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Notes for Musicians, Vocalists and Recording Engineers


The purpose of this article is to give musicians, vocalists and audio production engineers a summary of resources which are available in respect of audio recording and editing using Microsoft Windows on the PC, together with my own experiences and concerns in this field.


This article will focus upon two software products, CakeWalk Sonar and Sony's Sound Forge Pro.

I have used Sound Forge for about 13 years and I have just begun to use Sonar. Sound Forge is a single track editor and producer. This means it is not multi-track software. While it is true you can easily mix sound on sound, overlaying items as you go, you cannot lay out sound with each item on its own individual track. Having said that, it is the ideal tool for audio recording, mixing, post production, editing and restoration. I've used a few audio editors in the past, but Sound Forge to my mind has always beaten them all, added to which it comes bundled with a number of remastering and audio processing effects which are incredibly useful.

Sonar on the other hand is a multi-track audio platform which allows you to undertake many audio-related tasks. Not only can you lay out items on their own individual tracks, but it is ideal for musicians, those who wish to do karaoke, or work with music and sound purely in an audio capacity. In the case of Karaoke as a basic example, you can have the music on one track and sing on another while hearing the music at the same time. If the results are not satisfactory, you can retake all or part of the song again until you have something which is to your liking. Added to this, the V Vocal editor allows for manual or automatic pitch change together with other characteristics in fine detail. Audio effects are also added, such as reverb, equalisation, normalisation, etc. Sound Forge also contains these other tools in addition to noise reduction. Both products also allow for "audio scrubbing", which enables you to hear snatches of the audio as you move through it.

Product Accessibility

In terms of accessibility to screen-readers, my focus here is JAWS for Windows because that is what I use almost exclusively. It is also the product which grabs the most attention and publicity in this area.

My feeling is at the moment that the outlook for visually impaired people is grim. If you feel that you would like the latest and greatest releases of these two professional mainstream products then I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed.

Sound Forge access is quite straightforward. An excellent set of JAWS Scripts are available written by Jim Snowbarger who began writing them for Sound Forge 4.5 (when I started to use it), and has maintained them through to version 10.0, the latest. I am often asked whether Sound Forge can be used without scripts. It can, but not nearly as efficiently and there are some dialogs which are not as accessible. For example, when undertaking fine editing, there is information you need to know quickly, such as the total file length, the elapsed position, the amount of time selected, level metres and many other components. There is also the ability to "audio scrub" in various ways, and this makes for extremely precise and smooth editing. Sound Forge offers this facility without the scripts, but it is by no means as detailed or as fast. The scripts are 30 dollars, and I think if you are investing hundreds of dollars in Sound Forge you may as well spend the other 30 and get the scripts too. It makes no sense not to do so.

There is a fundamental problem with Sound Forge 9 and 10 with its "Mix Paste" dialog which is very unfortunate because it is one of the dialogs you will use most often. Sony have made some of the controls inaccessible to JAWS and at this current point there is no solution to this. To me, this is a very critical issue. If it is possible, you may wish to consider installing Sound Forge 8 with the appropriate scripts. If you are unable to obtain version 8, I suggest purchasing 10.0, and then explain the problem to Sony and ask for a downgrade to 8.0 which they should be able to do. After my discussions with them, Sony accept there are accessibility issues with that dialog. It is not ideal, since Sound Forge 8 is not meant to be used with Windows7.

With Sonar, things are a little more complex.

There are two JAWS scripting solutions for Sonar which provide a high degree of accessibility. These are JSonar and CakeTalking for Sonar.

JSonar is an open source project developed by a dedicated group of volunteers and is consequently freely available to download and use. CakeTalking costs 289 dollars as an internet download and was developed 13 years ago by a highly accomplished JAWS script writer David Pinto and is sold by Dancing Dots, linked to above.

The bad news is that neither of these products functions with Sonar X1 or X2. X1 was released in late 2010, with X2 only recently being made available. This is not good because not only are we a couple of years behind in terms of accessibility, but Sonar 8.5 is extremely difficult to obtain, almost impossible. Dancing Dots do have some copies available (while stocks last), and CakeWalk in the United States also can supply it if asked, although it could take a while to reach you if you live outside America. As far as I know, noone yet has attempted a scripting solution for X1 or X2 which is very disappointing.

We decided to go for CakeTalking, but here are the differences as I see them.

Apart from the very high quality access to almost all of Sonar's features, the main thing CakeTalking has going for it is its 400-page tutorial and excellent setup documentation, which you do need as there is quite a lot to do in terms of configuration. If you follow the instructions however, it does work perfectly. But the inclusion of the tutorials really did clinch it for us. While the JSonar website does have a number of small guides available, if you are a beginner particularly it's a no-brainer. You go for CakeTalking.

The drawback to the tutorial is the way in which it is formatted. It is a very large HTML document which contains no heading markup. While links are included, JAWS does not retain the position you were in when you invoke the Links List. So you read a passage, realise you want to refer back to a previous lesson, and so bring up the Links List. On a standard web page, the focus is within the point of the Links List where you stopped reading. It doesn't work like that in this document, focus is at the end of the list. So you need to go back to the top of the list and start working your way down. While I used Placemarkers to good effect, I think if you want to produce an HTML rendering of your instructions, by default it really ought to include correctly structured headings.

While JSonar does have some JAWS script-related keystrokes included, its approach is generally to allow you to use the Sonar native keystrokes. CakeTalking's approach is to develop keystrokes and strategies to allow you to get the job done quickly and easily, and if that means modifying the approach a little, so be it.

CakeTalking contains a number of dialogs which allow you to manipulate Sonar in specific ways or to invoke JAWS user preferences. JSonar uses the Adjust JAWS Options dialog instead into which their user preferences are placed, such as to enable or disable specific features, and I have to say I prefer this approach since users will already be used to using it.

CakeTalking should really be used with JAWS version 11. I've tried using it with 13, but some aspects of the interface did not function as the tutorial said they should, and also there were a number of system instability difficulties. JAWS version 11 can however be used on a Windows7 64 bit system if you have it, so apart from the inconvenience of maybe having to switch JAWS versions to use Sonar, this isn't too big a deal. JSonar can be used with JAWS versions up to and including 14.

CakeTalking provides you with a lot of additional detail about how to interact with specific controls (of which there are many), and gives you reminders of how to work within individual dialogs. I think with JSonar some help is available, but the process of obtaining it isn't quite as detailed (or as automatic) as is found in CakeTalking.

If you are a user of Braille, there is a great deal of Braille support in JSonar. They've obviously spent a lot of time on that. CakeTalking has no braille support at all that I can see. If there is, I haven't been able to get it to work.


In summary, if you take time to purchase the correct older versions of the mainstream software together with choosing appropriate scripting packages to go with them, you are going to get a very accessible solution to serve your audio production needs. My concern is that as blind people we are used to listening to audio and so this is an area of work where we should excel and to be able to make a living from. The fact that time is slipping by and we are getting further and further behind in terms of accessing recent software versions worries me.

It is worth noting that Sonar does not allow you (it would seem) to mix items by fading a main audio source down midway through, overlay speech, and then raise the volume again. This would be particularly helpful since the "Mix Paste" dialog in Sound Forge 9 and 10 is inaccessible. One way of overcoming this is to purchase a "Control Surface". This is a midi hardware device attached to the computer which will then allow you to assign physical faders on the device to volume levels or other aspects of Sonar. You could then manually accomplish the fades in real-time, and in fact that may even produce superior results to what Sound Forge can do because, to my mind, there is nothing like human input into fading, whether you are producing audio or even broadcasting it. If you decide to go down this route, there is an accessible application developed by Raised Bar Computing, allowing a number of midi devices to communicate with your screen-reader so as to output useful information. This application is free to download.

So, do you need both pieces of software, Sound forge and Sonar? That depends what you want to do. Within the context of my exploration into Sonar thus far, while I am very glad I have it I also really do appreciate what Sound Forge can do as well. I can see audio production jobs where both would be important. To emphasise this a little further, it is possible to send specific files you create in Sonar directly into Sound Forge without having to save them first and then open them in SF.

As a final note, you may decide that you wish to purchase some outside consultancy to help you get the most from what is very expensive software and this would be good advice to follow. Astec (the company I work for) can provide installation, configuration and training on all aspects of audio production. Please contact us for details.

If you live in the United States, please contact Dancing Dots who can provide you with details of tuition.