Most desktop music producers throughout the '90s dreamed of a seamlessly integrated MIDI and audio production environment that offered lightning speed and a vast array of features. Today, a number of applications are rapidly turning that dream into a reality.
Cakewalk's Pro Audio is one of them. Pro Audio has combined MIDI sequencing with multitrack digital audio for several years now, and version 9.0 brings users even closer to living the dream of the virtual studio.
NUMBER 9 . . . NUMBER 9 . . .Pro Audio is an integrated MIDI and multitrack audio recording, editing, and mixing application. Recent versions added features such as real-time MIDI and audio effects; 24-bit, 96 kHz recording; and the ability to sync video files directly to audio tracks. Cakewalk calls the latest version "Evolution 9," and I can't think of a finer appellation. Version 9.0 continues the company's tradition of improvements in Pro Audio's features and performance, which has made it a leader in MIDI and audio technology.
Seasoned users of Pro Audio will find version 9.0's graphical user interface familiar. Very little has changed, with the exception of the Console view (see Fig. 1), which has been given a face-lift. Some of the main menus have been rearranged for efficiency as well. Here, we'll cover the new features and enhancements lying beneath the surface.
RIDING THE WAVEPIPEOne of the most important breakthroughs in Pro Audio 9.0 is its new WavePipe technology. WavePipe is a more efficient way for the software to transfer and process audio data. The result is a decrease in audio latency that translates into more-responsive console sliders and an increase in the number of tracks and effects that can be mixed or played back in real time. According to Cakewalk, performance gains vary depending on the sound card you use and the design of its driver. Most users, however, can expect a significant improvement in audio performance.
How well does the WavePipe technology work? To find out, I ran a number of tests with Pro Audio 9.0 on two different systems: a 233 MHz PC with 64 MB of RAM and Digital Audio Labs' (DAL) CardD Plus, and a 600 MHz PC with 128 MB of RAM and a DAL CardDeluxe. On the 233 MHz PC running Pro Audio 8.0, I could play back 16 mono CD-quality tracks with no effects-but just barely. After installing Pro Audio 9.0, I was able to play 20 mono tracks of audio with ease on the same PC. This translates into a 25 percent improvement in performance, so even older systems will see substantial gains. In fact, it wasn't until I loaded 22 mono tracks with four real-time effects that I ran into any dropouts at all.
Using version 9.0 on the 600 MHz machine, I managed to play 30 mono 24-bit tracks simultaneously without incident. Even with 30 tracks playing, I was using only 20 percent of my CPU and 60 percent of the PC's disk-transfer ability. Pushing harder, I ramped up the project to 30 mono tracks with eight effects, which seemed to be near my limit. This much processing power is great-for the first time ever, I'm confident that Pro Audio is more than able to deliver the virtual mixing performance that I need. The bottom line is that Pro Audio 9.0 increases flexibility by allowing you to avoid mixing down tracks during a project. This way you can keep your options open until it's time to do the final mix.
Another type of performance enhancement can be gained through the use of AudioX, a new protocol for communications between audio hardware and software. AudioX enables Pro Audio 9.0 to address the additional features that a compliant sound card has to offer. Pro Audio automatically configures a Console for the device after determining the features-such as onboard DSP effects, custom bussing capabilities, or word clock-that it offers. AudioX drivers are currently available for several sound cards, including the Yamaha DSP Factory, the Digital Audio Labs TDIF 2496 Pro, and the Sonorus StudI/O.
Cakewalk has given version 9.0 additional CPU and disk meters to monitor audio streaming. These small, helpful displays sit unobtrusively at the bottom of the screen and continuously measure CPU power and disk throughput as your tracks play. For example, if you notice that you're close to maxing out your resources-which can cause dropouts-you can bounce tracks or apply your effects destructively to save processing power. If a dropout does occur, a red warning display will come up. Another small display box indicates the amount of free space remaining on your hard drive.
Cakewalk promised smoother audio scrubbing in version 9.0, and it definitely delivers. In earlier versions, scrubbing was often choppy and fraught with dropouts. Not so with Pro Audio 9.0. In fact, not only does the audio scrub perfectly, but it does so effortlessly, and you can scrub more than one audio track simultaneously, backward or forward.
CAKE MIXPro Audio 9.0 provides many new options for mixing down and bouncing tracks. In older versions, you had to mix down all of your audio to a pair of stereo tracks and then export those in WAV format to create CD-ready files. Now you can select and export any number of tracks-or any section of a track or tracks-and decide which parameters (effects, volume, and panning, for example) will be included. This feature is a huge improvement and a real time-saver. You can save files as mono or stereo, but even better, you can export your files in MP3, RealAudio, and Windows Media formats, as well as in WAV. (Pro Audio uses Fraunhofer/ Thomson's highly regarded MP3 encoding technology.)
A new Apply Audio Effects button can destructively apply effects to all audio tracks in one fell swoop. Previously, you had to either apply effects individually (which could be quite a chore) or perform a mixdown. Keep in mind that processed tracks replace the original, so it's always a good idea to back up your audio in case you want to "undo" an applied effect. Pro Audio 9.0 also makes more efficient use of the Track view by allowing a single stereo audio clip to fit into a single track. (In previous versions, all tracks were mono.) Pro Audio can even mix and match mono and stereo audio on the same track.
VIEW ENHANCEMENTSAnother improvement is the addition of Record, Solo, and Mute buttons to the Audio view. This is an excellent idea because in past versions, you had to toggle between Track and Audio views to mute and solo tracks. In fact, it's such a great feature that I would like to see it extended to the Staff view as well. Version 9.0 also includes a new global Arm, Solo, and Mute toolbar, which is used to toggle the aforementioned functions on all tracks. For example, if 3 of your 16 tracks are set to Solo, clicking the global Solo button turns off the Solo feature on all 3 tracks at once. However, clicking the button again solos all of the tracks, not just the original 3. The button has its uses-for example, it allows you to arm all tracks for recording at once. Still, some type of "intelligent memory" feature would make a better addition.
A further enhancement is the ability to assign effects directly in the Track view. (In previous versions, you had to switch to the Console view before performing that function.) This feature "adapts" to the type of effect appropriate for the track (that is, only MIDI or audio effects are shown as choices on tracks of those types). If you have audio and MIDI on the same track, however, only the audio effects appear. Unfortunately, double-clicking on the Effects field brings up the FX bin, as in the Console view; you must right-click again to access the available effects for that track. After you select an effect, you still don't have access to the effect's editable parameters-that requires yet another double-click. I would prefer the effects list to come up with the first click.
Version 9.0 adds considerable functionality to the Piano Roll view and includes an improved Patch Browser. You can now open, select, and edit multiple tracks of MIDI data simultaneously in the Piano Roll. MIDI data is color-coded on a track-by-track basis, and any number of tracks can be displayed or hidden. The Patch Browser works from the Track view to help you quickly locate a patch, allowing you to search for it by name.
Guitar players will also find useful enhancements in Pro Audio 9.0. These include a new fretboard display, guitar tablature, and a tuner, as well as StudioWare control panels for the Roland GR-30 and Line 6 Pod. The fretboard and tablature displays can be accessed from the Staff view (see Fig. 2). They work much like the Staff view itself, displaying notes and highlighting them as they play in real time. Guitarists who prefer to read tablature or who would rather follow the notes on the fretboard will get a lot of mileage out of these two features. The onscreen tuner is also useful, although it's limited to DirectSound-compatible audio cards and a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz setting.
THE GOODIESOther extras in Pro Audio 9.0 can add polish to both audio and MIDI tracks. Among these are new MIDI plug-ins (see the sidebar "Get in Style"). The Session Drummer plug-in works with Pro Audio to generate drum tracks instantly (see Fig. 3). It allows you to choose a style and a specific type of drum clip (such as an eight-bar run or a one-measure fill). The 65 available styles include Jazz, Hip-Hop, Rock, Blues, Dance, Latin, and World, and you can easily add your own styles and patterns. Each style has a number of variations. Session Drummer is a great way to create a drum track quickly. The only real drawback is the time it takes to audition all of the available styles.
Cakewalk has also included its AmpSim Lite package, a stripped-down version of the company's FX2 plug-in. AmpSim Lite models the sound of various amplifiers and offers a choice of "American Lead" or "British Overdrive." Like the included Style Enhancer Micro, it is just a teaser, and many of the settings have been grayed out. Even with its limited options, however, AmpSim Lite provides a number of distortion and amp sounds that can be applied to audio. This feature is most useful for dry guitar sounds, but you can also apply it to vocals or even to keyboards. AmpSim Lite can be used destructively or in real time.
JOHANN SUGGESTION BOXAlthough Cakewalk Pro Audio 9.0 is a great tool, it could still use some improvements that I would like to see in upcoming versions. First, Cakewalk should include some kind of spectral analysis tool, perhaps even something that could be used in real time. After using such a feature in other audio applications, I realize how crucial it is for zeroing in on mixing problems. (Third-party analysis plug-ins are available for this function.) Also, a MIDI Volume offset that affects all Volume data in selected tracks would be a helpful addition. Currently, changing the volume on the Track view won't work if there are variations of volume inserted into the track itself. You can, however, use a CAL (Cakewalk Application Language) script or the Interpolate command to achieve this effect.
There is one area in which Pro Audio 9.0 seems to have taken a step backward: the Remove Silence function. In previous versions, audio events retained their integrity when this process was applied; that is, they remained in place. In the new version, the Remove Silence command actually splits and deletes sections of the audio event, making it more difficult to edit or move events in the Audio view than it was in the past.
Finally, I would like to see some of Pro Audio's bundled audio effects upgraded. Although the Parametric EQ has been improved, most effects remain unchanged from recent versions. I would suggest adding some new effects, such as a phaser, a wah wah, an intelligent harmonizer (for both MIDI and audio tracks), and a 30-band graphic stereo equalizer.
Overall, Pro Audio 9.0 is a significant upgrade that brings this application one step closer to the dream of seamless desktop audio production. Users of version 8.0 and earlier should upgrade immediately. (Trust me, don't even think twice.) For new users, Pro Audio 9.0 is a complete and easy-to-use MIDI and audio application that can take a project from conception to CD-ready WAV file. It has more than enough features to keep both amateurs and professionals busy for a long time. Take it from me: before you've exhausted the possibilities of Pro Audio 9.0, Cakewalk will have released version 10.
Phil Darg is an independent composer and producer. His latest work is the instrumental jazz CD Powder Blue Tux and Empty Arms.
GET IN STYLEOne of the most interesting new additions to Pro Audio 9.0 is a "lite" version of Ntonyx's Style Enhancer Micro (SEM) 1.28. SEM is a MIDI plug-in for Cakewalk that uses Performance Modeling technology to generate MIDI controller commands and note patterns. This plug-in can transform data in ways similar to CAL (Cakewalk Application Language) routines, but it has a graphical interface and is much more advanced. In reviewing Pro Audio 9.0, I had the opportunity to look at the full version of this application and was impressed with its ability to increase the liveliness of MIDI tracks in a realistic fashion. Styles are the key to SEM. A Style is a process that is applied to elements of a track or a range of data and can be as simple as arpeggiating a chord or as complex as adding large amounts of MIDI controller data to help shape a phrase. Each Style includes a description of the type of data with which it is intended to be used (see Fig. A). For example, one Style might be best suited to a single-note melody at a moderate tempo, while another might be intended to process a sequence of slowly moving chords. (Of course, you can try any combination of Styles and MIDI data you want, but you're not guaranteed to see useful results.) Although I needed some practice to get SEM working effectively, I soon discovered that it does some amazing things.
I tested one of the piano-accompaniment Styles by applying it to a series of piano chords I had stepped in. The result was an entire track of piano notes-with expression-that fit the chord progression I'd created. I also applied one of the guitar Styles to a guitar part and was impressed with how the plug-in simulated the vibration and decay of a guitar string by adding a slight amount of Modulation Wheel and Expression Controller data to the notes.
Another Style was useful for creating "sliding bass" lines. It added Pitch Wheel data to the part so that notes glided smoothly from one to the next. An entire set of Styles is intended for drum music, including one that can expand the range of dynamics in the part by assigning a random offset above and below the existing notes' Velocity values. I also found that the SEM brass Styles worked particularly well to create simulations of breath action, giving MIDI brass tracks much more expression and life than they had originally.
You can check out many different purchase options and bundles at Cakewalk's Web site (www.cakewalk com). These include a large library of additional Styles that can be used once you've upgraded to the full Cakewalk plug-in version of SEM. Another version of the software, called simply Style Enhancer (SE) 2.1, functions as a stand-alone product. SE comes with some sequencer functions and offers numerous additional parameters for tweaking Styles and altering data. (You can learn more about SE 2.1 from Ntonyx's Web site at www.ntonyx.com.)
If you've ever said to yourself, "Gosh, my MIDI tracks sound lifeless," you may want to check out Ntonyx's Style Enhancer Micro 1.28. It won't put a live band in your basement, but it can sure help your modules sound more realistic.
If you intend to purchase or upgrade to Pro Audio 9.0, be sure to check the version number as soon as you get the software installed (select the Help 8 About Cakewalk option). Users of the original version 9.0 run the risk of losing data if they happen to specify the same directory for storing both their audio data and the PICT files that are used to show the waveform of a file. You can go to the Options 8 Audio 8 Advanced tab and change the settings there, if necessary.
If you already have version 9.01 or higher, you won't have a problem. (Further information can be found at Cakewalk's Web site, where free 9.0 upgrades have been posted.)
Interestingly, the feature that led to this potential hazard also has an upside: Pro Audio now creates WAV files using the standard file extension, which means you can open and play the audio files that you create in Pro Audio outside of the program without having to export them. Before, simply replacing Cakewalk's audio-format file extension WA~ with the traditional WAV extension would render the files unrecognizable by Pro Audio, even when they were converted back to WA~.