TUTORIAL | Cut Lines: Improving Sound Performance with Soundtrack Pro (STP), Part 1
Posted Oct 26, 2006

When I was a teenager, I remember often adding STP Oil Treatment to the family car. Yeah, it shows my age, but there you have it. Decades later, Scientifically Treated Petroleum is still in business and still getting the job done. Putting nostalgia aside for a moment, in this installment, we'll begin a two-part look at a different kind of STP treatment that can take the squeak (and most other sonic deficiencies) out of your FCP projects.
     Of course, I'm referring to Soundtrack Pro, the advanced soundtracking tool included with Apple's Final Cut Studio. In these next two months, we'll see how to use it in two different ways to "round trip" your audio-enhanced sequences from and back to Final Cut Pro (FCP). Please be aware this is Soundtrack Pro (STP), and not the original Soundtrack. It is now a whole new animal.

There are two ways to use STP with FCP, and both use the Send To function built into all the Final Cut Studio applications. Once you go through the process and are back into Final Cut Pro, your new sound files and projects will already be in FCP and ready to use.

The first method, which we'll cover this month, is using STP to edit an Audio File Project. The other is how to edit a Multitrack Project. Editing an Audio File Project is basically editing one single clip's sound. If it's mono, you get one track of sound. If it's stereo, you get a stereo pair of tracks you can sweeten and fix, together or separately. You can apply filters and effects, cut, copy, paste, and alter the sound of the clip in a variety of powerful ways.

A Multitrack Project lays all the audio clips from your FCP Sequence out to look much like the Timeline window in FCP. You have a good deal of power to mix and sweeten all your clips in one project.

We'll cover that next month.

figure 1Step 1: Sending a Project to STP
Now let's actually walk through the Audio File Project process basics. Let's say I have a wedding edited by another editor. She sends me the final edit but, as per my instructions, leaves the sound alone. I want to fix it myself. There's the sound of an air conditioning unit in the building, room tone, and the murmur from the guests. I need to fix all this before I do anything. What do I do? In Figure 1 (left), notice I have audio tracks 5 and 6 disabled. This is the fixed sound I already did, since I've already delivered the completed project to the customer. I'll move the original untouched sound from audio tracks 1 and 2 to audio tracks 3 and 4 for organizational purposes.

Thus, the first step is to set the section of the clip we want to work with. In the Timeline window, you can use the Blade (b) tool to clip out the section you want to work with. STP will import the whole original clip. This method gives me In and Out points to work with that won't interfere with my original clip. I dragged this clip, while holding the Shift key to avoid horizontal movement, down to audio tracks 3 and 4.

If I want the original to be kept intact in the Timeline window, I can take these extra steps: Lock those two audio tracks down (Undo won't affect locked tracks). Then hit Ctrl+Z to undo several steps back until the original clip is back to its original uncut state (Figure 1, left).

figure 1We only take these extra steps if we want to work with just a section of a clip. In and Out points work just as well. We'll see the usefulness of this approach once we're in STP. If you want to work with the whole original Master clip, you don't have to bother with In/Out points and such.

Next, in the Timeline window, right-click (Ctrl+click if you use a one-button mouse, but these pro apps really work best with a two-button mouse) the sound clip that you want to clean up. In the pop-up menu that appears, select Send To > Soundtrack Pro Audio File Project (Figure 2, left).


figure 1The first thing you have to do is verify the name of the sent file. By default, it is the clip name followed by "(sent)" to indicate that it is being sent to STP from FCP. This change happens because this is a nondestructive editing process. Our changes will affect only our copy, not the original file.

We can always go back to our untouched original at any time. Very handy! Also, be aware you can use this Send To command directly from the Bin.

Step 2: Setting a Noise Print in STP
Next, the file opens in STP. Be patient; it may take a moment or two for STP to analyze and fully prepare the file for editing. Once it's ready, you'll notice that what loads in STP is the whole sound file of your original clip, In and Out points included (Figure 3, left).

You should have the section you cut from FCP opened in your current waveform window, with In and Out points showing you where the section you targeted was.

Don't worry about the whole original Master clip being available here; you'll see that its presence doesn't really interfere with anything when you go back to FCP.

figure 1The first thing you do in STP is to find a section of your audio file where there is nothing but background sound. You may need to use the up and down arrow keys (no modifier keys) to zoom in and out of the Wave Form Editor window to get in close enough to isolate a section of "room tone." It doesn't take much, but the larger the section you highlight (within reason), the better. Click and drag to highlight that section of the sound file that is only the background noise you want to filter out. Then go to Process > Set Noise Print (Figure 4,left).

This step pretty much explains itself; it sets the sample of what you want to remove. Click outside your selection to deselect everything.

figure 1Step 3: Reducing the Noise
Next, go back to STP's Process menu and select Reduce Noise (Figure 5, left). An adjustments dialog will appear. In the lower-left corner is a play/stop button with which you can audition your sound as you adjust it. Play with the Threshold and the Reduction levels until you find the best settings to reduce the noise to your liking. Some recordings clean up really quickly and purely. Some take more work and are just too noisy to fix completely. You can also check the Noise Only box to hear what STP is removing from the recording, fully isolated from the rest of the sound. Once you're satisfied, click the Apply button.

You'll see the Reduce Noise entry in your Actions list as its red bar fills to indicate the progress of the noise reduction algorithms. When STP has finished processing the noise reduction effect, you can play it back to hear your results. You may want to apply other filters and such. Notice that no matter what you do, the Action list is always there for reference. You can uncheck and check each Action to further experiment.

Since you're working with an STP Audio File Project, you always have that Actions list available to you to manage the effects you've applied. If you export the project as an AIFF file, the Actions will be flattened, and you will not be able to go back and undo any of them.

figure 1At this point, save your project. When you hit Save, a dialog box will appear that will ask you to make a choice. Choose the first option, Include Source Audio, since you're already working with a copy of the original.

Once your file is saved, you can quit STP and return to FCP. Notice two things right away. First, you already have your "(sent)" file imported in the Bin. Second, note that the new file has already replaced the original in the Timeline (Figure 6, left). Poof, done!

Final Notes
Bear in mind that there are many, many ways to prepare your audio sources in FCP before sending them on the round trip to and from STP. For example, since sound doesn't suffer nearly as much from recompression as video does, you can open a clip from the Bin in the Viewer, set In and Out points, and export it as an AIFF file. Or you can copy a clip from the Timeline window into the Bin and make it a Master clip.

The other issue I want to stress here is the nature and potential limits of the work you do in STP. Not every sound problem will be fixed miraculously with STP's noise reduction process as outlined here, although most will. Sometimes it's best to fix it up with other filters first, or after. If the noise-reduction method leaves your sound flat, add an Expander or EQ or other filter to it to fatten it up. You can also drag Actions in the Actions window to readjust their "render order," just like in the Filters tab in FCP, to get different results.

Remember that many effects and filters perform their best when the wet/dry mix is very dry. A setting of 100% Wet means it's fully the effect you're hearing, and 100% Dry means you are hearing the original with no effect. You can adjust this mix in almost all of the filters. A tiny bit of filter can go a long way. Experiment, have fun, explore, and imagine new ways of using this in your workflow. This column is much too short to go into the wonders you can accomplish with STP; this is just a drop in the bucket.

To learn more, I highly recommend the book Apple Pro Training Series: Soundtrack Pro (Peachpit Press), by my favorite Apple Certified Trainer, Mary Plummer. It is easy and fast to get through and will open your eyes and ears to some wonderful sound-fixing and -sweetening possibilities. Happy editing, y'all!

Ben Balser (ben@wolfdigitalmedia.net) is an Apple Certified Trainer based in Gonzales, Louisiana. His company Wolf Digital Media" specializes in training and consoluting, and also produces documentary, music video, and commercial work. Contact Ben with Final Cut-related questions and he will try to address them in future tutorials.