Nothing sparks a debate among a group of audio pros quicker than the issue of DAWs. Everyone has their favorite: One does this or that better or quicker than the other does. Hardware vs. software. Native vs. non-native processing. Differing plug-in architectures. Cross-platform compatibility. Memory issues. One is prettier than the other is. All in all, these discussions can get downright painful. With all of this in mind, I was anxious to audition Steinberg's latest version of Cubase — a program that many of us have literally grown up with.
Now in Version 5.0, Cubase has evolved over the years from a straight-ahead MIDI sequencer to its current incarnation as a full-fledged audio production suite that can stand shoulder to shoulder with anything on the planet. Many are actually attracted to the software because it maintains the feel and organization of those “old-school” sequencing programs like Studio Vision Pro, Master Tracks Pro and other bygone favorites, while at the same time delivering a thoroughly modern feature set. Shy of CD burning and finite sample-level editing/import/export chores, Cubase is a powerful, mature and widely expandable (due to the VST standard) program that handles everything from MIDI sequencing to audio tracking and editing — at 24/96 precision — with excellent sound quality and resolution.
Cubase is engineered for both Mac and PC platforms, and the two versions are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The recommended system on a Mac consists of a 266MHz G3 processor, 128 MB of RAM, OS 8.5 and an approved ASIO or MME soundcard. System requirements for PC include a 450MHz Pentium III or AMD processor, 128 MB of RAM, EIDE/Ultra DMA or SCSI hard drives, Windows 98/ME/2000, and an ASIO or MME soundcard. Version 5.0 also includes improved optimization of dual-processor machines, utilizing both processors for audio tasks instead of just one as in previous versions. Cubase VST 32 retails for $799.The standard version of Cubase retails for $399, and Cubase Score VST for $549.
The test unit was a Mac G4 450, with 256 MB of RAM, OS 9.1, a 30GB Seagate internal ATA hard drive (audio only), Tascam PCI-822 interfacing via TDIF/S/PDIF with a Tascam TM-D1000 digital mixer (used as a front end and control surface), and Steinberg's Midex 8×8 MIDI interface. With this set up, I found the realistic CPU limit to be somewhere around 12 tracks of 24/48 audio with about 30 real-time effects (dynamics, plug-ins, EQs) in use, and almost unlimited MIDI playback tracks. If I had maxed out the amount of RAM that the machine could hold (two gigabytes), then those numbers would jump way up. Even when I pushed the machine to the point that the screen draws and level meters pretty much failed, the audio still came across crystal clear, and, generally speaking, I experienced almost no crashes from realistic use. It performed like a champ.
READY TO ROLL
After a (thankfully painless!) registration procedure, the program is ready to go — right out the box. Opening the program for the first time, the OMS studio setup predictably pops up. One item of note with regard to OMS: Most Mac users who are using Cubase will likely be running the program on a newer USB-equipped machine; when running OMS, take care to not check either the modem or printer port boxes when running the studio setup. Simply leave the boxes unchecked and OMS will find your USB or PCI MIDI interface. Otherwise, the basic “Autoload” song comes prefigured to get users up to speed quickly.
Most professional or semi-pro users will also be using a high-resolution soundcard of some sort. Assuming that your audio hardware is properly set up with current drivers, the process is a snap. In the Audio Setup window, simply select your hardware interface, set your sample rate (44.1, 48 or 96 kHz), bit depth (16/24/32-bit or Cubase's proprietary 32-bit True Tape emulation), disk cache size and choose a hard drive. After configuring your I/Os under the VST Input and Master Mixer windows (both of which automatically correspond with your D/A interface), you're ready to record.
As with most computer-based DAWs, Cubase puts an essentially limitless, fully automated, virtual console/recorder at your fingertips; the only real limiting factor is the amount of available processing horsepower. Every channel has four available effects inserts (which also respond to automation) in addition to a full suite of dynamic controls (compression, EQ, limiting, gating). There are separate mixer screens for group/aux sends, master mixer (where global insert effects can be added) and a dedicated MIDI track mixer.
Cubase also ships with the Universal Sound Module, one of myriad VST instruments that are currently available. These work almost exactly like external synths. After opening and activating an instrument from the VST Instrument screen and assigning the output of a MIDI track to that instrument, you're ready to make some noise. VST synths appear as separate audio tracks in the main mixer screen. You can either play VST instruments via an external MIDI controller or draw the notes from inside the Key editor. VST instruments also respond to continuous controller data. For most synth-savvy users, this process will make perfect sense.
The first thing I was struck with was the relatively easy learning curve. The program is well-organized, and first-time users with even a scant knowledge of multitrack re-cording can be up and running in minutes. The program, of course, goes far deeper, but the fact that it is immediately accessible is refreshing, to say the least.
To start audio recording, either open the pre-configured Autoload song or start totally fresh. Highlight an empty track and set it for either mono or stereo recording. Designate an appropriate audio file on your hard drive, check your levels in the main mixer screen and you're set. A small red level meter appears next to the track in the Arrange window, assuring you that what you're playing is actually being printed. Working on the MIDI side is really no different. If you've used any other computer-based DAW in the past five years, then you almost don't need the manual to access the more basic recording and mixing features of the program. It's all there, laid out right in front of you.
There are three fairly logical levels of audio editing, working (or double-clicking on a piece of audio) from the main Arrange window to the Audio Editor and eventually to Wave Editor. In the Arrange window, you can make all of your macro edits and even crossfades. The editson the Arrange screen can work at any resolution that the snap value is set at. It defaults to one measure but can be easily changed. Also inside the Arrange window, you can paste any piece of audio to any audio-enabled track, allowing you to quickly build up a track from only a few pieces of audio. Inside the Audio Editor, you can adjust stop and start points, slide data in either direction, and make cuts at the bars and beats level.
Finally, the Wave Editor allows for some more finite editing, including basic reverse/forward and time/pitch-shifting options. This is one of the weak aspects of the program. The obvious assumption, on the part of the programmers, is that most people will purchase a dedicated editing/mastering/CD-burning program, making the inclusion of a more robust audio editor a bit redundant. However, it proved totally adequate for most music studio tasks.
On the MIDI side of things, the editing is far more comprehensive. Cubase includes four different editing screens including a basic Key Editor, Drum Track Editor, Score Editor and an Event List Editor. So the program accommodates any method you prefer. I spent most of my time in the standard Key Editor — not only were all of the various tools extremely easy to use, but the ability to edit controller data on the same screen was very convenient.
IN SESSION: MIXING AND AUTOMATION FEATURES
Creating and editing mixes and automation in the program itself is a snap. Once you get your tracking completed, simply click the Read and Write icons on any of the three mixing screens, and start moving some faders. Once you've got things dialed up, turn off the Write icon and you're set; you can, of course, move to any place in the song, click the Write icon and make changes. To automate effects on individual channels, click the Dynamics icon on either the mixer channel strip or inside the Arrange window. The entire dynamics/EQ section will then pop up with that channel's fader and pan controls, as well as the effect insert and send controls. Next to the fader/pan is the Write/Read icon. Simply select the effect and tweak away!
Here is the only place where a hardware investment really pays off. At the very least, drop $60 and pick up an optical mouse. Making fader moves, and especially pans (the Pan slider could have been a little larger), was a pain with a standard mouse, which has a tendency to catch and bind. I couldn't make those ultra-smooth left-right moves with any real confidence. Thankfully, my Tascam TM-D1000 mixer has full MIDI fader and pan control. After a quick fader map download from Tascam and, again, a painless remote control set up, the problem was solved. Cubase also comes preloaded with control surface templates for other popular controllers such as CM Automation's Motor Mix and a host of others.
Once you begin recording automation data, the program automatically creates a controller track at the very bottom of the Arrange window. Here you can get as picky as your heart desires, editing moves down to the bars and beats level. And this data can be copied to other Cubase files as well.
A FEW EXTRAS
As we've all made the move from serial-port MIDI interfaces to USB, certain timing “issues” have come to light. To compensate for this, Steinberg released the Midex 8, an 8×8 USB MIDI interface that uses the company's propriety LTB (Linear Time Base) communication protocol, boasting sub-millisecond timing. And to Steinberg's credit, I did notice a great deal of improvement once I switched. There were several occasions where I'd have to slide data that had been changed over from MIDI to audio a few ticks. This all but disappeared when I hooked up the Midex 8.
In addition to reading standard .WAV, .AIFF and MP3 files (which are converted to .WAV or .AIFF, respectively PC and Mac), Cubase also reads .REX files generated by Propellerhead's Recycle!, older Cubase 3.X files, supports Rewire 2.0 and can handle a host of MIDI files.
I'll cut to the quick: Cubase 5.0 sounds great, and it's a breeze to use. With a well-outfitted computer, a decent control surface and a high-resolution interface, you're set. With 32-bit internal resolution and archiving, the project you begin now, you'll be able to come back to for years to come. For project studio owners, Cubase is a natural fit. Professionals who are on the move would be hard-pressed to find a more powerful laptop setup or second studio setup. Between its real-time effects, full automation and VST synths, Cubase is an all-inclusive production tool that delivers excellent sound quality and absolute ease-of-use.
Steinberg, 9200 Eton Ave., Chatsworth, CA 91311; 818/678-5100; www.steinberg.net.
Mix staffer Robert Hanson is a Bay Area musician. Check out
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New Features for Cubase 32 5.0
- New algorithms for the onboard 4-band EQ
- Re-written factory plug-ins by Spectral Design
- Implementation of Apogee's RUV-22R dithering algorithm
- InWire- and Rocket-enabled for Internet-based collaboration
- Universal Sound Module VST instrument included
- Improved dual processor support
- Higher resolution audio and MIDI
- Auto Crossfade function
- “Generic” Remote function will work with any MIDI controller
- Yamaha DSP factory support