Back Home Up  



Johnny Vere

See Part II for Entering notes manually to make a drum track 

See Part III for Recording with a midi keyboard or drum pads 

Part I How to set up and play a midi file in Cakewalk Sonar

This is a tutorial with step by step instructions for how to use midi in Cakewalk Sonar newest versions. These instruction apply to all versions including Home Studio. Home Studio ( HS)  is missing a few features which the EVENT LIST and SYNTH RACK are the only 2 of concern for this tutorial. I have used Sonar Platinum for the screenshots. 

For the first part I think walking folks through using a downloaded GM midi file will be the easiest way to learn how things work. Even if you never plan on using one, you'll see how Sonar uses midi. I'll get into details of making your own and using Piano Roll View ( PRV) latter. 

There is a million free midi files on the internet. You'll find a lot of funky websites like mine :) and the same files spread across the web over and over. I found this Beatles song which is a typical example of a "usable" track. These files by default will play in your media player using the MS Wavetable synth ( 4 bit) This is an easy way to preview them. For better sound quality it is easy to set up Sonar to do the same.

SAMPLE MIDI FILE  Run for your Life    click link and it will go to your download folder.


You can make it so midi files will automatically set up a project and play using the TTS-1 in 15 seconds. 

Go to PREFERENCES. Uncheck ALL output boxes.

Now when you OPEN a midi file it will be ready to play the file via TTS-1. You can OPEN the file using the File menu and browse to your download folder. Or if you associate midi files in windows with Sonar you just double click the file to open. Never IMPORT a midi file, you will loose all the important stuff.

Here's what you should get. You might have to re-arrange you window like I have done here.

Now before you go any further go to file" SAVE AS "  browse to your Sonar Projects folder and save as a "normal" CWP file. There is no audio at this point but it is a good habit to keep that little box checked. " Copy Audio with Projects". If your not planning on recording any audio then don't. 

You can see what each midi track is playing here or in the GUI. Note: to change anything it is best to use the track inspector dialog. Making changes in the TS-1 GUI will not stick unless the patch box say's "None". The track inspector has authority over the GUI settings. Note that there is 2 places to set your midi track in, out, channel, bank and patch. Note the little icons

I= Input- select your keyboard controller OMNI for recording to this track

0=Output- Select which VST instrument the midi track will play

C=Channel- select the midi channel 1to 16

B=The Bank of sounds , on the tts-1 there are 4 or 5 banks

P=Patch to select the instument.

The TTS-1 GUI has a lot of things you can adjust. But if the downloaded midi file has CC or system exclusive info it will override any changes you make. You would need to edit this in the event list or PVR which we will get into later, For now we as sticking to basics.


I like to colour code my tracks

Now we will replace the so so sounds of the TTS_1 with different VST's which in most cases will improve the sound quality ten fold.

Lets start with the Drums. I have used the SI drums as example as everyone should have that. I actually use Addictive Drums 2. AD2 came with Professional and Platinum. SI drums is very simple to use and AD2 would require advanced tutorials.

Go to the Browser on the right. Chose INSTRUMENTS and DRUMS and the SI drums.

This opens this Dialog. There are many options here. For this tutorial I will use the most basic settings as shown. At some point you will want to understand the options here. For now please use what I have shown which is only the First Synth Audio output.

Sonar will insert the SI drums into the synth Rack ( note there is no synth rack in HS )  and create an instrument track.


I will now move the Instrument tack to the top of the track list as this helps me keep "track" of the tracks I've edited.I also need to change the midi drum tracks output from TTS_1 to the SI drums.


So now it will play the SI drum kit. But I don't really like what I'm hearing so I will choose a different kit using the GUI. Click the VST icon to open the SI Drum GUI

Most VST instruments have a GUI interface like this. Yu can bang away on the drums and change settings. More advanced VST's have very complicated GUI that can take a long time to learn your way around. This one is dead simple. Use The PRG drop down to choose a new kit. If you make custom changes to this kit, like levels or reverb, you can name it and save it as a PRE SET for recall to use in another project. Click the little disk to save.

If the drums don't sound correct, as example, the snare is playing a tom or cowbell. The file you are using is not GM standard and you will need to edit the drum parts in PRV. We will deal with this later. My sample file is GM and the drums kit pieces will play correctly.

OK now There's a few tracks I don't want so I delete the annoying Vocal wanabee tacks 2, 3 and 3 which used a organ. You may choose to keep them for now if it helps you navigate the song. But I like to keep a tidy track view and for my next moves I need the screen room.

So I've deleted those 3 tracks and expanded the view of a few I'm going to work on.

OK next the Bass. The SI Bass is actually a favorite of mine. I like the Jazz bass.

a reminder to hit SAVE as you make each change.


The SI bass for some weird reason plays an octave lower. So lets fix that now. Highlight the Bass track and go up to the menu " Process" / "Transpose" set to   + 12

Ok now we have the SI Drums and the SI Bass playing those parts. Next the guitars, hmm, there are FOUR Guitars each with a different sound. No problem. You can insert more than one instance of any VST instrument. The only limitation with VST's is your computers ability to cope. Pretty rare that you would have this issue these days. I can run this project on a duo core 2008 laptop with 4 GB RAM.  I will need three instances of Strum Session and will leave the Muted guitar with TTS_1 because Strum session does not have that patch. The TTS-1 Muted guitar is actually just fine.

Ok all done and it sounds a lot better ( to me at least) than it did. I use a lot of other VST's I used these as example because most everyone should have them.

Next we need to fix the output which at this point is still direct to our interface or sound card.

I inserted a Stereo Buss in the buss pane and re named it Master. Now I need to change all my audio tracks to output to this. Go to the "TRACKS"  SELECTED TRACK OUTPUT and select Master.

Some might not know where the Buss pane is. It is by default hidden when opening projects like this. You need to go to the bottom of the track pane and drag it up.


Note the other option to adding the Master buss this way is to do this first thing when you open the midi file and set the Master buss as the default. I always forget to do this myself. If it is the default then all new audio and instruments will be output to it. You'll find the option to set it as default by right clicking in the inspector area of the master buss.

Now we play our song and it should all be going through the Master buss. Mute the Master buss to check. This is a good habit to get into before you export a mix. Otherwise a track will not be processed by the master. Speaking of processing, looks like we need a limiter, the Master is clipping. Our mix sounds balanced so I hate to turn everything down, which would also work, but a little bit of limiting never hurt.

My favorite these days is this: Sorry you won't have it in Home Studio.

OK and a little hi pass is also need, this will also make a difference to the clipping as low end energy is a hazard. I hi pass all my mixes. I'll use the Pro Channel you will also have this in Home Studio called MIX STRIP. Sure bass is cool, but you can blow up peoples cheap speakers if your not careful.

I'm using this as a backing track so my version is ready to roll. You can add audio and record your guitar and vocals or add more cowbell, whatever. I get into that later.

So lets EXPORT our mix.

I have found using SELECT NONE is more dependable than SELECT ALL.

 Go to the menu EDIT/ SELECT or use CRTL/SHIFT/A

Now I save the file which by now your should have done a few times I hope.

Then I choose EXPORT/AUDIO from File menu

I leave most at the default setting and only change the bit depth to 16. Notice you should make a special folder for each type of projects you work on> You can see mine will be saved in my Performance or backing track folder. Hopefully by now you know how to browse to your folders in the save dialog.

I load my file into a Wave editor to Master. I always check my count in and the ending first. Looks like I forgot to check my ending in Sonar.

I slip edit the tracks so there's a little space after the last note for the synth's to fade away. Sonar is not smart enough to do this for you but this little trick works. So now I export again and resume mastering with Wave Lab.

I won't go into detail but I put this here so you can see what really matters about our exported mix.  I put the Limiter set at .04db and that is my PEAK level. Can't go any higher without clipping.

The goal of our creation if you want your songs to play the same as commercial releases is to aim for an AVERAGE RMS level between -10db and -14db. This track is 1.5 db below my goal of -14db  so I either return to Sonar and hit the limiter a little harder or use mastering tools in Wave Lab like the Steinbergs Loudness maximizer ( another limiter) and add +1.5 db to the track. This needs to be done carefully.

OK there's the first part you now have a backing track of this song you can use to o play a gig or you can use it as a bed track to record yourself or a client.



PART II  Creating your own midi Band

Now lets start from scratch and make our own midi tracks and edit with PRV ( Piano Roll View)

We'll start buy opening a NEW project. You can do this from the start screen or from the FILE menu.  We will use the Empty Project template. Don't forget to Name it. Make note of the folder location.  Notice the other option like tempo and Sample rate. You can change the tempo at any time with Midi. You cannot change the tempo once you've recorded Audio. Well you sort of can, but I don't advise this. I often record my midi parts at a slower tempo and then bring it up to speed just before I record the audio. 

First we will need a MIDI track. As all things Sonar there is a few ways to do this. I just RIGHT click the track inspector pane and choose midi track. Or use the INSERT menu.

Now we have a blank Midi track

Now we need a VST soft synth to make sounds, we will start will the drums.


Or you can insert a soft synth using the Browser

 At this point before we do any recording we need to change a default setting in preferences. Go to RECORD and change Comping to Overwrite.

One other bit of housekeeping I delete the PREVIEW BUSS and colored the metronome buss so it's more visible to me. I could delete it but it does come in handy when starting out. I might need it when I lay a new Drum track down later. I use the basic pattern just to start things. Once a few other instruments are recorded I always make a new drum track adding the fills, rolls and stuff in real time. I do this both on my keyboard and using a Yamaha DTX drum kit.

Ok now we need to check that our midi track is outputting to the SI drums. It should do this automatically if there is only one synth inserted. But lets go over this now.

You can also set these parameters here. Fir most instruments I set Bank and Patch to NONE and I use the instruments GUI patch list to select the sounds or drum kits.  I use the Bank and Patch for is TTS-1 because it's GM and some instruments are different in the banks. But even it has a list of patches in the GUI

Here is where you'll find the SI Drum patch ( kits) using it's GUI.

If you make changes to the kit, like volume, reverb etc you can save this as a PRESET and use your custom kit in other songs.  Example Addictive drums has hundreds of custom settings so it's very important to save your kits once you have a sound dialed in.  

Tip: you might want to return to this menu once you have the full song playing and flip though the kits until you find one you like the best. It's easier to decide this way while a full mix is playing. 

Now we will make a drum part to start our song rolling. There are many ways to do this.

 You can use one of the thousands of loops that came with Sonar and drop them on a midi track.

 You can play the part on a midi keyboard or drum kit.

 You can enter notes into the step sequencer.

 You can use a drum machine/keyboard sequencer midi sync it and record the midi output.

 You can even record a real drum kit and use Drum Replacer to convert it to midi. Note: you could mike up a    set of trash cans and cardboard boxes record it and this will work too!

  And you can draw the notes in PRV.

All you need is a few bars and you then use Groove Loop editing to drag and copy it out.

First we will use the draw notes in PRV method.

 Open the PVR. There is a few way to do this, One is to double click on the midi data in a track. You can also use the ALT 3 or go to views and select the Piano Roll View.

Here is where a dual monitor with extended desktop comes in handy. If you only have one monitor you'll have to learn to resize and minimize your MULTI DOCK views. There are a lot of Multi Docks- Console, PRV, Tempo and on and on. They use Tabs and you can quickly switch views.

If you have dual Monitors drag the Multi Dock to the other monitor and maximize it. Save this Lens.

This is where I spend most of my time in Sonar unless my project is pure Audio. I will not go into how the Smart Tool works as that's about 20 pages. See documentation to learn about the Smart Tool.


I drew out a simple pattern using the smart tool.

Hit the spacebar and see if it plays the SI Drums.

Now lets make the 2 measure into 150 using Groove clip looping. Right click on the Track Pane in the midi track ( TRK 1) That will open the track editing / action menu.

Now you can just drag the clip to the right to copy it over and over. This trick works with any clip. If you had dropped a midi clip here from the browser this would work too. For now drag it a few bars and then play it to make sure there are no glitches.

If you open the PRV it should look like this now.


Now lets Shrink the view so we can drag it faster to bar 150. Use the minus magnifier.

Now we have a 150 measures of a drum pattern. You could save this to use again as a template. You should not start a song at zero, we need a count in so open PRV and delete everything in measure 1 and all but the hi hats in measure 2. Have you got the hang of that smart tool yet? If not you can use the eraser tool. 



PART III recording with a Midi Keyboard, Drum kit or Pads

The second method is to play a midi Keyboard, drum kit or drum pads and record your playing. Midi is sent via USB directly to the computer or with the 5 pin DIN cable via your audio interface or a dedicated midi interface.

Both work the same but be aware that USB midi requires a USB midi driver. Windows will plug and play with a generic driver, but if your midi device came with a installation CD or link to the web site use that driver it will most likely be superior. Also try and always use the same USB port. And make sure the device is powered up before you open Sonar. Check in Preferences/Midi/Devices that your midi device is checked under INPUT.

NOTE: MIDI is data and there is no audio or sound broadcast through a midi cable. 

Now lets start adding more instruments. If this was an original song I was working on at this point I would insert a Vocal and a guitar audio track and play my song along with the drums. Then I would add the other midi parts.  For now I want to stick to the MIDI tracks only. Lets insert the SI Bass and this time we will play the part with a midi keyboard.

I like the Jazz Bass patch.

Now we need to set our midi controller as the input and set that to OMNI

Rename the midi tack Bass.

Now make sure input echo is on and the output is pointed at the SI bass.

Arm the record button.  Play a few notes and the meters should move.

If you hear a noticeable delay in the sound after you kit a key or pad this is usually caused by certain plug in audio effects. We don't have any in this project, but keep this in mind. I always bypass all my audio effects when recording midi. If you have midi delay at this point you have a system issue. This could be a generic midi driver issue or DPCLAT latency caused by background processes. Run Latency Monitor to check your system.

So everything working?

You are ready to record.  Press "R"

If you mess up hit the space bar then "W" to return to the beginning.

Tip: You can toggle transport behavior between stop in place or rewind to where you started from using  ALT/ W. The W always returns to the beginning but the space bar can stop or Rewind to where you started playback or recording from.  So remember ALT/W, you'll use it  a lot.

When recording midi don't worry about minor errors or timing issues. Even if you hit the wrong note just keep going. You need to make a call. If your a terrible keyboard player you'll just need to do that much more editing. But if there are too many errors best to try again. A few boners are just fine.

Midi is super easy to fix but it's 50/50 to deside if you want to take longer playing the part, or longer time editing your mess.

 Every one is different and some like to keep a bunch of "Takes" of the performance and paste them together. Sonar has Take lanes for this.

 I normally will only have one track for each part and I avoid using lanes for midi stuff.

Slowing down the tempo helps if your struggling with the part. You can use the automatic punch in feature which I will show you later.  Or you can simply start a few bars ahead of your mistake, hit the spacebar to start playback, then hit the "R" with one hand while the other is playing.  I even have a USB footswitch that I assigned the W R and spacebar to.


So notice my timing is almost consistently early. This is a common issue with generic midi drivers. I was using my Akai synth station. If I use my Roland keyboard this doesn't happen because it has better midi drivers. Not a big deal because it's close enough. Just quantize to fix this.


First you will want to figure out what the smallest note value is. I use the grid resolution to figure this out. This seems to be 1/16th notes on this track. So I will Quantize to 1/16th. 

Be aware the you often need a triplet timing. Blues and country shuffles, swing and some 3/4 - 6/8 time songs too.

Quantizing takes some practice and you can always hit undo if it makes a mess of things. Play it back right away and listen.  Bass and drums are pretty straight forward, other instruments can get fussy. Some parts like fancy piano might be ruined if globally quantized so use your ears.

Select all notes ALT A or drag the mouse down the keyboard on the left.

Select Quantize from the PROCESS menu


Play it back and make sure it generally sounds better. If not try a different setting. The quantize function has a lot of options and I'm only explaining the bare bones here.

 There will be notes that will get moved to the wrong place no matter what. And there will be other errors in you playing that still need editing. There is no magic button that perfects a midi track. You still will nee to dig in and do manual editing if your looking for perfection. 

First I like to have my Bass parts play at the same velocity. There's a few tricks and ways to do this but this is one I find is super easy and quick... all done with the mouse and the smart tool.

Select all to highlight. Then using the smart tool I drag the velocity up so all notes are full. 

This is a midi note. A= Velocity drag up or down to adjust.  B= Adjust note start  C= Select the note B= Adjust note end

Then let go. Now grab and pull down to 110 or what ever.

Make note that velocity might seem like volume, but it also changes the Timber of most VST's sounds. Example you hit a piano key real hard it will not only be louder, but harsh as well. So keep that in mind when using velocity. I find most instruments sound their best somewhere around 90 - 110.


So lets play the track with the PRV open and LOOK and LISTEN. You get good at spotting mistakes as you spend time here. Here's some errors you can see.


I get picky about note durations. Some of these are just a bit short. I like my bass to sustain.

You can highlight the whole track and drag them all a little longer but then you end up with overlapping notes. Overlapping notes are not a big issue if the notes are different pitches. But an overlapping note of the same pitch will cut off the second note. So I prefer to manually fix this one note at a time where needed.

From here we keep adding tracks to build our song.

So that's two ways to add a midi track, Draw it, or play it. The other method  would be to use an already made track, loop or whole song. All methods will get you to the same place and learning editing is the ticket.

Here's is a sample of what I just did,, The bass track is only a verse chorus, I made it up as I played it so it's just an example please don't laugh it's pretty bad. MIDI PART II SAMPLE

I actually don't play my bass parts on a keyboard any more I use the Melodyn to convert an audio track recording of my Bass to midi trick.

I play and record my real bass best I can, doesn't matter about the tone. Then you drag this audio track to a blank MIDI track. Melodyn will convert the audio into midi data. It requires some editing but gives me a dead ringer of my real bass. This is very cool as I use a lot of Acoustic bass on my originals and many songs. I don't own an acoustic bass so this is a very unique trick and why I'm staying with Sonar.