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Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer Review
Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer Expanded is a powerful digital audio workstation program that has come a long way in the past 10 years, but parts of it still seem dated.
(3 out of 5)
- Good value
- Attractive Skylight interface is a tremendous improvement
- Robust instrument plug-in bundle
- Stock ProChannel effects sound excellent and are built into every mixer channel
- No USB dongle required
- Downloadable version available for purchase.
- Decade-old Windows dialogs remain behind the new UI
- Needs a better limiter plug-in
- Skylight UI really needs a 1080p screen to come into its own
- Expanded effects and ProChannel UI improvements cost extra
- Troublesome audio interface configuration
- Still no Mac version.
If you’re a musician with a PC, you’ve probably heard of Cakewalk, the venerable recording software company that helped put PC-based recording on the map, back when Macs ruled music studios. Roland acquired Cakewalk in 2008, but SONAR X1 Producer ($499 direct) shows Cakewalk has no intention of slowing down. At a usual street price of $399—$100 less than Steinberg Cubase 6.5 ($499, 4 stars), and $300 less than Avid Pro Tools 10 ($699, 4 stars), both of which usually sell right at MSRP—SONAR X1 is a solid value, especially thanks to its upgraded ProChannel channel strip and gorgeous Skylight interface. But there are plenty of rough edges to steer around. While it’s a powerful program that’s easy to like, Cakewalk still has a lot of work to do.
Setup and Configuration
A brief recap: Cakewalk’s venerable sequencer has been around for 25 years, and was originally a solid competitor to Voyetra Sequencer Plus Gold for DOS—this a couple years before the first Adlib and Soundblaster sound cards appeared. Later, Cakewalk brought it into Windows 3.1, followed by Windows 95/98/ME versions that added digital audio recording. Then, back in 2001, Cakewalk began with a clean sheet of paper to produce SONAR, a more advanced DAW that looked a lot like the old Cakewalk but had a brand new recording engine. This, Cakewalk has steadily refined, with new SONAR versions appearing almost every year. SONAR X1 is the ninth major version of the program just in the past 10 years alone.
For this review, I tested Cakewalk SONAR X1d Producer—the latest build available—on four computers: a pair of quad-core Toshiba Qosmio 17.3-inch laptop and 18.4-inch laptops, and two custom-built, Core i7-based desktop PCs—a Sandy Bridge machine with 8GB of RAM, and an Ivy Bridge machine with 16GB RAM and a 240GB SSD system drive. All were running Windows 7 SP1, and all four machines ran the program flawlessly. I tested it with an M-Audio Fast Track ($149.99, 4 stars) and a Tascam US-122L. I even ran SONAR X1 for a while in Boot Camp on a 15-inch MacBook Pro under Windows 7 SP1 with no trouble.
One of the best things about SONAR is its lack of copy protection. Cakewalk lays down some rules—mainly, that you can’t sell or transfer the software, which is something you can do with a few of its USB dongle-based competitors. But the lack of a dongle means you can use the software on a laptop—or even Ultrabook—without fear of breaking the dongle off or losing it, or otherwise having to put up with ridiculous authorization schemes. There’s no challenge and response system, either; just install and go.
One persistent quirk remains, though: audio interface configuration. One of the things that always bothered me about SONAR was having to test WDM, ASIO, and even MME drivers, which continues to this day. It makes getting an audio interface to work exponentially more difficult, as everyone across the Internet seemed to be using different parameters; you ask in one forum, and half the people say to use ASIO and the other half say to use WDM. (A few even recommend MME, which is awful for latency.) On some machines, I had no trouble getting the two interfaces working, but on others—particularly the laptops—I heard pops and clicks constantly, with the audio engine working fine for two minutes and then just quitting. It would take hours of troubleshooting, reconfiguring, reinstalling, and rebooting, and then mysteriously, it would just work. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t necessarily Cakewalk’s fault, but sometimes too much choice adds confusion.
With that, let’s get down to business with SONAR X1 Producer. The highlight of the show is Skylight, the name Cakewalk gave SONAR’s brand new user interface. It’s a gem, too, as it combines some of the best elements from Logic, Pro Tools, and Cubase, and puts them together in a refreshingly simple layout devoid of SONAR 8.5′s cluttered, icon-heavy look. The new Control Bar at the top looks much more professional, and contains oversized track control buttons and easy access to the metronome, recording resolution, tempo, and meter. You can expand the control bar to add sections for loop recording, editing, and other features, and you can set the bar to float as well as stay affixed to the top. You can even drag and drop the various Control Bar sections around. The revised Synth Rack bundles all of the instrument plug-ins for your project in one window.
The new MultiDock is particularly flexible. You can arrange just about any combination of the track view, track inspector, score view, piano roll, and event list, and lock it so that everything is on one screen, similar to the way Logic Pro works on the Mac. You can still cue up extra screen sets as needed, but I found myself using the main screen alone more times than not, which really helped speed up workflow.
With the new interface comes a hidden system requirement, though. Cakewalk lists 1280-by-800-pixels as its minimum required screen resolution, but it should be considerably higher. I gave SONAR X1 a quick whirl on a Core i7-based laptop with a 1366-by-768-pixel screen, and it wasn’t fun: The default view showed only two tracks in the arrange section, and I had to collapse and expand almost everything on the screen each time I switched tasks. Even 1600-by-900, on one of the Toshiba Qosmio laptops, looked a little crunched. This program begs for a 1080p (1920-by-1080-pixel) screen, which the two desktop systems had, and which made SONAR X1 downright pleasurable to work in. All major DAWs, including Pro Tools, Logic, and Cubase, are easier to use at higher screen resolutions, but none seem to require one quite the way SONAR X1 does.
Despite X1′s revamped interface, if you’re a veteran Cakewalk user, you’ll still feel right at home once you get down to business. Everything looks different at first glance, but underneath the surface, all of the main modules—such as the piano roll, score editor, all the various effects and other plug-ins—work exactly the same as before. Some of this is fine. But particularly with regard to MIDI editing, MIDI plug-ins, and configuration pages, you’ll see practically the same dialog boxes you would have seen in Cakewalk Pro Audio 15 years ago. There’s still way too much “Windows 95″ underneath Skylight. It all works well enough. It just looks dated, complete with white dialog boxes and the old Windows system font. And targeting tiny Up and Down buttons for numerical values is never fun.
Workflow, ProChannel, and Expanded
With the UI out of the way, let’s get to some recording and mixing. SONAR X1 has been a full featured audio recorder and MIDI composition program for many years now, and Cakewalk’s experience here shows. Cakewalk doesn’t pull any of Avid’s feature-limited funny business with SONAR X1 Producer—well, almost (more on that later). With the $499 Producer version, you get unlimited audio, MIDI, and instrument tracks.
Track templates and FX Chains let you string together favorite plug-in and effect combinations, which you can then call up with a single click, much in the same way Logic’s Channel Strip presets work. You can now drag and drop almost anything, including audio clips, drum patterns, virtual instruments, and track templates. There’s also a per-track arpeggiator, which is something I wish every DAW had. The redesigned mixing board looks sharp and also works well for the most part, although again, you need plenty of screen real estate to see enough of it.
Our favorite feature in SONAR X1 Producer, though, has to be ProChannel. ProChannel models a high-end mixing console, and exists for every single audio and instrument track in your project. Essentially, it adds both channel and bus compression, musical EQ, drag and drop routing options, a highly customizable tube stage, and plenty of visual cues to aid you in its operation. Under the hood, it offers 64-bit double-precision resolution and works natively in 64-bit Windows 7. Cakewalk knew what they were doing here; the PC76 compressor models the legendary Urei 1176′s FET design, while the PC4K S-type bus compressor goes after SSL (without naming it, of course, thanks to copyright concerns).
SONAR X1′s optional Expanded pack ($49), new for 2012, is a mixed bag. You get a new Softube Saturation Knob for any track, plus access to optional expander and compressor modules (which, unfortunately, also cost extra). You also get modularity—meaning you can add or subtract modules on each channel, plus in-place scrolling, which lets you scroll the strip vertically while leaving the console in place. Most of this should have been folded into X1 Producer, or at least into the next version of SONAR. You can also buy additional ProChannel modules, either separately or as part of a $179 bundle.
Overall, SONAR X1 is solid with MIDI, and better with audio than Cakewalk Pro Audio ever was. That said, while I had no problem building multi-channel sound effects and doing other post-production work inside of SONAR, sliding audio clips around and generally treating it like a multitrack audio deck still felt a little clumsy compared with Pro Tools and Logic. I couldn’t put my finger on it—maybe it was the hesitation each time I started playback, or the way SONAR X1 seemed to prefer to lock everything to bars and beats by default (which you can disable, although it takes multiple steps). It may just be a personal preference thing.
Plug-in Bundle and Conclusions
The rest of Cakewalk’s plug-in bundle is surprisingly robust, even though it’s mostly unchanged since version 8. With the exception of orchestral sounds, SONAR X1 contains enough built-in instruments to act as an excellent, self-contained studio program from start to finish. You get a full version of Dimension Pro, Cakewalk’s multitimbral workstation synth plug-in that covers all the bread-and-butter sounds you’ll need for most productions. (Cakewalk still sells Dimension Pro separately, albeit for a reduced $99—and it only works on Mac OS X 10.5 or 10.6, not Lion, at least at the time of this writing.) TruePianos delivers a fairly convincing grand piano imitation. UltraBeat is a full-featured drum synthesizer, while Session Drummer 3 provides a good array of usable drum samples. Third-party plug-ins like Toontrack EZDrummer still offer more realism, although you can add sound packs to Session Drummer 3 via Cakewalk’s website.
On the mixing side, SONAR has included Sonitus effects and dynamics plug-ins for the past decade. Having them around is useful, although ProChannel largely negates the need for the compressors and EQ. Boost11 is Cakewalk’s default limiter and maximize plug-in. It’s just okay, in that it gets some additional level out of the master bus. But I couldn’t come close to what iZotope Ozone is capable of, or even Logic’s bundled Adaptive Limiter. As I nudged the level up, I heard plenty of audible crunching in the signal. The bundled Sonitus plug-ins are no help here, either, as there’s no dedicated master bus limiter. (Incidentally, Cakewalk now sells Concrete Limiter, an optional module for ProChannel Expanded, though once again it’s extra cost.)
Otherwise, I’ve never had any major issues working in SONAR. For example, I put together a chill-out style track in SONAR X1 Producer, using nothing but instruments and plug-ins that come with the program. I didn’t feel at any point like I needed to use third-party plug-ins. Thanks to ProChannel, I was able to add some warmth and tube-style saturation to many of the tracks, as well as polish off the entire track as a whole. I’ve also scored many computer and mobile games over the years using earlier versions of SONAR, so I was familiar with the program to begin with. But this was probably the first time I felt like I could stay entirely within Cakewalk’s environment and not be at a sonic disadvantage.
If you’re buying a DAW for the first time, SONAR X1 offers plenty of value. I’m giving it some tough love in this review, but I still enjoy working in it. Unlike with Avid and Steinberg, Cakewalk doesn’t have any higher end programs to compete with SONAR X1 Producer, so you’re getting everything the company has to offer. Well, almost everything—its recent split-off into the Expanded version is a bit of a disappointment, as it’s a sneaky way to bump the otherwise reasonable list price higher.
Avid Pro Tools 10 remains the standard across professional studios, and Apple Logic Pro 9 ($199.99, 4.5 stars) now takes the crown for extreme value on the Mac side. But if you’ve got a PC—and especially, if you’ve ever used Cakewalk software before in the past 20+ years—give SONAR X1 Producer a hard look. Despite its numerous and sometimes frustrating flaws, it’s still the best DAW the company has ever produced, and one we could easily work in full time.
By Jamie Lendino, PCMag