CUBASE VST/32 5.0 (WIN)Now PC users get a chance to play with all the new tools.Until my review copy of Cubase VST/32 5.0 arrived, I happily used Cubase VST/24 3.7. I was aware that version 4.1 had been released, but it was Mac only, and those of us running Windows were stuck waiting for the next upgrade. Cubase VST/32 5.0 for Windows changes that; in fact, it temporarily moves the PC version ahead of the Mac version. Fortunately for Mac users, version 5.0 for their favorite computer will even things up, and it should be available by the time you read this. Among the new features in Cubase VST/32 5.0 are a redesigned user interface, built-in access to the Rocket Network, Apogee's UV-22 dithering algorithm, new plug-in effects and VST Instruments, and high-resolution MIDI timing, accurate to within 300 ms when using Steinberg's MIDEX 8 USB MIDI interface. Cubase VST/32 5.0 also includes all the enhancements found in recent Mac versions, only some of which made it into PC version 3.7. These include the ability to change individual Track sizes in the Arrange window and several new track parameters that you can adjust during playback. There are two new track types: Marker Track, which lets you create and edit Markers just like other Parts; and Folder Track, which lets you group tracks together while retaining their separate identities.
In addition, a variety of new tools allows you to change volume and pan directly on Parts, time stretch or compress MIDI or audio data, and make selections regardless of Parts boundaries. Cubase VST/32 also provides a Controller Editor, a Groove Box, and a MIDI Track Mixer windows, as well as outrageously high 15,360 PPQN internal audio and 1,920 PPQN internal MIDI resolutions.
EM published numerous Cubase reviews in the past (see the table "Cubase Past and Present"), including an extensive review of Cubase VST/24 4.0 in the April 1999 issue. So I'll give only a quick overview of the program before discussing the features that are new since the last PC review. This review will focus on the features found in the top-of-the-line Cubase VST/32. Steinberg has also released Cubase Standard 5.0 and Cubase Score 5.0, which contain most of the same features.
A BIT OF BACKGROUNDAs one of the most popular sequencers on the market for a long time, Cubase has established itself as a major player in the professional music world. With its extensive tools for recording and editing MIDI and audio, the program transforms your PC into a complete music-production system. By combining Parts into Tracks to create an Arrangement, you form the structure for a Song (see Fig. 1). The program's wide range of music-construction tools lets you edit MIDI and audio data in just about any way imaginable. When it's time to mix your creation, Cubase provides a complete set of mixing, processing, and effects options that let you produce the type of quality project you would expect from a professional recording environment. Its audio-processing and -routing features are among the most powerful available. By modeling its interface after hardware components, complete with easy-to-manipulate controls, Cubase makes you feel right at home. The program even incorporates full-blown professional score editing, layout, and printing features.
IN THE INTERIMSince our last look at Cubase on the PC, the Mac 4.1 and Windows 3.7 versions added a significant number of new features. Version 5.0 incorporates these enhancements and adds even more. Among the most significant additions since the Windows 3.6 version are ASIO2, VST Remote Control, VST Mixer Views, and VST Instruments, plus some other small but helpful improvements. Here's a rundown of these features.
ASIO2 brings what Steinberg calls Direct Monitoring and Positioning Protocol to the party. Direct Monitoring delivers low-latency monitoring by sending the audio signal from the monitored input directly back to a specified output on your audio hardware. This means the signal doesn't pass through the program, so there's virtually no latency when monitoring the audio. Positioning Protocol provides sample-accurate synchronization between Cubase VST/32 and external devices. Of course, your computer's audio interface must have an ASIO2 driver in order to take advantage of these features.
VST Remote Control lets you control Cubase VST/32 from external MIDI devices, such as a digital mixing console. Depending on your external hardware's exact features, you can control volume faders, pan settings, EQ parameters, and more. Cubase VST/32 provides support for the CM Automation Motor Mix, JL Cooper CS-10 and MCS-3000, Roland MCR-8 and U-8, Tascam US-428, and Yamaha 01V.
If you don't own any of these items, you can still take advantage of VST Remote Control with the Generic Remote Device (GRD). GRD lets you assign MIDI controllers, NRPN and RPN messages, and even MIDI note numbers to control the fader, pan, and mute, and to send controls in Cubase VST/32. Any MIDI device (such as a keyboard) that sends these messages can be set up to control Cubase VST/32. Combine this with Key Commands - which let you assign MIDI messages to any of the program's menu functions - and you have a high level of remote control. Very cool indeed.
Other improvements include VST Mixer Views, which offer an "adaptive" view of VST channels in the VST Mixer windows (that is, you can choose which channels are visible and which are hidden). In addition, you can type values for VST parameters such as level, pan, and EQ directly into their respective fields, rather than using the mouse as in previous versions. A Reset VST switch lets you reset all VST parameters to their default values, and ReWire channels can be routed to Groups. ReCycle files can be auditioned before loading, and it's now possible to copy mixer settings from one channel to another.
VST INSTRUMENTSOne of the most significant updates to Cubase (first found in Windows version 3.7) is VST Instruments support. Cubase VST/32 emulates the audio components of a studio (mixer, effects, and so forth); VST Instru-ments do the same for MIDI devices, such as synths, samplers, and drum machines. Like VST effects, you load VST Instruments as plug-ins and control them with MIDI messages.
Especially cool is the fact that the output from the Instruments is routed through Cubase VST/32 just like normal audio tracks. Each VST Instrument has its own set of dedicated channels in the VST Mixer - complete with EQ and other effects - and you can activate up to eight Instruments at the same time. Because the Instruments are integrated into Cubase VST/32, they output audio with the same bit depth and sampling rate as the current Song. So if you're using 24-bit/96 Khz audio, the Instruments use the same specs.
Included with Cubase VST/32 5.0 are four VST Instruments: Neon, VB-1, LM-9, and the Universal Sound Module (USM). Neon is a software synthesizer with two oscillators and a basic VCO/VCF/VCA architecture. It offers up to 16 voices of polyphony and has a nice analog sound.
VB-1 is a virtual bass instrument built on real-time physical-modeling principles. It provides a damper switch, adjustable pick and pickup positioning, and volume and wave-morph parameters. With its physical-modeling nature, you can squeeze very real-istic bass sounds out of this bad boy. Unfortunately, it does not respond to Pitch Bend or Modulation messages, so it's limited in terms of musical performance.
LM-9 is a scaled-down version of Steinberg's LM-4 drum machine, and it offers two drum sets (Acoustic and Beat Box), each with nine sounds. Each sound has adjustable volume and pan parameters. The sounds - bass, snare, three toms, two hi-hats, crash, and ride - are generated with samples.
The best of the lot is the Universal Sound Module (see Fig. 2), which is a General MIDI tone generator. It provides more than 70 MB of sampled waveforms in addition to all 128 patches in the GM sound set and a standard drum kit permanently anchored to MIDI channel 10. The USM produces up to 96 voices of polyphony, and it responds to MIDI Note On/Off, Volume, Pan, Pitch Bend, and Modulation messages.
In addition, the USM provides four stereo outputs for flexible routing of sounds to different effects processors. You can assign each of the 16 MIDI channels to one of the four outputs. I would love to be able to load samples into the USM. But then again, you can purchase additional VST Instruments or find a number of them for free download on the Web, so that option is available elsewhere.
ROCKET POWERIn addition to being the most powerful VST Instrument included with Cubase VST/32, the USM comes in handy when you're collaborating on the Internet with other users through Cubase VST/32's InWire feature. InWire lets you access the online Rocket Network, which provides free virtual-studio facilities so that you can make live music interactively with Cubase VST/32 musicians anywhere in the world. Everyone can work on the same production, and share audio and MIDI data in real time.
When sharing MIDI data, the USM instrument ensures that everyone can hear the same performance because they are using the same synth. (They can also use the other VST Instruments, as long as everyone uses the same ones, but the USM is the most useful because it's a GM synth.) InWire takes the online experience even further by including all VST parameters for a Song - including dynamic mixing and automation - in the shared file.
SUPERB SOUNDWith the introduction of version 5.0, Cubase VST/32 provides up to 128 audio channels. (Cubase Standard 5.0 and Cubase Score 5.0 offer 72 channels.) But more importantly, the program's audio quality has been boosted into the 32-bit realm. With the right hardware, you can record your audio data with 32-bit floating-point resolution.
Even if your audio hardware is limited to 24 bits, you'll hear a difference in the sound quality because the data is still stored and processed with 32-bit floating-point resolution. In fact, Cubase VST/32 processes all audio data internally with this resolution, so your data is processed with the highest quality possible no matter what bit depth you use during re-cording. You can even mix audio files with different resolutions within the same Song; for example, you can take 16-bit drum loops from a sample CD and add new music tracks at 24- or 32-bit resolution. I like that a lot.
In addition to 32-bit resolution, the latest Cubase provides a new type of recording technology called TrueTape. This technology is adapted from Steinberg's Magneto effects plug-in and can give your audio tracks the same warmth you get from tape saturation during an analog recording. TrueTape provides only one parameter, Drive, to adjust the amount of effect applied to the signal. You use the effect when recording, which means you can monitor the processed audio as it's recorded, just as you would on a real analog tape deck. However, you can't apply it after recording.
Because TrueTape uses 32-bit processing, you can really push the Drive parameter. I made the Clip indicators light up occasionally, but I didn't get any digital distortion. According to Steinberg, this is because 32-bit floating-point audio can easily accommodate a dynamic range of up to (and perhaps more than) 200 Db. By the way, if you only have 16-bit audio hardware, you can still use TrueTape. The effect simply converts your signal to 32-bit floating point and then applies its magic to the high-resolution signal before it converts back to 16-bit resolution.
You might wonder how much 32-bit processing will benefit your signal if you have to bump it to 16 bits to get it on CD. Well, Steinberg has thought of that too. All Cubase 5.0 versions (including Cubase VST Standard and Cubase VST Score) include high-quality dithering. Cubase VST/32 goes one step further by including the Apogee UV-22 word-length - reduction algorithm, considered the best in the industry.
The UV-22 control panel lets you select from two dither types: Normal (providing an "all-around" dither) and Low (providing a lower level of dither noise). There's no hard and fast rule regarding which one you should use on what type of material, but I tried them both with a variety of music, and both produce excellent results. You can also choose whether the dither noise is gated (muted) during silent passages.
NEW AND BETTER EFFECTSCubase's own plug-in effects have always used 32-bit internal processing, but now they employ more advanced algorithms to provide even better sound quality. In addition, every standard audio channel has built-in dynamics processors. (Group, VST Instrument, and ReWire channels don't have these dynamics features.) Each channel can have up to five different processors applied simultaneously.
The available processors are AutoGate, AutoLevel, Compress, SoftClip, and Limit (see Fig. 3). AutoGate provides precision gating with controls for threshold, attack, hold, and release. You can also specify a frequency range for the threshold trigger. AutoLevel is similar to compression (that is, it reduces signal-level differences), and it works by boosting low levels and attenuating high levels. However, it only processes levels above your threshold setting, so low-level noise is not boosted. Compress does exactly what its name suggests: it provides threshold, ratio, attack, release, and gain parameters, and it includes a graphical display of the compression curve.
SoftClip is similar to a limiter in that it ensures the output level never exceeds 0 Db. However, you can't adjust this threshold; instead, SoftClip begins to add a warm, analog characteristic to the audio signal at -6 Db or above. If you push this effect with a high signal level, you can also coax it into giving a hotter, dirtier sound. Limit performs the obvious function with adjustable threshold and release parameters.
In addition to dynamics, each audio channel in Cubase VST/32 5.0 includes new, sonically enhanced EQs with up to four parametric bands. Each band has adjustable gain, frequency, and Q, and there are low-cut, hi-cut, low-shelf, and hi-shelf modes. (You can save custom EQ settings as presets.) The best feature is the graphical display (see Fig. 4). Not only does it show you the EQ curve's shape, but the display also lets you adjust the curve by clicking on and dragging band points with your mouse. I really appreciate this kind of versatility.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the new Reverb32 effect. Its sound is silky smooth, but it doesn't provide as many adjustable parameters as I'd like. There are controls for predelay, room size, reverb time, mix, and high- and low-cut filters. But there are no early-reflection parameters, and the filters only provide amplitude adjustment; you can't change their frequencies. I expect more flexibility in a high-end plug-in.
There are other new plug-ins, such as Chopper, Phaser, and Trancemitter, which have graphic interfaces and can sync to the tempo of your music. This lets you set delay times or LFO speed intuitively using musical note values.
THE LAST BITThere are a number of other improvements that I don't have room to talk about in any detail. More than 300 new notation features were added, which include automatic rehearsal markings in the Marker Track, text presets, the ability to import pictures into your score, easier part extraction, and modern-notation and time-signature styles for contemporary scores. In addition, Cubase VST/32 can import MP3 files and convert them directly to WAV format. However, you can't export your audio to MP3 without the optional MP3-encoder plug-in. That should be included in the package.
The documentation remains quite good in its coverage of the program. Unfortunately, most of it is available in electronic (PDF) format rather than in print, and the online help is not very good. It provides a reasonable amount of information about each of the menu functions, but none of it is context-sensitive. If I need help within a specific dialog box, I should be able to hit the F1 key and see the relevant information rather than having to look for it manually.
Of course, we are still burdened with the dreaded dongle for copy protection. However, I prefer it to the "challenge code" system many manufacturers use these days. At least with the dongle I can freely move the software to another computer without going through the hassle of requesting a new code from the manufacturer. Who has the time or patience for that nonsense? Don't man-ufacturers realize they are causing undue frustration for their legitimate customers?
My biggest gripe is that Cubase VST/32 still does not provide a multiple undo function or an undo history. After all this time and with such a powerful product, how is it that Steinberg overlooks this obviously much-needed feature? I'm disappointed by this.
Still, these gripes don't come close to outweighing the sheer power and number of positive features that Cubase VST/32 5.0 provides. With the addition of VST Instruments, 32-bit recording and processing, high-end dithering, up to 128 audio channels, and a full arsenal of effects - combined with the other features - Steinberg truly earns the right to call this product "the single most important upgrade you can make to your studio at any price."