The new SONAR that replaces SONAR X3 will be the last one ever — no more numbered editions according to Cakewalk. But that doesn't mean that this is the last release you'll ever need. Cakewalk is dropping the numbers and no longer following a software cycle of major and minor releases. Instead, Cakewalk is now updating its flagship DAW on a more frequent basis, rolling in bug fixes, enhancements, and new features whenever they're ready. When you buy SONAR, you're given access to updates and tech support for one year after your purchase date. Therefore, during the year-long "membership" following your purchase, you'll always have the latest version of SONAR available for download. Besides letting you buy SONAR up-front (same as it ever was), Cakewalk is introducing a 12-month, pay-as-you-go model. Basically, Cakewalk will tote the note for you over the year- long membership. This means you can get into SONAR for less than $10 a month. (This new sales model should help expand the customer base for Cakewalk, as well slow down piracy, since the cost feels low and includes a year of "free" updates.) The only downside of monthly payments is if you miss one, then your software switches to demo mode until you start paying again. But, once you've paid for the software, either up-front or over 12 months, you own the software license (again, same as it ever was). In other words, SONAR will continue to function even if you don't renew your membership, unlike some other "subscription" software.

So, what else is new in SONAR? First up is Cakewalk Command Center (CCC) for implementing the new software update scheme. CCC is a pretty sweet program — mostly titles and versions you have. When you open it and check into your online account, you'll get a list of all the programs that are available for SONAR. (Unfortunately, older purchases, like X3, don't work with CCC, but those should still be in your old store account.) SONAR Platinum includes several separate programs that are broken out in a hierarchical list, highlighted by little virtual LEDs that tell you which programs and constituent parts have been downloaded, and which ones are activated. Fortunately, Cakewalk still allows you install programs on more than one computer; you're just asked not to use more than one copy at a time. And best, Cakewalk continues to rely on a serial number and registration authorization process (yay!), which is the simplest way to keep us honest, yet works as well as many more intrusive methods. Platinum includes a few separate downloads, like Melodyne Essential (the same one found in X3) and XLN Audio Addictive Drums 2 (an upgrade from X3's version 1), as well as Cakewalk software synthesizers Rapture and Dimension Pro. The latter requires several GBs of samples. Because all of these resources (as well as the standard audio loops that come with SONAR) are broken out as separate downloads, you can choose what to download as needed. This is just one of several ergonomic smoothings incorporated into the first iteration of the new SONAR.

Another ergonomic smoothing is the Control Bar. Each new version of SONAR has made it more personalized. Not to brag, but some of us have bigger screens than others. Those less endowed might run out of room and have their Control modules run right off the screen to their everlasting shame. This doesn't have to happen anymore. You can re-arrange, resize, and collapse modules now. In the collapsed state, you hover the mouse over a shrunken module and it will expand below the Control Bar to its natural, full size. There are even two new modules that you can easily squeeze in now — one for the new Mix Recall function and another that assigns buttons to functions for easy access, almost like hot keys. In the pre-SONAR X Windows-style Control Bar, you could literally find every function, but that meant high clutter. With the X-era SONAR, it was often frustrating trying to uncover occasionally-used functions that were buried. The new, clean Control Bar has solved all of these issues.

Another new feature that just makes sense is the stackable nature of FX and dynamic Sends. Now when you add an effect to the FX box for tracks, the box lengthens to show each effect — no more scrolling. You can lengthen the Send module to see the number of Sends, too. Another time-saver is the MIDI Pattern Tool. You pick it up off the Tool Palette; it looks like a paint roller. Click and roll over any length of MIDI pattern — bar, phrase, etc. — and it picks up the said pattern, allowing you to copy it over as many new bars, phrases, etc. as you want. It's just like rolling out ACID clips — goodbye cut and paste! There are other MIDI enhancements, but the best new save-me-a-bunch-of-time feature is Mix Recall. Once you're mixing, you can store variations — vocal up, SFX on lead guitar, no backing vocals, what have you. Mix recall is quicker than using Save As, and you can A/B mixes in near real-time. All the above are simple features, yet they speed up and simplify working in SONAR.

Some people don't seem to care about such niceties and would rather have new tools and toys. There are some good ones included in Platinum. VocalSync is an alignment tool optimized for vocals, but it can work on other audio tracks too. Highlight the area you want to sync, convert it, and then pick the guide track. A single knob lets you adjust the converted track to best match the timing of the guide in real- time. It's great for doubled vocals or ADR-type chores. There are new FX Chains, and Cakewalk has added 16 new virtual amps. But by far the best new toy is a bundled version of Overloud REmatrix convolution reverb. REmatrix Solo is limited to single impulses (naturally), but it uses the same excellent impulse responses from MoReVoX. It is the best reverb included yet with SONAR, although Overloud's algorithmic Breverb (first bundled with SONAR X3) runs pretty close — and that still comes with SONAR Platinum. Reverb and delay were weak spots with SONAR effects in the past. Nomad Factory Blue Tube collection added the delays, and now there are several stellar reverbs, too.

Finally, SONAR can import and export DSD files, while its ability to work at 24-bit, 384 kHz (DXD) allows editing of DSD via down-sampled files. This is how the expensive DSD editors do it. And considering that Cakewalk and TASCAM are both owned by Gibson, and TASCAM makes stereo DSD recorders with sync capability, here's hoping they have a love child. DSD recording and editing, done without having to sell your firstborn. That could be sweet.

A page on the Cakewalk website is dedicated to hints about upcoming features, including a drum replacer and other goodies. Cakewalk talked about doing monthly updates, and guess what? They have so far.

Overall, the new plain ol' SONAR is a nice update to SONAR X3. While there have been more shiny toys stuffed into previous versions, and perhaps some of the new ergonomic improvements should have been incorporated earlier, SONAR's Skylight interface finally feels finished now. There is just no getting around the fact that the modern DAW is a complex critter, and most of us use a fraction of the features regularly. However, SONAR provides better control, functions more smoothly, and simply feels more organized — and importantly, you don't have to make significant changes to most of your workflows. There is still work to be done, of course. For example, I'd like to open a new project without having to name it first, and I wish I could re-arrange tabs in the MultiDock. Those missing features aren't negligible, but they're hardly showstoppers. The heavy lifting seems done, and the future is mostly gravy.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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