The new version 5 sees Cakewalk's Sonar becoming a more complete production package than ever, with the addition of new synths, a convolution reverb, 64-bit support and Roland's celebrated Variphrase vocal processing technology.
Less than a year ago, in these very pages, Derek Johnson began his review of Cakewalk's Sonar 4 with the observation that less than a year had elapsed since the release of Sonar 3. What, he wondered, might have happened to justify such a bold and rapid whole-number increment? Now, less than a year later, I find myself faced with Cakewalk Sonar 5. Where did the time go? What further developments will the intervening months have brought? Where will it all end?
Restricting myself to the answerable questions, I can tell you that among the key new features of Sonar 5 are a collection of software instruments (synths, a Soundfont sampler, a REX file player), a new convolution reverb, updated MIDI effects plug-ins, a new 64-bit 'double precision' floating-point audio engine, support for 64-bit processor architecture and operating systems, the integration of Roland's Variphrase vocal processing technology, enhanced MIDI step recording, and a range of minor user-interface refinements. It's still recognisably the same application as Sonar 4, though: this is a case of enlargement rather than reinvention, if you see what I mean.
It's worth mentioning that many of the new gadgets and features described here are exclusive to the Producer Edition of Sonar 5. The more affordable Studio Edition offers fewer of the high-end whistles and bells (see www.cakewalk.com/products/sonar/studio.asp for more details), although it's still a very creditable package in its own right.
For the benefit of any newcomers, let's run through the basics. Sonar is a powerful Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) application for Windows XP, designed to handle just about every audio and MIDI task you might think of, from MIDI sequencing to audio recording, editing, mixing and beyond. Unlimited MIDI and audio tracks are available, at sample rates as high as your soundcard can cope with. VST and Direct X plug-ins are supported, with full delay compensation, and Rewire instruments can also be used. There are sync-to-video capabilities, powerful loop-based composition tools, and plenty more besides.
As such, Sonar is competing for the same ground as applications like Cubase and Samplitude, or on the Mac side, Logic and Performer. In fact, while finding my way around Sonar, I experienced a couple of disorientating flashbacks to the Samplitude review I wrote for SOS a while ago. This has less to do with any particular similarities between Sonar and Samplitude, I think, than it does with the way in which all the major DAW applications seem to be converging on a common feature set, and on implementations that are at least superficially similar.
Sonar is supplied on a single DVD-ROM, which auto-runs to show a very nicely presented installer menu where you can choose to install the application proper, a few additional utilities, some sample/loop content and various other bits and pieces. After choosing to install the main Sonar 5 application, you're presented with a dialogue box showing the customary End User Licence Agreement, beneath which you're required to tick a couple of boxes, the first acknowledging that you are only permitted to install and use the software on one machine at a time, the second acknowledging that you are not permitted to sell or transfer the software.
You may or may not be happy with these licence terms. If you're not happy with them, you unfortunately have no other option besides not installing the software. Having agreed to the licence, you then have to enter your serial number, which is supplied in the DVD case. After that, the final hurdle to clear is registration, which must be completed within a 30-day 'grace' period. Registration is easy if your audio computer has an Internet connection, and requires a phone call if it doesn't.
At least there isn't a dongle.
As with previous versions of Sonar, customers in the UK can choose whether to buy the US or European version of the package. The difference is that the US version ships with a full printed manual in English only, while the European version includes only the more basic 'getting started' guide, but in French and German as well as English.
The first time Sonar is started, a dialogue box appears offering to run some diagnostics on your audio hardware and make some default settings. Sonar 5 uses Cakewalk's VST Adapter (version 4 of which is included in the bundle) to enable VST plug-in support, although it's more closely integrated than in previous versions, and will automatically scan, load and configure any new plug-ins when Sonar is started.
The basics of Sonar are fairly straightforward, and should be more or less familiar to anyone who's worked with a MIDI and audio sequencing package before. Sonar 's Track View shows a list of the MIDI and audio tracks in the project, while an 'inspector' pane displays more details about the currently selected track. Tracks run horizontally from left to right, and are populated with 'clips', which may be short, single-hit sounds, or extended takes. Groove clips are audio clips which have pitch and tempo data stored in them, as in Sony's Acid, and Sonar can import and export Acid ised WAV files. MIDI events and data are also stored in 'clips', although these are handled slightly differently, for obvious reasons.
The Console View is a window containing the customary graphical representation of a mixing desk, with all the virtual faders, knobs and so on laid out much as you'd expect them to be. It's actually quite possible to mix tracks without ever opening the Console View, as the inspector pane in the Track View provides a pretty complete 'channel strip' for the currently selected track. Of course, it's sometimes useful to be able to see all your faders at once, and the Console View allows this.
Sonar 's a complex application, and at first glance can seem slightly cluttered. Fortunately the detailed and rather weighty printed manual contains several clear, step-by-step tutorials, which help clarify things for the beginner. Sonar 's user interface perhaps still has a slightly steeper learning curve than other similar applications, but once you've become familiar with where everything is, it begins to seem quite logical.
While by no means restricted to loop-based composition, Sonar is very well equipped to deal with looped clips, of both the audio and MIDI variety. If you're familiar with Sony's Acid, you'll feel right at home with Sonar 's handling of loops. Matching the tempo and pitch of Groove clips is made very easy, and Sonar 's inbuilt tools handle the business of creating or importing Acid ised clips admirably.
Recording MIDI and audio tracks is quick and easy, and the Folder track facilities in the Track View allow you to assemble even quite large and complicated arrangements without creating too confusing a mess. The Console View is reasonably clear and intuitive, although I personally found the controls for the built-in EQ a little fiddlier than they need have been. Overall though, Sonar provides a comfortable environment in which to work.
Since I have only limited space, I'll be concentrating on the new features added in Sonar 5, although there's still plenty that could be said about some of the older features. Sonar 's surround mixing facilities, for instance, are very well implemented. The Sonitus FX bundle is also impressive, as is the Lexicon Pantheon reverb plug-in. For a more thorough look at Sonar up to and including version 4, I'd recommended Derek Johnson's SOS January 2005 review and, of course, the regular Sonar workshops in this and every issue of SOS.
One potential source of confusion around Sonar 5 has to do with its 64-bit features. Sonar 5 ships in two different versions, both included in the same package. There's a 32-bit Windows application of the kind we're all used to, and a 64-bit version aimed at users running the 64-bit version of Windows XP on a computer with 64-bit processor architecture. Personally I'm still languishing in the 32-bit Dark Ages, and in all probability so are you. Nevertheless, 64-bit systems are apparently on their way, and the computer industry being what it is, we'll probably all find ourselves having to upgrade eventually. By building a viable 64-bit version now, Cakewalk have ensured both that the application is as future-proof as possible, and that eager 'early adopters' have a strong incentive to either stick with, or defect to, Sonar when making the 64-bit switch.
One of the new features that Cakewalk are keen to advertise in Sonar 5 is their new '64-bit double-precision floating-point audio engine' which, confusingly, is available to both the 32-bit and 64-bit applications. In the 32-bit version, 64-bit mixing can be activated by selecting Audio from the Options menu and activating the 64-bit Double Precision Engine tick box in the dialogue box that appears.
The 64-bit audio engine should, in theory, offer a superior signal-to-noise ratio and improved dynamic range. This applies not to recording, where the same 16, 24 and 32-bit options are available, or playback, but exclusively to mixing. The extra bits of resolution are intended to provide better performance when combining multiple signals and when scaling (ie. adjusting the volume or panning of) signals; the 64-bit mixing engine provides extra headroom, so that rounding errors should occur less often when mixing projects containing large numbers of tracks.
Theoretically, at least, the improved resolution should provide improved sound quality, but in practice the perceived difference can be very slight. To be honest, I struggled to find much to distinguish mixes rendered with the 64-bit option enabled from those rendered without. By and large, both sounded equally good to me. People with more sensitive ears and more demanding requirements may be able to discern a more marked difference, however.
One final point to bear in mind here is that many of the third-party effects plug-ins inserted at various points in your signal paths will be incapable of handling 64-bit audio. Fortunately Sonar can tell which plug-ins need to be fed a 32-bit diet, and will make the necessary arrangements for you.
One of the user-interface enhancements introduced in Sonar 5 is the new Inline Piano Roll View, which allows MIDI notes and controller data in a track to be viewed and edited directly from within the Track View. Simply choose a MIDI track and click the the 'PRV mode' button, and the clip redraws itself as a miniature piano-roll display containing the data in that track.
When the PRV mode button is activated, a small piano-roll toolbar is displayed, which allows you to choose which kinds of MIDI data are hidden or displayed, and how editing is handled. It's all straightforward, and quite easy to use. A little judicious zooming of the Track View is required to make the data comfortably visible, though, and some Sonar users may decide it's actually quicker and more convenient to double-click a MIDI clip and have it open in the Piano Roll View 'proper', as in Sonar 4. Still, it's nice to have the choice.
Another nifty 'workflow' enhancement comes in the form of Sonar 5 's Track Templates feature, which allows you to create templates for recalling groups of track settings. This may not sound very exciting but it can be quite handy. For example, you might have a favourite combination of distortion and compression plug-ins you like to use for recording lead guitar parts. In this case you could create a 'lead guitar' Track Template, with the desired plug-ins already inserted and the EQ tweaked just as you like it. Then, whenever you want to record a lead guitar take, you can simply go to the Insert menu, select Insert From Track Template and recall your saved template.
Track templates can store information about the track type, the mute, solo or record state of the track, its hardware input and output destination, any buss send settings, effects settings, instrument bank and patch settings and track name. If you habitually assemble arrangements in a certain way, Track Templates can serve as genuinely useful shortcuts, saving you plenty of mouse-clicks. A simple idea, but nonetheless useful.
It's also now possible for real-time effects to be non-destructively applied on a per-clip basis. In other words, you can right-click a clip (or clips), choose Insert Effect from the context menu that appears, and create an 'FX bin' for that clip. Depending on whether you're working with MIDI or audio clips, you choose from either MIDI or audio effect plug-ins. Clip effects can toggled on and off, and if more than one effect is loaded, you can change their order. It's also possible to destructively apply clip effects, in which case the real-time clip effects are automatically removed afterwards.
Speaking of MIDI effects, the Cakewalk MIDI FX plug-ins have all been overhauled for Sonar 5, and now sport improved user interfaces designed to make them quicker and easier to set up.
Window clutter can be reduced by enabling a new 'tabbed' option which allows any of Sonar 's windows (except the Console View) to be neatly 'docked' in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. When multiple windows are docked you can switch between them either by clicking their tabs (shown along the bottom of the screen) or via a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl + Shift + the left or right arrow).
Another visual enhancement is the new waveform preview mode for busses and virtual instrument tracks. When this option is enabled, a waveform of the buss or track's audio output is drawn in real time while the song plays. The waveform stays drawn after playback, and appears in red wherever clipping occurs. This is either frivolous eye candy, or an elegant refinement of the user interface, depending on your point of view. Personally, I quite like it.
Sonar 's automation features have also been improved. The Envelope Draw tool now allows proper freehand editing, and can also be used to create preset shapes (sine, triangle, saw, square and random), which can produce tempo-sync'ed LFO-type effects such as tremolo or auto-panning.
Although the Cakewalk web site is keen to advertise five new virtual instruments included with Sonar 5, little or no mention is made of them in the manual. There are some general observations about working with soft synths, and a quick nod in the direction of the Sound Canvas-esque TTS1 from Sonar 4, but beyond that you're basically left to discover things for yourself.
One of the first things I discovered was that two of the five new instruments aren't new at all, and are available independently of Sonar. Both the Pentagon I virtual analogue synth and the SFZ Soundfont sampler were developed by independent software developers RGC Audio; Cakewalk have bought up RGC, but they continue to distribute Pentagon and SFZ from their web site at www.rgcaudio.com. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and although the SFZ Soundfont player is distributed as freeware, Pentagon I usually sells for 99 Euros. If you factor this into the cost of, say, upgrading to Sonar 5 Producer Edition from Sonar 4 Producer Edition (£119), the upgrade looks all the more attractive. Even so, it's as well to be aware of your options.
Pentagon I is certainly an impressive beast, however you arrive at it. Its user interface is crammed with a startling quantity of knobs (one hundred and three, if I counted correctly), which will terrify the faint-hearted and delight the most dysfunctionally obsessive twiddlers. It features four independent oscillators, each offering an impressive 13 'alias-free' waveforms including saw, sine, square and pulse waves, as well as noise. There are independent LFOs for pitch, pulse-width modulation, filter and amp, allowing for very complex parameter modulation within a patch.
There are some good on-board effects, including a very nice-sounding chorus, a tempo-sync'ed delay, simple EQ, a 'Drive' effect with Gain and Tone parameters, and a clever formant filter effect, which can be used to create surprisingly voice-like vowel sounds. There's also an amp and cabinet simulator, and an unusual Voice Modulator option, which allows you to modulate a patch with your voice or any other audio signal, using Pentagon I much as you would a vocoder.
Pentagon I definitely has more to offer than just a load of knobs. It also sounds very good: fat and warm, and often quite convincingly 'vintage' and 'analogue'. The built-in presets are all very good, and ably demonstrate Pentagon I 's flexibility. There's a lot this synth can do, and while I wasn't able to spend as much time with it as it really deserved, I nevertheless came away from Pentagon I impressed by its character.
Sticking with RGC Audio, the SFZ Soundfont sampler is a good deal simpler, but nonetheless effective. It can load and play standard WAV files, OGG compressed files, SF2-format Soundfonts, and instruments saved in its own SFZ format. It supports direct-from-disk streaming and offers a multi-mode filter, a couple of LFOs, on-board chorus and reverb effects, and more. It's an impressive instrument, which doesn't demand much in the way of CPU resources, and is very easy to use. You needn't take my word for it though: SFZ can be downloaded for free from www.rgcaudio.com/sfz.htm.
The Psyn II subtractive synth is unique to Cakewalk, but not to Sonar 5: it is also included in their Project 5 all-in-one sequencing package. Psyn II is a more straightforward synth than Pentagon I. It features two oscillators, each with a choice of six waveforms, which can be configured for ring modulation and frequency modulation. There are five envelope generators and three assignable LFOs, allowing plenty of flexibility in terms of modulation.
Cakewalk's web site suggests that Psyn II may be suitable for 'rap, hip-hop and dance musicians who need warm and edgy bass and lead sounds', and indeed it may be. It's certainly a functional little synth, capable of producing some good, usable sounds. Compared to some of the sounds produced by Pentagon I, though, Psyn II 's output occasionally struck me as a little too 'polite' or 'measured'. I can't offer any kind of rational justification for this: it's purely a subjective impression. I'm not saying that Psyn II doesn't sound good. I'm perhaps just saying that Pentagon I tends to sound better, from where I'm sitting.
The Roland Groovesynth also ships with Project 5, but is still a welcome addition to Sonar. It's a simple, sample-based sound module that features '100 percent genuine Roland sounds from their genre-defining grooveboxes and synthesizers'. In practice this means a good selection of clean and usable sounds, including pianos, basses, organs, strings and plenty more. Best of all, for my money, are the drum machine sounds, which include all the obligatory 808 and 909 hits, along with various others. These are well known — even arguably over-used — sounds, but they still have plenty of character, and it's nice to have them so conveniently available 'on tap'.
The RXP REX Player 'groovebox' is described as a 'tempo-sync'ing drum machine and groove box that plays REX and SFZ loops and single hits', which pretty well sums it up. It allows you to trigger individual hits from within a Recycle-sliced loop with MIDI notes. You can rearrange the order of slices within a loop, pitch the whole loop up or down, and even set a pitch randomisation factor for slices.
There are envelope generators and resonant filters which allow you to shape the sound of the slices. MIDI sequences can be extracted from REX files and imported into Sonar by simply dragging and dropping from RXP, allowing for more flexible editing of patterns and phrases. This is a nice touch, and it works well. If you're not interested in working with sliced loops, RXP probably won't be of much interest to you. If you are, on the other hand, it could prove to be a useful addition.
Moving from instruments to effects, for me one of the highlights of Sonar 5 is the new Perfect Space convolution reverb. Convolution reverbs work by capturing the reverberant properties of a space in an 'impulse response' file. An impulse response is typically just a standard WAV-format audio file, often created by firing a starting pistol in the desired location and recording the resulting sound.
A convolution reverb processor uses the data in an impulse response file to calculate what kind of reverberation happens in a particular space, and employs some frightening mathematics to apply the reverberant characteristics stored in the impulse response to incoming audio signals. Native convolution reverb plug-ins have been growing in popularity ever since Altiverb first appeared for the Mac a few years ago, and many Sonar fans will no doubt be delighted by the arrival of Perfect Space.
In practice, it's not a difficult effect to use. You simply insert the plug-in in a track or buss, load an impulse response file (a good selection is included, and more are available from www.noisevault.com), and away you go. The quality of the reverb is immediately impressive, and the supplied impulse responses cover all the required bases from the conventional ('Blues club', 'chapel') to the bizarre (springs, bathrooms, maracas). At their best, the 'real' room sounds really do sound, well, real. The more unusual impulses can also yield some interesting effects — although for my money it's the realism of the rooms and halls that's most impressive.
You can tweak the wet/dry balance of the effect, adjust the length and offset of the impulse response, or even reverse it. More complex edits are possible by enabling and tweaking one or more envelopes on the impulse. There are envelopes for volume, width, pan, low- and high-pass filtering, and EQ. These are non-destructive, in that they only affect the loaded impulse data, not the underlying file. A fairly mind-boggling variety of different effects can be produced once you begin experimenting like this — and that's before you start downloading new impulses, or creating your own.
One other parameter worth mentioning here is the global latency control which sets the internal processing delay, in samples. Convolution reverbs, as a breed, tend to make a fairly substantial dent in your CPU power, and Perfect Space is no exception. Longer latencies reduce the CPU hit at the price of making the plug-in less usable during tracking. The lowest available latency is 64 samples (1.5ms at 44.1kHz), which is certainly snappy enough for real-time use. You wouldn't want too many instances open at this setting, though, as the processor load is considerable. Sonar 's Freeze Track function (which automatically creates a bounced track with effects applied) could come in handy here!
Another impressive new addition is V-Vocal, which is based on Roland's Variphrase technology (it's the first time this technology has been made available in a software product) and has been designed to perform pitch, time and formant manipulation on monophonic sounds, particularly vocals. It's quite similar, in both concept and presentation, to Celemony's Melodyne. To use V-Vocal, you simply select some audio data in the Track View, right-click and choose Create V-Vocal Clip in the pop-up menu that appears. Sonar automatically creates a new clip containing a copy of the selected audio, and it's this clip rather than the original that V-Vocal is applied to.
The V-Vocal editor window is large and well laid out, and quite easy to work with. The are four distinct modes, to allow control over four different aspects of the sound: pitch, time, formant frequencies and dynamics. Pitch corrections can either be performed 'manually', by setting specific target notes in a pitch curve, or 'automatically', by nominating a scale which the clip will be corrected to fit. Variable-depth vibrato effects can be created, and a sensitivity control allows you to fine-tune the handling of material containing ambiguously pitched notes or phrases. You can audition your tweaked clip from within the V-Vocal interface, with a useful looped playback option available.
As you'd expect with an effect of this type, a certain amount of restraint is required in order to achieve really natural-sounding results. That said, V-Vocal works very well, and is capable of sounding very 'clean' over quite a wide range. With a bit of care, it's possible to perform significant pitch corrections that are all but undetectable. Conversely, if you throw caution to the winds and turn all the metaphorical dials up to 11, a range of 'synthetic voice' effects can be produced, some of which are quite striking.
When V-Vocal is switched to 'time' mode, the pitch graph is replaced by a waveform display. Double-clicking creates a vertical green line across the display. Dragging this line left or right compresses or expands the audio on either side of it. Creating several of these markers within a clip allows you to precisely select and expand particular sections of sound, for instance to stretch a vowel sound and straighten out the timing of a phrase. As with pitch correction, this stretching must be done subtly in order to produce natural-sounding effects — although, as with pitch correction, some quite interesting unnatural-sounding effects are possible, if you care to experiment.
In 'formant' mode a red line is imposed over the waveform, to which nodes can be added by double-clicking. This red line acts as a kind of envelope controlling formant shifts over the duration of the clip. A variety of effects can created by tweaking formant frequencies in this way, ranging from the subtle to the downright peculiar. In some cases it's possible to change (or at least to obscure) the gender of a voice. Highly confusing.
Finally, 'dynamics' mode works in much the same way as formant mode, except that the envelope line is yellow rather than red, and it has the effect of scaling the amplitude of the clip up or down to create changes in the volume of a phrase. The waveform display redraws itself to reflect the changes imposed by the envelope, which helps to make editing quick and intuitive.
Taken together, V-Vocal provides a set of tools that enable you not only to fine-tune a vocal performance, but to rapidly warp and distort it beyond all recognition! Of course V-Vocal isn't limited to processing vocals: any monophonic instrument or sound can be handled in the same way. Whether you approach is a tool for a clean, careful error correction, or outlandish sound-design experiments, V-Vocal has a lot going for it.
Sonar is certainly an impressive package, offering an intimidatingly comprehensive feature set, and then some. While its features may not be spectacularly original or innovative, they are well implemented and work reliably. The package as a whole offers a formidable array of tools for anyone working with audio and MIDI, all the more so with the new features added in version 5. Anybody in the market for a powerful and flexible DAW package for Windows should give serious consideration to Sonar — and those with a penchant for Acid-esque looping ought to pay particular attention.
Even so, I might stop short of calling version 5 an essential upgrade for existing Sonar users. If I were already a Sonar 4 user, I imagine I might be a bit hesitant about upgrading immediately. It's not that I think Sonar 5 offers too little; it's more that Sonar 4 already provides so much. The extra features in Sonar 5 seem more like pleasant luxuries than must-have necessities.
While the new synths and other instruments are a nice addition, these in themselves arguably don't provide a compelling reason to upgrade — at least not for the likely majority of Sonar users who will have already invested in one or more third-party software synths. The two features most likely to clinch the deal will be the V-Vocal pitch processor and the Perfect Space convolution reverb. The former will be attractive to anyone with a hankering for a convenient tool for fixing wayward vocals; the latter is simply very nice, and sounds good. Even so, Sonar 4 users who already own a third-party pitch-correction plug-in or convolution reverb may think twice.
Support for 64-bit operating systems and CPUs will be appealing to anyone convinced that the advantages of 64-bit computing are significant enough to make upgrading a short-term priority. What percentage of the SOS readership fits that description is difficult for me to judge!