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Cakewalk SONAR XL 20

The introduction of SONAR brought Cakewalk, long known for its abilities in MIDI recording and editing, into the A-List of audio recording software packages. SONAR 2.0 XL ($599) simplifies some functions while adding some wonderful new features, including mastering plug-ins, ReWire integration, export of ACID files, improved DXi support, some functionality enhancements and support for some popular control surfaces such as Radikal Technologies' SC2.2 and the Motor Mix from CM Labs.

The introduction of SONAR brought Cakewalk, long known for its abilities in MIDI recording and editing, into the A-List of audio recording software packages. SONAR 2.0 XL ($599) simplifies some functions while adding some wonderful new features, including mastering plug-ins, ReWire integration, export of ACID files, improved DXi support, some functionality enhancements and support for some popular control surfaces such as Radikal Technologies’ SC2.2 and the Motor Mix from CM Labs.
Product PointsApplications: Studio and project studio recording; MIDI sequencing

Key Features: 24-bit/96 kHz recording; WDM drivers for extremely low latency; unlimited Audio and MIDI tracks (only limited by the CPU and memory of your computer); DirectX support

Price: SONAR 2.0 – $499, SONAR 2.0 XL – $599

Contact: Cakewalk at 888-225-3925, Web Site


+ Low latency

+ Ease of use and installation

+ The value leader in its base package


– DX wrapper needed to run VST plug-ins

The Score: One of the best editing software systems in the Windows world.

The big news in SONAR 2.0 is the support for ReWire, which allows the integration of Reason, ReBirth and other ReWire-compatible applications. MIDI users, already the core of Cakewalk’s customer base, now have another compelling reason to work with SONAR.

Additional MIDI enhancements for rhythmic capabilities include the new Cyclone DXi groove sampler, Fxpansion DR-008 drum sampler/synthesizer and multiport drum editing.

The support for external control surfaces puts SONAR on more equal footing with its closest competitors, especially with the inclusion of the Radikal Technologies controller (Mackie Control support will be available in release 2.1 – Ed.).

SONAR is a Windows-based program that works with 98 (SE only), ME, 2000 and XP. This puts it at a disadvantage in the Mac-dominated world of pro audio, but matters little in the project studio, where lower PC prices and a wide variety of DirectX plug-ins make it very attractive.

It also likes the fastest computer possible, much like any audio software. Cakewalk recommends a 1.2 GHz processor, 256 MB of RAM and a 7200 rpm, Ultra DMA hard drive. The CPU on my system is a little slower than that, but SONAR still performed with no real problems.

WDM and MME drivers are available with WDM giving better performance and allowing real-time soft synth performance, plug-in manipulation and some other cool tricks.

You should check your soundcard for WDM driver support. Most do support it, but usually only for Windows 2000 or XP. My Aardvark Q10 and M Audio Omnistudio failed to offer Windows 98 SE WDM drivers, which originally left me using the MME drivers. I was resigned to upgrading my system until I found a software expert who knew how to modify the M Audio WDM driver to work with 98 SE. Since this is hardly the ideal way to run a system, I would recommend using Windows 2000 or XP if at all possible.

In Use

Installation was a relatively painless process with the only difficulty arising from my previous installation of SONAR.

Cakewalk likes a clean install and will always ask to remove any previous versions of its software. I had SONAR version 1.3.1 already installed so I decided to bite the bullet and remove it. I had horrid thoughts about all the things that might go wrong which, fortunately, did not occur (according to Cakewalk the two versions can coexist – Ed.). My Waves and TC Works plug-ins still existed and functioned in the new install and I was able to find my previous recordings.

Using the Wave profiler allows SONAR to find all the correct settings for proper mating with your sound card. This usually performs pretty well but is also dependent on your sound card and its willingness to work with SONAR.

Once I started working again, some new features really stood out. My favorite is the advanced project management, which allows per project audio directories.

In the previous version, tracks would be given obscure titles consisting of letters and numbers (a lead vocal might be stored as MXW5gl3), no matter what I named them in the track view. This would not pose a problem while working in SONAR, but exporting became a tedious task of locating the intended file.

Project audio directories allow you to keep all your project files together with a name of your choosing, simplifying the task of file management and location.

One important aspect of audio software is the basic screen layout, and while SONAR may not be the sleekest or hippest of the bunch, its layout is very functional and easy to decipher. In this contest, I will take function and simplicity over style any day.

The track view is the main screen and the place I spend most of my time. All major functions, from signal routing and control to effects and editing functions, can be accessed and once you get comfortable with it, the process becomes very natural. If you are comfortable in Word or any other popular Windows program, you will feel right at home here.

I sometimes use the console view to double check settings and for fader control, but it is more out of habit than anything else.

With a body of work already recorded in SONAR, I set out to play with as many of the plug-ins as I could, with some emphasis placed on the new ones.

Cakewalk’s in-house plug-ins have never been held in the highest regard, and to improve on this reputation, Cakewalk has outsourced some of the latest from veteran plug-in builders such as Sonic Timeworks and Power Technologies.

I found some good uses for the Power Technologies plug-ins, particularly the FX dynamics processor, FX delay and FX reverb. Though they were not quite up to the Waves caliber sound-wise, they did a better job utilizing resources and allowing more flexibility in the mix. The rest seem better suited as secondary effects, the kind I would use on a single track for a little flavor.

The new mastering plug-ins by Sonic Timeworks, CompressorX and Equalizer, were more impressive. I wound up incorporating them in tracking as well since they did not seem to be serious resource pigs.

World-class plug-ins such as the Waves and TC Works bundles work well in SONAR and allow recordings to really shine. Indeed, any of your favorite DirectX effects will work here.

There are also DX wrappers available, which allow the use of VST plug-ins though some functionality is sometimes lost in the translation.

I experimented with the various included soft synths with mixed results. Some, like the Fxpansion DR-008 drum sampler/synthesizer, showed promise while others seemed to do little more than emulate the Mini Moog, which limited their usefulness.

My favorite of the lot, the Live Synth Pro DXi, actually is not in the XL package, but a trial version is included. This soft synth uses sound fonts – readily available sounds – with some of excellent quality and low cost (my favorites are from the Sonic Implants collection). Live Synth Pro gives you a nice place to store and access your sound fonts when using MIDI and it works fairly well.


SONAR 2.0 improves on the original with a more extensive set of features and welcome changes in the basic functionality.

It is the most intuitive and reliable sequencer I have dealt with on the Windows platform, even without the latest and greatest hardware. This becomes even more important with the upcoming withdrawal of Emagic Logic from the Windows world (Cakewalk is offering discounts for Logic users to buy SONAR).

There are many bells and whistles with SONAR XL, some more useful than others. In an audio world that tends to look at MIDI and looping with disdain, these bells and whistles are sometimes dismissed as toys. But in doing so, a point is missed. SONAR is an excellent platform for audio recording. It is the software I use in my main recording system and I have recorded and mixed projects on it with professional results.

And if you use MIDI extensively and want the ability to use it with looping and audio together in one comprehensive package, you would be hard-pressed to find something better.


Custom PC with a Pentium III processor, 384 MB RAM, dual 7200 rpm EIDE drives, Windows 98SE; Shure KSM 44 and Oktava MC 012 microphones; M Audio Omnistudio, Aardvark Direct Pro Q10 interfaces; Event PS 6 monitors