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Cakewalk Project 5 v2

Virtual Studio [Windows]
By Alan Tubbs

Cakewalk Project 5 v2

Cakewalk have rethought their Project 5 loop-sequencing application, adding features such as audio recording and a Groove Matrix for triggering patterns live — not to mention a virtual Roland sound module and a powerful new synth.

The original version of Cakewalk's Project 5 was released in the flood of audio looper and soft-synth sequencer programs that came out in the last few years. It shared many features with Acid, Reason, Fruity Loops, Live and the other such packages, and yet was different from any of them. In addition to playing imported Acid ised loops and plain old WAV files, P5 included a drum pad you could load audio or loops into and play 'live', analogue and sample-based drum machines, as well as a sampler. All were good, if you didn't already have something similar (am I actually complaining about having too many synths?). There was also PSYN, a top-of-the-line analogue synth emulator. Finally, Cakewalk threw in a collection of audio loops and MIDI patterns.

In some ways, P5 got lost in the 'me too' crush of releases and acquired the image of being a jack of all trades, rather than a master of one. It wrapped a basic line-up of soft synths and tempo-based playback in a DAW-looking package, got good reviews in SOS June 2003 and elsewhere, yet never caught on the way some of the other software did. Cakewalk have been busy since the first release, however, and have now released an update that's so radical it could almost be a different program. Project 5 version 2 could have just been a laundry list of improvements with a 2.0 slapped onto the end. Instead, Cakewalk have upped the ante on what a pattern-based recording environment should be. P5 v2 has a cleaner look and easier workspace, several new features including the ability to record audio, and some great new synths.

On The Outside

First, the new look. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll save everyone time by referring to the main screenshot (left). The standard Windows drop-down menu bar lives at the top of the screen, along with the Main Control View, a bar containing the tempo, play/stop and other such master controls. The original Tracker is now called the Track View, although it looks much the same. Most of the overall work is done here. To the left are the Track panes, where each channel is set up. This is basic stuff like audio and MIDI channel settings, track arming, volume, pan, mute and solo. For the MIDI tracks, there is an MIDI override button which comes in handy — it solos the MIDI input to that channel only, so you aren't laying in a synth solo and having the drums playing along, too. If you are working fast, you can just push the button and keep the flow going instead of having to reset MIDI channel assignments. Both Audio and MIDI channels have a button that opens the automation tracks just below the actual recordings. MIDI channels also have a button to show the channel's instrument properties page so the synth itself pops up.

The MIDI Track Inspector with the Arpeggiator page and presets open. The supplied presets only scratch the surface of what's possible.The MIDI Track Inspector with the Arpeggiator page and presets open. The supplied presets only scratch the surface of what's possible.

The right side of the Track View contains the Arrange pane. MIDI patterns or audio Clips can be mouse-clicked into a channel or dragged from the Explorer. It is also where live MIDI or audio takes appear as you record them. The advent of audio recording is another P5 aid to keeping the creative juices flowing — no more having to open another program to drop in an acoustic line, as you do with some rival soft studio applications — and it works as you'd expect.

P5 now has an additional Buss Pane at the bottom of the Track View. This can be opened up to display not only the four Auxiliary outputs and the Master output, but a tempo track allowing you to draw in tempo changes over time. The Buss Pane may be less flexible than the floating panel in version 1, but is more conventional and, under most circumstances, just as functional.

The best improvement in the Track View is the Track Inspector, which is borrowed from Cakewalk's Sonar DAW and replaces the rather unfortunately named SYN.OPS — kudos to Cakewalk for renaming this and the former P-SEQ into more eloquent and functional terms. While the end user doesn't necessarily want music companies to farm out naming to lipstick makers or house-paint producers, standard and/or descriptive terminology helps. The Inspector opens with a show/hide button to the left of the Track View, making it easy to switch between working on a single channel's settings and laying in tracks horizontally while working on bigger sections of a song. Within the Inspector itself, both audio and MIDI tracks can be sent to the auxiliary outputs for treatment with internal effects or insert channel effects. If you inspect a buss, you can choose the effect here for the auxiliary send or pick a global effect for the Main.

MIDI tracks go above and beyond this basic setup, with a page for MIDI-specific setup information. You can pick key range and velocity, transpose and Device Chain (more about this latter). Besides the audio effects, there are MIDI effects that can be applied to the channel. And if you are a fan of arpeggiators, Cakewalk have you covered: every P5 v2 MIDI channel gets its own arpeggiator. Although there are only about a dozen arp presets, changes to parameters such as speed, octave, swing and chord mix can completely alter the feel of an arpeggiation, and can be saved as new presets.

The synth page has another Track Properties button as well as preset and bank selectors. Most of the included synths have built-in banks divided by classes of instruments, making it easy to find an organ or other sound close to the one you need. Not only can synth sounds be saved as presets, but also complete Device Chains consisting of a synth with its settings, along with any effects associated with the channel, and remote control assignments to either the synth or effect. So, if you've found that perfect Rhodes sound for R&B with just the right amount of chorus, save it as a Device Chain for instant call-up. This is a must-have for transferring sounds from song to song or for using P5 v2 live.

The Editor Pane does double duty as a Browser. Since most of the P5 synths don't have a built-in trigger, the virtual editor keyboard works instead.The Editor Pane does double duty as a Browser. Since most of the P5 synths don't have a built-in trigger, the virtual editor keyboard works instead.

The last basic element in the main screen is the Editor. It replaces version 1's P-SEQ editor, and includes a Loop/Pattern Browser window; you can audition patterns in the Browser before sending or dragging them to the Arrange pane. Once a pattern is in the Arrange pane, you can roll out as many iterations as you please. If you need to edit the pattern, switch from Browser to Editor. Although this seems counter-intuitive at first, the two features work well bundled together. I have two monitors, and float the Editor/Browser to the second screen, making it large enough to browse a lot of files at once. If you are working on a single screen, the Editor itself has a show/hide button, so you can accomplish much the same thing. I'll try out sounds and beats together, and end up dropping several audio loops and MIDI patterns into a song at once. After arranging the collection in the Track View and trying out variations such as different synths on the MIDI patterns, I'll edit some of the loops. A single button switches over from the Browser to the editing page. When you click on a loop or pattern in the Arrange pane, it pops up in the Editor. The edit screen itself is fairly conventional: MIDI notes appear on a piano roll, while Acid ised audio files (Groove Clips in Cakewalk-speak) appear chopped into beats. Non-Acid ised audio shows up in the editor, but P5 can't do anything with it except place it in a track — it isn't an audio editor. You can, however, choose to add beat information by importing WAV files as Groove Clips.

One song I worked on contained a MIDI drum pattern that matched the rest of the song, except for an annoying vocal 'uh' at the very end. I opened the pattern in the Editor, found the offending note visually by playing the pattern (there is a play button in the Editor itself) and excised it with the eraser. Editing just like it should be. However, if you change a pattern/loop in the Editor window, the default behaviour is that every instance of that loop in the song is changed. There is a drop-down menu to change this from the default, but it did catch me out the first time I edited a pattern. In this pattern there was a hit at the end that led naturally into the next repetition. But when I changed to another pattern after a couple of iterations the late hit was jarring, not smooth. I took the hit out and was momentarily flummoxed when the hit disappeared in all the patterns, just not the last one. A little pop-up help soon had me saving the new pattern and then inserting it into the Arrange pane.

System Requirements

  • Windows 2000 or XP.
  • 1.2GHz processor.
  • 512MB RAM.
  • 2.5GB hard disk space.
  • 1024 x 768 or larger 16-bit display.

Overall, the workspace of P5 v2 is fast and intuitive. The Track and Editor views are resizable, of course, and you can float the whole Editor. With the Editor closed and the Inspector open, it is easy to see large chunks of a song as well as the specific settings on the channel one is working on. With the Editor open, the song mostly disappears but the loop itself is large enough to edit easily. Effects and synths float over the top for easy tweaking. No real genius here, just efficiency. As Craig Anderton observed in the original review, P5 is designed to build up a song from small patterns, whereas most DAWs are designed to play longer sections into. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from recording song-length 'patterns' in P5 v2, which I did on some ambient drones. But the 12-bar blues are so called for a reason, and if you've ever worked with an old, one-line LCD drum machine you are painfully aware of the repetitive nature of most popular music — not just trance and other dance genres. P5 v2, in common with other pattern-based sequencers, lets you see as well as hear the patterns, without resorting to writing mind-numbing drum charts.

If you are used to working with a more standard DAW, you may encounter a few quirks and pitfalls with P5 's pattern-based method. I tried adding a fade using the track automation feature, and all seemed to go as planned. However, on playback, the track had disappeared! When I opened the automation window, the fade showed a spike up to full volume, then the fade. The first part of the track had sonically been zeroed. Not what I expected, but easily correctable. Another small complaint about automation is that opening it on one track opens it on all, reducing the screen size of the patterns themselves. But these are minor points.

Effects & Synths

The above is all well and good, but doesn't matter unless the effects and synths are good, because P5 v2 is a soft-synth sequencer only: with the included VST to DXi adaptor, it will run your VSTi synths as well as its own, but as standard, what it won't do is provide a MIDI output to any external synths. However, all is not lost. P5 v2 operates as either a Rewire host or client, so that all-important sound from a favourite keyboard or module can be captured through a Rewired DAW. The Rewire implementation works fine, at least with Cakewalk's own Home Studio DAW, but I've never been a big fan of running one program through another, and it certainly detracts a little from the ergonomics of P5 itself. For those, like me, who prefer the directness of addressing physical MIDI ports without going through a DAW, Cakewalk have also made available for download a utility from soft-synth creators RGC Audio. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to test this before we went to press, but it can be found at the Project 5 web site (www.project5.com).

The new kids on the block: the Roland Groove Synth and Dimension.The new kids on the block: the Roland Groove Synth and Dimension.

The original P5 review went over the effects and synths of version 1 in detail, but before opening the sack of new goodies I'll add a few comments on the old ones. Most of the effects are pretty basic and share the same green hardware emulation look. Whether one prefers a more graphic look or not, emulation certainly doesn't hurt the sound. In fact, I find it somewhat comforting to have virtual hardware where one can grab a knob, just like on the real thing. It seems more natural to me. Studioverb is an above-average reverb, and requires a third-party authorisation (ie. payment) to open it up for use in other programs. Para-Q is a two-band parametric EQ. It sounds good, and much of the time, two bands are enough to trim some fat from the bottom end, tame or peak a small frequency or just add some high-frequency sheen. Para-Q will do all that, though not without opening two instances of it. Since P5 version 2 eschews a virtual mixer, EQ must be placed on the track itself. Finally, Spectral Transformer is a unique and tasty effect with two caveats; it is processor-intensive and quite capable of overwhelming any sound. It comes with only a few presets, and therefore requires time to dial in the proper amount of effect in each of its four slots. Otherwise, the track ends up sounding like Spectral Transformer rather than anything else.

The only new effect is Alias Factor, which is a bit cruncher and sample-rate mangler. It can emulate sampling rates as low as 100 Hertz, and bit depths go down into the single digits. There is also a resonant filter that can go above the Nyquist point, to create those aliasing effects the music industry has spent billions getting rid of. So you can 8-bit those pristine samples and rehear the glory of yesteryear. I've had the most success mangling clean sounds, and, like Spectral Transformer, Alias Factor is best used judiciously, even if you are going for an effected sound. As with Spectral Transformer, there is nothing else quite like it, and both effects can add that little something extra to make a track stand out.

The new synths include the Roland Groove Synth and Dimension, a sampling synthesizer. Groove Synth is part of the collaboration between Roland and Cakewalk and was first available as a plug-in for Kinetic, itself sort of a P5 'lite'. Groove Synth is a GM2-compatible soft synth. Think of it as a bread-and-butter virtual sound module which leaves more CPU cycles for the processor-intensive functions in P5 v2, but don't think of it as your father's cheesy General MIDI sound board. It is more of an S&S virtual engine using Roland sounds. And there are 256 of them, along with nine drum sets, so it covers the basics and more. As you can see in the screenshot above, Groove Synth doesn't include a lot of controls, but it does have knobs for the most important ones.

New Dimensions

The other new synth is Dimension, a multisample playback instrument. It uses four voices or Elements for each patch and, with over three gigabytes of sounds, is the reason why P5 v2 comes on a DVD, not a CD. The sample set puts it in the heavyweight division of synths, and it can duke it out with the best of the stand-alone sample soft synths. Its library might not be quite as detailed as the 10-gigabyte orchestral triangle someone is likely to put out, but is an impressive collection nonetheless. As a pure emulator it does gorgeous strings and pianos, along with the other standard acoustic instruments. As a pure synthesizer, it includes the usual analogue waveforms as well as the Dimensions category of presets, which is full of Absynth-like evolving soundscapes.

Dimension's four Elements are each self-contained sample-playback synths. Each Element consists of a sample, either a preset or your own PCM wave file or Ogg Vorbis file. Any Element will also act as a wavetable oscillator, if the file is short enough, or it can operate as a waveguide generator for plucked sounds. Unfortunately, the promised appendices explaining how to implement your own wavetables and waveguides are missing in the pop-up help and manual. While the world waits for the writers to catch up with Cakewalk's new synth, this doesn't have much bearing on the good old-fashioned sample playback of Elements.

A pane at the upper left takes care of all the common sampler housekeeping functions like keyboard range, transpose and so on. From there, the sample goes into a bit reducer/decimation effect, a multi-mode filter and distortion unit. Below that are the EQ and delay lines for each Element. The bottom pane contains modulation for pitch, filter cutoff, resonance, pan and amplitude. Each modulator page contains both a multi-point envelope generator and host-sync'able LFO. A mixer for each Element resides at the very bottom with on/off, volume/pan and global effects and output limiter.

All this control wouldn't make much difference if the samples themselves weren't any good. They are. You can load in one of Cakewalk's complete multisample presets, or load in single samples and roll your own four-voice monstrosity. There are 17 preset categories, from basses to trance, and covering the usual assemblage of instruments in between. Many categories contain 100 or more presets, so there is plenty to work with. As mentioned above, the pianos and strings are very tasty. While not measuring up to the specialist libraries available, they should work fine as long as you're not planning on giving a solo classical recital. The strings, especially the 'cellos, have plenty close-miked rasp in them which blends together in the larger string sections. If you find the rasp too much, there are plenty of other synths out there that make 'pretty' string sounds.

The Dimensions' category of sounds shows off the evolving nature of the synth rather than the sheer size of the sample set. It contains almost 200 presets which run the gamut from pretty to scary. Many of these would be fine for movie scoring by themselves. Some of them, like many multi-layer synths, are simply too much sound at once, but the on/off switch lets you hone in on the most important Element(s) or bring in an alternative sample that better fits the song.

The Groove Matrix allows you to play your loops and patterns live.The Groove Matrix allows you to play your loops and patterns live.

There is also a pop-up MIDI matrix for assigning controls to destinations and a vector mixer, which mixes the four Elements on a two-dimensional plane, providing shades of the Prophet VS or Wavestation. In fact, if I have any complaint with Dimension, it is that I want more. I am a greedy so and so, and with its vectoring and waveshaping capabilities, Dimension is well placed to supplant several classic hardware synthesizers. I asked Cakewalk about this, and they had no comment except to expect some surprises. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but in the meantime the four voices, 20 separate envelopes and LFOs, and more voice DSP than you can shake a sound with will have to do. If you like sound design, Dimension is the perfect way to keep off the streets and out of trouble, at least for a while.

Matrix Revolutions

The final major addition in P5 v2 is Cakewalk's Groove Matrix, which might seem familiar to users of Ableton Live. It allows you to place loops and patterns into cells that correspond to tracks vertically, and each loop or pattern plays when triggered, with shorter loops and patterns repeating while the longer ones play through. Each cell has its own MIDI remote control selection with learn function, so you can set your favourite controller to trigger it, and each cell has options for playing in time with a song, play from start, or one shot. You can play the Groove Matrix and record the results to each track, or use it live. Using P5 this way, DJs and dance musicians can riff the night away. And not just with audio clips, but with all the P5 v2 and VSTi synths as well.

That just about wraps up the major new features in P5 version 2, though there are other more minor additions such as tap tempo and a Freeze function borrowed from Sonar. I didn't mention installation, because there were no issues with installation or recognition with my other programs and hardware. Cakewalk provide each copy of their software with a serial number, so there are no dongles or other troublemaking hard- or software. No doubt that raises the number of lost sales to the crackheads out there, but it saves big headaches for paying customers. A shout out to Cakewalk for that.

Overall, P5 version 2 is not the cheapest program of its kind, but it will turn an entry-level DAW into a recording soft synth on steroids. And if you're already a P5 user, don't even stop to think about upgrading — the £49 cost wouldn't buy the sample collection, much less the synth to play them with. The second incarnation of P5 is not just another 'me too' program: it sets a new standard for the rest of the loopers out there.

Pros

  • Dimension and Groove Synth are great additions.
  • Can record audio.
  • Rewire support.
  • Excellent ergonomics.
  • Did I mention Dimension?

Cons

  • Dimension and Spectral Transformer are CPU hogs.
  • Some quirks arise from the pattern-based recording motif.
  • Manual is missing some information on Dimension.

Summary

Cakewalk's Project 5 v2 adds new synths and functionality to an already good program. Audio recording and the new Dimension synth take this pattern-based virtual studio to another level, making it a match not just for the other looper programs out there, but for many stand-alone soft-synths.

information

£199; upgrade from version 1 £49. Prices include VAT.

Edirol Europe +44 (0)20 8747 5949.

+44 (0)20 8747 5948.

www.edirol.co.uk

www.cakewalk.com

Published July 2005