Watching Sonar evolve is like watching a makeover show on reality TV: “We took Cakewalk Pro Audio, did a CPU tuck, user interface enlargement, and took care of ‘time stretch marks.’ We then improved the complexion by appropriate use of color, and removed unsightly interface complexities. And now, it’s time for . . . The Big Reveal!”
Well, Cakewalk has converted the ugly duckling called Pro Audio into the swan of Sonar. On the way, they’ve picked up major market share, created a lively set of user forums, and changed public perception of the company’s products from “Don’t they make something for [grimace, sneer] Windows?” to “Sonar rocks.”
Sonar 4 ($959 list for the Producer Edition, $499 for the Studio Edition with a lesser feature set) brings the fourth version in four years. An upgrade from Sonar 3 Producer will set you back $179; Sonar 3 Studio, $229; Sonar 1 or 2, $249; Sonar 4 Studio/Pro Audio/Project 5, $299; registered Cakewalk owner, $349. Frankly, for a Sonar 1 owner to pay $249 and get Sonar 4 Producer Edition is a helluva deal.
As with the Acid Pro 5 update review, we won’t get heavy into Sonar’s specs as you can find them on the web (cakewalk). We’ll concentrate instead on the Top 10 upgrade features.
FORE! WITH FOUR
Actually, this review is of Sonar 4.0.1, which lets you turn off real-time plug-in delay compensation calculations (oooh, that sounds so scientific!) to minimize audio engine gapping. But no worries, it recalculates and compensates when you press the transport’s Stop button, so PDC doesn’t go away. 4.0.1 also fixes a bunch o’ bugs and adds some new features.
Sonar still has a benign copy protection scheme; just enter serial number and install from CD. Sonar handily passes the “My computer died, but at least I can re-install my sequencer without exploding” test. A DVD includes additional content, including a Public Enemy song with the original Sonar project used to make it.
The biggest new feature doesn’t show on a spec sheet: Better workflow. This results from multiple tweaks and changes, with a cumulative result that projects get done faster. There’s something about Sonar that lets you get into a groove and stay there. As to the other features . . .
SurroundBridge is what makes the surround implementation special. Insert any mono or stereo effect into a surround bus, and Sonar clones it enough times to cover all the channels. You can control all of them from the interface for one of them, or unlink parameters to make adjustments for some channels but not others. Yes, there’s a surround version of the Lexicon Pantheon Reverb and Sonitus Compressor, but SurroundBridge means you can use any of your fave effects (including VST) in surround-world.
I always thought Prosoniq had great-sounding time stretch algorithms. Apparently Cakewalk thinks so too, because they’ve licensed their MPEX3 algorithms. The sound quality is light years ahead of Sonar 3’s stretch functions.
It’s never been easier to edit acidized files in Sonar, as you can now audition individual slices (is the click in that slice from picking up part of the next transient?), and the Now time marches across the window so you know where you are in the loop. But in a Rex-like flight of fancy, there are also pitch, gain, and pan envelopes for each slice, so the loop construction window is more of a creative tool as well.
Dump tracks into a Track Folder? Sure. But the Track Folder itself creates a clip that you can slip edit, move, cut, copy, normalize, and otherwise process. When you perform operations on a Track Folder, they affect all eligible tracks within the folder (of course, an audio process won’t affect MIDI tracks). However, you can’t nest folder tracks.
Because of the new “Show Layers” option, you can loop record into a single track, then “unfold” it into multiple lanes of takes. Next, a Mute tool lets you mute and unmute sections to come up with the perfect composite track. Then “Bounce to Clip,” and all the good bits end up in one track and all the other lanes go away. This is fast, efficient, and pain-free.
It’s not the synth to end all synths. But as a general purpose GM module, it’s a considerable improvement over the older VSC. The Roland-powered TTS-1 has 256 GM2 sounds and 9 drum sets, 32-bit internal processing, supports 96kHz sampling, and doesn’t stress your CPU too heavily. The sounds are fairly editable, so you can also store 512 user sounds. Like any GM module, you’ll find some sounds useful, and some not; but given the paucity of bundled instruments, this one is welcome.
Even Sonar V1.0 had a freeze function, but most people didn’t know it. So Sonar 4 re-packaged it as a one-click operation, with of course Unfreeze to blow away the frozen data (hey, why don’t companies just call it “thaw?”). But there’s also a “quick freeze” and “quick unfreeze” mode, which retains the frozen data so you can diddle with effects or other parameter changes while unfrozen to see if you like them better. If you don’t, you can quick freeze again. The bad news: If you do like the changes, you can’t just “re-freeze.” You have to quick freeze, then unfreeze, then freeze. Not a huge deal, but a re-freeze command would save mouse clicks.
I first got into Cakewalk Pro Audio because it could load just about any video format into a resizeable video window without complaining. Sonar 4 adds video thumbnails that can show absolute frame numbers, which simplifies navigating around an audio-for-video project.
And speaking of navigation, there’s a project overview with a resizeable zoom rectangle. Drag it over the part of the project you want to see in the Clips pane; shrink the rectangle to zoom in, expand to zoom out. This saves much time when you’re jumping around in a long project.
Here’s the “defector’s” feature: Call up keyboard shortcut sets that duplicate those of Cubase SX, Digital Performer, Logic, Nuendo, Pro Tools, Samplitude, and Vegas. I used to use Quickeys on the Mac to do this when reviewing different platforms so I could get around with a familiar set of shortcuts, and believe me, it does help a lot when you’re making the transition.
That’s it for the Top Ten, but also note the horizontal and vertical “nudge” commands to move clips (and notes in the Piano Roll editor) in fixed increments — from as little as 1ms to as many frames, samples, ticks, notes, measures, or seconds as you like. Sonar now has real dither from Pow-R, more export options, and a better audio engine that’s not quite as gapless as Ableton Live, but seriously good. And there’s much better color customization.
Version 5 Wish List
I’d like to see better integration of time-stretching and loops, like Cubase SX3 has done, where you can convert a stretched loop to a standard audio file using stretch algorithms. I also like Live’s ability to “warp” hard disk audio to arbitrary rhythms. And maybe it’s time for Cakewalk to resurrect .CAL files as a well-implemented suite of MIDI effects. They’re wonderful, but don’t get no respect.
Finally, Apple’s Logic 7 has really raised the bar for including loads of cool plug-ins. The Sonitus effects suite rises to the challenge, but the instruments don’t. Sonar needs to augment the TTS-1 with a good virtual analog synth (the DreamStation is starting to look pretty tired), a slammin’ drum machine, and a basic sampler. Of course, Sonar veterans have the DR-008 drums, VSampler, and Timeworks effects from previous versions, as well as the outstanding Cyclone DXi. But someone just getting into Sonar will want to factor some decent soft synths into the total price.
I’ve always appreciated Sonar’s ease of use. The latest version takes workflow to a much higher level; this is a truly efficient (and stable, by the way) sequencer that gets out of the way when you’re in The Creative Zone. Sonar 4 is a program that rewards the faithful, and just may cause others to wonder if perhaps the grass isn’t a bit greener — or at least needs less mowing and weeding — on Sonar’s side of the fence.