First of all, thanks to everyone for chiming in, and thanks in particular to Bob Bone, who spent about 2 hours with me by phone going over settings both within and outside of Cakewalk. I offer the following as constructive input to Bandlab. Fortunately, and for reasons which continue to escape me, the majority of new users do not have an experience like mine, or the future trajectory for CW would be compromised...
1. I expect that most new users will be looking at a few options within a low budget. I was using $0-$100, so free had an instant advantage if it was competitive. However with Free, you also look at support, community, etc. Cakewalk remained a finalist.
2. Feature/Functionality is somewhat personal depending on goals. One man's bells and whistles are another' mandatory requirements. Cakewalk remained a finalist, but multiple solutions met my basic needs to record, track, manipulate, mix, and master.
3. Workflow is highly personal IMHO. The extent to which it is achieved out of the box, vs after some tweaking and adjustment, vs not-at-all is in the eyes, ears, and fingers of the beholder. Cakewalk was the leading finalist for me at this point.
4. Configuration and Performance became a deal killer. I did not initially know this was an important differentiator. My 2 machines, i5 Desktop 16GB SSD, and i5 Laptop 8GB SSD, were above minimum for all finalist DAWs. It is only when I noticed the crackles and pops that I paid attention. I could see that the engine within CW was overloaded and was losing buffers. I tried to look for solutions. I did RTFM 🙂, and I did look online. I found multiple threads and even a few videos on the performance topic (mostly non-complimentary and devolving into zealot-fests). I applied some of the suggestions for buffers, etc but the issue persisted. CW itself had little in the way of help/advice. I assumed I was up against CPU/Memory limits.
At this point in my evaluation, I shifted focus back to my original plan which was to create the same project in each and take it through the mixing phase. For kicks and giggles, I exported the midi project from CW, imported, added the exact plugins, and hit play. Strangely, the crackles and pops were gone. Since they were somewhat random, I ran this multiple times. I did the same on the laptop. Also gone. Same hardware, same interface, same ASIO drivers, same buffer, same project, same plugins, same everything. I tried a 3rd non-finalist (although this was an abbreviated test). Gone. I then created this original post hoping to get an official from CW and/or the community to set me straight on CW configuration.
Even with further suggestions, I could not resolve the issue, so I abandoned ship and concentrated on Reaper. In a final attempt for kicks and giggles, I watched Windows resource monitor while opening, loading and playing the file in both, and it seemed to confirm what Cakewalk's performance monitor suggested, that it was consuming many times the resources and hitting limits. The story would have ended there, but Bob Bone reached out to me weeks later, and offered to walk me through some helpful changes. He did, and he is to be commended for his efforts. I mentioned to him several times that CW should employ him to make and post videos with the suggestions on their site. They could also reach out to Mike from Creative Sauce, but I digress.
My desktop was now at 32GB, but even with Bob's improvements, I still had the same issues, just fewer of them!! My trust in CW was shot, and I am moving on after this promised post to the forum. The fact is that even if you can find fault with some of my diagnostic steps, or the research I did, I am probably similar to others. Even if you suspect my hardware, this experience is across 2 separate devices. I had another solution that was within my paltry budget, which performed well, had a more robust manufacturer support infrastructure, and what seemed like an equal or stronger community (I don't actually know the size comparison). It has its own plusses/minuses, but running well on average hardware and being multi-platform are enough to overcome some UI and workflow advantages! Even if you discount my individual perception, CW's own performance monitor says it is overloaded and losing buffers. Threads on CW forums, competitor forums, and from "defectors" 😁 create a perception that CW does not manage resources well and/or that the engine is flawed in some way.
Someone made a point about criticizing a free product, and it is valid. However, part of the rationale for making it free is to erase barriers to adoption, and seed the market. It is also far from free it it requires you to throw hardware (well above the stated minimum) at it in order to gain comparable levels of performance to others. I am hoping that CW continues to develop an otherwise competitive product, and that at some point, there will be an upgrade or bug fix that leads me back this way.
Thanks for your patience with this long post.