www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997

Power Tools - Cakewalk Sonar

This article first appeared in the February, 2003 issue of Mix magazine.

ProTools may be the big name Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for now, but SONAR offers many advantages including very high performance at a fraction of the cost. With a modern fast PC, you get essentially unlimited tracks, software synthesizers, and plug-in effects - without needing expensive proprietary hardware. Using SONAR, I can do everything I need with only one computer and a compact mixer! Following are some tips and techniques that SONAR owners are sure to find useful.


SONAR lets you create 64 output buses, and most people use one bus for each physical sound card output. However, it makes more sense to assign those buses to the same output, which is the key to efficient grouping. I usually create three buses for grouping related tracks, to EQ or compress them together, or control their levels without having to link every volume slider. Another great use for multiple buses is to apply complementary EQ. If I'm having trouble making a bass track stand out in a mix, I'll send the bass to a separate bus, boost 300 Hz. by a dB. or two, then cut the same frequency on the main bus by a similar amount. This is much more efficient than applying the same EQ separately to all the other tracks!


SONAR offers three ways to store your songs, but Per Project Folders is the best for several reasons. It keeps all Wave files for each song in one folder so you always know what files to back up. It's also easy to determine which files can be erased to save space if you delete tracks. The Bundle format stores all data in a single large file but takes much longer to open because each separate Wave must be extracted. This also hastens disk fragmentation. Further, a Bundle file may be too large to fit on a CDR backup. And if that one file becomes corrupted, you've lost everything. However, I recommend saving every song as a Bundle on a separate hard drive as an extra safety copy.


Latency is the time delay between changing a volume or EQ slider and hearing the result. It's also the delay after you play a note on a soft-synth until you hear that note. Getting the lowest latency in SONAR requires a sound card having well-written drivers, but you must also optimize the sound card's buffer size. After installing SONAR on my current computer, the lowest latency offered was 10 milliseconds. Changing the buffer size in my Delta sound card's control panel to 64 samples reduced that to 1.5 milliseconds. (After changing the size you must have SONAR profile your sound card again.) Also, many folks have a SoundBlaster or other consumer-grade sound card to use as a MIDI metronome or to edit SoundFonts. That's fine for MIDI but disable it in SONAR's list of audio outputs so the poorer drivers don't reduce overall latency.


One common problem is not hearing a soft-synth, or getting the wrong sound. First, make sure the audio engine is running by checking the toolbar button. Also, make sure the controlling MIDI track is selected and its output goes to the audio track containing the soft-synth. Be sure you've selected an output MIDI channel, bank, and patch, and, for the Native Instruments B4, that you're using channel 1, 2, or 3 since the B4 responds only to those channels. With drum SoundFonts, be aware that some recognize channel 10 only, while others allow any channel except 10.

Another common problem is the Tempo Ratio feature becoming disabled. Tempo Ratio works only with MIDI projects that have no soft-synths or audio tracks. But if you have a project with audio and MIDI, and then delete the audio tracks, or accidentally insert an audio track, and then delete it, Tempo Ratio remains unavailable. To fix this: Options .. Project .. Clock tab, then set Source to Internal.


The usual way to create a composite performance is to record many takes on separate tracks, then cut and paste the best parts to one track. SONAR is outstanding for this because it creates new tracks on the fly as you record. With snap-to-grid enabled, you can then copy or move regions from the overdubbed tracks to one master track, and they will remain in sync. Alternately, SONAR can record all overdubs on one track - simply slide the bad takes out of the way leaving just the good parts!

For clarity I suggest you name your tracks and buses. SONAR uses the track names when creating Wave files, so it's easy to tell which files go with which track if you want to clean up files manually. Also, spend the time to learn the supplied hotkey shortcuts and to define your own. SONAR makes it very easy to navigate your projects, size windows, set all tracks to the same output, and much more. Learning how will pay you back many times over in greatly increased productivity.


Finally, the Number One tip I can offer - which applies to any DAW - is to buy a second monitor. Once you experience the luxury of being able to move the piano roll, event list, and plug-ins off the main screen, you'll never again use one monitor. And they don't have to be identical. My main display is 21 inches set for 1280x1024 and the other is 17 inches at 1024x768. They coexist fine, and I never have to move one window out of the way to access another.


Special bonus tip added March 25, 2003, after publication: Don't waste screen space with Sonar's Mixer window, which is a holdover from the old Cakewalk Pro Audio program. With Sonar you can control everything the mixer offers right from the track window, without taking up half your screen.

Over the past half-century, Ethan Winer has earned a living as a studio musician, computer programmer, audio engineer, composer/arranger, technical writer, and college instructor. He now heads up RealTraps, which manufactures high-performance bass traps and acoustic treatment.

Entire contents of this web site Copyright 1997- by Ethan Winer. All rights reserved.