SONAR 4 Producer Edition

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in September 2004, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

I’ve been a fan of Cakewalk music software ever since Greg Hendershott was the only employee. Cakewalk has always had a good combination of usability, power, and relative simplicity. When the application added audio in the mid 1990s, it wasn’t clear at first if the application would remain a “MIDI sequencer with some audio features” or if it was on a track to become an “audio multitrack with MIDI”. Many arguments have ensued about what was, and what should be the direction of the product.

When the product was renamed “SONAR” it removed any doubt: the mission was multitrack audio. And with SONAR 4, Cakewalk has reached a level of sophistication that most of us doubted for years it would ever reach. When it comes to multitrack audio recording, SONAR 4 is the best of breed, managing to somehow combine terrific power, performance, and usability into a single elegant package.

For people unfamiliar with SONAR, a complete rundown of its capabilities would (and does) fill a book. I cannot devote time in this review to such a rundown. Instead I would suggest Cakewalk’s excellent SONAR 4 website at http://www.cakewalk.com. In short, SONAR 4 is a fully-blown multitrack audio recorder with full MIDI sequencer capabilities, and adds to its predecessors a number of powerful features, including video enhancements, an “overview” window, full surround mixing, world-class metering, and many editing enhancements.

SONAR supports multiple processors (great for power users), both DXi and VST effects and synths, supports ReWire, supports sample rates beyond 192 KHz, offers unlimited tracks and busses, and supports both WDM and ASIO sound interfaces. A number of control surfaces are supported, including products from Mackie, Tascam, Edirol, and others. OMF support means you can exchange projects with Pro Tools, Logic, Nuendo, and other applications. SONAR ships with software synths like Cyclone and the new TTS-1 (a replacement for the Edirol VSC). This is a great all-purpose GM sound module and makes a good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about software synths.

Workflow

But the buzzword surrounding SONAR 4 is: workflow. The primary design goal of SONAR 4 was to add features and user interface enhancements so that, however you prefer to work with audio, SONAR 4 minimizes the effort and allows you to make full use of the tool with a minimum of effort.

And, in summary: mission accomplished. The new workflow features in SONAR 4 may not seem like much to the SONAR novice, but let me assure you, as a person who easily spends 40 hours a week wrestling with various multitrack applications, the workflow enhancements change SONAR from a powerful tool that can be difficult to manage into an effortless integration of software and user. The change is often subtle, but the differences can be profound. I want to focus the bulk of my review on the workflow enhancements.

Track Layers

For example, SONAR has always featured the ability to record and comp multiple takes. In the past, these takes would stack up on an audio track, which forced the user to sort through them manually; or the user would need to set up a new track for each take. I prefer the latter solution, and have developed a kind of nervous twitch in my right hand from going through the steps of adding a track, selecting the inputs, muting the prior take, and hitting record – all in a strange feat of user interface gymnastics.

With SONAR 4, Cakewalk has added the concept of “track layers” to the application. The easiest way to think about track layers is: a track within the track. Audio clips stack up vertically within the track, giving the visual appearance of many tracks, but without the user taking any extra steps.

In sound-on-sound mode, just hit record, and SONAR will track the audio into a new lane. When finished, hitting record again just starts a new layer. Just hit R, everything else happens automagically. In fact, you can put SONAR into loop mode and start jamming. Every time the recorder hits the end of the loop and restarts, you get a new take in a new lane, and your previous take is automatically muted while you record the next one. This is great for stacked vocals.

Single track with four takes in individual track lanes. Mutes are shown as “dotted line” waveforms.

In overwrite mode, you can have SONAR record each new take into a new track, which automatically mutes the previous take. This great for recording different versions of the same take. Then you can drag all the “keeper” takes into the primary track, where they will stack up in different lanes. I would prefer the overwrite mode to simply record the new takes into a new lane, automatically muting the other audio in the track, but this method works almost as easily.

Comping is therefore a breeze: just select the regions you want and use SONAR’s excellent comping capabilities to assemble the perfect take. You can use cropping and slip-editing to break takes up into little regions which can be dragged and dropped into a single lane. Or, you can use SONAR’s new clip mutes to mute the sections you want to mute: just drag the mouse over the portions of the audio you want muted, and SONAR will do the work. No envelopes, cuts, or slip edits needed. When you have all of the takes muted to your satisfaction, just click the track layers button, and SONAR will collapse the view, showing the audio events stacked on top of each other.

This feature alone would make SONAR 4 worth twice the price for me. I am sure most readers have had the experience of working with a vocalist who has cut nine takes of their lead vocal, and then expects you to wade through all nine tracks and find the best verses and choruses. The track may need a crucial effect on it, requiring you to set up that effect on all nine takes (which is a CPU hog) or continuously repatch the effect as you audition different bits of each take (which is a time hog). SONAR 4 keeps all of the takes in the same track, so you hear the takes at the same volume and through the same effects.

Track Folders

SONAR 4 also introduces the concept of a Track Folder. The idea is deceptively simple: a track folder is just a track into which you can drag and drop other tracks, to keep them together. SONAR 4 shows you each track with its own individual settings, and also constructs a track folder “clip” which shows all of the events within the folder as a single combined event. This allows you to collapse the folder and just see the contents in a “summary” form in the track view.

Simple enough, and powerful. Say you record a big stacked harmony vocal part that uses twelve tracks. Dump them all into a track folder, and you’ll see them as one event. You can always open the folder and work on any individual track, but they stay out of the way otherwise.

Now for the good stuff. You can edit the contents of the folder by working with the summary event. Let’s say you want to mute and slip-edit the stacked vocal parts, to silence the pauses between phrases. Back in the old days, this would mean adding mutes or slip edits to each of the twelve tracks. With track folders, you can simply add mutes or slip edits to the summarized audio event. Boom! One mute instead of twelve. What an amazing time saver.

And it gets better. I do a lot of work with loops. SONAR allows you to turn any Track Folder event into a loop! So you can edit up a bunch of drum and bass clips, with little hand claps or percussions, collapse the folder and slip-edit the summary track into a loopable region, and with a right-click command, you instantly have a killer loop combining the elements of multiple tracks. Edits to the tracks within the folder instantly become edits to your loop. You can also use the Group Edit feature to instantly apply slip edits to a set of selected tracks: just select a bunch of tracks, and drag the end point of any clip. All of the tracks are updated.

Or let’s say that the twelve track backup vocal was recorded for the first chorus, but you want it on the second chorus, too. Copy and paste the summary event, and you will instantly add the twelve track backup to whatever section of the song you like. For editors and loopers like me, this is an amazing creativity enhancer and time saver. Very little “squeeze”, but lots of juice.

And while we’re talking about loops, Cakewalk has managed to one-up Sonic Foundry in the loop department, which is no mean feat. Cakewalk’s loop editor now allows you to include envelope controls within the loop for gain, pitch, and pan. Non-loop users are probably asking “so what” but for people like me that create a lot of loops, this is a big deal.

Freezing

If you work on a slower machine, or with high-resolution 96 KHz audio, or with lots of tracks and plug-ins, you’ve been in the position of running out of CPU resources. SONAR has always let users apply real-time plugin effects “destructively” to audio, which lets you remove the plugin (or archive the source track) and free up computer resources. But SONAR 4 makes it brain-dead simple. A new right-click command “Freeze Track” provides a one-click way to apply the effects to the audio track and automatically disable the effect within the track. At any point you can “Unfreeze” the track to modify any effect parameters, then refreeze to commit your changes back to a frozen track.

You can use the Freeze capability on soft-synths, too. When you click on a soft-synth track, you have the ability to “Freeze Synth”. This automatically bounces the synth output to an audio track (complete with any effects, if present) and mutes and hides the source MIDI track. If you use soft-synths at all, you are going to love the ease which this command offers. Again, SONAR and other tools have offered similar capability for some time, but the execution in SONAR 4 is definitely world-class.

There are other reasons to freeze tracks, too. If you have the need to save a multitrack project in a recoverable format that may need to survive for years or decades, Freeze Track is the ticket. Let’s say it’s the year 2020. You want to go back and re-release a project you worked on in 2005. Ideally, you would be able to work on that project using the 2020 version of SONAR, or perhaps you have set aside your copy of SONAR 4, and you can find a machine that will run it. But what about all the plug-ins? Can you guarantee that in the future you’re going to be able to find, install, and run all the DXi and VST synths and effects which your project requires? Well, if you freeze your tracks, you never have to worry about getting them back, because at the very least, you will have a multitrack version of your opus that doesn’t require them in order to play back. That’s good stuff.

Precision Engineering and Surround

SONAR 4 also include a slew of enhancements collectively referred to as “Precision Engineering”. These include new Pow-R dither support for high-end dithering to 16 bit, configurable meter ballistics, enhanced time/pitch scaling (for both loops and non-looping audio), and configurable panning laws. Most users can ignore these capabilities, but power users will be glad they are there. And, miracle of miracles, SONAR finally includes a built-in, configurable audio metronome – a delightful addition for SONAR users who work primarily with audio. The metronome is bussable – allowing you to create custom metronome levels for your headphone mixes.

SONAR 4 also demonstrates advanced capabilities in the emerging world of surround mixing and audio for video. SONAR 4 offers a complete surround environment with the capability of managing both stereo and surround mixes within the same audio project. SONAR supports 5.1, 7.1, and a host of other surround formats, and the surround panner reflects the surround mode you are working with.

SONAR ships with two native surround plugins: the Lexicon Pantheon surround reverb, and the Sonitus surround compressor. SONAR also includes a tool called the SONAR Surround Bridge, which to my knowledge is the only tool of its kind. When you add a stereo plugin to a surround bus, Surround Bridge automatically creates multiple instances of the plugin and allows you to manage the controls of all instances from a single UI. This means that all of the plugins use the same settings, as though it was a single surround effect. Or, you can choose to unlink any channel or individual control, letting you make channel or control specific changes. If you have ever done surround work, you know what a pain it is to have to use three or four stereo plugins at the same time. It can be like taking a beating. Surround Bridge is brilliant!

With SONAR 4’s extensive bussing capabilities, it’s possible to create a single project with simultaneous stereo and surround bussing. This is great if you are creating a project that will have to be mixed in both surround and stereo. You can immediately hear your changes in both 2-track and surround mixes at the same time. SONAR 4 also allows you to downmix any surround mix to a stereo output.

Cakewalk has provided an excellent surround tutorial on its website. This tutorial is a great place to find out about the process of surround mixing, and also a great place to learn about the use of SONAR in a surround environment. Check it out at http://www.cakewalk.com/Products/SONAR/Surroundtutorial.asp.

SONAR 4 does not offer video editing capabilities, and let’s hope it stays that way. However SONAR 4 does offer a video track, which allows you to display video in real time and see the video in the timeline, similar to other audio / video tools on the market. This makes creating and editing sound for video a snap. SONAR is easily one of the best tools on the market for constructing soundtracks and other sound for video work.

UI Elegance

SONAR 4 adds a new user interface construct called the Navigator. It gives you the 50,000-foot view of your project. If you do 2:30 16-track pop songs, you’ll never use the Navigator, but if you create lengthy, complex orchestrations, then you’ll love it. The Navigator (show at the top of the screen shot below) shows you the birds-eye view. You can drag the green box around to position the track view where you want it. Dragging the box’s green handles automatically resizes the track view to show those tracks you have surrounded with the box. It’s a brilliant way to navigate your way through a complex project.

Navigator view (top of screen) with Track view (below)

The console view has also been enhanced with a new look that helps controls and features stand out.

console view

Great Performance and No-BS Copy Protection

Finally, SONAR 4 continues the SONAR tradition of simple, no-hassle serial number copy protection, and optimized support for Windows 2000 and XP. SONAR isn’t going to do anything evil to your machine to prevent you from copying it. And it isn’t some half-baked port of a Macintosh application. SONAR 4 is pure Windows, and it is rock-solid and predictable. I have already completed most of an entire CD on SONAR 4, using most of its new features and capabilities, and it has been super reliable on my machines with both WDM and ASIO soundcards. SONAR also supports multiprocessing machines, so it is quite capable of scaling up onto whatever hardware you’re willing to throw underneath it.

The Bottom Line

In summary, SONAR 4 is one of the best examples of Bruce Richardson’s motto: “Features are meaningless. Results are priceless.” Many of the enhancements to SONAR 4 don’t seem too whiz-bang on the face of them: track layers, track folders, freezing, and other editing enhancements are probably not the first thing that the average reader is going to grok on. But let me assure you, Constant Reader, results really are priceless, and SONAR 4 delivers the goods in spades. Working with SONAR 4 is like driving a well engineered automobile: it may have essentially the same feature list as the other cars, but it fits like a glove and responds to your every move like an extension of the driver.

The bottom line is competitively priced. The full Producer version is $960 for new Cakewalk customers, but upgrades are available at The Nice Price – Producer version upgrades start at $179 (you can get into the Studio version for as little as $99). Other upgrade discounts are available depending on what you are upgrading from / to. If you are a registered user of any Cakewalk product, SONAR 4 is simply gotta-have-it software. And if you are in the market for a serious multitrack application, the price of the full version is certainly competitive with other high-end multitrack applications like Nuendo and Pro Tools. Note: at the time of this publication, retailers were blowing out their existing copies of SONAR 3 Producer for as little as $440, meaning a new user can get into SONAR 4 Producer for about $650, street.

Those who have read my reviews for a few years know that I’m not one to pull punches. I am always ready to expose a lousy product for what it is, or to point out glaring defects if I can find them. I have been a SONAR user for some time, but I have always maintained the advantages of other applications, such as Nuendo’s power, or Vegas’ simplicity, or Acid’s singleness of purpose. And I have never shied away from an opportunity to blast a failed effort, such as Cakewalk’s Pro Audio 7, or the Waves NGB using Pace Interlok copy protection. Fact is, I really couldn’t find anything at all about SONAR 4 I didn’t love.

And that’s the real bottom line. In the world of multitrack audio recorders with full MIDI support, SONAR 4 is simply best of breed. Nothing else touches it as a combination of power, features, performance, simplicity, stability, and intuitiveness. SONAR 4 gets my unqualified recommendation, and my hat is off to the guys at Cakewalk for listening to their long-time users and fully understanding our needs.

SONAR 4 may be purchased or downloaded for trail at http://www.cakewalk.com.

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