X1 Producer offers even-better creative tools and workflow over previous versions, thus making it a no-brainer to SONAR champions and most compelling to potential new users, too.
I have been a SONAR user since Version 3 and gained firsthand experience with the upgrades during this time. At $399 street, SONAR X1 Producer is the next big step in this DAW's innovation with a sleek new layout and some very well thought-out features.
For this review, I was running SONAR X1 Producer via Core 2 Duo 3 GHz processor with 2 GB of RAM: certainly not the latest in processing power, yet for my purposes — post-production, scoring and multitracking applications — it has served me well. My PC was just above the recommended specs to run X1, so I kept that in mind as I ran X1 through the paces. Needless to say, more RAM is on the horizon for me.
SONAR X1's integrated Skylight interface creates a fully customizable workspace. A Multi-Dock can house any of the SONAR windows including the mixer, MIDI, step sequencer, effects, etc.; all can be contained in one multi-dock. Screensets are shortcuts for screen layouts and can be accessed through the module located in the upgraded control bar or via shortcuts. Essentially, if you want a customizable look for any scenario, SONAR X1 delivers, allowing the user to quickly jump between various aesthetics.
When working with my sole 19-inch monitor, I would often collapse the docked items to save screen real estate. To release the full potential of the windows, users should utilize a dual monitor system or a larger flat screen. (It appears I now have an excuse to get that upgraded monitor I've been eyeing!)
As for the browser, I loved everything about it except for one small detail: When in a folder, if I went to the previous folder level, X1 would take me back to the first row of folders in that level. For example, if I was in a folder that started with a P and went up one level where there were many folders before the P folder, I would then have to scroll over to the P folder. Ideally, X1 would remember my folder and, when I go up one level, bring me back to the P folder. This may seem minor but when working through 100 folders of organized loops, this inconvenience became a bit tedious.
My favorite new feature in SONAR X1 is the ProChannel. This takes me back to my days working on a physical studio console in which every channel had a built-in EQ and compressor. SONAR X1 takes this concept a step further by adding Tube Saturation and the kind of flexible routing available only via software-based DAWs.
ProChannel is ready to activate on every audio channel and group master. At its top is a compressor with two modes including a U-Type FET compressor with fixed ratios of 4, 8, 12, 20 and infinity. Variable controls include input, attack, release, output and a dry/wet dial. The other option is a "4K" (inspired by an SSL 4000 Series desk) that includes three fixed ratios of 2, 4 and 10, the same variable controls including make-up gain, and the ability to side chain including a HPF.
Next on ProChannel are three choices in EQ style: Pure, Vintage and Modern. Each EQ setting has six bands, two shelf/bells, four bell/notches and two fully parametric filters (high- and low-pass) with adjustable slope. The bottom of the EQ features a Gloss mode, which acts as a "sheen" — I found it desirable in some instances such as a vocal or acoustic guitar.
At the bottom of ProChannel's GUI is the Tube Saturation mode featuring input, drive (the amount of tube processing) and output controls. I found myself using this for a good bit on bass, acoustic guitar and electric guitar. I could also see it being a good tool for vocals that need a bit more bite in the track.
At the bottom of Tube Saturation is a routing section. This is totally customizable to route the compressor, EQ and Tube Saturation in any desired order.
What I really like about ProChannel is the availability to engage it without having to go through the process of inserting on a channel. ProChannel doesn't use computer processing power until engaged and even then it produces a minimal load, even when applied to multiple channels. ProChannel felt much like working on an analog desk. Granted, sometimes plug-ins are preferred, but ProChannel stood on its own in the all-too-important department of "good sound meets flexibility." Sometimes, just a simple filter or an EQ notch is needed; having this available at my fingertips really kept the creativity rolling. It would be safe to say that if an X1 user lived solely by ProChannel their results would not be sterile. The ability to utilize different modes for EQ, compression and routing makes it a very flexible solution.
3. Smart Tool
SONAR X1 includes a new Smart Tool that allows the user to spend less time switching tools and more time editing. This tool works for both MIDI and audio editing. The tool changes based on where the tool is placed within the clip; for example, when placing the tool in the middle of the clip, the tool allows the user to move the clip. Hold the tool by the top left or right edge and the fade is available while the middle edge enables the trim tool.
One of my go-to modes was engaging the Alt key with the smart tool in the middle, which transforms the tool into a split tool. I became very accustomed to working with a smart tool in other DAWs and must say that the SONAR smart tool is a welcome addition. There are still individual tools available including erase, draw and more detailed editing but for the majority of the time, I lived with the smart tool. If another tool was desired, pressing the T key (or center mouse button) will pop up the tool menu at your cursor allowing for a quick tool change.
Each X1 track now has an edit filter that only shows chosen data. Automation data only appears based on the edit filter's settings. So, if working on a clip level, the user must choose that from the edit filter; all other filters are ghosted out. A simple shift click on a ghosted edit filter will bring it to the forefront for editing. Multiple edit filters can be set on tracks by holding down the Ctrl button. I'll admit, it took me a bit to get used to this because I was so accustomed to using my right click to choose a filter. Once I got used to this method, it grew on me; I like being able to quickly glance at the edit filter settings for that channel to confirm the filter I was working on was what I intended. Again, the smart tool was the primary tool for working with the edit filters. MIDI track's edit filters will switch between editing clips and notes in the piano roll.
The three previously described features will fall short if the stability of the software comes into question. I found SONAR X1's stability proportionate to two key factors: the amount of CPU utilization and the speed in which I performed my tasks. That means when I started to flirt with 60 percent-plus CPU load, I really had to be intentional about my clicks. If I progressed too far ahead of the software it would lock up and inevitably I would need to reboot to get everything back online. I don't fault SONAR as much as I do my modest system. Once I finally grew patient, started freezing/processing tracks, SONAR performed admirably.
The upgrade from SONAR 8.5 Producer to X1 Producer is only $149. This upgrade also includes a slew of great instrument plug-ins such as Guitar Rig 4LE, Session Drummer 3 and Dimension Pro as well as over 40 plug-in effects ranging from Linear Phase plug-ins and an arsenal of effects, both time- and dynamics-based. Add in how well it performed overall (minus my aggressive system expectations) and the great new workflow features, I would highly recommend taking the jump to X1 Producer. If you have never thought of SONAR as a go-to DAW, now is the perfect time to give it a test run. Its flexibility and workflow do lend themselves to having more time creating, which, in the end, makes for a more enjoyable experience and, ultimately, better results.
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Dan Wothke is media director at Belmont Church of Music Row, Nashville. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.