Review: Sony Pictures (Sonic Foundry) CD Architect
Posted Mar 1, 2003

A sophisticated mastering and layout tool for audio CD professionals, Sonic Foundry's CD Architect 5.0 ($299 MSRP; $209 download) combines a clear and intuitive user interface with a sophisticated palette of cross-fades, effects, and time and track manipulation functions that make it indispensable to anyone doing ambitious audio work. Keyed to the intricacies of the Red Book audio standard, CD Architect is a powerful CD tool, ideal for CD mastering houses, pro and project recording studios, and DJs pursuing a high-acuity, dynamic CD mix.
NOTE: Subsequent to the completion of this review, Sonic Foundry's desktop software division was acquired by Sony Pictures Digital for its Screenblast channel. For the latest information on CD Architect, visit www.screenblast.com. (Incidentally, Sony Pictures has "maintained the Madison operation.")

I've spent most of my life living in the shadow of one university or another, though Madison, Wisconsin is the first real "college town" I've ever called home. Everywhere else, there's always been a distinct strain of resistance to the college culture among the surrounding populace: most of Durham, North Carolina, a cigarette and cotton mill town, barely knew Duke existed until it opened its own factory in the basketball program; the hard-shanked Polish-Italian capitular of Middletown, Connecticut did its best to ignore the adenoidal agitators of Wesleyan University until they swooped in and stole the mayor's office; and the drag-racing, hell-raising hicks I worked with on the northside of Hanover, New Hampshire had nothing but contempt for the "pinheads" at Dartmouth College who matched their contempt with supercilious disdain.

And even though there's a good bit more to Madison than the University of Wisconsin (it is a state capital, after all), the city seems to take the college more or less in stride (drunken student riots notwithstanding). Maybe it's the public/private thing, or maybe it's just that local merchants seem more aware than their counterparts in those other burgs that the disposable income and penny-foolishness of college students make for booming business.

In any event, in the absence of so-called town-gown tensions, you're left to enjoy the peculiarities of the student population with genial bemusement as they take shape in an indulgent environment. For example, I'd barely been in town a week before I noticed a preponderance of Vespa-like motor-scooters parked around my student-saturated neighborhood of multi-unit houses, and how many of these dwellings found five or more scooters moored in their front yards.

As it turned out, these scooters had been endowed as the birthright of all UW varsity athletes, which explained why I'd seen so many hulking linebackers puttering around the neighborhood, hunched over their scooters like circus bears on unicycles. Goofy as they appeared, I had no idea how seriously these local heroes took their scooters—or that the phenomenon might go national—until I read a Sports Illustrated article on the "Elite Eleven" football camp, which assembles the country's top high school quarterbacks for exclusive tutoring in the intricacies of the college game by its own best and brightest. It seems that the 2002 camp was graced by the presence of the UW's own Brooks Bollinger, who was kind enough to bestow upon his charges a 20-minute discourse on one of the most important choices a college quarterback can make: Whether or Not to Get a Scooter.

I never had to face that choice in college; even for varsity athletes (whether stars, or marginal ones like me), scooters were not an option. Which is not to say we runners weren't compensated for our service to the school; by my senior year, as I recall, our post-race meal stipend was up to $4, cash money. In retrospect, I suppose the fact that I was stuck hoofing it around campus like the non-athlete hoi polloi made me appreciate my sport even more, since it was my only means of venturing beyond the campus confines and seeing the town and outlying environs. To this day, running is how I get to know a town, and Madison is no exception. It was thus I made my first acquaintance with the impressive digs of tech-industry local heroes Sonic Foundry, Inc., which adorn several of my favorite local runs. Sonic Foundry overlooks the icy waters of Lake Mendota, stands opposite the local lock and dam, and lies at the gateway to the Maple Bluff neighborhood that's home to the governor's mansion, a house with its own kids' railroad, and excellent views of the green-and-gold, Packers-logo'd shantytown of ice-fishing huts that take possession of the lake come winter.

Of course, I'd been familiar with Sonic Foundry for years before I started devouring regular eyefuls of their office. Over the years, I'd watched them evolve from a developer exclusively of professional-quality audio editing and mastering tools—such as their flagship SoundForge—to a more diversified rich media company, entering into myriad partnerships with providers of streaming portals and solutions. No longer just a software company, Sonic Foundry divides their business into software, systems, and services divi- sions, with increasing emphasis on media encoding and delivery for various types of audio and video content distribution business models and platforms.

That said, it's their content creation and mastering tools that continue to hold the most interest in the digital studio space, and here we look at their pro-level audio CD mastering tool, CD Architect, now available in a full-step, fifth-generation revision that boasts high-resolution audio (192kHz) support, advanced editing and effects, real-time pitch change and time stretch, and other features essential to professional audio production. While you don't get the sort of recording and production tools available in full-featured creation tools like SoundForge, CD Architect matches up well with the likes of Minnetonka Audio's FastEdit for sophisticated management of existing tracks for high-acuity custom CD mastering, as well as Roxio's Jam on the Mac side.

The Architect Blueprint
The ideal application environment for a product like Architect 5.0 is in a professional or project studio, where a musician or producer is preparing completed audio mixes for a master with professional sheen; in the workspace of a DJ who's developing a custom mix with samples, cross-fades, and time resequencing; or any type of studio environment adding effects or layers to existing recordings or mixes.

The important thing to keep in mind with a product like Architect is that it's tremendously advantageous for the types of projects it was designed for, and overkill for most anything else. If you want to finish a disc with professional, commercial ambitions, Architect will give you the sophistication, versatility, and control you need. To test CD Architect's signature advanced features, I attempted four projects: a brief amateur dance mix with custom cross-fades and interpolated samples; upgrading a bootleg disc recorded track-at-once to simulate better the feel of the actual concert; the use of dual-layer editing to add crowd noise and give a "live" feel to a mix of studio recordings; and a sonically smooth, effectively cross-faded mix of tracks from a hodge-podge of sources.

I also ripped some audio from a spoken-word source to test (successfully) the ability of CD Architect to change the duration of the audio without altering the pitch. This capability is essential for anyone doing, say, a radio ad spot (or audio for a TV ad or a documentary with voice-over), who needs to match the duration of the audio to the spot's required length (or match it to the length of the video clip, or align a specific point in the audio with a specific point in the video), and doesn't want to compromise the recorded audio, or ask the narrator to adhere to unrealistic time precision. Stretching and compressing "Makes My Teeth White" from comedian Paul Mooney's Race album, I was able to get a 1:45 track down to about 1:30 without any noticeable damage to the pace of the monologue (the program uses an algorithm for shortening or extending pauses, rather than shortening or elongating the "words," which would alter pitch); I was also able to extend it up to about 2 minutes without any ill effects (after that Mooney sounded drunk, and the track took on a distinct metallic ring).

I evaluated CD Architect on our in-house test system, a 2.4gHz, Pentium 4 Digital Studio Sony VAIO with 512MB RAM running Windows XP, using the factory-installed Pioneer A04 CD/DVD recorder for extraction and recording. You can probably get by with significantly less PC power, since working with audio tracks isn't nearly as processor-intensive as, say, previewing and transcoding video. Sonic Foundry's published minimum processor requirements— 400mHz—might be a little on the low side. You'll also need a Windows-compatible sound card, 128MB RAM, 40MB free hard disk space for program installation (as well as space for WAV files, of course), a supported CD-R drive (Architect 5.0 adds support for most if not all shipping ATAPI, FireWire, and USB 2 recorders), and DirectX Media 8 for running plug-ins (included on the disc). CD Architect runs under Windows 98SE, Me, 2000, or XP.

Computer-Aided Audio Design
CD Architect has way too many features to discuss them all here, and it's hard to imagine a project that would incorporate all of them. The main interface, which breaks down into two main windows and can be sub-divided from there depending on the complexity of the project, is easy to work with once you get the hang of some of its key components. One is the toggling between two edit tools, Normal and Envelope. Normal is a sort of macro track-manipulation tool, which lets you move an entire track around, cut it and paste it, and align it vis-à-vis other tracks. Working with tracks ripped from CDs (an option in the pull-down disc menu), you can pull all the source media you want to work with in a Media Pool, which toggles on the bottom half of the screen with the Trimming window. In Normal mode, you can select tracks to go to the Trimming window, chop them as you choose, and return them to the Timeline to build them into your disc. CD Architect supports source media in a variety of formats, such as WAV, MP3, AIFF, and Windows Media (although I wasn't able to get it to work with MP3 sources), without converting them before editing.

Once you get your tracks trimmed as you like, and apply any number of effects to them (such as distortion, reverb, or EQ, applicable via the plug-ins menu), you move them to the Timeline window, and align them with existing tracks as you choose. One key element of the acuity CD Architect lets you apply to your projects is treating sound clips as events, rather than tracks as they may have been defined in their source media, which creates a new paradigm for working with the media. Thus, effects can be applied to entire events or portions thereof, such as adding reverb or distortion to a specific section of a song.

One key element of a professional editing tool, whether audio or video, is offering multiple levels of Undo to let the user correct errors made several steps back without making them a permanent fixture of a project, or requiring frustrating re-creation of work already done. By keystroking Ctrl-Z or clicking on a looped-back arrow icon in the Architect toolbar, you can open a pull-down menu listing all edits since you started or opened the project. From this menu, you can select your last edit, or your last several edits working backward. In one instance, I opened the Undo menu to find 207 edits catalogued. You can also Redo in groups using the same edit list.

A distinguishing feature of professional audio productions from amateur ones— or at least the first step toward layout sophistication, if applied judiciously—is cross-fades. Architect 5.0 allows you to cross-fade between tracks or events in two ways. The first is through automatic cross-fades applied to overlapping sections of events. Within this automatic approach, you can add some quality control by using audio phase invert (a Switch option in the Edit pull-down), which enables you to prevent phase cancellation when cross-fading files and save a compromised mix.

Another way to control your own cross-fades is to use Architect's two-layer capability. Layering your audio tracks has several applications, one of which is customizing cross-fades by overlapping tracks laid out in different tiers, creating audio edit points, and adjusting volume manually to swoop in and out of two different tracks. This is a key feature for DJs who may be mixing two songs simultaneously and fading one into the other and back again. Go into Envelope mode, right click on the track to "show volume envelope," and you're ready to set edit points and drag the volume line up and down. You can even synch your in and out swoops by time or frame, and choose your edit points by markers set when previewing the tracks. You can also use the two-tiered approach to throw additional sounds into the mix; I used this to (arguably) nice effect adding applause to a mix of studio tracks over the track-to-track fades in the first layer by placing the applause clip in the second layer.

Customization in Architect, naturally, extends all the way up to the burn, which means you'll need to define your tracks manually, unless you specifically ask Architect to do it automatically. Custom track definition will allow you to respect cuts within a song, pick the exact moment in a cross-fade at which to begin a new track (crucial when mastering live recordings), or allow a song to segue into another while remaining part of the same track. You'll also need to make sure you leave the requisite 2-second gap at the beginning of the disc so that a CD player will recognize it, and locate the beginning of track 1 in the right sector; on my first attempts with Architect, I needed to adjust the beginning of the first track so it began right on the 2-second mark; I'm not sure how it got off track, but earlier or later wouldn't cut it.

Fortunately, Sonic Foundry offers a detailed manual (about 120 pages) on their Web site for such moments of confusion. You'll have to print it out, of course, but it's fairly well put together and it's essential both for understanding and harnessing the power of this complex tool.

Pre-Fab Alternatives
So is your application designed for Architect? If you're simply dumping audio tracks on a CD, or even doing a little basic trimming of the sort you could do, say, with NTI's excellent Wave Editor tool, you'll want to go with an all-purpose off-the-shelf recording tool like NTI CD-Maker 6 (which includes Wave Editor), or Easy CD Creator, RecordNow Max, or Nero, all of which include the rudimentary audio features you'll need. You can also get all those tools at a third or a quarter the price of Architect 5.0, which costs $209 when ordered direct from Sonic Foundry.

But if you're doing CD layout in a professional recording studio, commercial mastering, or any kind of professional remixing, a tool like CD Architect is indispensable. And even though it can't claim flagship status in the Sonic Foundry fleet—Sound Forge claimed that position years ago—it more than justifies their local hero status, from the Mendota shores of Madison to mastering houses far and wide.


COMPANIES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Ahead Software
www.nero.com
Minnetonka Audio www.minnetonkaaudio.com
NewTech Infosystems www.ntius.com
Roxio, Inc. www.roxio.com
Sony Electronics, Inc. www.sonystyle.com