Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer Edition ReviewNEW GUI AND PROCHANNEL HAS THIS PC DAW LOOKING, SOUNDING GREAT 3/01/2011 4:00 AM Eastern
Cakewalk’s SONAR has been annually upgraded for close to a decade now, evolving into a full-featured Windows DAW that in some instances has been ahead of the competition. SONAR has led with features like surround integration, full 64-bit processing, V-Vocal pitch correction, ACT (Active Controller Technology) and a full roster of included virtual instruments, to name a few. The SONAR X1 Producer Edition continues to tempt its users to upgrade with a redesigned GUI featuring the Skylight workspace environment, plus revamped Smart tools, ProChannel processors and FX Chain presets.
SONAR X1 comes in three versions: Essential ($99), Studio ($199) and the top-of-the-line Producer Edition ($399), reviewed here. I ran the Producer Edition (X1A build) on a PC with a 3GHz Intel Core Extreme CPU Q6850, 4 GB of RAM and a fully updated Windows Vista 32-bit system including Service Pack 2. Input/output duties were handled by a MOTU 828mkII FireWire interface updated to the latest drivers.
FENG SHUI WORKSPACE
Launching X1 reveals the new Skylight user interface. The idea is to clean up screen clutter with an intelligent, single-window layout, thus minimizing changing screens or views. The main components of Skylight are the Inspector, Browser, MultiDock and Control Bar.
The Inspector—which can be docked, floated or fully collapsed—provides access to clip, track and channel data. On a selected track, you can call up a complete channel strip, X1’s new ProChannel and clip properties, including automation, notes, color and advanced MIDI functions.
X1’s new Browser is a workflow hub for dragging/dropping content into your workspace. The Browser provides quick access to media files, including audio/MIDI files, templates, video files, plug-ins, instruments and even ReWire devices. With this feature, I was dropping loops and plug-ins into my workspace faster than on any other DAW I’ve worked with. The only negative I found was not being able to drag from the workspace back to the browser—for example, after creating a new clip or loop.
The MultiDock is a major component of Skylight, allowing frequently visited views or windows to be grouped and tabbed through. In my session, I had the Console view (mixer) and my master fader plug-ins docked together. This arrangement allowed me to work in my Track view workspace and tab between the Console view to plug-ins like the Analyst spectrum analyzer and Boost 11 peak limiter with ease. The MultiDock may be collapsed, expanded or placed on a separate monitor for maximizing workspace real estate.
The Control Bar has modules housing often-used parameters and data for recording and editing. The Screenset module lets you take up to 10 snapshots per project; this includes the entire layout, views and windows in a session. You can create a Screenset for tracking, writing and a completely different layout within Skylight for mixing, as an example. The Screensets are easily recalled via the Screenset module in the Control Bar or numbers on the keyboard. I did run into a glitch with this feature when one of the scenarios I created included a couple of plug-ins in the MultiDock. Whenever I would recall that Screenset, the plug-ins became undocked and floating. I had to drag them back into the MulitDock to match the Screenset I was trying to save.
Also accessible in the Control Bar is the new Smart tool. Much like Pro Tools’ Smart tool, it changes operationally depending on where you hover over the waveform. Unlike the Pro Tools version, X1’s Smart tool works in Piano Roll, Staff and Tempo views. Editing MIDI data was extremely easy and fast with the single Smart tool, and if I needed other tools—like the Draw tool for writing MIDI data—striking the letter “T” on the keyboard brought up a floating HUD (Heads Up Display) next to the cursor, offering other tool selections.
Another feature in SONAR X1 worth mentioning is the ability to save an entire chain of plug-ins into its own preset. These can then be dragged and dropped from the browser or easily called up via any track’s effects bin with a right-click. I quickly created presets for my kick and snare and successfully loaded them into different sessions. This keeper workflow feature left me wondering how I ever worked without it.
MEET THE PROCHANNEL
SONAR has always included an impressive roster of plug-ins right out of the box. My past favorites have included Perfect Space Convolution reverb, VC-64 Vintage Channel and the TS-64 Transient Shaper. In this upgrade, SONAR X1 is packing a Producer Edition exclusive called ProChannel. Built into every channel, ProChannel includes EQ, compression and tube saturation with no need to launch separate plug-ins. All three processors can be individually bypassed and configured in any routing order. The compressor section offers the PC76 U-Type and the PC4K S-Type, designed in the spirit of the legendary UA 1176 limiter and SSL bus compressor.
The PC76 has the same controls as an 1176, including the all-buttons-down Nuke mode. During a 24-bit/48kHz session, I used the PC76 on a rock snare at a 4:1 ratio with 4 dB of gain reduction and a fast release, giving me the aggressive sound I was expecting, tucking the snare nicely in the track.
The PC4K S-Type bus compressor has parameters reminiscent of the real deal, including a program-dependent release time to prevent pumping. In addition, there’s a sidechain input with a variable highpass filter. The PC4K is more useful across a bus or on the master, which is what I’m most familiar with and how I used it. My parameters started with a 2:1 ratio, attack of 10 ms, release set to Auto and 4 dB of gain reduction. The PC4K had a similar, tight midrange characteristic and served well as a cohesive bus compressor, but when compared to the real thing, it lacked the low-end punch of the SSL. A welcome feature to both compressors is a wet-to-dry blend allowing for a parallel compression effect without extra routing.
The ProChannel EQ offers three styles: Pure (clean, transparent mastering EQ), Vintage and Modern—all the result of different interactions between Q and gain settings, with six bands: low, low-mid, high-mid and high parametric, and high/lowpass filters. The low and high bands are switchable between shelving and bell curves, while the high/lowpass filters include variable slope. A Gloss button adds a smooth presence to the high frequencies, and I enjoyed it over the whole mix. It sounds like a high-shelving filter around the 12kHz region without any harshness.
There’s also a Tube Saturation module that includes input, drive, output, and Type-1 or -2 saturation modes. Type-1 models pure tube saturation and Type-2 emulates a dual-tube setup with controlled high-frequency processing to avoid sibilant harshness. On a snare track with the PC76, Type-2 saturation gave the snare a character reminiscent of a Distressor, enhancing second and third-order harmonics. This also proved valuable on a bass guitar DI track that was a bit too sterile in the mix. Depending on the Drive control, the results can be a subtle harmonic distortion to all-out clipping.
I found ProChannel to be glitchy on sessions at either 88.2 or 96 kHz. One session had four audio tracks and SONAR’s Session Drummer2, while the other session had 12 audio tracks. When first activated, things seemed fine, but once I changed any of the parameters, I experienced popping and erratic performance, usually leading to a complete crash. Sessions at 44.1 or 48 kHz worked flawlessly, and I’m sure Cakewalk will address the issue in a future update.
TAKE IT HOME
SONAR X1 is a solid, well-designed upgrade: I’m a big fan of the new GUI and Skylight. It’s elegant, easier on the eyes and filled with workflow features. Skyline is so well-laid-out that I rarely needed to do the window-switching shuffle, and things are even better with the MultiDock placed on a second monitor. Screensets and the Control Bar continue the custom theme with the ability to satisfy anyone’s personal needs. The new Browser plays a big role in the success of Skylight, with complete drag-and-drop capabilities of content into the workspace. The Smart tool was a much-needed addition for ease of editing waveforms in Track view and MIDI data in the Piano Roll view.
In addition to the arsenal of stock plug-ins and instruments already included in SONAR X1, the new ProChannel sounds very good, but it did show some erratic performance. However, Cakewalk reports that its soon-to-be-released X1B update addresses the problems I experienced with docking and higher sample rates. That said, I found the PC76 to be a very authentic model with an aggressive FET attack and presence. The EQ is very usable, and the Gloss function added a nice top-end sheen to program material. The Tube Saturation not only harmonically warmed up tracks, but could also be used in a very trashy, yet creative way.
If you’re familiar with SONAR, X1’s new GUI and Skylight workflow advancements alone will spoil you and are worth the upgrade. For first-timers, consider SONAR X1 Producer Edition a complete Windows DAW that will handle any audio task you throw at it.
Tony Nunes is a Phoenix-based audio engineer and educator.