Test Bench:SmartSound Sonicfire Pro 3.1 Soundtrack Software

$499

Smart Sound Software Inc.

8550 Balboa Blvd, Ste. 180

Northridge, CA 91325

(800) 454-1900

www.smartsound.com

Finding quality music for professional and broadcast productions can be a challenge. If you don’t have the talent to create your own from scratch, the time to build songs in a loop-based environment and need more flexibility than a buyout library offers, Sonicfire Pro soundtrack software may be exactly what you need.

Automatic Customization

The strength of Sonicfire Pro is that it automatically customizes your soundtrack to exactly match whatever duration you want. This doesn’t mean that it just fades away at the end of the song, like a lazy pop musician who can’t think of a proper ending. Instead, the modular tracks have intros, verses, refrains, breaks, bridges and conclusions built right in. The process is amazingly easy, and the resulting music is a dream come true for videographers.

The Process

First, we installed the small (16MB) Sonicfire Pro apps on our WinXP machine. We ran the program and then used its library management tool to import a SmartSound Palette CD-ROM to our hard disk drive. While this takes a little time and occupies some considerable space on the drive, it makes the program much faster. We then used the SmartSound Maestro to select a broad style category and a specific song title. The selected tune opened in the timeline, matching our specified duration precisely.

The soundtrack appears as a single block that matches whatever duration you want. Users can change the duration by simply dragging the edges of the block. This larger block is made up of smaller blocks, that users can sort and adjust however they like. Each element is self-sufficient and can be used by itself to some extent. You can build your own song from scratch or use them to add onto the current song.

This modular paradigm makes song creation very easy and very nearly foolproof. At the same time, it also gives you a surprising amount of flexibility. For example, we created a solid 30-second intro for our project that ended with an upbeat bang just before our narrator turned to the camera with a warm "Welcome to the Show." Between segments, we were able to use different elements from the same piece as segues into the various parts of the program and, finally, we created a longer and steadier variation for the closing credits. The coordinated soundtrack gave the show a unified and professional feel.

Music Quality

Sonicfire Pro soundtracks are 44kHz CD-quality, which is noticeably better than the home-movie oriented 22kHz Movie Maestro product. This music isn’t likely to earn a Grammy or an Oscar for Best Original Soundtrack, but it does evoke the right mood for a video music bed or film score. The music that you get from Sonicfire Pro is intended to be background music, which is exactly what videographers will use it for. Sonicfire tracks rely heavily on synthesized instruments, but the quality is very good and there are quite a few acoustics in the mix as well. Some of the music we previewed came right from the Music Bakery, which is a major player in the buyout music biz. The drums occasionally sounded artificial and wind instruments were sometimes noticeably synthetic, but on the whole, we were pleased with the quality of the instrumentation.

A Proper Comparison

It isn’t at all fair to compare Sonicfire soundtracks to those from Aaron Copland, Andre Previn or John Williams, so what should you compare it to? Sonicfire Pro doesn’t fit cleanly into either of the two common categories: loop-based music creation tools and buyout music.

Loop-based tools, such as Sonic Foundry’s ACID (recently acquired by Sony), have the potential to beat Sonicfire in the quality department. You can find drum loops from Mick Fleetwood, acoustic winds from Bill Laswell, heavy funk from George Clinton and real symphonic samples from starving classical musicians. If you have a good ear and can piece individual loops into 8-bar phrases, chord progressions, intros, breaks and decisive conclusions, you’ll very likely enjoy the many hours you’ll spend using a loop-based music tool. If you need music that’s guaranteed to sound good, and you need it fast, Sonicfire wins hands down.

Buyout music has the potential to beat Sonicfire in the quality department as well, but only if you shop carefully. Some buyout music is fully orchestrated, but many libraries are composed and performed on synthesizers and do not sound at all realistic. Further, buyout music limits you in duration and style, and it can be tricky to make the music fit the length of your project.

SmartSound offers users the best of both worlds. You get high quality buyout music with arrangements in a variety of styles and genres, all with customizable durations to fit any project.

Cost

The price range for getting into Sonicfire is very broad. There is a free demo version and there are a number of lite versions that ship with video editors. Once you are ready to make some money, you are definitely going to need 44kHz media and the proper license to use the music. This means a minimum outlay of $299 and includes two music CDs. We reviewed the $499 version that came with five music CDs. Additional music CDs are $99 each. One really cool feature of the Maestro style chooser/library tool is that it allows uses to hear samples of media online before buying.

Conclusion

SonicFire Pro is easy to use, although it lacks any sort of manual and the Help is rather light. This didn’t really lead to any problems, except that we weren’t always entirely sure what we could and couldn’t do (for example, we couldn’t drag blocks around in pre-made songs). Ultimately easier to use than even a buyout library, SonicFire Pro is ideal for any production house or independent videographer that needs music to fit a project like a glove, both in terms of duration and style.

TECH SPECS

PC

Operating System: Windows Me/NT4/2000/XP

Processor: PIII 500MHz

RAM: 96MB

Hard Disk: 16MB

Macintosh

Operating System: Mac OS 9.1 and 10.1 or higher

Processor: G3

RAM: 30MB

Hard Disk: 25MB

Common to both

Demo Version: save-disabled

Upgrade: $79-249

STRENGTHS

  • Automatic creation
  • Flexible customization

    WEAKNESSES

  • No printed documentation

    SUMMARY

    SonicFire Pro is easier to use than buyout music and more flexible to boot.

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