AUDIO ALIGNMENT SOFTWAREIs it my imagination or does life in audio production land just keep getting better with each new plug-in that comes along? I used to spend hours cutting and splicing tracks, meticulously placing sound effects, carefully nudging vocal phrases, and painstakingly moving drum hits-one waveform at a time. Now there are plug-ins that handle many of these tasks automatically. Enter some parameters, adjust a threshold, assign your sample and voila-yesterday's dialog is locked to today's groove, a new sound effect is dropped to the old markers, every squeak below -20 dB is gone, and the lead singer's flat performance is perfectly in pitch.
One such plug-in is VocALign AS by Synchro Arts. This amazing plug-in helps make audio alignment a snap. Take two dialog lines at completely different locations, saying the same thing, but with totally mismatched meters. VocALign can lock these two performances together, spotting, fixing timing and laying back the dub in the blink of an eye. Tailor-made for ADR, clearly, but let your mind wander and it's obvious this plug-in also has a wealth of potential applications, from sound-effects editing (e.g., replacing effects cues) to music production (e.g., tightening up loosely sung background vocals).
Previously, the VocALign plug-in was a stand-alone application. While it worked with Pro Tools, importing and exporting SDII files, it was not an actual AudioSuite plug-in. VocALign AS is a real AudioSuite plug-in (the AS stands for AudioSuite). The catch: VocALign AS is only compatible with Pro Tools Version 5.0 or higher. Forget about using the plug-in with earlier versions of Pro Tools; it won't work. According to Synchro Arts, the developers worked closely with Digidesign to implement specific code in Version 5.0 that enables the AudioSuite operation. I put VocALign AS Version 1.0 through its paces on a Mac (there's no Windows version) for this Field Test.
PREPARE TO ALIGNPast experience told me that upgrading to Pro Tools 5.0 might be rough. I was in the midst of mixing an important album and wanted to wait until the project was complete before upgrading for fear that there would be compatibility issues between the versions. The last thing I wanted to find out, after doing the full install, was that 4.3.2 sessions didn't translate properly to 5.0. But if I wanted to use VocALign, which I did, it was time to upgrade. This isn't a Pro Tools field test, but I'm happy to report that the 5.0 install was a piece of cake, and all my 4.3.2 sessions are booting and playing fine.
With Pro Tools upgraded, I was ready to install VocALign. The plug-in comes on CD-ROM-simply place the CD in your drive and run the installer program. The installer places the plug-in in the Plug-In Folder inside your system's DAE Folder. A folder labeled VocALign AS is dropped into your hard drive. Inside the VocALign AS Folder is a PDF manual and a tutorial session. The complete install, including the uncompressed SDII files used in the tutorial, eats up about 5.5 MB.
Synchro Arts recommends the tutorial for first-time users, but the program is so easy to navigate, most folks will be able to dive right in after a quick skim through the manual. However, the tutorial's audio files are optimized to show off VocALign's capabilities, so they're great for getting an idea of what the program can do in a best-case scenario. Incidentally, the manual, while it is clearly written with lots of useful application tips, is poorly bound. After a few minutes of page turning and flattening, all the pages fell out. A plastic spiral binding would be much more convenient and durable.
Copy protection is via key disk. One install is provided. If you lose the install, Synchro Arts will provide a challenge response code to registered users-a good reason to register.
HARMONIC ALIGNMENTWith the plug-in properly installed, it appears, as expected, in Pro Tools' AudioSuite menu. Select the plug-in and the VocALign window pops up. The main work area comprises two horizontal, blank panes. The top pane is labeled Guide, and the bottom pane is labeled Dub. The Guide area displays the waveform used as the alignment master; the Dub area shows the waveform to be aligned.
A Capture button at the bottom of the window imports the Guide or Dub audio. Highlight a region of a track in Pro Tools' Edit window, click anywhere on the Guide or Dub pane to activate it, and hit the Capture button. An "Analyzing: VocALign" message appears for a second, and then the waveform shows up in the selected pane. It's important to remember to select the Guide or Dub pane before importing a region. For example, I had a region highlighted as my Guide, I imported it and then went on to select the Dub. With the Dub highlighted, I hit Capture, but having forgotten to select the Dub pane, my Guide region was overwritten. I had to begin the entire Capture process over again. An Undo Last Capture command would be a nice feature.
VocALign works by pushing, stretching and moving the Dub waveform to match the peaks, valleys and start time of the Guide waveform. There are five different levels of processing: Low, Normal, High, Maximum Compression and Maximum Expansion. The Low setting is the least dramatic, making very little change to the Dub other than aligning its start time. It provides the best fidelity. Normal is the plug-in's default. It's perfect for most situations where a modest amount of wave shaping is needed. High really molds and kneads the Dub. It's great for a waveform that's way out of sync with the Guide, but beware of artifacts using this setting-little hiccups that sound like waveforms spliced together at odd angles (not acceptable on a solo instrument but probably okay buried in the mix). Use Maximum Compression and Expansion when a signal needs to be especially squashed or pulled to match the Guide's duration.
Processed audio can be auditioned in the typical fashion using the ubiquitous Preview button, or visually via an alignment trace. A large bar to the left of the panes labeled Align generates an outline of what the Dub will look like, processed. The trace is superimposed over the Guide's waveform, making it a breeze to see how closely the effected waveform mirrors the Guide. I love this feature, since being able to decide VocALign's setting based on eyeballing saves a lot of time. Without it, you'd have to write the effected Dub to disk, over and over, in order to physically compare it to the Guide. The Preview feature is just for checking audio quality, because it only plays the processed Dub (i.e., you can't hear the Guide at the same time). Currently, Pro Tools generates a strange message at the end of an audio preview: "DAE error-7456 was encountered." Don't worry, it doesn't appear to cause a problem. Simply hit Return and keep working.
Once everything is set, hit the Process button to send the effected dub back to your Pro Tools session. The new waveform can be sent to any track desired, and a pull-down menu above the panes lists all the current session's available tracks. Open up a new track, use an existing track, or pipe the processed region right back to the same track it originally came from-just be careful not to overwrite anything important (although, thanks to Pro Tools' nondestructive architecture, this is almost impossible).
ALL LINED UPVocALign AS is an awesome tool, but don't expect miracles. It works best on short regions that have neatly separated, defined audio chunks (i.e., not a lot of overlapping sounds where the beat divisions are swallowed by sustained notes). Early on, I learned that asking VocALign AS to try to process a region that was too long, with too many phrases, was ineffective. Over time, the processed region drifts, putting the first few phrases in time but leaving the last few in never-never land. Feeding the plug-in smaller, bite-sized spoonfuls, a few phrases at a time, yields the best results.
Once open, VocALign AS's window can stay on the screen while you are flying audio back and forth. This makes trying a variety of settings and different regions a snap, perfect for fast-paced ADR sessions. However, assigning the plug-in a window-shade option would make it even more convenient. Snapping the window into a single compact bar without losing your settings or captured regions is smart and space-efficient, a must for single-screen setups.
VocALign AS wields a wealth of editing power. I can personally attest to its usefulness: It saved me hours of having to retrack and manually align several tracks on a project I was mixing. For example, I was able to fix the timing in one section of an otherwise excellent lead-vocal track by applying the timing of an old scratch track with great timing but bad intonation (too bad it doesn't fix intonation as well). VocALign AS's possibilities are quite impressive, by no means limited only to dialog replacement, but for ADR and other such applications, it's definitely the cat's meow. Check it out-for only $495.
Synchro Arts Limited, 13 Links Road, Epsom Surrey KT17 3PP, UK; 44/1372/ 811-934; fax 44-1372-817-976; www.synchroarts.co.uk.