Cakewalk Sonar X3
By Brian Hardgroove
Fri, 7 Feb 2014
I never used Sonar before version X3. I inherited Pro Tools during my residence at Manhattan Center Studios, but recently became frustrated with some of PT’s limitations. A few months ago I decided to go for a Windows-based recording system, and chose a custom-built Rain audio computer and, initially, Steinberg Cubase 7. However, I’ve worked with Craig Anderton on multiple projects, and he recommended trying Cakewalk Sonar. He also cautioned that switching DAWs is never easy, and to expect some degree of learning and frustration. Having recently tackled Cubase’s learning curve, I was in enough of a fighting mood to do it all over again. So with some apprehension tempered with hope, I gave Sonar X3 Producer a shot. Here’s what I found out.
PROS: Exceptionally easy to learn and use. Unusually cost-effective. Comprehensive collection of instruments (particularly Addictive Drums) and plug-ins. ProChannel reinvents the virtual mixer. Strong MIDI editing. Melodyne Essential offers monophonic pitch correction and audio-to-MIDI conversion. Supports VST2/3, DirectX, and Celemony ARA. Perhaps most importantly, makes recording fun.

CONS: Weak music notation view. Video support is nothing special. No virtual sampler. Included content is fine, but leans heavily toward EDM. No Mac version. TH2 only has one bass amp/cabinet.

Bottom Line: Fulfills the promise made to Sonar users when the X-series was introduced, and offers enough to entice users of other DAWs to switch. 

Sonar X3 base: $99 | X3 Studio: $199 | X3 Producer: $499 | 


Skylight Interface


Fig. 1. Clockwise from top: customizable control bar, browser for drag-and-drop into Track View (middle), Melodyne Essential in the multi-dock, and the Inspector showing the ProChannel strip.

Current Sonar users are familiar with the Skylight interface, but it was my point of entry and frankly, the learning “curve” was more of a straight line. Everything is in one integrated window, where I can show and hide various elements (see Figure 1 at left). Sonar also has a “multi-dock,” with tabs where you can dock multiple windows for virtual instruments, the MIDI piano roll, and so on. That’s where they stay until you click the tab that opens one up.

Sonar tries to squeeze a lot of information into that single window, and it would be difficult to use on something like a laptop if it wasn’t for screen sets. This concept has been around awhile, but Sonar’s implementation is clever. When you call up a screen set with a particular arrangement of windows and make changes, if you go to another screen set and return to the initial one, it remains as you left it (although you can lock it if you don’t want it to change). With a single keystroke you can go from tracking, to MIDI editing, to mixing, to browsing media and plug-ins that you drag-and-drop into the main track view. This is a major time saver that also reduces clutter onscreen. 

There are quite a few details to the interface such as shortcuts, colorization options (see Figure 2 below), and zooming features. For example, “auto-zoom” lets you define a certain track height for the selected track, while minimizing all other tracks. So if you want to do work on a track in detail, click on it and it expands to the chosen size, but click on a different track and it expands instead, while the other track collapses. The Inspector is also a great feature, which I leave docked permanently to the left. It has tabs for four different views, and represents an easy way to edit most details (other than MIDI notes or audio itself) for any given MIDI or audio track.

 Fig. 2. MIDI and audio tracks relating to an instance of NI Kontakt are similarly color-coded. The Inspector (left) is showing the MIDI track and arpeggiator. At upper right is the Navigator, which displays a compact version of the project’s tracks

Next: ProChannel, Versions, and Comping Features
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