Perfect Pitch
Posted Dec 1, 2003

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]

Apple's Logic Platinum 6 ($699.95)
So what makes Logic (ex-Emagic, now Apple) the choice over Digital Performer or vice versa? It's hard to say. Many of their features, even those touted as the latest and greatest, mirror each other. Instead of calling it Freeze Tracks, Logic uses the monosyllabic Freeze for what amounts to the same function. They both do surround, although Logic stops at 7.1 and does not offer 10.2. Each focuses on customizable interfaces with the ability to add keyboard shortcuts for virtually any command while also offering an array of window arrangements that can be brought up in an instant. DP4 has time-stretching and pitch-shifting; so does Logic.

With the release of Logic 6.2, Apple now offers some of the same optimization for G5s that MOTU boasts. On top of all this, Logic manages to compare itself to Digidesign's Pro Tools as well, though in reference to an individual feature rather than the entire product: analogous to Pro Tools, Logic now allows near-sample rate editing in the Arrange window, a function previously relegated to the sample editor.

What Apple really emphasizes in Logic is that it's a stable product that "integrates well with other bits of studio gear like Pro Tools and console automation," according to Gerhard Lengeling, Emagic co-founder and chief architect for audio applications. They also pride themselves on using that stability to refine what are quickly becoming the status quo in features, such as "the new Channel EQ plug-in, which has set new standards for ease-of-use and sonic quality," Lengeling continues.

Emagic took this approach when it developed the Logic video interface as well, offering a Video Thumbnail track. This feature takes QuickTime video and displays it as single frames horizontally in the Arrange window; the number of frames adjusts to the level of zoom on the audio. And yet even in video, the Logic and DP4 have duplicated each other in their ability to export a DVD-formatted QuickTime video via FireWire for display on a standard TV or video monitor through an intermediary device such as a mid-level DV camera.


Company NameMOTUAppleBIASAdobeSonySteinberg
Product NameDigital Performer 4.1Logic Platinum 6.0Deck 3.5Audition 1.0SoundForge 7.0Wavelab 4.0
PlatformMac OS 10.2+Mac OS 9.1+ & 10.2+Mac OS 8.6+Win 98SE-XPWin 2K-XPWin 98SE-XP
Surround5.1/7.1/10.25.1/ OnlyStereo Only
Time Stretch/Pitch ShiftYesYesNo; see PeakYesYesYes
Video Window/Formats SupportedQT DV export via FWQT DV export via FW; display onlyQT DVDV-AVIAVI, WMV, QT, Real, MPEG-1&2 w/ plug-inNone
Timecode SyncYesYesYesYesYesNo
Freeze/Lock TracksYesYesNoYesNoNo
Number of TracksUnliminted12864128N/AUnlimited
Max Audio Resolution24-bit/192kHz24-bit/192kHz16-bit/up to 60kHz32-bit/10mHz32-bit/192kHz32-bit/192kHz
OMF SupportYesYesYesYes (AAF)No, SMTPE EBU/Film SyncNo; see Nuendo
Batch ProcessingNoNoNo; see PeakYesYesYes
Additional FeaturesSurround Delay; Masterworks LimiterNew channel EQ Plug-inl mixing in Arrange windowBundled w/ Peak LESurCode for Dolby Digital; 4,500 royalty-free loopsWhite, pink, and brown noise generators; drag & drop DAECD burning & label-making; Apogee UV22 dithering
PricingMSRP $795; C.U. $395MSRP $699.95; C.U. $499MSRP $399; Upgrade $149MSRP $299; Upgrade $99Box $499.96; Download $399.96MSRP $450

Note: C.U. stands for Competitive Upgrade. In MOTU's case, it applies to registered users of Logic Audio, Pro Tools, StudioVision, Deck, Metro, and Cubase; in Apple's case, DP, Audio Desk, StudioVision, Cakewalk, Sonar, Pro Tools LE, Cubase, Deck, and Nuendo. Other upgrade prices here are available to registered users of previous iterations of the same software.

BIAS, Inc.'s Deck 3.5 ($399)
Deck 3.5 doesn't try to compete feature-for-feature in the high-end audio MIDI sequencer market; it just wants to be "the most affordable, easiest to use link between your video project and your surround DVD," claims Jason Davies, vice president of worldwide sales at BIAS, Inc. To that end, Deck's features consist of those most relevant to videographers. "Its interface was designed to mimic the usability of hardware audio decks," according to Davies, "and is used by a variety of professionals and enthusiasts in the audio, video, and multimedia production markets."

Through support of the Open Media Framework (OMF), Deck can still import the timecode associated with audio from an NLE and synch it up to a QuickTime or DV window of the video. It also promises surround-sound capabilities, designating six separate channels under file extensions, such as .rs for right surround, that can then simply be dropped into an AC-3 encoding application, such as Ulead's DVD Workshop AC-3.

While Deck may be light on some features, unable to edit and synch at the sample-rate level, and lacking in the number of real-time effects plug-ins per track (four), focusing on its shortcomings is missing the point. Deck doesn't want to be a part of the feature wars at the top, but instead strives to provide the functionality of what the big boys offer at a lower price point and without the extraneous features that can often add confusion rather than enhance productivity. But Deck isn't all that BIAS has to offer.

Peak 4 ($499) provides a solution for those in need of a mono or stereo audio editor that provides fast sample-level editing, processing, and CD mastering with support for up to 32-bit 10mHz files. "Think of it this way: Deck is to Peak as QuarkXpress is to Photoshop," explains Davies. Peak doesn't need to open a session and create a timeline like most of the programs mentioned in this article; it can open media files directly. Many digital audio professionals use Peak in conjunction with their digital audio workstation of choice for precisely this reason. Or they may use it for Peak's batch processing, which streamlines the process of making the same change to multiple audio files, or its litany of DSP functions, or its high-level dithering, or word-length reduction. Want to add an otherworldly feel to your project? Try out Peak's ImpulseVerb, which filters audio through a sample of a wide variety of room environments, and Harmonic Rotate, which twists sound by rotating its frequency spectrum.

And if your audio needs a good scrubbing, turn to SoundSoap ($99). Offered as a plug-in for Peak or a standalone product, SoundSoap reduces or eliminates analog hiss and virtually any other background noise, even those that might come from tires screeching or an air conditioner humming in the distance. It can do all of this with a click of the "Learn Noise" button, or users can learn SoundSoap's intuitive controls to make sure their audio comes out extra squeaky clean.

Adobe's Audition 1.0 ($299)
2003 has been an exciting year for Adobe. Since the NAB show in April, we've seen such significant releases as Encore DVD, Premiere Pro, and most recently, Audition 1.0. Based on the popular Cool Edit Pro software acquired from Syntrillium, Audition is sold individually and as a component of the company's two-tier Adobe Video Collection, which also includes Premiere Pro, After Effects, Encore DVD, and (in the higher-end configuration) Photoshop. "You always feel like you're in one place in the Adobe family," according to Adobe's Jason Levine, which certainly describes the effect they're going for with Encore DVD, with its vaunted integration with Premiere, AE, and Photoshop.

Adobe strays somewhat from this formula with the user interface of Audition, keeping the distinctive look of Cool Edit Pro pretty much the same. The only significant alteration to the original program is the addition of content-sharing capabilities, which help it mesh with Premiere and After Effects. Every menu can be docked, resized, or floated to another monitor. Levine continues, "You can have 15 environment windows open and then dock each very clearly to keep from chaos."

If you want fidelity, you've come to the right place. Not only can Audition export 32-bit uncompressed sound at sample rates up to 10mHz, "all audio restoration tools are 32-bit native effects," claims Levine "Audition is the only application that uses 32-bit throughout." High-level dithering preserves fidelity when higher-bit audio needs to have its bitrates reduced, as in preparing 32-bit audio for the 24 bits of audio for DVD. The Multichannel Encoder includes a Surround Panner and can export 5.1-channel surround as a WMA Pro 9 Multichannel file, an interleaved six-channel WAV file, or six separate Mono WAV files.

Neither Audition nor any of its counterparts in this article encodes to Dolby Digital AC-3 or DTS. In the Adobe Video Collection, that job belongs to Premiere—specifically, Minnetonka Audio's Surcode Premiere plug-in. [See sidebar, "The Surround Sound Star of the North," page 5]

Of course, Audition also has the requisite video window. Video can be imported from Premiere or directly from an AVI file. While Audition may not have the MIDI sequencing and music creation capabilities of some of its competitors, it counters that by offering over 4,500 pieces of royalty-free loops (on a dedicated "Loopology" disc). And while Adobe tries to keep it all in the family, its broad support for file formats—over 20—allows it to interact with programs such as Sony's ACID.

Sony's Sound Forge 7.0
Sound Forge is the been-there, done-that, wise elder statesman of this group. "We've supported mastering audio for video since version 4.0, and have had a lot of time to work with and work out issues related to it," says Curtis Palmer, senior vice president for Sony Pictures Digital and chief technologist for Sony Media Software. In fact, back in the day when you'd get laughed at for doing much with digital audio on anything but a Mac, Sonic Foundry (which developed Sound Forge) forged ahead with the notion that one day PCs could make their own mark in the industry.

That day has come, and many consider Sound Forge to still be ahead of the game for stereo editors. Herein lies a potential problem: Sound Forge does not support surround sound. They've chosen to leave the multitrack surround mixing duties up to Vegas 4.0, their respective NLE, which, like Premiere, has its own plug-in for creating 5.1 Dolby Digital surround.

Whatever features it may lack in some departments, Sound Forge offers most everything else that you might be looking for, including a video window, sample rate editing limited only by the hardware's capabilities, broad support of file types, including Real Media, drag-and-drop file interface (or simply right click on a sound file in Vegas), time compress/expand, and a customizable interface. What helps to separate Sound Forge from the pack are features that inspire Palmer to liken it to "the Swiss Army Knife of audio." Features such as white, brown, and pink noise generators assist in audio testing and room acoustics analysis. Sound Forge also includes a PPM and a VU meter—"an extremely useful feature for level-matching more attuned to what your ear is actually hearing rather than the peaks," according to Palmer. What's more, Sound Forge boasts a batch converter and an enhanced spectrum analysis window that can take snapshots of audio and display the left and right channels to see how they interact.

Steinberg's Wavelab 4.0 ($642)
Steinberg, now "the Audio Group of Pinnacle Systems," designed Wavelab for speed, optimizing its design for Pentium 4 chips. They included features such as automatic ducking, which lets a clip on one track lower the volume on an adjacent track, saving time when doing a quick mix of music with a voiceover. To further the control of vocals, Wavelab features a Voice Attenuator, which can lessen the amplitude of dialogue without distortion. Wavelab includes integrated CD creation and labeling tools; individual clips can be designated as tracks and burned to fully Red Book-compatible data or mixed-mode CD. For those who are fans of VST effects processing or virtual instruments, Steinberg invented Virtual Studio Technology. Wavelab does not require any converter plug-ins to interact with VST technologies, thereby avoiding the occasional mottled performance non-Steinberg editor programs face when using just such a utility. Adding to the confusion of how to classify the programs mentioned in this article, Steinberg refers to Wavelab as a "workbench" for assembling multitrack audio pieces.

Steinberg offers another solution for multitrack digital audio editing, Nuendo 2.0. It promises to "deliver a complete media production system," according to the Steinberg Web site, and includes support for 25 different surround formats, but does so at a price, $1,500. Nuendo can be packaged in a surround version that adds an array of true surround plug-ins, or can add a Dolby AC-3 encoder or even a set of authentic 5.1 soundscapes.

For more information about Steinberg's pro audio tools, visit; Pinnacle's Web site only includes information on consumer-oriented tools also subsumed in the Steinberg acquisition.

A Complete Media Production System?
With the market's tendency to move more and more towards keeping customers within one product line, the idea of software convergence comes to light. Could the future one day produce a truly complete media production system, one in which every aspect of digital media could be manipulated, filtered, and polished with the highest regards for quality in mind? BIAS, Inc.'s Davies doesn't think so. "This one-size-fits-all approach doesn't seem to be possible or what people really want," he contends. "You'd end up with a super-heavy program. What other companies are striving to do is make these multiple apps work well together." He also points out that when you have several tools, each designed for a specific task, you end up with a much more streamlined process.

Digital video professionals will just have to live with the fact that to upgrade their digital audio capabilities, they'll have to lay down some greenbacks for additional software. Thankfully, the market has recognized the needs of this demographic and provided it with a wide array of more than adequate options. In the end, it's all about the features. So pick your favorites and run with them; as long as you keep the most important features to you in mind, you can't make a bad decision.

[continue to page 5 for sidebars and companies mentioned]

SIDEBAR: Merger Madness
As with many technology markets, the world of digital audio software had its foundations shaken--and alignments shaken out--by the dot-com boom and subsequent bust. "The market went through a correction, making it very difficult for software companies to make it through. That's what sparked the spread of acquisitions and mergers," according to Curtis Palmer of Sonic Foundry (now Sony Pictures). Companies large enough to weather that "correction" and interested in expanding their multimedia offerings took advantage of the opportunity.

Starting with the most recent, Sony purchased all of Sonic Foundry's desktop software technologies, including ACID, Vegas, and Sound Forge, on July 31, 2003.

Two months earlier, Adobe acquired Syntrillium's technology assets, most notably Cool Edit Pro, which it re-released under the rebranded name of Adobe Audition.

December 2002 saw Pinnacle Systems reach an agreement with Steinberg Media Technologies AG to purchase every last outstanding share of stock. While Pinnacle has marketed three Steinberg products in the States—myMP3PRO, Clean, and Cubasis (all consumer tools)—it has yet to release the pro-oriented Wavelab and Nuendo under its own name.

On June 30, 2002, Apple made headlines by becoming the first computer manufacturer to acquire music software through the buyout of Emagic and its popular Logic Platform.

Hardly news at this point (but worth noting in this context): back in 1995, Avid subsumed Digidesign as a division of its own company.

Long-time users of newly acquired products always greet such maneuvers with fear and apprehension, convinced that the absorption of technology carefully researched and developed by small companies means their tools of choice will lose their distinctive identities, be mishandled by larger conglomerates who don't know the technology or niche market as well, suffer from the abandonment of key product developers, languish without upgrades, or be saddled with diminished or de-personalized tech support. Palmer, a Sony Pictures employee since the Sonic Foundry acquisition, disagrees. "I absolutely believe that mergers are a good thing for the market. What they allow is a better combination of these different digital media technologies."

Merging with larger companies also provides the stability necessary for smaller companies to accommodate delayed release dates, thereby letting the development of software pace the market. As in the case of Adobe (whose acquisition of Syntrillium meant the integration of Cool Edit Pro/Audition with Premiere), or Apple (whose Emagic acquisition allowed the developmental alignment of Logic with Final Cut Pro), thanks to these acquisitions, some major NLEs can offer enhanced capabilities to their users without forcing them to leave the product family. And in situations like the migration of Sonic Foundry's tools to Sony Pictures, already-integrated suites of tools (so far) may get to maintain their integrated approach and development.

SIDEBAR: DigiDesign's Pro Tools
Pro Tools is the model by which two of our digital audio software products measure themselves, so even though it's not strictly a software solution, it occupies a unique place in this discussion. Strictly speaking, Digidesign doesn't sell their software; they package it with their hardware, which ranges from hardware-accelerating PCI cards to mixing boards. A few years back, they did offer a software-only version of Pro Tools named PowerMix, a Mac-only introduction to the Pro Tools line. It targeted those interested in learning what Pro Tools had to offer before investing in a higher-end system. Today, Power Mix's features seem pathetic compared to these other modern-day marvels; it could only handle 16 tracks of 16-bit/44kHz audio, depending on processor speed.

It is still worth mentioning that many consider Digidesign's current offerings to be the industry standard. These include two versions of their software, Pro Tools TDM and LE. TDM ships with Pro Tools HD, the latest and greatest digital audio workstation. It requires the minimum purchase of an $8,000 HD Core card, as well as the option to add two additional hardware acceleration cards for a grand total of $13,000. A slightly more economical option comes in the form of Pro Tools LE. It ships with the Digi 002 or Digi 002 Rack, the former being a $2,500 integrated control surface and finger-friendly music production environment and the latter being the same, minus the control surface and half the price. LE also ships with Mbox, a portable micro studio, which retails for $500.

Though Pro Tools is the benchmark for most software DAWs—arguably, their aim is to approximate its feature set and performance— it's priced well out of our range. Since 1995, Digidesign has been a division of Avid Technology. Naturally, this relationship suggests interesting integration possibilities to the digital studio pro pricing an Avid-level system, and users should visit the Avid and Digidesign Web sites to explore them.

SIDEBAR: Minnetonka Audio, the Surround Sound Star of the North
With the latest edition of Premiere, Adobe included a trial version of a Dolby Digital encoder from Minnetonka Audio dubbed SurCode. After three encodes, users must pay $295 for the integrated plug-in, or they can plop down $995 for the standalone version. SurCode's incorporation into Premiere is reflected in its lower price tag. The standalone adds functionality with the addition of a certified decoder, batch converter, and a new timecode feature.

Not a company inclined to play favorites, Minnetonka Audio also offers SurCode at various price points for DTS, with its lower compression ratio and higher fidelity; Dolby Pro Logic II, primarily for the gaming industry; and MLP Lossless Packing, geared towards those working with DVD-Audio. Adobe's packaging of SurCode with Premiere Pro represents only the tip of the surround sound iceberg that is Minnesota-based Minnetonka Audio.

DiscWelder Steel made a lot of noise in DVD-Audio circles at its release with its low price point. "Steel is primarily for people who are putting out limited runs, replicating check discs, and hobbyists who are creating their own jazz/classical discs," according to John Calder, director of marketing at Minnetonka Audio. For less than $500, it doesn't provide the full functionality of DiscWelder Chrome. Chrome includes functions that Steel lacks, such as importing 24-bit/96kHz six-channel audio with MLP and a VIDEO_TS folder, allowing the creation of a hybrid DVD-A/V disc, and adding graphics and slideshows. For $2,495, it's yours.

Minnetonka Audio even has its own surround sound authoring/editing/ mixing environment, the $295 Mx51. While it's a full-featured surround mixer, according to Calder, "it does not synch to timecode or video." Mx51 works better for offline sound effect and surround mixing. Whatever its limitations, it might own the two coolest features of any program in this article. One is a "universal tool" that takes two forms. "Depending on where you are, the tool transforms," Calder says. "If you're on the edge, it turns into a cutting tool, put it in the middle and its a grabber tool." The second innovation is a forcefeed joystick, such as one finds in the world of computer gaming. This joystick accurately recreates force against your hand, while moving around with the surround panner showing you where your panning is in relation to the song. All it requires is a standard gaming port and a mere $70.

Adobe Systems, Inc.
Apple Computer, Inc.
Avid Technology
BIAS, Inc.
Digidesign (A Division of Avid)
Minnetonka Audio Software, Inc.
MOTU, Inc.
Pinnacle Systems, Inc.
Sony Pictures Digital, Inc.
Steinberg (The Audio Group of Pinnacle Systems)
Ulead Systems, Inc.