Cakewalk’s SONAR has always been a compelling choice of DAW on Windows. Under the hood, its 64-bit processing, 64-bit mix engine, balanced complement of editing features, and quite-nice array of instruments and processors has held enough appeal. But then there’s the interface, which hasn’t held up to the tools underneath. Being pretty isn’t only cosmetic; a visually-refined interface is just easier to look at and use. And aside from aesthetics, moving between editing views or just managing what’s visible on-screen in SONAR can be a chore. It’s a problem not unique to Cakewalk’s DAW: the leading music workstations now simply do a lot, making for a daunting, jumbo jet cockpit-like interface design challenge.

SONAR X1, announced today, focuses on that problem. I should get hands-on time shortly, but I can at least report back on the design goals, and they show some promise. High-res shots at top.

New UI features and workflow:

  • Skylight: The name for the new X1 workspace, Skylight is Cakewalk’s own take of how to avoid window shuffling and see everything you need at once. Yes, other apps have done multi-pane editing before, from DP to Logic to Pro Tools. But Skylight has some interesting takes on combining some of the best UI features evolved in pro apps over the years years (audio or otherwise), including docking, modular controls, a Browser, and Inspector. And significantly, docking can occur across multiple monitors, and tools and windows can float above other windows. Long-overdue, easily-accessible Screensets are available, too.
  • Redesigned Control Bar: My major UI bugaboo in SONAR was its toolbar, basically a hideous, unreadable parade of look-alike icons. The Control Bar will still be familiar to SONAR users, but without all that nonsense. You can actually differentiate transport buttons and editing functions, which is fairly critical for an app like this!
  • Modal “Smart Tools” Tools are now more contextual. Now, Logic, for instance, has long had a common editing palette, but the tools in that palette are often specific to each view. What Cakewalk is trying to do, they say, is to make a smaller number of tools work consistently across views. Consistency of this kind is to me the only antidote to runaway complexity, so I’m eager to try it.
  • Key clusters: For QWERTY jockeys, keyboard shortcuts are now available reorganized into clusters, so that a set of related tasks is available without moving your fingers around or searching your brain. “Loop” functions all revolve around the “L” key and modifiers, “Quantize” the “Q” key.

None of this is really worth talking about at length until you’ve had some time using it, but I do think it’s promising; I’m especially intrigued by those keyboard shortcuts. Stay tuned for more.

Not everything in X1 is UI. The big audio feature is ProChannel. Recent SONAR releases have had some great audio processing tools, but they’ve been banished to a dedicated plug-in interface. Now, they’re right in the mixing console. Features:

  • Channel, bus compression
  • Variable tube stage
  • Console EQ with “pure,” “modern,” “vintage” modes
  • Routing pre- or post-effects, drag-and-drop routing of EQ, compression, tube modules (just like on Cakewalk’s other effects – it’s a nice feature)
  • A collapsible UI (with feedback both expanded and collapsed), dedicated ProChannel presets
  • 64-bit audio resolution (for sound), 64-bit computing (for number-crunching performance).

Promo video below, if it helps you see this in action.

Pricing is aggressive: the full-blown Producer edition is US$399 with everything, including the new Pro Channel Strip, excellent Session Drummer sampled drums and drum machines, mastering effects, True Pianos, and Dimension Pro sampler. “Studio” is a decent sweet spot, still including a 64-bit version and features like Audio Snap, surround sound, Rapture, and V-Vocal, but $199. Sonar X1 includes all the basic sequencing options, minus those extras, in a 32-bit-only version for $199. Starting today, you can buy SONAR 8.5 and get X1 free. It’s not quite Reaper cheap, but it undercuts most of Cakewalk’s other competitors.

Let’s face it: as audio users, we’re spoiled for choice. Graphics production has nearly all boiled down to a suite from one vendor, Adobe. Happily, we have a more competitive market, and users with fierce loyalties, to boot. (it’s a good thing we don’t all agree.) That said, it’s nice to see SONAR modernizing in this way. Stay tuned for more.

SONAR X1 Product Page