The Big Gamble: Sonic Foundry Vegas Pro

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in January 1999, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

OK, what could be worse than this?

It’s 3 p.m., and I’m sitting in a crammed-to-capacity MD80 on a-the runway at DFW Airport. The Dallas sun is beating harshly on our little airbus, which should already be jetting towards Washington DC. Instead, I’m grounded for an undetermined wait. It’s hot, and the plane is losing its delightful freshness by the second. They’ve locked the booze cabinets and posted guards. The pilot is laughing over the PA, saying that the tower has no information but there are about a hundred airplanes ahead of ours. The tower says one might be able to leave every three minutes. I don’t do math, but this does not sound good to me at all.

Screw it, I’m entertaining myself thinking about Vegas. No, not that one. I’m talking about Vegas Pro, Sonic Foundry’s entry into the professional multitrack market.

Vegas Unvelied

It’s no secret that Sonic Foundry has been building their first multitrack DAW. They’ve hinted at it for years, and anyone who has read their corporate profile knows that this app has been under construction for some time.

Well, now we’re getting a look. In an unannounced move, Sonic Foundry has basically given away the farm, if only for the next few weeks. Yes, friends, just hop over to Sonic Foundry’s website, and for thirty days you can revel in perhaps the easiest and most intuitive software multitrack yet designed. While this is not a release version, it is cripple-free (sync is not yet working, however), and a stable enough beta to get work done.

Some folks have criticized this as foisting QA onto the public, or baiting the market. Whatever. I’m happy to have a look, and I think it’s a good move.

It makes perfect sense. Microsoft has been doing it for years, to great success. See, no matter how hard corporate QA and a company’s beta users thump on a piece of software, public release always brings out a fresh slew of new bugs. It happens every time.

In the music biz, software manufacturers are screwed from the get-go, with literally thousands of possible hardware combinations, driver hassles, and machine configurations to contend with. With a DAW application, things are complicated further by the fact that we’re still pushing processors to their outer performance limits. I know that I don’t stop piling on the DirectX effects and tracks until my machine threatens to lock up. Then I add a couple more. It’s a given that people will push the envelope, and until single processor machines break the 650 MHz barrier, we’ll always be running into processing compromises.

This public beta puts Vegas in front of anyone who cares to use it. Pretty smart, I’d say, since Vegas represents the most refreshing departure from the status quo I’ve seen.

So let’s jump right in. Download, install, and follow along.

Using Vegas

The first thing that you’ll notice about Vegas is its uncanny resemblance to ACID. This is no coincidence or surprise, since Vegas shares the same Product Management and Development leads, Caleb Pourchot and Chris Moulios.

Vegas Pro
Note how tracks can be zoomed individually.
Also note the four stereo output buses.
Everything you need to record and mix your project is available in this window.

There was certainly no attempt to make Vegas the most feature-laden app around. There’s no MIDI at all, and no destructive editing. What you see on the main screen is pretty much it. And rather than jumping into the giant feature wars that have turned the MIDI/Audio DAW apps like Cubase, Logic, and Cakewalk into “jacks of all trades, masters of none,” the folks at Sonic Foundry have had the good sense to keep Vegas both simple and elegant.

And, in a bold move that gives me goose bumps just thinking about it, Sonic Foundry has freed us from the “cute little mixer screen” that every other software manufacturer seems determined to shove up our collective asses.

I hate “virtual mixers.” I loathe them.

My personal studio has a basic 24×8 board, which measures something to the tune of 3 x 4 feet. The knobs are tiny and there’s no wasted space. How in the hell does a software designer propose to put anything resembling a functional mixer on a computer screen?

It’s an impossible task, yet marketing gurus (an oxymoron if I’ve ever seen one) refuse to let good sense rule. Memos fly, and designers get stuck with the job of aping hardware interfaces to please the amateurs that don’t have a bloody mixer of their own to twiddle. Look at any DAW application, and you will find a toylike mixer screen that offers little sensible functionality. But man oh man, do they ever get in the way of other, more sensible designs.

But I digress…

Vegas does not saddle us with an onscreen console. Instead, all mixing and metering functions, except for Output and Effects Buses, are located exactly where they should be–on the left hand pane of the Track/Clip view aligned with the tracks.

Each track also carries its own effects insert chain. These are NOT for standard DirectX effects, although it’s based on DirectX technology. Sonic Foundry has plans to port its XFX collections to this spec shortly after release, and has also made the spec available to other manufacturers to do the same. By tightly controlling the design of these “track” effects, Vegas’s designers have made this area highly efficient. Matter of fact, every track loads by default with four bands of EQ in a nicely designed interface similar to Waves AudioTrack, and a general purpose compressor.

I have run over 80 bands of track EQ, 20+ compressors, and FOUR TrueVerbs in a single Vegas file on my hopped up Celeron 300a/BH6 box, without as much as a hiccup during playback. Put that in your pipe and smoke it–that’s some serious processing. Better than any other DAW application that I use. Of course you can disable track inserts completely if you want more power available on the tail end, but I have not found any need to do so.

By right clicking on the upper left hand pane, you can add a track. Left click on the red button to arm a track, and you’ll get a nice meter. Although it looks like a mono meter, take a closer look, and you’ll see it’s split right through the middle and both stereo channels display in one meter. Pretty nifty. You can select any available input port for stereo recording, and you can choose the right or left channel for mono recording. Once you’ve started recording, the waveforms appear in the track display in realtime. Press stop when you’re done, and you’re optionally prompted to name the file you’ve just created. You can also move it to a different directory at this time, or choose to delete it.

Now, let’s say you were recording a vocal track, and you blew a line. Simply place the cursor before the blown line, hit the “s” key (for split), then repeat after the offending section. Select the new event you’ve just created. Now drag the cursor to make a time selection that bounds the selected event. The amount you select in time on either side of the event will be your pre/post roll. Now, when you invoke record, Vegas will punch in at the selected clip. If you’ve set the transport to its loop mode, you’ll get a punch every time you loop over that point, and these will be stored as individual takes.

One of the coolest applications of this feature is allowing Vegas to loop the entire track, while one does as many takes as desired–in one sitting. They will “stack up” behind the original take. Then, simply listen (you change the current take with the event inspector menu), and pick the best overall take. Now comes the good part. Any iffy parts can be cut into a separate event as described in the above paragraph. Now you can pick from the alternate takes you’ve already done. Multiple takes record end to end as a .wav file. This is valuable if you choose to do offline dynamics processing, for instance, or if you run AutoTune. All takes can be simultaneously processed in the same pass. Nice!!

Matter of fact, that’s just about all I can say about Vegas. Nice. Elegant. Sometimes downright brilliant. I hope other manufacturers stand up and take note. This is the multitrack serious users have been begging for, and it delivers.

Hear us, software developers of the world. Features are meaningless. Results are priceless. Vegas delivers results.

Other Areas of Interest

ACID users will be familiar with the built-in Explorer pane at bottom left screen. Vegas adds more control to this pane, so you can actually manipulate files as in any other explorer window.

A new addition is the Trimmer. Grab a file from the Explorer pane, and drop it onto the Trimmer pane (or drag it onto the Trimmer tab if the pane is not visible), and the file will open, a la Sound Forge, in the Trimmer. From this point, one can select a section of audio from that file and drag it onto the main screen. When assembling long voiceovers or culling through multiple files, this is a godsend.

Now, since we have no onscreen mixer, per se, how do we route signals?

This is my favorite part of the Vegas paradigm. When you start a new Vegas file, you get a choice how many Buses you wish to begin working with. I suggest starting with one, then expanding as you go. Any bus can be assigned to any hardware output, and you get a whopping twenty-six buses to play with. Each bus can have its own stereo FX insert, so you can really go to town with the plugins. But that’s not all. There are also twenty-six available Assignable FX buses that carry their own configurable effects chains, which can then be assigned to any output Bus.

Vegas Pro Signal Flow Diagram

This gives the user almost unlimited choices. One of my favorite techniques is to set up several output buses with different effects in each, then just audition the tracks through each, switching on the fly (yes, it’s seamless). By using several Waves S1s, for instance, you can use the output buses to build massively deep and wide stereo images. Your imagination is the only limit here. This UI is completely plugin friendly.

And the approach is incredibly organic. Vegas flows. Instead of presenting you with a more or less photographic representation of studio gear, Vegas uses clean Windows interface design and sensible automation methods that work outward from the tracks. That’s where the automation SHOULD rest. That’s where all control should rest, really. Anything that pulls a user’s focus off the timeline, ultimately costs time. Vegas keeps us centered in the timeline almost 100% of the time. Everything is right there.

So, everyone must be thinking I’m some sort of Sonic Foundry toady by now, or maybe that I’m on the dole. Rest assured, I can find a few things to bitch about.

First, and this IS a biggie: there’s no automation on the back end of the Assignable effects buses. That means you’ll be hard pressed to do many fancy Pink Floyd-esque reverb builds with razor cuts at the end. Word from Sonic Foundry is very encouraging, though. These buses may eventually move to the Track timeline, where they can be automated with envelopes just like everything else.

Second, Envelope nodes are “stupid,” in that they don’t follow along with the audio events when they’re moved. Move the event, and all your hard mixing work stays behind. This was a conscious design decision, but in my opinion, a very misguided one. Users will not be happy when they decide to add a bridge to their tune, and suddenly all their hard mix work goes to hell in a handbasket. Hopefully other users will share my distaste for this, and will apply pressure towards changing the behavior. For what it’s worth, Samplitude shares this rather obvious flaw, but then Samplitude is not exactly in the running for interface of the year, either. One way to potentially solve this–add mixing-node capabilities to the “S” section of the ASR curves. This would give event based micro-mixing potential that would free the track envelopes for broader strokes.

What else can I tell you? Sync options are routine in and out. Video files can be imported. They display slideshow style at the top of the timeline, as well as “TV set” style in a video preview window. This window can be docked into the lower panes. Again, a nice touch which keeps things from overlapping and turning your desktop into a disaster area. Recent advances in inexpensive video digitizing cards like the ATI All-in-Wonder, and the Matrox Marvel have made this method the ONLY way to fly when scoring to picture. For those who prefer the slow and clunky method, Vegas provides MTC support in and out.

Mixes are automated by envelopes displayed in the timeline. Additionally, each audio event carries it’s own attack, sustain, and release levels, which display as clip based envelope lines. Again, I would love to see the sustain portion eventually become capable of containing nodes, which would go a LONG way towards solving the stationary node problems mentioned above. Each audio event also carries a group of “switches,” invoked via inspector menu, that allow the user to lock, loop, mute, or normalize (nondestructively) each event.

Another almost invisible treat is the hardcore Windows compliance. Vegas takes this to new levels: every Windows convention is exploited to its maximum potential. Right dragging gives you the same sort of routing choices you’d get in an explorer menu. The interface itself is Windows, clear to the bone. What a treat, especially considering the European manufacturers’ overwhelmingly MAC and even Amiga-centric treatments of Windows apps, and the confusion and inefficiency that results.

Yet another cool feature that’s not immediately apparent: Vegas is a “skinned” application. Those with a mind towards graphic design can customize the background bitmaps, colors, buttons and “thumbs,” and just about every other visual aspect of the application through a very simple ini file. And for the more graphically challenged, simply cycling through various Windows color schemes will drastically change the appearance of Vegas. Try one of the high contrast/high color schemes for an example of this.

Conclusions

Several months ago, I spoke to Curtis Palmer, Chief Technical Officer at Sonic Foundry, about Vegas. He emphasized one point very clearly: that Vegas might not be the most feature heavy or fancy DAW application out of the starting gate, but it would absolutely be the most elegant.

Mission accomplished, Curt.

The interesting thing about writing this review is that it takes much longer to describe any given function than it takes to simply jump in and use it. This is the beauty of Vegas: after a week, you will hate working with any other application. The folks at Sonic Foundry have built a solid foundation with Vegas Pro, and it seems poised to capture a section of the market that appreciates the simple elegance it brings to the table. I’m a believer. I hope it’s catching, because I like what I see very much.

But don’t take my word for it…for the next few weeks, you can use Vegas gratis and draw your own conclusions. It’s definitely worth a good look if you’ve ever found yourself wondering if there’s a better way. For many folks, Vegas may well be it.

Bruce rolled out of his gate at DFW at 2:30 p.m. He entered his Washington DC hotel room at 4 a.m., with two soaked bags of clothing, some fierce indigestion, and this completed article.

Leave a Reply