Get creative with sends and buses in Sonar X3.
Although track features usually get the lion's share of interest in any DAW, we shouldn't forget about buses. This month, we'll be taking a look at some tricks involving buses that will help make them even more productive citizens of your Sonar world.
One situation in which they can be very useful is if you need to chain EQs. When mastering, for example, or if you're trying to make a humbucker guitar pickup sound more like a single-coil, four bands of EQ usually aren't enough. Furthermore, Sonar's brickwall filter stops at 48dB per octave, and you might want an even steeper 96dB-per-octave curve. Fortunately, because Sonar's ProChannel exists in both tracks and buses, sending a track to a bus lets you obtain two ProChannel EQs in series.
My typical mastering process is to bounce all my tracks to a single track, solo the track containing the final mix, and then assign its output to the Master bus. Next, I call up Console view (which provides the most efficient visual environment for the following process), and position the track with the final mix and the master bus next to each other. With their ProChannels flown out, I then slide the strip for the assigned final hardware master output to the right of the track and bus strips.
Now it's time to start working on the EQ. Here are some items of interest about this setup:
- The main output level on the right should stay below 0, and its fader should be at 0.0. The master bus fader should also be at 0.0.
- The Concrete Limiter is there more to trap transients than anything else, but does give about 3dB of 'maximisation'. It's preceded by the PC4K S-Type bus compressor, which provides a very subtle amount of 'glue' compression.
- If you want to push the level going into the compressor, do so with the level fader on the final mix track. To push the level going into the Concrete Limiter, turn up the Compressor's Make Up control.
- If you want to use a multiband maximiser in the Master bus effects bin, instead of the non-multiband Concrete Limiter, remember that the ProChannel should be pre-FX Bin (the default), not post-FX Bin.
- If having the EQs at unequal heights bothers you visually, insert bypassed ProChannel modules below the EQ in the final mix track so that the two EQs are at the same height.
- Of course there are no rules, but I don't recommend 'doubling up' Console Emulators. Insert a Console Emulator Channel in the master bus, but not in the track with the final mix.
- To bypass all effects, press the QWERTY keyboard's E key and you can compare the 'mastered' and 'unmastered' sound.
The technique of bypassing the effects brings up the possiblity of another interesting trick. Note the Tube module inserted in the master bus's ProChannel. This can usefully provide level balancing, for comparing your mastered and unmastered versions, which can be very helpful in evaluating the effectiveness of your tweaks. To set this up:
- Press E so that all the effects are bypassed. Note that the bypass button colours on the individual ProChannel effects won't change; only the master bypass button for the entire module indicates that the effects are bypassed.
- Double-click on the peak reading below the meter on your final output stage strip (the one on the extreme right) to reset it.
- Play the mix and note the peak reading attained by the master strip meter.
- Press E again, so that all the effects are active.
- Enable the Tube module. Make sure the Input control is centred, and the Drive control is all the way down.
- Run the mix again. Adjust the Tube output control so the master strip meter shows the same maximum peak level as when the effects were bypassed. This balances the peak levels between the mastered and unmastered versions by reducing the level of the version with the mastering effects.
It would be even better if you could choose between balancing the average or peak levels, but as peaks are often what matter in today's singles-oriented world, this gives a reasonable degree of level-matching. When all your effects are exactly as desired, remove the Tube module, verify the final audio levels with the mastering effects active, then bounce or export the final mix.
If you want to bounce the mix with your mastering processes applied, make sure that only the track with the entire mix is selected. In the Bounce to Track dialogue box, choose Main Outputs as the source category. I generally like to choose Audible Bounce so I can hear the mastered mix one last time and make sure it's correct.
Note that if you bounce the mix to another track instead of exporting it, type E before listening to it to make sure you're hearing the mix without the master effects.
Although Sonar defaults to showing just one send in a channel's Console strip and in the Inspector's Track properties, you can show two sends instead. In Console view, choose Options / Sends / Send Display / 2. For the Inspector, choose Display / Module Options / Sends / Send Display / 2.
However, this brings up a semi-related point: having different setups in the Console and Inspector can often be helpful. For example, I usually want to see multiple sends in the Console for tasks like adjusting reverb on various tracks. In this instance, being able to see two sends in the Inspector is far less useful, so under the Inspector Display option I untick Sends / Bank / Patch. This opens up room to choose the Inspector's Module Options / FX / Show Assignable Controls, which I don't show on the Console because I tend to adjust effects controls on a track-by-track basis. Furthermore, until the mastering process I often don't show the FX Bins, ProChannel, or I/O in the Console; these are again modules that I tend to edit for individual channels, making them ideal to show in the Inspector. With this type of approach, the Console becomes like an old-school console for gain, sends, mixing, and automation, while the Inspector becomes much more of a detailed editing tool.
If you have a project with a lot of sends and you want to see as many of them as possible, Track View is the answer. But first, it's best to create a custom track pane view. Click on the track control button that selects the different views, then choose Track Control Manager from the drop-down menu. Click on New, and create a view called 'Sends' or 'Sends + Buses', depending on which you enable. For the Audio Strip widgets, untick everything except Aux, Out (if you want to see buses too), and maybe one more option, like MSR. Note that you need at least one widget selected other than just Aux, so that the track header sits on top of the bus strip rather than to the side — if it's on the side, you can't see as many buses at once. Now, in Track View, widen the track pane until you see the desired number of sends.
You can add widgets other than MSR, like Volume, Edit Filter, or whatever, but that makes for a pretty cluttered view. If all you want to do is adjust sends, keep it simple.
I'll leave you with two simple tips. To make it easier to find and identify which bus a track is assigned to, click on a track or console channel's colour strip, then click on Follow Bus. Whatever colour you select for that bus will now be adopted by all tracks connected to that bus. I find this useful primarily for drums and harmony vocals, which almost always go to buses. Be aware that this applies only to buses, not to sends (even though, technically, they are indeed buses).
Finally, when you insert an effect with a side-chain input (such as a compressor), Sonar will automatically create a bus that terminates in the side-chain input. Calling up the Insert Send menu for a track then adds all the side-chain inputs to the list of existing sends, making it easy to use one track to trigger the dynamic processing on another, for example.