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Cakewalk SONAR 2.2 and SONAR 2.2 XL Review by Mike Liebner
Test Machine: Custom built Pentium 4, 1.7 GHZ, 512 RAM running Windows XP Home Edition.
SONAR 2.2 XL is Cakewalk's top of the line cutting edge software application for making music on Windows PC's. The SONAR 2.2 XL version provides all of the capabilities of SONAR 2.2, plus includes two 64-bit, fully-automatable DirectX 8 mastering effects (Sonic Timeworks EQ and Sonic Timeworks Compressor X), plus an advanced DXi soft synth drum sampler (FXpansion Audio DR-008).
From this point forward I will refer to both versions as SONAR 2.2 unless referring to specific features only available in SONAR 2.2 XL.
Cakewalk Sonar 2.2 is an integrated MIDI and Audio sequencing package, that has the unique distinction of incorporating "Acid style" loop composition features with real time pitch transposition and time stretching. SONAR is a Windows only software program and has developed a loyal following since it's introduction in 2001 as well as many accolades.
Sonar Versions 2.0, 2.1 and now 2.2 bring us a host of improvements, most notably the addition of ASIO compatibility, OMFI & Broadcast Wave Format (BWF) import/export, greater control surface support, Windows Media 9 audio export support (our favorite compressed streaming music format by the way), MMC support, Trim, offset, and preview mode render options for AVI, MPEG and QuickTime digital video files, new Cyclone DXi features including snap to grid with assignable resolution, slice preview, accepts and record universal SYSX messages, Event Properties Inspector toolbar, improved Rewire support, a new and improved synth rack, improved file management, pattern brush tool, and simplified drum programming features among others.
Sonar 1 introduced us to the DXi Virtual Instrument & Effects plugin format, which is now at version 2. Sonar also introduced us to the low latency WDM audio driver format (we're happy they added ASIO support!). ADDENDUM: Cakewalk has now purchased the technology for Fxpansion's VST DXi Adapter Wrapper technology allowing seamless integration of VST Instrument & Effects plugins into Sonar. MORE INFO. Another Cakewalk innovation is MFX Midi plugins which allow the processing of midi data by included and third party plugins.
Among the most exciting of Sonar's features is it's ability to import and export Acid format loops. Therefore any Acid compatible loop library can be utilized in Sonar allowing for quick and easy loop construction. You can preview Acidized loop files and drag and drop right into Sonar's timeline. You can also now save newly created Sonar groove clips in the Acidized format from within Sonar for use in other programs. The included Cyclone DXi plugin further adds to loop based composition with a host of features that make working with loops in Sonar a blast! While Sonar does not directly support REX files, it's improved Rewire support makes that a non issue. Just fire up Reason with Rewire and you've got your REX. Another option for slicing files is a VST plugin like Phatmatik Pro.
The interface in Sonar is a bit on the bland side. It has that "old Windows" look and feel, but it is functional and gets the job done (Sonic Foundry's Acid can be accused of the same). But looks are superficial anyways - it's how the program works that counts. Most of my prior sequencing experience had been with Cubase, and coming to grips with Sonar took a bit of adjustment. But after you get the hang of Sonar it begins to make more and more sense and most importantly you can get things done quickly and easily.
Sonar XL 2 installed painlessly. After entering the serial number and registering, I was taken to an updates page which had several new updates, most notably a plugin patch and a rewire fix. I downloaded and installed the various updates which installed easily.
After opening the program again I entered my midi inputs and such and got ready to get going. I started with a new project and began to test things. I inserted a loop from the loop explorer and it worked immediately. Then I opened the included Dreamstation DXi and it worked as well. Working with DXi plugins is a breeze. I tested all the cool Native Instruments DXi's which all worked great within Sonar.
Working with my external midi keyboards was another story. I initially ran into some trouble getting my external keyboard, a Roland D70 to monitor. I saw the input meters on the Motu 24i show it was getting a signal, but I couldn't figure out how to monitor that signal through Sonar. A call to tech support and I soon found out that you had to ARM both the MIDI channel PLUS the audio channel to record. I then got some sound. It was pretty noisy but after going back and adjusting the latency to a lower (faster) value the crackling went away. Tech support was easy to obtain and they were quite helpful. Since then the upgrade to 2.2 has provided ASIO support and it works beautifully with no crackles or problems with my MOTU 24i.
Sequencer preference is a subjective thing. There are legions of people that swear to one program or another and will fight to the death to defend it. While I have been very comfortable with Cubase for a number of years (despite a number of problems and quirks, some of which are still unsolved), I must say that Sonar is a breath of fresh air. I find it very appealing to painlessly work with loops. And the Cyclone DXi is brilliant. Also working with MFX Midi plugins is way cool (have you checked out Slicey Drummer??? Link below).
The best way I can present Sonar is that it is formidable competition for Steinberg and Sonic Foundry (Acid now has improved midi features). I happily work with Sonar and it has it's place in my arsenal of tools. The more time I spend with it and get accustomed to it's way of working, the more the lines get blurred between the other programs. And it's loop friendly demeanor is a big plus.
In summary, Cakewalk Sonar 2.2 is a terrific program. It has a ton of great features and the resulting output sounds excellent. It is creatively stimulating and an important tool in my toy box. Sonar could easily be the only sequencer you will ever need. It handles all tasks admirably and is a top notch professional product. If you like working with loops, that could be the deal breaker, as SONAR has the edge at this point in time.
To be honest, all of the sequencing programs out there have matured so much that you really can't go wrong with any of them. It's just a matter of personal preference and which program appeals to you most. SONAR 2.2 and 2.2 XL are fine choices.
If you get a chance, try to find a working version of SONAR at a music retailer or friend and play with it a bit. Another option is to download the Sonar 2.2 Demo Version and spend some time with it. If you like the way it feels jump in and get it. You won't be disappointed!
Cakewalk SONAR 2.2 XL lists for $599. and SONAR 2.2 lists for $479. Be sure to check around for the "street price" as it will be much lower, as well as check for Cakewalk's "competitive upgrade" offer if you already own another sequencer.
SONAR 2.2 and SONAR 2.2 XL get a 9 out of 10 Beat Mode Rating
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