I've been having a lot of fun lately playing with Adobe Audition. This is Adobe's audio editing package, now at version 1.5, which comes as part of its video production software bundle Adobe Video Collection.
Although it's repeated time and again that good audio is what distinguishes average video projects from well-produced ones, I've probably not given as much attention to the audio side of things as I should have. For instance, in the past, if I needed a soundtrack, I found it quicker and easier to get permission to use a song by musician friends, or artists whose music I liked on a music web site like Mp3.com. I've played guitar since I was large enough to hold one and have an old honky tonk piano that I doodle on, but I never really thought about creating my own soundtracks. Easier to use something that's already out there, I thought.
I'm revising that idea now, having had some time to play with Adobe Audition. I haven't had the opportunity to compare the program against other professional level audio software like Pro Tools, but I can say that Audition is a nifty tool for quickly producing audio sequences and compositions for complementing your video project.
With its range of features for recording, manipulating and editing sound, Audition is probably up to the task for all but the most demanding audio work. Like any tool, it's only as good as its user and Audition has plenty for newcomers ('self included) to learn.
Adobe help by supplying along with the actual Audition 1.5 software, an extra DVD called Loopology, with over 5,000 royalty-free, 32-bit loops in a variety of musical genres from world music to industrial house, disco to classical. Some of these loops are quite elaborate like a series of grungey chords from a guitar and bass combo, a catchy drum sequence, or a funky riff on a hammond organ. There are also mere stings like a single twang of a guitar string or a thump of a bass drum, if you want to roll your own loops. This disc really does help you get up to speed quickly with the program and compositing these different musical elements in Audition is where the fun starts.
Adobe Audition's look and feel
If Audition's interface doesn't quite feel like it's in the classic Adobe mould that's because it was originally Syntrillium Software's CoolEdit. Adobe, looking to improve their audio software offering, acquired it and now sell the program separately and as part of its Video Collection bundle.
Perhaps this was why the default, charcoal-coloured interface for Audition seemed a little daunting at first. There are buttons dotted everywhere, especially along the top. I've spent many hours on Audition and I am still not familiar with what all these buttons do. They seem to have materialised out of the Microsoft Word school of software design, where icons get thrown up because it somehow makes the software seem more useful. To be fair, when you hover your mouse over a button it tells you what it does, but I haven't found myself making use of these buttons much. You can turn them off, of course, but it took me a while to be so bold.
As with other Adobe software, there is an excellent support for hot keys, including creating your own keyboard shortcuts for common operations, and for quickly opening and closing windows. If, like me, you use your mouse as little as possible and like to keep the interface as uncluttered as possible, you'll use hotkeys.
One example of the confusing buttons are the eight magnifying glass icons representing different ways that you can zoom in on your work. They perform useful functions, but the icons take some deciphering. On the other hand, you can zoom in on a part of your audio using the plus sign on the keyboard; the minus sign zooms out; combine one of these keys with the alt key and you can expand/contract the display vertically. It's so much easier than scrutinising the non-descript icons.
There's often more than one way to do things in Audition. In this case, you can also expand and contract your display window simply by dragging a ruler along the top of the timeline - perhaps the most immediately obvious way of zooming in and out.
Conquering the learning curve
After some initial befuddlement, when I stepped back to see the big picture, and play around, the smaller parts started to fall into place. Incidentally, the 300-page manual that comes with Audition is alright for quick reference, the online help is better, but really useful are the couple of hours of video tutorials that come on DVD, where experts from Total Training wisk you through some of the software's features. It's like looking at the screen over teacher's shoulder, except here you can rewind and replay. You can get these for free without buying the software.
The Display window
Going back to the interface, there are two main windows: there's a smaller one which Adobe calls "the organizer", where you import media, manage and apply effects to your audio clips. Then once you've imported these clips you insert them - you can just drag 'n' drop - into the main "display window". You can also record directly through Audition.
The display window, where most of the editing stuff happens, has three views: a multitrack, edit, and CD project view, which you tab between. The multitrack, the default view, is where you create a composition with your various audio clips and apply effects to a track or tracks in your "session" (every new project is saved as a .ses "session" file which lists the location of your clips and their Audition settings).
Double-click on a clip and it switches to editing view where you can see an individual clip as a wavefom and apply effects (like remove unwanted noise, or apply reverb or distortion to a clip).
In CD project mode, the most straightforward of the three views, you organise your play list, add credits and so on to each file, and publish to CD.
The floating palettes with tabs design, that has served Adobe so well in other software programs, is used effectively here to economise on screen space. For example, when you call up the track properties window you can tab between your tracks and set the volume and special effects for each track.
Laying out the clips on the timeline in multitrack view is a cinch: with Audition's snapping feature turned on, each new clip glides neatly into the position that the last clip or loop ended. Line the clips up, hit the space bar and your composition plays.
You cut and paste clips, and move along your edited composition with two tools - a selection tool and a copy/move tool. A third hybrid tool does the job of both of these, depending whether you right or left click on the mouse. There's those zoom tools as well, for going in close on an edit or pulling out. I found myself wanting some other tools that I'm used to from Premiere, like a razor blade for removing slices of a clip, or the "ripple delete" function, where you can delete empty space between clips with a click. In Audition you have to highlight the clip first, choose Insert/Delete Time, (Shift delete on the keyboard), choose delete, and then hit return to delete your selection. It's a small quibble.
In multitrack view, each track has a dedicated set of controls with which you adjust the track's volume, effects, panning quality, equalizers, colour, and the "wet" to "dry" balance in a bus (a combination of tracks). When you want to focus on one area of your composition, you can mute tracks or solo a track so that it plays by itself, using the little, handily colour-coded buttons. This is something I use all the time, whether to fine tune a track or try out some of the special effects like delay, chorus, flanger, reverb (Audition 1.5 has a new studio reverb filter), and other classic effects.
Plug a mic into your computer, and you can record a vocal track while listening to the accompanying instrumental tracks on your headphones. You can also apply special effects to your vocals in real time.
Woah! key change
As you play back your work, there are a number of other smaller panels demanding your attention. A colourful luminous green and red level metre alerts you to when your audio is clipping - sometimes the distortion isn't immediately obvious to the ear. A time window gives you a reading down to hundredths of a second of the start point, end point and length of your selected audio.
In multitrack view you can also do some strange things with the tempo, speeding up your tracks or slowing them down by typing in a new bpm (beats per minute). Adobe have also introduced a time-strech filter which miraculously alters the length of a clip without affecting the pitch.
On the other hand if you're not happy with the pitch itself you can change that too. Say your rhythm section is playing in B, you simply choose another key from the drop-down list of keys, say E, in a small window that sits at the bottom right of the screen called "session properties". A few seconds of rendering and it's a new song, sort of. These are impressive features, although the pitch change filter does give a somewhat synthetic sounding result, especially on the human voice.
View to a fill
Another feature that has varying results is "the center channel reduction filter" (I know, sounds meaningless), which Adobe suggest you can use to remove a voice or an instrument from a composition. The problem is that holds too much promise. It can be used for accentuating or playing down an instrument or a voice, but completely removing that part of a recording without degrading sound quality is a tall order even with the best audio kit. If you need the freedom to add or remove an instrument then the old way of doing things which was record the instrument/voice to a separate track in the first place, is still the best way to go.
You probably will find more use for the tools for cleaning up unwanted noise. Say you wanted to transfer your grandad's 78 vinyls to PC then you'll find the auto click/pop eliminator filter will be a godsend.
I recorded some audio playing my creaky old piano that I was telling you about. It's so old that the wooden pedals groaned loudly whenever I pressed or took my foot off them. In other words, it was perfect for testing out Audition's noise editing features. When I digitised the audio, I was able to zoom in on one of these creaks, viewing it as a little bump in the waveform, and eliminate it by highlighting the bump and merging it into the surrounding flatline - the piano chords that I was playing at the time - with a quick click on the the "Fill Single Click" button.
The recording needs more work on it, but I'll post it on iofilm later.
The noise reduction tools work fastest on cleaning noise that is constant throughout your recording - like a mechanical hum, tape hiss, or noise created by your sound card. One other way of tackling the problem I particularly like is in what is called the spectral view. You can view a clip as a waveform or as a colourful spectrum of its various frequencies. Taking a marquee tool, you highlight in a box the area of the noise or frequencies that you want to remove, save it as your "profile", and then extract the frequencies from your recording that match that profile. A good tip to reduce noise by a sound card during recording, is to start your recording with a few seconds of silence. You then use that as your profile and remove it from the complete recording. Of course, the best solution to these noise problems is to record cleaner sound in the first place (check this article out for ideas).
I'm sure I'll have more to say about Audition in future - I haven't even mentioned the support for 5.1 surround sound or integration with the rest of the Video Collection. Suffice it to say, Audition is clearly a great time and money saver. If you never tried audio editing software, it might also make you look differently at digital sound.
System requirements: 400MHz or faster processor (2GHz or faster recommended); Win 2000 or Win XP Professional or Home Edition; 64MB of RAM (512MB or more recommended); 75MB of available hard-disk space (700MB recommended for installing optional audio clips); 800x600 color display (1,024x768 display recommended); Stereo sound card (multitrack sound card recommended); CD-ROM drive; CD-RW drive for audio CD creation; Microsoft DirectX 9.0 software required for video import; Speakers or headphones; Microphone (optional). More information from Adobe