Get out your scorecards. Last time we looked at this tool, SmartSound was still Sonic Desktop, and Sonicfire Pro was a first-generation re-tooling of the SmartSound for Multimedia sound editing program [September 2002 EMedia, pp. 56-57]. Fast-forward to 2004: Sonic Desktop is just a distant memory, SmartSound has made a name for itself as a purveyor of some of the hottest soundtrack-creation tools around, and Sonicfire Pro is now well into its third iteration.
With the new version, SmartSound has kept the best elements of previous incarnations of Sonicfire Pro—most notably the wealth of included and add-on royalty-free clips and the ability to automatically stretch or edit them to fit your video—and made them better. With version 3.1, the company added a Web-enabled "Infinite Search Maestro" to make it easier for editors to find and download soundtrack material (in addition to using the clips from the bundled CDs). Version 3.2 ups the ante, especially for the high-end video editor. In addition to exporting video with soundtrack back to Adobe Premiere, Ulead Video Studio, Sony Pictures Vegas, Roxio VideoWave, and all three Apple NLEs (iMovie and Final Cut Pro and Express), Sonicfire now also exports directly to Flash and integrates well with Avid systems. And would you look at that? I already gave away the best thing about Sonicfire: It's still a PC and Mac tool. In a time when cross-platform digital studio applications are harder and harder to come by, that's no small matter.
Finite Loops, Infinite Search
We did the lion's share of our testing on the Mac, and liked what we saw. SmartSound's given us plenty new to play with on both platforms, and if you haven't looked at Sonicfire in a while, you'll be mighty impressed. You get SmartSound's Audio Palette discs with the software; more clips available on additional discs or as single-track downloads from the company's Web site.
Unlike Apple's own Soundtrack, the music from SmartSound tends to be complete tunes, rather than loops. You can loop the entire track if you like (or break it down into segments and loop any of those), but the music is mostly full-band stuff. Which means its chief strength might also be its chief drawback: If you're interested in creating your own "original" compositions by layering instrument loop upon instrument loop, you're out of luck with Sonicfire. On the other hand, if you'd prefer to leave the composition to the pros (and you seek music with a little more structure and dynamics), then Sonicfire's definitely the way to go.
Depending on which bundle you buy, Sonicfire Pro comes with two Audio Palette discs ($299) or five ($499). (My reviewer's copy came with 3: "Full Throttle," a collection of energetic tunes perfect for extreme sports; "Uplifting Ideas," a set of upbeat instrumentals well-suited to the corporate training environment; and Volume 6 of "The Edge Series," a dozen ambient electronic tunes as well as self-contained loops). If you're creating a soundtrack and don't find what you want on the discs that came with the Sonicfire software, the Infinite Search Maestro makes it easy to find what you need. When you click on the Maestro button in the toolbar, you can choose to search only files you own, files that you've already noted as favorites, or all available music. If you select a track that you don't own, you can preview it via the Internet, then decide whether or not to purchase it.
The per-track prices are steep—most are around the $19.95 range—so from a cost standpoint, you're better off ordering an entire CD, which runs anywhere from $29.95 to $99.95, depending on the number of songs and whether or not you want the files in 44k, 22k, or both. Then again, if you're in a time crunch, you can download the individual track and start working with it right away. The Infinite Maestro lets you search by instrument, tempo, intensity, and keyword in the file's metadata. If you find a track you like, you can enter your own keywords in the User Info window. You can also search for tracks using the wizard-like SmartSound Assistant, which guides you to your selections via a series of questions.
The basic format for using SmartSound tracks remains the same as in Version 2. You select the song you want, enter the length of the video you're working with, and import it. Sonicfire automatically sizes the song to fit the video, a function that's enabled by the fact that all songs, called Smart Blocks are broken up into File Blocks. The File Blocks flow seamlessly into each other, and Sonicfire adds or deletes segments to make the audio track fit the video.
If you don't like the way Sonicfire edited the track, you can mix-and-match segments yourself. After you've dragged a Smart Block into the timeline, you can can switch from the "soundtrack" to the "blocking" view to look at its component File Blocks. When you highlight a File Block, Sonicfire notes compatible File Blocks—ones that match up well on either side of the one you've selected—and you can drag those new segments into the timeline in the appropriate spot. By adding segments, you can lengthen the time of the entire block, using the Fade/Smooth Options tool to create a crossfade from one segment to another. Likewise, you can delete a File Block, then extend the two File Blocks on either side of it so they meet, and crossfade them for a smooth transition
Sonicfire also will perform its own internal edits of both Smart Blocks and File Blocks at your command, shortening them to fit your video. Those edits aren't exactly seamless (you'll notice the edit), but they do the trick, and never interrupt the tempo of the soundtrack. Likewise, the software will perform a Smart Extend of a music file; if you've got a video file that clocks in at 3:42 but the SmartSound track you've chosen is only 3:30, Sonicfire will stretch it out to fit. Provided the stretching is minimal—under 30 seconds or so—you won't even hear the difference. You can also use markers in the timeline, then drag a Smart Block or File Block to the timeline, and Sonicfire will automatically stretch it to fit between the markers.
Ins and Outs
Like any soundtrack creation tool, SmartSound is most limited when working with audio files from outside the Audio Palettes. You can import your own MP3, AIFF, or iTunes AAC audio file (copy protection be damned!), and then drag it into the timeline. Sonicfire automatically shortens it to a 30-second clip, performing an internal edit with a 5-second crossfade. You can move the crossfade point to anywhere in the track, and then change the crossfade length to anywhere between 1 and 10 seconds. Needless to say, these edits can be jarring, but with the right music selection—avoid vocals at all costs!—you can tweak it so it sounds like one loop transitioning into another, even though the source file might not be a loop.
Sonicfire plays back all video in QuickTime, but it is compatible with two dozen video formats, and the user's manual comes with detailed instructions for exporting a reference video from programs like Premiere, Vegas, VideoStudio, MediaStudio, iMovie, and Final Cut. You can set your frame rate—30 (NTSC), 25 (PAL), 24 (film), 20, 15, 12, 10 fps—depending on the format you're working with. When you're done with your project, you can export either the soundtrack as a standalone file or the movie and soundtrack together. You can also export each Smart Block in your completed project as a separate sound file. You can select CD-ROM (22k), Audio CD (44k), or Digital Video (48k) for your sound quality, and then choose your file format. Sound-only formats include AIFF, WAV, and Ogg Vorbis, while movie export formats include QuickTime, AVI, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, DV Stream, and Flash (FLC).
Additionally, you can export finished soundtracks directly to all the above-mentioned NLEs. Going back-and-forth between Sonicfire and Avid Xpress is trickier, but again, the user's manual gives an explicit, step-by-step breakdown of the process. The export window also lets you customize your output for Internet delivery with a variety of connection speed and startup options; for DV export, you can select between NTSC and PAL.
It's hard to beat Sonicfire Pro for all-around soundtrack creation flexibility and functionality. No other tool plays so well with so many other software programs, and the SmartSound music is as good as anything out there (meaning, of course, that some of it's cheesy, but it's all top-notch in terms of production value and musicianship). What's more, the interface is clean and intuitive, and it's flat-out a breeze to learn. If you're only going to buy one soundtrack creation tool, and you're not a composer yourself, Sonicfire Pro's the way to go.