By Marc Nichols.
Roland's VS-880-introduced over a decade ago-combined hard-disk recording with an ergonomic control surface that resembled a traditional mixer. At the time, computer-based recording had not reached its present level of maturity; for many, the process of assembling a compatible software/hardware combination was daunting. Yet with the VS-880, musicians could exploit the benefits of hard-disk recording technology in a turnkey, familiar environment.

To say the VS-880 was a hit would be an understatement: It led to a new product category of self-contained hard-disk recording systems. Subsequent introductions from Roland became increasingly sophisticated and capable, but retained the simplicity of operation that made the genre popular in the first place.

Meanwhile, Cakewalk was refining its Pro Audio line of DAW software and recognized early on that the "Holy Grail" of software was workflow. Despite the pressure to increase features and functionality with each release, Cakewalk managed to simplify the setup and recording process. This culminated in 2001 with the introduction of SONAR, the first DAW to put equal emphasis on digital audio, MIDI and looping; it started over with a fresh slate, and Cakewalk used that opportunity to rethink how a DAW should work.

As a partnership between Cakewalk and Roland started to deepen, many predicted that one logical result would be a hardware control surface optimized for SONAR. The SONAR V-Studio 700 goes well beyond just tacking on a control surface to software-it's a complete system combining state-of-the-art software, an ergonomic hardware controller, low-latency I/O and even synthesis, all in a surprisingly affordable package.

"As we designed SONAR 8, we were able to collaborate closely with Roland and tailor the software and hardware to work together," notes Alex Westner, director of product management at Cakewalk. "We weren't in a situation where we designed the software, then someone else came up with a controller for it; there was a constant back-and-forth between the two companies to go beyond superficial integration, and create a system that made using complex software simple. We wanted to restore the 'feel' of working in a traditional studio, but in a way that took advantage of everything modern technology has to offer."

The software heart of the new V-Studio is SONAR, Cakewalk's MIPA Award-winning DAW, which is now up to Version 8. The hardware centerpiece is the VS-700C hardware controller, which features nine 100mm moving faders arranged in a bank of eight channel strips with a master control section. There's also an "access panel" that provides one-button functionality to call up different views and utilities, a transport section, surround panner, T-bar for surround F/R balance and other parameters, surround joystick, V-Link button for hands-on video control, and of course, a display that shows track names, parameter values and the like. (While designed specifically to integrate with SONAR, the VS-700C is also Mackie Control-compatible so it works with many other programs.)

However, as director of public relations Steve Thomas notes, "Combining a control surface with software, no matter how well done, was not a new concept. We wanted to go beyond that basic connection to integrate an entire studio." As a result, Roland developed an extremely capable, low-latency USB 2.0 audio interface that's loaded with I/O: Eight ins (XLR or 1/4-inch balanced/unbalanced), 10 1/4-inch balanced/unbalanced outs, XLR main monitor outs, 1/4-inch balanced/unbalanced Sub out, and digital I/O (AES/EBU, S/PDIF, word clock, ADAT and MIDI). For convenience, the I/O spills over to the V-700C console, which includes a front-panel line/high-impedance input that serves as a built-in DI box, and two sets of headphone jacks. The interface covers all common sample rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz, accepts external clock signals (two digital options and word clock) as well as internal sync, and includes onboard metering that supplements the metering available on the console.

Roland paid special attention to the audio quality-something that people always liked about the VS- series. As Thomas observes, "The preamps and converters are the gateway to your system, and if they're not beyond reproach, you might as well not even bother." But these preamps are also digitally controlled and integrated with the console, which lets you adjust preamp gain from the same control surface where you mix, and save gain settings as presets. Being able to recall your mic settings for a session can be a real time-saver.

The third element is hardware synthesis, with the equivalent of a Fantom synth built into the interface. As Westner notes, "No matter how great soft synths are, they want CPU resources. With more studios going for 'in the box' processing and mixing, the CPU load-even with today's multi-core processors-can add up. The Fantom not only provides Roland's sound quality, but has 1,400 patches ready to integrate into SONAR's workflow as a 'hardware VSTi' with essentially zero latency and CPU loading. What's more, there's a slot for an ARX expansion board, so you can add specialized sounds for particular projects."

Another big deal about the system is the implementation of Cakewalk's ACT (Active Controller Technology) protocol. ACT, introduced in SONAR 6, dramatically changed the way users work with MIDI controllers and control surfaces. With ACT, whichever plug-in has the focus can work with a suitable hardware controller, making it easy to tweak sounds. Using a delay? Tweak the feedback, delay amount, timing and other parameters in a convenient, fast way. Same with soft synths: Set up the envelopes, filters and other parameters as desired.

"ACT was so useful that SONAR users couldn't get enough of it. They would piece together multiple control surfaces to get more ACT control. Some users ended up using one control surface for mixing, and another control surface for synth parameters, etc. While that worked, we kept asking ourselves if there was some way we could create one control surface to rule them all by integrating ACT in a more elegant manner in SONAR V-Studio 700."

The VS-700C has a group of 12 continuous rotary encoders that can control sends, EQ or ACT, as chosen by dedicated buttons. When controlling EQ, the knobs edit four stages of parametric EQ gain, frequency and Q for whichever channel has the focus, recalling the days when every channel had its own set of EQ controls. For sends, it's by far easier to control levels going to various effects with physical knobs than having to adjust one send at a time with the mouse.

Cakewalk's relentless pursue of workflow isn't just a question of optimizing a control surface-it's at the heart of SONAR's philosophy. As Westner explains, "We're always looking for how to do more functions with fewer mouse clicks or keystrokes. Obviously, a hardware controller helps, but the underlying software has to be designed with control in mind. It doesn't help to have a control surface if you have to press a dozen buttons to get where you want to go. Furthermore, SONAR is also a standalone product, and not everyone will use the V-Studio system. By optimizing SONAR's workflow so it operates fluidly without a control surface, it becomes that much more accessible with a control surface."

SONAR 8 ups the ante with system optimizations for higher track counts at low latency, award-winning virtual instruments, and new go-to processors like the TL-64 Tube Leveler and TS-64 Transient Shaper. The bottom line is that for most projects, you won't even need other plug-ins. This is particularly relevant for those using 64-bit Vista, as the entire system can run in a 64-bit world to take advantage of additional memory and speed. The fact that SONAR comes with essentially all the instruments and plug-ins you would need for projects makes 64-bit operation not only viable, but also desirable. And, of course, SONAR continues to offer a true 64-bit audio engine throughout all elements of the software, not just for, say, the mix bus.

"If there's one thing we learned while doing this project," notes Westner, "It's that if you want to produce something that integrates hardware and software, the teams responsible for both elements need to integrate as well. It was extremely fortuitous that Roland has spent over a decade refining how a hard-disk recording control surface should work, and we've been working in parallel on how to make SONAR work smoothly with control surfaces. When you put the two together, then integrate a superior audio interface and world-class synthesis, it's a game-changer."

Marc Nichols is Cakewalk's public relations manager.