Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition review

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A few years ago, choosing PC music-production software was a straightforward task. If you wanted to record and mix live instruments, Cubase was the obvious choice. If loop manipulation was your thing, Acid Pro was the way forward. Ableton Live was primarily a performance tool and Propellerhead Reason, a collection of high-quality synths. Today, these distinctions are much less clear. Cubase now offers real-time loop manipulation, Ableton Live includes comprehensive MIDI editing, and the recently announced Acid Pro 6 promises multitrack recording.

Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition review

While general-purpose and loop-oriented software continues to converge, Sonar has always straddled both camps. Version 4 wasn’t the most innovative music-production software on the market, but by imitating and often improving on the best features of its competitors Cakewalk delivered an extremely versatile package. Its multitrack recording plus fine level audio and MIDI editing facilities were a match for even Cubase SX, while its route-anything-anywhere mix architecture, superb effects library, and the facility to move, duplicate and reorder effects simply by dragging them with the mouse made it our top recommendation for PC-based recording and mixing. Meanwhile, Acid-style automatic tempo matching of samples and some impressive loop manipulation tools made Sonar equally adept as a composition tool.

Having already outshone Cubase and Acid Pro, Sonar 5 sets its sights on Reason, with a swathe of new instrument plug-ins that go way beyond the starter packs bundled with most packages. Pentagon I is an awe-inspiring analog-style synthesizer with a wealth of modulation options and a gargantuan sound to match. PSYN II follows similar lines – behind its tabbed interface is a complex synth engine. Its tone is more controlled and clinical than Pentagon I’s and, although it isn’t quite as spine-tingling, its scope for experimentation is vast.

The rest of the instruments add up to a well-balanced, high-quality collection, with a pair of sample-based synths from Roland, a ReCycle loop player and a sampling drum machine. In fact, the only notable absence is a general-purpose sampler, but it’s unfair to complain when – Reason aside – the competition’s instrument collections don’t come anywhere close to Sonar’s.

The effects library has a couple of exciting new additions too. Perfect Space is a convolution reverb plug-in, using impulse responses captured in real spaces to give extremely realistic acoustic simulations. Its impulse response library is rather light on concert halls and churches, focusing more on experimental effects such as piano resonances, caves, guitar amps and toy microphones. These can produce interesting results, but we recommend a trip to to stock up on more practical impulse responses. The other notable addition is a multiband compressor, which is great for giving wide-bandwidth sounds such as drums and full mixes a larger-than-life presence.

V-Vocal is a software reincarnation of Roland’s VariPhrase technology, the audio equivalent of Silly Putty. Recordings can be re-pitched, either to correct tuning problems in the style of Antares Auto-Tune, to harmonise melodies or to completely redesign them beyond all recognition. Timing, volume and vocal formants are manipulated with similar levels of elasticity. For vocals, this is the most exciting new processor around, and trying it on other sounds can lead to some interesting, if rather unpredictable, results.

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