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CAKEWALK Sonar 6 Producer Edition (Win)

May 1, 2007
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Like clockwork, the fine folks at Cakewalk release a new and significant version of their flagship digital audio sequencer each year. This year is no exception. Sonar 6 Producer Edition includes several new tools for working with audio and MIDI, as well as some major productivity enhancements that will let you spend more time making music.

Snap Judgment

FIG. 1: Sonar''s AudioSnap palette provides access to four different tasks. Here you can adjust project tempo to match existing audio, quantize the audio, quantize to audio in another track, or extract data for groove quantizing.

Perhaps the most important new feature in Sonar 6 is AudioSnap, which is really a collection of many powerful features. Using AudioSnap, you can line up your project's beats and bars to a previously recorded, free-form performance. You can then quantize an audio track almost as easily as a MIDI one and tighten up the timing of sloppy performances (such as a drummer and bass player playing out of sync) after the performances have been recorded.

Transients in the audio are computed when you first record or import an audio file, so when you enable AudioSnap, you can immediately use a palette of tools to manipulate them (see Fig. 1). If you're dealing with a passage that was recorded without a metronome or other timing reference, you'll first want to align the project's timeline to it. You can navigate among the transients using the Next and Previous buttons or the Tab To Transients command and designate a bar and beat for any or all of them. Sonar will establish the appropriate tempo changes to line everything up the way you want it.

Manually setting the bar and beat for individual transients can be tedious work, so Sonar gives you an Extract Timing feature to do this automatically. You simply specify how much musical time your transients represent, and Sonar will figure out the tempos.

But your audio may have more or fewer transients than it needs for this feature. For example, if you're extracting timing based on quarter notes, you may not have transients spaced exactly on quarter-note boundaries. To help matters here, Sonar provides Sensitivity and Threshold sliders. The Sensitivity slider enables only the transients that fall near musical intervals (you determine the interval). The Threshold slider enables only the transients above a certain volume level.

You can also enable or disable individual transients or insert new ones if the Threshold and Sensitivity sliders don't finish the job. A transient marker can even be “promoted” to prevent it from being disabled by the Threshold and Sensitivity sliders. That gives the marker a special status that makes it immune to the effects of the sliders. (You would do this, for example, when you know that a particular transient is falling on the beat.)

FIG. 2: Sonar''s Active Controller Technology provides excellent support for Edirol PCR controllers. Also available is a generic ACT surface that supports many common controllers.

AudioSnap's Extract Timing feature works well on percussion and other parts with a well-defined rhythm. But I tried manipulating an acoustic piano solo and had a little trouble finding a set of transients that fell on regular musical intervals, which is what AudioSnap depends on.

After a bit of tweaking, I finally arrived at a set of transients that fell only on the first downbeat of each measure. But then I discovered an omission in the Extract Timing feature: my piano solo was in 6/8 time, meaning that each of my transients was spaced a dotted half note apart. Unfortunately, there is no option to use dotted half notes as the expected pulse duration for timing extraction. (Cakewalk is aware of this problem and plans to address it in a future update.)

Quantifiably Speaking

When your audio track is lined up with Sonar's beats and bars, the real fun begins. Now that the program has an idea of the relationship between the audio transients and the timing of your music, the beats within this audio track can be manipulated. If your drummer wasn't playing right on the beat, you can fix the performance. Or maybe you'd like to transform a straight rhythm to one with swing. Both things are possible with AudioSnap's Quantize feature, which works essentially the same way as quantizing a MIDI track. The AudioSnap palette supports both the traditional and groove forms of quantizing.

Or perhaps you like the feel of the original performance and want your other tracks to fall in line. AudioSnap can do this too. To perform this operation, you add the transients from the source track to the Pool (which allows them to be used by other tracks). Now go to the track you want to change, and select Quantize To Pool in the AudioSnap dialog box.

When you Quantize To Pool, you are quantizing to the reference track's transients, just as you quantize to established musical intervals in traditional quantizing or to a previously saved groove in groove quantizing. You have control over both the strength and window threshold of the quantizing operation, and you can perform the operation on both audio and MIDI tracks. With audio tracks, you are moving portions of the audio. With MIDI tracks, you are moving the MIDI events.

FIG. 3: Sonar''s redesigned Synth Rack provides access to common -settings in your software synths. You can establish easy access to the synth settings of your choice directly in the Synth Rack.

I used this feature to align the bass and snare drums of a recording with the acoustic piano part. Instead of these instruments playing a straight rhythm, the bass and snare emphasis aligned with the accents of the piano part, which really tightened up the performance. I also used AudioSnap to clean up a sloppy performance after the fact (see Web Clip 1 and 2).

AudioSnap has other features as well. You can have audio clips stretch automatically to follow changes in tempo, split beats into individual clips, or extract MIDI events for use in establishing a reference for groove quantizing. (Only the timing of the audio transients — not the specific pitches — is written as a series of MIDI note messages. AudioSnap is not a pitch-to-MIDI converter.)

Control Freak

Software synths and plug-in effects are more popular than ever, as are hardware control surfaces that give you real knobs and sliders to turn. But as your projects contain more tracks, more software synths, and more plug-in effects, you begin to run out of knobs and sliders. It becomes tedious to constantly map and remap the knobs you see on the screen to your hardware controls.

That's where Sonar's Active Controller Technology (ACT) comes in. ACT maintains the bindings between the controls on the screen and the controls on your desk and switches them appropriately as you change tasks in Sonar. So while you're working in the Track or Console view, your hardware knobs and sliders control track levels and panning. Switch the program's focus to a soft synth, and those same knobs and sliders will automatically start controlling filter cutoffs and LFO speeds.

Edirol PCR controllers have a particularly nice ACT implementation in Sonar (see Fig. 2). An onscreen visualization lets you see exactly what each button, rotary control, and slider maps to. You can also see the current value of each control. As you change context in Sonar, the control labels and values change instantly as well.

If you don't have an Edirol PCR controller, you'll probably use the generic ACT MIDI Controller surface, which provides essentially the same functionality for hardware devices with up to 16 continuous controllers and eight buttons. By default, the ACT MIDI Controller shows you eight buttons, eight buttons with a shift key, eight sliders, and eight rotary controls (a common configuration). Unlike the Edirol PCR surface, the generic ACT surface provides the capability to learn which MIDI message corresponds to which control (the Edirol mappings are predefined for use by this specific family of controllers).

Multiple Personalities

Both of these ACT controllers provide up to four banks of controls, so your eight sliders can really control up to 32 different things in a given context. You can map a button to do the bank switching or do it onscreen. When you're focused on the Track or Console view, you can choose whether the controls apply to the tracks, buses, or mains. You can also choose whether your rotary controls manipulate a single parameter across all tracks or multiple parameters within a single selected track.

FIG. 4: Sonar''s Track view received cosmetic and usability enhancements, including more control over clip placement and indicators to show which hardware device controls which track.

Note that ACT does not support DXi-only plug-ins (the included TTS-1 synthesizer, for example). For those plug-ins that are supported, each has a default set of controller mappings that is easy to change. Simply click on the Learn button, touch multiple controls on the screen, touch multiple controls on your hardware, and click on the Learn button again. The assignments are made in the order in which the controls were touched.

You can exclude commonly used controls (such as transport controls) from ACT so that their mappings stay consistent. You can also temporarily lock the current context so that it doesn't change when you switch to other windows.

I think ACT is a wonderful addition to Sonar, but I wish Cakewalk would have taken the implementation just a bit further. Only the Edirol PCR and the generic ACT surface provide what I could consider to be complete ACT capabilities. (The original Cakewalk generic surface interface received limited support for 16 ACT parameters, but I found these to be undocumented and cumbersome to use.)

Cakewalk has had dedicated support for specific hardware control surfaces for some time, but many of the models that Cakewalk supports, such as the CM Labs MotorMix, Mackie's HUI, and the Cakewalk/Peavey StudioMix controller, received no ACT capabilities whatsoever. And unfortunately, I couldn't use my StudioMix controller with the generic ACT surface because the latter doesn't support the NRPN messages the StudioMix emits. (Cakewalk has enhanced ACT in version 6.2, which was just released. See the sidebar “Sonar 6.2” for details.)

Rack It Up

When working with soft synths, I often wind up with a ton of open windows and a cluttered screen. (The new XRay windows in version 6.2 are intended to help in this regard.) Sonar's redesigned Synth Rack helps prevent clutter problems (see Fig. 3). Each soft synth appears with its own icon in the Synth Rack, complete with mute, solo, and freeze controls. You can access preset and automation settings from here as well, and even choose which track the synth's automation is written to.

But my favorite new Synth Rack feature is the assignable controls. Any control you choose from the soft synth can be inserted directly into the Synth Rack, providing easy access to that control without opening the synth's property page. What's more, clicking on the synth changes the context in your ACT-enabled hardware controller — an even easier way to change the setting.

There are other enhancements to help keep your plug-ins in order. Preset menus are now unified, which puts your most recently used presets, VST presets, Cakewalk presets, and user presets all in one place. And an enhanced plug-in manager lets you customize the arrangement of your plug-ins in folders and subfolders.

Cosmetic Surgery

The remaining enhancements in Sonar 6 are really too numerous to mention, but I'll try to hit the highlights. Menus, toolbars, and the large transport control became customizable, automation controls have been made consistent, and the Console view received usability enhancements. The Snap-to-Grid dialog box now supports multiple resolutions at once and can remain open as you work in the Track view.

The Track view received cosmetic and usability improvements (see Fig. 4), including a time ruler that can display measures, SMPTE, samples, and milliseconds simultaneously. Clips can be locked into place and set to absolute time positions, which is useful for syncing to video events. A Where Am I display shows you color-coded bars, indicating which hardware controller is affecting a particular track or bus. You can also drag the bars to change the assignment.

Cakewalk also threw in some new goodies that are exclusive to the Producer Edition. The VC-64 Vintage Channel offers a warm analog-style channel strip that includes dual EQ and compressor stages, a noise gate and de-esser, and professionally designed presets. Cakewalk's Session Drummer also received an overhaul; it provides a large collection of sampled instruments and drum patterns for a variety of musical genres.

Rounding out the notable enhancements are support for file versioning, 64-bit audio importing, additional track controls in the Staff view, and improved mouse-wheel support. The product's documentation is solid, although the complete printed reference manual has been replaced with a much thinner user's guide that covers only the basics and new features (you can still purchase the full reference manual on Cakewalk's Web site).

All in all, Sonar 6 represents yet another solid upgrade from a company that consistently improves its products. AudioSnap and ACT by themselves make the upgrade worth the price. And if you haven't yet given Sonar a try, now is a great time to have a look.


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

SONAR 6.2

Right at the end of the review period for Sonar 6, Cakewalk released Sonar 6.2 as a free upgrade to registered 6.x customers. I wasn't able to put the new version through its paces, but some of the new features on the list certainly appear to be worth mentioning.

AudioSnap received automatic fill and crossfade capabilities, which should be useful as audio clips are now quantized without being time-stretched. You can also specify fractional beats in the Set Measure Beat At Now option, which is very effective for working with syncopated alignments. Active Controller Technology now has dedicated configurations for several additional hardware controllers (unfortunately, my StudioMix controller still isn't on the list). ACT also received support for additional MIDI messages and import/export capabilities for the settings.

Other notable features in Sonar 6.2 are support for Windows Vista, X-Ray windows (which stay visible but become see-through and immune to keyboard presses and mouse-clicks), and quantizing during MIDI import. You can find the complete list of new features on Cakewalk's Web site.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

CAKEWALK
Sonar 6 Producer Edition

digital audio sequencer
$619

FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 4
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4
VALUE 4

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Powerful quantizing and time adjustment in the audio realm. Hardware control that follows your work flow. Cosmetic and usability enhancements.

CONS: Incomplete Active Controller support for legacy hardware devices. No dotted note support in AudioSnap extract timing.

Cakewalk
www.cakewalk.com

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