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TUAW review: WireTap Studio shows polish & promise

With the announcement of this year's Macworld Eddy award for WireTap Studio, the Ambrosia Software audio capture/editing app ($69/$30 upgrade-crossgrade) has clearly hit the big time. Serving as the successor to WireTap Pro and a direct competitor to Rogue Amoeba's Audio Hijack Pro/Fission combination, WTS has a clear purpose and a noble goal: it wants to cure you of regret.

The design and feature suite for WTS seem to say "Give me a chance to make it easier to get this right," and that's a big plus in any field of endeavor -- it's a shame they don't make marriage counseling software. With WTS, Ambrosia prez Andrew Welch is aiming to set the standard for audio capture and lossless audio on the Mac, and while some features on the editing side may not be fully baked yet, the introductory version is an impressive piece of work. I've been using it to record the TUAW podcasts for the past couple of weeks, and in most ways it's a joy to work with (some exceptions noted below).

The power of any creative application, from Photoshop to Nisus Writer to Garage Band, is sometimes constrained by how you find your way backward from the inevitable mistakes, missteps and unfortunate accidents that are the companions of the work process. Need to retreat to the past? Unlimited undo and lossless editing make it easy to recover the good underneath the bad, and who doesn't want a time machine when things go awry? The catch, when it comes to audio capture tools, is that you may make an unrecoverable mistake before you even start working; if you capture to the wrong format or at an inadequate bit rate, your precious podcast might end up a mushy, inaudible mess. WTS's marquee feature is that it works in lossless mode by default, which is like a magic eraser for screwups. Delete the wrong section, apply the wrong filter or capture in the wrong format... doesn't matter, the original data is still there in pristine form.

The core feature of WTS, like WT Pro before it and also the venerable Audio Hijack, is sound capture. Whether from a microphone, system audio or an individual application, WTS can simultaneously capture two separate sound signals and save them to the WireTap library. The primary difference in WTS' capture approach is that everything, regardless of source, is saved losslessly (although you can turn this off); you can dynamically preview your filters, file formats or other processing choices without touching the source.

While the live preview "Grand Canyon" echo effect can be a little disorienting when you're recording your own voice, for other content it's spectacularly useful. You can schedule recording sessions to work in tandem with radio streaming or other timed events, very handy for programs that aren't yet podcasted. WTS also uses a homegrown kernel extension to capture application audio without relaunching the source app, thereby avoiding the issues surrounding the APE framework used by Audio Hijack to enable 'instant hijacking.'

Once the captured audio is snagged and saved, you can dive immediately into editing; WTS provides an intuitive and easy edit timeline, with the ability to normalize/relevel sound on the fly and do graceful cuts or fades with a choice of how 'sharply' those edits get applied. Like everything else in WTS, editing is lossless by default -- excised segments of audio appear with a disclosure triangle in the timeline, and can be added back to the file in a matter of a few clicks. Once you have your file looking and sounding like you want, the Library pane offers quick export to local files, iDisk, FTP or email.

While WTS is polished and easy to use for basic editing, there are a few notable absences from the feature set that I hope to see resolved in future versions. The biggest gap in the editing capabilities of WTS is file insert or copy/paste -- right now, there's no way to combine audio from multiple sessions without re-recording from playback, a real drag for podcasters who want to throw bumpers or music hits into the timeline.

Also missing in action is true independent two-track editing -- deletions or silencing apply to the entire selection and cannot be isolated to one track, which is sometimes useful when cleaning up half of a Skype recording. The result of these editing limitations is that you may still need a full-featured multitrack editor (the free and capable Audacity, or Amadeus Pro, Garage Band, Fission or Sound Studio) to finish a project. Of course, if you're recording sound for use in an iMovie or Final Cut project, you can do your audio assembly there.

A mild architectural limitation is that the WTS library is local to your installation, so you'll need plenty of disk space and you may need to move your library to external media if it gets insanely large (it's stored in ~/Documents, but can live wherever), which may require some rethinking for those used to saving individual capture files wherever they may need to go. I ran into a user-side issue (PIBCAK) when recording last week's talkcast -- unlike Audio Hijack Pro's Megamix mode, WTS doesn't automatically record both sides of a VOIP conversation; you have to assign your microphone to the second recording track, and in my case I misconfigured it, leaving my half of the chat in the bit bucket (my apologies in advance for the poor quality of this week's show audio -- I have to rescue it from the Talkshoe copy); granted that this was entirely my fault, but a warning from WTS saying "Are you sure you only want to capture the remote Skype audio?" would have been nice.

For anyone who needs easy and powerful audio capture combined with basic, lossless editing, WTS is definitely worth a look. While the price is a bit steep, the audio capture capabilities do rival those of Audio Hijack Pro without the 'knob twisting' pro UI that some find intimidating; the editor, while a work in progress, represents a step forward in usability and undo power. I plan to pick up a permanent license and I'll continue to use it for podcast recording and voiceover clips.

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