From its beginnings as shareware, Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro has acquired an impressive professional user base. The new version offers more features, more power, and an updated user interface.
Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro editor has become a firm favourite of amateur sound recording enthusiasts and professional audio users alike, the world over. The program's widespread popularity is partly due to its remarkable ease of use, partly because of its comprehensive facilities, but especially because of its surprising affordability.
The original Cool Edit Pro — CEP to its friends — was reviewed in SOS June '98. The latest incarnation is version 2.0, a serious makeover of this popular program with dozens of new and enhanced features. The update incorporates much more than cosmetic tweaking and bug-fixing, but the basic structure remains unaltered in concept, with a stereo editing window and a multitrack window for compiling complex material. There has been extensive rebuilding of the workings, but pretty much all of the desirable characteristics of the original remain in place; the impression is of a more mature, wide-ranging and very capable product, yet without the typically steep learning curve associated with audio editing software of this kind.
Like its predecessors, CEP 2.0 is available on a 'try before you buy' basis, as an Internet download (a mere 19.3MB!). This demo program works completely normally for 21 days with everything functioning as expected apart from a couple of audio file format import/export filters, which time out after a minute or so. If you like the look and feel of CEP 2.0 it can be purchased over the web, whereupon the restrictions are lifted and the files unlocked. For those who like to collect colourful packaging, a full boxed version with CD and manual is also available (albeit at a higher cost), as are upgrades for registered users of the previous versions of CEP 1.x and Cool Edit 2000.
Perhaps I should say at this point that Mac users should skip the rest of this article before becoming too disappointed and upset! CEP is only available for the PC and runs under any of the recent Windows operating systems: 98, 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP. It uses standard Windows MME drivers and seems to run happily on pretty much any Windows-compatible stereo or multi-channel soundcard.
The new edition of CEP boasts a lot of new and substantially improved features compared with the original, and the graphical interface has been 'prettified' too. The number of file formats it can accommodate has also been expanded to a formidable list of linear, non-linear, and data-reduced formats including various PCM and Windows WAV formats, Apple's AIFF, MP3 and the new MP3 Pro, Windows Media Audio 8 (WMA8), and all manner of Windows and soundcard manufacturer-specific file types. Microsoft's new 'Corona' technology for multi-channel audio coding (WMA Pro) will also be supported shortly. Audio can be recorded into CEP 2.0 at almost any resolution from 8-bit/6kHz up to 32-bit/192kHz, and the software can also potentially record and play back simultaneously through up to 32 independent I/O devices — a mindboggling thought!
CEP runs using the computer's native processing power, and the rapid increase over the last few years of CPU power and hard disk data transfer rates has allowed Syntrillium to increase its real-time processing facilities enormously. For example, the maximum number of tracks in a session has been increased from 64 to 128, with full track bussing (subgrouping) functions and, for the first time, a wide range of real-time effects, processing and equalisation on each track. A rather welcome side-effect of all this new real-time processing is that the user no longer has to wait for Undo files to be created and saved, which increases the speed and immediacy of the program considerably.
The track EQ facilities in the multitrack window offer 'A' and 'B' settings, allowing comparison of two different equalisation curves, or perhaps the creation of a 'reference' and 'modified' setting. Each of the three bands of the fully parametric EQ can range across the entire audio spectrum, and the top and bottom bands are configurable as traditional shelf equalisers or bell curves. Needless to say, the advent of real-time equalisation makes life far simpler compared with CEP 1.x, in which individual WAV files had to be pre-processed offline before being mixed in the multitrack screen.
Some familiar and unusual real-time effects, processes and manipulation tools are also included in CEP 2.0 — over 45 in fact. Some of the more practical include a stereo field rotate function (essentially an automated panning function), built-in reverb, dynamic EQ, dynamic delay (which changes the amount of delay over the duration of the audio clip), a fantastic Doppler shift simulation function, a frequency band splitter (to enable multi-band compression and other complex frequency-dependent processing to be created), and support for DirectX plug-ins.
There is also a 'graphic phase shifter', which is not a phaser in the familiar sense at all, but a tool allowing the phase of a clip to be manipulated. A new 'phase analyser' display is also provided to generate a Lissajous figure or vectorscope display much like that provided by the familiar DK Audio hardware meter and its peers.
There are sufficient effects, processors and tools to get virtually any job done, grouped into categories such as amplitude, delay, filters and noise reduction. The noise reduction facilities cater for reasonably sophisticated click and pop removal, signature-based noise reduction, peak-clipping restoration, spectral analysis, and many more. These processes may not quite reach the ultimate quality of CEDAR's state-of-the-art algorithms, but they are certainly effective if used carefully.
Even with all this sophisticated real-time processing, CEP 2.0 does not demand the latest 2GHz Pentium 4 chip to run: the minimum spec calls for a 233MHz processor with just 64MB of RAM, although a 700MHz processor and 128MB of RAM are recommended. However, the faster your computer's processor and greater the system memory, the more effects and EQs that can be employed at the same time. If you do run out of processing power, CEP provides the ability to pre-process selected 'locked' tracks such that the original raw audio tracks are replaced with processed versions stored temporarily in memory, thereby freeing up real-time processor power for use elsewhere.
With the new track grouping (bussing) feature, it is also possible to combine several tracks through a virtual mix buss (or stereo busses) and apply an overall effect or process. This approach reduces processor overheads even further: a single reverb process can be added to an entire arrangement, for example, rather than having to process each track individually.
A function missing from the original version but always high on Syntrillium's wish list was the ability to 'rip' material from audio CDs and to burn CD-Rs with accurately placed PQ flag (track) markers. CEP 2.0 now contains integral CD-ripping facilities, allowing individual CDA-format files to be opened into the multitrack or edit windows directly or via a new 'Extract Audio from CD' file menu. The CD-burning function is implemented as a plug-in (currently still in beta form and available from the web site) which appears as a button in the Edit window when installed. This allows individual tracks to be selected and dumped into a file in much the same way as most bundled CD-writing software such as Nero and Easy CD Creator. This seems a crude approach to me, and I would have preferred markers to be placed in reference to the session timeline (ideally in the multitrack window), which is the way high-end platforms such as SADiE do it.
For the seasoned CEP 1.x user, moving up to version 2.0 will almost certainly cause a few early frustrations, despite the great improvements made overall. Inevitably, the functionality and restructuring have resulted in some significant changes to the user interface, which may well confuse those used to the previous version. One of the first that I spotted was the appearance of a large drop-down menu list when right-clicking in the Edit window. Previously, a right-click would extend a selected area all the way up to the current mouse location, a very handy facility which made 'fast and dirty' editing wonderfully quick and easy. However, I later discovered that the right-click extension facility is still available if the Ctrl key is held at the same time as right-clicking. Even better, Syntrillium have provided a user option under the Preferences menu to revert to the original right-click mode, after which the menu list can be made to appear with Ctrl-right-click instead!
There are far too many operational changes to list each one, but another function I discovered by accident is a new right-click menu in the multitrack window. A third envelope mode has been added to the original volume and pan functions, allowing the wet/dry balance of a track's effect processing to be adjusted and automated.
Compared with previous versions, the new-look CEP 2.0 has a few more sub-windows which can be switched on or off as required to suit the task of the moment: for example, the mixer window can be turned off while assembling tracks and recalled just when adjusting the final mix. Windows can be moved as 'floating' windows or docked to other windows, so the screen layout can be tailored to suit individual preferences. Double bars along a window edge identify those that can be docked, which include the Organiser, Cue and Play Lists, Transport Buttons, Time Window, Level Meters, the multitrack Mixer Window, and many others. The last used window arrangement is recalled when the program is started, but there is a facility to reset everything to the factory default if required.
When the first computer audio editors appeared, including early versions of SADiE, Sonic Solutions and Pro Tools to name but three, I was one of many who queried the usefulness of on-screen mixers that could only be controlled by the single 'finger' of a mouse. Most products quickly acquired 'automation' facilities so that a complex mix could be built up one channel at a time, but this was a tedious workaround in most situations. A better solution was to implement interfaces and design special hardware control surfaces to enable physical multi-fader mixing — a far more intuitive and rewarding solution, although often rather expensive.
Syntrillium have adopted a similar approach in CEP 2.0. In addition to the automation envelopes already available, CEP now adheres to Microsoft's 'Human Interface Device' protocol, allowing communication with a growing number of external hardware controllers. I understand that Tascam's US428 USB interface/controller is directly compatible, for example, but Syntrillium also offer their own new hardware controller, the Red Rover. This is a relatively simple but efficient transport and monitor control unit that hooks up via USB (see 'Red Rover' box).
The sample looping facility of CEP is an exciting and creative new function which has uses far beyond the immediately obvious. The comprehensive loop creation and management tools included in the multitrack window come complete with some clever functionality to match tempos and keys between samples and loops. The loops used carry the CEL suffix, but are actually stored in MP3 Pro format, a new and very efficient but high-fidelity data reduction codec.
A few samples are shipped with the product, but not enough to really get your teeth into. However, a quick surf over to a dedicated web site, loopology.com, provides over 2000 free loops grouped into 15 categories such as Ambient, Asian, Blues, Bossanova, Classical, Industrial, Jazz, Seventies Funk, Techno, Urban and so on. Whatever your preferred style, there is probably something here to suit, played by real musicians on real instruments! Loops can also be searched by instrument (piano, synth, guitar, drums, and so forth) and thanks to the 10:1 data reduction, even lengthy loops can be downloaded pretty quickly. After 'unpacking' they can then be dropped straight into a song.
The Loopology loops are all free for use in either commercial or non-commercial projects, and the method of manipulation — as well as the loops themselves — is so good that knocking up a decent backing track, creating a music bed or sting, or just experimenting with song structure is remarkably fast and easy.
Some of the most significant new additions to CEP 2.0 are comprehensive facilities to create and work with sample loops, and the ability to open and run MIDI files. The looping facilities (see box above) are very impressive and remarkably easy to use, with an extensive and completely free loop library available via the Internet. The MIDI functions are basic, but useful nonetheless, and MIDI file data is displayed in the appropriate track as 'piano-rolls'.
Should you be interested in writing music for picture or adding a soundtrack to your home movies, CEP will also accommodate AVI video files and run them locked to the multitrack timeline, with the picture being displayed in yet another floating window. For more serious users wanting to synchronise to external video-related equipment, another useful improvement is that Cool Edit Pro can now act as an EBU-SMPTE and MTC timecode master — it could only slave to these timecodes in previous versions. Oh, and the annoying bug that prevented CEP from responding to code beyond a certain time has also been fixed!
Various other relatively minor yet useful upgrades and additions have been incorporated in CEP 2.0. For example there is a level normalising facility which operates on a selected group of audio clips in the multitrack window, and new real-time envelope manipulation facilities allow programme-related dynamic effects to be created, either from presets or manually.
Many professional and semi-pro engineers dismissed the early versions of Cool Edit Pro out of hand. After all, how could such cheap PC software possibly compare to 'proper' DSP workstations like Pro Tools, SADiE or Sonic Solutions? However, CEP proved itself in action to be a remarkably capable, reliable and intuitive tool, which was extremely cost-effective — so much so that numerous branches of BBC Radio have come to rely on it completely in recent years.
Nevertheless, version 1.x had some limitations and frustrations, almost all of which have been addressed in version 2.0. Indeed, pretty much every aspect of the original has been improved or extended, and not just in terms of the user interface: it seems that most of the signal processing algorithms have been overhauled and updated too. Cool Edit Pro 2.0 remains as fantastically easy and logical to use as its antecedents, yet has extended and improved upon the functionality and enhanced the appearance. It compares well with any of the upmarket alternatives, particularly given the price, and will appeal to novices and technophiles alike, providing simplicity of operation or sophistication of signal analysis and processing as required. It even has facilities to convolve signals, for heaven's sake!
Considering the prevalence of Macs and Mac-only software in the audio industry, it's at times like this when I enjoy being a PC user. To Mac users we can now say: nah, nah, nah!
The Red Rover interface turns an audio editing and manipulation platform into a really practical hard disk recorder for musical applications. This little controller measures just 6.5 inches wide by 5 deep and 1.25 high, and has a fixed 10-foot cable terminating in a USB plug. The Rover is powered from the USB port, but passes relatively little data back and forth so it shouldn't slow down other USB peripherals. A quarter-inch socket on the rear panel accepts a foot switch input to toggle between Record and Stop, enabling hands-free drop-ins and drop-outs.
The top surface carries a familiar set of transport controls on big clicky buttons with status LEDs. The Rewind and Forward buttons provide a 'jump to previous/next cue' function when double-pressed quickly, and pressing the Play button toggles between play and pause modes. Pressing the Stop and Record buttons together provides a record-ready mode allowing input levels to be set up, while pressing the Record button by itself does just what you'd expect. Three smaller push buttons, all with associated LEDs, provide mute, solo and record arming for the currently selected track (see below), and two more add a cue marker at the current time position and toggle CEP's metronome function on and off.
Three rotary encoders select the active track (ie. the one to which the other functions all relate), the master volume, and the relative level of the currently selected track. An eight-LED bar-graph meter shows the input level when recording and the overall level when playing back.
A two-line LCD at the top of the panel, with backlight and contrast controls tucked away on the right side panel, shows all the crucial information when working remotely. The top line displays the current transport status, the cursor or playback time, and the selected physical inputs and record mode (left, right or stereo). Below this (working back from right to left) are shown the selected physical output, the currently selected active track, and the master and track relative volumes.
Although it's intended primarily for controlling CEP's multitrack window, many of the Red Rover's functions will also work in the Edit window view, including the transport functions, the Add Cue button, the level meter and time display.
Plugging the Red Rover into a USB port for the first time cues the usual Windows message about searching for a Human Interface driver, followed by a brief and completely painless installation. There seems to be a small delay in processing the volume commands, but otherwise the box does exactly what is expected of it, without fuss or frustration.