more time-varying control options both within the program and via external sources such as MIDI controller data. One day, Forge might even become a 'virtual sampler', where disk-based sample files could be altered in real time. Perhaps with the arrival of the next generation of processors this will become reality.

The graphic and parametric EQs are among the better-sounding options in the Tool menu, and adventurous hackers can create their own DSP routines using the ACM (Microsoft Audio Compression Manager) Filter also found here. To identify pops, clicks or other glitches in a file, you can use the Search Feature (or the plug-ins described in the 'Plug And Play' sidebar), and for laying a test tone onto tape, the sine wave option you'll find in the Additive Synthesis menu will do nicely. Forge's FM Synthesis tool comes with many presets that I found immediately useful, though I wish the operators' frequencies could be controlled by envelopes, like their amplitudes. Nevertheless, I got great results by creating a long FM sound, then dumping it into my Kurzweil K2000. When I substituted my sound for the keymap in some of the Kurzweil's more radical programs, I built an entire bank of interesting textures in a matter of minutes.

PLAYBACK

Sound Forge offers many versatile options in its playback controls, some of which are more commonly found in a dedicated hard disk recording system. In addition to simply playing all or part of a file, Forge has a playlist feature that allows you to rearrange the material in a file without any cutting, copying or pasting. To build a playlist, highlight any part of a file, then select the Regions option from the Window menu, or press the 'Alt' and '1' keys together. The Regions list will then appear on screen (see figure 4). Simply drag the highlighted area to the Playlist, give it a name, and if you want, change its start or end time. You can also preview the region in this window, by playing it in looped or one-shot modes. Next, continue to create additional regions, and drop them into the Playlist window in any order, then set the number of times you want each one to play (from 1 to 999). Finally, press the small button that appears to the left of the region's name field, and the list will play from beginning to end. Sound Forge can automate this task through its Auto Region option, which will create regions for you, based on an amplitude threshold or a recurring musical duration -- for example, a new region every two beats. And, of course, you can use the same region any number of times throughout the Playlist, or easily create an entirely new audio file on disk from the Playlist sequence.

While the Playlist is very useful for restructuring your material, the ability to trigger the list using MIDI events or SMPTE makes it an even more useful professional tool. To control the Playlist from an external source, assign each event a MIDI Note (On or Off) or SMPTE time, then send MIDI notes or timecode into the system, and the events will trigger exactly as you've specified. If your MIDI interface has a separate port to read SMPTE (like the Voyetra V24SM or MusicQuest 8Port SE), be sure to connect your cables properly, and set Forge's MIDI input to that port in its Preferences menu.

Even without the ability to generate timecode, there's a way to automate the Playlist. Just use your sequencer to create a sequence of note triggers where you want them, then play the sequence and send the data to Forge using the 'virtual MIDI drivers' supplied. After installing these drivers through the Windows Control Panel, you should find an option in the MIDI setup menu of your sequencer for four Sonic Foundry Virtual MIDI drivers. Select one as the sequencer's output port, and do the same in Forge's MIDI Preferences (as input, naturally). You'll then have MIDI data moving directly from your sequencer into Forge -- be sure though, that you have enough RAM in your system to run both Forge and your sequencer at the same time. If you've ever worked with MCI commands to trigger audio files from your sequencer, you'll be impressed with how much more useful this method is. In addition to having more triggering options, the overall timing should be far more accurate.

SUMMARY

I've had the opportunity to review quite a few good programs, but Sound Forge offers as much potential as any I've seen. With a vast number of fine-sounding processing tools, extensive sampler support, and numerous well-designed editing features, the program offers something for users of all levels. And by including sophisticated synthesis techniques, such as the four-operator FM generator and other forthcoming features on plug-ins, the program moves into areas that I have yet to see in commercial software on the PC. Though I would normally complain about a program missing this or that feature, a multi-level Undo is the only important option that Forge does not provide. It's a real pleasure to work with a program that is so well integrated, and provides so much power. I can honestly say that this is a great piece of software.

 

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Versions of Sound Forge exist for every edition of Windows, including Windows 3.x, Windows 95 and Windows NT. The 95 and NT versions are true 32-bit applications, and run nearly twice as fast as standard 3.x Windows. There's also a scaled-down, entry-level version called Sound Forge XP, which does not accept the plug-ins mentioned elsewhere.

The requirements for Windows 3.x use are a 386SX or faster CPU (486DX recommended), 4Mb of RAM, a VGA or better graphics, a Windows-compatible soundcard, and a hard disk large enough to hold the amount of data you intend to work with -- 5Mb is probably the minimum. You can calculate about ten minutes of stereo sound at CD quality for every 100Mb of drive space. Windows 95 and NT users will no doubt need the extra RAM and CPU power those environments require.

 

PLUG AND PLAY

While Sound Forge packs a considerable punch, there are many new features that are now available as plug-ins for the main program. Among these are a Batch Converter, a Denoise/Vinyl Restoration Toolkit and a Spectrum Analyser. The Batch Converter accepts multiple files in any of 16 different formats, and converts them in a single pass to any of 15 formats. The supported formats include standard audio formats found on the Mac, Atari, Amiga and Unix systems. Not only will it do the conversion, but it also offers resampling and bit conversion at the same time, and there are numerous preset options that allow you to edit a file during the conversion. I work with a synthesis language called Csound that uses a rather arcane file format unlike those used by programs in more widespread use. Over the years, I've amassed dozens of files in this format, and using the Batch Convertor, I was able to convert them all to Wave files automatically.

Another plug-in is a vastly enhanced FFT window, with numerous view settings and one-click zoom in and out capabilities. Formerly, Sound Forge's spectrum analyser had little to recommend it. While not as awesome as the analyser in Turtle Beach's Wave for Windows, one of the truly great displays of all time, the new FFT plug-in is perfectly serviceable, and actually offers more view options than the Turtle Beach feature. It's very useful for quickly determining the frequency components of a sound, which is an important prerequisite for effective filtering. From what I hear, the plug-in will also offer some form of resynthesis option in the near future.

Perhaps the most important of the existing plug-ins is the denoise and vinyl restoration tool. I've used the denoise option countless times to remove tape hiss and low-level noise signals that I have not been able to remove from my system. The denoise is simple to use: just give it a quarter-second fingerprint to build its filter from, then apply it to your file, and remarkably clean-sounding audio will result. A host of parameters are available for tweaking, but I've had excellent success using the presets. Vinyl restoration is also provided, and from my initial tests, I believe the Sound Forge tool offers results even better than the highly-touted DART system. Though it may not be a match for a multi-thousand pound, real-time Cedar hardware system, the vinyl restoration is very effective and a handy addition to any archivist's toolkit.

The available (and forthcoming) plug-ins from other manufacturers are no more difficult to add to the program than setting up a simple Windows application. Once installed, the plug-ins appear either in their own menu or directly alongside other features in the same category. I've long felt that a single program should be available to perform all my audio editing, and that jumping from one program to another merely to perform simple tasks is not really efficient. With Sound Forge and its plug-ins, it appears that we might just have got that program at last.

 

FORGING LINKS

A demo version of Sound Forge v3.0 may be found on the Web page of its US manufacturer, Sonic Foundry, at:

http://www.sfoundry.com

 

CLOSED-CIRCUIT SAMPLING

If you own a sampler, you'll certainly appreciate Forge's Sampler Tool. This powerful feature, which comes with its own manual, allows you to move samples between your sampler and the PC, thereby opening the world of desktop editing to sampled sounds. Transferring samples via MIDI can be very time-consuming, unless your sampler supports SMDI, a high-speed interchange that uses a SCSI bus to send MIDI data. But even using the slower MIDI Sample Dump Standard (SDS), it's a very convenient option.

Open the Sampler Configuration window, and you'll find two screens showing parameters relating to the transfer. Some of the settings relate to communication options, such as MIDI In and Out ports and SCSI Host names, while others, like Sample Bias, determine the location within your sampler to which the sample will be sent. Another option, called Open or Closed Loop, can be toggled depending upon whether your sampler supports one-way communications. (Open Loop can be prone to errors, since there's no confirmation when data is received). You're better off using Closed Loop, but just remember to connect a cable from your sampler to the computer. I tested the Sampler Tool with my K2000 using both SMDI and the slow speed SDS, and transfers in both directions worked perfectly every time. However, if you own a K2000 and can't use SMDI, then I would recommend simply using floppy disks to transfer small files, since the Kurzweil can read a DOS-formatted diskette. As this is not an option on most samplers, you'll definitely find the Sampler Tool to be a great asset.

 

pros & cons

SOUND FORGE v3.0 £499

PROS
• Huge toolkit.
• Native support for numerous Windows versions.
• Third-party plug-in support.
• Sampler support.

CONS
• No amplitude display scaling.
• Not cheap.

SUMMARY
Sound Forge is the leading wave editor on the PC and has a vast collection of processing and editing tools. With built-in support for bi-directional transfers to many popular samplers, MIDI and SMPTE time code triggering, and a clean, user-definable interface, it's an excellent program for manipulating audio data on the desktop.

 

info

£ SoundForge v3.0 £499.95; SoundForge XP for PC £149.95. Prices include VAT.

A Arbiter Group, Wilberforce Road, London NW9 6AX.

T 0181 202 1199.

F 0181 202 7076.

E arbiter@cix.compulink.co.uk

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