Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 50 Update

The PC world has changed completely since the last major revision to Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge. When Sound Forge 4.x came along, most users had given up on Windows 3.x for the various flavors of Windows 95. Windows NT 4.0's true 32-bit code was just gaining currency with audio producers. Now, Microsoft is getting ready to see NT architecture's final triumph by moving past the last vestiges of 16-bit code from the DOS era with the XP operating system
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The PC world has changed completely since the last major revision to Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge. When Sound Forge 4.x came along, most users had given up on Windows 3.x for the various flavors of Windows 95. Windows NT 4.0's true 32-bit code was just gaining currency with audio producers. Now, Microsoft is getting ready to see NT architecture's final triumph by moving past the last vestiges of 16-bit code from the DOS era with the XP operating system.
Product PointsApplications: Two-track recording/editing, audio processing

Key Features: Full range of real-time effects; 24 and 32-bit support; customizable user interfaces; Vegas LE and basic CD burning software included

Price: $499.95 (retail package price); $350 (downloaded); $99.95 upgrade

Contact: Sonic Foundry at 800-577-6642 608- 256-3133; Web Site

Plus

+ Up to 32-bit/192 kHz supported

+ Highly customizable interface

+ Lots of effects and processing plug-ins included

Minus

- No provision for multi-user profiles

- CD Architect not supported in 5.0

The Score: An impressive update on a top notch and extremely stable editing package.
Likewise, Sound Forge 5.0 is a major revamp in terms of removing the remaining remnants of 16-bit code from the venerable audio editor/processor. For the producer, the changes under the hood make for faster processing. Amenities like a customizable interface can fine-tune the latest Sound Forge for individual preferences. The most obvious difference is how 5.0 comes bundled with nearly every audio processing plug-in that Sonic Foundry offers.

Features

Sound Forge 5.0 ($499.95; $99.95 for upgrade) is a two-track digital audio editor with wide-ranging audio processing capabilities. 5.0 expands the capabilities of previous versions by broadening the range of file sampling rates (now up to 192 kHz) and formats supported. Instead of being limited to 8- and 16-bit depths, now 24-bit and 32-bit floating point can be read and recorded.

More than a dozen formats, for everything from uncompressed audio to online distribution, come built-in, including MP3, Windows Media, RealAudio and Perfect Clarity Audio. SF 5.0 is also bundled with a full complement of 18 XFX real-time plug-ins as well as the Acoustic Mirror acoustic simulator/microphone modeler and Wave Hammer mastering tool. All but Wave Hammer have been previously available separately. Finishing out the package deal is Vegas Audio LE, an 8-track version of Sonic Foundry's multitracker. The only thing missing from the Sonic Foundry line is the noise reduction plug-in.

In use

Experienced Sound Forge users will be reassured to know that the 5.0 interface looks exactly like the 4.x interface. This is just the default setting; the layout of the meters and control buttons can be situated as needed. A few elements, like the playbar transport controls under the waveform display, are fixed. Other toolbars can be placed on top to cut the need to go into drop-and-drag menus for tools and effects.

Veterans may find it hard to improve on an interface that has, for many, become second nature. But newcomers as well as the adventurous will find that the ability to adjust the controls to individual needs can save quite a few keystrokes. The only downside is if you work in a multi-user environment - you might discover yourself facing an unfamiliar interface after someone "optimizes" things. A nice addition would be individual user profiles that could be summoned at the boot up.

The increased range of sampling rates and bit-depth support are found as added options at the same menus as before. Likewise, the additional file support is found when saving or opening files. Like 4.5, video and AVI support is part of this multimedia pallette. Producers delivering content to multiple platforms will find most everything needed to deliver the goods.

For those not familiar with the XFX DirectX effects libraries bundled, they are basically handier versions of what had been included earlier. SF 5.0's three XFX libraries include all and more of the same mastering functions and effects in 4.x. They can now be found under the effects menu.

The biggest difference is that the XFX DirectX plug-ins preview the output in real-time. No wasting time processing a whole file to find out how a tweak sounds. The new addition, Wave Hammer, is an easy-to-use mastering tool. It is something of a combination peak limiter, compressor and normalizer.

While you might want to add these elements individually with some projects, Wave Hammer is a great one-step solution for "quick and dirty" work. It did an admirable job of adding the coveted loudness to the pop tracks I processed through it.

I also tested it out on a speech recorded at a political rally on election eve. The enormous dynamic range between the speaker and the overwhelming shouts and applause from the audience were evened out quickly and with only moderate processing artifacts. The end result compared very favorably to earlier attempts done painstakingly with a variety of processing tools.

The other major add-on here is a streamlined version of Vegas Audio, Vegas Audio LE. This eight-track multitracker is enough to give a taste of what the full-blown version delivers. It is too bad that the multitrack capabilities are not built right into SF 5.0. This is basically due to a business decision to split the Sonic Foundry products into separate categories rather than to offer an all-in-one solution. For the user, that means toggling back and forth between the programs.

SF 5.0 also includes basic track-at-once CD burning/ripping capabilities. This is a sad reminder of the now-discontinued CD Architect, Sonic Foundry's late, great disc-at-once CD mastering program. At first, I thought that some of the P/Q marker editing capabilities were available. After ripping data off a whole CD, the track markers seemed to be in place. Unfortunately, there is no way to manipulate them. Since this is only track-at-once recording, there is no way to make this Red Book-compliant anyway. Instead of being able to master full CDs, this is limited to producing one-offs.

According to Sonic Foundry's Director of Engineering Caleb Pourchot, there was no easy way to include CD Architect into the upgraded Sound Forge infrastructure. The bad news for those holding on to an old copy is that it will not integrate into 5.0 as it did in 4.5. In other words, if you want to keep using it, you have to keep the old version of Sound Forge on your system to make it work.

There is some hope, however. Pourchot suggested that the CD Architect's capabilities might reappear integrated into other offerings in the company's lineup. For those of us hooked on what was the best PC Red Book-compliant CD burning software yet, that is reason enough to include it in Version 5.5!

An updated version of the Batch Converter tool will be available this summer as a free download for SF 5.0 users. Batch Converter allows users to process multiple files simultaneously. Processes include batch format and rate conversion, as well as the application of any plug-ins available in the system.

Summary

Those shopping for a new audio production setup will have a hard time beating the value and capabilities of the Sound Forge 5.0 bundle. The range of effects and even the included multitracker provide plenty to play with for most any level of expertise. For those already working with earlier versions, 5.0 is an essential upgrade if higher bit-depth recording capabilities are required.

Those happy working with the standard CD quality uncompressed audio (16/44.1), and who have already made the investment in the XFX effects, will have a harder time making the case for the upgrade. But adding real-time ease, plus the other amenities, is well worth the $100 to upgrade to Version 5.0.