System: P3 @ 300 MHz / 64 MB
OS: Windows 2000/NT/ME/98/95
HD: 10 MB
Just as the Atomic Age overtook the Machine Age, the Digital Age is now sweeping past the Analog Age in terms of music, art, technology, and communications. What was once accomplished with racks of expensive hardware is now done with inexpensive software.
This remarkable phenomenon has not come about without a certain amount of reluctance - and perhaps, some kicking and screaming. Those who embraced the new technology early on have had to face this brave new world with a double-edge sword. The advantage of keeping up with the latest and greatest is that you stay one step ahead of the competition - but, its at a price! Being on the cutting edge can sometimes mean lost production time - the result of buggy software and frail tech support.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Some applications work as advertised right out of the chute. One such program is Soundprobe, a powerful sound editor, recorder, and effects processor. Soundprobe has been around in one form or another since 1995. Since its earliest incarnation on the Amiga, it has grown into a very sophisticated and advanced sound editor, while at the same time managing to stay affordable.
What's Up, Dock?
Although Soundprobe will work with just about any system configuration, it's really all about speed. I use it somewhat comfortably on a P3 @ 333 MHz / 128 MB - just barely above the minimum requirements. But, it's easy to see how a more powerful system (faster, more memory, large monitor) would increase productivity greatly.
Installation is a breeze after downloading the program and keyfile from the Soundprobe website. The keyfile will unlock all features in the demo version, which otherwise are disabled after 21 days.
You can record audio via your sound card as high as 96 kHz / 32-bit in Stereo or as low as 6 kHz / 8-bit in Mono, with a fixed or indefinite length (limited by HD storage). Sound files can be imported/exported in most of the popular audio formats, as well as some not so commonly supported ones, such as OGG, and Amiga formats IFF and Studio 16.
Soundprobe supports a user definable number of undo buffers, but be careful not to set this too high as this can quickly use up valuable system resources. Sometimes when I know I am safe, I flush the undo to free up some workspace.
All of Soundprobe's toolbars and effects/file/preset manager windows can be docked in just about any manner you wish - or most functions can be accessed directly from menus. Typically, the waveform display will take up most of the window, with toolbars arranged around it.
Help at the Click of a Button… or Two
A welcome inclusion is the detailed online help system - prepare to be impressed. When you start Soundprobe for the first time, be sure to select Tour from the Help menu. This will bring up step-by-step instructions containing everything you need to know to get started. While on the tour, pay special attention to Section 8: Improving editing and Section 16.a: Hints and Tips in the Appendix. These sections contain many helpful hints aimed at improving speed and efficiency. The Help system also provides detailed information about every feature of Soundprobe, complete with screenshots and examples.
Another thoughtful addition in the Help menu is Keyboard, which quickly takes you to the Keyboard Shortcuts section of the manual - very handy! A search function is also available. For newcomers, Tip of the Day pop-ups each time you start Soundprobe will keep you learning.
Though you always get detailed instructions of how to use a feature, sometimes the manual neglects to tell you why you would want to. In other words, more discussion about what a feature is good for wouldn't hurt. I'd also like to see consistency in the names of functions throughout the program and the documentation. For example, from the menu you select "Presets Manager…" to get to the "Effects Preset Manager" panel, which is found in the manual under the heading "Managing Presets". A minor concern perhaps, but this can sometimes make it slower to find your way.
Effect Your Sounds - Affect Your Productivity
Soundprobe is a veritable arsenal of powerful audio tools. Once you have a sound loaded or recorded, four effects menus become active: Effects, Enhance, Restoration, and Plugin FX. Most functions are also accessible from optionally dockable toolbars and the Effects Manager.
Here you'll find a seemingly endless list of effects, including: equalizers, artifact/backing/vocal removers, brighteners, smoothers, enhancers, distorters, filters, denoisers and depoppers, delays, echoes, expanders, compressors, Fourier transforms, flangers, formant mappers, reverbs, hiss/scratch/noise makers and reducers, panners, pitch changers, time stretchers, vocoders, and amplitude modifiers. The list goes on and on… Of course, there are numerous presets for each effect type, too.
The Effects Manager adds additional capability. Select any effect from the list and click Preview, and you'll hear the current sound with the effect processed in real-time. If that's not quite what you want, double-click on the effect to get access to its parameters. If there are particular effects that you use often, use Add to Favourites to get quick access to them. If desktop space is limited and you decide to use the toolbars to access effects, you'll be pleased to see pop-up names and descriptions in the status area. This makes it easier to get used to the icons (some of which are not very intuitive).
Also included is the Effects Chainer, which allows you to group together multiple effects to be applied all at once. You could create, for example, a preset to apply a "Small Room" reverb, a 200 ms delay, equalization, compression, and maybe even a little pitch changing.
All effects can be customized with presets and advanced parameter Variations, which allows changes to parameters over time. The ability to save your own presets is a huge time saver. This is particularly advantageous with very commonly used and varied effects, such as: reverb, delay, and echo. The Presets Manager makes it easy to manage your presets.
Almost all of the effects support Real-Time mode, which monitors the input of your sound card, and applies a selected effect while playing it. This requires a sound card with full-duplex capability, and a system that is fast enough to process the effects. On my 333 MHz system, with a cheap Sound Blaster card, I have found very little lag time in any of the audio chores I undertake, with the possible exception of using the Vocoder effect, which is particularly resource intensive.
Probably the most exciting feature in Soundprobe, is the ability to preview effects processing in Difference mode. Many times when working with filter type effects, it can be difficult to tell exactly what is being removed from the sound. When previewing With Effect you could easily filter out something that you hadn't intended. Difference mode, lets you hear only what the effect is doing. In the case of an effect such as Noise Reduction, you can hear exactly what is going to be filtered out of the sound, in real-time.
Seeing is Believing
Soundprobe features four types of waveform display graphing: 2D Time, 2D Color Time, 2D Frequency, and 3D Frequency. You can also have multiple views of the same waveform. I'm particularly fond of the 2D Color Time graph as this was implemented at my request. It adds the ability to see measurements of frequency, in addition to amplitude. This makes it easier to tell the difference between a hi-hat and a bass drum, for example. To improve this display mode, I recommend modifying the colors of the frequencies (View > Change Colors) to give more visual separation.
The Visualization menu provides access to eight real-time displays: VU Meter - peak sound level, Light Organ, L-R Correlation Graph - good for phase analysis, Oscilloscope , Spectrogram, 2D Polygon Frequency, 3D Frequency Graph, and Spectrum Analyzer. Multiple visualizations can be open simultaneously, and you can show multiple instances - each with custom parameters.
There are too many other tools and features to describe in detail, but a few more deserve special mention:
The Mixing Desk works like a typical DJ mixer, providing basic equalization, volume level, and tempo controls for any of a number of tracks. The more powerful your system, the more tracks you can work with at once. You can audition in real-time or mix-down to a new document or file. Unfortunately, once the Mixing Desk is open, you no longer have access to the waveforms editors, so it's not possible to tweak audio data while you adjust settings. The tool does remember it's settings if you close it and come back, though. So, it's not a major problem. For building soundtracks, I find this tool a bit clunky to operate and usually turn to Sonic Foundry's Acid. Though for other purposes, it does have potential.
Another handy tool is the Batch Converter. This allows you to select any number of files and convert them to any supported format. A handy tool indeed, but if it could also apply effects during the conversion process, it would be even better!
The Tones Generator allows you to manipulate basic sound elements (Triangle, Square, Saw Tooth and Sine) to create sweeping frequencies, multi-harmonic waves, and sounds such as sirens. It's a great tool for making tape leader tones.
The process of creating seamless loops can be difficult. However, the Loop Cross Fader makes this a minor chore via the use of variable cross fading, and granular equalization parameters.
Soundprobe also has an Online menu, which directly links you to the Soundprobe website, where you can register, check for updates, access technical support, and download additional plug-ins. There are also links to several websites that offer sound files, music tracks, loop libraries, and more.
One thing really stands out about Soundprobe development. The lead programmer, Dave O'Reilly, is wholeheartedly eager to help users in any way that he can. He goes the extra mile to implement requested features to insure you can get the job done. I've watched Soundprobe grow from its early days on the Amiga and continue to be amazed at how fast Dave can implement new functions. There is already talk of a multi-track version of Soundprobe for the not too-distant future, and I have every confidence that it'll be nothing less than great.
The flexibility of Soundprobe's design means that you can tune it to your particular needs. As you become more familiar with its many features, you can easily alter your configuration to increase efficiency.
If there is such a thing as an audio Swiss army knife, Soundprobe is it. There are more than enough audio editors on the market; but none that can probe sound as thoroughly as Soundprobe. There is no all-in-one hardware equivalent to this program in the world. To put together the analog components required to do what Soundprobe is capable of would take a very large room and a very fat wallet. What is amazing is that for a small investment you can have all this power operating on your desktop - a sunny forecast for the future of digital sound manipulation.
The Old School
MK45 5DE, UK
+44 1525 718181
Ease of Use: 4.0
Technical Support: 4.5
Cons: Record meters slow to respond, some process panels not very intuitive
Brighten-Smooth: I use this 90% of the time on a final stereo master. It adds a bit of lift to the sound, excites the high frequencies, and creates an overall smoother feel. Don't be shy, try 250% for starters.
Thumper: This takes a mundane, repetitive, or mediocre dance track and gives it some big bottom end. Use it with Brighten-Smooth to perk up any mix.
Vocal Remover and Backing Remover: Necessary tools for creating karaoke tracks. Quality will vary, depending on stereo spread.
Add > Silence: You wouldn't believe how many times I need a trailing reverb or echo effect at the end of a file. Use this tool to add a reasonable amount of silence to the end of a clip, then apply effects and trim as needed.
Clip Distortion: Sometimes digital quality is not what you're after. When lo-fi is your goal, use this effect to send your track to Seattle for some grunginess. Typically used on guitar recordings.
FIR Filter-Booster and Frequency Subtractor: Both of these effects are very handy for taking out unwanted background noises, such as 60 Hz hum and florescent light buzz.
Time Stretch: A great tool to squeeze a slightly long 32 second voiceover into a 30 second spot - without altering the pitch.
Vocoder: I included this one for the DJ's and re-mixers out there. It gives audio clips a certain attitude. Mush it up to 400%.
Resample: This is another way to make a track lo-fi. Use it to resample at a lower bit rate resulting in audio that sounds like it's coming out of an AM car radio speaker.
Chainer: This is not really an effect, but this might very well be the most useful tool in Soundprobe for solving a variety of problems all at once. When it comes time to transfer your old vinyl collection to CD, stringing together Depopper, Hiss Reduction, and Noise Reduction will result in a great cleaner-upper tool.
Volume > Fade In/Out: I use this effect more than any other. Just what the audio doctor ordered to work your way in or out of a too long song, or to smooth a clip that cuts off suddenly.
(Bob Ketchum, the Sonic Sage of Soundprobe, is just happy that he was finally able to fit the word "grunginess" into one of his reviews.)
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