Field Test: Sony Media Software ACID Pro 6

Aug 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By David Weiss

MULTITRACK RECORDING, MIDI EDITING AND LOOP PLAYBACK FOR PC

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Sony has never been shy about updating ACID, the company's workhorse program for PC. The recent release of ACID 6 — hot on the heels of last year's 5 update — satisfies the wishlists of its dedicated user base. With V. 6, Sony has added a number of important new tools and performance upgrades that, for many media producers, may make it the place where they can spend the vast majority of their musical lives.

WHAT'S NEW WITH YOU?
New features in V. 6 include multitrack audio and MIDI recording; multiple media files per track; inline MIDI editing, with filtering and processing; VSTi parameter automation; drum map editing; project sections for increased arranging efficiency; support for hardware control surfaces, including native support for Mackie Control Universal; record input monitoring; a high-performance audio engine with 24-bit/192k support; and an included Native Instruments Kompakt sample playback interface with a custom sound library. Advanced features such as 5.1 and full video support carry over from V. 5.

These features look very compelling on paper, so how does the program work in practice? Installation on my machine, a Windows XP PC with a 2.26GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM, went relatively smoothly, although there were a couple of bothersome quirks.

ACID 6 also hung up when I set up my VSTi synths folder due to an incompatibility with one of the soft synths that had worked fine in 5. Rooting out the offending .dll file took a lot of time and should not have been necessary. Lastly, registration of the Kompakt player was very poorly managed on NI's end, with a frustrating labyrinth of online steps that made completing the full install of ACID 6 needlessly painful.

LET'S GET ORGANIZED
The heart of ACID's appeal is its ability to provide flexible audio control within the firm logic of its grid. With this upgrade, several simple new features give you expanded control over project management. ACID now offers a friendly environment to audition different arrangements.

The Paint Clip Selector button introduces more versatility. Essentially a “box” within the track, you can now make each track home to multiple clips — loops or other audio events — by dragging them from the Explorer window or from other existing tracks to the destination track's box. Using a variety of methods, you can instantly switch between the available clips. (I prefer right-clicking on the drawn-in audio on the timeline.) This allows for quick comparisons between two different drum loops or bass lines, for example, without having to create another track and then draw or paint in the audio.

Another key development is the ability to quickly create and move sections of a project. To create a region, highlight it with the Time Selection tool and click Section from Insert. Give the section a name, and if you want to move that section, just click it and drag it on the timeline. A red symbol appears, showing where the clip will land. Simply release the mouse button and there you are.

ACID TEST
A surface examination of ACID 6 reveals only the subtlest of differences between it and its predecessors, and for good reason: Its all-business, grid-oriented user interface is what makes it uniquely efficient to work with. Beyond the tiniest of cosmetic changes, however, a deeper look begins to show what makes this update so significant.

Create an audio track, and the expanded control group in its header reveals deeper functionality with greater control. Volume and pan sliders now coexist simultaneously alongside a very DAW-like Automation Settings button that allows you to turn automation on and off, and select between two different write modes.

Most significant is the red-colored Arm for Record button to the left of the long-standing Track FX button. Clicking on Arm for Record causes the selected track to display the number of the audio input to which it's routed. Users can click on that number to dial up a range of options for changing the audio input — depending on how many inputs your soundcard has — as well as changing input monitoring modes in the event that you want to apply effects and monitor in real time as you record. In addition, an attractive, highly legible and accurate horizontal meter joins the party to show your signal's strength.

RECORDING ON EASY STREET
In the past, recording audio into ACID was an activity purely for the masochist. It required using a large, screen-blocking window that worked primitively and only allowed recording one track at a time. Now, you can record multiple audio or MIDI tracks quickly and intuitively.

In one project, I plugged a microphone into input 1 of my soundcard and the stereo outputs of a drum machine into inputs 3 and 4. Once I had set up three audio tracks in ACID, routing each input to an independent track was a snap, as was setting the appropriate levels. With each track armed, the last step was to press the red Record button on the Transport and go. The audio was recorded cleanly at 24 bits, and I was able to watch the waveform's progress as I went — something that wasn't possible in previous versions. As a result, ACID is now a very fast, efficient multitrack recorder, and just as easy to use, if not easier, than my chosen DAW platform, Steinberg Cubase SX3.

With previous versions of ACID, as the number of audio tracks grew, I found that the program had a much lower tolerance for effects than Cubase, with the CPU choking much more quickly than my DAW when a fairly standard number of reverbs, choruses, compressors, delays, etc., were inserted. Unfortunately, this is still the case with 6 — for large projects requiring higher amounts of DSP power, you may need to finish your tracks elsewhere.

Experienced ACID users may be shocked to think that their beloved “Use Original Tempo” option on the Track Properties has been eliminated, but, fortunately, it has simply been moved. That control is now on the Event Context menus as tracks can have multiple media clips.

MIDI POWERHOUSE
The enhancements to ACID's audio capabilities are perhaps even more exciting than its improved audio recording functionality, especially because soft synths form the core of so many artists' and producers' workflow.

Just like audio, MIDI recording is now much easier, more intuitive and more musical than it was in previous versions. Playing in real time is again simply a matter of inserting a soft synth into the track, pressing Record and proceeding. To record multiple passes, activate loop playback on the Transport and ACID will save each take and number them, leaving the most recent as the active clip when recording is completed.

It's easy to switch between the different passes you've just laid down and choose the best: Right-click on the track's new MIDI event and then select the top option, Event Clip, which then leads you to a numbered list of “MIDI Recording-1”, “MIDI Recording-2” and so on, which you can then choose to drop into the track. This process, which works the same for ACID audio recordings, makes it extremely easy to locate and use the best take for your project.

Astute ACID users will notice two new buttons on the right side of the Transport, Step Record and Merge Record, both of which also affect MIDI recording. Step recording involves using a convenient and intuitive dialog box, which, when enabled, allows you to move note by note through the timeline, changing the values of step size, duration and velocity. For the first time, I felt like I had complete step sequencer — style control of the synth parts I recorded into ACID as I constructed a lead on my VoltKitchen Minimogue VA software synth (a virtual Minimoog synth).

Also, putting MIDI control data on a prerecorded MIDI track is now easier. Press the MIDI Merge Record button, go wild with your pitch bend or other hardware MIDI control, and the automated changes appear on the track over your MIDI note information. Once recording is complete, you can manipulate the MIDI data — note position, velocity, pitch bend, controller info — directly on the ACID timeline without leaving the main interface, another time-saver that will make a big difference to MIDI-heads.

A MIDI Input button on the track now allows for a much higher level of control for soft synth users. Clicking there gives users quick access to output settings, input filters and the Clip Pool. Combined with multiple input MIDI recording, this makes it easy to split a keyboard, for example. I was able to quickly assign an organ patch to A1-B4 and a Clav to C5-C9 with the Filters Note message and send each instrument to a separate track while recording in real time — very handy. Everything is intuitive, but a quick visit to ACID's Online Help section for many of these features will probably be time well spent.

A SIGNIFICANT UPDATE
From its inception, ACID has been useful to producers, artists, composers and arrangers who appreciated how its businesslike interface could be a place for meticulously building songs, especially when working with loop-based music. With the V. 6 update, however, ACID has officially become an inspiring tool for PC users. (I hope there will be a Mac version someday.) Audio recording is now fast, efficient and — yes — fun. MIDI capabilities, meanwhile, have become extremely useful and deep, making ACID a creative playground for the fast-growing legions of people who use soft synths almost exclusively. You might realize this with just a glance, but after some serious use, it becomes obvious that ACID 6 is a big step forward.

Prices: ACID Pro 6, $399.96 (box); $374.96 (download); $199.95 (upgrade); $299.95 (upgrade to ACID Music Studio).

Sony Media Software, 608/204-7680, www.sonymediasoftware.com.


David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.






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