Review: Apple Soundtrack
Posted Mar 4, 2004

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.)

See How We Are
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.

More Fun in the New World
Our first project was building a soundtrack to two minutes of street scene footage shot outside the EMedia offices in Madison, Wisconsin. There's only so much excitement you can create out of passing vehicles and pedestrians, even when they're walking their gorgeous malamute, but it supplied the DV clips that I needed to bring into Final Cut Pro 4 (I could have used Final Cut Express or, for that matter, iMovie). I did only simple editing—not much more than setting in and out points, dumping the clip's audio, and setting a few markers—and then exported the clip directly into Soundtrack. If you're working in another editor, or even in a tool like Macromedia Flash MX, just remember that Soundtrack only accepts QuickTime (MOV) video clips. Using a dual-processor 2gHz G5 and 23-inch Cinema Display on loan from Apple, I suspected that system performance wasn't going to be an issue, and I was right. (You surely don't need a top-of-the-line computer to use Soundtrack; a single-processor 500mHz or dual-processor 450mHz G4 is the baseline. But having a stout performer like the dual G5 sure is nice.)

Once there, I used Soundtrack's Insert Time Marker feature to place video frames in the timeline at the spots where I set the markers in Final Cut Pro to give us visual cues as to the scenes I'd be scoring. I wanted a modern rock feel, but with a few old-school elements thrown in. I began by selecting one of the Modern Rock Clean Guitar loops and dragging it into the timeline. Once a loop is in the timeline, you can grab it and drag it out as long as you want; in this case, I let the single-measure (four beat) loop repeat throughout the entire clip. I grabbed a Bluesy Electric Guitar Riff loop and dropped it in, dragging its start point to the fifth measure, followed by an Electric Bass Bumpy loop that began in measure eight. Beginning at a scene change in measure 12, I added a drum groove, another guitar riff, and a cymbal crash, which I then repeated every four measures. Twelve measures later, at another scene change, I added a horn section and some piano, and topped it all off in measure 32 with a cool Spy Guitar Riff, to give my dog-walking pedestrian a little of that "Secret Agent Man" feel. Maybe that's a bit much, but hey, it's my movie. I could have used up to 126 tracks, though I wouldn't recommend that on a less powerful machine.

Track by track, I adjusted the levels—a little more bass here, a little less cymbal there—to come up with a preliminary mix. Then, I went to the Window pulldown to open the Effects menu. Soundtrack comes with more than 30 Apple and Emagic effects, including Reverb, Distortion, and EQ, which can be applied to individual tracks or to the entire mix. I wanted to make the bass sound sharper, so I applied Emagic's Fat EQ and bumped up the 3900Hz and 10000Hz levels to make it snap a little more. The Spy Guitar Riff needed a little more punch, so I jacked up the tone from 980Hz to 1200Hz. So on and so forth, through each of the tracks that needed a little tweaking.

If you find a loop that you particularly like, but want to change its key, tempo, or merely its searchable metadata (descriptors like Clean vs. Dissonant, Grooving vs. Arrythmic), you can open up the loop in the Soundtrack Loop Utility, make those changes, and then save it with the new parameters.

Once I was satisfied with the project, which I had now renamed "The Mean Streets of Madison" (that malamute was handsome, but I didn't like the look in his eyes), I exported the entire thing as a QuickTime movie, which took about 15 seconds. I also exported the individual tracks as AIFF files, in case I wanted to work more with the video and its new soundtrack in Final Cut Pro. (The real audio pros can then work with the tracks in tools like Logic or even Digidesign's Pro Tools.) Had I really liked the final mix, I could have also exported the whole thing to an AIFF so I could just enjoy the music or have it on hand if I wanted to apply the entire thing to a different video, or even to a menu in DVD Studio Pro.

Wild Gift
That done, I couldn't resist the urge to apply my newfound soundtrack creation skills (OK, so I'm still no Terence Blanchard or John Williams; heck, I'm not even Kenny G) to a Mini Cooper commercial that Apple supplied with the reviewer copy of Final Cut Pro 4. The ad was cool, but I couldn't help but think that the soundtrack was, well, a bit cheesy. Perhaps influenced by a recent viewing of The Italian Job (the 2003 version), I figured it needed something edgier. So I replaced the New Age acoustic guitar and wispy vocals with a mix of bluesy acoustic slide guitar, a couple of electric rock riffs, and some club dance beats. It completely changed the mood of the commercial, making the guy waving his hand out the window seem almost as tough as the bulldog leaning out the passenger side. Even the cat in the back seat had a little 'tude now.

From its ease of use to the sheer volume of clips and effects, Soundtrack's yet another example of the philosophy that's made Apple so successful, market share be damned. Of course, at its $199 price tag, it's also yet another Apple app that sells for more than similar products for the PC. Even though the new GarageBand offers the same loop-based composition capability, it doesn't let you edit tracks to video, so Apple's got nothing in the sub-$100 price range to compete directly with Screenblast's ACID. But ACID only hints at the kind of precise editing capabilities that are at your fingertips with Soundtrack, so your $199 gives you plenty of bang for your buck.

Apple Soundtrack

System Requirements:
• Power Mac G4 with single 500mHz or dual 450mHz processor
• Mac OS X 10.2.5 or later
• QuickTime 6.1 or later
• 384MB RAM (512MB recommended)
• 5GB available HDD space

Other Companies Mentioned in this Article
BIAS, Inc.
Digidesign (A Division of Avid)
Macromedia, Inc.
MOTU, Inc.
Sony Screenblast