MIDI + Audio Sequencer For PC

Published in SOS June 2002
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Reviews : Software: ALL

In the year since its introduction, Cakewalk's Sonar has tempted a lot of musicians away from other sequencers. Now a major upgrade adds lots of new features, many as a direct result of user feedback.

Craig Anderton

Sonar represented quite a departure for Cakewalk. Although the company always had a reputation for providing excellent value for money, some considered it not quite up there with the 'big boys': but when Sonar appeared, it demanded attention because of its inclusion of Acid-style on-the-fly time-stretching with high-level hard disk audio and MIDI functionality. Clearly, here was a program trying to stretch beyond the virtual tape recorder paradigm.

Sonar also embraced two new standards: WDM (Windows Driver Model) and DXi (DirectX Instrument). They could have adopted Steinberg's ASIO and VST protocols, but Cakewalk contended that WDM was a better choice because it was written specifically for Windows (Sonar is not available for the Mac), and that DXi allow

Cakewalk Sonar XL v2 £329
ReWire support.
More flexible file-management system.
Many more groove-oriented features, including file-saving in Acidised format and the Cyclone DXi.
Handles a variety of control surfaces.
High-quality EQ and compression audio plug-ins.
Documentation on new features needs work.
You can't import REX files directly into the program.
Can't output MTC.
Sonar 2.0 adds some major enhancements to Cakewalk's flagship program. While the ReWire support, Cyclone soft synth, and drum map/editor will appeal to groove/dance-oriented musicians, the ability for DX Instruments to have multiple outputs, a choice of file-management systems, and two excellent audio plug-ins will appeal to all Sonar users.

ed easier automation and better stability. Cakewalk also took the opportunity for a complete graphic redesign, turning their rather plain interface into a highly efficient plain interface (well, you can't have everything!). The change was not just cosmetic. The redesign packed more information into a more compact, and highly customisable, Track View window, allowing more of a project's important parameters to be seen at a glance.

All was not rosy upon its introduction. Version 1.0 was unstable, but the swiftly launched v1.1 made it useable, and not too long after, v1.3 made it fun. Few soundcards had WDM drivers, and the ones that did often had only beta versions available. And DXi -- which didn't even support multiple outputs -- lacked the product range available in VST Instrument format. Fortunately, several VST-to-DXi wrappers appeared, allowing VST Instruments to be used with Sonar, and the landscape changed dramatically when Native Instruments, among others, showed a serious commitment to producing DX Instruments, and more of them started to appear.

A year later, Sonar has established itself as a major sequencing program. Cakewalk have never been at a loss for customers, but Sonar appealed to a new demographic. At the last NAMM show, the two main Sonar endorsers were Ray Charles and Slipknot. That's a very wide stylistic bandwidth -- and let's not forget the dance music folks who turned to Sonar for its time-stretching.

Changing Midstream

Cakewalk still have pretty trusting copy protection: all you have to do to authorise the program is enter a serial number. When I installed Sonar XL v2, all my previous Sonar preferences, background wallpaper and so on migrated over to the new version. The screen looked the same, the toolbars were the same... déja vu. I had just started work on a new movie theme, and was concerned about violating my golden rule of new gear ("never try out a new piece of technology on a paying gig"). But I went ahead, and my recklessness went unpunished: the upgrade was completely painless.

In fact, you could just keep on using 2.0 as if you were using 1.3, and not even know the difference until you started to run into features you hadn't seen before. Sonar 2.0 isn't so much an upgrade as an expansion -- there are more processors, more instruments, more compatibility with the rest of the world, more outputs o

This typical synth rack contains five synths,
including two VST types (Steinberg's HALion
and Neon) courtesy of FXpansion's VST-DXi
adaptor, NI's FM7 and Battery, and the Edirol
Virtual Sound Canvas that ships with Sonar 2.0.
Here you can insert, delete, mute, solo, and
perform other instrument-related functions.
n DX Instruments and more ways to incorporate them into your song, and more improvements in performance.

The Synth Rack

I'm starting to really like DXi soft synths. At first I thought it was silly of Cakewalk to invent yet another protocol rather than simply using VST, but I'm particularly keen on the way Sonar handles DXi synth automation (and DirectX 8 automatable effects, as well). Sonar 2 has made two major changes in the handling of DXi devices. First, there is no longer a single-stereo-output limitation. (Incidentally, the DirectiXer 2.0 VST Instrument adaptor allows multiple-output VSTi devices to have multiple outs within Sonar.)

Second, a 'synth rack' provides a common place for organising your soft synths. You can still stick them in the FX bin as with Sonar 1.0 (in fact you must, if they're serving as processors), but doing so retains the stereo output limitation. Using the synth rack treats the synths more like audio tracks than effects.

The Insert Menu now has an entry for DXi Synth. When you insert a synth, a dialogue box appears that lets you simultaneously create a MIDI source track along with a track for the first synth stereo output, or a

  Sonar or Sonar XL?  
  Sonar XL and Sonar are identical, except that the more costly Sonar XL includes the Timeworks plug-ins and DR-008 drum soft synth. If you already have similar plug-ins and something like Battery you probably don't need the XL version, but it's worth noting that all three plug-ins are excellent.  
ll synth outputs (be careful if you do the latter -- I did this with Reason, and ended up with 60 or so outputs!). You can also open the synth's property page and the synth rack view when you open an instrument. Inserting an instrument ties together an audio and MIDI track automatically, with the MIDI output pre-assigned, and mute/solo working in tandem. Overall, you can think of the rack as a master soft synth control center, where you can remove instruments, mute/solo, disable/enable, choose presets and insert additional synths.

ReWire Support

The synth rack allows you to insert ReWire-compatible instruments as well DXis. By incorporating ReWire, Cakewalk have supplemented its virtual instrument capabilities with some of the most coveted soft synths around: the ones in Reason, another ReWire-compatible application. ReWire devices show up in the synth rack just like other synths. You call them up by going to the Insert menu, where there's a new item called ReWire Device. Note that if you open a ReWire program before opening Sonar, th

The drum map (showing a map for DR-008),
is where you define which input notes trigger
which drums; you can also assign channels,
output ports, velocity offset and velocity scaling.
The drum grid is simply the upper pane in the
piano roll editor -- drag down a separator line,
and there it is. Clicking on a note lets you
edit its start time, velocity, pitch, duration,
and channel in the drum grid's Note Inspector.
e process won't work; you have to open Sonar first, then call up the ReWire instrument. When you do, the instrument loads and appears. Also, you can't load multiple instances of ReWire programs, although this is unlikely to pose serious problems. Just think of how many cool synths you can load into Reason...

Setting up ReWire is easy: you just go to Insert / ReWire Device, choose the device, decide how to set up the outputs (first synth output or all synth outputs), and Sonar creates tracks and opens up the program for you. Press Play on Sonar, and the ReWire application plays right in sync. Perhaps the coolest part is that you can create rhythm parts and grooves on Reason, set it up under Sonar as a ReWire device, and use Sonar for hard disk recording and adding other instruments (virtual or otherwise). You can even process the ReWire device outputs in Sonar 2. Although Sonar doesn't support REX2 files, if you have Reason you can load REX2 files into the Dr. Rex player and use it alongside Sonar. It's a fudge, but provides Sonar with back-door access to REX2 files.

How badly does all this stress out your computer? ReWire itself takes very little CPU power, but running two digital audio-oriented programs at the same time, especially ones hosting soft synths, requires a fast computer. On my computer, with Sonar running four DXi synths, 10 hard disk audio tracks, three plug-in processors and a bunch of MIDI tracks, the CPU meter hit peaks of 60 percent. Adding Reason with its default collection of instruments kicked it up to 80 percent -- definitely red-line time. The same advice applies as with other virtual synths: render to a hard disk track, but keep the MIDI track in case you want to recut the part later on.

  Per-project Audio Files  
  Cakewalk software always had a non-standard way of managing audio files: they were dumped into a huge data folder, and each file was assigned a random file name. Back when big hard drives were expensive, this made sense as you could buy a big hard drive, stash all your files on it, and back up the hard drive to back up all your work. Furthermore, Cakewalk programs did the behind-the-scenes file management such as deleting duplicates, copying files that were used in a project but reused in another project with changes, and so on.

However, if you wanted to extract a file for use in another program, or port a project over to another sequencer, Cakewalk's file management system was a nightmare. Sonar 2.0 addresses this with the option to do Per-project Audio Folders that save all audio for a particular project in a single folder. This takes up a bit more hard drive space than the 'old school' method, but makes Sonar projects infinitely more transportable.

Converting over to this system is simple: it takes one tick in a Global Option, 'User Per-Project Audio Folders'. From there, when you save, you specify a folder, and optionally, whether you want all the audio files copied to the folder. This makes a tidy data package that's easy to back up: it also makes sure that any audio imported from a removeable drive finds a permanent home.


The Drum Editor

In response to overwhelming user demand, Cakewalk have added a dedicated MIDI drum editor to version 2 of Sonar. I've never been that much of a fan of drum grids -- piano roll notation always seemed good enough. After working with Sonar 2's drum grid, however, I'm starting to change my mind.

There are two phases to using drum grids. The first is to define a drum map. This is where you map input notes to drum sounds, specify ports and channels, and edit velocity offsets and scaling. Maps can be saved as presets.

The drum grid, part of the piano roll editor, is where you edit the actual parts. Notes can be shown as either drum hits of uniform size, or with their actual duration; there's a choice of grid line options from quarter-note to 64th-note that makes it easy to line up hits. A particularly handy feature is that the grid lines can follow the current snap value. Each note has a velocity tail which is, unfortunately, nearly invisible -- it needs to express the full MIDI velocity range over nine pixels! You can edit the velocity by placing the cursor over the tail, an

  Sonar £249.
Sonar XL £329.
Upgrade from Sonar 1 to Sonar 2 £65.
Upgrade from Sonar XL 1 to Sonar XL 2 £129.
Upgrade from Sonar 1 to Sonar XL 2 £149.

Prices include VAT. Unusually, although upgrades in the UK cost a bit more than the US, the programs themselves are about 20 percent less compared to US prices. Presumably, this is Cakewalk's strategy for gaining greater market share in Europe, where the company is not as well-known as in the US.

d fortunately there's a numeric readout to give a precise velocity indication. Tail velocity is editable only in increments of five, but realistically, that's enough for drums.

You can also edit using the usual velocity edit strip along the bottom of the pane, but here Sonar's implementation falls short of other programs, because if several notes fall on the same beat, you can't edit one in the velocity strip without affecting them all. It would be nice to be able to select a note then use a modifier key such as Ctrl to restrict velocity editing only to the selected note. However, that's where the velocity tail editing comes in handy, as you can adjust the note value using that technique. As an alternative, clicking on an individual note also opens up the Note Inspector, which shows editable fields for start time, pitch, velocity, duration, and MIDI channel. As expected, all other piano roll features (quantisation, note duration selection, transposition and so on) are all in effect here as well.

Where Sonar breaks new ground is in the ability to 'paint in' repetitive series of notes. You can do so according to a specific rhythm, for instance a series of 16th notes at a specified velocity; but you can also draw in custom patterns. Several are included with Sonar for everything from acoustic drums to exotic percussion, and you can also create your own. The method is rather clever, as you create multiple variations within a single file. For example, suppose I have five favourite kick drum patterns -- three two-measure patterns, one one-measure pattern and one four-measure pattern. I enter these into the piano-roll editor (they don't have to be quantised, and can be shifted for 'feel') one after another, and insert a named marker at the beginning of each measure where a new pattern begins. Saving this as a Standard MIDI File to the Pattern Brush Pattern folder causes the filename to show up as an entry in the drop-down Brush Pattern menu, with a side menu showing the five patterns I created. This isn't the kind of feature that would make you switch sequencers, but it does have some good uses.

  Control Surfaces  
  Cakewalk got into control surfaces early on when they collaborated with Peavey on the StudioMix, a controller optimised for Cakewalk Pro Audio, with moving faders and transport controls (reviewed in SOS May 1999). Sonar 2.0 continues to support the StudioMix and Roland U8, but now adds the Tascam US428 and CM Labs Motormix, while a generic controller mode offers presets for controllers from Kenton, JL Cooper, Peavey, Keyfax (Phatboy), Roland and Radikal Technologies, although you can create your own profile to work with whatever controller you have on hand.

For example, the Midiman Oxygen8 wasn't on the preset list, so I decided to see how hard it was to create a profile. I had a hard time figuring out the documentation, so I 'reverse engineered' the Peavey 1600 template, which was set up to do volume, and used the template's MIDI learn function to teach the 1600 profile to respond to the controllers generated by the Oxygen8. Within minutes, I was using the eight continuous controller knobs to vary channel levels within Sonar. If you haven't experienced the joys of running a hard disk recording system with a hardware controller instead of a mouse, you'll wonder why you waited so long when you finally do get a controller. Cakewalk claim that 'plug-and-play' profiles for other controllers will appear in the future.


New DX Instruments

With the emphasis on the drum map feature, it's fitting that FXpansion's DR-008 drum plug-in is now included in Sonar XL. This program (described by Martin Walker in his December 2001 PC Notes) is not unlike NI's Battery, although the version shipping with Sonar 2.0 can't load new samples -- when you try, it advises you to go to the web site and check for an update. The eight drum kits that come with it are helpful, but more opt

Here's Cyclone in action. Pads 8 to 12 have
loops assigned to them, each of which loops
when you hit its corresponding key (latch mode).
Hitting the key again releases a playing loop.
Note the sliced waveform in the middle, and
the way the slices are shown as rectangles
in the pad 'tracks' in the lower window.
Slices can be removed, freely exchanged
among pads, and loaded from different files.
ions would be welcome. Other than that, though, it's a fine piece of software that plays back samples or synthesized sounds, making it also a bit like Waldorf Attack.

Much has been made by Cakewalk of the new DX Instrument, Cyclone, that they're bundling with Sonar 2. But what exactly is it? Even the Sonar manual tells you what Cyclone's controls do, but gives virtually no idea of what this instrument is, or why you'd want to use it. Here's the deal.

Cyclone is definitely for the groove audience. Its heart is an MPC-like layout of 16 pads, each of which can be loaded with a WAV or RIFF (Acidised WAV) file and MIDI-triggered. One basic application would be to load the pads with drum samples, and bash on a controller to trigger them. Another scenario would be loading a bunch of loops, and remixing them by 'playing' the MIDI controller to bring loops in and out. For this type of application, Cyclone offers useful functions for each pad: mute, solo, level, pan, load sample, sync to Sonar, loop, velocity range, MIDI input channel, and root note. You could even load a single pitched sound into 12 pads, each tuned differently, to provide an octave's worth of sounds.

So far, things are pretty standard. But if you load in an RIFF loop for a particular pad, Cyclone recognises the individual 'slices' and displays the sliced waveform in the waveform display window; and there's a second display, the Pad Editor, at the bottom. This editor shows each pad as a track, laid against a measure grid like that in the piano roll editor. With sliced waveforms, each slice shows up in the track as a rectangle whose length equals the slice's duration.

Now it gets really interesting. You can move the rectangles around, effectively rearranging the slices on a single pad, or move them among the various pads. Rectangles can be removed to leave spaces, or overlap (whereupon they mix together); you can even call up a different loop in the display, and drag any slice into any place along the timeline for any pad. Furthermore, you can edit any slice's pitch, level, or pan. This lets you make up incredibly bizarre wave sequences if you're so inclined, especially when you mix up slices from various loops. About the only thing you can't do is automate the parameters.

  Bundled Plug-ins & Sounds  
  Sonar XL 2.0 has a somewhat different roster of bundled products compared to the original version; most noticeably, the Tassman virtual synth is gone, but the DR-008 and Timeworks plug-ins make their debut. Here's the roster (an asterisk indicates products only in the XL version).

DX Instruments: Cakewalk Cyclone groove machine, FXpansion DR-008 drums*, Audio Simulation DreamStation 'analogue' synth, Alien Connections ReValver SE guitar amp processor, Edirol Virtual Sound Canvas, and trial version of LiveSynth Pro SE SoundFont player.

MIDI plug-ins: Musiclab (four MIDI effects), Ntonyx Style Enhancer Micro.

Loops: Approximately 300 loops from Smart Loops (also with demo songs and tips on using drums), and 100 loops from the X-Mix X-Treme Dance & Hip-Hop collection.

Signal processors: Cakewalk DSP-FX chorus, delay, EQ, flanger, and reverb; Timeworks CompressorX* and EQ*.


New DirectX Processors

Sonar XL adds two audio plug-in processors from Timeworks (, both with automatable parameters. The list price for the two is around $350, so they represent significant added valu

  Overall, Sonar 2's stability over the review period was very -- no, make that 'surprisingly' -- good. With this kind of update, the software company often releases a patch a few days later to take care of bugs. But so far, my computer's been happy and the Cakewalk web site has been update-free. I would assume this is because the underlying code seems relatively untouched; most of the action seems to be in new extensions to the existing code.  
e -- these are not limited demo units. CompressorX is a compressor/limiter/loudness maximising device that plugs a major hole in Sonar's built-in repertoire of effects. Automatable parameters include threshold, ratio, attack, release, auto release, RMS/average, soft knee/hard knee, input gain, output gain, limiter enable and limiter threshold.

Timeworks EQ provides six fully parametric EQ stages as well as low cut and high cut sections, each with frequency and Q controls. All parameters for these stages are automatable, along with several other parameters -- bypass for each stage, band 1 and 6 type (low shelf or parametric for 1, high shelf or parametric for 6), algorithm (clean or vintage), master gain and global bypass. There's also a parameter for each stage called low/all: low restricts the frequency range to 600Hz and below, presumably to allow for finer adjustments in the places where you'd be most likely to want to cut or boost specific frequencies. I have no idea why on earth you'd want to be able to automate this, but hey, why not?

I'm not one to get all 'golden ears' about how EQs sound, but this one is as sweet as honey. Its 'sound' is transparent: when you boost, it doesn't announce that it's boosting, there's just a nice lift of the

  Test Spec  
  Cakewalk Sonar XL v2.0.
Peformance Systems PC with Pentium III-class Celeron overclocked to 840MHz, 512MB RAM, BX Master motherboard and ATI All-in-Wonder AGP graphics card, running Windows 98SE.
Frontier Designs Dakota interface with beta WDM drivers, Midiman Oxygen8 USB keyboard.
region in question. Automation is smooth, with superb resolution and no nasty zippering. Also cool is the 30-stage spectrum analyser that appears in the background in Graphic mode (the mode where you set the EQ response by drawing curves instead of moving sliders), which can monitor either the EQ input or output.

CompressorX is also very good. One interesting aspect is that it seems pretty easy to emulate the pumping effects of analogue compressors if you try hard enough. It's less transparent than the EQ, and is not multi-band, but I'm sure it will find a following. I do have two complaints about these plug-ins: there's no on-line documentation for either processor (however, installing Sonar creates a Timeworks folder with PDF documents that describe the controls and functions), and the lettering is difficult to read.

The Verdict

When Sonar added Acid-style time-stretching to standard MIDI and hard disk recording, it was clear t

  The Acid Collection  
  Groove Clips can now be saved as 'Acidised' (RIFF-format) files, with embedded tempo and pitch information. Be aware, however, that this is not a magic process. You need to adjust the slice and transient detect sliders in the Loop Construction window for the file to sound good over the widest possible tempo range. Acid won't apply any additional intelligence toward making the loop as transposable as possible -- that's all done in Sonar, and Acid is just the playback medium. You must also make sure the root note is correct.

Incidentally, you can also save a Groove Clip as a RIFF file by simply dragging it into another application, to the desktop, or into a folder. The file remains in Sonar, but the program creates a copy in the new location.

hat Cakewalk were reaching out to the dance/groove/remix market. The addition of the Drum Map, the option to save in RIFF file format, ReWire capability, and Cyclone DXi show that Cakewalk continue to be serious about identifying, and providing tools for, all styles of musicians.

The other main updates are more pedestrian, but nonetheless important. Cakewalk's overhaul of their file management system has been long overdue, and a major limitation in the DXi spec has been addressed by accommodating soft synths with multiple outputs. The Timeworks EQ and CompressorX provide the kind of quality needed for buss as well as track effects (I use CompressorX across the main output buss to get a 'preview' of what will happen to the dynamic range during the mastering process), and bundling DR-008 makes sense, given the emphasis on drums with the new Drum Map and existing Session Drummer functions.

Is it worth upgrading? If you're into straight-ahead hard disk or MIDI recording, aren't too interested in soft synths, have some quality compressor/EQ plug-ins, are happy with Cakewalk's file management system, and either use the StudioMix interface or don't want a hardware interface, you probably don't need

The Timeworks EQ provides a superb track or
buss EQ for Sonar -- something missing from the
group of plug-ins bundled with version 1. A
really nice feature is the spectrum analyser in the
background, which can monitor either the dry or
processed signal.
2.0. But for many users, any one of the enhancements could be more than enough to justify the upgrade. Sonar 2.0 also seems a bit more solid in terms of audio engine reliability, even if you're using MME drivers (but trust me: WDM is the only way to go -- the program is way more responsive than with MME).

Is it worth switching? That's always a dicey question, especially with Cubase SX about to launch and Logic 5 finally shipping. Personally, I feel that sequencers have reached a level of sophistication that you really can't go wrong with whatever you pick, yet there are sufficient differences among products that some are going to fit with your mode of working better than others, For me, working with Sonar feels extremely natural. Although most of my work involves dance music and remixing, I also do relatively standard recording jobs (industrial videos, commercials, that sort of thing) and sound design for sample CDs. Sonar has proven itself adaptable enough to cover all my needs. Granted, I'm always on the lookout for something newer and better -- I have no aversion to switching programs, or platforms for that matter, if doing so will get my work done faster or more enjoyably. But for now, Sonar version 2.0 rules in my studio.

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