Audio, Reviews

Sony SpectraLayers Pro 3: painting audio for audio engineers, remix artists and audio-for-video producers

SpectraLayers Pro 3 interface

When SpectraLayers Pro came out a few years ago, it was the advanced audio spectrum analyser/editor many audio engineers dreamt of. In practice, the application was slow and not always stable. Version 2 ran a bit faster, although not by much, but it gained features not found anywhere else such as layer casting and moulding. With the only just released SpectraLayers Pro 3 Sony hasn’t chosen for the easy road of adding bloat to the app. Instead, they’ve made several impressive improvements, speeding up the app considerably, giving it a better, far more user-friendly and customisable interface and the ability to process 24bit/192kHz files. There are a few new features as well, but the focus of version 3 lies with making SpectraLayers Pro a more efficient, pleasurable audio editing app.

The types of users SpectraLayers Pro appeals to include audio mastering engineers who can repair, filter, and remix audio, sound designers and remix artists who can isolate individual sounds in an audio file, select material by frequency, and construct new music directly on the spectral graph, audio-for-video producers who will eliminate unwanted noise with extreme precision, forensics specialists and audio archivists.

You might be forgiven to think these types of users could also use iZotope’s RX4 Advanced to name but one example, but then you’d forget about the creative possibilities SpectraLayers Pro 3 offers which RX4 doesn’t. Even in the area where the two applications do overlap each other’s functionality — repair and forensics — there’s a huge difference between the two in the way you work with them. RX4 is all about traditional working methods, while SpectraLayers is more like a paint program.

SpectraLayers Pro 3 interface

Both apps will allow you to remove noise, for example, but in RX4 you will work with a control panel offering control by values, numbers and sliders with a lot of feedback in terms of signal power. In SpectraLayers Pro 3 you’ll paint your noise fingerprint, select the noise removal command from the menu and you’re done. I’ve tried both methods on the same difficult file (birds singing in my back garden with a gale 6 directly coming from a busy motorway and a ship repair shop nearby) and in both apps I could restore the birds’ songs to almost a 100% pure sound.

However, in RX4 Advanced I needed to think more about what I was doing, while in SpectraLayers Pro 3, I could just listen, select and try. It took me two attempts to get the result I wanted with SpectraLayers Pro 3 and three with RX4 Advanced. Someone who is new to both apps might fair worse, while an experienced audio engineer would probably succeed in just one try — with either app.

It’s in the areas of creativity and precision editing that I find SpectraLayers to have an edge, a considerable one in my opinion. It probably always had, but the previous versions lacked the — mostly graphical — performance to make working with it a pleasurable experience unless you had the fastest Mac available.

SpectraLayers Pro 3 therefore is really a huge step forward and I wouldn’t hesitate even to call it a new application, period. I tested the new features using stereo channels, but SpectraLayers Pro 3 can handle up to eight (8) channels for surround sound. It also recognised my Duet iPad/Mac’s four output channels correctly, even giving me the opportunity to set the output channels to whatever (surround) combination there exists.

SpectraLayers Pro 3 Selection

Even on my mid-2011 iMac i5/3.1GHz system, painting a selection with the brush tool is now exactly like painting in Photoshop or Pixelmator: fast, with no lags occurring after a few seconds. Even when I set the brush to paint the maximum time span of five seconds, the brush remained responsive and I could select parts of the audio without having to wait for the app to catch up with me.

The SpectraLayers waveform and other improvements

Speed isn’t the only thing that has improved dramatically in SpectraLayers Pro 3. The main window has been upgraded with a waveform display, but not just any waveform. The SpectraLayers waveform is a special one. Its main purpose is to show you where exactly in the audio file you are located, but it also shows you the dB power of each layer by superimposing each layer’s own waveform in its own layer colour.

This takes us to another new feature: layers can have colours. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re working with more than four layers, you’ll quickly lose track. You can’t customise colours (yet?) and there are ‘only’ nine of them, but colour-coding was impossible in previous versions of SpectraLayers Pro, so it’s a feature that I welcome.

Layers can also be dragged to reorder them and the fader slider can be reset by a simple double-click. Panels can be teared off and docked too, by the way. Sony made SpectraLayers Pro 3 more Mac-like in general terms as well. What the tool icons stand for, for example, is now instantly recognisable and the 3D view of the spectrum window can now be controlled using a cleverly designed and intuitive displacement pad. Another feature that’s been finally added is an audio scrubber. You click anywhere in the spectrum and the playhead will snap to the cursor; drag it forward and backward and the sound will follow.

SpectraLayers Pro 3

Tools themselves work better too in my opinion, but this could be due to the program’s performance. For example, selecting harmonics doesn’t show a stuttering effect anymore, as SpectraLayers Pro 2 would often do. It just follows your mouse or pen. Working with a Wacom tablet and using the pressure-aware capabilities of most tools also works well.

Tools now also have three modes that you can instantly switch between using intuitive icons: replace, add and subtract from selection modes behave just like their image counterparts in Photoshop. Lasso and polygonal lasso allow you to draw very precise selections, while magic wand makes it easier to select shapes that have the same amplitude threshold.

Casting and molding a layer has become much easier too. By casting a layer you can create more room for vocals, for example, but with a bit of experimenting I gave a voice recording the sound characteristics of another layer’s music — which sounds really weird.

The integration with Sound Forge Pro 2.5 has been improved as well. It’s faster and it’s stable. The previous version would have a tendency to crash or make Sound Forge crash when using this feature. Not so with SpectraLayers Pro 3. It just works. Finally, Preferences are now grouped in one tabbed Preferences panel, with a new tab where you can customise your keyboard shortcuts.

There’s no doubt about it: this is the SpectraLayers Pro version that could replace a bunch of other audio tools and make you work more comfortable, more intuitively. SpectraLayers Pro 3 can be had for €339,95. Upgrades start from €169,95.