Review: SmartSound Sonicfire Pro 4
Posted Jul 28, 2006

Synopsis: SmartSound Sonicfire Pro (SFP) has been an excellent tool in the videographer's aresenal for years, supplying royalty-free, customizable soundtracks. Now SmartSound has upped the ante, introducing SFP 4 with Mood Mapping and the new Strata Series libraries. Adding the ability to adjust the mood and up to eight individual musical instrument tracks with both present choices and full manual control allows editors of all skill levels to use the software with effectiveness and precision.
Price: $199+, depending on bundle

The magic of Sonicfire Pro 4, the latest version of SmartSound's popular soundtrack-creation tool, is its patented process of reducing music soundtracks down to what SmartSound terms blocks. This is done by a music editor that divides the music into small sections while taking into account tempo, verse, chorus, measures, and probably several other musical terms I don't understand all that well.

The good news is, the developers who created Sonicfire Pro (SFP) 4 do understand this stuff, and it works. The program determines which blocks are appropriate for openings, endings, and the material in between, and which varieties of blocks go together well with which other blocks.

This flexibility makes it easy for video producers to customize the music to lengths varying from a few seconds to a half-hour with proper-sounding beginnings and endings, and worthwhile stuff in between, that exactly fit the duration of your video clip, usually with six or more variations of each of the thousands of selections from the SFP library.

SFP 4 with Mood Mapping takes soundtrack customization to a phenomenal new level. The preset choices make it a snap to create a satisfying music bed, and the added ability to control the individual instruments allows the editor to adjust the soundtrack to fit the video piece like a glove.

4 comprises several discs in a laminated disc binder. In addition to the program disc, you get a CD containing the Core Foundations and Core Sessions libraries, unless you opt for one of the additional optional bundles. The new Strata Series discs, including the latest royalty-free SmartSound tracks and blocks, come on DVD to accommodate the additional storage required, since each new selection involves multiple tracks for individual instruments. Thus a DVD-ROM drive (or DVD burner) is required to use the new libraries and Mood Mapping feature.

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The SFP program itself has a typical Windows NLE look with drop-down menu command choices as well as transport controls and the ability to size, position, add, and delete the desktop segments.

It is a good habit to go to Tools > Library Update Check periodically to ensure that the software has all current available selections. I also suggest importing your video early in a new project, as it is very helpful to be able to scrub the video with the audio while choosing and working on the soundtrack.

Maestro, the music-browsing application included with SFP 4, makes music selection easy and efficient and is located in View. There are five Find Music choices: All, On My Computer, Owned by Me, Favorites, and With User Notes. "All" accesses the entire SmartSound database of songs, both online and on your computer.

SFP 4 conveniently notes whether you own the song with a color-coded box beside the song name. The box column also indicates whether the selection is a single-track or multi-track song using multiple lines.

Each song is listed by track type (single or multi), title, source library, type of music, and intensity level, and can be alphabetically sorted up or down by any of these listings. Maestro also supplies a general description of each track, including the composer and—very handy—the beats per minute of the selection so you can compute how many frames per measure and such. You can further fine-tune your search using Style, with 22 subclasses, or by keyword, intensity level, library, or instrument.

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Maestro offers a preview mode in which you can listen to all currently available music selections. Online selections can be immediately purchased and downloaded for $19.99 a song.

The cost per song gets cheaper if you order by the library. SmartSound has multiple library and bundle discounts as well, but for the most part those must be physically delivered, and thus they lack the immediacy of the individual-song download.

Maestro has two additional nice features: Preview with Timeline, which allows you to preview all selections in sync with your video; and Favorite, for easy cataloging of personal favorites, both owned and as an internet Wish List.

Once you select a song you set the duration in minutes, seconds, frames, and starting-frame position. Choose Insert, Open, or Done, and the selection is placed in the appropriate position of the timeline, and Maestro closes until you require another song.

Editing and Import/Export
SFP 4 offers two editing options. You can make all your adjustments with the music alone and export it to your video editor, or as mentioned earlier, bring your video into SFP 4 and work with the two in tandem.

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The desktop allows you to customize extensively how the audio selection is graphically displayed with waveforms, blocks, bars, sliders, individual instrument tracks, VU meters, and more. Another nice feature is the project-line track, which makes switching back and forth between multiple projects an effortless process.

You can import video as AVI, MOV, MPEG-1, MPEG-4, and WMV files. You can import audio as WAV files directly or as MP3, AIFF, and AU files, and SFP 4 will automatically convert them into WAV files. This allows you to add non-SmartSound music, sound effects, voiceovers, etc.

Audio rubber-banding allows total control of each individual audio track, and this layering ability makes SFP 4 an actual audio mixer/editor of sorts. You can export the complete soundtrack alone or even each of the individual instrument tracks as a WAV or AIFF file in 22, 32, 44, 48, and 96KHz and in both 16 and 32-bit, or you can export the entire video and complete soundtrack as an AVI file. Great flexibility! This makes the software compatible with not just PC and Mac editors, but also with the MacroSystem line of dedicated standalone editors.

A nifty additional feature for some of the PC and Mac editors is the "Send to" feature, which will export to QuickTime Export Utility, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe Audition, Vegas 6, Ulead Media Studio Pro 8, and several Macromedia Flash choices, automatically opening them.

Mood Mapping
The most talked-about new feature of SFP 4 is Mood Mapping, which allows you to modulate the volume and intensity of individual instrument tracks within a given piece of music to tailor its "mood" to the manner in which you plan to use it in your video. You can do so manually or take advantage of a variety of preset "moods."

Here's how it works. Highlight the song track and you get a menu on the right where you can preview eight to ten variations of the arrangement, each giving a different beginning and overall sound. Directly below that you can set audio fade-in and fade-out and offset the start time and duration of the audio or create a seamlessly looping soundtrack, a helpful feature for DVD menus and the like.

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Highlight the Mood Map track and you get different menu choices on the right: a dozen preset "moods" with obvious descriptors such as full, dialogue, background, light, leads, drums and bass, etc., and a graphic listing of instruments and volume levels of each.

You can adjust how quickly or slowly the mood changes with the Transition Time and manually set the start and length of any mood from there, but there is a much easier and visceral way to choose and set your mood-changing points.

You can scrub through your audio/video, find the points where you want to change the mood, and add a Mood Marker. You can adjust the preset mood further by raising or lowering the overall or individual instrument track volumes.

There are handy transport controls on top of the screen such as Skip Back and Skip Fwd, which advance you through your mood points and many additional playback and positioning controls in the drop-down menu system under Timeline. Two shortcut keys that you will find yourself using a lot are the Spacebar, which starts and stops the audio/video, and the Return key, which returns the audio/video to the beginning.

The one caveat I would issue is to preview the Strata Series libraries, which are required to take advantage of the Mood Mapping feature, before bringing them into your project. If you don't find appropriate music for your use, Mood Mapping can take you only so far.

There are many features and functions of SFP 4 I haven't even touched on here, such as Smart Razor, Smart Extend, ripple, and zoom, that those more musically inclined who wish to tinker deeper into the music will probably appreciate. Instead I've highlighted the features that video editors—like me—are most likely to find helpful.

Smart Sound SFP 4 with Mood Mapping affords an impressive amount of control over audio and how it interacts with video, both in duration and in content, and does so quite effectively and economically compared to the alternatives available.

As a wedding videographer I found more instances in my actual projects where I could use selections from the first ten Strata Series libraries than I would have thought possible. This was directly due to the new Mood Mapping feature. With SmartSound promising additional Strata Series libraries, I am very satisfied with this software and strongly recommend it to those who have a need for royalty-free music in their work.

To see a video tutorial on using Smart Sound Sonicfire Pro 4 with Mood Mapping, click here.