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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
9/01/98

Prosoniq SonicWORX Power Bundle 1.51

-What it is and what it does-

Prosoniq software is a German purveyor of audio applications and plug-ins, selling a wide variety of tools for a surprising breadth of applications. They have licensed code for time stretch/pitch shift to Emagic for tempo and pitch shift. They make VST plug-ins that vary from a nice sounding reverb to a great sounding compressor to a "spacial placement" plug-in that has to be heard to be understood. In addition, they make what have to be two of the coolest freeware audio tools for the Mac, the North Pole analog style filter plug-in for VST, and the SonicWORX Basic audio editor. The latter of these is a stone cold free audio editor with the cut/copy/paste capability of their higher end products, some decent DSP capability, and support for 24 bit files. If you don't have it, get it now from their site here.

Of course, they also make the product at hand today, the SonicWORX Powerbundle. The Powerbundle is one of those "you got chocolate in my peanut butter" kind of things, it's the Artist and Studio editors on one dongle. SonicWORX Artist concentrates on sound design and sample manipulation, while Studio is pitched more to post production, mastering and real-time DSP applications. The market for audio editors is not as competitive as the world of sequencers, where five major apps gloriously compete for our music dollars, but there are two other strong, established editors, Peak from Bias, and the old warhorse Sound Designer II from Digidesign. I will refer at least in passing to these other apps for comparison. In the interest of reviewer honesty, I should note that I have been a paying Peak customer for some time now.

-The test system and ratings scale-

The audio box in my little room of sonic anarchy is a recently purchased UMAX S900 with a Powerlogix 220/110 card accelerated to 325/130. I use the stock IBM SCSI drive as a boot/app disk, and have a Seagate Barracuda for audio. My primary sequencing/recording environment is Cubase VST/24, working with a minimal MIDI setup of a master controller, a Roland U-220, and an Alesis Nanosynth. Routing and monitoring are via the ubiquitous Mackie, with a Yamaha power amp and Tannoy PBM 6.5II monitors. I could tell you what guitars I use, but then I'd have to kill you. For all reviews on this site I will use the internal analog to digital and digital to analog converters on whatever computer I am using, unless otherwise noted. For better of worse, that's what most of my readers will use so I will as well. [This last line was written when I had the Powerbase as my main audio box. I may change this since the UMAX converters really suck. We shall see. -tcb]

I decided to use a weighted ratings system with six categories, where the total points possible are an easy to value 100. They are

  • 1. Installation and configuration. 10 points
  • 2. Audio features and quality. What can it do and does it sound good while doing it. 30 points.
  • 3. GUI. I sometimes spend hours in a row for days in a row working with the same app. Will the interface be frustrating, tiring, or unintuitive after all those hours? 20 points.
  • 4. Compatibility. Will the app integrate with other applications and support files from other apps and platforms. 10 points.
  • 5. Documentation. 10 points
  • 6. Overall value. I have no choice but to spend my audio dollars carefully, is this app worth it? 20 points.

INSTALLATION AND CONFIGURATION

The installation process consists of installing an ADB dongle, copying the contents of two floppies into one folder, and starting to work. No extensions, no reboots, no dialog boxes saying some obscure file needs to be loaded at startup so that the app can include you favorite cats name in the resource fork of an audio file. Disabling extensions is one of the best ways to squeeze an extra bit performance out of a Mac. I am always amazed at how much unnecessary junk is required to run audio apps, and I give a big thumbs up to Prosoniq for writing the most cleanly coded app I have used, you can actually run it with NO extensions.

I have heard of problems with dongle installations, particularly if multiple dongles need to be installed. SonicWORX ran without problems, and without causing problems with other apps. The upside of dongle protection is that updates can be posted on the companies web site, and you can make backups of ALL the disks that come with the package, something the documentation suggests. I am particularly sympathetic to a company like Prosoniq and their need to protect their software. Applications like these are by definition limited in potential sales to fairly committed and sophisticated audio pros and semi-pros, of which there are just not that many. These guys give away cooler software than a lot of people sell, so who could argue with them protecting the time they spent making this package? 10 out of 10

AUDIO FEATURES AND QUALITY

SonicWORX Powerbundle can be thought of most easily as having three different sets of features, because it is really three different apps--a utility audio editor, a sound design tool, and a post production tool. The name of the game here as far as DSP is concerned is "neural processing." In fact, the section in the manual about neural processing comes before the installation instructions, so the folks at Prosoniq clearly think that this is important. In essence, neural processing tries to model a network of neurons for DSP, instead of using the normal mathematical representations of sound. The advantage of this is that neural networks can aspire to some of the characteristics of our own brains. The Prosoniq manual uses the example that we can pick out a person we know in a crowded room very easily, by recognizing patterns in faces and rejecting unnecessary information. SonicWORX uses neural models to process sound in ways that are so far over my head I won't even try to explain, but they claim that their apps deal with sound more in the way pictures and video can be rendered and morphed. If you are really interested in this, go to the Prosoniq site there are some links to some scholarly information. Not all of the plug-ins use neural networks for processing, but those that do are some of the more unique sounding effects. I don't have time to go into each one individually, but what follows should whet you appetite.

As a standard editor, it includes the usual capabilities for non linear cut copy and paste, all edits are non-destructive until you save the file, and you can undo anything back to the last time you hit "save". The standard audio tools are also available, including normalize, fade in and fade out with a few selectable curves, pitch transpose, and the like. SonicWORX also allows two "snapshots" to be taken, so you can always revert to and compare to a couple of examples you decided are worth keeping. These snapshots are VERY useful, believe me, when you get something that sounds good, just hit the snapshot button and that same sound can be had at moments notice. Even in this fairly pedestrian editing realm, though, SonicWORX adds a few twists. The File menu gives the handy option of exporting your current selection as a new audio file. Very useful when working with large files. This came in VERY handy when I was doing some mastering work recently. I had transferred a 45 minute DAT straight to disk, resulting in a nearly 500MB file with 12 songs in it. With my usual editor, I would have had to cut and paste each song into a new file, resaving the file and updating the waveform each time. With SonicWORX, I could highlight a tune, export it as a discrete file, and move on. SonicWORX was even smart enough to realize that I had not changed the original 500MB audio file at all, only the view of the file and what was selected, so when I closed, it only asked if I wanted to change the window settings, and did not force me to resave the whole file. Boss.

This is an excellent example of what makes SonicWORX really stand out. When you look in the File menu the first time and see the option to export a selection as a file, it seems pretty unimportant. Later, after it has saved you a couple of hours of watching a file resave when it really doesn't need to do so, you wonder why every app won't do this. While learning SonicWORX, I was reminded of the limited amount of UNIX that I know, it seems strange at first, but after a while it becomes obvious that it's strange because it strives to be as efficient and useful as possible, and that it is written by and for pros. The other editor apps I have used are certainly written by and for pros, but small things like the snapshot buttons and export selection makes SonicWORX feel like it was written by someone who has spent a whole lot of hours in front of a monitor with a waveform on it

As a sound design app, the Powerbundle has all of the functionality of the SonicWORX Artist package. The key word here is "different." Different sounds, different controls, different routing, different everything. Anyone used to working with Peak or SDII will be a bit surprised to see that the Sonic Disperse algorithm "applies a fractal perturbation rule to the features of a sound" and has two adjustable parameters, "Event Capturing Horizon" and "Scale Distortion" and no I have no idea what any of that means. I can tell you, though, that when you run a bit of my voice through it, the result is a gorgeous filtered effect a little like a vocoder, and if you run a drum loop through it, it comes out sounding like it's been through a huge Martian flanger and the limiter that ate Manhattan. I have a taste for this kind of stuff, while gleefully destroying all kinds of sounds with the Artist plug-ins, I told to my girlfriend, "Usually you have to break something to make sounds like this." She looked a little unconvinced, as I played back a vocal track that I had meticulously recorded with my best mics, and I had turned it into what I betit would sound like to ride inside a lawmmower. Intentionally or not, samplers usually provide more of this kind of anarchistic sound design capability, and computer based editors are often more staid in what they will do to sound. SonicWORX Artist is like having a bunch of wacky samplers inside of your mac. I for one think that is a wonderful thing. Other plug-ins include some fantastic special effects like the ability to remove the envelope of a sound, or apply the envelop of one sound to another, the ability to move sound around in 3 dimensional space that actually sounds pretty cool, and a bunch of morphing plugins that do things that will knock your socks off. They do just what they say, they morph two sounds into one, with spectacular results. All in all, not your mothers effects.

The Studio end of the Powerbundle could not be further from the Artist. The Artist plug-ins are for the most part experimental, unique and often a little unpredictable. The Studio plug-ins and real-time DSP are predictable, exacting, and universally useful. There are basically two sets of features. First, a few plug-ins, to remove noise, change the length of a file without changing the pitch, correct DC offset and things like that. The second set is a group of mighty real-time DSP and metering pages. The plug-ins are all excellent, with the time stretch algorithms showing all the quality that their code licensed brothers and sisters in the Logic Audio world are known for. The "neural denoise" plug-in also did something I had thought impossible. I had done a horrible job recording a bass track, the levels were set terribly, and the noise from the mic, mixer and converters was far too loud. I hadn't soloed the track after recording, so a bunch of other tracks had been layered using the feel and groove from that bass. It would be tough to drop the right bass feel into the track after the fact, so I decided I would give the SonicWORX algorithm a try. I little experimenting got some parameters that seemed to work, and I started the processing. Three hours later (this was with the old 603e based Powerbase of course) somehow, the noise was gone and the bass track was nearly untouched. I didn't believe it, so I normalized the track and the noise was STILL gone. This single feature could be a real lifesaver.

The real-time DSP section is a single page of effects, and three windows of meters and monitoring. The effects are all useful in certain situations when finishing or mastering audio. It includes a multi-band maximizer, a 15 band graphic EQ, a subsonic processor for bigger bottom end, an exciter, phase correction, and output level control. They all sound great and do a fine job. Also, the DSP can be applied in a "pass-through" mode where the sound in of your Mac is the source and the sound out gets the effects, excellent for mastering to an external DAT deck. The effects can also be applied to any selection of the audio, giving the same control over files already on your disk that you plan to burn straight onto a CD. The metering is worth a good chunk of the price of admission on its own. The 31 band real-time analyzer is indispensable for checking to see if a mix really sounds balanced or if your ears are getting tired, a stereo correlation display will help to keep track of mono compatibility, and the super super duper plain old stereo output meters have enough options to let you know EXACTLY what's going on with your final levels. If I sound a little excited about something as simple as a meter, forgive me, one of the biggest problems with digital audio is that metering is often so bad, I have to guess and hope when setting levels. It seems rather mundane, output metering, but I switched to SonicWORX for all critical metering the day I discovered these windows.

What's wrong? I dunno, the reverbs don't sound that great to me, it would be nice if the flanger had a high frequency roll-off. These kinds of criticisms can be made, but it's sort of like complaining that your new Jaguar needs another cupholder. There is, however, one important feature lacking, and that is support for third party plug-ins, though one could argue that I should knock everyone else down for not supporting the extremely cool Prosoniq plug-ins. The Prosoniq site says that version 2.0 will support VST plug-ins. If I get to review that one, it may pick up a thirty in this category, as it is, I'll knock off 1 point for the lack of spare cupholders, and two for not supporting VST or Premiere plugs. Believe me, folks, I'm being a strict grader. 27 out of 30

THE GUI

SonicWORX was brought over to the Mac from the SGI platform, where it originated as a command line app, believe it or not. Thankfully, during that move Prosoniq decided to keep a good bit of the UNIX furniture, most notably remarkable multitasking and some window features. SonicWORX can do startling things on a powerful machine when working with multiple files. It is possible to start a complex neural process on a big file, start another file converting sample rate, and open up a third and start to work on it all at the same time. Really, you can, I promise. It isn't blazing fast on that third file, but it does not crash when this is done, in fact, I didn't manage to crash the app once when I was using it over two months. This level of stability makes me wonder why other developers can't do the same, since the OS is clearly up to the task. Particularly for an OS like OS8, with no real memory protection at all, avoiding crashes and reboots is a good thing.

Numerous people seem to not like the SonicWORX interface, which is not like everything else in the audio world. Pretty much everyone else (Mac and Windows) follows the Sound Designer II model of an audio app. The main window is your waveform, some of that waveform can be selected, and then DSP is applied by selecting from a pull down menu. SonicWORX departs rather drastically from this model, and there is a learning curve. It can be used just as described above, but that's not really the way it is intended. In SonicWORX there are two kinds of windows, the audio file windows and "parameter" windows, where the effect plug-in and its parameters can be accessed. Parameter windows can be saved and more than one can be open at the same time, and they are completely independent of the audio files. I originally could not figure out how to open parameter files from the "open" dialog box, which seemed kind of strange. I emailed Prosoniq and they told me to click the "parameter file" button in the "open" box, and they didn't even make fun of me for not noticing it in the first place, bless their hearts. In any case, when you have audio files and parameter files open at the same time, any of the parameter files can be used on any of the audio files. It's sort of like a super hot rod version of a floating tool palette. Let's say you know that you use a dozen plug-ins all the time for mastering, you can load them into a parameter file, save the file as "mastering" and whenever you need them they are there in a nice uncluttered window. Of course, you can also have four files open and those same plug-ins will be available to all of the files. Used another way, each audio file worked on can be saved along with a parameter window for it, and when it is opened again, all of the parameter settings in that window will remain as they were when the file was last open. Kinda like presets for each file.

SonicWORX also has a unique routing system, but I won't go into much detail, it's even harder to explain than what is above. Suffice it to say that it is also a little weird at first, but after a while it becomes obvious why it was chosen, and it opens up some real new possibilities. The real time windows also remain open in front of everything else, so you can open other apps and have all kinds of things going on while still keeping track of what is happening with the audio ins and outs of your Mac. Very cool. Finally, the "history" window includes a very detailed list of what has been done to a file. Instead of just listing the edits in order, there is a graphical listing of the current file, with branches showing at a glance whether you morphed the file before or after you whacked it silly with the limiter.

The GUI is a bit different, but after a while it seems strange that everybody doesn't work this way. Sounds familiar, huh? Three points off for the difficulty in learning the sorta strange interface, one of those points added back when I finally figure it out and find that it kicks booty. One extra credit point for letting me process three files at a time and change settings in all of them without crashing. 19 out of 20

COMPATIBILITY

SonicWORX Powerbundle comes up a little short in this department. It supports the critical file types, but not everything. As mentioned above, it has no support for third party plug-ins. It can export a .wav file, which is nice, and it can open raw audio. It can't rip audio off of CDs (but then again, if it did, QuickTime would have to be installed, which would knock off points in the installation department), and it won't read any of the compressed file formats out there. Finally, and most critically, it is completely unscriptable, which is a bit of a surprise considering that it came from the land of ultimate scripting, UNIX. The nonexistent Apple Event support also means that you can't set up a drag and drop applet to run some of the more time consuming DSP overnight. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that I bet you could start 10 files going at the same time and it STILL wouldn't crash. No Apple Events also means that SonicWORX cannot be used as an external editor from within an app like Cubase. Big drag, let's hope they get a chance to get some (or better yet, alot) of scripting support into version 2.0. I would deduct more, but this lack of scriptability makes it no worse than almost every other audio app. 7 out of 10

DOCUMENTATION

Fantastic. Best I have ever seen. Comes on old school PAPER, includes scholarly references if you are REALLY into something, and explains the "attitude" of the app very well. Discussions of plug-ins are excellent, and make as much sense as explaining something called a "spectral erosion" possibly could. Excellent discussion of what neural processing is. The Koblo had a great manual as well, do Europeans just write good manuals? 10 out of 10.

VALUE

As hard as this was for the Vibra, it's even harder for the Powerbundle. Here's why, the Powerbundle lists for $999, which is a tall pile of change. In fact, that's close to as much as you can spend for a single audio app. Then again, as I mentioned, it's really two or three apps in one, and a great deal of what it does simply cannot be done any other way. Also, the metering and analysis section in SonicWORX rivals stand alone apps that will set you back $400 or more. The post production/mastering DSP is top flight, and all digital, which could save you a bundle by forgoing external boxes that don't sound as good anyway. For audio for picture or web audio people, it could probably do 95% of the audio processing work, no extra hardware required. If it cost $500 it would get a perfect 20, we'll lop off a half a point per hundred dollars to get a 17.5 out of 20.

SUMMARY

90.5 points and I feel like I'm being unfair, probably because this app also has something that money can't buy. I don't know what to call it, but perhaps "inviting" or "musical" would be the best choices. It's a blast to use, and sounds great, and it can start to act like an instrument in the way that a sampler can. A sampler is just a big fat calculator like any other computer, but anyone who has used one for very long knows that it can become not just a part of the creative process, but an instigator in the creative process. And that is something that money can't buy, the ability to make a sound that becomes the basis for a complete musical idea, or a sound that finally captures the character of an existing idea and sets it to stone. This app can do that. SonicWORX Powerbundle is clearly not made (or priced) for casual users. Tipping the scales at a big fat G-note, you have the right to expect some performance, and after spending all that money, believe me you will not be disappointed. As it stands it is an app that breaks 90 on my scale, and features that have already been announced for version 2.0 will boost it a few points more.

More casual (or broke) users might consider SonicWORX Artist alone for $349, or SonicWORX Studio alone for $699. Anybody out there with even a casual interest in audio should go and get the freeware SonicWORX Artist Basic right now, it does incredible things for something that costs as much as the air you breathe.

Finally, after some initial frustration with the GUI, SonicWORX became my unquestioned default editor. Peak, which I used to use constantly, was used for nothing but ripping audio from CDs. With the Powerbundle, I couldn't get a way to make a file sound worse, unless I wanted to, in which case I could make it sound LOTS worse. If you can afford it, buy it, it's just the best there is. If you can't afford it, Prosoniq probably has something for you anyway, varying in price from free on up. Even now, an argument can be made that the Powerbundle stands at the top of the help of audio editors, unless you need specific things like SCSI sampler transfer, in which case you are better off with Peak. When version 2.0 is released, with support for third party plugs, I think SonicWORX will leap over the competition, so you might want to get on the train now, and when everyone else catches up, you'll be sitting at the next station with a cheese plate and a bottle of Merlot.

Send Thad Feedback or new links at: tcb@caliban.grendelnet.com


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