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Cakewalk Sonar 1.02 Review

10/1/2001

For the past several years, Cakewalk has released a new version of its flagship product, Pro Audio, every 12 months or so. EM has published numerous Pro Audio reviews (see the table, “Pro Audio Past and Present”), including an extensive review of Pro Audio 9 in the May 2000 issue. This year Cakewalk has replaced its topflight sequencer with a new application called Sonar.

Although Cakewalk is touting Sonar as a new product, it sports many of the same features as Pro Audio 9. Like its predecessor, Sonar is a digital audio sequencer that provides extensive tools for recording and editing MIDI and audio, essentially transforming your PC into a complete digital multitrack production system. Pro Audio 9 users will notice that the Piano Roll, Event List, Staff, Lyrics, StudioWare, Video, Big Time, Markers, Tempo, Meter/Key, and Sysx views are all included in Sonar and function the same way they did in the past. Moreover, Sonar is the only upgrade path for Pro Audio 9 users — there will be no Pro Audio 10. So in essence, Sonar is an upgrade.

Because of functional modifications and new features, however, the way users work with the program is significantly different. From that perspective, Sonar is new. Among the changes and new features in Sonar are a redesigned Track view, new Loop Construction and Loop Explorer views, new automatable DirectX 8 plug-in effects and DX Instruments (DXi), Slip Editing, Groove Clips, processed input-signal monitoring, vastly improved automation capabilities, and Windows Driver Model (WDM) support.

Sonar comes in two flavors. Sonar XL offers all of Sonar's features and includes a collection of sound fonts and sample loops from a variety of manufacturers. With the XL version, you also receive the full version of Tassman 2.0, a DXi from Applied Acoustics Systems, and a special edition of Alien Connections' ReValver DXi.

TRACK WITH A VIEW

The first thing you'll notice in Sonar is the redesigned Track view (see Fig. 1). The Track view retains the Track pane for listing track parameters, but the configuration of those parameters has changed. Gone is the spreadsheetlike setup of Pro Audio; instead, you access parameters by vertically resizing a track and then clicking on various tabs at the bottom of the view. At first I found the new layout a bit disorienting, but after a while it became second nature. I discovered that if I made each track about one vertical inch, Sonar displayed the relevant parameters of each tab. Using smaller track sizes led to hidden parameters.

The Clips pane, which shows the audio and MIDI data clips for each track, is still there; with it is a new Bus pane at the bottom of the Track view. The Bus pane gives you access to the aux and main buses for the current project. One of the Bus pane's major purposes is to display and manipulate automation data for aux and main buses. Having the Bus pane in the Track view also means you no longer need to open the Console view when it's time to mixdown. If you prefer a more traditional mixing interface, though, the Console view is still available.

A new toolbar contains tools for selecting, editing, and scrubbing data. Those tools aren't new; they migrated from the Audio view, which no longer exists, because now you do all audio editing in the Track view. On the one hand, that change is nice because you can do all recording, editing, and mixing (except detailed MIDI-data edits) within one view. On the other hand, having a separate Audio view was also nice because you could have multiple instances with different track configurations open simultaneously. For example, you were able to have your percussion tracks open in one window and all the vocal tracks open in another, each with its own zoom settings. In the next version of Sonar, I hope that Cakewalk adds a track-configuration snapshot feature to the Track view to make navigating and editing multiple parts of a project easier.

WDM DRIVERS

Sonar offers some significant under-the-hood enhancements, including support for Microsoft's new WDM technology. If your sound card offers WDM audio drivers, you can achieve extremely low latency, which lets you use real-time effects when monitoring live input. WDM also improves performance when you play software synths from an external controller.

Sonar still supports the older Windows Multimedia Extensions (MME) audio drivers for compatibility, but the WDM drivers clearly make a difference. I tested the MME and WDM drivers for the Sound Blaster Live card on my Pentium III/700 MHz PC running Windows 98 SE. The results were quite astonishing. Like Pro Audio 9, Sonar lets you adjust for latency using the Mixing Latency parameters in the Audio Options dialog box. With the MME drivers installed, the lowest buffer size I could achieve was 62.5 ms, resulting in an effective latency of 187.5 ms for 44.1 kHz stereo audio. With the WDM drivers installed, the buffer size and effective latency were reduced to 10 ms. Amazing!

As with all new technology, however, there are some caveats. WDM drivers are supported only under Windows 2000, Windows ME, and Windows 98 SE. If you're running Windows NT, you're out of luck; Sonar won't even install under Windows NT. Sound-card manufacturers are still playing catch-up too, so don't be surprised if you find that WDM drivers are not yet available for your hardware. Fortunately, the vast majority of Sonar's features work fine without WDM drivers. You'll just miss out on optimal input monitoring and live performance of software-based instruments.

INPUT MONITORING

In Pro Audio, you could apply real-time effects only during playback because of the latency issues I mentioned earlier. With the adoption of WDM drivers, Sonar eliminates that problem. You can now apply real-time effects during recording as well. That capability is nice for musicians accustomed to hearing a processed signal during their performances.

To avoid problems, though, reduce the effective latency down to at least 10 ms (or lower if possible). Cakewalk says that anything between 6 and 10 ms should be imperceptible. I didn't have any problems during tests at the 10 ms setting.

You should also assign a track's input and output to the same sound card, or you'll run into some nasty feedback, distortion, or both. All monitoring should be done through Sonar, so mute the playback of the line-input connection on your sound card to avoid annoying echoes in your monitored signal. For example, if you use a Sound Blaster Live card, open the Windows Mixer, set Line In as your recording source under the Recording Controls, and mute Line In under the Playback Controls. That will ensure that your recorded signal goes to the line input, through Sonar, and then to the line output. Otherwise, the recorded signal would go through Sonar and directly to the line output simultaneously, giving you two distinct signals and causing echoes.

INSTRUMENTAL DX

One of the most significant new features in Sonar is support for DX Instruments. Like VST Instruments, DX Instruments emulate MIDI devices such as synths, samplers, and drum machines. To use a DXi, you load it as an audio plug-in and then assign one or more MIDI tracks to control it. With WDM drivers, you get responsive performance when playing a DXi live with an external MIDI controller.

A DXi's output is routed through Sonar just like a normal audio track, letting you put a DXi on an audio track or even on an aux or main bus. Then you can apply real-time effects to its output. Because Cakewalk integrated DX Instruments into Sonar, their audio output has the same bit depth and sampling rate as the current project. If you use 24-bit, 96 kHz audio, for example, the instruments use the same specs. The number of simultaneous instruments and the total polyphony are limited by your CPU's power.

Four DX Instruments are included with Sonar: Live Update's LiveSynth Pro 1.1, Audio Simulation's Dream Station 1.0, Roland's Virtual Sound Canvas 1.0, and Applied Acoustics' Tassman 2.0. LiveSynth Pro is a sample-playback module that lets you use sound fonts even if you lack a sound-font-compatible sound card. Unfortunately, the included version is only a trial: you can use it for 30 days, then a 1 MB sound-font limit kicks in; most good sound fonts are larger than that.

Dream Station (reviewed in the November 2000 issue) is a software simulation of an analog modular synthesizer. It offers an envelope generator, an amplifier, a filter, an LFO, and three audio oscillators as well as vibrato, portamento, and output controls such as volume and panning. Using those tools, you can create original synth sounds as you would with a hardware-based analog synth. Although Dream Station produces some of the best analog sounds you'll ever hear, it isn't multitimbral. That's not a serious limitation, however, because you can open multiple instances. On my Pentium III/700 MHz, a single Dream Station instance occupied a modest 6 percent on Sonar's CPU meter. At one point, I had nine instances running, and I could have easily launched more even while running without WDM drivers.

The Virtual Sound Canvas (VSC) is a General MIDI (GM) and GS tone generator that emulates Roland's popular Sound Canvas hardware module. The VSC provides 902 sounds covering the GM1, GM2, and GS Format sound sets, in addition to 26 drum sets. It also offers as many as 128 notes of polyphony. It also responds to most available MIDI messages as well as RPN, NRPN, and SysEx, letting you control many otherwise inaccessible parameters such as individual drum panning and effects levels.

The VSC uses a bit more processing power than the Dream Station, about 16 percent for one instance on my machine, but with all those notes at your disposal, you'll rarely need more than one instance. The only limitation is that you have access to just one sound set at a time. With two instances running, you could use a different set for each instance.

The most complex DXi of the bunch is Tassman 2.0 (see the January 2001 issue for a review of Tassman 1.2). Like Dream Station, Tassman is a modular software synth, but unlike the other DX Instruments included with Sonar, it offers dozens of modules and lets you create unique instruments by linking them in various ways (see Fig. 2). The modules include familiar analog elements like oscillators, amplifiers, envelopes, and mixers. Also included is an array of real-life physical-modeling modules, including a bowed string and a marimba bar. By combining the modules in unusual ways (how about a bowed marimba bar?), you can build one-of-a-kind synths.

The sound of Tassman 2.0 is amazing, but all that power comes at a price. Tassman is not multitimbral, though it is polyphonic (depending on the loaded synthesizer). Nonetheless, it consumes a huge amount of processing power. One instance on my PC registered at about 45 percent on Sonar's CPU meter. Only Sonar XL includes the full version of Tassman, so Sonar users are restricted to playing back existing synths and can't create their own.

If you purchase Sonar XL, you also get a special edition of the ReValver DXi, a guitar-amp simulator from Alien Connections. ReValver provides a virtual rackmount interface that allows you to add different modules — including preamps, power amplifiers, effects, and speakers — to simulate a multitude of amplification situations. I didn't find a lot of use for that product, because Sonar already includes a large collection of effects such as amplifier and tape simulation. You may find it useful, though, depending on your needs.

EFFECTIVELY YOURS

In addition to the effects from Pro Audio 9, Sonar includes all of the plug-ins from Cakewalk's Audio FX 1 and Audio FX 2 collections, which are usually sold separately. Those bundles provide six DirectX plug-ins covering dynamics processing and amplifier and tape simulation. The plug-ins are Limiter, Compressor/Gate, Expander/Gate, Dynamics Processor, AmpSim, and TapeSim. Each plug-in offers the type of processing its name implies. Together, they fill a large hole that was left in the Pro Audio 9 effects arsenal.

However, the other plug-ins included with Sonar caught most of my attention. Power Technology offers five new DirectX effects: FxChorus, FxDelay, FxEq, FxFlange, and FxReverb. Their names may not be impressive, but their functionality and sound quality are excellent. Those effects go above and beyond the norm by providing an extensive number of adjustable parameters, letting you produce professional-sounding projects. For example, the FxChorus plug-in provides four individual chorus “voices,” each with its own gain, delay, modulation depth and frequency, and pan parameters. The Power Technology plug-ins use little processing power — from 4 to 9 percent — so applying multiple instances in real time won't bog down your PC.

The best aspect of the Power Technology plug-ins is that they take advantage of the new functionality provided by Microsoft's DirectX 8 technology (for more information, see “Desktop Musician: DirectX 8 Steps Up” in the April 2001 issue). Thanks to DirectX 8, you can now automate an effect's individual parameters. For example, you could change a flanging effect's speed, an EQ band's frequency, or even a reverb's room size as your audio plays back. Be careful when changing room size, however, as you can introduce artifacts into the audio signal. Unfortunately, the Power Technology plug-ins are the only included plug-ins that support DirectX 8. I hope that more will appear in a future version.

EFFECTIVE AUTOMATA

In Pro Audio 9, automation data was stored as MIDI messages, which limited its usefulness. You couldn't automate a track's mute or solo parameters, for example, and the envelope feature was available only for controlling the volume and panning of audio tracks. In Sonar, you can automate almost all the parameters of a track, as well as aux and main bus parameters. Automation data is stored as envelopes in the respective track and can be edited by clicking and dragging nodes within the Clips pane of the Track view (see Fig. 3). Envelopes are recorded for MIDI and audio tracks.

Using automation on the individual parameters of DirectX 8 effects plug-ins is an exciting option. During one test, I applied the FxChorus effect to a sustaining synth-pad sound. Then I applied some subtle automation to the delay, modulation, and pan parameters of each voice in the effect. The result was an undulating sea of sound that made the entire stereo field seem alive with movement — very cool.

You can also automate the individual parameters of a DXi, resulting in some incredible synthesis possibilities. For instance, by automating the parameters of a DXi to change smoothly from one set of values to another over time, you can actually morph between sounds. To test that possibility, I sketched out the parameters of two Dream Station patches on a sheet of paper and created envelopes for each parameter so that the values would change smoothly from one measure to another. It was a lot of work, and the result was a bit strange, but with the right combination of patches, the possibilities of such synthesis power are staggering.

GIVE 'EM THE SLIP

In addition to the usual cut, copy, and paste features in Pro Audio 9, Sonar includes new nondestructive editing capabilities that Cakewalk has dubbed slip editing. By clicking and dragging the ends or the center of a clip, you can hide or reveal the data in the clip. Hidden data is not processed during playback, but because the data can be revealed at any time, the technique is nondestructive.

For example, if you slip-edit a clip's beginning or end to shorten it, the data hidden at the beginning or end will not play, yet it remains unchanged inside the clip. Additionally, you can shift a clip's contents without changing its length. To do so, just click and drag in the center of a clip while pressing Alt + Shift. The process was fast, easy, and intuitive.

The new nondestructive fades that Sonar provides are also nice. Simply position your mouse at the top corner of the beginning or end of a clip (depending on whether you want to create a fade-in or fade-out), and then click and drag inside the clip to define the length of the fade. Creating nondestructive crossfades is even easier: just activate the Automatic Crossfades feature, and then overlap the beginning of the second clip with the end of the first. Sonar automatically creates a smooth crossfade across the overlapping portion of the clips. The process couldn't be easier.

GETTING GROOVY

Although DX Instrument support is a significant feature in Sonar, I think the coolest addition is the Groove Clips feature, which is Cakewalk's answer to Sonic Foundry's Acid. Like Acid, Groove Clips can automatically match the playback tempo and pitch of each loop you use in a project. You can even use Acid-compatible loops with Sonar, so you don't have to worry about having to restock your loop library with yet another file format.

Using the new Loop Explorer view, you can locate files on your system and preview them automatically or manually. When you preview a file, its tempo is automatically adjusted to the project tempo so you can hear how it might fit with your existing tracks. If you find a loop you like, just drag and drop it into the Track view — either into an existing track or into a blank area in the Clips pane — to have a new track created automatically.

If your loop isn't Acid-compatible, Sonar provides the tools you need to transform it into a Groove Clip. Using the Loop Construction view (see Fig. 4), you can specify whether you want a clip to be looped or transposed and how it should be sliced for accurate time- and pitch-stretching. When you enable looping for a clip, Sonar automatically sets the Slicing and Transient Detection parameters, and it usually guesses quite well. Setting the Transient Detection to about 90 percent and the Slicing to the smallest rhythmic value in the clip typically gives the best results. I found, however, that I sometimes produced better results by tweaking the parameters manually.

The wonderful thing about Groove Clips is that you no longer have to switch between two programs to do loop composing. You don't have to create a drum track in Acid, import the track to Sonar, and then return to Acid to make changes; you can do everything within one program. One thing I do miss is Acid's paintbrush tool. In Sonar, you have to copy and paste clips into tracks, which is not nearly as easy or intuitive. On the other hand, clicking on and dragging a Clip to change its duration is similar to painting in Acid, and unlike Acid, Sonar supports different loops on the same track.

MORE MINI MODS

Other less dramatic but welcome improvements in Sonar are an unlimited number of MIDI and audio tracks, increased internal MIDI precision (from 480 to 960 ppqn), improved meters (with options for peak, root mean square, prefader, postfader, and prefader posteffects metering), and virtual (rather than fixed) main buses. There's also support for additional audio formats (AIFF, ASF, AU, MP2, MP3, and SND), dual monitors and multiprocessors, and optimization for Windows 2000 and ME.

Sonar isn't perfect. Sonar 1.0 shipped with a number of bugs, but Cakewalk addressed those problems with a free update, which brings the program to version 1.02 at the time of this writing. I would like to see a snapshot feature added to the Track view, parameter automation support for all the effects (not just the Power Technology plug-ins), and a paintbrush tool for applying loops to tracks.

Even without those improvements, however, Sonar is a definite success. Pro Audio 9 was looking a bit outdated compared with the other major sequencing packages. With Sonar, Cakewalk has easily caught up with, and maybe even surpassed, the competition.


Scott R. Garrigus is the author of Cakewalk Power and Sound Forge Power. He also publishes the DigiFreq music technology newsletter. For more information, surf to www.garrigus.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Sonar

Pentium II/400; 64 MB RAM;
Windows 98/98SE/ME/2000

Pro Audio Past and Present

Pro Audio 9 (review) 5/00
Pro Audio 9 (“Operation Help: Expert Advice”) 2/00
Pro Audio 8 (review) 2/99
Pro Audio 6 (review) 12/97
Pro Audio (“A Piece of Cake”) 4/97
Pro Audio 4.01 (review) 4/96

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Cakewalk
Sonar 1.02 (Win)
digital audio sequencer
$479; $739 (XL version)

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.0
DOCUMENTATION 4.0
VALUE 4.0

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: WDM support. Unlimited tracks. DX Instruments included. Automatable DirectX 8 effects. Acid-compatible looping features. Nondestructive editing.

CONS: Not all effects can be automated. WDM drivers not available for many sound cards. LiveSynth Pro is a trial version only. No snapshot configuration for Track view.

Manufacturer

Cakewalk
tel. (888) 225-3925 or (617) 423-9004
e-mail sales@cakewalk.com
Web www.cakewalk.com

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