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 method.
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 with markers.
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 Sonitus delay.
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 of globally.
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.
PROS 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.
CONS 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.
INFO Upgrade from Sonar Producer 8: $99, free for V-Studio 700 owners; other upgrade paths detailed at cakewalk.com
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?
Beats me. Perhaps because it’s more about additions than alterations to the core program.
I just upgraded to Windows 7. Is Sonar 8.5 compatible?
Absolutely. It 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 64-bit environment?
Yes. The only possible snag might be drivers for hardware interfaces.
Did Cakewalk fix the crossfade glitches?
I’ve edited tons of splices and crossfades at 96kHz, and whatever sometimes caused envelopes to go haywire has been fixed.