During the final crunch to present my short film to my thesis’ jury, I once again made the dumb mistake to try to use Soundtrack Pro to sweeten up my films soundtrack. I couldn’t use a professional application like ProTools because a) ProTools is not available to me and b) there were some special effects shots I could only integrate at the very last moment. I couldn’t lock the timeline as I didn’t know the exact timing of said shots.

I tried using Soundtrack Pro 1.0 once before and quickly dismissed it as it couldn’t handle mono tracks. Now, after using Soundtrack Pro 2.0 on a new, freshly installed and fully updated eight-core Mac Pro, I’m convinced that Apple should kill Soundtrack Pro as soon as possible. Here’s what’s wrong with it:

  1. Stability: Soundtrack Pro crashes more than a drunken hooker on iceskates. Version 2.0 is a little better than 1.0, which means that it might stay up for 15 minutes instead of 5 minutes. This is unacceptable for a pro application.
  2. Usability: The default interface is unusable. You can’t view more than a single audio track on a 1440×900 screen and Soundtrack Pro doesn’t know about dual screens. You can tear off most the various tabs, but doing so causes crashes and unhandled exceptions. I got something like “NSCacheImage: invalid image” when tearing of the meters and other unassorted “NSRangeException: invalid range”-exceptions when tearing of the effects tab, inspector and browser. Most of the time Soundtrack Pro just plain crashes though.
  3. Functionality: One of version 2.0s big talking points is the Conform feature. This should make it possible to pull a Final Cut Pro sequence into a Soundtrack Pro project and keep working on both of them in parallel. You’re supposed to send new versions of the Final Cut Pro sequence to Soundtrack Pro and then use Conform projects in Soundtrack Pro to merge updates in Soundtrack Pro and Final Cut Pro into a new Soundtrack Pro project. Soundtrack Pro does the merge for you and gives you a list of changes to approve.

    It sounds nice in theory but I’m convinced no one has ever used it for anything besides a sales demo. I sent my 16-track FCP sequence to Soundtrack Pro and connected the top 4 audio tracks to a bus with some common effects. Next, I changed the volume of one audio clip in Final Cut Pro and sent the sequence to Soundtrack Pro again. Conform projects yielded 200 changes to approve: every single clip on tracks 1-4 (the ones with the bus) was changed according to Soundtrack Pro. I dutily approved every single change and send the result back to Final Cut Pro by using export mixdown with a send-to-Final Cut Pro applescript, as prescribed in the manual. This time, I did nothing in Final Cut Pro but sending the result immediately back to Soundtrack Pro. You might have guessed: I had to approve all 200 clips on tracks 1-4 again.

    The problem is that Soundtrack Pro doesn’t keep track of changes and approvals and cannot send enough metadata back to Final Cut Pro to be usefull. Not keeping any history is fatal for any revision control system, and after all this is that’s exactly what conform wants to be or should be. Worse of all, the approval button is a phony: even the manual tells you that the approval button does nothing but hide “reviewed” changes from the list.

    On top of this, the interface isn’t exactly helpfull: there’s no distinction between changes coming from Soundtrack Pro or Final Cut Pro, and approving 200 changes in a list box with a height of about 7 rows isn’t really helpfull either. You can tear off the tab but then you’re straight into point number 2 hell. You won’t be surprised that Soundtrack Pro isn’t very smart too: moving all clips 2 seconds to the right to make more room for my opening titles marked all audio clips as changed in Soundtrack Pro.

  4. Performance: Somehow Soundtrack Pro (and DVD Studio Pro and Motion and Livetype) feel way more sluggish than Final Cut Pro. I guess this is some kind of Cocoa versus Carbon thing (and I honestly fear the moment Final Cut Pro moves over to the Cocoa camp), but I can live with it on a new Mac Pro. What I don’t get is that I can play 720p25 HDV material with 32 audio tracks over a PAL DV firewire interface in Final Cut Pro without a hiccup, but somehow Soundtrack Pro cannot. It immediately starts complaining about a disk being too slow whenever I enable external video monitoring. (I don’t have to tell that I had problems displaying the video in a standalone — teared off — window too…)
  5. Wrong paradigm: This will mostly likely irk professional audio mixers/editors, but I feel severely handicapped by Soundtrack Pro’s track-based approach. A track-based audio application makes sense in musical environment where you have a limited number of instruments who have a quasi constant presence, but it doesn’t make sense in short movie which might have about 30 scenes with widely different sound characteristics. In this movie, I used 4 tracks for on-location sound (overlapping dialogue, live details) + 2 tracks for room tone. On top of that, I had 4 tracks for extra sounds: these might be dialogue overdubs, foley or precanned sounds from Soundtrack Pro’s library. I also had 4 music tracks.

    Each of the point sounds, ADR, or sound effects might need widely different EQ-ing and reverbation to match the live sound of the scene, and each scene might need widely different compressor and limiter settings. Since Soundtrack Pro only allows me to attach effects to tracks instead of clips (*), I could end up with as much as 10 different plugins on a given track where most of the time only one or two would be active. Or I could put all audio tracks of a given scene on its own tracks, but then I would end up with about 30 * 14 = 420 tracks…

    * I know I can apply individual effects to clips by editing them in Soundtrack Pro’s wave editor, but this is hardly a usefull approach: you cannot see which effects are applied to which clips, nor can you easily copy wave editor effects.

Anyway, here’s my suggestion to Apple:

  1. Kill Soundtrack Pro. Seriously.
  2. Take the Wave Editor part of Soundtrack Pro and put it in a standalone application. The analysis function (click and pops, hum) and noise reduction are pretty nice, and the way you can send individual clips from Final Cut Pro to Soundtrack Pro’s Wave editor is pretty nice too. Perhaps there might be a professional audio mixer who’s glad to have humless clips too (although I suspect most like to have unaltered audio…)
  3. Leave the bad loops and precut music to Garageband.
  4. Make all of Soundtrack Pro’s plugins real Audio Units, usable in Final Cut Pro. This would solve most of my audio troubles with Final Cut Pro (no decent EQ, no decent reverbs) and I would be able to work in a familiar and usable interface. Really, copy and paste attributes + timeline gang sync is all I long for. Busses or submixes might be nice, but I could live without it: I don’t need professional “professional audio”, I need confirmation whether a cut is working or not, whether an off screen sound works or not, whether I might need more room tone or foley,… Being able to shape the sound to a certain degree is integral to this process.

    For me, the biggest strength of Final Cut Pro is the anything anytime spirit: no modes, free form editing, try whether it sticks. I don’t see why audio editing should be any different, and better tools in Final Cut Pro would make the conform thing unnecessary.

  5. Have top notch OMF exports from Final Cut Pro and really good integration with Logic in whatever form. I understand that none of my fancy audio effects might survive the trip to Protools, but then again my professional audio mixer might have way better effects. Perhaps a way to export the same OMF with and without audio effects, or even an OMF with double tracks: one clean, one processed. (I don’t have any experience with OMF and professional audio editors yet).

Sincerely waiting for the kill,