One Of Us: SONAR

Getting into some details about how I used SONAR during the course of this project. If you wish to read the full thread about the project lifecycle start here – One Of Us: Conception

I started out with Cakewalk software way back in 1992 when I bought my first Windows 3.1 box. A screaming 386 with 2 MB of RAM, woo hoo :-). Cakewalk was already well known for its DOS sequencer written by Greg Hendershott, so when I read a review in Keyboard magazine talking about CAL (the scripting language built into Cakewalk Profeessional) I was convinced to buy Cakewalk Professional For Windows 1.0.  At the time I’d only written some rudimentary DOS software for MIDI, so being able to write my own scripts to generate MIDI in a real sequencer was exciting.  My interest in the product led me to become a beta tester for Cakewalk from ’94 through ’96. The bugs I logged wore them down and they finally broke down and hired me in 1997 :-).  Its been a long journey – yet it seems not so long ago when the days of getting 8 tracks of digital audio to stream stably on a PC was a challenge. Its easy to forget just how far we have come from what was once considered standard. Fun times!

I’ve always enjoyed mixing in SONAR. It suits my workflow, and the flexible mixing options allow me to change gears easily at any point in the mixing process, without needing to start over. Also the high resolution 64 bit resolution makes it ideal DAW to use when you want to mix as transparently as possible. Over the years, I have done many smaller projects in SONAR, but never a full blown CD production from start to finish. Producing this album provided me with the opportunity to do just that. Its can be a good thing to eat your own dog food once in a while – you might want to try it sometime, it’s not quite that bad I promise. 🙂 

For the initial phase of the project I started out running SONAR 8.3.1, where I set up the bussing setup and did some initial editing. I soon moved SONAR 8.5 (which was in beta at the time) for the main editing and mixing. I upgraded Dan Abreu’s production rig as well (not without some kicking and screaming), so that we could share the same  environment. I would take my external hard drive back and forth, doing part of the work at his studio and some at mine. This scheme worked very well for us.  Dan had a pretty fast quad core Intel box, and some nice mic’s so we decided to track the vocals and do the initial mixes at his place. My system was an aged dual processor Opteron rig, with a MOTU 828 MK2 for an audio interface. I regret not upgrading the system before I started this project, but it served me well throughout, with no problems other than the lack of horsepower when the projects got bigger. It was actually a great stress test for the software since SONAR performed flawlessly on this rig despite this.

Almost all the work done on this project was “in the box”. With the exception of a couple of virtual instruments (Garritan Steinway, Kontakt and Ozone 4) for some isolated tracks, all the plugins used are from SONAR 8.5. Below are some SONAR features of interest and misc tips and tricks I used on this project:

1. Fast bounce

For those who might not know this – a slower or faster computer makes no difference whatsoever on the quality of the mixes. For that matter, once you are in the mixing and editing phase, the audio interface also has no bearing on the final sound (as long as you are not recording the analog inputs of course). SONAR’s ability to “fast bounce” independently from your audio hardware is really invaluable in an environment like this (and in general too).  In other words, you can take a complex project that won’t even play on your system and render the mix to a wave file. I was typically working with around 24-32 tracks of 24/96 audio on this project. Whenever my system would bog down, I would bounce a submix, and archive/mute the source tracks to reclaim CPU. This would let me keep working with other areas of the project.

2. Global effects bypass

This feature got a lot of use to preview my mixes without effects. Also there were times when my old machine just couldn’t cope with the load of all the effects going while mixing. I would use this all the time to bypass all effects and then selectively turn on just the bins I wanted. This can also be an interesting way to mix since it helps you to focus on certain elements at one time – drums, vox, bass etc.

3. Offset Mode

SONAR has this somewhat hidden gem of a feature that I rely on a lot while mixing. I am always surprised how few users take full advantage of it. I suspect its because its not that visible in the user interface. You basically switch to offset mode by pressing the O key. In offset mode you get access to an additional gainstage for each mix parameter on a track or bus. This gain stage acts as an offset to any parameter that is being automated on the track/bus. Why is this so useful? Lets say you are mixing your project and you have added track/clip envelopes to get the balance just right on one of the drum tracks for example. Now you find that you need an overall gain boost or cut on that track. You could go and painstakingly edit every envelope on that track (potentially screwing up the relative levels you have so carefully set up) or you can tweak the offset value and be done! The offset is applied after all the envelopes so it acts like a master fader per parameter. In offset mode this way I can make very quick relative changes to the track while mixing without affecting the rest of the envelopes.

4. Using clip envelopes as an alternative to dynamics compression

I’m generally not a huge fan of compressors especially in the sort of music I do, unless they are used to add to the sound itself. While they are great for stuff like drums the automatic nature of a compressor takes away a lot of dynamics from the music. Instead often I will use clip and track gain envelopes to address unwanted peaks in the music while mixing. While this approach it can be somewhat labor intensive, I find the results a lot more musical sounding than just slapping a compressor on every track.
Used in tandem with bus waveform preview it can be an effective way to mix while retaining the natural dynamics of the music.

5.  Bus Waveform preview

Another extremely favourite feature of mine. As described above I use it a lot while mixing with clip envelopes. I turn on bus preview on my submix buses while tweaking the clip envelopes at mix time. The waveform preview gives me a good idea of where the mix is getting too hot allowing me to make changes to my envelopes in response to what I see.

6. VX64

This plugin was a surprise to me. I’d originally started processing the vocals with VC64 and some other plugins but wasn’t very happy with the results I was getting. One evening I put this on my vocal bus and in 10 minutes had something that sounded really great. It has this really smooth sound even when the vocals are compressed. TIP: Use the automated bypass to turn off the compressor module when you don’t need it. Every vocal bus on this project uses this plugin!

7. VC64

VC 64 is my goto compressor and EQ in SONAR. I don’t use compressors a lot but when I do I like the sound of this one and even its EQ so I tend to use it a lot.

8. LP64

I found this to be great to EQ for use on overheads. Its very transparent sounding.

9. Using a NAS and networked audio player for auditioning mixes.

This is my favourite “trick” to do fast consumer audio tests. My studio is in the basement and my stereo system is upstairs in the living room. So normally to test a mix on my stereo I would need to burn a CD and lug it upstairs and test. Some years ago I bought a Logitech SqueezeBox – a network music player. Its a super device that will connect to a share on your network via a SqueezeServer running on your home network. In SONAR I would simply export the mix to my NAS shared music folder and instantly be able to listen to the mix on my stereo. This was invaluable and a HUGE time saver since it allowed me to quickly teste my mixes on a reference consumer audio system all the time. I don’t think I burned more than 2 or 3 CD’s during the entire course of the project just because of this! A much greener solution than burning CD’s for sure.

 10. Phase Invert

Most people use the humble phase invert button on a track to fix phase issues or for testing mainly. I found (by accident) a good use for this seemingly mundane button. One night while working on a mix I noticed that one of the trumpet tracks had the phase invert button on and the other didn’t. (We had two close mics on the trumpet while recording) I didn’t recall doing that intentionally so I assumed Dan had done it for some reason some days ago. So I tried turning it off and the trumpet kind of sounded different but not as rich. So I turned it back on… Later I asked Dan about this and he said it must have been accidental.  Well, so much for happy accidents <g>
I ended up flipping the phase – on a couple of tracks to create that sound since it worked really well.

11. Audiosnap Slip Stretching

Audiosnap might not look like a feature that would get used in a jazz project but it can be useful in some instances. I had a section in one of the tunes where I needed to switch between two takes mid song. The second take was really close but the tempo was off by about 5% making a crossfade impossible. I lined up the two takes one below each other and measured the difference in samples. I then computed the stretch amount based on this and then slip stretched all the clips by the exact amount. Once I did that I cross faded the clips with a very quick fade. It worked beautifully – nobody I have played it for has been able to spot the edit despite the fact that there are some 16 tracks slip stretched! Additionally the new “phase coherence” parameter in the SONAR 8.5 radius stretching options made a huge difference here especially on the piano track. Without that I could hear some slight flanging in the sound when I did the operation in SONAR 8.3 initially.

12. MME mode

MME is typically only used to play back audio on consumer PC’s that don’t have professional audio devices. It has some other uses as well however. In this project I often wanted to play back the mixes on a vanilla PC sound system as a consumer audio test. I couldn’t play back my mixes in WDM mode with my soundcard since it doesn’t support 24×96 audio. However in MME mode thanks to KMIXER we have dynamoc sample rate conversion capabilities. Switching to MME provided me with a handy way to preview the mixes on my PC.

2 Replies to “One Of Us: SONAR”

  1. RE #10 Phase Invert.

    It appears what you heard is what is referred to as Absolute Polarity or the Wood Effect. Clark Johnsen wrote the definitive book about it although Bob Katz covers it in his Audio Mastering book. The idea is that we hear sounds differently if the initial transient is positive going vs negative (e.g. blowing vs sucking on a horn). A search on the above terms will uncork lots of information about it. And controversy…

    Many claim that what you heard is not real. Very disconcerting when you have experienced it first hand. For example, I participated in some listening tests at JBL/Harmon as part of AES. I discussed Absolute Polarity with their head of R&D, a much published audio PhD. He stated they looked into it and could not verify what you heard either on paper or by abx listening tests. But you did hear it very clearly as have countless others. As had all the frustrated AES members who were there listening!

    While recording in Sonar, try zooming in on the initial major transient of each track, especially drums. Don’t be surprised to find that many go negative. Invert them so they all go positive and listen. You will find, as many have, that it makes a significant difference. But how then do tracks end up “upside down” in the first place when your signal chain is wired correctly and invariant? Because there is no standard for absolute polarity in individual components that get placed in and out of the signal chain (and AES won’t address it as the above mentioned author Clark Johnsen will tell you).

    As a result many pieces of hardware, software, even guitars have an inadvertent initial negative going initial transient or inadvertently flip the signal during processing. Why? Because again there is little awareness or belief that it can make a difference. Engineers deal with the signal “in the wire or code” (where it doesn’t make a difference) and aren’t concerned whether an initial transient pushes your speaker cone in or out (ear pressure vs vacuum, the basis of the Wood Effect). The dbx Quantum Mastering processor used to flip the signal. When asked about it their engineers claimed it didn’t matter (it has since been fixed). I’ve used a Roland drum machine where the individual pad audio samples were essential random one direction or the other. But when you put them all positive going after recording each track separately, it’s like night and day. More punch and openess regardless of what the researchers say. I have a stock Rickenbacker 4003 bass that always records upside down and needs to be flipped.

    Yes, this is one of those simple things that gets worse the more you look into it. But at least the fix is easy!

    You have experienced something that affects all recording but is generally overlooked. Perhaps you will be intrigued enough to look into it further. For example, a simple Sonar track “initial transient polarity check” would be invaluable rather than having to zoom in and out of each track and manually adjust the polarity as required!

    OK, enough from me. Great website and great software (I started with Cakewalk back in the DOS days). All the best.


    1. Don thanks for your insights on this. Very interesting. Yes it was surprising to me how much of a difference a phase invert can make in some situations.
      I will keep my ears open to that from now on.

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