Cakewalk Sonar X3

February 7, 2014
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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 | cakewalk.com 

 

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
 
 ProChannel

 
Fig. 3. You can expand the ProChannel EQ to a much larger display that includes a spectrum analyzer and relates frequencies to musical notes.
I had mixed feelings about this at first, because I initially saw it as a channel strip designed for proprietary Cakewalk modules. Then, I realized that I could also use it with standard VST and DirectX plug-ins by putting these into “FX Chains” and loading the chains into the ProChannel. Most importantly, it let me create my own mixer architecture.

This is huge. The ProChannel Quad Curve EQ has four different types of EQ (which are designed to emulate the response of various classic consoles), console and tape emulation modules, and separate dynamics processors for bus and track applications (although you can use either one for either application). I do want to check out some of the “optional at extra cost” ProChannel modules but the eight included with Sonar cover my needs for now. What’s significant is I can do something like create five “SSL” channels for drums (some with E-series and some with G-series EQ), a “Neve” channel for bass, and an “A-Range Trident” channel for vocals. Very powerful! 

The QuadCurve EQ expands to a larger interface with a spectrum analyzer display in the background (see Figure 3 at left). As to FX chains, these load into the ProChannel but can also look like standard VST effects. They let you combine your favorite chains of effects with a panel that includes user-definable macros for adjusting parameters. They’re handy if you have certain effects combinations you use a lot.

I did find that a little console emulation goes a long way. Cakewalk recommends including the emulation on every audio track (like a physical mixer), so even a subtle difference adds up over multiple tracks. If you can “hear” the console emulation on a soloed track, it’s probably too much. 

The audio quality of the ProChannel plug-ins is excellent. I’m using fewer of my “old standby” plug-ins in favor of the ProChannel. There’s also a workflow advantage, as the ProChannel consolidates all these plug-ins into a single, scrollable strip so you don’t need to open up a bunch of plug-in windows. It also makes it easier to exchange projects with other Sonar users.

Versions

Although this review is of the top-of-the-line Producer version, there’s also a basic X3 version and an X3 Studio version. The main difference is in the add-ons, as the core technology is identical: They all have a 64-bit mix engine; up to 384kHz sample rate and 64-bit resolution; unlimited track counts, insert effects, and busses; Windows 8 multi-touch support; ReWire 64; REX/Acidized file support; VST 2/3 and DirectX support; MIDI arpeggiation; ASIO/WDM/WASAPI audio support; 32- and 64-bit versions to match your Windows OS; Gobbler support for cloud-based backup and sharing; and publication via SoundCloud, Twitter, and Facebook. The main drawback with the base X3 version is you don’t get the ProChannel. In the Studio version, you get only two ProChannel modules.


Comping

I’ve always been more punch-oriented compared to comping—if the track’s right, then I just punch in whatever do-overs I need. That said, Sonar’s comping is really hip. You separate takes into sections effortlessly, then use the keyboard’s arrow keys to audition takes by navigating around the multiple takes and sections. When you hear something you like, you “promote” it to an overall view of the combination of takes. What makes this special is how fast and smooth the whole process is.

Next: Extras, Wish List, and Conclusions
 

Extras

 
Fig. 4. A collage of Nomad Factory plug-ins. Clockwise from top: Stereo Imager, Dual Analog Chorus, Baxandall Equalizer with Limiter, and Analog Trackbox.
Sonar X3 Producer comes with 23 instruments and 57 effects. Highlights are full versions of XLN Audio Addictive Drums and Cakewalk’s Rapture and Dimension Pro as well as several other soft synths (Lounge Lizard Session electric piano, Z3ta+ waveshaping synth, a couple of REX players, and more). The effects include the Sonitus suite, Overloud’s Breverb 2, and TH2 Producer amp sim, Cakewalk’s own suites of effects which include dedicated vocal and percussion strips and two linear phase mastering processors (dynamics and six-band EQ), and Nomad Factory’s suite of 19 Blue Tubes effects (see Figure 4 at left). These have all your usual suspects—EQ, dynamics, brick wall limiter, reverb, stereo imager, delays, and so on—but have a warm, inviting sort of sound quality that doesn’t have a “digital vibe.” I like them a lot.

The big deal, though, is Melodyne Essential. Melodyne is the industry standard in pitch correction so it’s welcome, but this version is only monophonic—you have to pay to upgrade to the full version that can extract individual pitches from chordal material. Still, vocals and many instrumental parts are monophonic, so you’re covered for most uses.

There’s not a lot of love for bass players in Sonar. Bass is my primary instrument, but the TH2 amp simulator has seven amps and cabinets for guitar but only one set for bass. I got into a more forgiving mood when I found TH2 lets you do parallel effects, which is essential for bass, but then Sonar did some serious mind warping when I found I could drag an audio bass part into Melodyne and convert it to MIDI, creating instant doubling of bass guitar lines with synth bass. This also works with voice, so you could conceivably sing a horn part in and then double or replace it with a virtual instrument. The biggest limitation is that Melodyne won’t bring over slides and pitch bends, but the tracking is surprisingly good if you play fairly cleanly.


Wish List

Sonar is a very complete program that tries to deliver all the tools anyone would reasonably need to create any kind of music. But as with any software, there’s room for improvement. The notation isn’t as good as Cubase or Sibelius, although fortunately you can do Music XML export. Another issue is that although Sonar has clip gain and pan, you don’t see how it affects the waveform like you do in Pro Tools. However, it’s very cool that you can add effects to individual clips, which is particularly important with VST3 effects because they don’t draw CPU power if they’re not being used.

While I appreciate all the software instruments, there’s no dedicated sampler, so if sampling is important, you need to use something like NI Kontakt, MOTU MachFive, or Propellerhead Reason (so you can ReWire the NN-XT sampler into Sonar). Finally, the video implementation is average. Cakewalk says video will be enhanced in the next update.


Conclusions

After working with Sonar X3 Producer since its release, I’m a convert. DAWs are always a subjective and personal choice, but Sonar made complete sense to me—sort of like trying on shoes that don’t need breaking in. At one point I needed to revise an older project done in a previous DAW, and it struck me just how much more complex it was to do common operations compared to Sonar. 

Beyond the ease of use, Sonar X3 put the fun back into recording for me. Part of that is the stability and freedom from freezes—I didn’t have to fight the program or my computer, which helps. The workflow is painless, so the experience became all about making music. 

As to support, within about a month after its release, Cakewalk had released three updates that fixed ever-more-esoteric bugs. I like that kind of commitment. The Sonar user forum is also (for whatever reason) one of the most helpful such forums I’ve found on the Internet. 

Sonar X3 is a mature, vibrant program that’s a pleasure to use. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no looking back. After several false starts, I’ve found my DAW.

Brian Hardgroove produces and plays bass for legendary rap group Public Enemy.

 

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