Thing are apparently getting serious in the back rooms of Twelve Tone Systems, the developers of Sonar 5 (previously known some years ago as Cakewalk), writes Graeme Hague.
Not only is Sonar 5 a significant upgrade of Twelve Tone Systems’ flagship software, you’d have to say it’s a hard run at enticing other DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) users away from their current program of choice – not an easy thing to do. But they just might do it.
Sonar 5 is the closest thing to a complete package I’ve yet seen and it has a couple of neat little tricks that give it even more appeal. There are extra features, clever ideas and an across-the-board production ability that should see you working in this same application for everything audio during your filmmaking.
So far, Sonar has kept itself dongle-free – we like that. Installing the program is easy and requires an emailed request for an authorisation code to make everything legal. Next, Sonar 5 will scan your system for any audio hardware attached, find the drivers and set up your configuration to its best ability. As always, don’t take the initial setup values as gospel. You might want to tweak things later.
Now we can make some noise. But where do you start with so much to choose from?
If you’re into loops and samples, Sonar 5 supports importing Acidised files and also comes with a good selection of its own sounds called Groove Clips. Both these file types have embedded into them information such as tempo, root notes and the like, so that if you make global changes to your project, all the loops are adjusted accordingly.
Sonar has a Loop Browser window that lets you find, audition and then drag your chosen file into the Track Pane. Automatically, the clips are adjusted to the tempo of your project. Using a Clip Properties dialogue box you can make changes to the pitch, if you like, and it’s also quite easy to edit the file itself – make it shorter, longer or add any number of effects. This is all nothing too new, but when you remember this is importing loops and rebuilding them inside an interface as fully featured as Sonar 5, you should be getting excited. You can create your own Groove Clips from recordings, too; a bass riff, for example, can be cut to whatever precise length you need and then converted into a Groove Clip to be treated like any other loop.
Colours can be customised. The default setting is a bit much, but with planning you could create different colours for drums, bass, guitars, etc.
The MIDI capabilities of Sonar are just as impressive, but before we look at editing MIDI stay with me on the Groove Clip thing because you can also create MIDI Groove Clips – exactly the same principle – but with MIDI recordings. Now, since MIDI data is already easily manipulated when it comes to things like repeats and pitch changes you might think that MIDI Groove Clips are no big deal. But consider this; you can save any programming you do as an individual ‘clip’ that you then store perhaps for later use in another project, accessible through the Loop Browser window.
Let’s say you create a killer drum groove for a song. All right, save it as a MIDI Groove clip, right? Months later, when you reckon that drum groove might be just the thing for another client, there’s no need to re-open that older project and fiddle around exporting the MIDI tracks. You can just browse your way to the MIDI Groove clip all on its own. Over time you can build a massive collection of MIDI Groove Clips and ultimately save yourself a lot of time by avoiding repetitive reprogramming.
Okay, the usual MIDI editing is very comprehensive, as you’d expect in software like Sonar, which started out as a pioneer in the field way back with the Cakewalk releases. All the tools are here and the amount of functions available will be either daunting or impressive, depending on your level of experience. The data entry boxes and editing tools that Sonar 5 provides are very good. If you’re familiar with most of the functions, but through other software, you might need a few minutes until you figure how Sonar 5 approaches some things.
One small gripe; Sonar’s interface provides all the information and functions you need in a kind of ‘master’ toolbar above the track pane, rather than providing them inside the editing window you’ve opened. That toolbar is pretty crowded (you can customise it, of course) and I found myself sometimes searching quite a while for the value display you want to change, but it’s something you do get used to.
The real attraction of Sonar’s MIDI isn?t so much the editing capabilities, but the toys they’ve included to play with! There’s a bunch of excellent soft synths that will make just about any sound you want from gentle, soothing pads to crunchy, offensive analog blats. Great fun! There’s also the Cakewalk TTS-1 or the Edirol Virtual Sound Canvas, which give you GM MIDI sounds in the right places.
And there’s a REX player. Nope, nothing to do with your dog. REX players work by slicing up a wave file into pieces you can trigger with individual piano keys. Imagine Mary Had A Lttle Lamb with each word assigned to a different note. Very hip-hop, but also very useful.
The audio side of things is just as satisfying and I must say that Sonar 5, for me, has in the past always been a more stable programme than others. Perhaps it’s because Sonar is only written for PC, when its cross-platform competitors have to contend with providing for two operating systems? Anyway, again Sonar has thrown in some added extras to make their software all the more alluring. Two things come immediately to mind.
First, they’ve included the Perfect Space convolution reverb, which is about as good as reverbs can get. Second, Sonar 5 has its own pitch-correction plug-in called V-Vocal. Pitch correction used to be the exclusive domain of third-party providers and to have something like this included in the DAW itself is a big move. V-Vocal isn’t quite as fully featured as something like Autotune or Melodyne, but it’s good and works well. You won’t turn your Aunt Bessy into Madonna, but you will fix an unfortunate performance into something in tune.
The V-Vocal pitch correction window. Good results, but you need to climb a steep learning curve.
Recording audio straight into Sonar 5 is easy – we’re back at that ‘they should have it right by now’ place again. However, another different approach by Sonar is interesting. When you add empty tracks for recording, they have almost nothing on them control-wise. No EQ’s or auxiliary sends for example. You have to add them all. This isn’t a bad idea, since your workspace isn’t cluttered by knobs and dials you don’t intend to use and your CPU isn’t being taxed by them either. But you do need to get used to the empty-looking mixer.
To counter this, Sonar 5 has Track Templates. You can build a track with all the bells and whistles you want including plug-ins, sends (you name it) – then save it as a Track Template. So when you add a track, you use the template instead and everything’s there ready to go. Very handy and time-saving.
The effects plug-ins are all high quality, mostly coming from Sonitus, who are synonymous with great sounds. But just to be sure, Sonar 5 happily accepts VST plug-ins and instruments, too. If you have a cupboard filled with VST stuff, it won’t go to waste just because you’ve been tempted across to Sonar’s DAW (which used to be exclusively DXi unless you used wrappers).
The deeper you dig into Sonar, the more it appears to provide all the solutions you’ll need. On face value, it records audio and MIDI well and allows extensive editing of both, including automation. You can import loops in all the popular formats and Sonar has the engine to convert them on the fly.
And importantly for videocameras, it will take on just about any video file and create a track and a playback window. This program combines all the ingredients for making good soundtracks without skimping on the quality in any one area.
How could you go wrong? By being too eager, that’s how.
It’s the only real word of warning I have about Sonar – and it applies to most software anyway. You need to take the time for setting up Sonar properly, before launching yourself into doing anything. Things like default storage folders have to be diverted away from system drives and there’s a couple of Global Settings that can use a bit of thought.
Last, but certainly not least, Sonar 5 comes with a User’s Guide that will break your toes if you drop it. Yes folks, a huge 600-page book made of paper and cardboard that you can browse through at your leisure. The online help is good, but nothing beats having the instructions on your desk beside you at the same time.
Oh, and have I been converted to a full-time Sonar 5 user? Well, software reviewers are supposed to be objective, non-partisan and all that, so I can’t say.