Sony’s SpectraLayers Pro 1.0 application is a 64-bit audio editing platform that features sound shaping capabilities with a unique and user-friendly interface
SpectraLayers Pro 1.0 shows the audio on a multidimensional spectral display. With SpectraLayers Pro you can correct audio, remove specific frequencies, or change sound over time or within a specified frequency range — it’s a complete audio editing app.
When I first saw SpectraLayers Pro’s description, I had to think of iZotope’s RX Advanced, but while SpectraLayers allows you to correct audio and remove noise, it is especially targeted at editing sound in creative ways. RX Advanced is more of a correction tool.
Sony SpectraLayers is especially useful for editing recordings made for video, voice-overs, live recordings, and for sound sculpting.
SpectraLayers’ interface is a large window with a spectral view of your sound. Spectral means that all sound is represented as a sum of frequencies with different amplitudes and phase. To the left of this window is a vertical toolbar, to the right is the control panel area with Layers and Channels panels active by default. Along the top of the interface is another toolbar with contextual controls, e.g. to change the “brush” characteristics of a selection tool.
The interface reminded me somewhat of a Photoshop environment with sound brushes. The use of a Wacom tablet is fully supported, and pen pressure will multiply the strength of a selection in most cases. Sony developed SpectraLayers for both Windows and Mac OS X. This is reflected in the interface; it’s not Mac unfriendly, but Mac users will lack the genuine Mac OS X user experience. Luckily, this does not affect ease-of-use or user-friendliness.
The idea behind SpectraLayers is that you’ll edit your audio by selecting portions of it and transferring these to layers where you can process these portions.
There are various selection tools, ranging from a simple area picker to a frequency-with-harmonics picker. To clearly see what you are selecting, you can zoom in both frequency and time wise, you can pan the window, and increase “contrast” and “brightness” of the spectral data. And you can even turn the flat spectral data in a 3D representation that you can manipulate to better see the selections and edits you’ve performed so far.
There are also frequency drawing tools and there’s a noise removal tool. All of these tools can be regarded as brushes of which you can change the time length, frequency depth and lowest power at which you’ll actually grab the sound you’re “painting” over with the tool.
SpectraLayers’ drawing tools enable you to create sounds (sound sculpting) either based on existing sounds, or from scratch. The two most simple drawing tools are frequency and noise. These only have a few parameters to set such as frequency, time range and hardness or fuzziness.
Finally, you can record audio directly into SpectraLayers.
Sony SpectraLayers supports plug-ins, but unfortunately it only knows about VST effects. On my system, with iZotope’s Ozone and other such VST plug-ins installed, I could add equalizer effects using Ozone, but no CoreAudio effects whatsoever. This is a disappointment if you’re working on the Mac platform.
The workflow concept is simple:
- Open a sound file; usually a mix
- Transfer selected sound to individual layers
- Process the layers
- Export (‘bounce’) the resulting audio to a new file — or integrate with an audio editing application (DAW) like Logic Pro or a video editing application (NLE) like Final Cut Pro (but not X) or Media Composer.
In Logic Pro, you can set SpectraLayers as external sample editor. When called as such, the File menu in SpectraLayers will reveal a new option that sends the processed file to the host application. On of the benefits of using SpectraLayers 1.0 as the sample editor in Logic Pro or another DAW on your Mac is obvious: it gives you indirect access to CoreAudio effects. However, there’s another advantage.
If you open a sound file in SpectraLayers direct, it will most probably be a finished mix. SpectraLayers does allow you to un-mix audio files into discrete component layers using the editing tools, but it’s always easier to start from an unmixed source in the first place.
Having said this, Sony has done a brilliant job enabling you to lift even complex selections out of an existing mix, process those selections, and create a new mix.
I tested the application with a recording I made from music playing with people talking in the background. Using the frequency and harmonics selection tools, I was able to lift the conversation and by inverting the phase of the layer with their sound, I could effectively clean the music from this disturbing sound.
However, as some frequencies from the voices crossed over with the frequencies of the music, it took a good hour before I finally cleaned out the music without also removing some of the music itself. Even zooming in really close couldn’t prevent this from being a task that requires concentration, care, and especially time.
The good news is that, given the time to do the job, SpectraLayers enabled me to clean out the music to 100%, while with tools such as iZotope’s RX Advanced there’s no way to get rid of those voices, because they’re not noise or hum, and they’re not good candidates for spectral repair.
With SpectraLayers I could also create sound from existing sound by applying a VST equalizer and reverb effect from Ozone to a selected range of frequencies, which gave the audio a strange ‘aura’. The VST effect could be previewed, its parameters changed with sliders or in its native editor. Using the latter, I couldn’t preview my changes until I closed the Editor.
If there’s anything I would wish for in SpectraLayers 1.0 it would be the ability to use a native VST editor and be able to preview the effect immediately, with the editor open. Support for CoreAudio effects would be nice too. But apart from these two items of criticism, I think SpectraLayers 1.0 is a far better sample editor and spectral analysis/processing tool than anything else I’ve come across on the Mac.