Are you a frustrated musician? Do you think that filters are something you make coffee with? Do you consider feedback what happens when you give your baby strained carrots? Is reverb regarded as something that occurs when you use an action word twice in the same sentence? Boy does Apple have a software package for you. It’s called Soundtrack and it’s the easiest, most powerful music creation software I have ever seen. Now I’m not a musician, nor do I play one on TV. In fact, I was probably the worst trumpet player Northeast High School in Fort Lauderdale has ever seen (but I looked good in the marching band uniform). Soundtrack however, makes me feel like an expert. As you read the review, I will be saying this a lot, “More on this later.” Simply put, even though the program is easy to use and understand, trying to follow each tangent to its end would mean I would never be able to finish this article. So trust me (heh heh), if I say “More on this later”, it will come up again.
Formally available only as part of the Final Cut Pro package, Apple has now released it as a stand-alone product. The intent of the program is to create background music (also called a score) for QuickTime movies and as such, it does an outstanding job. No one will ever compare you with John Williams, but the included material (more on this later) is extremely capable. The other thing you can do is create your own full-length songs. You can throw bagpipes, violins, and trumpets with a smattering of cool jazz guitar licks together if you wish (but for sake of western civilization, please don’t) in any combination. One word of caution, this program can be as addictive as any game I’ve ever played. The first time I saw it was at the Tyson’s Corner Apple Store and as I fired it up and learned the basics of how it worked, hours passed before I realized it. Expect to spend many sleepless nights fine-tuning and tweaking your songs.
There are two main windows where most of your work will take place. They are called the “Media Manager” and the “Project Workspace.” Each of these windows has different areas in which to review, edit, or place your music loops or video. As far as file management goes for individual projects, what you do in one window directly affects what happens in the other. It might sound complicated and can be a little unnerving at first glance, but Apple has made it very intuitive and easy to navigate.
The first area I’m going to talk about is called the “Media Manager.” It’s within the Media Manager that you locate, select (audio and video), and preview any files (audio) that you wish to bring into your project. You can access files in three different ways and there are tabs (or panes) to allow you to quickly switch from one-way to another. The first tab is called “File Browser.” From this configuration, you can look through your hard drive or network for the files you wish to use or import by clicking the “Computer” button on the right side. This will display the contents of any mounted media you currently have connected to your computer. Importing files from the hard drive really depends on what type of file it is. If it is an audio file (WAV, AIFF, and QuickTime; Soundtrack can also use loops designed for use by a similar PC product called ACID), a single click will play the file. If this file is one you wish to include in your project, you just drag and drop it into your “Project Workspace” (part of which has quick shortcuts to all the audio files used in your project). Video files selected must be dragged from the Media Manager to what’s called the “Video Pane” in the Project Workspace area. As you move through files and folders, it can be easy to lose your place. Part of the File Browser set of command buttons are two buttons with arrows, labeled “Forward” and “Back.” Like a web browser, these keys take you either forward or back (duh) through the currently selected mounted drive or folder. The “Home” button displays the contents of the Home directory. The Home directory should be the location of the sound loops installed by the program. Just below the File List window in the Media Manager is a button labeled “Add Favorite.” If you have a particular loop, sound effect or folder containing many sounds that you use on a regular basis that is not installed in your Home Directory, find it through the File Browser and hit the Add Favorite button. This will put a shortcut/alias under the Favorite Tab and give you a quick way to reuse the file or folder without having to search for it.
The next tab is the “Favorites” tab. Clicking on this tab gives you shortcuts to all files and folders you have designated for quick access. It also has the Forward and Back keys to help you through the folders you have selected. The difference is that the Forward and Back keys stop at the highest hierarchy of the selected favorite folder and doesn’t go all the way back to the mounted drive the folder is residing on.
If all you use are the loops and sound effects installed with the program, chances are all you’ll really need is the last tab labeled “Search.” The Search function while powerful is also the least defined part of the Media Manager. Sometimes there can be too many choices. This is not to say that Soundtrack doesn’t at least try to make it easy for you, but when you are looking for a particular drum loop for example, you could have hundreds of different ones to choice from. With only fifty displayed at a time, finding just the right one can be difficult. Some of your first choices are whether you wish the keyword list to show in columns or buttons. Both are highly different and it’s really your own preference over how best to work. “Columns” view gives you the instruments in the left-hand window and matching results in the right. Results can vary depending on the instrument chosen. Your choices can be as straightforward as Acoustic or as obscure as Cinematic. You can narrow your choices down using the “Time Signature” (3/4, 4/4, 7/8, etc), “Scale” (Key of A or C# etc), or the “Refine Search” window. Clicking on one of the results will display all the files or loops associated with that keyword in the “Search Results” window. Click on the individual loops to listen for what you want. Again, just like the File Browser and Favorites tab, when you find the loop you want, drag it over to the Project Workspace to use it. “Buttons” view gives you all the available instruments spread out with clickable buttons. You can again limit the number of choices with the Time Signature, Scale, and the Refine Search window. All matches are shown below in the Search Results window. Another way to narrow down the choices you make is to limit the selections to certain parameters within the search results window itself. For example if you are looking for Guitar loops in the key of “A”, find the first choice in that key and select the “Key” column. All the choices available in that key will be shown first. You can choose between File Name, Tempo, Key, or Beats.
If you purchase or download addition loops or sounds, the files can be added to Soundtrack and made searchable. Relocate the files from whatever media (CD, DVD, etc) the files originated on and put them into an easily found directory on your hard drive. The directory with Soundtrack’s built-in files would be a good place. Also, it’s a good idea to further break them down into categories like Guitars, Drums, Violins, or whatever. Then under the Search tab, hit the “Setup” button. A new window will appear with yet more options. Hit the plus sign to add a directory or the minus sign to remove one. Now navigate to the directory you wish to add or remove. Once the directory is highlighted, hit the “Index Now” button on the bottom to add it or the minus sign on the top to remove it. That’s it. The files are now available within Soundtrack for all search parameters. As simple as pi drawn out to 37 numbers. Actually it’s easier than it sounds. Most people will pick up the basics within minutes of playing with the program. One word of caution and this is important. Take notes, there will be a test later. If you use certain loops for one of your projects and then later move those loops or files to a different location on your hard drive or network, Soundtrack will not know where to find them. You will be forced to find every single file you used for your project. In other words, don’t mess around with the location of your files.
The last part of the Media Manager for me to bring up is the “Preview” area. This is on the bottom of the Media Manager and can be quite handy if you’re a real musician. The information displayed for each loop includes the waveform it generates, native tempo, native key, beats, time signature, sample rate, bit depth, and lots of other things I don’t fully understand. You can use it for previewing loops and sounds before committing them to a project, although single clicking any file in the Media Manager will do the same thing.
Finding and reviewing files is one thing. Doing something creative with them is another. Which brings us to the meat (or soy if you’re a vegan) of the program, the “Project Workspace.” If you have used Final Cut (Pro or Express) before, you will grasp the workings of Project Workspace without too much trouble. If you haven’t used Final Cut before…you will grasp the workings of the Project Workspace without too much trouble. It really is very easy to use.
The Project Workspace is where you drag and drop all the media files (audio and video) from the Media Manager. Like the Media Manager, there are several areas to discuss and each has a set of controls to edit your project files. These areas are called Viewer (to drop your video files), Transport Controls (to start, stop, pause, etc), Master Controls (Set the parameters of your project here), Beat and Time Displays, Global Timeline View, Audio Meters, Track Headers (this provides information on each loop or file dropped on the timeline), Timeline Controls, and the Timeline itself. Holy Information Overload Batman! That’s a lot to keep track of! Well, not really. Once the parameters of your project are set, you’ll rarely need to deal with a lot of them, but let’s go over it a bit.
The Viewer has three tabs (or panes) that display additional information about your project. These tabs are named “Video”, “Audio”, and “Meters.” Clicking on the Video tab you see the video you have drag and dropped from the Media Manager. Once video is dropped, a track is created with video stills shown along the timeline. This will always be the topmost track in any project. Moving the playhead along the Timeline also moves the video along in the Viewer. This is handy as it allows you to emphasize the music you wish to accompany the video in the proper location. With the right audio loop, you can build up suspense or highlight a comedic moment.
Remember what you had to go through to select just the right audio loop in the Media Manager? If you need that particular loop again, you have lots of ways to go about it. Most of them are a pain in the neck. You could look back through the Media Manager again and do a search (the really hard way). You could Control-click the loop in it’s audio track and then duplicate it (the easier way), oryou could select the “Audio” tab in the viewer and see a nice list of all currently used project audio loops in alphabetical order (the really easy way). Drag and drop to the timeline or a new track and you’re all set. This is especially helpful if you want to use any audio effects as the effect doesn’t just apply to the selected loop but the entire track. If you don’t want the effect to run across every loop in a particular track, just move the loop to a new track.
The last tab is called “Meters” and it has stereo indicators showing the audio level of your project. If your levels within the project get too high, distortion and other bad things (sorry to get so technical) can happen. Within the Meters tab are controls to reset the clipping values. If the audio level rises above a certain value, the little circle on top of each channel will change from red to green. The “Go” button will automatically take you to that point in the timeline for you to reduce or increase the audio level. The “Reset” button in turn will reset the parameters of all clipping that occurs within your project. If I were a real musician I would probably understand this, but I’m not, so I don’t. Adjust the volume and levels of your project so that it sounds good to you. If anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus.
At the top of the Project workspace are various controls that set an overall theme for how the music will sound and how you edit it in the tracks you create. For the musically challenged (like me), I will give you an overview of what I think the controls will do and how it looks onscreen. Upper left is the “Beat Display.” As your project plays, this is in constant motion. Try to follow me here and I’ll try not to sound too ignorant. Each second of music is broken into beats. If your project is set to 120 bpm (beats per minute, this is the default), this means there are two beats per second. As you select your loops, one of the parameters is the number of beats each loop possesses. Each 2 beats are equal to 1 second of time that the loop will play. 8 beats is 4 seconds, 16 beats are 8 seconds and so on. This changes if you set your project to something other than 120 bpm. If your song is incredibly long, you could go to a certain point in the timeline by entering the beat number that you wish to jump to. Notice I said, “You can.” There are more efficient ways to move along your timeline and I’ll get to them later. The number in the Beat Display will correspond to the number in your Beat ruler just above the tracks you have dragged to the timeline. Just next to the Beat Display is the “Time Display.” This shows how long your song is and at what point you are as the timeline moves along. Like the Beat ruler, there is a Time ruler just above your video track. You can jump to a certain point in your project by entering the time you want to go to. Not that I would…but you can.
Just underneath the Time and Beat Displays are the controls for starting and stopping your project from playing. Going from right to left, they are as follows: Play from Beginning, Play, Stop, Go to Beginning, Go to End, Loop, and Record. With the exception of Loop and Record, the controls should be pretty much self-explanatory. If not self-explanatory, please consider not buying this program. Just kidding (mostly). If you can operate a DVD player, this should be no sweat. In order to play and replay a region of your project, select the region and hit the loop button. Otherwise, once the project has reached the end, it will start at the beginning again. I haven’t used the record feature, which will probably be of more interest to real musicians.
Just to the right of these controls are what Apple calls the “Master Controls.” This is where you set the basic parameters of what your music will sound like. There are 4 factors to consider and they are, “Time Signature”, “Project Key”, “Tempo”, and “Master Volume.” Adjusting any of these controls will change the way every loop in your project sounds so be careful! A little (and some not so little) explanation is needed for each.
Starting with the Time Signature. This is adjusted with a pop-up menu, giving you all the choices available. This setting in layman’s terms determines how much your loops will be broken up in each measure. Keep it a 4/4 signature (the default) and each measure will have 4 segments. Select 7/8 signature and each measure will have 8 segments. More segments means more ways to mix your loops. It also increases your chances to make mistakes, so use judiciously.
Next up is the Project Key control. This also is adjusted with a pop-up menu, giving you all the choices available. It defaults to the key of “A.” You can go up and down the chromatic scale from no key to G# (# is the “Sharp” symbol). I haven’t permanently changed it on any of my projects so far. One fun thing to try is after you have completed a project (saving religiously, as I know you do), change the key and listen to it again. What a hoot!
Just to the right is the Tempo control. This has a slide bar going from 60 bpm (beats per minute in case you fell asleep) to 200 bpm. This will make a large difference in how your project sounds. At 60 bpm, your musicians sound like they could use a good nap, while at 200 bpm, they sound like they have been dabbling with prescription medication.
Last up is the Master Volume control. This is also controlled via slide bar. This makes all your tracks either louder or softer. It does not affect the volume settings that you have set for individual tracks (More on this later).
Working with “Timeline” (this is where you drop your loops), is very much like working with video and audio tracks in iMovie. Except unlike iMovie, everything happens in real time. If your project is playing and you move a loop along the timeline, wherever you drop it, it will play. You can even move loops while they are playing which adds a kind of surrealistic sound to the loop. It also crashed the program a few times when I did it (for strictly scientific purposes).
Once a loop is dropped onto the Timeline of a new project, it will create a “Track.” Soundtrackwill support up to 127 individual tracks, more than enough for almost any project. Each Track is inherently editable as far as volume and panning (left and right sound channels) with slide bars to the left of the Track. This area will also tell you the name of the loop (at least as far as the first loop used on the track). A graphic representing the instrument used for that loop will be present as well (this is changeable although I’m not sure why you would). On the right side of the edit box for the Track are four small boxes that allow you to manipulate the loop (or loops) for this Track. The first one (far left) looks like a speaker facing sideways. This will mute the Track when you play your project. Next to that is an icon that looks like headphones. This will mute all tracks except for the one selected. Multiple tracks can be muted or isolated for playing. It’s up to you which ones you want. The next two icons work hand in hand for those people who can’t make up their minds (like me). All the way to the right is the “Add Effects” icon. It looks like an asterisk. Hitting this opens up a separate window where you can choose different effects to manipulate the sound of the loops in really cool ways. As much as I would love to talk ad nauseam about this, I haven’t figured out all the effects and what they do yet. Mostly in their default settings, they seem to make the loops sound like garbage. Real musicians could probably do all kinds of neato, gee whiz-bang Pink Floyd/ Led Zeppelin effects, but I can’t. If and when you use effects on your tracks, the icon will turn purple. If you decide it sounded better without it, or you just want to quickly listen without the effect present, the icon next to the Add Effect icon (looking like a circle with an arrow on top. Why? I don’t have a clue) plays the track without the effect.
Loops dropped onto the Timeline will automatically create a new track. The name of the loop and its icon will appear to the left of the track and all editable features will be available. Now, just because you drooped a loop with guitar sounds doesn’t mean that you can’t drop different loops into same track. You can, but bear in mind the title of that loop is not going to change unless you change it manually. Even if you eliminate the original loop, the name will stay the same. Another thing to note, be careful where you drop loops on existing tracks. If dropped onto an existing loop (or moved along the track over an existing loop), it will take the place of the loop it was dropped onto. Any editing you have done to this particular loop will be gone. Unless you have 70 or more tracks already going in a project, I recommend that you give each different loop its own track. One thing that Apple does to help you keep track of where individual loops are is to put the name of the loop across the top of the loop in the timeline (as long as the loop is long enough to display it).
I left one thing out while discussing the track name previously. Each parameter that is editable in each individual track from the left of the track is also editable from with the track! Click the arrow icon just next to the bypass effects icon and a drop down representation of each parameter appears just below the track. This is way cool as it allows you to do more than set the master parameters for the track (volume, left and right pan, etc), it allows you to change those same parameters at any point of the track! Want to make the volume fade in or out? Want the sound to go from left channel to right and back again? Not a problem. Double click at any point in the timeline to add an envelope point (Apple’s description, not mine). Move it up and down, left and right or wherever. It does it real time like the rest of the program. No waiting or rendering. More way coolness: not only does this happen with the standard controls for each track, but if you add those pesky effects I spoke of earlier, the parameters for those are also added. Complete control over not only each track, but also each individual loop! Wow!
Now having said all this I want to repeat something I said earlier: save early and save often! One problem I have noticed with this program is the more you do, the greater possibility of a crash. Of course it won’t affect Mac OS X, but any changes you made since your last save will be gone forever!
One thing you will find if your project becomes big enough is that you will not have room on your display to show the entire project. Either the length is such that it drags too far to the right or you have so many tracks activated that it is lost below the monitor. You can quickly zoom from end of your project or tracks to another by dragging or clicking along the scroll bars (the scroll wheel on most third party mice and trackballs work as well) of the window. All the standard rules apply for windows within the project. Not a huge surprise since this comes from Apple. Another way to navigate is to use the “Track Height” control settings at the bottom of the screen. There are four rectangles to choose from. As far as the length of your project goes, you can adjust that as well with the “Zoom” controls. Condense the size of your project to view it within a single window. If your project is of considerable size however, it makes editing very difficult. One really great way to navigate around your project is to use the “Global Timeline” view. This is located in the upper right side of the Project workspace. It represents in miniature your entire project. Drag the colored rectangle and your view in the workspace goes with it.
Now where were we? OK, you’ve made a project, it sounds good to you, and you want to put it in some other format to either listen to or use in some other project. This couldn’t be easier. Go to your “File” menu and select “Export Mix.” Answer some questions and name it. Poof! Done. Soundtrack automatically saves it as an AIFF file, which in turn can be exported or dragged into iMovie, Final Cut Pro, or iTunes. Your project can also be exported as a QuickTime file. If you go this route, be aware that you can save a lot of room on your hard drive by exporting as a “Reference” file. While much smaller, it doesn’t contain all the information on your project, just links back to it. If you move the files associated with the project, your Reference file will no longer work. Making it self-contained will eliminate this problem.
Now for the dreaded hardware and software requirements for this program. All this wonderfulness comes at a steep price. You will need at least a 500 MHz Power Mac G4 and Mac OS X 10.2 to even load this behemoth. I hate to keep beating on this horse, but no one still living in the Mac OS 9 days has a chance in Hades in using this program. I attempted to install it on my 500 MHz PowerBook G3 Pismo and hit a brick wall before I got too far. The installer quite rudely quit on me because I didn’t meet their requirements. Might as well throw in a DVD drive as well. The program itself comes on two disks. The first is a CD containing the program. The second disk is a DVD containing all the loops (over 4000!) used by the program. In theory I suppose you could install it without the loops, but what would be the point?
After reading this it will probably come as no surprise that I love this program. I give Soundtrack a solid four out of five stars. High marks for usability, number of included loops, and sheer fun factor. I take one star away for the occasional instability problem, the high price, and the high system requirements. $299.00 is a lot to ask as a standalone program that is only used for creating scores and the occasional little ditty. Take off a hundred bucks and have some extra loop packages available for an additional price and this would be a red-hot five star winner.
News Flash! Since writing this review, MacWorld 2004 has come and gone and Soundtrack has indeed come down 100 bucks to $199 (I must be psychic). Furthermore, the new iLife package comes with a song creation and editing program called GarageBand. This is also a loop based music creation program that I’m having a lot of fun with. I will write a review in time for the next Journal.
The author considers himself a music novice, but loves the tools that lead him to believe he could be the “Next Big Thing!” He composes on a Power Mac G4/933 tower and a PowerBook G3/500 laptop. Autographs are for sale at a nominal price.