Test Drive: ACID from Sonic Foundry

Playing with ACID

So let’s lift the hood and take a closer look. Software installs easily from a CD-ROM, with on-line registration. Once you finish installation, you’ll want to run ACID’s tutorial. You may want to, but, unfortunately, there is none. Maybe the Sonic Foundry folks think if you’re smart enough to buy ACID, you’re smart enough to make it work by yourself. Or maybe they wanted to rush their product to market, and the tutorial was a casualty of their schedule. The enclosed “get started” booklet is OK, but Sonic Foundry’s tutorials are enlightening and sometimes entertaining, and ACID’s certainly worthy of one. Don’t get me wrong--we’re hardy production geeks. We like a good challenge, and we don’t whine. But let’s hope they get around to it for their next release.
Regardless, take a whack at it. Open the Explore tab and choose one of the hundreds of license-free loops ACID provides to get you started. You’ll come to regard them as a painter does his colors or a chef his spices. They’re your basic tools, and they’re all neatly arranged: Drums & Percussion, Bass, Keyboards, Guitar, etc.. Click on one of the folders to open it, then highlight one of the .wav files. ACID auditions the loop for you. Don’t like the way it sounds? Dump it into an editor like Cubase, Sound Forge, Cool Edit, SAW 32--you know the names. Play with the file. Or just click another. In addition to its own loops, ACID supplies you with examples from third-party loop libraries, from subtle to extreme. Whatever you’re going for, it won’t be long before you find something that works. Double-click it, and the file name will appear in the workspace above. Use the pen feature and just draw it in. As with Sound Forge 4.5, the scale is user-definable, letting you chose among Samples, Time, Seconds, Time & Frames, Absolute Frames, and SMPTE formats, which include Non-Drop (29.97 or 30 fps), Drop (30 fps), EBU (25 fps), and Film Synch, all of which help you synch to video. But for now, we’re creating a radio spot, so just dump in about sixty seconds of drums and hit Play. Or choose the Play Looped mode and let your drums drone while you select your next instrument from your Explorer. ACID will play your next candidate in the same key and tempo as your drum loop, instantly indicating if you’ve made a “love connection.” Color-code your tracks to help organize them and also help gang them together for easy mixing. Keep going till you feel you’ve got enough—ACID handles unlimited loops, as long as you’ve got the RAM. I’ve been blessed with a Pentium II running at 300 mHz with 64 mB RAM, dumping onto a 6-gig hard drive. I’ve brought up literally dozens of tracks on ACID without as much as a whimper—ACID has a “gas gauge” that indicates how much your production’s gobbling up your system’s resources. In the unlikely event that your system is less comfortable with so many tracks, you can always mix down what you’ve already got to a single stereo sample, which you can then use to open a whole new ACID file, and pick up where you left off. Keep it up, of course, and they’ll have to scrape you out of your chair. Myself, I prefer to bounce my tracks into clumps so I can macro-mix section by section; it helps to save me from obsessive tweaking.

Multitrack or faux?

Having fun so far? Not as much as you’re gonna! ACID provides individual volume and pan for each track, along with Direct-X support for your favorite plug-in du jour. Gang two or more tracks together to form a bus...time compress... go crazy, man—it’s ACID! Once I complete my ACID mix, I like to dump it into Sound Forge 4.5, where I can normalize, EQ, add compression, and generally screw around as much as I can tolerate. It’s all fast and clean. And the unlimited undo/redo helps, too.
Sonic Foundry takes pains to point out that ACID is not a multitrack editor, and it’s not—it’s much, much more. But, if you like, defeat the key and tempo functions and use it as you would Pro Tools. Hey—if you’ve got an F-115 fighter jet, you can have just as much fun flying it to the local convenience store as to Paris, can’t you? No pun intended to our friends at Ensoniq.

Who needs ACID?

So what does all this mean for talented, yet time-challenged and moderately-to-seriously demented radio production geeks like us? Do we cancel our contracts with our jingle-making friends in Dallas and Los Angeles? Probably not just yet. A comprehensive music library is still a big problem-solver when you just need to grab a bed or two for a spot. But ACID is the solution when you can “hear” the music or effect you need for some serious imaging, but you can’t find it…or perform it. Build it yourself with ACID.

Nit-picking

Nothing’s perfect, and any 1.0 release of software’s already begging for the next. ACID could be improved in a number of ways: an on-board efx package, including EQ, reverb, delay, multi-band dynamics—the basic efx we know and love, for those who are short on plug-ins. Streamlined zoom features. The tutorial we mentioned earlier. And a printed manual rather than the virtual manual on the CD-ROM—some of us like to bone up on our software in our private reading rooms—places where you don’t generally install a computer, if you catch my drift.

What you need

As far as hardware goes, ACID requires a Pentium 133 microprocessor, though you need a Pentium II for real-time efx, or an Alpha AXP. ACID runs happily on Windows 95, and I can’t wait to see how it takes to Windows 98. It also runs on NT. You’ll need a 17-inch monitor (I lose parts of the FX dialogue boxes on my old 15-inch), a CD-ROM drive for installation, at least 32 MB RAM, and 5 MB on your hard drive where ACID can reside.
As far as talent goes, ACID requires an adventurous mind that likes to take risks, to push software where it perhaps wasn’t intended to go. Don’t worry about doing it “right;” focus rather on what you’d like to accomplish. ACID, in combination with your innate sense of discovery, will lead you to places you never thought you could go. And that’s a breakthrough in anybody’s book.
List price is $399, but it has shown up in catalogues for as little as $279. I’d call that a “Best Buy.” I bought it as soon as I saw it demo’ed, and haven’t regretted it for a moment. See if you don’t agree. Download a demo at www.sonicfoundry .com, or try their new “lite” version, ACID ph1. Once you’ve been on ACID, things never really look the same.

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