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Cakewalk Sonar 8.5

DAW Software For Windows By Craig Anderton
Published January 2010

It's not touted as version 9, but the list of improvements certainly makes this year's upgrade to Cakewalk's Sonar DAW a big deal.

The Matrix view is being used to test out different combinations of loops to see what works well together. Note how loops triggered in the Matrix view can be recorded (in real time, as you work in the Matrix view) into the Track view as Groove Clips.

Like clockwork, every AES Convention brought a new version of Sonar Producer Edition and Sonar Studio Edition. So, of course, Sonarians were expecting that version 9.0 would appear at the 2009 AES, with the usual upgrade price from whatever version they were using.

But Cakewalk threw a curveball, instead introducing a 'point' upgrade at a reduced price ($99 for 8.0 owners). Some Cakewalk fans felt betrayed, but cooler heads prevailed once people realised that they were getting serious value for money. Other Sonar users scratched their heads, feeling that the new version justified a 9.0 designation and wondering why Cakewalk didn't just call it 9.0. Well, if Propellerheads could name Reason after a program in a Douglas Adams book, then maybe some Fellini fan at Cakewalk really liked the movie 8½ and thought it would make a good name for a software update.

Anyway, in retrospect, its release toward the end of September was perhaps premature; there were some issues with the AudioSnap update, and the Matrix View — while a highly valuable addition — needed some useability tweaks. In typical Cakewalk fashion, they were quick out of the gate with version 8.5.1 to address several small fixes. That was followed up by 8.5.2, which added a considerable number of useful features to the Matrix View. The result is a mature version of Sonar 8.5 that greatly expands on version 8.0.

Prior Art

We've already done three Sonar workshops on new features in 8.5: the PX64 'drum strip' (October 2009: /sos/oct09/articles/sonarworkshop_1009.htm), VX64 'vocal strip' (November 2009: /sos/nov09/articles/sonarworkshop_1109.htm), and Matrix View loop‑based sequencing window (December 2009: /sos/dec09/articles/sonarworkshop_1209.htm). While they are not reviews per se, these articles should still give you a good idea of what these features do. I wouldn't consider PX64 or VX64 some kind of spectacular breakthrough, because with enough work you could string together existing processors to provide much (but not all) of their functionality. However, having everything ready to go in a single, optimised plug‑in is extremely convenient, and the effects have a few tricks up their sleeves — I particularly like transient shaping in PX64 and the doubling in VX64. PX64 has some seriously useful applications for bass as well, whether electric, acoustic or synthesized.

However, the Matrix view has undergone several improvements since I wrote last month's workshop on it. For my playing style, the most welcome addition is the ability to record solos and mutes along with track data when recording to the Track view. Clicking on mute and solo doesn't sync to the trigger resolution: they respond instantly. I find that very handy, because I can bring in a loop a 16th‑note or so early to preface the downbeat (Novation's Launchpad works fabulously as a controller for this sort of thing). However, neither of these buttons can receive MIDI commands, so you can't trigger solos or mutes with external controller buttons — a shortcoming that I hope will be addressed in a future update. I'd also like the ability to delete multiple cells simultaneously, as it's tedious to do so one at a time.

Accessibility is improved, with a set of key commands for when the header has focus, the most important being 'trigger column'. But there are additional commands to simplify navigating around the Matrix, and some new cell shortcuts too. While the Matrix view was a major addition in 8.5, the updates in 8.5.2 make working with it much more fluid.

Further Effects

This screen shows the PX64 Percussion Strip, VX64 Vocal Strip, and two of the Project5 effects added to 8.5 (Stereo/Tempo Delay and Alias Factor).

All of the effects from Project5 have now been folded into 8.5: Alias Factor (a decimator module, which Sonar never had before), Phaser, Exciter, Mod Filter, Multivoice Chorus/Flanger, two‑band Parametric EQ, Stereo Compressor/Gate, Stereo/Tempo Delay, and the Studioverb 2 synthetic reverb.

Although the functionality of some of these is duplicated by existing Sonar effects, the character is not. As a Project5 owner, these plug‑ins were accessible to me in Sonar and I reached for them surprisingly often (especially the Stereo/Tempo Delay, which always seemed fantastic for dance track rhythmic echoes). In a way, this collection is like adding a bunch of guitar stomp‑box effects to the existing 'rack' processors, and helps round out the overall roster.

Session Drummer 3

Session Drummer is now split into two views: drum kit and mixer. Both have detailed graphics, which are nice from an eye‑candy point of view, but take up quite a bit of real estate. The mixer part gets it right graphically, though. Also note that you can now load 12 drums per kit instead of SD2's 10, and have 12 separate stereo outputs. It doesn't seem that SD2 and SD3 files are compatible, so you'll probably want to leave SD2 installed on your computer.

The major bonus for Session Drummer 3 is more content, with more drums, more patterns and more variety on offer. Using SD3 is now more 'plug‑and‑play' if you need to get going quickly, although, of course, you can still roll your own kits and patterns.

Native REX File Import

This is a big one: when you bring a REX file into Sonar, it magically transforms into a Groove Clip, with stretching transient markers translated from the REX format to the Acidised format. You can drag and drop REX files from the desktop, the Matrix view, whatever. There's no need for a REX player, although you can still use Sonar's existing REX file players if you want to be able to do tricks like processing slices. Sadly, though, there's still no support for Apple Loops.

This native import is an excellent implementation, which anyone who uses REX files will appreciate. As a matter of fact, I find myself using REX files more often because it's just so easy to do now. (There is one limitation: this feature is not yet supported under 64‑bit operating systems, because it is dependent on Propellerhead releasing x64 libraries.)

DC Dangers Avoided

In previous columns, I've mentioned Sonar's moves toward being a mastering program, and 8.5 adds another step: the ability to monitor DC offset in real time via the Analyst plug‑in. This is useful to throw on the master bus to check for DC offset on the stereo out, but I also use it to look at the outputs of soft synths where I transpose samples over a wide range, as some of the signal can be transposed down into the 'fluctuating DC' range. You don't realise how important an addition this can be until you find that one track that's compromising not only your output levels, but also the accurate operation of any dynamics control devices in the master output bus.

Faster Working

One of my favourite operational improvements is that plug‑in GUIs now include a Solo button, so while you tweak an effect, you can solo the track or bus with that effect and then, with one mouse click, un‑solo and check it in context with the track. And as someone who uses the Archive track feature quite a bit, it's very convenient to have a dedicated button for this in the Track view (in each track header). It's next to the Freeze button, so it's easy to save CPU power by freezing a track, or RAM by temporarily archiving unneeded tracks.

Sonar also implements scroll lock in the Clips pane, so if desired, you can keep the Clips pane from scrolling horizontally during playback. This is essential for detailed editing of small sections, where you don't want the playback cursor to fly past the section of interest. Other programs provide this option too, but I like Sonar's implementation: if scroll lock is enabled, clicking on any clip locks the scroll, but clicking in the background releases the lock. This has already proven its value for me when working on crossfades and other editing operations.

Another seemingly small change with big results is being able to grab the playback cursor during playback and drag it anywhere you want on the timeline. Previously, you had to stop playback first.

Also welcome is that the annoying need to restart Sonar after changing Firewire or USB I/O devices is no longer an issue. Sonar automatically reacts to any changes, and gives you the option to confirm or cancel. Nice.

AudioSnap 2

AudioSnap 2 is a major improvement on the original, both under the hood and also in the streamlined user interface.

And finally, AudioSnap 2: the process Sonar users love to hate. Seriously, Sonar's drum fixing tool stumbled when first introduced, although a subsequent update addressed most issues. However, one of the biggest problems with AudioSnap is 'pilot error': some Sonar users don't realise that when you listen to an AudioSnap clip while editing, you're listening to a lo‑fi preview mode. You need to render the file, using one of the excellent built‑in iZotope algorithms, to get full fidelity.

Still, AudioSnap has never felt particularly elegant — but the new version is a major improvement. You don't have to enable AudioSnap on a clip; you can jump right into editing. Identifying transients is easier and faster, the palette is a lot cleaner, it's easy to quantise or snap transients in multitrack drum parts, and so on. One could argue that AudioSnap should have done all these things in the first place, but in any event, AudioSnap 2 realises the potential of the original AudioSnap concept.

All Worth While?

With the exception of the new effects (Vocal Strip, Percussion Strip, and all those Project5 effects) and the outstanding Matrix view, Sonar 8.5 concentrates on improvements and 'next generation' versions of existing features. But some of these are very significant, especially native import of REX files, Step Sequencer 2, and AudioSnap 2. Of course, there are also lots of small tweaks. Some provide better ways to do a common task, such as being able to solo a track from within a plug‑in, while others are more like fixes. However, anyone hoping for an update to Sonar's notation capabilities won't find it.

It's also important to remember that if you're still using Sonar 8.0, the free 8.3.1 update added lots of tweaks and fixes, such as multiple split options, more content (classic drum kits for Session Drummer, classic synth sounds for Dimension Pro), and the like. These changes are, of course, folded into 8.5 too.

Given the low upgrade price, even if only a few of the enhancements are important for what you do, you still come out ahead. I would consider the Matrix view, VX64, PX64 and native REX file import alone to be worth much more the upgrade cost. When you throw in all the other updates, 8.5 adds not only highly useful functionality, but undeniable value.  

MIDI Improvements

Every MIDI track now has a built‑in arpeggiator. This one is set up to create acoustic guitar strumming effects.

If the previous limitation of 64 MIDI ports wasn't enough, now you can address 256 of them, which should keep you busy for a while. What's more, Sonar 8.5 now integrates an arpeggiator into every MIDI and instrument track. This is different from the MIDI plug‑in arpeggiator, as it has a lot more patterns and some additional parameters, but lacks the plug‑in's chord recognition features. Arpeggiators are always fun, but in this case, having one within the track saves a lot of time when coming up with 'patterned', tempo‑sync'ed parts.

But the big MIDI update is Step Sequencer 2.0. For starters, it doesn't have to be tied to drum maps; you can send any row to any soft synth. Each step shows a representation of the velocity value, which you can change by Shift‑dragging (although, unfortunately, you can't see velocity value as you drag). Another major improvement is that 'style' controls such as swing, flam and duration now operate on individual rows rather than globally — although you can also now edit multiple rows simultaneously. And if you're into using the Media Browser for locating loops and MIDI files, you'll now find Step Sequencer patterns represented there too (along with Project5 patterns and REX loops). Perhaps more importantly, you can preview multiple files in different folders. This is great for giving an idea of what parts and loops will work well together.

Overall, the step sequencer has graduated from being a way to make drum parts quickly to being something more akin to a control centre for spitting out MIDI data to sequenced parts — and it's also easier to program and use.

BitBridge & The 64‑bit OS

BitBridge was introduced when Sonar went to 64‑bit compatibility, so that 'classic' 32‑bit plug‑ins could be used within a 64‑bit 'x64' OS. The updated BitBridge XR automatically provides up to 32 BitBridge services, each of which can use up to 4GB of RAM. This allows for a total of 128GB of RAM access from 32‑bit plug‑ins, which is good news for those who use virtual instruments (like some samplers) that store their samples in memory rather than streaming from disk. BitBridge is of importance only if you run the 64‑bit version of Sonar, but with 64‑bit computing starting to gain serious traction, this kind of feature will be important during the transition from 32‑bit to 64‑bit machines.


  • Seamless, native REX file import.
  • Matrix view allows improvisational loop‑based recording.
  • VX64 vocal strip and PX64 percussion strip are very useful.
  • Project5 effects are a welcome addition.
  • Significant AudioSnap and Step Sequencer improvements.
  • Integrated MIDI track arpeggiator.


  • Matrix view needs additional refinement.
  • No Apple Loops support.
  • Notation facilities remain basic.


The 8.5 upgrade to Sonar 8 is much more significant than a 'point' maintenance update. The Matrix view adds Ableton Live‑like capabilities, and looping fans will find seamless REX file import that converts REX files into Acidised clips. Additional effects, especially the vocal and percussion strips, provide many more processing options and the integrated per‑track MIDI arpeggator is convenient and fun. Fold in major improvements to AudioSnap, the Step Sequencer, and Session Drummer 3 — coupled with a lower‑than‑usual upgrade price — and version 8.5 will appeal to any serious Sonar user.


Producer Edition £435; Studio Edition £265; upgrades from v8 £99 (Producer) or £89 (Studio). Prices include VAT.

Edirol Europe +44 (0)20 8747 5949.

Producer Edition $499; Studio Edition $299; upgrades from v8 $99 (Producer) or $79 (Studio).

Cakewalk +1 617 423 9004.

Test Spec

  • Cakewalk Sonar v8.5.2.
  • PC Audio Labs desktop computer with dual quad‑core 3GHz Intel Xeon (eight cores total), 3.25GB of RAM, Matrox Parhelia APVe triple‑head graphics card and terabyte RAID array, running Windows XP SP3, with Cakewalk By Roland VS700R audio interface and VS700C control surface.

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