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Product Review:
Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge XP

One measure of a good basic tool is the amount of time it takes you to learn and use it. Ideally, you should be able to put a software disk into your computer, install it with a minimum of fuss, and run it without years of study.

The Sound Forge XP audio editing program from Sonic Foundry lets you do that and more. It's just so intuitive that you might not use it for months at a time, but you won't have to worry about relearning it. Syntrillium's Cool Edit used to be that easy to use, but it's been changed into a high-end monstrosity with too many features and not enough interface. Even so, Sound Forge XP -- actually the "small version" of Sonic Foundry's own high-end Sound Forge audio program -- has plenty of features of its own, and it's an unmatchable value for around $50.

Features

Apart from the easiest drag-and-select sound editing I've seen yet, Sound Forge XP gives you the following effect capabilities, which in most cases, you can apply to all of a file or a selected portion, on one or both channels:

  • Compression: this is what radio and TV stations use to make commercials sound much louder than everything else. But it's also useful for smoothing out the peaks in music, so the loudest sounds don't go "over the line" and distort, and the softest sounds don't drop too far down in volume. You get control over attack and release times as well as threshold and compression ratio.
  • Noise Gate: this allows you to "drop out" noise or hiss, based on the amplitude of the noise and the surrounding content that you want to keep. Controls are similar to those on the compressor.
  • Distortion: fuzz, grunge, and clip...just click the mouse and turn acoustic guitar into death metal!
  • Delay/Echo: you get lots of control over delay/echo characteristics here, including post- and pre-delay.
  • Chorus, Flange, Reverb: These are good effects, but each one is limited to five "canned" sounds.
  • Pitch Bend: Sound Forge actually lets you draw an "envelope" with your cursor to specify exactly how you want to adjust the pitch of a selected area.
  • Make Waves: generate your own sound waves by specifying them in a menu, as well as telephone touch tones to insert into a sound file (phone phreaks will love this feature :-).
  • 10-band Graphic Equalizer: lets you adjust the loudness of sounds by frequency.
  • Fade/Pan: you can change the channel separation or fade in/fade out characteristics of a selection by either a single click or by drawing your own "curve" with the cursor.
  • Time Compress/Expand: want to slow down a fast guitar riff to learn it, without changing the pitch? Or squeeze 27 seconds' worth of an interview into 25 without making it sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks? This is your function!
  • Normalize: this function is usually used to adjust the level of an entire sound file for the optimum volume, or to make sure that all tracks on a CD being mixed are about the same volume.
  • Reverse: ever wonder about those "hidden messages" in popular songs? Click the mouse and find out if they're really there...or make your own!
  • DC Offset: Sound Forge can automatically (or manually) remove a component called DC Offset that's often found in sound files. It's generally caused by using low-quality or poorly-grounded sound cards, and it's almost like a virus, because if it stays in a sound file it ruins the symmetry of the sound wave.

Ironically, a great place to see this last problem is The Microsoft Sound file in Windows' Media directory -- and the Windows NT Login/Logoff Sound files, as delivered, are perhaps the worst I've ever seen. Playing the original files through a high-quality digital sound setup made me think my speakers were going to come apart, but after 5 minutes with Sound Forge XP, I not only cleaned them up by getting out the DC offset and noise, but adjusted the fadein/fadeout and shortened them while I was at it.

Click here to see/hear Sound Forge play a WAV file...


Direct Editing

To speed editing of often large files (a typical stereo CD track takes anywhere from 30 to 50 MB of disk space), Sound Forge XP edits in "direct mode" by default, which means it edits the file in place without making a copy. Backup strategy is therefore judicious use of the "undo" key. You're limited to a "mere" 999 undo levels, and Sound Forge tells you exactly what function is being "undone", which is handy because otherwise it would be easy to lose track of what you did 5 minutes ago. In any case, if the idea of working directly on your precious files makes you nervous, you can simply disable direct edit mode.

In fact, you can enable, disable, or change a startling number of program parameters and set it up exactly the way you want it to work. Sound Forge XP reads and writes almost two dozen file formats including WAV, AVI, AU, AIFF, VOC, and RealMedia.

And that last is one of the greatest timesavers of this program, because all you have to do to convert a sound file to RealAudio is "save as" and pick your resolution. No separate programs, no encoders, no nothing. I was able to take a minute's worth of audio and make a few RealAudio clips in different resolutions in just seconds; the files ranged from 200 KB to 420 KB, which are much more suited for the Web than the original 13 MB WAV file.

Conclusion

Sound Forge XP is a fast, capable tool that excels at basic mono/stereo sound editing tasks for even relatively large CD-quality audio files. You'll probably never even have to open the help file.
-- Dragon

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