Review: Cakewalk SONAR Platinum

Workstation Upgrade Offers New Features and a Membership Model
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Workstation Upgrade Offers New Features and a Membership Model
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The latest version of Cakewalk Sonar features a membership licensing model, the end of version numbers, and enough new or enhanced features to keep this product among the handful of DAWs worthy of professional audio production. We last reviewed Sonar X3 in July 2014, so this review will focus on the program’s new features.

Despite the loss of version numbers, Sonar continues to come in three levels, now called Sonar Artist, Sonar Professional, and Sonar Platinum. As a general rule, the interface and core features are the same in all three versions, with the key difference being the number of plug-ins, instruments, and goodies. We reviewed Sonar Platinum and got to see three update packages.

As many software companies are introducing subscription models, Cakewalk has opted for what it calls a membership structure. The key difference is that with Sonar, whether you buy, upgrade, or pay monthly, you end up with a permanent license; in other words, it’s not a rental. You could think of it as simply a 12-month installment plan to purchase Sonar accompanied by a year of updates. For those new to Sonar, pricing ranges from $9.99 per month (or $99 outright) to $49.99 per month (or $499 outright). Renewal pricing (Cakewalk’s way of saying annual upgrade) is 50 to 60 percent less than a new purchase. Whether you purchase, use the payment plan, or select renewal, you get 12 months of updates, new features, fixes, and bonus content.

ACTING ON IMPULSE

REmatrix Solo is a single-IR version of OverLoud’s innovative convolution reverb that allows you to combine up to five different IRs. If you were a fan of PerfectSpace and wondered when Sonar would include a 64-bit convolution reverb, REmatrix Solo is your answer. Its operation is straightforward, and it includes a wide variety of IRs and presets: What more could you ask for? You can adjust decay time, pre-delay, and stereo width, and a 1-band EQ lets you finetune the reverb’s character. You can import your own impulse responses as WAV or AIFF files, although for some reason these are all stored in one big file, which makes managing your IR collection more difficult than it ought to be.

Fig. 1. REmatrix Solo is a very good convolution reverb that would benefit from a larger and more informative interface. In the February Sonar update, Cakewalk included more than a hundred new impulse responses from “a legendary NYC studio.” This release simultaneously demonstrates an advantage of Sonar’s new membership program and a disadvantage of integrating REmatrix Solo into the ProChannel. Obviously, having your DAW manufacturer add value to your product on a monthly basis is nice, and these rooms can add character to any track you recorded in a too-dry vocal booth or closet. However, the limited space available within the ProChannel interface means sorting through 126 files from a drop-down list (see Figure 1), which is challenging, to say the least. It would be great if the interface had room for a searchable browser, the ability to arrange user IRs in submenus, or at least a descriptive metadata that showed up in the IR display.

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Mixing in Sonar is now better than ever, thanks to expandable sends, FX “stacking,” and my personal favorite, Mix Recall. Unlimited sends are nothing new in Sonar, but to manage screen real estate efficiently, the sends area of the mix window shrinks and expands to show only the number of sends you’re using. Previously, space for only one send was allotted, and you needed to scroll between them. Similarly, space was provided for three effects plug-ins no matter how many were in use, and you scrolled between them; now the FX slot shrinks or expands as necessary.

It used to be that each plug-in you opened would open in a new window, causing them to accumulate and clutter the screen, but now the default behavior is to recycle an open window by switching it to the next plug-in you open. Ordinarily, only one plug-in window is open at any given time. You can choose to pin a window open, in which case a new window will open for the next plug-in. This will be particularly welcome if, like me, you tend to do a lot of work on a laptop.

Mix Recall allows you to store any given mix configuration as a snapshot and restore it at any time. Frustrated with your mix, but not sure if fatigue is causing you to doubt yourself? Save it as a mix scene, reset the mixer to its default state, and start from scratch when you’re rested. Save your new mix and then switch between the two to hear whether it’s really better to go with your first instinct. As of the March release, you can also save and recall output and bus routing, and all mix scene information is saved in session templates. Between mix scenes, session templates, and track templates, if you’re wasting time performing repetitive mix tasks, it’s your own fault.

Fig. 2. Among its many uses, Mix Recall automates the process of bouncing alternate versions. Mix scenes can store track and bus controls and automation, synth settings, surround controls, MIDI controls, and even arpeggiator controls. You can apply a stored scene to the entire mix or just to selected tracks and buses. If you’re in the habit of bouncing multiple versions of a mix, such as vocal up, vocal down, a cappella, instrumental, etc., you can save each of those as a mix scene and then choose to bounce any or all of them in a single step from the Export Audio dialog box (see Figure 2).

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ALL TOGETHER NOW

Another cool new feature is VocalSync, a regionbased effect that aligns vocal tracks to a specified guide track. If you need to tighten up your background vocals or double-tracks, this could be just the thing. All you do is right-click on a track to designate it as the default VocalSync guide track and then right-click on any clip you want to align to the guide and choose VocalSync from the Region FX menu. VocalSync analyzes the clip and calculates the best fit, showing you a split view of the guide and “dub.” A knob lets you adjust the amount of alignment, but as is often the case with intelligent functions, more is not necessarily better. I found that under most circumstances it was best to go with VocalSync’s suggestion.

I used VocalSync on a number of male and female harmonies and doubles, and it often worked well to tighten the timing between tracks. It sometimes aligned better if I chose a different guide track, so I had to compromise between the take I preferred and a better match. I found that, as the documentation suggests, it’s best to pre-edit anything that’s way off, as VocalSync works better with small adjustments. It also sometimes helped to break a phrase up into smaller clips. In some cases, VocalSync would misjudge a phrase and make matters worse. I was discouraged by this until I remembered that Sonar X3 had introduced Melodyne Essential; canceling VocalSync on the handful of misjudged phrases and fixing them manually with Melodyne worked in short order.

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Fig. 3. VocalSync displays the guide track and dub (target) track together so you can determine the right amount of correction at a glance. As cool as it was that Cakewalk included Addictive Drums with Sonar X3, it’s even cooler that it now includes Addictive Drums 2. Addictive Drums 2 adheres to the same basic paradigm that most high-quality drum plug-ins follow, with multi-miked sampled drum kits, lots of control over the sound of the kits, built-in mixing functions, a library of MIDI beats with variations and fills, and lots of add-on packs available for purchase. As with its predecessor, the chief selling point for me is the sound quality of the drum kits available in Addictive Drums 2. They are recorded very well and feature a great deal of expressive variation via velocity and strike zones. You can add pieces to the kit and swap out pieces to create custom kits. Whether you play your drums from a keyboard, pads, or an electronic kit or program them with MIDI loops and manual editing, you can count on getting authentic and inspiring sounds.

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With the license to Addictive Drums 2, you are allowed to pick three ADpaks (kits) from XLN Audio’s extensive collection. You also get to choose three packs of MIDI grooves, with choices ranging from jazz to funk to prog rock, as well as three additional single kit pieces such as djembe, cajon, kick, snare, and more. Kudos to Cakewalk and XLN for giving Sonar purchasers a choice.

NEVER LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE

After nearly three decades, Cakewalk continues to look for ways to make users’ lives easier. This time around, the piano roll view (PRV) gets an update. A number of visual improvements make it easier to find and edit the details of a complex MIDI arrangement. Continuous controllers now display as blocks that extend to the next controller event, rather than as isolated thin stalks. In addition to displaying the current value of a control change message that has scrolled off screen, this configuration offers a more intuitive view of the way the values are changing. You can now opt to show multiple controllers in the PRV when the controller pane is hidden. Velocity lines are now thicker and easier to distinguish from each other when notes occur simultaneously, and you can edit them directly.

An interesting new behavior is the ability to stretch groups of notes. Select two or more notes, and while holding the Control key, drag the end of one of them with the Smart tool. Their durations and their relative spacing will stretch proportionally, much like time-stretching an audio clip. Do the same thing while holding Shift, and the notes will retain their start times and stretch to the same duration. When editing velocity, you can now scale the velocities of selected notes proportionally by holding Shift or use “anchored” velocity scaling to create V-shaped or mountain-shaped velocity curves.

Meanwhile, back in Track view, MIDI clips can be time-stretched using the Timing tool or by using either the Smart tool or Edit tool while holding the Control key. Stretch by dragging either the beginning or end of the clip; stretching is limited to a range between 25 and 400 percent, values that the Timing tool seems to inherit from its audio time-stretching function. With MIDI, of course, you can just stretch the clip repeatedly with no loss of audio quality.

Sonar now supports multiple VST3 event input buses, which is important for users of some large sample libraries. This configuration allows a single instance of an instrument—say, a large orchestral sampler—to use more than 16 MIDI input channels.

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Longtime Sonar users may remember the Pattern Brush, which allowed you to choose a MIDI pattern from a library of patterns and “paint” the pattern into the track. The feature was dropped about the time of X1, but it’s back with a vengeance in the form of the Pattern Tool, which allows you to select any MIDI notes and paint them into the Clips view or PRV. You can select a whole or partial MIDI clip in the Clips view, notes in the PRV, or a MIDI clip in the Browser to use as the pattern. The tool is context-sensitive, providing a selection function in the top half of a clip and the paint function in the bottom, so you don’t have to keep switching tools. If you select and paint something you think you might use later, you can drag the resulting clip to the Browser for posterity.

Sonar now allows you to import and export Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files, and in the February update included support for a 352.8kHz sample rate. As a result, Sonar’s DSD implementation is very similar to the only other commercially available DSD-capable DAW I am aware of. If you believe DSD is inherently superior to PCM, and if your music requires the flexibility of audio processing (EQ, compression, etc.), and if your audio interface supports either 352.8 kHz or 384 kHz (it probably doesn’t), then Sonar is by far the most affordable and practical way to produce in DSD.

AUDIOSNAP REDUX

I’ve always thought AudioSnap was a great idea, and it seems to be finally living up to its potential. The big news here is an improved transient-detection algorithm that results in better tempo mapping, better quantizing, and better manual stretching. I broke out drum tracks that had confounded previous versions of AudioSnap and got immediately better results both in extracting tempo and quantizing a multi-miked kit. I zoomed in on some drum tracks and used Tab to Transient to move through the track and check how good the new detection algorithm really is: In fact, it’s much improved.

Thus encouraged, I set about refining a drum performance that was recorded just a little too late at night. In an otherwise keeper take, the groove occasionally wavered just enough to irritate me, so I wanted to tempo-map the tune and then quantize certain phrases. I also wanted to layer a sample over the acoustic kick drum, so I needed a good tempo map and the ability to extract the kick track’s groove accurately. The AudioSnap process has not changed from prior versions, although certain aspects of its interface have changed for the better. The first step was to select the kick clip and open AudioSnap. The AudioSnap window has a new color scheme that makes it easier to read, and transient markers are more consistent and clearer. Helpfully, the track view now switches automatically to Audio Transients.

I enabled Edit Clip Map and zoomed in to examine how accurately AudioSnap translated transients into tempo events. Many were dead on, but wherever the tempo drifted, the tempo markers drifted away from the transients they should have followed. This required some manual editing, which is not too surprising. As I worked my way through the clip, I held Control while dragging errant clip map markers into place, which adjusts only subsequent markers. It took a couple of passes to make all of the fixes—about 20 fixes in a five-minute song. That’s more than I had hoped to see, but way better than manual tempo mapping.

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AND THE BEAT GOES ON

The goodies from the first two updates are almost too numerous to list. If you’re into loops, the package includes 150 bass loops in both REX and Groove Clip formats from Public Enemy’s Brian Hardgroove. If sampled instruments are your thing, there’s a Hardgroove Rapture expansion and a Les Paul Gold Top expansion for Dimension Pro. Additional plugins include Panipulator (sum, mono, flip channel, flip polarity), Phasor Constructor (a manually controlled phase shifter; no LFO), Boz Digital Labs’ Bark of Dog (resonant highpass filter), Craig Anderton’s Acoustic Piezo Amp Sim, Vox Tools (de-plosive, vibrato, automatic double-tracking, etc.), and 16 virtual custom amps.

Other additions include new plug-in chains and custom presets, a more flexible control bar, and a virtual onscreen MIDI keyboard. Import and export options now include Ogg Vorbis, RF64, and a variety of lesser-known formats. Just before press time, Cakewalk released another package of updates that includes virtual stomp boxes, synthetic impulse responses for REmatrix, a noise filter for VocalSync that helps when dealing with noisy dialogue, and enhancements to Mix Recall, drum maps, and the MIDI engine.

The new Sonar certainly demonstrates the upside of Cakewalk’s promise to keep things interesting for its customers. If the company keeps up the pace and quality of its updates, it stands a pretty good chance of winning skeptics over to the membership model.

STRENGTHS
Membership model means frequent updates. Improved Audio- Snap. VocalSync. Addictive Drums 2. Mix Recall. MIDI enhancements.

LIMITATIONS
VocalSync and Audio- Snap require a bit more manual tweaking than competing technologies.

$49.99/month membership; $499/one-year membership cakewalk.com

Brian Smithers is a musician, engineer, and educator in Orlando, Florida. He is Chair of the Workstations Department at Full Sail University.