Cakewalk has been in the news a lot lately. First, Gibson agreed to buy them from Roland. Having a guitar maker buy a DAW company is not as odd as it first seems, since Gibson also owns TASCAM, maker of interfaces and digital recording hardware. So Cakewalk becomes Cakewalk Development, and SONAR will be published by TASCAM Professional Software. Gibson's CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, is a long-time SONAR user himself and hired SONAR guru Craig Anderton as Chief Magic Officer of Gibson. I'm not sure exactly what that job is, but that is all very reassuring. Then Cakewalk released the latest upgrade of their flagship product, SONAR X3. X3 continues the refinement of Cakewalk's X Series [Tape Op #82, #88, #92], which was a major break from the original SONAR and its decidedly old-style Windows look. The Skylight GUI of the X series appears more 21st century, moving about half of the tabs and buttons from the once overly festooned toolbar to the channel strip or the tracks themselves. It certainly looks less intimating and cluttered to a newcomer, but is just as fast to edit with, once you learn where to find the function you need. And unlike the previous upgrades of SONAR X, the "what's new" list doesn't read like a Russian novel and involve major changes in workflow. Cakewalk has settled on a methodology for working and is tweaking, not overhauling, their baby.
The upgrade process went smoothly; I simply installed X3 over the two earlier versions on my computer. Those were still available, of course, while X3 adopted my personal settings from X1 and X2 with minimum muss and fuss. SONAR X3 finally adds VST3 compatibility, and now automatically detects new plug-ins without re-scanning your entire collection. This is one of those little enhancements that can save a lot of time if you constantly add to your plug-in collection. As to plug-ins, Cakewalk has never been shy about adding more for each release, including third-party software. The best plug-in addition to X3 Producer is Melodyne Essential, the basic version of Melodyne Editor [Tape Op #84]. It replaces Roland's V-Vocal software for pitch and timing correction, and it is better integrated since Cakewalk implemented ARA (Audio Random Access) support. Now, just click on an audio clip, and Melodyne pops up in the MultiDock. Or whistle - you know how to whistle, don't you? Then drag that audio into a MIDI track and have it converted automatically to MIDI. The work on the innards of the code for ARA seems to have improved the engine, too. X3 runs a bit smoother with my setup, anyway. Some of the other new goodies in X3 include Tape Emulator, which adds a saturation effect and a nice low-end bump to tracks; the full version of Addictive Drums [Tape Op #69]; and Nomad Factory Blue Tubes bundle [#45], which rectifies the lack of time-based effects in earlier SONARs. There were a couple of old DX chorus, etc. modules, which were certainly usable, but the Blue Tubes plug-ins provide better interfaces, if you are of a certain age, and sound good too. What was skimpy is now a surfeit, and that's a good thing.
But upgrades should be more than new toys, no matter how fun those are. Under workflow, X3's biggest improvements are in track lanes and comp'ing. You choose the different modes of recording overdubs beforehand. Once you've finished with your overdubs, just drag over the part of the take you want to use, and the Smart Tool clips it while simultaneously muting all the other takes. This split occurs across all your takes, segmenting them into phrases, while you can slip-edit and do fades across all them at once. Once you've divided the takes into phrases, you can play back your comp and then refine the choices by moving through phrases vertically and horizontally using the arrow buttons. It is quick and intuitive. Another "I could have had a V8" moment is the fly-out zoom panel and FET analysis for the ProChannel EQ. SONAR's ProChannel is a modular channel strip for each track and bus that uses specially formatted VSTs. ProChannel has a set width, however, which made EQ mousing a challenge. The fly-out zoom gives you a heck of a lot more real-estate to make delicate (or not) adjustments. Besides, grabbing a point with the mouse is a far more natural way to control frequency and gain rather than fiddling with two knobs, one at a time, onscreen. Lastly, color customization is back. You can pick and even create colors for tracks and buses, use the Quick Group function to organize tracks by color, and auto-sync tracks with their respective bus. Even if you don't let your inner decorator come out, it too is a timesaver. Both the EQ fly-out panel and color control were (incessant) requests on the Cakewalk forums, and Cakewalk listened to users.
If you've used the SONAR X series, X3 has no real learning (or should I say re- learning) curve from earlier versions. It works great on Windows 7. I don't have Windows 8 yet, or a touchscreen, but Cakewalk has videos on their website showing how X3 works with touch. Here's hoping I've been a good boy this year and Santa brings me the biggest touchscreen I can afford. Even without touch, there are plenty of enhancements that make X3 easier and quicker to use, as well as some nice and shiny yet useful new tools. The 64-bit processing engine still sounds great, like an audio WYSIWYG screen. Cakewalk's streamlined product line now shares that same engine (and unlimited track count), while the flagship X3 Producer contains an entire panoply of Cakewalk products, so you don't have to leave SONAR to finish your song - top shelf synths, step sequencers, a beat-style matrix, the audio ProChannel with nice compressors and EQ, a full mastering suite, along with all of their older synths and effects so you can open a 10 year old project to the same spec. Not too shabby for a guitar maker.