Cakewalk Sonar Producer Edition 3.0

Lovely look, potent plugs, efficient engine, better buses
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Sonar has gained significant momentum since its introduction, placing Cakewalk’s flagship product squarely in the pro arena. Part of its success is due to a continuing, aggressive upgrade policy, and Sonar 3 is indeed a major upgrade.

The Sonar/Sonar XL differentiation is history, with Sonar now available in two versions: Sonar Studio and Sonar Producer. Producer includes the Sonitus:fx suite of plug-ins, integrated EQ in the console view, SpeedSoft’s VSampler3 with two CDs of content, four assignable per-channel FX controls in the console view and Inspector, and the full version of Lexicon’s Pantheon reverb (Studio has a lite version). Otherwise, they’re the same.

Installation is a snap: Insert CD, run installer, enter serial number, done.

Many of Sonar’s changes stem from a rewritten audio engine. This permits a revamped bus structure, and also “gapless” editing (well, not completely; but any interruptions due to editing, inserting plug-ins, creating buses, etc. are either minimal or non-existent). Buses are now objects that aren’t defined at the beginning of a session, but can be added, deleted, or reassigned at any time. There is no distinction between bus types (aux, master, cue, and the like) except for the names you give them. Furthermore, buses do not need to terminate in a hardware output; they can be freely assigned to other buses, which can feed other buses, and so on.

Sends are also objects (you can create, delete, and reassign). This is a dramatic clutter-reducer; you need see only the sends that you actually use in a project.

While the new bus structure is flexible, the one big disappointment is that Sonar 3 does not support surround — which is all the more unexpected because the new bus structure seems like an ideal foundation for multi-channel audio.

I disliked the original console view, and never used it. But I really like the new one, with separate panels for tracks, buses, and audio interface outs. It not only looks great — like the rest of the program, the motif is muted, “Euro-style” shades of grays and blues — but is highly configurable. You can show/hide meters, inputs, outputs, effects, mute/ solo/record/phase/stereo-mono/track echo buttons, faders, and EQ frequency response thumbnails. EQ has a 3-position toggle: hidden, show one EQ stage, show four stages. Sends work similarly — hidden, two stages, four stages. If you have more than four sends, scroll within the space allotted for sends. Channels can be either narrow or wide, on a per-channel basis. Configurations are saved with projects, but can’t be saved independently as presets.

The integrated EQ is based on the Sonitus:fx 6-stage Equalizer plug-in (more on this suite later); while only four stages are visible in the mixer, you can “open up” the interface and work with all six stages if desired. Also significant: When you select a plug-in (audio processor or instrument), four assignable sliders appear that can control your choice of the effect’s automatable parameters. This means you don’t have to open a plug-in’s GUI to adjust it, and you can do any MIDI control assignments (for external controllers) directly from the Console view, as well as arm the parameters for automation.

Sonar 3 adds a Cubase-like Inspector strip to the left of the Track and Bus panes. This is basically a channel strip that shows the currently selected channel (or can lock to a channel), with show/hide capabilities similar to the main mixer channels.

These enhancements improve Sonar’s already smooth workflow. You can now shrink Track view down to just tracks and meters, because if you need a detailed view, use the Inspector. Those with dual-monitor setups can use one for the Console, and the other for editing audio. Rather than finding a single workflow and sticking with it, I seem to use different elements and processes for different stages of the recording process.

The Sonar 3 distribution CD includes all the plug-ins used in previous versions of Sonar, but defaults to installing only the new ones. If you’ve been a Sonarian for a while, make sure you install the old plugs too for backward compatibility.

The centerpiece is the Sonitus:fx suite of automatable plug-ins, made by Ultrafunk. Over the years they’ve acquired an underground reputation for their sound quality, CPU efficiency, and inviting interface. Cakewalk’s acquisition has revived the line, and added considerable value to the Sonar package.

There are ten plugs total: Compressor, Delay, Equalizer, Gate, Modulator, Multiband (compressor), Phase, Reverb, Surround, and Wahwah. Common features include one level of undo, two setups you can switch between (very useful for setting up two variations and deciding which you prefer), a preset manager (with a number of factory presets), bypass, clean interface, and very useful online help.

The Equalizer’s six bands can choose from highpass, lowpass, parametric, high-shelf, and low-shelf responses, with the usual frequency, Q, and gain controls. I like the sound, which is full, with no trace of “brittleness.”

Another of my favorites is the 5-band Multiband compressor. A Vintage/ Normal option changes the compression curve so that in Vintage mode, the compression ratio gradually diminishes above the threshold, eventually reverting to 1:1. The result is that the loudest parts of the signal are uncompressed (a characteristic of some opto-electronic compression curves), giving more “punch” than “squash.” There’s also a limiter toggle (either apply limiting to compressed signals, or don’t use compression and just limiting) and an auto-release function.

The Compressor plug-in is basically a single band of the Multiband.

The Reverb is overshadowed by the inclusion of Lexicon’s Pantheon, but it’s a solid single-algorithm plug with superior pre- and post-reverb filtering (low-cut, high-cut, and crossover with bass boost/cut). Don’t ignore it just because the Pantheon is cool.

Delay is a dual delay with sync to host tempo and “crossfeed” controls for each delay (where you can feed a delay into the other). Parameters can be linked or unlinked if you want to adjust both channels simultaneously; there are both high- and low-cut filters in the feedback loop.

The Gate is like other gates, with the main difference being an option to restrict the input signal’s frequency response before it hits the trigger. Thus, you could open the gate based on a signal in a particular frequency range, like kick drum. There’s also a lookahead feature.

Modulator has a flanger mode, ensemble mode with three non-synced modulated delays, string phaser (phase shifter and chorus), 6-stage phaser, 12-stage phaser, and tremolo. The LFO is multi-waveform (with adjustable phase between the two channels), and there are high- and low-cut filters to adjust the range of frequencies to be processed.

The virtual Wahwah offers manual, triggered, or LFO control. You can set the filter’s high and low limits independently, but can’t sync the tempo to the host.

Surround is a surround panner, but don’t get your hopes up — it creates a stereo signal with encoded surround and center channel information, which requires an outboard decoder to be of any real use. Having no suitable decoder, I couldn’t test it.

Phase is a phase delay device that’s useful for adjusting phase differences between channels of a stereo signal. But I found it was great for creating widening effects that, with proper adjustment, didn’t cancel in mono. Check out some of the phase encode modes for widening.

That’s it for the Sonitus:fx, but there’s also the Lexicon Pantheon. Be forewarned that while many of the factory presets work right out of the box, you will need to tweak parameters for some types of program material (particularly percussive sounds, which want increased diffusion).

There are six algorithms, 16 adjustable parameters, and 35 presets. Two sets of controls are of particular interest: Density provides an adjustable delay with variable positive or negative feedback, and an Echo section offers variable delay time and level for each channel. Between these two echo generators, it’s possible to create complex predelay effects, “fill in” the holes in a preset with low diffusion, and generally sweeten the sound. Although I was initially not that impressed, it didn’t take long to start getting the sounds I wanted with most material.

Finally, there’s SpectraFX, a variation on the FX Pad introduced in Plasma. You choose from a preset list of 39 dual effects; a virtual X-Y controller adjusts two parameters from within these effects, based on manual control, external control, autosweep, or host sync for a settable number of beats and measures. It’s not something you’d use every day, but there are some fun sounds lurking within for beat-oriented music.

The soft synth roster remains unchanged (Edirol VSC, Dreamstation DXi, ReValver SE, the outstanding Cyclone, and a trial version of LiveSynth Pro SE) except for the addition of VSampler3 — which is in fact quite an addition. I had used earlier versions of VSampler, and was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by both the confusing interface and lack of stability. But this latest version is leagues ahead. In fact, it might be even further ahead than I think, but there’s no manual yet, and the online help has no flow — you have to just keep hitting F1 and clicking on pictures until things fall into place. Still, despite the somewhat cluttered interface spread over seven main pages, I’ve been able to figure out most of the functionality.

File support is comprehensive; I was able to import Akai, HALion, SoundFont, and Giga files consistently and reliably. However, VSampler3 does not stream files from disk (supposedly, this will be available as a paid upgrade in the future), so with Gigasampler files it may need to swap contents from hard disk to RAM as needed.

Sample editing is also very complete, with excellent zone editing, sample editing with beat slicing (!), auto crossfade, up to two filters per zone, ten built-in effects and the ability to accept VST plugs, four LFOs . . . there’s even a 16-step pattern sequencer and mixer for the 16 multitimbral parts. This is a serious sampler.

File under “finally”: Sonar now transmits MTC and MIDI clock over multiple ports, and draws the audio waveform (as well as MIDI clips and automation) while recording. It can also just draw a red band over the area being recorded if you want to save some CPU cycles. Sonar has spruced up the MIDI input, too, as ports aren’t merged; you can even set up presets for recording particular combinations of channels over particular ports.

Furthermore, Sonar imports Project5 patterns, but more importantly, MIDI clips can now be treated as loopable “groove” clips, which can be “rolled out” to repeat.

And rounding out the main features, each track (MIDI and audio) now has its own input echo button.

Aside from surround, Sonar is also short on video-friendly features, such as being able to anchor audio events to SMPTE times or having a “thumbnail” track. However, Sonar’s ability to import audio into a rock-solid video window remains.

And while Sonar had a freeze function back in 1.0, it’s not the simple, one-button type of process you find in Cubase’s synth freeze or Logic. REX file support is still absent, too.

Finally, I’d like to see Sonar bring some of its excellent, and underrated, CAL effects into a proper menu for greater ease of use, or at least converted into MIDI effects. Cakewalk was way ahead of the curve on this, and now that the world is ready, the company seems to have moved on. Hopefully they’ll revisit MIDI editing in a future rev.

Sonar 1 got people’s attention and turbo-charged Cakewalk’s direction. Sonar 2 showed that the company valued, among other things, compatibility with the outside world (e.g., ASIO, OMF, control surfaces). Sonar 3 leaves intact the nearly effortless workflow that has been Sonar’s trademark, while making it easy on the eyes as well as the brain. When you add in the other enhancements — especially those related to the audio engine — the net result is an update that rewards loyal Sonar users, while presenting an increasingly attractive recording option to anyone in the Windows environment.

Probably the best thing I can say about Sonar is that I always look forward to booting it up, because I know I’ll be getting ideas down within minutes, if not seconds. To me, that’s worth a lot.