Using Sonar X2

Sonar X2 is a sequence-editor, providing a variety of low-latency, quality VST instruments. It has been around for a long time in the world of computer music. Formerly, it was called Cakewalk, and now, where it is owned by Roland, it is called Sonar.

If you like the FluidR3_GM soundfont we supply and use with the Java Sound Synthesizer, you can use the BS-16 soundfont player with Sonar.

You can also use a host of other VST plug-ins it supplies for effects.

Most importantly (particularly on Windows), it solves the latency problem, and there is no perceptible latency.

It has the full set of General MIDI sounds, with up to 16 MIDI channels per track. It will switch instruments by way of MIDI Program-Change messages, but only during recording (and subsequent playback).

The instruments are set up in the project, and can be changed manually, but not by program-change messages (sent by the KeyMusician Keyboard when you switch performance-panes) during monitoring. If you can live with this restriction, won't need to purchase the bs-16 sound-font player.

Though Sonar X is primarily designed for music recording, editing, and playback, it also can be used for live-performance. It's easy to export an audio file from a recorded MIDI sequence too.

It works only on Windows.

I currently use it on a Dell Inspiron desktop, having a 3-gigahertz quad core processor, and 8 gigabytes of RAM.

It is able to use my M-Audio M-Track USB sound mixer.

As with any full-featured software package, there are a lot of features to configure and learn. Though Sonar X2 supplies video tutorials and help information, I found it difficult to use, and was unable to make it play multiple tracks together.

For example, I successfully imported a MIDI file into it, but only the first track of that MIDI file would play. There may be a way to make that work, but I, as a Sonar X2 novice, despite my extensive experience with other VST and MIDI software, was unable to figure out how to do it.

At a minimum, to use it with the KeyMusician Keyboard, you will have to first install an ASIO device driver for your sound-card (see Installing ASIO4ALL). Also, you will either have to connect a hardware MIDI interface (see Connecting A Hardware MIDI Interface), or install a software MIDI interface (see Installing LoopBe1).

There are a few tricks I learned in using it with the KeyMusician Keyboard, and in this article, I'm passing those tricks along to you.

Setting-Up Sonar X2

Although Sonar X may work with your sound-card, with an ordinary Windows device driver, it has more latency (delay between hitting a key and hearing a note) that way. So you'll need to follow the instructions for installing an ASIO device driver (such as ASIO4ALL) in the “Improving Your System” section of the KeyMusician member-pages.

Sonar X2 provides detailed instructions for configuring your audio and MIDI interfaces, and using that information is a good thing. Those instructions are helpful to avoid audio drop-outs.

Switching Instruments Using The KeyMusician Keyboard Performance Panes

Unlike most VST instruments, the Cakewalk TTS-1 instrument plug-in can switch instrument sounds using a MIDI Program Change command. It supports up to 16 MIDI channels per track, so everything you play on the KeyMusician Keyboard can be played (and recorded) on just one track.

Unfortunately, it only responds to program-change messages during recording. So when you are playing (and practicing) prior to recording, it strictly uses the instruments you have manually set up for each MIDI channel.

You can get around this limitation by purchasing the BS-16 Soundfont Player VST instrument.

I initially ran into problems because I assumed I had to use only one MIDI channel per track. When I configured all 16 MIDI channels going to the one track having the Cakewalk TTS-1 VST instrument, it finally worked the way I wanted it to, including having a different instrument sound for the chords than the melody.

To use Sonar X2's manually-set instruments, you need to configure each performance pane to use its own MIDI channel. Having done that, when you record, it WILL record the program-changes sent by the KeyMusician Keyboard when you switch performance panes, and respond to them.

There are other VST instruments besides Cakewalk TTS-1, but they don't provide a different instrument sound per MIDI channel. Also, I could not find a way (even in playback of a MIDI sequence file) to generate sound from more than one track at a time, so beware.

A KMK Configuration For Sonar X2

I have supplied a KeyMusician Keyboard configuration file, optimized for using Sonar X2 with the Cakewalk TTS-1 VST instrument.

You can download it by right-clicking the link below, and choosing “Save Link As” (or something similar your browser presents) from the pop-up menu that appears.

Sonar-0.kmk

This configuration for the most part uses the set of instruments I like to use with the FluidR3_GM sound-font. I use MIDI channel 1 for the Chords performance pane, MIDI channel 10 for the Drums performance pane, and separate MIDI channels for each of the other performance panes.

For the most part, the MIDI channel number corresponds to the function-key number. The only exception is the F10 pane, which uses channel 11, because MIDI channel 10 is reserved for percussion in the General MIDI standard.

The “Instrument” drop-box works only during recording and playback, and the only “Bank” available is “Bank0”, which is the General MIDI bank. I specified “Bank128” for the percussion bank, but it appears only the standard percussion bank is available, regardless which drum-kit you specify in the “Instrument” drop-box.

Here are screen-shots of all of the performance panes in the configuration you downloaded above:





































Configuring Sonar X2 For The KeyMusician Keyboard

I have provided a Sonar X2 Project file that works with the KMK configuration (and screen-shots) above. It is set up pretty-much like what you are used to using with the Java Sound Synthesizer (and the FluidR3_GM sound-font).

This project also has a MIDI recording I created using it.

You can download this Sonar X2 Project File by right-clicking the link below, and choosing “Save Link As” (or something similar your browser presents) from the pop-up menu that appears.

KMK-092017.cwp

Here is a screen-shot of that project, when loaded into Sonar X2:


The KMK-092017 Project, with the only track selected for monitoring, and the recorded audio and MIDI tracks to the right

in the middle-left pane, the MIDI track (4) is selected (its wave-form button is selected), which means you can hear it as you play using it, with the KeyMusician Keyboard. Recording is not currently allowed because its “record” button (with the red filled-in circle) is not currently selected.

If you click the “Play” button of the Sonar X2 Project window, when this project is loaded, it will play the demo-piece I improvised using it.

In that piece, I improvised chords and melody, working my way through all the performance panes (except the “Drums” pane), and finally improvised with both hands on the melody section of the keyboard using the F12 performance pane, for a 'big finish'.

You can hear that piece here in your browser, by clicking the link below:

Sonar X2 Demo Music, by Aere

The next screen-shot shows you the details of the Cakewalk TTS-1 MIDI track. The Cakewalk TTS-1 VST editor window was activated by clicking the MIDI-plug icon of the track's middle pane (pointed-to by a text-callout box in the screen-shot above):


The gray buttons at the top allow you to select a particular MIDI channel's instrument details window. The green buttons at the bottom (with a note shape inside) let you preview the sound of the instrument by clicking on it.

There is a volume-level slider for each instrument, specifying the initial volume level, but even during monitoring, the instrument responds to the volume slider of the KMK performance pane.

Initially, all of the channels are set to the piano sound. To use another instrument, you need to manually select it.

Here is a screen-shot showing the process of selecting an instrument sound:


Here, I clicked the gray button (now yellow) near the top for MIDI channel 13, which made the instrument window appear in the middle of the former window. It shows we are working on “part” (MIDI channel) 13.

To change the instrument sound to something other than “Piano 1”, single-left-click on the “Piano 1” text in the window, then select from the pop-up menus, the sound you want, as shown in the screen-shot below:


The selection shown will change it to the General MIDI “Halo Pad” instrument sound.

With the instruments all set up on the channels the various KMK performance panes use, you're ready to start playing the TTS-1 VST instrument.

Make Sure The KeyMusician Keyboard Has Control Before Playing Notes

If you press keyboard keys to play notes when some other window (such as the Sonar X2 window) has keyboard-focus, you are sending those key-strokes to that window, instead. The KeyMusician Keyboard window needs to have keyboard-focus in order to properly play music.

I usually minimize (iconify) the Sonar X2 window once I've got it set up the way I want it. You can restore it by clicking on it in the task-bar.

Using The MIDI Player

If you play the exercise pieces with no MIDI interface selected in the player, it plays just the selected channel's part using the instrument of the Chords performance pane.

This will work using Sonar X2.

But there is a problem if you specify a MIDI interface to play the Sonar X2's currently-selected instrument (such as Cakewalk TTS-1).

Where Sonar doesn't respond to MIDI program-change messages when you're just playing music using the KMK application, playing MIDI files using LoopBe1 (or your other MIDI interface) will not use the instruments specified in the MIDI file, so (unless you manually set the instruments to correspond to what the MIDI file needs), the playback may not sound right.

The best way I could find to overcome this limitation, is to record the MIDI file's music into your TTS-1 track. It will likely sound wrong while it's being recorded, but when you play it back (where it recorded the proper program-change messages, and responds to them), it will sound right.

You can download a Sonar X2 Project File (in which I recorded the “Sweet Mystery” exercise piece) by right-clicking the link below, and choosing “Save Link As” (or something similar your browser presents) from the pop-up menu that appears.

KMK-TTS-Test.cwp

When you load that project into Sonar, and play the recorded MIDI sequence, it will sound like I intended it to sound when I originally recorded it.

I tried importing the MIDI file the player loads to play, and it generated the track structure originally used, but only one of the tracks would produce sound on Sonar (even though the volume-level indicators of the other tracks indicated sound was being generated).

So importing the MIDI files isn't a viable option.

Maybe somebody out there who is more experienced using Sonar can point out how to do it, and I will document how to do it in this article (updated to show it).

Composite Voices

I tried to implement composite voices using the TTS-1 VST instrument, which would be good if it had worked, because it supports the General MIDI set of sounds, as well as switching instruments using MIDI program-change messages (which are sent when you change the band and/or instrument drop-boxes in a KMK performance pane).

Unfortunately, I could not get that to work despite trying everything I could think of.

I did get composite voices to work using the SI set of instruments, but with the limited set of sounds I had with Sonar X2 Essential, I could only provide Electric-Piano with String-Orchestra.

You can download a Sonar X2 Project File with that implementation of composite voices, by right-clicking the link below, and choosing “Save Link As” (or something similar your browser presents) from the pop-up menu that appears.

SI-EPianoStrings.cwp

My Impressions On Using Sonar X2

I really liked that it provides a full General MIDI sound set, and lets you have a single track for recording everything the KeyMusician Keyboard can play.

I liked that (during recording and playback) it supported MIDI Program-Change messages, so it can be totally controlled from the KeyMusician Keyboard. So you could (with limitations) use this VST instrument without ever needing to buy the Bismark bs-16 sound-font player VST instrument. Yet I personally like some of the instrument sounds from the FluidR3_GM sound-font better.

Sonar X2 Essential (the entry-level version, which I used) is reasonably priced, so you're not risking a lot of money on it. Its sounds are quite good, and it has a lot of them. I personally like some of the instrument sounds from the FluidR3_GM sound-font better. Also, the BS-16 Soundfont Player gives you the full flexibility you had with the Java Sound Synthesizer.

Sonar's TTS-1 VST instrument's failure to respond to MIDI program-change messages while playing/practicing, severely limits its flexibility. But you can overcome that limitation by purchasing the Bismark BS-16 Soundfont Player VST instrument, and using it in your tracks.

Sonar X2 has decent wordless choir sounds, which both Ableton Live 9 Suite, and DimensionPro lack. Its Cello sound is usable, though I like the Cello, French Horn, and Oboe sounds of the FluidR3_GM sound-font better.

Sonar X2 is definitely an option to consider for improving your system. You can always use the Cantabile VST host to play Sonar's instruments, which is a lot easier to use.

For me, it was difficult to use, and I couldn't even figure out how to do some of the things I needed, so I don't personally recommend it.



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