You are here

Apple Soundtrack Pro

Audio Sequencer & Editor
By Paul White

Apple Soundtrack Pro

Apple's loop-sequencing application has grown up, with the addition of sophisticated recording, editing and mixing facilities, a powerful waveform editor, and many of Logic 's most sought-after effects.

The marketing copy for Apple's original Soundtrack claimed that it enabled anyone working in picture to build professional-quality audio soundtracks by combining the thousands of ready-made, royalty-free Apple Loops that are included with the program. Apple describe the program as 'A royalty-free orchestra at your command', but what it really offers is a royalty-free orchestra plus a royalty-free composer, both of whom will work for no wages, and I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling a little uncomfortable with this 'even the family pet can play it!' approach. To be fair, you can also record and import 'real' audio in the form of AIFF or WAV files as well as bringing in Acid loops, but what it seems to be saying to the musician busy working on TV projects is that we can cut out the middle man — and the middle man is you!

The new Soundtrack Pro, however, is an entirely different thermal inducing device full of aquatic lifeforms of the subphylum Vertebrata. Indeed, it is so much more sophisticated than the original Soundtrack that it has little in common other than the name. Yes, you can still do intuitive loop-based music compilation, but now you can also edit stereo and multitrack audio to single-sample accuracy, mix, use third-party plug-in AU effects and restore audio corrupted with clicks, hiss or hum. You can bring in movies and sync them to your music, while the time-bending tools built into the program let you change the tempo of the music to fit the video or sync to Final Cut 5 's Scoring Markers.

As you'd expect, Soundtrack Pro is specifically designed to work alongside Final Cut Pro and other Apple software to facilitate the transferring of video and audio files between applications, and the multitrack capabilities of the program are ideally suited to layering up and mixing music, dialogue and effects for use in Final Cut Pro. If you think of the program as combining elements of programs like Logic, BIAS Peak LE and Garage Band in a way that is familiar to Final Cut users, you won't be far off the mark, though it also includes some very advanced workflow tools that you won't find in many other audio programs. You can even use Soundtrack Pro 's waveform editor section as a stand-alone waveform editor for use with applications like Logic, Live or Reason. However, there's no MIDI or software instrument part to the program; Soundtrack Pro is more about editing audio and sync'ing it to picture.

Soundtrack Pro is available as a stand-alone application but also comes as part of the Final Cut Studio Suite along with Final Cut Pro 5, DVD Studio Pro and Motion 2.

The Interface

Essentially, Soundtrack Pro works in two distinct modes, one for handling multitrack projects and one for waveform editing (see box). In multitrack projects, you can record new audio and add or arrange audio clips (including Apple Loops) on a timeline, much as you can in Logic or Garage Band. The user interface is more Final Cut than Logic, with the same menus appearing in all windows and a toolbar at the top of the main window. However, the program does make extensive use of tabbed windows to jump between different project views and controls so you can access a lot of information without cluttering up your screen. Clicking a tab makes it active and brings it to the front, and the workspace can be customised to suit the project you are working: windows can be moved and resized, and the tabs can be reordered by dragging them. Similarly, you can decide which tools should be visible in the toolbar at the top of the screen. There's also a counterpart to Logic 's screen sets feature. Soundtrack Pro can save and recall preset window layouts, which are named and then saved in the Layouts submenu from where they can be recalled at any time.

Soundtrack Pro supports third-party effects in Audio Units format, and allows you to combine them and apply them off-line as well as in real time.Soundtrack Pro supports third-party effects in Audio Units format, and allows you to combine them and apply them off-line as well as in real time.

Project controls are used to define the project's time signature, tempo, musical key, sample rate and time format. The musical key data controls the transposition of Apple Loops; non-looping (one-shot) files retain their length and pitch. To help prevent visual congestion, you can choose whether or not the video track, audio tracks, busses, outputs and master envelopes are visible. There's also a miniature global timeline view that provides an overview of the whole project and allows you to jump to different parts of the project. Fairly conventional transport controls start and stop playback or recording and set the position of the play cursor, and you can also set up a loop cycle when required. Soundtrack Pro also supports audio scrubbing, both in multitrack projects and in the waveform editor.

The Timeline itself is arranged into three horizontal sections for tracks, busses and outputs, where each track, buss and output has controls in its header at the left of the screen. Several different cursor tools are available, much as they are in Logic and other sequencer programs, for selecting and splitting audio clips and so on. Recordings are initiated on the selected channel after setting up the audio source in the Recording dialogue window, but it seems you can arm only one track at a time for recording. The whole track header background turns red in record-ready mode, so it's always very clear when a track is armed. A loop-recording feature allows you to do multiple takes, then Ctrl-click between them to select the best parts of each.

Soundtrack Pro allows you to add audio files in AIFF, WAV, MP3 and AAC (except protected AAC) format and you can also bring in Quicktime audio files. Audio files with any combination of 8kHz to 192kHz sample rate and 8- to 32-bit resolution can be imported. Though you can use the internal audio capabilities of your Mac for monitoring, the best quality and greatest flexibility is afforded by using an external interface box compatible with Mac OS 10.3 or above. If you want to record into Soundtrack Pro, an interface with a low-latency driver is recommended for obvious reasons. Soundtrack Pro supports a maximum sample rate of 96kHz at 24-bit for working, though it can import and convert all the formats listed earlier. Though Soundtrack Pro isn't designed to work with MIDI instruments, it does support MIDI sync via MIDI Clock or MTC at its MIDI input.

Dropping a Quicktime movie onto the Quicktime video window or into the Video timeline places the audio component onto the first audio track, in stereo where the source is stereo. The header frame of the video is also shown in the Video track, but you can't string multiple video clips together here — even though the interface looks a little like Final Cut, it's for editing audio not video! A slider controls the video playback position directly, or you can type a time value into the value slider.

When moving or resizing audio clips alongside video, you probably want them to synchronise with the video elements of the project, while when editing audio, you tend to do so by beats and bars. Here, you can set each track to be time-based or tempo-based as required, and Soundtrack Pro includes a Snap feature so that edits, markers and moves lock to the nearest Snap To position. Even envelopes and crossfades lock to Snap.

Say Hello, Waveform Editor

Soundtrack Pro 's Waveform Edit window can be opened by double-clicking in an audio region, or you can open audio files directly in the waveform editor without going through the multitrack view. Audio can be viewed and edited down to the individual sample level, either destructively or non-destructively. There are tools that allow audio files to be analysed for common problems — especially prevalent in video production — such as clicks, pops, hum and noise, and all the other common functions such as normalisation, fades and gain changes are also supported. At sample level, you can also redraw the audio data to get rid of digital spikes and other short-duration artifacts. Zoom tools allow you to home in on sections of interest, and interestingly, you can also toggle between a waveform view and an audio spectrum view. The waveform display also animates to enable you to visualise the results of your processing.

Actions and Analysis buttons show either the Actions list or the Analysis Type with relevant parameters and analysis result listings. The Analysis functions include the ability to check for clipped audio, provided the file has not subsequently been reduced in level — the audio has to hit the end stops to be recognised as clipping. Some analysis types have parameters, such as threshold, that need to be adjusted prior to analysing the file. When Actions is active, you can add real-time effects via the Effects tab. One feature that will make Logic users jealous is that you can also 'flatten' the results to make them permanent, without having to bounce and re-import a new file.

Any actions performed on the audio, such as normalising, are listed in the Actions window with a tick box alongside each action. Unchecking the box reverses that action up until the point where you decide to flatten the file and make your edits permanent. This is a particularly elegant feature and goes far beyond being a simple undo-redo history. For example, you can reorder actions by clicking and dragging, and you can undo an single action you did several steps ago without having to redo lots of later ones. Additionally, Actions can be temporarily bypassed rather than undone, so this feature really does make for a flexible workflow. What's more, you can save Action sequences as Apple Script droplets to facilitate drag-and-drop batch processing. Action droplet settings may be edited directly in the Apple Script editor so it's not difficult to make small changes to a multi-stage batch process that you've set up. Soundtrack Pro also ships with a number of 'Automator Actions' that take advantage of the new Automator features in the Tiger operating system. In effect, these make it possible to automate certain audio processing tasks (sample-rate conversion, audio trimming, denoising, normalising and so on) without having to write your own Apple Scripts.

The Waveform Editor's Analysis functions include a clipping detector.The Waveform Editor's Analysis functions include a clipping detector.

While the waveform editor might not have quite so much functionality as the most advanced dedicated audio editing packages, it comes pretty close and handles all the essentials such as sample-rate and stereo-to-mono conversion, fades in and out, normalising and gain change, reversing and time-stretching. It also has a fingerprint noise-reduction system that works reasonably well providing you don't give it anything hopelessly noisy to deal with. This isn't a conventional real-time plug-in: instead, you load in a section of noise, then loop the audio while adjusting the threshold control until you get the best result. When you've tweaked to your satisfaction, you can then apply the process to the whole file or to the selected region. While not quite state-of-the-art, it's infinitely better than the denoiser in Logic.

Mixing And Matching

Track level and pan can be adjusted in the main page using controls in the track header section where you can also mute and solo tracks, add insert effects as plug-ins and send to a reverb buss. Automation is available via a pop-up menu and the now familiar folder content 'swivel arrowheads' allow the automation relevant to any given track to be displayed directly below it, again not unlike the way it is handled within Logic. Three automation modes are supported — Latch, Touch and Read — and automation data may be input directly from a mouse or hardware controller, or edited graphically using envelopes and breakpoints. Hardware control surfaces that impement the Mackie Control protocol are supported.

When you come to mix a project, there's a dedicated Mixer page where each track, buss and output has a channel strip with level meter, level control, mute and solo buttons, slots for adding effects, pan controls and so on. Each track may be given an icon selected from a list, again rather as you can in Logic, though there is a great choice of colourful icons here that would make most Logic users jealous! A pop-up menu lets you select an output for the track or buss as well as letting you pick multiple physical output channels for the output audio channels. Conceptually, this isn't dissimilar to the Logic Track Mixer, though it looks a little simpler. Finished projects may be exported as audio files or as a Quicktime movie.

There's also a Media and Effects Manager, which comprises five tabbed areas and is designed to allow you to find and preview audio, video and effects. A Browser window lets you trawl through your hard drives and folders in the usual way, and favourite items can be stored under the Favourites tab. The Search tab lets you locate audio files filtered by criteria and you can also search for specific text or Apple Loop tagging descriptors. Candidates may then be auditioned from within the Search Results list. The Bin tab contains media files added to the project and you can drag files directly from the Bin onto the timeline. Files not currently added to the project are dimmed, whereas off-line files appear with red text. Using an Effects tab, you can add plug-in effects and configure effects sends for the project and also call up information on effects already instantiated on tracks, busses, outputs or audio files.

Soundtrack Pro now includes over 50 plug-in effects from the Apple range, including high-end reverb, delay, EQ and chorus plus more dramatic sound-mangling processors like Sub Bass, Bitcrusher and Auto Filter. Many of the effects are ported directly from Logic and they still have their distinctive blue graphical interfaces. Even Logic 's high-end Space Designer reverb is available here. As with Logic, third-party effects are supported in Audio Units format only — there's no VST or RTAS support.

Minor Gripes

I did encounter a couple of minor problems with Soundtrack Pro. For one thing, it seemed like whenever I did anything at all on screen, even adding track icons, the G5 processor fans revved up to take the strain. There were no performance issues associated with this, just a lot of huffing and puffing from the fans as though I was asking the CPU to do something arduous. Even dragging windows around the screen started it off, and it was most disconcerting.

The program also seemed a little half-hearted about accepting my Logic Control as a hardware controller and 'unexpectedly quit' twice while I was setting this up. It seemed to recognise that a controller was connected but I had to tell it that it was a Logic Control, not a Mackie Control, and also tell it to which MIDI ports it was connected, even though it should have been able to work that out for itself. After that it worked fine with no further crashes, though some functions don't seem to be supported from Logic Control, such as horizontal display zooming. In fact most of the Logic Control lights go out, leaving you with level and pan control, Select, Solo and Mute on the channels plus overall transport control with cursor jogging but no scrubbing. Track names are correctly displayed, so if you already have a Logic Control or a Mackie Control, it's well worth using it to drive Soundtrack Pro, but I wouldn't recommend buying one specifically for the job as many of the more sophisticated functions are unavailable.

Logic users should also note that Soundtrack Pro 's interface doesn't always work in the way you're familiar with, and I suspect this comes from making the program fit in with Final Cut working methodology. It may take a while longer before the best of both approaches becomes the new Apple standard. For example, in Logic you can double-click the stop button to return to the start of the file, but here there's a separate 'go to start' button; and to add points to an automation envelope, you have to double-click to create a new envelope point, and so on.

Overall, though, this new Pro version is way more flexible and sophisticated than the original Soundtrack, and as such it offers far more than just a simple way to put media composers out of business! It comes loaded with a great set of movie sound effects as well as musical loops and can now handle serious multitrack mixing with the benefit of all Logic 's best effects, including the excellent Space Designer.

As a music recording program, Soundtrack Pro is very powerful providing you don't need to record MIDI parts, and gives the user access to effects that once cost more than the entire asking price for the program. It is pretty easy to learn, it offers practical waveform editing in a familiar way and it has full mix automation capability. I like the way you can configure the Workspace to suit your own style of working and the ability to create the equivalent of Logic 's screen sets makes the program easy to navigate, even if you have only a single monitor. Realistically, you can do just about anything you might reasonably wish to do in a multitrack audio recording and mixing environment except recording multiple tracks at once, so if Logic seems heavy going and Garage Band is too simplistic, Soundtrack Pro might also be a good choice for musicians working on their own who don't work with MIDI instruments. Its real strength, though, is in bringing advanced audio mixing and editing into the sound for picture world.

Pros

  • Adds significant audio capability when working with Final Cut.
  • Largely intuitive to use.
  • Has access to some great Logic effects as well as introducing some new processes of its own.
  • Very affordable.
  • Includes a very powerful waveform editor and some great workflow tools, such as the Actions list.

Cons

  • Being restricted to recording only one track at a time precludes some music applications for which the program might otherwise be very well suited.

Summary

If you were to judge Soundtrack Pro as an audio sequencer, it could be seen to be lacking in certain key areas, but you have to remember that it is really a picture soundtrack assembly tool and the fact that it gets so close to offering what the audio side of so many major sequencing programs offer is a testimony to its sophistication. Moreover, Apple don't force this sophistication on you — you can work at your own level of complexity without unwanted features getting in the way.

information

£199; Final Cut Studio Suite £899. Prices include VAT.

www.apple.com

Published November 2005