“Integrated” hardware and software is a mysterious thing. It tends to hit extremes. At one end of the spectrum, you have bare-bones hardware bundles with an interface and software, or basic integration features so an audio interface doesn’t require extra configuration or a control surface works out of the box. These might save you a few dollars or a few minutes here and there, but they’re hardly revolutionary, and in the end you might not bother at all. At the opposite pole, you have the titan Digidesign Pro Tools HD solutions, which typically involve an investment in tens of thousands of dollars of hardware gear. These can work nicely, but only if Pro Tools is your platform of choice, and for many the price means they’re not an option at all.

Cakewalk’s new SONAR V-Studio 700 heads straight for the middle of that spectrum, the area a lot in the industry have ignored. The V-Studio is a massive love child of Roland’s controller and synth hardware, a multichannel audio interface, and Cakewalk’s software. In brings a deeper level of software control than SONAR has seen before.

When Cakewalk became “Cakewalk by Roland,” after Roland bought a controlling interest in its long-time software partner, everyone wondered what integration that deal would bring. The V-Studio may be more substantial than anyone imagined, particularly after simplistic offerings in the past (some Roland sounds in a soft synth or a bundled Edirol audio card pre-configured for SONAR). I expect your take on it may depend on how you already feel about Roland hardware and Cakewalk software. This is definitely more of what these companies already offer – it’s just a lot more of it, and better integrated.

What’s included:

  • SONAR 8 Producer: Big, spendy hardware aside, this is really a Cakewalk product and software is central. Cakewalk’s flagship audio software is here with all the extras, including end-to-end 64-bit audio, 64-bit processor support, and lots of included effects and instruments, including the Dimension Pro sampler, mastering effects, and vocal processing.
  • Rapture: Cakewalk also throws in the full release of their deep soft synth Rapture, which has become a favorite among electronic producers for its easy envelope editing and sound design. The only danger I see: it might upstage Roland’s more conventionally-minded Fantom VS hardware.
  • Control surface: The VS-700C V-Studio Console (ah, Roland branding) is the control surface part of the equation. Cakewalk has already been touting their ACT control system, which is designed for zero-configuration integration with controllers. What’s unique about the VS-700C is that you get a really full-featured control surface, and a greater level of integration. Transport, motorized faders, push-button rotary encoders, of course. Where things get interesting is there are automatic mappings to any active plug-in, surround joystick panning, and other goodies. We’re also supposed to get excited about the fact that you can then switch the same control surface to control Roland’s non-linear video editing hardware, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that applies to exactly none of you and move on.
  • Audio interface: Interestingly, this runs on USB 2.0, but offers 20 inputs and 26 outputs, digital effects, some eight XLR ins, 24-bit, 192 kHz audio, digital I/O, MIDI, and front-panel metering. If Roland nailed the audio quality here, this could be a fantastic bargain.
  • Roland Fantom VS hardware synth: This is the part you probably didn’t expect. The Fantom VS hardware synth from Roland adds 1,400 presets and integrates with SONAR as a VSTi for “zero-latency” synthesis without taxing the CPU.
  • Two cables, no configuration: To make the whole thing work, you plug in two cables (one for the controller, one from the controller to the audio interface), install, and go. There’s no configuration or extra drivers to install.

Grand total: “around” US$4000, estimated, with international distribution in February 2009.

It’s a big, Roland-style box, even with the Cakewalk name. To me, the results will live and die on the quality of the audio I/O and the controller integration. Fantom synth? If you want it, you probably already own it. To anyone using SONAR, a hardware Fantom synth is just icing; potentially nice to have, but probably not the selling point. V-LINK? I’ve yet to hear from anyone using Edirol’s hardware DV editor; I’m sure they exist, but they’re a small market, so the number who would want that and this would be even smaller.

So, let’s look at those control surface and audio details, at least on paper – and expect more on the specifics soon.


Control Surface Specs

The “VS-700C” identifier is particularly misleading, as there really hasn’t been anything quite like this exclusively geared for SONAR.

  • Nine 100mm, touch-sensitive motorized faders (8 channels + 1 master)
  • Tab between fader banks and lock a specific channel. (For reasons known only to the engineers who designed them, some high-end control surfaces won’t lock down one channel as you tab to others, so you can’t, for instance, ride the first fader while making adjustments to the second bank of faders for access to channels 9-16.)
  • Transport, X/Y cursor, jog/shuttle controls with scrub and zoom support
  • 12 rotary encoders which access EQ, sends, or automatically map to active effects, instruments, and mix parameters. (Now, Mackie Control also does something like this, but the integration appears to be a little deeper and more flexible via Cakewalk’s ACT.)
  • Surround control with joystick panner and other dedicated controls
  • Access to views, utilities, and custom assignments for dozens of SONAR commands
  • T-bar for integration with video, but also assignable to surround front/rear balance and other parameters. There’s actually no reason why a t-bar can’t make a very nice audio control, in fact.
  • LCD screens with parameters (2×13) and (7-segment) timecode / time position
  • Audio input for easy access, including Hi-Z if you want to plug in your guitar, etc.
  • Metering
  • Monitor section for controlling stereo, sub, 2-way headphone mix

It’s not unprecedented stuff, but there is a some sophistication and deeper integration you don’t get from controllers like the Mackie Control line. The tradeoff – you don’t get double-duty as you would with a Mackie Control-compatible unit, which you could use in conjunction with other hosts. (I can’t say for sure that you can’t use the VS-700C with other hosts, but it looks like it’d be most useful with SONAR.)

The integration and how it came about to me is a big issue – not only specifically in terms of this product, but because CDM as a website is always most interested in how you control software and design hardware around it. We’ll look at this area in more detail soon.

Audio Interface

Audio is no slouch, either:

  • 24-bit, 192 kHz, USB 2.0 with “low-latency” performance
  • 20 inputs, 26 outputs; 18/24 simultaneous
  • Compression, LF Cut, Pad digital effects
    on input
  • 8 analog ins (XLR + 1/4”), +48v phantom power
  • 10 1/4” outs (balanced/unbalanced); XLR main monitor outs
  • AES/EBU, S/PDIF, ADAT digital I/O
  • MIDI I/O
  • External sync
  • Front-panel metering (that’s on top of what you get from the control surface, which makes sense as you’d use the latter for monitoring the mix engine in SONAR)

I’m also told by Cakewalk that the A/D and mic pre specs are very good; we’ll go into more specifics soon on that.

What Matters, Who is it For?

There’s a real danger here. Part of the whole value equation of software like SONAR is its flexibility, the fact that you can get software synths and mix-and-match audio I/O and controller hardware to meet your needs. Releasing integrated hardware doesn’t really hurt that; it can simply wind up being upstaged by the software itself. I’ve already heard from Steinberg pitching integration with their hardware products, and Apple pitching integration with Apogee audio hardware. The implication has a tendency to veer toward the “Pro Tools killer” territory. The results just often don’t live up to that, and I suspect part of the reason is that people who choose these software solutions are already used to picking their own gear. And if you read this site regularly, you should be very, very aware that people’s needs differ wildly. It’s not pro versus consumer, it’s countless fundamentally different approaches to the entire music making process.

So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it, I’m sure to many SONAR users the existing a la carte approach will be just fine.

That said, I think it’s worth noting that Cakewalk and Roland are being far more audacious than some of their competitors. Whether you want a V-Studio or not, you have to appreciate the sheer dedication to putting the best bits of Cakewalk and Roland into one box. You’re likely to feel strongly about it. Even if you feel ambivalent, I think you’ll feel passionately ambivalent. Forget the Fantom and the V-LINK bits for a second. If they really have nailed the audio and controller integration bits, it’ll find its market.

We’ll be looking at what Cakewalk has done, partly because it could finally lead to smarter integration with hardware. Stay tuned.

Let us know what you think – whether you’re saving up pennies or ignoring it entirely.

Cakewalk SONAR V-Studio Site