As deep as I am into home studio recording, I’m not much of a synthesizer guy. For the longest time, I used preset sounds because I had no idea what all those knobs and settings did. Even after taking classes on synthesis, I’m probably more inclined to use sampled sounds than to create my own. I pretty much write music for live bands, but I don’t have a band. So I use synthesizers and samplers.

Cakewalk recently released SONAR 7, the 2007 update of their flagship digital audio workstation software. The company has also bundled SONAR 7 with its other large products — Project5, Rapture and Dimension Pro — into a package called Cakewalk Pro Suite. The bundle sells for about $799 retail, but since I own SONAR 5 Producer Edition, I qualify for an upgrade price of $479. The upgrade price to SONAR 7 Producer Edition is $229. For $250 more, I can get software that would cost $707 to get separately with entirely new licenses.

So that begs the question — do I need them?

This past weekend, I downloaded demos of Rapture and Project5. No demo of Dimension Pro is available, although I read somewhere on the Cakewalk forum that the Rapture demo is similar to Dimension Pro.

Rapture is a synthesizer, and Dimension Pro is a sampler. Given my preference for sampled sounds, I’m not so much interested in Rapture as Dimension Pro. The user interface between Dimension Pro and Rapture look similar, so I gave Rapture a shot.

The narrow buttons with the squat text made it hard to figure out the signal flow. A bit of random clicking allowed me to guess what were oscillators, filters and envelopes, but I couldn’t be too sure. Since Rapture has no sampling capabilities, I couldn’t really project how Dimension would compare. The user interface seems a bit busy, but I don’t really expect to use it all that much. I do wish a Dimension Pro demo was available though.

As for Project5, it’s definitely the product with which Cakewalk wants to compete with Ableton Live. I was introduced to Ableton Live before Project5, so I already had some expectations. When I was first working with Live, the tutorials really helped explain the user interface. The Project5 tutorials didn’t do nearly the same kind of job selling its interface.

As a result, I found it clunky and a bit left-brained. I attempted to recreate Terry Riley’s In C in Project5 the way I did with Live. Project5 isn’t as liberal as Live when it comes to clashing time signatures, and it forced unison playing whenever I triggered new clips in its Groove Matrix (analogous to Live’s Session View.) Unison is not good for a performance of In C. Although the feature set is parallel, Live can support VST and includes its own arsenal of proprietary instruments. Project5 is pretty much a host for other software synthesizers.

Its support of Rewire is even harder to handle than SONAR. With SONAR, I can assign multiple tracks to a single Reason song file. In Project5, I have to create track layers, which adds too much complexity to a process that should be straightforward. I’m also having a hard time picturing a Rewire connection between Project5 and SONAR. I actually think SONAR handles a few things better than Project5.

As tempted as I am to spend the extra money for the Cakewalk Pro Suite, dropping cash on software I probably won’t end up using is wasteful. I am still curious about Dimension Pro because it comes bundled with the Garritan Pocket Orchestra. At some point, I’d be interested in writing more classically-minded works, and I’m in the market for a good library. (There is a version of the Garritan Personal Orchestra available for Reason as a Refill.)

So that led me to explore Native Instruments Kontakt, a sampler which contains portions of the Vienna Symphonic Library. The demo didn’t include any of it, but I did try it out to see how well it worked.

With SONAR 5, the Kontakt demo seemed very straight forward. I assigned the audio output and MIDI channel of a MIDI track to Kontakt, and it played the samples with no problem. I would like to try out some of the guitar samples — the detail with which you can articulate the sample in such an idiomatic manner looks really powerful — but they weren’t included in the demo either.

I did see reports of SONAR 7 and Kontakt 3 not getting along, but I wonder if that’s the case for a new installation of Kontakt. As much of a failure Finale has turned out for me, it did yield a nice upgrade path for Kontakt — the GPO Player in Finale qualifies for a competitive cross grade.

Despite those reports of Kontakt 3 crashing SONAR, I might still invest in it. I’d like to shake up the sound of my demos, and as helpful as Reason has been, I feel like I need more options.