Soundbooth CS3

Soundbooth CS3, Adobe’s new Intel-only audio-editing program, was created with videographers in mind. With a design that video producers will likely find more familiar than traditional audio tools, Soundbooth makes it easy for multimedia creatives—including Flash developers and motion-graphics artists—to fix common audio problems. However, the program may be too limited for sound specialists, professional musicians, or videographers who face complex audio troubles.

Familiar face

Soundbooth looks very much like other CS3 programs—it features tabbed panels, a central work area, and a collection of tools for performing common operations. Rather than offering countless ways to tweak or add effects to audio waveforms, 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 adjusting volume, pitch, and time; adding effects; and automatically generating background music tracks.

The program supports AIFF, WAV, MP3, and AAC audio formats but not Apple Lossless files. It also supports common QuickTime-compatible video formats (but not file formats such as DivX that play in QuickTime only via a QuickTime plug-in). Protected files purchased from the iTunes Store are also incompatible, just as they are with other third-party software.

In Adobe Photoshop-like fashion, Soundbooth offers a single window that contains a large central work area (the Editor panel) and tabbed, docked panels that you can undock and reconfigure to create and save custom workspaces. This flexible workspace feature is handy when you want to quickly call up a select set of panels for adding music to a video or bring forward tools for cleaning the noise from a poorly recorded podcast.

In addition to the Editor panel, there is also a Files panel, which lists open files; an Effects panel, which lets you add processing effects such as delay, chorus, reverb, and EQ; a Markers panel, which lists any markers you’ve placed in your file; a History panel that’s similar to the one in Photoshop; a Video panel, which lets you view video (the audio for that video appears in the Editor panel); and a Tasks panel, which includes functions for automatically composing scores, changing pitch and timing, cleaning up audio, creating loops, and removing sounds. At the bottom of some of these panels you’ll find a small trash-can icon. Select an item—an effect, a marker, or a file, for example—and click on this icon to delete it. This serves as an Undo command much like the one in Photoshop.

The top of the window is populated by a simple set of tools—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.

The bottom of the window features playback controls, a time counter, buttons for adding fades, a volume control, and a Louder button for increasing the volume by 3 dB with each click 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. While such a display may confuse inexperienced users, it offers a good way to quickly filter a range of frequencies—the high-frequency hiss in a file recorded with a cheap microphone, for example.

The interface is nicely laid out. The functions are clearly labeled so that even people who’ve never touched an audio editor will be able to access and perform the task they desire with a couple of clicks. Nearly every editing control features a slider, with labels that detail what will happen when you move it. For example, when you click on the Noise button in the Clean Up Audio panel, two sliders appear—one labeled Reduction and the other Reduce By. The left end of the slider reads Light and the right is Aggressive. Click on the Preview button, and move these sliders to hear how the slider’s settings change the character of the audio.

Everyone’s effects

Soundbooth is not a full-featured audio editor. For example, you won’t find commands for reversing audio or creating cross-fades (seamlessly fading one portion of adjacent audio into the next, an important capability for audio pros). You can’t 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. But the program nicely handles the basics.

For example, producers often need to create audio that exactly fits a video’s length or create a precisely timed audio file, such as a 30-second radio commercial. 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 the pitch. You can also stretch time by percentage—from 12.5 percent to 800 percent of the original. As you might expect, extreme settings produce cartoon-like results. Within this same Pitch and Timing task, you can shift a pitch—making the sound higher or lower—in as many as 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 a file’s noise—say, the sound of an air conditioner operating in the background—and can then intelligently filter out much of that constant noise. This feature works remarkably well. I normally use Bias’s SoundSoap 2 noise-reduction plug-in for these kinds of tasks, and while I can identify noise a bit better with SoundSoap, Soundbooth’s Clean Up Audio task gets me very close to similar results in very little time. That said, because it’s a plug-in, SoundSoap has an obvious advantage: you can use it with any compatible audio editor. Soundbooth’s tools work only within Soundbooth.

Soundbooth includes common effects such as Delay, Reverb, EQ (both graphic and parametric), Distortion, and Flanger. It also offers a Mastering effect, which includes a collection of its own effects—Parametric EQ, Reverb, Exciter, Widener, and Limiter. You access the effects by clicking on the Add Effects pop-up menu at the bottom of the Effects panel or choosing an effect from the Effects menu in the menu bar. When you add a basic effect, a pop-up menu appears next to the effect in the Effects panel. From this pop-up menu, you can then choose a variation on that effect—Clean Room Moderate or Roller Disco Aggressive for the Convolution Reverb effect, for example. Some of the variations are more intuitively labeled than others, but they do provide a way for you to quickly try out an effect without your having to manipulate sliders that control what may seem like arcane settings. The program also includes a Rack Preset pop-up menu that includes additional preconfigured effects for performing tasks such as removing noise, creating a “telephone” EQ effect, and adding reverb.

If you’d prefer to control the nitty-gritty of the effects, you can choose Advanced from the Add Effect pop-up menu and then click on the Settings link that appears next to the effect’s name in the Effects panel. This calls up a window that includes controls for all the effect’s functions—Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Output Gain sliders for the Compressor effect, for example. This kind of simple-yet-advanced control hints that while Soundbooth is easy to use, a measure of power awaits those who are willing to dig for it.

Missing multitrack

Increasingly, multimedia projects require more than a stereo sound track. Videos often contain audio captured with the video, narration, and background music. And even simple podcasts include separate tracks for each participant, as well as tracks for music and sound effects.

Regrettably, Soundbooth’s support for multiple tracks—or multitrack, if you can even call it that—barely exists. Soundbooth’s designers seem to believe that, as part of CS3, you should add these multiple tracks in Premiere Pro—Adobe’s video-editing program that supports multiple audio tracks—mix the results, and then import the movie with its stereo soundtrack into Soundbooth for final editing. This is unfortunate. I’d like Soundbooth to be more of a one-stop shop where I can do the bulk of my audio work, rather than dashing back to Premiere Pro or Flash to perform audio tasks.

Soundbooth does offer a way for you to incorporate additional tracks, but it’s unorthodox. Rather than provide a command for adding tracks, Soundbooth requires that you record a new track or import an existing audio file into the Files panel, edit it with Soundbooth’s tools, select and copy it, select another track in the Files panel and the location in the track where you’d like the mix to occur, and then choose Edit: Mix Paste. A Mix Paste window appears where you can adjust the volume of each track and preview the results. Click on OK, and the two tracks become mixed together. At a time when multimedia producers are accustomed to viewing audio and video as chunks of moveable data, it’s surprising that Adobe chose such an unintuitive way to mix multiple tracks.

Background music

Soundbooth offers a way to create a specific kind of additional track—a background music track intelligently generated by the program. Just click on the AutoCompose Score button in the Tasks panel, click on Browse Scores in the resulting pane to choose one of the native Soundbooth scores within Adobe Bridge (40 scores are included), and then double-click on the score to import it into Soundbooth’s Files panel and into a special Score track. Optionally, you can choose a video reference track you’d like to add the score to. Once in the program, you can change the length of the score—either by entering a specific time in the Duration field within the AutoCompose Score panel or by dragging the right edge of the score in the Score track (drag to the right to lengthen the score or to the left to shorten it).

You can tell Soundbooth how often you’d like it to vary the score, and direct it to construct an intro, an outro, or a score that contains both. In Basic editing mode, you can also choose the intensity of your score and, using a slider, determine how prevalent certain elements—an instrument or a melody, for example—of the score will be. In the more advanced Keyframing editing mode, you can place points that vary the intensity, prevalence of instruments, and overall volume. For example, you can begin a video with a mellow intensity of 1 with a melody at a likewise low-key setting of 15 percent, and the overall volume at 25 percent. As the video’s action ramps up, you introduce more intensity by clicking on a point and dragging it to the 4 mark and increasing the melody to 75 percent. When you’re happy with your score, export it as either an audio file or a track that will be appended to the video reference file.

The included soundtracks are professionally recorded, nicely performed, and varied enough that your audience won’t get sick of them after a minute of listening. My one complaint is that there isn’t a way to compose more than one score for a single video. For example, if you have a 10-minute video with three distinct scenes and wish to include a different music background for each scene, you can’t simply set a marker and direct Soundbooth to create a new score at that marker. Instead, you must export each score and then assemble the scores in a different program—Premiere Pro or QuickTime Pro, for example. But intelligent score-creation software such as SmartSound’s SonicFire Pro 4.5 can help you easily create multiple scores for a single movie.

Cue Points with Flash

Soundbooth introduces new tools for preparing audio and video cue points (positions in an audio or video stream timeline) for Flash CS3. Markers added to an audio or video file in Soundbooth can be exported to Flash as cue points. Cue points can then be used either for navigation (Navigation Markers), allowing users, for example, to jump to different portions of a video, or cues for other events (Event Markers), triggering synced elements like captions or interactive animations.

Any time you add a marker in Soundbooth, you’re also adding a Flash-compatible cue point. You can select the type (Event or Navigation) in the Markers pane, then export to Flash either as a separate list of cues (by exporting to XML) or cues embedded in the audio or video stream (by exporting to Flash’s FLV format). Flash has powerful tools for manipulating these cue points, but you will need to be comfortable with ActionScript 3 to take advantage of them. ActionScript includes methods for jumping to successive cue points, finding cue points by name and type, and triggering other actions, such as displaying text on-screen when a cue point is reached. Soundbooth CS3 is also capable of creating seamless loops from an audio file, which can be invaluable for sound effects and music.

Macworld’s buying advice

Multimedia producers who have never faced an audio editor—and don’t relish doing so—will find Soundbooth CS3 an accessible and largely capable tool. Its noise filtering is simple and effective, and its AutoCompose feature is a slick way to add great-sounding, license-free music to a video. If your audio needs are more ambitious—for example, if you require multitrack recording and editing and understand the usefulness of cross-fades and more exacting waveform editing tools—consider a full-blown audio editor instead.

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

[ Peter Kirn contributed the Flash section of this review, and its accompanying screenshot. ]

Thanks to a straightforward interface design, each of Soundbooth’s important functions is available within a click or two.By choosing Keyframing editing mode, you can control the intensity, melody, and volume of a generated background music score.Markers added to video and audio timelines in Soundbooth can be exported for use in Flash. Select a type (Event or Navigation) in the Markers pane (left). Once imported to Flash, the ActionScript-accessible Cue Point will then be associated with a position in your audio or video file’s timeline (right).

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter