Cakewalk SONAR 8.5 Producer (Win) Review

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FIG. 1: The Matrix view, modeled after Cakewalk''s Project5, allows for nonlinear cell-based triggering of audio and MIDI loops.

Breaking with a longstanding tradition of releasing new integer versions each autumn, Cakewalk dubbed this major update to its Windows-only DAW SONAR 8.5. Reading between the lines, it seems the company is reluctant to get caught in the trap of measuring all of its engineering feats against a 12-month development yardstick. SONAR 8.5 is, in fact, the next major version, but existing version 8 users can download it for a reduced price as an incremental update. As before, there are two versions: the full-on Producer and the value-minded Studio. For a full list of the distinctions between the two versions, check Cakewalk''s website.

Whatever Cakewalk might have planned for down the road, since the release of 8.5, the company has been at work enhancing and refining SONAR''s functionality with free updates. You''ll want to download and install these updates at your earliest opportunity as they make a big difference in certain features.

It''s a Feature
The biggest news in SONAR 8.5 is the Matrix, a cell-based sequencing and live-triggering environment based on Cakewalk''s Project5 sequencer, which is no longer in development (see Fig. 1). Cakewalk reports that the Matrix was not merely ported over from Project5, but was rebuilt from the ground up as an integrated SONAR feature. Still, Project5 users will feel right at home, as will Ableton Live users. The ability to have cell-based (nonlinear) triggering of audio and MIDI loops within SONAR''s sequencing environment brings significant new workflow possibilities.

Between Beatscape, introduced in version 8, and its longstanding support of Acid-style looping, SONAR already does an impressive job of marrying linear sequencing and recording with loop-based production. The Matrix greatly enhances this by allowing you to assign loops to individual cells within a grid and then trigger cells in turn or in combination by MIDI notes. These notes can be recorded to a SONAR MIDI track and then edited. You could use the Matrix in live performance, although its most important trait is that it lets you make a musical performance out of your studio production. Copying and pasting loops to build an arrangement is a technical act that takes you out of the creative moment, whereas triggering your samples in the Matrix feels more like playing an instrument.

Also new to 8.5 is an arpeggiator available on every MIDI or instrument track. This, too, bears a familial resemblance to Project5, and it brings a great deal of new power and flexibility to SONAR MIDI tracks. The Cakewalk FX Arpeggiator plug-in has been around for a while, but the new track-based arpeggiator is better at most things. It offers the parameters you expect from a full-featured arpeggiator: a variety of shapes; variable swing; control over note length, velocity, and pitch; and a variable flam. You''ll find several hundred pattern-based presets, but although many of them are quite interesting, it''s difficult to sift through them all in search of the perfect sound. It would be helpful if you could create and edit the patterns to fine-tune them for your song.

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FIG. 2: Session Drummer, now in version 3, offers new and improved drum kits, pattern-based sequencing, and flexible mix routing.

Lines of Succession
Session Drummer—which combines a multi-sampled instrument with pattern-based playback created from live performances—is now in version 3 (see Fig. 2), which includes 20 kits, including drum machines and classic rock kits from such names as Ocean Way Studios, Steven Slate, and Sonic Reality. Although Session Drummer doesn''t give you all of the refined control over mic position and blend that, for example, FXpansion''s BFD does, it does give you basic level, pan, width, and tuning controls, plus the option of routing instruments to individual SONAR tracks for authentic acoustic drum-style mixing. The kits sound great, and the patterns are quite usable. If a pattern requires refinement, then you can drag it directly to a track and edit it.

SONAR''s Step Sequencer has been upgraded to version 2, bringing a number of refinements over the initial release. Although it still doesn''t directly expose soft synth parameters, its handling of controllers has improved, with controllers and other parameters such as velocity displayed as a bar graph beneath a row of notes, and there are hooks to parameters for the synths that ship with SONAR. One of the most interesting additions is step probability, which allows you to vary patterns semi-randomly by specifying that certain notes are to play only occasionally. Although it doesn''t absolve you of the responsibility for programming fills, it certainly allows you to take advantage of the convenience and power of the step sequencer while managing its potential for monotony.

AudioSnap, SONAR''s beat-detection and time-correction utility, has been updated to version 2, but it still has some problems. Cakewalk is working on bug fixes, which the company plans to deliver in an incremental update.

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FIG. 3: The PX-64 Percussion Strip features five essential processors that can be arranged in any order, sandwiched between two stages of tube-style saturation.

Various other functions have been improved to smooth workflow, including the Send Assistant, which now offers the option of matching the track''s gain and pan settings. Freeze and Archive functions now appear as dedicated buttons on each channel strip, and each plug-in offers a track Solo button. The Clips pane now displays vertical grid lines behind or on top of clips. When editing at a high level of zoom, you can prevent the window from scrolling by clicking on a clip immediately after starting playback. I''d still prefer a shortcut key to disable scrolling, but this is an improvement.

Plugged In
Even after all of these functionality improvements, Cakewalk saw fit to add to SONAR''s plug-in complement. The PX-64 Percussion Strip combines five processors—compressor/limiter, expander/gate, transient shaper, tempo-synchable delay, and 4-band semiparametric equalizer—with input and output saturation stages (see Fig. 3). The order of the five processors is customizable, and all parameters are fully automatable. Whether your percussion track needs a subtle tweak or a radical facelift, PX-64 just might be all you need.

Similarly, the VX-64 Vocal Strip combines a variety of processors designed to bring the best out of your vocal tracks. Its interface is a dead ringer for the PX-64, with the same bright, clear graphic display of the currently selected processor and drag-and-drop arrangement of processors. It includes a de-esser, a doubler, a synchable delay, a compressor/expander, and a 3-band equalizer, all surrounded as in the PX-64 by input and output saturation. The EQ includes variable tube saturation that can be selectively engaged on each band.

If the focus of this upgrade seems beat-heavy, that''s because it is. If beats make your music go ''round, SONAR 8.5 is made for you. Although SONAR was already a strong platform for groove manipulation, its new arpeggiator and Matrix view, along with the improved step sequencer and AudioSnap function, bring it to a new level of flexibility and power. Add to that the Session Drummer 3 improvements and the PX-64, and SONAR 8.5 is sure to bring a smile to the drummer in you. For the other sides of your musical personality, there''s plenty to smile at, too.

Brian Smithers is department chair of workstations at Full Sail University and the author of Mixing in Pro Tools: Skill Pack, 2nd Edition (Cengage).

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