Back in Pro Audio Review’s August 1999 issue, when reviewing three expensive ($19,365 total) CEDAR hardware boxes, I wrote, “I daresay that the time isn’t far off when this technology will trickle down to the world of home audio, and anyone with a significant collection of old-fashioned tapes and LPs will consider CEDAR equipment a must-buy. Right now, however, it remains in the domain of the professional, but it’s so easy to use that just about the only thing preventing consumers from enjoying its benefits is the price.” Well, at least I was half-right! Berkley Integrated Audio Software’s SoundSoap Pro software plug-in does everything the CEDAR boxes did (and, actually, a bit more), for about three percent of their price — and its results, to my ears, are at least 75 percent as good!
Product PointsApplications: Post production, project studio
Key features: Mac, Windows; RTAS, VST, AudioSuite, Audio Units, DirectX
Contact: BIAS at 707-782-1866, Web Site.
We’ve all come across recordings which — for some reason or other — could benefit from after-the-fact noise reduction. BIAS introduced its original $99 SoundSoap software in 2002, aimed at videographers who needed to clean up their audio actualities. But once audio pros discovered it (and yes, even yours truly used it on a project a while ago), suggestions started to flow into to BIAS headquarters in Northern California on ways to make it more suitable for serious audio restoration work. Realizing that there was nothing like it on the market at the time, BIAS took all those suggestions seriously and created SoundSoap Pro, a software plug-in which costs, admittedly, six times what the original SoundSoap cost. But, what a difference the new plug-in has in terms of flexibility, features, and sound quality!
Before the reader thinks I’ve lost perspective here, a few disclaimers are in order. First, CEDAR gear is still the Rolls-Royce of audio restoration tools, and its hardware solutions (often paired, these days, with control functions within DAW plug-ins for high-end workstations such as SADiE and Merging Technologies Pyramix) continue to evolve and remain the standard to which all others are compared. Secondly, today’s audio restoration software field now contains several products at the very low end, as well as one other, Waves’ “Restoration Bundle,” which costs twice as much as SoundSoap Pro. And then, there’s TC’s “Restoration Suite,” three plug-ins costing $1,495, which use a combination of computer host processing and the DSP power from a TC PowerCore PCI card or FireWire unit in a manner not unlike some of the CEDAR products. I own an original PowerCore PCI card and the TC plug-ins but — on one hand, it’s not quite fair to compare a $599 plug-in with a software/hardware combination costing close to $3,000. Or is it?
First of all, SoundSoap Pro employs a dongle which plugs into the USB port on Mac OS X and Windows XP systems. It’s very similar to the USB key used by other companies such as Apple/Emagic, MOTU, Steinberg and others, and allows use of SoundSoap Pro on more than one computer. After installation and subsequent instantiation, SoundSoap pro opens up with a multicolored “launcher” window of large animated soap bubbles, and thumbnails at the bottom for activating any of its four processes. Although a bit garish for my taste, that screen does contain a nifty little resizable monochrome text window with scrolling “getting started” tips. Great idea! One can set the full-size window of any of SSPro’s four processes to greet you upon subsequent instantiations, so if the bubbles bother you too much, you don’t have to see them very often!
SSPro is compatible with most plug-in hosts from Adobe, BIAS, Cakewalk, Digidesign, Emagic (now Apple), Steinberg, MOTU, Sony and, yes, you can even use it within Apple’s GarageBand and Soundtrack! It supports VST, RTAS, AudioSuite, DirectX and Audio Units plug-in formats and is Mac OS X and Windows XP-compatible.
Its Hum and Rumble tool eliminates buzzing and hum caused by RFI, EMI and other sources. It deals with frequencies from 20 Hz – 500 Hz with variable filter width, depth, frequency, and processes up to 10 harmonics; it also reduces low-frequency and subsonic rumble. There’s also a cool hum meter for viewing the hum level, before and after processing.
SSPro’s Click and Crackle tool is suitable for digital transfers of vinyl records, and also reduces pops and other brief, transient problems such as intermittent cable connection crackles and certain forms of transient distortion. As noted below, I even found a use for it unplanned for by BIAS! Its streamlined set of only two controls — Sensitivity and Threshold — produce instantaneous and remarkably effective relief, while you monitor your work visually (via the spectrogram) and audibly (using the A-B-C-D Compare and Noise Only options). Each of SoundSoap Pro’s modules contains four temporary “working” memory locations for instant comparisons among different possible solutions; when you finalize your setting, you can then save it as a preset.
The Broadband module provides deep, sonically transparent suppression of tape hiss, tire noise, wind, HVAC noise, fluorescent lighting noise and other continuous broadband problems. It operates across 512 distinct audio bands (controlled by 12 threshold and reduction sliders with grouping capability), and also features attack, release, and tilt knobs for greater control. And, yes, I found another, pretty weird type of noise it worked effectively on.
The Noise Gate section of SSPro works, as one would imagine, to reduce the noise which falls between desired sections of program material, and is also useful for creating a variety of extreme special effects. It features the usual threshold, attack, and release controls, accompanied by a useful waveform display. The display can even be frozen in time — so the user can continue making adjustments at a desired location without stopping the audio playback.
Each of SoundSoap Pro’s modules also features a cool real-time spectrogram providing constant, global visual monitoring of spectral noise; its color coding scheme lets users discern problem areas and make the required adjustments, while listening to and watching the immediate results. Each module also features a “Noise Only” button allowing the user to hear, on a global level, only that portion of the audio file being removed.
Since SoundSoap Pro functions via four separate modules, its bypass function allows the user to bypass processing either globally, or individually with each tool. Similarly, as mentioned above, its own “save/load preset” process allows one to select exactly what is loaded in each preset, as opposed to a host application’s typical manner of simply loading everything which was saved from the active window. It’s pretty elegant the way SSPro’s load command adds functionality to Apple’s standard “open” window, adding the extra choices in checkboxes down at the bottom.
I had so much fun playing with SoundSoap Pro, that I almost forgot I was supposed to be testing it! I’ll give an example of each module’s effect on my source material. First, the hum and rumble process was able to completely remove guitar amp/PA system hum from a live gig recording I made of my own band last June — and it did so without changing the overall (dry, outdoor party) ambience in any discernable manner. It also easily removed hum caused by turntable grounding problems on some tapes I’d made of LPs back in the sixties.
With the “Click and Crackle” module, I was able to greatly reduce multipath distortion recorded on one of my late Sunday evening “Hearts of Space” public radio air checks. Sometimes my tuner gets good reception from WAMC, and sometimes it doesn’t. Just running my recording through the module — with no tweaks at all — did an impressive job! And, of course, the Broadband module then got rid of the FM stereo hiss usually in evidence on most recordings I make from the radio — even with an audiophile tuner such as my McIntosh MR78!
Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, I had the most fun using SoundSoap Pro with vinyl and, in the following case, plastic! If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember those infamous Evatone sound sheets — flimsy pieces of floppy plastic bound into magazine and junk mail packages during the sixties. The fact that the Evatone pressing plant in Florida could actually press music onto them always boggled my mind. Anyway, suffice it to say that they were not of audiophile quality, especially concerning their signal-to-noise ratio! I have a very precious one, a tune entitled “It’s a Gas,” which was bound into an issue of MAD magazine in the early 1960s (gimme a break, I was just a 13 year old boy..) and it’s gotten pretty trashed over the years.
Well, once I got my Koetsu Rosewood phono cartridge/Thorens TD124 turntable/McIntosh C20 preamp combination to output line level audio from that floppy 7-inch LP, I digitized it with my Genex GXA8 converter at 88.2 kHz, opened it up in BIAS Peak 4.12, and set SoundSoap Pro to work on it. Well, in less time than it’s taken me to type this, all those hilarious belches began to emerge from a completely silent background, and the 50s-style rock’n roll band playing the instrumental choruses between the, eh, breaks, sounded better than I’d ever heard it. And SSPro’s Noise Gate module did the finishing touches with panache.
I also tried the Broadband tool on one of my previously-released classical music projects for which I had already employed my TC PowerCore Restoration Suite. For this test, I went back to the original unprocessed source file. The “problem” with my original recording, done during a (supposedly) quiet Thanksgiving vacation at Smith College’s Sweeney Concert Hall, was that their decorative fountain could not be turned off, and its water sprayed high into the air 24/7 directly outside the window flanking stage left! Thus, there was a constant rushing and bubbling noise apparent during all the quiet passages during my lovely Baroque chamber recording session featuring Jaap Schroeder and the Arcadia Players.
Last fall, when I had a release deadline and owned only the TC gear, I must have spent a couple of hours tweaking their “Denoise” plug-in for maximum noise reduction and minimum effect on the hall ambience and delicate stereo imaging. Well, this morning, I set up an A/B test between my saved PowerCore settings from that session, and SoundSoap Pro. When I first instantiated SSPro, had it do its “learn noise” command, and started playing the file, my mouth fell open. Its default setting did almost as good a noise reduction job as my tweaked-out Restoration Suite preset had! The hall ambience and stereo image presented similarly between the two different plug-ins, and I was able to tweak either one to sound pretty much like the other.
I then repeated all the SoundSoap Pro tests I’ve just described using the appropriate PowerCore plug-ins and had similar experiences. Each plug-in was capable of similar results, but BIAS’ “intelligence” seemed to enable me to get to the desired sonic result quite a bit faster. On the other hand, I was able to make “fussier” adjustments with the TC plug-ins.
But, of course, there’s usually no free lunch and, indeed, SoundSoap Pro uses up lots of CPU horsepower. With a stereo, 44.1 kHz file playing back on my 12-inch 867mHz G4 PowerBook, a single instantiation consumed 56 percent of its CPU usage. Similarly, on my dual-gig G4 Quicksilver desktop Mac, a single instantiation consumed between 40 percent and 55 percent of CPU usage, depending upon how many of the four modules were being used. In contrast to this, a single instantiation of just the “Denoise” plug-in from TC’s “Restoration Suite” on the Quicksilver Mac ate up 27 percent of the CPU — and that’s in addition to all the math going on inside the dedicated DSP chips on my PCI PowerCore card — so even TC’s hybrid system uses up a bit of computer horsepower.
Putting these numbers in perspective, it appears that one reason that SoundSoap Pro does such a good job is that it does some serious number crunching. But what’s remarkable is that it does it without the use or expense of an extra, dedicated DSP card!
From the results I’ve obtained with SoundSoap Pro in my studio, I’d have to say that it’s a real bargain! It works elegantly and efficiently, and sounds nearly as good as another system costing several times as much. Congratulations, BIAS, you’ve done all us pro audio engineers a big favor!