Digidesign’s Pro Tools has become a way of life for most modern recordists, and with the recent release of version 5.1 software, it has become a full-fledged surround sound production tool. Of course, to get your surround masterpiece to most of the public, you’ll almost certainly have to first encode the data in Dolby Digital and/or DTS format. Up until very recently, this required the use of either an expensive hardware real-time encoder or a Windows-based software system the latter of which first necessitated conversion of a 5.1 mix into six discrete .wav files. But now, Kind Of Loud’s SmartCode Pro allows you to do Dolby Digital or DTS encoding from directly within Pro Tools, thus saving you both time and money two very important factors to any working engineer!
There are three versions of SmartCode Pro (SCP) currently available. The Dolby version creates .ac3 files for use with all standard DVD authoring programs, and there are two DTS versions: a full rendition that creates files suitable for both DVD and CD production, and a lite version that only creates .wav files suitable for CD production. All three versions operate as standard AudioSuite plug-ins from within Pro Tools and even low-end PT systems such as Digi 001 and Audiomedia III are supported. Installation from CD-ROM is straightforward, and authorization requires a standard challenge-response, which is e-mailed to you within 24 hours of registration. In case you’re lazy about registering, the Dolby version will run for seven days without authorization, while the DTS version will run for a rather more generous 15 days.
Using SCP is a snap: in Pro Tools Edit window, simply select the tracks you wish to encode and then instantiate the SmartCode Pro plug-in. Both versions default to a 5.1 setup, although the Dolby version can also be used to encode a variety of track layouts (including Pro Logic LCRS, though it does not do Pro Logic encoding); with both versions, you can opt to include an LFE channel or not. If you’re running Pro Tools 5.1 or higher, the simplest way to use SCP is to mix to a single 5.1 track and then simply select it the default LCRLsRs mapping will automatically match SCP’s default speaker output. If you want to change this, or if you’re instead selecting discrete mono or stereo tracks for encoding, SCP provides a graphic speaker grid that allows you to freely assign the selected tracks to the appropriate speaker outputs.
Both versions provide a variety of encoding options. SCP/Dolby allows you to select any of eight data rates, from 224 to 640 kbps (higher data rates provide increased audio quality, but longer processing times and larger file sizes), as well as setting the dialog normalization (dialnorm) value and various bitstream parameters (such as center and surround mix levels, Pro Logic mode, and copyright bit). Preprocessing parameters enable the setting of various audio compression options (five presets are provided, or you can opt for no compression), input filtering, and surround channel settings for downmixing (such as 3 dB attenuation and 90-degree phase shift). Options within SCP/DTS allow you to set the bit depth (16 or 24), byte order (for creating an Intel .wav or Motorola .dts or compacted .cpt file), attenuate the rear channels by 3 dB, or pad the buffer with zeroes (when unselected, a compacted file can be created). The full DTS version also gives you the ability to select either the DVD bit rates of 1509 or 754 kbps (available only when the Pro Tools session is running at 48 kHz) or the CD bit rate of 1200 kbps. Being an AudioSuite plug-in, SCP’s encoding is non-real-time; the amount of processing time necessary will vary according to your Mac’s CPU speed. On my 9600/300 with a G3/400 accelerator card, DTS encoding at 1200 kbps generally took twice real-time, as did Dolby encoding at the default data rate of 448 kbps (Dolby encoding at the highest 640 kbps took nearly three times real-time).
The usual spate of AudioSuite controls are provided, allowing you to process either the region list or playlist, and to create individual files or a single contiguous file (or even, dangerously, to overwrite your files!). Region by region processing is supported in the Dolby version, but not in the DTS version. One of my few complaints about SCP/Dolby is that, if you’re planning on doing standard 5.1 encoding, the AudioSuite control defaults have to be changed manually whenever instantiating (from Center Only to Multichannel Mode, and Use In Playlist deselected). [Ed. Note: According to Kind Of Loud, these default settings are functions of the Digidesign AudioSuite engine, which they cannot alter.] There’s also a non-standard anomaly in both the Dolby and DTS versions where the Return key on your Mac has to be pressed after typing in a filename; failure to do so reverts the filename to the default Untitled whenever changing any other parameters in the SCP window.
Those niggles aside, SCP has proven to be a flawless performer in my studio, allowing me to easily and quickly create test CDs of DTS-encoded files and also to prepare audio data for DVD authoring using Toast and various other applications. Digidesign’s MasterList CD is smart enough to automatically recognize and use the .wav files created by SCP/DTS; if you’re using a different CD burning program (such as Toast), it’s a simple matter to bounce the files to disk from within Pro Tools and create the required 16-bit 44.1 kHz .aiff files. But, in every instance, the resulting output file was created flawlessly, and I never created a single coaster. Best of all, the entire operation occurred inside my Mac, relieving me of the need to hook up outboard gear or shoot files over to a Wintel computer. If you’re doing surround sound and working in Pro Tools, this one’s an absolute no-brainer.