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electronic MUSICIAN


By Zack Price | August 1, 2000

Most entry-level music software lacks a significant number of features compared with top-of-the-line products, but occasionally you will find a "beginner's" program that is both inexpensive and surprisingly powerful. Steinberg's Cubasis VST bundle, which is based on the highly successful Cubase VST (see the review in the April 1999 issue of EM), is such a product. In fact, it is the most powerful inexpensive music-production program currently available.

As you might expect, Cubasis VST doesn't have all the MIDI features of its professional counterpart, but the two programs share a surprising number of features, such as Virtual Instruments and both VST and DirectX plug-in support. Cubasis VST even includes two options not packaged with Cubase VST: a stereo audio-editing program (WaveLab Lite) and a CD-burning application (Master Unit; see Fig. 1). Together the three programs make Cubasis VST a potent package for beginners and musicians on a tight budget.

GET THE BALL ROLLINGInstalling Cubasis VST is simplicity itself. Just insert the CD-ROM and click on Install in the startup window. The CD-ROM first offers to load Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0 for viewing the accompanying instruction files. (Earlier versions of Acrobat Reader should be removed first.) Next you can choose to load any or all of the three programs. Naturally you'll want to install Cubasis VST. However, you might not want to install WaveLab Lite if you already have a digital audio-editing program. Master Unit supports only SCSI-based CD-R drives, but you might find the software useful even if you don't have a device of this type (more details later).

Before you start Cubasis VST for the first time, you need to set up your system's MIDI I/O devices. For this particular task, don't launch Cubasis VST from the desktop. Instead, go to the Programs section of the Start menu and find the Setup MME utility, which is installed along with Cubasis VST. Running Setup MME opens a dialog box that lists all the MIDI devices in your system. You can rearrange the order in which the devices are used by highlighting a device and moving it up or down in the list. You can also disable any MIDI device to prevent Cubasis VST from using it.

When you run Cubasis VST for the first time, you'll also need to set up your computer's audio devices. Once you're in the program, pull down the Audio menu and select System; the Audio System Setup dialog box appears with a variety of performance options (see Fig. 2). If you plan to do audio recording, select the ASIO multimedia driver as the preferred device (this is the default option). If you're going to simply play back digital audio, you might want to choose the ASIO DirectX driver instead. It usually exhibits lower latency, making real-time fader and knob adjustments more precise. But keep in mind that DirectX supports audio output only, so don't try to use this driver for recording.

After you've selected the appropriate ASIO driver, click on the ASIO Control Panel button to open the ASIO Multimedia or DirectX Setup screen. Although the manual instructs you to choose an audio card from the "preset list of cards," my version of Cubasis VST had no presets. If your version doesn't have presets either, simply create and store a custom setup for your audio card by clicking on the Advanced Options button inside the Control Panel window. Each card in your system can have its own setup.

Next, select the number of audio channels you intend to use. Cubasis VST lets you assign up to 64 virtual audio tracks to as many as 32 audio channels, but the actual number of usable channels depends on your computer's processing power, hard disk speed, and other factors, such as the number of activated plug-ins and the way you use the program (I'll discuss the details shortly). In most cases, starting with eight audio channels is sufficient; you can always add more if your system can handle it.

Finally, select the Disk Cache Scheme that most closely matches the way you plan to use digital audio in Cubasis VST. Briefly, when the computer reads data from a hard disk, the data is first transferred to an intermediate RAM storage area, or cache. Using the correct type of disk caching can improve computer performance. For instance, if you plan to use Cubasis VST like a tape recorder, so that each track will basically be one long recording, the program won't rely heavily on disk caching. Select scheme 1 in this case. On the other hand, if you're going to use Cubasis VST more as an assembly tool in which short audio segments are played repeatedly, then the program will rely heavily on disk caching for smooth performance. Select scheme 3 in this case. If you intend to use a combination of the techniques, select scheme 2.

MIDI MUSIC MADNESSNot surprisingly, Cubasis VST has the look and feel of its parent program, Cubase VST. The Arrangement window is much the same in both programs, and manipulating the Transport, Locators, and Parts is similar as well. The recording process is also basically the same: select the appropriate track, set the Locators for the recording start and end points, and hit the Record button. But each program offers a different number of features.

For example, in Cubasis VST, you can record and play back up to 32 channels of audio and MIDI in any combination for a total of 64 tracks, whereas Cubase VST supports 64 audio channels and an unlimited number of MIDI channels. Nevertheless, the number of tracks available in Cubasis VST is more than adequate for users with modest needs. In addition, Cubasis VST has only two principal types of tracks: Audio and MIDI. You can create Mix tracks for automating fader, knob, and button movements, but you don't get the Style, Group, and other specialized track types found in Cubase VST.

I expected Cubasis VST to contain fewer specialized track types, but I was surprised and disappointed to discover that it offers no Drum track for creating rhythm patterns with a drum grid. The Drum track has been a mainstay of Steinberg sequencers for many years, and it has always been an invaluable tool. (Interestingly, the Cubasis VST manual refers to a Drum Edit window that is distinct from the regular Key Edit window. Unfortunately, no Drum Edit feature exists in the program.)

Like Cubase VST, Cubasis VST has three different MIDI editors: Key Edit, List Edit, and Score Edit. Key Edit is a traditional piano-roll MIDI editor; it graphically displays note information in its window's upper panel and Velocity information in the lower panel. Cubasis VST also displays Channel Aftertouch, Pitch Bend, Modulation, Volume, and Pan events in the lower panel.

To view or edit other controller messages, you must use List Edit. This screen is also for detailed editing of individual events such as Program Changes and for altering individual notes. If you prefer, you can edit notes in the Score Edit window, which you'll also use when preparing your music for printing.

The only quantizing option in Cubasis VST is Over Quantization, which moves notes to the proper quantization start points without altering their durations. As a die-hard MIDI manipulator, I was initially disappointed that Cubasis VST didn't have at least some of Cubase VST's specialized quantization options. However, most beginners (and many experienced users) just want to make sure that their MIDI performances play back properly in time, and Over Quantization is probably all they'll ever use.

DIGITAL AUDIO DEMENTIAAs I mentioned earlier, Cubasis VST supports up to 32 audio channels (see Fig. 3). This is certainly less than some professional digital audio sequencers offer, but it wasn't long ago that Cubase VST itself had only 32 channels. Each channel has a 2-band parametric equalizer, two effects sends, and an effects insert. However, you can use a maximum of six insert effects.

As in Cubase VST, the effects sends and inserts support VST and DirectX plug-ins. The program comes with only a few VST plug-ins and no DirectX plug-ins, but hundreds of excellent freeware, shareware, and commercial plug-ins are available.

There are several ways to create audio tracks in Cubasis VST. Of course, you can record audio into different tracks as you would with a tape recorder. You can also import 16-bit WAV and AIFF files into an Arrangement, as long as they have the same sample rate. (A folder on the CD-ROM contains 300 MB of audio files in several formats.) Cubasis VST lets you import audio files created in Steinberg's ReCycle sample-loop editor (see the review in the December 1999 issue of EM). ReCycle slices a loop and makes separate samples from each beat or note. You can then change the loop's tempo without affecting pitch or edit the loop as if it were built from individual sounds. Numerous CD-ROMs feature ready-made ReCycle files, and you can use ReCycle to make your own loops.

Cubasis VST also imports TRK (Track) files from Mixman Technologies' Mixman Studio and Mixman Studio Pro, applications for creating music by mixing and matching beats and loops (see the review in the November 1999 issue of EM). Track files are similar to ReCycle files in that both are loop oriented, but ReCycle files maintain their original pitch because each slice in the loop is triggered at the tempo of the Arrangement. Track files, on the other hand, are whole loops or loop segments that can be adjusted to play back with the tempo and key of a Cubasis VST sequence.

Cubasis VST's Audio Pool displays all the audio files in a song and all the Audio Segments associated with each audio file. As you might guess, splitting an audio file in the Arrangement window creates a Segment. This splitting technique is useful for deleting an audio track's silent parts (which for all practical purposes are useless) and for creating smaller chunks of digital audio data. But this is the extent of Cubasis VST's audio-editing capabilities. For more precise editing work, you'll need a separate audio-editing program, such as the included WaveLab Lite.

VIRTUALLY INSTRUMENTALCubasis VST includes three software synthesizers in VST Instrument format: the LM-9 drum machine, the Neon analog synth, and the VB-1 physical-modeling bass synth (see Fig. 4). LM-9 is a 9-voice polyphonic drum machine, Neon is a 5-voice polyphonic "analog" synthesizer, and VB-1 is a 4-voice polyphonic physical-modeling bass synth. All the devices can receive data directly from Cubasis tracks; simply choose an Instrument from the Audio menu and assign it to the output of a MIDI track.

Both Neon and VB-1 respond to MIDI Note On/Off, Volume, Pan, Pitch Bend, and Mod Wheel messages. LM-9 responds to MIDI Note On/Off messages only, but you can adjust its Velocity sensitivity. In addition, each drum sound can be individually adjusted for volume and pan position in the stereo field. You can apply effects to the output of any VST Instrument, just as you would to digital audio tracks, and VST Instrument tracks are included with regular audio tracks when you mix down.

Cubasis VST lets you use up to four VST Instruments, but your computer's capabilities, the number of audio tracks and plug-ins in use, and so on will determine if you can run that many. For example, you might run two instances of Neon, one of VB-1, and one of LM-9. These Instruments are not multitimbral, but you can open multiple instances of them.

As with VST plug-ins, additional VST Instruments are available from Steinberg and other third-party sources. Check out Ben Turl's K-v-R VST Instrument Banks site (www.k-v-r.freeserve

MIX AND BURNOnce you've mixed your music down to stereo in Cubasis VST, you might want to make a CD or, at the very least, arrange a sequence of songs for dubbing onto a master tape. Master Unit is just the tool for the job. As you can see in Fig. 1, you load audio files into the tracklist and arrange them as you like. You can also import MP3 files (which are converted into WAV files) and tracks from audio CDs. It's also possible to record audio directly into Master Unit.

Master Unit provides many useful features. For example, you can adjust the gap time (from 0 to 4 sec) between each track. Each track's start and end times are adjustable in the waveform display below the tracklist; just move the Start and Stop markers to the desired positions. You can also add a linear fade-in or fade-out by moving the appropriate Fade marker.

Master Unit includes an effects section that can be set for individual files. The Bass Boost effect adds bass to tracks that lack depth or punch. Interestingly, this effect boosts frequencies in a band centered at 60 Hz with a Q of 4. In contrast, the Brilliance effect adds treble by boosting frequencies of 5 kHz or more. The Stereo Spread effect helps narrow-sounding mixes by widening the stereo field, making the sound more transparent and open.

Before you burn a CD, Master Unit must first calculate the effects settings and create new audio files, which do not replace the older, unprocessed files. (Unlike some CD-burning software, Master Unit does not process effects in real time.) You can process one track at a time or all tracks at once. After the processing, the entries in the tracklist refer to the new files. Afterward, you can normalize or readjust start/stop and fade-in/out points if you like. Once everything is ready, just burn the CD or dub the material to tape.

FINAL THOUGHTSSteinberg tells me that Cubasis VST is intended to be a simple but powerful tool for creating music with a drag-and-drop interface. Considering the program's ability to record and import a variety of audio files and standard MIDI files, I'd say that Steinberg was successful on that score. And although the product is ostensibly geared toward the beginning and hobbyist music maker, I certainly find it helpful at the professional level. In fact, I use it extensively with my laptop to create cut-and-paste arrangements whenever I am away from my "big rig."

Cubasis VST is the most powerful entry-level music-production suite on the market. The program's MIDI features are a little too limited, but it more than makes up for this deficiency with its digital audio capabilities. I particularly like the fact that VST Instrument support is available as part of the basic package, and the separate digital audio-editing program and CD-burning application just sweeten an already great deal.

Zack Price is a digital audio editor and a Windows digital audio consultant in the Chicago area.

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