Posted on Wed 05 October 2011 in entries

You can read more reviews like this, along with Tony's productions at his personal site -> Tony Long Music.


I have been with Cakewalk Sonar Producer since version 6 and having worked myself through the necessary learning curve of a new DAW, I got to the point where I was very happy with 8.5 and all of the many facilities that it provided. For others, Sonar has always been let down by its interface. With Sonar X1, I want to believe that somewhere underneath this new look is my old familiar Sonar 8.5 and that I know exactly what to do. I think however that I have a bit of a learning to do, as well as some un-learning, especially as I understand that many of the keyboard shortcuts have changed.


As always, installation was very quick and straightforward. There have been three updates already to Sonar X1 - these are Sonar X1a, X1b and X1c. These fix a range of issues, as is expected with any new release, as well as providing some minor enhancements. Again, these updates installed very simply. The first time you launch Sonar X1 Producer, a Wave Profiler Utility scans your Midi and Audio Hardware. It is also possible to scan this manually. If you go to the 'Edit' menu at the top and select 'Preferences' (with no project open), you will see that 'Preferences' is the only option available. This is one of the things that I love about Sonar X1 over previous versions - all the settings and preferences are all in one place in this one window named 'Preferences'. To scan manually, select the 'Wave Profiler' under the 'Driver Settings Tab' in the 'Audio Section'.


Sonar X1's new user interface, named 'Skylight', is made up of five components, which allow you to work in your project. At the top you have the Control Bar, in the centre (as you would expect) is the Track View, to the left is the Inspector, to the right is the Browser and at the bottom is the MultiDock. This is similar to how I had my Sonar 8.5 set up but the big difference with X1 is that these components (apart from the Track View) can be either docked into the main window or can become a floating window. As I go through these components of Skylight, you will see how much more Sonar X1 can do and at the same time, speed up your workflow.


What is immediately noticeable between the old Toolbar and the new is that Sonar X1's Toolbar is sensibly organised into modules and you can decide as to which modules you wish to have displayed. The new toolbar is bigger and slicker but you need at least a 24" monitor to display all of its modules. However, in reality you probably only want some of them displayed as the 'Norm'. Cakewalk have put them in a sensible order so that your most frequently used functions are more easily accessible via the display.

The thirteen modules are:- Tools, Snap, Transport, Loop, Mix, Act, Screenset, Performance, Punch, Select, Markers, Event Inspector and Sync. The other options you have are:- to dock the Control Bar at the top or the bottom, Float it or Hide it. To change the order of the modules, you can simply grab and move them to the position of your choice. This is of course not possible if they are not displayed in the first instance.


The Inspector in Sonar X1 brings together many parameters that seemed to be all over the place in previous versions of Sonar. The Track Inspector, which looks very much like the old one, has been turbo-charged. It still shows the current track bus, sends and EQ, but it now shows two channel strips side by side for the selected track and if it is an audio track, one for the associated bus. In the case of a MIDI track, the extra Channel Strip displays MIDI information for items like Pitch Quantise Mode, Snap to Scale and an Arpeggiator. The Track inspector can if you wish, just show a single Channel Strip or display the Pro Channel for the selected track.

The Properties Inspector (which can appear as an overlay on the Track Inspector) has three tabs for:- Click, Track or Pro Channel. Within these pages it can give you information under four sections:- Properties, Groove Clip, Audio Snap and Clip effects. Here you will see information on such things as Clip Name, Time Format, Start, Length, Snap Offset and Lock.


Moving over to the right-hand side of the screen you will find a powerful new Browser. What I love about this, is the drag and drop facility. You can now drag and drop almost anything - effects chains, virtual instruments, plug-ins, groove clips and track templates etc. You can also audition audio, MIDI files and REX files and there is also a Search Filter. I must say that I did not use the Browser much under 8.5 but I think with Sonar X1, I will probably end up leaving it open all of the time.

I think that Sonar X1's Browser is about the best I have seen. I found it to be very quick to use and it feels great and really outshines other DAWs.


Evolving from version 8.5, the bottom tabbed views have been replaced by the new Multi-Dock. What I like about this is that if I want, I can now make it stretch across the entire lower area of the screen or alternatively if I want to see more of the Track View, I can collapse it until I need it or float it. All this can be done with a single mouse click.

With this Multi-Dock, I can dock a whole range of views like the Loop-Construction View, MIDI Piano Roll View, the Console or the Matrix and then select which one I want with tabs.


Pro-Channel is only available in the Producer version of Sonar X1. It is a professional and very powerful Channel Strip that is built in to each channel and is not a plug-in. It has been designed with the objective of bringing that big professional console sound to your tracks.

It has a compressor which has two modes, attempting to emulate two of the big boys - the UREI 1176 and the SSL 4000G. The Classic 1176 compressors were great at bringing out the brightness and crispness of a vocal, while its compression would smooth the sound out. The SSL 4000G compression is renowned to provide punch and drive in any mix. I really like the sound of these compressors in Sonar's Pro-Channel. Whilst they are not quite what they are trying to emulate, they do sound excellent; they are very clear and have a great character.

The EQ included in the Pro-Channel is a standard four band parametric EQ with adjustable level, frequencies and Q for each band. It replaces the Sonitus EQ that I was very used to but I have to say that there are substantial improvements in Sound Quality. You also have three EQ characters to choose from:- Pure, Vintage or Modern. I found the Pure to be very 'musical' with a rich low end and smooth highs. The 'Vintage' mode had a much fatter low end and some pleasing character in the mid-range. Finally, I would say that the 'Modern' mode was very similar to the Sonitus EQ.

As well as an improved EQ, you can make some interesting changes to your sound with the use of the high and low pass filters. The slope is adjustable from 6 to 48dB per octave in 6dB increments. To my surprise, there is also a 'Gloss' button. You should definitely try this out as it adds 'air' or 'shine'. It is more of an enhancement button, but will not suit every situation.

Lastly it has a Tube Saturation emulator with two modes, which give you two very different flavours. I think that they are both excellent and have a fantastic sound. The parameters are very simple:- 'Input', 'Output' and 'Drive'.


For many of us, editing on a per-track basis in Sonar X1 is going to be a tremendous time-saver. The introduction of the Edit Filter allows you to select what type of data you wish to edit (and none of the data that you don't!) For example, you might have multiple automation envelopes on a track. In this case, you could use the edit filter to select which of the automation envelopes you would like to edit.

To start with, by default (out of five options) you will find that each of the track's edit filter's is set to 'clips'. If you want to, you can change this to 'Audio Transients' for your audio tracks or 'notes' for your MIDI track. You can however only view one type of information at a time.

I like this handy shortcut that I picked up from Roland - 'Hold down the shift key while you click on a data type (automation envelope, clip data etc.) and you will automatically switch to editing that data type'.


In Sonar X1, the developers have totally reworked the way the editing tools work. It is strange, but I got very used to Sonar's Pre-X1 ways of editing. However, now the tools behave the same across all views, although you have to select which tool you need for the job. The old way was to have the right tool for the right job, but it (confusingly) meant that some did different jobs in different views. If you are an existing Sonar user, you will probably find this new way of working annoying until you get used to it!

On a more positive note, Roland Cakewalk has provided the 'Smart Tool'. The Smart Tool changes its functionality depending on where the mouse cursor is placed. For example, with an Audio Clip, if you move the mouse over the top half of the clip, it acts as a selection tool, but over the lower half it becomes a 'move' tool.


I really like the fact that Multiple Effects can now be put together and treated as a single FX Chain. These chains can be stored so that you can recall them for other projects. They can't however, include instruments or MIDI effects. You can drag or copy them from Track to Track as well as collapse them into an FX Bin. I also like the idea of being able to name them for a clear reference. FX Chains can be used on tracks, busses or clips. You can create an FX Chain by simply right-clicking in the channel's effects bin and selecting 'FX Chain' from the menu. There are however some producers that think that it is not a good idea to be tempted to use the same effects on another song - there's food for thought.


The prospect of creating individual layouts in the form of screensets for specific situations sounds pretty good to me. You can, for example, have a screenset for when you are composing with MIDI and another for mixing or mastering. Previous versions of Sonar had this but it was difficult to find. Screensets under Sonar X1 have been overhauled and you can now save your entire layout using the module for screensets on the control bar and there are 10 slots for you to use.


For those of you that make great use of The Piano Roll, you will be pleased to know that Sonar have significantly upgraded this under X1. What I like the best is 'Track Lineup', whereby the notes now lineup with all of your other data in your tracks. This makes so much sense and helps you to know exactly where you are and where everything else is.

MIDI Setup with the on-board Soft Synths is very easy under Sonar X1. I did a quick recording with the Z3ta+ as I love the sound of this Soft Synth. I have also just read that Cakewalk have now released Z3ta+ 2, which sounds like a cross between a Virus TI and a Roland GAIA. It has better filters, modulatable waveshapers, flexible effects, expressive control and a gorgeous new interface. With a 1000 new sounds it seems sensible to buy this with an upgrade price of only £35.00 (\$49).


I feel like Sonar X1 is a new piece of software and not an upgrade from 8.5. The new interface, workflow enhancements, tools, pro channel, browser and effects, all for a price that is much less than the competition, puts Sonar X1 as one of the best DAWs on the market. Despite the fact that it is not easy to entice users away from their own DAWs, I think Roland Cakewalk will achieve this with what they now have to offer.

Like all pieces of software, it is not perfect and there have now been three updates, so things are moving in the right direction. They have also just announced 'Sonar X1 Producer Expanded', so that looks worth a look. Existing Sonar Users will quickly find all that they need and will have a much faster workflow.

If you are a first-timer looking to purchase a DAW, then I would highly recommend Sonar X1. If you are an existing DAW user and are finding that your DAW does not enable you to quickly and simply get the ideas in your head out through your monitors, then you should seriously give Sonar X1 a try as well.

For more information on Sonar X1 or to buy a copy, click the relevant link below:

Sonar X1 Producer - More Info/Purchase

Sonar X1 Production Suite - More Info/Purchase

Sonar X1 Studio - More Info/Purchase

Sonar X1 Essential - More Info/Purchase