Cakewalk Sonar 7
If there's one thing that software developers like better than attracting new customers, it's poaching existing users away from their preferred software. It isn't easy. Owners of software-driven music studios of any size are creatures of habit and almost always stick within the comfort zone of formats, workflow practices and procedures they're familiar with. Software they know. We can be kind of grumpy and stubborn about it.
The New StuffAs always there are a few tweaks that at first won't matter to many of us until the day we need them. Things like an expanded range of file formats for Import and Export (including AIFF and FLAC which actually is handy), support for external inserts and some new side-chaining facilities. The importance of these won't be that evident to a lot of people, because they can be quite specific for particular studio setups.
The big-ticket improvements are about MIDI programming and editing, some excellent new virtual instruments and plug-ins, facilities for ripping and burning CDs, plus the Cakewalk Publisher which is a vehicle for streaming your music to and from the web.
It's All About MIDIIt's like Cakewalk have decided (and many will agree) that the secret to composing and recording individual, unique music still lays in complex MIDI programming- aside from real instruments and vocals, of course. In other words, while loops and samples certainly have their place, their weakness is the problem of avoiding a kind of repetitive sound to your songs (unless you want that). Good MIDI programming of high quality software instruments will always result in a better, more realistic sound. MIDI programming is time-consuming, though. So Cakewalk has put a lot of effort into making this programming workflow faster, easier and even a little fun.
The PRV ToolCakewalk would probably prefer the Step Sequencer (below) gets first mention, but for someone like myself who has been using MIDI a long time, I'm more excited about the PRV Tool facility. This is something that would take a while to set up properly to suit individual tastes, but once it's done you'll never work without it again.
Basically it's a configuration dialogue box to customize how your mouse and all its buttons work. For example, you can assign different tools such as Select or Erase to their own mouse buttons and you can further modify these assignments with keyboard actions like Control, Shift or Alt. Even better, you can configure specific tools to 'come to life' depending on where your mouse pointer is located. Functions such as Adjust Note Velocity will appear if you click the top part of a note event or Note Time Adjust when you click near the left-hand edge of an event. At certain zoom levels it can be a little tricky pin-pointing exactly the right area to trigger the tool you want, but otherwise it's a real time-saver compared to continually finding icons or menus to change your editing tool.
Speaking of zooming, there is a Piano Roll Microscope Mode that is also a part of configuring your mouse's behavior. It's more like a magnifying glass than a microscope and the illustration below shows best how it works. You can zoom in on a section of MIDI data without affecting the entire window. It's a handy thing for eye-balling any pesky wrong notes among a haystack of programming.
Drag Quantize is another new mouse operation. You can select any notes you want that require quantizing, then by moving your mouse up or down you 'drag' the notes closer or further away from the perfect quantize value. It's a good way to keep a human factor in your programming with a lot more precision and variation- if that makes sense - rather than the set 'strength' value in the quantize dialogue box (which is still available).
Taking It Step by StepThe new MIDI Step Sequencer will be a familiar-looking thing for anyone who uses reason to create drum patterns. It follows the same concept of representing each 'step' of your quantise or grid value with a cell inside which you paste a drum hit. To begin with you have to set the grid resolutions, it doesn't automatically steal the present quantise settings. Next you can paste and delete drum hits as you play back the clip until everything is in the right place. Each note has its own row that you can label using Drum Maps and there's individual settings for velocity offset, mute and solo.
Closing the Step Sequencer puts a 'step sequencer clip' into the project on the track you have highlighted and at the Now Time (cursor) for you to move or relocate as you like. I keep talking about drums here and Cakewalk point out it's primarily aimed at drum programming, but there's no reason you can't use it for other instruments, perhaps to step-sequence a tricky Synthesizer line.
The theory behind all this is fine, but there are a couple of hiccups. First, I found the Step Sequencer's GUI a bit confusing mostly because some of the parameter settings clash with traditional music values. You have to think 'simple' and forget standard music theory. And if you change your mind about the grid resolution after you've started programming the extra steps are added, but existing notes aren't shuffled to accommodate them. In fact, that's worth a 'Huh'' I suspect that will be fixed soon.
Despite these, the step sequencer works really well for building up libraries of MIDI clips that you'll use a lot, like 16 hi-hat grooves and such. Plus, if you fool around with it and have some fun there's a good chance you'll compose something unique with your mouse that your fingers would never contemplate.
Nope, it's not a typo and I haven't spilled beer on my PC keyboard. The Z3TA+ is one of the new synthesizers included in Sonar 7 (be advised, the Z3TA+ is only in the Producer Edition, but the other new instruments are in both editions). It's a beauty. It's an 'analogue-synth with Waveshaping technology', but if that kind of terminology makes you crossed-eyed, just think of Absynth; Lots of fantastic pads, lead sounds, bass blats, sweeping phasers and plenty of arpeggiated riffs and patterns that will keep you happy for years. Z3TA+ can be the only reason you need to get the Producer Edition of Sonar 7, it's that good. Of course, there are others.
And The Rest...The Rapture LE synth is similar in many ways to the Z3TA+. Again, lots of synthesized sounds that range from beautiful string-like pads to damn annoying blasts of noise that frighten the behooters out of your monitor speakers. If you want to play around with a specific wave sample of your own, the DropZone Synth lets you do exactly that. It simplifies sample playback and manipulation very well.
Finally in the new instruments is the Dimension LE Synth with the Garritan Pocket Orchestra. The Dimension is yet another synth that provides a huge selection of sounds, but the name says it all- with the Garritan content this instrument is tailored towards realistic orchestral sounds.
Both the Rapture and the Dimension are 'LE' versions and it would be interesting to hear what the full programs have to offer- except in the latter it's kind of obvious, since there are a couple of notable sounds missing in the orchestra. A Grand Piano being one! Still, they have an enormous amount to offer.
In fact, these new additions make some of the standard Sonar instruments look and sound a bit dated. The Pentagon 1 is still a favorite and sounds awesome, but the PSYN 11 and Cyclone are kind of long in the tooth. The Cakewalk TTS-1 is probably the oldest of the lot, but it's always a great resource for quality GM sounds (such as that missing piano). Session Drummer 2 is a very useful drum sampler with a good range of preset grooves and patterns. It ain't Battery 3 or FXspansion's BFD, but it's more than okay. Really, if you can't find the sound you want among these software instruments, either old or new, well... you've got to be joking, right'
Plug InsTwo new plug ins are with the Sonar 7 Producer Edition and again alone they're worth the price of getting the more expensive version. These are the LP-64 Linear Phase EQ and the LP-64 Multiband Compressor. With these plug-ins the argument goes beyond how many fancy knobs and buttons they offer or how good the presets are, it's all about the sound and that is very good. The accuracy and precision with which you can use these plug-ins is excellent. They can be for individual tracks in your recording session, but I have to say they chew some CPU load up.
The included Sonitus Plug-ins are more than up to that tracking job anyway. The Lp-64's are aimed at the mastering process like putting a final gloss to your mix downs. However, it's important to realise that these plug-ins are not 'magic' tools to fix problems. They do exactly the job you want them to without adding any unwanted side-effects.
Boost 11 is another new plug-in which is a maximiser- a simple compressor that can make your music as loud as it can go. To do this properly is quite an art form, thus the Boost 11's simplicity is attractive. But like many maximiser effects you still need to think about what you're doing.
Rip, Burn and PublishSonar provides improved importing of music straight from a CD- ripping, in other words and now has a rudimentary CD burning facility. More intriguing is the Cakewalk Publisher, a streaming music player for uploading to the website of your choice to play and promote your own music. Add your own files and you've got a much more secure and controlled Internet outlet for your songs from your very own site, if you like. It's a thoughtful addition when the first 'release' for so much music is web-relayed these days.
So What's Wrong?Not much at all. If you've used other kinds of DAWs before you'll probably bemoan Sonar's lack of a media pool and the inability to manage project files more comprehensibly. I'd still like to see something done about this. However, it's more about workflow and understanding how Sonar wants you to handle your files- it's very protective. Get your head around Sonar's approach to things and it isn't so bad after all.
The only other complaint is that despite the overall GUI allowing custom settings with colors, some of the panels and windows have a dark look that tests your eyesight in a well-lit room. Similarly, some of the fonts used in the drop-down boxes (particularly in some of the synths) could be sharper.
SummaryI'm going to finish by suggesting Sonar 7 is close- very close -to a DAW that provides everything you need at a high level of quality. That's something that no company has quite offered before. It is stable and doesn't tax your CPU too much until you get really ambitious. Although Sonar and its predecessors have been firmly Windows only they now encourage Intel-based Macs to run Sonar using Bootcamp. There's confidence for you.
Apart from the MIDI enhancements above there's a host of smaller tweaks, too. Note 'gluing' or 'splitting' for instance. The audio side of things got plenty of attention in the Sonar 6 release, so be assured it won't let you down. If you're considering entering the world of home studios and Digital Audio Workstations, then Sonar gets my vote as the best software to start with- it will have everything you need for a long time. Otherwise, if you're getting a bit frustrated or annoyed with your current software, because past releases just seem to have made things overly complicated and too clever, dare I say think about a switch to Sonar.
Even the most grumpy and stubborn of us will find it tempting.