In my music production work, I employ huge audio and MIDI track counts, oodles of plug-ins, and heaps of audio editing. I might use 50 tracks for vocals alone, and another 40 for guitars. For example, the songs "Your Touch" and "No One Like You" by Universal Recording artist Luminous (a collaboration with Hugh Padgham) are easily 100 tracks each. These days, 30-60 instruments of Dimension Pro and Rapture, both of which are cross-platform software instruments from Cakewalk, are standard for me. I need to record, arrange, and edit all these tracks-and capture musical ideas quickly. So, in order to make all this happen, I need reliability and performance in my DAW.
For this review, I'm testing Sonar Producer Edition v6.2.1 on three PCs: a quad-core Intel Q6600 that I just finished building, a P4 3.2 HT, and a random old Dell Latitude D400 business laptop. Sonar always installs quickly and easily-and runs beautifully-even on the D400 with its ancient, crappy SigmaTel sound card. Using Sonar with WinXP Pro 32-bit, I don't have to worry about proprietary and exorbitant hardware costs; constant driver and OS incompatibility issues; and worst of all, expensive and ineffective tech support. The software just works. Old versions of Sonar run on new hardware, and vice-versa. You gotta love the convenience.
Sonar 6 is slicker and more intuitive than ever with new view customizations like coloring and shading enhancements, as well as the ability to change layouts on menus, color schemes, and global tool bars-with full color-customization. There are plug-in menus for quick grouping of clones; friendly port-naming for individual audio and MIDI hardware I/Os; and custom widgets-knobs, sliders, etc. Right-click menus offer numerous possibilities; most effects are immediately available for audio processing; and a lot more. The Console View GUI is pretty sweet, as well. You can slide, show, or hide any module or controller setting-or toggle between global or per-channel. I use Quick Group to select and write automation to multiple faders simultaneously. Also, Sonar now offers to create a recovery file, in the event the application becomes unstable and needs to close. So you don't lose your work-nice! This has already saved my ass a few times.
Cakewalk's ACT MIDI tool instantly and intelligently maps your MIDI controller to your favorite soft synth functions (e.g., resonant filters, etc). ACT also offers the Learn function for all soft synths, so you can instantly map a parameter to the button you're automating. Also, with my Edirol PCR keyboard controller on Cakewalk's preset list, ACT's default knob and slider control mapping is great for most of my soft synths. Of course, I can always assign my own buttons and sliders for non-standard synths or plug-in configurations.
Also included in Sonar 6 is an extremely important editing tool called AudioSnap. This uber-style-y editing tool lets you instantly chop up and quantize audio clips-on or off-line (temporarily in real-time, or permanently/destructively)-along with other useful functions, like time-stretching. AudioSnap is perfect for correcting timing and groove feels on drum loops, or any audio instruments. When I'm chopping up a drum loop to create the feel for a new song, or if I need to quickly match an audio drum loop with a totally different feel (like transform a drum loop with a shuffle feel into a straight four-on-the-floor groove), I'll use AudioSnap; AudioSnap immediately marks the audio clip beats on the transients, allowing me the option to slice the loop up or quantize it-and change the rhythmic feel-as well as remove individual beat subdivisions, etc. AudioSnap is also handy for synching non-percussion audio instruments with an existing groove. In the same way, even a legato or sustained guitar part can be synchronized-or have its feel changed instantly-to match a funky drum and bass groove.
Synth Rack is a central MIDI control station for all open synths in your sequence, which can replace your actual synth GUIs, saving you screen real-estate and GPU exertion. When you boot up a soft synth, it immediately loads into Synth Rack; each synth in your sequence is represented as its own module. You can (virtually) power the modules on or off, control volume, create assignable knobs for MIDI-controllable functions, write automation, and tweak away (e.g., sweep frequency and resonance in a resonant filter). You can also freeze synth tracks in Synth Rack. Overall, this is a convenient way to work in a multi-synth environment.
When it comes to Cakewalk's software instruments, there is a lot to choose from, and I can only scratch the surface here. I recommend the detailed and resourceful book Cakewalk Synthesizers: From Presets to Power User, by Simon Cann, for much more information than I can write here. Cakewalk synths are built around Expression Engine, an extensive and efficient audio re-sampling system built by rgc:audio's Rene Ceballos. Included standard in Sonar 6 PE is a remarkable selection of soft synths including: Cakewalk's TTS-1 (a CPU-friendly suite of faithful Roland patches); Cyclone (sophisticated multi-drum, ACID-format loop editor), Pentagon I Analog Modeling Synth (performance-oriented synth with a range of sound sources for unique tone creations); PSYN II Virtual Analog Synthesizer (versatile subtractive synth for analog and modern sounds); SFZ (soundfont playback synth); RXP REX Player Groove Box (tempo-synchronized plug-in for REX and SFZ-format loops with a range of synthesis tools-great for instant darker-urban vibe in a track, and it has a handy, easy-to-use resonant filter); Session Drummer 2 (Expression Engine-based drum machine synth with multi-sampled drum kits and patterns); and Dream Station (basic CPU-friendly three-oscillator subtractive synth).
Also available separately for Sonar (and for other hosts as well) are Dimension and Dimension Pro (slick, sample-based synths-Pro has a larger sample library); Rapture (Cakewalk's flagship wavetable synthesizer featuring six elements, each with its own DSP block and two filters); and the impressive Z3TA+ analog-style synth (sixty oscillators, wave-shaping, six morph-able LFOs, six separate effects units-this thing is super fun and comes with sweet presets). There's also SFZ+, a Soundfont player with stereo effects and adjustable CPU-efficiency settings.
In addition to the phat Rapture Expansion Packs, popular sound designer Timothy Swartz has produced Digital Sound Factory for Dimension. Not to be outdone, the sick Absynth programmers at Biomechanoid have come up with the Biolabs library for Rapture. These new sample libraries contain some pretty innovative sounds: effervescent pads, warm punchy basses, vibey keyboards, complex effects, and some rousing loops. Both Biolabs and Digital Sound Factory are useful for everything from pop singer-songwriter productions, to video game effects, and to TV and film-scoring atmospheres. My favorite of the Cakewalk synths is Dimension. I love the sounds (including the expansion sounds and new DSF library) for their richness in tone, and I can use them instantly to create effective music beds. And I love the GUI; it's comfy and quick. I'll dig into Dimension for a pop-rock project because of its punchy loops, creamy pianos, and warm basses. And I'll boot up Rapture's Biolabs for ambient pads, freaky effects, and throbbing basses-perfect for film, TV, electronica, and dance projects. I'm currently having a blast with the sampled instruments and features in both Rapture and Dimension Pro.
Downloadable from its website, rgc:audio (creator of Z3TA+ and SFZ) offers well designed, high-quality freeware synths with extensive MIDI implementation. These are the Triangle I and II (mono synths) and the Square I performance synthesizer. While I tend to go to the newer Sonar synths like Dimension Pro and Rapture, I do use Pentagon I, Triangle II, PSYN II, and Dream Station for phat synth basses and punchy rhythmic keyboards.
Sonar 6 offers many excellent bundled effects. The Cakewalk effects include rich reverbs, churning choruses, and malleable delays-with gazads of parameter controls, so you can get your tweak on. For example, StudioVerb gives you all the halls, plates, and rooms you need, as well as controls for room size, decay time, HF rolloff, HF decay, density, pre-delay, "motion rate", "motion depth", level, and mix-not too shabby!! My favorite Cakewalk Chorus effect is the Inverse Doppler preset, a moving flanger/phaser type of effect that's great for adding a bit of dimensional swirl to an intimate vocal on a verse or breakdown section. I've relied on the Cakewalk effects for years. It's also easy to create and save custom effects patches for quick access later. For example, once I've worked hard perfecting a huge hall snare effect for a pick up to my last chorus on the song, if I save it, it's conveniently there for future use along with my other effect presets.
The included VC-64 (64-bit Vintage Channel) "channel strip" processor comes to us from Kjaerhus Audio (and is based on its Golden Audio Channel). It features zero-latency VCA and opto compression modes (think slow and natural sounding LA-2A versus surgical and aggressive 1176LN). VC-64 offers an astonishingly warm and smooth sound, typically found only in expensive high-end compressors and channel strips. I use VC-64 on lead vocals for instant dynamic and performance control. VC-64's smooth de-esser, effective noise gate, and sweet EQ focus all my most important vocal treatment controls in one spot, wrapped in a cool, vintage-looking GUI.
Cakewalk's Sonitus:fx Suite plug-ins come standard in Sonar Producer Edition. Sonitus:fx offer lots of controllable parameters-painless delay-time, mix, and feedback editing. And many of the reverbs and delays are polished and transparent, with smooth tails-none of that cheap, metallic-sounding stuff (although it's there if you actually want it). They're great for spreading out guitars and vocals, and for rhythmic effects too. For pulsing rhythmic guitar parts, I'll take advantage of the auto tempo-synch on the Sonitus:fx multi-tap delays. Sonitus:fx compression is very useful for vocals-subtle and effective. Also, using the Sonitus:fx Gate preset called Drum Loop Chopper, I can quickly remove subtle subdivisions in the beats (e.g., quieter sixteenth-note high hats) and instantly transform a flowing, jazz drum-kit loop into a stiff, urban dance groove. The Sonitus:fx Wah-Wah also sounds good and has some nice presets; I might use the Auto-Wah to create a layered drum-loop effect behind the main groove in my song, panned slightly to one side for texture. Plus, there are lots of compression options that can really enhance vocal and guitar performances.
Also bundled with Sonar is Voxengo's low-latency, 64-bit Perfect Space reverb plug-in. Perfect Space uses impulse files, and impulse responses of 340 hardware and real space reverbs are included. If you haven't been doing the convolution dance yet, get on the train! These reverbs sound excellent-present and natural-and give you lots of options. The Perfect Space GUI is easy and fun; you can get some pretty sick custom reverbs by changing tails, room sizes, and pre-delays on the original impulse files.
One of my longtime Cakewalk faves, Alien Connections ReValver, is an amp emulator with a kickin' overdrive crunch effect; a wonderful, vintage Fender-style spring reverb; and exaggerated EQ. I use it for everything but amp simulation. It works great on drum loops and background vocal effects. It also works well for a processed third or fourth vocal-layer under the main chorus or bridge to create a more cutting vocal effect.
Also included with Sonar is Lexicon Pantheon, a lovely sounding, quickly tweakable reverb with all essential controls-also CPU-friendly; and Roland V-Vocal for non-destructive formant-shaping; pitch, time, and vibrato correction; and varying of formant regions to morph vocals into futuristic sounding instruments-a plug-in that's both practical and adventurous.
There are some improvements I'd like to see in the next version of Sonar. The AudioSnap slicing algorithm could benefit from some programming tweaks. It leaves little bits of audio before and after the significant beat slices, creating pops and clicks that you need to edit out by hand. This could possibly be remedied with an adjustable gate-like function. (I've spoken with Cakewalk, and they're on it.) I also think Cakewalk can make the Synth Rack and Console View GUIs even slicker-more interactive and customizable than they are. I'd like to be able to drag-and-swap controller knobs and faders in these GUIs. I'd also like more resizing and re-arranging options. I wish the synth insert function was available on the main right-click menu-this should be standard. As for basic graphics... in my sunlit studio, I can't tell when an individual Synth Rack module is actually selected. I realize I can use Sonar's new view customizations to change that, which is awesome, but who has time? I also feel like there's some wasted clickable real-estate there. They could do the same with the VC-64, as well. After all, we are in software land, and today's synth GUI is yesterday's Arrange View GUI, so why not go for it?
For years, Cakewalk's stellar technical support over both email and telephone has been wonderful. I get the feeling Cakewalk is a fun company to work for-that the support staff and programmers truly love and use their products. I sincerely hope that Cakewalk continues its tradition of great tech support and doesn't neglect this virtue. There's also the killer Sonar forum on Cakewalk's website, with savvy guys like Scott Garrigus (author of the Sonar Power series of books) regularly contributing to the site. And check out Craig Anderton's books as well as his interactive threads at Harmony-Central.com (lots of screenshots, etc.). I also learned a lot watching Brandon Ryan's online video demos.
All in all, Sonar 6 Producer Edition is a complete, professional music-production workstation. I can do all my recording, arranging, and editing in one application. And with outstanding soft synth instruments, slick MIDI features, and an awesome collection of effects, I don't have to compromise my production vision. I'm free to be creative and pump out slamming tracks at full speed. (Sonar 6 PE $619 MSRP; Rapture $259; Dimension Pro $329; check online for pricing on bundles, competitive upgrades, and alternate versions; www.cakewalk.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.