Cakewalk has released the latest version of its SONAR X Series with SONAR X3 Producer. New bells and whistles, an improved UI and third-party utilities that are directly integrated make for a release worth looking at—and listening to.
If you are looking to install SONAR X3 Producer, note that this is PC-only software. Leveraging the latest in processor and OS architecture, you will find that the “officially” supported OS versions begin with Windows 7. Minimum system specs require at least an Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Phenom Quad Core, as well as 2 GB of RAM. Obviously, the more speeds and feeds you have under the hood of your PC, the more powerful your DAW will be. The base install of X3 will take up 4.5 GB of space, while the full suite will require 20 GB of storage.
While I reviewed X3 Producer, I mention the other versions and associated costs to illuminate the fact that Cakewalk has adopted a new model to accommodate its evolving user base. SONAR X3, X3 Studio and X3 Producer are priced at $99, $199 and $499, respectively, and an upgrade will run you $150. All versions come with unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, unlimited plug-in capability, 64-bit audio engine and VST3 support, among other things. Each version is completely capable of being a self-contained production suite, designed specifically to target the user it serves.
X3 Producer has had a few subtle but necessary graphical tweaks to the Skylight UI. These have not only polished the user experience, but also helped to improve touch-screen functionality, rendering the experience a bit more ergonomic, particularly in Windows 8.1. Tracks and buses can now be custom-colored for project organization or simple aesthetic appeal. In turn, a colored bus will now automatically produce corresponding color-matched tracks, helping to tame even the most unruly of projects.
When it comes to sharing your content, SoundCloud and YouTube have been built directly into SONAR. The bonus feature of Gobbler, a backup and sharing utility, includes 5 GB of cloud storage. Gobbler will find your entire project, even audio tracks that aren’t in the audio folder, and comprehensively back them up for safe keeping.
VST3 support is now available across the board in the SONAR suite, and the program will switch from a VST2 to a corresponding VST3 plug-in when applicable to optimize resources, all while keeping settings intact. Cakewalk has also adopted the new Audio Random Access technology, allowing Melodyne Essentials to be directly integrated into SONAR. While only monophonic, the suite comes packed with all the tools one would expect from Celemony’s renowned correction software. Similarly, the full version of Melodyne (which offers polyphonic support) integrates directly into SONAR via ARA and is available for a discounted upgrade.
X3 Producer offers an arsenal of new plug-in and virtual instrument collections. On the instrument side, we are introduced to AAS Lounge Lizard, Strum Acoustic Session and Addictive Drums. Lounge Lizard brings you an incredible-sounding homage to the classic Rhodes electric piano, while Strum Acoustic offers authentic acoustic guitar modeling with realistic voicings. The complete version of Addictive Drums is also included, packed with hundreds of samples, kits and MIDI beats, all of which load surprisingly fast.
For plug-ins, there’s the Nomad Factory Blue Tubes FX, a 19-piece collection of analog sculpted dynamic, EQ and effects processors, the Nomad Factory Blue Verb, and the Tone2 BiFilter2, a true stereo set of 47 filters that range from bit crushing to vocal filtering, all with real-time response display.
For equalization, the new QuadCurve EQZoom deserves a big kudos for its soft effect and spectrum analysis. The UI is well-planned, and the visual spectrum of your wave and EQ will help even the most novice of users dial in the right sound.
While there are many other features in SONAR X3 Producer (viewed in full on the Cakewalk website), my absolute favorite feature is ProChannel. ProChannel debuted in SONAR X2, featuring customizable modular chains available on each channel. These modules include the PC76 track compressor (modeled after the Urei 1176), a Console Emulation module (consisting of S-Type [SSL], N-Type [Neve] and A-Type [Trident] emulations), the Softube Saturation Knob, BREVERB, and the PC4K bus compressor. The latest ProChannel module featured in X3 is the pristine Tape Emulator. Both subtle and articulate, this new module deviates from the gimmicky sound other tape emulators tend to have, leaving you with the authentic warmth of a vintage tape recording.
In the Lab
The install process was seamless. Considering my install included SONAR, Melodyne, Rapture, Addictive Drums, Dimension Pro and the Loops and One shots collection, I was pleasantly surprised at just how quickly I was up and running. Now if my ISP could offer speeds for downloading this fast, I would really be in business.
After installing SONAR, I was greeted with a small dialog box in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, informing me that SONAR was scanning my plug-ins while I set up for my test project—SONAR now automatically detects new plug-ins without re-scanning the batch; once complete, they are automatically organized in the new browser layout. This was a refreshing departure from the lengthy scan familiar to previous versions.
X3’s Mixer lets you change the visual layout to adjust to your workflow.
For my test projects, I created a two-part session consisting of tracking and mixing, using an educational copy of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” To track, I created an output/input loop of the 16-track session to test inputs, routing and sound-engine capabilities. The busing was easy to arrange, label and manage, especially given the new track-coloring feature.
As mixing commenced, the first feature I explored was the new Comping tool for vocal takes. The Marvin Gaye session includes numerous outtakes and alternate vocals, which made for the perfect candidates to assess new workflow. Reminiscent of tape punching, the on-the-fly edits made comping Marvin quick and easy. (It also didn’t hurt that it’s Marvin Gaye.)
As I continued to layer the mix, I found myself distracted by the busy default layout of the UI. But by undocking and moving the Windows around and familiarizing myself with the Alt-view keys, I was able to arrange a visual layout for my mix that was more conducive to the way I work. For someone who isn’t using multiple monitors, the multi-dock format does not lend itself to a single-monitor scenario without some rearranging.
Another welcome new feature is the drag-and-drop MIDI conversion. I was able to take piano, guitar and bass parts from “What’s Goin’ On” and drop them into MIDI tracks for a fast and accurate conversion of WAV to MIDI. Audio, MIDI, FX, drum kits and synths are all drag-and-drop ready. While working in MIDI format, it became apparent that the Piano Roll and Staff views left something to be desired in comparison to the Skylight and Melodyne UI.
After completing my mix, I was pleased to have discovered a new face to Cakewalk, and a reinvented SONAR platform. During testing, I purposely refrained from using anything other than the feature-set included in X3 Producer. At no point did I feel as though I was lacking any tools I may have needed. Furthermore, I found that not only were all the must-haves there, but they were all done quite well.
Hits the Mark
As one of the longest standing producers of digital recording software, Cakewalk has a long history in the digital-audio world. SONAR X3 Producer has redefined the paradigm of the digital audio creationist, spanning the bridge from hobbyist to professional in a single release. SONAR X3 Producer’s affordable price point and broad toolset for recording, mixing, programming and composition makes it a complete out-of-box DAW solution for music creation and production.
Jami McGraw is an accomplished musician, writer and technologist specializing in the design of computers for audio and video production.
Company: Cakewalk by Gibson
Product: SONAR X3 Producer
Pros: Smooth, stable performance. Great help resources, ProChannel, VST bundles. SoundCloud, YouTube and Gobbler are directly built in.
Cons: UI doesn’t accommodate small form-factor experience like laptops, convertibles and tablets. PC-only.
Show off your production chops by utilizing Melodyne for more than just vocal editing. Drag and drop a vocal hook into a MIDI track, converting the file to MIDI. Now insert the virtual instrument of your choice into the MIDI track to follow your vocal melody. This will help to fatten up your vocal and reinforce your hook.