Despite the glowing reports in the audio and recording trade press, Cakewalk Sonar X1 is not ready for use in production recording of music
Update - after a 6-month debacle of trials and tribulation with Sonar, the misery has ended. Sonar X1c is the flashy new DAW Cakewalk should have waited to ship.
X1Cakewalk’s Sonar X1 digital audio recording software (DAW) was released in December to initial enthusiasm amongst Cakewalk’s customers and then bitter disappointment as the program literally would not work as advertised.
Cakewalk Sonar X1 has the potential to be one of the best DAWs with technical features second to none, great midi and editing tools, an array of free 64-bit VST plugins, samples and included software like Dimension Pro.
Update – Sonar X1b now ready for prime time
As a long time Sonar user, I hope they get it right sooner than later.
Sonar X1 sports a new and improved interface along with several excellent new features like ProChannel. All of that is tarnished by the inadequate testing before the public release.
The audio recording trade press has been reticent to report the problems, but a quick glance at the Cakewalk Sonar X1 User Forum will provide ample evidence of the pain users are experiencing.
A summary of my fun with Sonar X1 is published under Cakewalk Sonar X1 Diary.
One reviewer had the gall to report “Cons – nothing significant.”
Cakewalk should have followed better software quality control standards and released Sonar X1 as a public beta. From Microsoft to Mozilla, no one releases code this buggy anymore.
Cakewalk has announced a second fix for the code, called Sonar X1b, for March 2011 and users are optimistic. The reality is the code will take many more tries to get working reliably.
I’ll divide my review into The Good, The Bad and The Dishonest.
The Good about Sonar X1
The three main features that standout for me with Sonar X1 are the new Skylight interface, ProChannel and the clean up of the various settings under Preferences.
Skylight allows you to almost have a one screen overview of your Sonar project with separate and movable screen blocks for audio/midi tracks, track inspector, console, library browser and transport. The idea is similar to Adobe Premier CS5.
You can move (undock) the blocks around, re-size them, take them outside Skylight and place, say, the console on a second monitor. Customization is handy and screen sets can be saved for recall. If you lose your way, you have the ability to quickly revert to the standard format.
I liked Skylight but sometimes couldn’t find the various screen tiles. This feature got a lot of complaints on the User Forum but for me it cleans up 20 years of adding features all over the place in Sonar 8.5.3. Once you get used to it, Skylight is a dream.
ProChannel the big improvement in sound quality for Sonar X1. It provides native equalization, compression, tube saturation and effects routing for every track and bus. Native is the key word because ProChannel is not a plug-in.
The sound quality of ProChannel is better than most of the plugins that ship with Sonar X1. I will probably revert to my favorite UAD-2 plugins for final mixing and mastering but it was handy to do quick effects while recording and mixing tracks.
ProChannel is always available as one of the tabs in the Inspector along with Clip, and Track. Both EQ and Compression worked well within the two formats for each but had their limitations, like all compressors and equalizer. It often boils down to style and preferences. Most people on the Sonar forum like ProChannel.
Preferences is a single place in the program (off Edit) that organized the patchwork quilt of old locations for drivers, midi inputs and devices, instruments, control surfaces, file locations, audio data, VST and project settings. The disorganized location of this important information with Sonar 8.5.3 is a result of adding features over decades with little control over their placement.
Preferences is comprehensive and intuitive, a big improvement in Sonar X1.
X1 also sports a new Smart Tool that is supposed to understand the context of your actions, as in move, select, trim, erase and freehand draw. I found it often mistook what I wanted to do and it was easier to click on the tool I needed.
Sonar has been a 64-bit DAW for a while so that’s not new. The audio engine on Sonar X1 is said to be as good as any. Sonar also has plug-in delay compensation which was just recently added to the industry leader Pro Tools 9. Since I have limited experience with other DAWs I suggest you decide for yourself whether it performs better than other DAWs.
Sonar X1 the Bad Beta
Cakewalk released X1 on December 8, 2010 and the software started to crash almost instantly. In my experience, the problems started on the second day during recording with loss of my control surfaces.
As I built my project to 32 tracks, I got uncontrollable dropouts at any latency settings.
The finally straw was trying to use VST plugins which caused catastrophic computer failure for their vocal tool V-Vocal and increased latency for others.
Audiosnap, which worked only sporadically in Sonar 8.5.3, was totally inert in X1.
Other users complained about crashes and their frustrations. Not surprisingly, a small number of X1 users reported everything worked well for them, which was hardly reassuring for the other users whose work was regularly frustrated.
At first Cakewalk denied the issues, which made people doubly frustrated. An X1a patch was rushed out and it failed to include support for Windows ASIO drivers. That was patched as well.
For awhile during December, they took support for X1 off the telephone directory when you dialed up for support. Things were very bad.
Slowly but surely, Cakewalk started to accept partial responsibility for the mess that is Sonar X1. In early February they announced the list of expected fixes in the X1b patch. SONAR X1b Patch Info
The consensus is that if you need Sonar DAW for production of audio recordings as a job and not a hobby, stick with Producer 8.5.3 which is stable.
Everyone’s tolerance for day-to-day catastrophic failure is different. I personally don’t expect to install Sonar X1 in production for another 6 months, or at least one more patch.
Cakewalk is not the only DAW company to stumble this way. Cubase and Pro Tools put their customers through a year of buggy code with recent releases. That’s still no excuse.
Sonar has, to their credit, developed an extensive array of video and other learning tools that will help people learn the software, once it works reliably on more than a few customers’ computers.
The Dishonest Audio and Recording Press
The reviews of Sonar X1 are the worst example of sins of omission at the least and dishonest journalism. It’s understandable that magazines make their money from ads that tout new products. Readers should be advised to take their recommendations with a grain of salt.
Electronic Musician EM wrote a fluff review that concluded “Cons: nothing significant”. They didn’t research the article beyond the press release.
Music Radar trivialized the problems as “Cons Some minor bugs persist.”
AudioFanzine blamed the problems on Windows XP when users were reporting problems on both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows 7.
All of the review contain interesting information. They all omit that X1a probably won’t work reliably.
Sound on Sound magazine has one of the best reputations for telling-it-like-it-is, albeit sometimes circuitously. In the February issue, respected writer and tech guru Craig Anderton weighed in with the first of a series on Sonar X1.
Anderton, who I believe was an official beta tester for Sonar X1, sidesteps the issue of buggy code. “Sonar X1 offers a very different user interface experience to previous versions — so here’s a guide to the new GUI.”
While that’s one approach to writing about Sonar X1, in the face of massive failure to perform reliably, Anderton and Sound on Sound should have fully disclosed the facts and any connection Anderton has with Cakewalk.
Readers have a right to know.
Of course, anyone with a computer can Google Sonar X1 and read the truth on sites like Gearslutz and the Cakewalk Users Forum.