For the last couple of years, users of Cakewalk's entry-level Home Studio package have felt like second-class citizens, sitting at the back of the sonic bus with a Sonar 2 sound engine and a screen stuck in the 1990s. It wasn't bad, but it was beginning to show its age. I used it mostly for MIDI work, recording external synths and rendering soft synths before mixing the audio in Vegas, which I was more comfortable with. The new Sonar Home Studio (SHS) remedies both those complaints, using the Sonar 4 sound engine and a clean blue/grey user interface. There are other improvements and goodies, of course, but for musicians looking for a first DAW and those thinking of upgrading or switching from a competitor's product, SHS streamlines Cakewalk's extensive (and sometimes confusing) product line and offers a entry-level pro sequencer and audio recording package with support for sample rates up to 192kHz and the ability to use multiple processors, dual cores and Hyperthreading. The only major things missing are the high-end effects and synths, which can be added at one's leisure, and the ability to use more than 64 audio tracks.
SHS ships with a serial number, just like all other Cakewalk software, but unlike HS, it has to be registered on-line, too. However, this only took a minute to do and will hopefully forestall some of the hackers out there — it still beats the devil out of a dongle. Cakewalk's migration tool transfers settings from previous editions over to the new software, and all the songs I was working on in HS2 opened fine in SHS. The new program found both my audio interfaces, along with their attendant ins and outs, without difficulty.
The new Sonar look of Home Studio is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is also easier to navigate, and if you find the the default colour scheme too muted, it can be altered. HS was very busy-looking, with several rows of Windows-style toolbars running along the top, and another above the track controls. The whole toolbar menu format is gone in SHS, to be replaced by a Master Control bar containing the play/record buttons, clock and most-used buttons from HS's toolbars. There are still track toolbars at the top of the tracks, but Cakewalk have also added a navigator button which opens up an overview at the top of the track headers and allows the mouse to drag the track view through your entire project.
Windows 2000 or XP.
1 GHz or better processor.
100MB hard disk space.
Another ergonomic addition is the Track Inspector. This gives more room for channel settings than previous versions of HS, where all the information was squeezed into the track headers themselves. There are other changes too: for multiple track settings, the Console View is now only a mouse-click away in the Master Control bar, where it is easier to find than in HS's taskbar. The virtual mixer in the Console View gives all channels a Track Inspector-sized scribble strip, making it easy to tell at a glance what channel effects are inserted in the FX slots, as well as which tracks are sent to any auxiliary send.
Unlike HS, SHS lets you add busses and assign them as needed: they show up in the centre Master section of the Console View. Once audio is routed to any buss, the buss can be used as an FX sub by inserting a track effect into it and routing back to the master, or into a sub out (hardware dependent, of course) for external processing, or into yet another buss. Every audio track (including busses) has a send section, and only the busses you assign a track to show up there, which helps keep things uncluttered if you have a lot of busing going on. Scribble strips allow you to name everything, which also helps to keep track of which is doing what to whom in a complex mix.
The Master Control bar is not resizable, but it can be undocked and moved over the main screen or to a second monitor, if you like. And, of course, it always remains on top of the screen.
These big controls are an improvement over the smaller taskbar buttons, and Cakewalk have made great strides in making SHS more of a single-screen environment. HS made use of deployable, resizable pages for editing audio and Acidised 'groove clips', MIDI info by piano roll, staff or event, and for adding synths or even lyrics to a project. These pages are now part of a docked and tabbed view which occupies the bottom right of the main screen, opposite the buss pane, in an otherwise empty area. The tabs for the Docking View don't appear until you have right-clicked on some audio or MIDI for editing, or have inserted a Staff, Event, synth or Lyric via the Windows View command. The tabbed views are too small for any real editing, as they occupy only the quadrant of the screen beside the busses, but a minimise/maximise button expands the edit view to the entire right side of the screen, replacing the track audio/MIDI content. This is usually enough room to edit without resizing the track headers themselves. I find this to be a more ergonomic layout than finding various pages scattered over two screens: if you need to edit some MIDI, right-click on them, Piano Roll jump to the top of the tabs, hit maximise, and you're ready to edit. Used in conjunction with the Navigator, it is easy as eating pie to edit song-length swathes of MIDI. Some of the changes from HS to SHS may force you to alter the way you work, though if you prefer the old ways, it is possible to right-click on individual Tab Views and disable each separately, returning the tab to a floating page. But the new look and feel are so easy to use I haven't gone back to the HS way of working.
The Pursuit Of XLence
As well as the Reverb XL plug-in described in the main text, the XL version of Sonar Home Studio adds three extra synths to the mix. Dyad is a second Soundfont synth, but has considerably more control over the sound than the basic SFZ. You can load in two sounds and edit their pitch, filter and amplitude envelopes, filter cutoff, resonance and slope, and assign two LFOs. There is also RGC Audio's Square 1 virtual analogue synth, which is not as flexible as some of the other VA synths out there, but sounds excellent, with three oscillators and a good filter. Finally, there is the RXP1 REX file player, which can play back REX files as whole loops or slices. RXP will also load in WAV and other formats, but REX files are where the fun is. I had the lyrics for a blues song, but no music ideas to complete it, so I loaded up RXP with a blues guitar file that was included on the XL content disc. It was a very nasty guitar riff that I played from the keyboard, which turned my plinking into a John Lee Hooker lead. You can also use the button layout to play slices or the whole loop at different pitches. If you need any of the above items, each is worth the extra price by itself; together with Reverb XL, they represent a great deal.
Sonar Home Studio ships with the usual complement of effects: gates, limiters, compressors, parametric and graphic EQ and reverb are all there. These are workhorse effects — nothing too fancy, but they do what they should. SHS comes with Cakewalk's VST wrapper, so VST and VSTi plug-ins are available in addition to those in Cakewalk's native DX format. All my VST effects and instruments showed up and worked. If you have a large investment in some high-end software, you might want to make sure it works with Sonar before buying, but there have been few complaints in the forums.
Cakewalk do include one unusual effect with SHS: Powerstrip. Like the free FX Pad and their Spectral FX, this is a preset unit with different effects (or controls) assigned to sides of a X-Y control pad. You can grab and move the cursor or assign it to move in a circular pattern in time with your song. In the past, I had tended to use FX Pad rather than Spectral FX, since the effects were wilder, but Powerstrip, to my ears, sounds better than either of the others and has moved to the top of my list. The SHS XL package adds Reverb XL, a very tasty reverb. This doesn't have a natural sound like a convolution reverb, but is more like a good modelling rackmount unit. It is a step above the stock reverbs included with most DAWs, offering a thick sound with a smooth tail.
Besides effects, SHS comes with DXi synths. As well as Dreamstation, a basic polyphonic virtual analogue synth, there is a Soundfont (SF) playback synth by RGC Audio. Many people turn up their noses at Soundfonts, thinking of gaming boards, but SFZ provides an easy and cheap way to add sample playback to your project. Most SFs are pretty basic, but I used a bank I had found on the Internet to drive the middle section on one song. The bank had a bunch of effects and mechanical sounds, and I beat out an industrial rhythm from the keys, which I named 'the washerdrum'. Not bad for a free download. The other included soft synth is the Edirol Virtual Sound Canvas 1. This is the software version of Roland's once-ubiquitous Sound Canvas, a souped-up GM synth. The sounds are, for the most part, nothing to write home about, but it is good for temp tracks, or more if you find yourself in a pinch.
There are the other improvements over Home Studio: Group edit now allows clips to be selected and have slip edits, fades and splits applied to each clip at the same time, nudging allows clips to be, well, nudged forward or backward by a pre-selected amount using keyboard commands, and the metronome finally allows audio clips to be used instead of MIDI notes. Other things have been left out, such as track Freeze. Sonar Home Studio allows you to put all the audio clips for a project into one folder, but Bounce to Track still doesn't allow you to name the new track, instead automatically assigning something like 'song 1, Master, Mix (2).wav'. If I'm going to have to name a file anyway, let me do it beforehand, not afterwards! And since there are only 64 audio tracks, you'll have to budget for the full version if you need to close-mic a full orchestra. Finally, the help doesn't include enough screenshots, and most of the included synth help files are pretty skimpy. There are on-line video tutorials, but when you need an answer while actually working, screenshots with the text search save time.
On the SHS forum, some users back Cakewalk's claim that the Sonar 4 engine is more efficient; others claim they can't see any real improvement. I haven't noticed a great leap forward in CPU use, but I haven't had any crashes, either. With Home Studio 2 and previous HS incarnations I would sometimes get a program freeze, and I also ran into a bug whereby the MIDI icon stayed up in the taskbar after I used Alt+Del to close HS and wouldn't open correctly until I opened and immediately closed the program. It didn't happen often enough for me to track down and fix the problem, but it was still unwelcome. With Sonar Home Studio, I haven't had any crashes, freezes or any other surprises, and stability matters to me much more than any improvement in efficiency.