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First Look: Cakewalk’s Sonar 4

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Being able to record on a hard disk drive has radically changed how pop records are made. As critic Ted Friedman noted in an astute column from 1993, “Pop music-making in the 1990s has more to do with filmmaking than jamming in a garage: every song is a collection of tracks laid down by assorted musicians, edited together by producers, and fronted by charismatic performers.”

He’s certainly been proven right: recording commercial music is like filmmaking these days. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere, a fun byproduct of that is that these changes have filtered down from Hollywood and London’s commercial studios to benefit those of us who record music at home, often working alone (sort of like the pajamahadeen of the Blogosphere).

In commercial studios, since the early to mid-1990s, Digidesign’s Pro Tools has been the primary hard disk recording platform. It’s so ubiquitous that in his recent book and online diary, “Mixerman” the recording engineer, refers to it as “Alsihad“–in other words, “it’s alls I had to work with”.

Cakewalk’s Sonar hard disk recording debuted around 2001 as their flagship PC recording program. While it certainly gets its share of professional usage, its ability to run on the Windows platform has made it the Rolls Royce of home recording.

With each new version they’ve added additional features, and the latest version, which debuts this month, is no exception.

Several New Additions

Perhaps the first key new feature is a “freeze” function to reduce processing power. It’s not uncommon to use several effects on an individual track, such as phasing, chorus, digital delay and other plug-ins. Or to use something like Izotope’s Ozone plug-in. It was originally designed for mastering a completed recording, but increasingly, it’s being used as an effect–actually a suite of effects–on an individual track.

The upside is that it can add a world class sheen to key individual tracks like a lead vocalist or soloing instrumentalist. The drawback is that it sucks the computer’s processing power like a magnet.

In situations like that, the Freeze function will re-record the track with the effects added, and then disable those effects. Don’t like the sound? Then simply hit “unfreeze”, and it will restore the track to its original condition.

Another new feature of this version of Sonar is its Roland software synthesizer. When I first read that Cakewalk was building-in a Roland software synth, I was afraid of something very cheesy sounding. Instead, there are numerous extremely respectable sounds here. There are a few examples that a software synth like Reason can beat, but I can foresee many times for songs that require straightforward bass, keyboard, choral and string samples, I can now do everything within Sonar. And unlike Reason, the Roland TTS-1 has “bend” button that can be programmed, meaning that it syncs much more accurately when bent notes are played on a guitar synthesizer hooked up to Roland’s GI-20 guitar synth to USB breakout box-which should make guitar synth users (like me!) very happy.

Get Down–In Surround Sound

But the most impressive new feature in Sonar 4 for many will be its surround sound capabilities: As Rip Rowan, an editor at ProRec.com wrote last month:

SONAR 4 also demonstrates advanced capabilities in the emerging world of surround mixing and audio for video. SONAR 4 offers a complete surround environment with the capability of managing both stereo and surround mixes within the same audio project. SONAR supports 5.1, 7.1, and a host of other surround formats, and the surround panner reflects the surround mode you are working with.

SONAR ships with two native surround plugins: the Lexicon Pantheon surround reverb, and the Sonitus surround compressor. SONAR also includes a tool called the SONAR Surround Bridge, which to my knowledge is the only tool of its kind. When you add a stereo plugin to a surround bus, Surround Bridge automatically creates multiple instances of the plugin and allows you to manage the controls of all instances from a single UI. This means that all of the plugins use the same settings, as though it was a single surround effect. Or, you can choose to unlink any channel or individual control, letting you make channel or control specific changes. If you have ever done surround work, you know what a pain it is to have to use three or four stereo plugins at the same time. It can be like taking a beating. Surround Bridge is brilliant!

With SONAR 4’s extensive bussing capabilities, it’s possible to create a single project with simultaneous stereo and surround bussing. This is great if you are creating a project that will have to be mixed in both surround and stereo. You can immediately hear your changes in both 2-track and surround mixes at the same time. SONAR 4 also allows you to downmix any surround mix to a stereo output.

Cakewalk has provided an excellent surround tutorial on its website. This tutorial is a great place to find out about the process of surround mixing, and also a great place to learn about the use of SONAR in a surround environment. Check it out at http://www.cakewalk.com/Products/SONAR/Surroundtutorial.asp.

And as sales of surround sound-capable A/V receivers continues to increase from both movie and home music video DVDs, as well as CD replacements such as SACD and DVD-A, surround mixes will only continue to grow in popularity–something I discussed in my Blogcritics interview with Led Zeppelin engineer Kevin Shirley.

Surround mixing also opens Sonar up for non-music audio production for video: dialogue, music, sound effects, and Foley tracks could all be assembled in Sonar and then mixed down to a surround mix. As Rowan added in his own first look:

SONAR 4 does not offer video editing capabilities, and let’s hope it stays that way. However SONAR 4 does offer a video track, which allows you to display video in real time and see the video in the timeline, similar to other audio / video tools on the market. This makes creating and editing sound for video a snap. SONAR is easily one of the best tools on the market for constructing soundtracks and other sound for video work.

But music production is always going to be Sonar’s primary forte.

So What Does It Sound Like?

So what does the program sound like? Well, a lot like this, which is a tune I wrote and recorded over a period of about a week on Sonar 3. I played all the guitar parts (the main rhythm track is my Les Paul Custom through an AdrenaLinn sequencer patch; the solo is my Les Paul Standard through an AdrenaLinn Marshall amp simulation), played the bass and keyboard via Reason and my Roland guitar synth, and used a series of Sony’s Mick Fleetwood Acid Loops for most of the drum loops.

I sang on the tune originally back in June, but when my friend Jenifer Toksvig, a UK-based playwright and vocalist was visiting the US last month, I jumped at the chance of having her contribute to it, so we simply muted my vocal tracks and created new tracks for her vocals. (One huge benefit to hard disk recording: you get as many tracks as your hard drive and CPU will handle.)

I recorded six passes of her singing the tune (four complete takes up to the guitar solo, two more of the chorus), plus a separate track of ad-libs for the last chorus. I chose the best versions of each line of the song–sometimes cutting bar for bar–occasionally note for note and “comped” them into one track. She only hit that high note in the final chorus once, and it was during one of the previous choruses–so I simply cut and pasted that phrase into the last chorus as the song’s climactic moment. (Try doing that on audiotape!)

Finally, I mixed the song down to two tracks and mastered it using Iztotope’s Ozone mastering plug-in, all within Sonar.

As recording engineer Bill Park once told me:

Today’s home musician has access to better technology in his basement than the Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Lynyrd Skynyrd had access to when they cut their best work. Traffic, Hendrix, and many others made records on equipment that was poor even for the standards of the day and somehow still managed to sell millions.

Sonar 4 isn’t the software for someone new to multitrack recording-I’d probably recommend a program like Sony’s Music Studio, Steinberg’s Studio Case, or Cakewalk’s Home Studio, for someone who wanted to get his feet wet. And if you’re making the jump from audiotape-based multitrack recording to its hard disk-based cousin, you’ll still have a pretty healthy learning curve (as I found out around 2001 when I began to get involved in computer-based recording in earnest after a decade spent on four-track cassette from 1984 to about ’94). But if you’re looking for a program that can do it all-and do it extremely well-on your PC, Sonar 4 is pretty tough to beat.

If course, programs like Sonar can only do so much: I’d much rather have Roger Daltry singing on my tunes than my voice. Where’d I put his phone number?

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Cliff,

    For me, the best feature is the freeze function. As I mentioned in the review, I had gotten used to treating my lead tracks (vocals and solos) with Izotope’s Ozone, but it’s such a processor hog. The freeze function dropped the CPU usage considerably when plastering a track with multiple effects.


  • Oops, that’s “Korg”, of course … and the video is at the above url.

  • I produced the song for the above video, “If I Fall (Military Cut)” using Sonar 2, using a Kord X5. It took me … a while.

    I’m wondering if it’s really worth upgrading to Sonar 4. The only thing that might fit my needs is they claim that the workflow is better; is it really that much better?

  • Vlachakis Costas

    Im selling a Sonar 4 Producer Edition unopenned box. reasonalble price.
    Thank you.

  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating and invaluable insight into the program Ed, very much appreciated!