Sony's Sound Forge is one of the best-known stereo editing packages around, and version 9 brings a new world of multi-channel editing possibilities.
However good your DAW is at tweaking and trimming audio files, sophisticated audio editing is not really what a MIDI + Audio sequencer is really about. And when it comes to sophisticated audio editing — on the PC at least — two applications really dominate: Sony's Sound Forge and Steinberg's Wavelab. I'm a big fan of Wavelab 's Audio Montage features, but for straight editing tasks I've always had a personal preference for Sound Forge. Alan Tubbs reviewed version 8 back in the June 2005 issue of SOS, and was suitably impressed with the refinements to the user interface and new features such as VST and ASIO support. Alan's key criticism was the lack of support for surround sound formats.
Nearly two years later, Sony have released version 9 of Sound Forge — and guess what's top of the 'new feature' list? Yep, support for surround sound: or, more accurately, comprehensive support for the recording, editing and output of multi-channel audio. Users of Sony's Vegas or Acid Pro will know that these applications have had multi-channel audio capabilities for some time, so Sony clearly have some expertise in the area, and it would seem to make very good sense to provide users of these applications with a true editing environment to work in.
Amongst the other new features of this release are further reworking of the user interface, an improved range of metering options and a bundle of 'mastering' effects supplied by Izotope. Also included in the bundle are Sony's CD Architect (v5.2) and Noise Reduction (v2.0). The combined prices of the Izotope plug-ins, CD Architect and the Noise Reduction plug-ins, when bought individually, is well in excess of the price of Sound Forge itself, so the bundle would seem to represent good value for money. Given the combination of software and plug-ins provided, Sony's use of the phrase 'Digital Audio Production Suite' to describe it would seem to sum things up quite nicely.
There is little point is spending too much time here revisiting Sound Forge 's core features. Those unfamiliar with the application can play catch-up via the SOS web site, where they can read previous reviews from the May 1996, November 2001, September 2002 and June 2005 issues. In essence, Sound Forge has always provided an efficient and well-featured environment within which to perform detailed editing of mono and stereo audio files. Basic editing tasks such as trimming, adding fades, normalising and resampling can all be performed accurately and with ease, and file output formats cover all the usual standards, including MP3 encoding.
Processing options were, until version 8, provided via Direct X plug-ins, and a number of these were included in the Sound Forge package. As well as the usual compression, EQ, modulation and delay-style effects, more recent inclusions have been multi-band dynamics and Acoustic Mirror, a convolution-based reverb. Of course, when version 8 brought support for VST plug-ins, this opened up further processing options for users who already own plug-ins in that format. Sound Forge has always been able to rip and burn audio to and from CDs, but the inclusion of CD Architect with v8 provided a more professional level of CD creation. CD Architect does a very good job, but it has changed little in the last few years (see the 'Old Fashioned Architecture' box for details) and it remains a separate application from Sound Forge, meaning that, unlike Wavelab 's Audio Montage, audio files have to be taken from Sound Forge in order to use the CD Architect environment.
So, with this brief recap in mind, what have Sony done to Sound Forge in version 9 to improve on what was already a professional audio-editing environment?
Sony's Noise Reduction plug-in has been around for quite a while now and, as included with SF9, actually consists of a number of processes. As well as noise-print-based noise reduction, which can do an excellent job of rescuing audio affected by a consistent noise source such as an electrical or mechanical hum or hiss, separate processors are provided for click and crackle removal, clipped peak restoration and audio restoration. While these sorts of processors can never perform miracles with really poor audio, a considerable amount of cleaning can be done before audio artifacts become obvious. This is a good combination of tools for retrieving all those archived analogue recordings from your tape-based four-track!
Installation of the complete package requires a number of steps — separate installers are provided for Sound Forge, CD Architect and the Izotope plug-ins — but even so, the whole process was both speedy and straightforward on my test system. Registration is completed on-line via Sony's web site, in the same way as for Vegas or Acid Pro and, providing the host PC has an Internet link, is also painless.
Before I move on to discuss the most significant new features, I should mention a couple of less obvious items that caught my eye. First, SF9 is Vista-compatible straight out the box and has the 'Works with Windows Vista' certification. Second, SF9 includes a link to Sony Music Studios' Internet Mastering (SIM) service, which allows users to upload tracks to an on-line mastering service. While there is, of course, a fee for this service ($99 per track), turnaround is rapid (around two working days) and SF9 includes a voucher for getting a further track mastered free of charge when you purchase mastering for one track. If nothing else, getting a couple of tracks mastered via this route might make an interesting comparison with your own efforts achieved via the Izotope plug-ins.
The undoubted headline in the list of new features is multi-channel support, and for those working with surround sound (whether for music-only projects or associated with video/film/TV post-production), the ability to work with multiple channels within a single file as easily as you might work with a stereo file will be of considerable interest. A range of file formats is supported. These include multi-channel WAV and AVI, Broadcast Wave, Material Exchange Format (MXF), Dolby AC3, multi-channel Windows Media (WMA and WMV) and multi-channel ATRAC (OMA and AA3). Such multi-channel files can be opened, edited and saved in exactly the same fashion as mono or stereo files, and this includes the new 'drag-and-drop' editing function, where individual sections from one channel can be moved to another channel, much as text is moved in a word-processing application.
Assuming that suitable audio hardware is available, multi-channel audio recording is also possible. SF9 could, therefore, be used in live recording contexts where a multi-mic configuration is in use. This might include a traditional studio recording session with a full band laying down a backing track, a surround sound microphone configuration (perhaps of an orchestral performance) or where multiple microphones are used to make voice recordings in conference or meeting contexts. The example four-track and six-track test recordings I made during the review period suggest that this aspect of SF9 is both robust and straightforward in operation.
That said, those familiar with SF as a stereo recording environment may find that it takes a little time to get their heads around assigning inputs and outputs when making multi-channel recordings. When you're starting a new recording, the required format can be specified via the Channels drop-down menu option. In the Record dialogue, the hardware inputs can be linked to specific audio channels via the coloured channel number buttons. Channel output routing can be configured via the Channel Meters window, using similar coloured number buttons. Alternatively, the Options / Preferences / Audio menu option provides a way of configuring the default playback and recording routing — although, contrary to what's stated in the PDF manual, I couldn't resize this window, which made assigning inputs and outputs to SF channels more of a chore than it might have been.
The Channel Converter (available from the Process menu) has been enhanced to deal with multi-channel files. The most obvious application for this would be to down-mix a multi-channel recording to either stereo or mono, and this works well, with the user having control over the relative contributions of each original channel to the new mix. Sony have also provided useful presets for the Channel Converter, which include options for converting 5.1 to either stereo or mono, and with or without normalisation.
Output options for multi-channel files include basic AC3 encoding using the Dolby Digital AC3 Studio plug-in. This includes two default templates for 5.1 DVD audio — one with and one without AGC (Automatic Gain Control) — but otherwise no facilities for customising the audio format. However, the full Dolby Digital AC3 Pro plug-in can be purchased from within SF9 for $199.95, and then the user has full control over features such as data rates and dialogue normalisation levels.
Despite the new Hardware Meters window, and good though the multi-channel recording and rendering options are, it is worth emphasising that SF9 is primarily an environment for audio editing. As Sony have made clear in the supplied documentation, it's not intended as a multi-channel mixing tool in the same way that DAWs such as Cubase, Logic or Pro Tools are. While SF could easily be used for basic mixing, the most obvious difference is in the application of effects. SF9 has excellent effects options, and these can easily be previewed, but they are always applied in a destructive fashion — although the Undo function works well if you do need to retrace your steps. Unlike most DAWs, there is no virtual mixing environment featuring a system of insert and send/return effects options.
Effects can be applied to single channels, stereo pairs or, if the plug-in supports it, multiple channels. As far as I could see, only the Wave Hammer plug-in is currently supplied in a format compatible with surround. This provides both compression and volume maximisation for a six-channel audio file, and therefore could be useful for some basic mastering of a surround sound project. The plug-ins within the Izotope mastering suite (described more fully below) are designed for use with mono or stereo files only, although it is, of course, possible to apply them to individual channels or pairs of channels within a multi-channel audio file.
One of the highlights of the latest release is undoubtedly the inclusion of four 'mastering' plug-ins from Izotope. SOS readers will be familiar with Izotope through their various plug-in effects, such as Trash and Vinyl, and their flagship mastering suite Ozone. The latter is an integrated mastering plug-in featuring multi-band dynamics, exciter, stereo imaging, EQ, loudness maximisation/limiting, reverb and analogue modelling, and v3 is certainly well regarded by many at SOS (it is my own 'weapon of choice' for DIY mastering and was mentioned in the 'Essential Plug-ins' piece in the February 2007 issue).
The four individual plug-ins provided with SF9 — Multi-band Compressor, Mastering EQ, Mastering Reverb and IRC Limiter — are clearly based upon the same elements from Ozone. When working with mono or stereo files, the individual plug-ins can, of course, be linked together using the SF Plug-in Chainer. With the exception of the multi-band compressor, the operation of these three plug-ins is relatively straightforward. There is on-line help available via the question-mark icon in top right of the SF plug-in window, and this would be essential reading for those not familiar with Ozone. Each is supplied with a useful range of presets and these also make a good starting point for new users.
Multi-band Compressor features a rather pretty multi-coloured spectrum display that provides information on each of the four bands. The crossover points between the bands can be adjusted, and the roll-off between one band and the next is indicated by the blending of colours for the two adjacent bands. Alternatively, the display can be switched to a 'global' mode which is similar to the default display in Ozone 's multi-band dynamics section. Unlike Ozone, this is a compression-only processor — Ozone features limiting and expansion in this section, but these are not replicated here.
Similar simplifications exist in the other plug-ins. For example, there are fewer bands in the Mastering EQ plug-in than in Ozone but, overall, there is still plenty of scope here for both corrective and creative mastering work. For those that want to make their mix a little hotter, a combination of Multi-band Compressor and IRC Limiter will certainly do the business.
Sony's CD Architect was already at v5.2 when Alan Tubbs reviewed SF8 back in June 2005, and while Sony have produced a couple of maintenance releases in the meantime, it is fundamentally unchanged. My only previous serious engagement with CD Architect was, however, prior to version 5 and, while I've always used SF for my routine audio-editing work, I've tended to use Wavelab 's excellent Audio Montage functions for compiling CDs. I took another look at CD Architect as part of this review, and it is certainly a well-featured application. SF9 and CD Architect are well integrated, and I'd have no qualms with turning to this combination for producing my own CD masters.
Highlights aside, there are all sorts of other modifications and additions to Sound Forge 9. As mentioned earlier, it is now possible to drag and drop material between channels within a single audio file. This works very well, and the user has considerable control over how the 'dropped' material merges with or replaces the existing audio on the destination channel. Material can be copied in this way from multiple channels if required.
SF9 also includes some useful new metering options. For example, the Phase Scope meters can be added to either the Channel Meter or Hardware Meter views, and four different display types are available. These would, of course, be very useful for spotting phase problems in recordings made using two or more microphones. While the PDF manual doesn't really go into much detail on how these meters should be used, the on-line help within SF9 itself does provide some guidance, fortunately, and includes some simple examples of what the meters might look like if phase cancellation problems are present. Also useful is the simple, but effective, Mono Compatibility Meter. This can also be added to the Hardware Meter or Channel Meter views and can detect when phase cancellations between channels in a file will cause a problem if the file is replayed in mono. In addition, the Spectrum Analysis tools — which were already impressive within SF8 — have now been enhanced to deal with multi-channel audio.
All sorts of minor enhancements have been made to the user interface, including more options for customising colours and layout. However, two of the more significant improvements are a reworking of the way markers and the ruler can be used, and more flexibility in moving between the waveform and effects windows while previewing and adjusting effects that are to be applied. One other detail is worth mentioning. As in the current version of Vegas, when ripping tracks from a commercial audio CD, SF9 now uses the Gracenote MusicID technology to obtain information about the contents of the CD and the track details.
It is very difficult not to be impressed by Sound Forge 9. Sony have taken what was already an excellent editing environment for mono and stereo files and smoothly integrated multi-channel editing into it. For existing SF users with an interest in multi-channel audio, I think the upgrade to version 9 is almost in the 'no brainer' category. For those using version 8 who have no need for multi-channel editing, the decision is perhaps less clear, but for anyone using an earlier version there are probably enough other incremental changes to make this upgrade good value for money.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that the SF9 bundle represents very good value for money for new purchasers. Including Sony's own Noise Reduction and CD Architect software adds considerable value to the package, and the Izotope plug-ins for DIY mastering are simply the icing on the cake. As has been the case for some time, the most obvious competing product is Steinberg's Wavelab. This is, of course, an excellent application in its own right, but it has an SRP of almost double that of SF9, and cost may be a big factor for potential new purchasers on a tight budget. Competition aside, Sound Forge 9 is thoroughly impressive and the title of 'Digital Audio Production Suite' is totally appropriate to it. Highly recommended.