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Review of Sonar 8.5

More improvements, a better look, hardware integration

Sonar 8.5

Sonar 8.5 screenshot


Sonar is impressive.  Let there be no doubt amongst the staunch believers of other sequencer religions. Sonar has been up to serious speed since Version 4.  Its not only functional, but it looks great too, particularly (as with all sequencers) on a big monitor that lets you keep a lot of windows open.  Sonar is also a well-optimized Windows application. It has been around since the very first MIDI sequencers.  With the introduction of Sonar 8, I think we are seeing, for the first time, that Sonar has caught up to and even surpassed other sequencers in many important areas, particularly hardware integration.


Yes. Other sequencers let you use 3rd party control surfaces like the Mackie Control Universal as a hardware controller, which is necessarily separate from the audio interface. Cakewalk has gone the step further with the development of the V-Studio 700 Recording System, built in collaboration with Roland.  (Roland now owns a controlling stake in Cakewalk).   Lets take a look at the V-studio 700.  Note that there is also a less expensive rack version called the V-Studio 700R and a smaller control surface called the V-Studio 100.

But don't get the idea that you need to have the V-studio to use Sonar.  Its is a complete recording, editing an mixing environment in itself.  You should get a keyboard controller and an audio interface, as with any sequencer, but beyond that, you get all the basic software instruments and audio processors you need in to make music.  As you go from the Home studio to Studio to Producer versions you simply get more and better of these items.

For Sonar Producer 8.5 we are seeing an unbelievable number of add-ins that are bound to make any serious electonic musician smile (or frown, if they happen to be on a different sequencer platform!)  Here's some highlights that I like (you can read the full list of new features in 8.5 on Caewalk's site:

Session drummer 3.  It looks like a page out of drumkit from hell, except in a nicer room (than hell).  Build a kit by dragging files to the drum.  Lots of free content.  Nice.

Matrix View:  This offers cell based triggering of samples, sequences, one shots.  You touch a cell and it starts.  Sort of like Ableton Live, sort of like the Fantom's Pads, sort of MPC ish.  That is is in Sonar is very cool.  It gives a "non-linear" arranger.  Ah, right up my alley.

Roland V-Vocal:  Roland's VariPhrase technology, now in Sonar.  Remember, Roland is in bed with Sonar.  Children everywhere!  lol.  This is the Cakemaker's answer to Cubase's VariAudio and of course Melodyne and AutoTune.  But can it do T-Pain? I hope to have an answer soon as i know that is what EVERYONE wants.  Where are my Big Teeth... Big Teeth

There's a lot more in Sonar 8.5. 

Tweak's assessment:  Cakewalk is moving in the right direction and is way ahead of Cubase in terms of features.  Cubase may have a larger following built up, but that can change gradually.  The experience of dealing with Cakewalk as a company is as good as it has always been.  Sonar may be ahead of pro Tools LE as well in terms of features.  But features on tell part of the story.  Whether you like the interface and can figure it out is also just as important.  I am not equipped to answer that for you.  We all have our preferences.  One of mine is that the application never crash.  Unfortunately I have yet to find a recording application on the PC or Mac platform that does not crash.   In my experience, i will simply say Sonar is not the worst.  I  believe this is an area the whole industry needs to work on.  



Cakewalk Sonar V-Studio 700 Recording System




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Cakewalk SONAR Producer Recording Software (Windows)
Sonar 8 Producer gives you what you need for recording, composing, editing, mixing, and mastering. Get innovations that matter, from exclusive features to ignite creativity and perfect your tracks, to groundbreaking technologies that always keep you in control, all backed by the industry's leading 64-bit audio quality. And Sonar 8 Producer delivers the go-to production tools you want with the best collection of virtual instruments, mixing, and mastering effects found in any DAW.



From Previous Reviews  Sonar 4 Studio

Important New Features in Sonar 5
  • Roland Variphrase Technology. Automatic pitch correction, vibrato, re-phrasing, dynamics and more

  • PSYN™ II subtractive synth, Pentagon™ I vintage analog synth, Roland® GrooveSynth™, SFZ SoundFont sampler, RXP ™ REX Player groove box

  • Perfect Space™ Convolution Reverb

  • Updated MIDI FX plug-ins

  • Inline audio and MIDI editing, arranging, and mixing all in one view

  • Envelope automation
  • BitBridge™ enables 32-bit VST effects and instruments in SONAR’s 64-bit environment

  • Remove DC offset during recording

  • Dynamic Console View with per-channel EQ and assignable FX controls

  • SurroundBridge™—use your favorite stereo effect plug-ins in surround

  • Advanced step recording

  • Edit and print traditional staff notation

  • Video output to 1394 FireWire devices for high quality viewing with lower CPU and disk usage

  • Sync to and send SMPTE/MTC for scoring external video

  • OMFI & Broadcast Wave import/export for collaboration with Digital Performer, Logic, Nuendo, and Pro Tools studios



My Test: I tried Sonar 4.02 Studio with the latest drivers (PatchMix 1.71, driver 1.8)) for my emu 1820M, with asio drivers ticked.  I had no problems with it.  This was not true with earlier emu drivers.  However, while running emulator X (1.51) I had a graphic problem.  The soft sampler appeared top have the jitters redrawing the screen with every mouse click.  It still worked, but it was a bit disconcerting to see. (1.52 still has redraw issues, but the jittering has stopped) . But anyway, that is an emu problem I think, not a sonar problem.  Other DXis I tried did not have any issues. I tried several of the cakewalk and project 5 plugins and they played nice. One song where I had used project 5 in rewire loaded project 5 with the song--that was cool. 

On the whole, the application was blazing fast. Audio loaded fast. Drag N drop audio files worked great.  Inserting and removing big plugins on the fly was not a problem.  Effects can be put as an insert in the mixer or destructively applied to the track from the main screen. Fast renders.  This reduced the need for a dedicated audio editor, which Sonar still does not have.  if you are trying to figure out an important difference between Cubase and Sonar, its right there.  Cubase gives you an audio editor and process history, Sonar has a loop construction editor. Its an effective solution for setting loops to tempo, moving hit points, setting loops to project pitch.  For those of you using beats, that's what you need. Using loops in Sonar is easier.  Making complex loops is a good task for Cubase.

 Over on the left you see the new features in Sonar 5.    Lets talk about a few that I like. 

Cakewalk V-Studio 100 Control Surface
Sonar V-Studio 100 is a portable music production studio that lets you create, record, produce and perform music with or without a computer. The V Studio 100 features a USB 2.0 interface, live mixer with effects, standalone SD Recorder and a DAW control surface. Plus it is MAC/PC compatible.
Priced from: 699.00
Search Category:USB Audio Interfaces
Manufacturer: Cakewalk

Cakewalk V-Studio 700R Rack USB 2.0 Recording Interface
The VS700R V Studio I/O is a high speed USB 2.0 audio interface that provides all the recording and routing capabilities needed to handle any music production task. In addition to the 18/24 I/O audio interface, the VS700R also has an integrated Roland Fantom VS hardware synthesizer based on the world-renowned Fantom synthesizer.
Priced from: 1994.96
Search Category:USB Audio Interfaces
Manufacturer: Cakewalk


New in Sonar 5

Roland Variphrase (Producer version only)  a nice and unexpected addition.  You can correct the intonation of your vocals and do some other cool things, like slowing down and speeding up phrases to make them fit.  Pitch correction is becoming a sequencer staple.  Logic has its own.  Digital Performer uses a variant from another industry leader, Melodyne. 

PSYN II and Pentagon, Groove Synth

Perhaps following Logic's lead, Cakewalk is including more software synths.  This means the new user does not have to have a hardware synth to get going making sounds.

Inline Audio and MIDI editing

Definitely following Cubase's lead here.  This allows you to carry on editing functions without changing to new window

New in Sonar 4

Track Folders is something logic users have long had.  It basically allows you to store stuff in folders, out of view of your main sequencer, and gives you some flexibility in how you work.  For example, after you record your midi tracks as audio you can put the used midi tracks (which are no longer needed) into a folder where they are out of the way.  Mute the folder and they don't play, but are still there if you decide later that the F# on your bass hook really needs to be a Ab.  You can also store stuff in folders and save to a default song so they are always in your new song.  Stuff like drum patterns, favorite audio loops, arpeggio patterns, sysex banks for you synths, or a folder of "creative ideas" so you have some stuff to fall back on if inspiration is not forthcoming.

Freeze tracks.  Everybody else has it and its a requirement in this day and age, so you can render CPU eating soft synths to temporary audio files to give you back some processor time.  Yeah!

Enhanced bounce.  As a Logic user I am envious as all get out that Sonar has this before Logic.  Bouncing MIDI direct to an audio track is a feature one will use every song. 

Slip editing and nudge are two needed additions for getting audio inside tracks to line up correctly.  Sure beats cutting and pasting when you just need to move things a small amount. 

Navigator pane--aka a mini view of your total song.  Ableton's Live started that, Cubase picked it up and now Sonar. 

Meter Ballistics--sometimes its the little things.  Sonar's meters are fantastic, you can set the range now.  if you only want to see the top 24db range in the meter you can.  There is also both RMS and Peak metering to give you an idea if you are compressing to much.  Different metering options are selectable for tracks, master outs, busses and inputs.  Nice. 

Configurable pan laws are now available to you can set up Sonar's mixer to respond like a professional mixer when you move left or right, without volume loss. 

Of course there is more to talk about, but we are out of time my friends.  If you are still messing around in Sonar 2 or 3 or just woke up from a Neanderthal slumber and found you were using Pro Audio9, you are overdue. 

Sonar  is great.  I have no reservation giving it a thumbs up.


Review of Sonar 2

Page 1 (Sonar 2)   Page 2 (Sonar 3)

Cakewalk's Digital MultiTrack Recording System

by Rich the Tweak
  • EZ importing of Audio Loops
  • Rewire is added in version 2.0
  • MIDI Plugins are well implemented
  • Excellent support, helpfiles, guides


  • Time consuming and tedious MIDI patch management system
  • Mixer is not as graphically useful or appealing


Producer edition  order

Studio editio order


For those of you that have been following my articles, you know I've been sequencing a long time, since the very 1st sequencers on the Commodore 64.  I confess that I am not easily amused by "new" features unless they really redefine the way one works, or do things that used to be hard and make them really easy.  You probably also know me as a long term Logic power user. While I have worked with nearly all the popular sequencers, when I leave my Logic platform, it's like crossing the border to another country with different customs and languages. 

Every sequencer these days has an intense learning curve.  There is no way around this if you are going to use a professional level music composition  application.  Fortunately, I already knew Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9 reasonably well.  Picking up Sonar's concepts was easy as cake (ouch!  OK I promise only one or two more Cake puns).  Why was it easy?  Because Sonar is a mentally engaging, groundbreaking program and it's new features are a joy to play with.


Sonar's New Track View is an outstanding improvement over Pro Audio 9


Cakewalk?  Groundbreaking?

Yes it is.  For the first time, the artist is allowed to use audio loops that automatically stretch and tune themselves to project definitions.  While Sonic Foundry's acid program has been doing this for several years, Acid is primarily an audio program.  Granted you can import midifiles into Acid 3, but that is not the same as having a full MIDI composition engine that has been developed over a decade and a half.  With Sonar yes, you get MIDI, Yes you get your loops, yes you can record audio tracks, yes you get soft synths and samplers.  No other application on the PC platform does all 4 of these well. That's right, neither Logic or Cubase will let you drag loops and fit them to the project tempo.  So, Sonar has in many ways redefined the game by redefining itself.  Congratulations to the Sonar team.

What I like about Sonar is how it can be seen as an uncluttered workspace, like a giant blank tablet, that you fill with loops, sequences, audio tracks, which all seem to intuitively lock into place on the main track grid.  You can freely adjust tracks to any zoom level you want and can trim and re-loop and resample audio clips extremely fast.  For making dance music, this is a "must have" feature.  It eliminates the labor intensive process of calculating BPM and loop size and punching in the parameters on a digital audio editor or digital sampler to get the same result.  Set the Tempo, the loops follow automatically.  Draw an volume envelope, add a plugin or two, then resample.   Awesome.  Easy.

Where looping applications fall short is where you want the music to go somewhere. you can hear it in your head, but you don't have a loop that will take you there.  That's where MIDI comes in, which, if you know how to use it, can take you anywhere.  Make a sequence you need.  Run it

through some of Sonar's MIDI FX if you want, then render it to audio, make it into an audio clip and add your plugins, resample and viola, new material. 


DXi Softsynths

I'll be back to talk more of these as I get up to speed.  I was able to achieve a latency of 7ms on my delta 1010 in Sonar's audio engine, and that's plenty fast.  Included softsynths are: EDIROL Virtual Sound Canvas,  DXi, Tassman SE,  DXi, LiveSynth Pro SE, and DreamStation  DXi software synthesizers.  This is plenty to get you started and a lot more than other sequencer-makers give you. The sampler of the bunch is the LiveSynth Pro, which uses soundfonts (without a creative labs audio card).  The included version is a time-limited demo. In my package there was a coupon to upgrade to the full version.  Another soft sampler available for Sonar users is the Vsampler DXi, which registered users can purchase for $50


MIDI Plugins

Yep. Like Cubase SX and unlike Logic, you can use MIDI plugins, or MFX as they are called.  Sonar 2.0 gives a few of its own like the arpeggiator and session drummer.  Then they give you demos and light versions of MFX by MusicLab and NTONYX.  The folks and MusicLab have some very nice products.  There is Rhythm&Chords Version 2 which is a guitar chord player and guitar arpeggiator that comes with different strumming and finger picking styles.  Just type in the chords or choose them from a list (which includes the harder jazz chords many guitarists never learned).  There's plenty of presets available.  Another great MusicLab MFX is SlicyDrummer.  SlicyDrummer is a drum pattern maker that has plenty of preset styles.  Click one button and another pattern is generated.  Hip Hop dudes and dudettes, you can sit back and let SlicyDrummer make patterns for you all day till it comes up with one that meets your requirements. It's easy to switch out drums if you are playing with a big keymap, change grooves.  You only get demos of these with Sonar 2.0, but you can buy them at the Cakewalk store,  There is more info at  Nice stuff. MIDI plugins are a happenin' thing. 


The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful

Sonar claims to work with every Windows OS from Win 98, 98se, ME, Win2k to Win XP.  It's stated minimum requirements are a 400 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, 100 MB free hard disk space, 800x600 screen resolution/256 colors, CD-ROM drive and compatible soundcard.  I think you'd be daft to run Sonar 400 mHZ machine or one with 64 megs of Ram.  Like most of today's music software, Sonar is going to work optimally on a machine that has plenty of Ram (256 to 512), CPU speeds close to 1 ghz or higher, and large, fast hard drives with plenty of room for audio files.   Sonar supports Windows soundcards that can use 2 types of drivers:  MME and WDM drivers.  There is no support for ASIO, EASI or other drivers popular on Cubase and Logic.  This is not a huge problem as many softsynths have recently updated their code to work well in with WDM drivers, which depending on your soundcard, are capable of very low latency.  I had no problems with native Instruments Pro 52, FM7, Battery or Kontakt  However, older softsynths like Dynamo which perform best with an ASIO driver are not going to work.  Direct X plugins work well; VST plugins are not supported.  Not a huge deal as many major plugin makers usually give you both, but it is still worth mentioning. 

Stability:  I found I was able to crash Sonar 1.31 without trying too hard on my Win XP system. (I do try to break software when I get it.) The crashes I experienced were a direct result of carrying out an audio operation, like importing audio, copying and pasting a clip. But I was pushing it pretty hard with about 14 tracks and big effects and automation and working fast even when I sensed the CPU was struggling.  Given the scope of the new features since pro Audio 9, this is not surprising.  My advice is to save often.  Or turn on the auto save feature to save your work for you at regular intervals.    I ran into a situation where when hitting the spacebar does not stop the sequencer. This gave me a sense of instability, and I was surprised to find it in an official release.  This didn't happen a lot, and perhaps its just the pace I work at.  Version 2.0 is better in terms of crash worthiness.  I only had one my 1st day with the 2.0, and that was in rewire.

Support: Cakewalk has great support.  As soon as you open the box, there's information coming at you.  The help files are great.  There is an extensive section on how to get your soundcard setup properly, and I was able to find what I needed.  There is also a nice cardboard foldout quick start guide that you can rest on your keyboard as you get up to speed.

Things I don't like:  I really dislike Cakewalk's patch management scheme (I dislike Cubase's too) Its a horrible pain to set up if you can't find an instrument definition file for your midi devices. Cakewalk has been using this scheme for several years now--one would think they would have been able to collect every template by now. There are no ins files for the Emu, XL-1, Mo Phatt or other newer synths.  Sonar touts it is designed for efficient workflow and has improved on this score in version 2.  There is an option to allow recording without setting a record enable button.  I like that.  One thing that bugs me is that to get a soft synth track going you have to define an audio track and assign the soft synth and a separate midi track to record the notes on.  It would be nice to have a separate track type for these. My final irritation is an old one inherited from PA9.  When recording a MIDI track, nothing is happening on the screen on that track.   Logic and Cubase SX draw the track as it is being recorded, which lets you know that you are in fact recording.  With Sonar, as with Cakewalk, you don't see the sequence till you hit stop.  This is still an issue for me in 2.0.  It's not a huge deal, but consider the plight of the newbie who hits record and thinks nothing is happening.

Things I like.  The new Track view User Interface is excellent.  You can now quickly set track parameters, zoom in and out, and draw automation envelopes while the song plays.  I loved the "F" command for "fit" which makes the arrangement fit to the screen no matter where it is zoomed to.  The multi-monitor support works great for extending the workspace to a second monitor.   I found the automatic crossfades to work very well, much like they do in Vegas, where you can overlap two audio objects and let the program calculate the fades.  I found the track automation to be good overall.  My only issue with it was that sometimes it was hard to see the line and it was easy to miss it with the mouse when clicking up a curve.  My absolute favorite new features are the "Loop Explorer" view, is like an always open large file selector where you can quickly audition and import clips while the sequencer is running.  This is much like the Acid and Vegas explorer feature, and it's awesome (logic developers, take note).  My second favorite feature is the ability to define groove clips from any piece of audio.  It's fast, easy and utterly fantastic.

Rewire support.  As advertised, you can now run Reason inside Sonar, and I found it easy to set up.   This is ReWire 2, so you can play Reason's instruments from Sonar's track window. I did have a crash when exiting Reason, so I need to look into that a bit more. But this is another amazing move for Cakewalk. Lets remember a few years ago you could not run any decent softsynths in the cake.  Now you can run nearly all of them, and adding Reason to it's arsenal is a big chunk of cake with a lot of frosting.  (Ok, that is the last Cake joke). 

Sonar's New Look.  Thankfully, the "Venetian blind" track graphic from Pro Audio 9 is gone.  Sonar remains very light on the 3-d look, compared to Cubase and Logic.  Yet its a dramatic improvement.  Using the track view and blurring my eyes a bit, it was almost like working in Samplitude Studio (which I consider to be a beautiful interface).  I think they should shoot for that look as Sonar is close.  Graphics I did not like so much was in the console view.  I find it's method of doing sends and return to be clumsy and graphically unappealing.  On the positive side, you no longer need the console view.  All of the mixer's features are available in the track view.  That rocks!   


Who should get Sonar? 

So no sequencer is perfect, right?  Well as you see, Sonar has flaws as well as features.  But this should not dissuade you from considering it.  All sequencers have issues when they introduce new features.  If you like using audio loops, this program is The program to have.  If you are more into softsynths and samplers, you'll need to make sure your softsynths work under direct x.  I found that Battery and the Pro 52, by Native Instruments, worked well. 

Soft synths that require ASIO drivers are not going to work here.   When I want to do something with loops, Sonar will get the call.   Acid is out and Sonar is in.  Cakewalk has raised the bar for all products of this type.  Will the other sequencer makers respond with similar loop and clip facilities?  Perhaps were are entering a stage where one application is not enough.  You can't have everything.  Well maybe you can.  I know for myself, I'll be using Sonar along side of Logic 5 and Cubase SX. Sonar exports mixed audio very quickly.  It's great to have two powerful audio applications working side by side.  Who should get Sonar?  I think everyone.




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Sequencers and DAWS Index
Review of Cubase 5
Logic Studio 9
Pro Tools LE 8.1
Logic Studio 8
Review of Sonar
Review of Reason
Reason (1st review)
Ableton Live
Logic Pro 7
Logic Pro 6
Logic Platinum 6
Logic Platinum 5
Digital Performer
Sony's Acid
Vintage Sequencers
Early History of Logic
Mac vs PC for Music?
Project 5
Sequencer City!
Cubase SX (original)
Cubase SX3
Using a Mac Pro as your DAW
Using Notebooks as your DAW
Which Sequencer is Best?
MIDI Time Code and Sync Issues
Custom Bank Select Methods in Logic
Write a Sonar Instrument Definition File
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