Cakewalk threw a curve at the last AES
convention: Instead of introducing Sonar
9, they went for an 8.5 upgrade at just
over half the usual upgrade price. So
was it just bug fixes? Guess again. Sonar
8.5 has several important new features,
including a more improvisational recording
Every MIDI track now has a built-in arpeggiator.
It’s more Ableton than Neo, but this Matrix is a fertile field for improvisation.
AudioSnap is now cleaner and easier to use.
The PX-64 Percussion Strip collects several modules that make percussive sounds happy.
Sonar now imports REX files natively, and treats them like Groove Clips. Cool!
Session Drummer features new graphics and much more content.
Spiff up your vocals with VX-64. You’ll love the Doubler, and the saturation on EQ bands.
MEET THE MATRIX
Matrix view is arguably the most significant
upgrade, as it brings Ableton Livelike
cell-based looping to Sonar. A matrix
of rows and columns has a cell at each
intersection, into which you can load
Groove Clips (Acidized files) or REX
loops (you can also load WAV and AIF
audio files; as of 8.5.2, there’s an option
for automatic Groove Clipping so they’ll
stretch to tempo). Each cell’s loop start
can quantize to a particular rhythmic
value, and there are also mute and solo
buttons. Perhaps the best aspect is that
as you improvise with the loops, you can
record the results as audio groove clips in
track view; unlike Live, you can even
record solo button clicks as well as
mutes. What’s more, all of the cells, rows,
and columns are subject to MIDI control —
I use a Novation Launchpad for triggering
them, and it rocks.
Sonar 8.5 adds two channel strip effects:
VX-64 Vocal Strip and PX-64 Percussion
Strip; both true 64-bit plug-ins. While you
could use Sonar’s existing effects to create
similar track presets, it’s more convenient
to have what you need in one place.
Besides, I dig the 1965 sci-fi flick look.
PX-64 has input and output saturation
(crunch), a transient shaper, compressor,
expander, four-band EQ, and delay with
filtered feedback. The display is particularly
helpful, describing your tweaks and displaying
the results graphically.
VX-64 also has input and output saturation,
but furthermore, allows saturating any
or all bands of its three-band EQ. VX-64’s
Doubler module is particularly effective, but
it’s odd that the delay can’t do less than
50ms, as slapback in the 20–30ms range
is a fairly common vocal process.
Both strips let you route modules in
whatever order you want. PX-64 also
scores big on synth or electric bass if you
tweak settings properly.
Sonar now imports REX files natively,
which is a big deal if you use REX-based
stretching. Previously, REX files had to be
loaded into players; the players are still
included, as they let you do useful REX
edits. But it’s so much easier just to drag a
REX file into a track. Even better, it converts
into a Groove Clip, and all the REX
transient markers become Acidizing markers.
As someone who designs REX- and
Acid-compatible sound libraries, this feature
alone will save me hours of working
SESSION DRUMMER 3
The only “new” virtual instrument is Session
Drummer 3. It builds on version 2 with two
more stereo outs, better mixer graphics, an
eye-candy drum set that shows which
drums are hit, and most importantly, a lot
more content — both kits and patterns.
One minor bummer: The drum kit graphic
doesn’t change to, say, a TR-808 when
you bring in a TR-808 kit.
Cakewalk has eased the pain for fans of
its discontinued Project5 app by incorporating
many key features into Sonar 8.5.
The Matrix is one example, but other
parts are scattered around — like
Project5’s audio effects. The roster
includes the Alias Factor decimator,
Exciter, Mod Filter, Multivoice
Chorus/Flanger, two-band Parametric
EQ, Phaser, Stereo Compressor/Gate,
Stereo/Tempo Delay, and the Studioverb
2 reverb. I’m not sure we need another
compressor, but several of the effects
have no equivalent in previous Sonar versions.
Furthermore, as Project5 was installed on my computer (so Sonar
could access its effects), I reached for
them with surprising regularity — particularly
the Stereo/Tempo Delay, which just
seemed to fit better in tracks than the
GIMME AN ARP
MIDI tracks now include a built-in arpeggiator.
It’s very full-featured, in most ways
more than Sonar’s MIDI plug-in arpeggiator.
In addition to expected features (latch,
range, swing, pitch, flam, and the like) there
are lots of included presets, as well as 14
pattern options. Granted, you wouldn’t use
this on every track, but you might find yourself
using arpeggiation more creatively.
AudioSnap 2.0 cleans up the confusing
palette, makes it easier to identify
transients, and you can start editing immediately
— you don’t have to enable AudioSnap
on the clip first. These improvements are
mostly about workflow. On the other hand,
Step Sequencer 2.0 has become more of a
multi-purpose MIDI device instead of just a
way to drive drum parts, as you can now
drive tracks without using a drum map,
edit velocity with far less effort, and apply
style controls (e.g., flam) per row instead
Further new features include a solo button
in effects’ graphical windows so you
can edit an effect without distraction, monitoring
of DC offset in real time, scroll lock
in the clips pane (you can edit without the
screen scrolling during playback), and a
very cool ability to recognize attached
audio interfaces without re-starting.
Some Sonar users were upset they didn’t
get their annual “most significant digit”
upgrade, but when you balance what you
get versus cost, there’s no denying that the
8.5 upgrade is on a par with some other
“overachieving” point upgrades, such as
Pro Tools 7.4 (which added Elastic Audio).
Curiously, Cakewalk doesn’t even
promote some of the tweaks they put in.
After using 8.5 for awhile, I noticed that
when I moved from one marker to
another, the marker position stayed
anchored to the same place on the
screen — nice! Cakewalk also continues
to refine the audio engine. They’ve
tweaked 8.5 to take better advantage of
multi-processor computers, and my CPU
meter is down a bit compared to projects
prior to 8.5.
I’ve been using Sonar since version 1.0,
and I definitely appreciate 8.5 for serving
up serious value in these recessionary
times. Even if you only need a few of the
new features, you won’t feel like you spent
too much. But so far, I am using all the new
features! Even something as seemingly
unspectacular as native REX file import has
ripples throughout the program.
Over the past several years Sonar has
matured into an efficient, versatile program
with excellent workflow. Version 8.5 is
another welcome step forward. It delivers
more than it promises.
Matrix view is a fun way to record.
Native REX file import. PX-64 and VX-
64 are versatile plug-ins. Per-track
arpeggiation. Audio effects from
Project5. Session Drummer 3 loads
more drums and has more content.
AudioSnap 2 and Step Sequencer 2
are significant improvements. Lower
price than expected.
Still no notation improvements. No way
to delete specific groups of cells in
Matrix view — it’s either one at a time
or all of them.
Upgrade from Sonar Producer 8: $99,
free for V-Studio 700 owners; other
upgrade paths detailed at
NEED TO KNOW
Is this upgrade worth the money?
Given the low cost and the many additions,
the only reason not to upgrade is if
you don’t need any of the new features.
Why isn’t it called Sonar 9?
me. Perhaps because it’s more about
additions than alterations to the core
I just upgraded to Windows 7. Is
Sonar 8.5 compatible?
supports anything from XP on, 32- or
64-bit — even running under Boot
Camp on Intel Macs
Can I use my 32-bit plug-ins in a
Yes. The only
possible snag might be drivers for
Did Cakewalk fix the crossfade
I’ve edited tons of splices
and crossfades at 96kHz, and whatever
sometimes caused envelopes to go
haywire has been fixed.