Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer Edition Review

Mar 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Tony Nunes



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SONAR X1 features Skylight, the redesigned GUI that puts most operations on a single screen.

SONAR X1 features Skylight, the redesigned GUI that puts most operations on a single screen.

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.

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.

Various operational screens can be multi-docked and viewed in Full or Slim modes.

Various operational screens can be multi-docked and viewed in Full or Slim modes.

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.

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