Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer (Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Known as “Skylight,” SONAR X1''s interface redesign is highly configurable and includes an improved Inspector, consolidated Browser, streamlined Track view, and powerful MultiDock.

SONAR X1 is the biggest redesign of Cakewalk''s flagship DAW since its evolution from Pro Audio 10 years ago. The development team has succeeded in bringing the program''s ample feature set together under the control of a more streamlined interface. The majority of the improvements in this version are interface-related, with the most significant new features being the addition of ProChannel, an excellent integrated channel strip, and the ability to save and recall effects chains.

I tested SONAR X1a (an update released in December 2010) on a quad-core 2.67GHz Intel i7 920 with 6GB of RAM running 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate. SONAR had no problems running in 64-bit mode with 64-bit audio processing.

SONAR''s new interface goes by the evocative name Skylight, but it will still look like home to established users (see Fig. 1). Skylight brings together the traditional Track view, an improved Inspector, and an all-encompassing Browser with the powerful new MultiDock. These four views can be collapsed or, in the case of the MultiDock, maximized with convenient shortcut keys, so controlling the Skylight interface is a snap.

I was not a fan of docking windows when it was first introduced into SONAR, but the MultiDock has given the notion a new appeal. I can now dock various windows—such as the Piano Roll, the Event List, the console view, or the Matrix—and then with a few keystrokes maximize the MultiDock and switch to the view I need. You can also float the MultiDock on a separate monitor if one is available. If I take the time to create Screensets, I can speed the process further. Up to 10 Screensets can be saved per project and can be imported from another open session. The upshot of all of this? SONAR X1 is now easier to manage in a single- or multimonitor environment than previously. Even window-management functions I had previously sussed out with shortcuts and key bindings now feel more like an intended function than a kludge.

The Inspector now displays the output channel for the selected track. It lists more types of information than before, such as clip properties (including clip effects, groove clip properties, and AudioSnap properties) and track properties. It can also display the entire ProChannel for the selected track. For an instrument track, you can switch between displaying the audio output channel or the track''s MIDI properties, including the arpeggiator, input quantize, and so forth.

Among other things, the Browser consolidates functions previously found elsewhere, allowing the import of audio and MIDI files, presets, step-sequencer patterns, track templates, and more. The most interesting new feature provided by the Browser is the ability to drag plug-ins—including virtual instruments—directly to a track. Simply drag a soft synth to the Track view to create an instrument track. Indeed, drag-and-drop functionality has been implemented or improved in various ways throughout SONAR X1.

SONAR has always had a context-sensitive “smart” tool, but X1''s is a bit smarter and friendlier. If its primary functions are not what you need, you can switch to alternate tools either by pressing “T” to show the tool palette (called the Heads Up Display, or HUD) or by pressing F5 through F10 to switch directly to the desired tool. If you hold the relevant F key as you use its tool, the cursor automatically switches back to the smart tool when you release it. When multiple data types are displayed in a track, a new data filter lets you focus all edit functions on just what you need. You can also bring up the HUD by clicking the middle mouse button; moving the scroll wheel then activates the dropdown menu for selecting data types.

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FIG. 2: The ProChannel''s emulations of major pro EQs and compressors are designed to bring big-studio sound to SONAR X1.

ProChannel—which is available from the Inspector as well as from each channel of the console view—combines EQ, compression, and tube saturation in a user-configurable chain that can be placed before or after the track''s FX bin (see Fig. 2). The EQ offers six bands: two filters (high- and lowpass), two fully parametric bands, and two bands that can be switched between fully parametric and low- and high-shelf mode. The filters'' slopes are adjustable between 6 and 48dB/octave in 6dB increments. The four parametric bands offer 18dB of gain or cut, and all four range from 20 to 20k Hz. The EQ can be set to Pure, Vintage, or Modern modes, each of which emulates the Q and level characteristics of a different famous EQ. The EQ curve can be edited graphically, with Q adjustment via Alt-dragging. This is one seriously flexible equalizer with truly professional features. The EQ button also includes a Gloss button, which adds “air” to all modes.

The compressor stage emulates two well-known compressors—no bonus points for guessing what the PC76 U-Type and PC4K S-Type are modeled after. The controls of each, including the metering, are representative of those on the modeled devices. The PC76 even offers an extra Ratio button (labeled with the infinity symbol) that emulates its source''s famous “all buttons in” mode. The PC4K offers a sidechain; the PC76 does not. Both feature a wet/dry knob, making parallel compression a no-brainer.

The tube saturation circuit in ProChannel offers a wide range of colors. Two types of saturation are available (with no documentation on what the distinction is), and the input, drive, and output controls are perfectly intuitive.

Although SONAR previously had high-quality EQ and compression—the Sonitus:fx EQ, Vintage Channel, and LP64 Compressor and EQ are all worthy contenders—the addition of the ProChannel brings mixing in SONAR X1 to a new high. The inclusion of a clipping indicator at the top of each module is indicative of the professional mindset behind this new channel strip. Metering—especially between plug-ins—is an area that has not received as much attention in DAW interfaces as it should, so hats off to Cakewalk.

Effects chains can now be saved and recalled, dragged or copied from track to track, collapsed within an FX bin, and named for clear reference. It''s nice to see this feature finally migrated from Project5 to the mothership. Although such chains cannot include soft synths, you can accomplish that with a track template. Simply drag a soft synth from the browser to the Track view, insert any audio plug-ins you want on the resulting instrument track, dial in your desired settings, and save the track as a track template. You can then drag the track template from the browser any time you need that particular setup. Another related time-saver is the ability to store default plug-in presets; you can save multiple versions of a plug-in in the Plug-In Manager, each with a different default preset.

X1 continues to support grouping of mix parameters in the same way SONAR has implemented it for some time. However, “quick grouping” of parameters is now much easier. Simply select the relevant tracks and Ctrl-drag the desired parameters. Pan controls maintain their relative positions, as do mute, solo, record arm, and other status buttons.

The full list of improvements in X1 goes on and on, from performance enhancements to menu redesign. What used to be a nearly endless row of obscure icons in the Track view is now an orderly dropdown menu. What used to be separate global and project options are now consolidated in a Preferences dialog box. With respect to menus and preferences, my one lingering wish is for a meter options dialog box so that when I set up my metering preferences, I don''t have to open and retrace the cascading menu multiple times to set meter mode, peak hold, and range for each meter type. Given the other improvements in this version, though, I can wait a bit longer.

If I had to pick something to gripe about, it might be that when SONAR gets cool new features, such as V-Vocal or Beatscape, they don''t get updated and improved with each version. Or, I might quibble about the fact that the Publisher applet produces an audio player that I wouldn''t put on any website with my name on it. Similarly, the CD-burning applet is so rudimentary it doesn''t compare well to the app that was included free with your DVD-R drive, and it''s a separate applet, not “integrated CD burning” as advertised. Sincere gripes all, but pretty trivial in light of SONAR X1''s powerful audio production features now made more usable by an interface redesign done right.

Brian Smithers is department chair of workstations at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Fla.

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Click on the Producer Summary box above to view the SONAR X1 Producer product page.