Cakewalk Sonar 6 review

£280
Price when reviewed

Choosing an audio sequencer is a long-term commitment, but those who have plumped for Sonar over the past five years have good reason to feel smug. Building on Cakewalk Pro, which dates back to the early 1990s, Sonar 1 managed to be both innovative and comprehensive. Six versions in, it’s hard to find a feature it lacks or a user it can’t cater for, especially in the Producer Edition reviewed here. Yet Cakewalk finds room for improvement, with four headline new features plus the usual raft of minor tweaks.

Cakewalk Sonar 6 review

First up is a new effect plug-in called Vintage-Channel VC-64. It combines two compressors, two sets of four-band parametric EQ, a gate and a de-esser, using digital modelling techniques of analogue audio components to capture the warmth of vintage analogue audio processors. It’s arguably the best compressor and EQ to be bundled with music-production software, particularly for retro-fuzziness guitar sounds that are currently popular. Its only real weakness is that it’s a little awkward to use, particularly when it comes to routing.

Session Drummer 2 joins the already impressive instrument line-up. It’s a drum sample playback device with limited customisation, other than picking from the small collection of sample banks and associated MIDI loops – you can program your own MIDI parts too. However, the key to its success is some exceptionally well-recorded sounds. There are only ten drums per preset, but each is recorded at various levels to capture a full range of tones. The result is extremely realistic, while the ability to output each sound to a different mixer channel means there’s plenty of scope to experiment with their production.

Audio Snap is the most ambitious of the new features. At its simplest, it’s a quantise function for audio tracks, allowing the user to lock audio recordings to the master tempo as easily as with MIDI recordings. The processing behind this is complex, but Cakewalk’s algorithm allows for quite large shifts in timing without significant degradation in audio quality.

Audio Snap has plenty of other uses. It can generate a groove template from a recording and map it onto other audio and MIDI recordings – perfect for locking a synth bassline to a sampled drum loop. Once Audio Snap has analysed a file, vertical bars appear to denote the beginning of detected notes or drum hits. It’s then possible to drag these around manually – useful to fix a few timing errors without ironing the life out of it. Audio Snap can even work on multiple tracks simultaneously, although processing multi-microphone drum recordings will result in phasing problems. While similar to Ableton Live’s Warp Markers and Sony Acid’s Groove Mapping, Audio Snap is a superb feature that has its strengths, particularly when it comes to live recordings.

Those with hardware MIDI controllers will be interested in Active Controller Technology, or ACT to give it its snappier title. Extra knobs, sliders and buttons are common on a wide range of MIDI keyboards and dedicated controllers, but it isn’t always obvious how to map them onto the virtual equivalents in the software. ACT provides automatic mapping of these controllers, depending on which panel is highlighted. It’s a versatile and powerful system, but isn’t easy to set up and, after a few hours’ use, we found it rather cumbersome. Still, those willing to persevere should find it a valuable feature. Other new features include a redesigned Synth Rack for managing software instruments and various tweaks to the Console (mixer) and Transport displays.

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