Acid is the grand-daddy of music creation programs and Acid 6 raises the bar yet again, finds Graeme Hague.
Let me start by explaining one small problem with DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations), or maybe it’s not so small. Despite being around for quite a while now, it’s difficult to find any one application that does everything you need. You’re always transferring files or data to another piece of software to get something finished exactly to your liking–which isn’t to say that there aren’t programs that don’t do everything. They simply have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others.
Sony’s Acid Pro rules the world of loop-based music production and has been quite happy, until now, to stick with that niche in the market. For those of you who still haven’t experienced Acid, it uses precise, ‘acidised’ loops of music that can be repeated and mixed together to create a seamless composition. The acidised label refers to information embedded in the loops, such as pitch and tempo, which is automatically adjusted to suit however much you want to bend, twist and stretch the music around. Manipulating loops like this isn’t easy to do without weird-sounding artifacts sneaking into the mix, but Acid has by far been the best at doing this for a long time.
For some die-hard musicians, it’s cheating. People who have never picked up an instrument in their lives can make professional-sounding music and that’s just not fair, right? For those cheating folks, Acid is either a lot of fun or a serious production tool – and everything inbetween. Engineers and musicians who are a little more open-minded recognise Acid as a great way to throw together jingles, beds and soundtracks quickly. Your level of creativity is limited only by how much you want to slice and alter the original loops into something different.
It all sounds fine, except with limited midi support Acid wasn’t good for playing keyboard-based composing. And although it could record ‘real’ audio such as vocals or guitars you were restricted to one stereo track at a time with no input monitoring – you couldn’t hear through Acid what you were recording.
Okay, you’ve probably guessed by now that Acid Pro 6 fixes all these shortcomings with one fell swoop. Sony has radically added all these features into the new version and made Acid Pro more of a true DAW, offering everything you need. Which makes this review kind of interesting, because they haven’t done anything particularly ‘new’ at all – they’re not revolutionising DAW software or breaking down barriers. They’ve just integrated familiar functions (probably from Vegas, since it’s likely the same development team) into their award-winning looping technology. It only remains to see how well they’ve done this.
Figure 1: At last Acid Pro does the lot. The famous looping technology, fully editable and recordable midi tracks and standard audio with multiple track recording.
First, there’s a couple of things that are an advance on previous versions.
Thank the gods of software design, Acid can finally support more than one media event on a single track. Before, for example, a bass loop in a verse took one track, then another loop to build the chorus needed a separate track. The more complex you wanted to make the bass part, the more tracks you needed. In the case of drums you could use a dozen stereo tracks in pursuit of variety in your drumming. Now you can build an instrument track on its own, filled with all the bass or drum (or anything) loops you want. Hooray!
It’s also surprising that since Acid is so popular for fast, professional film and video scoring that ‘film-style’ 5.1 surround panning has taken this long to appear, but let’s not complain – it’s here now.
On a more technical side of things, Acid Pro 6 supports dual-core processors and external control surfaces like Mackie’s popular Mackie Control and others. You would expect even more to be added as updates are released. Control surfaces can make a world of difference to your workflow, once you’ve taken the plunge. You’ll never go back to mixing with a mouse again!
All right, back to the new stuff.
Midi programming for both music and automated mixing can be a powerful tool in the right hands. With this in mind Acid Pro 6 also supports VST instruments and they’ve thrown in Native Instrument’s Kompakt to prove it. Kompakt is a software synthesiser and sample playback device designed mainly to create rich, textured electronic sounds such as pads and sweeping phasers. With its sample-playback it can, in fact, reproduce anything you want to load into it and does come included with a whole swag of instruments an acoustic Grand Piano and natural drums, but there’s a heap of parameters in Kompakt itself to encourage tweaking these into some pretty whacky noises, too.
Figure 2: Do you like a few knobs to tweak? Native Instruments’ Kompakt should keep you happy. A software synthesiser that can deliver smooth, natural sounds from high-quality samples, or you can torture them into total weirdness.
Acid Pro’s ability to record and edit midi isn’t bad at all – it still isn’t as comprehensive as Cubase or Sonar, but then again you need a pilot’s license to take full advantage of those! Acid Pro offers the best of the important things like automatic quantising, editing on a grid-style window and a punch-in facility to give you endless attempts at tricky sections of playing (for two-fingered keyboardists like yours truly). You can also apply filters to your midi input to lessen any clean-up work afterwards, such as forcing note values to stay above certain levels. When you’ve recorded all the playing you want, next you can draw in freehand automation like volume envelopes (fade in or out) and panning.Â
These are the kinds of things that add interesting effects to your music, but can be time-consuming to do otherwise. The only disappointing aspect to Acid’s midi features was the lack of an information bar in the editing window. It’s handy to click on any note and see all its values displayed at once, but in Acid you need to right-click notes and access several different drop-down boxes to find out everything. It’d be nice to see this improved, because as you appreciate the power of midi more, you want all the information you can get. There is a List Editor that does this, but you can’t manually shift the notes in this window.
Figure 3: Editable parameters for midi events are found in drop-down boxes. It’s all there, but a single information bar would have been handy.
When it comes to audio Acid Pro has incorporated two important new features. You can now record simultaneously on as many tracks as your hardware allows – and your CPU can handle. In other words, if you own a MOTU 808Mk2 which has eight analog inputs you can arm and record on all eight at the same time. This might be overkill for many users, but there are plenty of audio interfaces that have four or six inputs and it’s common to need just that extra ability. For instance, I recently worked with a solo guitarist/singer who wanted stereo mikes on his acoustic guitar and his vocal recorded at the same time- three inputs, right? Next thing you know, his girlfriend wants to sing harmonies at the same time. Multiple track recording is very handy, trust me.
The other big addition, mentioned earlier, is Record Input Monitoring. In part, this goes hand-in-hand with some VST instruments, because it lets you listen to your playing in realtime. For recording audio-like vocals, this isn’t so important if you have any kind of mixing desk involved in your setup until your artist wants to hear reverb or other effects from Acid Pro as they play. Many do, because a ‘dry’ recording can be a frightening thing for some! Record Input Monitoring allows you to hear what you’re recording after Acid Pro has processed it, including any effects you’re adding. Be aware that other factors outside of Acid Pro come into play here. The amount of CPU grunt and RAM your system has can cause unacceptable levels of latency (a delay in what you hear). As long as you don’t get too greedy everything should be fine and, after my experiments, I can safely say that Acid Pro’s audio engine has got at least eight cylinders under the bonnet.
Similar to the midi editing, the audio tracks have automation features that can be drawn in freehand or recorded on-the fly (see Figure 4). These can be applied to VST effects as well, such as turning reverbs on and off at particular points in a song. That VST effects support allows you to use third-party plug-ins that might do a better, or maybe different job, to what comes with Acid Pro 6, for which plenty of high-quality plug-ins are included.
Figure 4: An automation envelope ‘ducking’ the volume under a nasty bit of singing. Just insert the node points and drag them to the desired levels including volume gains, of course. The centre of the envelope is ‘0’, meaning neither a cut or boost in level.
I have only one major gripe. With all that Acid Pro can now do with loops, midi and extra audio capability the developers resisted (or neglected) to include a dedicated Mixer Window that displays all the individual tracks rather than just output busses. Sure, the Main Window gives you everything you need, but the emphasis for this is tracking and organising your clips. A real Mixer with longer vertical sliders, displays of your EQ and effects settings and everything else that mixers do would round off Acid Pro 6 perfectly. Hopefully, they’ll add this later.
In the meantime, they’ve definitely given Acid a huge boost in features and ability making it an all-rounder for professionals and hobbyists alike. If you still haven’t gotten yourself a decent DAW for scoring your videos you won’t be disappointed with Acid Pro 6. It still gives you the best in looping technology, while the added midi and audio capabilities should just about cover anything you need to do. It’s a serious upgrade.