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logic, cubase sx, sonar:
which sequencer 
is best?  


Comparing the Top 3 Sequencers

Page 1

Page        1        2         3             Screen Shots of Sequencers

Revision 9   May 2007

By Rich the TweakMeister

Ok dudes, this article is now in its 8th revision and has spanned 6 years!  You know how I hate these "what is the best" questions by now.  And here is why: There are so many variables to consider! Here I will go over the many of the main variables that make a quality sequencer.  Also near the end of the article I try to draw some conclusions, and give a view on what the future may bring to each application.  Lets get started.  

  Steinberg Cubase Studio Recording Software (Macintosh and Windows) Cubase Studio 4 is a new workstation tailored to project studios and creative musicians. Based on the same core technologies as Steinberg's Cubase 4 Advanced Music Production System, the streamlined Cubase Studio 4 offers professional tools for composition, recording, editging and mixing at an extremely attractive price.

Steinberg Cubase 4 Recording Software (Macintosh and Windows) Cubase 4 represents the cutting edge in digital audio workstations. Designed for professionals from the ground up, Cubase converges extraordinary sound quality, intuitive handling and a vast range of highly advanced audio and MIDI tools for composition, recording, editing and mixing.

Apple Logic Studio Music Production Software (Macintosh) Introducing Logic Studio, Apple‚€™s comprehensive suite of professional tools that

Apple Logic Studio Express Music Production Software (Macintosh) Logic Express 8 makes it easier than ever to translate musical inspiration into professional recordings. A redesigned interface and a range of powerful, easy-to-use features put sophisticated tools at your fingertips.

Cakewalk SONAR Home Studio XL (Windows) SONAR Home Studio XL adds exceptional value and more power with a selection of over one gigabyte of instrument sounds, Boost 11 Peak Limiter, Dimension LE, Session Drummer 2 drum instrument, and more.

Cakewalk SONAR Studio Recording Software (Windows) Don‚€™t sacrifice features for affordability‚€”SONAR 7 Studio Edition offers the best creative tools, and the most power of any digital audio workstation in its price range. Built upon the same core feature set as SONAR 7 Producer Edition, SONAR 7 Studio Edition gives you the edge in your productions ‚€”from recording audio and MIDI, composing with virtual instruments, remixing with loops, mixing with professional effects, to delivery of a polished final track‚€”with the recognized best audio quality of the industry.

Cakewalk SONAR PowerStudio 250 SONAR Power Studio 250 represents the most complete and portable USB audio production system available with perfectly matched, full featured hardware and software. SONAR Power Studio 250 pairs SONAR Studio Edition with the Cakewalk SPS-25 USB Audio & MIDI interface, along with a wide range of instruments and effects to maximize your creation and editing capabilities.

Cakewalk SONAR PowerStudio 660 SONAR Power Studio 660 represents the most complete and portable FireWire audio production system available with perfectly matched, full featured hardware and software. SONAR Power Studio 660 pairs SONAR Studio Edition with the Cakewalk SPS-66 FireWire Audio & MIDI interface, along with a wide range of instruments and effects to maximize your creation and editing capabilities.

Cakewalk SONAR Producer Recording Software (Windows) Take a fresh look at your evolving music creation and production needs, and turn to SONAR 7 Producer Edition, the technology leading digital audio workstation. SONAR offers a remarkable experience that excels at every step of your production‚€”from its inspiring, open and customizable environment, to intuitive music creation and editing tools, to polished mixing, editing and delivery‚€”with the recognized best audio quality in the industry.

Cakewalk SONAR Home Studio (Windows) SONAR Home Studio 6 gives you everything you need to turn your PC into a complete music production studio. Record live instruments and vocals and mix them with studio-quality audio effects. Edit audio, MIDI, and music notation. Build backing tracks or entire songs with hundreds of included instrument sounds and tempo-syncing loops. SONAR Home Studio 6 is the complete solution for creating and sharing your music.

People often ask me which sequencer "is best". If I am in a bad mood, i will simply scowl at the person and mutter something unintelligible under my breath.  Though I usually respond with the typical quick generalities that you may have heard before.  There is just too much to say here.  So I have decided to write it all down one time, so when the next person asks I can just give them an URL.  I will tell you straight off that this article is biased.   I am a mainly a Logic Power user, and have been using Emagic sequencers since 1988.   But at several moments during my musical journey's I have "jumped ship"--I couldn't bear the idea that someone had a better sequencer than I did, and there was simply no material anywhere which compared them.  So I had to find out for myself by buying them all, learning them all, and making music with them.  I use all three.  In the course of working with all three I found that each had a unique personality and well defined strengths, and glaring weaknesses.  Note: This is by no means a comprehensive, unbiased summary of sequencer features.   It is completely a result of my personal experience and preferences, and may contain unintentional errors.  Also note that I don't include Pro Tools LE.  This is simply because I have never had it.  My apologies to everyone for anything I omitted or ignored. Ok, now that I've grounded myself, lets get into the fray.  


The sequencer itself is a form of art.   Its an art that generates art, and captures a hopefully uninterrupted flow of creative juice.  This is just to say that sequencers should be judged on their artistic merits---how well they merge with your personal flow of musicality. 

The world's three top sequencers in my less than humble opinion are Apple Logic Pro (which replaced Emagic's Logic Audio Platinum), Cubase SX (which replaced Cubase VST)  and Cakewalk's Sonar (which replaced Cakewalk).  This page was originally written in May of 1999 and compared Logic Audio Platinum 3.6, Cubase VST 3.6 and Cakewalk Pro 7. This article is now in its 7th revision, and when finished (we are under construction here, once again) will include Sonar 4.0, Apple Logic Pro 7 and Cubase SX3.  You'll see the process of how the they changed over time.

All three of these great products will get the job done; all have active user support groups, and are being continuously updated and improved.  Each one is a triumph in a way, of human beings using a computer to make the most sublime of the arts, music! 

All three of these applications have been around in one form or another since the earliest days of personal computers and are mature products.  All three come in different versions for beginners, intermediate, and professional users.  If you are only doing General MIDI sequencing, for example, for the net, the basic versions such as GarageBand, Logic Express, Cubase SE, and Cakewalk Express or Home Studio will probably suit your needs just fine.  However, if you plan to do extensive audio work, using lots of plugins or audio instruments or are wanting to use multiple analog and digital audio outs of your interface to connect external hardware such as a mixer, multi-track, SMPTE devices, you should probably go full bore and get the top version programs.  The more high end your gear is, the more you may want the high end features of the full professional versions. 

The sequencer as an artistic set of tools

If we consider a sequencer to be like a vast set of tools, the differences are illumined somewhat.  While all three applications do the same thing, they use different tools to get there.  Some of these tools are easier to use than others; some do the task more completely but are harder to use.  The true test for a sequencer is to have the right tool available when you need it. Much as a woodworker goes about making an intricate carved design, the tools themselves often inspire what is possible and not possible in the design. 

The sequencer itself is a form of art.   Its an art that generates art, and captures a hopefully uninterrupted flow of creative juice.  This is just to say that sequencers should be judged on their artistic merits---how well they merge with your personal flow of musicality.  If you can't maintain inspiration with a music recorder, its really not the right one for you. Find one that lets you play freely.  If demos are available, take them for a spin.  

Having tools are one thing.  How they are implemented is another, and unfortunately, there is no spec sheet in the world that can tell you how well features are implemented.  So, what determines the quality of implementation?  It is 1) Ease of use. The number of mouse clicks it takes to invoke a certain function is important, even the locality of the feature.  Is it right where you need it or buried in a distant menu?  We humans are lazy creatures.  2) The usefulness, stability and predictability of the results (does it always work? sound good? absence of crashes, lockups, etc.).  3) Graphic User Interface (GUI) used. Good graphics help you understand the feature in the context of your music. Do the graphics also give a consistent feel and provide a pleasant environment to work in? Can you read the small text comfortably?  These are just a handful of viewpoints from the thousands of comparisons that can be made.

Overall Look and Feel

My ranking:  Cubase SX2, Logic 6, Sonar 3

Fall 1999  Logic is the most customizable of the sequencers.  You can set up 90 screensets and position multiple windows anywhere you want on the screen, which are instantly recallable by key commands, rather than mouse clicks. Once set up, and the learning curve endured, you can work fast and furious.   Cubase is the least flexible as of version 3.6.  However, Cubase has a great look, its quite inspiring.  Perhaps that is an understatement.  VST is darn cool!  Still, you have to take it the way they give it to you and its easy to run out of room for all the windows you want open.  Cakewalk has caught on to the screenset idea, but as of version 7,  you had to select it from a menu.  Just what I want to do when i have a great musical idea is plod through menus--NOT! And personally, I find Cake's look uninspiring and when I add all the mousing around I have to do...gee its time for a doze.  However, my tastes run towards deep tweaking.  As a simple track recorder, you might like the walk of cakes.  

Spring 2001  (VST5, Logic 4.8, Cake Pro Audio 9) Improvements noted at Cakewalk and with VST, but they still do not de-throne Logic, whose look has changed slightly.  Cakewalk still looks like a room of venetian blinds, though it's Mixer has been improved and now has user customizable faders, knobs, leds, meters and lots of cool stuff.  Still not as cool as VST's look. Cake will let you store and name screen layouts in a much more friendly way, yet they are far from the one keypress screenset that Emagic has.  Cake has also improved in the area of key commands with user definable key bindings.  You can also trigger these functions from your midi keyboard, something Logic has had for some time.  One thing I love about Cakewalk is that you can store 'presets' for all its major functions like "quantize" "groove" and FX just like you can with most audio plugins. 

Summer 2002  (SX-1, Sonar 1, Logic 5.5 )  Cubase now has screensets well implemented and has included right click context menus at many places.  Logic still has not made major gains with right clicking, but their screensets remain the fastest. Logic finally has offered different backgrounds in tasteful shades.   Sonar has greatly improved it's overall look as well, but certain parts of the program still look too basic, most notably, the mixer. I give SX the nod in this category for it's feel.  The audio handling is smooth and glitchless.  The program has cut down on a lot of flash since VST5, but it still looks impressive as well as functional.

Fall 2003 (SX-2, Logic 6, Sonar 3) Sonar's screensets, called "layouts" are doing well.  I like them better than SX's screensets.  Logic is still untouchable here.

Fall 2004  (SX-3, Logic 7, Sonar 4) The overall look of the applications has seen substantial work.  Cubase has improved its user definable workspaces, which are savable and recallable.  Logic still has 90 screensets, a feature that rocks. All have zoomable content in the important windows, scrolling windows, let you have many windows open at once.

Summer 2005

Sonar's Mixer has had another facelift, particularly with better metering.  This is improving it's image dramtically, as it is leaving behind a legacy of clumsy graphics towards one that is professionals will appreciate.  Cubase is now able to manage its definable workspaces better.  Logic has seen little change in its interface since 7, now at 7.1.

Summer 2007 (Sonar 6, Cubase 4, Logic 7 )

Kudos to Sonar for letting the user configure the screens to a greater degree.  You now can do custom color schemes like Cubase and have a lot of the eye candy features that Sonar historically stripped away.  Sonar redesigned their mixer again! Cubase 4 has few graphic upgrades.  Logic 7.2 is till where it was in Fall of 2004.

 Winter 2009 (Cubase 5. Sonar 8.5 and Logic 9)

As of Logic 8, the GUI was changed where the windows locked together.  Much better contextual menus were available too. 



Audio Features

May 99: Ranking  Cubase VST (3.6), Logic (3.6), Cakewalk Pro 7. The gap between the three is very narrow here as it is where the competition is most intense.  All three sequencers record and playback audio very well, depending more on the hardware you use than anything else.  What is up for debate is how much control each gives you over the audio tracks, the quality of the plugins, and how well they are implemented how they sound and look. Cubase's audio mixer, with expandable EQs and VST plugins is to me the most aesthetically pleasing and controllable as of this writing.  I find I can get the audio result i want quicker and easier and I love the look.   Cubase gets the edge too in innovative plugin design. Practically everything can be automated.   Cakewalk's while very nice are more conservative.   However, Emagic is very close behind. While Emagic's plugins are more utilitarian in appearance, their sound is just as good, if not better.  VST gave the more of a feel of being at an actual virtual console, followed by Cakewalk with an excellently implemented "Console View", then Logic with its "Adaptive Mixer"  But arranging the audio tracks was even another story.  Logic has in my mind the most superior editing, cutting, pasting, copying, looping, and regioning facilities in the arrange window.  Cubase and Cakewalk were very close behind. 

Cubase SX Links

K-v-R VSTi/DXi/Logic Resources Check out
the latency ratings on asio drivers and other
cool things.

Sonar Links


Logic Links

Notator and Logic: A Pictorial History

Logic Users
Great all around Logic Site

Logic Users Group
One of the Largest and longest
 running mailing lists

Len Sasso's
The environment master!

As of this juncture, if I was going to do a straight 8 track audio piece, with no MIDI I'd go VST.   If I was going to do a 20 track audio piece with heavy MIDI I'd choose Logic.   If I was out to make a real audio file from a few audio tracks I'd choose cakewalk. If I was going to make a professional midifile, I'd probably do the tracking in Logic and then import it to cakewalk for the final mix. Your mileage may vary.  

Oct 99: Logic 4.0  easily surpasses Cubase 3.6 and Cakewalk 7  (sorry don't have Cake v8 and VST4 is not yet released)  Let me add if I was going to make a techno/ dance piece, I'd probably lean towards Cubase, since I could use Rebirth with it.  But plugins are another story. Now that Logic Audio Platinum 4 is released, I can say that its audio features and its new plugins surpass, in my opinion, any other sequencer available.  But its still a close race and remember though, I am biased.  The new look and added audio functionality makes you feel like you are at a full audio console.  And you can manage it better than VST, where its sometimes hard to get all the faders you want to see on the screen.  The new Logic Plugins are outstanding and do a lot to "catch up" and often surpass VST.  and have the variety of a full featured multi FX unit, with the flexibility to cable them up in the virtual domain.  Adjusting parameters of the effects is far easier than VST's modules, and they are set up to musical defaults.  Yet we will have to see what VST 4 brings.  It's very likely they will run neck and neck for quite a time to come.  

Y2k Update:  No change: I've not changed my mind, even though now you can use Rebirth with Logic, its just a darn shade cooler in VST.  Something about VST perhaps it is all the coolness of the look, just makes we want to techno-trance-dance all night. If you are the type of composer that likes to shut off all the lights and watch the faders dance on the screen, you will Love VST.  However, if I have to add more than a handful of midi tracks I'll mixdown to wave in cubase and import the audiofile to logic and then cook up the MIDI tracks there.  Yep, one of the coolest things about having both is you can go back and forth if you want, or create parts in one and import them to the other. 

Spring 2001:  (VST5, Logic 4.8, Cake Pro Audio 9) This is a rough time for all sequencers as Win XP is replacing Win 98SE. Also our computers got faster, allowing for more tracks, more plugins, more cool graphics.  Some features of VST are simply fabulous, like the track EQs.  You no longer have to turn those little dials with the mouse but can sweep the mouse across a grid and make the curve.  The plugins look cooler too!

Its a draw between VST and Logic, with Cake farther back.  Its obvious each program has done considerable work improving, streamlining, and fixing problems with their audio engines.    Cakewalk's new wave pipe and Emagic's new audio drivers are examples of "under the hood" updates  that while they may not be as visible on the screen, as soon as you try to do something with audio you will feel the difference in ease of operation.  So, for today, i was going to make a 100 % virtual piece using only software synths I'd go to VST.  As soon and MIDI enters the picture, or extensive audio tracks I am back to Logic.  If I needed to do a DJ piece with ripped samples--its hard to beat the VST /recycle combo.  However, messing with loops I'd be away from all three and using ACID, importing the resulting tracks to Logic.  If I started a dance track with Rebirth, no brainer here, I'd go to VST.  If I was going to cook up new non ripped original sounds with Dynamo, then I'd use Logic.  Why?  Because you can use both Emagic and Steinberg plugins.   

Summer 2002  (SX-1, Sonar 1, Logic 5.5 )There has been so much happening since I last wrote I cannot get to anything but highlights here.  Cakewalk shocked the sequencer community with Sonar, which remains, as of this writing, the only sequencer to let you use audio loops and have them automatically stretch to compress to tempo.  Both Emagic and Steinberg were caught with their pants down on this one, as this feature is in demand these days.    Steinberg has merged much of the Cubase VST code with code from it's flagship audio sequencer, Nuendo. The outcome was a new product:  Cubase SX. The main new feature is "offline audio processing" which dramatically speeds up the way you work with audio and reduces the CPU bottle neck at the same time.   Emagic has made a few changes to the audio engine to make it stronger. There great new plugins of the mastering variety, allowing logic users to try their hand at mastering their own works.  Logic also has added hooks to Recycle to allow for the time stretching of loops. It's different that the "acid style" loop facilities Sonar has.  Some say better, but not faster. We'll get more into the specifics as we get into the plugins and automation engines of these products.

Fall 2003  (SX-2, Logic 6, Sonar 3) Logic 6 has incorporated a new "freeze" function similar to SX's offline processing.  Sonar 3 can do offline effects processing, but it is not as controllable as the others.  Sonar 3 lets you use audio snips as groove clips, and it has improved this functionality to keep it ahead of the others.  We have to wait to see what SX 2.0 brings.  Logic6 now lets you time stretch audio loops in the arrange with the mouse, a much needed improvement. 

Fall 2004 (SX-3, Logic 7, Sonar 4) Sonar 4 now adds the freeze function, both Cubase and Logic say thay have added improvements this feature.  Cubase SX3 and Logic Pro7 both finally add automatic tempo-based stretching of audio loops.  This is going to steal the edge Sonar has enjoyed in the domain of making beats.  It's going to lessen the need to run other helpers such as the Ableton Live and Intakt in Cubase and Logic. Using audio loops is popular for newbies and some hip hop and trance artists, but the pros will shrug as they usually make their own from scratch with every song.

Summer 2005  (SX-3, Logic 7, Sonar 4)

Cubase added "Audio warping" in V3 and now its really hot.  It audio editor leads the pack.  Logic, on the other hand, made some minor improvement to its loop browser, now allows apple loop creation and sports a major new feature called "follow tempo", where audio tracks, not just loops, can match up to tempo.  Sonar 4 has finally got track freeze, and I am sure the Sonarians are happy about that with all the cpu intensive stuff out now. All 3 now have 32-bit floating point audio engines. 

Summer 2007  (Cubase 4, Sonar 6, Logic 7)

Cubase dropped the "SX" and now is just called Cubase 4 and is offering "Control Room integration" of your outboard hardware, among other audio features to be discussed in a bit.  Sonar moves ahead with a new audio quantize engine called "Audio Snap".  The world awaits Logic 8.  Silence is deadly.

Fall 2007.

Logic finally made improvements to its audio editor in Logic Pro 8, but also bundled in Sound Track Pro II.  This is a much better solution.  It not only give Logic the non destructive offline editor that Cubase has enjoyed since SX-1, it does so with all the freedom a separate application offers in terms of screen real estate, available features, and stability.

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