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CAKEWALK SONAR XL 2.0 (WIN)

October 1, 2002
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When Cakewalk's flagship digital audio sequencer Pro Audio 9 blossomed into Sonar, it went from being a powerful and accessible but often underestimated contender to being a certifiable trendsetter. Sonar's implementation of Acid-style loop manipulation was the feature that set it apart from the competition, but other factors — low-latency WDM kernel streaming, DirectX virtual instruments, and streamlined editing functions, to name a few — also contributed to our decision to recognize version 1.0 with an Editors' Choice award.

Version 2.0 of Sonar refines and expands an already mature feature set, adding support for ReWire 2.0 applications and improving file management (see Fig. 1). Integrating hardware control surfaces is easier than ever, with profiles included for CM Labs' MotorMix and Tascam's US-428, among others. A new MIDI drum mapper/editor allows you to pull your favorite drum sounds together from multiple devices and play them as an integrated kit.

On the plug-ins front, Cakewalk has made some enhancements to DXi support, allowing DirectX instruments to have multiple audio outputs. New plug-ins include the Cyclone DXi groove sampler, new versions of Audio Simulation's Dream Station analog synth and Edirol's Virtual Sound Canvas, and a feature-limited version of Live Update's LiveSynth Pro. Sonar XL, the version I tested, is the same as Sonar in every respect other than the addition of FXpansion's DR-008 drum synth/sampler and Sonic Timeworks' Equalizer and Compressor X.

Like any high-end digital audio sequencer, Sonar has a feature set that could fill a book. From 24-bit/96 kHz audio support and vector-based automation to nondestructive slip editing (trimming) of audio clips, from real-time audio and MIDI effects to import and export of AVI movies, Sonar covers all the bases. Sonar's main features have already been discussed in detail in these pages, most recently in the October 2001 issue, so I'll focus primarily on the latest developments.

BENEATH THE SURFACE

Call me weird, but one of the things that excites me most about Sonar 2.0 is its revised and enhanced file-management scheme. Previous versions managed to hide file management from users, which was wonderful for casual users but maddening for professionals. Audio files from all projects were lumped together in a single directory and named cryptically. The only way to determine whether a file belonged to a particular project was to compare its date and time with the project file.

Now users can choose to save audio files with the project file in a per-project directory, simplifying the process of moving or backing up a project. Audio files are named intelligently according to project and track names. The Clean Audio Disk command is now called Clean Audio Folder, and as the name implies, it no longer wastes your time searching an entire drive for audio files to clean up.

When importing an audio file, you now have the option of copying the file to the project folder or incorporating the original file from its current location. That means you can maintain a single copy of your favorite loops or sound effects instead of seeing them copied every time you use one in a new project. It also puts you at risk of leaving a file behind when you move a project, so a new Consolidate Project Audio command copies all audio files associated with a project to a new folder to ensure you have everything.

For the traditionalists, Sonar still offers the Bundle, a single file that contains all of a project's audio as well as its MIDI data. It's undeniably convenient to have a whole project in a single file — until that file somehow becomes corrupted, and you realize the hazards of putting all your eggs in the one proverbial basket. (My usual triple-redundant backup scheme didn't seem so excessive when that happened to me!)

ALL WIRED UP

The big news for most folks is Sonar's support for ReWire 2.0. The ability to connect every output of a complex Propellerhead Reason song to a separate Sonar mixer channel is enough to make me a bit giddy. You can connect only one instance of a ReWire application, but you can use more than one ReWire application simultaneously if your CPU can handle it. Each ReWire application is limited to 16 devices or instruments.

ReWire makes it possible to apply Sonar's audio effects to Reason's outputs and to automate those effects. Additionally, you can route MIDI notes and controllers to the ReWire application's instruments, effectively automating filter sweeps and other tweaks. That opens up such possibilities as using Sonar's real-time MIDI effects to arpeggiate Reason's Subtractor synth. You can't send Program and Bank Change messages to a ReWire application, however.

Transport controls between Sonar and the Rewire application are linked, so if you have Propellerhead ReBirth connected, for example, its patterns will start, stop, and play in sync with Sonar. If you change the tempo in one, the other will follow. Now recording a guitar lead over a ReBirth arrangement is a snap, and all of Sonar's tools for editing, mixing, and mastering the results are at your disposal.

One Sonar 2.0 enhancement whose utility is easy to overlook is the Synth Rack (see Fig. 2). It might not look like much, but opening your DXi and ReWire instruments from the Synth Rack offers two main advantages. First, the Synth Rack will automatically create audio and MIDI tracks for the virtual instrument, saving you a number of mouse clicks. Second, when you open an instrument from within the Synth Rack, you can enable multiple audio outputs if the synth supports them. Open Reason that way, and you will end up with 63 audio tracks — a stereo main and 62 mono outputs.

Plug-in automation takes a step forward as well. Audio Simulation's Dream Station virtual analog synth, for example, now sends MIDI Control Change messages when you change settings, enabling you to record and then play back any sort of knob-twiddling you might want to perform. Five of the excellent Power Technology DSP-FX plug-ins (which are included in both versions of Sonar 2.0) are fully automatable as well, as are the Sonic Timeworks EQ and Compressor X. You can write automation from the effects' onscreen controls or draw it in the Track View as vector-based envelopes. All automation can be edited from the Track View.

ZERO TO HERO

I don't recall ever changing my opinion more quickly than I did in the first hour I spent with the Cyclone groove sampler (see Fig. 3). If its original documentation had been better, I might have changed my mind a lot earlier. Fortunately, a plug-in update from Cakewalk included some feature and documentation improvements.

Loop-based production has never appealed to me much, but Cyclone offers such useful ways to manipulate a loop that it's hard to resist. It presents you with 16 pads that allow you to use MIDI notes or mouse clicks to trigger all or part of an Acid-style loop or groove clip. Below the pads you can select either a keyboard display showing the key mappings of the pads or a waveform display showing the selected loop sliced into its rhythmic components. At the bottom of the screen is a pad Editor whose 16 linear tracks correspond to the 16 pads.

At first I yawned at what I thought was just another way to synchronize a bunch of loops, but it gets more interesting. If you have an entire loop assigned to a single pad, the pad Editor displays blocks for each slice in the loop. Each block can be individually transposed up or down as much as two octaves, made louder or softer, or panned. You can replace any slice by dragging and dropping a replacement slice onto its block, even if the slice is from a different loop. Drum replacement doesn't get any easier than that.

Things got even better when I dragged each slice to a different pad. When you drop the slices on the pad name in the pad Editor, the slices retain their relative timings. Each pad now represents a loop containing one note/slice in its original position, so if you trigger all 16 pads at once, the notes will play back exactly like the original loop. “Big deal!” I thought, until I started muting and unmuting individual notes, deconstructing the loop, and then building it back up gradually. Because the pads can be triggered by MIDI notes, you can record and edit the mutes until you have something more interesting than the usual loop track. Each pad can also be assigned to its own audio output, allowing you to mix and process slices independently in Sonar's mixer.

If you then disable looping for all pads, each pad will trigger its respective slice immediately, turning the loop into a playable drum kit. That's great, but it would be fantastic if the pads mapped Velocity to volume.

There are tools that can pitch-shift individual slices of a loop, tools that let you deconstruct loops by cutting them up, and samplers for assembling a drum kit out of single hits, but Cyclone manages to put it all together in a package that feels like a musical instrument. Now all I need is Akai's MPD16 pad controller to play it.

DR IN THE HOUSE

FXpansion's DR-008 drum synth/sampler is another winner in Sonar XL's expanded arsenal. It supports as many as eight stereo outputs into Sonar and has extensive automation capabilities. Each of its 96 pads can be assigned to play any 1 of 4 sampler modules, 11 analog-modeling synth modules, or 5 “drum-deploy modules,” which process MIDI information in various ways.

The four samplers range from a single-layer module to one with up to 128-way Velocity switching. The synth modules deliberately lean toward sounds in the style of Roland's classic TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines and are great for a variety of dance styles. The drum-deploy modules are used to map and process incoming MIDI data to the other pads for effects ranging from flams and rolls to an 8-track-by-16-step sequencer with variable swing that naturally syncs with Sonar's tempo. Each step-sequencer module holds only one pattern, but with 96 pads available, you can build a number of different modules and trigger them with MIDI notes from Sonar.

The DR-008 is a lot of fun to play, but beneath its engaging exterior is some heavy horsepower for drum programming. Currently, it can import LM-4 kits, and FXpansion plans to offer conversion wizards for other formats.

While I'm on the subject of drums, Sonar's new drum maps are a great example of better living through technology. For starters, custom drum maps allow you to remap MIDI note numbers so no matter which synthesizer you're playing, your kick and snare will always be in the same place on the keyboard. Better still, you can build a custom drum kit that triggers multiple devices from a single MIDI track. Use the kick from one synth, the snare from another, the hi-hat from a virtual instrument, and the tambourine from a sampler, map them all to whatever keys are most comfortable for you to play, and you've got the ultimate MIDI drum kit.

The drum editor offers a convenient graphical representation of any MIDI track that is assigned to a drum map. It's the drum equivalent of a piano-roll view — in fact, you open it by selecting Piano Roll view. It has some distinct advantages, though, such as displaying drum names in addition to pitches or note numbers and allowing you to rearrange the drums vertically without regard for note number. Graphically, it's about as appealing as a spreadsheet except for the notes themselves, which display as little triangles with Velocity “ladders.” A paintbrush tool lets you paint in predefined rhythmic patterns to make drum programming even easier. A large number of patterns are provided, and making your own patterns is as simple as saving a MIDI file with named markers to the pattern's folder.

GOODIES GALORE

Rounding out the XL extras are two 64-bit mastering plug-ins from Sonic Timeworks: Equalizer and Compressor X (see Fig. 4). Equalizer is an 8-band parametric EQ with a 30-band spectrum analyzer. It features low-cut and high-cut filters with variable resonance and six fully parametric bands, two of which can be changed to shelving filters. You can choose between clean and vintage algorithms to suit your taste and needs. Equalizer's Graphic mode features a grab-it-and-go EQ curve superimposed over the spectrum analyzer, making tweaking a snap. I found it useful for making natural-sounding adjustments of the general or surgical kind on classical music. Crank up the resonance on the high-cut filter, though, and you can do wonderfully rude things to a sound.

Compressor X is a straightforward plug-in with all the tools you need to manage dynamics effectively. It can be set to respond to peak or RMS levels, and in addition to the usual threshold, attack, decay, and ratio controls, it offers a choice of hard or soft knee. Makeup gain as high as 30 dB is available, and by using the Wall feature (a limiter), you can ensure that your outputs don't clip. As befits a compressor intended for mastering, it can provide a good deal of gain reduction while remaining inconspicuous.

Sonar now natively supports a variety of hardware control surfaces, and profiles (plug-ins, actually) are included for the Tascam US-428, CM Labs MotorMix, and generic controllers. (At press time, Cakewalk had just posted a plug-in for the Radikal SAC-2K and an update to the MotorMix and US-428 plug-ins, so be sure to check the Web site for the latest developments.) The generic-device plug-in includes presets covering the Kenton Control Freak, JLCooper FaderMaster, Peavey PC 1600, and more. You can also program presets for your particular device. The editor includes a MIDI Learn mode that saves you from drudging through controller numbers and hexadecimal code.

Probably the biggest criticism I can level at Sonar 2.0 is that you still can't use a DXi as a metronome output. Also, whenever the CPU gags and shuts down the audio engine, you must restart it manually, though you can eliminate the problem by adjusting a setting in your aud.ini file. If you think those are pretty minor gripes, you're right. Sonar XL 2.0 doesn't disappoint.

UP AND DOING

For users of previous versions of Sonar or Cakewalk Pro Audio, version 2.0 is a must-have upgrade. In addition to the feature improvements cited above, Sonar 2.0 seems to be much more stable and robust than its predecessor. For example, two USB audio interfaces I reviewed previously had trouble with version 1.3, but both are solid with 2.0. Cakewalk confirms that stability and compatibility improvements were key components of the upgrade.

If you're looking for a user-friendly program that combines serious audio recording and editing with everything-but-the-kitchen-sink MIDI-sequencing capabilities and groove-oriented loop manipulation, check out the Sonar demo available on Cakewalk's Web site. Whether I use Sonar for remote audio recording and editing on my laptop or as a composition and production tool in my studio, it helps me work efficiently and make good-sounding music. In the end, that's what it's all about.


Brian Smithers is Course Director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida.

Minimum System Requirements

Sonar XL

Pentium II/500; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Cakewalk
Sonar XL 2.0
digital audio sequencer
$599

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.5
DOCUMENTATION 4.0
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Comprehensive audio and MIDI recording and editing features. Includes loop-construction tools and innovative groove sampler. ReWire 2.0 support. Enhanced DirectX virtual-instrument support. Improved file management. Native support for hardware control surfaces. High-quality DirectX effects included. Real-time MIDI effects. Low-latency WDM kernel-streaming support. Drum editor with custom multiport drum maps.

CONS: Cyclone DXi doesn't map Velocity to volume and needs better documentation. Can't use virtual instruments for metronome.

Manufacturer
Cakewalk tel. (888) CAKEWALK or (617) 423-9004
e-mail sales@cakewalk.com Web www.cakewalk.com

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