Review – SONAR X3 Producer by Cakewalk
Cakewalk continues its evolution of the SONAR DAW with X3. Our reviewer does his best to cover the vast number of capabilities in this very capable PC-based recording studio.
by Rob Mitchell, Jan. 2014
SONAR X3 Producer is Cakewalk’s flagship DAW (digital audio workstation). It continues on from X2, adding new features and plugins. Some of the new features included are ARA integration, comping, VST3 support, and editable track colors. Two major plugins they’ve added are Addictive Drums and Melodyne Essential.
I started using SONAR with version 4 and have occasionally upgraded along the way. This however, is my first experience with the “X” series; I was using SONAR Producer 8.5 previously. At first, it seemed like a giant leap from that older version. Once I started to really check it out, it wasn’t as challenging as I imagined it would be to migrate to X3 Producer.
At its core, SONAR X3 Producer has unlimited tracks, sends, and busses, a 64-bit double-precision audio engine, and a maximum sample rate of 384kHz.
Some of the features you’ll read about in this review were already in X2, but in some cases have been improved. There’s no way I can cover everything this DAW can do, as it has so many plugins and such an extensive number of features. What I will try to do is to touch on its more significant features and plugins, hopefully giving you an overall perspective on this huge DAW.
Cakewalk states that the PC you’re installing it on should have at least an Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 2.67 GHz, or an AMD Phenom Quad Core 9750 2.4 GHz or higher.
Windows 7 and 8 (32 and 64-bit) are supported, and Windows 8 has Multitouch support. XP and Vista are not officially on the support list any longer. XP will not be supported by Microsoft after April 2014, so if you’re still on that operating system, you may want to get an upgrade soon.
The install did take a while, which isn’t too surprising as there is just so much included. Also, Addictive Drums is a separate download and registration. All in all, it ends up using about 20 GB of hard drive space.
When you first run SONAR and start a new project, you will see its interface, which is called Skylight. Some of Skylight’s main features include the Browser, Screensets, Multidock, Smartgrid with its great drag-and drop functionality. The main Control bar’s modules (some of which are seen in the following image) can be rearranged from left to right, and you can hide modules if you don’t use them.
In X3 Producer, you can now change the color of your tracks and busses. Organizing your project just got easier, as you can use colors to group things in your own way. If tracks are sent to a bus, then the bus can follow that color. If you change the bus color, SONAR will automatically change the color for the tracks that go to the bus as well.
The browser gives you access to your loops, wav files, and plugins. One tab is for Media, where you can easily preview files in your collection. Just click on one and hit the play button in the browser. Then you can skim through them one at a time, and it will play a preview for each. If you like the file you just played, just click and drag it out into a track. If you have edited a wav file and would like to save it, you can also drag-and-drop it back in to the browser.
If you’re on the Plugins tab, you can switch between Audio FX, Midi FX, Instruments, and Rewire plugins. For instance, if you want to load Cakewalk’s Rapture synth on the Instruments tab, just drag-and-drop it onto the Track View. Very simple and intuitive.
The Synth tab is for the Synth Rack, where you can see the synth and/or sampler plugins you have loaded. You can also Mute, Solo, and Freeze the plugin from this tab. Freezing a plugin will free up more resources for the PC. If you have many CPU hungry synths in your project, this can come in very handy. On top of that, the Synth Rack lets you load or delete plugins.
Screensets are very useful. Once you have windows organized up the way you like, you can save the configuration for quick recall. Actually, you can have ten different screensets, each one saved in a different configuration. They can each be renamed to what you’d like for easy reference.
You could set things up to have the full Console view on one, Matrix view on another, while on a third you might have it set to a combination of the Piano roll and Track View. With screensets, there’s no need to open and close multiple windows, or move things all over the place to find what you’re after.
Also, it’s not just the types of windows/views that are saved, such as Piano roll or Console view. You can have all the plugins docked in one screenset, and in another screenset, those same plugins could all be undocked. It’s all up to you. If you set one screen a certain way, go to the next one, and then switch back to the first, it remembers the settings as you go.
SmartGrid and Comping
The SmartGrid is very cool. When it is enabled and you change your horizontal zoom amount, it will automatically change the “snap-to” amount depending on how far you are zoomed in. That way, you don’t have to keep switching the amount each time you change your view, it determines it for you.
You can zoom in or out by holding the mouse right above the timeline and the pointer becomes a magnifying glass. Then you just drag up or down, and it will go change the snap amount from a whole note all the way down to just one sample.
Take Lanes first appeared with SONAR X2. With the Comping mode (new for X3), each new take that is recorded will be the audio you are hearing at the moment, muting any takes before it. To see the previous takes, hit the Take Lanes button, and they will appear down below the current take.
Basically, what you do is drag/select different sections in the takes. Then you can quickly move between the sections, auditioning each of them one at a time. Crossfades between the sections can be adjusted, and you’ll get a finished track that’s the best of all the separate takes.
The Smart Tool is a multifunction tool which automatically changes to what is needed at the moment. Depending on which type of screen you’re on, or what part of that screen, the Smart Tool can accomplish many types of functions.
You can click on the end of an audio or midi clip and drag left/right to slip edit. Or you can fade in/out on audio clips by click-dragging in its top corner. When you click and drag across from whichever top corner, it creates a simple envelope for you.
If you move on to an envelope, it switches to a draw tool, letting you add more nodes. If you’re right on top of a node, it switches to a move tool.
There are others that are useful that use key-combinations, such as when you hold ALT and click-drag, it will draw in automation points for you. Right-clicking and dragging across will select multiple nodes on an envelope.
ARA and Melodyne Essential
With SONAR X3 Producer, say hello to Celemony’s Melodyne Essential. It replaces V-Vocal which was in prior versions of SONAR. Melodyne Essential lets you correct errors in timing and the tuning of the notes. You can transpose notes, and even set them to a certain scale.
It is also possible to easily modify the length and timing of the notes. There is an optional upgrade path to the full Melodyne Editor.
ARA (Audio Random Access technology) adds on to VST plugin technology, and lets you gain additional access to audio clips inside of SONAR. In addition to its easy integration from within SONAR, another great feature of ARA is that it’s latency-free, and SONAR can get more of an overall scope of audio data, such as timing, pitch, and key. One thing you can use this for is to easily get MIDI data out of an audio clip.
For every single track, you have the possibility to use Pro Channel. It gives you all kinds of functionality, and it’s right there at a moment’s notice.
Pro Channel has eight different high quality modules, including a tape emulator, a console emulator, compressors, and the QuadCurve EQ w/analyzer. Add or remove them or collapse/hide the ones you don’t need. You can still use sends, and you can still add other effects to a track as usual.
The Tape Emulator is one of my favorites in the Pro Channel lineup. It gives your audio some of the qualities you can only get from a classic tape machine. Some of the settings included are Bias and Tape speed. Turning up the Rec Level control will give it more of a saturated/compressed sound.
You can set SONAR’s controls the way you want for detecting new VST plugins: Automatic Background Scan, Scan on Startup, or Manual.
I already mentioned Melodyne Essential, which is an awesome plugin which can take advantage of ARA technology. Cakewalk has also added Nomad Factory’s Blue Tubes FX, which has a total of 19 Nomad plugins included.
Past versions of SONAR Producer have included Session Drummer 3, which is great, but now they’ve also added XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums. It is the full version, and a new addition for X3 Producer.
But wait, there’s more….you also get full versions of Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro and Rapture synth plugins. Lounge Lizard Session rounds out the nice selection of keyboard plugins. It has some great Rhodes electric piano sounds, and has many useful controls and effects. Tone2’s BiFilter2 lets you shape and distort your audio with eight distortion types and over 40 filter types.
Gobbler is a cloud-based service that lets you backup projects to the cloud. You can set it to auto-backup from within SONAR. It’s even possible to type out a message to send with a project for another Gobbler user. Projects can also be received in basically the same way.
There is also Soundcloud integration built-in right in to SONAR, letting you upload audio without leaving the DAW. You will need to create a Soundcloud account before using this feature.
Using the YouTube Publisher, you can upload directly to YouTube as well. Your audio or videos can be uploaded easily. You will need a YouTube account before trying to use this.
SONAR X3 Producer is very slick, and it’s overflowing with functions. I never had any lockups or crashes while working with it on my PC. All in all, it worked liked a charm.
It is priced around $499, depending on where you purchase it. There are also many upgrade paths to the Producer version, e.g. if you decide to go with the Studio version first, or have an older version of SONAR.
What you get is huge value, especially when you think of how many plugins are included. Addictive Drums itself retails for around $149. Add in Melodyne Essential (which is around $99), not to mention Rapture, Dimension Pro, the 19 Nomad Blue Tubes FX, and well … you get the idea.
I have to say, SONAR 8.5 Producer was great. After using X3 Producer, though, it seems I am hooked. If I had to use just one word to sum it up, it would have to be “Incredible”. For me, it’s as if that older version of Producer just got a triple-shot of espresso.
There are many features I can’t begin to write about or this review would end up being a book. There’s the Matrix view, the Step Sequencer, Audio Snap, Overloud TH2 Producer, Strum Acoustic Session, Z3TA+ Classic, and more. You can read about the details on these on the Cakewalk website:
As I mentioned earlier, there is a bit of a learning curve if you upgrade to it from an older version, such as 8.5 Producer. However, everything flows much better once you are used to the new way of doing things in SONAR. VST3 support, ARA integration, many added plugins, and several useful workflow enhancements give SONAR X3 Producer a definite edge over the competition.