Cakewalk Sonar 4 Producer Edition review
If Sonar’s reputation as a professional music-production tool isn’t on a par with the esteem held for Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools, there’s little substance to back this up. For many years Sonar has been the best audio sequencer available for those needing real-time loop manipulation alongside capable MIDI-editing and audio-mixing tools. Ableton Live 4 and Cubase SX3 have both closed in on this market in recent months, but Sonar is back with new features that will delight existing users and should find it plenty of new fans.
Sonar 3’s limitation to stereo mixing looked a little weak compared to Cubase’s mature surround support, but version 4 fixes this. Thirty-seven surround formats are supported to cover every type of music or film project, and the excellent Lexicon Pantheon reverb and Sonitus:fx compression plug-ins now come in surround versions. Even more impressive is SurroundBridge, which allows any stereo plug-in to be applied to a surround mix bus, with the plug-in automatically duplicated to match the selected surround configuration.
Most of the other new features aren’t as original. Track freezing, which renders tracks to hard disk to conserve processing power and is included in Cubase and Logic, is now supported here. Logic also seems to be the inspiration for track folders; these don’t just help to keep the timeline tidy, they also make it considerably easier to edit multiple-microphone recordings and other multiple-track sounds. The new Navigator view is a condensed timeline that helps with navigation of the main Track window. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Overview in Ableton Live, although Cakewalk’s version is a little bigger and easier to use.
One of our favourite new features is the ability to record multiple takes to a single track, with each performance stacked below the previous one. This is perfect for recording vocals without having to worry about what track to record each take onto, and the new Mute tool makes light work of piecing together the perfect take. It’s similar to Cubase’s Stacked Recording introduced in SX2, but, once again, Sonar does it better, as you’re free to play any combination of takes back at the same time rather than just one at a time; this makes overlapping and cross-fading takes for seamless editing easier to achieve.
Sonar is adept at automatic pitch-shifting and time-stretching of sample loops, although not with the ease of Sony Acid or the flexibility of Ableton Live. Sonar now includes volume, pan and pitch envelopes for loops – it’s an identical feature to that offered by Live, right down to the way these envelopes operate in blocks rather than vector points or curves. This is a missed opportunity that could have given Sonar an edge for radical sound design, although Live’s Warp Markers ensure that it takes top-billing in this respect.
With software synthesizers playing an increasingly important role in music production, it’s good to see the inclusion of a general workhorse DirectX Instrument (DXi) plug-in, the TTS-1, which comes loaded with sounds courtesy of synth manufacturer Roland. However, although its sounds are reasonably high quality, they’re a little pedestrian, and sadly its inclusion comes at the expense of the excellent VSampler software included with Sonar 3.
Sonar 4’s new features may be less than revolutionary (with the exception of the ingenious SurroundBridge), but built on such a capable all-rounder it’s hard to imagine a musician or engineer it wouldn’t suit. Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason and Sony Acid all have their unique talents for loop-based composition, but none come anywhere near Sonar’s aptitude for MIDI editing or provide as sophisticated a mixing environment.