Cakewalk is one of the great success stories in the music-software business. With so much talk about Steinberg Cubase and Apple Logic these days, it's easy to forget that this Boston-based company released some of the most successful PC-based sequencers ever, supplying music software to more than a million customers for nearly two decades. In fact, my very first PC-based sequencer was a Cakewalk product: Cakewalk 4.0 for DOS, an old text-based dinosaur that I ran on a 33MHz PC back in 1993.
Of course, an ancient DOS sequencer doesn't seem all that impressive when you stack it against today's studio-in-a-box behemoths, but the point is that Cakewalk has been around the block, and the company knows a thing or two about making music with computers — a reputation it has cemented with its latest flagship sequencer, Sonar 4. This new version includes a host of new features that make a great sequencer even better, offering work-flow improvements like enhanced key bindings and meter ballistics as well as major technology updates like track folders and the innovative SurroundBridge effects linker.
When I cracked open the Sonar box, I was pleased to see a huge printed manual inside. Hard-copy manuals are a rare beast in these days of PDF files and online help systems, and one look at Sonar's manual explains why the box is so heavy: It's a massive 704-page tome that covers operating Sonar in great detail, and it does so in such a clear and concise fashion that it's a wonder Cakewalk doesn't charge extra for it.
The Sonar manual offers remarkable depth while remaining easy to understand and simple to navigate. If you're not the sort who's prone to crack open a three-pound book when you run into trouble, that's okay because Sonar includes an online help file that's a word-for-word replica of the printed material with some extra content not included in the book. The help file is broken down into the same chapters and sections and includes a comprehensive index and search utility that will put the answers to your toughest questions at your fingertips.
Sonar ships with two CDs: the install disc and a DVD of extra content. The setup is quite straightforward and doesn't require any special dongles or online registration. If you have any VST plug-ins on your system, the installer will ask if you want to configure them for use in Sonar, but beyond that, the installation is a hands-off affair.
If you've ever used any of Cakewalk's previous sequencers, chances are, you'll feel right at home working with Sonar. I even recognized some of Sonar's icons and menu options as stylistic holdovers from Cakewalk 3.0 for Windows! A few of Sonar's tools, like Big Time and Piano Roll, are still recognizable from legacy Cakewalk products.
Sonar's user interface is a vast improvement to the sterile layout of older Cakewalk programs. The default appearance is easy on the eyes, and everything you need to write music is all right there on one screen, which means less time wasted switching between window views and more time spent getting real work done.
Sonar uses a standard arrange window format with track information at the left and clip data to the right, along with a narrow adaptive section on the far left that shows context-sensitive information like EQ curves, volume faders, effects, MIDI velocity and so on. In fact, Sonar's default setup is so comprehensive that it's entirely possible to write a complete song using a single window. However, if you're a traditionalist who'd rather work with a full-size mixer view, Sonar has you covered with a comprehensive console window that organizes all of your channel strips in an easy-to-read fashion.
The one-stop-shop convenience that Sonar offers in its main project window is great, but it does make for a somewhat cluttered screen that can be difficult to decipher at times. The toolbar buttons are the main culprit here — they're relatively small, and because Sonar is such a powerful program, there are a lot of them to sort through. I couldn't find an option to increase the size of the buttons, and this might wind up being a nuisance to users working with small monitors or resolutions higher than 1,280×1,024. Furthermore, none of the button icons are in color, so it's often difficult to identify where a specific function is without really studying the interface. This became less of a problem as I became accustomed to Sonar's layout, but I did find myself squinting at the screen a lot while trying to pick out the right button to perform certain tasks.
It may take a little time to get a handle on Sonar's busy interface, but that's par for the course with professional sequencers like this, and it's a small price to pay in exchange for the power that Sonar brings to the table. The learning curve is significantly easier than most other major sequencers, and after only an hour or so, I found myself breezing through standard operations in Sonar without any trouble.
NEW AND IMPROVED
Current Sonar users will be particularly happy to hear that one long-awaited feature, track folders, has finally made it into version 4. Track folders, a staple of other sequencers for years, are meta tracks that provide an easy way to group regular tracks containing audio and MIDI data together. An overview clip displays a zoomed-out view of all the tracks in the folder, and you can expand the folder to edit tracks individually. Track folders are particularly handy when you have a bunch of similar tracks — vocal harmonies, for instance — that all need to be edited in unison. Just drop them all in a folder and edit the overview clip instead of making the changes to each track individually.
The program also offers multilane tracks to make managing multiple takes easier, allowing you to cherry-pick the best takes with ease. Think of it as an on-the-fly track folder: As you record multiple takes of a looped section, Sonar stacks each pass in a new lane on a single track. The result is a track that contains multiple clips, just like a track folder, all of which you can edit in place or drag out to entirely new tracks. You can use Sonar's mute and overlap cropping tools to quickly piece together a perfect take and to keep all of the unused data just in case you decide to go back and make changes later.
Ever since Sony Acid and Ableton Live hit the scene, manufacturers of other sequencers have been scrambling to catch up with the real-time audio-stretching capabilities offered by those two revolutionary tools. With the Sonar family, Cakewalk has implemented this functionality in an admirably simple and straightforward fashion and added powerful features in version 4 that invite experimentation and creativity. The concept of Groove Clips is akin to the concept used in Propellerhead ReCycle. Audio clips are analyzed and divided into slices at transient events like kicks and snares or at musical divisions like eighth and 16th notes. When the clip is inserted into a project, Sonar automatically synchronizes it to the project's tempo by compressing or expanding each slice behind the scenes.
Once you've set up a Groove Clip, you don't need to worry about giving it any special treatment. You can manipulate Groove Clips just like you would standard audio clips. Scrub on them, cut them into pieces, apply effects — it's up to you. Sonar handles all of the heavy lifting in the background so you can be about your business of writing music.
One of the new features in Sonar 4 is the addition of pan, pitch and gain envelopes inside each Groove Clip, which allow you to modify these parameters on a slice-by-slice basis. The possibilities are extraordinary — for example, you could change the pitch of a single word in a vocal riff or add dynamics to a rigid drum loop by varying the volume of certain slices.
Cubase and other applications have similar functionality to Groove Clips, but Sonar implements it in such an elegant and transparent fashion that it really has the edge in this department. Groove Clips are not only easy to use on regular samples but also fully compatible with Acid samples. If you're a current Acid user who has amassed a library of Acidized samples, you'll be able to use them all — complete with pitch and tempo information — without a hitch.
No professional sequencer is worth its salt without a toolkit of audio effects. Sonar is no slouch in this arena, offering a respectable array of standard plug-ins along with a couple of name-brand gems to sweeten the deal. It's worth noting that Sonar only provides native support for DirectX plug-ins; VST plug-ins and soft synths are compatible through the use of an included VST adapter.
Sonar's effects sound good and cover all of the bases. All of the usual suspects are present: chorus, delay, flange, EQ, reverb and more. Veteran plug-in designer Sonitus brings an extra dose of plug-ins to the table with 11 additional goodies like phaser, gate, wah and single- and multiband compressors. A couple of specialty effects, like the Revalver amp simulator and the SpectraFX tempo-synched effects unit, round things out.
Sonar's effects are high-quality tools, but without a doubt, the real star is Lexicon's Pantheon reverb. Have you ever wondered what it takes to get that elusive big-studio sound? Great reverb has a lot to do with it, and nobody does it better than Lexicon. The Pantheon might not be a 480L, but it definitely has that trademark thick and creamy Lexicon sound that makes just about everything you run through it sound better. The room simulations are especially convincing — crank up the wet signal, close your eyes, and you'll swear it sounds better than real life. There's even a native surround version if you're mixing tracks for film or TV. It's hands-down the best reverb shipping with any sequencer. You'd probably spend more than $1,000 for an outboard reverb unit that sounds this good, so kudos to Cakewalk for bundling it with a complete software package that clocks in at under a grand.
Sonar's effects are great, but the program comes up a bit short in the virtual-synth department. Sonar ships with three DXi instruments: Cyclone, TTS-1 and DreamStation. DreamStation has been around for a while and is far and away the best of the lot, a great plug-in for filling out a mix with lush pads or chunky bass lines. Cyclone is a beat-slicing drum machine that's good for making your own loops out of canned drum loops. The Roland TTS-1, in my opinion, is a somewhat plain multichannel instrument that sounds good on paper but doesn't quite deliver. You can get basic tracks down with these instruments, but if you're planning to write any hits, you'll want to invest in some quality third-party gear.
Sonar 4's export facility introduces a new level of flexibility in rendering audio. Until now, bouncing audio in most sequencers involved muting tracks that you didn't want in the mixdown and rendering the master output to a file on disk. In most cases, this is adequate, but, occasionally, circumstances make it necessary to bounce multiple tracks to discrete files, as can be the case when preparing parts for remixers or when mixing down at a different studio.
Older sequencers require that you bounce each separate audio file track by track, adding up to grueling marathon sessions in front of your computer. Sonar does away with this chore by offering a flexible bounce feature that can render audio from the master output, discrete buses or even individual tracks. Simply choose the tracks or buses you'd like to bounce, pick a file name and hit the Export button. Sonar performs all of these operations offline, so you can render tracks with CPU-hungry plug-ins without worrying about the process stopping halfway through due to a CPU overload.
Key-binding enhancements will help ease the pain of users making the switch from other major sequencing platforms, allowing them to keep using their favorite shortcuts while they learn the ins and outs of Sonar. Templates are available to change default key bindings to mimic Steinberg Nuendo and Cubase, Digidesign Pro Tools, Sony Vegas, MOTU Digital Performer, Magix Samplitude and Logic. If you're a maverick spirit who prefers to set up your own environment, Cakewalk's key-binding function is equally robust for custom layouts, as well. Nearly every function in Sonar can be assigned to a key combination on your computer keyboard or MIDI keyboard.
Support for surround mixing is new in Sonar 4. The program can be fully configured for 36 different surround configurations, from 2.1 all the way to 8.1, and it offers support for external joystick-panning devices and numerous multichannel formats. Perhaps the most innovative of Sonar's surround features is the SurroundBridge plug-in, a unique tool that adapts regular stereo plug-ins and converts them into surround format in a fashion that's transparent to the end user. The SurroundBridge automatically instantiates enough of the stereo plug-ins to fill the surround channels and connects all of the controls to a central location. Adjust one parameter, and the SurroundBridge automatically updates each instance so all of the plug-ins are in sync.
ROLL YOUR OWN
Producers who create content for Websites or collaborate via the Internet will appreciate Sonar's open-ended support for external audio encoders. Sonar will encode MP3, WMA and even RealAudio files right out of the box, but if you prefer to use a different format or even a better implementation of one of these standards, you can do so by taking advantage of Sonar's support for command-line encoders. This means that you aren't stuck with the encoding engine that ships with the product. You can also choose to encode your music using any other command-line encoder like Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Monkey's Audio, True Audio and so on. Sonar's open nature leaves it up to you.
Since the early '90s, Cakewalk has had a reputation of producing sequencers that strike a delicate balance between raw power and ease of use. Sonar 4 continues this tradition. By building on time-tested tools developed during the past decade, Cakewalk has succeeded in bringing Sonar up to par with the best that the competition has to offer while simultaneously introducing a host of enhancements that make it even easier to use. If you're looking for a professional sequencer that delivers all the power that you're liable to need, Sonar just might be the perfect fit for you.
SONAR 4 PRODUCER EDITION > $959
(UPGRADE PRICES VARY)
Pros: Groove Clips sync any audio to project tempo. Video support. Great effects, including Lexicon reverb. Track folders for easy grouping of related tracks. Supports external audio encoders.
Cons: Busy interface. No dedicated audio-file management window. No CD-burning tools.
Pentium or Athlon/800; 128 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; 100 MB hard-drive space; soundcard (WDM- or ASIO-compatible recommended); MIDI interface