Test Drive: Sony Sound Forge Pro for Macintosh

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by Steve Cunningham

As this column has recently noted, voice actors seem to have taken to the Macintosh platform of late, particularly the still-sleek MacBook (formerly known as the MacBook Pro). Recently the menu of available stereo editors for the Mac has increased, and this one has been of particular interest to those actors who have either made the switch from Windows to the Mac OSX or are considering it (my good friend Blaine notwithstanding).

As you may know, Sony has recently introduced its venerable Sound Forge program on the Macintosh platform. Those of us who’ve used Forge since the Sonic Foundry days have waited a long time for Forge’s quick and intuitive interface that stayed out of our way. We know it, we like it, and frankly we don’t want it changed much. Sony tells us that this is not just a “ported” version of the Windows program; the company says that Sound Forge Pro Mac has been built from scratch for the Macintosh platform. As a result, the version 1.0 Mac version resembles Sound Forge Pro 10 for Windows, but the two are more cousins than siblings as we shall see.


Sony-SoundForge-Pro-for-Mac

SFPM FOR SHORT

While there have been competent stereo audio editors on the Mac for some time -- Wave Editor (now Triumph), Peak from (the now defunct) BIAS, Amadeus Pro, even Steinberg’s Cadillac-priced WaveLab -- none of these has garnered the brand recognition that Sound Forge has had among VO and radio production professionals. Forge has enough whizzy audio features to satisfy the heavy edit geeks, while remaining simple enough for voice actors who just want to record and email a thirty to their agent, and do it right now.

Sound Forge Pro Mac retains the clean, simple and configurable interface of its Windows cousin, and most of the same whizzy features (more on what’s not there later). It remains a basic two-track recorder and editor, although it is capable of recording up to 32 tracks of audio simultaneously at up to 64-bit resolution and sampling rates up to 192 kHz, assuming you have the requisite interface to supply it tracks at those specs.

The program does require either OSX Lion (10.7) or OSX Mountain Lion (10.8), which will be a deal breaker for some users who cling to their Snow Leopard (10.6) Intel Macs. It also needs a dual-core Intel processor, which is de rigueur anyway, and a minimum of 2 GB of RAM, making it an ideal candidate for a shiny and flat MacMini computer. Finally, it can use both Audio Units and VST2 plug-ins, which puts it in the same category as Reaper on the Mac; it’s a good place to be.

Installation is simple enough; open the image file, and drag the app from the image to the Applications folder, voila! I fired it up, and a plain gray dialog box appeared offering to either (a) engage the 14-day limited demo mode (which is fully functional excepting that there’s no save or export functions), or (b) go find the newly-arrived email with my activation code in it. The program comes with two -- one for SFPM itself, and another to authorize the included iZotope Mastering Effects Bundle. You’ll need to do the authorization thing on starting up SFPM for the first time; the iZotope won’t bug you about its auths until the first time you use one of them.

Properly authorized, I continued starting the program. I must say I missed seeing that bright red Forge splash screen fill my window. Alas, it’s not there; there’s nothing but a small yet somewhat disturbing HAL-like eyeball in a smallish-splash. I guess change really is hard. But in short order, I was looking at a cleaner version of Sound Forge, waiting for me to personalize its interface to my liking.

THE INTERFACE

The main SFPM display is divided into four user-configurable quadrants, and two sets of three buttons in the upper right control how the main window is partitioned. The left most set of three buttons (Editor) configure the main Editor window and allow multiple files to be viewed at once. The center three buttons (View) activate the additional panels to the right, left, or below the Editor window. The rightmost “gear” button (Tools) brings up a list of tool panels which become available in right panel next to the Editor. These include the Media Browser, Meters, File Properties, Regions List and the Plug-in Chain. Activating the lower panel displays lists of regions, properties, and statistics. Activating the left panel displays a file browser, which is much clearer to use than the explorer-style browser in the Windows version. Believe me, all of this it’s much easier to do than to describe.

The Editor itself contains both the overview of the entire audio file at the top, and also the main view of the audio file which can be zoomed from the overview for detailed editing. Using the mouse to change the size or position of the highlighted portion in the overview is very intuitive, making it easy to move the selection or to control the degree of zoom in the main waveform display. Within the main display, dragging within the waveform or above the ruler is used to make selections for editing tasks. Dragging in the center of a selected region copies that region, and when it’s dropped a Mix box appears to allow mixing with underlying audio, or fading. If you want multiple files open at the same time, tabs appear at the top of the Editor pane, and you can also open a second Editor pane and stack the two panes, either vertically or horizontally using the aforementioned left configuration buttons.

Projects can be saved in a variety of audio formats as well as the SFPM project format, which is preferred if you are going to do any serious work (it will give you a file with .forgeproj extension). This format contains the audio plus other elements such as markers, regions, plug-ins and automation, plus an edit history. The last is particularly useful, as it lets you undo your edits in between sessions. There is no “history” list as in some programs, so undos have to be stepped through to reach a particular even. Do note that edits made to an audio file are destructive when the file is saved.

Like the Windows version, editing work is done in one of four different modes, which are accessed via the buttons along the bottom of the Editor pane, or from the Edit menu. The default mode is Time, where the cursor is a standard arrow which (as noted above) makes time-based selections within the Editor pane. Pencil mode lets you redraw the waveform manually, and is available only at high magnification levels, while Envelope mode is used when creating and editing automation envelopes. The other mode is Event, which is basically where one actually splits, edits, and reorganizes the actual audio files on disk.

SFPM includes a standard marker system for highlighting specific points along the timeline. Hitting “M” on the keyboard drops new markers, and does so accurately which means they’ll work well for marking flubs and mouth noises for later editing. When it Time mode, making a time selection within a waveform and then right-clicking on the horizontal bar that defines its length, brings up a contextual menu for looping and creating a region out of the selection. Regions appear in the Region List pane, as do markers, where they can be named. The important thing here is that regions can be exported as separate audio files, whereas Events cannot. As in the Windows version of Forge, this argues for working within the Time mode for recording and editing auditions, since Time mode does allow full cut, copy, paste, etc., and also allows the edited audio to be turned into a Region that can be exported.

In Event mode, audio files can be split at the cursor into separate Events, which can have their own fade-in, fade-out and level curves. Slipping one Event over another creates an automatic crossfade between them. Like Regions, they can be resized, but they can also be moved along the timeline. So when creating a VO demo using multiple commercial spots, it will be far more convenient to work in Event mode when sequencing the spots. On the other hand, one could create a Region using an entire Event, but that has to be done one item at a time. The Windows version of SF allows auto-regions, but unfortunately the SFPM does not. Hopefully this will be remedied in a future release.


PLUG-INS INCLUDED

SFPM includes a small number of Sony’s own plug-ins for processes including normalization and channel conversion, but mainly takes advantage of Apple’s stock plug-ins, which don’t really get the credit they deserve. They’re actually quite good.

But the real draw here is that Sony includes two bundles from one of my fave plug makers: iZotope. You get their Mastering Effects Bundle, which includes their excellent EQ, a reverb, a compressor, limiter, stereo imager and an exciter plug-in. You also get iZotope’s Restore and Repair Tools: their excellent de-clicker, de-noiser and de-clipper, plus their sample-rate and bit-depth conversion tools. This gives you a mini-version of their exceptional RX noise remover, along with the option of cleaning up room noise in voice tracks. You also get time-stretch and pitch shift plugs from Sony, as well as Zplane’s Elastique Timestretch plug-in. Although the latter is an offline processor, its quality is excellent and substantially better than Sony’s.

Those who have used Forge on Windows will feel at home with SFPM’s Plug-in Chain and Chooser pane (available on the right side). Chains are unique per audio clip in the Editor window, and the entire setup process is very self-explanatory. VO talent who want to make their track sound more up-in-your-grille with some compression will have no problem figuring out how to set it up to work in real time.

While there may be fewer total plug-ins here than some offer, when taken together there’s enough power and flexibility to handle pretty much any processing task.

WHAT’S MISSING

Unfortunately, comparing SFPM to Sound Forge Pro version 10 for Windows brings the Mac version up short. In addition to the aforementioned auto-version function, one of the two most significant omissions is batch editing. That’s right, the ability to select a mess of WAV files and have Forge convert them to mp3 files without further intervention is just flat missing. It might have something to do with Quicktime issues, or perhaps licensing and Apple; I don’t really know. I do know I miss it.

The other major faux pas is key commands. In short, there are so few as to make working quickly painful when compared to the PC version. You’ll end up making way too many trips to various icons and menus during a fast-paced session with a VO artist. I ended up using Keyboard Maestro to create some macros for the items I used the most, as I far prefer key commands to clicks. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but there is really no good reason for not giving users a menu where they can assign keys to functions and menu items. I’ll just keep hoping that some of these appear in future releases.

Other minor quibbles include the lack of anything like a Crop command, and the fact that the toolbars cannot be edited. On the plus side is that the documentation is good and reasonably complete, and the program does cost less than the Windows version ($270 for the downloadable version vs. $375 for the Windows version).

SO IS IT WORTH IT?

Frankly it’s hard to say at this writing. The program is not as unstable today as some reported earlier on the various message boards, at least in my experience. But it is not yet the speed demon that the Windows version represents. Keeping in mind that it is still at version one (technically, version 1.0.22 build 2), I really want to like it, and am willing to hang for updates. But for today it has the same air of disappointment about it as did Audition for the Mac -- pretty good, but not nearly as good as its forebear.

Speaking of which, I am happy to report that at least Sony is releasing new revs of SFPM often, at a current run rate of about one per month for the past four months. I only hope they sell enough copies to make it worthwhile adding the items missing from the Windows version. If they do that, I believe they’ll have a winner here. If not, well, I may go back to the PC or to Forge in Parallels on the Mac. Meanwhile, there is a time-limited Trial version, so go check it out for yourself.

Sony’s Sound Forge Pro Macintosh carries a US suggested retail price of $299.95 for the boxed version, and $269.95 for the downloadable version. For more information worldwide, visit www.sonycreativesoftware.com. 

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