Sony Spectral Layers Review – by Jeff Yurek
Sony’s SpectralLayers Pro offers a new spin on spectral-style audio editing that Sony hopes will move the powerful editing technique out of the restoration lab and into the creative studio.
What is spectral audio editing?
Spectral audio editing itself is not exactly a new idea; audio restoration and forensics experts have relied on spectral editing software to tackle their toughest sessions for years. Unlike waveform editing, which measures amplitude over time, spectral editors look at frequency over time. This makes it possible to isolate and manipulate sounds that occupy distinct frequency ranges.
The image below of a one bar drum loop compares the two approaches. In the spectral view, you can see that the bass drum’s fundamental is centered at around 50Hz and the snare is closer to 200Hz. Using tools that allow you to select portions of audio by area, frequency or even harmonics opens up endless editing possibilities.
Central to Sony’s SpectralLayers Pro is a unique feature they call “layers.” Anyone who has used Photoshop will be familiar with this kind of non-destructive editing. Just like in Photoshop, selecting and moving specific portions of the audio onto their own layers enables you to completely remix a track without affecting the rest of the file. This makes it easy to identify and remove an annoying hum or guy coughing at a concert or even to turn up the bass part in song without having the multitrack.
How does SpectralLayers Pro stack up?
As a fairly experienced audio engineer, I’ve been working in studios since the mid 90’s, I have to admit I’ve only rarely seen spectral audio editing used for creating music. I’ve always thought of these tools in the context of restoration and repair of old recordings, not day-to-day creative work. So, I was really curious to see if Sony had really achieved their goal of making a creation-friendly spectral editor– something I might use to make music with rather than fix it.
There is definitely a steep learning curve here. After installing the software, on an “Early 2011” i7 MacBook Pro running Mac OS 10.8.2, I took one look at the foreign-looking interface and dug right into the included demonstration materials and manual. Controls like “gamma” and “zebra pattern threshold” really take some getting used to. That said, I was able to start having some fun with it fairly quickly doing basic tasks like removing a simple siren sound from a voiceover track. In general, I found the software to be snappy, responsive and reliable- in all of my testing it never crashed.
Once I ventured out of the friendly confines of the demonstration materials and into some of my own audio I started to get bogged down. The first thing I tried was removing a bass from a rock song that included drums, bass, acoustic guitar and vocals. I wanted to see if I could pull the bass from the bridge of the song to make it more of a breakdown. I was able to do it but not 100% cleanly and not without a lot of fuss. The comparisons many have made to Photoshop are apt in that nearly anything is possible with this software but you might have to spend a lot of time tweaking at the “pixel” level to get it there.
Next, I opened up some drum samples to see what kind of wild sound design possibilities SpectralLayers Pro might open up. In this case I found I was able to create some very unique sounds by altering the ring of a very ringy snare drum without interfering with the transient. I can definitely see people using this software this way– if you are looking for a signature sound and you have the time to tweak, it opens up a lot of possibility. I’m usually working so fast that I’d rather just keep flipping through my sound bank until I find something closer to what I’m hearing than dig in at this level.
In the end, I found SpectralLayers Pro to be an exceptionally powerful but finicky tool. I’m not sure Sony succeeded at making a spectral editing tool for mainstream, everyday creative work so it probably will not find its way into my regular workflow except in emergencies. However, at $399 MSRP there is a lot of value here for restoration, sound design and obsessive tinkerers alike.