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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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.