Cakewalk’s SONAR has always been a compelling choice of DAW on Windows. Under the hood, its 64-bit processing, 64-bit mix engine, balanced complement of editing features, and quite-nice array of instruments and processors has held enough appeal. But then there’s the interface, which hasn’t held up to the tools underneath. Being pretty isn’t only cosmetic; a visually-refined interface is just easier to look at and use. And aside from aesthetics, moving between editing views or just managing what’s visible on-screen in SONAR can be a chore. It’s a problem not unique to Cakewalk’s DAW: the leading music workstations now simply do a lot, making for a daunting, jumbo jet cockpit-like interface design challenge.

SONAR X1, announced today, focuses on that problem. I should get hands-on time shortly, but I can at least report back on the design goals, and they show some promise. High-res shots at top.

New UI features and workflow:

  • Skylight: The name for the new X1 workspace, Skylight is Cakewalk’s own take of how to avoid window shuffling and see everything you need at once. Yes, other apps have done multi-pane editing before, from DP to Logic to Pro Tools. But Skylight has some interesting takes on combining some of the best UI features evolved in pro apps over the years years (audio or otherwise), including docking, modular controls, a Browser, and Inspector. And significantly, docking can occur across multiple monitors, and tools and windows can float above other windows. Long-overdue, easily-accessible Screensets are available, too.
  • Redesigned Control Bar: My major UI bugaboo in SONAR was its toolbar, basically a hideous, unreadable parade of look-alike icons. The Control Bar will still be familiar to SONAR users, but without all that nonsense. You can actually differentiate transport buttons and editing functions, which is fairly critical for an app like this!
  • Modal “Smart Tools” Tools are now more contextual. Now, Logic, for instance, has long had a common editing palette, but the tools in that palette are often specific to each view. What Cakewalk is trying to do, they say, is to make a smaller number of tools work consistently across views. Consistency of this kind is to me the only antidote to runaway complexity, so I’m eager to try it.
  • Key clusters: For QWERTY jockeys, keyboard shortcuts are now available reorganized into clusters, so that a set of related tasks is available without moving your fingers around or searching your brain. “Loop” functions all revolve around the “L” key and modifiers, “Quantize” the “Q” key.

None of this is really worth talking about at length until you’ve had some time using it, but I do think it’s promising; I’m especially intrigued by those keyboard shortcuts. Stay tuned for more.

Not everything in X1 is UI. The big audio feature is ProChannel. Recent SONAR releases have had some great audio processing tools, but they’ve been banished to a dedicated plug-in interface. Now, they’re right in the mixing console. Features:

  • Channel, bus compression
  • Variable tube stage
  • Console EQ with “pure,” “modern,” “vintage” modes
  • Routing pre- or post-effects, drag-and-drop routing of EQ, compression, tube modules (just like on Cakewalk’s other effects – it’s a nice feature)
  • A collapsible UI (with feedback both expanded and collapsed), dedicated ProChannel presets
  • 64-bit audio resolution (for sound), 64-bit computing (for number-crunching performance).

Promo video below, if it helps you see this in action.

Pricing is aggressive: the full-blown Producer edition is US$399 with everything, including the new Pro Channel Strip, excellent Session Drummer sampled drums and drum machines, mastering effects, True Pianos, and Dimension Pro sampler. “Studio” is a decent sweet spot, still including a 64-bit version and features like Audio Snap, surround sound, Rapture, and V-Vocal, but $199. Sonar X1 includes all the basic sequencing options, minus those extras, in a 32-bit-only version for $199. Starting today, you can buy SONAR 8.5 and get X1 free. It’s not quite Reaper cheap, but it undercuts most of Cakewalk’s other competitors.

Let’s face it: as audio users, we’re spoiled for choice. Graphics production has nearly all boiled down to a suite from one vendor, Adobe. Happily, we have a more competitive market, and users with fierce loyalties, to boot. (it’s a good thing we don’t all agree.) That said, it’s nice to see SONAR modernizing in this way. Stay tuned for more.

SONAR X1 Product Page

  • Rumblejazz

    Is it just the video compression, me, or does the entire UI look kinda low-res?

  • Peter Kirn

    Thank that's you, mate. Open up the full shots in the gallery at top. On the video, you can switch to HD. Not sure what else you're seeing. ;)

  • nylarch

    I think for a studio engineer this kind of move to a more console-like experience (the channel strips look like Propellerheads Record to me) is OK but I feel like for an electronic musician a DAW like Ableton that is breaking out of the mixing desk paradigm completely is really where its at. As I get more skilled with Live I'm even seeing less and less need to buy plugins – effects racks can be built that mimic a lot of what I've already bought from 3rd parties (multiband distortions, tape saturation, etc). The Sonar update looks cool but I still think the future of electronic music at least will be about a visual experience that breaks new ground in some ways people are still figuring out.

  • Brian

    Sonar has evolved into the bastard love child of fruity loops and logic …. huzzah…I guess.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Brian: I don't think that's entirely fair. SONAR still looks like SONAR to me. FL Studio remains its own beast; they invented neither the arpeggiator nor the step sequencer, and I think there are other unique features of FL that aren't here – love them or hate them. SONAR remains a traditional DAW, and some of the similarities to Logic come out of a DAW arms race that goes all the way back to the days when Cakewalk was making DOS sequencers.

    I think the bottom line is, a lot of this software winds up looking alike because users keep asking for the same things.

    Of course, this is also why I left the phrase "DAW 2.0" out of the above write-up. If SONAR is musically useful, I don't care what it's called. DAWs are all the bastard child of multitrack mixing studios and the Fairlight CMI. ;)

  • Brian Stone

    Looks like a very welcome update. I'm not sure how you all feel, but doesn't it seem like they'd have done better to not only 'catch up' but to really innovate some new concepts? Maybe it is, but its not terribly clear in the video.

  • Peter Kirn

    Absolutely — getting real modality in tools, intelligent docking that works *across* multiple monitors (the other 1-window modes all stick to only one and tend to be inflexible), and intelligent key clusters would all count as innovation. That's part of why I'm making the comparison to these other offerings; it appears Cakewalk does have some new ideas to bring.

    I'm just going to see how it works in practice before I really judge it, but I am, at least, looking forward to that!

  • MagMusicVA

    As most innovation usually gets assimilated and spread around, I was kind of hoping that Cubase's VST Expressions paradigm would show up in the next Sonar, as there does need to be a more convenient way to handle all of the articulations available in sample libraries these days, but Sonar doesn't seem too concerned with Midi anymore. Nonetheless, I'd have ordered it today (Cakewalk for Life! since CW Windows v3), but they weren't taking upgrade orders yet. Articulation handling will have to arrive eventually.

  • MagMusicVA

    BTW, it's not 6:17 pm, it's 2:11 pm. Why's that posting time so way off??

  • http://bootweak.com TechLo

    Sonar always seems to have enough in the new versions to keep me on the upgrade train, in spite of Live and Reaper getting their fair share of use as well. I can't get no satisfaction from a single host, honestly, and not sure if that day will ever come.

  • Seamus

    Oooh! Looks pretty! Although those fader-lanes on the mixing panel are freaking MAHOOOOOOOSEEV! Hopefully we'll be given the option to resize them, as they're waay too big for my liking! Very much looking forward to this though!

  • http://www.willcopps.com Will Copps

    I think it looks much nicer. It actually looks to me like they took a lot of inspiration from Presonus' Studio One.. the looks, advertising drag and drop, etc.

  • http://www.nk-e.com nk_e

    The SONAR X1 upgrade looks really quite clever. I'm mac-based, so the upgrade is of little consequence to me. But it does look interesting and I give Cakewalk A LOT of credit for having the cahonies to take on such a radical overhaul.

    Cakewalk seems to be borrowing (and at times improving on) a lot of really great things from the various DAWs out there…

    –the inspector 'track + bus' sidebar of LOGIC and DP

    –the unified preference window from CUBASE,

    –the FX Chains seem like a variation and an improvement on the channel strips (LOGIC)/clipping windows (DP) / drag n drop presets from StudioOnePro,

    –the browser looks to be straight out of StudioOnePro,

    –the 'ProChannel' is reminiscent of that found in RECORD…

    I also like their 'Smart Tool' concept.

    However the biggest 'homage' is the general GUI concept and 'zeitgeist' of StudioOnePro. When I first saw it, I thought "Wow. What an obvious copy." Not that such is a bad thing even if true. (I am all for DAWs learning from each other to the betterment of them all.)

    Cheers.

  • http://sonomagolfclub.com Kim

    Reaper than Ableton once in a great while Reason.

  • http://sonomagolfclub.com Kim

    It looks like they just grabbed features from Reaper and maybe Acid.

  • http://www.reddit.com/r/wearethemusicmakers/ Privacy_Helmet

    Ha, I love how everyone is like "IT'S JUST LIKE (X), THEY JUST STOLE FEATURES FROM (Y)!" So Far I've heard Reaper, Live, FL Studio, and Logic mentioned.

    So to sum up: Sonar stole ideas from all the top DAW software available today? Sounds awesome.

    For the record I am a long time Sonar (and previously CW) user and yes, I am pretty excited about these improvements. But that comes with a healthy dose of skepticism, I've been let down by them before.

    The interesting thing about this to me is that no one is talking about the Roland connection. I am sure you all know that Cakewalk was purchased by Roland in early 2008. The 8 release was probably already far enough along that Roland didn't have time to really affect things, and 8.5.x was pretty much just incremental evolutions plus some bs features no one cares about and that don't work (audiosnap, why). With this release we might be seeing the first true Roland DAW. The resources that come with being purchased by a large company like Roland (they make printers for christ sakes) may just now be starting to show results. At the very least, they obviously finally spent some money on a UX guy who is worth his salt.

    Anyways, I love how Sonar always gets the bad rap. But it's a great piece of software, and far more powerful than any of the half-measures I've heard mentioned here (come on, Repeaer? Yes, it's a solid app, full featured? no.) If they finally, after receiving a large influx of resources, decided to pop their heads up, take stock of the industry, and react to the state of the art, then I say more power to them.

    Here's to hoping for one more great option in the DAW pool.

  • http://www.reddit.com/r/wearethemusicmakers/ Privacy_Helmet

    Oh yeah, someone also mentioned StudioOne, Reason, and Record. Wow, a DAW app that bears similarities to nearly every other DAW app on earth. Amazing!

  • http://www.hauntedhouserecords.co.uk Stephen Haunts

    I genuinly think this new version looks excellent and I am seriously considering buying it. I have been looking to move DAWS for a while. Well when I say move I mean compliment Ableton Live.

    I would like to see what the notation features are like as I want to start using proper staves. VST expression articulation switching would be ace. So if anyone at Cakewalk is reading this, then please add soemthing like this to a future upgraded. I am workign on some short films soon, so I really want to use proper notation for the live instrument sections.

    Steve

  • Dajebus

    I always thought Sonar was underrated. The EQ and compression stuff is just amazing. Nice thick sound for software. Almost as good or better than Logic.

    But…

    I have never met anyone in my line of work who uses it and I have been working with a lot of artists in the past 4 years.

    Just saying.

  • Tim

    For guys who produce a DAW, they sure such at getting a good voiceover sound. Muuuuuuuuud abounding in that video. Filter that track.

  • Peter Kirn

    I can tell you that developers often perceive other developers are "ripping off" one another or, barring that and perhaps more often, unfairly getting credit.

    I think the thing to remember is, we all have pretty particular expectations of what audio software should do – even things that people might consider to break the mold. It's very difficult to work within those parameters and not have some overlap. And you'd hope there would be *some* overlap, even for things developer in parallel — that is, some things may simply turn out to be useful.

    I don't think SONAR is ripping off Logic or Reaper; I don't think developers generally have the time to pay a whole lot of attention to each other. That's our job.

  • Reev

    I've been waiting for dockable windows since Cakewalk called their DAW "Sonar". Skylight really sells it for me! Goodbye clutter. Hello music-making…

  • http://www.suecae.com Suecae

    I'm temped for the Studio version. At 200 $ it looks very intriguing.

  • agbell

    The more my interest in interaction design develops, the more I feel frustrated by how music apps work today. So, the new feature here is essentially that it's up to you to configure and design the application yourself, so that Cakewalk don't have to do it? That's NOT design, it's UNdesign. It's Cakewalk being scared of making decisions and forcing the user to do it instead. Why should I pay for that?

    I'm still waiting for someone to create that new, rethought DAW paradigm that I have in my head… guess I'll have to do it myself.

  • Seamus

    If it works well, I don't give a shit how many other DAWs it rips off. Implement and copy good ideas, throw away bad ones. That's the nature of design, innit?

  • tufted

    @agbell: yeah, do it! ;)

    @Seamus: totally agree!

    I'm tired of this pissing contest to mark territories not to cross. Bahh… We, users just can win with this. DAWs are workhorses and not fancy, "my d**k is bigger" cars. People love to identify their so UNIQUE personality by objects I mean many, not all of them…

  • bob

    maybe its just me, maybe im not payin attention and didnt read all the comments (which i didnt) but to me, a daw these days has little to do with the interface..they are all nice and work efficiently, and EVERYTHING to do with what the thing is for..AUDIO. i have always found that sonars' audio is just better to me. cubase, ableton, logic, fl, acid nuendo, protools especially, have this "fake" sound to them. as a guy that comes from 2inch, i produce in a style that is way more paying attention to the performance and actual writing than how the knobs are fancy, or how i can move midi around or time stretch audio, or autotune a vocal. i understand most engineers dont do it this way these days and im not knockin' them, but isnt the most important thing in music recording suppose to be how the music sounds? i've had x1 for about a week (tester) and that pro channel…holy cow does it sound good, like litterally better than my REAL SSL! its warm, organic and brings cleanly tracked audio to life. the bass is smooth and fat, and the master compression just crushes! assuming the audio input configs all work great on the final version (mine does, but i use all rme and motu gear, not exactly proprietary) this program will own the others in the audio area.

    i am expluding digidesign icon systems..those sound great to me.

  • Roy

    I seems to me that since version 3, they have made no updates to their staff view. Probably because no one that ever does score work ever uses Sonar.

  • Damadddrummer

    Were there any upgrades to the video production

  • Joe

    As someone who purchased the 8.5 upgrade in August, but never actually started using it – should I just kiss that upgrade money goodbye and spring for the new X1 upgrade?

    I can't seem to find a side-by-side comparison between 8.5 and X1

  • http://www.trinitystudio.com Jim Wilken

    We have SAW, ProTools, Audition and SONAR.(All versions) SONAR is rock stable and wins hands down. I'm really looking forward to trying out X1 Producer. We have produced 15 Nationally charted songs with it. To me that means it works well.

  • TDL

    Concerning the fact that Sonar copied Studio One interface, one of the early beta testers of Sonar X1 wrote on a forum that X1 was in the works long before the release of Studio One (and even before any teasing)…But it's not that important, Sonar really needed a major overhaul graphically speaking.

  • Lee

    Amazing how sonar is accused of ripping off other DAWs when it pre-dates many of the apps mentioned. Sonar has been around since the 1980's, and last time I check acid,live,studio one, etc are relatively new. Get a clue!

  • James

    Ive tried them all… except for this new one X!, but i can say with out a doubt, Cakewalk Sonar is the best their is, hands down. I use every feature, really.. it is simply the best their is. X1.. wow, cant wait.

  • MIKEY BOY NJOIZEY

    I still use Sonar for live multi-tracking. Great DAW. Stable on a POS 1.8GHz Delly w/1.5GHz RAMBUS (!!) and 2×8 in/out PCI interfaces. Can record live 16 channels straight until the HD says 'no mo'' I can load up the FX Bins until the cpu overloads, but again that will take a lot of VST's. I don't use Soft-synths for I have a collection of many synths, old and new.

  • Phil

    Sonar X1 is just great!

    Good job Cakewalk – I'm loving the ProChannel! YEAH

  • http://temporarilydown wayne revels

    i have pro tools le. i personally like the sans amp for guitar & bass guitar effect. what does sonar x1 have?

  • wayne revels

    what does sonar x1 have for guitar effects?