Hindenburg Journalist Update
Intro from Jay Allison
We at Transom are intrigued by the audio producing software, Hindenburg Journalist, mainly because it’s designed specifically for radio producers. How charming to be a targeted demographic. It’s also reasonably priced. Jeff Towne is particularly pleased with Hindenburg and has been helping the software company with ideas. Many new features have just come online and Jeff runs them down for you, complete with illustrations and his customary hand-holding. This is the application we’ll be using at our upcoming Transom Story Workshop, so we’ll have more to report after that, but right now, we’re liking it.
from Jeff Towne
It’s been almost a year since we first posted about Hindenburg journalist software here on Transom. With so much software in the world, and so many devices, it may seem odd to revisit the same topic again so soon, but the program has undergone some pretty dramatic changes, and perhaps just as much, we’ve learned to use it in such different ways, that our original column cried out for an update. The overall editing model hasn’t changed so we won’t rehash that here; please check out our original review for an overview of the basic functions of Hindenburg. We’ll concentrate here on new features, old features that we have come to appreciate more, and on new tricks or shortcuts.
There have been a few big changes: the company (and website) has changed its name from nsaka to Hindenburg Systems, but the bigger transformation is in the product line. The basic free version of the program is not available to the general public, the Hindenburg Journalist program has increased slightly in cost, and there’s a new product called Hindenburg Pro. While this seems potentially confusing, there’s a very clear comparison chart here.
The most important thing is that all versions follow the same editing model, and save compatible session files, so producers using Journalist and Pro can exchange files and work on them. The basic Journalist level contains the vast majority of the functions of Pro, with some extra capabilities in the higher levels. As the name implies, if you are using the software in a professional context, it is worthwhile to invest in the upgraded package. Pro can output more types of files, including BWAV and MP2; it allows personalized tweaks to some of the background functions like Auto Level, and the Voice Profiler; it contains a very helpful (and cool-looking) loudness meter. The one-click uploading to a designated FTP-site, to PRX, or to Soundcloud might be reason enough to invest in the Pro version if you upload on a regular basis. But you can export your production as a wav, then convert it to MP2 or MP3 for uploading, then open up your FTP program to upload it, or you can set those things up once, then just click Publish to output your production to any, or all, of those destinations.
Hindenburg Systems is in the process of changing some of the language surrounding the licenses for the various versions of the software. Instead of the standard Journalist program being only licensed to “semi-pro” users, it can be used by anyone. But, if you are a professional user, they would hope that you’d choose the Pro software. If you’re making a living producing audio programming, the additional features in Pro will undoubtedly make your life easier, and if you find the software to be useful, wouldn’t you like the company to be around to continue to improve it? I’m not sure that the sentimental pitch to help out a small company is ever effective, but perhaps the descriptions of some of the sophisticated functions available in the Pro software will be more convincing.
Sure, we’d love it if unlimited editing power were available in a free program, but let’s be practical: software development has to get paid for somehow. We liked the fact that there was a free entry-level product for people just getting their feet wet back when the program was first introduced, and although the generally-available free version is no longer being distributed, that level of the software still exists. It’s known as Hindenburg Basic, or Hindenburg NGO (for Non-Governmental Organization) and can still be obtained by qualifying groups. The idea always was to provide a free editor for users in the developing world, or for rural community-based radio stations and youth-radio programs, and other such projects. That’s still true: Check their website or contact the company for more information. The Journalist level is a bargain at $99. And although $375 for the Pro level is feeling a little steep these days, if you produce audio programs in a fast-paced environment, you’ll see that it’s worth that upgrade.
The biggest appeal of the free version was that you could try out the software and see if you liked how it worked. You still can do that: you can download a free 30-day trial of either the Journalist or the Pro versions. They’re fully functional, not crippled versions that prevent saving, or that insert noise into your projects. They’re hampered by a tedious code that you must enter upon booting-up, but of course that goes away once you purchase a license.
At Transom, we’ve long maintained that it’s worth paying for good tools, while preferring those that are good values. Hindenburg’s cost of entry is still low: $99 is not much money for such capable software. Even the $375 cost of the Pro level is similar to comparable audio editors from other companies. If you’re an organization doing work that you think qualifies you for the free Basic or NGO software, contact Hindenburg Systems to see if they agree. There are also discounts available for educational institutions. The software gets significantly more powerful at the Journalist and Pro levels, that’s where the really interesting stuff starts happening.
Like auto-leveling. It’s been part of the program all along, but we barely mentioned it in the first column. After using the software for a while, it became more and more clear that this function is more than just clever, it’s game changing. Hindenburg automatically analyzes audio that you import into the timeline and adjusts its level based on loudness. Whatever algorithms they use to analyze and adjust the clips, the auto-leveling achieves that elusive goal of putting each clip in your production at the same level, with the same energy, despite the character of the sound. Basing the adjustment on loudness, that is, average rather than on peak levels is the technical answer, but there are many different ways to do that calculation. However this program is doing it, it works with surprising effectiveness. Of course some manual adjustments will occasionally need to be made, the software can’t mix a piece for you all by itself, but it’s a huge help to start off with each element sitting comfortably next to each other.
It’s a common syndrome to inadvertently allow a production’s overall levels to increase, or decrease, over the course of the piece. Now, you don’t have to rely on your tired ears, or ambiguous meters; Hindenburg puts your basic elements at an appropriate level from start to finish. Of course, you’ll still need to make adjustments when sounds are layered, and you still need to use your ears to override the program when the automatic functions don’t happen to sound quite right. But it’s pretty amazing how close the auto-level gets you to a rough mix. (If for some reason you don’t want to use the auto-level feature, it can be turned-off in Preferences.)
The level adjustments are applied to the entire clip as it appears in the timeline, so if you have a long clip with varying levels, such as a multi-person interview, or one in which the subject wanders off-mic, or makes occasional loud exclamations, you may want to break it into smaller pieces after importing it. Place your cursor, or click and drag to highlight a section then hit B, to make new regions. Apply the auto level manually to the new individual chunks. (Highlight the segment, then choose Tools>>Auto Level, or use Command L.)
Of course one can also make volume changes manually by using Hindenburg’s regular volume adjustment: dragging the top line of each clip up or down. Hindenburg provides a helpful visual cue: the waveforms, which users often find disorienting at first, show both averages and peaks. The average levels, the most important aspect of how loud something sounds, are indicated in the darkest hue. Most audio editing programs use waveform displays that show peaks, which are important for avoiding distortion, but not helpful for determining the overall loudness of a sound. Once you get used to reading the Hindenburg waveforms, you’ll find that keeping those dark sections of the waveforms at an even height throughout your project will go a long way toward making your mix sound good. Of course, your ears are better at judging this than your eyes are, but the more tools at your disposal, the better!
Keep in mind that it’s perfectly natural for sounds, especially voices, to get louder and softer over time, so don’t go crazy with this and adjust the level of every word. It will end up sounding pretty strange if the level is exactly the same all the time, so just listen, and make adjustments only when you hear a need for it.
Volume changes to sections of a longer soundfile can also be made by highlighting portions of the sound, then dragging the top line up or down. Hindenburg automatically applies ramped transitions in and out of the volume changes, so this is often the quickest and smoothest way to make volume adjustments. But if you want to take advantage of the power of the Auto-Level, you’ll need to break the audio into independent pieces first.
Auto-level simply raises or lowers the gain of the clip, it’s not applying compression or limiting, or changing the original soundfile in any way. It’s completely non-destructive; the level can be changed again at any time, as can edges of a clip, if only part of a longer soundfile is being used in the timeline. But be careful: once the sound is broken into smaller pieces, you could accidentally knock some sections out of sync when moving sounds around, so after your gain adjustments are made, you probably want to group the segments together so they move as a unit. Highlight all the segments you want to group so that they turn orange, then press Command G (Control G on Windows.) You’ll see the little nodes in the corners of the clips turn white. If you want to un-group those segments, highlight the segments, then simply press Command G again.
If you’ve adjusted levels by breaking a clip into smaller segments, you will likely need to soften the transitions between contiguous segments with different volumes. Hindenburg automatically applies a very short fade to all edits, but large changes in volume will require a longer, smoother crossfade to sound natural. This is an odd kind of crossfade: you’re making a transition between two sections of sound, but it’s the same sound, so all that’s happening is that two versions of the same audio, one louder than the other, are being crossfaded, to smooth the transition. (This is how the venerable audio workstation called Sonic Solutions used to work, and once you get used to it, it can be a pretty elegant way to make gain adjustments.)
Hindenburg provides several ways to make crossfades. The easiest one is to grab the bottom corner of a segment, and drag it over the adjoining segment. Another way is to click and drag across the edit, for the length of time you’d like the crossfade to be, and then click Command-F (Control F on Windows.) Don’t be misled by the on-screen graphics, it may appear that the crossfade is causing a dip in volume, but it’s not, that’s just the way the graphics look. Let your ears tell you whether a transition works, or doesn’t.
If desired, the crossfades can be adjusted by clicking and dragging on the little boozes in the lower corners of the clip, or by dragging the slanted line itself. Holding the Command key (Control for Windows) while dragging will apply the same changes to the fade-in and the fade-out, keeping the fade symmetrical.
Breaking the audio into pieces, adjusting the gain of each segment, then crossfading between those regions is an interesting way to execute complex volume changes, when the basic Hindenburg volume adjustment process isn’t sufficient. That basic volume automation, as executed in Hindenburg, is elegant in its simplicity. Just highlight the area where you’d like to change the volume, then pull up or down on the top line of that highlighted section and you’re done: volume changed, with a smooth transition on either side. This is much quicker than drawing volume envelopes in Pro Tools, but doesn’t allow the same degree of tweakability. Except – remember that you can make more than one volume adjustment to the ducked audio, to compensate for sound irregularities in the background track.
If the traditional Hindenburg volume technique still isn’t allowing enough control, you can also use the technique mentioned above, and break the audio into several pieces (using the B key) then adjust each chunk’s volume individually. Make crossfades to smooth the transitions between volume regions.
Of course, nothing relating to audio levels is simple. It’s great to have a program make adjustments to the output of a mix, but to what standard? There’s no universal agreement on the “correct” final output levels, but there are a few common standards. The standard Hindenburg Journalist software adjusts to one level, aligned to conventions of the European Broadcast Union. It’s actually a little more complicated than that; the Narration or “Speak” track is set slightly louder than music tracks (a convention that I find myself overriding by reducing the gain on the Speak track by a couple of dB –– by adjusting the volume slider at the left of the track.)
Hindenburg Pro allows the user to choose between three output level standards: BBC, EBU, and US (based roughly, but not exactly, on the standards suggested by the Public Radio Satellite System in the US.) Pro users can pick the output standard appropriate to their production’s destination. But if those presets aren’t exactly what you’re looking for, even users of the standard Journalist can tweak the outputs to get closer to a desired standard. Using compression or limiting plug-ins on tracks and/or adjusting the individual track output levels (the horizontal faders at the left of each track) can create final output levels that may conform more to a user’s desired values. But be careful when making adjustments like that: go too far and you could create distortion by overloading the final mix bus. Watch your meters, and use your ears.
A safer technique is to create a master track (click on the small triangle at the left of any track display, near the mute and solo buttons, then choose Add Master Track) then apply dynamics processing to that master track. Hindenburg’s built-in compressor works well, or you can use third-party plug-ins (AU for Mac, VST for Windows) from makers such as Waves. I find that using the US setting for auto-level, and then inserting a Waves L-1 processor on the Master track, with a threshold of -5 dBfs, gets me very close to the level standards suggested by the Public Radio Satellite system and PRX.
You can get similar results without the third-party plug-in: the compressor that comes with Hindenburg is very effective, and sounds good. You can get a very similar result to the Waves L1 by inserting the Hindenburg Compressor, and turning the dial up until you see between 2 and 3 dots lit green. You may need to experiment a bit with your own material to see what it takes to get the final levels that you’d like to see.
To check your final levels, you can insert a good meter on the master fader. The Pro version of Hindenburg has a built-in Loudness meter that not only shows you momentary loudness values, but tracks it over time, which is very helpful for tracking whether you’re keeping your mix balanced from start to finish. And it’s kind of fun to watch, too…)
The Voice Profiler.
In addition to the auto-level feature, there’s another clever tool that has been there all along, but that we didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the original article. The Voice Profiler analyses the audio in a track and applies EQ and compression that optimizes the sound of that material. Seems simple, except that finding the ideal equalizer settings to bring out, or tame, the bassy or trebly aspects of a voice is no easy thing. Nor is it simple to find the right setting for a compressor that will even-out the loud and soft parts of a recording, make it more even and full-sounding, without creating undesirable side-effects like pumping, or over-accentuated breaths. Yet, somehow, the Voice Profiler does both really well. I have no idea how it works, only THAT it works.
I normally don’t like that kind of thing, I’d rather choose what to do to my audio, rather than letting some automated process decide for me. But it’s hard to argue with success. The auto-level function is amazingly good at finding the right volume for widely-varying audio. The voice profiler just tends to make voices sound better. So I’ll stop worrying and let the program do its thing… If you want to see what the voice profiler is doing, open the effects bin (click on the little icon with the vertical faders, at the left of the track display) and click on Voice Profiler. You’ll see a complex graph, which indicates both the function of the EQ and the compressor. The EQ is the pale blue line.
Hindenburg Pro allows you to tweak the settings, and create new profiles for different voices, and save those profiles as presets, so if you’re working with several different announcers, and want to make personal tweaks to all of them, you can store those as custom profiles. This is a lot of power, but the more amazing part is how well the basic profiler in Journalist works. Try it; you may be surprised. The settings are optimized for voice, so it’s best that you ONLY have voice in that track when it’s doing its analysis. And using it on other kinds of material may give odd results. You could try it, but for music, ambience, and other kinds of material, you’re probably better off just using the EQ or Compressor plug-ins, or third-party effects you add yourself.
Markers and Chapters.
I’ve never been much of a Marker-user in other audio editing programs. I could see their utility, but they ultimately were never that important in my personal workflow. This has changed completely for me when using Hindenburg. Markers are handy navigation tools: press the marker number and you jump to that marker’s location. This only works practically for markers #1-9 (markers 1 and 2 are dedicated to In and Out points, but 3 through 9, plus 0, can be placed anywhere along the timeline) but you can jump to higher-number markers by simply clicking on the marker in the Markers display (View>>Markers.)
Even more useful is using markers as snap-to locators. For my day-to-day work, I’ve made a template with markers and chapters at all the significant time points for my radio program. I tab my cursor to the appropriate marker, then import audio, and snap the head or tail of the clip to that marker, as appropriate. If a track needs to fade out by a specific time, I’ll place a marker there, tab to it, then either trim the end so it snaps to that marker, or just press B to make a break there, and delete anything overhanging. I have markers placed at a half-second before and after my chapters, so I can easily snap audio to those markers, rather than the actual Chapter borders, so that there’s a slight amount of breathing room at the edges of each Chapter. That half-second of air at the head and tail makes a production sound much cleaner when the segments are stacked together, for instance in a radio station’s automation system. That gap also compensates for the slight delay in un-muting that some devices use to avoid passing clicks and thumps to your speakers.
Those Chapter markers make it possible to export several segments of a production as individual files (good for radio programs that need to be broken into segments to allow insertion of local content) and can serve as dividers in Enhanced Podcasts or Audiobooks. Any marker can be made into a Chapter, just Control-Click (or right-click) on the Marker icon at the top of the timeline, and choose Chapter (you can use the same control-click to delete a marker too.) Then reveal the Chapter window (View>>Chapters) and you’ll find a workspace where you can name the chapters, as well as place photos and URLs. Those embedded graphics and links can only be viewed if the content is exported as an AAC file for an enhanced podcast. But even if you’re not making an enhanced podcast, selecting all the chapters, and then choosing File>>Export>>Selection will result in separate files for each chapter. If you don’t want that, just use the regular Export function, and you’ll get one file with the entire project in it.
One Click Publish.
The export options of the Pro level offer workflow efficiency beyond the basic output of a mix. After some initial set-up, Hindenburg Pro can be configured to send audio to a variety of locations, in several formats. After entering metadata describing the program, and FTP information for your desired web server, your production can be published as a podcast, complete with an RSS feed. Once it’s set up, new episodes can be created and distributed with one click. Similarly, after entering login information, your program can be uploaded to your Soundcloud account with a single click of a button. Soundcloud is experimenting with podcasting as well, so uploading to Soundcloud may be an easy way to host a podcast, if you don’t have ready access to another appropriate host for your audio.
You can also configure Hindenburg Pro to upload directly to PRX. If you’re regularly creating podcasts, or placing audio on Soundcloud, or distributing programs via PRX, one-click publishing is a great way to streamline your workflow. Instead of outputting a wav file, then converting that to whatever file format is appropriate, then uploading the file with an FTP program, or web interface, or special uploader, you can just choose Publish from Hindenburg, and the program will create the correct file-type and send it to the desired location.
The clipboards in both versions of Hindenburg provide much greater flexibility than a simple repository for sound clips. You can create, and name, multiple bins to keep various sources organized. Highlight a segment in the timeline, then drag it into a clipboard for use later. Or, even more efficient: press Command Option (Control Alt in windows) along with the number of the clipboard, to send the highlighted audio to that clipboard. Press Command Option, then the bin number twice, and the clip will be sent to the clipboard, and the filename will be highlighted, so that it’s ready to be renamed.
Clipboards can be imported from one session to another: click on the name of the clipboard in the active session, then press Command T, and navigate to another session from which you would like to get clips. The contents of the clipboard with that same number will be imported.
The Favorites clipboard is a special case. Contents of Favorites appear in ALL sessions, so that’s a great place to store frequently-used clips, like themes, IDs, or any elements that are likely to be used in more than one session.
Even without using the clipboards, audio can be transferred from one session to another in a couple of different ways. A clip or multiple clips can be copied from one session and pasted in another. Or if you’d like to import an entire session into another, make sure that the destination session has a compatible track configuration, then press Command-T, as if you were importing a soundfile, but select a session name instead.
One of the most impressive things about the Hindenburg software is that it keeps improving and adding functionality. Even better – the company is very responsive to user feedback, so if there’s something you’d like to see added to the program, or changed, they would like to know. Obviously, they can’t include every request, but when they recognize a good idea, they’re quick to add it in. A couple of the best ways to stay in touch with Hindenburg Systems are their Facebook page, and their Twitter feed. In fact they are soliciting feedback about new additions to the software through those pages, so be sure to add your voice.
I’ve seen a few of the likely new additions and they’re very exciting, adding even more sophisticated functionality to the program, while remaining easy to use. Improved zoom resolution, improved scrubbing, varispeed playback, and an amazingly streamlined way to record Skype calls will soon be making Hindenburg an even more powerful platform. I never like to review works-in-progress, but I’ve used these functions in Beta, and can testify that they make working in Hindenburg even more appealing.
We liked Hindenburg upon its debut, it’s gotten significantly better in its first year, and it promises to improve even more. The new Pro version offers some significant advantages for power users, while maintaining the streamlined workflow of the original. The program’s insistence on keeping things simple and efficient can feel alien to the Pro user who is used to looking under the hood and tinkering with every little thing, but surrendering a little control, and letting the auto-level, voice profiler, and other automated routines do their thing, can prove to be a very efficient way to work. And there are still a few things that can be customized by the Pro user, so the urge to tweak can be satisfied to a degree. But the main appeal of both versions of the software is the focus on simple solutions to the things that audio storytellers need to do. As it turns out, you can make great-sounding productions without tweaking every fade for an hour, without creating complicated mixer-routings, without stacking 17 plug-ins on every channel. As the company’s slogan says: It’s all about the story.
There’s a free 30-day trial, give it a look. And check back for updates, there’s some very exciting stuff coming soon!