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Perfect Pitch
Posted Dec 1, 2003 - July/August 2005 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 5 next »

Pursuing pitch-perfect audio in digital video production can prove a time-consuming ordeal and a costly digression when you don't have the right tools. But today's top digital audio workstation solutions bring sophisticated sound editing to desktop Macs and PCs with sub-$1000 price tags, modest learning curves, and fluid interchange with many NLEs. If that sounds too good to be true, read on.

To produce the ultimate multimedia experience, the quality of your sound needs to match the high acuity you seek for your video. Most of us know how to get the most out of our non-linear editing tools, but NLEs specialize in manipulating video, not audio. Their sampling rates typically can't get down to the millionth part of a quarter note, frequently leaving audible clicks at the points where audio clips have been pasted together. Erasing a click requires the use of a fade tool to smear it away.

This process can add up to a rather time-consuming ordeal, a costly digression from the video work at hand, especially when you're dealing with the multiple tracks of surround sound—often a necessity if your final product is a DVD for commercial release. A digital audio workstation (DAW) solution has the power to edit sound with a preciseness that turns the removal of clicks into a one-step or even automated process. And when we refer to DAW solutions we mean software tools that operate on the same PC or Mac you'd use for video editing; just add the software and you're ready to find the sound you seek.

Many programs have customizable interfaces to integrate into a user's specific workflow. A video window lets you keep an eye on how well your audio synchs up to the video, a process further enhanced by the automatic synching of audio to timecode. And all of this functionality comes without the need for hardware acceleration or high-end sound cards, much less the heavier investment burden of dedicated workstations. "The sound cards shipped with most Dells and some Gateways nowadays are powerful enough to handle digital audio. The limitations typically come on the input side of things," according to Jason Levine, audio evangelist for Adobe.

Which is a good thing, since the digital studio is rarely a single-task environment, any more than a digital studio pro's PC or Mac is a single-task machine. Thus, our topic here isn't laying down tracks in a recording studio, or layering and mixing them at a recording engineer's console; rather, our goal is to help digital video professionals interested in giving their productions a professional sound to find tools that equip their PCs (and themselves) to moonlight as audio pros without re-constituting their studios, skill sets, or production budgets.

First things first: What are the leading tools in the field, and what distinguishes one product from the next? On the PC side, there are tools from Sony, Adobe, and Pinnacle-owned Steinberg; Mac users can choose among offerings from MOTU, Apple, and BIAS, Inc. Large companies dominate the market with their integrated multimedia offerings, but if you'd listed the same products two years ago, half of them would have come from different (invariably smaller) companies. [For more on the consolidation that's redefined the DAW market, refer to the sidebar, "Merging Madness," page 5] In short, let it be said here that for better or worse, even though once-familiar names like Syntrillium, Emagic, Sonic Foundry, and Steinberg have faded from the DAW scene, for the most part, their software lives on, and continues to advance under new stewardship.

Distinguishing between the different companies' software can be difficult. They're working hard to differentiate themselves from each other while still providing the core capabilities users expect and need, and inevitably, those core feature sets comprise most of what the products do. The parallels between feature sets in different software packages end up creating what feels like a feature fad. Some features, such as high-definition 192kHz audio, may seem like overkill. "Some people think the only reason that you'd want to record at this high of a resolution is if you were making music for mosquitoes," quips Jim Cooper, director of marketing at Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU). "But others feel it's necessary."

One-upmanship and differences of opinion aside, there's a lot of excitement right now about these tools and what can be accomplished with no more hardware than a high-end computer and less than $1,000 worth of software. So let's take a stroll through the feature-filled wonderland of today's digital audio offerings. Apple has arguably led the way in adapting computers to music production and post-production, so their side will lead off here as well.

MOTU's Digital Performer 4.0 ($795)
The main strength of MOTU's Digital Performer 4.0 (DP4) lies in its "breadth of support for various applications," according to MOTU's Cooper. "It can be used as a dedicated audio workstation, but it also includes MIDI sequencing." Another selling point is its surround capabilities, which have generated a lot of interest from Dolby. Not only can DP4 do up to 10.2, but its Surround Delay feature allows users to take a mono or stereo track and precisely control how the sound bounces around a set of surround speakers.

If you want to add punch, look no further than the Masterworks Limiter; it reduces signal transients and raises the apparent volume of your audio, either on the entire mix or in individual tracks. DP4 can be used in tandem with SynchroArts' VocAlign Automatic Dialog Replacement (ADR) tool. VocAlign automates the process of time-stretching dialogue so that users can select the original dialog, then the new, and replace the old with the new, fitting into the timing of the original audio in the track. To remove the clicks associated with manipulating audio in NLEs, just turn to DP4's built-in waveform editor and its pencil tool.

DP4 has been specifically optimized for use with OS X's Core Audio architecture and to take full advantage of G4 and G5 dual processors. If your system is struggling to juggle video with the extra demands of audio, have no fear—DP4 includes a Freeze Tracks feature. This option temporarily prints or freezes tracks; they'll still play back, but won't demand computing resources until they are unfrozen, which can be done at any time. Even though broadcast-quality audio tends to take up only a tenth of what video requires, Freeze Tracks enables nearly unlimited computer processing bandwidth for plug-ins and virtual instruments. And lest we forget that you can actually make music on this baby, too, with the help of an onboard Drum Editor, DP4 includes support for a wide array of virtual instruments, and the world's first set of MIDI specific effects plug-ins.

"Digital Performer is a native alternative to Pro Tools HD. You can accomplish many of the same tasks for a fraction of the cost," Cooper claims. MOTU doesn't limit itself to software only, offering a wide array of audio interfaces that "run the gamut from ‘give me some ins and outs' to the kind of audio interfaces that you'd want to have when capturing broadcast audio," according to Cooper. Also, MOTU has positioned itself to fit into a Pro Tools-based post-production workflow as well as being a standalone solution. When it's all said and done, "most people doing ‘in the trenches' post work are going to have everything they need," Cooper says. [For a more in-depth look into what features each program mentioned in this article includes or lacks, see Table 1, page 2]

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