MIDI GETS MAGNIFIED
The biggest deal is an overhaul of the MIDI-related tools. Sonar had previously introduced in-track MIDI editing, but using it required frequent track resizing. Good news: Now there’s MIDI Magnifier. Pass the cursor over MIDI data in piano roll or inline PRV view and when the notes are below a certain size, they’re magnified (you can customize the way this happens, too). You can manipulate notes in the magnified state; this takes some getting used to, but makes the inline view far more useful.
There are lots of other MIDI tweaks: show velocities only for selected notes (lets you edit notes easily in a stacked chord), move controller data that falls during a note with the note, note split and glue, mute notes, show multiple controller lanes in piano roll view, etc. You can also move controller data across lanes; for example, to have one parameter track changes in another parameter, just copy the controller data (it changes automatically to match the controller type in the target lane).
Another addition is Cakewalk’s “smart MIDI tools,” where the cursor can be any one of a number of configurable rosters of tools, as called up by keyboard modifiers and mouse buttons (left, right, middle). There are three different available toolsets based on the select, draw, and erase functions, and you can implement up to 20 mouse actions per tool. Presets match how these tools work in Cubase, Digital Performer, and Logic. It takes some thought to set this up so that each tool does the most good for your workflow, but as with the other customization options, it’s worth the effort.
Drag-quantize is a good example of a new cursor tool: Click on a selected group of notes (or individual note) and drag up to move them closer to the snap grid, or drag down to move them further away. As someone who uses quantize strength a lot, this has joined my default smart MIDI tools.
And if you’re into multitrack step sequencers, you’ll love what Sonar 7 has to offer—patterns can be up to 64 measures long, with up to 16 steps per beat. You can also add velocity offset to tracks, multiply velocity values by a constant, and edit swing, articulation, and portamento. If you’re into those dance mix thangs, the Step Sequencer is straight-out fabulous.
Many sequencer manufacturers add instruments in their updates to provide extra value, and Cakewalk is no exception. This time around, you get the Z3TA+ waveshaping synth, Dimension LE with the Garritan Pocket Orchestra, DropZone sample player, and Rapture LE. If you’ve already invested in these synths and have a sampler, the inclusion represents dubious value, especially as Dimension and Rapture are “lite” versions. However, if you’re synth-shy, there’s significant value here. Rapture LE and Dimension LE will both read files created by the full versions (although the editing options are more primitive), and if you’ve overlooked the Z3TA+, it’s a unique, full function synth that can produce metallic, big timbres with a different character than analog synth emulations.
DropZone isn’t particularly sophisticated, but will play back two layers or splits of individual samples as well as SFZ-format multisamples, and includes filtering and some other goodies. As you can just drag and drop files into it, DropZone is a fast way to turn sounds into playable instruments. The bundled instruments from V6 are also present (Pentagon I, RXP groove/Rex Player, PSYN II, TTS-1, Cyclone, Session Drummer 2, etc.), so that’s a lot of instrument power.
However, there’s also a backstory to all these plug-ins. With Sonar the only sequencer optimized to run under 64-bit Vista, this collection of instruments means that Sonar will cover most, if not all, of your needs out of the box. Sure, you won’t be able to ReWire up Reason 4 and use that wonderful Thor modular synth until the rest of the world catches up to 64-bit operating systems, but you’ll have the basics—and then some—covered while you’re waiting. (And given the current rate of progress, it may take a while before we transition from the 32-bit Vista world to 64 bits.)
Sonar 7 also wants to be your inspiration-to-mastering-to-publishing host. While I still don’t think Sonar replaces a dedicated two-track stereo editor like Peak, Wavelab, Sound Forge, or Audition (for starters, there’s no noise reduction), it comes much closer to the Samplitude/Sequoia model of “this is the only program you’ll need.”
Start with the LP-64 Linear Phase Mastering EQ, which complements the Sonitus:fx EQ (a basic, low CPU EQ) and VC-64 channel strip (EQ with “character”) by providing a transparent, surprisingly versatile mastering-style EQ with 64-bit double-precision processing. Better yet, the LP-64 works with other VST-compatible programs. I also like that you can add 20 control points to the curve, for very detailed responses. Now if it only had a spectrum analysis graph in the background to show the averaged response curve . . . but as an equalizer, the LP-64 can go head-to-head against anything out there.
The LP-64 Multiband Linear Phase Mastering Compressor/Limiter also works with other programs and again, it’s a honey. If you’re careful with your settings, it’s possible to get a good compromise between the “hot” sound that people demand and the clean, dynamic quality you’d rather hear.
But if you want to squash the living daylights out of things (or just tame some peaks), the new Boost 11 Peak Limiter will oblige—it reminds me somewhat of a Waves L1, although you can get severe enough to cross over into special effects territory.
The V-Vocal pitch corrector/processor, now at version 1.5, adds pitch-to-MIDI conversion for monophonic signals. Cakewalk hasn’t figured out how to violate the laws of physics, so it does this just about as well as anything else. But I will say that with my Digital Les Paul, which has a separate audio output for each string, you can get reasonable results for guitar-to-MIDI without having to go through the hassles of using a dedicated controller (but you do have to deal with the hassles of editing). I wouldn’t give this feature a “must-have” rating, but it’s a helpful addition for when you need it.
On a more “under the hood” level, there’s now a sidechain input for the Sonitus:fx Compressor, Sonitus:fx Gate, and VC-64 Vintage Channel so you can do keying effects, or have compression controlled by a signal other than the one at the processor’s input. In fact, there’s now support for all multi-input VST processor plug-ins that support sidechaining.
PUBLISH OR PERISH
These days, musicians are more likely to get their music out into the world on their own (MySpace, “distributors” like TuneCore, and the like) than sit around and wait to sign with a major label. But Cakewalk Publisher does a whole lot more than just let you “save as” your material as MP3 files. The paramount feature is the ability to create custom flash audio players with playlists, which generate XML so you can embed them in many websites. You can even choose an image and URL for each song in a playlist. The concept isn’t new: Sony Acid has had its “Acid Planet” component for some time. But this takes distribution to a much higher level, and it’s integrated into Sonar.
Of all the Sonar 7 features, this is one where I need to spend a lot more time with it; all the other features are easy to test out with a project, but this involves serious Web savvy and testing. Rather than hold up the review, we’ll deal with the details at some other time—we’ve been wanting to do a “how to distribute your music” feature, and this would be a logical addition.
AND THERE’S THE LITTLE STUFF . . .
. . . some of which isn’t really so little, such as integrated audio CD ripping and burning. Of these, my favorite is Dim Solo (no, not a Chinese food). This lets you reduce the level of unsoloed tracks by 6, 12, or 18dB, as well as mute—fantastic for hearing a track in isolation and in context at the same time. Another fave is the ability to drag and drop EQ settings across channels in the Console view. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tweaked the EQ for one channel, wanted duplicate settings in another channel, and then had to either duplicate the settings manually or create a preset and then load it into the other channel. This is much faster.
I also appreciate the inclusion of more import/export options (although there’s no AAC export), and you still have to pay for an extra plug-in to do MP3s (although you can use the free LAME encoder instead). Sonar now does FLAC (yeah!), Sony Wave-64 which breaks the 2GB file size limitation, AIF, Apple CAF, and Sound Designer II (it seems Cakewalk is becoming more Mac-aware all the time . . . perhaps not surprising, as I keep hearing reports of Mac enthusiasts running Sonar under Parallels or Boot Camp, which Sonar now officially supports).
Another improvement concerns ACT. When it was released in V6, ACT didn’t really have its “act” together. People kind of muddled through, wondering whether the problem was them or the program, until 6.2 came out shortly thereafter and fixed a lot of ACT issues. Now there are more presets for hardware controllers, which makes things more plug-and-play for those with supported devices. If you were initially frustrated by ACT, give it another shot; it’s more mature now.
THE VERSION THING
Sonar comes in Producer and Studio Editions; Studio is the “lighter” of the two (it doesn’t have the LP-series EQ and compressor, Z3TA+, AudioSnap only works on one track at a time, there’s no surround, POW-r dithering, convolution reverb, Pentagon I/RXP.PSYN II instruments, etc.—see the Cakewalk website for a full comparison). However, both versions include 32-bit and 64-bit native applications, and English, French, and German localization. I think the typical EQ reader would likely spring for the Producer Edition, if for no other reason than to get the LP-series processors, VC-64 channel strip, AudioSnap, V-Vocal, and the extra instruments, which are indeed useful. If you already have a satisfactory roster of virtual instruments and processors, and don’t need AudioSnap, V-Vocal, surround or high-end dithering, the choice becomes more difficult; under these circumstances, the Studio Edition is a very good value.
I’ve been using Sonar since version 1, when it was the only program to do hard disk recording, serious MIDI, and Acidized loop support with editing—all of which I needed, so I had to use it. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the workflow, where it seems to take fewer mouse clicks than some other sequencers to do the same functions. And the customization options in V6—which I originally thought meant that someone at Cakewalk had too much time on his hands—has made a huge difference in the way I work (so much so I wish that V7 migrated colors and custom toolbars properly). Cakewalk also touts the 64-bit double-precision audio engine; while it really doesn’t make a huge difference in most situations compared to other programs, there’s no doubt that it does reproduce signals and do calculations with a higher degree of accuracy.
Those seeking new, blockbuster features in Sonar 7 may be disappointed that there’s nothing with the scope of AudioSnap or ACT. Yet the new features go way beyond “a few fixes here and there.” The MIDI makeover is welcome; MIDI Magnification and the Smart MIDI Tools are exceptionally helpful. And normally I wouldn’t get excited about another compressor and EQ, but the LP-64 versions really do bring something new to the party, especially for bus insertions. Sonar doesn’t take mastering all the way, but if you define mastering as “something that makes my mixes sound better,” you’re pretty much covered. And the publishing aspect seems promising, even though I haven’t had a chance to put it through all its paces.
Some Sonar users skip alternate upgrades, preferring to consolidate learning curve changes every two years instead of every year. For those still using Sonar 5, I would highly recommend upgrading to V7, given the amount of significant changes between the two versions. Users of V6 might feel they still haven’t exploited all its possibilities, and may want to wait—although for those using MIDI, the associated overhaul may be all the incentive you need to upgrade.
In the larger picture, over the years Cakewalk has become a major, important player in the sequencer world—and their line of instruments is impressive, as well. Version 7 consolidates and strengthens Cakewalk’s position as one of the most actively updated, and technology-driven, sequencers on any platform.
Product type: Digital audio/MIDI sequencer.
Target market: Windows-oriented studios.
Strengths: Much improved MIDI tools. Very cool Step Sequencer. Bundles several new instruments and processors. Publisher module simplifies the process of uploading material to the Web. Comes close to being a mastering program, too. Burns and rips CDs. V-Vocal now does pitch-to-MIDI. Sidechain capability for some plug-ins. Commendably non-intrusive copy protection.
Limitations: Previous custom color settings and user toolbars don’t migrate to Sonar 7. Roster of MIDI effects not as complete as Cubase. TTS-1 soft synth won’t work at 88.2kHz (but does at 44.1/48/96kHz). LP mastering processors use major lookahead, requiring longer sample buffers.
List price: Sonar Producer Edition, $619; Studio Edition, $369