Cakewalk's V‑Studio 700 system offers audio interfacing and very tight integration with the company's own Sonar software, via the impressive V-Studio Console. So is it every Sonar user's dream setup?
After Roland acquired a majority stake in Cakewalk in early 2008, they jointly created a new 'Cakewalk by Roland' brand, and the Sonar V‑Studio 700 is the first major product to be released under this banner. It's certainly a mighty ambitious inaugural project, and somewhat unusual.
Most control surfaces that are tightly integrated with a particular sequencer application tend to be sold to existing users of that sequencer. With the V‑Studio 700, you not only get the VS700C console/control surface and a separate VS700R audio interface supporting up to 19 inputs and 24 outputs, which itself incorporates a Roland Fantom VS hardware synthesizer, but also Cakewalk's Sonar Producer 8, and the full version of their Rapture wavetable soft synth.
So who is the V‑Studio 700 targeted at? Well, Cakewalk and Roland have aimed it at the "modern music producer, film composer, or post-production professional”, and describe it as "the ultimate solution for hip‑hop and electronica”. Let's see how it pans out in practice.
The entire system is certainly most impressive in its grey and silver livery, but the Console, in particular, looks gorgeous, with its comprehensive array of front‑panel faders, rotary knobs, contrasting blue LCD displays and host of illuminated buttons. Its Jog/Shuttle/Cursor controls will be familiar to Roland V‑Studio owners, but the surround joystick and, especially, the T‑Bar section, reminiscent of Star Trek's transporter, combine to give an excellent first impression. The V‑Studio 700 will most certainly enhance the reputation of Cakewalk's Sonar application worldwide!
At 28.75 inches wide, 17 inches from front to back, and five inches high, the Console is also a big beast, yet despite its large number of controls Roland and Cakewalk have managed to make it very approachable, by carefully grouping controls into four fairly obvious areas, with sufficient space between to avoid a cramped feeling. These are the Channel Strips, the Channel Strip Controls, the Access Panel, and the various global controls in charge of transport, jog/shuttle, surround and monitoring.
By contrast, the rear panel is a model of simplicity, with a single LCD contrast knob, on/off switch and four sockets. Two are for optional footswitches usually used to control Play and Record, while the other two are labelled I/O and USB. Normally, you connect the supplied multi‑pin cable between the Console and I/O box, then connect the I/O box via USB to your PC, running on Windows XP or Vista 32‑bit or 64‑bit. However, the Console can also be used in stand-alone mode, connected directly to your PC via its own USB cable. While I was testing the V-Studio, the Console could not be bought separately, but literally as we went to press we heard that Cakewalk had changed their minds about this, due to customer demand.
The biggest front-panel area is the central part devoted to the eight Channel Strips, each one featuring a rotary encoder, Mute, Solo, Arm and Select buttons, a five‑segment LED level meter, and a 100mm touch‑sensitive motorised fader. A ninth fader, by default, controls the level of the master channel, but can be assigned to any other stereo or surround bus in Sonar.
However, the Channel Strips are more versatile than they first appear to be. They can either control up to eight tracks, buses or main outputs, depending on which of the three Fader View buttons you press, and (via the Channel Branch mode) fader 1 can control the volume of one track while faders 2-8 control the associated sends for that track. Clever stuff!
Another very neat feature is that you can lock any combination of Channel Strips using the Shift and Select buttons, so that they remain on view while you select different tracks for the remainder with the Fader Bank buttons. You could, for instance, use this feature to always have the lead vocal track visible while you scroll through the other tracks in your song, or keep your drums and vocals buses permanently on view while tweaking the guitar. Sonar displays locked strips in a different outline colour in its Track and Console views, to help you keep tabs on them.
Above the channel strips is a two‑line LCD display that shows the track/bus/main output name and the value of the parameter currently assigned to the rotary encoder, as determined by the Assign button. For instance, while the default track assignment is a Pan control, you can change this to Send 1 volume, or use it to change the Input or Output routing. Another neat feature is the Flip button, which temporarily swaps the function of the rotary encoders and faders — ideal if you want precise fader control over your pan setting.
Channel Strip Controls
Whatever group of channels the Strips are currently in charge of, clicking on one of their Select buttons brings the Channel Strip Controls into play. These take the form of four columns, each consisting of three rotary encoders and one button, situated at the top left of the console. These controls have three modes: EQ, Send and ACT. The last is Sonar's Active Controller Technology, which lets you control a selected soft synth or plug‑in effect.
In EQ mode, when you click on a channel strip's Select button the 12 rotary encoders become Gain, Frequency, and Q controls for Sonar's four‑band EQ, while the buttons switch each band on and off. The two‑line LCD above these controls displays parameter names and values, one row at a time, so you can view the four frequency settings, or four Q values, and so on. In Send mode, the encoders are in charge of four send levels, their pan settings, pre/post switching (this time you press on the knob to toggle its status) and send enable.
In ACT mode, you just open a soft synth or plug‑in in Sonar and for a moment its name will appear in the LCD display, followed by the current names and values of some of its parameters, depending on which row is on display. Since there can be more than 16 parameters in synths and plug‑ins, the console also has page left and right buttons, so you can step through up to 64 parameters over four pages. ACT works very well, although it does take a little practice before you get used to how the knobs are mapped across various pages to the many on‑screen controls of complex plug‑ins and soft synths.
Access Panel & Global Controls
At the bottom left, the Access Panel provides eight View buttons that normally open, close, or select various Sonar windows, and being able to launch the Console, Synth Rack, Piano Roll editor, Transport section and so on from here is a real time saver. The next group of eight buttons control Utility functions such as Fade, Cut, Paste and Freeze, while the bottom four are Shift, Ctrl, Alt and Command modifiers that provide alternate functions for many Console controls.
One of the many strengths of the VS700 Console is that these are only default settings, and you can assign your own functions to these buttons. If you're an audio‑only person, the Synth Rack button could, for example, be assigned to one of several hundred other Sonar commands, and up to 65 sets of button assignments can be saved. Even the footswitches can be programmed to taste.
There's quite an assortment of controls on the right‑hand side of the Console. Across the bottom are the illuminated buttons of the transport section, with a jog/shuttle wheel section that lets you navigate through your songs, and can also be switched to scroll through tracks, select sections of them or perform simple edits. The four cursor buttons that surround it act in exactly the same way as those on your PC keyboard, letting you move around Sonar's Track View, or zoom in and out vertically and horizontally in conjunction with the console Shift, Command and Ctrl buttons. I was pleased to find the cursor repeat function that lets you get quickly from A to B in your song, even in large projects.
The Record/Edit section allows you to insert markers, enable or disable looping, and punch record, and there's even a Project section with Save, Undo, Enter and Cancel buttons. After a little practice, there's almost no need to use your mouse, which is, after all, the main reason for buying a control surface in the first place!
The final section contains the surround panning section (with a joystick that can also be used to move windows around on screen), the multi-function T‑Bar, and LED readouts of timecode and position. There are also several handy analogue audio controls whose signals are ferried to and from the I/O box. You get two headphone outputs with their own level controls, control room monitor level, and a very handy unbalanced aux input on the front of the Console, with its own gain control and a high‑impedance option for your guitar. Unfortunately, this audio I/O relies on the multi-pin connection between Console and I/O box, so those buying the Console separately will lose these functions.
However, in this section the T‑Bar is the real star of the show, offering some really useful functions. Its X‑Ray mode lets the bar alter the transparency of all open plug‑in and soft synth windows, beaming them in and out on the screen in Star Trek style, which is great when you need to see the windows beneath them but without de-selecting a plug‑in. In ACT mode, you can assign the T-Bar to a plug‑in for finer control of one of its parameters, and in FR Bal mode it's in charge of front/rear balance for surround. In Video Ctrl mode you can even make the T‑Bar, along with the console's transport, jog/shuttle, record/edit controls, and five of the motorised faders, control video hardware such as Edirol's DV7 or other V‑Link compatible devices.
Overall, the VS700C has a most impressive catalogue of features, and it even does Mackie Control emulation, so you can use it to a more limited extent with other audio software. However, the important thing for any control surface is how it feels in practice. I found that the rotary encoders and motorised faders offered a smooth but positive feel, while the buttons all provided a positive click, and the T‑Bar action felt lovely. With my niggly hat on, I wasn't so keen on the surround joystick, which was too easy to move for my liking, making it difficult to manage subtle adjustments, and the jog wheel had a distinct wobble. However, on a unit offering this many features that's precious little to grumble about!
I was most impressed with the V‑Studio — it's a serious product, with a serious price tag to match. You get a comprehensive and sophisticated control surface, an extremely capable and excellent‑sounding audio interface, and one of Roland's very popular Fantom hardware synths.
In Europe, you can buy the V‑Studio with or without Sonar Producer 8 (a difference of £200), but in the US Sonar always comes as part of the package, although there's a $200 rebate for anyone who already owns it, which is roughly the upgrade price from Sonar 7 Producer to Sonar 8 Producer. However, with what is essentially three products rolled into one, it's awfully difficult to please all of the people all of the time. Moreover, while the Fantom VS is undoubtedly an excellent synth, the combined interface/synth does account for half of the total cost of the V‑Studio. Indeed, some may question the point of including a hardware synth in the package at all, however good it is, now that such hugely powerful PCs that can run nearly everything one wants in software are available at attractive prices. Others might say that a raft of high-quality DSP effects would have been a more useful alternative.
As I say, it's difficult to please all of the people all of the time. I suspect in the US, where Sonar is already so widely used and musicians still seem to have more disposable income, the V‑Studio bundle may well be a popular choice. It should also appeal to professional musicians who were about to upgrade their studio gear and who are therefore in the market to upgrade their existing audio interfaces. Elsewhere, it may face a rockier ride, since the price tag for the system makes it a serious investment, but it will nevertheless be drooled over by a host of Sonar users. Now that Cakewalk have decided to make the Console available separately, of course, those users who already have audio interfacing, and a smaller budget, will be able to add this tightly integrated control surface to their Sonar setup more easily.
As the V‑Studio is so closely associated with Sonar, it has few direct competitors. Existing Sonar users could buy various other control surfaces and a host of other audio interfaces, but none would offer the tight integration and extra hardware that the Studio VS700 offers. If you're in the market for an entirely new system in one package, investigating Digidesign's Pro Tools could be an option, although this is DSP‑based and is likely to cost significantly more.
The VS700R Audio Interface
Tthe USB 2.0 audio interface bundled with the V‑Studio is available separately, either to provide I/O expansion for the V‑Studio or as a stand-alone package for use with other sequencers. It also incorporates Roland's Fantom VS hardware synth. Here's a quick rundown of its features:
- Analogue Inputs: eight balanced/unbalanced on both TRS jack and XLR sockets, with mic preamp, phantom power, 20dB pad and digital compressor. One aux in (unbalanced jack on Console) with high-impedance option for electric guitar or bass.
- Analogue Outputs: 10 balanced/unbalanced on TRS jacks; balanced stereo Main out on XLR; stereo Sub out on unbalanced jack; two stereo headphone outputs (unbalanced jacks on Console).
- Digital I/O: digital input 1 (AES/EBU on XLR or S/PDIF on phono); digital output 1 (AES/EBU and S/PDIF coaxial); digital in/out 2 (ADAT optical); MIDI In/Out; BNC word-clock In/Out.
- Sample rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 and 192kHz.
While the I/O box is awash with rear panel socketry, its front panel is more restrained, featuring just a rotary knob to select sample rate, the on/off switch, and a set of LED meters displaying MIDI, Digital I/O, Main and Sub activity, and the nine input levels. Although nine inputs might seem limiting to some users, the ADAT I/O lets you add eight more via a suitable expansion box such as Behringer's ADA8000 or one of the Focusrite OctoPre series. Another alternative for those with larger budgets would be to buy another VS‑700R unit to double up on everything (and of course you'd get a second Fantom VS synth).
I experienced no problems running the ASIO drivers right down to the lowest setting of 96 samples (2.18ms at 44.1kHz), and was impressed that Roland had declared the total output latency accurately at 3.18ms, as confirmed by the CEntrance Latency Test Utility. Some competitors fail to mention the tiny extra buffers that are used to ensure smooth playback.
Measured with the Rightmark Audio Analyzer, the frequency response was essentially flat between about 8Hz and 20kHz with a 44.1kHz sample rate, although I didn't measure any extension at higher sample rates. Background noise levels were slightly disappointing at 101dBA, but distortion levels were very low, down to 0.002 percent. However, it's the subjective audio results that really count, and these weren't at all disappointing.
The clean‑sounding VS7000R preamps are identical to those of Roland's M400 V‑Mixing System. Their controls and those of the built‑in compressor functions are accessed via the VS700R I/O Editor software, which is available both from within Sonar and in a stand-alone version for use with other audio applications.
My usual hardware comparator tests showed that the VS700R was no slouch in the audio department. It eclipsed my benchmark Emu 1820M, providing greater focus and front-to-back depth, so I wheeled in my Lavry DA10 DAC to give it a much bigger challenge. This time the Lavry won the match with its more open and airy soundstage, making the VS700R stereo image sound slightly constricted in both width and depth. I would judge that overall this places the VS700R roughly on a par with very well-respected interfaces such as the TC Konnekt and Focusrite Saffire series.
I had just two niggles with the VS700R. First, I wasn't too happy to hear the tiny but constant whine of a cooling fan inside the unit. Second, offering eight mic preamps but then placing all the input sockets on the rear panel of a rackmount unit won't please everybody.
Roland Fantom VS Synth
The VS700R incorporates a Fantom VS hardware synthesizer, based on Roland's newest sound chip. Compared with the Fantom G series keyboards reviewed in SOS January 2009, the VS offers 128MB instead of 256MB of sampled waveforms, and has a little less processing power, resulting in a reduced number of simultaneous effects. It nevertheless offers the same maximum polyphony of 128 voices, up to 16 multi‑timbral parts, and up to three simultaneous multi‑effects chosen from a massive list of 78, as well as offering separate chorus and a classy‑sounding reverb. You can also fit one of Roland's latest 'synth on a card' ARX Expansion Boards into the I/O box to further expand your sound palette.
The Fantom VS Editor looks almost identical to the standalone software editor of the Fantom G keyboards, but this time runs as a VST Instrument from within Sonar or indeed any other VST‑compatible host application. Essentially it's just a graphic interface, while the hardware synth it controls runs entirely within the I/O box, offering zero latency, no CPU overheads, and guaranteed polyphony, and its final stereo output (and that of any ARX board if fitted) simply appears on the Main stereo audio output from the VS‑700R.
While a 128MB ROM sounds tiny compared with the today's multi‑gigabyte computer‑based sample libraries, and the single stereo output prevents you adding plug‑in effects to individual Fantom VS sounds, Roland have always been well‑respected for their sounds, and these don't disappoint. The 1400 patches include acoustic and electric instruments galore, orchestral selections, synths, voices, drums and lots more, together covering a large amount of sonic ground with finesse, leaving your PC processor to concentrate on more unusual sounds.
- V‑Studio VS700 including Sonar Producer 8 software, £3999$4195.V‑Studio VS700 without Sonar Producer 8 software, £3799.
- V‑Studio VS700R Interface, £1849$1995. VS700C price, TBA.
- Console offers tight integration with Sonar, includes many in‑depth editing functions, and is highly configurable.
- The I/O box offers excellent audio quality.
- Fantom VS hardware synth provides zero latency, no CPU overheads and guaranteed polyphony.
- Convenient aux input on Console, with Hi‑Z guitar option (only when used with I/O box).
- Pro-active driver development has already resulted in various additional features.
- Whole system will be beyond the finances of many Sonar users, particularly in the UK where the weak pound pushes its price up.
- Not every prospective user will find the Fantom VS Synth essential.
- Mic inputs are all on the rear panel of the interface unit.
- The I/O unit incorporates a cooling fan.
The Sonar V‑Studio is an extremely professional all‑in‑one system that lifts Sonar into a different league. It will undoubtedly appeal to many music professionals looking for an all‑in‑one package, but the price tag for the whole system will place it beyond the reach of some existing Sonar users. However, it's great news that Cakewalk have decided to make the console available separately.
Edirol Europe +44 (0)20 8747 5949.
Cakewalk +1 617 423 9004.
- Cakewalk/Roland V‑Studio VS700 version 1.1, Sonar Producer version 188.8.131.527
- Hardware: PC with Intel Conroe E6600 2.4GHz dual‑core processor, 2GB DDR2 RAM, and Windows XP with Service Pack 2.