Peter Ridsdale gives his personal impressions of cult shareware program Cool Edit.
I don't know about you, but I tend to be deeply suspicious of shareware — it usually conjures up an image of something hastily cobbled together by a nerd, possibly containing some hideous undetectable virus and bound to play havoc with your IRQs and DMAs. However, my prejudices have been shaken by Cool Edit, a sample editor created by David Johnston of the Syntrillium Corporation, which is the nicest software sample editor I have ever used. Updates seem to come thick and fast from Syntrillium, and the latest is Cool Edit 96, a sleek, glossy, streamlined version of the already excellent Cool Edit 95 (a Cool Edit Pro is in the pipeline). Frequent updates might suggest that the program is in need of perpetual bug fixes, but this seems not to be the case — in my experience, Cool Edit is absolutely rock solid. It's just that Syntrillium aren't content to rest on their laurels: they exude a real enthusiasm about the development of their software.
I didn't intend this review to end up as a testimonial, but I feel that I should let you know that I registered my copy many months ago — just as soon as I found out how powerful the program was. Like most good shareware, this has some limitations deliberately built into the freely distributable version of the program, which are unlocked when you register it.
Excellent value though Cool Edit is, it's only fair to point out at the outset that the program has no MIDI sample dump capability and no SCSI sample dump support. If you're transferring your finished edits to a soundcard sampler that can deal with any of Cool Edit's supported file formats (see below) then this may not be a problem, but those working with hardware samplers will either have to resample via the audio outs on their soundcard or find a third‑party utility able to convert one of the supported file formats into their chosen format.
To say that Cool profoundly changed my life would perhaps be a bit of an exaggeration, but to say that it radically changed my working methods would be closer to the mark. I had absolutely no problems downloading Cool, and it recognised my soundcard immediately. After connecting a CD player to my soundcard's phono sockets, I was ready to start.
Recording samples with Cool is straightforward — you first decide whether you want to work in mono or stereo and at 8‑ or 16‑bit resolution. The default sample rate is 44.1kHz, but you can sample at any frequency from 6kHz to 48kHz if you need to. All the common soundfile formats are supported (including Macintosh AIFF and SND, Amiga IFF, RealAudio, SampleVision, SoundBlaster VOC, and of course WAV and RAW files), and there are some less common ones tucked away in there too. Hit the Record button, press Stop when you've done, and Bob is instantly elevated to close relative status. The sample waveform can be seen graphically displayed in green on black, but all colours — and even the toolbar — can be customised, if you're that kind of person. You can also see a spectral view of your sample, and there's a frequency analysis window as well, which analyses the slice of audio marked by the current cursor position. In earlier versions this was static, but now it tracks in real time, providing frequency and dB (level) information relating to whichever part of the waveform the cursor is passing over.
Hit the Record button, press Stop when you've done, and Bob is instantly elevated to close relative status.
If you want to examine a small portion of the sample, just click and drag — the selected portion is highlighted in pale blue. The display at the bottom right‑hand side of the screen will tell you how long your selection is (down to three decimal points) and, by continuing this process, you can zoom all the way down to individual sample level. There used to be a slight delay as the screen redrew itself, but in this version, it's virtually instantaneous. Any highlighted section can be copied and pasted in the usual way, and you have the option of deleting it using the Cut command; alternatively, you can keep the selected section and discard everything else using Trim.
If you're interested in creating loops, there's an automatic zero‑cross function; combined with the visual enhancement offered by the zoom facility, this makes looping quite effortless. It's generally much easier to transfer the edited sample to a MIDI sampler and set the loop length to maximum, rather than fiddling with the start and end points in the sampler itself. If you have a sequencer that can handle audio tracks, you can simply import your edited WAV files directly into the sequence, which means you don't lose any sound quality. Cool Edit 96 has been designed to be compatible with Cakewalk, which means that you can edit audio files without even leaving the sequencer program, and I find it works fine with Logic Audio on the PC.
So far, what's on offer is pretty conventional, but it's in the processing of samples that Cool Edit really lives up to its name. In the unregistered version, only two of the Transform functions will work at a time and, although it's still possible to work with the program, you have to re‑boot it every time you want to change functions — which rapidly becomes tiresome. This is, of course, quite intentional: once you've paid the modest registration fee, all 20 functions become available. At this point, I'll run through the processes as they appear...
- INVERT: this simply turns the wave over on its horizontal axis, providing a 180° phase inversion. This will make no appreciable difference to mono signals, but if you have a stereo file where one channel has somehow become inverted, you now have a means of fixing it.
- REVERSE: reverses the selected section of audio so that it plays backwards. An interesting effect can be achieved by copying a sound with a long decay, such as a cymbal or gong, then pasting a reversed version of it to its beginning. This produces a sonic palindrome, which sometimes disguises the original sound to the extent that it's no longer recognisable.
- SILENCE: this function replaces any selected section of audio by digital silence. You can also generate any amount of the golden stuff in the Generate menu.
- AMPLIFY: does what it says, but you can attenuate sounds here, too. Presets enable you to fade in and fade out, and level changes can be expressed in either decibels or percentages.
- CHANNEL MIXER: this provides control over stereo signal levels, and also lets you invert left or right channels independently. Aside from correcting problem files, you'll also be able to experiment with central image cancellation, which can sometimes allow you to remove the vocals from a track — though this is seldom entirely successful, in my experience. However, on some tracks the vocals are much diminished, and sound as if you're only hearing the output of the reverb without the direct signal.
- DYNAMICS: includes a compressor, an expander, a limiter and a noise gate. Control of this function is by means of a graph where the input value is along the x axis (horizontal) and the output value is along the y axis (vertical). A straight line from left to right has no effect on the sound because all input values match the output values. When compression is taking pace, the input/output gain line bends at the threshold point. Like many of these functions, this one could almost be the subject of a whole article on its own.
- ENVELOPE: this is one of the programs I use most often. For example, I often use a fade‑in on the first few milliseconds of the sound being edited, and I'll sometimes fade out a little more generously at the end of the sample. This completely eliminates start and end glitches.
- NORMALISE: will amplify the waveform to any specified percentage of maximum — the point where the peaks reach, but don't exceed, the digital clipping level. You can also equalise the two sides of a stereo signal, and there's the facility to set a DC bias, presumably for countering unwanted DC offsets.
- DELAY: allows up to 100ms of delay to be added, producing a slapback effect — good for those Duane Eddy sounds. There are, however, far more versatile time‑altering functions elsewhere.
- ECHO: this provides repeat echo effects; the presets include both canyon and shower emulations. As with most of these functions, you can add your own presets. If you require even more control over your echo, then the next function might interest you...
- ECHO CHAMBER: presents you with a virtual room in which you can not only specify the room length, height and width, but also damping factors and the position of the sound source and microphone. If you've ever wanted to know what a room four feet high and 2000 feet long would sound like, here's the place to find out!
- FLANGER: this one also incorporates stereo phasing, and a brief glance at the names of the presets will give you a good idea of what's on offer — Under Water, High School Movies, Sci Fi 60s and so on. You also get more parameters to play with than on a typical effects pedal.
- REVERB: this section gives you control over reverb length, attack time, high‑frequency absorption and perception/timbre as well as the usual mixing facility — but don't expect top‑end reverb from an unassisted PC processor. If you want to put a canyon effect on a short sample, make sure it's followed by enough silence to allow the reverb to do its thing.
- FFT FILTER: another one that could have a PhD thesis written about it but, fortunately, you don't have to know the difference between a Von Hann and a Blackman‑Harris windowing function to use it. Presets include the really useful stuff — notch, low‑pass and band‑pass filters, and so on — and you can learn a lot just by studying their settings, as in all the other parts of the program. I might also add that the on‑line help is generally clear and informative.
- QUICK FILTER: essentially, this is an 8‑band graphic equaliser.
- NOISE REDUCTION: an invaluable tool if you ever take samples from noisy sources, such as TVs or audio cassettes. It uses the same method as Digidesign's DINR: you first sample a bit of tape hiss or noise so that the program can subtract this from the wanted signal. You can eliminate mains hum, and even the residual noise, from your soundcard, but you can also get strange effects by taking away signal information from your signal. Noise profiles can be saved as FFT files, and, providing you are modest in your expectations, you can achieve a worthwhile reduction in background noise without doing too much damage to the wanted audio.
- BRAINWAVE SYNCHRONIZER: this is definitely the most curious part of the program, and, to be quite frank, I haven't yet got to grips with it. According to the Help notes, it's a way of 'waving' audio in order to stimulate brainwave activity. It's claimed that alpha, beta, delta and theta waves can thus be produced, inducing meditative states of mind. Sounds great for the New Age writers out there, but for the moment make mine a strong cup of coffee.
- DISTORTION: from light fuzz to the heaviest of metals is available, if you don't have some other means of generating the effect. Call me old‑fashioned, but I'm usually more interested in getting rid of distortion than actively seeking it out — this might be just the job for grunging up dance loops, though.
- MUSIC: this one's a sample sequencer. By dragging notes onto a music stave, you can write a piece of music of up to 256 notes. Cool Edit will automatically transpose your sample to the pitches specified. You can also specify which key and octave to put it in, and it will even turn your sample into chords.
- STRETCH: allows you to expand or contract soundfiles, and you can choose to preserve either the original pitch or the tempo. If you have a sample that is, say, 11 seconds long, but you want it to fit into a space 14 seconds long, you just set the time you want and Cool Edit will automatically work out the ratio. This is the place to transpose samples: you simply click through 11 semitones in either direction — octaves can, of course, be expressed as percentages. As you might expect, the bigger the shift you apply, the more the side effects show up.
Apart from the usual copy and paste options, Cool Edit also features Mix Paste, which allows you to superimpose samples. You can paste either from the clipboard or from any file on your hard drive, which is handy if you have a file that's too long to fit on the clipboard. Simply place the cursor at the point where you want your new sound to begin and then choose whether you want it to overlap or modulate. (The modulation is somewhat akin to ring modulation.) You can also specify how many times the sample is copied. If you make a mistake, it doesn't matter, because there are multiple levels of Undo: the default is five, but you can add more if you're cautious by nature. You can also open any number of screens and freely copy and paste between them.
Either side of the stereo can be treated separately, and this combined with Mix Paste enables Cool Edit to transcend its sample‑editor status. Indeed, you can make whole compositions without ever leaving the program, and the experience of working with it isn't so much of editing but rather of sculpting. There's a kind of tactility about the shaping and collaging processes involved that makes this program a real joy to use.
Let me give you a practical example in order to illustrate the kind of thing you can do. First sample two minutes of orchestral music — something fairly abstract such as Debussy works best. Double‑click anywhere near the centre of the screen and the whole piece will be highlighted. Reverse it and stretch it by three semitones, preserving neither the tempo nor the pitch. Move the cursor towards the bottom of the screen until an R (Right) appears. Move it to the top of the screen, and L appears. Double‑clicking selects either the left or right channel. Cut the right channel and then paste it onto the left channel, but offset by a few seconds. (Debussy should now be clearly audible turning in his grave, as his piece will be rendered totally unrecognisable.) Next, Mix Paste a drum loop into the empty right‑hand channel, then click on Loop Paste in the pop‑up box and specify how many cycles you want. If you now want to add different sounds to the drum pattern, you can see very clearly where the beats are, and Mix Paste will quite seamlessly mix that prize bedspring sample right into the body of the rhythm. Without taking it any further, you already have a new piece of music that's a million miles away from both Debussy and Ragga.
You can also use Cool Edit to turn your CD‑ROM into a normal CD player, providing you have the correct driver installed. If you take the trouble to enter track names, it will recognise the CD the next time you play it and will display the appropriate track listings.
As well as generating noise and simple waveforms, Cool Edit will generate and store telephone number tones. Hold your telephone receiver to the speaker as you dial, and then Cool Edit can automatically call up your local pizza outlet next time you're so engrossed in the program that you can't bear to tear yourself away to make food.
Cool Edit is the best sample editor I have ever used, and at the price, there's very little to criticise other than the lack of MIDI sample dump support. It might be nice if it had a de‑clicking facility, and I'd like to see it being made MIDI‑compatible but, given its low cost, these are hardly fair criticisms. True, it has a few features not directly related to the business of editing sounds, but who's complaining about that? No‑one is actually forcing you to meditate or to set up an auto‑dial telephone number database. All in all, it's extremely easy to use and does what it sets out to do elegantly and efficiently.
Cool also has a macro or batch processor called Cool Scripts, which records every operation you undertake until you get it to stop. The subsequent batch file can be edited, then stored, and is useful if you want to repeat some long and involved chain of events. It also serves to remind you exactly how you arrived at a sound that you made six months previously; compared with an audio file, it takes up very little memory space. Use of this feature combined with the Info notepad means that you don't have to clutter up your hard drive with memory‑guzzling WAV files.
- Extremely easy to use.
- Many sound‑processing possibilities.
- Easy superimposition of samples.
- More than just a sample editor.
- No MIDI or SCSI interface.
- No de‑clicking.
A brilliant sample editor which proves that shareware can be 'professional'. Syntrillium are constantly updating their software and a multitrack version of Cool Edit Pro complete with de‑clicking and many other features is at the beta testing stage.