If you want to run an old school DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) package on your PC, you have a choice of three applications, Cubase, Pro Tools and Sonar. Of these, Sonar is, relatively rapping, the new kid on the blog, but don’t underestimate it…though it doesn’t have quite the same pedigree as its two main rivals, it costs half the price, offers a very similar feature set and has some unique tricks up its sleeve, that make it worthy of serious consideration.
But don’t spend too long considering it, otherwise you might find that version 6 has been superseded by version 7…after all, a year elapsed between the release of version 4 and version 5…but only 9 months between the release of version 5 and version 6…so at this rate, I predict that version 7 will be available in 6 months…version 8 in 3 months…version 9 will be released simultaneously with version 10…and version 11 will cause a rupture in the fabric of the space time continuum…or possibly a rapture…
Something else that will cause a rapture is Sonar’s 64-bit double precision floating point mix engine. An industry first, it allows you to work natively with 64 bit audio…even on 32 bit computers/operating systems…at sample rates of up to 500khz…allowing for some serious hatroom. Not that you’re limited to 32 bit computing…for anyone ‘brave’ enough to be running Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, there’s a native 64 bit version of Sonar included on the installation DVD, which is claimed to offer 20-30% processing performance gains and which can access up to 128 GB of RAM…if you can access the funds needed to purchase 128GB RAM that is…
One of the things that distinguishes Sonar from most of the other DAWs on the market is the big name third party technology inside. In addition to 11 effects from Sonitus, there is the ‘Pantheon’ reverb from Lexicon, who are famed for making some of the best (and most expensive) studio hardware reverbs in the biz, ‘Groovesynth’ from Roland, which makes up for in classic sounds, what it lacks in programmability and ‘V-Vocal’, which allows you to turn audio clips of 6 minutes or less into ‘elastic audio’, courtesy of Roland’s Variphrase technology.
Kjaerhus Audio’s advanced component level modeling powers the brand new and superb sounding VC-64 Vintage Channel, which offers serial and parallel compression and EQ stages, two VCA/opto mode compressors, two 4-band parametric EQ’s with five high-quality filter types, a noise gate with soft knee, a wideband de-esser, zero latency and full automation. Far more crucially though, it includes lots of idiot proof presets, designed by professional audio engineers, to cover a wide range of scenarios and these really deliver the goods.
Session Drummer 2 is a new audio plug-in that mixes professionally recorded drum patterns and multi-sampled drum kits from drum specialists, ‘Smart Loops’, with Cakewalk’s own ‘Expression Engine’ (as found in the excellent Cakewalk soft synth range). Simply load a drum kit then drag and drop patterns into your project, or play patterns/individual drums from any midi controller. It’s powerful and easy to use…which is probably just as well, since, like the VC-64, it’s not documented in the 900 page manual.
A time stretching algorithm from highly respected plug-in manufacturer, iZotope, is amongst those powering the new ‘Audio Snap’ suite, a collection of tools that offers non-destructive audio quantize, seamless audio tempo changes, conversion of audio beats to midi, ‘slip’ editing and locking of multiple tracks into the same groove. Whilst this technology does the job and gives great sounding results, it is, unlike the rest of Sonar, needlessly complex and will be off putting to users who want an easy life. Having said that, it’s no more complex and confusing than the equivalent functionality in most other DAWs. But let’s face it, there’s a reason why so many people are using Abelton Live…it makes doing these sort of things…a Cakewalk! Cakewalk and everyone else take note.
The other two key headline feature are ‘Active Controller Technology’ (ACT) and the new synth rack.
ACT is the bridge between control surface/midi controller and virtual synth/effect/mixer. A significant step forwards in usability, it automagically assigns your knobs and sliders to the popular features of your plug-ins or Sonar mix parameters, automatically remapping as you change focus between them. Naturally it’s fully customizable and has a MIDI learn mode that allows you to easily map controllers that are not supported by default.
The new synth rack is a unified interface in which you can insert, delete, mute, solo and freeze soft synths. Reason it’s not. Though it does offer something that reason doesn’t…the facility to copy across your favourite controllers from each (supported) soft synth’s control panel, making for easy tweakability and automation of your tweaks, which is just plain excellent. In conjunction with ACT, it also raises the possibility of using sonar as a tool for live performance.
There are numerous other enhancements including a redesigned console view, the new ‘Analyst’ spectrum analyzer, mouse wheel support, fast zoom, enhanced automation, crash recovery, automatic file versioning, a customizable user interface, user-customizable plug-in menus, friendly driver naming and custom colour schemes. Whilst some of these are very welcome, I can’t help thinking that cakewalk have gone a little over board on the customizability front. I don’t need 15 different ways to do the same thing…just one good one. Added to which, when I’m making music, I’m generally using my ears, not my eyes, so the facility to customize not just colour schemes, but individual saturation, hue, and brightness seems a little OTT. What next…alpha channel controls?
But at the end of the day, all you really need to know is that Sonar 6 Producer Edition is on a par with and in some respects better than many of its rivals. Although, at times, it is a little too ‘Windows’ for me, it is, aside from Audio Snap, a very straightforward and easy to use application, made even more usable by innovations such as ACT and though its hefty manual isn’t as comprehensive as it should be, it does contain some excellent tutorials that will have you up and running and familiar with much of the application in a very short space of time.
Add to this equation the genuine Roland and Lexicon technology, Cakewalk’s excellent Pentagon 1 (the forerunner of the Zeta/Rapture/Dimension Pro family) and Psyn II soft synths, the VC-64 Vintage Channel, ‘Perfect Space’ (Cakewalk’s 64 bit convolution reverb) and, for loop gurus, the ability to ridiculously quickly and easily create Acidized Wavs (making it absolutely essential for anyone using Sony Acid) and it becomes excellent value for money…in fact it’s almost worth buying for the plug-ins alone.
More info: www.cakewalk.com
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