Review: Cakewalk SONAR 10 DAW - ProSoundNetwork.com

Review: Cakewalk SONAR 10 DAW

Cakewalk and its line of MIDI sequencers have been around for nearly 15 years now - the equivalent to about a thousand years in any other industry. With humble beginnings on MS-DOS computers in the mid-1980s, the Cakewalk software line has seen half a dozen different versions of Windows, the integration of MIDI and digital audio, the advent of plug-ins and the rise of the studio-in-a-computer revolution
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Cakewalk and its line of MIDI sequencers have been around for nearly 15 years now - the equivalent to about a thousand years in any other industry. With humble beginnings on MS-DOS computers in the mid-1980s, the Cakewalk software line has seen half a dozen different versions of Windows, the integration of MIDI and digital audio, the advent of plug-ins and the rise of the studio-in-a-computer revolution.

Product PointsApplications: Studio, project studio, multimedia

Key Features: 24-bit/96 kHz recording; effects automation, smart loop editing with seamless transposing and tempo changes; DXi virtual instruments; WDM support; flexible metering; compressed output for Web; dual-monitor and multiprocessor support

Price: SONAR: $479 SONAR XL: $739

Contact: Cakewalk Music Software at 617-423-9004; Web Site

Plus

+ Powerful integration of MIDI, digital audio and loops

+ Good track, clip and effects automation

+ Clean, intuitive interface

Minus

- Inconsistent plug-in suite

- Some overly laborious editing processes

- Simplistic digital audio routing scheme

The Score: A promising new MIDI/digital audio package from an industry pioneer.

Hoping to take the latter to a new level, Cakewalk has introduced an integrated MIDI/digital audio package that sports some new key features and a dramatically improved user interface. The company has also ditched the software family name for this product, instead calling its newest creation SONAR. Two versions are available - the basic version as tested here ($479) and SONAR XL ($739), which offers a few more DXi virtual instruments and loops.

Features

SONAR differs the most from its Cakewalk predecessors in the area of digital audio. Whereas MIDI seemed to be the dominant aspect of Cakewalk's previous packages, the emphasis shifts in SONAR towards digital audio.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the software's main track view. SONAR offers a wealth of control over every audio track from the left-most pane of this view. As you expand a given track's display, a volume slider, trim slider, pan, aux send level sliders, insert effects patching, I/O routing, high-resolution metering and numerous other controls are revealed. This Pro Tools-like view almost renders the software's console (mixer) view unnecessary.

Virtually all these parameters can be automated at the track level by moving a control while recording automation data or by tweaking graphical "envelopes" superimposed over the audio clips. If you insert a plug-in that supports automation (as several of the SONAR plug-ins do), you can assign automation envelopes to most parameters for real-time effects changes. SONAR also allows automation of gain and pan at the individual audio clip level.

In the main timeline area of the track view, clips appear as brightly colored rectangles that show either a tiny piano roll view of MIDI data or the digital audio waveform. Drag-and-drop editing works just as you would expect, and it is a straightforward process to split clips and rearrange them on the timeline.

A nondestructive fade can be applied to either end of an audio clip by simply dragging the upper-most edge of the clip. SONAR also generates an auto crossfade between overlapping clips when one is moved atop the other. Extending the start or end of a clip to overlap another clip won't generate a crossfade, which is an unfortunate omission.

SONAR also offers smart loop processing much like that found in Sonic Foundry's ACID software. SONAR imports ACID loops or analyzes any audio clip to turn it into a loop. You can then adjust the transient markers and tempo SONAR finds, and specify the original key. Extending loops is as simple as dragging their right-most edge. SONAR's algorithms for adjusting loop tempo and key sound good, on par with the software package that introduced this technology.

Several DXi instruments are included with SONAR, including two analog synths, a sample playback (SoundFont) instrument and a virtual Sound Canvas module. Patching these into SONAR is easy, and there are several places in the virtual signal path where you can place the instruments. Once a MIDI track is created and its output patched to the desired DXi, you are finished.

Thankfully, SONAR supports the new low latency Windows Driver Model (WDM) drivers, which many major soundcard companies are now offering.

Although it does not allow online collaboration as some of its competitors do, SONAR is Web-savvy where file formats are concerned. SONAR will encode to MP3, Real and Windows Media Advanced streaming formats; it will import quite an impressive list of file formats. The software's encoding is a simple process - you specify the range of music you want encoded, which effects/ automation you want included and the type of encoding for the file. SONAR then submixes and encodes your project. SONAR includes a one-month trial version of the excellent Fraunhofer MP3 encoder - too bad it is not an unlimited license.

SONAR offers many other features worth noting. The software's metering, an area where many packages fall down, is excellent. Choose the metering range, peak or RMS, peak plus RMS, peak hold and other options. Thorough metering like this takes CPU power, however, so SONAR lets you enable and disable meters as needed. SONAR also features dual-monitor and multiprocessor support.

MIDI and notation features haven't changed dramatically between the last version of Cakewalk and SONAR. Suffice to say that Cakewalk's powerful MIDI programming language (CAL) is still intact, plus SONAR offers real-time nondestructive MIDI plug-ins, 960 PPQN resolution, multitrack piano roll view editing and envelope editing for MIDI parameters. All but the most die-hard MIDI programmers will find SONAR's MIDI feature set to be more than adequate for their purposes.

In use

Installing SONAR on my 933 MHz Micron Millennia was a snap. With a few exceptions, SONAR already has the polished feel of a mature software package. It is stable and quick, and has a bevy of nice features that Cakewalk Pro Audio users have been clamoring for.

It is a tribute to SONAR's thoughtful interface design that I achieved success with most of the software's features before I cracked the manual. Granted, I am pretty familiar with Cakewalk software, but SONAR's control layout simply makes sense and should offer few challenges to those reasonably familiar with computers. Its screens are intuitive to work with, well designed visually and very colorful.

SONAR's automation is definitely done well. The real bonus is that this automation extends to many plug-ins. The timeline offers a lot of power when it comes to tweaking the automation envelopes. You can easily add and delete nodes; switch between linear, slow/fast curves and straight jump transitions; toggle envelopes on and off; detach envelopes from clips and more. Sadly lacking, however, are the abilities to select and move a range of envelope nodes at the same time, or simultaneously move all the nodes before or after a given point.

Serious music makers often spend a lot of time performing nitpicky editing of clips on the timeline, and SONAR has done a fair job accommodating them. Holding Z while selecting an area with your mouse zooms the display to fill the screen with that region; pressing U zooms you back out. You can set up a snap grid to any PPQN value or musical time interval, and this grid toggles on and off with the N key. Splitting clips is quick and easy with the S key, or you can select a range of a clip to move just that section.

Unfortunately, SONAR has a few quirks that make slice-and-dice audio editing more laborious than necessary. One simple example - a late snare hit on beat 2 - illustrates some of my most serious complaints about SONAR. Splitting the clip on either side of the snare hit is easy enough. When it is time to move the clip, however, things bog down.

My first choice would be to simply nudge the clip forward in small increments with keystrokes, but SONAR offers no nudge capability. My second choice would be to set the snap grid to a quarter note and snap the drum hit into position. This does not work either - for whatever reason, SONAR will snap to beats 1 or 3, but not 2.

So I shut off snap and drag the clip manually. I am zoomed in tight, though, and cannot see the edges of the errant clip. SONAR doesn't draw the waveform while I am moving it, so I am moving the clip somewhat blindly. It takes a few tries to get it into position.

Because I have auto crossfade on (toggled with X on the keyboard), SONAR has applied a nice crossfade where the newly advanced snare hit overlaps the clip in front of it. At the tail of my newly moved clip, though, SONAR offers no such help. Regardless of which clip I extend to close up the gap following the snare hit, no crossfade is applied (it works only when you move a clip). So I have to manually crossfade the overlap, which are the final steps in a dance that is more complicated than it needs to be.

SONAR has left a few things off the feature set that I consider mandatory. First is a true overall stereo master that sits downstream from the output busses. As SONAR is wired now, busses sum into physical outputs without the means to patch an effect across the final stereo mix (a limiter, for example).

Second missing feature is a way to set a timing offset for digital audio tracks the way you can for MIDI tracks. I have yet to do a computer-based recording project where I did not advance or retard about 90 percent of the digital audio tracks to get things feeling right.

The third thing I would like to see is a way to easily solo master effects returns, which is useful for dialing in a sound.

In the plug-ins department, Cakewalk has teamed up with DSP-FX to offer several top-quality effects with automation capabilities. These effects include chorus, delay, EQ, flange and reverb. Added to these are many familiar Cakewalk CFX plug-ins, such as amp simulator, compressor, tape simulator, parametric EQ, pitch shift and a handful of others.

The DSP-FX plug-ins sound and look great, and pack a real punch with their automation capabilities. The same can't be said of the CFX plug-ins, which mostly offer drab slider and knob interfaces, average sound quality and no automation. Notably lacking from SONAR is a good-sounding compressor.

I was pleasantly surprised with SONAR's loop processing capabilities. You can surf around your hard drive with SONAR's Loop Explorer, and simply drop any piece of audio onto the timeline. If it is an ACID-format loop, it loads with all tempo, key and transient information intact. If it is not a loop, SONAR analyzes it and lets you make the necessary adjustments.

The four DXi instruments included with SONAR are handy, although I definitely got the most use out of the DreamStation DXi and demo Tassman XE analog synth modules. Both offer thick, fat analog textures and nice onscreen interfaces. SONAR XL buyers will get even more instruments, including Alien Connections' ReValver SE FX and an unlocked version of the Tassman synth.

Summary

On the plus side, SONAR also has many areas where it really shines. Its overall approach to handling digital audio is well conceived, and its interface is both powerful and intuitive. The seamless integration of MIDI sequencing, digital audio and loop-based composition makes for a powerful package.

SONAR also has a few areas where it is not quite ready for the big leagues. SONAR needs to clean up some editing features, spruce up its bundled plug-ins and add some more flexibility in its digital audio routing.

It is only when you get into the finer details - and the true power user features - that SONAR misses the mark. Considering that few people really tap the full potential of the software they use, SONAR will meet the needs of most users. And it will do so with a clean, easy-to-use interface. That cannot be said of some of the more powerful packages out there.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a version 1.0 package that has plenty of time to mature in all the areas of shortcoming that I have mentioned. Cakewalk has a solid foundation to build on with SONAR, and I think it has secured its position in the market for a good long time. In fact, I bet I'll be testing SONAR Virtual Audio 9.0 in about 15 years.