It's been some time since Sonic Foundry's powerful and easy-to-use CD-burning application was updated, but this version 5 promises wider compatibility and many new features.
Way back in SOS October 1997 I reviewed the first ever release of Sonic Foundry's CD Architect, and like many other musicians was bowled over by how easy it was to use. All you needed to do was drag a collection of WAV files into a graphic window, whereupon you could apply real-time fade-ins and fade-outs by drawing volume envelopes over their waveforms, and even drag one track over another to produce automatic crossfades, before burning an audio CD, all within the same package. I used it to premaster various albums before sending them off for glass-mastering and duplication, and carried on using it until Sonic Foundry's support for new models of CD-R/W drive started to dry up.
Since then, various solutions have appeared for users desperate to carry on using their favourite utility to burn CDs with newer drives, including step-by-step instructions on how to import CD Architect files into Ahead's Nero, and Colin Hill's excellent freeware Premaster and CDPBurn utilities (still available at http://projecteva.net/cdautils.zip). However, Sonic Foundry have finally come to their senses and released CD Architect 5.0, described on their web site as "back and better than ever".
CD Architect will run under WIndows 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP, but the first and most obvious difference from previous versions is that it's now a stand-alone application, and launching it directly from the Sound Forge tools menu is no longer an option. However, although I didn't spot any mention of it in the documentation, I had no problems or conflicts installing CD Architect 5.0 alongside Sound Forge 6.0. CD Architect even seaches for its stablemate and creates an automatic link to it via the Ctrl+E shortcut if you want to further edit an audio file, although you can point to any other suitable editor instead.
At the heart of CD Architect 5.0 is an upgraded audio engine capable of importing files using up to 32 bits at sample rates up to 192kHz. Although sample-rate conversion and various dithering options are on offer to convert your final compilation to 16-bit/ 44.1kHz before burning a Red Book audio CD, the whole process is transparent to the user, and you can use multiple file formats (including differing sample rates) within a single project without having to go through any manual conversion processes. The new engine also supports a handy multiple Undo/Redo facility, and Auto saves a backup copy of your project every five minutes, just in case you have a system crash.
As always, there's some terminology to wade through before everything becomes clear. The main part of the screen is devoted to the graphic Timeline, where you can arrange and edit Tracks and Events to create your album. Your source audio files are known as Media files, but once they appear either in whole or in part on the Timeline they are referred to as Events. Events can form CD Tracks, although Tracks are far more flexible, and can incorporate several composite Events, or use shorter sections from Events (when splitting a single live recording into tracks, for instance).
All Media files associated with your project can be found in the Media Pool, and it's often easier to drop them here first, rather than directly in the Timeline, since you may only want to use part of them. To this end, the new Trimmer window helps you select which part of a Media file becomes an Event.
The import mechanism works like Acid's, with an Explorer-style window across the bottom of the display. Using this you can manage your audio files, preview them, or open them in the Media Pool, Timeline or Track List (more on this later): a double-click on a suitable audio file will import it directly into the Timeline. You can also import audio extracted from CDs -- the entire disc, by track, or by range -- and this also appears in the Media Pool.
The CD Layout Bar appears at the bottom of the Timeline, and displays information about the various Tracks you've created for your CD Project, including the track number, length, and take number (more on the latter aspect later). Red indicators show the initial enforced two-second pause at the beginning of any audio CD, plus its end point (the default length is 74 minutes, but this can be changed in the Preferences menu), and when you drag Tracks or Events using the CD Layout Bar, the lengths of the gaps between them and adjacent tracks appear as well.
The Playlist is a chronological list of the Timeline contents in text form, but you can still drag and drop its contents and individually normalise each item to even up levels: the default normalisation level is -0.1dBFS, but this can be altered in the Preferences menu. The Track List (aka the PQ list or Cue Sheet) is again text-based, and supports drag-and-drop editing, but also includes track and index markers, the pauses between CD Tracks, protection and emphasis flags, and ISRC codes -- you can copy, save, or print out this information if it's needed for CD manufacturing.
You can select which of the Explorer, Media Pool, Trimmer, Playlist and Track List windows is open at any time, and they can appear docked across the bottom half of the display in the Window Docking Area as multiple tabbed options, as split panes sitting side by side, or individually floated and dragged wherever else is convenient. Dual-monitor support has been added in version 5.0, which makes this process somewhat easier.
Next to the transport controls there's a new variable-speed audio scrubbing control that feels very similar to turning the reels of my old Revox tape machine by hand to home in on an edit point. It operates in both directions in fine increments all the way up to double speed, and you can either grab the control with the mouse, operate it using keyboard shortcuts, or type in a new value for normal playback rate.
Like Sound Forge, CD Architect only supports standard MME drivers for playback purposes, but for previewing a CD compilation their higher latency is only annoying when waiting for the result of a plug-in change to be heard. CD Architect was happy to use the soundcard driver choice provided by Microsoft's Sound Mapper option, but switching to 'Windows Classic Wave Driver' totally ignored my attempts to specifically choose a soundcard driver option.
The volume envelope features from the original are all still here to make adding fade-ins and fade-outs incredibly easy, as are the automatic crossfade options when dragging one event over another, but there's a new tiered audio layering option that adds a second 'lane' beneath the first onto which you can drag further events, so that they play in tandem. This makes adding sound effects and voiceovers a lot easier, while in conjunction with the envelopes you could create much more complex crossfades, or DJ megamixes. You can now also use an unlimited number of volume envelope points, and there are new Smooth and Sharp fade types.
CD Architect is compatible with the Direct X plug-in standard, and a subset of the real-time plug-ins bundled with Sound Forge 6.0 is included. I couldn't find the list of 'over 20' effects anywhere, and they get placed in a shared folder with those supplied with other Sonic Foundry applications, but it seems to include Sonic Foundry's now familiar XFX1, XFX2 and XFX3 packs, each containing six effects, along with the four Track FX plug-ins first seen in Vegas Pro.
As with Wavelab's Montage feature, you can add effects to individual Events and have them automatically rendered into the final audio file that's burned onto an audio CD. Plug-in chaining is also supported, and I find Sonic Foundry's implementation far easier to use than that of Wavelab's Montage -- clicking on the small Event FX icon at the bottom right of each Event launches an Audio Plug-in window showing the entire chain, and allows drag-and-drop reordering.
Another new option is real-time pitch-shift and time-stretching. The Event Properties dialogue lets you decide whether to preserve the pitch or the length when Ctrl-dragging either end of the Event in this manner, and both are useful as long as you don't stretch them too far, when the familiar artefacts start to become audible. There's also a Master Output control for overall level, which has its own effect chain. This defaults to a single Dither plug-in set to 16 bits with rectangular dithering, but there are seven bit depth options from eight to 32-bit, six options for dither type, and two options for noise shaping, plus some useful presets. Each Project can have its own properties, which include Resample Quality, although this process is only applied to non-44.1kHz files.
CD Architect has always made it easy to compile an album full of tracks by dragging and dropping, but version 5.0 takes things further with the concept of 'takes'. An Event can be associated with multiple audio files, so you can link different versions or mixes of a song to the same project, leaving your final decisions until the last minute. You can quickly switch between them using the 'N' for Next Take keyboard shortcut, and this makes it easy to try them out on the fly.
The most important upgrade for many existing users is that CD Architect now supports a wide variety of modern CD burners, including Firewire, USB, IDE and SCSI devices, as well as those with buffer under-run protection, and it now finally works with my Yamaha CRW8424 drive. However, while its main raison d'être is Red Book audio CD pre-mastering and burning, some more ambitious musicians will be disappointed by its lack of support for CD Text (although you can still use Colin Hill's utility to do this), and for Mixed Mode and CD-Extra formats to create CDs containing both audio and data, all three of which are available to Wavelab owners.
If you just want to burn a selection of pre-tweaked audio tracks onto CD-R, there are plenty of budget packages available, as I discussed in SOS January 2003. However, there's no denying that fully fledged packages like CD Architect make life a lot easier with their drag-and-drop graphic interfaces, automatic crossfading and real-time plug-in options. In many ways, CD Architect is a more appropriate audio CD burning companion to a MIDI + Audio sequencer application than its main competitor Wavelab, since many musicians won't need the latter's recording capabilities, or its unlimited Montage lanes. For those who regularly work with non-44.1kHz sampling rates (like most owners of Creative Labs soundcards), it also makes it slightly easier to burn audio CDs, since the sample-rate conversion is carried out transparently.
Anyone wanting CD Text, CD-Extra and mixed-mode support will still be tempted by Wavelab, and perhaps by its bundled cleaning and restoration plug-ins, although its £379 list price is nearly double that of CD Architect. The new Wavelab Essential is a closer competitor with its reduced two-lane Montage, four instead of eight Master Section slots, and a much smaller collection of plug-ins, and still manages Data and Mixed Mode CD-burning alongside the more basic CD Audio. However, despite these niggles, CD Architect version 5.0 is now a powerful tool for any PC musician at a very reasonable price, and I've no doubt that the majority of existing users will be happy to fork out the modest upgrade fee.