Hope springs eternal
During our tests, we spent hours with tech support, dealing with a variety of system crashes. To their credit, the folks at Cakewalk tech support are responsive and pleasant. Yet even with their help, Plasma offered only a nerve-racking détente: you must save your music file every minute, knowing that at some point the software will crash and take with it any changes you've made to your hard-won composition. We're disappointed, because Plasma offers promising tools. On top of Sonar's excellent audio and MIDI features, Plasma includes high-quality bundled software, such as the excellent Fruity Loops Express loop generator and a trial version of the Pyro MP3 and CD-audio burning software.
Plasma has exactly the same installation process, interface, and views as Sonar, with a Track view for arranging your MIDI and digital audio data, a Console view for mixing digital audio, and so on. We like this interface because you can expand or shrink any window as you work; for example, you can easily enlarge the MIDI events window when cleaning up parts or reduce it when working in the Mix window.
Two steps forward, three steps back
If you're familiar with MIDI-sequencing programs, such as Cakewalk's earlier Pro Audio 9.0 or Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer software, Plasma should prove easy to use. For beginners, though, Plasma has a steep learning curve, since its interface comes from a professional-level product. Like Sonar, Plasma lets you mix MIDI and audio clips in your composition and use the built-in Console view (click the Console icon, or click Windows > Console) to automate mixing digital audio. You can also use tools in the Console view to apply digital audio effects, such as reverb, echo, and compression. Adding audio? No problem--just import your WAV files into the program. Plasma includes a healthy collection of digital audio loops, instruments, and sound effects, so you can quickly piece together a composition. You can add MIDI music tracks either by importing a file or by recording MIDI data using a keyboard and interface.
However, despite Plasma's straightforward tools and simple interface, it's unreliable. After we spent 20 hours putting together a composition, Plasma crashed, and we couldn't open the file. Working with tech support, we tried for two days to salvage the work but eventually gave up and started rebuilding the piece from scratch. That's unacceptable. After that first crash, the bugs came crawling out in droves. For example, adjusting the effects on a single audio clip stopped the playback on our MIDI tracks. Checking the MIDI settings prompted a full-scale crash. When we tried to edit multiple MIDI tracks using the program's Piano view, where you can see all the MIDI events (what note you played, how hard, and so on) as a continuous graph, another crash occurred--and required a hard reboot. Cakewalk technical support was patient and truly helpful, but, ultimately, Plasma has some glitches that can be fixed only in a new version.
Plasma carries great potential. With its bounty of high-end features culled from Cakewalk's Sonar program, great product bundles, and low price, it would seem like a great package for beginners. But Plasma clearly has a long way to go. In fact, this app's only saving grace comes from an entirely separate app: the excellent Fruity Loops Express Pro loop generator, a fun, powerful, rock-solid program for making your own rhythm loops. Professional audio users may want to pick up Plasma just for Fruity Loops Express. Everyone else should skip Plasma and go straight to Sonar. Or, for a full, virtual studio experience, try Propellerhead Reason.