The reports of the death of the PC/Windows DAW Cakewalk were greatly exaggerated. With tens of thousands of users, many willing to pony up a hundred dollars plus every year for updates, and various top-notch virtual synths, plug-ins, etc. sold separately, Cakewalk (the company) had value - I just wondered who would bite. No need to wonder now, but just who the heck is BandLab? They call themselves a "easy-to-use, all-in-one, social music creation platform." Their site offers an online DAW and libraries of loops, as well as the ability to share songs - plus one can connect with other BandLab users to work on songs.These users can be your actual band members or total strangers that contribute in the spirit of Commons (a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest). You can get feedback from the entire user base, much like Soundcloud etc. There's even access to "how to" articles about recording and music production. The BandLab online DAW is a simple one that seems fine for "creating online," but as a professional tool it leaves something to be desired.

After buying the software, BandLab re-renamed Cakewalk's SONAR [Tape Op #107] Cakewalk by BandLab. Last century Cakewalk was actually the name of the MIDI sequencer program from Twelve Tone Systems, but everybody called both the sequencer and company Cakewalk, so Twelve Tone Systems changed its name. Now we're back to square one.But the real kicker is that BandLab released their freshly bought, new/old stock DAW for free, which is crazy; or is it? BandLab seems to be preparing to be the Facebook or Google of online music production/sharing, so having a professional-caliber DAW makes sense, and they bought the entire software outright. As a major player in the social music scene, they would have a world of built-in customers for anything else they release - presumably not for free. If you are worried about the "free" part, don't. You must join BandLab and get their Assistant to download Cakewalk by BandLab, but you can delete the Assistant from your computer after downloading, keeping only the DAW if you prefer. You also get to keep that copy until a Windows update breaks the application or the cows come home. The free software is not time or function limited, and I had no problem with downloading and installing. It picked up most of my SONAR preferences and effects, and I was able to run an older version of SONAR in tandem with Cakewalk by BandLab on the same computer - the new software doesn't replace or overwrite the old.

Cakewalk by BandLab itself fits somewhere between the old SONAR Artist and Pro versions. It has the same engine as top versions, offering a 64-bit program with a 64-bit engine, and unlimited tracks and buses (dependent on your computer, of course). Most of their ProChannel effects, including the third-party REmatrix Solo, and BREVERB SONAR (along with all the old, but good Sonitus DirectX plug-ins, and the TH3 guitar amp simulator from Overloud). The only synth plug-ins installed with the application are the TTS-1 (a basic General MIDI 2 compatible software synthesizer) and Studio Instruments, which provides a taste of the sounds available from Cakewalk's more complete SFZ format sample synths. Missing from Cakewalk by BandLab's free application are the "for pay" ProChannel VSTs - other third-party plugs - premium software synthesizers, and Celemony's Melodyne [Tape Op #116] (though it does include a trial copy). Still, it is the best "free" DAW you're likely to find in my opinion. BandLab brought along the CTO and some senior coders/quality control people from Cakewalk, and its first update included some bug fixes. Another release (with improvements; not just fixes) should be out by the time you read this review. It is impossible to say how much longer such good times will last, so picking up with improvements and not just fixes is a no brainer if you use a PC.After searching for a SONAR replacement, the answer may have been just to wait for Cakewalk by BandLab.

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

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