Field Test: Cakewalk SONAR 4 Producer Edition

Jan 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Tony Nunes

PC-BASED DAW STREAMLINES WORKFLOW, ADDS SURROUND FEATURES

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You can't speak of DAWs and not mention Cakewalk, a huge contender and contributor to the PC audio/MIDI realm. Roughly a year ago, Cakewalk released SONAR 3. The latest version, SONAR 4, is much improved, featuring support for any sampling rate and full-blown surround capabilities. I knew this was a serious piece of software when the well-written manual fell out of the box followed by a big thud. If cracking the books makes your eyes cross, the software is loaded with excellent help files.

WORKFLOW EFFICIENCY
Workflow efficiency and ease of use are important in any DAW, and SONAR 4 is all over it. New feature Track Folders, a combination of grouping mentality and file management for busy sessions, is brilliant for multi-mic work such as surround recordings, drums, choirs and orchestras, as well as combining virtual instruments and MIDI tracks. You can file multiple tracks (excellent for multiple takes) into a single folder and simultaneously mute, solo, record and archive all tracks within the folder by editing the Composite folder clip; or perform conventional editing quickly and efficiently on independent tracks within the folder; making it great for importing multichannel audio information.

SONAR 4’s Track View demonstrates workflow improvements.

Another workflow aid is Navigator View, a great little addition that gives you a colorful overall view of your entire project (including audio, MIDI and virtual instruments). Key Bindings lets you assign any keystroke to any function for efficiency. Conveniently, SONAR also includes key templates based on other DAWs including Cubase SX, Nuendo, Logic, Pro Tools and others, making cross-platform migration a breeze.

Comping audio/MIDI tracks has never been easier. With the Show Track Layers option, I could record as many takes as I wanted without skipping a beat. Every input, output, bus send and plug-in could be maintained during tracking/overdubbing. Having the ability to use the same plug-ins for multiple takes is a CPU saver. SONAR 4 simply creates visual “lanes” of new information within the same track. Using the new Mute tool allows you to isolate and audition all of the different takes. After editing all of the lanes, what's left is the perfect take. Track Layers is my new favorite way of comping vocal takes. During the same tracking session, I was able to direct the audio metronome level to any bus or output. This new feature makes setting up a click track for sessions simple and painless.

FREEZING FOR FUNCTIONALITY
If your session pushes your PC's limits, SONAR 4 can utilize its new Freeze function, which optimizes system resources (CPU and memory) by mixing down everything on a given track. For example, if you have a track with four plug-ins, you can easily right-click on the track number and select the Freeze option. SONAR instantly does a number crunch and bounces the waveform with all of your effects and dynamics but without the plug-in load. If you're thinking, “Cool, but not really new,” SONAR 4 allows you to keep recording, editing and even convert frozen data into groove clips. If you right-click once again, then SONAR unfreezes the track, reverting to the original setup with all of your plug-ins. You can also unload virtual instruments, which can be very taxing on systems. SONAR 4 actually rewrites the virtual instrument into waveforms.

FEELING SURROUNDED?
If you work in surround, then SONAR 4 is the software for you. There are some extensive features in Producer Edition that revolve around multichannel audio; for example, there is full support for the most popular surround configurations including 5.1, 7.1 and LCRS. SONAR 4 has more than 30 surround templates to choose from, with the default being 5.1 (SMPTE/ITU); any configuration can be supported. After selecting a template, click on Options, Project and then Surround and you'll have access to surround options such as output assignments and surround formats, as well as all of the speaker angles for every format. You are also provided with access to monitoring with bass management and lowpass cut-off control including 120 Hz (Dolby Pro/film), 80 Hz (Dolby Consumer/DVD), 116 Hz (DTS) and 180 Hz.

SONAR 4 supports most surround format configurations, as shown in the Lexicon Pantheon plug-in.

But wait, there's more! Within the same screen, you can preview and downmix your surround project to stereo. Panning capabilities are also very impressive. The panner, which has joystick support, is visually appealing and makes sense: The labeling is big and informative. There is the typical click-and-drag approach and very effective sliders at the bottom of the panner that give you a fine-tuning ability, including angle and focus parameters (perceived angle and focus), width, front/rear balance, LFE slider and LFE-only button. After my initial setup, I sent a stereo guitar track into a surround bus by clicking on the track's output, selected New Surround Bus and clicked on the surround panner — it was that easy. Once you have multiple surround buses, they now show up as assignable outputs. Soloing individual surround outputs is done via double-clicking on the desired speaker in the Panner view. When the surround session is ready for delivery, SONAR 4 offers an impressive array of delivery options, including Windows Media Audio 9 (WMA), WMA9 5.1 and WMA9 lossless encoding and decoding, QuickTime and many more. This is by far the easiest and most intuitive experience I have had with surround software.

SONAR 4 also steps up the surround environment performance with Surround-Bridge, which takes advantage of new and old stereo plug-ins that are inserted on multichannel buses. SONAR 4 performs this by loading enough instances of plug-ins to handle all of the surround channels. For example, when you load in a stereo effect over a typical 5.1 track, Surround-Bridge automatically loads in enough instances to cover all six channels. The left and right channels would be loaded into instance one, the left and right surrounds get loaded into instance two, the center channel into instance three and — you guessed it — the LFE into instance four. (Channel assignments are also configurable.) Conveniently, all of the parameters are controlled with one interface. (They can also be unlinked.) On the downside, I received run-time errors while trying to insert a mono plug-in (DSP-FX Studioverb) across a 5.1 track. This is a known issue, documented in the help file.

BUILT-IN PRO FX
Lexicon's Pantheon Surround Reverb (which only works within SONAR) is included in SONAR 4. I had big expectations for the 'verb and Pantheon did not let me down: It remains true to the other Lexicon algorithms I'm used to. You can also take dynamic control over your multichannel audio with the included Sonitus Surround Compressor. Sonitus can span over nine channels and is fully automatable and quite efficient.

PRECISION ENGINEERING
I'm currently staring at a session with virtual instruments, MIDI tracks, a slew of stereo/mono audio tracks, a video track and a ton of plug-ins. I call this my DAW Crippler session, and SONAR 4 hardly broke a sweat. This is an impressive software engineering feat, in light of the advanced features that SONAR 4 offers. Features include full advanced MIDI support (recording and editing), superb sync capabilities, loop-based composition/editing, support for DirectX and VST effects, DXi and VSTi soft synths, ReWire support and extensive delivery capabilities. SONAR 4 also imports and exports video to MPEG video, QuickTime, Windows Media Video and AVI (5.1 audio).

Time- and pitch-stretching are accomplished with Prosoniq's MPEX3 time scaling, an algorithm that emulates how humans hear. Time scaling is performed through an advanced technique called Artificial Neural Networks (a simulation of how our ears work). MPEX3 was a beneficial tool for matching audio to video or working with samples. Another pro-quality feature is POW-r Dithering (Psycho-Acoustically Optimized Wordlength Reduction), a high-quality algorithm that transfers 20, 24 and 32-bit audio to CD-standard format.

It's the little things that count and SONAR 4 completely irons out past issues with panning and metering. Now you have total configurable meter ballistics for RMS and peak metering and six industry panning laws.

MAXING MY MACHINES
Cakewalk recommends a processor speed of 1.2 GHz with 512 MB of RAM running on Windows 2000 and XP. (There is support for multiprocessors.) I ran SONAR 4 on a 2.8GHZ Pentium 4 machine with 512 MB of RAM. The machine was powerful enough for all of the applications, but started to show signs of choking during surround applications. I recommend at least 1 GB of RAM if you plan on using a large number of virtual instruments and surround. For I/O, SONAR 4 works with WDM, MME (32-bit) or ASIO-compatible devices. A MOTU 828mkII worked flawlessly.

SONAR FOR EVERYONE
SONAR 4 is also available to the aspiring pro without some of the sophisticated extras of Producer Edition. Utilizing the same architecture and core engine, SONAR 4 Studio Edition omits surround mixing and editing, Lexicon Pantheon Surround Reverb (Pantheon LE is included), Sonitus Surround Compressor, Sonitus:fx Suite, enhanced mixing console with assignable effects controls and per-channel EQ, video thumbnail track, POW-r Dithering and MPEX time scaling.

A SOLID CHOICE
With SONAR 4, it is evident that Cakewalk is reaching for its piece of the surround sound pie. Well, the company is actually devouring it. The surround capabilities receive a standing ovation, but make sure you have a potent machine for the heavy load. Also, with the recent migration of Logic over to Apple, this leaves many users searching for a PC MIDI platform and SONAR 4 will do you right. It is the most complete, rock-solid PC system for everything revolving around audio and MIDI. Is SONAR 4 the definitive Windows platform? Well, for well under a grand, without a doubt!

MSRPs: SONAR 4 Producer Edition, $959; and Studio Edition, $479. Street price: $599/$299.

Cakewalk, 617/423-9004, www.cakewalk.com.


Phoenix-based Tony Nunes is an audio engineer and daddy-to-be.

Click here to check out a Web demo of Cakewalk's Sonar 4, view an overview video and more.






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