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Cakewalk Project5

Pattern-based Music Production Software [Windows]
By Craig Anderton

The top half shows the Tracker, with a Tempo Delay processor and the Pattern Bin floating over it. Moving from left to right along the bottom half, the SYN.OPS control panel shows 16 parameters assigned to real-time control, the Psyn synthesizer is docked next to SYN.OPS, and the P-SEQ pattern sequencer is currently displaying notes and velocities. This works like a drawer, and has been extended somewhat to the left, obscuring part of Psyn but giving more room for viewing P-SEQ data. The Mix section (lower left) has bins for MIDI and Audio effects, as well as aux send controls.The top half shows the Tracker, with a Tempo Delay processor and the Pattern Bin floating over it. Moving from left to right along the bottom half, the SYN.OPS control panel shows 16 parameters assigned to real-time control, the Psyn synthesizer is docked next to SYN.OPS, and the P-SEQ pattern sequencer is currently displaying notes and velocities. This works like a drawer, and has been extended somewhat to the left, obscuring part of Psyn but giving more room for viewing P-SEQ data. The Mix section (lower left) has bins for MIDI and Audio effects, as well as aux send controls.

At first sight, Cakewalk's new virtual studio suite might seem like a Reason clone — but it's actually a highly individual product, which offers a new and unique approach to creating music from patterns, sequences and loops.

The first thing you notice is the packaging: a transparent, minimalist plastic box that states 'I'm different'. Then you remember the buzz, that this is 'Cakewalk's answer to Reason'. Everyone seemed to be saying that except for, well, Cakewalk. And now I see why: it isn't.

Admittedly, Project5 (P5 for short) is superficially like Reason, as it contains soft synths and doesn't record digital audio. But it also has elements of Acid, joined with a really deep MIDI implementation. Then again, Acid can record digital audio, so that analogy doesn't really work either. So what exactly is Project5?

Think of it this way: synthesizers used to be modular. Then people came upon particular combinations of modules that worked well together, and the 'normalised' synthesizer was born. While not as versatile as modulars, they were more streamlined, efficient, and optimised for a particular kind of task.

P5 is sort of a 'normalised' version of general-purpose software, based on a pattern paradigm rather than linear recording. It includes a collection of essential instruments and effects, handles automation and external controllers, and can import and loop Acidised WAV files (and standard WAV files, although they won't time-stretch). But the normalised synth analogy breaks down eventually too, because P5 is expandable with other VST and DX devices.

Cakewalk Project5 £249
pros
  • Reads and time-stretches Acidised audio files.
  • P-SEQ is a great way to get ideas down fast.
  • Fine selection of soft synths and effects.
  • Spectral Transformer and Cyclone modules are unique and innovative.
  • Easy automation control and editing.a
  • Flexible MIDI addressing for multiple soft synths.
  • Compatible with WDM, ASIO, Direct Sound, Rewire, VST, VSTi, DX and DXi.
  • DS864 sampler imports Akai S5000/6000, Kurzweil K2000, and Soundfont 2 samples (but not envelopes, pitch offsets, and so on).
cons
  • Can't send Synchron32 step sequencer output to a track as MIDI data.
  • No fade-in/out ability for audio clips.
  • Master sync only, doesn't slave.
  • Doesn't output MIDI note data.
  • No velocity or pitch crossfading (only switching) in the sampler module.
summary
This pattern-oriented, integrated studio program is anything but a me-too product. Although it includes a solid complement of soft synths and effects, Project5 also accepts other DX/DXi/VST/VSTi devices, and imports numerous sample formats. It forsakes hardware paradigms in favor of a more 'virtual' approach — you won't find patch cords here, but you will find a highly customisable and productive workspace.

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The more I worked with P5, the more it felt like an instrument, complete with the learning curve required by a different kind of workflow. Once you get good at it, though, you can move around pretty effortlessly. It's important to bear in mind that Project5 is not limited to a specific music style, though its pattern-oriented workflow is generally associated with dance music.

Making Contact

It's easy to get going: install the program (serial number required), choose your MIDI I/O, audio I/O, insert an instrument, and play. Audio-wise, P5 supports sampling rates of 11.025, 22.05, 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz, with 16 or 24-bit resolution. I tested P5 with both ASIO and WDM (using Creamware's Power Pulsar interface), and it worked equally well with both protocols.

The overall look has evolved beyond the usual Cakewalk treatment: data fields glow green, with muted blue and grey backgrounds reminiscent of Certain German Sequencers. There's also a lot more use of shading and 3D, giving a relaxed feel.

There are three fixed elements on the 'virtual work surface'. A bar along the top offers transport, loop on/off control and settings, metronome controls, file management (open, close, save, name), MIDI sync on/off, shuffle amount, audio engine reset, Now Time (position of cursor) display selectable between Measures/Beats/Ticks (MBT) or SMPTE Hours/Minutes/Seconds, CPU meter, and tempo. It also contains return controls for the four aux busses, master stereo buss level with metering (no surround, sorry), and a button to show or hide the aux busses and master level controls in the SYN.OPS section. SYN.OPS is an assignable control surface for synthesizer parameters (with a second, smaller section for effects parameters) — more on this later.

The second fixed element, just below the top bar, is the Tracker. It combines a Track pane that shows synth or loop track characteristics (name, volume, pan, stereo width, mute/solo/record, synth out, and level metering) along with a fairly traditional Arrangement pane. The latter is your basic song workspace, showing tracks — where patterns are located on a grid calibrated in MBT or SMPTE — and snap-to-grid options. For instruments with multiple outs, each Track has a selector for choosing a particular output. The Track controls then affect this output, and you can even choose different effects for different outputs. You can't expand the track to see which outputs are in use; you'll have to scroll through the list.

The final fixed element is the Mix strip along the bottom, where you can set aux send levels, adjust track-redundant volume, pan and stereo width controls, and use the MIDI and Audio effects bins to insert MIDI or audio effects.

Other windows (the P-SEQ Pattern Sequencer, pattern bin for viewing stored and current patterns, and the various soft synths) are more like modules that can dock or float, which is very handy for dual-monitor setups. There's a lot going on here, so it's no surprise many of the icons and controls are quite tiny.

A wonderful feature of all Project5's scrolling windows is an X-Y scroll bar handle. For example, with the horizontal scroll bar, clicking and dragging horizontally scrolls horizontally, as expected. But clicking and dragging vertically changes the zoom resolution, and dragging diagonally changes both. The vertical scroll bar works similarly. Once you get used to this, you'll hope that every manufacturer steals — I mean, is inspired by — this concept.

The P-SEQ Pattern Sequencer

P5 is based around patterns, and they all (except for Acidised audio) have their birthplace in P-SEQ, where you create, edit and import patterns, as well as add automation. Once the pattern is created, you can then transfer it over to a track for editing, looping, copying or just standard playback. (You can also record directly into tracks, in which case the data shows up in P-SEQ and the Track view simultaneously.)

P-SEQ partners with a Pattern Bin that manages files. It has an Explorer-type interface, and appears in its own window. Double-clicking on one of the patterns in the main part of the Bin transfers it to the lower Preview Bin for previewing. In addition to letting you access Patterns stored on disk or those currently in use, P5 also saves patterns that were created in the current project but either deleted or never sent to a track (being MIDI data, these patterns take up virtually no disk space). This is considerate — I've often created patterns that seemed cool, but didn't fit in context so I deleted them. With P5, that need not be an issue.

But the more important aspect is the ease with which you can work with patterns in a single track. You can create variations on a pattern (or patterns) within P-SEQ, then bounce them to the track at the current Now time. P-SEQ patterns within the same track can have different MIDI outs, which is useful with multitimbral instruments. (Note that double-clicking on an 'empty' track area causes P-SEQ to display any automation data that was recorded directly to the track using the automation-to-track control. While this appears to clear P-SEQ's note display, to actually clear a pattern for the purpose of creating a new one you need to click on P-SEQ's New button.)

P-SEQ has its own pattern management strip to create patterns, send them to tracks, copy them and so on. This also allows you to call up different patterns from the bin, select a pattern currently being used in the project, or create/edit automation. My key to success with P5 is using P-SEQ as a scratch pad, then transferring the results over to the main arrangement page. Its approach is the opposite of, say, Sonar's: whereas Sonar can do linear recording then let you break that down into separate bits you can move around and edit, P5 is designed to let you create the little bits, then combine them into a bigger structure.

 Test Spec 
 Q Performance Systems dual-processor Athlon PC with 1GB RAM, Tyan motherboard and Matrox G450 dual-head AGP video card, running Windows XP.
Creamware Power Pulsar MIDI/audio interface.
 

Both step and real-time recording are available. When step recording, you can specify the number of steps, note duration, whether velocity is constant or set by your MIDI controller, and toggle overwrite or sound-on-sound modes. There are separate drop-down menus for snap resolution and note duration, and a link option (cool!) so that changing either causes the other to acquire the same value. This is a feature all MIDI sequencers should have.

The Instruments

Now that we've covered P5's basic processes, let's look at the bundled instruments. As P5 is Rewire-compatible, it also has the potential to serve as an instrument rack within Sonar, Cubase, Live, and so on.

All synths include their own SYN.OPS control panel. This defaults to a grouping of eight controls (although Registry editing can change the default number — mine is set to 16), and these controls can be assigned to parameters from their corresponding instrument. So why bother turning a SYN.OPS knob instead of the one on the synth? Two reasons: the SYN.OPS knobs can be assigned to receive MIDI controllers from external fader boxes and such, and also, not all soft synths can record automation simply by moving their knobs (although P5's bundled ones can). Note that effects also have their own little mini-SYN.OPS panel with four controls.

Velocity

This sample-based drum machine is like a junior version of the FXpansion DR008, with a more 'vintage', knob-driven interface (and you gotta love how the knobs light up when your cursor passes over them). It loads kits included with P5, or LM4 kits; you can also make up your own kits from WAV, AIFF or LM4 samples, then save the kit.

Project5's Velocity instrument.Project5's Velocity instrument.

Basic sample editing controls affect all samples in a cell: Tune, Bits (which goes down to four — nasty), Reverse, Sample Start and Sample End. These controls cannot be automated. Automatable per-cell processing includes sample looping (start, end, number of repeats), Amp Envelope (attack, decay), Pitch Envelope (velocity, decay), Filter (cutoff, resonance, and velocity tied to cutoff), level, pan, solo, mute, MIDI note trigger, choke group (none or one of four, where triggering a drum cuts off others assigned to the same group), mute/solo buttons, and output (stereo main and four aux outs).

Presets include 808 and 909 kits, along with 18 others: seven trance kits and one-offs of various other styles. They're useful, but the 'wow factor' enters when you automate the filter and envelope parameters — the drum parts start to really 'breathe'.

Npulse

This is an 'analogue' drum synthesizer with 12 modules. They are nominally two kicks, snare, open hat, closed hat, cowbell, claps, rimshot and four tom/custom modules, but offer enough variations that you can depart from the intended sounds. The modules have subtly different parameters to optimise them for the various sounds (for instance, the hats have tune and level controls, as does the tom control. However, the tom's Drive control is replaced by a Band-pass filter frequency control on the hats). Each module has a mute and solo switch.

As with Velocity, there are five individual outs. This is a good thing, because I found some of the timbres wonderful except for a dullness in the sound, or lack of punch. So I sent these timbres to an aux buss, and used P5's HF Exciter or Compressor/Gate modules to spruce things up.

I really like the fact that you can ring-modulate or frequency-modulate the two bass drum modules, which you can also do with toms 1+2 and toms 3+4. However there's a mystifying omission: when you send Npulse a trigger, there's no indicator on a module to show which one is playing — you have to correlate the note you're playing to the value shown in the note assignment field to find the right module.

You can save and load individual drum sounds, as well as kits; and almost all the parameters (including mute and solo) are automatable, which is a major plus with this type of device.

Psyn

This analogue emulation synth is rich with programmable parameters and plays up to 64 voices. Basic specs are four oscillators with variable width, multiple waveforms (sine, triangle, square, positive sawtooth, negative sawtooth, and noise), and a separate sub-oscillator that uses the selected waveform; there are also five six-stage envelopes (DADSR, with an additional Slope control that provides a post-sustain decay stage, along with three choices of slope curves), three LFOs with the same waveforms as the oscillators plus delay and phase controls, and separate modulation options for each envelope and oscillator. Modulation can be routed to individual or all oscillator levels and width, and individual or all filter cutoff and resonance, but not envelope parameters. Of course, there are all the standard features too: oscillator transposition, portamento, bend range, and so on. Another nice touch are the 1,024 program slots.

This pad patch gives Psyn a moderate workout. The interface, despite having to manage a large number of parameters, is easy to use; the ballistics on the controls are very smooth (it is possible to oil the shaft of a virtual potentiometer?), and support mouse wheel scrolling.This pad patch gives Psyn a moderate workout. The interface, despite having to manage a large number of parameters, is easy to use; the ballistics on the controls are very smooth (it is possible to oil the shaft of a virtual potentiometer?), and support mouse wheel scrolling.

Almost all stages can be disabled to save CPU power: running all the filters, oscillators and envelopes at maximum polyphony requires a fair amount of juice, but doing a simple bass part in mono mode takes up almost nothing. This is also important because Psyn is not multitimbral, so for multiple sounds, you need to insert multiple Psyns. By restricting them to the minimum feature set needed, you can open up a bunch of them.

You can hard sync or ring-modulate the oscillators, change their relative phase, and apply two types of FM. For wide-range hard sync effects, you can 'double up' the LFO modulation by using two sends to the same destination. But I'm also a big fan of the Unison button, which brings back fond memories of old Korg synths.

The first filter stage provides 12dB/octave high-pass, low-pass, band-pass and band-reject modes, while the second stage is a 24dB/octave low-pass. They can run in series or parallel, and controls are linkable if you want them to track, which is great for a 36dB/octave response. There's also a feedback control, but for some reason I couldn't get it to do anything particularly stunning.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed with the sound, and found there was aliasing with certain patches, particularly with the filter opened up. However, I had missed a very important feature: a right-click on the Psyn volume control lets you enable 'high quality' mode. This uses a bit more CPU power, but for critical sounds, it's worth it. Even when out of high-quality mode, though, you can get some great sounds out of Psyn, especially with bass and evolving pads. The presets included with it are fairly representative, but if you're into synth tweaking, it won't take you long to discover what Psyn can do. Furthermore, most parameters can be automated — even many of the Enable buttons.

Cyclone

Cyclone made its debut in Sonar 2.0, and lets you load standard or Acidised WAV files on 16 MIDI-triggerable 'pads'. Each pad can be triggered by particular ranges of notes and/or velocities, which of course works well for drum parts, but also is good for 'remixing' Acidised loops (hook up your keyboard and go). Each pad has controls for mute, solo, level, pan, load sample, sync to tempo, loop, velocity range, MIDI input channel, and root note.

With Acidised files, Cyclone recognises the individual slices, and displays the sliced waveform in the waveform display window. But in addition to letting you treat Acidised files as individual entities, Cyclone can also work with them at a 'granular' kind of level in the Pad Editor display (along the bottom of the window). This is where you can rearrange the slices within each pad and move them to other pads, as well as delete, layer, and edit their pitch, level, and pan (although unfortunately, these parameters cannot be automated). You can also drag slices out of the waveform display window to the Pad Editor.

Cyclone reminds me a bit of programs like Recycle and Phatmatik Pro, although they don't allow rearranging slices, which is one of Cyclone's coolest features. If you like wave sequencing effects, you'll go nuts over this instrument: the multiple outputs and ability to do odd time signatures are icing on the cake. With the right samples, a smattering of technique, and a good musical sense, you can do entire tunes with just this module.

DS864 Sampler

This is a multitimbral sampler with up to eight discrete outs, velocity switching among samples, dual resonant filters (virtually identical to the two filters in Psyn, including the serial/parallel and link options), four DADSR envelope generators with additional Slope controls like those of Psyn, three LFOs, portamento, and so on. At the sample level, you can adjust gain (but only by ±6dB), pan and tuning; on a layer basis (ie. affecting all samples spread across the keyboard), volume, pan, tuning and bit decimation (down to five bits) are adjustable.

 Bundled Samples 
 P5 has over 90 DS864 programs including orchestral (solo and small section), some fine pianos, a toolkit of 'dream house'-oriented patches, Kodish Drum & Bass, several basses, and Afro-Cuban percussion from Q-up Arts' Latin Groove Factory. There are also 22 mapped kits for the Velocity drum sampler, over 400 one-shot drum/percussion samples from Pro Samples for making your own kits, and hundreds of loops from Best Service and Zero-G including drums, guitars and world vocals. Add these to the 124 P-SEQ MIDI patterns, and you have more than enough to get started, even if your sample CD collection is modest. 

You can choose whether the loop goes forward or forward/backward, as well as reversing a sample and/or flipping phase. However, there's no velocity or pitch crossfading; and unlike higher-end soft samplers, there's no way to select multiple samples and edit them simultaneously, nor can you view the sample waveforms or set loop points. And although you can layer samples on the same keys, there's no easy way to select samples hidden underneath other samples. If you need to do a lot of editing on a program with multiple layers, it's easiest to make each layer a separate program, and assign them all to the same MIDI channel so they play simultaneously.

Editing sample velocity and pitch ranges is made a lot easier by the ability to zoom in by 200 and 400 percent to see more detail. However, the DS864 window is not resizeable if you want to be able to see more of the keyboard range at a glance. I wish it was a 'drawer' you could drag on top of the controls for those times when seeing the key mapping is more important than seeing the controls.

Supported file formats are WAV, AIFF, AKP (Akai S5000/6000), KRZ (Kurzweil 2000), SF2 (Soundfont 2), and DP8 (DS864's file format for multisampled programs). The non-DP8 formats transfer sample key mappings and loop points faithfully, but there's no attempt to translate filter and envelope settings. Of course, you can always use DS864's modules to twist the samples as desired. Speaking of which, a great envelope generator parameter called Time scales the envelope durations. Assign this to your mod wheel for bass patches, and you can go from more percussive to more languid effects in real time.

Groove Player

To add Acidised loops (or just plain WAV files), you insert a Groove Player Engine instead of an instrument into a track. You can add audio effects, although of course SYN.OPS and MIDI effects aren't applicable. It's also possible to transpose clips.

Because a Groove Clip can show up as audio in the P-SEQ window, I hoped you could split it as you would a MIDI pattern — P-SEQ begs to be used as an Acid-style 'trimmer' for cutting bits of an audio waveform and dragging them into the Arrangement pane, but this is not possible. Put this on my wish list for a future revision...

A very minor inconvenience is that you can't drag and drop files into either the Groove Player Engine or track in which it resides, but need to use a file import option. However, if your Groove clips are saved in your Patterns folder as patterns or otherwise in the Pattern Bin, you can drag them into the arrangement. A bigger problem is that you can't add a fade-out or fade-in to the audio clip, Acidised or not. With most files, this won't matter because the beginning and end should already have been trimmed and faded properly. But if you slip-edit an audio file (to create a space for a breakbeat for example) and there's a click, you have to draw in a fade at that point in the track automation.

Fortunately, you can copy and paste automation data effortlessly, so if there are, for example, a dozen places in the song where you need to add a quick fade after slip-editing the end or beginning of the loop, you can do so pretty rapidly on a track basis; if the fade needs to be on every repeat of a loop, then you only need to apply it once, and all instances will be affected. According to Cakewalk, automatic fading for cropped loops will be available in a future patch. Overall, being able to use Acidised files is a huge plus for the program, because it puts audio on the same pattern-oriented footing as the MIDI-based parts.

Synchron32

If you like looping a pattern generator and clicking little dots where you want notes to fall, Synchron32 — a MIDI effects device that's also useable in Sonar — is for you. It offers up to 32 steps (odd time signatures are possible, too), with each step having a duration from 2 measures to 1/128th note, including triplet and dotted options. Patterns are stored in four banks of eight patterns, the

Synchron32 includes a scrolling octave slider to display different note ranges, a controller amount knob for each step (and you can have more than one controller per step), flam and legato options for each step, and a bend amount control, also for each step. Mono (one event per step) and Poly modes are available, as is a separate run/stop button for previewing patterns.Synchron32 includes a scrolling octave slider to display different note ranges, a controller amount knob for each step (and you can have more than one controller per step), flam and legato options for each step, and a bend amount control, also for each step. Mono (one event per step) and Poly modes are available, as is a separate run/stop button for previewing patterns.

collection of which can be saved as a preset. Notes can be of any velocity: right-click and choose the value. Subsequent notes remain at that velocity until changed.

While this is extremely useful, I have two wish-list items: first, I'd like the window resizeable, as I often want to see more than one octave's worth of notes at a time. Second, you should be able to transfer the Synchron32 information to a track as MIDI data. Synchron32 is stellar as a pattern/idea generator, but if you start using it, you're committed to using it for the rest of the track — which means creating a new pattern every time you want a change. Sometimes it's a lot easier to copy, paste, and edit MIDI data. A partial workaround is that you can right-click in a track, specify a Synchron pattern, and 'roll it out' as you would any loop — but if you want to make small changes, you still need to go back to Synchron and actually build the changes into patterns.

There are a couple of cool extras: Synchron patterns can be triggered from a keyboard controller, which is useful if you want to create an elaborate patch that includes sequenced rhythms, or for live performance applications. Also, Synchron is handy for creating drum patterns because it displays the drum voice names in its note pane when patched before a drum synth.

Stability

There were a few rare occasions where exiting P5 caused the computer to crash; Cakewalk says this is most likely due to a driver or plug-in not releasing memory when P5 closes. I certainly prefer crashes on exiting rather than while working, so tracking down which rogue plug-in upsets P5 isn't an especially high priority for me.

Other than that, I also found a bug with the DS864 automation; if you close its Properties page, on playback any automation stops rendering. I alerted Cakewalk to this, who confirmed the bug and suggested a simple workaround until they post a patch: launch the Properties page for that instance of DS864 so that it is always 'floating'. You can also minimise it to keep the page active, but out of the way of whatever else you're doing.

For a version 1.0, that's a pretty minor list of complaints, and I was very impressed with the overall stability.

 Reason Vs Project5 
 As someone who has used both Reason and Project5 extensively, I frankly see more differences than similarities. P5 doesn't have Reason's 'instant gratification' factor; with Reason, when you call up Redrum, you can immediately start generating patterns thanks to the integrated pattern generator. With Project5, you need to choose a drum module (Velocity or Npulse), load it into a track, then use the Synchron32 MFX or a keyboard controller to create a pattern.

But once the patterns are recorded, additional differences surface. With P5, if you played the drum part in via MIDI, it's not only in the track, it can be split, looped, and slip-edited, which is easier than moving data around in a standard sequencer. On balance, Reason has an edge on speed when creating parts, but P5 has the edge when editing them.

How do the instruments compare? It's a case of apples and oranges. Reason's drum set uses samples only, while Project5 has a drum module for samples and another that's basically a 12-voice synthesizer. Subtractor doesn't have as many programming options as Psyn, while Malström is more innovative, yet P5 has the amazing Cyclone. I'd give Reason's NNXT sampler props for an easier-to-use interface, although functionally, the DS864 is fairly similar.

In terms of effects, P5 has the advantage: they're a bit more complete, and the automation is great. Reason 2.5 has added a vocoder and distortion, both of which P5 lacks, and spruced up the reverb; but P5's unique Spectral Transformer is hot, and has no equivalent.

Reason doesn't load Acidised or standard WAV files directly into its sequencer. Then again, P5 can't deal with REX files.

Beyond these obvious differences, though, the programs have different personalities and intentions. Reason is a self-contained, easy-to-navigate environment, whereas Project5 is more 'virtual', decentralised, and accepts external instruments and effects. The approaches to sequencing are also very different; Reason follows a linear recording paradigm, whereas P5 is pattern-oriented.

Strat vs. Les Paul, anyone?

 

The Effects

P5 comes with a bunch of effects, and their parameters are automatable, which is good news for Sonar fans who buy P5. Most of the effects (with the exception of Spectral Transformer, described later) are somewhat standard, so I'll concentrate on their more unusual features.

Stereo Compressor/Gate can select a manual gate mode, where a manual trigger such as a MIDI note opens/closes the gate — great for instant stutter/gate effects. As the threshold is also automated, you can assign this to a physical controller for effects such as raising the threshold on a drum loop to let through just the peaks of the snare and kick, then lowering it when you want percussion, hi-hat, and so on to come in as well.

Project5's 'rack' effects are far from an afterthought, and their wealth of automatable parameters can add tremendous interest to a piece if you work the controls in real time.Project5's 'rack' effects are far from an afterthought, and their wealth of automatable parameters can add tremendous interest to a piece if you work the controls in real time.Classic Phaser has a rich-sounding 'quad' mode that gives wider imaging and more animation than the mono and stereo settings. Tempo sync goes from 24 beats all the way to 1/32nd notes. Although the documentation states there are four LFO waveforms including sample & hold, there's actually sine, triangle, and a pseudo-random but periodic effect.

HF Exciter 'stimulates' high frequencies. Normally I don't use this kind of effect a lot, but it's a wonderful addition to the Npulse drum unit when you want to give its darker, 'analogue' sounds more presence.

Mod Filter features an envelope generator (which sounds like it's basically performing a mathematical integration, with attack and decay providing slew control) as well as tempo-sync'ed LFO mode offering sine, triangle, square and S&H. There's an overdrive effect and a manual mode, but thanks to automation, manually adjusting LFO and envelope parameters in real time gives a different type of 'manual' mode.

At first, the Chorus/Flanger didn't seem that impressive... but that was before I figured out how to use the EQ section that's included in the feedback path. It can help create some glorious resonant, whooshing sounds quite unlike other flangers I've heard. Try setting two of these patches in series, such as Stereo Flanger Resonant followed by 12-Voice Ensemble. On the down side, there's no LFO tempo sync.

Para-Q is a basic dual-stage true parametric EQ, but of course, the ability to automate the parameters can make it an 'effect', not just a basic EQ processor.

Studioverb2 is a major surprise. It's not particularly versatile — its speciality is effects with a ton of diffusion — but it can give some truly

big reverb sounds. The bright cathedral really does sound like a bright cathedral, which is difficult for any reverb to pull off, let alone one bundled with an integrated studio program. Would I want Studioverb2 to be my 'desert island' reverb? No, but I'd try to sneak it in along with the one that was... don't sell this module short.

The beat-sync'ed Stereo Delay features a three-band EQ/feedback section similar to the two-band version in the Chorus/Flanger, which transforms this processor into more of a live performance funbox. I'm sure many of you have found the joys of altering delay feedback and level in real time, but throw EQ into the mix, and it's a whole different world.

Finally, there's the Spectral Transformer. Admittedly, it sounds like the name of a Marvel Comics superhero, but it's actually based on phase vocoding, where audio is converted into a series of frames representing the spectra at a particular instant; these are then transformed to create the various effects.

Spectral Transformer processing modules include:

  • Bandshift, a frequency shifter that changes tonality by adding or subtracting constants to the high and low bands.
  • Trace sounds like what happens if you over-apply a noise reduction algorithm so that it removes significant amounts of signal as well as noise; it adds a sort of underwatery effect.
  • Lo/Hi Filter has two bands, for low and high cut. It's a DJ's dream when you're trying to cut out the kick drum and nothing else.
  • I don't have the vaguest idea what Accumulator does, but the end result is sliding tones, glisses, hard reverberation, and other really fun stuff. Assign the three sliders to physical controllers, and you can get lost for a while.
  • Exaggerator emphasises certain spectra, but this isn't like EQ. In fact it's not like anything I've heard, at least on this planet.
  • Transpose is a real time pitch-shifter that gives slurpy sounds when transposing down, and metallic, reedy sounds when shifting up.
  • Voc-Transpose is similar, but preserves formants.

The good news is that these are novel, fascinating effects. The bad news is that Spectral Transformer can be a CPU hog — you're not going to have one of these babies on every track. Furthermore, although the help file points out the cool live performance effects you can get with Spectral Transformer, the heavy-duty calculations also mean increased latency. It's possible to compensate a bit by trading off detailed sound for speed, but the shortest delay I could get was 11ms. This was the first time that I really noticed the lack of an 'apply effects to track so you can put them away and let the CPU not work so hard' function. The bottom line is that I suspect I'll be using this a lot as a DX effect within a digital audio editor to process audio, then bringing the results into P5 as a WAV or groove clip file.

All This And VST Too

Cakewalk purchased the VST-DX Adapter 'wrapper' technology from FXpansion, and P5 includes the latest version. This program looks at your VST Plug-ins folder, 'registers' each one (if it can — some VST plug-ins, like Steinberg's A1 synth, are keyed to a particular program), then somehow convinces DX-based hosts that the VST Instrument or effect is compatible.

The process of 'wrapping' your VST devices is simple: run VST-DX Adapter 4, wait while it checks out your devices, then when it's finished, do any needed tweaks (for example, effects that respond to tempo sync should also be registered manually as instruments). Another tweak is that you may need to specify a window size in pixels if the instrument size changes: VST-DX sometimes gets stuck on a smaller size. VST-DX is pretty tolerant, and if something doesn't register initially, run the configuration utility a few more times and it probably will. And if you own any other Direct X programs (such as Sonar), they will also be able to use the VST Instruments and effects.

MP3 Export

P5 can export in WAV or MP3 format, but the MP3 encoder costs $19 (obtainable through Cakewalk's web site; if you've already purchased an MP3 encoder for Sonar, though, the support folks will get you up and running with that). I was not able to figure out how to use the free MP3 encoder described in April's Sonar Notes — too bad. However, the MP3 encoder has some unusual features, like different types of stereo that use up less bandwidth, and separate high-and low-pass filters.

Once you activate the MP3 encoder, you have several options not commonly available in other encoders — specifically, additional ways to trade off fidelity and bandwidth with different stereo modes and filter options.Once you activate the MP3 encoder, you have several options not commonly available in other encoders — specifically, additional ways to trade off fidelity and bandwidth with different stereo modes and filter options.

After saving in the various formats, I compared them. Frankly, the differences were not that astonishing; compressed audio is compressed audio, and you can take that only so far. But at low bit rates, some modes produced better sound quality with some types of program material.

The Verdict

When I first started out with P5, I wasn't that impressed. It seemed anything I wanted to do could be done more comprehensively, and with more detail, within Sonar. But reviews being what they are, I was of course obliged to explore the various nooks and crannies of the program. After the first week, my opinion had changed to "I bet some people will really like this, there are some extremely clever bits in here," and I was starting to grasp the workflow a little better: don't think linear, think patterns; don't think programming, think real-time playing.

After a fortnight had passed, I could hardly wait to boot it up. The change occurred when I learned to be a partner with the way P5 wanted to do things, rather than trying to force it into habitual work modes. I felt as if I was a guitar player who saw a piano for the first time, and just assumed the way to play it was to open up the top, and pluck the strings. "Oh, you mean I'm supposed to hit those little black and white wooden things? OK, now I get it..."

The profile for one representative kind of P5 user would be someone who has a few Korg Electribes and wishes something with that kind of vibe and capability existed on a virtual level. Well, now it does: P5 is more a system than a 'recording' program. But I can also see this as a great tool for audio-for-video work, DJ tracks, and even New Age and ambient types of music.

Clearly, this is a different kind of program. You may not feel that way when you first dive in, but at some point, it hits you that this is either a different kind of musical instrument, or a different kind of music software. And it's not just about dance music; one late evening an ambient, haunting sort of tune with lots of synchronised echo just kind of popped out while I was fiddling about with the program. There's something about P5 that just sort of makes music happen.

Project5 is a distinct departure for Cakewalk, but it fills a niche that has not been addressed in this kind of way. The program may not be for everyone, but those into pattern-based music will feel they've arrived in a world that understands their needs and dreams. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the tune I've been working on... I think I'm becoming addicted.

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Published June 2003