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Review: Steinberg Cubase Pro 8 - EMusician

Review: Steinberg Cubase Pro 8

A Deep, Creative Music Workstation
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When I consider all of the amazing qualities found in the major digital audio workstations, I often think of Cubase as one of the more friendly programs for creative types. While most DAWs introduce analogmodeling synths to their onboard plug-ins, Cubase offers synths derived from additive and spectral synthesis engines (Spector); impulse responses and comb filters (Mystic); a subtractive granular synth (Padshop); a multitrack loop player with time slicing and groove control (Loop Mash 2); as well as several analog modeling instruments. Even the Halion Sonic SE2 sampler has unusual features, such as support for polyphonic pitch bend and Control Change messages.

Nonetheless, Steinberg has apparently been watching other DAWs mature and has moved toward a more streamlined workflow. With the release of Cubase 7, Steinberg updated its user interface, mostly in terms of displaying contextual information.

But in addition to a major engine rebuild with Cubase 8, major GUI changes are introduced alongside several new plug-ins, which is a welcome upgrade to its drum-machine programming capabilities, and several new mixing features.

Cubase is no stranger to name changes and multiple versions: I received the flagship package, now called Cubase Pro 8. Unless you are upgrading from an earlier version, Cubase Pro 8 is only available in a box.

The installation and authorization process is simple. I reviewed Cubase Pro 8 using a dualprocessor, quad-core Mac running OS X 10.9.5 with 14 GB RAM.

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NEW FACES

Fig. 1. Cubase consolidates MIDI instrument selection with the Media Bay, where you can choose samples and loops. Note the control knobs that are already assigned to the instruments loaded into the track. Among the first differences I noticed between version 7.5 and 8 is that the new Track/Rack Instrument and Media Bay are now dockable in the Project window. Rather than load instruments from the Project menu, multitimbral instruments from the VST Instruments menu, and loops and samples from the Media Bay menu, you can simply load the files you need from a single area (see Figure 1). Rack instruments differ from Track instruments with their ability to create a folder that groups automation and controller data with the MIDI track. Steinberg did a terrific job with both instrument categories, adding assignable control-knob panels rather than a simple list of instruments, as in earlier versions. Better still, the knobs immediately—and without further tweaking—fell under the control of my Novation SL61 MKII keyboard.

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I was initially disoriented by the absence of the Inspector when I wanted to add MIDI channels for a multitimbral setup using Native Instrument’s Kontakt. Similarly, I missed the Info Line, which outlines your selection range on the Project window. That was quickly resolved as I grew to understand Cubase’s Workspace, perhaps the most significant feature redesign. The missing features were simply hidden from view.

Fig. 2. The new Workspace layout lets you save and group your most commonly used windows for later recall. Here, the mixer section is added and the score window is resized to fit, for easy access. In the case of the Info Line, it stays hidden until there is track data to select, unlike previous versions. Most popular workstations offers something similar in the form of Window or Screen sets, but Cubase offers the most modular and flexible implementation I’ve seen, with the ability to resize and rearrange and re-scale windows (see Figure 2).

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Naturally, you can create your own workspaces, save them for future recall, and shuttle from one workspace to the next with a simple key command. I created a workspace with a scaled-back version of the Key Editor sitting next to the mixer. This saves me from reaching to the main menu. And as the Key Editor generally launches full screen, having it handy when I need to edit a small bit of MIDI data in a track is a real time-saver. Likewise, if you like to work with standard notation, just load the Score Editor, trim it to a custom size (the score fonts resize to fit the new window), click on Add Workspace, name it, and save it—easy.

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RE-CHORDING STUDIO

Fig. 3. The Cubase Chord Pad feature can record MIDI tracks using chords and voicings of your choosing. You can assign MIDI messages to change inversions for any chord. Note the voicings that appear on each pad. With version 7, Cubase introduced Chord Tracks, and with it, a terrific harmonic playground, especially for non-keyboard players. The main premise is that you can create MIDI data for chords—from simple ones to extremely dense and complex forms—using a menu-driven window. The new version adds Chord Pads, which brings a more musical, real-time focus to the process. Launching Chord Pads from the Project menu opens a horizontal strip with drum machine-like pads and a virtual keyboard across the top (see Figure 3). By default, the pads are set up with relatively simple chords, but as usual, we’re just getting started.

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Let your mouse hover over any of the pads, and you’ll notice that the pads with chord symbols have sets of triangular buttons; two on the bottom and right-hand side of the pad, and a single button on the left. On the right, click up or down to change voicings of the indicated chord, while the bottom pair move through chord tensions. As you click through them, they trigger the instrument on the selected track. Not all pads are set up, so if you are chord-hungry, click on the single arrow on the left side of one of the blank pads to open the Chord Editor, and then choose a chord and any tensions you might want.

You now have two ways to arm a track and record: Simply click on the pads, or play your MIDI keyboard—the chords are assigned to the keys at the lower end of the keyboard. Better yet, you can, for example, use a MIDI Control Change (CC) or note messages to move a chord through its inversions in real time, which brings us to the panel on the left. Clicking on the lowercase letter “e” opens the Settings panel. Choose between guitar and keyboard voicings, then refine the performance even further by determining whether the guitar voicings are triads or four-note chords.

You can set up the pads to follow a grid layout or reflect the keys on a MIDI keyboard—which I preferred—because each pad illustrates the voicing being played, even when modulating through inversions. Finally, a Remote Control tab lets you pick CCs that can move through chord inversions either from a menu or using MIDI Learn. Cubase has a large number of chord sets stored as pad presets for you to work with; of course, you can customize, create, or store your own, too. There is plenty more to explore in the chord tracks feature, and most of it arrived with version 8.

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NO-BUMMER DRUMMER

Fig. 4. Acoustic Agent is a subset of Groove Agent 4 and offers a great number of controls for a realistic, live-sounding performance and for tone-shaping drum sounds. Groove Agent's Acoustic Agent feature leapfrogs over Apple Logic X’s Drummer by offering a wider variety of great-sounding kits and well-played patterns, a sophisticated mixer with individuated control over each kit piece, and lots more (see Figure 4). From the Edit window, click on a kit piece in the kit image, and you can set up mic balances, which are different for each piece. The Snare offers room, overheads, and master bleed knobs, in addition to tuning, attack, hold, and decay. The hi-hat has a control filter that lets you modulate the degree of open hat or foot; on the other side of the editor, you can set the maximum amount the hat will open. Here, you also have control over room and overhead balance, and levels for balancing the amount of tip, shank, and foot. The hi-hat tracks I created were lively and realistic, enhanced by round-robin samples that went a long way toward boosting realism.

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Loading a kit with patterns adds pattern triggers to the drum pads, and you can mix and match kits with patterns. Cubase didn’t miss a beat when it came to adding real-time control over patterns: You get an X/Y axis to adjust complexity and intensity via Velocity. You can also quantize or adjust swing for individual patterns, set how often cymbals are used, and choose patterns using a knob. Additionally, you can drag patterns to a MIDI track, play them in by clicking on the MIDI pads, or trigger them from the lower range of your controller.

Click the Mixer button, and you’ll find four buttons. The first one, duly named Agent, handles additional processing for each kit piece. Each piece’s channel has a mini-level meter, four aux sends, and requisite pan, level, solo, and mute. Just below the channel strip is a set of four appropriate effects—EQ, tape saturation, compressor, and envelope shaper, which helped me get some great thwack out of the snare. The controls on these aren’t necessarily deluxe, but given all you can do to build great drum sounds without resorting to anything outside of Groove Agent, they are mightily impressive.

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THE FLIGHT OF THE AUX

You can polish up your kit pieces using a boatload of effects using the Aux mixer section. Effects here offer considerably more detailed editing than the Main Edit window. These run from more conventional reverb, delays, limiters, and gates to somewhat more esoteric treatment with ring modulators, step flangers, and frequency shifters.

The somewhat twisted Morph Filter gives you a choice of high- and lowpass filters that you can shuttle between while adjusting cutoff and balance between filters by way of an X/Y axis. Each effect has a menu of useful-to-wacky presets to work from. A drop-down menu lets you select each aux’s output—from the entire kit mix, to the Master output, or any of Groove Agent’s 15 individual outputs. You get two additional mixers with the same four effects slots for processing the entire kit and the Master Outs, respectively.

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A BRIEF PLUG

Cubase Pro 8 introduces five new audio plugins—an envelope shaper, an expander, a Multi- Band Compressor, and the two stars of the show, a bass-amp modeler and Quadrafuzz V2, the latter based on a design by Craig Anderton. The four bands in Quadrafuzz are governed by positioning the four poles, which you grab with the mouse to manipulate. Each band can have one of five distortion types—Tape, Tube, Distortion, Amp, and Decimator—as well as a programmable delay with ducking. Accordingly, different ranges of an instrument can be processed or left alone. The width control independently adjusts the bandwidth for each range.

I ran some relatively clean acoustic bass tracks through Quadrafuzz V2 and, with some judicious editing, endowed the instrument with a warm, crunchy low-end, relatively clean highs, and a bit of delay in the upper reaches of the instrument. You get eight scenes; use presets as a starting point, then copy and paste settings to different scenes for variety. Some of the drum-oriented presets applied to the Acoustic Agent kits messed up the sounds spectacularly, turning hi-hats into wet splashes of sound, while the synchronized delays added dancing polyrhythms.

The VST Bass amp plug-in, patterned after the Cubase Amp Rack, is an exercise in simplicity: You have your choice of preamp effects from a list of stomp boxes; an amp head; a cabinet; post effects; one of eight mic models, ranging from a Shure SM-57 to a Neumann U87 model; and the ability to adjust the relative levels between the mic and line signal. You can edit the configuration and switch between mono and stereo amp rigs, with your signal path duplicated in stereo. Finally, the Master tab presents an equalizer, a tuner, and a master on/off switch.

Throughout the signal chain, the amp settings remain at the bottom of the window, which is handy as you adapt the sound to accommodate your effects settings. I ran a rather pallid acoustic bass preset through the VST Bass Amp plug-in, and it sprang to life after adding an Octaver fed into a chorus. Effects at the Pre and Post end of the signal chain are identical, and unlike the amps and mics, are generic-looking stomp boxes.

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TO DO THAT , YOU GOTTA KNOW HOW

Other refinements and features abound in Cubase Pro 8, from utilitarian to downright entertaining. The new VCA faders are a mixing godsend: Channels linked to the VCA fader move proportionally to each other; even when all of the channels are zeroed, they regain their proportional levels when you bring up the VCA. The render-inplace feature lets you quickly bounce sections of audio and MIDI tracks to a new audio track, and you can bounce the tracks dry or through any part of the signal chain, including the Master out settings. Some of the features introduced in Version 7, but not previously covered here include the ability to deploy Chord Tracks to create harmonized audio tracks. The results can sound like anything from a simple bluegrass harmonization to Arnold Schoenberg on an acid trip.

Steinberg has done a great job of integrating an incredibly complex blend of composing, sequencing, and recording tools into one package. Cubase Pro 8 is a complex program, and for all of its strides toward user-friendliness, getting comfortable with the Cubase way of doing things (beyond basic sequencing and recording) takes some work. I know my way around the program, but I’m a long way from having mastered it. That said, the rewards are tremendous, and I plan on using Cubase Pro 8 as a creative partner for some time to come.

STRENGTHS
Efficient, customizable Workspaces. Chord Pads. Acoustic Agent SE. New plug-ins and mixer features.

LIMITATIONS
Takes time to master.

$549.99 (Upgrade price varies, depending on which version you already have.)
Steinberg.net

Former Electronic Musician editor Marty Cutler regularly writes reviews and articles, while working on a book of digital guitar applications and honing his progressive bluegrass chops.