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News - February 2007

 

Cakewalk SONAR 6 Producer Edition  (Audiomidi, February 2007)

Introduction

Cakewalk gives the other brands of software a run for their money by releasing the feature-packed SONAR 6 Producer Edition. Finally we have a program that natively supports both VST and DX plug-ins along with well designed MIDI controls like the built in MIDI FX and ACT auto-mapping for your controllers. It can run unlimited audio or MIDI tracks, comes with an arsenal of plug-ins, including some brand new top-quality mastering effects and EQ. It ships with 4 synths, a drum machine, sampler, REX loop player, Roland VariPhraseŽ vocal processor, 2 excellent reverbs, a new vintage mastering EQ/dynamics processor, and a handful of other effects. It easily moves audio around like MIDI with a new time manipulation feature called AudioSnap. If you want to be able to host all your plugs in one box, this is it. You can link ReWire programs (Live, Reason, Project 5, etc.) run VST plug-ins, DX plug-ins, MIDI FX, dynamics, EQ and mix it all through a clean sounding 64-bit mixing engine with excellent sounding POW-r dither. Support for video frames, 64-bit OS and Vista-ready. Let’s check it out.

Installation

A very simple installation process, you put in the included DVD disc (just one) and you click next, next, next…..it asks you where you want to put the program, and what plug-ins you want to install, (including the older SONAR plug-ins) but other than that it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The activation is a serial code. You need to log onto Cakewalk’s website and they give you an activation code after you register the serial number that is printed on the DVD case. After that you’re unlocked and ready to go. There is a 30-day grace period before the program must be registered and activated.

Getting Started

This program has a wizard and tips of the day to guide on how to start using the program. To get started quickly, just hit file/new and choose a “normal” template for starters. (You can also hit CTRL + N)
Like all programs, it’s important to make sure your soundcard is set correctly and your MIDI keyboards/controllers are working. Not a difficult task, because it’s right there in the options tab under “audio.” Tried it with my Mbox, an Intel laptop sound card, and a Creative SoundBlaster HD card. Works fine. Use ASIO or WDM drivers if you can because they’re newer and better. “MIDI devices” options are easy too, just highlight all your ports and click okay.

Last I would set up the plug-ins. Every time you open SONAR 6 it will auto-scan and load your new plug-ins but you first have to point it to the correct folders. For example, I have most of my VSTs in a folder named “steinberg/vst plugins.” Just click “tools/Cakewalk Plug-in Manager/options” and add all of the folders you want SONAR to scan. It will load up all your DX and VST plugs with no wrapper! SONAR 6 indeed has native VST and DX support.

Once you got this all set, you’re good to go. No need for the printed manual (it’s nice to have though) -just click on “help” (F1) and quickly search for what you’re looking for. There are also great instructional videos on the installation disc as well as Cakewalk’s website that I highly recommend watching, because they are really well done and explain everything clearly. If you really get stuck then send tech support an email. I sent one in on Sunday evening and they got back to me in 18 hours. Thumbs up for Cakewalk Tech support.


Custom Everything

SONAR 6 goes above and beyond with customization options. Menus can be resized, rearranged, hidden, colors can be changed, custom icons are available for your mixer, custom names for menus, custom shortcuts, layout, toolbar positions, tool icons can be shown or hidden…pretty much everything that you want to change you can change. You can save everything, of course and change to different layouts, or the default layout at anytime. I found it quite time consuming to play around with this, but nevertheless it’s very useful and rather fun indeed. The best customizing option for me is the plug-in menu. You can finally change the order and appearance of your plug-ins menu, which I know a lot of users with a long plug-in list are dying for, including me. I would also like to add that the transport window has been revamped and can be further customized as well, which is an extremely handy feature for those working professionally with music, because a good transport is something you can’t live without.

VC-64 Vintage Channel

The VC-64 is a mastering plug-in that you’d most likely put on the master track or bus. It has a gate, de-esser, compressor, and a parametric EQ. These are effects designed for mastering duties so you’ll find the compression is on the mellow “soft knee” side. Slapping this on the master bus in the SONAR 6 mixer and dialing in some subtle sweetening helped me to polish and bring together the final mix on some hip-hop tracks I had been working on. The gate removes rumble but I found that it can also be used to shorten or remove sounds, if you play around with the decay/threshold knobs. The de-esser is designed to tame sibilance but it has a sweepable “freq” knob that you can use to duck other frequencies as well. Interestingly, the processing chain can be altered so that you can put say, the compressor first or last, before the EQ, after the EQ, etc., and there are presets to do this. There’s an invert phase button on each processor. The processor is quite efficient, so there’s not a huge CPU hit, and it’s visually appealing, with vintage-style design and smooth shading on the knobs and buttons. Cakewalk teamed up with Kjaerhus Audio to make this

Active Controller Technology (ACT)

Many studios and users have incorporated control surfaces into their setup and ACT control helps to make your control surface much easier to use. As you click on different plug-ins or windows, ACT control will automatically re-map your control surface or keyboard knobs to whatever you are looking at. I tried this using my M-Audio O2 keyboard and found that it worked extremely well. Of course, ACT wasn’t able to read my mind about the position of EVERY knob or slider I wanted, but it got 90% of everything in just the right place. Even if you wanted to further customize it’s just a matter of turning on “ACT learn,” then moving the parameter(s) on-screen, twist a knob or move a slider and that’s it. What’s interesting is you can map more than one knob on screen to a single knob on your keyboard or controller. I was getting crazy filter sweeps and sound control by mapping stuff like EQ freq and filter cutoff to a single knob on my keyboard. You can save all of your custom settings and favorite mappings to be used again. New templates for popular control surfaces are springing up all the time, which you can download off the net, from various users as well as Cakewalk’s website.

Oldies but Goodies

The new VC-64 and Session Drummer 2 are great plug-ins for upgraders, but new users will also benefit from the other plug-ins included from previous versions of SONAR. The reverbs, for example, cover a lot of ground. All of your synthetic, traditional and realistic reverb duties can be covered by the Lexicon Pantheon and Perfect Space reverb plug-ins. Lexicon is famous in the world of hardware reverb and effects -this plug-in gives you a version of the Lexicon algorithms. Perfect Space is a convolution reverb with 350 preset algorithms and you can load your own. The GUI is elegantly done with full graphic display and essential controls for shaping your impulses.

The Sonitus:fx EQ it comes with is far superior in sound quality to the older Cakewalk EQ and I usually reach for it first. But the Cakewalk plug-ins don’t eat up as much CPU and they can do the same thing in certain cases, so they’re useful to have at your disposal. The Cakewalk bundle also comes with many effects that Sonitus doesn’t, such as delay/echo, tape/amp simulation, Spectra FX modulation, flanger and pitch shifting. These two cover most of your EQ, dynamics, panning, and modulation needs.

The Alien Connections ReValver plug-in is a guitar effects unit that allows you to build your own effects rack with. You can stack up reverb, distortion, preamps, power amps, auto-wah, EQ, gain and speaker cabinets. The Pentagon I synth sounds great. I would describe it as a versatile “modern,” sounding soft-synth with some analog guts. I find a lot of soft-synths suffer from digititis (too digital) but this one has enough lush to make the aliasing sound like music. You can also use it as an effects processor or a vocoder.

The Roland GrooveSynth has sounds taken from the original 101, 303, 505, 507, 606, 808, and 909 machines, and the Dreamstation DXi2 is a simple, straightforward polyphonic synth to create those in-your-face analog sounds. The PSYNII is taken from Project 5. It’s a subtractive BEAST when compared out there and the patches get you going from a quick starting point. It covers a wide range of electronica pad and lead duties and yet it can handle the cheesy, typical blip and womps that we all love. Like the GrooveSynth, you can use your mouse wheel to quickly scroll the patches -another thumbs up for sure.

Last on the list would be the RXP and Cyclone loop players. The RXP loads and plays .rex files while the Cyclone auto slices your loops. These plugs share similar duties, but the Cyclone allows you to delete slices and replace them with other sounds, while the RXP ships with a 285MB of .rex loops ready for you to start making noise. Both of these guys allow you to load in your own loops, and feature a small set of controls such as pitch, volume, and pan for each slice. RXP has a multimode filter and amp envelope which is handy for carving the shape of a hit or a loop. All of the hits and slices can, of course be triggered by MIDI notes.

OH SNAP!!!!

A big feature to talk about in SONAR 6 Producer Edition is the AudioSnap function. And it is seriously a BIG feature. It’s a mulitrack audio quantize function with groove extraction. Huh? Basically it means that you can record a MIDI or audio loop with no click or tempo set, and AudioSnap will calculate the tempo and feel of the groove you just played. So for instance, record a random drum loop with no metronome or click. Now trim the start and end to get a good loop going. Right click on the loop and choose “AudioSnap enable” and AudioSnap will slice the loop at the transients. You can now define which sounds fall on which bar/beat and SONAR 6 will calculate the tempo of your loop.

The tempo of the loop can vary and SONAR 6 will create a “tempo map” that changes as the beat plays to extract a very accurate groove. You can then save this groove and force another sound, say a bass line or even the whole song to follow the feel of the drums with groove quantize. Or vice versa. You could force drums to follow the timing of a weird guitar loop, etc….the possibilities are endless. It acts as an auto slicer and allows you to individually grab single hits or sounds and drag them around to add more lag or swing in there, or even quantize to grid. The way this thing manipulates timing simply amazes. It can do the silky, laggy, swing that the Akai MPC has -just AudioSnap a drum loop and grab the lines (slices) and drag em around. Lag the kicks and the snares. Or you could push things a bit more “forward.” You can zoom in like crazy small and correct the hit to fall exactly where it’s supposed to, or not supposed to. You can also slip-stretch audio with high quality algorithms from Izotope and Radius. This is good to stretch or time-compress one loop to match the length of another, for instance. And the time stretching results are very smooth and convincing. AudioSnap is like a built in Beat Detective Pro (Pro Tools) plus Propellerheads’ Recycle with professional non-destructive time stretching.

Viva la vocal

For all of your auto-tuning needs, Roland’s V-Vocal VariPhrase processor should get your tongue twisted by saying its name really fast. ? On top of that, it also takes care of your vocal tuning, timing, and volume duties. Right click on the audio you want to correct and click V-Vocal/create V-Vocal clip. This opens the V-Vocal editor which shows you the detected pitch of your audio with a squiggly yellow line. You can then use drawing tools to smooth out the squiggles (unwanted vibrato) and raise or lower the pitch to the correct note. You can also add vibrato (more squiggles) that wasn’t there before and make notes or words longer or shorter. But you can’t draw a smiley face, I tried. The dynamics section has a breakpoint-type control over volume levels for each word or note. Advanced users can edit the actual formants as well. This is done from a very simple, yet intuitive graph with dials on the bottom for pitch/scale and sensitivity of the analyzer. When you exit the editor, all of the settings are stored inside of the audio selection, and you can double click it to re-open V-Vocal and change stuff.

General MIDI/Soundfonts

Most users won’t be doing much in the general MIDI or soundfont areas of music, but we haven’t forgotten about you. Shipping with every version of SONAR 6 Producer Edition is a high quality GM2 compatible sound module called TTS-1 and a slick looking soundfont player called SFZ. I had fun breaking in the TTS-1 by downloading MIDI versions of my favorite old skool Nintendo game songs and playing them through this module. The sounds are better than the older GM sounds, although they still have that GM cheese to it, but that’s what general MIDI is all about. Those Nintendo game files sure bring back a lot of memories!

The SFZ player ships with a piano soundfont instrument taken from Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro synth. It loads all those free soundfonts one can find while surfing on the internet plus any other sound font you may have, of course. It has a few parameters to change the voice count, polyphony, and disable effects.

A Few Other Things…

There is an included spectral analyzer called AN-879 which is incredibly easy to use and read. You can customize the look of your plug-in menu which is great news for those of you who have a motherload of plugs. All plug-ins have automatic delay compensation so you can use them with no lag in real time, all the time. Thoughtful programmers at Cakewalk made it so that your mouse wheel can be used to control almost any parameter. Believe it or not this really helps a lot when you are working on something –especially for changing patches.

As always, SONAR can print your plug-in tracks into audio in one click (track freeze). That way you can turn off the plug-in and save CPU cycles. There is an included arpeggiator and chord analyzer you can use on every MIDI track along with a few other built in MIDI fx. As mentioned earlier, you can load your own MIDI fx plug-ins as well.

Conclusion

I must admit, before I began this review I had underestimated SONAR 6 by far. By the time I had explored every nook and cranny of the program, I was left a firm believer. A HUGE plus is that this program makes it very easy to edit your audio like MIDI. The bundle of mixing and mastering effects is a tremendous asset and the included drums, synths, and sounds are a strong foundation for creating music and sound effects. For composers and beat makers you will eventually desire more synths, drums, and sound modules, and you will have no problem finding compatible ones with SONAR’s universal format support.

A lot of you have already started your own collection of plug-ins and are simply looking for an easy way to use them all in one place, and with the custom menus, sorting them out is no problem. The look and feel of this program is very click and drag, although there were a few buttons that I wish were bigger. It’s not really a fair complaint on my end, though, because nearly every single menu, button, keyboard shortcut and layout can be fully customized right down to the colors and shading.

I think Cakewalk went through a lot of trouble to make sure everyone was happy here and at this price, they sure prove it. You simply won’t find a DAW or host program that has this many pro-quailty features and plug-in compatibility at this price. I highly recommend this DAW as a good central starting point for those of you who need the DX and VST support, along with in-the-box mixing and mastering. Windows x64 and Vista users will want to give this one a try as well.

 

 

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