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Review of Sonar 3.0
Cakewalk rises to the top of the sequencer universe

by Rich the Tweak

Page 1 (Sonar 2)   Page 2 (Sonar 3)

Pros
  • Great new Mixer
  • Flexible Busses
  • Super Manual
  • Now works with VSTi's
  • Catches up to Cubase and Logic in many important areas
Cons
  • Just a few minor inheritances from early versions still there to irritate you
  • Bugs due to the upgrade's newness.
Cakewalk SONAR Studio Recording Software (Windows)
Professional results are within your reach with SONAR 3 Studio Edition. Studio Edition is a special version of SONAR 3 designed for project studios and aspiring professionals. Studio Edition is built upon the same core engine and feature set of SONAR 3 Producer Edition.
Cakewalk SONAR Producer Recording Software (Windows)
In today's fast-paced production world, it's not enough to have all the features at your fingertips. SONAR 3 offers a complete software-based production environment and so much more.
 
Support for Sonar 3 at Cakewalk
Cakewalk PROJECT5 Soft Synth Workstation
Imagine a complete software synthesizer workstation that places no limits on your music. A flexible, expandable studio environment that engages your creativity, inspiring new musical ideas through its seamless integration of instruments and tools.  Tweak: I really like it.  Can make a library of sequences all importable into Sonar 3
Cakewalk Software Home Studio (Windows)
Itís time to take control of the creative process. Now you donít have to depend on anyone else to get your music recorded. Do it all from your PC with Cakewalk Home Studio 2004. There is no better Windows software available for musicians taking the step into the world of digital recording. Home Studio provides you with everything you need to turn your PC into a powerful multi-track recording studio.  Tweak: The inexpensive alternative with many Sonar features

I started my venture into Cakewalk software with Professional version 7.  This was early in the audio game. It was rough going, and I felt lucky to get a few tracks down.  Then I tried Pro Audio 9.  Better, at last, but still looked like a room of Venetian blinds and it's mixer was awful.  Sonar 1.0 came out and I rushed to it.  I was amazed by its new acid like facilities with audio loops, and its MIDI implementation, but the mixer appeared the same.  Sonar 2.0 hit and I snuck back to the land of Cakes.  OK, it's smoother, but now I truly despised the mixer and the MIDI instrument definition scheme drove me crazy.  Sonar 3 is now reality and its a significant upgrade, as we expect with a "whole number" paid upgrade. And we finally get a mixer worth using.  I think it is worth every cent.  The new improvements all work together with Sonar's already powerful features to create a unified professional functioning sequencer machine.

This review refers to the Studio version.  I decided I did not need to Producer version as I have plenty of plugins and soft synths to make up for not getting the extra plugins and enhanced mixer features like dedicated track EQ.  You can compare the Studio and producer version here.

For New Users

If you want to read about the basic things that Sonar does, check my review of Sonar 2.0.  Sonar 3, like all high end sequencers, has a learning curve.  Expect to take some time learning how to use it.  This is software that deals with extremely complex audio and midi processes.  It is simple to use when you know what you are doing.  The great thing about Sonar here is its manual.  It is easy to read, complete, and has a good getting started guide.  The application's help files are also very nice and filled with useful information.  As an experienced sequencer user, it is a joy to wonder how to do something and actually find the answer in a few clicks. 

The New Mixer

Sonar 3 ushers cakewalk into greatness, I think, for the first time.  I've played around with it for a week now, and am I really impressed by what I see. Most notable in the new Sonar is the new mixer which you can see on this page.  It bears a strong resemblance to the Cubase SX mixer. Yes it is completely automatable by mouse and by a control surface like Mackie Control.  In some ways its better; in some ways not as good, but there is no doubt that we now have a completely usable mixer in Sonar, with inserts, sends and returns that will even make Logic users feel at home, instantly. In fact they did such a good job with the Sonar mixer it surpasses Logic's (v 5.5) mixer in many ways.  Plugins can be dragged around the mixer from channel to channel; you can keep multiple plugin/softsynth windows open at once. And it looks better. You can fill the screen with as many plugin windows as you want, which look awesome when tweaking down a master, especially with Waves plugins if you have them. (Waves plugins are working well in Sonar 3 BTW).   Thanks to the VST shell which is an option (free with Project 5) Sonar will run many of  your VST/VSTi's. (However, don't expect native Cubase SX plugins to work, they won't.)  I am using the Delta ASIO driver and its pretty solid. 

The Mixer strip for MIDI channels is also good.  You can select instrument, channel, bank, and patch selection right from the mixer, enabling the midi thru, enable record, and the usual volume, pan, mute and solo.  A right click in the right spot will open up the powerful cakewalk patch browser, where you can put in keywords like "strings" to bring up all the patches with strings in the name for that instrument.  Ultra cool.  That's another one Logic can't do.

Another feature Sonar now has that helps the mixer is the ability to make nearly any window a "floating window".  This gets you maximum use of your screen real estate because you can place the windows outside the application's borders.  The Mixer does take up a lot of room on the screen.  you can select "narrow strip" to shrink it a little, but not as narrow as Cubase's narrow strip, which lets you get more channels on the screen.   Are we pickin' nits yet?  Probably so.  Any pro sequencer user will feel right at home and can get right to work.

Improved Bussing. 

Let's Quote some of Cakewalk's notes on the improvements, and I'll tell you want they mean

"SONAR 3 has more flexible bussing options than in previous versions of SONAR. SONAR 3 has just one type of bus which you can use any way you want. You can use a bus as an aux bus or as separate submix. Virtual Mains are replaced by Main Outs. Each main out represents a hardware output on your system." 

Basically you can create as many busses and the project needs and can group (or create a submix of)  audio tracks to them or create the more classic effects return style busses.  Here's an example of grouping tracks. Lets say you have 4 vocal tracks in your piece.  You can simply route all 4 to one bus, which will control the volume of all of them with one fader.  You can use insert effects on these and effect all 4 tracks at once.  Or do it the effects send and return way.  Here you create a bus and stick an effects or two on it, lets say reverb and eq.  Just create a send on the tracks you want to route to the effects bus and set it to that bus.  Turn up the virtual knob to taste on all the tracks you want to use that effects bus.  Both processes are easy, effective, and work exactly the way a hardware mixer works. 

Track Inspector

An idea started in Cubase with SX has now made it to Sonar (and Logic 6).  The channel strip of the selected audio or midi channel is displayed to the left of the arrangement screen, making for quick and easy setup of the channel.  You can easily turn it on and off with a single click

MIDI groove clips

You used to have to copy and drag MIDI sequences around to build your track.  Now, you can turn on the groove clips function for these MIDI sequences so they behave like audio loops.  You can, for example, grab the end of the loop with the mouse and drag it as many bars as it needs to be.  That's a nice new touch that adds ease of use to building tracks.  Best of all, you can make edits to these subsequent loops after you do the "bounce to clips" function.  So instead of repeating 55 bars of the same hi hat pattern you can go into bar 22 and add a ride cymbal.  Nice way to build a drum kit.

A Logic-Users evaluation of Sonar 3

Hey, this is written from the perspective of someone who uses Logic all the time.  If you never used Logic or Cubase SX, your mileage varies.  You might not know or care about these features.

Cool Sonar Features Compared to other sequencers Workaround
You can insert a track, press "r" and record while the clock is running.  The track is automatically record-enabled. This is great! This feature brings Sonar up to speed with the others. You still can't delete a track while the clock is running.  You have to press stop.  Because I can never nail a track on the 1st take this leads me to a lot of starting and stopping.  Cubase SX has similar issues.  Logic does this right.  Looks like Sonar is getting closer to this with a function called Transport-Reject Loop Take. None found. 
The Piano Roll can now display notes from more than one sequence on its grid. You still can't assign functions to the left and right mouse buttons like Logic does.  You have to click on the eraser to erase a note when you are inputting notes, rather than simply right clicking. You can control which mouse head is active by pressing S,D,L,E,Q,B--nice!
The overall look is better and easier to look at for long periods I find the white font on medium grey to be hard to read. Assign custom colors to the console text.
Sonar 3 has a very complete integration with DXis, VSTis and plugins. Some of these crash Sonar.  This will likely improve in time with updates, but there are several critical bugs in the release version. Don't use troublesome plugins.
Rewire is working great.  I was able to run Reason, Project 5 and the Ableton Live all at the same time. While it is possible to record a rewire soft synth from Sonar (rather than from the rewire application's GUI), but it is not at all intuitive.  Particularly with Project 5. Anyway, Logic can't do this at all (rewire 1 issues).  SX does it perfect.  
The manual and online Help is great.  I had a really tough question about bank numbers for my emu rom cards and found an answer in the manual. Sonar's manual is the best in the biz.   
Key commands implemented and you can do some custom key commands with CNTL, SHIFT and function keys As a long term sequencer user, I want certain keys to do certain things.  I was able to do this in Cubase SX, and of course Logic is the godhead here, but Sonar will not let me map keys I want to map.  I want to do single, one keystroke commands.  
The new confidence recording is great.  Sonar will display the midi and audio you are recording shortly after the recording starts, so you know it is actually working. SX and Logic have had this for some time, so Sonar has got up to speed here.  
 Midi tracking is an easier process in Sonar 3.  You can get a bunch of tracks up pretty fast. I still can't manage to setup "auto mute loop recording", where you can record 10 instances of a 32 bar sequence without pressing stop, then choose the one you want.  In Sonar you have a choice of merging or erasing subsequent takes in loop recording, but not auto-muting.   
All the great things about Sonar are still great.  Drag and drop audio loops, groove clips, recycle like hitpoints and the ability to transpose audio easily.  Logic 6 and SX have made inroads on groove clips.  But it is still not as cool as Sonar, with its loop explorer. These features put Sonar in its own class.     
You can do offline processing in Sonar much like you can in Cubase SX.  This greatly frees up CPU usage and may even allow you to run it on a slower machine. Logic 5.5 PC cannot do this.  Logic 6 Mac can.  Logic 6 has a new "freeze" function and SX has offline processing with dedicated undo.  This is better than what Sonar offers  
A MIDI metronome is  implemented in Sonar You can't set it's midi note and port values while the clock is running, which means you have to set it up without audio feedback.  It does work well once you set it up.  Fortunately this is a set once operation. Logic directs the metronome to a small soft synth that makes bleeps. Use small soft synth to make the metronome sound
Sonar uses .ins files to bring in synth patchnames.  These are editable in the windows notepad.  Sonar's "patch explorer" is searchable by keywords SX also uses scripts, but they are harder to make as they are coded in XML.  Logic can simply paste text into its patch menus.  With SoundDiver its can be done automatically in Logic.  SX's patch menu is searchable like Sonar's.  Logic's does not have a search function.  
You can save sequences made in Project 5 and use them as cakewalk midi clips.  Cakewalk alone has this feature and it rocks.  I guess you could do this with small midifiles, but it wouldn't be quite as nice.  
Sonar has a wealth of dockable toolbars SX has a few; Logic has none  
Sonar supports Mackie/Logic Control Logic supports it better; SX supports it worse.  

Overall

Cakewalk has always placed third in my comparisons of Cubase, Logic and Cakewalk.  For the first time, I am willing to give it second place behind Logic 6 Mac. I think Sonar 3 has risen above Logic 5.5 on the PC platform.  Of course, since Logic is not available anymore for PC users, that puts Sonar 3 in first place on the PC platform, at least for now, and only by a hair.  What does it for me is the Loop Explorer and Groove clip options which remain Sonar's strength. Because they have caught up to SX in so many other areas, the program as a whole has risen in my eyes. But Cubase SX 2 is about to be released and the evil eye looks to Steinberg to fix some of its shortcomings.  It's a great time to be a sequencer user.  Sonar 3 makes your home studio more powerful than it has ever been before.  I do think it is the most powerful PC sequencer to date.


Discuss Sonar at Studio-Central

Sonar 3 is here

New Sonar 3 Patch! (So soon? )

FYI Sonar 3

 

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