First I'd like to say that I'm grateful to BandLab for rescuing this DAW. I only started using it after the first BandLab version, so my impressions are those of someone who has only known it in its Cakewalk By BandLab form. I don't think things could have worked out better for the existing user base and new users looking for a professional DAW whose workflow and layout are much-imitated industry standards.
At this point, 3 years since the Cakewalk company dissolved and BandLab acquired its intellectual property, it's no longer accurate to say "Cakewalk by BandLab is Cakewalk SONAR with a new name." That would be like saying Studio One 5 is Studio One 4 with a new name. If Cakewalk did versioning, it would surely be up to Cakewalk by BandLab 2 or 2.5 at this point..
Cakewalk (the DAW) began life as a rebranded update to SONAR, but since then, there have been so many changes. While preserving the old SONAR workflow for people who had gotten used to it, the developers have added new features great and small. The small features are usually ones requested by the user base, many of whom participate in the very active and helpful Cakewalk by BandLab forum.
The larger features include such additions as an Arranger Track and MIDI Articulation mapping (just released in their Early Access Program).
The developers have also been relentlessly improving the DAW's stability and tuning the audio and screen rendering subsystems. This has resulted in CbB becoming not just more stable, but faster and less taxing of system resources. I can run it no sweat on a 10-year-old Dell notebook when I want to use it away from home.
As for this program with its 33-year history, the first things I fell in love with were its mixing console view and its silky, rich sounding playback engine. I've yet to see an audio routing task that I couldn't accomplish with Cakewalk's mixer, and the graphics are the most attractive I've seen in a DAW.
In 2018 when I first tried it, I initially had some trouble with comping/editing. As I experienced it it steered the user too forcefully toward using its advanced tools at the expense of more traditional, copying, pasting, dragging and trimming. This has since been remedied with the strategic addition of a couple of options that better permit the user to jump in and start editing/comping using a more basic workflow while allowing the user to learn the more advanced techniques at their own pace. Which I recommend, if you have straightforward comping to do, you can fly with Speed Comping. Just be sure to switch tools before working in a more traditional fashion.
Because of the strength of its mixer and comping, it makes a great companion for Ableton Live, which is such a strong compositional tool, but is weaker in pure multitrack audio recording, comping, routing, and mastering. Ableton Live! and other programs may be connected via ReWire. There is nothing requiring you to edit, mix and master using the same DAW you use for recording and composition, and it is an easy matter to export your tracks from one DAW and use Cakewalk for mixing.
A big strong point for me and others who love to customize their tools is the comprehensive Cakewalk Theme Editor, which allows end users to set colors and replace bitmapped artwork throughout the program. There are many excellent user-created themes available for download in the aforementioned forum.
And for heaven's sake, my favorite feature is the free subscription license! This not only substantially decreases the necessary investment required to have access to a top-tier mature DAW, but it has other less apparent benefits. Specifically, the BandLab developers' only mandate is to increase the quality of the product, and no priority is given to new features at the expense of basic functionality. With payware programs that rely on new and upgrade license purchases to sustain the company, the first mandate will always be to focus programming and testing resources on the introduction of new features that are more likely to make new users want to buy it and existing users pay for the upgrades.
BandLab is a large, diversified company that owns multiple music publications, guitar brands, and musical accessory brands. Cakewalk (along with their Android, iOS, and browser-based DAW's) is a project they support to promote music-making and increase brand awareness. It earns its keep as a free prestige promotional item, and this means that the developers are much more free to create a quality bug-free product that shows off the company's sense of excellence.
How many times have you wished that the developers of your favorite program would fix existing bugs rather than coming up with flashy new features that you aren't going to use? Well, Cakewalk under BandLab's stewardship is just that.
Only 4 stars because there are some areas of the program that need attention. When a program has been around this long, under so many different management teams, it's inevitable that some features will get more resources than others. It's also likely that a feature added in 1997 and one added in 2020 will have inconsistencies in look and feel.This can slow down learning different features. Having acknowledged that, once I learned how to record and enter both audio and MIDI, and then edit what I had created, the rest is just....icing on the cake (sorry).
Although it comes with enough audio plug-ins to create excellent mixes (you could do it using only the ProChannel modules in the console if you wanted), it's a bring-your-own-plug-in affair when it comes to virtual instruments. There is a General MIDI instrument that can be tweaked to sound pretty good with some of its instruments. Since you are reading this on KVR, you will be aware that this is easily remedied via the vast collection of freeware now available. If you want synths, many excellent mature instruments are available from such companies as AIR (Hybrid, xPand!, Vacuum Pro) and iZotope (Iris, Break Tweaker) for a fraction of their original licensing fees if you watch for promotions. Newcomers like W.A. Production and SoundSpot are also great at filling out the instrument collection.
I do admit a fondness for the (included with sampled electric piano and drum kit as an extra download) Cakewalk Studio Instruments String Section as a quick tool for sketching string arrangements.
I've been using the program as my primary DAW for 2 1/2 years and it's so rich, so deep in features, that I'm still learning what I can do with it. The (separate download) PDF manual is over 1,700 pages long, and few of those pages are redundant.
It's so great to have the new Cakewalk visible here at KVR. As an example of the team's hands-on engagement with the user base, this listing itself was created by a BandLab/Cakewalk senior engineer, an active musician himself.