Cakewalk Sonar 6

MIDI + Audio Sequencer [Windows]

Published in SOS December 2006
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Reviews : Software: ALL

Another major upgrade for Cakewalk's DAW software adds powerful new features, and provides hands-on control at a touch.

John Walden

sonar 6 1

Of all the major sequencer producers, Cakewalk seem to have both the most regular and shortest production cycle. Paul Sellars commented on this when reviewing Sonar 5 in the December 2005 issue of SOS and, yet again, exactly a year down the line we have the next major release in the Sonar range. Cakewalk's flagship sequencer has been very well specified for some considerable time so, just 12 months after version 5 appeared, what additions and enhancements does Sonar 6 bring?

Amongst the list of improvements is ACT or Active Controller Technology, which re-maps hardware controllers automatically depending upon which plug-in or other window is currently active; Audio Snap, which provides some sophisticated audio quantise features; the VC64 Vintage Channel plug-in; and the inclusion of Session Drummer 2, a drum sample playback instrument that includes a range of preset multisampled kits and associated MIDI drum patterns. There is, of course, a whole raft of other new features and minor tweaks to existing features that also form part of the version 6 specification, and many of these will be described below.

As with the move from version 4 to version 5, however, Sonar's latest reincarnation will still seem like familiar territory to existing users. Some streamlining and modest cosmetic changes aside, the user interface retains the look of the previous release. Sonar still comes in two flavours: the top-of-the-range Producer Edition, reviewed here, and the more compact Studio Edition. Potential purchasers should note that some of the more significant new features are exclusive to the Producer Edition of the product — see the 'Producer Privileges' box for details.

Back On The Radar

SOS have reviewed every major release of Sonar (see the 'Reviews Reviewed' box for details), so there is little point in spending too much time here on the well-established features. That said, a brief recap of what Sonar has under the hood is worthwhile, as it might otherwise be possible to overlook just how well specified a sequencer Cakewalk have developed over recent years.

Sonar is a PC-only application and provides a powerful feature set for almost any type of music creation. Sonar's MIDI or audio track count is limited only by the overall specification of your PC system, with audio sample rates and bit-depth limits dictated by your audio interface. As with most mature sequencer environments, Sonar offers a comprehensive range of recording, editing, arranging and mixing features for both MIDI and audio. It also offers excellent features for working with audio loops, not unlike those found in Sony's Acid Pro. Sonar includes support for both Direct X and VST plug-ins, although the approach to the latter represents one of the modifications to the current release. Instead of relying upon a VST-to-DX adaptor, version 6 now provides direct support for the VST 2.4 standard, which should ensure greater compatibility with effects and instrument plug-ins. Rewire is also supported and, again, there have been some minor improvements in this support in the new release.

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The new Synth Rack, with some user-defined controls displayed for the Pentagon I and Psyn II synths.
The new Synth Rack, with some user-defined controls displayed for the Pentagon I and Psyn II synths.
The new Synth Rack, with some user-defined controls displayed for the Pentagon I and Psyn II synths.

Sonar provides good facilities for media or film composers — it can work with digitised video, it can produce scores, and it provides surround sound capability. Support for video playback allows AVI, MPEG, WMV or MOV files to be imported into a project and, usefully, to be exported again including any audio created within Sonar. As with most sequencers, the video can be displayed as thumbnails within its own track in Track View and as a floating and re-sizeable Video window. With appropriate hardware, it is also possible to output the video to an external monitor screen via Firewire. All the common SMPTE formats, frame sizes and frame rates are supported. And while the notation features might not compare with those on offer in a dedicated score-writing application, with practice it is perfectly possible to produce a decent printed score with Sonar, for use with, for example, groups of orchestral players. Sonar also provides a Lyric view that can be used as a visual cue during recording or playback of a project.

In terms of surround sound support, the Producer Edition of Sonar also has all the key bases covered, and includes templates for working in all the common surround configurations. Surround mixing, panning and downmixing are all supported, and surround mixes can be both imported and exported to and from Sonar in a variety of formats — although Dolby AC3 encoding output is not included. Producer Edition also includes the Surround Bridge, which allows multiple instances of mono or stereo VST effects that do not themselves support multi-channel outputs to be used within a Sonar surround project.

Like version 5, Sonar 6 is supplied on a single DVD-ROM, which includes a slick installer, some sample project files and a PDF reference manual that runs to over 900 pages. A welcome inclusion in the box is the 250-page printed User's Guide. These documents include an excellent series of tutorials on Sonar's key features (why don't all sequencer manufacturers provide this kind of material?). Installation takes just a couple of minutes and is best followed by registration. This is most easily achieved on-line and requires the serial number and some personal details to be entered. Again, this process proved painless on my test system, and an email response from Cakewalk appeared in my inbox moments later, containing the registration code needed to fully unlock the application. Access to updates is dependent upon registration and, during the course of the review, I downloaded the 34MB v6.0.1 patch that became available.

Recommended System Requirements
Windows XP/x64.
Intel Pentium 4 2.8GHz orAMD Athlon 64 2800+ or higher.
1GB RAM or more.
1280 x 960 display or better, with 24-bit colour.
7200rpm Ultra DMA EIDE or SATA hard drive with minimum of 100MB for program installation.
DVD-ROM drive.
WDM or ASIO-compatible soundcard, MIDI interface.
What's New, Pussycat?

So, acknowledging that Sonar is already a well-established and full-featured sequencer, what have Cakewalk done to move the Producer Edition forward with this new release? The four 'headline' features have already been mentioned: ACT, Audio Snap, the VC64 Vintage Channel and Session Drummer 2, and all these are described in more detail below. However, there are many other changes, both large and small, some of which are worth a mention.

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Sonar's Console view is well specified but does require a lot of screen real-estate if you want all the features displayed at once while mixing.
Sonar's Console view is well specified but does require a lot of screen real-estate if you want all the features displayed at once while mixing.

For example, the new-look Synth Rack is intended to improve virtual instrument management. Aside from the usual mute, solo and freeze options relating to the Rack, it is also possible to specify an icon for each instrument, for easier identification. However, perhaps the best bit is the ability to add a row of Assignable Controls for each instrument within the Synth Rack. A series of slots for these is displayed immediately beneath the instruments themselves, and right-clicking on a particular slot brings up a menu of the instrument's various controls available for selection. This is a very neat feature. As the controls can be automated from within the Synth Rack, if you just need to tweak a few parameters in real time it can save some screen real-estate, since the full instrument window does not need to be opened. The display of this row of Assignable Controls can be toggled on or off as required and, in addition, if a further instance of the instrument is opened within the Rack, the user is given the option of assigning the same set of controls to the new instance.

Some redesign work has gone into the Console View. For example, new dividers split the Console into groups of channel strips, with tracks, busses and main output channels being grouped separately, and buttons allow the display of each of these three groups to toggled on/off as required. These and other cosmetic changes aside, while the Console is well specified and many aspects of it are customisable by the user, it is still a pretty busy environment in which to work, particularly when you have the controls for all four EQ bands displayed — a large-format monitor capable of high resolution would be an obvious advantage!

The floating Transport strip has also been redesigned, and here the approach is quite a simple one. Right-clicking on the strip allows any of the six modules — Markers, Punch In/Out, Transport, Loop, Tempo and System — to be toggled on or off. This makes it very easy to remove some sections when they are not required. Cakewalk have taken this effective streamlining theme further by allowing both the menus and the toolbars to be customised. The user can hide functions that he or she rarely uses, and re-order those that are regularly used, for easier access. This is the kind of feature that sounds rather bland when written about, but can bring considerable efficiency gains for regular users.

Reviews Reviewed
As well as printing regular Sonar workshops, SOS has reviewed every major release of Cakewalk's flagship DAW software. For some further background on the more established features, the following would be worth revisiting:
Sonar v1 June 2001
Sonar v2 June 2002
Sonar v3 February 2004
Sonar v4 January 2005
Sonar v5 December 2005
Class ACT

So what of the more high-profile new features mentioned earlier? Perhaps the most interesting of these is Sonar's new Active Controller Technology (ACT). In essence, this provides automatic mapping of the controls of any connected hardware controller or MIDI keyboard controller, so that it can be used to drive whatever element of the application is currently selected, whether that's a channel in the mixer, an effect or an instrument plug-in. This is linked to a neat pair of further new additions: the WAI (Where Am I?) display, which operates within the Track and Console Views, and the ACT Indicators, which operate on effect and instrument plug-ins. Both the WAI display and ACT Indicators provide a series of coloured markers which indicate which track and/or buss or plug-in parameters are currently being controlled by your hardware controller — and if you have multiple control surfaces, these are indicated by different coloured markers.

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The Transport strip has been redesigned into six modular panels.
The Transport strip has been redesigned into six modular panels.

Sonar 6 includes preset mappings for popular hardware controllers such as the Edirol PCR and Mackie control surfaces, but ACT can be configured to work with almost any hardware control surface via the ACT MIDI Controller plug-in. This also includes a number of presets for MIDI controllers such as the Kenton Control Freak, Peavey PC1600 and Korg Micro Kontrol. Edirol kindly loaned me one of their PCR M30 controller keyboards, for which Sonar 6 has a preset, and I also tested it with my own humble MIDI master keyboard. In both cases, I had to do a certain amount of head-scratching to get things working, as this section is not a highlight of the written documentation (a few more diagrams and/or screenshots would help!). This criticism aside, once working, the concept behind ACT and the WAI display is a very good one and the PCR M30 became very tightly integrated into Sonar. I'm sure the ACT idea is something other sequencer manufacturers will be taking close note of.

Producer Privileges
As with earlier versions of Sonar, version 6 of the Producer Edition contains a number of features not present in the more affordable Studio Edition. These include many of the key new facilities introduced in version 6, such as Audio Snap, the VC64 Vintage Channel plug-in and Session Drummer 2. They also include features introduced in earlier releases, such as Roland's V-Vocal Variphrase processor, surround sound support, the Psyn II and Pentagon I synths, and both the Perfect Space and Lexicon Pantheon reverbs. Fortunately, Cakewalk provide a clear summary of the differences between the two products on their web site (www.cakewalk.com/Products/DAWs.asp).
Snap!

Sonar's new Audio Snap feature provides a range of options over and above those of the Acid-like Groove Clips that can be tempo-matched to the project or pitch-shifted. Audio Snap is, however, not unlike another element of Acid Pro's feature set — the Groove Tool — in that one of its functions is to provide audio quantising, and it has the ability to apply a groove taken from one audio Clip to other audio or MIDI Clips. As with the Acid Pro equivalent, Audio Snap works non-destructively on Clips, so that any quantising can be fine-tuned or removed altogether as required. Audio Snap is not just about audio quantising, however — it can also be used to grab individual beats and move them manually, extract the tempo from a Clip and apply this to the project tempo, allow Clips to follow tempo changes within a project, or automatically split a Clip into a series of smaller Clips based on each individual beat.

Audio Snap operates at the Clip level and it must be enabled on a per-Clip basis. This can be done from the floating menu that appears when you right-click on a selected Clip, and enabling Audio Snap for a Clip opens the Audio Snap Palette. While this dialogue doesn't look too busy, there are actually a large number of possibilities here. In order to do its magic, Audio Snap first has to identify the audio transients within the Clip, and the majority of the controls along the top of the Audio Snap Palette deal with this process, including the Sensitivity and Threshold sliders, which can be used to generate greater or fewer numbers of transient markers as required. The lower left of the Palette shows the four key tasks Audio Snap can be used for. These are Align Time Ruler, Quantise, Quantise To Pool and Extract Groove, and depending upon which of these is selected, the contents of the lower right section of the Palette change.

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The ACT MIDI Controller plug-in.
The ACT MIDI Controller plug-in.

The Align Time Ruler task provides tools for extracting tempo information from your selected Clip and applying it to your project — the most obvious example might be for extracting the tempo from a drum loop. The 'Find A Steady Rhythm' option is useful in this context, as it helps average out any subtle timing variations within the Clip.

The Quantise task provides two options. The basic Quantise is performed to a regular grid and, as with simple MIDI quantising, includes options for different beat durations, triplets, strength of quantise and degree of swing. In contrast, the Groove Quantise option allows a groove taken from one audio Clip to be applied to another — and providing this is done with due care and attention, it can be used to considerably tighten up sloppy playing between bandmates or to get a group of unrelated sample-library loops to 'groove' together in a more musical fashion. As mentioned above, this is much like the Groove Tool function within Acid Pro, and with some experimentation and experience, is capable of some excellent results.

The 'Pool' in the Quantise To Pool task requires a little explanation; this is not to be confused with the Cubase Pool, which acts as a home for all the files associated with a particular Cubase Project. In Sonar, the Pool is a place where the transient locations from one or more audio Clips can be stored and combined (as you can using the Collect feature in the full version of Pro Tools Beat Detective). For example, you might add transients from separate kick drum, snare drum and hi-hat clips to the Pool, to create a master 'groove' for your project's rhythm. The Quantise To Pool option then allows other audio Clips to be quantised to this groove. The buttons along the top of the Audio Snap Palette include options for adding or removing the transients from the currently selected Clip to or from the Pool and for displaying the Pool transients. When the latter option is switched on, a series of dotted vertical lines appears through the Track view.

The final task — Extract Groove — does exactly what its name suggests, and grooves extracted from an audio Clip can be stored as presets for later use with the Quantise task. In all, Audio Snap is a powerful addition to Sonar's audio capabilities, although I suspect that most users will find they need to invest some time experimenting before they can realise its full potential. To this end, a useful video tutorial about Audio Snap is included on the Installation DVD-ROM.

Customer Service
One thing that software manufacturers often seem to be accused of is ignoring requests for features or changes from users. Cakewalk are obviously keen to avoid that sort of criticism and on their web site is a list of some of the smaller-scale changes (Cakewalk term these 'featurettes') that they have made, many of which have come about as a direct result of user feedback. Amongst other things, these include a range of small modifications to the user interface to make certain tasks easier. Point your browser at www.cakewalk.com/Products/Sonar/featurettes.asp for a full list of these featurettes.
Fine Vintage

The Producer Edition of Sonar 6 includes the VC64 Vintage Channel plug-in. As the name suggests, this uses 64-bit internal processing to make the most of the headroom provided by Sonar's own 64-bit audio engine (see the 'Sonar In Bits' box). VC64 features dual EQ and compressor stages, a gate, a de-esser, and user-configurable signal flow that includes internal side-chaining. The coding for this processor is built around Kjaerhus Audio's Advanced Component Level Modeling (ACLM), which provides a detailed approach to the modelling of analogue equipment.

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The new Audio Snap Palette with a drum loop in the background that has been 'Audio Snap Enabled' and a series of transients detected.
The new Audio Snap Palette with a drum loop in the background that has been 'Audio Snap Enabled' and a series of transients detected.

The plug-in design has a suitably vintage appearance, and there are certainly plenty of controls to play with. The gate and de-esser controls are located at top left, with the routing options and master gain control beneath them. The centre is dominated by the compressor controls, while the four-band EQ controls are along the right. The controls for both the compressor and EQ sections perform double duty, as VC64 includes two of each. Switching between compressor 1 and 2 or between EQ 1 and 2 is achieved via the small C1/C2 and E1/E2 buttons.

The EQ and compressor sections feature some familiar controls but, as I couldn't find any mention of VC64 in the Sonar documentation (and only a brief description on the Cakewalk web site), I had to adopt a trial-and-error approach to the rest of the knobs and switches. Fortunately, the supplied presets, in part, came to the rescue. These cover applications such as mastering, various vocal treatments, and drum and guitar treatments, and can be useful starting points for creating your own patches. Each type of preset features one of the 10 routing possibilities (shown in the bottom left of the display); the key element that changes here is the position of the two EQ and two compressor stages.

Even a little experimentation showed that VC64 is a powerful processor and capable of a wide range of corrective and creative tasks. From warming up or increasing the level of an entire mix through to trashing a perfectly good drum loop, VC64 has something to offer and it seems to do a particularly good job as a vocal processor. It is, therefore, a bit of a shame that Cakewalk have not provided a tutorial for using the plug-in for these types of key tasks, as I think a novice user might be quite daunted by the range of options provided.

Sonar In Bits
Sonar 5 introduced 64-bit support and, as explained by Paul Sellars in his review of version 5, there was potential for a little confusion. In fact, Sonar 5 provided both support for 64-bit processors and operating systems and also an internal 64-bit audio processing engine that could be used by either 32-bit or 64-bit computer systems. The 64-bit support is, of course, still present, but one minor change is the ability to switch on the 64-bit audio engine just for export of the final audio mix. This ought to mean lower CPU overheads while tracking, but greater audio headroom when creating the final mix.
For my money, the jury is still out on the audio benefits most people will be able to perceive in working at 64-bit, but if you work in a very high-quality acoustic environment with high-end components in the rest of your signal chain, it's obviously nice to have the option. I am, however, convinced that 64-bit computing and OSs have their advantages, and I'm certainly looking forward to getting access to more RAM for running sample-based VST Instruments.
Drum Roll Please

While Sonar 5 Producer Edition introduced a number of new virtual instruments, with Sonar 6 there is only one: Session Drummer 2. At first sight, the instrument looks a little underwhelming but, behind the rather dark and staid front end, there is a very competent virtual drummer. The underlying principle is quite similar to Steinberg's Groove Agent or the MIDI aspects of Submersible Music's Drumcore 2. In essence, Session Drummer 2 uses velocity-sensitive multisampled drum sounds triggered by MIDI drum patterns, and the plug-in comes provided with a variety of different drum kits and MIDI patterns in a range of musical styles. These are organised into a series of 'style' presets that, when loaded, include both the drum samples and eight different MIDI patterns (labelled A to H). Rather like Drumcore 2, when you have auditioned and found a pattern that you like, this can be dragged and dropped into a suitable MIDI track, so that you can build and edit your complete drum track in Sonar's Track View.

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The VC64 Vintage Channel plug-in.
The VC64 Vintage Channel plug-in.

Users can, of course, record their own patterns or use third-party MIDI drum patterns to trigger the samples in Session Drummer. The included samples can be mixed and matched between kits and, according to the useful video tutorial for Session Drummer available on the Cakewalk web site, users can also load their own samples into the instrument — although you are left to work out how to do this for yourself, as there is currently no written documentation for the plug-in. Individual samples can be auditioned via the on-screen icons, which simulate velocity-sensitive response based upon where you click on them. Session Drummer 2 also features up to eight stereo outputs, and the number beneath each drum icon can be grabbed and adjusted with the mouse to assign a particular drum group to a specific output. This adds considerably to the processing options that you then have in the Console View for treating the drum sounds.

Cakewalk's web site suggests that there are expansion packs in development for Session Drummer 2. I'm sure users will welcome these, as my only minor criticism would be that, at present, the supplied content (patterns and drum samples) caters for a relatively narrow range of musical styles — various flavours of rock, reggae, jazz, drum & bass, shuffle and 'train' are the main categories. That said, what is supplied is very good indeed and Session Drummer 2 certainly scores in two key areas: it is very easy to use and it sounds great.

Second Opinion
As a long-term Sonar user, I was keen to try out the new features in version 6, and find out whether the big-ticket items are worth the price of admission. There are several of these in Sonar 6, and two in particular intrigued me. First was the new 'vintage' plug-in from Kjaerhus Audio. Vintage Channel VC64 is an all-in-one processing chain with gate, de-esser, compressor and EQ. In comparison to Cakewalk's native and Sonitus effects, VC64 is definitely more uptown. There are two compressors and EQs for each instance, so it is possible to do 'push me, pull you' type compression — both raising the floor and squashing the top of a track. The EQ uses a Pultec-style algorithm that both boosts and cuts at the frequency choice. Both the EQ and compression sound great but are CPU efficient, so you can use them as track effects without your computer hyperventilating. The EQ works nicely in conjunction with the Sonitus track EQ, using Sonitus to scoop out the bottom or notch stuff in or out while VC64 adds 'oomph' and general analogue gravitas. It sounds good on tracks; it sounds good on a master buss. But if you already have a nice collection of top-shelf plug-ins, VC64 is hardly the reason to upgrade.
There is, however, Cakewalk's Active Controller Technology (ACT) to consider. ACT brings the programming that would usually go into setting up a hardware controller to Sonar itself. And, as it turns out, a DAW is the perfect place to coordinate controller info with software. You've already got a screen to make it easy, and why pay for extra processing power when your computer has plenty to spare? My Novation Remote LE is pretty stupid as far as controllers go, but it does have a Sonar preset. With a little work, I soon had eight audio tracks and the master out mirroring the knobs. Not as good as faders, but still better than a mouse. Then I pulled up a synth and tried to hook it in. This is where ACT and Sonar's new Synth Rack come together. The Synth Rack now includes its own set of knobs, which can be assigned to any MIDI-controllable feature of the synth and then routed back to a hardware controller. Not quite Minimoog territory, with a knob for each feature, but a little forethought can put your favourite synth features under tactile control. Only afterwards did I realise that the old Generic Control Surface template I used also changed track volume, which was too much of a good thing. However, the newer ACT Property page automatically switches the hardware to control whatever is in focus in Sonar without any such embarrassing doubling, so it was back to the drawing board for me. I've already proved ACT isn't idiot-proof and requires more work than one imagines at first glance, but it still works. So now, after upgrading to Sonar 6, I have to start pricing a new fader controller to make full use of it. That's progress for you. Alan Tubbs
Let Them Eat Cake

As almost every regular SOS reader will be aware, the feature sets of the major MIDI + Audio sequencers are both expanding and converging. Even those audio applications that once served a very specific purpose, such as Pro Tools and Acid Pro, are gradually introducing features to widen their appeal as 'all-in-one' digital audio workstations for music production. Given this broad similarity in terms of features, how does someone buying into the upper end of the sequencer market for the first time make a decision — and, more specifically, should they be buying Sonar 6?

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Session Drummer 2: the rather bland look hides a very respectable virtual drummer.
Session Drummer 2: the rather bland look hides a very respectable virtual drummer.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is no simple answer to this question. Of course, there are issues of Mac vs PC and, if you already have a platform preference, then this will narrow down your initial choices. For those working on PC, however, is Sonar 6 a better choice than Cubase, Pro Tools, Acid Pro or Live? All of these applications are capable of serious music production and, for the vast majority of users, they are stuffed full of exotic features that might never get used (just as your average word-processor is) in their own music-making. The bottom line is that all these applications can get the job done, so the important issues in making a choice may be cost and personal preference in terms of the workflow and user interface provided. For potential new users, some time needs to be spent on auditioning these various applications — either via a retailer or a friend who already runs one or more of them. This is the only way to get a feel for which one is most comfortable for you.

Whichever sequencer you adopt, there is a real learning process to go through before you are using it to its full potential, and this is perhaps the key point if you are already using one of Sonar 6's competitors. Excellent though Sonar 6 is, I'm not sure that it is going to tempt, for example, existing Cubase users to switch. The differences between the bells and whistles of these two high-end applications will simply not be great enough to make most users consider negotiating the new learning curve.

I think the issue is likely to be more straightforward for existing Sonar 5 users. Whether you decide to upgrade from version 5 of the Producer Edition will depend upon your need for the headline additions: Audio Snap, the VC64 Vintage Channel, Session Drummer 2 and ACT. If enough of these appeal, the £119 upgrade price will be worth paying. I'm perhaps less convinced that this release will persuade some Studio Edition v5 users to move up to Studio Edition v6. However, at £149, the upgrade from Studio Edition v5 to Producer Edition v6 now represents a very good deal, with more than enough extra features to justify the upgrade price. 

Cakewalk Sonar 6 £369/£229
pros
Very well specified MIDI + Audio sequencer.
Additional features of the Producer Edition are worth the extra outlay over the Studio Edition.
Session Drummer 2 looks bland but sounds very good.
VC64 Vintage Channel provides some excellent processing options.
ACT has considerable potential for those with a suitable hardware control surface.
Improved integration of VST plug-ins.
cons
For those upgrading, the best of the new features are reserved for users of the Producer Edition.
The user interface — and in particular the Console view — can still seem quite busy without a large-format monitor.
Some of the new version 6 features could be better documented.
summary
Without a shadow of a doubt, Sonar 6 Producer Edition is a very well-specified MIDI + Audio sequencer. It is more than capable of turning a decent PC and audio interface combination into a sophisticated recording workstation. For those just buying into the software studio approach, Sonar 6 fully deserves to be auditioned alongside the obvious competition.
information
Producer Edition £369; Studio Edition £229. Prices include VAT.
Edirol Europe +44 (0)20 8747 5949.
+44 (0)20 8747 5948.

Test Spec
Cakewalk Sonar 6.0.1
Athlon dual-core 4400+ PC with 4GB RAM running Windows XP Service Pack 2, with ESI Wami Rack 24 and Echo Mia 24 soundcards.


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