PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in August 1998, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan and Contributing Editor Jose-Maria Catena. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
With great anticipation I received my copy of Cakewalk Pro Audio version 7.0. I received it, poetically, on my birthday. Birthday Cake.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 7.0 is the latest release from one of the originators of PC music software. Originally founded as Twelve-Tone Systems, the company that is now called Cakewalk is over a decade old and distributes the most widely-used music software on the planet. There are almost a half a million Cakewalk users worldwide. You can get a demo version of Pro Audio from the Cakewalk website.
Pro Audio offers some significant improvements over version 6 in the areas of user interface, audio engine, and directX support, as well as some shortcomings that affect its positioning in the “pro” market.
The program installed perfectly the first time on my computer. I used all the default options for the installer and the system worked correctly right out of the box. As with all software, exceptions are expected, and some users have reported problems with their particular systems. However, this reviewer was up and running in version 7.0 in less than ten minutes.
The most important aspect of any pro DAW package is, ultimately, “how’s it sound?” I am pleased to report that Pro Audio’s new 32-bit mixing engine offers a significant improvement in audio sound quality over pervious versions. With virtually unlimited headroom, the mix engine cannot clip, and with its built-in output limiter, the 16 bit output is soft-clipped to produce a “natural” clip. Gone are the days of the ugly digital overs. Your ears will hear a difference in your mixes. Tracks take on greater detail and it becomes easier to hear individual parts in a dense mix.
Audio functions have been improved with a focus on pro users. Previous versions of Cakewalk offerred only very coarse volume adjustments. The new version offers quadratic volume tapering for natural fades and a high degree of control over audio volume. Pan controls may be set to work as balance controls or pan controls (with a true pan control, the total power to both channels is maintained to ensure that the volume does not drop as either side is faded out).
Overall the mix engine offers better performance over version 6.0, with significantly faster processing of real-time effects. Users should expect to get as many or more tracks than with previous versions. I found track count from version 6.01 to 7.01 to be the same on my computer, and was pleased.
It is important to note that while Cakewalk has upgraded Pro Audio to a new, 32-bit mixing engine, the file structure and soundcard support is limited to 16 bits. However, with the guts of the system reengineered to support higher word lengths, 20 and 24 bit recording is not far away.
The most sweeping changes to the software have been in the area of usability. Some users complain vigorously when the user interface of their favorite software changes, but software interfaces have to change to keep up with the feature sets of the underlying software. I found the new Pro Audio interface to be excellent.
Pro Audio now features slick, intuitive dockable toolbars. These toolbars contain everything needed for all the system’s basic functionality. In particular I appreciate the new transport tools which offer excellent control over current location, from:to selection, and punch in / loop selection. It is now incredibly easy and fast to select regions and edit those regions.
Pro Audio 7.01 retains many of the features that users have come to expect from the software, including unlimited Undo levels (and Undo history), multiple soundcard support, tightly integrated MIDI and digital audio, directX support, support for Cool Edit and Sound Forge as editing plug-ins, and more.
User interface improvements are too many to mention, with improvements in track arming and control, mouse functionality, and more. The system is now extremely easy to use and is more Windows-compliant than any other comparable DAW package.
One interface change that bears special consideration is the addition of the Console View. Opinions on this new feature tend to the extreme: you’ll either love it or hate it.
The Console View is Cakewalk’s implementation of a virtual mixer. With a layout that looks like a simple mixing board, the Console view integrates graphical faders, audio meters, realtime effects selection, aux buses, and outputs. You can use it to control everything you need to record and mix a project.
The view is beautiful. Every musician that comes to the studio verifies this interface’s “wow factor.” Professionals have always had to justify Cakewalk’s less-than-sexy interface, now they can proudly display the new console view and some cool plug-ins to impress any musician.
What? You say that’s not important? Bull hockey. The average musician doesn’t usually know that the dull metal box with two knobs and a single VU meter (bearing the name Rupert somewhere on it) is one of the best-sounding preamps in the room. The average musician enters the studio looking for the machine that goes “bing!” Lights, meters, knobs, and a cool-looking computer screen can help a working engineer get that job with the four high school kids and a their rich daddy. When musicians came to my studio and saw the 6.01 screen, they said, “what’s that?” Now they say, “COOL! What’s THAT!?!”
The Console view is the new home of Pro Audio’s metering and realtime effects processing. Meters are revamped, and are highly accurate. Metering is available on any armed input and on all outputs. Faders may be grouped in different configurations – faders can be grouped to move together in unison, they can be grouped to move in opposite directions, for an easy crossfade, and they can move in various ratios – so that as one fader moves a lot, another can move a little. This powerful feature sets the stage for powerful mixing – imagine riding a solo guitar, and having the rhythm guitars fade in proportion to the increase in solo guitar level. Or having submix faders fade slightly as a lead vocal track is boosted.
The top part of each channel strip is different for MIDI and Audio tracks. For MIDI tracks, the user can select all relevant MIDI parameters – interface port, channel, bank, and effects controllers. For Audio tracks, the strip contains realtime effects inserts, Aux send knobs, and track arming, muting, and soloing.
However the console view suffers one serious drawback: latency. System latency for a typically-configured system is 2-3 seconds. This means that when you move the fader, it takes a few seconds for the effect of the change to be heard. The lack of meaningful feedback cripples the usefulness of this view. Enhancements to the audio engine in Pro Audio 8 (see sidebar) should eliminate the latency problem altogether.
The new direct X effects that ship with Pro Audio 7 are professional quality effects processors the equal of any other off the shelf effects package. These effects alone may be worth the price of the upgrade for existing 6.01 users. Pro Audio 7 includes Stereo Reverb, Stereo Chorus, Stereo Flanger, Stereo Delay, Formant-Preserving Pitch Shifter, and Stereo Parametric EQ.
The best Cakewalk FX are the Reverb and EQ modules. The reverb is a fine tool with good sound and – critical to any real-time effect – low CPU usage. The EQ module is a highly flexible parametric EQ with graphic display of the applied curve. I think that the Cakewalk engineers only use EQ to add bass. The graphic display is logarithmic, so that 90% of the display is consumed by the bass frequencies from 16-128 Hz. Too bad, it could have given the Waves Q-series EQs a real run for their money.
Although not a unique feature of Cakewalk Pro Audio 7.0, Cakewalk has recently improved its already first-rate customer support. With support available via telephone, email, and USENET newsgroups, Cakewalk is the undisputed leader in DAW software support. The value of quality support cannot be overstated. It’s a simple fact that DAWs are complex, and they break. The question is: who ya’ gonna call? With Cakewalk, support is always readily available.
Wait for 8?
For all the improvements to the user interface, Cakewalk Pro Audio 7.0 still lacks several features that professional engineers have quickly come to expect from pro audio DAWs.
Real-time: Cakewalk Pro Audio 7.0 offers real-time effect processing. However many adjustments to audio still cannot be made in real-time, such as adding an effect to an uneffected track. The desired paradigm is that of a tape-based studio: any adjustments to the audio playback should be possible while the tape is playing. And the latency problem in 7.01 must be overcome if the product is to appeal to professional users. Changes made to EQ or a track fader take several seconds to be heard in the mix. This, again, is stretching the meaning of “real-time”. Real-time should mean real-time. ProRec is told that the 8.0 version will fix the latency problem. We’ll have to wait and see.
Mixing Paradigm: In this writer’s opinion, the use of a mouse to move virtual faders on a screen is ridiculous. You wouldn’t expect a mixer jockey with a 96 channel SSL to work with one finger. Yet this is what we have to do with a mouse and a virtual mixer. And turning virtual knobs with a mouse is similarly ludicrous. Cakewalk is not alone – Cubase VST suffers from the same lack of foresight. Vector mixing – such as is offered with Sonic Foundry and SEK’D products, is clearly the desired interface design for DAW mixing. If the user wants faders, then the correct option is to add a HUI-type controller. Yet Cakewalk does not offer native HUI support. Perhaps Cakewalk has future improvements to the virtual mixing concept that will make it as useful as a real mixer or a vector mixer. We will have to wait and see.
Mo’ Bits: Cakewalk’s mixing engine is now 32 bits, but Cakewalk only supports 16 bit soundcards and file formats. As a result it is unable to take avantage of new sound systems that support greater than 16 bit resolution. Currently the hardware support for mo’ bits is limited. However, by the release of Pro Audio 8.0, many manufacturers will be building and selling high resolution sound systems. With its 32-bit engine, Cakewalk should be well positioned to add this power in version 8.0. Will they? You guessed it – we’ll have to wait and see.
Cakewalk Pro Audio 7.01 offers many improvements that extend the life and usefulness of this DAW tool. For the $100 upgrade price, existing Pro Audio users should have no trouble justifying the upgrade price. With one of the smoothest user interfaces going, Pro Audio 7.01 also is a good choice for newcomers to the DAW scene. It offers a familiar set of tools with intuitive controls.
The guys in Cambridge have chosen to make much-needed user interface improvements in lieu of much-needed pro features. While the toolset still falls short of the state-of-the-art offerings from SEK’D and Steinberg, Cakewalk does offer one feature that sets it apart from all other vendors: support. Though the software may leave you hungry for state-of-the-art features, Cakewalk support will keep you up and running when the other software fails. This, in my opinion, may be the most “pro” feature any DAW software can offer.
Optimizing Pro Audio 7
Many people were able to achieve significantly better performance with their Pro Audio 6 systems using tweaks I recommended in my article on Hard Disk Optimization.
Although Cakewalk 7 didn’t entirely solve the file streaming limitations of version 6, it gives us more freedom to specify larger file read block sizes.
The DMA buffer size for the soundcard is now independent of the buffers for file streaming and mix and effects paths. Version 7 also fixes the uncached access problems present in Version 6.
1. We should leave the read and write cache boxes unchecked.
2. We should leave the DMA buffer size and “use wave position for timing” as determined by wave profiler or as adequate for our soundcard for proper audio-MIDI sync.
3. Set the queue buffers to 3. Less will stall audio playback easily. More than 3 only waste memory and the start/stop delays are large. Some users with large track counts might need 4, but generally nobody should need to set larger values. For larger buffering, raise the queue buffer size instead.
4. The queue buffer size can be set freely depending on what we want. Smaller buffers offer lower latency but also reduce track count. Larger values offer more tracks but with longer latency. I use 32 KB buffers, which gives me about 26 tracks with relatively low latency (depends primarily on the speed of your disk subsystem). Raise to queue buffer size (to, say 64 KB, 128 KB or even 256 KB) if you need more tracks. You can change this setting whenever you want, and it’s effective inmediately.
Pro Audio 8
No, it isn’t released.
But I have some information about it. It’s supposed to finally stream files following the optimum scheme that I proposed at 6.0 launch: the tracks are read into large buffers (user specified), allowing great track count performance (as version 7 can do now).
But small buffers are used to pass data from the file buffers through the mix engine and effects path to the soundcard, resulting in extremely low latency.
Hmm, very high track count performance and file thoughput combined with ultralow latency…
Can you wait for it?