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electronic MUSICIAN

CAKEWALK Project5 Version 2.0.1 (Win)

By Jim Aikin | November 1, 2005

Cakewalk's Project5 2.0.1 is a software update that has several improvements over the original version: the user interface has been streamlined, a great new soft synth has been added, and a new interactive feature called the GrooveMatrix has made Project5 eminently usable onstage.

Project5 2 and the 2.0.1 update installed smoothly on my 3 GHz Pentium PC, which is equipped with 1 GB of RAM and runs Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2. As a minimum, Cakewalk recommends a 1.2 GHz Pentium or Athlon processor system, running Windows 2000 with 512 MB of RAM and 2.5 GB of hard-disk space.

FIG. 1: Project5''s cool, clean -interface keeps pop-up -window clutter to a minimum. The MIDI editor is at bottom. Track -parameters are in the columns at left.

When I first launched the program, however, its audio output was very low. The installation disk's ReadMe file explained that, with some hardware interfaces, Project5 can't determine whether to send the least or the most significant byte of each sample word first. With my M-Audio FireWire 410, the program guessed wrong. After I switched the byte order in Project5's audio preferences box, the output level was fine.

The Big Picture

At first glance, Project5 2.0.1 (see Fig. 1), looks more like a standard DAW than its predecessor did. The program includes a basic suite of built-in effects and can host VST and DX plug-in effects and instruments. Project5 can also operate as a ReWire host or client. In the release version, its MIDI tracks can play only soft synths and not external MIDI hardware synths. Cakewalk, however, provides a free MIDI-out plug-in from RGC Audio at

Project5 has no dedicated mixer window; you use the track parameter area to control track levels, panning, and effects. But the program does provide an arpeggiator, a Browser pane, and a generous selection of MIDI and audio instrument loops. You can save all of the settings for a track, including the soft synth and any plug-in effects, as a Device Chain preset. Device Chains let you save your favorite setups and load them quickly into any project.

Compared with mature DAW software, Project5 has some limitations. While it can transmit MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointer, it doesn't transmit MIDI Time Code and can't be synchronized to external hardware. (Project5's transport synchronizes when the program is used as a ReWire client within a synced host). Project5 doesn't have a MIDI event list or a video window for scoring to picture, and doesn't offer notation editing or printout. The audio editing is limited to groove-oriented processes affecting Acidized WAV files.

In sum, Project5 borrows some of the better features of DAWs, but at heart it's still a one-stop virtual-synth workstation. Cakewalk includes Dimension and DS864 (sample playback modules), PSyn II (virtual analog synths), nPulse (an analog-style drum box), Velocity (a sample playback drum box), Cyclone (an Acidized loop player), and the Roland GrooveSynth (a GM2 sound-set player with GrooveBox sounds and basic editing tools).

FIG. 2: MIDI and audio patterns loaded into the GrooveMatrix can be triggered -interactively onstage. Patterns that are playing currently are light green and display progress bars.


The GrooveMatrix (see Fig. 2) is a rectangular grid of cells. The horizontal rows of the grid correspond to tracks — up to 64 cells per track are allowed — and whatever is in a given row will be processed by the effects attached to that track. You can load MIDI patterns into the cells of MIDI tracks, and load audio loops or one-shot samples into the cells of audio tracks. You then can play back the audio using the mouse, or give the MIDI patterns remote control assignments. You can set cell start and stop times globally to musical values such as measures and quarter notes.

Any vertical column of cells (Cakewalk calls those grooves) can be started or stopped as a unit. You can also manually mix and match individual cells. It's even possible to have several cells from the same track playing at the same time, though that requires control-clicking from the computer. Starting a new cell through MIDI always shuts off other cells in the same row.

By putting the GrooveMatrix in Record mode, you can record your improvised arrangement into the linear track area. Once data is recorded into the tracks, you can choose whether any individual track will play back using the GrooveMatrix, the track data, or both. With this system you can easily set up the structure of an arrangement ahead of time, and then improvise over the top of it. The GrooveMatrix and tracks are displayed in a single window, which makes it easy to see what you're doing.


Like many hardware workstation synths, Dimension (see Fig. 3) has a couple of global effects processors and four independent oscillators — each with its own filter, envelopes, LFOs, and other settings. For the most part the user interface is easy to understand, but even after reading the manual I had trouble figuring out how to set up Velocity modulation of an envelope; the feature is implemented, but hard to find. A few operations, such as setting envelope sustain and loop points, lack onscreen buttons and are accessed strictly by QWERTY key commands.

FIG. 3: The Dimension soft synth has four sample-playback -oscillators and built-in effects. The unlabelled horizontal line at the lower right of the screen is used for keyboard scaling.

The voice design is surprisingly powerful. Each signal path (which Cakewalk calls an Element) includes a multimode resonant filter, overdrive, lo-fi bit crunching, 3-band EQ, five envelopes, five LFOs, and its own inline chorus-delay effect. There are 16 general-purpose MIDI modulation routings with smoothing.

The envelopes, which are hardwired to pitch, cutoff, resonance, panning, and amplitude, can have as many segments as you might need. The curvature of each segment is freely adjustable. Each envelope can loop, and each segment can be modulated individually by Velocity or MIDI key number. Those are great features, but I wish the envelopes could sync to Project5's transport for rhythmic effects. As things are, the lengths of segments are displayed in milliseconds, so you can set up rhythmic envelopes the hard way. But if you should later change the tempo of your project, you'll need to reedit the envelopes.

Dimension comes with 3 GB of samples, which are used in hundreds of presets, including 179 in the ambient and effect-oriented Dimensions folder. That's on top of 94 Synth Basses, 166 Pads, and smaller but ample lists in multiple instrument categories, including Real Basses, Drums, Drum Grooves, Guitars, Layers, Splits, and so on. Many of the waveforms are Velocity cross-switched, and while Dimension itself offers no editing interface for the sample zones, you can open the .sfz files in a text editor and customize the presets if you need to.

The largest Dimension preset is a 230 MB grand piano. Hidden behind the panel are hammer release and a damper-pedal-down sympathetic resonance simulator (adjustable from the mod wheel). That's pretty amazing stuff for a built-in soft synth.

Other Synths

As a basic sample playback instrument, DS864 (see Fig. 4) functions well. It has dual filters, three LFOs, and four DADHDR (delay-attack-decay-hold-decay-release) envelopes. Sample zones can be edited graphically, and key and Velocity layering of zones is allowed. While you can load WAV files to create your own presets, the data for the 49 presets is not stored in WAV format, which means there's no way to mix and match the existing sounds. The DS864 will layer up to eight presets into a composite sound, but the manual doesn't explain how to set up layers.

FIG. 4: The DS864 plug-in handles sample playback with programmable key zones.

PSyn II, a very capable virtual analog synth, has four oscillators (with suboscillators and pulse-width modulation), five envelopes, three LFOs, and two filters. The pairs of oscillators can operate in several modes, providing ring modulation, sync, and linear and exponential FM.

The Velocity sample playback synth is specialized for playing drum sounds. It comes with a nice starter collection of individual hits, which can be installed in as many as 18 cells for playback. Sample layering is allowed, and each cell has its own resonant lowpass filter and Velocity response.

Individual slices of a WAV file can be pitched up or down, panned, and volume-shifted either within a track or within the Cyclone loop player. Cyclone offers the ability to drag individual slices forward or backward in time relative to other slices. With that feature you can completely rearrange a sampled beat.

The nPulse analog-style drum box has 12 slots for percussion sounds — each slot providing seven or eight knobs for sound control. The various slots have differing features: for instance, the snare slot has Snap and Noise knobs, while the bass drum slots have drive and modulation knobs. Although limited, nPulse is a nice source for electro percussion.


You can automate plug-in parameters at the track level and within individual patterns. At the track level, you record automation by clicking-and-dragging a graphic slider in the track parameter area. There are only eight sliders per soft synth and four per effect, but that is not a limitation. Any of the parameters that the synth or effect makes available for automation can be assigned to a slider, and after recording one parameter, you can reassign the slider without losing the automation you just recorded.

You can record automation data into individual patterns. The data will loop when the pattern loops. That type of data can also be used for automating parameters either at the track level or within patterns, as long as the soft synth can respond to MIDI Control Change data.

You can edit automation data graphically with a pencil tool. You draw straight lines by holding down the shift key while dragging the tool. The main limitation of controller-data editing in Project5 is that only one “lane” of data can be displayed at a time within a given track or pattern.

MIDI Recording and Editing

I use MIDI rather than sampled loops for a lot of my music, so I'm picky when it comes to MIDI editing. While Project5's piano-roll edit window handles the basic necessities, I was less satisfied with the MIDI features than with any other aspect of the software.

Dragging notes around works as expected, and you can edit velocities and controller data with a pencil tool. Quantization to basic values is supported, and there's also a groove quantize function, though the latter is crippled by the fact that you can't define new grooves unless you own Cakewalk Sonar. Project5 supports swing/shuffle quantizing, but the swing percentage has to be the same for all patterns that use swing.

When overdubbing a MIDI track in an area where a pattern is already playing, you can either overdub into an existing pattern in the piano-roll window, or you can record into the track. With overdubbing into the piano-roll window, however, you don't get to hear the rest of the arrangement, because the pattern is soloed. Recording into the track always creates a new pattern overlaying the old one, and an extra step is required to combine the two into a single new pattern. After that, the original patterns will still clutter up the Not In Use list in the Browser. Allowing overdubbing into MIDI patterns at the track level would be much better.

In the 2.0.1 release, Project5 MIDI patterns can't be exported as Standard MIDI Files. They're exported as .PTN files, which are readable by Sonar and Kinetic (both Cakewalk products) but not by Steinberg Cubase, Mackie Tracktion, or Ableton Live.


Project5's Browser pane has three views: Browse, Explore, and In Project. The Browse view gives you a categorized list of the content in the Patterns folder (which lives in the Project5 2 folder on your hard drive). By customizing the contents of that folder, you can put whatever you'd like in the Browse display. Unfortunately, however, the Browser will ignore shortcuts/aliases to folders elsewhere in the system. The Explore display provides a conventional Windows Explorer — type interface, with which you can grab anything on the hard drive. Naturally, items you click on in the browser will be played back at the current tempo and using the settings of the currently selected track.

The In Project view displays a list of the patterns being used in this project and another list of the patterns that have been loaded but that haven't been assigned to tracks. If you've tried out a number of audio patterns, visit the list of Not in Use patterns from time to time and delete them. That's because Project5 stores all of the audio in the project (except audio files recorded to and streamed from disk) as part of the song file — even audio clips that are not currently in use. Storing everything in the song file is good, but song files with a lot of unused loops can easily get large.

Included Audio Effects

Project5's suite of effects includes standard reverb, delay, chorus, EQ, compression, and bit crunching. There's no distortion (an odd omission), but a mod filter with its own LFO and envelope follower is included.

The Spectral Transformer effect, however, definitely isn't standard issue. It has four slots into which exotic processes with names like Accumulate, Trace, Exaggerate, VOC-Transp, and Band Shift can be loaded. Five LFOs are available to modulate process parameters. The results range from metallic sweeps and subtle changes in formants to rich gargling feedback.

Spectral Transformer uses a phase vocoder to perform analysis of the incoming waveform. As a result, it always imposes some latency on the output. If you're using Spectral Transformer to process drums or any other material that needs rhythmic precision, you'll want to render the output as an audio file, import it into an audio track, and then slide the audio data forward to bring it back into the groove.

MFX and Arpeggiator

Every MIDI track in Project5 has its own arpeggiator, and dozens of preset patterns are included. You can create your own by saving a MIDI pattern as a .ptn file, after which the arpeggiator can load it. The shapes with which pattern data is mapped onto notes (such as Inward Circle and Forward Circle Inclusive) sound intriguing, but they aren't explained in the manual.

The MFX (MIDI effects) area includes options like echo, data filtering, and Velocity processing. More interesting is Synchron 32, a cute polyphonic step sequencer. It stores 32 patterns, each with up to 32 steps. Synchron patterns are gated by MIDI notes in the track belonging to whatever instrument Synchron is playing.

With 5, You Get Egg Roll

In general, Project5 proved stable and bug-free. I ran into a problem with stuck notes when using the Camel Audio Cameleon 5000 synth, and had a couple of crashes. When playing the Project5 synths under ReWire with Cubase SX3 as the host, I encountered some timing instabilities, which Cakewalk confirmed. Project5 comes with a 90-page booklet that offers scant information on programming the synths. The built-in Help documentation could use more graphics and more-thorough explanations of complex procedures.

Nonetheless, Project5 is an attractive package with great features. The included synthesizers and effects are excellent. ReWire and plug-in support are well implemented, and the live-performance possibilities with GrooveMatrix are quite respectable. Project5 doesn't go as deep in certain areas as other programs, but it gives you the more relevant features of several different programs in one integrated, easy-to-use application.

Jim Aikin writes regularly for EM and other publications. His two most recent books are Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Backbeat Music Essentials, 2004) and A Player's Guide to Chords & Harmony: Music Theory for Real-World Musicians (Backbeat Music Essentials, 2004).


CAKEWALK Project5 2.0.1
virtual-synth studio workstation


PROS: Excellent synthesizers. Interactive loop triggering for live performance. Easy to use. Starter library of MIDI and audio loops.

CONS: No user-editable groove quantizing. Doesn't export Standard MIDI Files. Marginal documentation.



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