Setting up and using home recording software used to be a bit of an assault course. First you had to configure your sound card, then make sure the drivers were up to date, then you had to set up any attached MIDI devices, so they could ‘talk' to the PC. This is along with adjusting the latency, so you could hear what you were playing - as you were playing it (rather than a second later). And that was before all the challenges that recording digital audio presented: pops, drop outs and other mischievous electronic interference. It got to the point where some manufacturers - Cakewalk included - produced programs such as Guitar Tracks. This was modelled on an eight track cassette-based tape-based portastudios, in an attempt to make the whole process easier and more intuitive.
Meet X1 Essentials
Sonar X1 Essential is Cakewalk's latest attempt at delivering high quality home recording software to hobbyists and enthusiasts, which incorporates a generous set of features and is yet still easy to set up, and use. It shares many of the same characteristics of its more powerful siblings. These are X1 Studio (£151.00), X1 Producer (£301) and X1 Production Suite (£379.00). This includes the Skylight interface, which was introduced with the X1 range and is a single toolbox for editing audio and MIDI (typically, these are handled separately). The latter of which, extensively uses drag and drop (not just loops, notes and audio sections but also effects), as well as time savers, such as like track templates and effects chains - many of the settings are already defined for you.
We paired X1 Essential, with a Lexicon Lambda MIDI/audio interface, where after a few shenanigans (the Lambda's fault, thanks to unsophisticated Windows 7 drivers) we were up and running. We still think the entire process is too opaque and believe that more could be done, to make the documentation more accessible, better organised and easier to follow. Despite the makeover, X1 Essential's screen layout is pretty conventional. The main arrangement window is in the middle, transport and editing controls at the top, a channel strip down one side and the media pool on the other. Underneath, everything is a tabbed area where you can display a range of components such as the mixing desk, loop creator and more. Windows can be dragged around and re-arranged to suit your way of working and it's then possible to save the layout in one of 10 ‘sets' which you can flip between, depending what you're doing. This is extremely useful, because X1 Essentials eats up a lot of screen real-estate (though it does support multiple monitors) and in this way, you can create dedicated screens for editing, mixing and so on.
X1 Essentials can record unlimited MIDI tracks (remember these only contain instructions that tell the software instruments what to play and thus don't take up many resources) - as well as 64 tracks of digital audio (32-bit only). In our experience, your PC will conk out long before you reach those limits, so to all intents and purposes it'll handle any home recording project. There are certainly enough instruments to get you started, including the TTS-1 multi-timbral General MIDI Level 2 synth (good standard sounds, nice drums) and the Sound Center 3 (150 different instruments including some clever electric guitar effects - but no strummed guitars). This also includes Dimension LE (400 sounds, including the highly thought of Garritan Pocket Orchestra), the Dropzone sampler and the Square 1 vintage analogue-style synth. Plus, a selection of sampled instruments - bass, drums, electric piano and strings, which allow you to play individual notes, but they also include a wide selection of pre-recorded sequences you can use. Hook up a cheap MIDI keyboard (widely available for under £50) and you've got all the sounds, sequences and loops you'll need, to start making all types of music.
Recording and effects
Recording MIDI or audio is relatively straightforward, though newcomers may have to get their heads round routing, to achieve the desired results. A little familiarity with the way that mixing desks and effects chains work, in the real world, is invaluable here. There was one oddity: we couldn't register the included copy of Amplitube X-GEAR, a fine-looking guitar amp and effects simulator, because it kept asking for a Zip code. There are however, more than 30 effects included with X1 Essentials. We found the half-rack effects the best, particularly the Studioverb that has a depth and quality you don't often get, with products at this price.
We kept forgetting to arm tracks, before recording, and wasted a lot of good takes - this way of working will come with practice. We didn't find some of the editing and arranging features, as intuitive as Cakewalk clearly thinks they are. In addition, the software doesn't play nicely with anything else that uses sound. Over the course of the review, we had to re-boot multiple times to ‘give' X1 Essential control of our audio interface
For the price, X1 Essentials includes everything you need to make music at home - with the exception of a cheap MIDI keyboard and a decent microphone. It does lack some of the bells and whistles of the more expensive products in the range, but it's got everything that most people will need. There's a learning curve though, and it cries out for a more structured help file that goes beyond defining ‘what different plugins and features are' and actually explains how to use them. We're impressed with the collection of online tutorial videos but again, these need better structuring and it's not always easy to find the one that walks you through this or that feature. Persevere though, and you've got a bargain.
Powerful home recording software with excellent built-in instruments and effects, unlimited MIDI tracks and 64 audio tracks that make it very good value. It is still a bit of a steep learning curve though and the documentation, help and supporting videos could be more integrated and better organised.
Pros: All those instruments and effects provide everything you need for home recording.
Cons: Documentation, help and supporting videos need to be better organised.