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PCRECORDING.COM _ Cakewalk Pro Audio v. 9 Review

Manufacturer: Cakewalk
Price: $399.00
System: Win 95/98, NT 4.0 SP5
Minimum requirements: Pentium 200, 64 meg RAM
Recommended requirements: Pentium 300 128 meg of RAM
Specifications: Up to 24-bit audio resolution. Variable sampling rates of 11.025, 22.05, 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz.

I received the Cakewalk Pro Audio v.9 box for review. It contained the installation CD, a 2 inch thick manual, and a registration card. I first read the MIDI and Audio portions of the manual all the way through. This was time well-spent. I used the manual extensively throughout my testing process and found it to be very helpful, informative and well-written. From the outset it was easy to see that Cakewalk is a very robust, full-featured, powerful multi-track recording system. The feature list for Cakewalk is very extensive and though I used many of them during this test - - to do all of them would be next to impossible and still fit it on a webpage. There is simply so much that this program does. For a complete listing of its features click here. The program is capable of handling virtually any project - - large or small. So the question is what did I think of using it?

Installation

My system is a Pentium II 300, 64 meg RAM, Win98, 20 gig HD, with a variety of soundcards for digital recording. Setup was very smooth through the familiar Windows setup process. After the initial installation, Cakewalk's Wave Profiler analyzed my system and made default settings for the soundcards I had installed. So far, so good.

Useability

One of the questions I had was how easy would Cakewalk be to use? It took me awhile to assimilate myself to the user interface employed by Cakewalk. I had to refer to the manual on several occasions to figure things out. Overall, after the initial learning curve, I became quite at ease with the user interface and the Cakewalk methodology. Once I got used to the various windows that pop up for each function I was fine.

User Interface

Cakewalk Pro is set up in a series of windows/panes that perform different functions. When you open a function a new window opens. These windows can be sized with your mouse and moved around your monitor screen. I will go through the major ones below and you can visually check on the image below this list.

  • The Track View displays all the current settings about the track, its name, its status (mute, solo, armed), source (midi or audio), effects (real-time), and others. By clicking on any of the settings mini-windows, one can access a menu and make changes. For instance, to select a recording device, double-click on the source button and a menu appear from which you select your device. Then the name of the device appears in the source spot.
  • The Clips Pane usually lines up right next to the Tracks view and displays your project in a horizontal timeline. It is here that the graphical representation of a .wav file appears and information about your MIDI track appears. By highlighting the clip, the user can apply offline effects, edits, cut and paste, draw volume curves or apply fade-in or fade-out commands to the clip.
  • The Console View is the mixer panel and with a metallic 3-D appearance and realistic looking controls. As others have commented, this is a good window to show someone you really want to impress. I agree. The user can select recording and playback devices, adjust relative volume levels via slider knobs, stereo pan, apply realtime DirectX effects, route signals to and from a submix or auxiliary box, etc. It looks good and works well too for a virtual mixer. I, for one, do not believe that a virtual mixer can truly replace a real mixer. Simply, I can physically change knobs and sliders with both hands faster than I can with a mouse or a keyboard. However, this mixer panel goes a long way to bridge the gap and works quite well.

    One neat feature that stands out here is the automation function. The user can record movements of the controls during a mixdown. Thereafter, Cakewalk will remember what changes were made and make the adjustments automatically. A user could record a portion of a mixdown, automate it and could then concentrate on another portion real-time. This is cool because some users may find that the virtual mixer board may be too cumbersome on larger projects. By automating portions of the mixdown, it lessens the burden of having to do too many things at once.

    Another standout feature was the ease of adding DirectX effects to a track during playback from the Console View. I simply had to right click in the black space above the track and a list of all the DirectX effects in my system would appear. When selected the effects name would appear in the black window. To change the effects settings, simply double-click on the effects name and its controls appear. Cakewalk includes its own DirectX effects and will list any DirectX compatible effects in your computer. Cakewalk mono effects include, 2-band EQ, Choruse, Delay/Echo, Flanger and Reverb. In stereo, Cakewalk includes its Chorus, Delay, EQ, Flanger, Pitch Shifter, Reverb and Amp Sim Lite. Of these effects, I especially liked the Stereo Chorus, Delay and Flanger. The stereo Reverb sounds great but is somewhat of a CPU resource hog (as is typical for reverbs). All in all, Cakewalk provides for robust access and implementation of DirectX effects.

  • In the Audio View, the user can look at an expanded version of the audio wave file for editing purposes. Here, you can graphically edit stereo and mono waveform events on single or multiple tracks; split/combine audio events; draw non-destructive volume and panning automation data; remove silence; normalize audio levels; add fade envelopes and crossfades; perform time/pitch stretching; extract audio timing; and perform other advanced audio editing operations.
  • The Piano Roll view (a standard feature on advanced Windows multi=track programs) allows the user to enter MIDI notes, commands, edits, controllers, set duration, apply MIDI effects, etc. for MIDI instruments.

Recording

Cakewalk allows digital audio recording in both mono and in stereo tracks. The stereo tracks can appear in one track. This is very useful, especially if you want to apply a stereo effect to the track. In addition, you can record MIDI instruments in the track. To record anything, the user must first select a source and a port for the track by clicking on the source mini-window. A menu appears from which these selections can be made. Then, the "R" button must be pressed to arm the track for recording. Then the record button on the transport bar (large or small) must be pressed and off you go. If the track is not good enough you simply right-click on the track and tell Cakewalk to delete it and rerecord.

Cakewalk also provides a simple to use Punch Recorder. The user can set a specific time within a track to record, leaving the rest of the track intact. This is very useful. For instance, assume you have just laid a great solo track down but have made a mistake on a couple of notes. You no longer have to rerecord the whole take. Simply isolate the time where those notes occurred, set it in the Punch recording window. Start to record and playback your solo along with your recording. Cakewalk will record only during the preset time. Your mistakes will be fixed and no one will know.

Another feature is the Loop Recorder. With this feature, the user can record several different takes and then choose the one that is best. The Loop recorder will continue to loop between the start and end times set by the user and allow you to record one take on each pass. Cakewalk creates a clip of each take which can be stacked in the same track or stored in a different track.

Lastly, step recording is also available for difficult MIDI passages. The Step recorder allows you to choose the step size, duration and whether to auto advance or not. The user can record a musical passage note by note. This is handy if you do not have virtuoso capability but want to sound great. After you are done, the piece is played back at normal speed and you can sound like a virtuoso!

Performance

One of the biggest complaints about Windows-based multi-track programs has been that latency levels were too high during playback. Latency refers to the amount of time it takes the system to respond to a command such as a volume change or effects application to a track. In many cases, latency times exceeded two seconds. That means you tell the system to apply reverb and two seconds later you hear the result. Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 includes their new WavePipe technology, which greatly reduces system latency and improves response times of your system when mixing and applying other real-time audio processing. According to Cakewalk, latency is eliminated because WavePipe provides direct communication to wave-compatible sound cards. It works very well. I measured latency consistently in the tenths of seconds irrespective of how many tracks I was running. In fact, latency was a non-issue with this program. Very nice.

I usually do not use a great deal of tracks for my music. As a test, I loaded up 20 stereo tracks at 16-bit, 44.1 resolution and Cakewalk breezed along with displayed CPU useage of 30%, and harddrive load of 01%. This was without any DirectX effects. I was then able to apply up to nine different effects before the system choked. I noticed that the reverbs had a greater effect on the CPU. These are pretty impressive numbers for me since I cannot imagine ever using that many tracks for my stuff and I am running a fairly slow 300 PII computer. What this tells me is that the code is efficient. It is also very stable. I did not have a Cakewalk related crash during any of my tests. Very cool.

Editing

Cakewalk has extensive editing capability for both MIDI and Audio events. As the manual states, "Pro Audio lets you edit the events (MIDI) in dozens of different ways." I will not go into all of them here. However, the Piano Roll view mentioned above lets you add and edit notes, a variety of controllers and automation data, tempo, time-stretch, and MIDI effects - - all within a graphical display. There are commands and effects that allow you to improve the quality of the sound and performance as well. This is a MIDI dream program.

The Audio editing options are robust as well. In the Audio view mentioned above, the user can perform basic editing such as changing an events name/properties, cut, paste and move audio events. In addition, each audio event can have its own volume and pan envelope and/or fade/swell settings, all of which can be drawn on the track in the audio view. The user can remove silence, apply a graphic equalizer, or extract timing of a track to create MIDI notes based on the rhythmic peaks in the audio track. Lastly, the user can employ a parametric EQ or fades and cross fades to an audio track. There are more features that I have not covered. In all of these, the user can control all details about how the edit is implemented.

Compatibility

I found that Cakewalk worked well with all the soundcards I used in my system. These included the Echo Layla, Darla24, Midiman Delta66, Digital Audio CardDeluxe, Gadget Labs Wave/424, Ensoniq AudioPCI, Xitel Storm, Terratec EWS88MT and the Turtle Beach Montego II. In addition, Cakewalk recognized and allowed access to the DirectX effects plugins I had installed without hesitation.

Advanced features

One of the features I really appreciated was the inclusion of the Session Drummer, a drum utility that adds MIDI drum sounds and loops right into the track. Session Drummer provides a wide variety of drum styles in sets that you can drop into a track, loop and then save for editing later. This made programming drum tracks a snap. Therefore, once you find a groove you can simply drop it in to the track, get recording and go back and edit in bridges and fills later. As a result, a great deal of time normally spent on programming your drums is saved. In addition, Cakewalk came with a trial version of Drag and Drop Drummer - a great drum program that I am reviewing next week. This program takes actual audio drum samples and drops them right into a track in the Track view. In addition, Drag and Drop Drummer matches it audio samples with an equivalent MIDI sample which can be dropped into the track and edited with Cakewalk's MIDI editing system.

Pro Audio 9 supports advanced DSP and mixing features on AudioX-compatible cards, including the Yamaha DSP Factory, Sonorus MEDI/O and the Digital Audio CardDeluxe. AudioX is a Cakewalk standard that allows user access via software to all AudioX compatible soundcards' features. The user can then directly control advanced features in the audio hardware, such as DSP effects, SMPTE options, low latency mixing, aux busses and patching. It remains to be seen how wide-spread this format will become among card manufacturers but looks very promising.

In addition, Cakewalk features analog-tape-style audio scrubbing. The user can drag the mouse over a track and hear the underlying music to isolate a particular note. This comes in handy when you are trying to find an errant noise or note. However, I find it easier to use my eyes and ears in combination to zoom-in on an offensive sound or note in the wave editor function. Using the snap to grid/snap to zero functions of the wave editor makes it very easy to imperceptibly isolate/eliminate/patch these particular portions or to reduce volume, etc. It is a catchy feature that emulates analog technology but in my opinion has been surpassed by digital technology already in the system.

Cakewalk Pro 9 utilizes the Fraunhofer MP3 encoder, Windows Media and RealAudio for data compression in preparation for downloading to the Web. A handy feature here is that the user can mixdown directly to any of these formats from the project.

Midi features

Cakewalk has added the Nytonix Style Enhancer MIDI FX plugin, which adds performance data to MIDI tracks. This function "humanizes" the playback of MIDI tracks.

Cakewalk has many MIDI features including the Arpeggiator and chord analyzer. MIDI effects can be applied such as reverb, chorus, delay, among others. These effects can work nondestructively in real time and/or can be applied destructively off-line.

In addition, Cakewalk has also included its Guitar Player in this release. This includes support for guitar tablature editing, chromatic tuning through the soundcard and the ability to see a synchronized, real-time fretboard display below the staff notation window.

Summary

I used Cakewalk over a long period of time. I used it extensively during testing of the soundcards I have already reviewed and in the ones that will be posted soon. I recorded vocals, MIDI bass and synth, guitar (acoustic and electric), drum tracks (MIDI and acoustic), and a variety of other instruments to test some microphones. I mixed things down in a variety of formats and configurations. Throughout, Cakewalk worked well, did what I asked it to do and gave expected results. Cakewalk was rock-solid stable and it never crashed.

The only thing I did not particularly like about Cakewalk was the User Interface design. My monitor screen (17") was not big enough to accommodate all of the windows that opened with each function in a larger project. It was not easy keeping track of where everything was. If there is a way to make this more efficient it would be helpful.

Otherwise, Cakewalk has abundant features that will meet virtually any need of a prospective audio project - - large or small. In addition, it adds features to use in a video project which I did not explore. The user interface though I did not particularly care for its design, is logical and its methodology is understandable. After an initial learning curve, using Cakewalk is straightforward.

Cakewalk performs very well in several respects - - stability, flexibility, performance, and efficiency. Cakewalk did not crash once for me during testing. It is clear the code writers took great pains to ensure its reliability and spent many hours doing Q and A. Cakewalk is flexible because it allows you to do as much as you want or as little. Moreover, it accommodates all the DirectX effects you can throw at it. Cakewalk is fast, the low latency times make this a much more useable program, giving confidence that when the user inputs a change it will actually be reflected in how it sounds when it is needed. Moreover, the user can mixdown to .wav, MP3, WMA or RealAudio in one step. Lastly, the Cakewalk code is efficient. I was able to get more tracks and effects running than I will ever need. I can only imagine what it would do on a truly fast machine.

In conclusion, Cakewalk works very well and can easily be the centerpiece software for virtually any recording project.

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