Improvements in word processing software have leveled off because the average user’s needs were satisfied years ago. This is certainly not the case with digital audio and MIDI software. The average audio user demands more power and performance from each upgrade (I know I do!). As someone who works with Cakewalk Pro Audio 8.04 almost every day, I had a long wish list for the next upgrade.
Product PointsApplications: MIDI sequencing; digital audio recording/mixing/editing; controlling MIDI studio gear; media authoring for the Internet; film scoring
Key Features: Minimal audio latency; real-time fretboard display of MIDI guitar tracks, guitar tablature, instrument tuner; session drummer MIDI plug-in; CPU and hard disk meters; Nytonix Style Enhancer MIDI plug-in; stereo file support; export to MP3 and RealAudio formats
Price: $399 (upgrade from prior versions $70)
Contact: Contact: Cakewalk at 617-441-7870
+ Extremely stable
+ Includes all the necessary tools for professional MIDI sequencing and digital audio recording and editing
+ Straightforward user interface
– CAL routines are hard to find
– Could support more MIDI instruments with StudioWare panels
The Score: Easy to see why this is one of the best-selling sequencer/digital audio packages ever.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 ($399; upgrade $70) runs on Windows 95/98 machines with a minimum of 64 MB RAM and a Pentium 200 MHz or higher; 128 MB RAM and a Pentium 300 MHz or higher are recommended. It also runs under Windows NT 4.0 SP5. For MIDI-only applications you won’t need anywhere near the suggested minimums; but for audio applications, the more power the better.
A Windows-compatible MIDI interface is necessary to hook up samplers and synths, and a Windows-compatible soundcard is needed for digital audio recording and playback. Pro Audio 9 features up to 24-bit audio resolution, with variable sampling rates of 11.025, 22.05, 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz.
In addition to supporting Windows-compatible soundcards, Pro Audio 9 supports advanced DSP and mixing features on AudioX-compatible cards, including the Yamaha DSP Factory, Sonorus MEDI/O and others.
AudioX is a new standard initiated by Cakewalk that lets soundcard producers write software that makes all the card’s features fully available to any software supporting the standard. It delivers direct control over advanced features in audio hardware, such as DSP effects, SMPTE options, low-latency mixing, aux busses and patching.
Synching to film and video couldn’t be easier because SMPTE/MTC and MIDI Machine Control (MMC) support are included. Of course, the old standby MIDI Sync (smart FSK) can also be used to drive drum machines and the like. AVI, MPEG and QuickTime video formats are supported with frame-accurate sync of video to audio (and MIDI) tracks for loading video files directly into Pro Audio 9. Although all three formats can be imported, audio and video can only be exported back to AVI. To insert QuickTime video files, you’ll need the latest version of Windows Media Player (Version 6.4 as of 9/21/99). At present, Pro Audio doesn’t support QuickTime3 or greater. Start time, trim-in time and trim-out time can only be set for AVI video files. You can save MPEG or QuickTime files as AVI files to make these settings.
The audio mixdown features have been substantially improved. Entire tracks or selected portions can be exported to MP3, RealAudio G2 and Windows Media Technologies 4.0 formats in addition to stereo, mono and dual mono file formats (including WAV) at variable bit depths. When exporting to standard WAV files, the files will always use the same bit-depth as the project; the various streaming formats have adjustable bit-depth.
This makes it easier than ever to get your clients’ music on the Internet. The 9 release includes the patented Fraunhofer MP3 encoder, which offers the highest MP3 compression available, professional encoding at rates of up to 320 kbps and complete control over all encoding parameters.
The audio/MIDI mix console has been redesigned with a more polished look. If you have clients in your studio who need to see something neat, this is the window to keep on your monitor.
There were complaints about system latency (the time lag between moving a fader or clicking on a function like solo and hearing the result) in the past. In the worst-case scenario, latency was more than a second or two. Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 features the company’s new WavePipe technology, which provides direct communication to Windows WAV-compatible soundcards – greatly reducing system latency and improving the response of your system when executing mixing and other real-time audio processing. On my system, latency is now measured in tenths of a second, not whole seconds.
Audio tracks can be auditioned with analog-tape-style audio scrubbing. More importantly, stereo WAV files appear, optionally, as a single track on the track page instead of two tracks panned hard left and hard right. This makes stereo WAV files easier to handle and reduces clutter on the track page. More importantly, it makes it much easier to use stereo plug-ins and envelopes for mixing.
My biggest wish was granted: there are two new system meters that provide real-time visual feedback over CPU and disk activity. Every program that works with digital audio should include this feature!
One of the most interesting additions is the Nytonix Style Enhancer MIDI FX plug-in, which adds performance data to MIDI tracks. The Vamtech Drumtrax library has been incorporated as Session Drummer MIDI FX plug-in, allowing you to add drum tracks (originally played by live drummers on MIDI controllers) in real time. Cool!
Arpeggiator, quantize, delay/echo, MIDI filter, transpose, velocity and chord analyzer plug-in effects are also included. These effects work nondestructively in real time and can be applied destructively off-line.
Guitar players will be pleased to see a synchronized, real-time fretboard display below the staff notation window. Guitar tablature editing is supported, and there is a chromatic tuner display for tuning guitars and other instruments through a PC audio card. This is useful for situations in which a five-member band brings four different tuners to the studio. Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 also includes the AmpSim Lite audio plug-in. This permits the addition of vintage amp simulation to digital audio tracks.
The new release also has a super cheat sheet that lists keyboard shortcuts, visual depictions of menu commands and toolbar shortcuts and quick start/support details. It comes on heavy paper stock the same size as the manual. I’m going to laminate mine and hang it on the wall of my studio so it will last until the next upgrade. Users of prior versions will note that some menu commands have been moved and others retitled.
In operation, I’ve always found Cakewalk very stable. On my 200 MHz Pentium MMX with a Gina soundcard and Seagate Barracuda hard drive, the hard drive maxed out, delivering 10 to 12 stereo tracks while the CPU meter shows approximately 20 percent usage (no audio effects on the tracks). My computer is fairly slow by today’s standards – with a faster machine, you can expect upwards of 50-80 tracks. Pro Audio is capable of playing up to 256 tracks. It’s great to actually see the extra load on the hard drive and CPU as you add tracks. A lot of guesswork has been eliminated with these new meters.
Some of your MIDI gear can be remote-controlled by StudioWare panels included with the program. These panels let you design graphical controls on your PC monitor to manipulate the controls on an external MIDI device. Changes can be recorded and played back as part of a Cakewalk project. Unfortunately, the list of supported devices isn’t really that long and it doesn’t include anything I actually own in my studio.
It takes a lot of time and programming effort to create new controls, although the results would be really useful. It would be great if Cakewalk could team up with one of the major MIDI module editor/librarians to offer a more complete list of supported instruments.
The system meters are useful. For the first time, I have a clear idea of how hard (or not) my CPU and hard disk are working. It’s interesting to note that a Cakewalk project with only MIDI data doesn’t move the CPU load indicator at all; as soon as you start loading audio tracks or plug-ins, the fun begins. It’s always possible to submix audio tracks to reduce the load on a CPU and hard disk. Now I can do this when the meters show trouble brewing, not after audio performance begins to suffer. It also gives clients something to look at.
Cakewalk includes a macro utility called Cakewalk Application Language (CAL), which lets the user record any sequence of keystrokes into a macro that can be called up by a hot key. While this is great for custom routines, there are a lot of editing commands buried in here as CAL functions. They really belong on the edit menus. Users who rely on the cheat sheet menu reference might miss them completely.
Functions like humanize, velocity scaling, wiping automation moves, and splitting Type 0 MIDI files into separate tracks for each MIDI channel are available. I’ve had some trouble with erratic performance of the last CAL macro; sometimes it separates Channels 1-8 but leaves Channels 9-16 in the source track. This is the only time I’ve ever experienced a Cakewalk function operating improperly, so this is a minor complaint, and one that Cakewalk plans to address.
The program is very easy to learn for beginners and has a ton of features for power users. Copy protection is accomplished with a serial number upon installation, which allows for quick recovery from hard disk failures or system changes – there’s no need to deal with authorizations and the like. Cakewalk is very responsive to bug reports and Version 8.0 was quickly updated three times last year with minor bug fixes and miscellaneous improvements. In fact, Pro Audio 91 (a free update) is due imminently.
The manual is huge and could be used as the textbook for a course in MIDI and digital audio recording. The Deluxe Edition comes with the Musician’s Toolbox, a two-CD collection of tutorials, software demos and MIDI, audio and video files, although license agreements for the latter permit only noncommercial use of the clips.