The Sonar adventure continues with a new audio engine, a fresh look, new plug-ins and a surprising sampler.
In 2001, Cakewalk did a major direction change when they ended the Pro Audio line and launched Sonar. At the time, it was the only program to handle hard disk audio recording, deep MIDI editing, and the ability to automatically time- and pitch-stretch 'Acidised' WAV files (Acid Pro can now do all three as well, but its MIDI capabilities are well behind Sonar's). Those talents, along with the inclusion of Cyclone DXi — a brilliant groove-oriented virtual instrument — not only kept existing Cakewalk loyalists satisfied but even induced some users (particularly those into dance, hip-hop and other dance genres) to switch sequencers.
But Sonar's birth was not without difficulty. Cakewalk took a risk by spurning ASIO and VST 2.0, insisting instead on using Microsoft's then-new WDM drivers along with virtual instruments based on the DXi protocol. Audio interfaces with WDM drivers were slow in coming, and with a few exceptions such as those from Native Instruments, DX Instruments were initially rare as well. Considering that many users were also starting to switch to Windows XP, a lot had to be sorted out before you could begin making music in an optimised environment.
Eventually, Sonar added ASIO compatibility and OMF file interchange; meanwhile, FXpansion devised an ingenious VST to DX adaptor that made VST processors and instruments compatible with Sonar. Plug-ins were added to accommodate various control surfaces, and although there were still some vexing omissions (Sonar couldn't output MIDI timing, nor did it give any visual confirmation that digital audio was being recorded), Sonar gained both market share and mind share in the sequencing community.
Now we have Sonar version 3, a powerhouse sequencer that has a significantly larger feature set but retains the same superb, no-nonsense workflow. It's available in two versions; see the Sonar Producer Vs Sonar Studio box for the details (this review is of Sonar Producer). We'll get to the new interface — the single most obvious change — shortly. But let's start in the depths of the program, with the rewritten audio engine.
This has resulted in two major changes: 'gapless' audio, which means that you can do just about anything (insert plug-ins, add busses, and so on) without the program stuttering or pausing, and an unusually flexible bussing structure.
The 'gapless' audio doesn't achieve the level of Ableton Live 3, where it seems about the only way to interrupt the audio is to quit the program. But still, it's a considerable improvement over what came before. Many operations (adding busses and sends, inserting and deleting most processors, and so on) are completely seamless, while others (changing loop playback points, moving audio) introduce a very brief pause or click. Some of the more processor-intensive effects also add a click when inserted or deleted, but most of the time this is not an issue.
You can do DSP on audio clips; for smaller clips the editing is indeed gapless. However, although the audio gets processed, the waveform will not be completely redrawn until there is a pause in playback. Longer clips, or complex processing, may either introduce clicks while processing occurs, or in extreme cases, cause a dropout that pauses playback. The bottom line is that the 'gapless' audio isn't gapless enough for live performance, but in the context of working in the studio, any pauses or clicks are certainly brief enough that they don't interrupt your workflow.
I have touched on the new bussing before in Sonar Notes, but its importance cannot be overstated. Busses are now freely assignable objects that can be created, deleted or reassigned at any time. Any buss can serve any function provided by any standard buss... you name it. (And you had better name it, so that you can differentiate one buss from another!)
Reassigning a buss's destination simply involves choosing the new destination from a drop-down menu. However, you won't find the buss you're assigning among the list — a sensible move that prevents the possibility of feedback. Busses can be multiple layers deep, with busses feeding into other busses, which in turn feed into other busses, and so on. If you're into send effects, the buss structure is wonderful, as you can do a submix through a particular effect (filter, distortion, delay, or whatever), then send that to a second buss with a different effect, while other signals can go directly to the second buss.
Aux sends are also freely assignable: you can add or delete them at any time, and assign or reassign them to any buss. This avoids 'knob clutter' where you have to look at, for example, an aux control on every channel even if it's only functional on one. As someone who uses aux busses a lot, and has never been very happy by the slavish emulation of hardware in virtual mixer buss structures, I'm very pleased with Sonar 3's implementation. Now, if only the plug-in/buss structure could accommodate the ability to feed side-chain inputs in processors like noise gates...
Curiously, though, while this bussing structure seems like the ideal foundation for surround mixing, Sonar remains the only major sequencer that lacks surround support. However, I assume these bussing changes were made partly, if not wholly, to accommodate surround mixing in future versions.
Sonar 3 has two significant improvements for mixing, both from the Cubase playbook: a channel strip 'inspector', and a configurable Console View that is light years ahead of the previous mixer, in terms of both cosmetics and functionality.
With Sonar 2, I never used the Console View. With Sonar 3, I use it all the time. First, it looks great. Second, you can choose to show or hide any of the major elements: fader/meter, meters only, input/trim, output buss assignment, solo/mute/record, pan, EQ controls, EQ plot (thumbnail frequency response graph), sends and effects. EQ has three possible states: hide, show one stage of EQ, and show four stages. Similarly, sends can be hidden, show two stages, or show four stages. If there are more than four sends, you can scroll to see the additional stages. Strips can also be wide or narrow, on a per-strip or global basis. Console automation works the same way it does in Track View: a parameter that's armed for automation has a thin red line around its corresponding control.
Although you can view only four stages of EQ in each console channel, the underlying signal processor is the six-band Sonitus FX EQ, which I'll describe in more detail later. Double-click on the EQ plot and the full EQ becomes available for editing, although you'll still see only the first four bands in the Console itself.
Another important mixer feature is that each channel and buss has four assignable FX sliders, which allows parameter control without having to open up the effect's GUI; and like other controls, they can be grouped. These default to the first four parameters in the list of an effect's automatable parameters, but are reassignable at any time. Some older plug-ins that lack the capacity to be automated don't display controls, but most modern plug-ins do.
The mixer has three panels for channels (tracks), busses and outputs. Sliding a panel's splitter bar more to the right reveals more of what's underneath. Output stages are no longer just labels, but strips with faders, meters, stereo/mono, pan and mute. However, they host no plug-ins; that's the job of any busses feeding the outputs. Also, they cannot be automated.
The Inspector can be narrow or wide, and includes essentially the same elements as a mixer channel, with similar show/hide ability. It can show whichever track, buss or output is currently selected, or 'lock' to one particular one until unlocked.
But the big picture is that there are now two main ways to mix. 'Old school' mixer fans (or just those who like the way the new Console looks!) can use the Console View; those who like the Track pane's ability to show lots of tracks simultaneously, but wish it had more detail, can 'zoom in' on a selected track via the Inspector. I generally use the Track pane plus Inspector when recording, overdubbing and editing, and the Console View for mixing, mostly because of the easy access it provides to the EQ and assignable FX faders.
Sonar now has full path delay compensation, which includes any effects going through the VST-DX adaptor. You may find yourself using non-Sonar plug-ins less and less in any case, because it includes the most commonly used effects anyway. Note that the older CFX family effects (Mono EQ, Mono Delay, Parametric EQ, Pitch Shift, Mono Reverb, Stereo Delay and Stereo Reverb) and FX family effects (Dynamics Processing, Compressor/Gate, Expander/Gate, Limiter and Amp Sim Lite) are not installed by default, even though they are on the distribution CD. There are two exceptions: FX2 Amp Sim and FX2 Tape Sim, both of which are useful and under-rated distortion devices.
I suggest installing all effects if you've been using Sonar for a while and may have used some older plug-ins in some of your projects; if you're new to Sonar, install just the default ones, as they're of higher quality than the ones they replace.
The familiar DSP-FX automatable plug-ins (Studioverb, Chorus, Delay, Flanger, Parametric EQ) are still included, and they remain solid, useful devices. New to Sonar 3 is SpectraFX, an updated version of the FX Pad that made its debut in Cakewalk's Plasma looping program and was offered as a free download to registered Sonar users. Its main feature is a virtual X-Y controller that affects combinations of effects parameters. Some of the effects are indeed novel and unique, but one of them — Classic Wah — appears non-functional. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but be careful not to overlook its potential.
However, the two big highlights in Sonar 3's arsenal of processors are the Sonitus FX suite of effects and Lexicon's Pantheon reverb (of which you get the full version in Sonar Producer, but only a Pantheon LE version in Sonar Studio), so let's look at those individually.
The more affordable version, Sonar Studio ($479), lacks its big brother's integrated EQ in the Console View, the Sonitus FX suite of plug-ins, assignable FX controls in the mixer, and the Speedsoft Vsampler 3 with its two CDs of content. Also, Pantheon is a 'lite' version compared to the one included in Producer. Note that both versions include 68 files of MIDI Groove clips from Keyfax and Smart Loops, as well as 254MB of audio loops from Power FX and Smart Loops.
The Studio version still includes all the Cakewalk and DSP-FX effects that were part of Sonar 2, so it's not exactly lacking for plug-ins. If you already have a capable sampler like Halion or Kontakt, and a good set of plug-ins, you may want to save a bit of money. However, having EQ integrated in the mixer, assignable effects controls, and the pro version of Pantheon might alone be sufficient to justify the Producer edition.
The Pantheon reverb as supplied with Sonar 3 Producer Edition is 16/24-bit compatible up to 96kHz, and includes 35 factory presets, 16 user-adjustable parameters (including the usual pre-delay, room size, RT60, damping, diffusion, spread and so on), and six reverb types (hall, chamber, plate, room, ambience, and custom). Interestingly, there's also a 'Density' section with delay time variable up to a maximum dependent on the chosen algorithm, from 300 to 1200 ms, and positive or negative feedback with a maximum of ±50 to ±100 percent, again depending on the algorithm. Furthermore, you can add in a separate, single echo for the left and right channels (an algorithm-dependent 100 to 1200 ms; level is variable from off to 0VU). These three echo options are in addition to pre-delay, allowing very complex, dense initial reflections. You can also just nuke the main reverb sound and use only the delays, to yield some wonderfully spacey effects with instruments like lead guitar. Now if only you could sync the delay to tempo... am I getting too demanding? OK, I'll pull out the calculator if needed.
So how does it sound? For some material, particularly vocals, you can just dial up a preset and go — it sounds great. The presets set the default mix to 100 percent wet, so Pantheon's expected role is as a send effect, but it isn't too nasty about CPU consumption, so you can definitely throw a couple on individual channels.
With other material, tweaking definitely helps. For instance, bright, staccato, highly electronic sounds (such as arpeggiated notes) can sound rough and metallic, and they benefit from increased diffusion and some added density. Even if I wasn't happy with an initial setting, I could always tweak the sound into something not only useable, but appropriate. Pantheon is an important, useful addition to Sonar.
The Sonitus effects (from the Norwegian company Ultrafunk) were never known for dazzling feature sets, but for straightforward operation, efficient CPU consumption, and most of all, sound quality. It looked for a while as though they were going to be lost forever as the designer moved on to other things, so it's good to see them resurrected within Sonar.
All of the Sonitus effects include a few common features: two different switchable setups, a clean interface, generous metering, a preset manager, undo, and automatable parameters (you arm parameters and record knob movement, and/or use automation envelopes).
Running through the effects in alphabetical order, Compressor has all the expected parameters: Threshold, Ratio, Knee, Attack, Release and so on. Differences from the norm include a 'vintage' mode that emulates an opto-electronic device curve where the compression ratio starts to decrease above the threshold, letting through more transients, a limiter stage that works well as long as levels remain somewhat reasonable, and a switch that automatically varies release time in response to program material.
Delay is a stereo delay, which offers tempo-sync'able delay time of up to 4 seconds per channel, crossfeed from one delay to the other, feedback loop high-and low-pass filters, a Diffusion control that gives more of an early reflections effect to the delays, and a link button that can link Delay, Feedback, Crossfeed and Mix controls for both channels (and attempts to preserve any offsets as they're adjusted).
EQ's six bands offer peak/dip, high-pass, low-pass, high shelf and low shelf responses, along with frequency, gain and Q controls. Yes, it's just an ordinary EQ — but it sounds excellent, and the display is better than average, with the ability to select four graphical resolutions from ±5 to ±40 dB.
Gate is also fairly standard, with the exception of its frequency-selective gating option. For example, you can tweak the frequency for a low-frequency response, so that the gate opens only when the kick drum hits. This can be helpful for drum replacement. There are also the expected Attack, Hold, Release, Lookahead, Depth and Threshold parameters.
Modulator offers a flanger, ensemble (with three non-sync'ed delays), 'string phaser' that combines phase shifting and chorusing, six-stage phaser, 12-stage phaser, and tremolo with adjustable phase difference between the left and right channels. It won't win any awards for extreme innovation, but it works as advertised and has a precise, clean sound.
Multiband is a really sweet-sounding, five-stage multi-band compressor. Like the compressor, it has Limiter and Auto release buttons; you can actually get away with using it for buss compression to give a 'preview' of what a mastered mix might sound like. The sound is exactly what you want it to be: neutral, transparent and efficacious.
Phase isn't a phaser effect, but a utility that allows you to adjust phase. The review of the Little Labs IBP (SOS November 2003) gives a good idea of the uses of phase shifting, but one is to restore the proper phase alignment between a miked guitar amp signal and the same signal taken direct, by compensating for the miked sound's delay. It also can do phase-related encoding, which I found exceptionally good for creating 'super-stereo', ultra-wide sounds that handily survived being collapsed into mono. Is this the intended purpose? Beats me, but try it.
Reverb is a fine, single-algorithm reverb. It's been overshadowed by Pantheon, but Reverb's frequency response options are more flexible. Don't ignore this device just because there's another plug-in with the Lexicon name; different reverbs produce distinctive effects with different source material — experiment to determine which sounds best.
Surround doesn't do what you expect it to do, which is to provide surround panning within Sonar. It does encode panning information, but you need a surround-sound-capable decoder (and, of course, a surround monitoring setup) for this to do you any good. Then again, I initially thought the Phase module didn't have any use as an effect, so maybe some secrets of Surround lie in the future.
Wah-Wah provides the ever-popular sound that powered a zillion hits in the '70s. You can specify the filter's maximum high and low frequencies, and control the filter frequency with LFO, envelope triggering and, of course, manually; and for all you bass wah fans, there's a Mix control for balancing the straight and 'wahed' sounds.
The line-up of DXi-compatible virtual instruments is basically the same as it was in Sonar 2: Revalver SE guitar amp/rack processor, Edirol VSC General MIDI module, Dreamstation synthesizer, Cyclone DXi 'groove' instrument and Livesynth SE (Soundfont player trial version). Sonar Producer now also includes Speedsoft's VSampler 3, which is a pretty happening sampler. Its layout and workflow is not as compact or intuitive as devices like Kontakt, Halion or EXS24; the user interface is divided into several pages of controls and views, presented in a pseudo-rack format. But once you figure things out — it's not that difficult — this is one powerful sampler. It imports WAV, AIFF, Soundfonts, DLS, LM4 drum kits, Halion, Akai S1000/3000 CD, Akai S5000/6000 AKP (the Akai translation works very well) and Gigasampler formats. I tested this with Gary Garritan's String Library; if a GIG instrument won't fit into RAM, VSampler creates a directory with WAV files and swaps that into RAM. It cannot stream samples from hard disk, but this is promised for a future (and unfortunately, paid) update.
It's no slouch with respect to processing, with four LFOs, four envelope generators, filters, step sequencers with tempo sync, built-in effects, the ability to use VST plug-ins, 255-voice polyphony and 16 stereo outs. I had used an earlier version of VSampler and was not impressed by the stability, but now it is both solid and comprehensive. Judged by any standard, it has a lot to offer; it's also worth noting that Sonar Producer includes two CDs of VSampler content.
One negative is that there's no manual included, although one is promised. If you're familiar with samplers you should be able to figure out most of the functions, but if this is your first virtual sampler you'll find the on-line help frustrating in its brevity. Until the manual appears, you'll have to use trial and error to get the most out of VSampler 3.
Speaking of instruments, Sonar's 'freeze' function (where you premix a track, then disconnect the soft synth from the CPU) is unchanged since it originally appeared in version 1.0. With other programs now offering 'one-click' instrument freezing, perhaps Cakewalk could streamline this function in a future revision.
Cakewalk pioneered MIDI plug-ins, and while they're not exactly sexy, I've found them increasingly valuable as I've taken the time to find out what they do. My favorites are MFX Session Drummer, which makes it simple to put together a backing track with incredible speed (this compensates for the fact that there's no audio metronome), and MFX Transpose, not so much because it does transposition, but because it lets you constrain notes to particular scales. Other Cakewalk MFX include Quantize, Change Velocity, Transpose, Delay/Echo, Arpeggiator, Event Filter and Chord Analyzer.
The remaining MIDI plug-ins are mostly 'lite' versions of third-party programs: Ntonyx Style Enhancer Micro Lite 2.0, and five plug-ins from Music Lab (Velomaster Lite, Slicy Drummer Lite, Looper, Fixed Length and Rhythm'n'Chords Lite). They're still useful to have around, and if you find yourself fancying a particular plug-in, you can always spring for the full version.
Finally, in version 3 Sonar can transmit MIDI Clock and MTC as well as slaving to them. MIDI routing is also more flexible: MIDI input ports are no longer necessarily merged, so MIDI tracks can monitor any combination of channels — you can even create presets for oft-used combinations. And for groove music fans, you can import Project5 patterns, and roll out MIDI clips just like Groove clips if you're into looping. Also, every track — MIDI or audio — has an input monitoring button. You needn't go to a dialogue box any more to specify which tracks should be monitored and which ones shouldn't.
Another 'it's about time' feature is 'Confidence Recording', which allows you to see an audio waveform being drawn while you record. If that uses up too much CPU power, you can have Sonar just draw a red band over the part of the track that's recording. In any event, clicking on the Record button also tints the track so you have visual confirmation about which track will hold the recording you're about to make.
In addition to the lack of surround support, however, there are a few other omissions. One is that you can't rename the outputs in the console view, so if your card calls them 'BlurfleSound 24-Bit Output 01', due to space constraints you'll probably see a cryptic combination of letters and numbers. Also, you can't reorder the widgets (as described previously in Sonar Notes) unless you place the auxes last. This is a known bug, and Cakewalk promises a fix.
One bug that hasn't been fixed for a while is the 'arpeggiator changes all notes to one clock pulse when you render the effect to MIDI' bug. As an aside, I don't think Cakewalk give Sonar's CAL routines and MIDI effects enough attention; they're very handy, yet not presented in a very user-friendly manner. Furthermore, it is no longer possible to create CAL or Studio Panel files within Sonar. Not that very many people did, I suppose, but I never like to see features removed from an update... and with Cubase SX 2 discontinuing Mixermaps, I think I see a trend here.
Speaking of Cubase (the obvious competition on Windows, given Emagic's withdrawal into Mac-land), Sonar's mixer is less flexible in that particular configurations cannot be saved as part of a screen Layout — only the mixer 'footprint' gets saved. For example, if you show just the faders and meters so the mixer serves more as a meterbridge, save that as a Layout, hide the faders and show the EQ, then reload the Layout, the size of the mixer will be the same but you'll see EQ instead of the faders originally showing when you saved the Layout. I would really like to see a Layout remember the mixer configuration at the time of creating the Layout.
Sonar is also lacking when it comes to video-specific features, such as marking hit points to create a tempo track that changes as needed to have audio track the visuals. Then again, as Sonar doesn't bill itself as a post-production-oriented product, it's not really fair to criticise it for not offering this; and Sonar's rock-solid Video View, which loads AVI, MPG and MOV files, is still as good as ever, and with AVI files, you can specify where the video starts playback, as well as where within the video playback begins and ends. There's no track for video thumbnails, but if you elect to import an audio stream, it will insert neatly into the Track pane.
Another limitation is that Sonar can't read REX files. Granted, that's not a big deal given that it handles Acidised files so well, which are on average more flexible than REX files anyway... besides, there are REX playback devices you can insert in Sonar. But if Sonar would like to be the undisputed emperor of the looping world on the Windows platform (MOTU's Mac-only Digital Performer supports both Acidised and REX files), adding REX support would do it.
If you're a Sonar fan, version 3 is a must. The Console View is fantastic, and when you factor in the price of the Sonitus effects, Pantheon reverb, and VSampler3, the upgrade is quite a deal. Sonar also retains its non-intrusive copy protection, with a serial number entered on installation.
The most important feature you don't see is the new audio engine, which makes working with Sonar much more seamless. You can do a lot of things before the audio starts to stumble, and the full path compensation delay is essential when working with lots of plug-ins. I also really appreciate the new bussing and send structure, which allows manifold effects processing options, as well as real convenience. Bugs are few (the first patch squashed a few bugs associated with the plug-ins), and Cakewalk have a good track record of prioritising and fixing problems with timely updates.
If you're thinking of switching sequencers, check out the Sonar Vs Everything Else box. Choosing a sequencer is a personal matter, but trying to be as objective as possible, the reason why Sonar is my 'first call' sequencer is because it fits my working habits like a glove. There's something about the program that makes it easy to get work done (which is my bottom line). Cakewalk talk about workflow, and they have every right to: Sonar is easy to get around, easy to use, yet extremely deep if you want to dive below the surface. You don't really have to think a whole lot when you use it, and that's a real positive point with me.
Sonar remains a program that focuses with laser intensity on making music, and version 3 finds Cakewalk at the top of their game. Existing Sonar fans will be delighted, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some new Sonar fans as a result of this latest version.
Here's a (very) brief look at how Sonar 3 compares to the other Windows contenders.
- Cubase SX 2.0 does surround really well, gives good control over lining up hit points for video, has a gorgeous interface, reads REX files, does superb cycle recording, and has jettisoned some annoying limitations by introducing FX tracks. Yet its bussing structure is far less flexible than Sonar's, it can't read Acidised WAV files, and it lacks a reverb on a par with Pantheon. Also, the built-in EQ sounds a bit more 'brittle' to my ears than the Sonitus EQ, and the workflow, while improved over SX 1.0, doesn't seem quite as seamless as Sonar's. In many ways, these programs are two different solutions for the same basic tasks, with Sonar having a better handle on loop-based music and Cubase on surround and video; personal preference, and the types of projects on which you work, will play a large role in determining which you prefer.
- Acid Pro 4.0 remains the fastest, smoothest loop-based program, but its MIDI and virtual instrument implementation pales compared to Sonar's. It does '4.1' surround (there's no dedicated centre channel), but has no real mixer view, and no 'hooks' for control surfaces. Unless you deal solely with loops and need surround, Sonar is far more versatile.
- Ableton Live 3.0 lacks a mixer view that compares to Sonar, and offers no MIDI recording/editing or VSTi support. Those points are moot, though, because it can do Rewire as a host or client. Even though Cyclone DXi is sort of like a mini-Live module within Sonar — and I can't praise that innovative virtual instrument enough — Live is still my first choice as a live performance, groove-oriented program. But as a general-purpose recording program, it's not as versatile as Sonar (then again, Rewire the two and you have a tool of unprecedented power).
- Pro Tools is Pro Tools, and if you need what it has to offer, then that's what you need to get. What might surprise you, though, is the extent to which what you can do in Pro Tools is also possible in Sonar.
- Samplitude is an under-rated hard disk recording system with great sound quality and significant flexibility. It doesn't handle the MIDI world as well as Sonar, though, and although it does superb time-stretching, it reads neither Acidised nor REX files.
- Logic Audio 5.5, the last version created for Windows, is still touted by some partisans as being superior to every other program out there. OK, how I can say this delicately... this is like people who take their cat to a taxidermist when it dies, then leave it on a chair in the living room so they can pretend it's still alive. Message to Windows Logic users: yes, it's a great program, but at some point you'll need to get a Mac, or find an alternative on Windows.
- Vastly improved Console View.
- Rewritten audio engine with flexible bussing and 'gapless' audio.
- Producer Edition has great plug-ins: Sonitus FX suite, Lexicon Pantheon reverb, VSampler 3 DXi.
- Assignable console effects controls in Producer version.
- Improved MIDI handling and MIDI Groove clips.
- Confidence Recording shows waveforms while recording.
- Integral VST to DX adaptor.
- No surround support.
- No REX file support.
- Awkward (but workable) freeze function.
- Lacks audio-for-video tempo-matching options.
- Can't save mixer configurations.
This is the kind of update that encourages customer loyalty, and Cakewalk's Sonar development shows zero signs of slowing down. It's curious there's no surround given the superbly redesigned buss structure, but the rewritten audio engine, Console View, and Producer's extensive collection of plug-ins make this a must-have update for Sonar aficionados.