Hands-On Review:Cakewalk Pro Audio 9.0
Software sequencers may come and go (Opcode is merely the latest company to bite the dust), but there are a few venerable favorites that continue to carry the torch, ever-evolving to keep pace with advances in technology and musical tastes. Cakewalk Pro Audio, which seamlessly integrates both MIDI and hard-disk recording, is one such program. Best of all, the latest version sports a host of new features designed with guitarists in mind.
While many of these features first appeared in the company’s entry-level Guitar Studio product (reviewed in our September 1999 issue), on Pro Audio 9 they are integrated into a fully professional package that supports up to 128 audio tracks and effects, as opposed to 16. The most significant and guitar-centric of these features is a real-time onscreen fretboard and tablature display. This virtual fretboard can be set up for any number of strings and tunings, and can be displayed in your choice of finish—rosewood, ebony or maple.
If you’re using a MIDI guitar controller, it’s a kick to see the notes displayed by the onscreen fretboard as you play them. During input, Cakewalk applies a generic “floating” algorithm that places the incoming notes over the entire fretboard based on its best guess as to which frets they are being played on. However, you can create a custom “fixed” algorithm—specifying finger span and fret range—so that, on playback, the notes appear where you played them. If the resulting tablature still isn’t right, you can easily edit it by setting new parameters or using standard drag-and-drop routines. Once you’ve tweaked it, the tablature can be exported as text that can be read by any word processor.
The installation CD also includes practice files with some three dozen scales, all of which make excellent use of the tab display. These show various modal scales in all keys, starting at different positions on the fingerboard, and allowing you to follow as you play along. Best of all, the tempo can be set to any value, so you can start slow and gradually work your way up to blinding Malmsteen-like speeds. Cakewalk Pro Audio also provides a time-stretching function that allows you to sample a track from a CD and slow it down (without changing its pitch) in order to learn the licks.
Another handy feature is an onscreen chromatic tuner, which makes use of Cakewalk’s intelligent—and fast—pitch-detection algorithm. My only complaint about the tuner is that it’s fixed to standard, A440 tuning. This could be problematic if you’re overdubbing guitar to prerecorded instruments that were not themselves tuned to A440.
Like Guitar Studio version 2, Pro Audio 9 includes a “lite” version of a plug-in called AmpSim, which provides two guitar amp models: the coyly named “American Lead” and “British Overdrive.” Options for each include 4x12 cabinet simulation (open- or closed-back), three-band equalization, overdrive, presence and tremolo controls. With a little bit of tweaking, you can get a reasonable approximation of the real thing, but don’t sell your amps and cabinets just yet. Bear in mind that Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 does not allow audio plug-ins to be applied during input—they only work on playback. This makes AmpSim less useful than it would be if you could actually monitor the processed signal and record it that way in the first place. Cakewalk has said an input-stage plug-in may be implemented in future updates.
There are, of course, a number of other improvements here that aren’t guitar specific. Among these are greatly improved latency times (so that there is less delay between the time you change the level, panning or processing of an audio signal and the time you hear the change); extended support for the advanced features of the Yamaha DSP Factory and Sonorus STUDI/O sound cards; MP3 and RealAudio encoding; and a handy onscreen CPU and disc meter that displays the amount of system overhead being used. Also included are two cool MIDI processing plug-ins: Session Drummer, a virtual hardware drum machine, and Style Enhancer, which allows you to apply live “feels” based on real performances.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cakewalk Pro Audio is one of those programs which seems to get better and better with time. It’s especially gratifying to see the latest version wholeheartedly acknowledging the guitarist’s point of view.