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Macromedia SoundEdit Pro

Mac Digital Audio Software


Macromind's SoundEdit Pro promises powerful tools for editing a wide range of digital audio formats — oh yeah, and it's cheap and fun as well. But is it good enough to offer a cheap alternative to established pro sample editors? Paul D. Lehrman put it to the test.


The ability to produce decent mid-fidelity sound using built-in hardware has always been a characteristic of the Macintosh. Every Mac came with an 8-bit, 22 kHz sound chip, and today's Macs add stereo and a built-in microphone. This level of fidelity is useful for voiceovers, sound effects, and even occasional background music, and the fact that it's so easy to deal with makes it simple to for Mac users to include sound in HyperCard and many presentation programs.

Until recently, however, most Macs had no way to input sound, and the only product that did the job well was MacRecorder from Farallon Computing. An inexpensive A-to-D convertor with a built-in microphone and a cable that hooked directly into the Mac's serial port, it came with a very slick piece of software known as SoundEdit.

SoundEdit was fast — it dealt only with sounds in RAM, which was a big factor in its speed, but that meant the length of sounds it could work with was limited. It had a highly intuitive user interface, and boasted a host of simple yet highly useful sound editing and modification features. It could mix up to four sounds, and even handle stereo in later Macs. Best of all, it made working with audio fun.

SoundEdit Pro, which is now made by MacroMedia (formerly Macromind/Paracomp, who bought the technology from Farallon last year) is an attempt to bring the product into the '90s. The software now supports 16-bit, 44 or 48kHz, multitrack sound files created with professional digital audio tools like Digidesign's Audiomedia board or Sound Tools, or Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Waveboard, and can play them directly from hard disk. It can also record directly to hard disk, although only in the original 8-bit/22kHz format, allowing files of virtually unlimited length.

Since many Macs now come with their own sound input circuits, the software and hardware are now available separately, which is a plus because the MacRecorder was always far and away the weakest link in the system — the microphone stinks, and the line inputs often impart a nasty digital whine (somewhere there's got to be someone with a decent low-cost 8-bit D-ta-A convertor!).

SoundEdit Pro would seem to be an inexpensive way to move up from medium to high-fidelity sound manipulation, so that multimedia producers and other non-musicians can reap the benefits of high-resolution, high-sampling-rate audio, without having to deal with complex musician-oriented programs like Digidesign's Sound Designer II or Passport's Alchemy. Unfortunately, SoundEdit Pro isn't quite everything it would seem to be.

THE GOOD NEWS



First the positive stuff. There are a lot of good new features. A time ruler can show seconds, milliseconds, video frames (at any rate you want), or samples. A window shows you — and lets you nudge — the numerical values of the current cursor position, and the boundaries of a region, so that you no longer have to rely entirely on your eyes for editing.

Added to the old horizontal zoom control is a vertical zoom. The file waveform can be shown as either dots or lines, and there's a Fat Samples zoom setting which lets you work with individual samples. A whole separate section lets you look at the sounds as 2 or 3-dimensional spectra, and there's even a feature that lets you dump a numerical analysis of the file into a spreadsheet. If you have a colour Mac, you can have loads of fun doing esoteric things with the waveform and spectral displays.

Many additional formats are now supported: besides older SoundEdit files, you can now load and save Sound Designer II, Audio IFF, Instrument (a pitch-changeable format used by early Mac programs), and the new System 7 Sound files. Converting a sound from one format to another is easy, and two word lengths, seven sample rates, and four compression ratios are available.

The tools for working on sound resources buried within other files, like HyperCard stacks, have been made much slicker. You can always preview a sound before you open it, no matter what format it's in, thus potentially saving a lot of hunting-around time.

A welcome new feature is the ability to set loop points, which are retained when the file is saved in AIFF format. You can add cue points and text labels, and start a file playing from any label. There's a new Emphasize control which increases high-frequency content. A noise gate, with adjustable threshold and attack time, works rather well.

The tempo-change algorithm has been greatly improved. Previously your only choices were to speed up or slow down a sound by a factor of two; you can now select any tempo change between 50% and 200%, and the algorithm sounds better to boot. A nice addition is a 'progress' window that shows how long an operation is going to take — particularly useful when working on the large disk-based files that the program can now handle.

The most impressive improvement is the way the program mixes multiple tracks. In the old version, you had to open a separate Mix window and import each file individually, and the only control you had was over level. When you 'previewed' a mix before committing to it, the relative timing between the different sections was almost always inaccurate. It was a mess.

The new version cleans this up considerably. It uses a true multitrack file format, in which a virtually unlimited number of tracks — each with its own effects, as well as level control — can be combined and edited within a single file, and played in either in mono or stereo. The mix occurs automatically when you play the file — there's no need to preview, and no timing errors. Changing the timing of individual tracks, which used to require pasting silence and various other kludges, is now just a matter of option-dragging the track. You can save the file in its multitrack format, which is especially useful if you need to come back to it later for editing, re-timing, or remixing.

So, there's no doubt that SoundEdit Pro is a step forward for users of the Mac's built-in 8-bit audio circuitry, and the designers are to be commended for adding some fine new features without sacrificing the user-friendliness of the original. But does it also serve as an inexpensive bridge to the world of 16-bit audio as well?

THE BAD NEWS



Unfortunately, no. Although it can open and edit 16-bit files, it won't play or record them — at least, not in 16-bit format through any hardware currently on the market. Instead, it will down-convert them on the fly to 8-bit, 22-kHz, literally by skipping samples, and play them via the Mac sound chip. So although you can cut, paste, and mix 16-bit files (you can't use any of the effects), even if you already have the right hardware, you'll need some other software just to hear what they sound like.

Furthermore, the program does a lousy job even within its limitations: if the sampling rate of a file (either 8 or 16-bit) is higher than 22kHz, the program sometimes skips and breaks up while it plays. If you're playing more than one track, this always happens.

To work with any files without going crazy, therefore, you have to first down-convert them to 8-bit/22kHz, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of being able to work with 16-bit files — in fact, you could actually do this trick in the old version of Sound Edit, although the feature was well hidden. So this 'improvement' is, in reality, hardly one at all.

There are other problems associated with high-fidelity files. When you preview a 44 or 48kHz sound from disk, the pitch is flat by about a minor third. When you change either the sample rate or the resolution of any file, the loop points move — apparently the program assigns the loop points to sample numbers, not clock times — so they no longer are of any use. Considering how mature the program is, it crashes surprisingly frequently.

SHOULD YOU BUY IT?



To sum up, SoundEdit Pro offers 8-bit audio users improved effects, much improved mixing, and hard-disk recording; all worthwhile features. The company's inexpensive upgrade policy makes it nearly impossible for current users not to go with the new version. For 16-bit users, however, it is a very weak program, which does precious little that the (free!) version of Sound Designer II which comes with the Audiomedia board can't handle. If you need more flexible software for working with 8-bit AIFF files for multimedia applications (which Sound Designer II won't do) and can also handle 16-bit hardware, then get Alchemy. SoundEdit Pro is still slick and as much fun as ever, but if you're looking for a cheap high-fidelity audio editing tool, you won't find it here yet.

Further information

Sound Edit Pro £280.83 inc VAT (£58.75 for upgrade from Sound Edit).

Computers Unlimited, (Contact Details).



Previous Article in this issue

Double Dutch SAM1

Next article in this issue

SOS On-line - Your Letters


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Nov 1992

Review by Paul D. Lehrman

Previous article in this issue:

> Double Dutch SAM1

Next article in this issue:

> SOS On-line - Your Letters


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