Audio for Games Reimagined: SONAR X1

Cakewalk's SONAR is one of the most advanced 64-bit digital audio workstations (DAWs) available, offering composers a toolset with an unlimited number of tracks, world-class virtual instruments and an array of professional effects and audio production tools.

With the release of SONAR X1 late last year, the SONAR family of products has been reimagined. As Steve Thomas, Cakewalk's public relations director, put it, "We've taken all of the pieces of SONAR and reassembled them in a manner that takes the power and maturity of an industry-standard DAW, combined with cutting-edge creative tools essential for today's music, and wrapped them in one of the most modern and thoughtfully designed user interfaces available."

Behind the Technology

SONAR X1 gives game audio professionals a streamlined, next-generation workspace with dockable, floatable and collapsible views; customizable window configurations; easy-to-access media assets; and simplified context-driven control over vital features.

At every level, the emphasis has been on creating a refined workflow and an intelligent layout that focuses on making more music.

"Ten years ago, game composers would've built their loops using one software tool and then imported the loops into another program, such as Cakewalk's Pro Audio, where they'd handle the audio editing/recording and MIDI work," explains Thomas. "Today that workflow all takes place in SONAR, along with many time-saving features, such as Track Folders, which can be vital to a game audio composers' organization of a large project.

"People creating scores for motion pictures or modern games typically utilize a gigantic number of tracks," continues Thomas. "If a full symphony orchestra is involved, there may be as many tracks as there are orchestra seats. Track Folders in SONAR X1 are particularly helpful for managing a large number of tracks, especially if the composer is limited to the visual real estate of a single monitor."

Improving the Scores

To bring sonic variety and color to their scores, game composers often combine SONAR 's virtual synthesizers -- such as Rapture, Dimension and Pentagon -- with live recordings of orchestral instruments.

Alternately, composers might sketch their work by using very large sample libraries of strings, brass and orchestral percussion instruments before committing to recording a live orchestra. Playing back dozens or hundreds of virtual instrument tracks -- complete with digital-signal processing such as reverb, echo, level compression, equalization and transient shapers -- is an incredibly processor-intensive task.

Previously, numerous tracks had to be pre-rendered, a process that baked effects, volume changes, and other mixing parameters into audio clips to lighten the workload and eliminate latency, dropped notes and unwanted sonic artifacts. The latest multicore, multithreaded processors, however, are helping to accelerate this process. And the results just keep getting faster and better.

A Game Sound Studio in Action

Chuck Carr has been creating music and sound effects for games since 1994, when he worked on id Software's Doom II. He later served as a sound designer at 989 Studios, a former division of Sony Interactive Studios America, where he created sound effects and scary dialogue for Tanarus, Spawn and numerous other titles. He has since been an in-house composer, music manager and songwriter for hit titles such as Gran Turismo, EverQuest, Twisted Metal: Black, The Mark of Kri, Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, MLB: The Show, Hot Shots Golf and more. His latest game projects are Jerry Rice & Nitus' Dog Football and Twisted Metal X.

For his latest project, Twisted Metal X, Carr is writing a heavy-metal-influenced game soundtrack using his signature rock sound, which he developed writing the theme for the popular PlayStation Network game, Pain.

Carr prefers to write and record his own songs, calling in talented musicians to play solos and various instrumental parts. To accomplish this, he needed a DAW that could accommodate recording live guitars, drums, bass, harmonica, vocals and other instruments as needed in his own studio.

Solutions to Production Challenges

Carr's choice of DAW is SONAR. To help jumpstart the recording process, he built a rock music template -- a preset track layout for drums, guitars, vocals and other instruments he plans to record. For rock tunes, he starts by laying down a guitar track and follows with drums and other instruments. For dance tracks, synthesizers or keyboards get laid down first. Carr also includes a vocal track in his game tunes, although he's never sure if the lyrics will survive the final mix, because sound effects such as explosions will easily drown out the vocals.

Virtual pianos and the many soft synths in SONAR, as well as Native Instruments virtual synths, play a major role in Carr's sonic toolkit. Carr is also particularly fond of SONAR's PX64 percussion strip processor designed for shaping drum and percussion sounds. He supplements them with iZotope plug-ins and Steven Slate drums, which he plays through the Kontakt 4 Player.

Carr runs the DAW system on a laptop equipped with a multicore processor and 6 GB RAM. To bring audio into SONAR, Carr relies on Great River ME-1NV mic pre-amps. He prefers to record 44-kHz, 16-bit audio, and uses Sony Sound Forge for his 5.1 surround audio mixes.

Two Macintosh computers run Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools, which Carr uses when collaborating with other artists. For storage, Carr turns to six external 7,200 rpm eSATA hard disk drives. He stores his sample libraries on 80 GB solid-state drives, because as he put it, "Not only do they work, they're way faster! I love them."


Dominic Milano spent over 30 years in print, online and event media production before signing on as one of the writing muses for Rose & Her Minions. He's worked on DV, Game Developer, Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines, as well as the Game Developers Conference.

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Video Games: Audio for Games Reimagined: SONAR X1