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electronic MUSICIAN

Review: Cakewalk Sonar 7 Producer Edition (Win)

By Brian Smithers | May 1, 2008

In art, as in life, it's the little things that count. Sometimes that holds true for software updates, too. Cakewalk Sonar 7 Producer Edition is one of those upgrades. It's hard to identify one feature that clearly deserves marquee status over the rest, but the list of relatively minor fixes, improvements, and new features is long indeed. The list is somewhat shorter for the less expensive Studio Edition — see Cakewalk's Web site for details on Producer exclusives.

Of course, what's little to one user may be huge to someone else. For example, the feature most likely to make you roll your eyes in disbelief could have saved my butt on a live recording. Sonar 7 now supports the Sony Wave-64 audio file format, which allows audio files of more than 8 terabytes in size. Who needs to record a 64-bit, 192 kHz stereo file for over 800 million days? Nobody, that's who.

However, the old RIFF format (WAV, AIFF, and so on) limits files to 2 GB, which at 24-bit, 88.2 kHz resolution is just over an hour for a stereo file. That limit turned out to be pretty uncomfortable when I carelessly started a live choral recording in Sonar 4 to a stereo track instead of two mono tracks. As intermission drew nearer and my file grew ever closer to 2 GB, Sonar 7's ability to switch to Wave-64 on the fly would have done wonders for my blood pressure. (Luckily for me, the file lasted exactly 2 seconds into the intermission applause, where I could easily edit away any sign of my mistake.)

FIG. 1: Sidechaining is now possible in Sonar. Each sidechainable plug-in exposes its key input in the list of available send and track outputs. Here, three different gates are being triggered from sends on a single audio track.

FIG. 1: Sidechaining is now possible in Sonar. Each sidechainable plug-in exposes its key input in the list of available send and track outputs. Here, three different gates are being triggered from sends on a single audio track.

Modern Mixing

Two mixing features, small things though they may be to some, are undeniably overdue: sidechaining and external effects. Sonar finally allows plug-ins to expose a sidechain input for standard applications such as ducking and de-essing, as well as more creative uses. When a plug-in offers a sidechain input, that input automatically shows up in the list of track and send outputs.

This implementation allows you to combine multiple sources to a single sidechain input, but distributing a single source to multiple sidechains is a bit harder. To trigger multiple gated pads from the same drum loop, for instance, requires a dedicated send from the source track for each gate (see Fig. 1), whereas other programs can accomplish the same thing with a single send. Sonar's included Sonitus dynamics and Vintage Channel support sidechains.

Even as more and more audio production moves inside the box, to be seriously considered for use in a major studio, a digital audio sequencer must still be able to integrate external processors, something Sonar couldn't do adequately until now. A new external-insert plug-in directs a signal from a track to an output and expects the signal to return to the track from some input, allowing your favorite piece of classic hardware to be inserted directly into the signal flow of an audio track or bus. In contrast with sidechaining, the external insert is admirably flexible, enabling you to assign any unused output and input independently of each other. Sonar even measures the round-trip travel time and compensates for the delay.

Assigning inputs and outputs is now more efficient, allowing the user to assign the same audio input or output port to multiple tracks, or — my personal favorite — to assign a series of inputs or outputs to multiple tracks. Setting up multiple tracks and assigning them automatically to sequential input ports saves only a few seconds per track, but with a lot of tracks, that adds up.

FIG. 2: Different MIDI editing tools can be called into action based on five different positions within a note (and two outside the note) crossed with any combination of three modifier keys.

FIG. 2: Different MIDI editing tools can be called into action based on five different positions within a note (and two outside the note) crossed with any combination of three modifier keys.

Macho MIDI

When Cakewalk rolled out the in-line piano-roll view (PRV) two versions ago, I was excited not to have to open the floating PRV to edit MIDI, but frustrated that changing tools required time-wasting mouse-clicks unless you created your own key bindings to switch between them. Sonar 7 fixes this and goes way beyond, letting you assign different tool behaviors based on the cursor's position within (or relative to) a MIDI note, which of the three mouse buttons is pressed, and which combination of the Shift, Alt, and Ctrl keys is held (see Fig. 2). This gives you more than enough tool behaviors at your fingertips, without ever needing to switch from one tool to the next.

The Select, Draw, and Erase tools are now simply tools 1, 2, and 3, and each tool is actually a set of customizable context- and modifier-sensitive behaviors. Assignments can be saved as presets, so editors who share a workstation can have their own tool sets. Presets resembling the tool sets of other audio programs are included. Editing MIDI in the in-line or floating PRV is now more efficient than ever.

The floating PRV has gained the ability to display multiple lanes of controller data. This makes for a much clearer view when a track has multiple controller types being automated. It also means you can copy and paste data easily between controller types.

A new step sequencer simplifies hard-quantized dance-style drum programming, and it will likely please users whose music leans toward repetitive patterns. It falls a bit short of my hopes, though, because its controller implementation — the part I usually like best about step sequencers — is no different than single-lane controller view in the PRV. A step sequencer that allows you to quantize controller events to the grid turns timbral variation into a rhythmic element. I hope that's an option in the next iteration of the step sequencer.

That beef aside, the step sequencer is quite powerful. It supports odd meters and features a “fit-to-quarters” function that squeezes a pattern to fit within a specified number of quarter notes. Imagine, for example, an 8-beat pattern squeezed into a 5/4 bar. Step-sequencer clips are MIDI groove clips, so rolling them out to the desired length is easy as pie. Optionally, step-sequencer clips can be made to follow project pitch as well.

Editing in the step sequencer is dead simple: left-click to add a note, and right-click to remove a note. Ctrl-click (or -drag) to join notes, and Ctrl-right-click to separate them. Shift-drag up and down on a note to adjust Velocity, and Shift-drag across the row to draw a series of Velocities.

Other MIDI enhancements abound, such as Velocity color coding of notes and MIDI Velocity/activity meters on tracks. The Erase tool now highlights notes to be deleted as you drag in the PRV, deleting notes only when you release the mouse. This allows you to see more clearly what you are deleting. Individual notes and controller events can be muted, and a new drag-quantize feature lets you Ctrl-drag upward to slide selected notes progressively closer to the grid. Very clever, indeed.

Much More

Sonar 7 comes with special editions of Cakewalk's new instruments, including Rapture LE, a rich-sounding, dance-oriented subtractive synth, and Dimension LE, a flexible sample-based synth that has a limited but quite useful version of the Garritan orchestral library called Garritan Pocket Orchestra. The full version of the powerful Z3TA+ waveshaping synth is also included. Synths can be renamed in the Synth Rack, making it easier to distinguish between multiple instances of a particular virtual instrument.

FIG. 3: The LP-64 Multiband compressor offers transparent linear-phase multiband compression suitable for bus compression or mastering.

FIG. 3: The LP-64 Multiband compressor offers transparent linear-phase multiband compression suitable for bus compression or mastering.

V-Vocal, Sonar's excellent pitch- and time-correction plug-in (based on Roland's VariPhrase technology), has been updated to include pitch-to-MIDI conversion. Once V-Vocal has analyzed an audio clip, you simply drag its pitch-to-MIDI icon to a MIDI track, and appropriate MIDI notes (and optional Pitch Bend information) are created. At its best, this is a great way to generate a synth track to double a vocal part, but I had trouble getting it to work consistently. For reasons Cakewalk and I have been unable to discern, V-Vocal doesn't like my desktop computer as much as my notebook. Generating MIDI from audio clips on my notebook worked as advertised — requiring some cleanup, but getting the important parts right — but on my desktop the clips were slightly time-compressed, didn't line up with the audio clips, and didn't even contain the expected notes. The 7.0.2 update fixed some known bugs related to this function, but it didn't rescue my desktop.

Two new plug-ins intended for mastering use are included. The LP-64 EQ is exactly what it sounds like: a 64-bit linear-phase equalizer with an uncolored sound. The LP-64 Multiband compressor (see Fig. 3) is no more mysterious, offering five user-defined bands of independent dynamics control. Both are worthy additions to Sonar's virtual gear rack.

I was somewhat less impressed with the deliberately quick-and-dirty limiter Boost 11. Its simplified design is admirable, and it is certainly capable of delivering the instant gratification that comes with hearing your mix suddenly hotter. That easy satisfaction carries a price, though — I had no trouble getting Boost 11 to pump and misbehave on dynamic material. (See the online bonus material at emusician.com for some other minor quibbles I have about the program.)

Sonar now imports directly from audio CDs. Cakewalk says the ripping algorithm rejects any reads with errors, but I didn't test its accuracy extensively. A CD-burning applet is included that is suitable for quick assembly of reference tracks, but not for anything more demanding. Cakewalk Publisher is designed to make it easier to maintain an updated playlist when you have an embedded audio player on one or more Web sites. After a bit of fumbling, I was able to get it to work as advertised: feed Publisher a series of MP3 files, and it generates a script for you to copy into your Web pages to link to a single copy of the player. If Cakewalk would make the player presentable and enlarge its buttons to a usable size, the company would have a useful little utility.

So do all the small changes make for a good value? Well, Sonar stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other professional digital audio sequencers, so if you work on a PC and like its look and feel, you can't go wrong. Is it worth upgrading to version 7 from 5 or 6? Absolutely, if features such as the MIDI editing improvements or audio sidechaining matter to you. You may find that the little things really do add up.


Brian Smithers is course director of audio workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

digital audio sequencer $619
upgrade from Sonar 6 Producer Edition $179

PROS: Customizable, flexible MIDI editing tools. Sidechain control of compatible effects. External-insert plug-in. Powerful, mature audio and MIDI feature set, including surround sound.

CONS: Pitch-to-MIDI can yield unexpected results. CD-burning and streaming-playlist-publisher applets are minimally useful. PC only.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Cakewalk
cakewalk.com

In our reviews, prices are MAP or street unless otherwise noted.

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