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Sonar: Integrating External Hardware With Your DAW

Sonar Notes & Techniques By Craig Anderton
Published April 2009

Is it time to lighten the load on your CPU and put that external hardware to work inside your DAW?

This screenshot shows six MIDI tracks assigned to six different parts in the Korg M3. The top track is the instrument's audio output. This screenshot shows six MIDI tracks assigned to six different parts in the Korg M3. The top track is the instrument's audio output.

No matter which DAW software you use, there's always the desire to use it more efficiently and transparently. Those who remember when 'booting up' required simply turning on a tape recorder and mixer have often longed for the same ease of use with computer‑based recording setups.

One option is to integrate external hardware with Sonar, rather than trying to do everything 'in the box.' For example, many newer hardware synths (particularly models from Korg) are designed to function as if they were VST plug‑ins within a DAW such as Sonar, and Cakewalk's upcoming V‑Studio system includes the Fantom VS, a hardware synth built into the V‑Studio's rackmount interface that can act as an external hardware synthesizer and a VST plug‑in within Sonar.

Hardware Advantages & Disadvantages

One advantage of using external hardware is that it's ready to go as soon as you turn it on — especially if you create a startup template that incorporates the synth (we'll cover how to do that in a moment). Any CPU loading is minimal compared to using a software workstation, so if you're a guitarist who plays through amp sims and monitors the computer's output, this is a big deal: musicians can create drum, bass, guitar and keyboard tracks using the multitimbral workstation, yet keep the latency really low for the best feel when playing. Conversely, with software synths, the more parts you create, the harder the computer has to work, and this may require you to increase the latency to prevent audio drop‑outs, which interferes with feel when playing through the computer in real time. Granted, you can 'freeze' tracks with soft synths, but that can add another level of complexity to the recording process.

Another advantage of hardware is being able to count on a fixed number of voices. With a software synth, the number of voices fluctuates depending on what else the computer is doing, how many tracks you've recorded, latency, the phase of the moon, and so on. Although many soft synths are specified as having 'unlimited polyphony', the part of that sentence that usually gets left out is "assuming you have a 16‑core, 32GHz, Freon‑cooled computer with 512GB of RAM.” At least for now, in the real world it's still quite possible to ask a CPU to play more notes than it can handle.

Having said all that, hardware has limitations as well. For example, a synth might offer 128 voices of polyphony but if, say, four sounds are layered on one key, you can only play 32 notes at a time without voice‑stealing. That's quite a lot, but consider what happens in a multitimbral context where you might have, say, eight instruments going at once: now we're down to four notes per instrument if they're all playing at the same time. Unlike soft synths, upgrading your CPU or going multi‑core won't help get you more voices with a hardware synth.

Another significant limitation is that you can instantiate only one 'hardware VSTi' in a project; and if you have multiple projects open in Sonar, only one of those projects can have a hardware VSTi instantiated. This is because we're dealing with hardware: you can't magically multiply one hardware unit to become several hardware units. However, at least with a multitimbral hardware synth you can insert multiple MIDI tracks to play back multiple parts over multiple channels.

Creating A 'Workstation' Template

We'll start by creating a template project with a hardware synth so that it's ready to go as soon as Sonar opens. It might seem logical to create a template with 16 MIDI channels, but consider how many voices your synth can play back and limit the number of channels accordingly. For example, with a 128‑voice synth, my template loads up six channels. This way, I can have a reasonable number of voices allocated to each part. Also note that with some synths you can reserve a certain number of notes for particular parts, to forestall voice‑stealing. For example, reserve two notes for bass and three notes for 'one‑finger' pads that layer multiple voices on one key.

We'll use the Korg M3 as an example, because it's fairly representative of how hardware synths behave as 'VSTi' devices. The upcoming Sonar/Roland Fantom VS works very similarly, except that there's no need for Firewire interfacing because the synth is built into the interface.

The following assumes that you've researched the correct settings in the synth itself (for example, MIDI local control usually needs to be off), and that the synthesizer is communicating with the computer (for example, via Firewire). Furthermore, you'll need to install some type of program that looks like a VST plug‑in to Sonar; in the case of the M3, it's the M3 Plug‑In Editor.

Handling audio interfacing and MIDI depends on how the plug‑in is installed. If you're using an M3, you do not want to enable the M3's Firewire audio drivers when you go Options / Audio in Sonar, nor do you want to include its MIDI drivers under Options / MIDI Devices. This is because the driver handles all communication in the background, so you can use your usual audio interface for monitoring the signal. Now, let's create that template.

1. Boot Sonar. When it's ready, turn on the M3 and wait until it boots completely.

2. Insert the synth by going Insert / Soft Synths / M3 Plug‑In Editor. When the Insert Soft Synth Options dialogue appears, tick MIDI Source, Synth Track Folder, Synth Property Page (so the Editor opens when you insert the instrument), and either First Synth Audio Output or All Synth Audio Outputs. Note that most hardware synths don't have as many individual outputs as soft synths; for example, the M3 offers three stereo output pairs, while the Fantom VS has a stereo out, which requires you to do most of your mixing and effects processing inside the synth.

3. In the synth's main audio track in Sonar, double‑click on the Input field name to open the Plug‑In Editor. With this open, you can receive Banks of Combis, individual Combis, all Programs, and so on. However, if you've opened an existing file, note that the state of the editor will have been preserved when you saved the project and will be recalled when you open the project.

4. If you're creating this template for the first time, assemble your favourite workstation palette of sounds by choosing programs within the M3 Plug‑In Editor. If you call up a program, it will appear at the M3. You don't have to transmit it; this all happens automatically.

5. In Sonar's Track view, insert additional MIDI tracks for the instruments you added (go Insert / MIDI Track, or right‑click on an empty space in the track view and select MIDI Track from the context menu). For example, for six instruments, insert an additional five MIDI tracks to supplement the one that appears when you insert the instrument.

You'll probably want to save this Combi in the M3, so you can call it up at any time. However, you can also save it as a template that shows up as an option when you open a new project in Sonar. To save this project as a template:

1. Go Options / Global and click on the Folders tab. Check where the folder for the Templates lives, because that's where you'll want to save the template file. It will probably be located in C:/Documents and Settings/Administrator/My Documents/Cakewalk/Sonar 8 Producer Edition/Sample Content.

2. Set up your project exactly the way you want it to appear when you call it up.

3. Go File / Save As and under 'Save as Type' choose Template from the drop‑down menu.

4. In the 'Save In' field, navigate to the Templates folder you located in Step 1.

5. Click on Save.

6. Now when you call up Sonar and select 'Create a New Project', the new template will be listed along with any other templates.The template created around the Korg M3 has now been added to the list of templates that appears when I open a new project.The template created around the Korg M3 has now been added to the list of templates that appears when I open a new project.

Incidentally, now might be a good time to clean out your template folder (do you really need the Surround 7.1 template?). Just change the suffix of the templates you don't use from .cwt to something like .ccwt, then they'll be easy to recognise in case you ever want to bring any back. Also, if you put a special character such as an underscore or exclamation mark before the templates you use most, they'll move to the top of the list.

Bouncing With Hardware

A drum track has an External Insert plug‑in inserted. You can also see the MR Editor, which is set to External FX, allowing the effects to be accessed from Sonar. Note the External Insert send, which is going to External FX 1, a Sweet Spot Morphing Processor.A drum track has an External Insert plug‑in inserted. You can also see the MR Editor, which is set to External FX, allowing the effects to be accessed from Sonar. Note the External Insert send, which is going to External FX 1, a Sweet Spot Morphing Processor.

If you've ever processed a track via a hardware effects processor using Sonar's External Insert plug‑in, you've probably found you have to do a real‑time bounce because it's necessary to send audio, in real time, through the insert. Using an external hardware synth as a VSTi works similarly; because it's hardware, you can't do a 'fast bounce'. To bounce a hardware VSTi track, in order to turn it into a hard disk track:

1. In Track View, click on the header or track number for the hardware synth audio track.

2. Control‑click on the header or track number for the MIDI track driving the hardware synth. At this point, only two tracks should be selected.

3. Drag in the timeline across the area you want to bounce.

4. Go Edit / Bounce to Track(s). Set the parameter values as desired, but make sure that Fast Bounce is unticked.

Also note that if you want to bounce a track that's processed through an external Firewire DSP box such as the TC Electronic Powercore or SSL Duende/Duende Mini, you can't do a fast bounce with that either, so make sure Fast Bounce is unticked before bouncing.The two tracks being bounced (Korg M3 synth audio output and bass MIDI track) are circled in purple. The section to be bounced is outlined in green in the timeline; note how Fast Bounce, outlined in red, is not ticked.The two tracks being bounced (Korg M3 synth audio output and bass MIDI track) are circled in purple. The section to be bounced is outlined in green in the timeline; note how Fast Bounce, outlined in red, is not ticked.

As for Track Freeze, generally hardware synths don't get along too well with freezing. It's a better strategy to bounce.

Synth Internal Effects

With a hardware synth, you may or may not be able to create multiple outputs that flow into Sonar. If not, any internal effects assume added relevance, because all instruments may end up at the same stereo output bus. Thus if you want to put different effects on different instruments, you need to do so within the hardware synth. You'll need to study the signal flow carefully to take full advantage of this; many keyboards allow insert effects on individual audio channels, while others have effects 'chains' where you can send signals into various inputs of effects in the chain.

Sonar: Integrating External Hardware With Your DAWIf possible, it's a good idea to build any essential effects into the synth. That way, when you call up the synth you won't have to re‑patch effects into the individual audio outputs, or devise an excessively convoluted track preset. Many of the effects you'd use in a synth, such as delay or chorus, will be good enough that you won't have to use the plug‑ins bundled in Sonar. Of course, you might want to reserve really high‑quality effects, like a CPU‑hungry convolution reverb, for instantiation within Sonar itself.  

Sonar & Steinberg?

The Steinberg MR816 CSX Firewire interface has caused quite a stir with Cubase users, not only because of its audio quality and its Quick Connect feature that makes it easy to assign an input to a track, but also because of its onboard effects, the REV‑X reverb and the Sweet Spot Morphing Processors. The morphing processors are particularly interesting, as they're basically a channel strip with EQ, side‑chain, and dynamics and have a 'sweet spot' knob that varies several parameters simultaneously. In a way, it's like having a rotary switch that selects various presets, except that each preset morphs smoothly into the next.

Why does this matter to Sonar users? Because in addition to being able to serve as an audio interface, the MR816 CSX DSP works very well with Sonar (although, sadly, the Quick Connect feature does not). Here's how to make it happen.

1. Call up the MR Editor and click on Setup. Under MR816 CSX Settings, choose External FX for the 'Digital I/O, External FX' field. Under External FX Type, you have four choices: eight mono or four stereo Sweet Spot processors, or REV‑X with either six mono or three stereo Sweet Spot processors. If you choose a REV‑X option, as you can insert only one REV‑X instance, you'll probably want to insert it in a send bus. Click again on Setup to leave Setup mode.

2. Right‑click in the Effects Bin for the track you want to process, and choose External Insert.

3. In the External Insert's Send drop‑down menu, choose the appropriate External FX. For example, if you chose three stereo Sweet Spot processors with REV‑X, External FX 1‑3 are the Sweet Spot processors, while External FX 4 is the REV‑X.

4. In the External Insert's Return drop‑down menu, select the return for the effect you choose. For example, if you sent the signal to External FX 1, the return would come from Stereo External FX 1.

5. While Sonar is stopped, click on the External Insert's Delay button. This 'pings' the system, to compensate for delays caused by going through the external effect.

6. To edit the Steinberg effects, return to the MR Editor. Click on an effect's 'e' button to bring up the effect's user interface; there's also limited editing in the MR Editor's interface (Drive and Morph for the Sweet Spot processors, and Reverb Time and Reverb Type for the REV‑X).

With the MR816 CSX you can also monitor through the effects while recording, which is very convenient if, for example, your vocalist wants to hear reverb while singing, but you don't want to commit to recording it.

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