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Does X3 have what it takes to tempt buyers away from other recording software? SOS readers sometimes ask why we rarely print comparative reviews of products. In the case of modern digital audio workstation software, the reasons are many. For one thing, these programs are highly complex, and covering all the features of just one of them is a challenge, even in a lengthy review. For another, every user employs their DAW software in a different way, and the factors that might be crucial for me could be trivial for you.

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Does X3 have what it takes to tempt buyers away from other recording software? SOS readers sometimes ask why we rarely print comparative reviews of products. In the case of modern digital audio workstation software, the reasons are many. For one thing, these programs are highly complex, and covering all the features of just one of them is a challenge, even in a lengthy review. For another, every user employs their DAW software in a different way, and the factors that might be crucial for me could be trivial for you.

And for another, most DAWs are now so highly evolved that the differences lie less in what features are available than in how they're implemented. As a result, once an individual user becomes comfortable with one DAW, it's not easy for that person to evaluate fairly the workings of a new and unfamiliar program.

With these caveats in mind, though, I hope there is still something to be gained by reviewing a DAW from the perspective of a new user, because that's exactly what I'll be doing in this article. I've used several other DAWs in the past: Several versions of Sonar have made it onto my hard drive at one time or another, but I've never done more than fire it up, stare at the welcome screen with a heavy heart, and close it again.

With the launch of X3, it was clearly time I educated myself in the ways of Sonar. That hasn't changed in X3, but Cakewalk have engaged in something of a rethink of the product range. They are keen to emphasise that the most affordable edition, which is called plain Sonar X3, is not in any way a crippled or 'lite' version of the program. It also means that all improvements to the core program made in X3 apply across the board. These include support for the VST3 plug-in standard, integrated cloud backup to Gobbler and a new and more sophisticated approach to compiling edited performances from multiple takes.

If you choose to invest in the more expensive Studio or Producer Edition of X3 instead, your extra outlay buys additional content. There is, as far as I'm aware, only one client application that can take advantage of this, but it's a biggie: Celemony's Melodyne, widely acknowledged as the best tool available for manipulating pitch and timing within recorded audio performances.

If you want access to the jaw-dropping polyphonic editing in the flagship version of Melodyne, you'll need to buy it separately, but for conventional vocal work, Sonar X3 Studio and Producer ship with the very capable Melodyne Essential. Studio and Producer owners also get the Blue Tubes FX suite from Nomad Factory, a bundle of no fewer than 20 effects and processing plug-ins, to add to the many existing plug-ins bundled with previous Sonars.

Tone2's BiFilter is an excellent emulation of an analogue filter. Finally, the Producer Edition also boastssome very impressive overseas signings in the virtual instrument department. Testing Testing One feature of Sonar that's always been popular is its use of a simple serial-number-based authorisation system.

Cakewalk have never resorted to a hardware dongle, and that hasn't changed in X3. With so much licensed content included, however, installing the Producer Edition is a bit cumbersome. Once you've handed over your virtual cash, you receive a list of serial numbers, and although the X3 installer covers many of the bundled plug-ins, Melodyne and Addictive Drums need to be installed separately.

The latter, moreover, absolutely requires that your studio computer be connected to the Internet. With that hurdle out of the way, you can fire up X3, which happens with impressive speed. Like other DAWs, Sonar needs to scan your system for plug-ins before it can use them, but X3 now has the ability to do this unobtrusively in the background, so you can start work straight away as long as you don't need to use Zzzz Labs' Zzedelator Pro to do what you want, I suppose.

A friendly quick-start window allows you to open recent projects or start a new one, with a variety of templates available. At this point the new user can just dive in, or you could consult X3's voluminous documentation. As well as built-in Help, tooltips, a Quick Start guide, a Readme file, online support, a user forum and various videos and blogs, there's also a truly gargantuan PDF Reference Guide.

The Contents alone take up 52 pages; following this, there's a snappy pages or so of tutorials, then the manual proper, followed by another or so pages which list every menu command and what it does. It's all well written, nicely broken down into bite-sized chunks, and undeniably comprehensive. It is, in other words, about as user-friendly as a page document could be expected to be — and therein lies the rub. Simply navigating such a huge manual is a challenge, and actually tracking down the information you need can quickly bring to mind parallels involving needles and haystacks.

The sheer size of the thing is a significant impediment to learning X3, and I hope Cakewalk will consider rewriting it on a more compact scale. Sky Scraping Sonar X3's user interface, dubbed Skylight, remains substantially the same as it was in X1 and X2, though one development worthy of note is the use of 'toast notifications'. Wherever possible, Cakewalk have tried to replace disruptive Windows-style alerts with clear yet easily ignorable pop-up information boxes. These attract your attention but don't need to be dismissed, so don't interrupt your working, which helps you keep your focus on the music.

By default, the X3 user interface is divided into five main regions, though these can be moved about and hidden as you see fit. Across the top runs a melange of toolbars, transport controls and other global settings. Beneath that is the main business area, which shows audio and MIDI recordings as horizontal bars spread out along tracks in the conventional way.

Unlike some DAWs, though, Sonar enforces a rigorous apartheid between tracks and buses; the latter have their own dedicated sections of the arrange panel and the mixer, and can't be intermingled with audio or MIDI tracks.

To the left of the arrange panel is the track inspector. Like that in recent versions of Logic, it typically shows settings both for the selected track or bus, and for whatever bus its output is routed to. This is a really useful arrangement, allowing you to easily keep tabs on, say, a snare drum track and the drum bus it's feeding at the same time. A corresponding panel on the right-hand side of the screen houses a browser, which can be used to organise and import anything from effects presets to sampled loops.

Finally, the bottom-most area of the screen houses something called the Multidock, home to such fundamentals as the Console mixer , piano-roll editor, sample editor and so on, which appear in tabbed pages when more than one of them is open. The Skylight interface is clearly the product of a great deal of thought, and positively drips with nice touches.

One such which is new in X3 is that tracks can be made to inherit the colour of whatever bus they are routed to. In a conventional rock mix where you have all your drums, guitars, backing vocals and so on feeding separate buses, this makes it a matter of moments to assign a logical colour scheme to everything.

The track inspector is very nicely implemented, and provides such comprehensive and clear information on the selected track that there's often no need to open the Console even when mixing.

In fact, from a user-interface point of view, most of my reservations about X3 concern the Console. The first of these is that it doesn't make terribly good use of space.

Although I was working with a reasonably large monitor, I found it frustrating trying to work with the Console docked, even when the Multidock was enlarged to take up much of the screen. Happily, the Multidock and hence the Console can be floated, but even then, I found it rather frustrating to work with. For one thing, as you drag the floating Multidock about, it keeps trying to dock itself in places where no-one would reasonably want their mixer to be docked, and you have to remember to hold down the Ctrl key to stop this.

And despite its mammoth size, the Console can only display a maximum of three inserts and two sends per track at any one time — you can add more, but if you do, their presence is indicated only by a tiny arrow which is very easy to overlook.

Likewise, each channel has a power switch showing you whether the Pro Channel is switched on, but unless you fold it out, there's no way to tell which Pro Channel modules are active, if any. And once you do fold out the Pro Channel, it can easily grow so huge that you need to scroll vertically to view all the modules.

All in all, once you have more than a handful of tracks in a project, it gets difficult to maintain a complete overview of everything that's going on in the Console. I don't have space for a second monitor in my own room, but I think X3 would benefit more than most DAWs from having a separate screen for the mixer.

The breadth of Sonar's plug-in support was already second-to-none, and the addition of VST3 compatibility widens the net still further, allowing you to employ your '90s favourites alongside the latest bit VST3 effects. VST3 support in the initial X3 and X3a releases was buggy, sometimes failing to reload plug-in settings along with a project, but this was fixed in the X3b updatein October , and after that worked fine in my tests.

The Pro Channel lets you edit and view multiple processors across multiple mixer channels simultaneously. New in X3 Producer are the tape emulator lower left and the 'flyout' interface for the equaliser.

As yet, however, none of X3's own plug-ins have been recompiled in VST3 format. This isn't a problem, exactly, since the VST2 and DirectX versions work perfectly well, but it does highlight the rambling nature of the bundled plug-in suite.

The need to retain compatibility with older projects means that, especially in the Producer Edition, X3 brings with it a cloud of effects and processors in every format under the sun, and in a variety of GUI styles which reflect their origins as third-party plug-ins from different developers. Many of the bundled plug-ins overlap in function, and if you want to use a simple compressor or EQ, say, it's not obvious which should be your first port of call.

I wonder if it might be time to relegate some of the older plug-ins to legacy status, whereby they get installed only if long-term users specifically need them. This might also help alleviate the endless scrolling through menus that will be the lot of anyone with many VSTs installed in their system.

Though the plug-in table was already groaning, moreover, Cakewalk have heaped more tasty dishes onto it in X3. Buyers of the Producer Edition get Tone2's BiFilter, which is one of the most convincing analogue filter emulations I've heard. It provides multiple flavours of both filtering and distortion, and has applications well outside the usual filter sweeps. For example, set up as an all-pass filter with a touch of distortion, it can help vocals to cut through a mix without making them sound noticeably crunchy, and it can also generate some interesting delay and pseudo-reverb effects.

It sounds great, though there are no built-in modulation sources, so any motion in the sound has to be achieved through automation. These are well-established plug-ins in their own right, with aloyal and dedicated following, and although I can't claim to have tested all 20 of them to destruction, I was impressed by the ones I tried.

Analog Trackbox is a well-featured channel strip that provides some very nice 'one stop' processing for vocals and other instruments, while Oilcan Echo is a welcome emulation of a rather neglected vintage delay effect. The suite also includes reverb, two limiters, a chorus and phaser, a tempo delay, a stereo widener and a valve emulation. And six EQ plug-ins. They're all nice, but most of them already had close counterparts in X2's plug-in suite, so I can imagine that some upgrading users might wish that Cakewalk had expended their resources on improving some other area of the program instead.

Dyning Out If there's one plug-in-related development in X3 that will be universally welcomed, it's the addition of built-in support for Celemony's Melodyne through the ARA Audio Random Access protocol. This was first implemented in version 2. One nice feature of its implementation here is that it operates on individual regions or clips rather than on entire files.

The analysis procedure that Melodyne and comparable functions in other DAWs uses to prepare audio for pitch manipulation tends to change the way that the audio sounds, even before any pitch correction is applied, so the ability to isolate a problem area as a clip within X3's editing area and analyse only that clip makes working with Melodyne both faster and more transparent.

Once the analysis is complete, the familiar Melodyne editing window opens within the Multidock, and you can get to work. As in Studio One, it's so much easier and more reliable than attempting to run Melodyne as a real-time plug-in, or exporting files to the stand-alone version for editing. ARA-based Melodyne integration is a killer feature, and one which would absolutely make me choose Sonar X3 over a non-ARA-equipped DAW for any project where a lot of pitch correction was likely to be on the agenda.

Melodyne integration is a great feature. Here, the vocal clip selected in the main edit window is being edited in Melodyne Editor, which appears within the Multidock. Going Pro Earlier on in this review, I mentioned some frustrations that attend X3's Console, of which only being able to view three insert slots at once is not the least. Increasingly, however, it is becoming possible to mix an X3 project without using these insert slots.

For one thing, there is a reasonably sophisticated system of clip-based effects, allowing you to attach plug-in processing to clips within the edit page rather than their mixer channels. This is not yet as comprehensive as in Magix's Samplitude, but has many uses. For example, suppose your vocal track is blighted by occasional plosive pops and bursts of sibilance. Rather than use automated EQ in the mixer to tackle them, it's often easier to isolate the offending areas as separate clips and apply a suitable clip effect, perhaps in conjunction withclip-based level automation.

Those mixing in X3 Producer, moreover, can bring to bear the full resources of the Pro Channel in addition to its vast array of bundled VST plug-ins.

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