Cakewalk Sonar 5 Producer Edition Review


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Recording Studio in a Box


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While the computer has revolutionized video editing, if anything, it's had an even more powerful impact on the audio side of production. In the 1980s, musicians such as Vangelis or Jan Hammer who worked alone playing all the instruments to score a movie or a TV series, (Blade Runner and Miami Vice respectively), were quirky rarities. Today, one-man band scores for video projects are much, much more common. And it's the computer's ability to layer, edit, process and polish sounds that makes those scores possible.

Since the 1990s, many professional recording studios have used Digidesign's Pro Tools platform to record digitally, which is great if you've got about $10,000 or so to get started. But Cakewalk's latest version of its popular Sonar Producer Edition XP-based recording platform ( puts a similar level of flexibility in the hands of home musicians.

Working In the Video Environment

Sonar's not designed for video editing, but it offers a real-time video track with a visible timeline, and the ability to import video in Windows Media Video, QuickTime, and MPEG formats. This allows you to use its audio editing capabilities in sync with pre-existing video. Then, Sonar will export audio saved in several different flavors of WAV, MP3, Windows Media Audio, and export video in QuickTime and Windows Media Video, with stereo or 5.1 audio. It will also sync to and send SMPTE/MTC for scoring external video, and output video to 1394 FireWire devices for high quality viewing with lower CPU and disk usage.

Sonar PE allows for surround sound editing as well, and Cakewalk has adapted a number of its plug-ins for surround use, including an impressive Lexicon-designed reverb plug-in, which models their classic rack-mounted units, long a recording studio mainstay. Since not all plug-ins are ready for surround sound, Sonar includes "SurroundBridge" to allow multiple copies of a mono or stereo effect to work in unison across the six channels of the 5.1 surround environment. (Note: Cakewalk also sells a lower-priced "Studio Edition" of Sonar, which lacks surround sound, among several other functions.)

All of this means quite a variety of audio content can be produced within the Sonar environment for a video project.

For music scoring, even non-musicians can get into the game these days with Sony's Acid Loops, which Sonar works with fluidly. Just layer an atmospheric synth bed, some drum loops, and a melody loop, and you're on your way to passable sounding background music. John Williams probably needn't worry about his reputation, but if you're a videographer working alone and/or on a tight budget, it'll more than do in a pinch. For those with some additional musical training and a MIDI-enabled musical keyboard and interface, Sonar includes some reasonably powerful built-in synths of its own, and will sync with dedicated software synthesizers like Propellerhead's Reason.

Beyond music recording, Sonar could also be used to record Foley tracks, or replacement dialogue tracks. But that's pretty basic stuff. For video work, the program's editing functions really shine when it comes to cleaning and massaging dialogue. Each individual audio clip within a track can have volume gain set independently, and automatic fade-ins and fade-outs quickly programmed. And each audio track has a built-in parametric EQ, all of which could be godsends for cleaning up noisy location dialogue. All of this makes it that much easier to splice together the best audio takes of dialogue, or replace individual sentences–even down to words if you're patient enough.

Additionally, the many audio-presets included with Sonar could be used to give a dialogue track effects ranging from subtle reverb and echo, to extreme effects processing (very useful if you ever need an alien voice for a sci-fi feel).

Not For DAW Beginners

If there's an obvious flaw in Sonar, it's in its complexity: this is not a program I'd recommend for anyone new to digital audio workstations: the learning curve would be very steep. (Certainly not insurmountable of course, but I suspect a lot of Sonar's more advanced features would go unused by a neophyte.) But if you're experienced with previous DAWs, you should feel at home pretty quickly here, and then be in a position to take advantage of Sonar's most powerful futures. And as with any Windows program, saving early and often is always a good thing, as the odd crash is inevitable.

Also, make sure your computer is up to snuff to handle Sonar. If you're already using a PC for video editing, you should be in good shape, but check the Tech Specs section to make sure your system is compatible. Don't ever forget that a recording project eats up gigabytes of hard drive space, so a large drive is a must.

For greater audio quality, Sonar also includes a 64-bit version of the program on its installation DVD; the 64-bit version of Windows XP is required to take advantage of this version of Sonar.

Fully Decked Out Recording Studio

As long as you're prepared to learn what makes it tick, Sonar 5 Producer Edition is a fully decked-out recording studio in a box, and could make a serious impact on all aspects of the sound of your video production. Pretty impressive stuff for a $500 street price.


Operating System: Windows XP; Windows X64 required for 64-bit use

Minimum Display: 1024×768, 16-bit color

Minimum CPU: Intel Pentium 4 1.3GHz; 2.8GHz preferred

Minimum RAM: 128MB; 512MB preferred

Minimum Hard Drive Space for Installation: 100MB; multiple gigs needed for recording

Import formats: AIF, ASF, AU, AVI (with stereo or 5.1 audio), Broadcast Wave, MIDI, MP2, MP3, MPEG, MPG, OMFI, QuickTime 6, SND, WAV (including 32-bit float files), Windows Media Audio 9 (WMA), WMA9 Pro 5.1, WMA9 lossless, Windows Media Video, proprietary Cakewalk formats (.bun, .cwb, .cwp, .wrk)

Export: WAV (including 32-bit float files), ACID-format WAV, Broadcast Wave, AVI (with stereo or 5.1 audio), OMFI, MIDI, MP3 (30-day trial encoder), QuickTime 6, Windows Media Audio 9 (WMA), WMA9 Pro 5.1, WMA9 lossless, Windows Media Video (with stereo or 5.1 audio), and proprietary Cakewalk formats (.cwb, .cwp); other audio formats supported via external command line encoders

Number of Audio Tracks: Unlimited

Number of MIDI Tracks: Unlimited

Audio Level Envelopes: Yes

Audio Scrub: Yes

Optimized for Dual Processor/HyperThreading: Yes

Third-party Plug-in Support: Yes


  • Powerful editing and MIDI features
  • Many bundled and built-in audio effects
  • Full control over all settings
  • Highly flexible automated mixing capabilities, including surround sound


  • Steep learning curve for beginners


    A professional level hard disk recording/audio editing solution at a very affordable price.

    Ed Driscoll is a freelance journalist covering home theater and the media for the past decade.