The Pro Channel is a highlight of Cakewalk's Sonar X1 Producer — and some new add-ons make it even more powerful.
The bakers at Cakewalk have been busy over the last year or so. First they introduced Sonar X1 with a spiced-up GUI, and before it could cool, they sent out a new recipe Z3TA+ 2 synth. If that didn't fill you up, they recently added Expanded to their Producer plate, and super-sized the whole meal with the Production Suite and Softube Bundle. Fortunately for SOS readers, this multi-course meal has already had some bite-sized pieces chewed off: Sonar X1 in April 2011 (/sos/apr11/articles/sonar-x1.htm) and Z3TA+ 2 in December 2011 (/sos/dec11/articles/pif-1211.htm). So we'll just nibble the rest á la carte.
Producer has been the flagship version of Sonar through many iterations, and has always included Cakewalk's latest and greatest effects and other goodies. Sonar X1 was no different in this regard, retaining the better soft synths and high-end effects from Sonar 8.5 Producer. But a totally new addition for Producer (and only Producer) is Pro Channel, a specialised suite of effects that shows up in the Inspector of a track or bus and presents itself, as the name implies, as a vertical channel strip. It comes with an 1176-style track compressor or SSL bus compressor, an integrated EQ and a tube saturation unit.
Cakewalk seem intent on expanding the Pro Channel collection and making it home to all, or most, of your effects needs. For the end-user, this means a stream of high-quality effects; for Cakewalk, it means a steady income while tying in their user base to a Sonar-only suite. I can't fault them for that, since other companies do the same thing, too.
Cakewalk's first step in this plan was the introduction of Sonar X1 Expanded, available as a paid-for upgrade download and included in the Production Suite. The most important thing Expanded adds is scrolling within the Pro Channel itself. The standard strip takes up around 800 pixels of screen height, so if your notebook or desktop monitor is shorter than that, you previously had to float the Pro Channel and move it around the screen to see the missing bits. That is frustrating, and even the tallest monitors are unlikely to fit in the whole Pro Channel once you start stacking new modules. Scrolling also means you can lock the Pro Channel in place on screen and easily find everything you've assigned to it.
Of course the FX Bin shows any effects assigned to it as well, but the Bin necessarily shrinks to nothing if you put a lot of tracks on screen, and if you use more than one of the same effect on different tracks, there is no easy way of determining which one belongs with which track — you either have to go back in and expand the track in question, or open as many of the plug-in windows as it takes, cluttering your screen with guesses. Since the Channel Inspector is up for whichever track you are working on, you always have quick access to the Pro Channel and its attached effect modules.
The addition of scrolling was partly necessitated by the inclusion of a new module: Softube's Saturation Knob, a large module that won't fit on screen with the other modules open. The knob itself looks as though it is taken directly from Softube's Focusing Equalizer, and sounds like it too. A three-position switch can remove the saturation effect from the low or high end of the signal, which is useful for adding different kinds of saturation on different tracks: emphasise the low growl on electric guitars while accentuating the highs in the bass — that kind of thing. By varying the type and amount of saturation, you can differentiate tracks ever so slightly, helping to separate them out in the mix. I did exactly that for a duet of two females singing alternating stanzas. A little bass thickening on one voice, a little more spit on the other — just a hint was enough. Once you get past 12 o'clock on the Knob, you start getting into full-bore distortion. That sound is no substitute for a proper amp simulator, unless you are going for a blown speaker effect, but it is there. And, unlike many older saturation effects, the Softube emulation doesn't feel like a haze hanging over the instrument, but seems integral to the sound. Thanks to the precise control offered by the big knob, the Saturation Knob is a very flexible tool, better than Cakewalk's own PC-included tube saturation module. Like all the other Pro Channel modules, the Saturation Knob has channel controls along the top. These include an LED-style, glowing gain button, a lighted on/off button, and a collapse icon on the right. To the left, the Expanded Pro Channel adds a handle for dragging and dropping modules to change their order.
Further optional add-ons for the Pro Channel include the PC4K S-Type Expander/Gate — which, like the Z3TA+ 2 synth, is included in the X1 Production Suite. What could be more bland and unappetising than a gate, the Rodney Dangerfield of effects? It just don't get no respect. Yet although many of its traditional roles have been usurped by volume and mute automation, a good gate is still a worthwhile tool. This one, like Cakewalk's other S-Type effects, is modelled on the classic SSL console unit. It's a simple module, with three knobs for Threshold, Range and Release. Two switches choose the side-chain mode and a fast (one millisecond) or auto-detection mode. A ladder-style gain-reduction LED meter rounds out this thin gruel of controllers. The good news is that what is there works well. The Release runs from a quick tenth of a second to a molasses-like four seconds. The auto-detection works well, and the fast attack is good for chopping in a drum or anything calling for quick dynamics. The side-chain option opens up routing in Sonar, so you can sync the kick to the bass, or anything else you need to line up together, without editing through the whole song. If you need microscopic control, volume/mute editing is probably the way to go, but to get the job done well and fast, the S-Type is the ticket.
I had a rather badly recorded voice-over that needed to go over a music bed. The performance was great and rock-steady volume-wise, but must have been done on a built-in camera mic or something equally poor. After EQ and compression helped with the tone, the S-Type gate took care of the noise between lines, and did so very naturally. It was a lot quicker to find a release that ramped down the noise than editing in the right curves for every stop or breath. This gate is also ideal for getting rid of the reverb tail on synth patches that sound good in isolation, but which build up into gravy in a mix. Just killing the instrument's reverb often changes the tone itself, but with the gate, you can keep that and just fade down the offending tails.
Although it's not part of the Production Suite, Cakewalk have also released a third S-Type module for the Pro Channel, the PC4K Channel Compressor. This follows the simple design of the Expander/Gate, so it is as easy to set up. You can use it side-chained, too. Combine this with the Gate, the 'Modern' curve in the Pro Channel EQ and the SSL-style bus compressor that also comes as standard, and you have a virtual SSL 4000 console strip available in Sonar. All the SSL-style effects sound good, and all respond dynamically to increases in input gain, rather than adding a steady-state film over the sound. Hit the modules harder and you get a nice thickening of the signal and a bit more 'hair'; maybe not exactly like hardware, but similar. Other things being equal, I'll take the console, but things are seldom equal, especially in a humble home studio.
The above-mentioned partnership between Cakewalk and Softube has also yielded the Mix Bundle, a very tempting smorgasbord of Swedish effects which are likewise integrated into the Pro Channel (and, again, not included in the Production Suite). Cakewalk have teamed up with other software companies many times before, but this is the first such product that requires an iLok key — separate serial and registration number authorisation has always been a selling point with Cakewalk, although personally I've never had a problem with iLok or Steinberg's eLicenser.
The Softube Mix Bundle offers a full platter of effects, including the TSAR-1R reverb, FET Compressor and the Passive, Active and Focusing Equalizers. The Cakewalk version of the reverb is the 1R model, not the more complex TSAR-1. The 1R uses exactly the same stereo algorithm, but instead of five faders, there are only two: one for pre-delay and the other a macro Time fader that controls density, diffusion, early reflections and most of the other reverb goodies simultaneously. Pre-delay ranges up to 200ms, which is enough to achieve a faux-slapback echo if you want to, and although the single Time fader might not provide enough control for a tweaker, it works for most reality-based reverbs. Replacing its big brother's Tone fader is a three-position switch offering neutral, bright and dark options, and, again, providing enough control for most situations. Most importantly, the reverb sounds good. Other than the convolution Pristine Space, none of the other included Cakewalk reverbs would be considered high-end, so the addition of a top-notch reverb is worth the price of admission by itself, not even counting all the other items included.
The FET Compressor might be considered redundant, since the Pro Channel already comes with an 1176 emulation and the Sonitus compressor also does fast, though it lacks the same analogue-style distortion/saturation. I didn't find much difference between the Pro Channel 1176 and Pro Channel Softube FET sounds, but still found myself gravitating toward the latter because the knobs are a little bit bigger and easier to manipulate. One of the restrictions ProChannel puts on the VST standard is squeezing the faceplate into the horizontal width of the PC itself, so the Pro Channel FET Compressor is missing a few knobs and functions found in the VST version. However, you can have your cake and eat it too, since the FET Compressor (and every other module in the Softube Mix Bundle) also comes as a conventional VST plug-in for ye olde FX Bin. The VST version of the FET comp includes even bigger knobs, along with a parallel wet/dry knob and a side-chain with built-in high- and low-pass filters.
Topping off the bundle is a dessert tray of equalisers. Again, these risk being redundant, since the standard Pro Channel EQ is very good and quite flexible — it has two filters and four parametric bands, a 'gloss' button and different EQ slope modes, and it sounds so good that I've more or less given up using any of my third-party EQs. The Softube selections sound as good, but each is tailored for a specific job rather than being 'one-for-all' processors. Once you get a handle on how each EQ works, it is fairly easy to choose the right one for the task at hand. The Active Equalizer is the most conventional, with three bands and two filters. The bands each have a dB and Hz knob, with overlapping frequencies between any two bands. A switch provides a choice between a narrow notch and a wider Q, or simply off. I didn't find the notch filter very useful, since the variable Q of Sonar's Pro Channel EQ (or any fully parametric EQ) is more precise to dial in, but the wider Q setting is good for general, yet still focused, sound-shaping. Especially for subtraction, the wider Q performs like a perfect gentleman, reducing offending frequencies without damaging the surrounding tone. A range of -16 to +16dB is probably more firepower than most of us need, but it is nice to know it is there if you come across a particularly wicked resonance. Two filters round out its controls. The low-pass filter goes all the way down to 5kHz, and is more useful than one might think, on more instruments than one imagines. Rolling out so much high, like rolling off lows, leaves only the necessary information for many backing sounds. Counter-intuitively, it can make them more focused. I haven't usually gotten so brutal with a low-pass, but I figured it could go so low for a reason, and it does work on the right source.
The Passive Equalizer is a simpler EQ, and only has fixed low (60Hz) and high (10kHz) boost/cut knobs, along with a Presence mid-band, which rates two knobs. Seven stepped frequencies go from 700Hz to 5.6kHz, while the gain rises from 0 to a modest +8dB. If the wide band on the Active Equalizer is still thin, the bands on the Passive are obese — but gentle. boosting gives a smooth lift to the low frequencies, and while I wouldn't use this on many tracks at once, it can give your kick or drums a solid, thumping feel. I use the mid-boost on various tracks, but at different frequencies. The high is a bit too low to add 'air' to most voices and lead instruments, but is useful to bring out the highs on selected sounds. Just be careful, as the frequencies bumped spread far beyond the nominal 10 kHz.
The final EQ of the group is the Focusing Equalizer, a different and unique tool. For this one, you set the low and high cut filters using two faders, and these points determine which frequencies the three cut/boost knobs affect. You get no control over the frequencies or slopes, but Softube have done a great job, as the chosen frequencies just sound right, and there seem to be all kinds of interesting crossover shapes and interactions going on, especially between the low-cut fader and low boost. You also get a choice of whether the equalisation itself uses the Active or the Passive agorithms. The unit seems to work best on vocals and other lead sounds — so it isn't called the Focusing Equalizer for nothing! Again, you can slough off most of what you don't need in the spectrum and bear down on what's key to the sound. The VST version includes the Saturation Knob, which the Pro Channel module doesn't need, since it already includes the Knob as a separate module. This is one case where the Pro Channel is actually more flexible than the standard VST version, because you can put the Knob before or after the EQ, or anywhere else in the Pro Channel chain.
There's no doubt that Cakewalk's additions to Sonar put some meat on the frame of X1. Expanded rounds out its capabilities, making the Pro Channel feel like a finished product. The Production Suite is basically the prix fixe deal: Sonar X1 Expanded, plus the gate/expander, plus Z3TA+ 2. If you're in the market for a DAW and VA synth, the Production Suite gives you one just about free, once you factor in the cost of a useful gate —or vice versa. The last item on the Cakewalk buffet is the gourmet Softube bundle. Again, this offers significant savings for a surfeit of good effects, offering a great deal on a super-sized production system.
As well as the new Pro Channel modules described in the main text, Producer Expanded has a couple of other tricks up its widened sleeves. The FX Bin hasn't been eliminated, of course: it is still there for all third-party VST and DX effects. You can place it pre- or post-Pro Channel, which isn't the most flexible solution, but works in most situations. What it does bring to the Bin table is FX Chains Expanded. This allows you to turn your X1 FX Chains into a customisable interface complete with assignable knobs and buttons. Want to dry up the reverb on a voice for the chorus? Add a button to the FX Bin 'container' and assign it to reverb on/off. Of course, you could already do this for any single effect, using its GUI, but having a single interface in which controls for several effects can be combined allows you to 'play' parameters on different units seamlessly. It's a lot like Sonar's synth rack knobs, except that you can't assign them to hardware controllers directly —yet. I expect that there will be more functions and fun added to this concept, since it is highly usable, especially for delay and other time-based effects.
Another treat in Expanded is a simple 'replace synth' function, allowing you to easily change what soft synth is playing a given part. I'm not sure why Sonar never included this function before, given that it was part of Cakewalk's Project 5 many years ago. Again, this is a small thing, but is a time saver when you want to audition not just patches, but different synths for that killer riff you just came up with.
A long-standing complaint about Sonar concerns its notation capabilities, which are present but rudimentary, and haven't been updated for many years. Expanded doesn't fix the problem, but can export music in the MusicXML format, so you can finalise your score in a true notation program. Finally, there is a utility in Producer Expanded to connect Sonar directly to a SoundCloud account and upload your latest hit. From there, you can add alerts to your Facebook friends, any non-overlapping fans on Twitter and other networking sites. It kind of seems anti-social to automate announcements to your social sites, but that too is a time-saver, and you take less of a chance of getting seduced by Angry Birds or cute kitten videos. Now, if Expanded would just call mum and tell her that her death-metal song is finally finished and posted...