PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in October 2008, 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!
Pros: Workhorse stability, performance, and usability. Tons of first-class features. An arsenal of instruments and effects.
Cons: Could use a little more workflow improvement for people who don’t do much MIDI.
Summary: The best Sonar ever. Upgrade now.
I’ve been following Cakewalk since Greg Hendershott only owned one coffeepot. Sonar 8, the latest version of what was once just called “Cakewalk”, was recently released to great fanfare. As usual, the folks at “the bakery” have provided a host of reasons to upgrade: Sonar 8 is the most solid and functional tool yet produced by this venerable company.
With Sonar, as with its predecessors, every few releases seems to produce a “milestone” application, where form, function, usability, and stability all align to produce a great work environment. Sonar 8 is such a milestone.
Unlike previous upgrades, Producer 8 doesn’t overwhelm with a host of amazing new features, or a slick new user interface. Instead, the folks at Cakewalk have wisely chosen Version 8 to be a release that focuses more on productivity and stability than whiz-bangery. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of new cool gadgets and features in this release. But what makes Producer 8 a milestone release isn’t the collection of parts, it’s their sum.
Of course, all is not perfect, and I’ll explore some of Producer 8’s shortcomings, too. But first, let’s start with the fun stuff. I’ll cover the changes in the order of importance: stability, usability, performance, and finally new features. And, for a change, I’ll try to keep it brief.
At my studio, Pleasantry Lane, I use Sonar all day, every day. At any given time I have a dozen different active projects and over a hundred songs in progress. While Sonar’s primary purpose in my studio is to be a “big digital tape recorder”, I am always using different features – instruments, effects, editing, looping, etc..
I’m really pleased to say that in the month or so since the software went full-time in my studio, I have yet to see a single stability hiccup out of it. Problems and random oddness that used to occur occasionally are gone. In fact, the only issue I have run up against was one MIDI timing issue where notes played back early, and I’m pretty sure that was caused by a misbehaving effect in the Master bus.
As usual, your mileage may vary, but in my heavy usage, Sonar 8 is definitely the most stable version of software Cakewalk has released since it was MIDI-only. That alone is worth the price of upgrade.
Producer 8 offers a lot of usability enhancements that don’t sound all that interesting on paper but add up to produce a smoother workflow. If you’ve spent a lot of time using DAWs, you come to realize that the whizbangery is all well and good, but it’s the day-to-day simplifications and optimizations (or lack thereof) that make using a DAW pleasurable or painful.
I’ll summarize a few of these briefly. The new Aim Assist provides a vertical cursor guide to help identify edit points and time-align clips. Clip selection groups are now automatically created every time you record – so if you record a drum take with 12 tracks, all the clips are automatically grouped for future edits. Invaluable. Anytime Recording lets you arm / disarm tracks while recording.
One of my favorite improvements was Bus Input QuickGrouping, which automatically groups tracks together based on their output bus assignments – perfect when wrestling with that 100-track, 15 bus mix. Transport controls now include true Pause, Rewind, and Fast Forward. Track templates let you immediately create tracks with commonly used settings saved as presets. Live Bounce lets you record the live audio from a virtual synth – no need to “freeze” the MIDI.
These are just a few of the many improvements. So many of these usability enhancements are subtle, so you need to review the manual (which is, as usual, outstanding) to make sure you catch all the new tricks. Put together they represent a significant usability improvement over previous versions.
However, a couple of the usability enhancements left me a bit dry.
I was excited to hear about the new Loop Explorer interface. If you use ACID, you know how easy it is to create loop-based music with it’s pane-based UI that presents the “explorer” side-by-side with the track timeline. Sonar’s Loop Explorer runs in its own window separate from the track view, so there’s never an easy way to “paint” with loops as with ACID. I usually end up opening the Loop Explorer, then arranging the windows in rows or columns to get the track view and loop view on the same screen. It’s a whipping. Unfortunately, the new Loop Explorer doesn’t help me out much. Instead the primary improvement seems to be the ability to preview MIDI loops using a list of synths you’ve set up in your project. This may be of benefit to someone producing entirely MIDI / synth based music who actually owns MIDI loops, but for someone like me who works predominately with audio (and who owns over 20K audio loops) it offers next to nothing.
I was also excited by the new Instrument track. In previous versions, to play and record a virtual synth required two tracks: an audio track to contain the synth, and a MIDI track to drive it. The new instrument track promises a single-track solution that handles all the routing for you. Unfortunately, you can’t just add an Instrument track from the Track view like an audio or MIDI track. Instead, Instrument tracks can be created one of two ways:
- By setting up a new synth in the Synth Rack
- By combining an existing audio and MIDI track in the Track view
If you work predominately with MIDI and synths, and spend a lot of time with the Synth Rack, then this is a good feature for you. On the other hand, if you live in the Track view, this feature buys you little.
There has been some work done with the keypad to produce effective, context-sensitive editing controls. Reading the manual about these features got me really excited. I love hotkeys and wish I could do everything without the mouse. But I have yet to figure out that damn keypad, and I really, really want to make it work. I know I ain’t all that bright. Maybe someday, if I keep studdyin’ up…
I have a quad-core PC that seems to be “bottomless”. I just about never run into performance issues. Sonar 8 promises performance enhancements – an impressively long list, actually. Some of these are apparent on my system. Others, not so much.
The enhancements that are obvious relate to the performance of the Track view. Windows zoom, scroll and resize more smoothly. Waveforms draw more quickly and with less drain on playback. Things just “feel faster” generally. It’s not as snappy as some of the best UIs out there, but it’s definitely better.
As for playback improvements, since I am not particularly constrained, I can’t say for sure how measurable the benefits really are. However, I can safely say that Sonar 8 performs at least as well as Sonar 7. Probably better. The take-away is that you can safely upgrade and not have to worry about Sonar being able to play back your mixes. It will.
Pretty much all of the changes to the main Sonar 8 application relate to the usability enhancements mentioned above. The stability, usability, and performance easily justify the cost of upgrade.
The rest of the wow-factor comes in the form of the instruments and effects included only with the Producer version of Sonar 8. The list is extensive.
Beatscape provides a powerful beat manipulation and live perform
ance tool. You can use audio you’ve recorded in Sonar or just work with about 4 GB of audio provided for you. Beatscape lets you slice, mangle, and trigger live beats. The tool is sufficiently powerful to justify its own review, so I won’t do that here. Let’s just say you could spend a lot of time mastering Beatscape.
Dimension Pro is now included in the Producer version (previous versions of Sonar Producer included only the LE version). Along with the synth / sampler are provided over 7 GB of content, including Garritan Pocket Orchestra and DSF Classic Keys.
TruePianos Amber module is one of four modules currently offered by TruePianos. Who needs a review? Gigasampler stand aside. TruePianos is the final word on virtual pianos. I’ll be ordering the full version pronto.
TS-64 Transient Shaper is roughly similar to the hugely successful Transient Designer. While I have yet to master the TS-64, it has already proven invaluable on many drum tracks at Pleasantry Lane. It’s just easier to use and more powerful than typical compressors and gates.
The TL-64 Tube Leveler is a vacuum tube modeling saturator plug-in designed for use on an instrument, mix bus or master output. It’s great sounding and, like the TS-64, is already in heavy use at Pleasantry Lane. You can use it to warm up a vocal, fatten up a bass, or thicken up a mix.
Channel Tools provides advanced stereo imaging / placement control as well as M/S decoding.
Guitar Rig LE is Native Instruments’ entry into the BASS (Big-ass Amp Stack Simulator) category and, like everything else Native Instruments does, is outstandingly well executed. I dislike most every BASS out there. I love Guitar Rig LE. It sounds really good.
These are just the new instruments and effects included with Sonar 8. The entire instrument list would require several volumes to review, and includes Rapture LE, Z3TA+, Pentagon, PSYN II, DropZone, and more. As for effects, well, they’re covered too. There are over 30 effects included, all of which are studio quality stuff. No wasted space on the effects list.
Needless to say, the Producer Edition costs more than the standard Studio edition. But Cakewalk really sweetens the deal with tons of tasty gadgets. Hell, I’d pay a hundred bucks just for that Truepianos module, not counting everything else.
Do you really need a summary? Haven’t I said enough? If you own Sonar – any edition – get Producer 8. If you are thinking about getting a DAW app, Sonar 8 is a terrific choice. And if you already own a competing product, and are thinking about making a switch, you owe it to yourself to give Producer 8 a serious look. Stability, usability, performance, and features: it’s all there. Sonar Producer 8 is the best Sonar yet.