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SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost Scores at The Speed of Sound

COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Jiggy Gaton : SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost Scores at The Speed of Sound
SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost scoring at the speed of sound
A Creative COW Review

SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost scores at the speed of sound

Jiggy GatonJiggy Gaton
Kathmandu, Nepal

©2009 Jiggy Gaton and All rights reserved.

Article Focus: The COW's man in Nepal, Jiggy Gaton, has found a balance between easy, automated music production, and high-quality results with SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5. He has also been impressed with how easy it is to create variations of his custom scores, and has come up with some unexpected workflow innovations.

As a studio owner, my typical modus operandi for scoring any bit of film is to lock the boys and girls in the live room and make them compose while watching the video, and then not letting them out until I am happy with the score.  This method has become increasingly unpopular with my studio musicians, and I keep finding cuttings from The Cow and other magazine clippings laid on my desk late at night that advertise bountiful music libraries and extraordinary software that would free up musicians from the tedium of scoring, allowing more time for jamming and the exploration of new iPod applications I suppose.

I try to be sympathetic, but past experiences using canned scores - that shift the burden of scoring onto myself, the film editor, and away from real musicians - has turned out less then optimal.  However, when I finally tried SonicFire Pro 5, I was totally shocked and awed.  This review details why.

SmartSound Sonic Fire Pro 5The London Philharmonic


Problems, Historically Speaking

Even if you have a band of talented musicians and composing abilities, preparing a score for any visual presentation- whether it is film, corporate video, or just a flash for the web - can be quite an expense, as well as huge time-hog that brunches on your production schedule.  In the past, we have resorted to canned music libraries, just as we resort to stock footage when the real thing is not filmable.

There is nothing new about using sound and effects libraries that offer royalty-free tracks to same time & money, but when scoring for any length of footage, just finding a suitable stock track with the right intensity, tempo, and mood can be challenging, and the selection invariably ends up with a loud oboe in the wrong place or some other annoyance you wish you could just erase.  So we look to technology, if not the local equivalent to the London Philharmonic.

Solutions, Historically Listening

“Smart” sound libraries are also nothing new (a smart library is like your smart phone, it does more then expected but with tremendous complexity) and “smart” library tools have been around since the days of Windows 3.1. However, the past decade or so of laboratory-like experimentation is starting to produce incredible results: with special libraries that can be searched by tempo for example, or software that creates a melody based on the colors found in your film (see Abaltat Muse 2.0 as reviewed by Stephen Smith for The COW), or that even allows the selective manipulation of an instrument found in a multi-layered canned score.

One Product, Speaking Bluntly

A lot the stuff I’ve tried over the years, to be blunt, reminded more of a science project then a video-enhancing one, but you guessed it, I have found one product that balances automation and quality reasonably well (meaning that the high-tech automation is not so menial as to slow you down or confuse the heck out of you, and the quality is high enough to impress a discriminating client).  That product is SonicFire Pro Version 5 - but not any of the previous versions or incantations (for example, Quick Tracks).  Let me explain in terms of helpfulness, function, and economy…

How SonicFire Pro 5 Helps

Help in dealing with SmartSound Libraries abounds in the SonicFire Pro 5 interface. (SmartSound Libraries have been around for ages, and are added to every month).  The SmartSound Express Track applet lets you sift through the tracks you have purchased as well as all the available tracks online, and allows you to preview any track before using or purchasing.  Think of this window as iTunes for SmartSound selections.

SmartSound SonicFire Pro and iTunes
Figure 1. The SmartSound Express Track Window, Your iTunes for SmartSounds

This interface is very very good, and gives you a one-stop shop for finding out everything you would need to know about a track, and allows you to select from different variations as well as specifying the length needed. 

The mood selection will be of interest to all editors, as besides giving you the ability to make the track more exciting or subdued, there is even a Dialogue mood that automatically scales down the dBs to an appropriate -13.

How SonicFire Pro 5 Works
Figure 2. Export multi-layers for use in DAW or NLE (for example, Protools)
Once you have decided on a track in the Express Track interface, and set all the options, the fun begins: you can either stop using SonicFire Pro here and export the custom track for use in your NLE or DAW application; or you can choose Insert instead and further tailor the selection using SonicFire’s own unique timeline editor. 

This editor has several features worth noting, as it allows you to:

  • Selectively manipulate layers within a multi-layered track (SmartSounds come in two flavors, single-layer and multi-layer, with the latter being of the most use).  For example, if an Oboe is too loud, you can use keyframes to lower the volume or mute it altogether.

  • Import your video clip (with its audio) and intelligently spot the score to video events using markers.  This feature is new to Version 5, and is quite amazing.  Think of HAL-like AI that replaces studio musicians watching the video while creating a score based on film action.

  • Add “hit” files at appropriate moments in the film.  A nice selection of hit files is included (cymbals, rim shots, whooshes and other FX).

Picture 2
Figure 3. The SonicFire Pro 5 Editing Interface: as easy as pie, for any seasoned video editor.

The interface for this editor is so simple to use, and on first use, I almost laughed out loud; dragging the multilayer track to fit your video and adjusting to taste and need took just a few clicks. For longer scores, a Smart Extend feature stretches out the multi-layers in just one click.  Fade-ins and outs are automatically created whenever an adjustment is made.  When you’re done with all this wiz-bang new age editing, you can export the entire composition direct into a Final Cut Pro or Final Cuts Express project (or to Premiere, Aftereffects, Flash, and even to your iTunes library or QT Exporter).

 Performance on an iMac for short scores and longer ones was the same: excellent!

SmartSound Sonic Fire Pro exported to FCP
Figure 4. Exported Final Cut Pro Project, Right From the SonicFire Pro Timeline!


Here's a track that I created in a couple of minutes.


Here's a variation that I created in just one click. See the dialog box, below.

Creating SonicFire Pro variations with 1 click


My only beef:  It was hard for me to find something to complain about in the way that SFP 5 works, but I did, and here it is: roundtripping between FCP (and perhaps the other NLEs) is not possible.

At least not when I started writing this. SmartSound has just announced an update to make this very thing possible. Now, when you set markers and in/out points in your Final Cut Pro project, Sonicfire Pro 5 automatically reads their location. Select the beginning marker and the ending marker in Sonicfire Pro and it will calculate the exact amount of music needed. Then once your SonicFire Pro composition is all set on the FCP timeline, you can right-click to select "Open in Editor" to fine-tune as needed.

SonicFire Pro "Open in Editor"

Or so I read in the sneak preview in the COW Newsletter. I'll tell you how it works in practice once I've had a chance to try it myself.


How SonicFire Pro 5 Saves

Well you probably won’t be firing all your studio musicians to save money (no matter how tempted u may be, like I am) but with an investment of just $99 on top of any multi-layer music albums you may purchase, this has got to save you money if you use it just once on your next project.  With any track running just about $10 or so, building a reusable library is not so bad either, as compared to hiring the local London Philharmonic for a day.  And STP 5 is comparably priced with other smart scoring systems like Muse 2.0 and Digital Juice products.

Optional Equipment: One other interesting option offered at SmartSound’s Backstage, is the ability to score the old fashioned way (assuming your musicians can break away from their iPhones) where you send them a score in progress, and they send you back a multi-layered track that you can use in STP 5 just like you would any other purchased SmartSound track.  The info on their website indicates that would run you about $250 (for up to 4 minutes in length).  Or going even one step further - for those who have fired all your musicians - Backstage offers traditional music direction and composition services, no rates given. 

Personally, that would be a step backward for me. For all the complaining I do about my studio’s musicians, I do love them all and respect them dearly.

Of course, an interesting thing I have just discovered when working on this review is that you can score with this tool by working off a script alone, or more realistically a storyboard with shot times.  This has opened my eyes wide. No more am I going to let the musicians hang out and play with their iPods while we are out shooting.  I am going to give them SonicFire Pro and tell them to work up a draft score to go along with the storyboards before I get back from the shoot. Ha!


Bottom Line.

I can’t see where any independent filmmaker, videographer or small studio can go wrong here, and considering the relatively low costs involved (and the available trial version), it seems like anyone wanting to reduce scoring production times would give SFP 5 a whirl around the top hat.

Ease of use:
Value for money:

Jiggy Gaton is an expat living in Kathmandu Nepal, running a small A/V studio with family and dog. He is an author/cartoonist, filmmaker, and overall geek from way back. Not the kind of geek who would ever be sitting in a Star Trek Captain’s chair – more likely to be sitting on the back of a 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet somewhere out in the middle of the Himalayas - but only when he’s not behind his Macbook Pro hacking out whatever needs to be done in the studio.

And hey, if you've ever wondered what it's like to run a studio in Kathmandu, check out Jiggy's COW Blog, as well as more great stuff by the rest of the herd.


add audio files to Sonicfire Pro's "hit files" library?
by David Patterson
I have used SmartSound and Sonicfire Pro on a number of videos, and it works quite well. Remapping the musical arrangements is hit or miss, depending on how the music was sliced up (the number of musical bars vary a lot), but overall the product and library of CDs I have purchased have worked well.

I would like to add to the number of "hit files" and wonder if there is a way to do this so they appear in Sonicfire Pro. I see in my SmartSound Music folder on my computer there are two files "hits-accents-whooshes.aiff" and "hits-accents-whooshes.seq", and I'm wondering if this gives any clues. SmartSound does sell CDs with additional sound effects, but I want to add some that I have recorded and/or gathered over the years.

Any suggestions on how to go about this would be greatly appreciated.

SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost Scores at The Speed of Sound
by Casber Yu
Your suggestion do help.
Although I am just a begginer in video and sound editing, SonicFire Pro 5 seem to be indispensable for my future shopping list. HAHA~~~
Happy to hear you that you are in Nepal,
I have visited Pokhara in the last few months.
It is really a peaceful place,
hope you enjoy the life there, keep it up.
SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost Scores at The Speed of Sound
by Jiggy Gaton
Yes David, that's the rub isn't it...finding something appropriate for the visuals you are working on - the preview in Express Track just isn't enough eh. And since our clients are for the most part Nepali, they like to hear scores with a mix of tabla, sarangi, and flute, so it's much easier to grab the boys and girls downstairs (who have been playing those since they were kids) and throwing them in the live room to produce a score with all natural "Timing Control, Sensory Searching and Spotting Tools as well as Mood Mapping®" - ha!
SmartSound SonicFire Pro 5: Low-cost Scores at The Speed of Sound
by David Roth Weiss
Nice piece Jiggy. I use also Sonic Fire Pro on some projects, and it sure can be a big timesaver, once you find the right piece of music, of course.
Update on the Review, and a Correction...
by Jiggy Gaton
Hi all, just a comment here to update this review, as soon after it was posted

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