Previously a hard-wired channel strip, ProChannel is now an 'open' plug-in host offering unprecedented effects order flexibility — which can make a huge difference to your sound...
No one can say Sonar is standing still. Not only were Effects Chains 2.0 introduced before I even had a chance to cover Effects Chains 1.0, but with Sonar X1 Expanded, ProChannel has gone from being a hard-wired channel strip to, essentially, being a plug-in host, with third-party support.
Why have both a VST FX bin and a ProChannel? Well, the main ProChannel advantage is workflow; its effects are consolidated into a single channel strip, like the hardware mixer model, rather than spread over multiple open windows. Perhaps more importantly, you can save a channel strip as a single preset, as well as mix and match modules to create an all-Cakewalk channel strip, an emulation of a classic SSL console, a combination of the two, or something more à la carte — and have different strips in different channels!
Although you can now insert, remove and replace modules, the ProChannel EQ is an exception, as it's always present (although you can collapse it or choose a more compact version if it gets in the way visually). As to third-party support, the Softube Saturation knob included with X1 Expanded was a harbinger of the future, as the Softube Mix Bundle (FET Compressor, Focusing Equalizer, Passive Equalizer and TSAR-1R reverb) is now available in the ProChannel format; additional third-party support is forthcoming.
Interestingly, the Softube Mix Bundle includes both standard VST and ProChannel versions. However, Softube plug-ins require an iLok dongle, even if you want to run them solely within ProChannel.
With this new flexibility, it's important to understand the differences between various signal-chain options. For example, prior to X1 Expanded, dynamics defaulted to preceding EQ, like most consoles. However, as dynamics can now go before or after EQ, it's worth investigating the ramifications of different effects orders. There's no universal answer, as dynamics can serve different purposes.
EQ after dynamics: This option alters the compressed or limited sound's timbre, and is the 'standard' effects order. However, if you're using dynamics to control peaks, a boost from the EQ will create post-dynamics peaks that necessitate re-adjusting levels.
EQ before dynamics: With this routing, dynamics processing 'undoes' some of the effect of EQ. For example, if there's a big bass peak, the dynamics will reduce this somewhat. The boost will still sound quite prominent, but the dynamics control will minimise excessive level issues. Note that this is a good order for instruments that can create massive peaks (like slap bass, or synthesizer with a highly resonant filter), as the dynamics can tame these peaks without altering the overall timbre too dramatically.
Another reason to place EQ before dynamics is to make the dynamics more 'frequency-sensitive'. For example, with lead guitar and compression, if you boost EQ in the 900Hz-1kHz range, the lead notes will go into compression at a lower level than notes played on lower strings. As a result, they'll sustain more but not necessarily exhibit much of a level boost compared to having EQ set similarly, but after dynamics.
The difference the effects order makes to drums is perhaps even more dramatic. Placing compression before EQ compresses the entire drum sound, including the kick and high-frequency sounds such as cymbals. If you set EQ for a strong mid-range peak and place it before compression, the compressor will compress the 'meat' of the drums, but the kick and cymbals will retain their dynamics.
Saturation after EQ: Saturation, or any kind of distortion, generates lots of high-frequency harmonics. With EQ before saturation, even if you pull back the high frequencies, saturation will still generate harmonics from whatever high frequencies are there, unless there are almost no high frequencies at all.
Saturation before EQ: This routing makes it much easier to shape the saturation tone. ProChannel's LPF module is excellent for this application, as you can set the slope to 48dB and shave off the highest harmonics without affecting the rest of the signal.
Saturation after dynamics: Compression delivers a more consistent signal to saturation modules, which leads to a more consistent and smooth saturation sound. Another advantage of this order is that you can increase the dynamics output level (within reason, of course), which overloads saturation to create an even more overdriven sound. For the smoothest distortion sounds, I generally place dynamics first, followed by distortion, then, finally, EQ to shape the final timbre.
Saturation before dynamics: This order makes the distortion more obvious, as any compression brings up low-level distortion. This won't be as noticeable if you have EQ at the end of this chain, but you'll really hear a difference if you bypass the EQ.
Although the ProChannel effects ordering is pretty flexible, remember that ProChannel's goal is to mimic the workflow of a traditional mixing console as opposed to, for example, a modular synthesizer where anything can go anywhere. However, you can place ProChannel before or after the FX bin, which opens up additional possibilities.
ProChannel defaults to pre-FX bin, but you can switch it to post-FX bin in the Console view by clicking on the post button in the ProChannel part of a channel strip. In the Inspector or the ProChannel 'fly-away' in Console view, right-click on a blank space in ProChannel, and select 'Post FX bin' from the context menu.
EQ before and after ProChannel saturation: Suppose you want EQ before and after saturation, so you can tame the highs before they're distorted, as well as afterwards. Unless you've purchased the Softube Mix Bundle, you can't have two EQs in ProChannel. However, you can insert the Sonitus EQ in the FX bin, place ProChannel post-FX bin, then insert saturation and EQ in ProChannel.
ProChannel followed by loudness maximisation: One really useful option for controlling dynamics is placing ProChannel prior to the FX bin, and inserting the Sonitus Multiband Compressor set for multiband limiting/maximisation in the FX bin; regardless of what you do with levels in ProChannel, the maximisation will keep peaks under control.
To edit the Multiband Compressor to serve as a maximiser, choose its Full Reset preset, click on the Common tab, and enable the Limit button. In this mode, an illuminated Multiband clip light indicates that limiting, not clipping, is taking place. You can usually go about 6dB above zero and still not have audible distortion.
This works really well for vocals. I feel that EQ before dynamics doesn't work well on voices, as compressing only a certain vocal range sounds wrong because it's unnatural. With vocals, I much prefer EQ after dynamics, but then I still need a limiter after the EQ if it's necessary to catch peaks.
Here's a practical example of using the 'neo-ProChannel' to create an unconventional, saturation-oriented channel strip. Sonar has two different, ProChannel-compatible saturation effects: Cakewalk's Tube and Softube's Saturation knob (included in Sonar X1 Expanded). What's more, you can use them both at the same time. Each has a different character, and driving one with the other can produce sounds you can't obtain with either one by itself. Switching their order gives yet another set of timbres. You can also enhance saturation with the modules you put before and after saturation, then think of the entire setup as a single 'distortion construction kit'.
Follow the compressor with Cakewalk's Tube distortion, then the Saturation knob. Driving the Saturation knob with Tube produces a wider variety of distortion effects than the reverse order. After the Saturation knob, place EQ to shape the saturated sound. As one example of how to use this, consider distortion with bass:
Note that bypassing any of these modules makes a big difference to the overall sound. In any event, this setup really makes the bass stand out — and we haven't even touched on what it can do for drums!