Review – SONAR Platinum by Cakewalk

 

SONAR Platinum is a DAW with powerful new features, instruments, and effects. A new pricing model is also introduced with this new version. Our reviewer takes a look to see how it all stacks up.

 

by Rob Mitchell, May 2015

 

Back in our January 2014 issue, I had the pleasure of reviewing Cakewalk’s incredible SONAR X3 Producer. In case you missed that issue, SONAR is a powerful DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) which allows you sequence MIDI tracks along with audio, and has many useful features, instruments and effects. Cakewalk has recently unleashed their latest version of SONAR, which actually ships in three different varieties: Artist, Professional, and Platinum.

The main differences between them are the number of instruments and effect plug-ins, but there are certain other features only included within the Professional and Platinum versions. For example, all three have the Skylight interface, Take lanes and Automation lanes, unlimited tracks and busses, a maximum sample rate of 384 kHz, Rewire 64 support, and Windows 8 Multi-touch support. Surround mixing however, is not included in SONAR Artist. Also, Vocal Sync is a new feature which is only found in the Platinum version of SONAR.

I will not be going over every feature in SONAR Platinum, as that could probably take up this whole issue of SoundBytes. What I will try to do for the most part is just focus on the newer features and improvements included since SONAR X3 was released.

Cakewalk now offers a new way to buy SONAR, and you are able to pay monthly, or just buy it with a no-fuss single payment. They also continue to have an upgrade plan. If you are using an older version of SONAR, they have options available for getting you into the latest version.

If you opt for the monthly payment, SONAR will activate monthly and change over to a demo mode if the monthly payments stop before twelve months are up. If you decide to just pay “up-front” and buy it the regular way you are given a twelve-month membership. The membership will include any new features and fixes that are released for a twelve month period at no additional cost. It is yours to keep after the initial twelve months have passed.

The system requirements for SONAR Platinum are as follows: 

A PC with Windows 7 or 8 (32-bit or 64-bit), and a 2.6 GHz Intel or AMD multi-core processor. An Intel i5 or AMD A10 APU or higher is recommended. Four gigabytes of memory, and an internet connection for activation, downloads, and some publishing features.

The download time will take some time, as there is just so much included with the Platinum version. There are nearly six gigabytes of files to download. The install itself is pretty easy, using registration and serial numbers to get it all working correctly.

 

Getting It Going

SONAR Platinum works in a very similar fashion to SONAR X3. If you are used to that version, and are afraid of upgrading, don’t even worry about it. They just added on to what was already there, so the core functionality is basically the same.

You can still import videos and add your own soundtrack, and the Track Templates are still here to save time when trying to meet deadlines. One very handy feature that was added back in the “X” series was the “Replace Synth” function. This saves a lot of time, as you can just right-click on synth track, click Replace Synth, and it lets you choose a replacement from your other plugins. After you select one, it takes the place of what was there before, but leaves everything else intact, such as other plugins that might be loaded for that track (compressors, reverb, etc.) and the notation will stay there too.

Exporting audio is an easy task with SONAR, and there are many formats from which to choose. When your project is all set, select all the tracks, then click File/Export/Audio. From there, you can leave it at the default, which a WAV file. There are options to change the channel format, sample rate, bit depth, and dithering.

If you need a different format than WAV, just click on its menu and it will drop down giving you many options. From there, you can pick from Broadcast Wave, Windows Media Advance Streaming Type, MP3 (with optional encoder) DSD, AIFF, AU, CAF, FLAC, RAW, SD2, W64, WAV (Microsoft), Soundcloud format, or use the built-in YouTube Publisher.

The Media browser is still here, with its easy drag-and-drop functionality. It also lets you switch between many types of media and plugin types, preview MIDI files and WAV files, and view the synth plugins that you’ve already loaded. Now that we’ve gone over some basics, let’s get to some of the newer features in more detail.

 

Mix Recall

One of the most useful additions to the new SONAR is Mix Recall. This lets you save different versions of a song and easily bring them back up again. The way I used to work was to save many separate versions on my PC, and end up with bunch of files piled up in a project folder. Each one might have something added or removed, the mix and EQ could have been changed on certain versions, or one mix might be setup as monophonic.

With Mix Recall, you can save different “scenes” within a project, and each of them can be named however you want. Some of the menu selections will let you Save the scene, Save as New, Rename, Delete, or even Delete All scenes.

Cakewalk has added a quick way to go back to the previous scene: just click the arrow (it points to the left, like an “Undo”) on the Mix Recall module. To get to any of the others you saved, there is a dropdown menu that shows a list of all the versions you have saved to disk. I tried this out, and it switches between them in a speedy fashion, reloading any of the settings and changes you’ve made.

 

MIDI Enhancements

One very cool feature in the new version of SONAR is a MIDI Enhancement called MIDI Time Stretching. You are now able to click the edge of MIDI clip you’ve loaded (or created from scratch) and then click/drag it to the left or right, which changes its overall timing.

The new Pattern tool lets you “paint” the MIDI notes on to the screen. You just select a part of the MIDI notes you want to use, and then select the paint roller tool to draw them on to a new part of the screen in your project. Just click and drag on to another part of the screen, and it will apply those MIDI notes you selected. If you drag back towards the left while the mouse button is still held down, it will erase the notes you just painted. It’s very easy to use, and I really like this new addition to SONAR.


If you zoom in farther on the MIDI notes while in the Piano Roll view, the notes are now much easier to see. The vertical zoom was improved, which really helps out in this department. It allows you to edit more quickly, with less struggle in seeing where the actual notes are. At the same time, the piano keys on the far left are also enlarged, making them easier to use as well.

 

Audio Snap


Audio Snap is a feature to help get the tracks of audio to line up better. The timing between musicians across many tracks can vary a little (or a lot in some cases), and using this feature of SONAR can improve the synchronization of their tempos. 

The Threshold slider will adjust how many of the transients are detected by Audio Snap. As you lower the threshold, you will see additional transient markers appear across the tracks you’ve selected to edit. You can use these to adjust where the transients are in the music, which can help the overall audio in your project, giving it a more tight and cohesive sound.

It can also be used to easily match audio you’ve recorded to pre-made loops, or stretch out the audio and its timing to a much different tempo. This improved version of Audio Snap is only available in the Professional and Platinum versions of SONAR.

 

Dynamic FX and Sends


SONAR X3 had effect bins and sends for each track. The effect bins allowed you load effects and use FX Chains. You still have that same basic functionality in the latest version of SONAR, but there are a few enhancements I wanted to mention.

In X3, after you have loaded in three effects, it would take up entire visible space of the bin. If you loaded another effect, it would only let you see three of them at any one time. You would have to scroll up or down to see the others that were added to that track. With the latest incarnation of SONAR, you can see all the effects loaded, as it will automatically make room for them as they are added to the bin. Also, you would have to right-click in the bin to bypass the whole bin of effects when using X3. Cakewalk has made this easier, having added an easy to access bypass button in the upper-left of the bin. The effects can be dragged up or down to a different order as well.

Using sends in the new version of SONAR is much easier. When you add a send in X3, you’d see the one you just added. If you add additional sends however, you wouldn’t be able to see the other sends unless you use the dropdown menu and switch to that send. The new SONAR stacks them up, similar to the effects bin, and you can see everything at once. 

 

Vocal Sync

When you have recorded two takes of vocal, and wish they were more in time with each other, that’s where Vocal Sync can help.

It is very easy use. You can just select an area of the tracks you want to align, and use the Region FX tool to prep it for editing. To get started, you just right-click on an area of one of the selected tracks, select “Region FX” from the menu that appears. After that, pick “Vocal Sync” and select “Create Region FX”. A control will appear that lets you adjust the amount of the sync between the tracks. To use this control, you just play the tracks, adjust the Vocal Sync knob a bit, play it again, and listen to how it sounds. If it still needs help, turn up the control a little more, and hit play again to check it out. When it’s all set, you click the “Render” button.

Vocal Sync is similar to SONAR’s Audio Snap, but it is geared towards vocals, and is much easier to use. If you try it with other types of audio, you may get unpredictable results. If you really need to sync up other types of audio, you’re probably better off just using Audio Snap.

 

More Goodies

The DSD Import and Export that is now included in SONAR has the ability to output the audio at a very high sample rate. The signal can be stored at 2.8 MHz. That is 64 times higher than a regular compact disc, which uses 44.1 kHz. You’re also able to store it at 5.6 MHz or 11.2 MHz. It also supports DSD64 (2.8 MHz), DSDtwelve8 (5.6 MHz), and the DSD256 format (11.2 MHz).

The new Dynamic Control bar in SONAR will now let you scroll it to the left or right to your liking. It is made up of many different modules that serve various functions. A couple of the new ones that were added are the Custom Module and Mix Recall. I discussed the Mix Recall earlier in this review.

The Custom Module in the Control bar is a great feature: it lets you customize its nine buttons so they will have certain functions that you’d like quick access to. You could assign commands to these buttons to help streamline your workflow. For instance, you can assign “Normalize” to a button, or maybe you are working on complicated song with many time changes. For that, you may want to assign “Insert Meter/Key Change” to a button. To assign a button, just right-click on it and select what you’d like from the menus. The button can also be renamed if you’d like.

 

Conclusion

SONAR Platinum has so many instruments and effects; you probably won’t need to acquire anything else to add on to it. I have other plugins I’ve bought over the years to compliment what SONAR has bundled in, but when you think about it, how much do you really need? With everything they’ve included, it has a musical production prowess that is easily enough to start your next production.

A few of the included instruments are Addictive Drums 2, Session Drummer 3, Dimension Pro, Rapture, and Z3ta+. SONAR Platinum is a great value, especially if you start adding up what some of these plugins would cost separately. Even if you just consider the price of Addictive Drums 2 (with 3 ADpaks), online shops have it in stock for around $199 USD.

Also, when you look at how many effects that you get in SONAR Platinum versus the Professional version of SONAR, you can’t go wrong. For instance, with the Pro Channel they’ve included six additional modules that the Professional version doesn’t have. Some of these include BREVERB SONAR, a Tape Emulator, a Console Emulator, and the PC4K S-Type Bus Compressor.

SONAR’s Skylight interface is a joy to use, and has been around since SONAR X1. After I checked out some old screenshots I had taken of what SONAR 8.5 looked like (before SONAR X1 was released), I could never go back to it now. Skylight just makes everything super easy to use, is very flexible, and really looks awesome.

Towards the end of writing this review, Cakewalk released “Braintree” bundle. It is full of new features which add on to the existing versions of SONAR, and is free to SONAR subscribers. In this update, you will get a generous collection of new additions, including new impulse responses for REmatrix Solo, “Bark of DOG” for the Pro Channel, and Craig Anderton’s Acoustic Guitar presets for the Pro Channel. You’ll also get the new Hardgroove Steinberger expansion pack for Rapture, and their Bass Loop library, plus many more features and fixes. Some of these new additions are only for the Professional and/or Platinum versions.

As I mentioned before, SONAR has different pricings which vary, and it depends on which version you want. If you decide to go for the monthly payment, buy it for the full price, or upgrade from a previous version, your options are open.

Here are the prices for the three different versions of SONAR.

SONAR Artist has 11 instrument plugins and 27 audio effects, and you can get it for only $9.99 USD a month or buy it for $105 USD.

SONAR Professional has 18 instrument plugins and nearly twice as many mixing and mastering effects. It retails for $19.99 USD a month, or you can buy it for $209 USD.

SONAR Platinum has 57 mixing and mastering effects, and 21 instrument plugins. It retails for $49.99 USD a month, or you can buy it for $525 USD.  The Platinum version can be found for $499 on some other retail websites.

To find the upgrade pricing from previous versions, and to get more information on SONAR, you can check out their website here:

http://www.cakewalk.com/Products/SONAR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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