Cakewalk Sonar Platinum
For the uninitiated, Sonar is Cakewalk's Windows-only DAW comprising everything required to create, record, mix and master tracks, from conception to completion.
It's been around in various forms for a decade and a half, but with the latest version, great changes are afoot, particularly in the way the software will henceforth be sold, upgraded and supported.
Here's the deal: You can still pay for Sonar upfront, but you can now alternatively sign up to a monthly Membership subscription plan. So long as you keep payments up for a full year, you can then keep the software without making any further payment.
Subscribed monthly members get ongoing monthly updates to the software, tutorials, extra content and tech support. Paying for the whole thing upfront includes 12 months' membership too, meaning the software and any updates and add-ons released over the next year are yours to keep.
Cakewalk says that it's monitoring customer feedback, which will play a role in upcoming updates, alongside its own in-house roadmap.
On the pay-monthly scheme, 12 months of payments amount to $599 for Sonar Platinum (the top-of-the-range edition that we're focusing one here), compared to $499 for the upfront price, so the latter represents a saving for those who can stump up the cash upfront.
Once your year is up, however, you can renew a Platinum Membership for a reduced price of $199 upfront or $20 monthly, and Artist and Professional Memberships for $49/$5 and $99/$10, respectively. This strikes us as fair and in line with what we'd expect to pay for upgrades, were Sonar still being presented in the traditional manner.
You may have also noticed that Sonar no longer carries a version number. With it now being a continuously ongoing development, to which anyone can subscribe at any point, such nomenclature is no longer relevant.
Along with the new payment and distribution model comes Cakewalk Command Center, a standalone application for managing your account, and downloading or directly installing your software.
It proves to be very easy to use, considerably expediting the installation of the 20GB+ Sonar Platinum package. And to be clear, Command Center doesn't have to be running for Sonar to work - you only use it when you need it.
Cakewalk is making such a big deal about its new payment/distribution model that it's easy to forget there's actually a new version of Sonar arriving with it.
Three new versions, in fact: the lowest tier Sonar Artist (formerly Sonar X3), the mid-range Sonar Professional (replaces Sonar X3 Studio) and the full-spec Sonar Platinum (supplanting X3 Producer). As mentioned, we're reviewing Platinum here, but many new features are common to all three.
Raising the bar
Sonar Platinum looks much as it ever has, but some new additions are apparent right from the start. For example, the Control Bar can now be scrolled from side to side to reveal more of the functions you've opted to display; the Gobbler module/feature has been ditched entirely; the modules in the Control Bar can be resized manually or automatically; and a collapsed module can be viewed in full simply by mousing over it.
The entire Control Bar itself can also be collapsed. These are well thought-out and carefully implemented changes that make life with Sonar a lot easier.
Also new to the Control Bar is the Mix Recall module, which controls Sonar's newfound ability to save and recall entire mix setups at a click. You have some control over exactly what sort of information is saved, with a checklist that includes Track controls, automation, effects and more. Easy and effective, and useful for A/B-ing multiple mixes (albeit with not-quite- instaneous switching).
One of the highlights of the new Sonar is VocalSync (Platinum-only), which analyses your vocal (or any) tracks and instantly aligns them with any other track of your choice - if you're familiar with VocALign from Synchro Arts, it's basically like that, but for Sonar.
The VocalSync Editor couldn't be simpler, comprising a single knob for controlling the strength of alignment, a render button and a menu from which to select your target track. We're pleased to report that it works very well indeed.
It's the little things
There are a number of other nifty new enhancements that we don't have room to cover in detail but that deserve a mention. For starters, you can now import and export audio in the high-res DSD format, while the mixer gets dynamically expandable, scrollable sends and effects stacking in the effects rack.
The Piano Roll has improved velocity and MIDI CC handling, and a new Pattern Tool. The latter enables you to 'paint' MIDI patterns in both the Piano Roll and inline MIDI tracks, rolling out repeated duplicates of the pattern stored in the clipboard, which can be loaded from any MIDI file you like. It's very slick.
Finally, new bundled instruments and effects amount to XLN Audio's Addictive Drums 2 Producer Bundle and a new ProChannel reverb, and the Cakewalk website promises Platinum users a drum replacer plugin in the near future.
Sonar remains a winner, very much in the top tier of Windows-compatible DAWs. Despite a few unreproducible crashes during our tests, the new version is solid, powerful and reasonably easy to use.
Some of the included instruments are looking a bit long in the tooth these days, but they get the job done, and some (Dimension Pro, primarily) still sound top-notch.
Sonar offers an astonishing amount of power for the money, only now you have another option for handing it over. It remains a great buy, no matter how you slice it up.
However, we have to highlight the fact that, at this point, Cakewalk's promises of monthly additions are just that: promises. The success of their new model will very much depend on its ability to keep those promises over the long haul.