In the Studio: Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5
Posted Dec 1, 2008

I first used SmartSound music in 2003 in the consumer editor Pinnacle Studio 8. I immediately fell in love with the vast selection of professionally scored tunes, the ability to drag and drop them to a customizable length, and the fact that I could use them royalty-free. Since I’m not a musician or even a musical wannabe, I also appreciated the ease of use: specifically, the fact that you could choose songs without having to build them out of loops. After you made your choice, Sonicfire Pro did the rest, fashioning a complete piece of music with a beginning, middle, and end to fit the duration of the associated video clip—something you have to do manually with loops. Loop-based music definitely has its place but not on my hard drive.

Later, when I started editing with professional tools, I progressed to Sonicfire Pro 3, which was, at that time, the most current version of SmartSound’s stand-alone application. The ability to sample and select music was great, even though true audio editing or music-customizing tools were modest, probably because SmartSound correctly assumed that most users would prefer to perform the final mix in their video or audio editor. So you could adjust duration and volume in Sonicfire Pro, but you could do little else.

Then, in Sonicfire Pro version 4, SmartSound added a feature called “Mood Mapping,” which let you change the instruments used at various segments of the mix. In the introductory section of a tutorial or an interview, for example, you could have five or six instruments playing and then cut down to one or two instruments when the dialogue started. This feature required a new type of music called multilayer music (MLM). In the beginning, there were only 10 libraries of MLM. But as of September 2008, this number had grown to 79. It should hit triple digits sometime in mid-2009.

With Sonicfire Pro 5, SmartSound has enhanced your ability to find different songs, but more importantly, it has dramatically improved your ability to customize songs to fit your video content. Specifically, the new Timing feature lets you choose a generic song from SmartSound’s library—any song, not just MLM—and make it sound like it was custom-written for your commercial, tutorial, or other video project.

I’ll describe the new features in detail. Let’s start by identifying the product configurations offered by SmartSound.

Express Track and Scoring Editions
SmartSound offers three product versions. Sonicfire Pro 5 Express Track Edition is free with any purchased music, and it is primarily used for selecting music, although you can customize your selections to some degree before output. The major new feature offered here is called Sensory Searching; I’ll discuss that in the next section. Sonicfire Pro 5 Scoring Edition costs $99.95. It includes Express Track plus a timeline for features such as Mood Mapping and Timing and another new music searching feature called Spotting. Note that if you’re a registered user of Sonicfire Pro 4.5, you get a free upgrade to version 5 of the Scoring Edition.

SmartSound also offers a Multi-User Add-on for $99.95 per seat that lets users on a network access music from a central network drive. All three products are available for both Macintosh and Windows computers. SmartSound sells its music libraries for $99.95 per library, with quantity discounts available when purchasing three libraries or more. I counted 139 libraries available on the SmartSound website, including the 79 or so MLM libraries.

Express Tracks
With both versions of Sonicfire Pro, you can search and sort through the available tracks in Express Track, which has all the expected search mechanisms to help you find the right music as well as several unique tracks. As shown on the top left of Figure 1 (below), you can search for titles that you already have installed on your hard drive, or you can search for songs available online via the SmartSound Store. Either way, you can limit your search to single- or multiple-layer tracks.

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

The program can search by style, keyword, album, composer, instrument, intensity, release date, style, or tempo. Express Track displays all the songs that meet the criteria in the browser window below the search controls. When you click any song on your hard drive or on SmartSound’s website (www.smartsound.com), the song’s info will display in the upper-right Info window. The song will preview with simple start and stop controls on the lower right.

Each song comes with multiple variations that you can sample via the list box shown in Figure 1. Multilayer music tracks also come with Moods, which you can sample via that list box. Again, each mood combines a different set of instruments that you can later customize in the Scoring Edition. If none of these selections float your boat, you can try Sensory Searching via the controls shown in Figure 2 (below). Sensory Searching allows you to search for music using terms such as More Like This, Faster, Slower, More Intense and Less Intense, rather than using technical music terms, which is more efficient for most users.

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

If you find a track that’s close to what you want but is just a bit too fast or a bit too slow, you can adjust the tempo and pitch to meet your needs (Figure 3, below). Preview controls make it simple to play the song in its original form as well as in its adjusted form so you can compare the two; the adjusted music retains full configurability.

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

If you’ve got a beat in your head, you can click the Tap button (Figure 2) five times to define a tempo. Express Track will identify the songs that match your target beat. Once you use a song, you can click the Favorites check box and enter a notation (Figure 4, below). Later, when you’re searching for music for a subsequent project, you can search “Favorites and Notes” to scan through your notes and find music that worked for you in the past.

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

Obviously, some of these search mechanisms are targeted toward the musically inclined, and some will work for the average Joe Plumber. Overall, however, Express Track does a great job making relevant music easy to find—and making it easy to find again for subsequent productions.

Once you find a song, you can customize the length, variation and mood, as shown in Figure 4. If you are using the stand-alone version of Express Track, the Insert button will say Export, and you can export the finished song for use in your production. I’m using the Scoring Edition, so after I’m finished making all these selections, I would click Insert to insert the song into Scoring Edition’s timeline for further editing.

With that as prologue, let’s begin our look at the Scoring Edition.

Scoring Edition
I’ll start with a look at Spotting, a music search feature that is not available in Express Track. To use Spotting, you insert your video and then drag through it, adding markers at all points of emphasis or major changes. For example, the wedding montage I used during testing had the normal wedding scenes: the bride getting dressed, the groom getting dressed, establishing shots of the church, the parents lighting the candles, and so on. I marked all these locations. Express Track then calculates a tempo and ranks tempos according to how well they fit the position of the markers (Figure 5, below).

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

As you can see on the bottom of Figure 6 (below), 122 beats per minute matches 100% of all the locations I marked, while slower and faster beats had differing accuracy percentages. From here, double-click the desired tempo, and Express Track will open and display those songs that most closely match the tempo and break points in the video.

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

While this sounds like a great feature, in some instances, it’s a bit like searching for a wedding gown by taking the bride’s measurements and then searching through a store’s inventory to find any garment that fits, whether it be a cocktail dress, a bikini, or a wedding gown. To a degree, you can direct your selection by choosing All, Fast, Moderate, or Slow as shown in the middle of Figure 5. But in the end, Express Track is going to choose a bunch of songs that have the perfect beat but don’t come close to matching the mood of your video. For example, a Spotting search I did returned songs for Comical/Fun/Novelty, Dark and Intense Drama, and Corporate Ambition, and other inappropriate categories.

Testing over a range of clips, I found that Spotting worked best when searching for music to use in short advertisements and tutorials, where tempo was more important than mood or style. With highly thematic videos such wedding productions, you’re probably better off using other search tools to find the most appropriate music, especially given the power of Timing Controls, which is the Scoring Edition’s killer new feature.

Timing Controls
To explain Sonicfire Pro’s Timing Controls, I’ll use this scenario: Say you’re scoring an interview. The titles and other introductory text last about 15 seconds. Then, your host starts talking, so you need to duck for dialogue at about 14 seconds and change. About 2 minutes in, you move from talking heads to B-roll without accompanying narration, so you want your musical background to really kick in.

With Mood Mapping, you could mark both those transitional spots and change the instrument mix at each location. But a song is more than a simple mix of instruments. Most songs have different movements—lulls and crescendos, peaks and valleys—and ideally, you’d like those changes to occur at relevant points in your video. That, in a nutshell, is what the new Timing Controls accomplish, and the new feature works with both single and multilayer music. To understand how and why Timing Control works, look at Figure 6, which is a screen shot of the Scoring Edition workspace. I’ve already inserted a track, “Silly Valentine-Comedy,” into the timeline. If you look on the extreme right of Figure 6, you’ll see the Section Keyframes, each of which represents a change in music composition—instrumentation, tempo, or otherwise. Back on the timeline, the green blocks on the lower tracks are the various building blocks of the song as implemented by the composer. If you look on the left of the figure, you’ll see that each block represents an instrument.

In the middle of the figure, highlighted by the text “Original section break,” you can see the keyframe for “soaring.” In addition, the text “Desired location” points to the spot where the groom comes in, where I’d want the music to change in some fundamental way. In short, I want the soaring section keyframe to align with the groom’s appearance. Because SmartSound uses this flexible architecture for composing its music, you can change the timing of the section keyframe simply by dragging the keyframe to the right to the desired location (Figure 7, below).

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

Obviously there’s a lot of special sauce involved in making sure that this change doesn’t cause any distortion or awkward sounds. But over the course of my testing, as long as the changes were relatively modest—a few seconds in each direction—the edited audio sounded very natural. Once you’ve inserted your section breaks in the desired location, you can insert a Mood Mapping keyframe and change the composition of the music further. Or you can add a “hit,” such as the Cymbal Swell shown in Figure 8 (below).

Smartsound Sonicfire Pro 5

By combining all these features, new and old, you can create a unique score that sounds as if it were custom-designed for your video project. Overall, the only folks who won’t like this new version of Sonicfire Pro are the poor composers who have to compete against it.

Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics and the author of Critical Skills for Streaming Producers, a mixed-media tutorial on DVD published by StreamingMedia.com.