Sonic Foundry's popular stereo editor takes another step forward with the introduction of non-destructive editing and a multitasking audio engine.
After a long break of three years between Sound Forge versions 4.5 and 5.0 (reviewed in SOS November 2001), Sonic Foundry seem once again to be giving their digital audio editing package a higher development priority. Following just a year after version 5, version 6.0 not only incorporates some obvious new features but a major overhaul to its audio engine, which brings it more into line with competing packages such as Steinberg's Wavelab 4.0.
Still resolutely PC-only, Sound Forge version 6.0 runs on Windows 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP, and although it should scrape by on the 200MHz processor and 32MB RAM mentioned in the documentation, in reality most users will want at least a 500MHz processor and 128MB RAM to run more than a couple of real-time plug-in effects.
Installation is quick and painless, and only takes about 45MB of hard disk space, although there are also three additional applications on the CD-ROM: Vegas Video LE 3.0 Multitrack for creating your own video promos, the stand-alone Batch Converter 5.0, Preset Manager 1.0 (more on this later), and a demo of Izotope's Ozone mastering plug-in. Users of the superb Acoustic Mirror convolution reverb plug-in (once again installed as standard with SF6 along with a large collection of other quality plug-ins) will also be pleased to find a collection of impulse files on the CD-ROM.
Sound Forge 6.0 now supports files in up to 64-bit float format and 192kHz sample rates, as well as file sizes of 4GB and larger when using the NTFS file system. It also offers new import formats including Windows Media Video, QuickTime and MPEG 1 and 2 (as long as you already have the MainConcept MPEG plug-in).
For those who edit large files, the inclusion of non-destructive audio editing is a huge improvement over previous versions. Gone are the annoying waits after a cut, paste or delete operation while the entire file was rewritten to the hard drive, which were particularly frustrating when you were trimming the first few milliseconds of a long song. Now, everything happens instantly, and only when you eventually save the final edited version of the file is there a wait. Not content with this, Sonic Foundry have also made the audio engine a multitasking environment. If you have a large batch of files that need treatment, this means you can carry on editing one file while another is being rendered in the background.
Many floating windows can now be docked, and by dropping them on top of each other you create tabbed windows, for quick movement from one to another. You can also customise any toolbar by adding, removing, or reordering its buttons, which will help those moving from other applications who are used to having things in different places. Sample-accurate editing is made easier by the enhanced Time Zoom, which now goes all the way up to 24:1 (24 horizontal pixels for each sample), and you can also define two custom horizontal zoom ratios accessed using the numeric keypad.
Enhancements on the video side include new render options for quickly resizing and stretching existing video clips, compensation for non-square pixels in its preview window, and an option to select an external OHCI-compliant IEEE 1394 monitor device instead of viewing using your PC monitor.
Multitasking now extends to the Audio Plug-In Chainer that first appeared in version 5.0. Much like the similar function in Vegas Pro, this lets you chain together any number of DirectX plug-ins, drag and drop them into a different order, and hear the results immediately in real time. In version 6.0 you can now also jump in and out of the Chainer window to select new parts of a file to audition, or switch to another file, without ever having to close the Chainer (just as you can in Wavelab). Even better, although you can optionally share the Plug-In Chainer between all open files as is the case in Wavelab, by default there's a different instance for each file — if you want an overall 'feel' when compiling an album this makes auditioning multiple tracks with different chains far easier.
You can save both plug-in presets and preset chains. Sound Forge 6.0 also recognises chains saved in Vegas and Acid, and since creating new presets and chains can involve a lot of work, you can launch the new Preset Manager, either from the Sound Forge Tools menu or as a stand-alone application. This allows you to back them up into Preset Package files for safe storage elsewhere, transfer the presets from a Package back into your current computer (a handy way for Sonic Foundry to distribute new presets), and delete or rename them.
Choosing plug-ins inside Sound Forge is also easier thanks to the new DirectX Plug-In Manager, which lets you create nested folders inside its DX Favorites folder. There's a Recreate by Plug-In Name option which automatically groups all plug-ins that begin with a common word like 'Cakewalk', or 'Waves' into separate folders, or you can adopt your own scheme, perhaps grouped by categories like 'EQ' and 'Reverbs'. You can also hide unwanted plug-ins from the Sound Forge list, or rename them, and the entire sorted list then appears in the DX Favorites menu on the main toolbar.
For existing Sound Forge users, the version 6.0 upgrade provides more speed, convenience and refinement, and as such is likely to be welcomed with open arms. In particular, the non-destructive editing, multitasking environment and improved Audio Plug-In Chainer all bring it more in line with Wavelab 4.0 (its main competitor), and for those who design and edit sounds, create streaming audio or other multimedia content, this is now an extremely mature and accomplished product.
It's also highly suitable for mastering purposes, except that there are no integral Red Book CD-burning functions. If you want an all-in-one application that does this, Steinberg's Wavelab 4.0 may prove more suitable, although it's slightly more expensive at £350; you could also investigate Samplitude Master 6.0, although its current status is unclear since Emagic's takeover by Apple. However, if you're happy using a separate CD-burning utility, Sound Forge 6.0 is a real powerhouse, and has plenty of unique features of its own, including the Acoustic Mirror convolving reverb, remote control of transport and even individual regions using MIDI triggers, and Acid looping tools.
Many musicians (including me) have mastered commercial Red Book audio CD albums using previous versions of Sound Forge in conjunction with Sonic Foundry's CD Architect. This provided a wonderful range of easy-to-use features including volume envelopes, drag-and-drop crossfading of tracks and PQ editing, and was neatly integrated with Sound Forge as an extra set of functions. As I explained in my review of Sound Forge 5.0, these are sadly no more, and Sound Forge 6.0 once again features the same basic Burn CD TAO (Track At Once) function in its Tools menu, along with a finalising option so that the CD can be played in a standard audio CD player.
This is still a source of confusion and frustration for many existing users, so with Sound Forge 6.0, Sonic Foundry have taken the trouble to outline their CD creation strategy. CD Architect users were apparently asking for the ability to mix together more audio tracks, and add more plug-in effects and envelope options, and as these were already being developed for their Vegas Pro multitrack audio package, Sonic Foundry took the decision to move the other features of CD Architect into this new package.
They now feel that TAO mode is sufficient for most musicians who are burning one-off discs and don't require PQ list editing, but I still personally feel that they are wrong. An application costing £299 is likely to be bought only by serious users, and although every musician I know burns audio CDs of their own music, quite a few also make master CDs for subsequent glass mastering and replication. Without dedicated Red Book audio functions in Sound Forge, we have all migrated to other products that do offer these features.