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Sonar Notes

Published September 2003
By Craig Anderton

The Markers List and Toolbar.The Markers List and Toolbar.

This month, using markers for navigation, getting the most from the piano roll view, and undertaking pseudo-mastering in Sonar.

Recently I was reading an SOS Cubase Notes column by Mark Wherry in which he discussed using markers in Cubase, and realised that despite their usefulness, this column has never covered the use of markers in Sonar. So let's remedy that oversight immediately.

The main purpose for markers is to simplify navigation around a piece of music, as you can jump to a particular marker without having to set the 'Now' time or use the transport controls. It's important to strike a balance between having too many markers, which can be confusing, and too few, which makes it difficult to go to exactly where you want. Markers can also identify sections of a song, or lock to SMPTE time so that they always indicate a certain position in time, even if the song tempo changes.

Marker Basics

The centre for marker action is the Markers toolbar — go View / Toolbars and tick 'Markers'. The toolbar can be floated or docked, but power users will probably use key commands as often as possible, rather than clicking on the toolbar icons.

To add markers in real time while the tune is playing, press F11 or click on the toolbar's Add Marker icon (the marker symbol with the + sign). You can also go Insert / New Marker, right-click on the ruler and select Insert Marker, or Ctrl-Click on the space above the time ruler, where the markers hang out... but those options seem like more effort. (Note that in the latter two cases, the marker goes not where you clicked, but at the Now Time position when you select Insert Marker.) Markers are placed without regard to the Snap grid, but if you move or copy them, they will snap to the selected grid value.

The Piano Roll editor.The Piano Roll editor.Hitting F11 or selecting the Add Marker icon while the transport is stopped causes a dialogue box to appear, where you can name the marker, choose whether to lock it to SMPTE, adjust its placement, or assign it a pitch to which groove clips will transpose automatically. You can also call up this dialogue box for a previously-placed marker, regardless of whether or not the transport is running, by right-clicking on the marker.

In the accompanying screen, the Markers List is in the background, while the front window shows the Markers toolbar. Selecting a marker from the drop-down list toward the left jumps the Now Time to that point; the icons (from left to right) are 'go to Previous Marker', 'go to Next Marker', 'Add Marker', and 'Open Markers List'.

Now that the markers are placed, it's time for navigation! You can jump around markers in several ways, and all of these are functional while the tune is playing:

  • Click on the toolbar's Next Marker or Previous Marker icon.
  • Use the menu — Go / Previous Marker or Go / Next Marker.
  • Use Sonar's key equivalents (Previous Marker = Ctrl+Shift+Page Up, Next Marker = Ctrl+Shift+Page Down).
  • Use the Key Bindings function (under the Options menu) to assign what I think are more logical equivalents: Previous Marker = Shift+F11, Next Marker = Shift+F12.
  • Select a marker from the drop-down list toward the left of the markers toolbar.

If you hit F5 twice, a Markers View appears, showing not just the markers you placed, but also default markers for beginning, end, punch in, punch out, loop start, loop end, etc. To jump to one of these markers, double-click on the desired marker, then click on OK when the 'Go' box appears.

One final marker feature is the Markers List. This manages markers and compiles a list of all the markers you've created. Here you can delete or add markers (the Add Marker dialogue box comes up when you click on the New Marker icon), or lock a marker or group of markers by clicking on the Lock icon. It's also possible to print this list, which doesn't seem terribly useful for music, but would be great for documenting where sound effects fall in an audio-for-video project.

In addition to navigation, markers serve one other purpose: clicking between any two markers in the strip just above the timeline causes them to define a time range. You can, of course, also set this to loop by clicking on the Set Loop to Selection icon.

Sonar Shorts

  • To select all notes of a particular pitch in the piano roll view, click on the corresponding keyboard key toward the left of the window.
  • If any MIDI notes are stuck, go Transport / Reset or hit the Reset icon (exclamation mark) on the Transport toolbar.
  • Bundle files (.cwb suffix) are limited to 2GB due to limitations in the Windows operating system. To back up a project with more than 2GB of data, place all audio data in a per-project audio folder and back that up.
  • Networked with a Mac? Although Sonar can import AIFF files, you can also just drag them into the Clips pane.

Secrets Of The Piano Roll

Features with a lot of power can be confusing if not fully understood. An example of such a feature is the way in which Cakewalk lets you see as many or as few MIDI tracks as you want, simultaneously, within a single Piano Roll view. Actually, this is one of the reasons I use Sonar — MIDI remains a big part of what I do, and I like this sort of 'big MIDI workspace' approach.

The piano roll view is nothing really new: it has the usual piano keys for pitch reference, the grid for lining up notes, and a controller strip along the bottom for viewing velocity, pitch bend, modulation, and so on. The unusual aspect is the Track Pane strip toward the left, which lists each selected track and has selection boxes for Show/Hide Track and Enable/Disable Editing. Additional buttons let you enable Solo, Mute, and Record from within the piano roll view.

As I mentioned earlier, the piano roll view can show multiple tracks simultaneously; the Track Pane strip toward the right-hand side lets you choose which tracks to show or hide, and which will be affected by editing operations. Additional icons provide shortcuts for showing all tracks, hiding all tracks, and inverting tracks (ie. showing ones that are hidden, and hiding ones that are showing).

To see multiple tracks, select them in the Track View (Ctrl-click on the Track numbers you want to select) and go View / Piano roll or type Alt-5. If you simply double-click on a clip (and Piano Roll is selected in the Track View Options as the default result of double-clicking), only that clip will appear in the piano roll view.

Now you can choose which tracks to work on and view. Click on a coloured Show/Hide box to hide a track's notes and controllers, and click on the same box when white to view the track again. The box to the right of the Show/Hide box controls whether editing operations are enabled or not. When this is grey, editing operations will not affect the associated track; when it's white, they will.

I find the ability to choose to view multiple tracks and edit only selected ones particularly handy with drum parts, as despite the fact that Sonar has a dedicated drum editing view, I still record each drum on its own MIDI track. Being able to see as many or as few as I want in the piano roll view is great: for example, I can see the kick, snare, and hi-hat simultaneously, but quantise only the kick, or lag only the snare... or quantise pairs of tracks. It's also convenient to be able to see kick and bass, left and right hands of a split keyboard part, or particular combinations of guitar strings with a MIDI guitar part, together at the same time

There are a few fine points to bear in mind involving the piano roll screen. The scrubbing function (check it out if you haven't discovered it yet) works only with tracks that are both shown and enabled for editing. If you disable a track or hide it, it will not be scrubbed. Also, you may recall from an earlier Sonar Notes column that there's a difference between the active track with the focus (the background of the Track View track name is tan) and a selected track (the background of the Track View track number is blue). When showing multiple tracks in the piano roll view, if you hide the active track no editing is possible.

I'd also like to draw your attention to four useful shortcut icons, as mentioned briefly above. The seventh icon from the right (with the arrow that points left) shows/hides the piano roll's Track Pane. The icon to its right shows all tracks, and the next icon to the right hides all tracks. Continuing to the right, the Invert Tracks icon hides all tracks that are shown and shows all tracks that are hidden. This is useful when you're alternating your edits between two groups of tracks — for example, kick/snare/hats and high/mid/low toms.

Ask Mr Science!

"I've been working with Cakewalk software since Pro Audio 9 and on to Sonar, and everything is recorded just as I want, with perfect reproduction. But on playback, it just does not sound the same as recordings I hear on, radio, CDs, etc. — something is missing. I define what I hear from radio or from commercial quality CDs as more 'polished' — a sound that has depth without reverb, presence without volume, solid bass and treble without having to adjust the tone controls...can you help? Thanks, Tom"

The Sonar mastering processors.The Sonar mastering processors.The issue here is mastering, which we discussed a bit in my fifth Sonar Notes column, back in May 2002. I can't distill mastering down to a paragraph (although I did distill it down to a book, Audio Mastering, in Wizoo's QuickStart series), but in most cases you will add a bit of EQ and compression, in that order, to even out the frequency response and dynamic range of your track.

Inserting EQ and compression in the stereo master buss can make your tunes sound a bit more like commercial releases. The Timeworks Equaliser has a convenient spectrum analyser view superimposed on the response curve; it can monitor the signal entering or exiting the EQ, so you can see the results of any changes. Use very light amounts of EQ and compression to start, as these processes have more apparent effect on programme material than on individual tracks.

If you have Sonar 2.x XL, it includes two fine mastering plug-ins, the Timeworks Equaliser (as mentioned above) and Timeworks CompressorX. Insert these in the FX bin for the master stereo buss. Regarding the EQ, I often add a little bit of high-end shelving boost starting at around 2-5kHz, and a bit of mid-range cut in the 300-450Hz range. Sometimes a slight boost at around 100Hz can make a kick-shy tune more dancefloor friendly, while a cut can reduce muddiness, if that's a problem.

The CompressorX has two mastering-orientated presets that serve as good points of departure. But note that professional mastering almost always uses multi-band compression and/or loudness maximisers to get that obscenely loud CD effect, where dynamic range is squashed faster than a cockroach at a fancy restaurant. Still, some standard compression can give a little more of the sound you want.

Adding these effects in the master buss doesn't substitute for a 'real' mastering job, but it will help bring your tune a little more into line with what you're hearing on commercial releases.

Published September 2003