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Fraunhofer and Sonnox in plug-in first

In this week's report Phil Ward reveals how one little Sonnox plug-in's digital heritage helps it to deliver particularly 'well-dressed audio'.

The Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec plug-in enables real-time auditioning, encoding and decoding of audio signals via Fraunhofer, for the first time within a host DAW environment. The digital audio heritage encapsulated within this plug-in makes the Saxe-Coburg dynasty look like gypsies. Similarly Anglo-German, it combines Sony Oxford console legacy with the heraldry of the institute that invented MP3, among much else; and its claim to the throne of Actually Quite Useful Web Audio Application is undisputed. The monitoring and preview features are the jewels in this crown. They allow mixing with specific target codecs in mind, a major step forward in the war on internet terror. Meanwhile mastering engineers can compensate for the vicissitudes of the final format and produce masters whose encoding is ultimately optimised for the distribution, like sending the kids to school in the right clothes for the weather. Using the GUI, users can know in advance which frequencies might need adjustment for a particular codec as they EQ the final file. They can also visualise output using graphs, and as tweaks are made multiple codecs can be ‘armed’ and the files written for them even as playback continues. A pre-configured output directory collects the files as desired, with export settings and metadata added appropriately.
 It joins the army of plug-ins compatible with Pro Tools and many other VST and Audio Units applications on both PC and Mac. Offline encoding and decoding of WAV or AIFF files is also possible, and the plug-in is entirely compatible with stereo and up to 7.1 surround formats. So why is this necessary? Because to date too many download mixes have been duplicates of the CD mix, complete with additional signals that can easily compromise the encoding process. Add to that the variability of codecs and you simply cannot rely on any given mix to survive the reductive process of going online.
 Mastering studios are currently under pressure to deliver at very high levels for CD, at huge risk to the quality of material repurposed for iPod, laptop and general MP3 consumption. This makes the Pro-Codec a very timely development, says Sonnox MD Rod Densham. “The problem was that mastering engineers couldn’t really know how the final output was going to sound through these channels,” he says. “You can render out an MP3 file and then listen to it, go back again and tweak the bottom end, go and have a coffee, render it again and continue like this on a trial and error basis, but it turns into a long, tedious cycle. There has never before been the ability to listen to a codec’s output in real time, and that’s the real breakthrough.
 “Now you can make those mix decisions as you’re mixing, and optimise the work for internet distribution. In the past the online dimension was out of engineers’ hands, having delivered the best sounding master they can as a WAV file only to have it inappropriately compressed further down the line and quite possibly mangled. Mastering engineers are only too aware that most of the output of the ‘record’ industry is going to end up online in one form or another, with people listening to it on cheap, white ear buds or whatever. That’s just the way it is. So the industry needs to ensure that in future the mastering process will not only create great mixes that will sound good in people’s homes, but also within the MP3 environment.”
 As a non-commercial organisation, Fraunhofer Institute approached Sonnox as a renowned plug-in enterprise to further the cause of this solution. Cue fanfare: now the gypsy audio file can begin its journey in the right coat of arms…
 “That’s what a mastering engineer’s role is: to make the final product sound good in a club, on a car stereo, on a hi-fi but also online or wherever it may end up having been online,” reflects Densham. “The motivation behind this plug-in is to improve generally the quality of online audio. There have been AES White Papers addressing this issue recently, and we knew at the time that we were working on a solution with Fraunhofer that would help. It literally informs the engineer what the problem is: what you’re losing from the signal through a given codec, and what you can do to optimise the output accordingly. Even if you’re not actually producing the MP3 file yourself, you can at least master for a particular codec.
 “Some customers don’t accept MP3, such as iTunes for example, and insist on doing the compression themselves. They only accept WAV files. But if you know which codec they use you can head them off at the pass, if you like, and send a WAV file that’s fully prepared for its fate.”