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CAKEWALK Sonar 5 Producer Edition (Win)

March 1, 2006
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Autumn is a wonderful time. Each year we get cooler weather, football season, colorful leaves, and, of course, a new version of Sonar. As usual, Cakewalk has found powerful new features to add to an already capable product.

FIG. 1: Sonar 5''s interface has been enhanced and now includes a Piano Roll view directly in the main window. New envelope types have been added, and you can now assign icons to represent tracks.

This time around, Cakewalk has given us 64-bit processing, convolution reverb with hundreds of impulses, powerful vocal processing, more soft synths, and a host of other improvements (see Fig. 1). Also included is a second version of Sonar 5 that is optimized for use with the 64-bit edition of Windows. And all of this new capability comes at a price that is $150 lower than Sonar 4's.

Do the Math

Cakewalk explains the math behind its new 64-bit processing technology in a technical white paper on its Web site. In a nutshell, using the 64-bit double-precision audio setting reduces the calculation errors that can occur when audio number crunching is at its highest. Typically, this is when you are mixing tracks, or using software synthesizers and plug-in effects.What does a 64-bit end-to-end signal path sound like? I generally found the improvement to be subtle, and at times I couldn't hear any difference at all. Most people describe the improvement as an increased clarity, fullness, or smoothness, especially in passages with a wide dynamic range or complex harmonic content. The difference was perhaps the most noticeable for me when I called up some complex patches in the Pentagon I soft synth and fed them straight into the Lexicon Pantheon reverb. The sound was richer with 64-bit processing enabled than without it.

The double-precision audio engine is available to all Sonar users, whether or not you're running a 64-bit operating system. On my 32-bit machine running Windows XP, I noticed about a 10 percent increase in CPU usage with the 64-bit mix engine switched on.

A Higher Order

Cakewalk has included a 64-bit copy of Sonar that requires a computer running Windows XP Professional ×64 Edition. On this platform, the 64-bit version is automatically installed. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to evaluate Sonar on such a computer.) In addition to giving you access to 64-bit pointers and 64-bit floating-point registers (a subject that is beyond the scope of this review), running Sonar as a 64-bit application allows it to take advantage of much more system memory. Unlike 32-bit Windows, which supports less than 4 GB of RAM, Windows XP Professional ×64 Edition allows an application to use up to 128 GB of physical memory, and even more virtual memory.

How does more memory benefit Sonar? The program can access data held in RAM much more quickly than it can by grabbing data off the disk drives, so increased RAM can improve Sonar's overall performance considerably. Software samplers also benefit by having access to more RAM, because it reduces the need to stream samples from disk. Moreover, Sonar, like any application running under 64-bit Windows, benefits from a reduction in CPU utilization. All told, running Sonar under Windows XP Professional ×64 can provide as much as a 30 percent performance enhancement.

I should note that several significant features do not work with the 64-bit version of the program. These include ReWire support to 32-bit applications, 32-bit DirectX plug-ins, QuickTime, MP3 importing, and MPEX time-stretching and pitch-shifting. (According to Cakewalk, all of these issues will be resolved when the various manufacturers and developers update their technologies to be ×64 Windows compliant.) On the other hand, Cakewalk has developed an innovative technology called BitBridge that lets 32-bit VST plug-ins run under 64-bit Windows. In any event, make sure you are ready for life on the “bleeding edge” before jumping on the ×64 bandwagon.

The Audio Melting Pot

Sonar 5 sports a number of enhancements in the audio arena. You can now include audio of different bit depths within a single Sonar project, and choose different bit-rate settings for importing, exporting, rendering (bouncing, freezing, and applying effects), and recording. For example, in the middle of a project, you could switch to a new sampling rate for recording, and everything you recorded from that point forward would be at the new rate.

Buses and synth tracks now display their audio waveforms during playback, giving you a visual representation of the audio you're hearing. These waveforms can be scaled just like audio tracks. All audio in the Track view (whether an audio track, a synth track, or a bus) now displays Peak Markers, which show the highest peaks found during playback. I found Peak Markers to be quite useful for identifying exactly where clipping was occurring.

There are several new offline processes, including a new Gain command that not only lets you boost or cut, but also lets you swap channels and invert the phase of either channel. In fact, you can mix any amount of the original left and right channels into the new audio. A new DC offset removal tool is also available, as is normalization to levels other than 0 dB.

Sonar 5 can stream video to an external device via FireWire, provided that device is supported by Microsoft's AV/C drivers; most modern devices are. You can use this feature to either reduce the processing load on your computer (by displaying the video using something other than Sonar) or export video to a digital recording device. In the latter case, Sonar provides a transport tool for controlling the remote device.

Being Vocal

Sonar includes a powerful vocal processor (called V-Vocal) that is based on Roland's VariPhrase technology. (For a discussion of this technology, see the review of the Roland VP-9000 in the May 2001 issue of EM.) You can use V-Vocal to perform pitch correction, alter dynamics or formants, and easily perform pitch-shifting or time-stretching on a phrase-by-phrase basis.

FIG. 2: Sonar''s V-Vocal processor provides high-quality pitch correction, formant control, dynamics adjustment, and time-shifting.

When you right-click on a clip or selected region and choose Create V-Vocal Clip, Sonar will mute your selection and overlay a new clip in its place — one that represents the processing of your original selection by the V-Vocal processor (see Fig. 2). (Offline editing operations such as normalization and splitting cannot be performed on a V-Vocal clip, but you can move and copy clips.) You then pick from one of the processor's four editing modes: Pitch, Time, Formant, and Dynamics. Each mode plots your audio in the main screen and provides appropriate tools for navigation (zooming and panning) and making adjustments (selecting and drawing).

When viewing pitch, you see the actual detected pitches in red, the corrected pitches in yellow, and the center pitches (for determining where vibrato is centered) in white. You can draw in your own pitch correction and vibrato, and you can even fade in a vibrato to make it sound more natural.

Rather than draw the pitch correction, V-Vocal can automatically correct according to the parameters you specify, which include scale selection and allowable notes. You can dial in subtle pitch correction, extreme robotic pitches, or anything in between.

V-Vocal's time-stretching seems ideally suited to correcting slight timing errors in individual notes or phrases (although you can use it to adjust entire passages as well). Click the starting and ending points of the phrase you want to shift in V-Vocal's display, and vertical bars will appear at these points in your audio. To time-shift the passage, you drag a vertical bar: if you drag forward in time, audio in front of the bar gets compressed, and audio behind it gets stretched. Because this operation affects only what lies between the bar you're dragging and the bars before and after it, you can easily leave other phrases in place by adding more bars.

You can also use V-Vocal to adjust formants and dynamics, which are controlled by drawing envelopes on the audio. The LFO tool, which is used to create vibrato in Pitch mode, can be used for periodic formant or dynamic shifts as well. There are also global adjustments for formant control: one to set it and one to control how strongly formant follows pitch. I could dial in everything from Alvin the Chipmunk to Darth Vader with the formant controls. After experimenting with a range of wacky formant-control options, I settled on a global formant adjustment that was slightly deeper and richer than my real voice.

Overall, V-Vocal is a very powerful addition to Sonar. I am not a singer, yet I was able to transform my subpar vocal performance into something downright respectable. And unless I took it to the extreme, I noticed no unpleasant artifacts with V-Vocal's time-shifting or dynamics processing. I only wish the tool were a bit more integrated into Sonar itself. In particular, I wanted the ability to specify the reference for pitch correction using a MIDI track.

MIDI Mayhem

Given that Sonar 5's ancestor was a MIDI sequencer, it's not surprising that there are plenty of significant improvements to MIDI editing in this version. A new Snap to Scale feature lets you restrict note placement to the notes found in a chosen scale for a chosen key (scale and key are selectable on a per-track basis). There are dozens of scales to choose from, and you can create your own.

FIG. 3: Sonar''s improved Piano Roll view shows controllers in the same pane as note events. You can edit both time and value with great precision by dragging the controller handles

In the Piano Roll view, note Velocities and MIDI controller events appear inside the piano roll itself (see Fig. 3). This maximizes screen real estate and allows you to align controller events with notes. There are settings to determine which controllers are displayed, and an option to use the separate controller pane from previous versions.

Each controller event in the Piano Roll view has its own editing handle, which means you can change an event's temporal position or value. A floating window displays a real-time update of time and value as you make changes. Holding down the Shift key restricts your changes to either the time or value dimension.

Many of these same features are now available directly in the Track view when the Inline PRV (Piano Roll View) feature is enabled. With Inline PRV on, the track's MIDI clips are replaced with a piano-roll representation of the data. Nearby editing tools let you add or edit notes and controller events, and a zoom control lets you see just the range of notes you're interested in. (You can use the Fit to Content feature to set the zoom automatically.)

The Convenience Store

Several of Sonar's improvements are intended to make existing features more efficient. For example, you can create temporary Quick Groups by clicking the appropriate selectors in Track or Console view. Quick Groups let you change similar controls on multiple tracks in tandem. Once you're done, a single mouse-click decouples the controls.

There are a number of new track-management tricks: You can insert multiple tracks and set their properties simultaneously, and you can use Track Templates to bring in an entire group of tracks with their settings (such as bus routings, effects, and synths) preconfigured. Tracks can also have icons attached to make them easily distinguishable. Dozens of music-related icons are provided, or you can create your own with nearly any image editor.

FIG. 4: Sonar 5 includes several great-sounding plug-ins. Shown here is the PerfectSpace convolution reverb, which includes impulse files for many interesting spaces.

In the “Why didn't they think of this before?” department comes the Add Nodes at Selection feature for envelopes. I often have the need to raise or lower an envelope over just the range of time that I have selected, and this feature makes easy work of it. Also new is the ability to draw envelopes in a variety of shapes (sine waves, square waves, random changes, and so on) and sync the shapes to a project's tempo.

There are many other improvements in this version of Sonar — among them, step-recording improvements, seamless integration of VST plug-ins, effects bins on individual clips, and a host of usability improvements. My favorite usability enhancement is Sonar's ability to turn any of its floating windows into a tabbed pane in the Track view. Once you've opened more than a few effects or alternate views, screen clutter becomes a serious problem. When you make part of the Track view multitabbed, the clutter problem goes away.

And then there are the plug-ins: Sonar has always shipped with lots of extra goodies in plug-in form, and this version is certainly no exception. Among the new soft synths (each of which could warrant an entire review) are the PSYN II subtractive synth, the Pentagon I vintage analog synth, the Roland GrooveSynth, the SFZ SoundFont Sampler, and the RXP REX Player groove box. The Cakewalk TTS-1, Cyclone, and DreamStation DXi2 synths from previous Sonar versions are still here.

The excellent suite of plug-in effects from Sonar 4 is still in place, including the Lexicon Pantheon reverb and the full set of Sonitus processors. A notable addition is the PerfectSpace convolution reverb (see Fig. 4), which comes with numerous impulse files that simulate spaces as diverse as cathedrals, mine shafts, and the inside of a piano. (See the article “Trading Spaces” on the EM Web site, at www.emusician.com, for the rundown on convolution for reverb and other purposes.)

All in all, Sonar 5 represents a solid upgrade. As usual, the product's documentation is complete, and the online help is context sensitive, although not all of the plug-ins are documented as thoroughly as the main product (see “Getting to Know You” for a description of a third-party support product). If you're an existing Sonar user, especially one who deals with vocal tracks, you'll want this upgrade. And if you're a new shopper in the DAW marketplace, give Sonar a good, hard look. It certainly holds its own with any other modern high-end DAW product.


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

GUIDE TO EM METERS

5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology

4 = Clearly above average; very desirable

3 = Good; meets expectations

2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable

1 = Unacceptably flawed

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Any program of sufficient complexity can create a market for third-party instructional materials. I reviewed one such product while working with Sonar: Digital Music Doctor's Sonar 5 — Know It All! course ($29.95; www.digitalmusicdoctor.com). This application provides a comprehensive tutorial on the use of Sonar 5.

Sonar 5 — Know It All! is available via DVD or download, and includes 22 lessons organized into four sections. The course takes about two and a half hours to complete, and you'll be spending nearly all of that time watching Sonar screen activity while listening to a voice-over. Though the activity-based approach is very helpful for learning how to use the program, I felt that the tutorials could have used a few more charts and pictures to show the concepts behind the program.

The training course covers all aspects of Sonar, including digital audio and MIDI, effects, loops, soft synths, and working with video. The plug-ins themselves are not covered to any significant depth, however, so don't buy this product if you're expecting to learn how to use the TTS-1 synthesizer or the PerfectSpace convolution reverb (some basic uses of Sonitus compression and EQ are covered, though).

Nevertheless, Sonar 5 — Know It All! provides an excellent guide to using Sonar. Even experienced users will find something of value. I felt I already knew the product rather well, but I still picked up a trick or two by watching how someone else performed a specific task. The files used in the tutorial are included, allowing you to experiment further with the examples you see during the course presentation.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

CAKEWALK
Sonar 5 Producer Edition

digital audio sequencer
$799

MPEG encoder license (required after 30-day trial) $19

PROS: 64-bit processing engine. Efficient user interface. Powerful vocal processing. Excellent plug-ins. Lower price than previous version.

CONS: Vocal processor doesn't allow MIDI as a pitch reference. Not all plug-ins have comprehensive documentation. A $19 fee to register the MPEG encoder is required after a free 30-day trial.

FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 4
AUDIO QUALITY 4
VALUE 4

MANUFACTURER

Cakewalk
www.cakewalk.com

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