It has been well over a year since Cakewalk started offering SONAR [Tape Op #107], their flagship DAW, with rolling updates and an installment-based payment model. You can still purchase the software license outright, cash on the barrelhead; or you can divide your payment into 12 monthly installments. Either way, you start by downloading the latest version of the software, then you receive free updates for one year. At the end of the year, you still own the license — free and clear. At this point, if you want to continue receiving updates, you can pay for just the updates at a lower monthly cost, and you can choose to stop your update payments at any time after this first year. Importantly, the current model for the top-tier SONAR Platinum edition is a lifetime of updates at no additional cost. (This special pricing for Platinum is available until the end of 2016.)
Note that Cakewalk's installment plan is nothing like the subscription models from the likes of Avid and Adobe — their software stops working after you finish paying, forcing you to pony up more cash, month after month. In other words, Cakewalk doesn't cripple your SONAR after you've finished your payments. (To be fair, Avid does offer a perpetual license in addition to a subscription, so you can pay up front for Pro Tools and keep the license, but no installment plan is available.)
Rolling updates mean that Cakewalk is eschewing the standard practice of releasing a new, paid version of SONAR every year. Instead, feature updates are published about once a month. Personally, I've always been leery of updating to a completely new version of my best-friend software, especially if I'm in the middle of a project — and I'm always in the middle of something. So I usually take some time before committing actual work to the latest and greatest, continuing to use the previous version until I'm sure the new one will hold up. On the other hand, these new, bite-sized updates cause a lot less worry and are much quicker to test. And mercifully, Cakewalk has a new application for all this downloading and updating. Cakewalk Command Center keeps track of all your Cakewalk software and makes sure you have the latest versions on your computer, automating the drudgery of updating.
What is in these updates? The kinds of things you would expect to find in any new revision of a DAW — bug fixes, of course, but also ergonomic solutions and improvements in the engine, as well as in the included ancillary software. Over the summer of 2016, the updates contained plenty of bug fixes, but also improvements to touchscreen control and a pop-up virtual keyboard; a Theme Editor for personalizing the color scheme of the Skylight UI; improvements in the Browser and in the comping facilities; and updates for the included mastering plug-ins. These are just some of the changes. Cakewalk also has an online page hinting at future developments, like ripple-editing for large project sections; better core-balancing; and even more Theme, Browser, and comping improvements.
One of the great things about small, monthly updates is how quickly Cakewalk can implement changes in one function, get user feedback, and then quickly release any needed bug fixes and user-suggested changes. (Yes, Virginia, Cakewalk reads your suggestions.) In the past, the big yearly updates introduced so many changes across the spectrum that it made it hard to tell if one fix broke something else when the new version mainstreamed on thousands of systems. Smaller changes make for smaller problems, ideally. It's the difference between working on an idling car rather than one barreling down the highway with the hood open — for both Cakewalk and its customers. And, at the end of the day, there is little to dislike about more choice in methods of payment and keeping your software up-to-date.
All three editions of SONAR — Artist, Professional, and Platinum — share the same Skylight UI, 64-bit engine, and unlimited counts for I/O, audio/MIDI tracks, and sends/buses. Artist edition sports fewer Aux Tracks and Patch Points (more features recently added), lacks most of the modules for the excellent ProChannel channel strip, and comes with fewer plug-ins, instruments, and other tools. Visit the Cakewalk website for a detailed comparison of features between the three editions. Platinum, of course, contains every function and tool, and it loads up on synths and extra effects for the professional studio or the need-it-all home recordist.
For example, XLN Addictive Drums 2 cracks the hardest recording nut — drums. It has an expandable kit selection, individual outs, and plenty of control over individual drums — everything that comes with a good software drum kit is included. The older but still very useful Session Drummer 3 still comes with all three editions of SONAR. Next, a proprietary version of Overloud TH3, also available edition-wide, offers quite a nice selection of amps, cabs, and stompboxes you arrange virtually. Plus, TH3 is useful on tracks other than the guitar (or bass), like for adding a touch of hair to help rock vocals cut through the mix.
One "coming soon" feature I'm excited for, is heightened SONAR support for Softube's hardware Console 1 digital mixer/processor. Speaking of Softube, as an early partner with Cakewalk, the company has "ProChanneled" several of its excellent effects to the benefit of the many SONAR users who rely on ProChannel. Cross deals have allowed Cakewalk to concentrate on SONAR basics, while leaving the coding of high-end effects to others, although Cakewalk is no slouch in that department. Their ProChannel SSL-style bus compressor is as good of an emulation as I've heard. And QuadCurve covers most EQ needs; with four bands, plus high and low–pass filters, it is genuinely flexible (especially with various board emulations built-in) and has a fly-out capability that overcomes the width restrictions of ProChannel for more precise control. Other Overloud and Nomad Factory effects are included too, as well as the respected Sonitus:fx suite. Finally, Professional and Platinum come with Melodyne 4 Essential for all your vocal and other instrument "correction" needs.
Note that Cakewalk and its software partners provide options to add or upgrade to full versions on the cheap, which is a nice plus. Cakewalk's Rapture Pro, for example, is a separate purchase but builds on their sample-based Dimension Pro and Rapture synths [Tape Op #61] that come with Platinum. All three of those, as well as the more "analog" Z3TA+ Classic (also included with Platinum) and Z3TA+ 2 show off Cakewalk's considerable synth programming chops. Their CA-2A Leveling Amp (an LA-2A optical-style compressor) is another great emulation — I'd love to have more such effects to slide into ProChannel (or as a simple VST into the track/bus effects slot).
One news flash worth mentioning is that Cakewalk is currently working on a macOS version of SONAR. [I've actually seen it running on a MacBook Pro. –AH] Hopefully, this will lead to a full-blown, dual-platform SONAR in the near future, with a single license that covers both OSes.
Cakewalk is making me very happy with their new paradigms for payments and updates, and SONAR itself remains a mature, stable DAW. Most of the rolling updates have been gravy over the proverbial dish — tasty, and makes your music go down easier. While each of the rolling updates doesn't add a lot of new, shiny toys that users got with yearly, numbered releases, a rock solid yet incrementally evolving DAW is still a great entrée, and all the rolling updates together add up to a nice selection of garnishes and sides.