If you're recording and editing MIDI + Audio on a PC, you'll want to try a piece of the latest Cakewalk. JANET HARNIMAN COOK reports from the kitchen.
Cakewalk Music Systems have defined the cutting edge of PC sequencing since Cakewalk Professional 3 for Windows 3.1 first saw the light of day way back in 1994, and its successor, Cakewalk Pro Audio v4, was the first PC application to combine multi‑port MIDI sequencing with multitrack hard disk audio using internal PC soundcards. This tradition of innovation is continued by Cakewalk Pro Audio 6, which adds a host of new features, many of which were the stuff of dreams not so long ago: a virtual effects rack featuring high‑quality on‑board real‑time audio processing; multi‑channel audio output from multiple Windows soundcards, and Cakewalk Studioware to provide sophisticated MIDI control of external studio equipment.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 is a 32‑bit native Windows 95 package (legacy Windows 3.n is no longer supported) and provides 256 MIDI tracks using multiple MIDI ports, and unlimited multitrack hard disk audio recording — the power of the host PC being the only restraining factor on the number of audio tracks you can record and play back. The timebase is variable between 48 and 480ppqn, and all standard SMPTE timecode frame rates are supported.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 is the first Windows MIDI + Audio sequencer to enable simultaneous playback and recording from multiple full‑duplex DSP‑based 16‑bit Windows soundcards. Though in theory any 16‑bit soundcard should work, there have been reports on the web of difficulties with older Soundblaster cards, although these problems are probably caused by the shortcomings of the card design. Anticipating the next generation of internal audio cards, Cakewalk supports multi‑channel, multi‑driver output cards including the Antex and AdB Multiwav — but not, as yet, the Emagic Audiowerk8 card — as well as Digidesign Session 8, Audiomedia III, Soundscape HDR1 and Digital Audio Labs v8.
The Cakewalk package includes the installation CD‑ROM, a soft‑bound user manual and registration documents; the Deluxe edition additionally includes the twin CD‑ROMs that comprise the Cakewalk Musician's Toolbox II, which is crammed full of goodies in the form of MIDI files, audio samples, and extra tutorials, including Riffs 2.2 for the Lyrrus G‑Vox MIDI guitar system. Like much US‑produced software, Cakewalk is not copy‑protected, and the installation CD‑ROM contains the Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 setup files; demo songs; a techniques tutorial; full working versions of Jammer Hit Session, the interactive MIDI composition program, and Hyphenator, a lyrics editor; and impressive DirectX plug‑in demos of QSound Labs Q‑Tools 3D spatial processing and Waves Native Power Pack.
Although Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 has a wide range of sophisticated features, its basic functions are simple and accessible, and the newcomer should find the learning process enjoyable and productive — Cakewalk Music Systems have gone to great lengths to make this as easy as possible by including an excellent printed manual, on‑line Windows Help and multimedia tutorials on CD‑ROM. The manual is now a chunky 560 pages and includes an index and tutorials; it's comprehensive, easy to read, and will prove invaluable to both novice and expert users. The installation CD‑ROM contains Cakewalk TECHniques — 11 rather hissy but nonetheless very informative Lotus multimedia tutorials, which cover the basics of MIDI + Audio recording and editing, including panels and audio effects; further tutorials on more advanced techniques can be found in the Cakewalk Musician's Toolbox II CD‑ROM set.
Cakewalk has an excellent graphic user interface, with good use of colour and attractive screen designs, as well as a wide range of customisation options. The main screen is very neat and easy to read, but its austere spreadsheet look owes more to DOS than to Windows 95; it must be due for a facelift. The improved colour definition is very welcome, though, and the multicoloured Clips brighten things up. It is now possible to save the layout of your workspace when you quit a song, but it would be even better if Cakewalk enjoyed the powerful save screen layout functions found in Emagic Logic and IQS SAW Plus. These applications allow you to save multiple screen configurations and recall them via hot keys, and this would be especially useful in Cakewalk — it relies so much on multiple window working that recalling specific layouts for audio editing, multitrack, panel creation and so on would be very handy.
The fact that Cakewalk was developed specifically — and exclusively — for the PC is evident in the high degree of Windows integration it exhibits: powerful right‑mouse‑button menus give fast access to the more commonly used edit commands; non‑hierarchical multiple‑screen operation brings advantages such as the ability to save songs from within editors without first returning to the front page, and the freedom and speed of movement provided by the superb range of user‑definable keyboard shortcuts that complement mouse activity make moving around Cakewalk — well... a piece of cake.
The Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 front page consists of the Menu bar, the Track view and the Control bar. The Track view contains the Track pane, where you'll find the instrument definitions that determine the default record and playback parameters for each track, and the Clips pane to the right displays the Clips themselves — these are coloured rectangular blocks containing MIDI or audio material, or both, and they scroll horizontally during recording and playback. Clips can be named, copied, split, erased and combined (but, curiously, cannot be muted individually) and always follow the Track parameter definition set: it isn't possible to embed parameter changes in Cakewalk Clips as you can in Cubase and Logic track parts. New in Cakewalk is the ability to create linked audio and MIDI Clips which are equivalent to Cubase Ghosts and Logic Aliases — edits applied to one linked Clip produce identical changes in the others. Linked Clips can be a great time‑saver if, for example, you want to use a backing vocal Clip in each chorus of a song — using linked Clips means that volume changes applied to one linked Clip affect them all, saving the hassle of re‑editing Clips individually as you'd have to with normal copies.
Powerful right‑mouse‑button menus give fast access to the more commonly used edit commands.
The range of information conveyed in the Track pane display is comprehensive: you can see at a glance the current default track definitions, and you're spared delving into Track Inspector boxes for each channel to grapple with the arcane complexity of the Logic Environment, or the vagaries of the Cubase Studio module! The quality of Instrument Definition afforded by Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 is, quite simply, superb: here you have an elegant, clear and simple database in which you can store the bank, voice and note definitions of all your MIDI instruments — and, to help you get started, Cakewalk contains factory preset lists for most common instruments, and you can also create lists for your custom banks from here or by editing the instrument INI file in your word processor.
The Control bar can be docked anywhere on screen, and contains the most commonly used transport and locator functions. The current cursor position is displayed both as measures (bars, beats and clocks), and as time in SMPTE format (hours, minutes, seconds and frames). The Playback and Record icons function as expected, but the Rewind button returns the current position cursor to bar 1 or to the Autoshuttle start time if you are in that mode. The Control bar also displays the current tempo, metre and time signature, SMPTE/MTC format, Step Time, Record mode and Clock source selection buttons, but doesn't contain a metronome toggle switch or a snap value display and, unforgivably, cannot be hidden.
Cakewalk's selection procedures have improved significantly with version 6 — individual Clips are selected by clicking on them with the mouse, while holding Shift and clicking lets you add further Clips to the selection; groups of Clips can be selected by enclosing them in a box or lasso, pressing Ctrl‑A selects all Clips on all tracks, and dragging along the ruler defines the selection by time. Clicking on the track number toggles the track from the selection. Selection using the lasso operates exclusively — in other words, only those events that are completely enclosed by the box are included. This contrasts with Cubase, where if any part of an event block is contained in the lasso area it is included in the selection, but it's ultimately just a question of style, as both methods work well. Selection procedures carry through to the editors, and notes and events can be selected using the same techniques.
Markers appear above the measures ruler and are static text flags that may be used for a variety of functions, such as defining song sections, cue positions, and temporary edit points, and in selection routines. The difficulties of song‑structure editing that were once the bane of Cakewalk are now resolved, and although Cakewalk still doesn't quite possess the global editing muscle of Cubase, it is now considerably easier to cut and paste song sections. To copy a song section, you first add markers at the start position of each song section; next, deselect all tracks and click between the markers that define the section you wish to copy; then add tracks to the selection by clicking on the track numbers, before finally cutting and pasting the material to its new location. Markers are displayed in the Piano Roll, Staff and Audio editors and may be repositioned by dragging; the Markers view will let you rename and lock the markers to a fixed time, independent of tempo changes.
Despite having a very good magnification range in all views — the Audio editor can display the waveform at a magnification of one sample per pixel, while a maximum of 19 bars can be viewed at once in the Piano Roll and Drum editors — the program gives you little actual control of zoom levels: you're limited to clicking on the two magnifying‑glass icons. Zoom power is one of the main determining factors of editing speed, so I'm surprised that there's no provision for hot key assignment.
Although tempo changes can be made from Insert/Tempo, global tempo editing must be performed from the graphical Tempo view. Graphic editing is great for drawing tempo curves, but can be a nightmare for very fine edits that require the speed and precision of a list‑based Tempo editor. Tempo view contains a Stretch Audio function which time‑shifts audio to match tempo changes but, although this produced good results on a single track of audio, it didn't work at all when I tried it in the review song (two audio plus 11 MIDI tracks).
MIDI data can be recorded into Cakewalk from external devices such as a MIDI keyboard or MIDI guitar, or added manually from within the editors; it can also be imported as a Type 0 or Type 1 MIDI file but, as these MIDI file formats originated in the pre‑MIDI + Audio era, all audio material contained in the original songs will be excluded — it is extraordinary that a new MIDI + Audio universal file transfer format has not yet emerged.
Global MIDI activity in the program is monitored by the MIDI indicators found on the Windows 95 taskbar, installed with the application files. It was only with version 5 that Cakewalk finally conceded that some form of MIDI activity monitoring was required, and I am amazed that such a minimal solution was considered acceptable: on my review PC at a screen resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels, with 64,000 colours, the MIDI indicators were very small and difficult to see — a modern multi‑port MIDI system requires good MIDI activity indicators at both global and individual track levels.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 now supports RPN and NRPN (Registered and Non‑Registered Parameter Number) editing — these events are often used for Bank selection on older MIDI instruments and are, in effect, four controller messages bundled as a single event. Cakewalk editors display information for the whole track or tracks selected, regardless of any existing time or Clip selection. Many edit windows — including Quantise, Groove Quantise, Interpolate, the Event Filter, Remove Silence, Extract Timing, Pitch Detection, Graphic EQ, Parametric EQ, DirectX plug‑ins and CFX — now include a Save Preset function.
Accessing the editors is easy: right‑clicking on the track or Clip summons a pop‑up menu containing the editors list — alternatively, you can choose your editor from the View menu. Most common editing procedures can be executed in real time during playback, and the open surface of the Cakewalk architecture makes it possible to save changes as you make them, or even switch between tracks, without leaving the editor and disrupting the momentum of your session.
The Edit menu contains additional tools, including a 128‑stage Undo history, Transpose, Slide, Length, Retrograde, and Velocity Scale. Fit to Time resizes the MIDI + Audio events so that they run to a specified time; and Fit to Improvisation analyses the timing of improvised MIDI events, applies a tempo map and displays the results as regular bars and beats; surprisingly, though, Cakewalk lacks a Delete Doubles tool to locate and remove duplicated MIDI events. The Lyric view editor, as its name implies, allows you to write and edit song lyrics; it will also perform as an autocue, scrolling lyrics on your PC monitor during playback. The quantisation options could do with refining: there's no record auto quantise function, and the editing options are not as easy to use as those in Cubase — but you can now save your settings as presets, and audio events can be quantised by start position or by length, or both.
Similar in appearance and behaviour to the Piano Roll view, the Drum editor displays a list of drum voices in place of the piano keyboard; notes appear as diamond‑shaped icons. Drum editing is limited — it's not possible to mix and match drum voices from devices on different ports to create custom kits and edit them on a single screen; nor can you remap drum notes and arrange them as required on a single keyboard; and there is no way to Solo or Mute voices and so enable individual drums or groups of drums to be auditioned in isolation. It would also be helpful if you were able to add a velocity level offset to individual drum voices. However, one consolation is that Cakewalk Pro Audio 6's Staff view now displays and prints percussion notation.
The Event list view is a simple text‑based list editor that provides the Track, Start Time, Channel, Event Type and Parameter Value details of MIDI + Audio events. A tad more editing power would not go amiss in the Event list editor: although you can give different event types their own colour to make them easier to spot in the list, it's not possible to mask events by type either from the list display or from edit moves — a View Event type of filter would solve this problem. Another niggle is that the Edit list only shows audio event lengths in samples, when time and meter values would be considerably more useful.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 comes closer than any other single PC application to providing an all‑in‑one software multitrack MIDI + Audio recording and editing solution.
Although not up to the full rigours of DTP score production, Cakewalk's Staff view is a good basic score editor that is capable of displaying and printing up to 24 staves of notation with expression and dynamics markings, lyrics, production credits and performance advice. Guitar‑chord tablature and drum notation are included, and the Track Key+ function makes provision for transposing instruments
MIDI Controllers not only define many of the expressive qualities of a MIDI musical performance but are also used extensively in studio automation routines; although Cakewalk copes with most controller editing tasks, it continues to be unwieldy and under‑specified in certain critical areas. Pro Audio 6 integrates the Controllers view into the old Piano Roll velocity pane — controller events are selected by type and channel, and are displayed as vertical columns which can be edited using the draw tools, but only a single controller type can be viewed at any one time unless you resort to opening multiple windows. The Controller pane does not have a 'force channel display' option, so you can only edit controller data from one channel at a time, which can make editing tricky if events originated on different MIDI channels. It is possible to remap controller data once it's recorded into Cakewalk, but there's no facility to do this in real time, to let you, for example, record MIDI volume from the modulation wheel.
Audio is recorded directly into Cakewalk at the default sample rate of 44.1kHz; the default audio track format is mono, but the software will recognise as stereo a pair of consecutive tracks, the first of which has a pan value of 0, the second with a pan value of 127. Re‑ordering the tracks or changing pan values will cause Cakewalk to treat the tracks as mono. You can import 16‑bit WAV format soundfiles by dragging and dropping them onto the Clips pane from the Windows 95 Explorer, or by selecting the file from the Insert menu Wavefile item. If you use 8‑bit audio files, they can only be added in the Event editor as Windows MCI events. Importing audio is very slow compared with other applications — a 40.6Mb stereo audio file takes one minute and 50 seconds to load into Cakewalk, compared with less than 34 seconds in both Cubase Audio XT3 and Sound Forge 4. However, once the audio is saved as part of a Cakewalk song, subsequent loads are near instantaneous, although if you're running a large number of audio tracks load times may be longer, as Cakewalk appears to recalculate the graphic waveform data each time it loads a file.
Soundfiles with sample rates of 11kHz, 22kHz, 44.1kHz or 48kHz may be used, but the same sample rate must be effective throughout the song unless your audio recording hardware specifically permits otherwise. Cakewalk features improved audio metering with peak hold, but still only monitors soundcard activity and not individual tracks. Clipping caused by digital overload can be prevented by activating the 'Clip audio mix on overflow' feature in the Settings for Advanced Audio Options, but this places an extra burden on the CPU and may affect performance adversely. Setting up for recording audio is very quick, and this makes Cakewalk an ideal songwriting tool — you don't even have to name the soundfiles you've recorded unless you need to export them for use in another application.
Probably the most remarkable aspect of Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 is the extent to which audio events can be edited with a degree of control that up to now has been associated with MIDI. During playback, audio events respond to MIDI controller volume and pan messages; audio can be quantised, used in linked Clips, or even time‑stretched or pitch‑shifted just like MIDI events. To produce a smooth response to MIDI controllers, you should enable Low Latency Mixing in the Audio Options dialogue box; Cakewalk features improved audio pan and volume handling and now follows a linear dB scale of ‑90dB to +18dB.
Cakewalk's Audio editor provides true sample‑level accurate editing, and features cut and paste editing tools together with a good selection of off‑line DSP‑type functions. These include normalise; a 10‑band graphic EQ; a parametric EQ with high‑pass, low‑pass, peak and notch filters; a noise gate; and fade and crossfade with custom envelope editing. Additionally, any DirectX plug‑in effects — including Cakewalk's own CFX — can be applied off‑line from the Audio editor, and all effects can be auditioned prior to processing. The Audio editor can display multiple tracks, and the right mouse menu also contains Remove Silence, which is used to mute audio that lies below a set threshold level, and is invaluable for stripping out background noise in the quiet passages between sections in voice‑over or vocal recordings; Pitch Detection, an Audio‑to‑MIDI melodic analysis facility that creates MIDI‑note and pitch‑bend events from a single‑line mono soundfile; and Extract Timing, which analyses rhythmic audio material and creates MIDI notes and tempo changes based on amplitude peaks in the audio material. The nuances of accent and timing that define the groove are preserved and can be used to create a Groove Quantise pattern, which can be applied to MIDI tracks to make them mimic the feel of the audio.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 combines ingenious software DSP emulation and the power of the Pentium processor to not only play back discrete multiple tracks of digital audio but also to apply non‑destructive real‑time effects processing to the audio material. You apply audio effects by opening the Effects View and dragging effects from the Effects list, either to the Track Inserts (to add effects to individual tracks), or to one of the four Effects Loops (to add effects to a group of tracks). Effects may be chained together and Effects Loops (consisting of a mono send and a stereo return) may be configured as either pre‑ or post‑fader. All four Effects Loops can be used simultaneously and respond to MIDI channels 1‑4: MIDI Controller 91 defines the send level, and Controllers 92 and 93 set the return level and the return Pan position.
Six onboard CFX modules ship with Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 — chorus, reverb, delay, EQ, flanger and time/pitch stretch — and these can be used with third‑party DirectX plug‑ins. To an extent, CFX sacrifices depth of control for increased simplicity of use: the editing parameters are relatively simple but the effects themselves are generally very useable. The CFX Reverb is warm and avoids the horrid metallic quality that frequently spoils budget processors (it reminds me of my old Alesis Microverb II); the Chorus sounds sweet; the Flanger has a pleasant harmonic richness, and the Delay/Echo is of a similar high quality. The only disappointments are the under‑specified CFX 2‑band EQ, and the Time/Pitch Stretch, which could only cope with very simple material. Although effects can be auditioned, CFX are not equipped with a bypass switch to enable A‑to‑B, wet‑to‑dry comparison, nor can you solo the track from the CFX panel; but these omissions don't lessen the thrill of being able to add effects to audio tracks and edit the parameters during playback.
Studioware provides desktop control of external hardware such as hard disk audio recorders, MIDI instruments, mixing consoles and effects processors, to enable a high level of mix automation. Cakewalk includes simple panels for the Roland VS880, Roland SC88, Tascam DA38, Yamaha MU80, Yamaha ProMix 01, Digidesign Session 8 and Mackie OTTOmix 1604; more Studioware will be available free of charge to registered users at www.cakewalk.com. There is incredible potential in Panels and they represent a quantum leap forward from the old Cakewalk Faders view — but Studioware is rightly described as an advanced user area, and creating panels for your own MIDI gear could be a long process because of the complexity of modern equipment. But patience and practice will bring rich rewards...
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 is, quite simply, an awesome music production powerhouse, and it comes closer than any other single PC application ever has to providing an all‑in‑one software multitrack MIDI + Audio recording and editing solution for the contemporary PC‑based studio. In the limited period allowed for this review, Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 constantly amazed and delighted me, and I'm aware that I've only been able to scrape the surface of some of the colossal wealth of features on offer — this is a wonderful piece of software. Once again: well done Cakewalk!
In March this year, Microsoft's Windows 95 ActiveMovie and ActiveX audio plug‑in technology was renamed DirectX to distinguish it from the Internet Explorer player control applets. The name ActiveMovie still appears on versions of software that pre‑date the change, including Cakewalk Pro Audio 6. In common with all DirectX plug‑ins, Cakewalk CFX modules can be used in all applications that support DirectX, such as Sound Forge v4.0a and WaveLab v1.6. The following DirectX standard plug‑ins are available: Waves Native Power Pack, QSound Labs Q‑Tools and AX, and Tracer Technology DART Noise reduction — contact Et Cetera Distribution for details.
The reference PC is an Intel Pentium 200 with VX motherboard, 256K pipeline burst cache, 48Mb RAM, Turtle Beach Pinnacle and Creamware TripleDAT soundcards, and a 2Mb Trio+ PCI graphics running 1024 x 768 with 64,000 colours on a 17‑inch monitor. Cakewalk Music Systems recommend a P120, 32Mb RAM, but a faster processor would be preferable if you intend to run third‑party DirectX plug‑ins.Thanks to Charlie Griffiths for invaluable additional research.
- Excellent multitrack audio recording and editing.
- Stable, fast and fun to use.
- Superb real‑time multi‑channel audio effects processing.
- Supports multiple soundcards and multi‑channel cards.
- Audio quantise.
- Superb value.
- Poor MIDI‑activity indicators.
- MIDI Drum and Controller editing under‑specified for professional use.
- Slow zoom functions.
- No list‑based Global Tempo editor.
- Slow audio load.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 6 is a massive upgrade and exhibits a sophistication of MIDI + Audio integration unseen before on the PC.