Review: Audio Design Desk

Audio Design Desk is a groundbreaking, sophisticated tool that changes the paradigm about how to perform sound design quickly.

As many filmmakers and content creators know, sound design is a very significant aspect of how engaging your content is to your audience.

But right now, in 2020, the pandemic and its negative effects on the economy have resulted in a big problem for postproduction work: Namely, as your clients slash their budgets, you’re most likely not going to have enough money left to hire an audio postproduction department. In short, it may just not be economically viable to hire professionals for most projects. So, what do you do?

One option is to do it yourself: Just because you may not have the budget to hire pros doesn’t mean that your finished video can’t have quality sound design that amplifies your project’s emotional impact.

And that’s precisely what I found when I had a chance to try a new sound design tool called Audio Design Desk.

It’s simply a very innovative program designed to assist video editors and content creators with the detailed and laborious process of sound design, crafting the sounds and environment for your project—everything from a basic task, like adding a few whooshes and bass drones for your indie film trailer, to designing an entire detailed sound environment for your elaborate fight scene.

I spent two months using Audio Design Desk for several sound design projects, and I’m convinced there’s nothing else like it on the market. Frankly, it changes the game for video editors who want to do sound design, or sound designers who are in a hurry for deadlines.

Sound Design Is An Exercise In Timing And Details

If you’ve never ventured into actually doing sound design, I can tell you from years of doing it and being involved in audio post that it’s fun, but it can be quite challenging and incredibly labor intensive and tedious. mWhy?

It’s simple. Telling a story visually with video editing usually involves building a scene with characters or, in the case of a documentary or corporate video, telling your story using sound bites from real people, b-roll to cover what they are talking about or reaction shots or flashbacks in a narrative edit. Sound design requires more imagination in some ways.

Foley (the reproduction of everyday sound effects), sound effects and spotting, or putting markers where specific sound effects are supposed to occur, is a long, detailed and mentally challenging exercise.

For example, take a typical fight scene in a movie or TV show, which will have many swings, misses, hits, grunts, groans and even actors hitting the floor. Each of these needs to have not only its own sound effect, but also you need to assign each its own timing, which lets you anticipate when the audio element will occur so that the sound effect happens at the perfect moment—in sync with picture! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The takeaway here is that sound design can be creatively challenging—since finding and placing those sounds, one at a time, at just the perfect spot in your timeline can be extremely time consuming. So, you’ll find many video editors will forgo sound design, simply because they cannot spend days and days on the task.

Enter A Solution

Audio Design Desk, which won this year’s prestigious NAB Best of Show Award for 2020 from the virtual NAB show, is quite a unique program designed to do one thing and do it quickly: It helps video editors rapidly design an engaging soundtrack for video projects.

The way it does this is that the program is sort of a combination of a sound effects library, a digital audio workstation and a sequencer/sampler.

I recently spent a couple of months using Audio Design Desk, and here are three cool features that I found very impressive:                                                                                                                           

  1. It includes a 20,000-sound library: Ambience, Foley, Footsteps, Music Stems, Sound Design and Sound Effects. And all the clips are high quality and well recorded        
  2. The effects and music in the library are divided into Elements and Stems. Elements are best for when you’re in a hurry and just want a good sound effect to place in the timeline and move on. Stems are the building blocks of a sound effect or a larger score. These allow you to chop up, slide and dice the sound effect or music into your own smaller, mini compositions. This approach gives you more creative possibilities but is also more time consuming.
  3. All content in the library is already tagged, allowing you to search for specific elements quickly and efficiently. Audio Design Desk refers to this as “Sonic Intelligence.” For instance, if you load your own sound effects or music, Audio Design Desk will accurately guess around 75% of the information associated with each sound, and you can tag the pieces yourself so that they, too, become easily searchable from within the program.
The Key Trigger Menus give you an idea about how easy it is just to tap on your keyboard in real time as your video plays back, instantly spotting all of your audio events.

How Do You Use Audio Design Desk?

On a high level, Audio Design Desk lets you import your video into the program, and it’s displayed in a large detachable window above the timeline. As your movie plays, you simply hit the trigger keys for a particular sound category to set markers at sync or event points. Once you stop the timeline, those sounds are randomly selected and inserted in place from the category you selected, placed in auto-generated tracks at the sync points.

The program actually examines all of the audio waveforms from the video soundtrack and maps where the peaks and edit points are in the soundtrack. That means it’s very easy to tweak and adjust the location of the sound effects by a few frames to finesse them into perfect position if your real-time trigger key mapping was slightly off.

But say you’re not thrilled with the resulting “map” and want to tweak or change the effects the program has chosen. You can simply swap the effects with a simple key command, and they’ll be replaced with alternative options.

That’s very different from sound design done the traditional way, where you hunt for, place and finesse each and every sound, which takes forever.

Of course, letting ADD “assist” you in locating and placing the effects so easily and quickly feels surreal. But this is what blew me away about Audio Design Desk: It actually implements Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning—and these features make the intelligent importer smarter all the time. So, users can import thousands of sounds, then ADD assigns the program’s Sonic Intelligence to each sound.

Audio Design Desk’s Replace function is amazing: It changes all or just some of your sound effects and music cues with the click of a button while keeping all of the key positions you have placed on the timeline.

The Hidden Power Of Audio Design Desk

On top of all of these functions, the most powerful function for me in using ADD is the swapping out, or Replace, feature for music and effects.

The ability to select dozens of regions on multiple tracks and replace them all with similar sounds instantly saves such a tremendous amount of time and effort that it almost seems surreal. The tone and characteristics of the replacement sounds can be adjusted and tweaked by adjusting functions in the Replace matrix using tags and two descriptive features: Complexity and Intensity.

By checking various boxes in the interface, you can filter through the tags for the included sound effects, music stems and tracks, much like many search engines in various stock music libraries function. I found that it’s a quick way to eliminate tracks and sounds that you don’t want to use and narrow down your choices quickly to sound effects and music elements you do want.  

I was also impressed by the key triggers for commonly used sonic gestures that are found under the Triggers menu. These show a lot of refinement and allow you to express the ideas you’re trying to have your finished piece communicate using common terminology that coincides with the way the included elements are tagged.   

Additionally, I wanted to mention that I don’t feel that it negates or replaces a digital audio workstation, like ProTools. In fact, it’s really for a different audience than most ProTools users, although it does integrate nicely with most DAWs since it exports AAF, XML and multichannel .wav, allowing for an easy and pain-free workflow between other DAWs or video editing software. ADD can also bounce to .aif, .wav, .caf and .m4a files.

Most video editors don’t use ProTools for sound design or audio post, though, and ADD is leagues faster and simpler to learn than most DAW.        

Audio Design Desk has various versions available, and you can contact the company if you want to license it for multiple machines, large user groups, etc.

Pricing

Audio Design Desk is available in several price points:

  • Create version: free
  • Produce version: $15 per month
  • Professional version: $30 per month

I’ll admit, I’m a bit disappointed that the software is only available in either a free evaluation mode or monthly subscription modes. I very much wish that it was available in a traditional “buy the program” mode as well, say, for $300 or $400, or even if there was an additional charge to update to more sound effects, music stems or new features as they are introduced.

But if you’re a full-time video editor, try out the software by downloading the free “Create” version of Audio Design Desk, and see how it helps your post workflow. I think you’ll find it to be a very handy and unique tool that saves you many hours of tedious work.

Audio Design Desk has an excellent 90-second overview that shows how quick and easy the application is to use for spotting sound effects via the program’s innovative AI and Machine Learning tools. I urge you to go to the Audio Design Desk website at add.app and watch the first video displayed on the page, titled “Tutorial #1: Sound Design.” It’s only 90 seconds long, but in those 90 seconds, the video shows you exactly how most of the functions come together in an actual workflow.

The Bottom Line: An App That Saves You Time

In postproduction workflows, time is money. ADD enhances your productions with sophisticated sound design and helps you achieve this result quickly and easily. So, if you’re a pro and edit for a living, I feel that besides your video editing software, Audio Design Desk is worth $15 or $30 per month to access it. I believe it might easily be one of your most important components in your editorial toolbox (but, of course, as I’ve written before, I am quite sound focused). And here’s why: A good sound design pass always enhances the perceived value of a finished piece of work with your clients and audience.

Of course, if you’re an employee of a production company, ad agency or corporation and your company pays for your tools, I suggest simply downloading the free version and seeing if it enhances your workflow and saves you time.

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