Sony's new Cinescore application ($199) goes head-to-head with SmartSound's Sonicfire Pro as a soundtracking tool for video producers. Cinescore's ever-growing library of royalty-free music is vast but often hard to search to find the track you want. Its customization options are extensive, but they feel more like an invitation to experiment and change your music than to fine-tune your selections, which I suspect is the goal for most of us.
Let's get right to the point. If you're reading this review, you need royalty-free music for videos, DVDs, and similar projects. You've likely eschewed the loop-based approach for a variety of reasons and are looking for a tool to automatically produce the tracks for you.
You know that SmartSound is the 500-pound gorilla in the category, and that loop-based production leader Sony has introduced a new product called Cinescore, and you're wondering how the products compare. If we chatted about your priorities, you'd probably comment that you wanted your scoring software to offer you a wealth of great-sounding music, a wide variety of easy-to-find choices, and the ability to customize the music after you select it. Ease of use is also nice, but if you can find your way around a prosumer video editor, you'll be able to figure out either of these products.
Before going further, you should read Tim Kennelly's excellent standalone review of Sonicfire Pro 4, the tool you use to choose and select SmartSound tracks. That will provide details on Sonicfire Pro's interface and operation that I'll only summarize here.
The Cinescore Cook's Tour
Since this is our first look at Cinescore, let's start with it. Not surprisingly, the main screen borrows much from Sony Vegas and includes some useful Vegas paradigms like envelopes, trimming tools, and NTSC preview via an external monitor. Sony also borrows the tutorial model from their consumer audio programs, so there's plenty of help to get you off the ground.
You start by adding your video to your project, then click Generate Music, which opens the Theme Chooser, where you'll preview and select your music. After selection, you customize your music in the Generated Music Dialog, then when you've finished fine-tuning, you click OK, and Cinescore generates a WAV file that it sends to the timeline.
On a 14-minute project, this took about 80 seconds on a 3.4GHz dual-core Pentium PC; on shorter projects, it was nearly instantaneous. Once the WAV file is on the timeline, the only adjustment you can make is volume; all other changes require a one-click trip back to the Generated Music Dialog and another WAV file generation. Overall, even though Cinescore isn't as directly linked with other Sony applications as Vegas and DVD Architect, it's easy to see Cinescore neatly fitting into Sony's Vegas family of applications—just another button on the interface that opens the same two interface screens.
Sonicfire Pro, by comparison, has two basic windows: the Maestro window, where you search for music, and the main window, where you customize it. You don't generate a WAV or other file to go from one to the other, and once you choose your music, you stay in the same window until you're ready to output.
With this as background, let's jump right into the priority list.
I want high-quality music . . .
Let's start by discussing where each company gets its music. SmartSound uses primarily third-party composers represented by ASCAP and BMI, while Sony relies mostly on in-house composers with some third-party contractors, using the same model as used in their ACID line of products.
Music quality is obviously subjective, but this is what I took from my tests. Although both technologies are based on music loops, SmartSound tracks sounded like songs broken into loops, while Cinescore's sounded like loops built into songs. SmartSound tracks tended to sound more natural, as if generated by real instruments, while Cinescore music seemed more synthetic, with an occasional MIDI feel.
The most notable exception to this feel was Cinescore's Wedding Soundtrack library, where several loops, including Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and Here Comes the Bride, sounded very good. That said, I always found myself straining to discern whether the instruments are real or synthetic with Cinescore. With SmartSound, this is seldom in doubt.
Both companies have extensive previews of their libraries up on the internet, so you can listen for yourself before buying. Consider this step a critical one in your decision-making process.
. . . with a wide variety . . .
Comparing the quantity of music available with each solution is challenging, because Sony and SmartSound don't ship equivalent units. Sony ships "Themes" with "Variations," and of the 40 or so Themes we tested, most had 20 Variations or more. Sony's take is that when you consider Themes, Variations, and the extensive customization options available for all songs, their library has an "unlimited" number of arrangements.
While, technically, this is true, oftentimes you get different versions of the same song, not different songs. For example, with the Wedding March Theme loop, you get 19 Variations, from Full Orchestra to Romantic, while the Here Comes the Bride loop comes in 16 Variations. This is excellent if you're trying to score a wedding, since you have so many versions of the same song to choose from. B
ut it's unlikely that you'll use one of the Variations as background for a deodorant commercial, because at the end of the day, it's still Here Comes the Bride. There's a big difference between a different song and a variation of the same song, however creatively you can adjust it.
SmartSound has two classes of libraries. The first comprises 12 collections of newer Multi-Layer libraries, each with about ten songs. In these libraries, each song has about five Variations, and each variation has about ten Moods, adding up to 120 highly configurable songs. The second class includes about 90 other collections, each with about ten songs with five variations, for another 4,500 total songs.
Both companies claim to be releasing new content at a prolific rate, which is certainly backed up by previous releases of SmartSound and ACID tracks. Overall, both solutions offer lots of options. This places the onus on each manufacturer to make the best music simple to find. In our tests, we found SmartSound's content much more accessible than Sony's in a number of key ways.
. . . of easy-to-find choices
For example, consider each product's search function. Cinescore's Theme Chooser only considers songs installed on your hard drive, not other songs that may be available for purchase. By contrast, SmartSound's Music Maestro lets you search both music that's on your computer and the entire SmartSound library on the web (of course, if you don't own the track it selects for you, you'll have to buy it if you want to use it). So even if Sony does have the perfect song for your production somewhere in its archives, the search function may not find it.
Second, in part because SmartSound's library is so large and in part because their keyword search function includes all tracks, you tend to get many more useful hits from SmartSound's search function. One of my test projects was a country wedding where the bride and groom set sail on a canoe down the river after the ceremony. Let's look at the searches I performed in search of an appropriate track.
Typing "country" into Maestro yielded just one Session (SFP's term for a music style) on my computer (Country Band, from the Core Sessions library), but the entire library yielded 79 hits, each with a description like "It's a lazy day on the porch with nothing to do. Easy-going and light, this slow bluegrass track is in absolutely no hurry to be anywhere." I don't know who writes this stuff, and save me from a similar fate, but it is a truly useful description.
Typing "country" into Cinescore's Theme Chooser yielded two results, Double Plus Polka and Everybody Polka! From the Polka Time! theme. Not helpful. Even worse, the Theme Chooser didn't tell me which Variation leads to the desired country sound, and the Variations have no descriptions other than suggestive names like Club House or Latin Polka. So, I have to play up to 40 Variations to find my country song.
Moving along, for the canoe ride, I searched for "river" (9 hits on SmartSound, 0 on Cinescore, even though Cinescore does include a Theme named Many Rivers); canoe (0, 0); reggae (7, 0); water (19, 0); steel drum (9, 0); and sailing (4, 0). Another test piece involved scoring video from a trip to Israel. Here I searched for "middle east" (4, 0); mystical (79, 0); Israel (1, 0); and travel (24, 0). See a pattern emerging?
Even searching for descriptions in Cinescore's keyword list box brought disappointing results. The term Blues revealed one Theme in the Rock ‘n' Roll genre, again with 20 Variations to manually search through (none named blues), while the same search in Sonicfire Pro revealed 88 specific songs.
Overall, SmartSound offered useful suggestions to all our queries while Sony provided virtually no focused guidance. It felt like SmartSound offered a much larger variety of music; it's certainly conceivable that's Sony's library is just as large (or larger), just poorly indexed. Either way, if you can't quickly and easily find a song, for all practical purposes it ain't there.
Preview with your Video
Verbal descriptions are nice, but at some point early in the selection process, you want to see your video with the music. With SmartSound, you can preview all available songs with your video, which means one click per song preview.
With Cinescore, you have to load your selected Theme and Variation into the Generated Music window before you can preview your video. This means five clicks in two different windows to preview another. In addition, you can't preview the score with your existing audio until you actually render the track onto the Timeline, a process that hinders easy sampling and experimentation. Clearly, SmartSound's selection and preview paradigm is more usable.
The Ability To Customize
Once you've selected your track, it's time to customize, which breaks into several sub-issues, including workflow and customization options. In terms of workflow, SmartSound again has the advantage, courtesy of its single-window interface for all customization and preview. This means that you can hear the audio from the video in the same window where you set your customization options, which fosters experimentation.
Cinescore's workflow is comparatively unwieldy. You can't hear the audio from the original video when working in the Generated Music dialog, so in many instances, you have to render your score as WAV, preview on the timeline, then go back again to make any adjustments. Once you've rendered your WAV file, you can't "undo" any of your modifications; you have to go back and manually change them. SmartSound offers ordinary Undo for all previous actions. Once you render the video to the timeline in Cinescore, the Undo goes away, and you're starting over at the new settings if you decide to re-edit.
Sony recommends inserting markers on the timeline to indicate where you want significant changes to your score, then using these markers to guide your edits in the Generated Music dialog. That's certainly a helpful tip, but it would be more helpful if you could really preview your total audio track as you make your configuration options.
Finally, let's address inter-song customization options. As mentioned previously, SmartSound has 12 multi-layer collections of roughly ten songs each that you can customize during the song, which they call Mood Mapping. While you can select variations of their old songs, you can't do this midstream; you'd have to piece together the tracks manually with different variations, which is cumbersome at best.
With Mood Mapping, your customization options are limited, but also coherent and precise. At any point in the composition you can change moods, which essentially varies the selection and intensity of the instruments playing at that time. If you don't like the result, you can customize the results by instrument. Drums interfering with the bride talking? Shut them down. Want a little guitar in the action? Add it in and pump up the volume.
If you're ducking for dialog, or welling up for an emotional moment, you have complete control over timing and instruments. You can also adjust the volume of the audio and its duration, almost down to the millisecond.
Cinescore's adjustment options are extensive but obtuse, and often temporally imprecise. You start by inserting a "Hint," which allows you to change Starting Section, Mood, Arrangement, and Tempo.
According to the Help file, changing the Mood "can change the instrumentation, sound, feel, or phrasing of the theme. Depending on the selected theme, a mood could contain different melodies, rhythms, instruments, and so on."
In the example shown at left, the variation offered four clearly defined Mood Change options (Flute, Guitar Emphasis, Organ Emphasis, and Full Band), each with at least five arrangements described simply as 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Arrangements specify "how the instruments in the mood are combined as the intensity changes."
Tempo is easy enough to understand, but intensity includes "the number of instruments or sounds included, how loud these are in the mix, and the musical complexity of each instrument's performance."
This means that three of four controls (mood, arrangements, and intensity) affect the instrumentation in the mix, which makes sense but provides little guidance on how to achieve the desired sound. Complicating operation even further is the vagueness of some adjustments, like Intensity, which has sliders for Amount, Mode, Variance, and Range (brother, I just wanted to lose the trumpet!).
A change in intensity took up to five to six seconds in some of our tests, until the music reached the end of a loop. This could seriously impact your ability to fine-tune your audio for what's going on onscreen.
When it's time to export your music file, Cinescore provides all the options you get with Vegas, which are quite extensive and include QuickTime, Windows Media, MPEG-1 and -2, DV, and others. Vegas has a well-deserved reputation for excellent output quality, so you should feel comfortable rendering to final output in Cinescore. Otherwise, of course, you can export a WAV file to import into your editor.
Most users simply export a WAV file from SmartSound, which you can configure to automatically load into a number programs, including Vegas 6, Premiere Pro, MediaStudio Pro, and most Flash applications.
Overall, SmartSound's music sounds better and is easier to find, with limited, but quite effective customization options. Cinescore's customization options are very extensive, but potentially confusing and imprecise, and they feel more like an invitation to experiment and change your music than to fine-tune your selections, which I suspect is the goal for most of us.
All this said, if you're looking for a flexible music library specifically for weddings, Cinescore's Pass the Ring wedding soundtrack library could provide real value, specifically because you get so many Variations of critical songs like the "Wedding March," "Ave Maria," and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Significantly, SmartSound's Wedding Classics collection is not a multi-layer production, so you get three versions of the "Wedding March" (organ, piano, strings) and three versions of "Ave Maria" (flute, guitar, oboe), as well as other songs.
In some respects, the ultimate arbiter is your own ears, and at the very least, you should listen to the tracks both companies make available on their web sites and draw your own conclusions about quality. In addition, both programs offer free trials, so you should spend an hour or two with each and see if you agree with the conclusions presented here.