Technology

Cakewalk SONAR 8 Producer Review

SOLID UPGRADE HAS NEW PROCESSOR AND INSTRUMENT PLUGS, IMPROVED WORKFLOW 4/01/2009 8:00 AM Eastern

SONAR 8 Producer features many exclusive upgrades, including the TruePianos instrument and Transient Shaper processor.

At the October 2008 AES show, Cakewalk kept to its habit of annual upgrades by releasing SONAR 8 Producer. Past releases have introduced advanced features such as ACT (Active Controller Technology), 64-bit DAW processing, a bevy of high-quality plug-ins, full surround support, excellent virtual instruments, internal dynamic sidechaining and external gear delay compensation. Version 8 includes all of those features, plus new plug-ins and virtual instruments — such as TruePianos and a Transient Shaper — along with workflow enhancements, optimization of the SONAR audio engine, and more efficient use of drivers focused on performance and stability.

Move Over, I'll Drive

I installed SONAR 8 on an up-to-date 32-bit Windows Vista system that includes Service Pack 1. This PC is powered by a 3GHz Intel Core Extreme Q6850 CPU and has 4 GB of RAM. With SONAR Version 7, Mac users finally could plunge into SONAR via Boot Camp (an application for running the Windows OS on an Intel-based Mac). Version 7 ran smoothly on my Mac, so I installed SONAR 8 on that machine, as well. I set up a Windows XP partition on an Intel 2.66GHz dual-core Mac running OS X 10.4.9. After the installations, I visited Cakewalk's Website and updated both systems to the latest 8.0.2 patches.

To get audio in and out of the Mac, I used a Lynx AES16e card connected to a Mytek 8×192 AD/DA via AES/EBU connections, with an M-Audio Keystation 49e MIDI controller/keyboard. I connected the Windows Vista machine to an ASIO-driven MOTU 828mkII FireWire interface for audio I/O duties. New to SONAR 8 is the support for WASAPI (Windows Audio Session API) drivers. This new standard for Windows Vista provides better compatibility with consumer audio devices that have no ASIO drivers. Also, SONAR no longer requires the annoying multiple application restarts when changing various driver settings — a welcome fix. When I first launched Version 8, I was pleased to see the same GUI as Version 7 — yet beneath the application's familiar surface are ample new features.

Creative Tools

Previously, using SONAR's soft synths and virtual instruments required incorporating a MIDI track and an audio track for each instrument. In SONAR 8, an Instrument Track provides both MIDI and audio in a convenient track strip. Although I couldn't create an instrument track from the “Insert New Track” button, it did happen from the Insert pull-down menu.

The first instrument I launched was TruePianos' Amber Module, a slimmed-down version of 4Front Technologies' TruePianos VSTi. At my session's 96kHz sample rate, TruePianos' modeling sounded and felt excellent. Characteristics like sympathetic resonance, inter-string harmonics and even re-pedaling are all present.

SONAR 8 now offers the full (non-LE) version of the Dimension Pro sample-playback/synthesis engine and 8 GB of basses, strings, guitars, electronic sounds, and the Hollywood Edge FX library. Dimension Pro is also expandable via expansion packs or user PCM WAV samples. Lastly, for loop/beat enthusiasts, another new instrument on the roster is Beatscape. Resembling an Akai MPC, Beatscape includes 16 pads, 4 GB of content and REX file support. You can trigger Beatscape via the GUI or a MIDI controller.

Plug Away

Channel Tools is a plug-in designed to control the spatial relationship of a stereo track, offering channel processing for gain, mid/side decoding, and delay and polarity inversion. Channel Tools also includes independent L/R panning controls, width control and delay control between left and right channels, a good fit for time aligning a mic and DI source.

The new TS-64 Transient Shaper plug differs from a conventional compressor by working on the attack of an envelope independent of the decay/sustain. The presets on the TS-64 are great place to start, but don't stop there. On a kick track, I experimented with the Weight Timbre and Decay functions and easily turned a big round kick drum into a punchy, click-y sounding metal kick.

The TS-64 was versatile on snare, easily going from smooth with sustain to an in-your-face 1176 “all buttons in” mode. I enjoyed combining the Transient Shaper with the TL-64 Tube Leveler. The latter plug-in models analog vacuum tube circuits; its parameters include Drive (tube saturation), Dynamic Response (which frequency range the tube affects) and (tube) Clipping. Pushing the Drive and Clipping controls hard on snare and toms gave them a great presence in the mix. It also provided some needed character on a sterile bass DI, so it blended better within the mix. SONAR 8's Producer adds an LE version of Native Instruments' Guitar Rig 3. This highly respected amp modeler includes three amps and cabinets, 11 effects, tuner, metronome and more than 50 presets.

Attention to Detail

Workflow improvements in SONAR 8 include a new Loop Explorer 2.0 view, which offers easy browsing of SONAR's content-rich audio and MIDI groove clips and patterns. Another new feature I fell for is Transport Audition, which allows playback of only selected clips or time regions via a simple click on the Audition button (or Shift + spacebar) — a priceless timesaver. Also nice is Exclusive Solo, for soloing only one track, track folder or bus at a time. The ability to audition individual tracks without having to un-solo the others is a quick and handy feature.

Transport updates include a Pause button, Rewind and Fast Forward buttons and the ability to arm/disarm tracks during playback and recording. The new Aim Assist Line assists editing within the Clips pane and provides a vertical line (with a custom color) displaying the mouse's horizontal position, while the actual time is shown in the time ruler.

SONAR 8 can now assign audio tracks and buses to individual mono hardware outputs in addition to stereo outs. However, this function didn't perform to my expectations. As with previous versions of SONAR, the ASIO I/O assignments of my MOTU interface showed up in pairs (e.g., Left MOTU Audio ASIO Analog 1-2, Right MOTU Audio ASIO Analog 1-2, Stereo MOTU Audio ASIO Analog 1-2). This is a poor and frustrating way of changing outputs; after a few tracks you lose track of your assignments. To find out whether this was proprietary to the Windows/MOTU machine, I checked my Mac running the Lynx/Mytek setup and experienced the same confusion. Under the Audio/Options/Drivers tab, you can use “friendly names,” but you still can't name individual mono tracks, which should be an easy fix. According to Cakewalk, they will address this in the near future.

In the End

SONAR's focus on both the artist and the engineer is evident with new features like Instrument Tracks, allowing quick implementation of instruments like the fantastic-sounding TruePianos Amber Module, Beatscape and Dimension Pro's 8 GB of content. The Loop Explorer 2.0 helps keep content organized and allows easy auditioning of loops and patterns. The TS-64 Transient Shaper and TL-64 Tube Leveler plug-ins were very expressive plug-ins — especially on kick and snare — and a great complement to loops in Beatscape, adding punch or experimental manipulation. Guitar and bass players using DI units will enjoy the LE version of Guitar Rig 3.

Some of the new workflow features may spoil you. The Transport Audition and Exclusive Solo features expedite auditioning and editing a selection without the usual solo/un-solo dance, leaving you wondering how you ever went without it. The modest Aim Assist Line and the updated transport along with the ability to arm/disarm tracks during playback are also keepers. The nonintuitive I/O assignment was a downside, but I hope that Cakewalk will address this in the future. That aside, Cakewalk's advertised performance optimization with low latencies and improved ASIO performance was evident, and SONAR 8 ran solidly on both Vista and Intel Mac.

SONAR 8 feels different from and decidedly more refined than earlier versions. The controls in Track and Console view were snappy and more confident while zooming/scrolling was quicker and smoother. This was my first SONAR review during which the system didn't crash once under rigorous testing. Cakewalk's focus on performance, stability and workflow enhancements pays off, making SONAR 8 my favorite release yet.


Tony Nunes is a consultant and engineer, and builds a lot of his own gear.

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