SONAR, Cakewalk’s flagship Windows DAW, receives a significant update this month as SONAR X3. There are a number of improvements, but what may be the most significant is a deep integration of Celemony’s toolset for manipulating pitch and time.

DAW tastes will be forever personal, so you can be forgiven if you simply don’t like or have never used SONAR. But it’s worth noting that some things the software has accomplished have led the way for other tools. Cakewalk was the first, for instance, to embrace 64-bit audio processing and computation, and continues to (fairly) boast of its 64-bit “double precision” (that’s the same thing) mix engine. This includes advantages in certain audio tasks and in maximizing the computational performance of the latest hardware.

The rich Celemony integration could be an even more significant accomplishment. Since audio first appeared alongside MIDI in digital editing, musicians have wanted to have the same fluidity of editing that other digital materials have. But our ears are sensitive instruments – even the untrained ear can transform the spectral soup of sound energies into polyphony, can recognize subtle timbres, and can immediately detect if something has been manipulated.

There’s no other way to say this: Celemony’s Melodyne line of products is just better than any other offering out there. The sonic results are more transparent, and the feature set – particularly if you’re willing to shell out some cash for high-end editions – is unmatched. Most competing tools can’t handle anything other than monophonic (single-part) musical lines, and they lack tools for fine-tuning pitch results. There’s a reason they call their technology “Direct Note Access”: it makes editing audio feel like editing MIDI (or, really, even more expressive). When I reviewed Logic Pro X over the summer, that’s why I described Apple’s integrated offerings as more basic. And this isn’t just about pitch correction with a lousy singer – the ability to treat sound as changeable opens up various creative options.

The problem is that the Melodyne products run as plug-ins. So, many workflows involve copying audio into the plug-in and back out again – workable, but not ideal.

To make Melodyne feel more like part of your DAW and less like a separate tool, Celemony introduced an SDK that re-conceives how a plug-in works. And, as usual, they have a name and an acronym for it: ARA (Audio Random Access). The “random” bit is to make editing in the plug-in non-linear in the way that it is in the DAW.

Cakewalk has done more with the SDK for ARA than any other host so far. (This replaces Roland’s V-Vocal, a decent tool, but not really something that would hold up to Celemony comparisons. Clarification: the differences in SONAR, while particular to SONAR and not directly comparable to other DAWs, have to do with things like adding individual instance support to Region FX.)

ARA was developed by PreSonus, and so SONAR follows Studio One; Studio One was the first DAW with ARA support. Read up on the tech via Celemony:
Celemony: ARA

With the integration, as seen in the video, you can edit audio, even in real-time, in the plug-in as though the plug-in were part of the DAW. And you can also pass parameters and region information bi-directionally. Under the hood, the tech is an extension of Steinberg’s VST3, though, well, I’ll let Cakewalk’s CTO Noel Borthwick explain:

… very little is done at the VST level besides streaming the plugin audio output back into the host engine signal flow graph. The bulk of the work is handled by the custom ARA interfaces. This is because unlike normal VST plugins, ARA requires random access lookahead to audio on the timeline, in response to the user re-sequencing, time stretch or otherwise mangling the audio data in the editor user interface. In a sense each ARA plugin works like a dedicated sequencer for its audio region!

And in SONAR, you get various other options: you can batch-process clips and regions via Region FX, for instance.

If you invest in Melodyne Editor, you can detect pitch in polyphonic materials – not just a single vocal line, but harmonies and piano lines. You can copy, paste, move, record, and re-sequence. You can make MIDI out of audio – something available in tools like Ableton Live, but here (cough) working much more accurately.

In other words, this isn’t pitch correction. It’s a massive, multi-dimensional set of remix tools that now exist inside the DAW. And until someone directly licenses Celemony tech or finds a way to come close to their algorithms and feature sets, whoever has the best Celemony integration wins.

In SONAR, you can do things like set loop points, or drag and drop audio into MIDI tracks. (Again, that’s like what Ableton Live does. But in Live 9, part of the charm of the feature is, to be diplomatic, the results are unpredictable. I actually have fun with that, but here you can have fun with results that are more likely to approach what you hear.)

The ever-thoughtful Noel has a detailed blog post on what all of this means:

SONAR X3, while a nice upgrade, otherwise suffers as nearly all DAW upgrades do – it’s nearly impossible to craft an upgrade that will convince loyal musicians to switch. (That’s why we love the music market, really; it’s a relief not to have a single vendor doing everything, as Adobe dominates the graphic market.)

But I would say that the level of integration of Celemony’s software is a reason to pay attention.

Also new in X3:

  • A new comping engine (see the video – and, yes, comping is a feature missing in Ableton Live, and implemented differently here than in some other hosts)
  • Rich VST3 support – interesting to see in a DAW not made by Steinberg
  • Cloud features, including YouTube and Gobbler. Gobbler is the most interesting, in that it makes backups and sharing uncommonly easy.
  • More analog, in a tape emulation and Blue Tube mixing effects, adding to a broad suite of other mastering and virtual analog features.
  • Tone2 filtering, in a multi-model filter unit.
  • Addictive Drums drum instrument, combining various kits and models. There are actually more kits here than in Ableton, though via a very different interface and with more conventional MIDI patterns (rather than the new adaptive model in Logic).
  • Bundled Lounge Lizard Session and guitar-strum instrument from AAS (whose products are also bundled in Ableton, though in a different form).

There are a number of other important improvements. And the included set of tools in SONAR X3 is getting almost absurdly-packed; even with big bundles in rivals, SONAR is an unusual amount of software bang-for-your-buck. I’ll let them do the laundry list, though.

Full feature list for more details

Pricing runs from US$199 – 499, with upgrades $49 – $149.

Melodyne integration is available in the $199 (street) Studio edition, the mid-range edition – nice move there, and I could say for Windows users, you might consider spending a couple hundred bucks here if you’re investing in one of the higher-end Celemony packages, just to get that integration.

If you make use of this feature, of course, we’d love to hear from you – especially if you get more creative than just fixing your singer’s vocal chops. (Come to think of it, I haven’t been singing in a while. I’m glad I’m not going into the studio, Celemony or no! Creative remixing, it is!)