Audio Times

Review of Cakewalk Sonar Artist

When news broke in January 2015 of an all new Cakewalk Sonar line-up based on a membership model, it would be fair to say there was both excitement and anxiety, in equal measure, being expressed by existing Sonar loyalists.  Cakewalk have put a lot of energy into explaining how much their membership model differs from some of the very unpopular subscription based software models which have been introduced in the last few years.  We’ll come back to that topic later in conversation with Jimmy Landry, Cakewalk’s Head of Artist and Public Relations for Gibson Brands.

 

As importantly … we have three new versions of Sonar to get into : ArtistProfessional and Platinum.  I thought in this first review, we would concentrate on the entry level Artist version which gives potential new users, an introduction to Sonar and, for existing users, a round up of the new features which might attract them into the new membership programme.

 

Software Installation

With the membership model comes a brand new way of installing and activating Sonar.  A small download installs the Cakewalk Command Centre.  This allows you to login to your user account and download and activate any Cakewalk software products which you have purchased.  It’s simple to use both during the initial install and later when you want to download updates and additional features as they are released by Cakewalk.

 

New Skylight User Interface

Cakewalk have been working hard to match the user interface to the recording artist’s workflow and this is very evident in the latest version of their Skylight interface.  The new modular docking system makes it much easier to assign the five main screen workspace areas to major functional blocks of the user interface.

 

Lets take a quick look at how some of this translates in practice.

 

The main control bar has been further improved, so you can now match the order and visibility of the control elements to your tracking and mixdown work flows.  Each control bar element can be viewed or hidden and you can even resize (or minimise) each element to save space and only show the commonly used functions.  I know this sounds like a lot of work to set up but it’s really easy to do and allows you to de-clutter your control bar.  If you are running Sonar on a laptop with a more limited horizontal screen size, then you will really appreciate this feature.  The control bar can be docked at the top or bottom of the screen or floated anywhere on the screen, or onto a second screen if you have a dual monitor setup.

 

The track view has always been one of Sonar’s strongest control views and still dominates the work space in the latest version.  As before, the number of control elements available per track will scale to suit the available space but Sonar has a great new set of presets to pre configure which elements are visible, so for example, you can switch to;

And if none of the presets work for a particular part of your work flow then you can create your own and name them.  It’s easy to do and a really great feature.

 

Nominally to the left of the track view, the Inspector  provides tabbed access to the clip and track properties and to two full size channel strips, one allocated to the currently selected channel and the other to its companion strip.  This would be typically the audio track associated with a MIDI channel or the buss output to which an audio channel is routed.  You have a full set of controls for pan, gain and per channel EQ, plus aux sends and a full effects rack, so everything you need to access on a per channel basis.

 

To the right of the track view is the Browser which catalogues and allows access to all of the plugins, loops and soft instruments contained within the Sonar resource library.  It’s noteworthy to mention that any location can be saved and accessed including external drive content.

Beneath the track view is the new Multi-dock window, This also allows tabbed access to a number of key control panels including the main mixer view, step sequencer, piano roll and quite a few more.  Just like in the track view, you can select which controls are visible in each view, so you show what you need and hide what you don’t.

 

The left/right/bottom docking areas can all be hidden and revealed with a single click and can also be resized.

If you are new to Sonar, then it’s worth spending a couple of hours getting to know the capabilities and flexibility of the Skylight user interface.

 

Screensets

Although not new to the latest Sonar, Screensets is an important element to making all this control interface flexibility usable.  As a current Sonar 7 user, I had never really come to terms with how to optimise my screen layouts for different parts of the recording and production workflow.  Screensets allows you to take a snapshot of up to ten complete screen layouts which have single button access at any point during a session.

 

Here’s a couple of examples of how I set up my workflow using a combination of Skylight’s flexibility and Screensets ability to snapshot exactly what I wanted during a session.

 

ABOVE – My preferred layout above when tracking only original audio sources, so no virtual instruments or samples.  In the example above I’ve set up the option for the selected track (in track view) to be enlarged with the other tracks minimised.  A reduced mix view sits below so I can set up a rough monitor mix.  To the left, the two inspector channels.

 

ABOVE – And a single click to another Screenset and I have a full blown mixer for mixdown duties. Screensets also allow you to work across multiple monitors as well.

 

Dynamic Effects Rack

The new dynamic effects rack is a nice feature.  It allows you to populate a channel with any of the plug-in effects in your locker, rearrange the signal routing order through the effects chain, and switch the effects in/out individually or globally.

 

Rather than the previous fixed window size for effects, the vertical space allocated to effects now grows according to the largest number of effects added to any channel.  This is a nice way to use precious vertical screen resolution and does away with having to scroll up and down the effects bin to find and access a plug-ins control panel.  It was previously too easy to miss an effect that you had in the channel as it could be hidden from view.  

 

The same dynamic space allocation has also been applied to channel sends where it has an even bigger positive impact on smart vertical screen usage.

 

Mix recall

Have you ever got to a point in mixing a track when you want to experiment down a particular path, maybe to try different level blends, maybe to try a different compressor plugin on a track or buss?  This used to require doing a Save As and opening up a copy of the original project, trying out the changes and then … ‘ah I’m not sure it’s better than the original’, so you end up opening and closing multiple projects.

 

The new Sonar release has implemented a full mix snapshot facility, just like some high end digital hardware consoles.  So now you can save your first mixdown settings as one snapshot, experiment with changes to any parameter and then save as another snapshot, and so on.  As well as being able to recall any snaphot from the Mix Recall Module (located in the control bar) you can A/B between the last two snapshots.  I found it allowed me to experiment a lot more during mixdown without the constant anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to get back to my last draft mix point.  Again there are lots of options as to which control sets to include within the mix snapshot but it works really well out of the tin.  I would probably upgrade for this feature alone.

 

Effects Plugins

Whilst Sonar Artist doesn’t have the same extensive range of plugins as its two bigger brothers, Cakewalk have included a couple of new effects suites which broaden out the existing Essential and Classic effects suites included with Sonar Artist.

 

The Anderton FX chains provides a decent range of 16 tweakable amp simulations plus a range of instrument effects covering guitar effects like fuzz, vibrato and tape echo, though to keyboard effects like rotating speakers.

 

You also get a few elements from the full Producer range including a collection of amps and cabinets (TH2) and a really useful Boost 11 peak limiter which can be used for volume maximising, a common requirement for many commercial music mixes.  I used Boost 11 during the final mixing of the audio track you can listen to at the end of this review.

 

Instruments

Sonar Artist has a decent set of virtual instruments and while there is nothing brand new to this Artist release, it’s worth touching on some of these for new users.

 

Session Drummer 3 is a classy soft drum kit and provides high quality kits from the likes of Roland and Steven Slate.  The user interface is good and you get the option to bring the output of the virtual drum kit into the audio world either as a single stereo track or as individual tracks (my preference) so you can both level and pan within the main Sonar interface and also apply effects to individual drum elements.  In combination with Sonar’s excellent step sequencer (another multi-dock view), it’s easy to get a provisional backing rhythm track put together which can then be tweaked and edited as the session progresses.

 

The Studio Instruments suite has a nice Fender Rhodes piano and a very accessible string section with a cute visual user interface.

Synth duties can be covered by the TTS-1 multi-timbral, multi-output, software synthesizer featuring a newly developed software synthesis engine, with 256 sounds and 9 drum sets built in.

 

Sonar Artist includes the Cakewalk Sound Center which manages access to a good selection of sound samples across a range of music genres.  My particular favourite is a Soft Synth Lead called ‘Fine Mixture 4′ which, like most of the other samples can be tweaked to taste.

Of course there is nothing to stop a Sonar Artist user from delving into the world of third party plug-ins (including VST3 format) should you need something extra beyond the included plug-in suites but in reality you can find pretty well everything you need to compose, mix and release a track or complete album from within the Artist’s toolbox.  There’s a viable upgrade route to the Professional and Platinum versions should you get to a point where you want to access more features, with the knowledge that the essential strengths of Sonar, especially the excellent user interface, are common across all versions.

Wish list

Ah, but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to pop a couple of items on my wish list for Sonar, one specific to Sonar Artist and one applicable to all versions.

 

Most artist recordists have collect a few items of audio effects hardware which they have come to love and really want to use in their projects.  Yes you can put them into the recording chain and print the effect during tracking but then you are committing to that effect sound at the very point when you want to leave your options open.  You can of course route the recorded track to a DA output through the hardware effect and then back into Sonar via an AD but you would have timing issues to take care of which would not be for the faint hearted to set up and manage.  Sonar could make this issue go away if they would include their external inserts feature within Artist rather than restrict it to the more expensive versions.

 

I’d also like to suggest that Cakewalk have a look at implementing the equivalent of a pro channel layout for all effects plug-ins allocated to an effects rack.  There’s been quite a bit of chat on the forums about direct access of plug-in levels from the effects rack but I think that this will only ever be a limited solution to full simultaneous, hands-on control of all plug-ins allocated to a track.

 

Stability

I wanted to include a mention of just how rock solid I have found Cakewalk to use over the years, even on occasions when I’ve had to run it on under-powered laptops.  I installed the evaluation version of Sonar Artist onto a Windows 7 PC which is a couple of years old in terms of today’s typical specs.  

 

Sonar has never stuttered, or thrown me out of Windows, and it has been happy to import projects from my own Sonar 7 Producer XP install.  And to Cakewalk’s credit, Sonar 7 has been able to able to import a session I created on Sonar Artist with only a due warning message that I might lose facilities through opening in an earlier version.  This is a very encouraging indication that Cakewalk take version compatibility very seriously.

 

And how does it sound?

By chance I had the great blues artist Angelo Palladino drop in whilst I was reviewing Sonar Artist so I was able to record a few tracks and get a feel for the latest Skylight user interface doing some tracking, editing and mixing.

 

In conclusion

At $99 for a one year membership (which also means you own the software) or $9.99/month if you want to try it out for a few months before committing, Sonar Artist provides very cost effective entry into the world of Cakewalk and Sonar.  

 

Even during the short time I have been running the review version provided by Cakewalk, I’ve had access to a number of updates and new features which were simple to download using the Cakewalk Command Centre.