Yes, You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
If there were a lifetime achievement award for audio editing software, Sound Forge would be the favored candidate. It’s probably the oldest of the professional-grade audio editors, tracing its roots all the way back to Windows 3.x. Despite a few idiosyncrasies, Sound Forge Pro is still respected for its powerful toolset and generous selection of plug-ins.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a full-fledged update since 2010, when Sound Forge Pro 10 added event-based editing, customized window layouts, and floating docks. Why the long wait? It can be challenging to add anything significant after nine previous upgrade cycles. The menus are already crowded with features and options that many professionals never use. And at the other extreme, a complete overhaul of the program might scare away the loyal user base.
This latest update doesn’t represent a dramatic shift in direction, but it does offer some key improvements to the interface. There’s a new level of integration with SpectraLayers Pro (the two work almost seamlessly together now). Several additions are targeted specifically to the broadcast community, though non-broadcasters may find the new -23 LUFS meter to be valuable for other types of mixes. And the collection of plug-ins has expanded to include new iZotope tools for vocal enhancement and audio restoration. On the downside, there’s still no 64-bit version of the program—only a 32-bit version. You won’t be able to use your 64-bit VST plugins with Sound Forge Pro 11.
For many veteran users, the most welcome new feature will be one-touch recording. I’ve always liked the Sound Forge interface, but I never cared for the Texas two-step you had to perform when you clicked the Record icon. The main program would freeze, and you would be whisked away to a dedicated recording window. It was a distraction with no real benefit. With this latest version, you’re able to stay put on the main screen, with everything being handled within the same workspace. Sony calls it "modeless one-touch recording," though it isn’t a new concept. It’s something that should have been added (or fixed) years ago.
Along with one-touch recording, Sony has redesigned the recording workflow to help you better manage and monitor real-time recordings. You can record multiple takes now, though the review process is somewhat cumbersome. Select a loop, and you can hit record multiple times as the loop progresses. After you’ve finished, you step back through the undo/redo history window to find the best take from that session. You can now stay armed for recording and monitor the unarmed channels while you record. Punch-and-roll recording is also supported in this latest version.
Another interface change makes it easier to navigate through lengthy recordings. By default, the program now displays a second view of the waveform that’s scaled to show the entire file, not just the portion you’re editing. Sony has dubbed it the Waveform Overview Bar. Located just above the edit view of the waveform, it gives you a better sense of where you are in the file. And it isn’t just a passive view. You can use it to quickly shift your edit position. Aim the cursor at the overview waveform, press the left mouse button, and slide the cursor left or right to navigate to any place in the file. Both views update in real time as you move the cursor.
If you like to slice and dice your audio in Sony’s Acid programs, you’ll love the improved events mode in Sound Forge Pro 11. You can split your audio into events that behave much like audio clips in Acid. You can drag and drop events along the timeline, rearrange their order, and even lock down event markers, region markers, and envelope points within individual clips. Any successive events will ripple forward in time as you edit. You could use this feature to assemble alternate takes for a project or to create different audio CD layouts.
The new interoperability feature lets you edit portions of your audio in SpectraLayers Pro 2 without losing your place in Sound Forge Pro 11. You can process the audio with a spectral edit and have the results inserted back into the Sound Forge timeline.
Boarding the Spectral Bus
The new interoperability with SpectraLayers Pro 2 also promises to up the ante for creativity. SpectraLayers Pro is a powerful tool for frequency-level editing. However, it’s extremely complicated to use, especially with larger files, where you have the added difficulty of finding the exact portion of the audio you would like to edit. If you’re working on an hour-long audio file, SpectraLayers Pro can have a difficult time handling it without becoming bogged down. Sound Forge Pro 11 makes the process easier by letting you preselect a portion of the file before you send it to SpectraLayers Pro 2. You choose Edit in SpectraLayers Pro from the Tools pull-down menu, and any audio you’ve selected will automatically appear in SpectraLayers Pro 2. Make your changes there, and when you close SpectraLayers, the audio will be placed back into the Sound Forge timeline along your spectral edits.
Sony calls the process “seamless interoperability,” and it pretty much is, though you still need to be familiar with SpectraLayers Pro 2 in order to use its tools. What’s easier now is that you can make those changes without losing your place in the workflow or your train of thought while editing. And you can pass markers and regions back and forth between the two applications, along with the selected audio. The process does have its rough edges. You have to close SpectraLayers Pro 2 in order for the exchange of data to take place. Otherwise, the two programs won’t form a return link.
So what kind of spectral editing can you perform with this interoperability? If you have vocal and instrument tracks, you could reduce (or remove) the frequency data from the instruments that matches the musical note of the singer’s voice. The result could lift the singer above the band without your having to globally alter the track. For example, where the singer’s note is 440 Hz (middle C), you could diminish the instruments that are also playing at 440 Hz, in order to give the voice more presence. In addition, you can use SpectraLayers Pro 2 to transfer the spectral qualities from one audio source to another. You might apply the spectral signature of the singer onto the spectral signature of the band to have the instruments seem to sing the melody.
When used together, the two programs open up new possibilities for experimentation. If you like to push the envelope when shaping your sound into a mix, you may find this to be a highly productive combination. SpectraLayers Pro is impressive, but it isn’t intuitive. It’s almost counter-intuitive, because the concepts and toolset can be difficult to grasp. Fortunately, the documentation has significantly improved since the original SpectraLayers Pro was released in 2012. This latest version includes a free seminar series to help get you up to speed.
This latest version of Sound Forge Pro includes several enhancements targeted specifically to broadcasters. Along with compatibility with version 2.0 BWF (Broadcast Wave Format), the application now supports loudness attributes, autofill, verification, and auto-fixing of BWF data.
Among the options for the Loudness Meters, you’ll find a new -23 LUFS scale setting. This will help you mix your audio to be CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act) compliant.
Of interest to both broadcasters and non-broadcasters will be the new -23 LUFS meters, which are CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act) compliant. Broadcasters can use the -23 LUFS meters to comply with the current FCC regulations that limit the dynamic range for audio during commercials. Non-broadcasters may find the meters to be relevant for other types of mixes, because the standard is more than just a peak level.
According to Sony Creative Software's Mike Scheibinger, the -23 LUFS meter could be very useful for avoiding the kind of severely limited and overly compressed music that we frequently hear on CDs, as well as radio. “Your broadcast-ready program should be floating around -23,” he explains. “Whereas your short-term and momentary peaks should crest well above that.”
When demonstrating Sound Forge Pro 11, Scheibinger likes to run Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon through the -23 LUFS meters. This single-track album was first released in 1985. “The entire track holds between – 22 and -24 LUFS,” he says. “It’s uncanny. Eno’s overall integrated volume holds at a point that wouldn’t trigger any additional compression or limiting at the broadcast phase. In the meantime, if you look over at the left of the integrated meter, you can see the short-term and the momentary peaks. And these things are just dancing away. They’re cresting louder than -23 all the time—pinging up these little ear-candy things. These are the little things that the broadcast industry are going to allow through the gate.”
Using the -23 LUFS meters in Sound Forge Pro 11, you’ll be able to create a mix that’s restrained enough to avoid limiting but open enough to let the music breath. The important passages will be able to break through, much like a real-life soundscape.
Everything But the Kitchen Sink
One of the big pluses for Sound Forge Pro has been the rich complement of extras that make it self-sufficient for many audio-editing tasks. Sound Forge Pro 10 shipped with an impressive arsenal of effects and plugins, including the iZotope Mastering Effects Bundle 2. That package consists of Mastering EQ, Mastering Reverb, Mastering Limiter, Mastering Stereo Imager, Mastering Harmonic Exciter, and Multiband Compressor. All the previous iZotope effects are included in Sound Forge Pro 11, along with four additions: Nectar Elements and three new repair-and-restoration tools.
iZotope’s Nectar Elements is a vocal treatment plugin with presets for various music styles, such as Rock, Folk, Country, and Soul. There’s also a preset for Voiceover & Dialogue. You can use it to customize your vocals for presence, drive, and grit. And you can further enhance the vocals by altering the pitch, performing a de-essing, and reducing room noise.
iZotope's Nectar Elements is included with Sound Forge Pro 11. You can use it to customize your vocals to suit various genre styles.
The three new iZotope repair and restoration tools are Declicker, Denoiser, and Declipper. They remove pops and clicks, remove background noise, and reconstruct peaks damaged by clipping (it handles both analog- and digital-based clipping).
The iZotope plugins are fully integrated into the application and are given a high-profile position within the menu system underneath the FX Favorites menu. The usual assortment of Sony effects and plugins is grouped together one level down, though you can select any of them and bring them forward to the first-level menus.
A new floating Plug-In Chain window makes it simpler to manage complex chains of plug-ins. Using it, you can change the order of the plug-ins and cycle through the plug-ins’ presets much faster than you could with previous versions of Sound Forge Pro.
The new Plug-In Chain window lets you rearrange the order of your plug-ins. You can also change the active preset for each plug-in.
While they won’t show up in the plug-in chain, Sound Forge Pro 11 benefits from two post-processing iZotope technologies introduced in Sound Forge Pro 10. The application uses iZotope 64-bit SRC (Sample Rate Conversion) when converting one sample rate to another. That can be critical when you’re converting studio-quality 192 kHz to CD-quality 44.1 kHz, where a less-than-optimal conversion can introduce ringing artifacts and aliasing noise. The other side of the conversion process is bit depth. Sound Forge Pro 11 uses iZotope MBIT+ dither to help you achieve better results when converting from 24-bit to 16-bit. According to iZotope, the algorithms are designed specifically for music, as opposed to test tones.
Limited Video Support
While Sound Forge Pro 11 doesn’t support the kind of video editing that’s associated with Sony Vegas, it does let you edit audio that’s embedded in video files. The Video Preview window shows the video frame that’s associated with the play position on the audio timeline. Using the video strip, you might use Sound Forge Pro 11 to do frame-by-frame synchronization between the audio and video.
Though your options are limited compared to a full-fledged NLE, you can configure the status bar on the Video Preview window to show the type of media, preview frame size, and frame rate. You can have the Video Preview window adjust for the aspect ratio distortion that’s caused when displaying rectangular pixels on a computer monitor. And you can send the video output to an external video monitor.
The application ships with MPEG-2 templates for writing HDV-compliant files at both 720p and 1080i resolutions, AVI templates using the CineForm CFHD codec for 720p and 1080i intermediate renders, and WMV templates for encoding at 720p and 1080p.
If you tend to do all our audio editing in a video-centric NLE, you may be surprised by the many specialized features, toos, and settings offered by a professional-grade audio editor such as Sound Forge Pro 11.
Sound Forge Pro 11 is well worth a look if you frequently work with audio files. If you tend to edit only in an NLE, you might consider that there are many specialized features in Sound Forge Pro that go far beyond what would be available in a video-centric editor. For owners of previous versions of Sound Forge, the decision isn’t as straightforward. If you’re coming from Sound Forge Pro 10, the $199.95 upgrade price is a bit steep (roughly half the full purchase price), unless you really like the new features. On the other hand, it would be a big step up from earlier versions, given the steady accumulation of new features and interface tweaks.
You also have the option of purchasing Sound Forge Pro 11 and SpectraLayers Pro 2 in a combined Audio Master Suite. It’s $599.95 versus $399.95 for each of the programs. That’s a savings of $200 off the combined price. If you’re upgrading from a previous version of Sound Forge, the $499.95 upgrade to the Audio Master Suite is less of a bargain—only a $100 savings off the combined price for both programs. Finally, Sony offers trial versions you can download for both Sound Forge Pro 11 and SpectraLayers Pro 2. The trial versions could help you decide for yourself whether to buy or upgrade.