Cakewalk has revealed what’s new in the latest version of their flagship Windows DAW, SONAR 8 Producer. SONAR remains a popular choice for people on Windows wanting a do-everything, traditional DAW. At the same time, it faces heated-up competition from rivals like Ableton Live and Reaper. SONAR users have been posting wish lists around the Web, so I think it’s safe to say people were hoping for some improvements.

The changes look on-target to me, more so, perhaps, than in any recent SONAR upgrade. There are some much-needed workflow changes, enhanced under-the-hood performance, and new instruments and effects. Getting plug-in additions from Cakewalk is especially nice as, unlike many other vendors (Steinberg, Apple, Ableton, etc., I’m looking at you), Cakewalk’s plugs will work in any host you want once installed.

Especially interesting, there’s a cluster of features that could make people doing electronic production more interested in SONAR again.

What’s Improved

It’s impossible to judge an upgrade on paper, but here are some stand-outs to me:

Improved performance

Cakewalk says they’ve further optimized the audio engine and made all-around performance better in SONAR 8. They tell CDM they’ve specifically targeted Vista for some new optmizations. Regardless of OS, they promise improved performance at low latencies, better VST and ASIO performance, output latency compensation, and smoother, more responsive user interface performance. Also, you can finally change audio devices without a restart.  I hope to have more details on exactly what they’ve done soon.

On the Vista front, Cakewalk is enhancing support for Microsoft’s WASAPI, the new audio API, which is for use with not only WaveRT audio (which works mainly with motherboard and consumer audio cards you’re unlikely to use), but USB and FireWire audio devices. I hope other Windows developers are able to follow here in terms of support for Vista’s new audio technologies.

Instrument tracks

Finally, you can create a single track for working with mono or stereo virtual synths, a feature in some of SONAR’s rivals. SONAR still lets you work with two tracks as in previous versions if you so choose, but I personally find one track much easier. Now, can I add one more thing to the wish list? Multichannel / surround virtual instrument tracks would be the logical next step.

Browse loops and patterns

The Loop Explorer 2.0 lets you browse and preview MIDI groove clips and patterns and drag and drop them into track view. It’s nothing revolutionary – Apple’s Loop Browser comes to mind – but one nice feature is that it’s easy to preview MIDI grooves with virtual instruments, so for people who are primarily working with MIDI snippets, this could be nice.

Easier editing/recording/mixing

There are a lot of little details here. You can now group clips across tracks in addition to takes and such. There’s a feature for assisting in aiming your cursor and lining up tracks. It’s easier to punch in, punch out, arm, unarm, and toggle play and record while the transport is running, and shuttle controls and jogging have been improved and work better with control surfaces. There’s even a feature that can override muting certain tracks and buses when you solo.

QuickTime 7 support

Think H.264, AAC import/export.

Now, onto the plug-ins…

New Instruments, Effects

I’m most excited about Beatscape and Transient Shaper, as I think they could reawaken my interest in using SONAR as part of my personal production workflow – and imagine I may not be alone. Beatscape is a simple but elegantly-designed set of pads for audio loop manipulation and performance, and Transient Shaper is a dynamics processor with an intuitive-looking interface and interesting sonic potential.

Everyone is trying to do beat-based production these days. But Beatscape looks interesting, at least, if for no other reason than it includes a step generator like the one in Cakewalk’s fantastic Rapture soft synth. (The instrument is the work of Cakewalk’s synth architect Rene Ceballos, who designed Rapture.) You can drag and drop audio between SONAR and Beatscape, easily trigger audio from pads, quickly rearrange slices, and then modulate each slice with the step generator. You can also add up to 3 effects inserts per pad (impressive, though the new Drum Rack in Ableton can add even more, even though that’d be insane). Because it’s a Cakewalk plug-in, you could also use this with other hosts, so that means Beatscape could jump between SONAR and something like Ableton Live or FL Studio, with SONAR ready for doing a final song mix. There are also 4GB of “construction kits” loops in REX format.

I really like the simple, efficient combination of the step sequencer, slice view, and MIDI-triggered pads; I actually appreciate that this is more pared-down than the module-laden new Transfuser from Digidesign. It’ll be interesting to try this one out.

Transient Shaper processes the dynamics of percussive source material – this is one I really want to try out for beat (and other sonic) production. It’s basically a multi-stage, envelope-shaped filter, but thanks to transient detection and some unique shaping capabilities, it has some really intuitive-looking controls and promises “smooth, zipperless output.” It’s again a full VST, so this could come in handy in other hosts, as well.

Also in this release:

TL-64 Tube Leveler is a “line driver/leveling processor” with an analog tube model from Gallo Engineering’s StudioDevil. Think warming and saturation; have to hear this one to believe it, but it’ll be up at the top of my list to hear.

The full version of Dimension Pro is included with 8GB of sounds and the Garritan Pocket Orchestra. Nothing is likely to woo me away from my scripts in Kontakt, but on the other hand, I think this compares very nicely to the inclusion of EXS24 in Logic Studio. I know some people really love the EXS24, but Dimension Pro deserves a look partly because it has built-in waveguide synthesis, and its interface is very friendly. I don’t expect Mac users to switch to Windows, but I’m just sayin’.

Guitar Rig 3 LE is included – not bad, as a number of the more important modules are there. I think this handily beats out the relatively anemic Guitar Amp Pro in Logic Studio, not that that’s saying much; guitarists will probably buy a full guitar product, but for the rest of us having some guitar effects modules is always handy.

TruePianos Amber Module is a selection from the TruePianos VSTi, a virtual piano instrument that’s part sampled, part modeled, part synthesis. I haven’t tried TruePianos yet, so can’t tell you what it means that it’s “designed to blend transparently with the musician’s hands through its unique capabilities of matching to the player’s own playing style.” I’m keen to find out. It’s also supposed to be light on system resources, which tends to be a problem with virtual acoustic pianos.

ChannelTools is an integrated, zero-latency channel interface for adjusting L/R placement, gain, pan/width, sample delay – basically, all of your placement or widening and narrowing can be adjusted through one interface.

This is not a review as I don’t have SONAR 8 in front of me, running on my machine. But I have to say, this makes me interested again in running it. It seems like Cakewalk has ironed out some editing workflows and tweaked performance enough that this could be a very competitive DAW. The competition for myself and a lot of readers, I think, is abandoning traditional DAWs altogether for many tasks. It’s nice to see Cakewalk addressing some of the issues that people care about, while adding goodies that aren’t exclusively tied to the host. (There are technical reasons not to support VSTs, but it still makes a difference that this isn’t just candy to lure you into SONAR that doesn’t work with other software you use.)

I look forward to reviewing it and getting some music made.

Availability: Starts shipping October 2.


US: $499 street; $299 street for the SONAR Studio; upgrades US$99-179 for SONAR 7 (other upgrades available)

Rest of the world: English, German, Spanish, French, Italian; EUR499 suggested street for Producer, EUR299 for Studio; UK GBP349 / 219, also available in October

SONAR 8 Preview Page / Preorders