HAVE IT YOUR WAY
The level of customization has evolved dramatically: Choose from far more colorization options, customize the display of widgets in the track view (as called up by different tabbed views), edit menus and toolbars, and determine how plug-ins are shown (by manufacturer, effect type, or whatever), as well as organize plug-ins in multiple folders simultaneously and choose the configuration you want for a particular project.
So is all this useful? If you make changes carefully and deliberately, customizing can definitely improve workflow. I’m down to one user toolbar that does 99% of what I need, and use the track view widgets as a “to do” list when mixing — starting with all, then removing widgets after finishing a function (e.g., after setting phase and trim for each channel, I remove those widgets). The menu editing lets you distribute functions between toolbars or menus, depending on your preferences. Customization isn’t the “killer upgrade” feature, but over time, the program can much more closely support the way you work.
Think of this as a toolbox of tempo-stretching, audio quantizing, and groove extracting tools (Figure 1). So far I’ve matched tempo to a recorded rhythm (and the reverse), had existing clips follow tempo changes, “nudged” individual hits or notes forward or backward in time, and quantized beats within a clip. That’s not all you can do, but it’s enough to convince me that this is a groovy tool. Although some operations require more work than others, just imagine completing an entire song, then deciding you want the tempo to ramp up subtly toward the end from 133 to 136 BPM. You can do this with AudioSnap by snap-enabling all clips in the song, then changing the tempo.
Normally, it would be bad form to review something like this before checking out all the possibilities. But that means the review wouldn’t be done for months . . . this powerful feature will justify the upgrade for many.
THINGS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE A LONG TIME AGO
Sonar 6 implements some long overdue fixes, like being able to lock events to SMPTE Time Code — crucial for audio-for-video projects. You need only touch a clip, not encircle it, to select it; and you can give your drivers “friendly names” for when they appear in the console and track view. Also, the time ruler can show all four time units at once (H:M:S:F, M:B:T, samples, and milliseconds), or a subset of these, in any order (e.g., M:B:T on the bottom, milliseconds on the top). And, there’s compensation for interface delays during the recording process itself, not just delay compensation for plug-ins — a very significant feature.
You can also say goodbye to having to record automation moves in a separate pass. Moves are recorded along with a track, and with synths, you can display automation data in its first audio track, MIDI source track, or for matter, any other track. Speaking of synths. . . .
SYNTH RACK CHANGES
The Synth Rack’s main new feature is that you can assign strategic synth controls to the rack (Figure 2), similarly to how you can designate effects parameters as controls in the Console view. Furthermore, the selected synth parameters can be remote controlled from a control surface, and you can initiate automation read/write, solo/mute, freeze/unfreeze, quick freeze/quick unfreeze, and choose presets (with synths whose presets are chosen via program changes) from the Synth Rack panel. Bottom line: Crucial synth parameters are available without having to open up a bunch of synth windows.
You can now insert effects in individual clips, an “object-oriented” approach that Samplitude has used for years. Not just convenient, this can also reduce CPU consumption because the plug-in isn’t active for an entire track — just when it’s in use. Functionally, inserting an effect in a clip creates a small “fx bin” that works like the ones in the Track or Console view.
Functionally, this isn’t much different from Sonar 5, but it sure looks both “crisper” and more straightforward (Figure 3) than previous Sonar mixers. The functionality of the show/hide buttons is also clearer.
ACT (ACTIVE CONTROLLER TECHNOLOGY)
The good news: fantastic potential. The bad news: complex if you want to modify the defaults. ACT lets you use generic MIDI hands-on controllers to control channel strips and plug-ins — whatever has the focus. After an afternoon of frustration trying to customize some of the settings (I found some of the mappings highly illogical), I emailed Cakewalk for help and they sent me a file for beta testers that explains how the process works, and how to edit the XML files ACT creates in the process of setting up controllers. As long as I just called up defaults, everything was fine; when I tried to remap and customize mappings, I ran into problems which given on the depth of the spec, was most likely pilot error . . . I definitely need to study this more.
VC-64 VINTAGE CHANNEL STRIP
Basically a re-skinned Kjaerhus Golden Audio Channel that’s been updated to provide 64-bit I/O, this plug-in has a De-Esser, Noise Gate, two Compressors, and two Equalizers (Figure 4). But the capper is a choice of ten internal module routings that allow parallel compression, dual-band compression, side-chaining, expansion, and more. Verdict: thumbs up.
OTHER USEFUL STUFF
So many features, so few pages . . . some soft synths create MIDI outputs (like Groove Agent), and Sonar can now record this data. With ReWire, Sonar can send MIDI events to a ReWire client over all available client channels. VST effects are no longer wrapped, but supported natively, and even though this happened before Sonar 6, it’s worth noting there‘s support for 64-bit effects to go along with its 64-bit audio engine (which is compatible with 32- and 64-bit operating systems). Oh, and let’s not forget Session Drummer 2, for when you want quick, effective drum guide tracks. And . . . and. . . .
Sonar has been a workhorse for me since V1.0, when it was the only program that could do deep digital audio, MIDI, and support Acid-style looping. But even if you’re fluent with Sonar, expect a learning curve with 6.0. ACT takes some time to figure out, as does AudioSnap. And you have to “unlearn” what you knew about automation (at least the replacement is far simpler).
Implementing the customization options reminds me of using Logic for the first time, where I spent a long time setting up an environment — but once it was done, I didn’t have to think about it any more. With Sonar, I decided the best option was to make changes in small steps, and assimilate each change as it happened. For example, the first thing I did was create a custom toolbar, which centralized my most commonly used functions in one place and freed up some screen space by not having to open multiple toolbars. Then I removed the toolbar items from the menus, as I always accessed them from the toolbars anyway (does anyone initiate “play” from the menu instead of just hitting the space bar?). I’m still on the fence about how best to show plug-ins (group by function, manufacturer, genre?), but I’ll just create multiple layouts, use them, and see which works best. Already, though, navigating around 6.0 is a smoother ride.
Many of the improvements are small ones that add up, like file versioning (where automatic backups are given version numbers) and having handles appear on clips when you want to trim or fade them. Being able to “write-protect” clips (with respect to data or position) is also cool. None of these make this a “must have” upgrade; but taken together, they account for a major improvement.
So, is it worth the sub-$200 price to upgrade from Sonar Producer 4 or 5? Well, for most people, AudioSnap alone will be worth the price, as it does many of the same functions as Live’s “elastic audio” capabilities and Pro Tools’ Beat Detective. Hopefully people won’t use this just to quantize the daylights out of everything, because it has lots of other, more musical uses.
Furthermore, the VC-64 would set you back about $200 if you bought it separately; it really is quite the processor. And if you’re into hands-on control, ACT is a big step in the right direction. If you need any one of these three additions, the upgrade cost is a no-brainer.
For those buying a new DAW or switching to Sonar, $619 list is quite the deal. Sonar is a serious host that also includes multiple software instruments, reasonable video support, REX and Acid file compatibility, V-Vocal for pitch correction, and deep MIDI options.
Sonar doesn’t have the emphasis on studio integration that Cubase 4 does — Sonar is “in the box” all the way — nor does it have the Session View that makes Live 6 a unique musical instrument that happens to be disguised as software. But as a pureplay DAW, Sonar is a formidable competitor that delivers the goods with style, grace, and efficiency.
Product type: Digital Audio Workstation software.
Target market: Mid-size to pro studios doing any combination of audio, MIDI, and groove-oriented productions.
Strengths: AudioSnap provides “elastic audio” functions and quantization. Extensive customization abilities. VC-64 vintage channel strip. ACT provides enhanced MIDI control. Numerous small, but significant, tweaks. 64-bit audio engine works with 32 or 64-bit operating systems.
Limitations: ACT not easy to customize. No significant attempts to integrate with external hardware.
Price: $619 list, $179 upgrade from Sonar 4–5 Producer, $229 from Sonar 4–5 Studio, $249 from Sonar 1–3 (any version), $349 from selected other Cakewalk programs (see website for details).