In the beginning, Twelve Tone Systems begat Cakewalk MIDI Sequencer for DOS, and Cakewalk begat Pro Audio, which begat SONAR, which begat SONAR X1. Just as SONAR kept much of Pro Audio’s functionality but sported a new look, the X refers to an all-new SONAR without losing the name recognition. When I first opened X1, it reminded me of Cakewalk’s VS DAW that comes with V-Studio 100 (Tape Op #74), except with a lot more going on. The old SONAR (#61, #69) tacked on new features and functions as they were introduced, so it eventually took on a broom-closet look. Everything was there, but you had to know where to look. For a newcomer, it was rather intimidating. Also, a lot of the shortcuts and key bindings had a similar hodgepodge organization. X1 is much tidier in organization, and shortcuts are now more intuitive.
Before digging too deep into the new look and ergonomics of SONAR X1, let’s take a look at two of its new features. First is Sound Center, a kind of greatest hits version of Cakewalk’s soft synths, including Dimension Pro and Rapture (Tape Op #53). Although you have less control of the sounds than you do in the standalone versions, the sounds you get are top notch — not merely placeholders. Second is ProChannel, available in SONAR X1 Producer, the most feature-laden edition. It consists of compressor, EQ, and tube-saturation stages.
ProChannel’s compressor can be switched between an 1176-style channel or a 4000-like bus model. Although I didn’t have the hardware at home to do a shootout, each compressor type sounds very good on track and bus duties. You can hear some comparison clips for yourself at RhythmInMind.net. The EQ is marvelous. It sounds fuller and rounder than the Sonitus EQ it replaces and as good as many pricey, third-party EQ plug-ins. The EQ has three different modes – Vintage, Modern, and Pure — each with four parametric bands and two filters. I found myself gravitating to Modern, which is capable of raising the level of selected frequencies cleanly and pleasingly — and boosting is something I usually don’t do much of digitally. It reminded me of the RND Portico II EQ (without sounding the same). Still, ProChannel doesn’t cost $3000, and you can insert it on as many channels as you want until the CPU shuts down. There is also a dynamic frequency-boost function called Gloss, which adds a bump with a mode-specific contour centered between 8-12 kHz; it’s a nice way to add some shine to an important track or two. While digital is finally giving analog some competition in the realms of compression and EQ, I can’t say the same about saturation. There is just something too non-linear about the “hair” you get from analog distortion that I haven’t heard replicated in software. Still, I like that the tube-saturation section doesn’t get hazy or thick too quickly.
With Sound Center and ProChannel aside, the major difference between SONAR X1 and previous versions is the look and feel. Reading between the lines of material published on the Cakewalk User Forum and elsewhere, it’s obvious that Cakewalk felt they could attract more new users with a simpler UI. However, old hands will not only need to re-customize their screen but also figure out where everything is and learn some new methods to accomplish old tasks. I still curse Microsoft when pecking for a seldom-used tool in the latest version of Word, and I use a lot more of SONAR than I do of a word processor. Ultimately, it is no harder than learning a new program.
X1’s new Skylight UI presents the user with a workspace that incorporates a new, modular Control Bar; an Inspector that displays clip, track, and channel data in one place; a redesigned audio file, effects, and synth Browser; and the MultiDock for accessing any of SONAR’s views. You’ll need a lot of screen space to display everything at once, and even with two screens I had to reset the resolution of my screens, especially for ProChannel; unless you collapse its EQ Section, ProChannel is over 800 pixels tall and doesn’t scroll. The main Track view has been rearranged, with many functions moved to a bar along the top; once I got used to it, I found the new layout logical and well-organized. The Track Inspector can be locked left or right, or floated, and it now shows the output bus in a second pane. A slim view of ProChannel sits on top of each audio input and bus output and can be floated separately. The Browser comes up on the right hand, but you can expand and float it wherever you please. One of the new tricks in X1 is comprehensive drag-and-drop support throughout the application.
The MultiDock might be the most welcome addition to SONAR X1’s UI. It’s simply an empty space into which you can, well, dock just about everything but the main Track view, including the Browser; editing views like the Piano Roll and Staff; and performance views like the Matrix. Ideally, you’ll be able to find the right-sized box to fit each of these into where you can work comfortably on each of them. That way, you can do most of your work within the Track view and the MultiDock. Cool, except there are a few annoyances in implementation. First, the “D” key command doesn’t hide the dock as you would expect; it merely brings up an empty screen within it. That should be fixed in an X1b update coming by the time you read this review. (Cakewalk has a good track record of issuing fixes and enhancements in a timely manner.) The other problem is that the MultiDock defaults to either the top or bottom of the screen and will “magnetically” slide to those spots if you get it too close to them. You can, however, hold the control key while dragging the MultiDock to turn off magnetism. The last thing is small, but still annoying. The Synth Rack is tabbed within the Browser, and if you use a lot of soft synths, it can take an extra click of the mouse to bring the rack forward; I wish it had its own view in the MultiDock.
Once you have your MultiDock set up, you might find that what works for the Browser is too small for the Piano Roll. Skylight has another trick for this — Screensets. You can save ten of them per project, and each Screenset remembers where everything is — placement, size, which tab in the dock is up, the whole shebang. Organize your workspace, and save it in a Screenset. Then, when you need to work in a particular view — voilà. As with MultiDock, there are some implementation issues with Screensets in X1 that have been fixed for X1b.
I may be all wrong about how Cakewalk intended for me to use Skylight, but it is starting to work for me nonetheless. I’m already faster at some tasks; others I’m still working out. During the first month, I didn’t dare use X1 on a remix session for the new When Girls Collide CD, despite the lure of ProChannel. It would have been slow, especially having to constantly access Help, so we stuck with SONAR 8.5. A month later now, I wouldn’t hesitate to use X1, even if I haven’t figured out exactly how to use everything.
My feeling is that X1 should be treated like a new piece of software, not merely an update. Although the audio engine is the same as the one refined in SONAR 8, the UI is new, and it’s understandably not bug-free. On my system, I’ve experienced no more than a couple crashes, although engine “stops” seem more frequent. Granted, many of the known workflow problems have been fixed for the scheduled X1b update, but I feel there is still room for improvement in both the functions and use of the workspace. For example, the area dedicated in the track header for inserting an instrument icon seems to cover a good third of the entire header. Even the dedicated user of track icons is not going to use it more than once a song, and having a larger area to bring up the track functions is a better use of space and would require less stabbing with the mouse. Once the X1b fix is out and Cakewalk gets the engine glitches ironed out, there will be little that detracts from SONAR X1’s new audio features and redesigned UI — for new users or upgraders alike — and it remains a very flexible DAW. (SONAR X1 Essentials $99 street, X1 Studio $199, X1 Producer $399; upgrade pricing varies; www.cakewalk.com)
–Alan Tubbs, www.bnoir-film.com
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