Cakewalk Sonar X2 Producer

Image placeholder title

The ProChannel (left column) has an FX chain loaded, as well as the new Breverb 2 reverb and Console Emulator plug-ins. Note the volume automation lane in track 10, and the take lanes in track 14. The browser to the right displays some of Sonar X2’s roster of audio plug-ins, which can be dragged into a track or clip.

Image placeholder title

Sonar X1 was a radical, controversial departure from Sonar 8.5. While many hailed the more efficient workflow and sleek design, others felt adrift in an unfamiliar paradigm—while still others sensed the potential, but followed the “always wait for the first update before plunging in” guideline.

X1 continued to evolve, rewarding the early adopters while making a strong case for the skeptics. Now X2 has realized X1’s potential—amplifying the strengths, while mitigating the limitations. Although X2 may not seem like a major update initially, the hundreds of changes—both minor and major—result in a far greater whole than the sum of its parts.

Along with new features and workflow improvements, Cakewalk has wisely prioritized stability, streamlining the audio engine, and revising older elements. It paid off: A quick glance at the Cakewalk forums finds most users are not only very pleased, but calling X2 the smoothest rollout yet.

Because there are so many useful changes (like the simplified and more efficient Smart Tool, per-track arpeggiator engine that allows layered soundscapes, timeline-based zooming, and the like), we’ll need to restrict this review to the “marquee” features.

Fix Meets Feature When you make something better while you fix it, it crosses over into a new feature. Comping and automation, formerly two of Sonar’s weaker elements, have been improved with separate lanes for takes and automation. Take lanes share FX bins, I/O, sends, and mix controls with the “parent” track, but otherwise perform just like standard tracks—you can even insert plug-ins (i.e., “object-oriented” editing) into any clip in any lane.

The automation lanes make for easier, more precise automation control (as well as simpler copy/paste within lanes), and even include a per-lane automation mini-slider control. However, you can still see and filter automation data in the parent track—ideal for overlaying automation over clips or other automation for comparison.

R-Mix Sonar and Overloud's TH2 Producer amp sim are new plug-ins for Sonar X2.

Image placeholder title

New and Notable The Auto Track Zoom option saves hours: You can minimize all track heights in track view, but adjust one track for an optimum track height. Now whenever you select any track, it will adopt that optimum height, while the others remain minimized. Bye-bye, constantly resizing track heights.

Quick Grouping now goes way beyond just grouping faders and knobs, such as inserting modules in the ProChannel, bypassing like modules, etc. Here’s an example: By holding down one key and performing one right-click, you can insert the new Console Emulator plug-in into all ProChannels simultaneously. As your mix progresses, you can similarly bypass/enable them or change all of their controls simultaneously. You can even Quick Group effects chains controls across multiple audio channels. Although you can’t Quick Group everything, limitations are few.

The audio engine is far snappier, starts to approach gaplessness, and handles higher track counts with less effort. Also, the main ProChannel complaint (not being able to load VST plug-ins) has been answered by letting the ProChannel load FX Chains, which continues the trend to consolidate Sonar-specific interface elements in the ProChannel. I do almost all my basic channel processing with the ProChannel, and use the FX bin only for specialized plug-ins.

Additional Plug-Ins Overloud’s Breverb 2 algorithmic reverb has a more airy, transparent sound than the older Sonitus algorithmic reverb, as well as a greater range of controls. It’s a honey, and gets extra points for including an additional ProChannel version. Also, no more Guitar Rig—X2 includes a special version of Overloud’s TH2 called TH2 Producer. Like all amp sims, you need to wrestle with it, but you’ll find some very useful emulations.

There’s the full version of Rapture, one of my absolute favorite soft synths thanks to its modulation capabilities (I even created two expansion packs for it), as well as a version of Roland’s R-Mix that retains all essential functionality—it just cuts out redundancies like R-Mix’s internal recorder. This visually-based processor has a bit of a learning curve, but stick with it—it has really useful applications, like removing kick drums from loops, or applying processing to specific frequency ranges.

The Console Emulator is a new ProChannel plug-in with separate channel and bus versions; it adds the subtle nonlinearities that are characteristic of analog electronics and transformers. When I first tried inserting it into a project, I was unimpressed. But then I followed Cakewalk’s advice and inserted a Console Emulator into all channels prior to doing a mix. The difference for any individual channel is minor, but the cumulative effect is impressive. Now, I’m a believer.

So What’s Missing? Staff-view fans—or rather, those who’d like to be staff-view fans—will find no improvements, although Music XML export facilitates working with notation programs. Also, V-Studio control surface development always lags behind the software itself, but I’ve confirmed this will be addressed in the next update. Three other X1 complaints—the inability to customize the Control Bar (especially for smaller screens), no VST3 support, and less flexible colorization options than 8.5—remain.

Smarter, Easier The more you dig, the more you find; the attention to detail is noteworthy. The linear-phase EQ and multiband compressor, which always sounded great but glitched like crazy when adjusting parameters during playback, don’t glitch any more (really). Automated parameters are bolded in the Edit Filter and Automation menus. You can scroll the ProChannel with keyboard shortcuts. The Matrix view’s timing is solid. A Smart Grid snap can track grid resolution . . . or not. And there are lots of useful enhancements to the Skylight interface for the Inspector, Browser, Track View, Control Bar, and more—you get the impression that someone who uses Sonar 24 hours a day kept track of every “it sure would be nice if . . .” workflow feature, and decided to implement it.

X2 is a refined, smarter, easier-to-use, highly tweaked update of X1. It takes a while to learn all the subtle improvements (read that help file!), but the more I use X2, the more I find I’m tracking and mixing faster, with less effort, than ever before.


STRENGTHS: Continues to hone workflow advancements from X1. ProChannel can load VST/DirectX plug-ins via FX Chains. Several important new plug-ins. Streamlined audio engine. Automation and Take Lanes. Supports Windows 8.

LIMITATIONS: Staff view remains primitive. Can’t resize control bar. More colorization options than X1, but still fewer than pre-X1 versions. No VST3 support.

$599 MSRP, $499 street
Upgrades from $99 to $399