Cakewalk Sonar Platinum proves the membership model can work for DAWs

June 26, 2015

Last year I’d finally had enough of the DAW I used. The predictable upgrade glitches and pricing structure were unjustified, given the fact that compared to lower-priced DAWs you got a minimum of truly useful plug-ins unless you paid an additional premium. So, I switched to Windows and a different DAW, but stability issues drove me crazy. I’d worked on projects with Craig Anderton—music technology guru, longtime Cakewalk user, and now “Chief Magic Officer” at Cakewalk’s parent company Gibson—and he recommended Sonar X3 Producer. I was skeptical, but it was easy to learn and like I said in my review in the February 2014 issue, it put the fun back into recording for me. Then Cakewalk threw a curve. Instead of introducing a “Sonar X4” a year later, they changed the product names, the sales model, and even the method of updating. Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Craig Anderton on music projects and recorded a bass loop library for Sonar, but I don’t work for Cakewalk (nor any of its competitors) and was in no way remunerated for anything connected with this review. But since I now work with Sonar so extensively, I’m in a good position to detail the new features. Here’s the deal.



Overview

There are three Sonar tiers: Artist, Professional, and Platinum. They all have the same basic technology (unlimited tracks, busses, and effects; 64-bit audio engine; multitouch support; and more) but this review is about Platinum, the flagship with additional features and plug-ins. There are no more version numbers or yearly updates, because Cakewalk has created a “membership” model where every month, there’s a new release with new features, fixes, and content (which I got involved with—more on that later). This is so much hipper. I expect bug fixes will be addressed faster simply because there is no “version release date” to hide behind.

First-time Sonar purchasers can pay up front or commit to paying once a month for a year; either way you get the program in its current state at the time you buy it, plus a year’s worth of releases. When the year is up, you can renew and continue to get the monthly releases, or stop and keep what you have—unlike other “subscription” plans, nothing dies or breaks if you don’t renew. If you have Sonar already, you can sign up for the monthly updates at a reduced price.

Cakewalk claims several advantages for monthly releases: features are available when ready, testing is simpler, and it’s easier to make fixes. Updating requires going online and using the Cakewalk Command Center (CCC for short), which keeps track of what you have and available updates.

The CCC is clean and simple to use. You can download updates and even roll back to previous versions in the unlikely event an update “breaks” a project you’re working on. The CCC makes default installations painless, and that’s what I use. There are a couple of inconveniences to watch out for, though. Those with custom installations, like not putting the program on the C drive, need to download the files and install them manually. Also, CCC won’t recognize anything installed before Platinum, so for example if Melodyne is already installed, CCC will not show it as installed. You can ignore this, but it’s confusing.



What’s New

Sonar X3 was about big foundational additions such as VST3, ARA integration, and speed comping, as well as plug-ins like Melodyne, XLN Addictive Drums, and Blue Tubes effects. The new Sonar is about new features and the Membership program that keeps delivering then, as well as a lot of under-the-hood fixes that nail down stability. Some highlights include:

DSD import/export. One-bit DSD is gaining traction in Japan, and TASCAM collaborated on the implementation. Between this and standard PCM up to 64-bit/384kHz (given audio interface hardware that also supports these specs), Sonar can truly claim to handle high-resolution audio. I’m ready for the future—or at least to be big in Japan!

VocalSync. This was designed originally for syncing dialog to video that had been recorded on location, but also works great for doubling vocal tracks in a musical production. It tightens timing by specifying one track as the guide. Turning one knob stretches and shrinks parts of the “dub” track’s audio as needed to fit the guide. The sound is lo-fi when previewing, but then rendering the sound gets the quality back. VocalSync is for vocals only, but it can be one of those session-savers. If Sonar didn’t have this, it would cost you more than the Sonar upgrade to get a third-party alternative.

Mix recall. I really missed having the ability to recall mixes as on large-format SSL and Neve consoles. Now Sonar can, with choices about which parameters to recall. You can try out different mixes (e.g., with drums or vocals up or down), save out the individual versions in one operation, and live with the mixes a while to see what you like. The first two monthly updates added even more features here. I’d bet good money that every other DAW will eventually copy this.

Amp simulations and “Anderton Collection” effects. I’m pretty sure Craig Anderton developed four new virtual bass amps because I said (in the X3 review) that there wasn’t enough love for bass players. Now, over 50 effects are grouped for guitar, bass, DJ, drums, and more.

Console view improvements. Now you can see all your stacks of effects and sends at once—no more scrolling. Effects are now visualized like a rack; you can enable/disable them, and turn them into effects chains where you can create macro controls to adjust multiple parameters of the group of effects with one twist.

MIDI improvements. The most obvious addition is the MIDI Paintbrush tool, where you can copy data and “paint” it in place instead of doing the usual cut-and-paste. Also, the MIDI view’s look has been revamped and there have been a lot of tweaks, like making it easier to adjust velocities on groups of notes, time-stretching, and VST3 MIDI input busses, which composers who use big orchestral libraries users will find very useful.

XLN Audio Addictive Drums 2. In Sonar Platinum, you get Addictive Drums 2 and three MIDI packs of sounds. I’d rather play real drums than program virtual ones, but if you don’t have a kit and enough mics to record it handy, AD is one of the best software drum modules, and it’s included.

REmatrix Solo. This convolution reverb for Cakewalk’s proprietary ProChannel strip is a single-layer version of Overloud’s REmatrix, but it doesn’t sound “lite” at all. It’s a really good reverb and one of the new Sonar’s sleeper hits.

AudioSnap. AudioSnap never got much love. It still doesn’t cuddle up to you, but better beat detection and a simpler interface make it friendlier. Bottom line: It’s a very useful tool, particularly with percussive sounds (including bass), but you need to climb its learning curve.

Customizable Control Bar. This is one of those little things that you realize is a big deal after working with it for a couple of weeks. The Control Bar has gone from being a glorified toolbar to something that can improve your workflow by putting all the stuff you need in one place. You can maximize a module’s size for easy access to a particular set of tools, or shrink to a more compact version. One of X3’s annoyances was that you needed a dual-display setup to see all the control bar modules—no more.You can now condense modules down to a sliver and have all the controls drop down upon mouse-over.



Membership and More

Updating or buying Sonar takes you from X3 to Platinum, but also provides updates for the next year. So, the question is whether what you get during that time is going to persuade you to renew for another year after that, thus keeping Sonar’s development machine lubricated. This is big. It tells me that Cakewalk is willing to take a risk to inspire its users. For economic reasons, I always feared Pro Tools updates and version releases because my hefty investment in plug-ins and hardware were always potentially on the chopping block.

There has been a lot of skepticism about whether Cakewalk could pull this off, but it looks like the first two monthly releases (“Braintree” and “Cambridge” in February and March 2015, respectively) are setting the pace. The results are very promising—a varied collection of features, fixes, workflow enhancements, content, and effects. In addition to the features above, an onscreen piano keyboard is touchscreen-enabled and also displays mappings for your QWERTY keyboard—very handy if you’re working on your laptop in a hotel room and don’t have a MIDI controller.

Additional features in the first two updates are two new ProChannel modules (Boz Digital Labs “Bark of Dog” and “Panipulator”), 126 impulse responses for REmatrix Solo from a famous New York City studio, a new CA-X amp for acoustic guitars, 15 ProChannel presets for acoustic guitar, a “Phasor Constructor” effect, and the VoxTools effect chain, which is six vocal effects arranged like a 500-series lunchbox. There have also been over 70 significant bug fixes. Cakewalk is also promising a drum replacer module “soon” and something called “QuickFX,” though I don’t know what that refers to yet.


Conclusions

When Cakewalk first announced the membership model, the Sonar forum lit up like glow sticks at a rave. The haters said, “I’ll never buy subscription software!” then largely chilled after finding out that everything you have still works even if your membership lapses. There were the fans who thought, “New stuff every month? Cool!” In between were the “wait and see” skeptics.

The skeptics got some traction: Some have reported hiccups with the installation process (for the record, my own experience was one-click painless) and a few bugs—although now these tend to get fixed in the next monthly update if not sooner. Considering Cakewalk needed to overhaul everything from the web site to billing to installation, not to mention recode the Sonar software itself and create the updates, it turns out the fans pretty much got it right. People like the idea of a program that evolves and improves every month, along with regular infusions of new sound content that would otherwise cost some pretty serious bucks.

Now that I’ve had a year to think about it, switching to a Sonar Platinum membership was the right decision. I could’ve stuck with Sonar X3 and been quite happy. But the new Sonar is better on all levels: features, stability, and content. The updates are sort of like a mini-Christmas every month, and the core program just keeps getting tighter. I’m in.


PROS: Progressive membership model encourages loyalty by building in a faster response to  bug reports and feature requests. Promise of new content delivery on a regular basis is great. Program keeps working even if membership expires.

CONS: Still Windows-only after all these years.

BOTTOM LINE: This could be the proof of concept for how music production software should be sold and supported from now on.

Platinum: $499 or $49.99 per month | Professional: $199 or $19.99 per month | Artist: $99 or $9.99 per month | all prices street

cakewalk.com

Producer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Hardgroove is best known as bassist and bandleader of legendary rap group Public Enemy, and was also music supervisor for Bootsy Collins’ tour in tribute to James Brown.

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