These days, it's all about the makeover: a tuck here, a stitch and staple there. In fact, if your girlfriend really cares about you, then five gay men may just show up at your house, cut your hair and teach you how to cook foie gras. And ladies? Well, if your man is truly loving you right, the Trading Spaces crew will deck your halls with all of the latest Pottery Barn amenities. Heck, even the software engineers are getting into the act, as evidenced by the recent face-lift to Cakewalk's flagship DAW application for Windows: Sonar 3.
Although the software box and packaging remain true to Sonar's original darker shade of green, Sonar 3's newly spruced user interface defaults to a mellow grayish-blue hue with customizable windows, track views, plug-in effects and DXi synths. I was immediately impressed with Sonar's “logical” (pun intended) and completely customizable visual aspects. There are also tons of powerful new audio features in Sonar 3. With recent DirectX plug-in additions, Cakewalk has decidedly raised the bar on Sonar's mix and remix possibilities. Anyone heard of a little company that specializes in rich echo and reverberation? That's right, Lexicon now supplies a Pantheon Reverb DirectX plug-in that works exclusively with Sonar 3. And for those who would rather go with their favorite third-party plug-ins, no problem: VST support (in the form of a one-time conversion to DirectX) now ships standard with Sonar.
More important, legacy Sonar users don't lose hardly anything from the Sonar 2 feature set. All of the cool Groove Clip and MIDI-editing tools are present, as well as the Cyclone DXi groove instrument, the original Sonar 2 suite of effects and version 2's enhanced MIDI drum-map capabilities. Even more impressive is how quickly Sonar 3's new features unfold into your work flow. This is due in part to Sonar's hefty 600-plus-page manual, which details each aspect of Sonar's interface and feature set and provides 10 quick “get you up and running” tutorials.
THE FIRST PING
For this review, I installed Sonar into my Athlon/800MHz PC (Sonar's minimum requirement) with 256 MB of RAM. After following the initial set of windows, I entered my serial number (Sonar's choice for copy protection) and waited for the files to be copied to my hard drive. Although the main installation took just five minutes, Sonar then asked me whether I would like to register my VST synths and effects. This process involves converting each VST effect and instrument to a DirectX version, which can take awhile depending on the number of VSTs that you have installed and each respective plug-in's copy-protection scheme. For example, my Native Instruments Battery VSTi plug-in required me to reinsert the original installation CD to verify ownership (insert picture of a guy digging through a messy drawer full of miscellaneous software boxes and manuals). After validating Battery, Sonar's installer continued on with the plug-in conversion process, pausing only one other time for about 10 seconds and then finishing. Amazingly, none of my other plug-ins required additional authorization with CD inserts and the like.
I did find some newly converted plug-ins that caused Sonar to crash. But before I could even compose a note to my Cakewalk technical contact, a patch was posted on the Cakewalk site; now, even my Steinberg plug-ins are working fine. By the time I finished this review, I made two important updates to Sonar. First, I was initially unable to register my copy of Maz Sound Tools' VSampler 3, the software sampler that comes with the Producer Edition of Sonar, until after I downloaded version 3.0.3 from www.maz-sound.com. And second, Cakewalk has posted a plug-in patch that fixes several small bugs, including those found in the Ultrafunk Sonitus:fx Suite and the VSampler plug-in. Finally, I was all patched up and ready to play.
Once you behold Sonar 3's new interface, there's really no going back. For me, it was the simple fact that you can now view a vertical channel strip (complete with a vertical fader, as well as panning and effects settings) corresponding to the currently highlighted horizontal arrangement-view track. Perhaps I've been conditioned by working with hardware mixers all my life, but a sliver-size vertical view of the channel I'm inspecting is a welcome addition. As a Windows user, I welcome Sonar 3's flexibility in terms of resizing each view's frames and window sizes. You are no longer locked into a single view for a plug-in effect or instrument, and you can now customize each track's size and display settings independently. Sonar's colors can also be changed to any shade you please.
Cakewalk also revamped its mixer to include true power-user features. Bus assignments and routing are now limitless in terms of their flexibility inside Sonar 3. Each bus that you create contains both Mute and Solo buttons and can be added or deleted with a simple mouse-click. Further, any bus can be routed to another bus or back to the main output. For producers mixing large projects in Sonar, this flexibility is a real time-saver. If you have ever tried to turn down a kit's worth of drum tracks individually by dragging each virtual fader or attempted to scale back three or more guitars, it can be easy to lose your blend. Also, Sonar 3 literally takes the ring out of your ears with the addition of an Automatic Feedback Loop Prevention feature.
Sonar 3 also benefits from Cakewalk's recent audio-software acquisitions. Specifically, Pantheon Reverb, VSampler, Sonitus:fx Suite and FXpansion's VST-to-DirectX wrapper (more on these to come) all come standard with Cakewalk's Producer Edition of Sonar. The Ultrafunk package alone adds 10 new effects to Sonar's already hefty arsenal. (See the sidebar “Bring on the Funk.”) Also, each mixer bus and channel in Sonar's mixer console (Producer Edition only) houses a 6-band Sonitus:fx parametric EQ with quick presets for highpass and lowpass/shelf filters. You can bypass these EQs to save system resources or activate them for tweaking as you record and mix. A miniature display on each channel shows the approximate effect that the EQ has on the track (similar to Emagic Logic Audio). And if you already own Cakewalk's Project5 soft-synth workstation, you will be pleased to find that all of Project5's effects and instruments are available for use inside Sonar 3 — as long as they are installed on the same computer. Cooler still, any sequences saved from Project5 can become MIDI clips in Sonar 3.
DON'T GO CHANGING
Although version 3 is a major upgrade, the core functionality and general work flow in the application are much the same. In other words, Cakewalk has carefully sifted the golden features from its application stream. You will still be able to use all of your favorite DXi and DirectX effects, as well as my personal favorite, Sonar's Loop Explorer, which allows you to preview your loops at the project tempo. Like versions 1 and 2, Sonar 3 also heavily promotes the use of Groove Clips, which are audio loops (WAV files) that can be rolled out along your arrangement by the simple drag of a mouse. What's more, Groove Clips actually “remember” the original tempo, pitch, length (number of beats) and transient (note placement) information embedded inside each WAV file. This may at first seem insignificant, but dedicated Sonar users know that when used in any Sonar project, Groove Clips will automatically adjust to the project's tempo or to user-created key-marker changes within a given project. For instance, if a bass, a keyboard and a guitar loop encounter a marker, each loop will change to the same respective key (modulate) at the same time — as long as they are properly tagged Groove Clips. Taking this concept a step further, Sonar also allows for MIDI Groove Clips, which are similar to their WAV cousins but are MIDI files that move to your markers. Sonar's manual contains specific instructions for making and editing Groove Clips.
Other key Sonar features left untouched in version 3 are Cakewalk's MIDI FX — a small group of tweakable MIDI plug-ins that work great for adding quick delay or arpeggios to a MIDI track — and Sonar's MIDI pattern brush, which makes for paint-and-play MIDI composing through the use of pre-existing or user-made templates. With MIDI FX, you can alleviate some computer-processing drain by using MIDI notes (as opposed to CPU-nagging DirectX plug-ins) to achieve your desired effect.
Also like version 2, Sonar 3 comes in two different packages: Studio Edition ($479) and Producer Edition ($719), which are available through Cakewalk's Web store at www.cakewalk.com or at most music stores around the country. The differences between the Studio and Producer Editions are impressive, and I recommend going for the gusto here. For the additional $240, you get the full version of the Pantheon Reverb, the VSampler 3.0 DXi virtual sampler with two CDs of sample content, the Sonitus:fx Suite of effects plug-ins and the ability to integrate a 6-band EQ on each mixer bus and channel. You can also assign any four effects parameters to their respective channel strip in the arrange window for easy tweaking. If you already happen to own a Cakewalk desktop sequencing product or an earlier version of Sonar, upgrade pricing is significantly lower (about half of the full price). One hidden cost is Sonar's MP3 codec ($29).
UNDER THE KNIFE
Although many agree that Sonar has always been loop- and MIDI-friendly, Cakewalk has taken great steps to professionalize Sonar's console, studio work flow and effects offerings. In many ways, Cakewalk has borrowed liberally from the competition (namely Steinberg and Emagic) to create its own hybrid application. In general, I found tracking in Sonar to be a rewarding experience. Of course, you can add as many tracks as your computer can handle and group them easily in Cakewalk's mixer. But it is slightly annoying that you are required to stop Sonar each time you arm or disarm recording for any track. You can, however, punch in and out using the transport bar once a track is set up to record. Also, Sonar requires that you take the time to set up a MIDI metronome (don't worry, a tutorial is provided) if you want to record with a click track. Most of the time, it's easier and more musical to just grab a simple drum loop as a reference; however, MIDI projects often require a more accurate (MIDI) metronome — especially if you're doing a fair amount of editing.
Regarding system stability while running Sonar, crashes were infrequent. When they did occur, I almost always had to restart my PC to get my audio interface working again. Incidentally, this seemed to only be true when I was using ASIO drivers (on my M-Audio 2496 card). I purposely did so to test Sonar's adaptation of ASIO drivers. Since version 1, Cakewalk has strongly recommended WDM drivers as the best choice for working with Sonar. (The company's Website contains a list of recommended devices.) Sonar 2.2 users sitting on the fence should be impressed that version 3 is a complete rewrite of Sonar's core audio engine, which means that effects can be inserted without gaps (most of the time) and recorded audio waveforms are now drawn in real time. If you are a PC-based music maker and still unfamiliar with Sonar, you owe it to yourself to at least download the demo. Take a good hard look at Sonar's Groove Clip and MIDI-editing faculties, and spend some time toying with Sonar's revamped mixer.
At the risk of being redundant, Sonar's new Console (mixer) is sweet — a beautiful improvement that should keep the DAW battle raging. Particularly impressive is the ease with which you can scroll through the new mixer's view choices (all selectable by a single mouse-click). You can scope out EQs, EQ plots, effects, sends and all channel settings (volume, panning and so forth), as well as hide or show nearly every parameter. Small text pop-ups remind you of each button's function when your mouse hovers. You can also slim down the channels, rearrange their order and quickly and easily rename them. With version 3, the differences between Sonar and its chief competitors — Cubase SX and Logic 5.5 (on PC) — have become increasingly subtle. Each of these applications handles MIDI editing and audio recording in a slightly different manner. Each program also comes with its own group of proprietary effects (with undoubtedly different proprietary sonic differences). And finally, each DAW is now well-documented, supported and developed for. Any PC users who have been stranded by Emagic's full migration to Apple operating systems should find Sonar to be a natural fit. In any case, it appears that the operation was a success. Sonar's scars have healed nicely, and a beautiful visage has emerged. It's too bad that Cakewalk couldn't have spruced up my PC's beige box.
SONAR 3 > $719 (PRODUCER EDITION); $479 (STUDIO EDITION)
Pros: Redesigned interface. Familiar to Sonar 1 and 2 users. Professional bus options. Smooth effects integration and audio handling. Exceptional manual.
Cons: Additional fee to export MP3 files. Lexicon Pantheon Reverb for Producer Edition only.
BRING ON THE FUNK
New to Sonar 3 (Producer Edition only) are 10 separate automatable DirectX Ultrafunk Sonitus:fx plug-in effects. Topping my list were the 6-band parametric equalizer, the multiband compressor and the tempo-synching delay. Other plug-ins found in this bundle include a standard compressor, a simple noise gate, a panning modulator, a quick phase shifter, a simple wah-wah effect, a solid reverb and an animated 5.1 surround sound panning effect.
Pentium or Athlon/800 (1.2 GHz or higher recommended); 128 MB RAM (512 MB recommended); Windows 2000 (XP recommended); 100 MB hard-drive space (1.2 GB recommended); 7,200 rpm or SCSI hard drive recommended; soundcard (WDM or ASIO recommended); MIDI interface