Review of SONAR, Cakewalk's Digital Multitrack System
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Review of Sonar

Page 1 (Sonar 2)   Page 2 (Sonar 3)

Cakewalk's Digital MultiTrack Recording System

by Rich the Tweak
Pros
  • EZ importing of Audio Loops
  • Rewire is added in version 2.0
  • MIDI Plugins are well implemented
  • Excellent support, helpfiles, guides

Cons

  • Time consuming and tedious MIDI patch management system
  • Mixer is not as graphically useful or appealing
 
Sonar

Cakewalk SONAR Home Studio (Windows)
Sonar Home Studio 7 is the easiest way to turn your PC into a full-fledged music production studio. From start to finish, Sonar Home Studio will help you capture your creativity and share it with the world. With Sonar Home Studio you can record live instruments, vocals, or any audio source. You can easily edit audio, MIDI, and music notation. The updated Loop Explorer gives you the tools to build backing tracks faster than ever.

 

Cakewalk SONAR Producer Recording Software (Windows)
Sonar 8.5 Producer gives you what you need for recording, composing, editing, mixing, and mastering. Get innovations that matter, from exclusive features to ignite creativity and perfect your tracks, to groundbreaking technologies that always keep you in control, all backed by the industry's leading 64-bit audio quality. And Sonar 8.5 Producer delivers the go to production tools you want with the best collection of virtual instruments, mixing, and mastering effects found in any DAW

 

For those of you that have been following my articles, you know I've been sequencing a long time, since the very 1st sequencers on the Commodore 64.  I confess that I am not easily amused by "new" features unless they really redefine the way one works, or do things that used to be hard and make them really easy.  You probably also know me as a long term Logic power user. While I have worked with nearly all the popular sequencers, when I leave my Logic platform, it's like crossing the border to another country with different customs and languages. 

Every sequencer these days has an intense learning curve.  There is no way around this if you are going to use a professional level music composition  application.  Fortunately, I already knew Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9 reasonably well.  Picking up Sonar's concepts was easy as cake (ouch!  OK I promise only one or two more Cake puns).  Why was it easy?  Because Sonar is a mentally engaging, groundbreaking program and it's new features are a joy to play with.

 

Sonar's New Track View is an outstanding improvement over Pro Audio 9

 

Cakewalk?  Groundbreaking?

Yes it is.  For the first time, the artist is allowed to use audio loops that automatically stretch and tune themselves to project definitions.  While Sonic Foundry's acid program has been doing this for several years, Acid is primarily an audio program.  Granted you can import midifiles into Acid 3, but that is not the same as having a full MIDI composition engine that has been developed over a decade and a half.  With Sonar yes, you get MIDI, Yes you get your loops, yes you can record audio tracks, yes you get soft synths and samplers.  No other application on the PC platform does all 4 of these well. That's right, neither Logic or Cubase will let you drag loops and fit them to the project tempo.  So, Sonar has in many ways redefined the game by redefining itself.  Congratulations to the Sonar team.

What I like about Sonar is how it can be seen as an uncluttered workspace, like a giant blank tablet, that you fill with loops, sequences, audio tracks, which all seem to intuitively lock into place on the main track grid.  You can freely adjust tracks to any zoom level you want and can trim and re-loop and resample audio clips extremely fast.  For making dance music, this is a "must have" feature.  It eliminates the labor intensive process of calculating BPM and loop size and punching in the parameters on a digital audio editor or digital sampler to get the same result.  Set the Tempo, the loops follow automatically.  Draw an volume envelope, add a plugin or two, then resample.   Awesome.  Easy.

Where looping applications fall short is where you want the music to go somewhere. you can hear it in your head, but you don't have a loop that will take you there.  That's where MIDI comes in, which, if you know how to use it, can take you anywhere.  Make a sequence you need.  Run it

through some of Sonar's MIDI FX if you want, then render it to audio, make it into an audio clip and add your plugins, resample and viola, new material. 

 

DXi Softsynths

I'll be back to talk more of these as I get up to speed.  I was able to achieve a latency of 7ms on my delta 1010 in Sonar's audio engine, and that's plenty fast.  Included softsynths are: EDIROL Virtual Sound Canvas,  DXi, Tassman SE,  DXi, LiveSynth Pro SE, and DreamStation  DXi software synthesizers.  This is plenty to get you started and a lot more than other sequencer-makers give you. The sampler of the bunch is the LiveSynth Pro, which uses soundfonts (without a creative labs audio card).  The included version is a time-limited demo. In my package there was a coupon to upgrade to the full version.  Another soft sampler available for Sonar users is the Vsampler DXi, which registered users can purchase for $50

 

MIDI Plugins

Yep. Like Cubase SX and unlike Logic, you can use MIDI plugins, or MFX as they are called.  Sonar 2.0 gives a few of its own like the arpeggiator and session drummer.  Then they give you demos and light versions of MFX by MusicLab and NTONYX.  The folks and MusicLab have some very nice products.  There is Rhythm&Chords Version 2 which is a guitar chord player and guitar arpeggiator that comes with different strumming and finger picking styles.  Just type in the chords or choose them from a list (which includes the harder jazz chords many guitarists never learned).  There's plenty of presets available.  Another great MusicLab MFX is SlicyDrummer.  SlicyDrummer is a drum pattern maker that has plenty of preset styles.  Click one button and another pattern is generated.  Hip Hop dudes and dudettes, you can sit back and let SlicyDrummer make patterns for you all day till it comes up with one that meets your requirements. It's easy to switch out drums if you are playing with a big keymap, change grooves.  You only get demos of these with Sonar 2.0, but you can buy them at the Cakewalk store,  There is more info at www.musiclab.com  Nice stuff. MIDI plugins are a happenin' thing. 

 

The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful

 
Rewire Applications that work with Sonar 2
Propellerhead Reason (Macintosh and Windows)

 

DXi Soft Synths and Samplers

 

Sonar claims to work with every Windows OS from Win 98, 98se, ME, Win2k to Win XP.  It's stated minimum requirements are a 400 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, 100 MB free hard disk space, 800x600 screen resolution/256 colors, CD-ROM drive and compatible soundcard.  I think you'd be daft to run Sonar 400 mHZ machine or one with 64 megs of Ram.  Like most of today's music software, Sonar is going to work optimally on a machine that has plenty of Ram (256 to 512), CPU speeds close to 1 ghz or higher, and large, fast hard drives with plenty of room for audio files.   Sonar supports Windows soundcards that can use 2 types of drivers:  MME and WDM drivers.  There is no support for ASIO, EASI or other drivers popular on Cubase and Logic.  This is not a huge problem as many softsynths have recently updated their code to work well in with WDM drivers, which depending on your soundcard, are capable of very low latency.  I had no problems with native Instruments Pro 52, FM7, Battery or Kontakt  However, older softsynths like Dynamo which perform best with an ASIO driver are not going to work.  Direct X plugins work well; VST plugins are not supported.  Not a huge deal as many major plugin makers usually give you both, but it is still worth mentioning. 
 

Stability:  I found I was able to crash Sonar 1.31 without trying too hard on my Win XP system. (I do try to break software when I get it.) The crashes I experienced were a direct result of carrying out an audio operation, like importing audio, copying and pasting a clip. But I was pushing it pretty hard with about 14 tracks and big effects and automation and working fast even when I sensed the CPU was struggling.  Given the scope of the new features since pro Audio 9, this is not surprising.  My advice is to save often.  Or turn on the auto save feature to save your work for you at regular intervals.    I ran into a situation where when hitting the spacebar does not stop the sequencer. This gave me a sense of instability, and I was surprised to find it in an official release.  This didn't happen a lot, and perhaps its just the pace I work at.  Version 2.0 is better in terms of crash worthiness.  I only had one my 1st day with the 2.0, and that was in rewire.
 

Support: Cakewalk has great support.  As soon as you open the box, there's information coming at you.  The help files are great.  There is an extensive section on how to get your soundcard setup properly, and I was able to find what I needed.  There is also a nice cardboard foldout quick start guide that you can rest on your keyboard as you get up to speed.
 

Things I don't like:  I really dislike Cakewalk's patch management scheme (I dislike Cubase's too) Its a horrible pain to set up if you can't find an instrument definition file for your midi devices. Cakewalk has been using this scheme for several years now--one would think they would have been able to collect every template by now. There are no ins files for the Emu, XL-1, Mo Phatt or other newer synths.  Sonar touts it is designed for efficient workflow and has improved on this score in version 2.  There is an option to allow recording without setting a record enable button.  I like that.  One thing that bugs me is that to get a soft synth track going you have to define an audio track and assign the soft synth and a separate midi track to record the notes on.  It would be nice to have a separate track type for these. My final irritation is an old one inherited from PA9.  When recording a MIDI track, nothing is happening on the screen on that track.   Logic and Cubase SX draw the track as it is being recorded, which lets you know that you are in fact recording.  With Sonar, as with Cakewalk, you don't see the sequence till you hit stop.  This is still an issue for me in 2.0.  It's not a huge deal, but consider the plight of the newbie who hits record and thinks nothing is happening.
 

List of features

Download the Sonar Trial Version

Best Soundcard for Sonar

Sonar FAQ at cakewalk.com

Things I like.  The new Track view User Interface is excellent.  You can now quickly set track parameters, zoom in and out, and draw automation envelopes while the song plays.  I loved the "F" command for "fit" which makes the arrangement fit to the screen no matter where it is zoomed to.  The multi-monitor support works great for extending the workspace to a second monitor.   I found the automatic crossfades to work very well, much like they do in Vegas, where you can overlap two audio objects and let the program calculate the fades.  I found the track automation to be good overall.  My only issue with it was that sometimes it was hard to see the line and it was easy to miss it with the mouse when clicking up a curve.  My absolute favorite new features are the "Loop Explorer" view, is like an always open large file selector where you can quickly audition and import clips while the sequencer is running.  This is much like the Acid and Vegas explorer feature, and it's awesome (logic developers, take note).  My second favorite feature is the ability to define groove clips from any piece of audio.  It's fast, easy and utterly fantastic.

Rewire support.  As advertised, you can now run Reason inside Sonar, and I found it easy to set up.   This is ReWire 2, so you can play Reason's instruments from Sonar's track window. I did have a crash when exiting Reason, so I need to look into that a bit more. But this is another amazing move for Cakewalk. Lets remember a few years ago you could not run any decent softsynths in the cake.  Now you can run nearly all of them, and adding Reason to it's arsenal is a big chunk of cake with a lot of frosting.  (Ok, that is the last Cake joke). 
 

Sonar's New Look.  Thankfully, the "Venetian blind" track graphic from Pro Audio 9 is gone.  Sonar remains very light on the 3-d look, compared to Cubase and Logic.  Yet its a dramatic improvement.  Using the track view and blurring my eyes a bit, it was almost like working in Samplitude Studio (which I consider to be a beautiful interface).  I think they should shoot for that look as Sonar is close.  Graphics I did not like so much was in the console view.  I find it's method of doing sends and return to be clumsy and graphically unappealing.  On the positive side, you no longer need the console view.  All of the mixer's features are available in the track view.  That rocks!   

 

Works with Sonar!

The Celestial Windowpane was developed at TweakHeadz Lab and contains 650 megs of space-oriented dance and electronic loops.

 

Who should get Sonar? 

So no sequencer is perfect, right?  Well as you see, Sonar has flaws as well as features.  But this should not dissuade you from considering it.  All sequencers have issues when they introduce new features.  If you like using audio loops, this program is The program to have.  If you are more into softsynths and samplers, you'll need to make sure your softsynths work under direct x.  I found that Battery and the Pro 52, by Native Instruments, worked well. 
 

Soft synths that require ASIO drivers are not going to work here.   When I want to do something with loops, Sonar will get the call.   Acid is out and Sonar is in.  Cakewalk has raised the bar for all products of this type.  Will the other sequencer makers respond with similar loop and clip facilities?  Perhaps were are entering a stage where one application is not enough.  You can't have everything.  Well maybe you can.  I know for myself, I'll be using Sonar along side of Logic 5 and Cubase SX. Sonar exports mixed audio very quickly.  It's great to have two powerful audio applications working side by side.  Who should get Sonar?  I think everyone.

 

You can read more about Sonar 2.0  at www.cakewalk.com
 


 

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