Sound editors and video editors—the humans, not the software—often seem to live in different worlds. The latest version of Apple’s Soundtrack Pro, part of Final Cut Studio 2, seeks to bridge some of those divisions, at least within the suite’s workflows. Enhanced recording tools aid dialogue and Foley recording (which includes sound effects and incidental sound), and a new audio Conform facility promises to make reconciling video and audio edits easier.
New pro audio features also cater to video production, making it easier to match audio recorded in different locations and to manage surround sound. The challenge for Soundtrack Pro 2 is balancing interface simplicity and the dual demands of video and audio production.
Prosumer to pro to more pro
Soundtrack Pro has gone through some major transformations, in both features and user expectations, in its four years of existence. The first release, preceding and inspiring iLife’s GarageBand (), was aimed at video editors wanting to construct music easily from loops. Since then, Apple has added Pro to the name, has incorporated more serious audio-editing and -effects capabilities, and, with this version, has made Soundtrack Pro available exclusively as a component of the Final Cut Studio suite.
Soundtrack Pro 2 addresses a number of its predecessor’s key shortcomings, some of which posed major obstacles to basic tasks. Audio editors generally prefer automation envelopes (a standard feature in most multichannel audio workstations) to move with clips, whereas video editors may not; the new release lets you easily switch between these modes of working. It’s also now possible to drag envelopes from a clip’s edit point for a quick fade or cross-fade. Nudging clips moves audio by frames, grid lines, or edit points, essential for precise editing. (The previous release’s interface inexplicably allowed grid lines or pixels, but not frames.) Best of all for Final Cut users, Soundtrack Pro finally adopts JKL keyboard shortcuts by default, as well as Apple Logic Pro-style transport controls.
Soundtrack Pro most often is just one component of a larger workflow, so enhancing file-format support is a major issue. The big news is that the program now supports 5.1 surround (though not other configurations) and project sample rates up to 192kHz. The addition of OMF (Open Media Framework) and AAF (Advanced Authoring Format) import and export allows easier file exchange with Logic Pro () and Digidesign’s Pro Tools. The Export command now lets you choose exactly what to export and how.
If you need particular operations to occur at the import or export phase of your project, you can now create your own Send To and After Export actions–but you’ll need to know AppleScript, and Apple includes only a page and a half of documentation and no sample code for the task. Meanwhile, Apple left the much-touted Automator feature, introduced with Tiger, untouched, and didn’t include any end user-friendly batch-processing features. Soundtrack-specific AppleScript tutorials, at the least, would aid less-advanced users.
The overhauled interface layout expands access to essential tools, fleshing out track settings, recording meters and settings, the mixer, the Bin, and other key features. The multipane interface lets you edit multitrack audio and individual waveforms on the same screen without opening another window, a big time-saver. You can’t resize vertical panes, though, and you can’t close and open panes by clicking on them directly. Opening and closing interface panes also sometimes causes noticeable delays, even on a quad-core Mac Pro. Apple says it is aware of the performance issue and plans to address it in an update.
As was the case with Soundtrack Pro and its audio effects layers, Soundtrack Pro 2 shines in its provision of new or more-streamlined methods of working with sound.
The most promising addition is the Conform capability, which synchronizes changes made to a Final Cut Pro project with an associated Soundtrack Pro project. Thanks to behind-the-scenes integration of the two tools, you won’t need to manage files containing lists of edit points; you simply choose the Send To Soundtrack Pro option from Final Cut Pro and then conform the project within a tab in Soundtrack Pro. Most edits work automatically, without requiring intervention, and the integrated interface lets you see and hear changes immediately. You are, of course, limited to working within Final Cut Studio, unlike with third-party conforming programs. It’s too soon to tell whether this feature will hold up to large-scale projects and their associated complexities compared with pricier, more battle-tested competitors, but it will certainly save headaches when you’re making last-minute changes in Final Cut.
The new Lift and Stamp tools allow you to copy and paste sonic qualities much as you’d copy and paste formatting in a word processor. (Apple’s Aperture  offers a similar feature by the same name.) You click on one sound clip to “lift” its aural attributes, then click on another sound clip to “stamp” that sound. Lift and Stamp processes can analyze and match equalization, or copy any active effects from one track to another or to a preset. Match EQ capabilities are not unique to Soundtrack Pro, but this is easily the most elegant and complete implementation yet. It’s ideal for audio used with video, in which you must regularly match the quality of sound recorded via different mikes and in different locations.
Soundtrack Pro 2’s ability to manage multiple takes is also quite useful for recording dialogue and Foley, or anything else that requires lots of repeated takes. It’s easy to mix and match pieces of different takes quickly, while keeping them synced to video. It’s nice to have automatic multiple takes, but it would be helpful if the recording pane included more interactive controls for switching in and out of multiple-take recording modes. Soundtrack also follows up on wave editing, the strong suit of the previous version, with an editable spectrum view, useful for editing specific portions of a sound’s frequency content—say, removing the low “thunk” of someone hitting your boom mike.
Mixing surround sound in this version is a pleasure, especially with a new surround panner interface that provides extensive visual feedback as you work. Apple has also included surround loops and effects to get you started, though there’s definitely some fluff—do you really need surround sound for air conditioner hum? Taking a cue from Logic, Apple also improved the Mixer and Track views. But simple interface limitations serve as a reminder that Apple didn’t intend Soundtrack Pro to replace pro multitrack audio tools. For instance, Soundtrack limits vertical track scaling to four global zoom presets; this can make editing more than three or four tracks clumsier than it is in a tool like Logic Pro. The big question now is whether the next version of Logic Pro can integrate some of Soundtrack’s video and workflow capabilities with Apple’s more advanced, mature audio workstation.
Moreover, audio editors and composers will still want to integrate Soundtrack Pro with other tools, so it’s unfortunate that Apple forces them to buy a suite of tools they’ll never use just to get Final Cut Pro integration. Apple has largely abandoned people who purchased the software as a stand-alone application.
Macworld’s buying advice
Soundtrack Pro 2’s integration with Final Cut Studio makes sense because most users perceive it as an extension of Final Cut workflows rather than as a stand-alone audio editor. This upgrade adds essential editing and file import and export capabilities, as well as features that are invaluable to video work, like the Lift and Stamp and Conform tools. Any one of these features makes the upgrade a worthy investment, especially alongside other Final Cut Studio 2 improvements. No other tool implements these combined features so elegantly, and Soundtrack Pro 2 is the only tool with this level of Final Cut Pro integration. If Apple can iron out some of the interface and performance wrinkles in an update and publish some AppleScript tutorials, the company would make its Final Cut Studio customers very happy.
[Peter Kirn is a media artist and educator based in New York. He runs the online music tech blog and community createdigitalmusic.com and visual tech site createdigitalmotion.com.]