Notes from the Shore

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Sonar is Dead; Long Live Cakewalk!

In a surprise turn of events, Cakewalk has come back to life and is free! Let me explain. No, is too much. Let me sum up.

The Seedy Backstory

In the beginning (1987) there was Cakewalk by 12-Tone Systems. It was an early computer-based sequencer, running on IBM PCs and clones on DOS. This was before the days of digital recordings, so you would hook up your PC via a MIDI PCI card to your Yamaha DX7, daisy chaining a Roland D50 and E-Mu Emulator III so you could get more than one different sound at a time (ah, the old days).

In 2000 Cakewalk became Cake Pro Audio with the addition of the ability to record digital audio tracks along side the MIDI data. In 2008 Cakewalk was rebranded Sonar by Cakewalk and the company officially became a division of Roland. I got involved around the same time purchasing Sonar Home Studio – a stripped down version with limited tracks and bundled instruments and plug-ins.

In 2013 Roland sold off Cakewalk to Gibson, which did some good for a while, especially developing a rolling update model where, instead of annual version releases, there were monthly (or so) updates that included big fixes, workflow enhancements and occasional new features. A flat fee or monthly subscription kept the new updates coming, with your last update being good forever if you stopped the subscription.

Then Gibson decided that Cakewalk wasn’t making them enough money and in late 2017 laid off all but two or three people and shut down development. This sent ripples throughout the music community and several competitors pounced on the opportunity with very competitive crossgrade offers. After I settled on Samplitude Pro X, but, while it is installed, I’ve literally only opened it once, to make sure it opened. It was really more of an insurance policy than something I really wanted to use.

Today’s Big News

Today’s big news starts back in February when it was announced that what we were all hoping for actually happened – a company bought Cakewalk. Bandlab is a company out of Singapore that both functions as an umbrella for a number of different brands (similar to Gibson – grr) but it’s core product is an on-line collaborative sequencer called Bandlab. There was much hopeful (and skeptical) curiosity about the future of Sonar under the new ownership, but there were some encouraging signs. First, Noel Borthwick was hired from Gibson to continue running Cakewalk (he wasn’t the one who screwed it up) and second, Meng, the CEO of Bandlab, became very active on the Cakewalk forum and other social media. Noel also was in answering the questions that he could.

One of the unknowns was what bandlab was going to call the rebranded software. All we knew was that is wasn’t going to be Sonar. Meng teased us referring to it as TDFKAS (the DAW Formally Known As Sonar) which in my head I pronounced Tiddy-Fakas. What he did say was that they were committed to current owners of Sonar getting a free crossgrade to the new product.

Well, he didn’t lie. On April 4th the re-launch of Cakewalk by Bandlab (original, but classic…) was announced as available and.. wait for it… free! That’s right, Cakewalk is now the first freemium DAW software, in that the base software is completely free, and then people can buy extras a la carte as they wish. Honestly, there is a ton you can do with the base package, as it comes with a suite of signal processing and effect plug-ins as well as the Sonar Artist instrument package – enough for anyone to get started. Also, anything compatible with previous versions of Sonar (like Addictive Drums or Breverb) work just fine with the new software. FYI, the new package is essentially the last rolling update that was being developed when Gibson owned it, with a couple of minor tweaks and the Bandlab branding applied.

So, that’s that. Meng has been open about asking for feature requests and bug fixes. I’m excited to see what happens in the future. Even though there are plenty of naysayers on line complaining about this announcement (really!) I can’t wait to get started again.

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