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Review: Apple Soundtrack
Posted Mar 4, 2004 - November 2005 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 2 next »

Synopsis: From its ease of use to the sheer volume of clips and effects, Soundtrack is yet another example of the philosophy that's made Apple so successful on the content creation scene. The interface essentially lets video editors apply what they know about video editing to the soundtrack creation process: Cuts, in and out points, and crossfades work the same way in audio as they do in video, and Soundtrack's very NLE-like GUI will make video pros feel right at home.

Apple's purchase of Emagic in 2002 was merely one in a long line of acquisitions designed to bring the hardware manufacturer one step closer to dominating the consumer and prosumer content creation market. Going all the way back to when it acquired Astarte in 2000 and Spruce in 2001, Apple's strategy has been clear: There's no need to re-invent the wheel when you can simply buy the wheel's inventor, bring it into the fold, then re-engineer it—sometimes only slightly, sometimes drastically—and rerelease it as an Apple-branded product with the company's signature combination of functionality and flair.

The Emagic acquisition was slightly different from some of the others in that Apple didn't eat up Emagic outright for its own designs. Emagic is still cranking out its own software, most notably its flagship music composition and editing software Logic, which it still brands on its own despite the fact that Apple has also released the same product as an Apple-branded tool. (Emagic did, however, stop producing the Windows version after it became an Apple subsidiary. Funny how things work.)

When Apple acquired Spruce, they let the power of the Windows-only DVD Maestro languish for nearly two years, leaving users to wonder why in the world they acquired it. Apple explained it all and more when it released DVD Studio Pro 2 in mid-2003, suffusing the software with the best elements of the long-lost Maestro. By contrast, Apple didn't wait long before releasing its take on Emagic's tools: Soundtrack appeared almost exactly a year after Apple closed the deal.

Rarely has a product been as accurately and clearly named as Soundtrack. Names like Final Cut Pro and Audition at best hint at what those software tools do, whereas monikers like Edition, Cleaner, and Imaginate completely sacrifice clarity for coolness. You might not know what Imaginate does, but dang, it sounds impressive.

Soundtrack, on the other hand, does just what its name says it will do: helps digital video editors create soundtracks for their work. It's not a high-powered digital audio workstation tool; you'll still want MOTU's Digital Performer, BIAS' Deck, or Logic for that (see Geoff Daily's "Perfect Pitch," December 2003, pp. 18-25, for a comprehensive look at DAW software for both the Mac and PC). Soundtrack is more like Sony Pictures' (formerly Sonic Foundry) Screenblast ACID. While it allows the instrumentally proficient to record their own loops, its appeal is primarily confined to creative pros whose expertise is video, not audio, with its 4,000+ prerecorded, royalty-free loops and a very Final Cut Pro-like user interface. (Speaking of FCP, Soundtrack is included free with Final Cut Pro 4; it costs $199 as a standalone.)

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That interface essentially lets video editors apply what they know about video editing to the soundtrack creation process: Cuts, in and out points, and crossfades work the same way in audio as they do in video, and Soundtrack's NLE-like GUI will make video pros feel right at home. Upon opening Soundtrack, you see the tool's Media Manager on the left-hand side of the window. The File Browser tab lets you search for both video and audio assets, though unless you've got your own music to work from, you'll use it mostly to find video clips.

Once you find the clip you want to work with, you can drag and drop it into a viewer window that sits in the GUI's top center, right next to the video timeline. The Favorites tab opens a window that gives you easy future access to any video or audio clips that you know you'll want to use repeatedly. To save something in the Favorites window, you select it in the File Browser and simply click the Add Favorite button.

Most of the real action happens under the Search tab, which reveals 20 buttons with names like Drums, Guitars, Rock/ Blues, Distorted, and Acoustic. By clicking on any of those buttons, you can browse through all of the loops in each category. There's plenty of overlap—each of the 30 Acoustic Guitar Rock loops appears under Guitars, Rock/Blues, and Acoustic, for instance—but these broad categories are descriptive enough to get you started. You can also search by loop name, or simply refine your browsing by using pulldown tabs to select only particular instruments, time signatures, mood descriptors (like Cheerful or Dissonant), or keys. (In addition to musical loops, Soundtrack also includes a selection of special effects, like Applause or Automobile Crash, and ambient textures.) Indeed, the primary difference between a tool like Soundtrack and ACID, besides the OS and a $130 price gap (ACID lists for $69.99), is that Soundtrack comes with about ten times as many loops as does ACID. In other words, you almost have to conclude that most of the money you shell out for Soundtrack goes towards composer royalties.

The loops themselves are studio-musician clean; no loop-based will ever satisfactorily mimic the feel of live musicians. But once you've accepted that, the selections are really quite stunning, if not always clearly named. Within the guitar category, you've got, for instance, 15 Bluesy Electric Guitar tracks to choose from. So no matter how narrowly you refine your search, it's still a matter of hunting and pecking for just the right tone and feel. Luckily, each loop begins playing as soon as you click on it in the Media Manager, so that's easy. Each loop descriptor in the browser includes the loop name, the tempo (beats per minute), key (except, of course, for percussion and sound effects), and duration (number of beats in the loop). While it makes sense to look for clips that share similar keys and tempos, Soundtrack will adjust all of your tracks to fit the first one you choose. After you choose all of your tracks, you can then change the key and tempo of the entire mix to better suit your video.

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