sonar85_as

SONAR’s AudioSnap now has cleaner markers, and an understandable interface – and does quite a few things Logic 9′s new Flex Time does not.

SONAR 8.5, I’m sure at some point, was to be SONAR 9. There’s an enormous amount of functionality in this release. But I think the surprise is some of the stuff that won’t necessarily appeal to the widest audio production audience. Here’s a DAW that’s adding unusual new features for arranging tracks, putting an integrated arpeggiator on every track, beefing up its step sequencer (really), and dumping a bunch of class LinnDrum samples into the package. Those are the kind of treats we like in these parts.

SONAR is really a “DAW” in the traditional sense. It does everything. It doesn’t hide features. Given a choice between taking something out and putting something in, it puts the thing in. It has a lot of knobs and buttons. There are positives and negatives to the approach – it’s the reason some readers of this site return to software on game machines that has more in common with early Amiga software. But if you like the feeling of a packed studio, a tool like SONAR can be terrific. As much as I love Ableton Live for sound design and live performance, I find myself returning to something like SONAR for arrangement.

stepsequencer

SONAR had recently added a step sequencer, but improvements make this version the one to try.

Even with its competitors packing in features, SONAR 8.5 is a tool that really loves MIDI, just as other software focuses on audio. And it’s one of the best-performing tools around. Because it’s so well-tuned for Windows, that means you can drop it onto a wide variety of PC hardware without spending a lot of cash. Most importantly, it could be the first software on any platform that convinces you to try a 64-bit OS – just at about the time you may be doing a fresh install of Windows 7.

Here’s a first run-down of what’s new in 8.5 that I’m personally most interested in:

stepsequencer_closeup 

It’s once you start step sequencing controllers and getting deeper into per-step settings – and randomization – that things start to get compelling.

MIDI lovers, step sequence and arpeggiate away. Every single instrument loaded in SONAR now has a step sequencer, and every track an arpeggiator. The new step sequencer has a lovely pane for controllers, deep control over each step, and probability controls. It could be reason enough to give SONAR 8.5 a try on its own. And yes, this does indeed take SONAR into FL Studio territory – but with a more conventional DAW bringing those kind of features together. FL users probably won’t be impressed, but if you longed for FL-style pattern sequencing but wanted to maintain an existing DAW, this could be for you.

arpeggiator

You might have to squint to see it, but there’s a powerful arpeggiator on every track. Add that to existing powerful MIDI editing features.

Drum sound goodies. Session Drummer 3 has long been a nice virtual drum tool, and now improves routing and mixing to come closer to what it feels like miking a new drum. But let’s skip the acoustic kits and get straight to the electronic ones: yes, there’s an 808 and 909, as you’d hope given Cakewalk is now “Cakewalk by Roland” but there’s also a 707, a 727, and a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks and Linn Electronics LinnDrum. Oddly, you still have to look at a picture of a photorealistic drum kit – I’d like to see a visual representation of that LinnDrum, please. But it’s nice to have these sounds, unless you have a really big budget for eBay. There’s 2.5 GB of content, but I’ll skip to these files if I can.

sonar85_as_closeup

It’s this clean dialog that makes working with AudioSnap 2 lovely.

Easier-to-edit audio. I gave Apple deserved props, I think, for making Flex Time’s implementation in Logic 9 elegant and allowing squishing of audio materials around. But what frustrated me about their tool was that you couldn’t take your warped audio and do other stuff with it. AudioSnap 2 could blow it out of the water. SONAR had this going before, but I frankly found some of the selection tools and interface a little off-putting. The UI has now been cleaned up, the Transient Tool makes it easier to grab trasients in your audio, and selection looks better. You can do tempo detection, mapping, and syncing, so that this is useful not only for smooshing around your recorded audio but also mapping it to a tempo. And most interestingly, the transients you find in Audio Snap can be integrated with the new Step Sequencer. There are also audio fidelity improvements for working with vocal, reed, and brass instruments.

A Media Browser brings files together. MIDI patterns, audio loops, grooves, and such can now be dragged-and-dropped into one place. That’s not a new idea, of course, but having custom presets for different locations is a welcome improvement (and why is it so hard to get other browsers to do that)?

matrixview

Okay, Matrix View does look a lot like Session View in Ableton Live. Also, unlike Live, it doesn’t stream from disk, so loading up lots of clips probably isn’t practical. I’ll give it a try and see if, in practice, it feels like SONAR or Live, but I’m still waiting for a really fresh take on this idea.

A new way of improvising arrangements, “Matrix View.” A cell-based interface for non-linear triggering of audio and MIDI clips sounds like Ableton Live. But think of this more as an alternative way of trying out arrangement ideas. Because it loads from RAM only and not from the hard disk, and because SONAR is built more as a studio tool than a live tool, I don’t expect it to be a Live killer. But if you’re happy with the SONAR workflow and want to try out ideas in its environment, it could still be useful. (Cakewalk’s Project5 went a similar route, with similar results.) It’s just about the only copy I’ve seen of Ableton’s Session View, and it really does feel like a copy, so for that reason it’s probably the change I’m least interested in in SONAR. I do think there are other features here that are far more original, though.

You get strips for working with vocals and drums. For vocals, the VX-64 is a combination tube-emulation mic pre + de-esser + compressor/expander + tube EQ + doubler + delay + output strip, which I already loved after seeing it bundled with the VS-100 hardware. For drums, the PX-64 is a combination pre + transient shaper + compressor + expander + contour EQ + delay + output strip – so, roughly the same thing, with some drum-specific tweaks. Cakewalk has done a lovely job with these strips, and they could be the sort of thing that justifies SONAR’s investment. I can’t imagine not liking the PX-64 having enjoyed the VX-64, both for its audio quality and the ease of drag-and-drop routings.

Why you may finally go 64-bit. The BitBridge XR plug-in not only lets your 32-bit plug-ins work on the 64-bit operating system, but gives each of them 4 GB of RAM for up to 128 GB of RAM. That’s possible on the Mac side with Apple’s Logic – but only with its sampler, not with third-party plug-ins. And SONAR ships with a lot of 64-bit plug-ins in the box, not to mention that major vendors like Native Instruments are providing support.

Improved performance, Windows 7 ready. You can now hotswap audio and MIDI interfaces without restarting, and audio and stability are improved. And when you do get the Windows 7 upgrade – which, based on my research so far, you will want to do from either XP or Vista – SONAR has been rigorously tested. I don’t want to just repeat that without supporting evidence, though, so stay tuned for a separate story.

Adding LinnDrum sounds is never a bad thing. Photo (CC) Eduardo Carrasco.

I still don’t think SONAR is for everyone – though, of course, I don’t really think anything is for everyone. (That’s the marketing people’s job, to claim that one product solves everyone’s problems.) Sitting in front of SONAR’s interface can still feel like getting into a jumbo jet cockpit. The Matrix View is not – and is apparently not intended to be – a replacement for Ableton Live’s live performance features. Open as SONAR is, I think it has new competition from the extensible architecture of Reaper. And, of course, all of this is meaningless to Mac users – though I hasten to add, while the Mac faces a tough 64-bit transition ahead, Windows users can grab SONAR, clean install 64-bit Windows 7, and possibly barely notice anything at all aside from a whole bunch of gobs of memory.

But I’ll say this: it’s funny how a few subtle changes can change how you think, but the combination of brilliant effects, this ridiculously-powerful step sequencer, and the possibility that AudioSnap really nails audio manipulation has me taking a second look at SONAR. Expect more details later this fall. (I’ll be writing this up for CDM and not Macworld for obvious reasons.)

Upgrades for existing SONAR 8 users are US$79 (Studio) – US$99 (Producer). If you purchased SONAR after July 1, the upgrade is free. For new users, SONAR is $499 for the Producer edition with the extra effects and instruments, or $299 for Studio without them. (But, really, I think you want the Z3TA+ synth; you’ll just have to trust me on that.)

  • s ford

    New version of Digital Performer out as well.

    Cakewalk Sonar looks great. If I wasn't a Mac chump, it would be the prog I'd use.

  • epiphanius

    Great review, Peter, you point out exactly what's always been appealing about Sonar.

  • EJ

    Looks really cool. I left Sonar for the Mac world when I had one too many PCs that required serious trouble shooting to cure chronic, infuriating drop-outs (I don't think I've had in a gap in my audio in my two years on OSX). That was pre-Vista, though. Has audio reliability improved in off-the-shelf PC's, Peter?

  • http://moshang.net MoShang

    Thanks for the review, Peter. Good Lord! I've just figured out I've been using Cakewalk software for 17 years, starting with Cakewalk Apprentice back when they were still Twelve Tone Systems. I've just invested in Propellerhead's Record software (great price for Reason 4 users), perform live with Live (go figure!), but for mixing nothing beats Sonar for me. I guess nothing beats what you know. Definitely getting the Sonar 8.5 upgrade.

  • http://www.markmosher.com Mark Mosher

    Nice overview. I'm glad with all the competition that Cakewalk keeps chasing innovation. It also looks like they are streamlining a bit rather than just adding disparate 3rd party tools.

    Back when I was doing custom composition synced to picture I used Sonar. It was really fantastic for this. Back then I was recording a lot of external audio and trimming it all up. It's also great when you want to put MIDI under a microsope.

    Since I'm not doing that type of work right now and now focus more on composition and soon performance with virtual instruments I prefer Ableton Live becuase of it's workflow.

    Still, I'd turn to Sonar again in a minute if I needed a mega DAW.

    Mark

  • http://www.myspace.com/jfeitor J. Feitor

    Cool Review;)

  • Jaime Munarriz

    This big old friends are growing so much that I am looking for a simpler and poweful DAW:

    REAPER

  • Mike808

    Great Review. I've toyed with the idea of going the mac and logic route but as money is an issue have stayed ms. Sonar has definately been the bees as far as I'm concerned and 8.5 looks fantastic. Only gripe I have is that the upgrade will cost £89 or $99(£60.24 at time of writing). As I am registered with the uk site, I will have to pay 50% more which seems pretty unfair to me, especially as the software is in download format.

    Mike

  • s0undc10ud

    I 've been doing EVERYTHING with ableton for years. from sound design to mastering my tracks. i was always looking for another daw for arranging and mastering since ableton live is not top for these stuff. About the new Sonar: Finally! a daw that attracts me and is "calling me" to use it! i am thinking of buying it… , BUT , can i rewire ableton to sonar so i send out my recordings to it??? if thats possible, well, that combo is a dream come true for me! ohhh…and Peter, that was an AMAZING review my friend! thank you so much!

  • mrbarnardo

    Yes, you can use ReWire with Sonar.

  • nonstatic

    very impressed with the step sequencer changes. almost enough to make me switch from FL studio. almost. keep at it guys.

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  • MonkeyT

    8.0 was full of bugs. Probably worth waiting a couple of months before upgrading.

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  • Mike B

    Vista and Sonar were not perfect for all my applications. I moved back to XP and still enjoy Sonar 8 Prod. I'm not sure about how long I would wait for Windows 7 before trying. One thing for sure is intel i7 overclocked was the best improvement in years to my system.

  • http://www.mental-mastering.com Mythmonkey

    I love SONAR, and every update makes me love it more.

  • http://N/A Vic Klonin

    Nice to have new features but before I bite for an upgrade I want the marker functionality modified so the loops work flawlessly. I've invested in to the best and most recent PC's (3) and even went with a dedicated 64 bit machine with 32 gb of ram and find a lot of lockups that necessitate me reporting the issue back to Microsoft, then rebooting , and quite frankly I'm tired of the hype and bulls**t. No one ever gets back to me and says, Hey Dude! Here’s what’s wrong. They simply release Vista or Version 8.5 and ignore me and my issues!

    I am now considering another platform along with a Euphonix MC Pro to allow me to be a producer instead of a technical troubleshooter. I’m a musician and a producer that tries to ensure my current and prospective clients that my stuff will work without interruption so the creativity will be captured. At times I think Cakewalk is focusing on the “boom chuck, what the f**k” Rapper who doesn’t have a clue where the E string is on a guitar and ignoring assuming their product is flawles!

    Sorry guys, but I've written entire lists of workflow issues that you have simply ignored over the years. I've been a devoted user of Cakewalk since Version 1.0 for DOS and purchased right up to version 5.0. I have used Cakewalk and continue to use the product for 8 to 12 hours a day, every day for at least 360 days a year since 1987. I have down loaded every version of the demos right up to version 8.0 to find no fixes for the most obvious issues I have repeatedly reported to Cakewalk. For this reason I have found no reason to pay your company any money for upgrades to new versions if there is no attempt to improve the issues that i have submitted to Cakewalk in the past. These are basic main platform issues that should have been established from the get go! Fix it, and I’ll buy it! Otherwise, Adios Amigos along with 6 other dedicated Sonar users!!

  • Gothic.Angel

    Great review, as it gets to the "point":

    Time to say SONAR is the most comprehensive DAW out there… Apple Logic (since v8…) can't compete any longer, both in terms of tools and resources handling, the rest is common grounds…

    'Course, every DAW offers its own goodies, SONAR simply has (almost…) them all…

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  • http://www.deadeddy.com Edwin James Lynch

    Do the additional VSTs work in other DAWs such as Ableton Live? I was a bit disappointed that the last upgrade, some VSTs (such as Amber Pianos and some channel strips etc.) were locked to Sonar and could only be used with that software. Whereas most opened up in Live without issue. In other words, if I can use the new stuff in another DAW, I might consider buying but I don't like proprietorial locking.

  • Bubba

    I sure hope this runs better then the other 8.0 versions! To this day Sonar 5 was still the most stable.

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  • C.LYDE

    @ Vic Klonin – so why keep using the product with all the 'issues'? I tried Sonar in demo form a few times.. but I found that my workflow was still faster within Cubase – however I do realise familiarity is the key word here.. I think they are onto something by offering functionality of other DAW's without the full blown enchilada. Ableton was a simple 'live' sequencer,but they're adding stuff as well, more in line with traditional DAW's.

  • http://none D Jackson

    Now, Explain the difference between Studio or Professional…

    I can't even find a good explanation of that on the cakewalk website. I don't know which to buy… or if the cost difference is worth it.

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  • Coded

    Jst wanna know if Sonar 8.5 is better than FL Studio 9.1 I'm having a problem choosing between the two. Can anybody help?

  • avghunter

    was wondering if it's possible to convert say abletons guitar plugins and used them in sonar?