For musicians and engineers dedicated to the Windows platform, an ultrarobust, top-shelf digital audio and virtual-instrument workstation is what you will find in Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition. Sonar 5 provides unlimited track count along with a wide selection of virtual synths, samplers, drum machines and plug-in effects. The company manages to stuff a dizzying array of tools for multitrack digital audio, MIDI and digital video production, as well as effects and virtual instruments, under one massive hood. Cakewalk has also served up a major industry first in version 5 — 64-bit native digital audio — and has done so while keeping the price tag extremely reasonable.
I was excited to get a copy of the software to review, as it came right in line with a brand-new Windows laptop that I was also expecting. In fact, Sonar was the first piece of software that I installed on the machine. I tested Sonar 5 on a Rain Recording LiveBook running Windows XP Professional. The test laptop housed an Intel Pentium M/1.73GHz processor with 1 GB of RAM. I also used a 7,200 rpm FireWire-based StormDrive to store all song files and their respective audio files.
Sonar ships on a single DVD-ROM (an optional CD-ROM version is available), and it installed on my machine without a hitch. The provided sample songs played back as expected through both the Rain's built-in audio port as well as an Edirol UA-25, the external audio and MIDI interface I used for this review. The audio was at first choppy through both interfaces, so I got down to the business of tweaking the soundcard settings. With minimal adjustments, I was able to get clear sound with both interfaces. Version 5 is compatible with a tremendously diverse selection of audio formats, including MIDI, WAV (including 64-bit float files), AIFF (16-bit), ASF, AU, AVI (with stereo or 5.1 audio), MP2, MP3, MPEG, MPG, SFZ, Ogg Vorbis, OMFI, QuickTime 6, SND, WMA, WMA9 Pro 5.1, WMA9 lossless, Windows Media Video (with stereo or 5.1 audio) and the various proprietary Cakewalk formats (including BUN, CWB, CWP and WRK).
Sonar 5 brings a first to the industry: a 64-bit double-precision, floating-point audio engine that runs on both 32-bit (x86) and native x64 systems. What this means is that all aspects of signal-path processing, buses, tracks and effects are all performed using 64-bit double-precision, floating-point accuracy. Regarding computing power, according to Cakewalk, the native x64 version (Sonar 5 includes 32-bit and native x64 versions on the same disk), gains 20 to 30 percent of CPU performance while being able to access 128 GB — you read that right — of physical RAM. And, even though this may be a bit ridiculous, Sonar 5 is also capable of supporting audio files with sample rates as high as 500 kHz. At this stage, not a single audio interface that I'm aware of even comes close to that quality, but who knows what the future will bring? The computer I tested Sonar on had a 32-bit architecture, and the soundcard I used was capable of 96 kHz — a mere toy for Sonar. These aspects likely render Sonar future-proof for a long time to come. Version 5 also includes another interesting feature, dubbed BitBridge, that allows traditional 32-bit VST effects and instruments to be used in the new x64 version environment.
The test project I created was derived from a song well in the mixing stage in Apple Logic on my Mac. I imported 16-bit and 24-bit copies of all of the audio files into Sonar, and the program automatically created the necessary additional audio tracks; this was a 27-track number, and I began with Sonar's 24-track audio template. Considering the files' sizes (all of them were approximately 8 minutes, 15 seconds in length at 44.1 kHz), they imported very quickly. Sonar, together with the Edirol interface, played the track through without any glitches. Even with the 16-bit files, Sonar's sound clarity and headroom were definitely up to par.
First, I decided to take the new Perfect Space Convolution Reverb for a spin, as several of the tracks needed a replacement for the Logic reverbs. Sonar already housed several really nice reverbs, and this one just adds to the pot. If your computer can handle it, Perfect Space takes advantage of version 5's 64-bit engine for intense reverb detail. The presets in Perfect Space (340 in all) are sampled from both traditional hardware reverbs and real acoustic spaces. Although it's hard to validate or refute Cakewalk's claim that it “reproduces actual room ambience with perfect accuracy,” my ears told me that Perfect Space sounds very natural and sweet.
The presets cover the gamut, from the expected (rooms, cathedrals, halls, plates, springs and so on) to some weird imaginary spaces, such as Bathroom-Chopper-Flyover. The interface is handsome; it features a large blue-tinted screen that shows a detailed graphic representation of the current reverb properties along with pertinent information such as stereo/mono and bit-depth/sample rate. Various parameters — including volume, width, pan, lowpass, highpass and EQ — can be adjusted as well as turned on and off. The EQ is semiparametric and can accommodate an unlimited number of adjustment points. Users can make impulse adjustments to Offset, Length and Delay, and output controls include Dry, Wet and Wet Pan. Perfect Space is quite nice, but as can be expected from any convolution-reverb plug-in, it can tax your CPU fairly heavily.
THE MEAT AND POTATOES
The main Track View contains several useful new user-interface features. For starters, a new Inline Piano Roll Toolbar provides tools for creating and editing note and controller info in both the standard Piano Roll View and in the main Track View. The tools include Select, Draw and Erase, and there are buttons to Show/Hide Notes, Show/Hide Continuous and Show/Hide Velocity Tails. You can turn the Piano Roll editing on and off with a PRV Mode button, and a very handy Fit Content button zooms the individual track view down to fit all notes to the current vertical zoom percentage. In addition, a button has been added to the rest of the View buttons that returns you to Track View, helping to avoid regular mouse trips to the Window menu or the Close Window button in the top-right corner.
Above the tracklist live two new buttons: One is for inserting tracks, and the other is an Envelope Draw tool. Envelope Draw can be set to Freehand, Sine, Triangle, Square, Saw and Random waveforms, opening up a wealth of swift automation possibilities. The Insert New Track(s) or Bus(es) tool is another killer time-saver; you can insert an individual MIDI or audio track, choose to add multiples of either (or both) MIDI and audio tracks, add virtual instruments, insert a Track Folder (described later), add a stereo or surround Bus or even add tracks according to Track Templates. And if that isn't enough, a Multiple Tracks command also lives in the main Insert menu. So, now, instead of the monotonous repetition of adding tracks one-by-one, you can insert any number (up to 32) of MIDI or audio tracks from a single pop-up window; from there, you can also assign the tracks to a bus destination and, in the case of MIDI tracks, select the port and MIDI channel to use.
The improved Track Folders functionality is yet another cool arrangement and time-saving tool. With Track Folders, you can group tracks of your choice into folders, which you can then work like mute groups on a console. You can record, mute, solo and do other cool things to a bunch of tracks at once. For example, if you're working on an orchestral score, you could group all string tracks into a Track Folder and then toggle the string section in and out of the mix. When you're done working on a group, an Archive button turns off the relevant controls — very nice.
The Console View in Sonar 5 is enhanced in several ways. For starters, the meters have changed from stepped LED types to more accurate continuous types. Although my personal preference is the stepped kind, purely based on the eye-candy factor, the continuous meters are functionally more accurate. Below the track-name strip now lives a strip that indicates the numerical track. This is handy for organization, which gets increasingly important when projects become large and track-intensive. Perhaps the most notable new feature, however, is the addition of track icons, which, like the other controls, are accessible by a button on the left side of the window. When engaged, all tracks display default icons indicating audio, bus, MIDI and so forth. These are functional if a bit mundane, yet all you need to do is double-click on any of them, and a world of full-color possibilities opens up, neatly arranged in subfolders. The icons are among the best I've seen, and they include categories for bass, wind, drums, vocals and the like. But they don't stop at including a nice condensermic icon for vocals, for example. The Vocal folder includes various standards, such as an AKG C 414B, a Shure KSM32 and Beta 58 and so on. Some of my favorites — including a bottle, a Theremin and an ocarina — reside in the Misc. folder. The track icons are standard image files that can be edited or created from scratch in a paint program and then added to your library.
EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES
Sonar is chock-full of new virtual instruments, and I called up Pentagon first. Pentagon begins with an old-school-looking UI that is somewhat reminiscent of an old Moog with large black rotary knobs and faux wooden side panels. The controls are straightforward enough: Pentagon's engine comprises four discrete oscillators. Each oscillator can output a selection of 13 different waveforms that include the basics: saw waves, square waves, sines, noise, harmonics and more. There are two filters, four LFO sections, chorus, delay, EQ, portamento and more. This synth is like the best old-school analog models: It is not only capable of an endless variety of sounds but also easy to program. Yet the presets (of which there are six banks of 128) may be the best part — huge-sounding and really colorful. In my opinion, this synth alone makes a large percentage of the price for Sonar worth it.
Next, I tried the new Psyn II, a subtractive-style synth culled from Cakewalk Project5. Like Pentagon, Psyn II provides four oscillators, and each of these includes a suboscillator as well as ring-mod and FM-synthesis capabilities. Psyn II boasts seven banks (and one user bank) of 128 presets each. Any of the presets can be customized, saved and recalled at any time, and entire sets (all banks and their presets) can also be saved and loaded in place of the default patch. This synth also includes three assignable LFOs, five six-stage envelope generators, overdrive, delay, modulation effects, portamento and more. And like the other Sonar synths, it packs a ton of controls into a simple, intuitive UI. So how does it sound? Its preset choices are wide-ranging and include everything from thick, grinding basses and beautiful sweeping pads to complex and weird spacey tones. It doesn't typically sound as vintage as Pentagon, but many of its patches still sound refreshingly analog. Psyn II allows any or all of its oscillators to voice a max of five waveforms simultaneously, so it has monstrous sound possibilities.
Sonar's new instruments don't stop there. The new RXP groove box has what you would expect in a new REX-file player. Audio files (including REX and SFZ) along with their slice points are displayed in a large view screen, and, of course, the files sync to tempo. But what's hip in RXP is the bank of 24 buttons along the bottom that switch function depending on whether you are in Slice or Loop View. When in Slice View, the buttons allow you to trigger as many as 24 different snips individually, and in Loop View, they play the loop across a two-octave range of keys. If you have a MIDI keyboard connected, you can access both the Loop and Slice Views' elements simultaneously. RXP features global amp controls and a multimode resonant filter, as well as transpose, tune and random-pitch controls. You can drag and drop the slices within a loop for interesting rearrangements, or right-click to try the Randomize functions. This instrument even boasts a button that you can use to click and drag a REX file's snips, translated as MIDI notes, onto a MIDI track; you can then edit and rearrange them to suit your fancy. The only thing I wished was that, like Reason's Dr.Rex, the various controls (such as pan and reverse) could be individually applied to the separate slices. Maybe that will be possible in the next release, but as it stands, RXP is a sweet addition to Sonar. Plus, version 5 ships with approximately 300 MB of REX files included.
Next in Sonar's virtual-instrument cache is the SFZ SoundFont sampler. This is by far the most basic of the new soft instruments. You can load individual sound files in WAV and Ogg Vorbis formats, as well as SFZ files. The interface is as simple as it gets; there are selection fields for Mode, Channel, File Bank and Program. You can choose among various Quality settings to save on CPU resources or enhance sound quality, and you can do the same with Polyphony. There is a little section that displays Velocity and the Layer hit with each key press, and you can turn Effects on and off. “Effects” basically means a simple reverb that cannot be altered. The sound quality of the sampler is noticeably good, but the controls are limited — so much so that I thought I was missing things. SFZ is certainly useful, but I found it lackluster compared with the other new instruments. Nonetheless, with all the new goodies, Sonar is rapidly becoming a soft-synth powerhouse like Arturia Storm or Propellerhead Reason. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any in-depth descriptions for any of the software instruments (new or old) in the manual or in the Help files; this is something that Cakewalk should address, especially for newcomers.
VARY YOUR VOX
Roland has also expanded its sonic fingerprint with Sonar 5. Adding to the previously available TTS-1 General MIDI 2 synth is the company's GrooveSynth and V-Vocal technology. Adding even more to the virtual-instrument smorgasbord, GrooveSynth is a sound module based on Roland's hardware synths and Grooveboxes. In addition to containing material from Roland-born dancefloor classics such as the TR-808, TR-909 and TR-606 drum kits, GrooveSynth provides a variety of staple sounds and effects. The tonal variety includes pianos, organs, bass, electric and acoustic drums, guitars, brass, strings and more. Straightforward tone controls include coarse and fine tuning, 3-band EQ, pan, portamento, modulation and vibrato. An ADR envelope section and a resonant filter are also present. The presets, though mostly rooted in typical General MIDI — type fare, sound really good. But the best things I found were the Rhythm Sets, which are essentially mapped drums. Roland knows what musicians need and includes a wide range of natural and synthetic drum sets, as well as a preset dedicated strictly to a large variety of different kick drums and snare hits that sound fat, snappy and full. Although many soft synths these days focus on the experimental edge, GrooveSynth dishes out the raw basics for hip-hop, R&B, jazz, pop, downtempo, house and so forth.
Made famous a few years back in the company's top-of-the-line hardware samplers, Roland's trademark VariPhrase technology is introduced in Sonar with V-Vocal. Essentially, V-Vocal provides a plug-in — like interface (though it does not function as a plug-in) in which you have independent control of an audio file's pitch, tempo, timing, formants and dynamics, and you can make all of these potential changes in real time. This tool renders audio files into complete rubber; it puts the core functionality of Antares Auto-Tune and Celemony Melodyne under one roof. V-Vocal is a powerhouse of a new tool for automatic and manual pitch correction, time stretching, rephrasing and dynamics control. According to Cakewalk, there is “virtually no sound quality degradation,” and I am inclined to agree — it is a gem and absolutely indispensable for working on vocals.
There simply isn't enough room here to adequately cover all of the cool features new and old that Sonar 5 Producer Edition has in store for users. Perhaps Sonar 5's 610-page, small-print manual gives a clue as to its robustness. In my testing, I found Sonar 5 to be stable; intuitive, as is typical from Cakewalk; excellent-sounding; and, with the new instruments and provided content, full of instant inspiration. With all its new glories and a street price tag of about 500 bucks, this massive DAW is a steal for Windows users.
SONAR 5 PRODUCER EDITION > $799
Pros: Excellent, condensed user interface. Industry-first 64-bit native engine. Several great new virtual instruments included. Roland V-Vocal with Vari-Phrase technology. Robust and reliable. Affordably priced.
Cons: Windows only.
Pentium 4/1.3, AMD Athlon XP 1,500+ or faster; 128 MB RAM; Windows XP; 100 MB hard-disk space; 1,024×768, 16-bit display; Windows-compatible soundcard