Electro Tools of the Trade – Acid Pro

Painting with sound - Example from one of my Sonic Foundry / Sony Acid Pro projects

April 23, 2011 (Updated 4/24) – This weekend I went through some older material from the days when I used Acid… Acid Pro that is – a loop-based composition platform that was popular since the moment it hit the scene in 1998. More or less obsolete now – surpassed by programs like Ableton and Reason, Acid Music/Acid Pro was originally developed by Sonic Foundry. One of the things that made this Windows-only music platform attractive were the many loop libraries that came ready-made for music making in a number of styles. Now in version 7, it is not surprising that Acid (and several flavors for guitarists, DJs, etc) took off and developed a dedicated following. Honestly, you don’t even need to be a musician to use this stuff, which is part of the philosophical problem I had after a few years of exposure. With a rather simple interface compared to today’s apps, Acid was very good at beat-mapping and allowed the user to get up and running with a groove very quickly in a graphical manner. In fact, the songs that I made with Acid were not so much “composed” as they were “painted”. This gave my Acid pieces a quality that none of my other work had back then or since (note I do not say it was always a good quality).

Using loops has advantages – they are clean, clear and can be very inspiring. As a guitarist/singer, using loops became a go-to technique to establish music beds to improvise against. It’s easy to work on a verse/chorus structure, then copy them out to create a song quickly. “Acidized” loops contain tempo and key information, so that Acid can properly time stretch them when pitch shifted. This doesn’t always work, but in general it takes some of the guesswork out of the recording/production process and gets you creating quickly.

Stylistically, I particularly liked having access to East Asian sounds that I otherwise would not be able to access. Even after I found a real tabla player, having some of these elements helped tie stuff together. For me, writing/recording are intertwined, so having access to as many new sounds as possible has always been a great motivator for coming up with new, original melodies and concepts for songs. Acid did a great job of this for a while, and thankfully the loop libraries are generally compatible with most other platforms.

Of course, with all the loop libraries available in so many styles, the motivation to create your own can be reduced. This also leads to creation of pieces that lack context. Tablas, Dub bass and Erhu site alongside slide guitar, guiro and bamboo flute. Sure, these things can – and do – work together if done well, but it is all too easy to slap something together. The adage “if it sounds good, it is good” (famous JD Moore quote) is important here, and sometimes if it sounds good, it my not be culturally sensitive. For example, though I experimented with them briefly, I discontinued use of Native American Indian vocal loops.

Marketing soon took over with the many “signature series” loop libraries by artists like Bill Laswell, Mick Fleetwood and Rapoon. Whole genres of music were seemingly created out of the loop approach. If used well, the loop-based approach could create beautiful music with a lot of variety and – this is the key – just the right amount of repetition. Sonic Foundry created AcidPlanet as a place for artists of all backgrounds to share their work, and remix contests added another form of community to the already popular remix culture, particularly in electronic genres.

As a guitarist, it might be a lot of fun to solo over a music bed ad infinitum, but when it came to playing the loops as an instrument, Acid was not very effective. Very often the same things that made the loop paradigm fun also made it frustrating and limiting. Making painstaking adjustments during the composition process was more akin to data entry. This is probably why Propellerhead’s Reason and Recycle took off – though it would be years before I would experience the revelation that is Reason.

Opium for Acid... someone must be on crack.

Another problem is that these ready-made loops libraries – whether synthesized or played by real musicians – are available to anyone with the $30 or $40 to purchase the library. (Later with Ebay, this price was cut in half). So it was not long before I would hear loops from stock libraries in my personal collection being used in TV commercials. Well, there goes that cool loop I wanted to use – not because of any legal ramification, but just out of creative integrity. Less distinctive drum loops and basic grooves were easier to pass off. And indeed, from my second album on, Acid came in handy on occasion when a “real” drummer wasn’t available. Yet, as the technology changed and the limitations of straight loop-based composition became clear, the method fell out of favor in the projects I was pursuing.

But if the goal was to provide something that would get people making music quickly and having fun, Acid was not far from its namesake – trippy, and somewhat addictive. Acid Pro showed that anyone with a computer – who didn’t necessarily play an instrument – could make music. After a while though, it was easy to get stuck in the patterns and painting that the program forced on the user. It was also not that great at pitch shifting and crashed quite often. Then there were the synchronization issues. During the early days of Sonic Foundry Acid, it was primarily a stripped down audio program, with MIDI capability added later. Added somewhat as an afterthought from my perspective, since I was using Cakewalk/Sonar for MIDI duties and never found Acid up to the task. Still, if you wanted the best of both worlds, there were ways to synchronize the programs, or sync with an off-board recorder like the my Roland VS-1680 (another Electro Tool to be featured soon).

Frustrated by the many technical issues, the nail in the coffin for my Acid days happened when Acid was eventually purchased from Sony. For one thing, they added an even more difficult licensing/activation scheme on top of what was there before. Sonar eventually added looping tools, as did just about every other DAW on the market, and soon Acid just didn’t have anything solid going for it except the cool “acidized” libraries that could be used everywhere else if you just knew how. I’d later boycott all Sony products anyway due to their MiniDisc platform and the grief it caused me. I was also “burned” by a companion Sony program, CD Architect, during the making of Catch the Squirrel, reducing my interest in Sony even more. These changes, including stylistic decisions, eventually took me away from Acid for several years. Sound Forge, on the other hand, has remained one of the best 2-track audio editors out there, and since I am so proficient with it, I am still looking for a replacement (Mac or PC).

Now, in 2011, I’m in the process of streamlining my entire recording workflow – eliminating programs (PC and Mac) wherever possible, and archiving whatever I can. I’m also returning to my electro material with renewed interest because of my biweekly Internet radio show, Signals with Shivasongster. So those old Acid tracks might come in handy now – if not by themselves, perhaps souped up with some additional tracks using other production methods that I’ve learned since then. It’s been a long time coming for me to go back into the Acid Pro world, even if temporarily. I’ve been dreading the process of documenting and converting my best Acid tracks and ideas to some other platform. Even now, getting back to electro, I don’t plan to compose in Acid Pro because I prefer the control that Reason/Record offers. Since I do not ever plan to upgrade past Acid Pro 5, my version is likely to stop working with my next – reluctant but probably necessary – Windows Upgrade. Ah, the life an electronic musician – thankfully my acoustic guitar will always be compatible!


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.

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