Sonar Studio Edition (32-bit version)
Sonar (née Cakewalk) is Cakewalk Inc.'s flagship product and has been a top contender in the PC digital audio workstation (DAW) arena for over twenty years now. A track-based sequencer/recorder, this DAW equally adept with MIDI and audio and can seamlessly employ Steinberg's ASIO or VST technologies, including the myriad of VSTi's--virtual instruments such as drums, bass, and strings--that are triggered via MIDI.
The competitor Sonar most resembles is Steinberg's Cubase (Digidesign's Pro Tools is similar but tied to specific hardware). When it comes to comparing their ease of use, I always feel like I'm in a tug of war. Cubase's icons are more intuitive, but Sonar makes it easier to select ranges. Cubase's midi editors are superior, but Sonar's main page mixing is better and Sonar also makes it easier to create and apply track templates (EQ, FX). Sonar also feels faster, as there's no copy protection dongle being constantly checked to slow things down. Then again, I'm sure Sonar has a bigger piracy problem. Like Cubase, Sonar offers a menu editor so you can pare the interface down to just those features you use.
Sonar, Cubase, and Pro Tools are equals when it comes to the basics that you need to create great recordings. Sonar's plugins and virtual instruments are top-notch; the recording and timing solid as a rock; the program is suitable for midi sequencing, track-based recording, or loop manipulation. If you're more interested in step-sequencing or dance music, FL Studio or Ableton Live may be more up your alley.
Outside of more versatile midi editors, my only real Sonar wish is for a bit of a look-and-feel update. Areas of the program, primarily the dialogs, look a bit dated compared to the competition. However, outside of Pro Tools, Sonar is also the least crash-prone of the major track-based DAWs. I can't remember the last time I crashed it, and that's in over ten years of moderate use.
For expediency's sake, the downloadable trial version of Sonar has relatively few of the plugins. Full versions come boxed--you can't upgrade from the trial version. The $699 Producer edition of Sonar has a host of professional plugins, including the full version of Lexicon's Pantheon Reverb and Native Instruments Guitar Rig. The more affordable Studio version costs $299, and has all the same basic functionality, plus the plugins most users need if surround sound is not an issue. Whichever version you can afford, kicking the tires is free, and unless you're dead set in your DAW ways (alas, most existing users are...) downloading the demo is a worthwhile endeavor.
Note: This software comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. This is the 32-bit version. If your 64-bit PC is running 64-bit XP or 64-bit Vista, please download the 64-bit version instead. Please note that the current shipping product is version 8.3, whereas the demos are 8.0.
--Jon L. Jacobi