Cakewalk Sonar 8 Producer Review

A VENERABLE WORKHOUSE GETS A TUNE-UP AND NEW PLUG-INS
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FIG. 1: Sonar''s Channel Tools plug-in lets you position signals anywhere in the stereo field, correct phasing problems, and decode signals from mid-side microphone configurations.

Software can be a tough business. To pay the bills, developers need exciting new offerings each year. If an application is already full of features, though, they run the risk of adding new ones that don't add much value — or, worse, that make the software confusing or cumbersome to use.

Version 8 is one of the most compelling Sonar upgrades in years. Cakewalk has made numerous optimizations to the programming code, enhancing the audio engine's access to your computer's CPU and audio drivers. The result is more effects, more soft synths, and more audio tracks using the same hardware as before, with fewer overloads and other artifacts. Sonar 8 has flashy new features, to be sure, but the flashiest are the Producer edition's new plug-ins.

Start Your Engine

I noticed Sonar's improved audio engine immediately after installation. I configured my audio card and waited for the “Restart Sonar for the changes to take effect” prompt I've learned to expect from previous versions, but it never came.

I haven't had many complaints with Sonar's audio performance in the past (my projects tend to be well within my hardware's processing limits), but now it has a more solid feel. I no longer see the screen flickering when I resize tracks, and I can switch to other applications with Sonar playing in the background without hearing audio glitches.

Cakewalk paid particular attention to performance on Microsoft Vista (especially the 64-bit version) and implemented support for Windows Audio Session Application Programming Interface (WASAPI). WASAPI is Microsoft's newest audio-driver platform, enabling low-latency performance and high-priority access to the CPU for multimedia applications.

Sonar's improvements aren't confined to the audio engine. Cakewalk enhanced usability, too, and added new features to make your work flow more efficient. (For details, see the online bonus material at emusician.com.)

Rev It Up

Sonar's additions to its already comprehensive suite of effects comprise four new plug-ins. The TL64 Tube Leveler models vacuum-tube circuitry to add warmth and saturation to your recordings. The effect has an oversampling option to reduce aliasing, a low-shelving filter to prevent bass frequencies from overwhelming the effect, and bass compensation for restoring low frequencies postprocessing. I applied TL64 to a digital piano passage that sounded a little thin and electronic and immediately achieved a warmer, more organic sound.

Applied to a stereo signal, the simple but useful Channel Tools plug-in lets you invert either channel's phase, add delay or gain, swap the channels, or place each channel anywhere in the stereo field (see Fig. 1). If extreme left and right are already occupied, you can bring the stereo signal closer to the center. If you're recording with your microphones in a mid-side configuration, Channel Tools provides a decoder for this purpose as well.

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FIG. 2: TS64 Transient Shaper provides independent manipulation of the attack and decay portions of percussive material. The effect is excellent for helping your drum tracks stand out in the mix.

Sonar's TS64 Transient Shaper is perhaps the most interesting of the new effects (see Fig. 2). Intended for percussive passages, TS64 can shape the attack portions of each transient separately from the decay portions. The effect is incredibly versatile; I can give my drum tracks more punch and less body (or vice versa). If you find that during mixdown your otherwise-perfect drum takes need to be tighter and crisper in the mix — or if you'd like to make the drums boomier and more spacious — then TS64 is the tool for you. I even made a piano passage sound like it was played in reverse with a bow.

TS64 works by applying gain adjustment curves to three different stages of each transient: the attack, the initial decay, and the tail. Depending on the settings you use, the gain adjustment can be substantial. To make an attack sound crisper, TS64 will spike the gain in the earliest moments of the sound and drop off quickly. To make it fatter, it will boost the initial decay portion for a longer period of time. Because TS64 has to do quite a bit of number crunching on your audio, and it can do that only after it sees what you've played, you won't be able to use it during live tracking. With about 200 ms of latency, TS64 is best suited for mixdown and postproduction.

TS64 furnishes a threshold control for determining which transients get processed and which get left alone (a helpful indicator blinks when the threshold is crossed). A gain control in the last stage of processing lets you restore the processed sound to its original level in the mix. You can also manipulate timbre controls for the initial decay and tail portions, applying additional gain adjustment to the frequencies you choose. So if you want to make that snare drum ring a little longer, but primarily in the high-frequency portions of the sound, you can do that.

digital audio sequencer$499FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

My own projects often suffer from drum tracks that are too wet or washed in reverb. In those instances, I find myself nudging the Attack knob toward Fast, the Weight knob toward Thin, and the Decay knob toward Dry. The mush goes away immediately, and I'm left with drum tracks that stand out clearly in the mix.

Rounding out the new effects is Guitar Rig 3 LE from Native Instruments (for a review of the full version, see the April 2008 issue, available at emusician.com). The LE version provides 3 amps and cabinets, 11 effects, and more than 50 presets.

Instruments Galore

With Sonar 8, Cakewalk adds three new instruments to its extensive collection, making it more likely that you'll have all the music-making tools you need in this one package (Sonar Producer installs from a 4-DVD set, indicating the vast amount of included sample content). The most notable addition is a full version of Dimension Pro, Cakewalk's well-regarded sample-based synth (see the July 2006 issue for a review). You get more than 7 GB of Dimension Pro content, including Garritan's Pocket Orchestra, Digital Sound Factory's Classic Keys Expansion Pack, and an extensive sound-effects library from Hollywood Edge.

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FIG. 3: Beatscape provides 16 pads for triggering sounds and gives you extensive tools for shaping sounds and performing live.

Beatscape is a new instrument from Cakewalk offering extensive beat-slicing, loop-triggering, and remixing capabilities — all optimized for live performance (see Fig. 3). A complete description could easily fill an entire review, but suffice it to say that you'll find plenty to play with. My own projects don't typically involve sample loops and beat slicing, but I had a blast with the instrument nonetheless.

Each of Beatscape's 16 trigger pads can play loops from your Sonar project or the included 4 GB of well-organized sample content. You can insert up to three effects per pad, and you can map the pads and map individual beat slices to MIDI notes (see “Master Class: Cakewalk Beatscape” in the February 2009 issue, available at emusician.com).

Wrapping up the list of new instruments is the TruePianos Amber Module, one of four pianos from the full version of 4Front TruePianos VSTi. TruePianos Amber sounds quite good, with tonal characteristics that work well in a variety of mixes. That being said, I auditioned Amber alongside several pianos from my Tascam GigaStudio library and found that I preferred the GigaStudio instruments. In comparison, TruePianos Amber sounds thinner and slightly more electronic.

Sounds Solid

Sonar 8 represents a solid upgrade for this audio powerhouse. As usual, the package comes complete with excellent documentation in the form of context-sensitive help files; the printed documentation supplies tutorials, troubleshooting, and a description of the new features. For anyone upgrading from a previous version (from $179), Sonar 8 Producer's improved performance, Dimension Pro, and TS64 Transient Shaper absolutely justify the cost.

Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant. Check him out atametts.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

PROS: Improved audio performance and usability. Excellent new effects. Powerful instruments. Plenty of sample content.

CONS: TruePianos Amber Module is less convincing than other sampled pianos.

Cakewalk
cakewalk.com