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Review: Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

July 7, 2014
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Faster, easier, more powerful than ever

Three of the many good reasons to love Sonar X3: Addictive Drums, Melodyne Essential, and Lounge Lizard.
HAVING USED Cakewalk products since the last century, I can attest to how much their flagship DAW has grown. The latest upgrade continues that trajectory; it’s not as revolutionary as X1, but there’s plenty to like. Sonar also continues to be impressively user-friendly. It’s immediately accessible to those new to the program while providing all the features power users need.

The marquee feature of X3 is Celemony’s Melodyne Essential, which supplants Roland’s V-Vocal technology for pitch and time manipulation of audio tracks. Also included are usability improvements ranging from VST3 support to a more refined take-management and comping workflow. A number of new plug-ins have also been added; highlights include special versions of AAS Lounge Lizard and Strum Acoustic, XLN Audio Addictive Drums, and a suite of audio processors from Nomad Factory. This review will focus on the new features and improvements; readers are encouraged to read the reviews of Sonar X2 (December 2012) and X1 (March 2011) at emusician.com for a more comprehensive view. I will focus on the Producer version of Sonar X3, but it’s worth noting that a number of formerly Producer-only features have been pushed down into the Studio ($199 street) and standard ($99 street) versions of X3. For example, the standard version offers unlimited audio and MIDI tracks.

Time for a Tune-up Sonar was one of the first DAWs to include graphic manipulation of audio pitch and time, in the form of V-Vocal. At the time, it was a terrific feature, but Cakewalk did not develop its feature set or underlying technology beyond the first iteration, so it fell behind other options. It is now gone, replaced by the far superior Melodyne Essential, offering the same algorithms as the pricier versions of Melodyne but with a scaled-down feature set. It is, nevertheless, a powerful creative and corrective tool and a welcome step forward for Sonar.

Sonar now supports the ARA (Audio Random Access) plug-in extension that shares file and session metadata between plug-in and host, smoothing the way for the sort of sophisticated processing Melodyne achieves. Without being able to switch ARA on and off, it’s impossible to tell how much it helps, but I can say that Melodyne works very smoothly in X3.

Melodyne has also replaced Cakewalk’s prior algorithm for audio-to-MIDI conversion, but I had mixed results with it. On the first tracks I attempted to convert, the phrase was offset by two beats and time-compressed by about 10 percent. When I tried to isolate the problem by importing the problem tracks into a blank session, I got significantly better results. However, much of the trumpet part was inexplicably transposed down an octave.

Plug-ins Are Instrumental I’ve been a fan of Applied Acoustics Systems’ Lounge Lizard since it was first released, so the inclusion of a “lite” version in Sonar X3 is a big plus in my book. Not only are its Rhodes and Wurlitzer emulations compelling and often dead-on convincing, its controls are inspiring. As a physical-modeling synth, it gives you control over the characteristics of the instrument’s hammers, forks, tone bar, and pickups, giving the instrument tremendous timbral range and subtlety. The suitcase-style tremolo makes me just want to sit and play for hours. AAS also contributed a stripped but useful version of Strum Acoustic, which has been justifiably well-received in these pages. It’s not as easy to get great results as with Lounge Lizard, but its ability to auto-voice and convincingly strum your keyboard chords is at a minimum a powerful songwriting tool.

Another welcome addition is a three-drum kit version of Addictive Drums from XLN Audio. Numerous presets, MIDI beats, and fills are included, if that’s your cup of tea, but for me the real value is in the sound of the kits themselves. I would have no trouble including these in any finished production—they sound great.

A whole rack’s worth of vintage-style audio processors from Nomad Factory expands Sonar’s mixing palette admirably. The Blue Tubes package includes everything from compressor, de-esser, and several equalizers to chorus, phaser, and more. To my ear, a little analog vibe goes a long way, and I had no trouble pushing these processors well past that point; that should be just right for many folks. At less aggressive settings, they do a great job of accomplishing their assigned tasks with a bit of personality. Also from Nomad Factory are the Analog TrackBox, a tube-emulation channel strip, and the BlueVerb DRV-2080, described as a vintage reverb in the spirit of digital reverbs from the 1980s.

Speaking of vintage sounds, the ProChannel now includes tape emulation. Developed by Overloud, the Tape Emulator module is switchable between 15 and 7 1/2 ips, and between normal and overbias. The record and playback levels can be linked to maintain unity gain, which is a great asset for A/B’ing the effect without level changes clouding the issue. And, of course, what would tape emulation be without the ability to dial in tape hiss? If you’re looking to add some crunch to your drum kit, this new module will do it.

I’m also delighted to note that Sonar X3 now scans plug-ins in the background instead of making you wait at start-up. VST3 is now supported, allowing improvements such as sample-accurate automation and more efficient use of CPU resources, among other things.

Fig. 1. Sonar X3’s improved comping workflow makes it easier than ever to assemble the perfect performance. The new Flatten Comp command renders the selected phrases to a new master take.
So What Else Is New?
Although Sonar X3 isn’t perfect (it still can’t import or export AAC files, and some of the plug-in windows steal transport shortcuts), numerous improvements in the update make life easier, including the ability to apply effects to a selected region of audio rather than to an entire clip. Track colors are more customizable, and the track EQ now features a large “fly-out” panel for graphic editing of the curve. When you export video and audio, you have the option to publish directly to YouTube, and the application integrates with Gobbler for back-up and collaboration.

The biggest usability improvement, though, is in track comping. New keyboard shortcuts speed things along; there is a new dedicated comping tool, automatic fades smooth edits; and a new Flatten Comp command bounces all isolated takes to a new take lane (see Figure 1). This is the sort of workflow enhancement that lets you focus on the project rather than the process.

Overall, Sonar X3 offers plenty of good reasons to upgrade. Download the 30-day free trial and see for yourself.

Brian Smithers is a musician, engineer, and educator in Orlando, Fla. He is chair of the Workstations Department at Full Sail University.

SUMMARY

Strengths Improved comping features. Single-track version of Celemony Melodyne. Usability improvements, such as larger track EQ window. Excellent plug-ins from Nomad Factory, XLN Audio, and AAS.
Limitations Audio-to-MIDI conversion falls short of expectations. No import/export of AAC files. Integrated CD burning is rudimentary. Some plug-in windows steal transport coantrols.
Sonar X3 Producer $599 MSRP; $499 MSRP upgrade
Sonar X3 Studio $249 MSRP; $199 MSRP upgrade
Sonar X3 $149 MSRP; $99 MSRP upgrade
cakewalk.com

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