Cakewalk SONAR V-Studio 100 Review

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FIG. 1: The VS-100''s relatively small topside area belies its ample capabilities. You can access many assignable features through a single-page menu and cursor system.

In an audio world where I/O controllers are abundant, Cakewalk''s SONAR V-Studio 100 (VS-100) occupies a unique position. When connected to a Mac or a PC via USB 2, it serves as a versatile combination of mixer, control surface, and audio-and-MIDI interface for the DAW of your choice. Away from the computer, you can use the VS-100 as a freestanding mixer, complete with built-in compression, EQ, and reverb. Add an SD card, and you have a perfectly capable stereo recorder to tote to gigs, or you can deploy the unit as an accompanist by arranging sequential playback of audio tracks. When you''re en route to the next gig and the muse strikes, you can even pull off sound-on-sound recording.

With so many features, the VS-100 manages to wear all these hats with sensible compromises. Although the system is portable, it doesn''t draw its power from the USB bus, which is understandable considering its power requirements.

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FIG. 2: Inputs 1 and 2 offer XLR or balanced 1/4-inch jacks. A front panel switch lets you change the first channel to high impedance.

A Turnkey System
I put the VS-100 to the test on a 2.93GHz Apple MacBook Pro with Mac OS 10.6.2. The unit performs different control functions depending on your DAW software, so I tried Ableton Live 8.02, MOTU Digital Performer 6.03, Apple Logic Pro 9.0.3, and Propellerhead Record 1. Late in my review, Cakewalk updated the firmware to Version 1.3, a major boost to the VS-100''s functionality; the update is easy to install, and you can download it from the company''s website.

Cakewalk bundled a bunch of useful plug-ins with the VS-100. For Windows, users get a copy of SONAR VS, a scaled-down version of SONAR. Both platforms get complete installs of Cakewalk Studio Instruments, comprising bass, drums, electric piano, and strings on separate plug-ins. Each furnishes a varied, if not comprehensive, collection of sounds with a reasonable degree of tweaking options and MIDI-file loops you can drag and drop to your tracks. You also get LE versions of Cakewalk''s flagship soft synths, Dimension and Rapture. Audio plug-ins include Boost 11, VX-64 Vocal Strip, Channel Tools, a limiter, and a limited edition of Native Instruments Guitar Rig.

By All Appearances
The VS-100 is solidly constructed with enough heft to ensure its stability on a stage or desktop. All input and output jacks are on the front and rear panels, leaving the top panel for the control surface, mixer knobs, and display (see Fig. 1). Inputs 1 and 2 are on the front, each with an input-level knob, a balanced 1/4-inch jack, and an XLR jack (see Fig. 2). Input 1 switches from line to high impedance. A small slot holds SDHC cards (not included), and a 1/4-inch headphone jack and its volume knob complete the front panel. On the rear, balanced 1/4-inch jacks for inputs 3 and 4 sit alongside RCA jacks for inputs 5 and 6 and a coaxial S/PDIF jack for inputs 7 and 8 (see Fig. 3). A footswitch jack lets you start and stop the standalone recorder hands-free, and a switch enables 48V phantom power for the front panel XLRs. In addition to sending and receiving MIDI via the USB connector, the VS-100 provides MIDI In and Out jacks and a connection for the lump-in-the-line power supply.

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FIG. 3: A footswitch, additional inputs, MIDI I/O, USB, and a phantom-power switch adorn the rear panel. In addition to stereo Main-Mix outputs, you get individual outputs for channels 3 through 6.

Controlling Interest
Topside, light-silver stenciling cordons off functional areas such as the mixer and transport/controller sections. Rotary encoders, buttons, and a small graphic display allow for a variety of software interaction. For easy system setup, hold down the display button to open the single scrolling menu. Use the fourth encoder to scroll through available parameters, press it down to access that parameter''s value, and then turn the encoder to adjust it. When contrasted with devices whose hardware interface resembles an aerial view of Metropolis, the VS-100''s simplicity can be refreshing. Still, I sometimes wished for a software programming utility so I could see more parameters on a single screen.

At the encoder section''s top left, the ACT button engages Cakewalk''s proprietary Active Controller Technology in SONAR, which contextually assigns the five rotary encoders to preset parameters, be they channel-strip controls or synthesizer plug-in edits. In Logic Pro, the unit emulates Logic Control, which proved a tad stubborn to engage, necessitating a tap on the Marker button to avoid false starts and to get the transport''s Play and Record buttons to function properly. For other DAW software, Mackie Control emulation is the ticket.

In the lower-left corner, the Input section is relatively straightforward. All the mixer''s input controls are disabled when the VS-100 is in Full Assign mode, which gives mixer tasks to your DAW. Channels 1 and 2 have their own pan controls, buttons to enable compression and EQ, and input-gain knobs. Inputs 3 and 4 and inputs 5 and 6 are paired; they offer compression, EQ, and gain controls only. You also get gain knobs for S/PDIF and Main-Mix inputs. The compressor, EQ, and reverb are programmable; they sound decent, if not spectacular, and they are perfectly adequate for recording onstage performances. The ability to apply EQ to the signal before or after USB input is a nice touch. The VS-100''s untreated sound is bright and sweet, rivaling the quality of most interfaces I''ve heard that cost less than $1,000.

Skimming the Surface
The Control Surface area houses transport and track-parameter controls, an output-level knob, and a fifth rotary encoder. On the far right is the motorized, touch-sensitive 100mm fader. The fader is quiet and responsive, with ballistics similar to those of my PreSonus FaderPort.

Track buttons let you zip between tracks you wish to arm and control. The Mute, Solo, and Arm buttons lie just below, and you can defeat soloing or muting for all tracks with the Shift button. If you have markers set up, the Loop button will let you cycle between two points—a handy feature if you create MIDI drum loops bar by bar.

Many functions in the Control Surface area vary depending on the DAW software you choose. Pressing the ACT button in Logic Pro enables Logic Control protocols, and pressing the View button restores the first Screenset. In Logic Pro and Cubase, the EQ button opens the selected track''s default EQ for editing. The ACT button must be engaged to jump to markers; it remains lit regardless of its status. This was confusing when I tried to use the transport''s fast-forward and rewind buttons to jump to markers when ACT wasn''t engaged.

In Logic Pro, assigning the MIDI Learn function to software instruments seemed hit-or-miss. Making simple MIDI Learn assignments to Native Instruments B4 II and Spectrasonics Omnisphere yielded jerky and unreliable results, and sometimes generated ugly clusters of stuck MIDI notes, but assignments worked smoothly in Digital Performer and Record.

Setup information is often vague and focuses on SONAR, with some basic setup help in the PDF addendum and Cakewalk''s website. The manual focuses on DAW implementation, but it doesn''t mention that you can use MIDI Learn with the control surface to modulate standalone software instruments, too. This was initially problematic to set up until I discovered that the ACT button could enable or disable some undocumented controller functions. A rewritten, comprehensive manual with all the help compiled under a single roof would make matters a lot clearer.

Standing Alone
As a standalone recorder and mixer, the VS-100 is an exemplar of simplicity. The unit''s Wave-Record mode lets you deploy all eight inputs (six analog and stereo S/PDIF). You can even play a stereo backing track while recording a stereo WAV file. You can then offload the files to your computer if you want to mix them or add more tracks; that''s good to know in case inspiration strikes when you''re away from your DAW.

Performers will appreciate the ability to play backing tracks either sequentially or one at a time. The footpedal input lets you advance through your tracks and trigger playback. With only 16 channels, MIDI input is basic, and the unit sends no MIDI clock, which would be handy if your synthesizer uses tempo-synched effects or envelopes.

An Inconvenient Boot
The unit supports sample rates of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, and 96kHz, with bit depths of 16, 24, and 32 (if your DAW supports it). Changing the sample rate requires restarting the unit, which can be inconvenient and once again underscores the usefulness of handling such tasks with a software control panel.

With the USB cable disconnected, the VS-100 automatically starts up in Wave-Record mode. Wave-Record and DAW modes are mutually exclusive, creating a few minor but annoying inconveniences. To transfer audio files between the computer and the VS-100, you must access the menu, scroll down to the Storage parameter, turn Storage on, and then reboot the VS-100. The display reads “Now Connecting” throughout the process, giving the impression that it is hanging although the unit has already appeared on the desktop as a drive. There is no audio functionality in this mode, and more significantly, no menu access. Formatting an SDHC card must also be done beforehand and when the unit''s USB connection is offline, which means disconnecting the USB cable.

Once you get over the formatting hurdle, however, recording is easy, and the VS-100 becomes a convenient sketch pad. With the aid of the built-in programmable metronome, I was able to record and then import tracks that would sit comfortably alongside MIDI and audio tracks I had previously recorded in my DAW.

For those who need more simultaneous controls or more inputs, the VS-100 may not be suitable. As a tool for a solo artist or small acoustic ensemble that doesn''t need a ton of inputs, the VS-100 presents a versatile package. For Windows users, the synergy between SONAR and the VS-100''s ACT implementation makes for a tantalizing combination. Cakewalk has added several firmware upgrades since I received the unit, so further improvements are not out of order; the most recent focused on functionality with Mac software. A rewritten manual would dramatically improve the unit''s value.

As a bluegrass musician playing in small clubs with a small band, I think a standalone VS-100 is a great alternative to schlepping my MacBook Pro and an external hard drive. With an 8GB SDHC card, I can leave the recorder running without concern for eating up space. I have plenty of inputs to record and provide a stereo mix for a five-piece band, especially with the minimal mic setups so popular in bluegrass bands of late.

Musical Multitasker
The SONAR V-Studio 100 is not the least-expensive unit on the block, and the few inconveniences I''ve mentioned represent compromises inherent in a unit that covers so many bases. When the dust clears, it handles its multiple tasks quite well. Considering its capabilities as an audio interface, mixer, control surface, and standalone recorder, and its modest but useful complement of built-in effects, DAW software, and cross-platform plug-ins, the V-Studio 100 offers good value.

Marty Cutler and Kenny Kosek are two-thirds of the electronic/bluegrass/comedy duo Chef of the Pasture. The final third is Cutler''s MacBook Pro, Cora Apple.

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Click on the "Product Summary" box to go to the Cakewalk Sonar V-Studio 100 product page