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CAKEWALK Sonar 4 (WIN)

February 1, 2005
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The developers at Cakewalk don't get much rest: just after I settled into Sonar 3, Sonar 4 arrived at my door. This time around we get comprehensive surround-sound features, a new soft synth, and extensive workflow improvements. Other new Sonar 4 features and usability enhancements make your studio experience more efficient and productive.

FIG. 1: Sonar''s main screen seems largely unchanged at first, but look deeper and you''ll find better navigation tools, track folders, and full support for surround sound.

I installed Sonar on a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 and on a Pentium 4 laptop. Installation went smoothly both times. The main Sonar screen appears crisper and with more contrasting colors than previous versions (see Fig. 1), but otherwise the program looks mostly the same.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll find further great new additions. A Navigator Pane appears at the top of the Track view, showing your entire project at a glance. Every clip appears as a tiny bar that represents position and duration, and a Track Rectangle indicates the portion of the Project you're currently looking at. The current playback position is indicated as well.

You can move or resize the Track Rectangle to control what you see in the Track view. Drag the rectangle to a new set of clips in a different portion of the song, and the Track view follows suit. Making the box longer has the effect of zooming out the Track view horizontally. Shorten its height, and each track and clip will become taller.

Fluff and Fold

New to Sonar 4 are Track Folders, which are especially useful if you have many tracks in a project. For example, once you have the individual drums within a drum kit mixed the way that you want them, you can hide the individual instrument tracks and view just one folder that represents all of the drums.

You create folders just like any other track, then drag the desired tracks into them. Close the folder, and everything inside is replaced with a single line of text widgets indicating how many Audio, MIDI, DXi, and Hidden tracks are inside.

You can mute, solo, archive, or arm all of a Track Folder's contents at once, and you can drag or resize a Track Folder just as you would a single clip. Any other operations you perform, be it adjusting MIDI Velocity values or normalizing audio, affect all of the appropriately typed tracks in the folder.

Although Track Folders help organize a project, I would like to see them enhanced. For example, you can't assign a global volume or pan envelope to a Track Folder (envelopes can be used, however, on each individual track within the folder), and in some cases, you can't change the properties of all the tracks in a folder at once. That last option would allow you to change the output of all of the drum instruments or shift all of the background vocals a few degrees left of center. Other options, such as arming all tracks in a folder at once or adding an aux send for all the tracks, can be accomplished easily.

Take Me On

If you need more than one take to record that perfect performance (and who doesn't), you'll appreciate the new advanced take-management tools. You can now show multiple takes side by side within an individual track. (With previous versions, your only option was to stack the takes on top of each other.) There's no limit to the number of takes in a track, and each take can have its own volume and pan envelope (all takes share the same set of track envelopes).

It's easy to mute or solo individual takes without affecting any other clips in the track. But because your best recording might be attained by combining segments of several different -performances, you might want to mute or solo only portions of takes. Sonar 4's new Mute tool makes assembling a comp track easy: you simply drag the tool over any content that you don't want to hear (you can also unmute with that same tool). I found it easiest to start by soloing a take that was almost right. Then I muted the sour notes and unmuted the sweet ones in other takes. Using the Mute tool's Isolate mode, which can follow the current Snap value, you can easily solo the repeated segments of audio based on a musical duration. The creative possibilities are vast.

The new Crop tool links two clips (for example, it links two takes on adjacent layers within a track) and shortens one while extending the other. That allows you to easily change where one take ends and the other begins (the two takes must be overlapping). The process is nondestructive, so you can slide the cropping point back and forth until you find just the spot you want.

You can now nudge clips in any direction using the numeric keypad or any key bindings you assign (the same tool works on notes, instead of clips, in the Piano Roll view). The number keys work in an intuitive manner: The number 8 moves up; 2 moves down; 1, 4, and 7 move left; and 3, 6, and 9 move right.

You can define three left-right nudging behaviors (all available simultaneously), which you use by choosing a different “row” on the number pad (for example, 1 and 3, 4 and 6, or 7 and 9). There are numerous nudging behaviors available. You can move in increments of musical time (such as measures, quarter-note triplets, or 16th notes), absolute time (including samples, milliseconds, ticks, or SMPTE frames), or you can default to the current snap resolution.

I'm Surrounded

Perhaps the biggest new feature in Sonar 4 is integrated support for up to 8.1 surround mixing and editing. More than 30 surround configurations are supported, including 5.1 and 7.1. You can choose to monitor with or without Bass Management (four common cutoff frequencies are available). Once you choose a configuration, map each channel to your audio outputs.

Sonar's surround implementation is very intuitive. In fact, it follows nearly all the same paradigms as stereo mixing: left-right pan controls are replaced with surround panners, and what were once 2-channel meters now display all of the channels in your surround configuration. You can also create new surround buses just as easily as stereo buses.

FIG. 2: Sonar''s surround panner provides plenty of control to position your audio right where you want it. Joystick support is included.

Surround tracks and buses coexist peacefully with their stereo counterparts in the same project — each track's output setting determines whether it's a surround or stereo track. Send a track to Surround Main or a surround bus, and the fancy panner and multichannel meters appear.

There are three sizes of surround panners to choose from: a tiny one in the Track view, a medium-size one in the Console view and Track Inspector, and a large one that is available as a separate Surround Panner window (see Fig. 2) (A fourth Surround Panner appears if you enable a surround send). All depict the panning position as a set of points within a circle, and all have a dedicated slider for the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel.

The large Surround Panner provides additional detail and control. You can see the specific attenuation at each speaker location as numerical decibel values. There is also an LFE Solo button and dedicated sliders for angle, focus, width, and front/rear balance.

Joystick support is provided, as is full support for surround-panning automation (whether you use a joystick or not). Sonar's joystick implementation is intuitive and ergonomic: capture the current joystick position with the trigger or any other button, and hold the button down and move the joystick for sweeping effects. Holding another button allows you to use the joystick to shift its attention to a different surround panner (for example, another track or a surround-bus send level). You can map your remaining joystick buttons to often-used Cakewalk features such as transport controls and key bindings.

Surround effects operate just as they do in stereo tracks. In fact, you can even use stereo effects on surround tracks and buses. Sonar's new Surround Bridge will automatically create the proper instances of the effect and link their controls so they all operate as one. You can also unlink the effects and treat each effect separately. With 5.1 surround, four instances of the stereo effects are created (one apiece for the front and rear, and one each for the center and LFE channels). And to -sweeten the package, surround versions of the Lexicon Pantheon reverb and Sonitus compressor, which packs four individual compressor modules into one, are -included. In its Peak mode, the surround compressor looks across all channels and uses the level of the highest channel to key the compression of the other channels. Sum mode forces the selected compressor to use an RMS detector, so all input channels are summed, which provides a smoothed average of all the inputs.

Sonar now has import and export support for several surround-encoded file formats, so you can deliver your work for others to hear. And once you've printed that perfect surround-sound master, you can downmix it to stereo and have complete control over how the process takes place. Separate controls determine how much of the Center, Surround, and LFE channels appear in the stereo mix.

A Solid Upgrade

The remaining Sonar improvements are almost too numerous to mention. The Roland-powered TTS-1 wavetable soft synth (see Fig. 3) replaces the Edirol VSC. The TTS-1 supports the General MIDI 2 specification and offers substantial patch editing, comprehensive MIDI continuous-controller support, and great sounds. Those upgrading should be aware, however, that certain third-party soft synths that appeared in previous versions are no longer included (FXpansion's DR-008 and Speedsoft's VSampler, for example). But you can use the versions from your previous installation or reinstall them from the original CD.

Other new features include improved slip-editing (including slipping of multiple selected clips), playback of selected clips or time regions, optional key bindings that mimic those in other programs, and configurable panning laws. Track bouncing and audio exporting are now friendlier, a video thumbnail pane is included, and the behavior of meters is now even more customizable than it already was. High-quality time scaling based on Prosoniq's MPEX3 algorithm and top-notch POW-r dithering algorithms for making 16-bit CDs sound more like 24-bit mixes have also been added.

FIG. 3: The TTS-1 soft synth has a full set of General MIDI 2 patches that sound great. Patches can be edited, and settings can be automated using MIDI continuous controllers.

The Loop Construction view has improved envelopes. You can now use them on individual slices of a Groove clip to set gain or pan. You can also create an envelope to transpose individual loop slices (up to two octaves in either direction) in addition to scaling an entire loop two octaves in either direction. Finally, Sonar has Freeze features that help unburden your CPU. Once you have a soft-synth track (or a track with effects) sounding just the way you want, you can freeze it. When you do, Sonar creates a new audio clip with the effects or soft-synth performance already applied, and then disables the effects bin or synth. You can unfreeze just as easily as you freeze, for example, to change a synth preset, and there are plenty of configuration options to get the results you want.

To help you stay on top of all of these features, Sonar 4 comes with a printed manual, and the online help is comprehensive and context-sensitive. The price has gone up a bit, but if you're looking for audio software that can do it all, Sonar is hard to beat.


Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, a software/systems designer, and a consultant. Check him out at www.sonicbids.com/AllanMetts.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

CAKEWALK Sonar 4

digital audio sequencer
$959

OVERALL RATING (1 through 5): 4.5

PROS: Comprehensive, intuitive, surround implementation. Efficient comp-track building. Ergonomic user interface.

CONS: Some software synths in previous versions are no longer included. Somewhat expensive.

MANUFACTURER

Cakewalk
www.cakewalk.com

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