Cakewalk has revealed what’s new in the latest version of their flagship Windows DAW, SONAR 8 Producer. SONAR remains a popular choice for people on Windows wanting a do-everything, traditional DAW. At the same time, it faces heated-up competition from rivals like Ableton Live and Reaper. SONAR users have been posting wish lists around the Web, so I think it’s safe to say people were hoping for some improvements.

The changes look on-target to me, more so, perhaps, than in any recent SONAR upgrade. There are some much-needed workflow changes, enhanced under-the-hood performance, and new instruments and effects. Getting plug-in additions from Cakewalk is especially nice as, unlike many other vendors (Steinberg, Apple, Ableton, etc., I’m looking at you), Cakewalk’s plugs will work in any host you want once installed.

Especially interesting, there’s a cluster of features that could make people doing electronic production more interested in SONAR again.

What’s Improved

It’s impossible to judge an upgrade on paper, but here are some stand-outs to me:

Improved performance

Cakewalk says they’ve further optimized the audio engine and made all-around performance better in SONAR 8. They tell CDM they’ve specifically targeted Vista for some new optmizations. Regardless of OS, they promise improved performance at low latencies, better VST and ASIO performance, output latency compensation, and smoother, more responsive user interface performance. Also, you can finally change audio devices without a restart.  I hope to have more details on exactly what they’ve done soon.

On the Vista front, Cakewalk is enhancing support for Microsoft’s WASAPI, the new audio API, which is for use with not only WaveRT audio (which works mainly with motherboard and consumer audio cards you’re unlikely to use), but USB and FireWire audio devices. I hope other Windows developers are able to follow here in terms of support for Vista’s new audio technologies.

Instrument tracks

Finally, you can create a single track for working with mono or stereo virtual synths, a feature in some of SONAR’s rivals. SONAR still lets you work with two tracks as in previous versions if you so choose, but I personally find one track much easier. Now, can I add one more thing to the wish list? Multichannel / surround virtual instrument tracks would be the logical next step.

Browse loops and patterns

The Loop Explorer 2.0 lets you browse and preview MIDI groove clips and patterns and drag and drop them into track view. It’s nothing revolutionary – Apple’s Loop Browser comes to mind – but one nice feature is that it’s easy to preview MIDI grooves with virtual instruments, so for people who are primarily working with MIDI snippets, this could be nice.

Easier editing/recording/mixing

There are a lot of little details here. You can now group clips across tracks in addition to takes and such. There’s a feature for assisting in aiming your cursor and lining up tracks. It’s easier to punch in, punch out, arm, unarm, and toggle play and record while the transport is running, and shuttle controls and jogging have been improved and work better with control surfaces. There’s even a feature that can override muting certain tracks and buses when you solo.

QuickTime 7 support

Think H.264, AAC import/export.

Now, onto the plug-ins…

New Instruments, Effects

I’m most excited about Beatscape and Transient Shaper, as I think they could reawaken my interest in using SONAR as part of my personal production workflow – and imagine I may not be alone. Beatscape is a simple but elegantly-designed set of pads for audio loop manipulation and performance, and Transient Shaper is a dynamics processor with an intuitive-looking interface and interesting sonic potential.

Everyone is trying to do beat-based production these days. But Beatscape looks interesting, at least, if for no other reason than it includes a step generator like the one in Cakewalk’s fantastic Rapture soft synth. (The instrument is the work of Cakewalk’s synth architect Rene Ceballos, who designed Rapture.) You can drag and drop audio between SONAR and Beatscape, easily trigger audio from pads, quickly rearrange slices, and then modulate each slice with the step generator. You can also add up to 3 effects inserts per pad (impressive, though the new Drum Rack in Ableton can add even more, even though that’d be insane). Because it’s a Cakewalk plug-in, you could also use this with other hosts, so that means Beatscape could jump between SONAR and something like Ableton Live or FL Studio, with SONAR ready for doing a final song mix. There are also 4GB of “construction kits” loops in REX format.

I really like the simple, efficient combination of the step sequencer, slice view, and MIDI-triggered pads; I actually appreciate that this is more pared-down than the module-laden new Transfuser from Digidesign. It’ll be interesting to try this one out.

Transient Shaper processes the dynamics of percussive source material – this is one I really want to try out for beat (and other sonic) production. It’s basically a multi-stage, envelope-shaped filter, but thanks to transient detection and some unique shaping capabilities, it has some really intuitive-looking controls and promises “smooth, zipperless output.” It’s again a full VST, so this could come in handy in other hosts, as well.

Also in this release:

TL-64 Tube Leveler is a “line driver/leveling processor” with an analog tube model from Gallo Engineering’s StudioDevil. Think warming and saturation; have to hear this one to believe it, but it’ll be up at the top of my list to hear.

The full version of Dimension Pro is included with 8GB of sounds and the Garritan Pocket Orchestra. Nothing is likely to woo me away from my scripts in Kontakt, but on the other hand, I think this compares very nicely to the inclusion of EXS24 in Logic Studio. I know some people really love the EXS24, but Dimension Pro deserves a look partly because it has built-in waveguide synthesis, and its interface is very friendly. I don’t expect Mac users to switch to Windows, but I’m just sayin’.

Guitar Rig 3 LE is included – not bad, as a number of the more important modules are there. I think this handily beats out the relatively anemic Guitar Amp Pro in Logic Studio, not that that’s saying much; guitarists will probably buy a full guitar product, but for the rest of us having some guitar effects modules is always handy.

TruePianos Amber Module is a selection from the TruePianos VSTi, a virtual piano instrument that’s part sampled, part modeled, part synthesis. I haven’t tried TruePianos yet, so can’t tell you what it means that it’s “designed to blend transparently with the musician’s hands through its unique capabilities of matching to the player’s own playing style.” I’m keen to find out. It’s also supposed to be light on system resources, which tends to be a problem with virtual acoustic pianos.

ChannelTools is an integrated, zero-latency channel interface for adjusting L/R placement, gain, pan/width, sample delay – basically, all of your placement or widening and narrowing can be adjusted through one interface.

This is not a review as I don’t have SONAR 8 in front of me, running on my machine. But I have to say, this makes me interested again in running it. It seems like Cakewalk has ironed out some editing workflows and tweaked performance enough that this could be a very competitive DAW. The competition for myself and a lot of readers, I think, is abandoning traditional DAWs altogether for many tasks. It’s nice to see Cakewalk addressing some of the issues that people care about, while adding goodies that aren’t exclusively tied to the host. (There are technical reasons not to support VSTs, but it still makes a difference that this isn’t just candy to lure you into SONAR that doesn’t work with other software you use.)

I look forward to reviewing it and getting some music made.

Availability: Starts shipping October 2.

Pricing:

US: $499 street; $299 street for the SONAR Studio; upgrades US$99-179 for SONAR 7 (other upgrades available)

Rest of the world: English, German, Spanish, French, Italian; EUR499 suggested street for Producer, EUR299 for Studio; UK GBP349 / 219, also available in October

SONAR 8 Preview Page / Preorders

  • poorsod

    I started out on Sonar a couple of years ago (version 6) but then abandoned it for Ableton. I've still got it installed for the few occasions when I'm asked to mix a band, but I think it's really not suited for electronic music. The instrument tracks are an improvement but it does look a lot like playing catch-up.

    If you ask me, there's too much added and not enough changed to woo me back.

  • poorsod

    Side note: the Sonar and Live guys seem to release updates very close to one another… hopefully this means another version of the latter is around the corner? Hey, maybe they've finally got curved automation envelopes, and no 128-parameter limit! Maybe.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, that's fair — and I think you hit on the fundamental point here, which is that the working method is different. "Catch-up" doesn't seem quite the right word in that you use the two very differently. And while Live has its Arrange view, I find that part of why I like the program is *because* it's different … flipside being, if you prefer the SONAR way of working even for a specific task, it can still be useful to have around.

    But I'd love to get people involved in some sort of massive deathmatch. For many people I talk to, it's Live vs. SONAR vs. Reaper, at least on PC. (not that there aren't many programs out there, but at least in terms of SONAR's practical rivals for their own work on Windows)

  • Jason

    The only thing that keeps me from going to Sonar or Reaper (from Live) is the ability to save a clip, its plugins, automation, and tempo all in one. Like a Live clip.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I should add — I'm not dumping Ableton. I think Ableton's clips and Session View do all sorts of things that are either hard or impossible elsewhere, and that no one has seemed to copy. But I think part of what Ableton proved about hosts is that one size *doesn't* fit all, and by extension, for me I'm finding I occasionally want another host or two for specific jobs, especially given all my plugs will come with me.

  • Jason

    I agree that–about hosts–one size doesn't fit all; however, I think we shouldn't be complacent about that.

    Hosts cost time (in learning) and money for users; we're right to demand that they do more.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Jason: well, but here's the problem. You can't just keep adding to a piece of software. Design is about tradeoffs. Part of the reason I use Live in some cases and something like SONAR in others is because they each have different design tradeoffs, which impacts what it feels like to work with them, or what's faster in one versus another. So, I think this differentiation is healthy. Part of the reason Live came on the scene — part of the reason Cakewalk dumped Cakewalk Pro Studio and whatnot and rebooted with SONAR — is this realization that you couldn't just build on the same framework forever, and that there was more than one way to do these things.

  • Pingback: Sonar 8

  • Pingback: Original Sound Version » Blog Archive » Cakewalk Sonar 8 upgrades look sexy

  • http://www.generlafuzz.net general fuzz

    TruePiano is one of my most treasured plugins, which is kinda shocking consider the range of all the amazing plugins that I own. I've never encountered a virtual piano that is so inspiring. I'm psyched for more modules.

  • Abel

    Looks like they dropped Pro Suite, at least temporarily.

    I was hoping to find more info about an upgrade grace period. Just looked through their forums and don't see anything.

    I've finally was ready to get Sonar 7 Studio, or Pro Suite if I can get sell my Fizmo soon enough. Then this is announced. Don't want to wait for it, and don't want to deal with the buggy first few months. Seems kind of silly though to get Sonar 7 now. Of course the upgrade pricing and the inclusion of Dimension Pro makes figuring out whether Pro Suite is worth getting at this point confusing.

  • Abel

    Found the grace period info I was looking for here:

    http://www.cakewalk.com/mispecials/default.asp

  • pdish

    Where you finding these upgrade prices?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Upgrade prices were provided by Cakewalk in their press release. I expect you'll see all the details in their site once it starts shipping in October.

    Still working on finding out about the Pro Suite…

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Optimizing for Vista: Inside the Mechanics of SONAR 8 with Cakewalk Engineering

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Vista Tweak: Use the Audio Profile Cakewalk’s CTO Uses

  • sniffit

    beatscape doesnt like rx2 files that dont come with the inst. i own many rx2 files when i import any of them into beatscape,beatscape adds its own slices to the slices already in the rx2 file…this realy changes the way the rx2 files play in beatscape…they sound like sh**…yes i could remove the added markers…but…im not happy sitting there fer that long fixing something that shouldnt need to be fixed in the first place…beatscape is a good idea…just doesnt work properly…