Cakewalk Guitar Studio

When Cakewalk came up with the concept for Guitar Studio ($199), it hit on a novel idea - make a sequencer/digital audio package for those of us who tickle the frets instead of the ivories. Some guitarists will no doubt scoff at such a product, convinced that the worlds of SYSEX data and screaming 4x12 stacks have nothing in common. They would be wrong.
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When Cakewalk came up with the concept for Guitar Studio ($199), it hit on a novel idea - make a sequencer/digital audio package for those of us who tickle the frets instead of the ivories. Some guitarists will no doubt scoff at such a product, convinced that the worlds of SYSEX data and screaming 4x12 stacks have nothing in common. They would be wrong.
Product PointsApplications: Project studios

Key Features: Song Wizard; on-screen chromatic tuner; guitar fretboard in staff view mode

Price: $199 (Estimated street price)

Contact: Cakewalk at 617-441-7870

Plus

+ Unique software product for guitarists

+ Good value

+ Nice built-in tuner

Minus

- Limited chord selection in Song Wizard

- Only four real-time effects at once

- No chord chart print

The Score: Guitar Studio is a great concept and a real bargain for the guitarist new to computer-based production
Those guitarists not afraid to let a computer join the band - a growing group, I believe - have reason to be intrigued with Cakewalk's new offering. It delivers a lot of recording power for an attractively low price, and heck - it even comes with hardware (a 1/4" to 1/8" cable adapter).

Features

Anyone familiar with the Cakewalk family of sequencer/digital audio recorder products already knows a lot about Guitar Studio. This software is basically a mildly scaled-back version of Cakewalk Professional with some guitar-friendly functions thrown in. Based on its MIDI and audio recording functions, even folks who don't play guitar could get a lot out of the software.

For guitarists, Guitar Studio offers a few special touches. First is a chromatic tuner that lets one tune on-screen. A stable, accurate tuner, it makes getting in tune quite painless.

The Song Wizard gives the user prefab accompaniment tracks to flesh out a song. Enter your chords into a basic chart, pick one of nearly 50 musical styles, and the software generates a backing band right into the MIDI tracks. You can change styles or variations on every beat of the song, if desired. Then edit, quantize or rearrange the data to your heart's content.

Guitar Studio adds a guitar fretboard to the staff view mode. This lets the user poke notes into the staff off the virtual guitar neck, and also shows where notes fall on the neck during playback (though only in open position).

The software has a control panel designed for the Roland GR-30 guitar synth. Cakewalk and Roland make up two-thirds of the Guitar Technology Alliance (the other third is Fender). The GR-30 console allows the user to control most aspects of the synth engine from the computer screen. Guitar Studio offers other control panels as well, for other popular guitar synths and tone modules.

A nice feature from other Cakewalk products appears in Guitar Studio - a guitar chord library, which makes it a point-and-click affair to place chord grids over staff notation. The chord library is reasonably comprehensive, and you can create and save your own chords or import them from other libraries. Being able to audition chords note-by-note from the library menu is a nice touch.

Other features of Guitar Studio are less guitar-specific. Up to eight tracks of digital audio can be recorded and combined with up to 256 MIDI tracks. Cakewalk's flexible audio/MIDI console is present in Guitar Studio, making it easy to do automated mixes complete with effects. The software includes several Cakewalk effects (parametric EQ, reverb, delay, chorus and flange), and any number of DirectX effects from Cakewalk or other manufacturers can be added.

You can insert effects on individual audio tracks, or use up to four pre- or post-fader sends that are available to all audio tracks. The Guitar Studio console will automate audio send and return levels, but not individual effect parameters. Guitar Studio is limited to four real-time effects (a pretty skinny number), but one can permanently apply any number of "off-line" effects to individual tracks.

Guitar Studio lets the user keep up to 256 audio tracks on the timeline at once, but there can be only eight tracks playing back at any given time. It's easy enough to work around this eight-track limit by doing submixes of the audio data. If the original tracks are left archived on the timeline, one can go back and make changes to a submix if needed.

Audio resolution for Guitar Studio is 16 bits at up to 48 kHz. With many other products offering 24-bit resolution and 96 kHz sampling rates, Cakewalk's decision to cap audio quality at this level says something about its target market. This isn't a product marketed at (or priced for) high-end power users. For the kind of applications Guitar Studio will likely be used for, 16-bit 48 kHz audio is more than adequate.

Though the CAL application language isn't present on Guitar Studio, Cakewalk's powerful StudioWare system is. Guitar Studio's StudioWare implementation lets one use (but not create) MIDI control panels with buttons, knobs, faders and other widgets. In addition to the provided panels, the user can download StudioWare controllers for a wide range of MIDI equipment.

In use

Guitar Studio is easy to navigate, and I appreciated Cakewalk's decision to implement Pro Audio 8's powerful layout system here. Assign computer or MIDI keys to the user-created screen layouts and one can quickly flip to the most efficient view for the task at hand.

As with the other Cakewalk products I've tested, the internal processing and audio effects quality of Guitar Studio are very good. Short of an amp simulator, the software provides all the power needed to create some great-sounding guitar tracks. The power and flexibility of the MIDI sequencer are top-notch as well, which should be no surprise for a Cakewalk product.

The Song Wizard offers a nice diversity of styles - 47 to be exact, with two or three variations apiece. Most styles offer drums, bass and one harmony instrument (such as piano, synth or organ). The parts themselves won't be confused with those of real session players, but these styles are meant more for creative inspiration than for final tracks. For establishing a groove and a harmonic framework, the Song Wizard does the job.

The main drawback of the Song Wizard styles is the extremely limited chord types supported. Major and minor chords are all you get; some styles will support major chords only. Another surprising limitation is that there's no way to print out the chord chart once you're finished. In a product designed for the guitarist, this omission is a real head-scratcher.

There are a few more guitarist-friendly features that would be nice. These include step-time note entry from the fretboard, pitch extraction for those without a MIDI guitar, an amp simulator for true plug-and-play, and a chord calculator to figure out all those fun chord inversions. Guitar Studio Pro, anyone?

Summary

As tested, Version 1.01 shows a lot of promise and reveals a few small holes. It feels like a new release in some ways, yet reveals the polish expected of Cakewalk products in others. One thing you can be sure of - in typical Cakewalk style, Guitar Studio will evolve a great deal in the coming years.

The bottom line is bang for the buck - one needs to consider the impressive amount of power Guitar Studio delivers for under $200. Guitarists new to the realm of computer-based music production - whether they're using a MIDI guitar system or not - should give Cakewalk's Guitar Studio a close look.

(At last month's Summer NAMM, Cakewalk released the upgraded Guitar Studio 2. Improvements to the software include guitar tabulature display, editing and printing capabilities. Version 2 also features Session Drummer, a MIDI effects plug-in that lets users create drum tracks for original compositions. Version 2 costs $199.- Ed.)