As well as creating some excellent new plug-ins and making operational improvements, Cakewalk have been working hard to make Sonar 8 the most CPU‑efficient version yet.
Bang on deadline, we have Cakewalk's annual update to their flagship digital audio workstation package. This regularity doesn't half make it difficult for reviewers: the "it's the end of the year (as I write this anyway), it must be time for a Sonar update” gambit has been done to death now. As ever, though, the Cakewalk elves have been beavering away, making what was already a pretty damned fine piece of software even better. We'll get to the big stuff shortly, but it's worth noting that Sonar's developers have largely looked beyond the extravagant, flashy statement and have eschewed the chasing of the tails of other software. They're still doing their own thing, for their customers, and this time around 'their own thing' happens to involve a lot of streamlining and tuning up under the hood.
There's a lot of talk about streamlining in the IT world in general, some of it due to the necessity of creating meaningful operating systems for portable gadgets, and some due to what I hope is plain good sense. Microsoft are working on getting Vista right in Windows 7, and Apple are planning to ìdramatically reduce the footprint” of Mac OS X with the Snow Leopard release. Cakewalk are in there, too: Sonar 8 is not light on visible new features and toys that you can grab with your mouse, but some impressive developments involve new code and new ways of doing established tasks that often work better than before but nearly always use less of your computer's resources. It's not often you hear that in a review.
It's been eight years and eight updates since the dawn of Sonar, and alas there isn't space to provide a complete overview of the existing features here. The SOS web site has all that information, and more, courtesy of reviews of every update (see 'The Sonar Story' box), and Craig Anderton's regular workshop articles.
So I'll just summarise the summary: Sonar is a stable and powerful digital audio workstation that lets you create music using MIDI or audio tracks in the way that suits you. Whether your thinking is loopy or linear, or a mix of the two, Sonar is one of the top choices for PC users making music at all levels, from serious home studio to top‑line professional facility.
The Producer Edition, reviewed here, has an amazing collection of free virtual instrument, signal processing and MIDI processing plug‑ins that give real meaning to the term 'added value'. The Perfect Space convolving reverb is a total bonus, for example. If your budget or studio runs to high bit‑rate/sample‑rate audio hardware, Sonar Producer 8 is right behind you — in stereo or surround. Or you can grab audio any way you like, in any format you like, mix it up a bit and finally master the result using the built‑in tools, then output the result in a data‑reduced format for games or web streaming and download, in full stereo CD quality, or in DVD‑compatible surround formats. In between, exploit automated mixing, high track count, and that fantastic effect collection, with full integration for video and external hardware (your audio interface allowing).
There is also a stripped‑down Studio Edition, which still has a great feature set, and could help you on the ladder if cost is a serious issue. In general, the operational differences are minor, but there is less additional content: you get 11 instruments and 31 audio effects, to Producer's 14 and 42 respectively. I have to say that if there is any way you can stretch to the Producer Edition, you should do so: there is a lot more value in the extras than the £139 (full retail) price difference. The new plug‑ins described below (and many of the more powerful existing tools) are available in Producer only.
It's worth noting that new features mean additions to the PDF manual, and I'm actually glad I don't have to manage its nearly 1200 pages in paper format!
Cakewalk's entry into the world of mergers and acquisitions needn't cause you to lose any sleep: Digidesign have been part of Avid Technology for ages, Emagic migrated to Apple a little more recently, and Steinberg seem quite comfortable with Yamaha. So Cakewalk's recently beefed‑up relationship with Roland should be seen as a sign of strength. It's certainly leading to some interesting hardware/software joint developments between the two companies.
Sonar's complement of plug‑ins has already grown to be really comprehensive, so much so that you won't have to budget for more unless you have a very specific need — synthesis, sampling, loop handling, mastering‑quality processing and convolution reverb are all part of the virtual rack. To this hefty collection is added some new instruments in version 8.
Leading the way is the full version of Cakewalk's Dimension Pro synth, which has been available as a separate product for a while, and made an appearance in 'LE' form in v7. Dimension Pro was reviewed back in May 2006, and is a sample‑based synth with wavetable and physical modelling capabilities.
It would be unsporting to complain about the installation for Dimension Pro's massive library — it's a full 8GB before you install the bonus packs that come as part of the Sonar Studio bundle, and this takes a long time to install. This collection is just too huge to even begin to summarise — but trust me, it's good, and you're getting it for free. The supplied library includes Garritan's Pocket Orchestra, tons of classic and modern synth tones, a 1GB Classic Keys collection (yes, as in Emu Proteus 2000 and Vintage Keys sound modules), and a Hollywood Edge FX set. The synth is open‑ended, too, though adding your own multisamples looks to be a bit long‑winded. That said, loading a REX loop (which generates a MIDI file for correct triggering of the loop), and single samples in a multitude of formats is easy enough.
Dimension Pro is a four‑element synth, with effects and modulation options that go well beyond comprehensive. The display looks quite simple to start with — there's a multisample loading window, filter and drive controls, 'lo fi' knobs, three‑band EQ, effects and an LFO — but tie these together with the modulation matrix, and Dimension becomes deep, quickly. There are multi‑segment envelope generators for pitch, cutoff frequency, resonance, pan and amplitude, which, let's face it, beats the conventional ADSR hands down.
A new wrinkle has been given to the use of REX‑format loop files, courtesy of the new Beatscape instrument. DropZone, from v7, is still part of your armoury, but you may never need it from scratch again. Beatscape borrows the look of an Akai MPC drum box or Native Instruments' Battery, and applies a pad‑style interface to REX loop selection and playback. The plug‑in's 16 pads are the centre of the action, and to each can be assigned a REX file. You can use your own REX files — created with Propellerhead's ReCycle — but Cakewalk supply a lot of raw material to get you started. And by 'a lot', I mean over 4GB of loops, arranged as construction kits in a variety of styles. That is way too much for me — I installed them to give them a listen, but I would never use them myself, although it is a quality collection.
Designed by Rene Ceballos, the man behind Dimension Pro and the existing Zeta+ synth plug‑in, Beatscape goes well beyond basic REX playback. Sure, it'll let you trigger loops on‑screen with the pads or virtual keyboard, or your attached master keyboard, but each pad features a Rapture‑style step generator (for drawing per‑step changes in amplitude, panning, pitch, or filter resonance on individual loops or samples), three effects processors, and groove slicing and reordering tools. In the short time I've lived with Beatscape, it's become my favourite way to play with REX files — it goes so much further than Reason's Dr Rex.
The Amber module from 4Front Technologies' TruePianos instrument is also bundled with Sonar Producer 8, and unless you're very picky (and have a lot of money), this piano will do for nearly everything. It offers a mixture of sampling, modelling and synthesis sound design. Amber sounds great — important elements of the piano sound, such as sympathetic resonance and inter‑string harmonics, are reproduced — and it's been designed for low CPU overhead. It looks cute, too: moving keys in the synth property page may not be necessary, but they're kind of cool. There's decent control over velocity response, and a basic reverb processor on board.
Both everyday processing and mastering have taken several steps forward with Sonar 8. Existing users will be familiar with the number 64 from the VC64 Vintage Channel, LP64 linear phase equaliser and LP64 multi‑band compressor. New for v8 are the TS64 transient shaper and TL64 tube leveller. The concept of Sonar as mastering environment is becoming more complete.
The TS64 is creating a lot of excitement, and rightly so. Though primarily designed for drums and percussion processing, this plug‑in offers such precise control over the dynamics of an audio track or mixed audio that it will certainly be used on anything. If you think of an envelope generator on steroids, crossed with a programme‑sensitive compressor, you'll get some idea of what's going on here. Key to its function is that the attack portion of the treated audio is treated independently of the decay portion.
The idea of valve warmth in a digital environment is a strange concept, but a lot of DSP engineers spend a lot of time on it. A particularly good job has been done with the TL64 tube leveller, which is powered by StudioDevil tube modelling algorithms from Gallo Engineering. It really does provide a feeling of 'warmth' and fatness, and it wouldn't be virtual valves if you couldn't drive the 'circuitry' into saturation. A dynamic mode is available that causes the model to behave even more like a vacuum tube, while a 'bass compensation' filter lets you reduce the extent to which the bass content of the signal is saturated, which is useful if you're getting the wrong kind of dirt in the processed signal. It's a pleasure to report that the TL64's processing feels less like an effect and more like genuine valves than I was expecting: even the more saturated settings still don't sound digital.
The innocuous‑sounding Channel Tools plug‑in gives you some interesting new control over stereo channel operation, including delay, EQ and M/S (middle and sides) stereo mic decoding, for example. This might initially seem esoteric, but it offers stereo balancing and correction for a final mix, or during mastering, and provides control over the phase of left and right channels independently. Phase problems caused by mic placement can be dealt with, and either left or right channel can be delayed in terms of samples or milliseconds. That would, again, be worth having in some multiple mic situations, and as a special effect in its own right.
And finally, it might be 'LE', but the bundled Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3 LE is a fantastic freebie for what is already a package with great added value. We do have a slight clash of cultures, though: the authorisation procedure is much more involved than that for Sonar 8 itself.
Reading the review for the full Guitar Rig package in SOS December 2007 might make you itchy for more, but the version supplied with Sonar 8 offers three amp and cabinet models, 11 effects (including synced delays, wah‑wah, reverb and a funky 'tape deck' loop tool), a tuner, a metronome and over 50 presets. It sounds pretty meaty, too — if you record a lot of guitar, this is one more tool that you don't necessarily have to buy.
Now we come to the rest of the program. Sonar 8 still has pretty much the same, straightforward user interface I've always liked, though even here there are tweaks worth noting. Perhaps the most interesting update to virtual instrument use, operationally at least, is the implementation of a new 'instrument track'. With v8, Sonar now creates a single track for a new instrument, rather than separate MIDI and audio tracks, as with previous versions. That might not seem like much, but it makes session organisation a little more tidy. The audio and MIDI side can be split up, if required, so you don't have to use the new system if you don't want to.
Another tweak that will be a time‑saver to users in certain fields is the new Loop Explorer 2.0. From within this view, you can browse and audition audio and MIID groove clips and patterns, then drag them directly into the track view. Again, it doesn't sound that drastic, but it's a welcome tool, and an improvement on previous options.
One feature I wholeheartedly welcome is the new 'Aim Assist Line'. I've wanted something like this for ages: it simply presents a line (it's initially white, but you can change it) in the clips pane that shows the mouse's horizontal position. The position of the line is also shown precisely in the time ruler. I do a lot of moving clips around by eye, and this one tool will make the process a lot easier for me.
Less visible are some of the performance optimisations — there's not space to track everything that's been done in this department, but Sonar 8 offers better performance at high track counts and low latencies, faster launch time, and the ability to change audio devices without restarting. As I said earlier, the enhanced CPU performance means that Sonar 8 does more with less load on your CPU than Sonar 7 did — that's a promise. Communication with VST plug‑ins, and ASIO performance, have also been improved. And it might seem a small thing, but the annoying way that the audio metronome would hiccough at the start of a recording session has been fixed. More subliminal still, the display is smoother when resizing windows and panes, metering has been optimised, and zooming and scrolling have been improved.
I'm not able to comment on the improvements for Vista (Luddite tightwad that I am, I'm waiting for other people to knock the lumps out while I stick with Windows XP), but they seem significant. Windows Audio Session API, or WASAPI, is the new audio interface standard for Vista and beyond (with 'beyond' not, apparently, too far off), the main advantage of which seems to be the promise of low‑latency operation for audio devices.
When it comes to getting away from mouse wrist, mouse elbow or mouse shoulder, many of us think of splashing out on hardware control surfaces to allow us to pretend we're in a traditional recording facility, not stuck in front of a monitor and keyboard. But of course a lot of software control can be had by using the computer's keyboard. Years of working with Digidesign's Pro Tools got me into a real keyboard shortcut groove. I've had to learn a new set of shortcuts with Sonar, and I'm pleased to see that version 8 has enhanced the experience further. Navigation, selecting and editing all have new aspects when approached from the PC's keyboard, and especially, in v8, navigating, selecting and editing with the numeric keypad. My personal problem is that my laptop doesn't have a dedicated number pad — but a stand‑alone USB‑equipped number pad is definitely a cheaper option, taking up less desk space, than almost any MIDI hardware controller!
If you do have a control surface, there are enhancements in v8 for you, too. For example, Sonar has two modes of synchronising channel strips between it and the control surface: the control surface can display all channel strips in a project, or just those that are visible (in Track or Console view). Even more useful is that Sonar now displays parameter values for VST plug‑ins, rather than generic values, although there are some cases where this won't occur. Cakewalk say that some VST plug‑ins aren't designed to give up the necessary data for this option to work.
So there we have it. If you're new to all this and just beginning to shop around, you could do worse than start the new year at the top. Sonar is mature, stable and powerful, and the software and its developers don't show signs of running out of steam yet. I don't suppose we'll ever see a Mac‑based Sonar, but if this is the software you want, you could always buy a PC, or use Boot Camp on one of the latest Intel Macs.
Each version, since 4 or 5, has felt complete in itself, with any missing features countered by good value and stability. Such minor irritations as the glitching metronome used to be part of the vibe, and you'd easily work around them. But Cakewalk's team are obviously listening, and their support is very highly regarded and responsive to the software's user base.
The effects processing just gets better, and if Cakewalk ever add audio restoration tools, I'd personally hardly need anything else. I'm into collecting virtual instruments as much as anyone, but I could save myself a lot of Internet time by just using what Cakewalk provide. Dimension Pro does what any number of other ROMpler packages do, but it does it in a very classy and powerful fashion, while Beatscape is a fanastic REX‑playing tool that adds just a few more twists to handling loops. And even if you don't add your own samples or do much programming, Sonar 8 comes with such a large library that you'd hardly need another source of presets. This is bread and butter from an artisanal bakery.
I don't place a great deal of importance on the flashiness of user interfaces: monochrome, colour, 3D, whatever, as long as it works, it's fine by me. But I do know that some users find Sonar a little dull. They're right — it is. But the user interface is also rather elegant, and easy on the eye. Using this kind of software means you'll spend a lot of time staring at your monitor and if it was garish, that would be painful. Besides, there's a place where colours can be customised. I just can't be bothered! Sometimes, I find the display can become a little busy, when a lot of windows are open. But I'm not going to complain about a lack of visual overhaul — I'd much rather concentrate on the fine‑tuning of Sonar's code base and get on with my increased track count. If you're an existing Sonar 7 user wondering whether you can justify paying for the upgrade, the new plug‑ins and the several gigabytes of sound module samples represent a lot of value, but it's what's going on under the hood that'll make a difference to your workflow: this is potentially the most significant update to Sonar for some time.
- Operating system: Windows XP or Vista (32- and 64-bit); can be run on Intel Macs with Boot Camp.
- Processor: Intel Pentium 4 2.8GHz, AMD Athlon XP 2800+ or higher.
- RAM: 1GB or more.
- Display: 1280 x 960, 24-bit colour or higher.
- Hard drive: 30GB for program and content, IDE/Ultra DMA (7200rpm) or SATA.
Boning up on Sonar's development is easy with Sound On Sound's on-line review archive, and don't forget Craig Anderton's regular Sonar technique workshops.
- June 2001: Sonar
- June 2002: Sonar 2
- February 2004: Sonar 3
- January 2005: Sonar 4
- December 2005: Sonar 5
- December 2006: Sonar 6
- December 2007: Sonar 7
As ever, there are innumerable detailed improvements in Sonar 8, some of which already seem indispensable now that I have them. For example, proper rewind and fast forward buttons have now been implemented, and they let you accomplish either task smoothly without interrupting playback. There's also a dedicated audition button (on the transport bar): you can highlight multiple tracks, and non-contiguous audio clips. The transport bar also hosts a dedicated pause button. Scrubbing is also reported to be 'smoother and more responsive', and this certainly seems to be the case.
Multiple audio clips can now be treated as a single unit — and the clips can be audio and/or MIDI. Grouping the clips can be done automatically after recording (say, if you'd just printed multitrack drums), or afterwards. You can, of course, edit a clip that's part of a group, or disable grouping altogether.
There are some editing enhancements. A 'free edit' tool has been added, and the split and mute tools can edit multiple clips at once, as well as clips in groups.
I also can't believe that I never got too bent out of shape by not being able to arm and disarm tracks for recording during playback and recording. I can do it now, with Sonar 8, but have to tell the software that I want to it: there's a box to tick in Record Options, from the Transport menu.
Do you like digital recording, but would rather mix with a genuine hardware mixer? It's now possible to easily assign audio tracks and bus outputs from inside Sonar 8 to mono audio hardware outputs. Another hardware-related improvement now lets you easily include live audio in a real-time 'bounce to track' operation.
I never had too much trouble creating effect send buses, but I welcome the new new 'insert send assistant' which makes it much easier to create effect buses and insert sends. Part of the new window lets you create a stereo or surround bus, and you can select the effect to be linked to the insert in the window as well.
Exclusive solo and solo override have been introduced for the first time, too. The former simply lets you solo one track or bus at a time; all other soloed buses will be muted. And with solo override, a track or bus is set to not mute when another track or buss is soloed.