Published On: Tue, Feb 7th, 2012

Sonar X1 Expanded

Eqrlier this year, Cakewalk’s flagship DAW underwent a major overhaul that saw a range of new features introduced, notably the new Skylight interface, which makes working with the software more flexible. Never one to rest on its laurels for long, the company has released numerous minor updates to fix bugs and develop new features, and its latest release is not just an incremental update but a specially expanded version. You’ll need to be an X1 Producer owner to benefit from the upgrade price, but the entire bundle is also available if you are new to Sonar or upgrading from a different version.

First, a quick recap. Sonar is a Windows-only DAW that has long been at the forefront of cutting-edge developments in technology. It was, for example, the first sequencer to be fully 64-bit capable, and one of the first to be truly optimised for multi-core systems. Now that many others have caught up in those regards, it still remains one of the most all-inclusive bundles for the price, offering a wealth of features, plug-in instruments and effects to serve your music-making needs. The full Producer package includes tons of synths, samplers and processing modules, and the Skylight interface has improved usabilty a great deal by comparison to earlier versions (we reviewed Sonar X1 in Issue 94, January 2011).

Into the deep
Sonar X1 Producer Expanded is a downloadable update for the latest revision, offering some tantalising new features that further improve its workflow and usability. Priced at just £35, the update is hardly heavy on the pocket, and should be a serious consideration for those who have already bought the Producer bundle.

One of the major additions in X1 was the ProChannel, a dedicated channel strip on each track in the mixer that contains the kinds of staple processing modules you would find on a conventional hardware desk. Equipping mixers like this means you don’t have to turn to plug-ins to perform common mixing tasks, and it’s increasingly popular (Reason 6 adopts the same approach). By providing tools such as EQ and compression on every channel, the mixer becomes easier to understand, and mixes can be more consistent since they can all use the same compressor, for example.

In Expanded what you get is a modified way of using ProChannel, as well as a new module. The change is that channel strips are now customisable, and work in a modular way. Modules in a ProChannel strip can be re-ordered by dragging them, added or removed via a right-click command, and you can have any combination of modules on a channel. What’s more, favourite setups can be stored and loaded for tracks and busses.

The reason this is important is that the order of the modules affects the sound. Compressing a signal prior to EQ will produce one result, but compressing after EQ will produce another. So there’s now more flexibility to set up processing exactly as you want it. ProChannel modules can be expanded and collapsed and there’s an ‘in-place scrolling’ system that enables each channel to be scrolled up or down individually while the rest of the Console remains static. This is perhaps a little overdue as a feature, but it’s welcome nonetheless.

Soft saturation
As well as compression, EQ and an expander/gate on each channel there’s also a new Softube Saturation Knob, which again can be added or removed on a per-channel basis. This borrows from Softube’s distortion circuitry modelling and provides smooth, one-knob frequency saturation for adding tube warmth to your tracks.

Interestingly, Cakewalk states that more ProChannel modules are coming both from the company itself and from third-party developers, so the system would appear to be expandable. Certainly, this bodes well for increasing your mixing options in the future.

FX Chains, a feature of many modern DAWs, debuted in X1, and in Expanded they gain more features. Named ‘FX Chains 2.0’, they  improve on the originals in a number of ways. To start with, they have a fully customisable user interface and you can load effects then create your own buttons and knobs and assign them to any parameter within any loaded effect, creating ‘quick’ controls. It’s also possible to load your own graphics to change the look of the interface. Again, this is a bit like the way in which quick controls can be assigned in Reason, and certainly helps your workflow. You get 100 presets grouped by type, and these are very helpful. Effects within a chain can also be dragged and dropped to re-order them, and there’s full support for the ACT remote controller technology built-in.

The Browser is also more intelligent in Expanded, and new functionality enables bi-directional drag-and-drop and the ability to instantly replace soft synths with a simple gesture. Audio and MIDI loops can be dragged from Track View into the Browser, and FX Chains created as well. The ‘Replace Synth’ feature enables you to swap instruments and test new sounds while keeping all other routing and track data intact – a simple drag-and-drop unpatches the original instrument and inserts the new one in its place. 

Best of the rest
Other new features are perhaps smaller in scope but still useful. There’s integration with SoundCloud  and the ability to also notify your Twitter, Facebook and other online identities when you upload music. Projects of any bit-depth or sample rate can be uploaded directly. Elsewhere, Expanded now supports MusicXML, the universal digital sheet music interchange and distribution format. The Staff View now has MusicXML export integrated, so you can share scores with programs such as Sibelius and Finale.

Some of the new features in Sonar  X1 Producer Expanded are things that perhaps should already have been there, such as in-place scrolling in the mixer and SoundCloud integration. Others, like the new ProChannel modules, the future expandability of the ProChannel system and advanced FX Chains are genuinely forward-thinking and could leave the competition playing catch-up. For owners of X1 Producer, this update is a no-brainer. For those new to Sonar or upgrading from a previous version, the new features serve to increase the overall appeal of this advanced DAW.

Verdict
WHY BUY
Very powerful DAW
The update is inexpensive
Future-proof ProChannel
FX Chains 2.0
Softube module sounds great
MusicXML support

WALK ON BY
Some people still not sold on the interface

The update is excellent value for existing owners and adds valuable new features for workflow. For new users it increases the appeal of Sonar as a music-making platform

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