Cakewalk SONAR Producer 621 Digital Audio Workstation

Cakewalk’s premier digital audio workstation, SONAR Producer ($619) is a high-end but affordable DAW/MIDI sequencer for Windows XP and Vista. After using it for several years I’ve only scratched the surface of its powerful, tightly packed features.
Author:
Publish date:


(click thumbnail)Cakewalk’s premier digital audio workstation, SONAR Producer ($619) is a high-end but affordable DAW/MIDI sequencer for Windows XP and Vista. After using it for several years I’ve only scratched the surface of its powerful, tightly packed features.

Often today’s productions are equally packed and increasingly require a large number of tracks and processor-intensive plug-ins, but this is not a problem for SONAR Producer. It can work with 64-bit or multi-core CPUs that permit very high track counts without dropouts. This overview will describe facets of Producer’s 6.2.1, as well as provide some perspective by revisiting features that appeared in Producer 5 (Producer 7 has been released since the completion of this review, and it will be addressed in an upcomingPAR).

Features

SONAR Producer 6 screens look great: colorful, uncluttered and customizable. You can show as many or as few controls and buttons as you like, change colors, create custom toolbars, organize plug-in menus, give your drivers and ports “friendly” names, and so on. A new console view is attractive and ergonomic.

Producer 6 offers a full complement of soft synths and sample players. For example, Session Drummer 2 (new in version 6) offers professional multi-sampled drum kits, with hundreds of drum patterns included.

The new Synth Rack is a GUI that lets you conveniently view, insert, delete and configure your virtual instruments. You can mute or solo a synth, choose patches, automate changes and more. To reduce CPU overhead and free up memory you can freeze the track, which converts the synth output to an audio track.

Active Controller Technology automatically maps any MIDI controller or control surface to software effects, soft synth controls or SONAR mixer controls. ACT assigns your knobs and sliders to plug-in or synth parameters and you can customize the mapping. When you open a new plug-in, ACT remaps as needed. The app comes with presets for various controllers.

The VC-64 Vintage Compressor plug-in is a cool-looking new tool with EQ, gating, compression, and de-essing. Its two compressors can be combined in series or parallel. Presets with various routing schemes are included.

Fast FactsApplications
Project studio and studio

Key Features
Fully-functional and feature-packed DAW well suited for pro and project studio use; good plug-ins; 64-bit audio engine; PC only

Price
$619 list (Version 6); $399 for an upgrade from earlier versions

Contact
Cakewalk | 617-423-9004 | www.cakewalk.com

PRODUCT POINTS
Plus

  • Powerful
  • Great sounding new plug-ins (VC64, Session Drummer)
  • AudioSnap tightens up a musical performance
  • Can handle 64-bit files, 64-bit processing, 64-bit OS, multi-core CPUs, Vista
  • Dozens of convenience features to enhance workflow (ACT, synth rack, Analyst, lock clips, fast zoom, X-ray)

Minus

  • AudioSnap and Session Drummer 2 GUIs could be clearer
  • Soft synth and MIDI install as two tracks rather than one

Score
SONAR is a 64-bit capable, affordable PC-based DAW.Automation has been enhanced in SONAR Producer 6.2.1 thanks to the read/write controls for tracks and plug-ins. You can enable automation while playing back or recording.

Like Pro Tools’ Beat Detective, SONAR Producer’s AudioSnap syncs audio tracks with each other or with a tempo map. For example, AudioSnap marks transients in a drum track and saves them to a “pool” that stores tempo data. Select the bass track, mark its transients and select Quantize to Pool. The bass now follows the tempo of the drums.

If an audio clip is made to play at a slower tempo, the clip has to stretch to a longer time. Sometimes the audio sounds glitchy if the time-stretch is done in real-time. Fortunately, Producer 6 comes with a powerful set of time-stretching algorithms that smooth out the sound during offline rendering. You need to choose the right time-stretch algorithm for the particular musical part to get the best sounding results.

Other notable features of SONAR Producer include Crash Recovery, protecting your projects from buggy plug-ins. Automatic file versioning backs up your projects with time/date stamps so you can access older versions of projects. Analyst spectrum analyzer reveals problem frequencies. And finally, SONAR now handles both VST and DX plug-ins without the need for an external wrapper.

The SONAR 6.2 free update adds features such as MIDI input quantize, permanent time display in the track view, a Bit Meter which monitors the bits in a track, refinements to ACT, Windows Vista support, and X-Ray Windows which allow you to see through a plug-in’s GUI to control the tracks below. According to Cakewalk, version 6.2 also provides “WaveRT driver support for more efficient low latency playback and MMCSS for higher priority audio processing.” Update 6.2.1 optimizes the program for higher track counts at high sample rates and bit depths.

A lot of composing these days is done with loops, or repetitive musical patterns. SONAR’s Loop Construction view lets you edit loops, and control and automate various loop parameters. A groove clip is a loop (audio or MIDI) that can follow the tempo and key of your project. Dozens of groove clips are included in SONAR Producer, and you can import ACID-style loops. Each clip can be repeated indefinitely by click-dragging the right end of the clip.

The RXP REX Player and Groove Box let you use REX or REX2 loops in your projects and trigger individual slices of those loops.

Of course, SONAR also excels at handling sounds from live musicians. An efficient way to start recording is to open a multitrack template: a set of tracks with plug-ins already inserted. Use one of the included templates or create your own.

Comping is made easy with track layers and the Mute Tool. Each successive take is recorded as a new layer (virtual track) within a track. Then you can keep only the best parts of each take. Mute or solo parts of various takes and auto-crossfade them to create the final perfect track. All layers on the same track can share common plug-in effects.

SONAR comes with tons of plug-ins made by Cakewalk and Sonitus. There is EQ, reverb, echo, chorus, flanging, multiband compression, gating, pitch change, stereo effects, guitar-amp simulation and much more.

The program automatically compensates for sound-card and plug-in latency. All the tracks stay in sync regardless of the plug-ins you have inserted.

Need some good reverbs? Producer includes not only the Lexicon-designed Pantheon reverb but also Perfect Space convolution reverb. Cakewalk provided over 300 MB of samples — a huge variety of impulse responses of real spaces for use with Perfect Space, as well as sampled reverbs. amp cabinets and more.
Suppose you’ve set up a vocal track with various effects and bus routings. You can save it as a track template. Then, when you want to record another vocal with the same settings, just insert that track template. You can also clone a track: copy its settings and plug-ins to a new track. That really comes in handy when you’re overdubbing vocals. (According to the manufacturer, track templates also help automate effects on outputs in multioutput synths like Session Drummer 2 — Ed.)

Are some vocal notes flat or sharp? Highlight a vocal phrase containing a flat note and call up SONAR Producer’s included Roland V-Vocal. A graph will appear showing the pitches of the notes in the phrase. You simply click-drag the pitch of the flat note to where it should be, and you then adjust the formant parameter for best sound; V-Vocal is also excellent for quick adjustments to volume and timing.

Some of us are getting into surround mixing, over 30 formats of which SONAR has supported since version 5. SurroundBridge technology lets you use stereo VST effects in a surround mix. The Sonitus Surround Compressor works on the complete surround mix.

Three 64-bit enhancements put SONAR Producer on the cutting edge of recording technology:

  1. Starting with version 5, SONAR was the first DAW to include 64-bit (double-precision) floating-point processing, which is accessible even on 32-bit computers. The 64-bit engine is claimed to provide more accurate processing, dithering and summing than 32-bit engines — especially when used with 64-bit plug-ins (which SONAR includes).
  2. SONAR can handle 64-bit floating-point audio files. You can import these files, mix and render them with the highest quality available.
  3. If you have Windows XP 64-bit edition, a 64-bit CPU, 64-bit drivers for your sound card and 64-bit virtual instruments or plug-ins, you can use them with SONAR Producer 5 or 6, which are 64-bit applications. Two claimed benefits are faster processing and lower latency (depending on the application). Other benefits are more simultaneous tracks, real-time effects and virtual instruments. Plus, the x64 platform allows up to 128 GB RAM so you can load larger, higher-quality samples into memory.

Producer works with 32-bit or 64-bit applications and operating systems. You can run 32-bit apps in a 64-bit operating system and with 64-bit sound cards, but you lose the benefits mentioned above.

In Use
First let’s address the foundations of Version 5. The included Sonitus effects sound great and are highly adjustable. The quality of reverb in Producer is extremely high, both in the included Lexicon Pantheon reverb and Perfect Space convolution reverb.

I love the Track Templates and the Clone Track feature. They really speed workflow, because you can add pre-configured tracks on the fly during a session.

If you want to apply an effect for a short time — such as an echo at the end of a vocal phrase — use clip effects, which apply to a clip rather than an entire track. That’s often easier than automating an echo send.

V-Vocal’s pitch correction sounds natural. In my experience, V-Vocal is easier to use than AutoTune.

The included soft synths are powerful and flexible. However, many of the synth patches of acoustic instruments sound synthetic, so you might want to purchase or create some good samples (According to the manufacturer, this is addressed in Producer 7 with the inclusion of Dimension LE and the Garritan Pocket Orchestra. — Ed.).

An effective way to automate level changes is by creating a volume envelope in a track: a graph that shows the fader level over time. Adjust the fader envelope until the mix sounds right. The fader follows the envelope you made. If you change your mind about the track’s overall level in the mix, however, you can just press “O” to go to Offset mode and adjust the track fader. The envelope stays intact. Envelopes can be used to automate panning or aux-send levels as well. For me at least, envelopes are the easiest way to automate track levels and sends.

SONAR has POW-r dithering, one of the best available. When you export a 24-bit mix to 16 bits and add POW-r dithering, the result sounds almost like a 24-bit recording.

Is the 64-bit mix engine a significant enhancement? I compared a 64-bit-processed mix to a 32-bit-processed mix. The 64-bit version sounded very slightly “sweeter” or “smoother” and more transparent than the 32-bit version. In the quest for analog-like sound in digital workstations, every little bit helps. I performed a null test by adding the 64-bit and 32-bit files in opposite polarity. This resulted in continuous low-level hiss and very low-level, grainy hiss modulated by the audio signal.

Now let’s move on to Producer 6, which installs easily. Once you have registered, you can download the free updated versions 6.2 and 6.2.1. They are well worth the download, especially if you plan to upgrade to Windows Vista. Many users have wanted the program to quantize MIDI notes while recording and the 6.2 update does that. If your projects involve high-resolution audio, version 6.2.1 helps to keep the track count high without dropouts.

The many drum kits in Session Drummer 2 sound realistic, but take up a fair amount of CPU resources and memory. I like the attractive graphic interface. Its main panel could use a label for drum-pad velocity and a few steps for basic use.

Using Active Controller Technology is much easier than manually assigning a MIDI controller’s keys and sliders to the software parameters. If your controller is in the ACT presets list, just select it and you’re ready to go.

Vintage Compressor 64 is a piece of work. The many included presets are useful for a variety of instruments, vocals and mixes. Sounds range from transparent to warm and colorful. Putting two compressors in series — each with a 3:1 ratio and half-second release time – resulted in transparent, non-squashed 9:1 compression!

In the heat of a session you might accidentally slide a clip in time (which I’ve done quite often). To prevent that, SONAR Producer 6 lets you lock the position or data of clips.

Fader automation has been made easy. Press the Write button, tap the spacebar to play the track and move the fader as needed. After rewinding press the Read button. Then play the track to hear the fader moves. You can rewrite the moves as needed.

AudioSnap takes some patience to use, but when it works it’s amazing. The accuracy of AudioSnap’s time correction depends on which transients you select to include in the pool. You can minimize the artifacts of time-stretching by rendering the stretched clips offline. I’ve found AudioSnap most effective in locking bass to drums, less effective in locking drums to acoustic guitar. However, if you spend enough time it can be made to work. Sometimes it’s easier just to slide individual notes to adjust their timing.

The concepts in AudioSnap are confusing to many users. Fortunately, Cakewalk’s website has some helpful video tutorials about AudioSnap and other topics. Also go to acapella.harmony-central.com/forums then check out “Pro Reviews.”

I’d like to see a simpler AudioSnap interface, something like, “Make track X follow track Y” or “Make track X follow the tempo map.” Rather than choosing a time-stretch algorithm to suit the music, I’d rather choose “percussive part,” “staccato part” or “sustained part.”

I’m using Producer 6.2.1 with a modest computer: 2.2 GHz single-core AMD and 1.5 GB of memory. It has not crashed yet. I’ve played 100 24-bit/44.1-kHz tracks simultaneously without plug-ins and up to 40 audio tracks with plug-ins. Your results might vary, depending on your computer and sound card. I was not able to test Producer 6 with a 64-bit machine, but some users in the online forums report track counts exceeding 100 with plug-ins when using a 64-bit set-up.

How about support? Loads of helpful tutorials are on the Cakewalk website. The SONAR 6 reference manual is available for $49 (According to the manufacturer, a PDF accompanies the software. — Ed.). Another fine reference is “SONAR 6 Power” by Scott Garrigus at www.digifreq.com, which also has a great SONAR discussion group. Also, the online help files within SONAR are clear and thorough. Cakewalk has a number of excellent user support groups on their website. Often, the company has incorporated customer suggestions for features that add convenience and speed workflow.

Summary

I’ve found SONAR Producer 6.2.1 to be a joy to work with. After some learning time and practice, it is fast and intuitive to use. Everything I need to do for elaborate productions — recording, MIDI, editing, mixing, effects, automation, sync to video, mastering — can be done in-the-box. And thanks to the fine plug-ins, Pow-R dither and 64-bit audio engine, the sound is superb.