Minimum System Requirements Sonar 3.1 Producer Edition
Pentium III or Athlon/800 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP
Since its inception, Cakewalk has produced a string of consistently high-quality tools for PC musicians. The PC has come a long way since then, and Sonar, Cakewalk's flagship product, has kept pace, becoming a powerful digital audio sequencer.
Sonar 2.0 was reviewed in the October 2002 issue of EM, so I'll concentrate on what's new in version 3.1. I'll cover the Producer Edition, which has more features than the lower-priced Studio Edition, but most of the new items are found in both versions.
Many of Sonar 3.1's improvements are obvious immediately. The program has a brand-new look and feel, with cool colors and intuitive icons (see Fig. 1). You can customize the color scheme and work with user-definable color presets. (Oddly, only the Track view's colors can be customized to a significant degree.)
The Track view is now clean and intuitive as can be. Track parameter names have been replaced with icons whose names pop up as you roll over them with the mouse. Tracks dim when muted; armed tracks take on a reddish hue. Unused controls disappear when you archive a track, and track names take on specific colors to indicate type. (A new Soft Synth track type joins the previously existing MIDI, Audio, and Bus types.)
Those changes may seem superficial, but they really improve the Sonar experience, especially when many tracks are visible at once. I run my monitor at a high resolution, so I appreciate no longer having to decipher itty-bitty text. And I like the program's increased ability to help me focus on what's important.
OPEN FOR INSPECTION
An optional new Track Inspector now appears along the left edge of the Track view. The Inspector is identical to the channel strip you see in Console view. You can lock the Track Inspector so that it always shows a specific track or bus.
Handily, the Track Inspector provides access to several controls that aren't available as Track Properties (more on those in a moment). For Track Properties that appear in both places, the Track Inspector displays knobs, faders, and buttons instead of the less ergonomic controls you get in the Track Properties display.
Sonar's meters are now highly customizable. They can display peak, RMS, or RMS and peak, and there are six meter ranges, from 12 dB to 90 dB. You can choose whether peaks are held, and you can lock peaks, which preserves the peak values until you reset them. A Reset All Meters command lets you clear all held peaks and overload indicators. Finally, meters can be displayed vertically or horizontally, and they can be prefader, postfader, or postfader and effects.
Peak values are also displayed numerically in the Track view and the Console view. I especially like that numeric values continue updating even after clipping has occurred. In case of clipping, the peak value shows how far over 0 dB the signal went, so you know exactly how much to back off to avoid clipping.
BEHIND THE CONSOLE
Sonar's Console view has gotten a face-lift as well (see Fig. 2). You can now have a 4-band EQ on every track and bus. Each band can be set to lowpass, highpass, low-shelf, or high-shelf filtering or band boost or cut. A graphic EQ plot appears above each set of EQ controls, letting you see the EQ setup at a glance. To save CPU power, you can switch on only the bands you need in each channel, and a master switch is provided to turn EQ on or off for the whole channel.
You can instantly access four parameters for each effect in the Console view. (Your effects must support DirectX or VST automation for instant access to work.) That lets you quickly tweak the most important effects settings across all of your tracks and buses without having a bunch of effects Property Sheets cluttering up your workspace. What's more, you can easily change the parameters displayed in the Console view. Sonar remembers your chosen parameters and displays them in Console view any time you reuse that effect.
Sonar's bus and send structure is now completely customizable. Want to create a submix of the horn section? Add a new bus. Want another aux send on the vocal track? Add it and route it to an existing bus or a newly created one. Sonar monitors what you're doing and prevents you from making choices that might cause a nasty audio-feedback loop.
With so many new controls in the Console view, you might wonder how they all fit. Cakewalk has done a remarkable job of keeping everything neat, orderly, and accessible. Furthermore, you have complete control over what appears in the Console view. A row of buttons along the view's left side lets you show or hide each group of channel-strip controls. Some of those buttons, such as the ones that control the FX, Send, and EQ displays, let you cycle through varying amounts of detail. You can create a Console view with nothing but channel names, or you can create channel strips that go right off the top of your display. You also have control over the horizontal aspect of the Console view. Each Channel strip can be shown at normal or narrow width or hidden completely.
Sonar 3.1 Producer Edition
digital audio sequencer
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE5.0DOCUMENTATION5.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Intuitive user interface simplifies complex tasks. Easy access to plug-in-effects parameters. Track-based input monitoring. Useful effects and DirectX instruments included.
CONS: Color preferences don't affect the Console view.
UNDER THE HOOD
Sonar's audio engine has been significantly enhanced. There is better support for multiple processors and hyperthreading CPUs. Cakewalk claims Sonar's performance is much improved by its ability to efficiently share mixing and DSP tasks among available processors.
New sampling rates are supported — you can record and play back at any rate your hardware supports. More notably, high-quality resampling algorithms have been added to audio-file importing and exporting. I exported a 48 kHz recording to a 44.1 kHz file and then reimported it at 48 kHz, and I couldn't tell the difference between the original and the twice-resampled copy.
Live-input monitoring is more convenient now. You no longer have to dig through the Audio Options settings to switch on input monitoring for the appropriate channels of your audio hardware. Instead, you simply toggle the Input Echo button on any audio track (the buttons are prominent in both the Track and Console views). I set up my hardware control surface to control this feature, which made it even easier.
The Input Echo buttons work in MIDI tracks as well. By default, Sonar echoes your MIDI input to the port and channel of the currently selected track. But you can switch on Input Echo for a different MIDI track, and the MIDI will be echoed there no matter which track is selected. That is especially handy for playing several software synths at once with a single MIDI controller.
Improvements in Sonar's effects include support for VST effects (using the bundled Cakewalk VST Adapter) and the handling of missing effects. Missing plug-ins are indicated as such in the Track and Console views (you even get a Replacement Property page). That's a useful feature when you collaborate with someone who hasn't licensed the same effects that you have. Your Sonar project can run on their computer without the missing effects, then return to your machine with the original effects still intact. This works with MIDI effects, DirectX instruments, and the built-in EQ.
Other effects-related improvements include a choice between vertically or horizontally oriented effects bins, a single command to bypass all of the effects in a bin, and visual indicators that show whether a particular effect supports automation. You can also add or remove effects during playback without drastically disrupting the audio stream. I typically experienced a single pop when I patched effects during playback, which wasn't too bad.
THE BIG PICTURE
As Sonar's capabilities have grown, so has the number of toolbars. Recent versions have more than a dozen toolbars with all sorts of buttons, indicators, and other controls. Although each of the toolbars can be independently hidden, docked, or left floating on your desktop, the sheer number of them often makes specific controls hard to find.
Enter the new Large Transport toolbar, which contains some of the more commonly used controls. Among these are sliders and Now Time indicators for setting the starting or ending times for looping or punch recording and setting the current song position. Also, Large Transport gives you a full set of transport controls and easy access to recording options; time signature, metronome, and tempo settings; and a panic button.
As soon as you start recording, you'll notice another change — audio waveforms and MIDI-data representations appear within the Track view's clips as you record. Cakewalk calls this confidence recording, and it's a welcome addition. I can't tell you how many times I've accidentally rendered a completely silent performance by recording with an incorrect audio configuration.
There are several other transport-related improvements. The maximum tempo has been increased to 1,000 bpm. A new feature, Sticky Now Time, lets you prevent the transport from jumping back to its original position when you finish a take. And Sonar finally has the ability to transmit MIDI Time Code. You have complete control over which MIDI ports transmit MTC, which transmit MIDI sync, and which transmit no synchronization messages at all.
THE GOODIE BAG
The Producer Edition of Sonar ships with some tasty add-ons. A few are especially noteworthy. First up is the Lexicon Pro Pantheon Reverb (see Fig. 3). With 6 reverb types, 35 factory presets, and plenty of adjustable parameters, this plug-in sounds great.
Ultrafunk's Sonitus:fx effects suite adds high-quality compression, modulation, delays, and other effects to your toolbox. What's more, all of those effects provide support for DirectX automation.
SpeedSoft's powerful DXi sampler, VSampler 3.0, rounds out the add-ons. It comes with comprehensive editing support, over 1 GB of sampled sounds, and the ability to import instruments in other sampler formats, including GigaSampler, Akai, and HALion.
The list of Sonar improvements goes on. There are cosmetic and usability improvements, new keyboard shortcuts, bug fixes, and support for MIDI Groove clips and karaoke files. In addition to the comprehensive online help, Sonar ships with a 600-plus page printed manual (a rarity these days). Sonar 3.1 is a solid upgrade to an already solid product.
Allan Mettsis an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant.