First Look: First Look: Adobe Soundbooth CS3

Among the many tools that make up Adobe CS3 is a new audio-editing addition—Soundbooth CS3. Available in beta form since late October 2006, Soundbooth won’t see official release until this summer. Unlike most audio editors, which are designed largely for audio professionals and enthusiasts, Soundbooth was created with video in mind.

Rather than offering countless ways to tweak audio waveforms or alter those waveforms with a dizzying array of effects, Soundbooth includes a focused set of tools for performing the kinds of tasks designers most need for their video projects—removing noise, performing basic cuts and fades, and automatically generating background music tracks. It looks like this:

Familiar face

Adobe’s designers wanted an interface with which users of other Adobe products would feel at home. In Photoshop-like fashion they succeeded by offering a single window that contains a large central work area (the Editor panel) as well as a series of tabbed, docked panels that you can undock to create a custom workspace. You can then save these workspaces and call them up by choosing one from the Workspace pop-up menu in the upper right corner of the Soundbooth window.

In addition to the Editor panel, these panels include a Files panel, which lists open files; an Effects panel, where you add such effects as delay, chorus, reverb, and EQ; a Markers panel, which lists any markers you’ve placed in your file; a History panel similar to the same-named Photoshop panel; a Video panel, where your video is displayed (the audio for that video appears in the Editor panel); and a Tasks panel, which includes functions for auto-composing scores, changing pitch and timing, cleaning up audio, creating loops, and removing a sound.

Soundbooth features a main work area and a collection of palettes for performing basic audio tasks.
(Click on screenshot to open the full-size image.)

A simple set of tools populates the top of the window—a Time Selection tool for selecting audio in the timeline, a Frequency Selection tool for selecting a large swatch of frequencies in the program’s Spectral Frequency display (selecting high frequencies where noise might exist, for example), a Rectangular Marquee tool for selecting a portion of frequencies in the Spectral Frequency display, a Lasso tool for making freehand selections in the Spectral Frequency display, and Hand and Zoom tools for moving around the Editor panel.

At the bottom of the window are typical Play controls—Rewind, Fast-forward, Stop, Play, Loop, and Record—along with a time counter, buttons for adding fades, a control for changing volume numerically (by increasing or decreasing decibels), and a Louder button for increasing the volume by +3dB with each press of the button. Within the Editor panel you see your audio waveforms and, optionally, the Spectral Frequency display, which represents frequencies and content as bands of color. At the very top of the Editor panel is a broad overview of the entire waveform with a blue box surrounding the portion of the waveforms currently displayed in the larger waveform view below. You can navigate through this view by dragging the blue box from side to side. You can also expand or contract the larger waveform view by placing your cursor within it and using a mouse’s scroll wheel—scrolling down to contract the view and scrolling up to expand it.

Everyone’s effects

As I mentioned, Soundbooth is not a full-featured audio editor. You won’t find commands for reversing audio or creating cross-fades (seamlessly fading one portion of adjacent audio into the next), for example. There’s no multitrack support—you’re limited to working with only a stereo track. You can’t import AAC or MP3 audio files nor MPEG-4 (including H.264) video files. You can’t even select individual channels in a stereo file (useful when you want to apply an effect or volume change to just one side of a stereo file). Instead you have to export the stereo file as two mono files, which is inconvenient. What it does offer are tools for performing the kind of audio tasks routinely needed by video producers.

For example, producers often need to create audio that exactly fits a video’s length. Soundbooth’s Change Pitch and Timing task can do just that by stretching or compressing the sound to fit a time you’ve designated, all without changing pitch. (You can also stretch time by percentage—from 12.5-percent of the original to 800-percent.) Within this same Pitch and Timing task you can shift pitch—making the sound higher or lower—in up to 72 increments.

The program also includes a Clean Up Audio task, which you use to remove noise, clicks and pops, and rumble. Like some professional audio editors, Soundbooth lets you sample and example of a file’s noise—say the sound of an air conditioner operating in the background—and can then intelligently filter out that constants noise.

Soundbooth can sample a section of noise and then eliminate it throughout the file.
(Click on screenshot to open the full-size image.)

Soundbooth also includes a Heal function, which is the audio equivalent to Photoshop’s Healing brush. Select a portion of sound you want to fix (a spike or pop, for example) and click the Auto Heal button within the Tasks panel’s Remove a Sound tab. The unwanted sound will disappear and the surrounding audio will be blended to create a seamless edit.

To deal with portions of audio that are too quiet, Adobe includes a simple Louder button that, when pressed, increases the volume of the selected audio by 3dB. Other audio editors refer to this kind of function as “normalize.” If you’d like finer control over volume, you can select a waveform and, click within the program’s Volume pop-up bubble (a small control that hovers over the waveform) and drag left or right to decrease of increase the volume in .1 increments from -96dB to +12dB. You use a similar control at the bottom of the window to change the file’s overall volume.

You can fade audio in and out by choosing a Fade button and one of three included fades—linear, exponential, or logarithmic fades. Once you’ve applied a fade you can change its length by dragging the Fade handle to the right or left and change its ramp by dragging it up or down. You can also easily trim the beginning and end of an audio file by dragging trim handles at either side of the Editor panel.

Keeping with its theme to do without (or hide) features likely to confuse the audio-unaware, Soundbooth includes a limited set of common effects—including Analog Delay, Chorus/Flanger, Compressor, Convolution Reverb, Distortion, Dynamics, EQ: Graphic, EQ: Parametric, Mastering, Phaser, and Vocal Enhancer. Choose an effect and you’re presented with a small dialog box from which you can select from a number of presets—for example, in the Convolution Reverb effect you can choose Small Club or Smokey Bar. You can also choose how much effect to apply with an Amount slider. An Advanced command in the Effects menu lets you dig into the parameters of each effect. For instance choose Advanced -> Mastering and you’ll find controls for adjusting highpass and lowpass filters, reverb (with a wet/dry slider), widener (for audio 3D effect), exciter, and limiter.

By choosing Advanced from the Effects menu you can tweak an effects parameters.
(Click on screenshot to open the full-size image.)

Shooting and scoring

Much of Soundbooth’s audio-only functionality can be found in less-expensive audio editors. One feature that breaks with these editors is the program’s AutoCompose Score. Invoke this command, choose a Soundbooth score template, and the program will create a background music score that matches the length of your video (or a duration you’ve set within the AutoCompose Score tab).

Once you’ve created the score you can change some of its characteristics. For example, within a Basic editing setup, an Intensity slider adjusts the emotional impact of the score by adding or reducing instruments (a screaming guitar lead that sounds when you drag the slider to the right, for example, adds to the intensity). You can also add or reduce melody instruments by dragging Melody sliders. Drag a Score Volume slider in the Basic editing setup to change the score’s overall volume.

For more control, click the Keyframing button and you have the ability to adjust Intensity, Melody, and Volume characteristics by adding keyframes. Just move the playhead to a point where you’d like to add a keyframe, click the Add Keyframe button within the Intensity, Melody, or Volume lanes, and adjust its level (either by dragging it up or down or using the numeric percentage control). Soundbooth will create transitions that make musical sense between areas where you’ve changed one of the parameters. Once you’ve created a score you can export it as a separate AIFF or WAVE audio file or incorporated in your movie as a QuickTime .mov file.

Adobe currently offers three example score templates as an optional download for the Soundbooth beta. The finished program will include more and Adobe will offer additional scores for online purchase.

The demonstration scores provide a glimpse of how the AutoCompose Score function works, but they’re not terribly impressive when you want to score a video longer than about 30 seconds. Unlike scores created with such dedicated music generating applications as SmartSound’s $199 SonicFire Pro, the scores don’t offer much variation. Soundbooth’s longer generated scores get repetitive in a hurry. It’s my hope that the final version of Soundbooth will offer score templates that can stand up to longer-form videos.

Manipulate keyframes to change the emotional character of your Soundbooth-generated score.
(Click on screenshot to open the full-size image.)

Coming along

Though the beta is quite stable, Soundbooth remains a work in progress. Lack of support for multiple tracks will be a deal-killer for some. The inability to select separate channels within a stereo file seems a bizarre omission. The AutoCompose scores feature clearly need some work if users intend to create longer scores. Though cross-fading may seem like an advanced feature, it’s the kind of capability that the intended audience would appreciate. Support for MPEG-4 and H.264 video- and AAC and MP3 audio files would be welcome. And, in my tests, the Convolution Reverb effect appeared to have no effect at all. My hope is that the final version will address some of these issues.

Adobe has promised the release of Soundbooth in this year’s third-quarter. The program will be offered at a street price of $199 and, much to the distress of those with PowerPC-based Macs, it will be available only as an Intel-native application.

[ Senior editor Christopher Breen is author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]

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