Apple Soundtrack 1.0
Apple Soundtrack 1.0

Creative COW Reviews Apple Soundtrack 1.0


Ron Lindeboom
ron@creativecow.net
CreativeCow.net, Cambria, California USA


©2004 by Ron Lindeboom and CreativeCow.net. All rights are reserved.


Article Focus:
In this review, Creative Cow's Ron Lindeboom looks at the new Soundtrack 1.0 from Apple. Soundtrack ships as part of the Final Cut Pro 4 package and users are beginning to explore this latest offering from Apple Computer -- a tool that gives Mac users many of the powers that once were only found on the PC in tools like Sonic Foundry Acid. How well does Soundtrack perform and what can new users expect? Read on...




INTRODUCTION:
Users of Final Cut Pro 4 get a lot more in the box than just the video editing system that many would argue is enough of a value alone -- but shipping FCP4 alone is not what Apple has done. Along with Final Cut Pro itself, users now get a group of tools that form the core of a powerful and multi-faceted system for content creators. One of these tools is Soundtrack, a new audio tool that brings loops editing and sound design to the Mac -- something that PC users have long enjoyed with tools like Sonic Foundry® (now Sony®) Acid™.

Soundtrack allows users to drag in "loops" -- small pieces of isolated various instruments, etc., arranged to make a song -- and once again Apple has made things easy for its users as Soundtrack automatically keeps all these loops in synch and in the correct pitch, etc.

Because Mac users have long waited for a loops-based audio system to be available on the Mac, it wasn't long after Apple began shipping FCP4 that the company announced that they would begin selling Soundtrack sold separately for $299msrp (US$) -- this, in a move driven by user demand for this new addition to the Apple user toolkit.

If Mac users are expecting DigiDesign®-like powers using Soundtrack, this is not it. Soundtrack is not an audio editor in the sense of tools like ProTools™, BIAS® Deck™ or even Peak™. This is a completely different kind of tool and I know quite a few users who bought Connectix® (now Microsoft®) VirtualPC™ just so that they could run Acid on their Macs. If you are one of them, you already have an idea of what to expect here -- though it's done here with an Apple twist and that means a simple interface with ease of use.


FIRST OFF: IS SOUNDTRACK LIKE SMARTSOUND OR SONICFIRE PRO?
No. Whereas both SmartSound and Sonicfire Pro create soundtrack clips to order based on the length needed -- using a patented protocol that lets these systems take complete arrangements of compositions and "rescale" them to fit your project needs quickly and easily (without changing pitch, etc., in the process) -- Soundtrack is a tool you use to actually create the compositions you will use in your projects. I find SmartSound and Sonicfire Pro far easier to use if I am after a quick sound clip for a corporate video, local commercial or a documentary but others would argue that Soundtrack allows more flexability for additional user originality and creativity. While SmartSound does support loops editing, it is a far cry from what is meant by the term "loops editing" when the same term is used by tools like Acid and Soundtrack. Don't assume that SmartSound/Sonicfire can do the same kind of loops editing found in Soundtrack or Acid, it can't. The advantage of SmartSound/Sonicfire Pro is production speed and the advantage of the Soundtrack / Acid paradigm is flexibility. You make your own choice based on your own needs and preferences. (To learn more about Sonicfire Pro and the SmartSound system, visit my earlier article here in the Cow.)


WHAT ARE THE BASICS OF SOUNDTRACK?
Soundtrack 1.0 allows users to compose music at sample rates and bit depths up to 24bit/96kHz. The music is constructed using "loops" (loops are short bits and pieces of individual instruments that can be arranged on a timeline to construct your musical puzzle that becomes the final piece). The best way to think of this is to imagine starting with a basic drum pattern and then building a bass guitar track and later constructing a piano on top of it to build the final composition. Because the songs you make are built up of bits and pieces and not lengthy patterns or progressions, your own use of these same bits and pieces used by others have little likelihood that your music will sound the same as anyone else's work.

Is Soundtrack 1.0 easy? Some will argue "Yes, it's very easy!" and others here at the Cow would argue that "Soundtrack is a time intensive process" -- and one that requires at least a rudimentary knowledge of music. Apple markets Soundtrack as being so easy that even someone who doesn't know music can create great music using it. To a point, that is true and Apple has done a wonderful job simplifying the process and Soundtrack's ability to align beats and correct the pitch automatically, will endear it to users without a degree in music. Still, if you know something about music already, you will have a distinct advantage and avoid a lot of frustration gettings things "perfect" for the score of your indie film or corporate video.

Apple has stated that they have aimed Soundtrack at video editors, not at musicians. How well have they succeeded? Once non-musicians break through the "confusion belt" that will happen to at least some when they first explore Soundtrack, it is a relatively simple process to create your own music. Will it be easy to create usable music? Yes. Will it be easy to create great music? That's where artistry comes in and while you'll quickly be creating some fun stuff on your own using the 4,000 loops that ship as a part of Soundtrack -- don't be expecting to win any Grammys or take home a Platinum album from the RIAA right away.

Apple has created a new Apple Loop audio format for its own loops but Soundtrack also supports many common formats like AIFF and WAV files -- and in a move that endears Apple to those users who bought VirtualPC so that they could use Acid on their Macs, Soundtrack can also use Acid loops. Unfortunately, there is no support in the first revision for users who want to work with MP3 files.

Soundtrack works using the customary Apple drag-and-drop, so that you
simply choose an instrumental piece from among the 4,000 royalty-free loops and drag it onto your timeline. You will "build" your song using these pieces of each instrument. For example: If you start with your drums and the beat first, you might choose your bass/kick drum pattern first, then maybe your snare pattern basics, then work in the high-hat or ride cymbal. Eventually, you will build up the drum section you want. (Be sure to credit the great German percussionist, "Otto Matic," on drums in your credits when your CD ships.) Next, you might want to add the bass, building from the basic pattern to the transitions within the piece, etc. You might add the guitar or keyboards next -- eventually creating the basics of your song.




Image above, courtesy Apple Computer


Apple's preview window helps simplify things as you can "preview" the loops and see which one fits your idea best. Once you have something on the timeline, you can then explore your options in the preview window and see how they work with the music on your timeline -- the program will automatically adjust the pitch and align the beat during your preview so that you can see which loops work (or don't) with the idea you are exploring. The learning curve to allow you to use the basics of Soundtrack will happen fast -- but time will be the difference between great music and audio cacaphony -- at least for most users. (The Beethovens in attendence can ignore this warning.)


DOES SOUNDTRACK INTEGRATE WITH FINAL CUT PRO?
Some users might expect that there would be a very tight integration between FCP and Soundtrack and there is -- to a point. When working with Soundtrack and FCP, your FCP projects show up in Soundtrack's Media Manager -- just drag your video on Soundtrack's timeline and your FCP video and any corresponding markers you set to tag important on-screen events will be viewable in Soundtrack. But you can't take a Soundtrack project into FCP. Hopefully, that will change in a future revision and Apple will add support that allows project integration both ways.

CAN YOU EXPAND THE POWERS OF SOUNDTRACK?
Yes, Apple has given users a plug-in architecture and the program ships with 30 plug-ins that include both basic and advanced Equalizers, Reverb, Chorus, Delay and some that allow users to both trim and fatten the limits and frequencies of the music. Apple's Emagic division has offered up some plug-ins that you will want to explore like Sub-Bass. Fun stuff, especially if you have dogs or cats living with you.

AN 'EXTRA' FEATURE & A HOPEFUL FIX
Soundtrack, like nearly every 1.0 tool I've ever seen, has some users reporting that it just mysteriously stops working and closes down with the 'Soundtrack has unexpectedly quit' warning sign. Hopefully, theFinal Cut Pro 4.0.1 will fix this. Soundtrack's version 1.2 update has just shipped and now includes MIDI synchronization and has added user-customizable effects presets, along with some "performance enhancements" which hopefully will squash some of the bugs which not suprizingly shipped in the 1.0 version. (If anyone reading this knows how well the updater is working, please write me as I've had that nasty flu that is going around and I've been much too sick to get a chance to use it.)

In closing, Soundtrack is an impressive addition to the Apple users toolkit. It has many great features and while it has some glaring deficiencies -- which will almost assuredly be remedied in future versions -- it is a powerful piece of software and we can recommend it. It's a lot of fun and considering its bit depth, sample rate and the ease of use in which users can create their own compositions, it's well worth looking into.

-- Ron Lindeboom

Apple Soundtrack 1.0
for Macintosh OSX
MSRP: $299 USA

COW RATING: 3-1/2 Cows

For more information visit: http://www.apple.com/soundtrack

To get other user opinions to specific questions, please visit Creative Cow's Soundtrack forum

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©2004 by Ron Lindeboom and CreativeCow.net. All rights are reserved.


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