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Speed Up Your Sonar Workflow

Sonar Tips & Techniques
By Craig Anderton

Note how in this series of drum tracks, track 10 stands out thanks to its increased track colour saturation and brightness.Note how in this series of drum tracks, track 10 stands out thanks to its increased track colour saturation and brightness.

Quicken your Sonar workflow with these top tips!

The creative process demands efficiency, so anything that speeds up tracking, editing and mixing will provide a smoother creative flow — and might make the difference between catching an inspiration or losing it. Fortunately Sonar has several time-saving features, and there are also Windows techniques that can help speed up your workflow. Here are some of my favouritesfavorites.

Visual Aids

Track Icons: I initially thought these were a gimmick, but find they allow identifying tracks really easily, particularly in Console view. You can use the BMP image format or, since the September 2015 ‘Ipswich’ update, also PNG images. Although Cakewalk recommend a 96x96 pixel size (probably because it’s a 2:1 ratio of the default large icon size), while in other places they’ve said 128x128 is preferred, but it seems track icons scale automatically anyway, so if you navigate to any PNG or BMP picture in the browser and drag it anywhere into a track, it will become a track icon. (Of course, scaling down large pictures may lead to something that looks fairly abstract!)

Saturate a console track colour: I’ll often have several tracks with the same instrument, eg. multiple vocal, drum, or guitar tracks. Generally these are the same colour, but if I want one to stand out — for example, the main vocal or guitar part, or the one currently being edited — I’ll click on the Track Color band, click on ‘Other’, enter 240 for Saturation and 120 for Luminance, then click OK. This makes the colour for the selected track easier to find in a sea of tracks.

Quantise MIDI effects: There’s no need to agonise over choosing the right MIDI track quantisation — to keep the creative juices flowing, drop in the Quantize MIDI effect for temporary, non-destructive quantisation. You can always tweak the quantisation destructively when you get into the editing phase.

Mix Recall: Immediately after opening a project where you’ve started setting up levels for mixing, save a Mix Recall scene. They take up very little space, and you never know when you’ll want to get back to your starting point. Think of it as insurance!

Screensets: This is a feature you might dismiss until it becomes part of your workflow. I’ve locked about half of the screensets as permanent views (eg. for tracking, mixing, editing or loop construction), with the other half used as needed — for example when going between an overview, and a zoomed-in individual track for easy editing.

Smart Swipe: This recent addition to Sonar’s bag of tricks is wonderful. For most track and console parameters (record enable, solo, mute, track selection, and so on), you can click on one button, and then while holding the mouse button down, drag across consecutive buttons to enable or disable them. If you change your mind, while still holding the mouse button down, you can simply swipe back to where you started. (Unfortunately, Smart Swipe doesn’t work with touch.)

The Smart Swipe function lets you solo multiple tracks at once by clicking and dragging across the solo button for those tracks.The Smart Swipe function lets you solo multiple tracks at once by clicking and dragging across the solo button for those tracks.

Quick Group additions: Quick Grouping has always been a very helpful feature when you want to adjust a parameter across multiple modules. For example, hold Control while adjusting a Console Emulator’s Drive control to adjust all Console Emulator Drive controls simultaneously in all selected tracks. Recent updates let you Quick Group the processes of inserting effects into the FX Bin (ideal for adding something like tape or console emulation) or freezing multiple selected tracks at once. Selecting all tracks you want to freeze allows for what is essentially global freezing, and you can also unfreeze all of them with Quick Grouping.

Record straight from the Start Screen: If you select ‘New Project’ you can start recording immediately — you don’t have to name the project or set a file path. However, note that this will dump any audio you record into the Audio Data folder (just like what happened before per-project folders were introduced), and this can turn into an uncurated mess of audio if you’re not careful. So when you reach a convenient stopping point in the midst of your creative endeavors, do a ‘Save As’ to a per-project folder and tick ‘Copy all audio with project’. Then clean out the Audio Data folder in preparation for your next project.

Keys To Success

Of course, you know that keyboard shortcuts save time, but you may not be taking full advantage of custom key bindings. For example, I often use the Gain and Normalize DSP functions when prepping vocal phrases, particularly for narration. Both are now on key bindings, so it takes just a few seconds to apply quick gain changes. However, I recommend writing down a list of your custom key bindings so you can refer to it until you’ve memorised them.

Macros: These take keyboard shortcuts to the next level. Sonar doesn’t have a built-in macro recorder, but the free, open-source program AutoHotKey makes it relatively easy to set up macros that initiate a string of keystrokes and mouse clicks. Although you do need to learn a scripting language, if you follow the tutorials on the autohotkey.com site, you might be surprised at how easy it is to create your own macros. If you do a lot of repetitive tasks, being able to automate those processes is a huge time-saver.

Function key scribble strip: You can call up various Sonar tools with Function keys, but you need to remember which function key calls up which tool. I took a screenshot of Sonar, trimmed it to only the Tools strip in the control bar, printed it, and placed it above the corresponding function keys on my QWERTY keyboard. It didn’t take long for my muscle memory to learn which function key called up which tool.

Function key shortcuts: With the Smart, Move, and Edit tools, hitting the associated Function key (F5-F7) while one of these is already selected will toggle between that tool and whichever tool you used last. Furthermore, hitting Function keys F8-F10 repeatedly steps through each tool’s options — for example, hitting F10 toggles between erase and mute, while F9 toggles among the various drawing choices.

Ready Made

Project templates: I can’t emphasize enough how useful project templates can be: having tracks assigned to inputs with suitable processing already in place slashes setup time. For example, when songwriting, I have a template with guitar already assigned and three different CA-X amps in the FX Rack (I enable the one that’s most appropriate for the song), a vocal track with EQ and CA-2A dynamics already set up in the ProChannel, an audio track ready for drum loops, and the multitimbral TTS-1 inserted (with a songwriting preset that includes a variety of instruments), so I can lay down MIDI backing tracks quickly.

Loading this track template for multiband guitar distortion inserts a track for input, five aux tracks, five guitar amps, and five multiband limiters serving as crossovers, all contained within a Track Folder.Loading this track template for multiband guitar distortion inserts a track for input, five aux tracks, five guitar amps, and five multiband limiters serving as crossovers, all contained within a Track Folder.

Track templates: My favourite use for these is multiband processing, because a single operation loads multiple tracks and processors. This feature has become even more useful with the advent of aux tracks and Patch Points, as those routings are preserved. Track templates are also great for managing virtual instruments with multiple outputs, as well as for specific instruments (eg. you might have a general-purpose track template for acoustic guitar, and another for electric guitar).

Default ProChannel setup: Sonar can load a default set of ProChannel modules automatically whenever you create a new track (this is particularly handy for making sure each track has a Console or Tape Emulator, if you prefer to mix that way). Set your ProChannel as you want for the default, then right-click on any module header and choose ‘Set Modules as Default for Tracks’. Note that the modules open up bypassed, and with default parameter values. However you can save a preferred ProChannel preset, and recall that from within the ProChannel.

Windows-related tips: In addition to the usual Windows tips (eg. avoid loading startup programs you don’t need), having an SSD as your root drive where Sonar resides can speed up boot time dramatically. Also, Windows 10’s Virtual Desktop feature has proven to be very helpful. Typically I have Sonar set to full screen, so if I want to open disk drives or folders, move files around, search for something on the desktop, and do similar non-Sonar functions, rather than minimize Sonar I just zip over to a second virtual desktop. This is particularly welcome when Sonar is doing some operation (like a real-time file export or bounce) where it takes over the computer and can’t be minimized.

Published November 2016