When reviewing the best creative software, it can be hard to detect real progress from version to version as developers struggle to improve on an already highly accomplished product. Luckily, we had no such trouble with the latest release of Sonar.
Like the hardware recording studios it emulates, music software can never have too many toys. Cakewalk seems to understand this well and has led the way in terms of add-on gadgets for creating, processing and otherwise tinkering with sound. This latest version is no exception, with fantastic new instruments and effects along with a smattering of subtle refinements.
Sonar 7 had an unrivalled collection of virtual instruments, with 11 plug-ins covering analogue synthesis, acoustic drums, loop manipulation and plenty more besides. However, three additions take the bundle to lofty new heights. Our favourite is Dimension Pro, a general-purpose synthesizer that’s comparable with professional hardware synthesizers from the likes of Roland and Korg.
Dimension Pro draws on a bank of samples of real instruments and provides sophisticated synthesis controls with which to modify them. However, while hardware synthesizers tend to have a couple of hundred megabytes of samples, Dimension Pro has 8.8GB. The result is extremely realistic emulations of a massive range of instruments. Each is sampled at various pitches, volumes and playing techniques to deliver superb authenticity and richness of tone. The 2,626 instruments are consistently excellent and are well organised for quick browsing.
TruePianos has just a single instrument and limited means to customise it. However, grand pianos are notoriously hard to emulate, and this one does an admirable job. Unlike Dimension Pro, it doesn’t quite live up to the standards of expensive third-party plug-ins, but it’s better than any other piano emulation bundled with a recording package. Beatscape, the third and final new virtual instrument, comes with a generous library of drum loops that can be warped, layered and triggered in time with each other and the project tempo. While it’s technically impressive, we found the supplied loops uninspiring. Still, it will be to some people’s tastes, and the plug-in can import other loops in the popular REX format.
The new effect plug-ins are just as impressive. Guitar Rig 3 LE comprises a bank of virtual guitar amps and effects. This LE version doesn’t have the breadth of modules of the £200 full product, but quality is just as high. The TL 64 Tube Leveler emulates the warm fizz or guttural crunch of valve distortion. If digital recordings sound flat and clinical, this is the perfect antidote. The TS 64 Transient Shaper provides surgical control over the attack and decay of percussive sounds. It’s more of a corrective tool than a creative one, but useful for tidying up a mix and giving drums more punch.
There are a lot of small improvements to the main application. One of our favourites is the introduction of instrument tracks, which tidy up the way virtual instruments are handled in Sonar. We’re disappointed that nothing has been done to improve the general appearance of the software, which remains cluttered and daunting for newcomers. Still, significant work has been done to improve efficiency and reliability. Cakewalk’s website includes an impressive list of optimisations, and we can confirm that ASIO sound card driver support is more robust in this version. The Producer Edition isn’t cheap, but at £350 it’s excellent value. The new plug-ins alone could easily cost this much and they’re a fraction of the total package. Upgrade prices start at £110 for version 7 users and the cut-down Studio Edition, which omits the best of the instrument and effect plug-ins, costs £230. However, the Producer Edition gets our recommendation, as it’s brimming with inspiring tools for producing professional-quality music.