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Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

Music Production Software For Windows
By Sam Inglis

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

As well as improving Sonar itself, Cakewalk have brought in some heavy-hitting third-party content. Does X3 have what it takes to tempt buyers away from other recording software?

SOS readers sometimes ask why we rarely print comparative reviews of products. In the case of modern digital audio workstation software, the reasons are many. For one thing, these programs are highly complex, and covering all the features of just one of them is a challenge, even in a lengthy review. For another, every user employs their DAW software in a different way, and the factors that might be crucial for me could be trivial for you. And for another, most DAWs are now so highly evolved that the differences lie less in what features are available than in how they're implemented. As a result, once an individual user becomes comfortable with one DAW, it's not easy for that person to evaluate fairly the workings of a new and unfamiliar program.

With these caveats in mind, though, I hope there is still something to be gained by reviewing a DAW from the perspective of a new user, because that's exactly what I'll be doing in this article. I've used several other DAWs in the past: mostly Cubase and Pro Tools, but also Samplitude, Reaperand Studio One on occasion. Several versions of Sonar have made it onto my hard drive at one time or another, but I've never done more than fire it up, stare at the welcome screen with a heavy heart, and close it again. With the launch of X3, it was clearly time I educated myself in the ways of Sonar.

Triple X

Whereas the majority of today's DAWs are available on both Mac and PC, Sonar has always been a Windows-only package. That hasn't changed in X3, but Cakewalk have engaged in something of a rethink of the product range. They are keen to emphasise that the most affordable edition, which is called plain Sonar X3, is not in any way a crippled or 'lite' version of the program. A pedant could argue that this isn't quite true, as the base version does not include surround support, AudioSnap, the Pro Channel or SMPTE/MTC synchronisation, but it does mean that there are no restrictions on the numbers of audio and MIDI tracks, buses or VST plug-in slots in any version of X3. It also means that all improvements to the core program made in X3 apply across the board. These include support for the VST3 plug-in standard, integrated cloud backup to Gobbler and a new and more sophisticated approach to compiling edited performances from multiple takes.

If you choose to invest in the more expensive Studio or Producer Edition of X3 instead, your extra outlay buys additional content. Cakewalk have followed Presonus in adding support for the Audio Random Access (ARA) offline plug-in standard. There is, as far as I'm aware, only one client application that can take advantage of this, but it's a biggie: Celemony's Melodyne, widely acknowledged as the best tool available for manipulating pitch and timing within recorded audio performances. If you want access to the jaw-dropping polyphonic editing in the flagship version of Melodyne, you'll need to buy it separately, but for conventional vocal work, Sonar X3 Studio and Producer ship with the very capable Melodyne Essential. Studio and Producer owners also get the Blue Tubes FX suite from Nomad Factory, a bundle of no fewer than 20 effects and processing plug-ins, to add to the many existing plug-ins bundled with previous Sonars.

Tone2's BiFilter is an excellent emulation of an analogue filter.Tone2's BiFilter is an excellent emulation of an analogue filter.

As well as supporting VST2, VST3, ARA and DirectX, X3's mixer can also host processing modules in Cakewalk's own Pro Channel format. The Studio Edition includes two such modules — the Softube Saturation Knob and the QuadCurve EQ — while the Producer Edition boasts eight, including a new tape emulator. Finally, the Producer Edition also boastssome very impressive overseas signings in the virtual instrument department. These include special versions of AAS's Lounge Lizard and Strum Acoustic, and perhaps best of all, the full version of XLN Audio's excellent Addictive Drums.

Testing Testing

One feature of Sonar that's always been popular is its use of a simple serial-number-based authorisation system. Cakewalk have never resorted to a hardware dongle, and that hasn't changed in X3. With so much licensed content included, however, installing the Producer Edition is a bit cumbersome. Once you've handed over your virtual cash, you receive a list of serial numbers, and although the X3 installer covers many of the bundled plug-ins, Melodyne and Addictive Drums need to be installed separately. The latter, moreover, absolutely requires that your studio computer be connected to the Internet.

With that hurdle out of the way, you can fire up X3, which happens with impressive speed. Like other DAWs, Sonar needs to scan your system for plug-ins before it can use them, but X3 now has the ability to do this unobtrusively in the background, so you can start work straight away (as long as you don't need to use Zzzz Labs' Zzedelator Pro to do what you want, I suppose). A friendly quick-start window allows you to open recent projects or start a new one, with a variety of templates available.

At this point the new user can just dive in, or you could consult X3's voluminous documentation. As well as built-in Help, tooltips, a Quick Start guide, a Readme file, online support, a user forum and various videos and blogs, there's also a truly gargantuan PDF Reference Guide. The Contents alone take up 52 pages; following this, there's a snappy 120 pages or so of tutorials, then the manual proper, followed by another 500 or so pages which list every menu command and what it does. It's all well written, nicely broken down into bite-sized chunks, and undeniably comprehensive. It is, in other words, about as user-friendly as a 2094-page document could be expected to be — and therein lies the rub. Simply navigating such a huge manual is a challenge, and actually tracking down the information you need can quickly bring to mind parallels involving needles and haystacks. The sheer size of the thing is a significant impediment to learning X3, and I hope Cakewalk will consider rewriting it on a more compact scale.

Sky Scraping

Sonar X3's user interface, dubbed Skylight, remains substantially the same as it was in X1 and X2, though one development worthy of note is the use of 'toast notifications'. Wherever possible, Cakewalk have tried to replace disruptive Windows-style alerts with clear yet easily ignorable pop-up information boxes. These attract your attention but don't need to be dismissed, so don't interrupt your working, which helps you keep your focus on the music.

By default, the X3 user interface is divided into five main regions, though these can be moved about and hidden as you see fit. Across the top runs a melange of toolbars, transport controls and other global settings. Beneath that is the main business area, which shows audio and MIDI recordings as horizontal bars spread out along tracks in the conventional way. Unlike some DAWs, though, Sonar enforces a rigorous apartheid between tracks and buses; the latter have their own dedicated sections of the arrange panel and the mixer, and can't be intermingled with audio or MIDI tracks.

To the left of the arrange panel is the track inspector. Like that in recent versions of Logic, it typically shows settings both for the selected track or bus, and for whatever bus its output is routed to. This is a really useful arrangement, allowing you to easily keep tabs on, say, a snare drum track and the drum bus it's feeding at the same time. A corresponding panel on the right-hand side of the screen houses a browser, which can be used to organise and import anything from effects presets to sampled loops. Finally, the bottom-most area of the screen houses something called the Multidock, home to such fundamentals as the Console (mixer), piano-roll editor, sample editor and so on, which appear in tabbed pages when more than one of them is open.

The Nomad Factory Blue Tubes FX suite, bundled with X3 Producer and Studio, contains no fewer than 20 plug-ins!The Nomad Factory Blue Tubes FX suite, bundled with X3 Producer and Studio, contains no fewer than 20 plug-ins!

The Skylight interface is clearly the product of a great deal of thought, and positively drips with nice touches. One such which is new in X3 is that tracks can be made to inherit the colour of whatever bus they are routed to. In a conventional rock mix where you have all your drums, guitars, backing vocals and so on feeding separate buses, this makes it a matter of moments to assign a logical colour scheme to everything. The track inspector is very nicely implemented, and provides such comprehensive and clear information on the selected track that there's often no need to open the Console even when mixing.

In fact, from a user-interface point of view, most of my reservations about X3 concern the Console. The first of these is that it doesn't make terribly good use of space. Although I was working with a reasonably large monitor, I found it frustrating trying to work with the Console docked, even when the Multidock was enlarged to take up much of the screen. Happily, the Multidock and hence the Console can be floated, but even then, I found it rather frustrating to work with. For one thing, as you drag the floating Multidock about, it keeps trying to dock itself in places where no-one would reasonably want their mixer to be docked, and you have to remember to hold down the Ctrl key to stop this. And despite its mammoth size, the Console can only display a maximum of three inserts and two sends per track at any one time — you can add more, but if you do, their presence is indicated only by a tiny arrow which is very easy to overlook. Likewise, each channel has a power switch showing you whether the Pro Channel is switched on, but unless you fold it out, there's no way to tell which Pro Channel modules are active, if any. And once you do fold out the Pro Channel, it can easily grow so huge that you need to scroll vertically to view all the modules. All in all, once you have more than a handful of tracks in a project, it gets difficult to maintain a complete overview of everything that's going on in the Console. I don't have space for a second monitor in my own room, but I think X3 would benefit more than most DAWs from having a separate screen for the mixer.

Trebles All Round

A mixer-related development in X3 is the ability to host plug-ins in the VST3 format. The breadth of Sonar's plug-in support was already second-to-none, and the addition of VST3 compatibility widens the net still further, allowing you to employ your '90s favourites alongside the latest 64-bit VST3 effects. The only restriction I'm aware of is that the 'bit bridge' in the 64-bit version of Sonar X3 can handle 32-bit VST plug-ins but not DirectX ones. VST3 support in the initial X3 and X3a releases was buggy, sometimes failing to reload plug-in settings along with a project, but this was fixed in the X3b updatein October 2013, and after that worked fine in my tests. Where VST2 and VST3 versions of the same plug-in are detected, moreover, X3 will transparently substitute the latter in old projects.

The Pro Channel lets you edit and view multiple processors across multiple mixer channels simultaneously. New in X3 Producer are the tape emulator (lower left) and the 'flyout' interface for the equaliser.The Pro Channel lets you edit and view multiple processors across multiple mixer channels simultaneously. New in X3 Producer are the tape emulator (lower left) and the 'flyout' interface for the equaliser.

As yet, however, none of X3's own plug-ins have been recompiled in VST3 format. This isn't a problem, exactly, since the VST2 and DirectX versions work perfectly well, but it does highlight the rambling nature of the bundled plug-in suite. The need to retain compatibility with older projects means that, especially in the Producer Edition, X3 brings with it a cloud of effects and processors in every format under the sun, and in a variety of GUI styles which reflect their origins as third-party plug-ins from different developers. Many of the bundled plug-ins overlap in function, and if you want to use a simple compressor or EQ, say, it's not obvious which should be your first port of call. I wonder if it might be time to relegate some of the older plug-ins to legacy status, whereby they get installed only if long-term users specifically need them. This might also help alleviate the endless scrolling through menus that will be the lot of anyone with many VSTs installed in their system.

Though the plug-in table was already groaning, moreover, Cakewalk have heaped more tasty dishes onto it in X3. Buyers of the Producer Edition get Tone2's BiFilter, which is one of the most convincing analogue filter emulations I've heard. It provides multiple flavours of both filtering and distortion, and has applications well outside the usual filter sweeps. For example, set up as an all-pass filter with a touch of distortion, it can help vocals to cut through a mix without making them sound noticeably crunchy, and it can also generate some interesting delay and pseudo-reverb effects. It sounds great, though there are no built-in modulation sources, so any motion in the sound has to be achieved through automation.

Both Studio and Producer, meanwhile, now incorporate the Nomad Factory Blue Tubes FX suite. These are well-established plug-ins in their own right, with aloyal and dedicated following, and although I can't claim to have tested all 20 of them to destruction, I was impressed by the ones I tried. Analog Trackbox is a well-featured channel strip that provides some very nice 'one stop' processing for vocals and other instruments, while Oilcan Echo is a welcome emulation of a rather neglected vintage delay effect. The suite also includes reverb, two limiters, a chorus and phaser, a tempo delay, a stereo widener and a valve emulation. And six EQ plug-ins. They're all nice, but most of them already had close counterparts in X2's plug-in suite, so I can imagine that some upgrading users might wish that Cakewalk had expended their resources on improving some other area of the program instead.

Dyning Out

If there's one plug-in-related development in X3 that will be universally welcomed, it's the addition of built-in support for Celemony's Melodyne through the ARA (Audio Random Access) protocol. This was first implemented in version 2.0 of Presonus's rival Studio One DAW, and it works in almost exactly the same way here, replacing the Roland V-Vocal process that was included in older versions of the program. One nice feature of its implementation here is that it operates on individual regions or clips rather than on entire files. The analysis procedure that Melodyne (and comparable functions in other DAWs) uses to prepare audio for pitch manipulation tends to change the way that the audio sounds, even before any pitch correction is applied, so the ability to isolate a problem area as a clip within X3's editing area and analyse only that clip makes working with Melodyne both faster and more transparent. 

Editing an audio clip with Melodyne is as simple as right-clicking it and choosing Region FX / Melodyne from the contextual menu. Once the analysis is complete, the familiar Melodyne editing window opens within the Multidock, and you can get to work. As in Studio One, it's so much easier and more reliable than attempting to run Melodyne as a real-time plug-in, or exporting files to the stand-alone version for editing. And as in Studio One, X3's Melodyne integration comes with the neat bonus of almost instant audio-to-MIDI conversion: simply drag an audio clip onto a MIDI track. ARA-based Melodyne integration is a killer feature, and one which would absolutely make me choose Sonar X3 over a non-ARA-equipped DAW for any project where a lot of pitch correction was likely to be on the agenda.

Melodyne integration is a great feature. Here, the vocal clip selected in the main edit window is being edited in Melodyne Editor, which appears within the Multidock.Melodyne integration is a great feature. Here, the vocal clip selected in the main edit window is being edited in Melodyne Editor, which appears within the Multidock.

Going Pro

Earlier on in this review, I mentioned some frustrations that attend X3's Console, of which only being able to view three insert slots at once is not the least. Increasingly, however, it is becoming possible to mix an X3 project without using these insert slots. For one thing, there is a reasonably sophisticated system of clip-based effects, allowing you to attach plug-in processing to clips within the edit page rather than their mixer channels. This is not yet as comprehensive as in Magix's Samplitude, but has many uses. For example, suppose your vocal track is blighted by occasional plosive pops and bursts of sibilance. Rather than use automated EQ in the mixer to tackle them, it's often easier to isolate the offending areas as separate clips and apply a suitable clip effect, perhaps in conjunction withclip-based level automation.

Those mixing in X3 Producer, moreover, can bring to bear the full resources of the Pro Channel in addition to its vast array of bundled VST plug-ins. These resources consist at present of an EQ and compressor, tape and tube emulation, the Softube Saturation Knob, a simple but effective algorithmic reverb, and a console emulator; there are also some extra modules available as payable options. The tape emulator is new in X3, and although it doesn't drip authenticity in quite the same way as Slate Digital's VTM, it definitely adds a pleasing thickness and midrange punch to whatever you run through it. The tube emulation achieves similar results, the compressor performs a more than serviceable impression of a Urei 1176, and the equaliser is a lot more versatile than it appears at first. All that's missing, to my mind, is a de-esser. A new feature in X3 is the ability to 'fly out' the EQ's editing screen as a separate window. With its colourful click-and-drag interface and built-in spectrum analyser, this window is very reminiscent of FabFilter's excellent Pro-Q, and all the better for that.

Active modules in the Pro Channel appear in a vertical column either in the track inspector or in the Console — which, if you use more than three or four modules, won't fit in its entirety and needs to be scrolled using the mouse wheel. Pro Channel modules can be set into any order by dragging and dropping, and what's more, VST plug-ins can be dragged into the Pro Channel. Doing so creates a Sonar FX Chain — a container for one or more plug-ins which can be stored as a preset with all their parameters — at the given position.

Though I was initially sceptical about the worth of yet another plug-in format, the Pro Channel quickly became my favourite feature of X3 Producer. It lets you very easily put in place the staple processes that are the bread and butter of any rock or pop mix, and unlike conventional plug-ins, makes it easy to see and adjust multiple processes on multiple channels at once. On a conventional monitor screen, you can easily view half a dozen mixer channels with expanded Pro Channels simultaneously, which is perfect for tackling a drum kit or a wall of guitars.

In fact, having mixed with the full Pro Channel as supplied in X3 Producer, I'd be loath to downgrade to either of the other X3s. The base edition doesn't include the Pro Channel at all, and although Studio owners do now get a Pro Channel, it includes only the equaliser (in its older, non-flyable-outable version) and the Softube Saturation Knob, which was the one module that struck me as completely useless! The point of the Pro Channel is lost without the dynamics and tape/tube emulation, so it's a shame there's no way for X3 and X3 Studio owners to upgrade just this part of the program. As supplied with X3 Producer, by contrast, I'd be very happy indeed to rely on the Pro Channel for four-fifths of my mix processing, only resorting to VST plug-ins for special effects or where more control is required.

Comp Together

As luck would have it, the first couple of projects I attempted to do in X3 involved a fair amount of audio editing, and it took me a while to get my head round the way it works. Editing is carried out using a Smart Tool which changes function depending on whereabouts in a region it's clicked, or using a dedicated Edit Tool and the modifier keys, or by positioning the playback cursor and pressing 'S' to split. Of the other DAWs I've used, X3's audio editing most closely resembles that in Reaper, but it has plenty of idiosyncrasies of its own. For example, you can't simply create a crossfade between two adjacent clips. Instead, you have to enable automatic crossfading, then adjust the clip boundaries so that they overlap.

Coming from Pro Tools and Cubase, I also found X3's approach to grouping took some getting used to. A preference lets you choose whether the clips created in a multitrack recording should be grouped by default or not. You can group ungrouped clips by selecting them all, right-clicking and choosing 'Create selection group from clips', but at present it's not possible to assign a keyboard shortcut to this (Cakewalk told me they are looking into this). Most editing actions affect only clips that are selected, which is fine except that even when you have made a selection group out of multiple clips, their bonding can be a bit ephemeral. If you want your action to apply across the group, you need to explicitly click in the header part of one of the grouped clips to make sure that all of its members are selected and highlighted. If, on the other hand, you click and drag on an unselected clip to trim it, none of its compadres will follow suit unless they're already selected.

One of the most common, and tedious, tasks for which audio editing is necessary is that of compiling a vocal or instrumental performance from multiple takes, and all three versions of Sonar X3 benefit from a new and powerful toolkit for achieving this. As in most DAWs, overlapping or simultaneous clips on an X3 audio track can be displayed in lanes. When you hover the Smart Tool over the lower half of a clip on a take lane, it changes into a Comp Tool which can be clicked and dragged to 'swipe' a section of the clip. Doing so divides all the takes at the same points, promotes the particular section you've swiped to the 'master' comp lane on the track itself, and moves the playback head to the point where you clicked. If you want to hear an alternative take for that section, just click on it; and if you swipe to create a longer section, X3 will automatically 'heal' any cuts created by previous swipe operations. What's more, pressing Shift+Space enters a new Audition mode which automatically solos the track you're comping, engages loop playback, and allows you to use the cursor keys to quickly audition alternative takes for that section (up/down) or the sections immediately before or after it (left/right). I'd have liked the option to use Audition mode without soloing the track; you can engage Dim Solo if you still want to hear other tracks at a reduced level, but the minimum attenuation setting is 6dB.

Comping in X3. Hitting Shift Space enters Audition mode, where the cursor keys can be used to navigate and audition sections of clips within the take lanes.Comping in X3. Hitting Shift Space enters Audition mode, where the cursor keys can be used to navigate and audition sections of clips within the take lanes.

Most DAWs now have editing tools specifically targeted at comping, and X3's implementation feels generally mature and well thought-out. I succeeded in tripping it up on occasion, mainly when working with grouped clips across multiple tracks, but overall it does an excellent job of taking the donkey work out of comping and allowing you to focus on the musical performance rather than the nuts and bolts of crossfades and so on.

As is always the case with DAW upgrades, there are also many smaller improvements in X3. One which caught my eye is that, if you're running Windows 8 on a device with a touchscreen, Sonar X3 permits multi-touch control of many parameters. I'm still running Windows 7 on a conventional monitor, so couldn't test this, but it's nice to see a DAW developer integrating multi-touch directly rather than relegating it to a separate iPad control app. On the down side, I should mention that although X3 worked perfectly with a Roland Studio Capture interface I had for review, I experienced unexplained CPU spikes and glitching with my own Focusrite Saffire Pro 40. Other DAWs work fine on the same setup, so the reasons for this remain mysterious!

The X Factor

It's less than three years since Cakewalk swept aside the old Sonar range with X1, a back-to-basics rethink of DAW look and feel. Yet even so, X3 already feels like a fully mature application. It has its own ways of doing many things that took me a while to get used to, but ultimately, I've been able to complete the projects I started in Sonar without too much frustration, and there will certainly be features I missnext time I fire up another DAW. Chief among these, for me, is the Pro Channel in the Producer Edition; its palette of analogue-style processors won't suit every task, but for rock and pop mixing, it's brilliant. It's a shame that X3 and X3 Studio users can't upgrade this aspect to full Producer spec, as for me, it feels like a core feature in the way that bundled virtual instruments do not.

The Melodyne integration will be a powerful attraction to users of rival DAWs as well as existing Sonar fans, and the addition of Addictive Drums, the Nomad Factory bundle, BiFilter, Strum Acoustic and Lounge Lizard Session means that X3 Producer buyers get a huge amount of top-quality bundled content for their money. The flip side is that many core areas of the program, such as MIDI editing and notation, haven't changed at all in X3. Cakewalk's developers haven't emphasised innovation in the way that Steinberg have with advanced Cubase features like VST Expression and the Chord Track, but I think that the VST3 support and new comping functionality alone will be reason enough for most existing users to upgrade, even if the bundled extras don't appeal.

X3's announcement coincided with the news that Cakewalk have left the Roland empire for pastures new. The company has been bought by guitar giants Gibson, who will soon be distributing Sonar through their Tascam Professional arm. As users of Opcode's lamented Studio Vision will know, Gibson haven't always succeeded in making their technology acquisitions work, so some Sonar users might be understandably anxious about what the future holds. But while nothing can ever be certain, there are good reasons to believe that the Gibson acquisition will prove more of a cause for excitement than concern. Not least of these is the fact that it has taken place under the watchful eye of Gibson's 'Chief Magic Officer': one Craig Anderton, Sonar expert and author of many an SOS workshop. Over the last few years, Gibson's guitar catalogue has embraced digital technology as never before, and I hope and expect that innovation will thrive in their new DAW arm. Cakewalk's development team have certainly been busy during the review period, and by the time this review went to press, had already published three fairly major patches.

Ultimately, then, speculation about the future should not distract us from the fact that there's a great deal to like about Sonar X3 just as it is. It's comprehensively featured, friendly to use and versatile, and best of all, in its restructured line-up, provides real competition with Reaper and Studio One for the title of Best Value DAW.

Ahead In The Cloud

The last few years have seen many areas of computing embrace data storage and backup on remote servers. There are still obvious reasons why you probably wouldn’t want to record and stream multitrack audio projects to and from cloud-based storage, but it’s certainly becoming a valuable resource for backup and for transferring projects to other users. As well as the many generic data transfer and storage options available, there’s also one that’s designed specifically for working with DAWs: Gobbler. Sonar X3 follows Avid’s Pro Tools 11 in integrating Gobbler support, so that you can back up and transfer projects from within X3. Once you’ve signed up for an account — which is pain, and gives you 5GB of cloud-based storage for nowt — you can visit the dedicated Gobbler section of the X3 toolbar, which lets you send a project to another user or engage auto-backup on a per-project basis. Automated backup happens in the background and is intelligently halted when Sonar needs to do something more important such as play back a complicated project!

A Different Drum

It’s not only in the realms of effects and processing that X3 users are amply supplied with plug-in options. There’s also a large collection of virtual instruments; and here, too, ancient legacy plug-ins rub shoulders with more recent additions, offering several different ways of arriving at similar destinations. In previous versions of Producer, rhythmic itches were scratched mainly by Cakewalk’s own Session Drummer. A little like Steinberg’s Groove Agent or the new Drummer plug-in in Apple’s Logic Pro X, this provides both drum sounds and the means of generating reasonably convincing MIDI drum parts. As of X3, however, Session Drummer is no longer top dog — unless you have X3 Studio, in which case it’s a welcome new inclusion.

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

That’s because of the headline addition to X3 Producer’s line-up of virtual instruments: the full version of XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums. I reviewed this when it came out back in 2007 www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul07/articles/addictivedrums.htm and, although much has changed in the world of computers and plug-ins since then, it’s still a superb instrument. The compactness of its sample library is arguably less of a selling point than it was six years ago — but then again perhaps not, for those of us willing to trade the massive size of today’s hard drives for the speed and silence of solid-state drives. Since its launch it has become a widespread tool among music professionals looking for a virtual drum kit that’s simple to use, versatile and sounds great, and can be heard on innumerable hit records. Its inclusion here is a major coup for Cakewalk.

AAS Plug-ins

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

The Producer instrument arsenal is completed by two plug-ins from Applied Acoustic Systems. Their Lounge Lizard electric piano modelling plug-in has been around for more than 10 years now, and has received numerous updates in that time. The Session version included here offers a relatively restricted set of editing parameters, but this is sufficient to cover a pretty wide range of classic Rhodes piano sounds. I’ve always felt that the Rhodes is an instrument which really benefits from the physical modelling approach, as it takes a lot of multisampling to recreate the same smooth dynamic transitions in a sampled version. Lounge Lizard Session is a joy to play and creates a great sound without needing gigabytes of sample data to do so.

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

Strum Acoustic Session, meanwhile, applies AAS’s physical modelling expertise to nylon- and steel-strung acoustic guitars. Its most interesting and useful feature is the way in which it tries to generate convincing guitar playing styles from simple keyboard parts. For example, if you hold down an F-major triad on your keyboard, Strum Acoustic will not only recognise it as an F-major chord, but will translate it into a voicing that a guitarist might use. This takes much of the donkey work out of attempting to recreate a rhythm guitar part in software, though a fair bit of tweaking is often necessary to fine-tune the results. These can be surprisingly acceptable in context. I’d hazard that the majority of X3 users either play guitar well enough not to need Strum Acoustic Session, or know someone else who does, but if not, it’s certainly a welcome addition to the fold.

Pros

  • Melodyne integration is a huge step forward for anyone working with vocal recordings.
  • The Pro Channel in X3 Producer is great.
  • Impressive new additions in the plug-in department, most notably the full version of Addictive Drums.
  • With the addition of VST3 support, Sonar offers wider plug-in compatibility than almost any other DAW.
  • Well thought-out new comping functions.
  • Unobtrusive copy protection.
  • Good value, with no restriction on track or bus count even in the basic X3 version.

Cons

  • Both the documentation and the bundled plug-in collection are getting a bit out of control.
  • The Console can only display three insert slots and two sends per channel, and is generally pretty unwieldy.
  • X3 users don't get the Pro Channel, and X3 Studio users miss out on many of its features.

Summary

The X3 update further refines an already comprehensive DAW package, and adds some seriously tempting third-party plug-ins.

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer £385$499

pros

  • Melodyne integration is a huge step forward for anyone working with vocal recordings.
  • The Pro Channel in X3 Producer is great.
  • Impressive new additions in the plug-in department, most notably the full version of Addictive Drums.
  • With the addition of VST3 support, Sonar offers wider plug-in compatibility than almost any other DAW.
  • Well thought-out new comping functions.
  • Unobtrusive copy protection.
  • Good value, with no restriction on track or bus count even in the basic X3 version.

cons

  • Both the documentation and the bundled plug-in collection are getting a bit out of control.
  • The Console can only display three insert slots and two sends per channel, and is generally pretty unwieldy.
  • X3 users don't get the Pro Channel, and X3 Studio users miss out on many of its features.

summary

The X3 update further refines an already comprehensive DAW package, and adds some seriously tempting third-party plug-ins.

Test Spec

Sonar X3a, b and c.

PC with 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 CPU and 8GB RAM, running Windows 7 Home Premium SP1, with Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 and Roland Studio Capture interfaces.

Published January 2014