Digital audio sequencers have become increasingly complex, replicating most recording-studio components in virtual form. First, audio recording found its way into the sequencer, taking on much of the nonlinear nature of MIDI editing. A few years later, Steinberg introduced Virtual Studio Technology (VST), which replaced racks of outboard processors with virtual effects plug-ins. Shortly after that, the company added VSTi: synthesizers that load into a virtual rack. Never content to rest on its laurels, Steinberg has imbued Cubase 4 with significant new features and a redesigned user interface while retaining enough familiarity to keep longtime Cubase users happy.
You'll find reviews of previous versions of Cubase in the October 2003, May 2004, and March 2005 issues of EM, all of which you'll find online at www.emusician.com. Furthermore, an excellent collection of tutorials called Personal Studio Series: Mastering Cubase 4 has just been released in collaboration with Thomson Course Technology. Here I'll focus on the new features in Cubase 4, the flagship of Steinberg's line of sequencers.
Installing the program is easy. Authorization requires a Syncrosoft USB key (included), which you must activate online. I've never been a fan of hardware copy protection, but I do like the fact that I can use the program on multiple USB-equipped Mac and Windows computers. For this review, I tested Cubase 4.0.1 on my 3.06 GHz Windows XP notebook with 1.5 GB of RAM and an M-Audio Ozonic audio interface, and on my 1.42 GHz dual-processor Power Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.8 with 2 GB of RAM and a MOTU 896 audio interface.
FIG. 1: The Control Room Mixer lets you feed your musicians independent mixes.
Steinberg maintains its tradition of moving outboard real estate inside the computer with Cubase 4's new Control Room feature. If you run a MIDI studio in your bedroom and record live performance only occasionally, Control Room may not be a big deal, but it is tremendously useful if you need to monitor different audio sources or feed independent cue mixes to several musicians.
You click on the Studio tab in the VST Connections panel to set up a virtual control-room console. Once that's set up, you use the Control Room Mixer panel to choose whether to feed an individual musician the main mix, aux send, click track, or talkback (see Fig. 1). Control Room preferences include the options to automatically reduce the level of the cue mix during talkback and to set an optimum gain reduction. The Control Room Overview window displays a schematic diagram of the signal flow you have set up. The display highlights in green any changes you have made to the Control Room Mixer.
The Bay Area
The Cubase 4 MediaBay and the SoundFrame Universal Sound Manager let you combine and organize diverse media under a single browser-style interface. Media includes MIDI files, audio files in a variety of formats, synthesizer patches from hardware and software instruments, and even video.
SoundFrame resembles Apple GarageBand's easy-to-use browser (see Fig. 2). You can select sounds by category (bass, pad, keyboard, and so on), subcategory (such as African, beats, and drum set), and style (alternative, blues, and electronica, for example). You can further refine your search by character and personal rating. A set of icons lets you filter by media type, so if you want to import a loop, a MIDI file, or an amp-modeling VST effects preset, it's easy.
Furthermore, you can integrate all your third-party plug-ins and hardware instrument presets. The Tag Editor lets you assign attributes to new items, and you can even create your own attribute tags. You can audition virtually anything, including audio files and plug-ins and their associated presets, without ever leaving the context of the track you're working on. That's a terrific way to streamline the creative process.
Into the Mystic
Arguably the most compelling additions to Cubase 4 are its four new synthesizers: Mystic, Prologue, Spector, and HALion One. These instruments are a major advance over earlier Cubase plug-ins in terms of programmability and sonic resources. Although there's plenty to keep you busy creating your own sounds, the new instruments' control panels avoid visual overload with a clean and intuitive design. All the new instruments except HALion One have a lower panel with rectangular buttons to access parameters for two LFOs, four envelopes, modulation, and effects. The presets are well done, giving good examples of each instrument's considerable potential for rhythmic and timbral motion.
FIG. 2: SoundFrame organizes audio, video, MIDI, and hardware and software instrument and effects presets into a single browser.
Mystic uses a combination of impulses, comb filters, and feedback delays in an approach similar to some types of physical modeling — albeit with results that can often sound more otherworldly than real (and that's a good thing). Each of the two oscillators has a drop-down menu to select a waveform. The waveform's spectrum is then displayed in a window where you click-and-drag to customize the level of each partial. For a gentler tweak, you can adjust the filter and the envelopes. Sounds range from impressions of giant, coruscating glass-harmonica ensembles to short, percussive guitar-Clavinet hybrids (see Web Clip 1).
Prologue is a 3-oscillator, analog-modeled subtractive synth. A simple interface masks the instrument's capabilities; it has plenty of sound-shaping tools. In addition to the usual suspects, you get a variety of special oscillator waveforms such as formant, vocal, and partials configurations. A Wave MOD control adds a phase-shifted copy of the waveform to itself for phase cancellation and reinforcement effects.
Prologue also gives you FM and oscillator sync, and you can turn oscillator keyboard tracking off, which is particularly useful with FM. For filters, you get 12, 18, and 24 dB lowpass, 12 dB notch and bandpass, and 12 and 24 dB highpass. The filters are conveniently arrayed in a wheel at the instrument's center. This synth is terrific at producing rich analog-sounding tones (see Web Clip 2).
Spector gives you up to six oscillator pairs with differing signal-flow arrangements and frequency relationships (see Fig. 3). Each oscillator in each pair is fed through a dedicated spectrum filter for further waveform shaping. You can edit the oscillator waveforms and the filter spectra by clicking-and-dragging across the spectra with the mouse. The sound-generation tools — and, not surprisingly, the sounds — are reminiscent of my beloved Kawai K-5000, which rests in my attic to make room in my studio.
Spector is capable of anything from analog synth emulations to swept, gauzy digital pads to throaty lead sounds (see Web Clip 3). The sonic fodder for Spector and Mystic is vast and ridiculously immediate owing to the editable spectrum displays and other onscreen controls.
HALion One is the simplest instrument in the new lineup; it's a player for HALion presets. You can load any compatible HALion preset, and you can add to the factory library, which already has a nice collection of eminently playable instruments, including a GM set. HALion One gives you access to attack and release along with other patch-specific parameters such as cutoff frequency, resonance, preset-effects levels, and Velocity sensitivity. There is no deep editing here (for that you need the full version of HALion), but Steinberg's programmers have provided an excellent startup sample library.
FIG. 3: You use Spector's Oscillator pop-up menu to set the relative tuning of up to six oscillator pairs.
As part of the new VST3 specification, VST instruments and effects plug-ins can dynamically alter the number of buses based on the channel type they are assigned: surround, mono, or stereo. Any instantiated VST3 plug-in that is not producing sound does not drain CPU cycles. You can also save CPU cycles by defeating unused outputs of multiple-output plug-ins such as samplers.
The new Instrument track class is a great time-saver for single-timbre stereo instruments. You can insert such instruments with an associated MIDI track, automation, and audio output in one fell swoop. A handy parameter box lets you set up a batch of instruments along with their track and I/O assignments at once. However, to use several instruments and outputs on a multitimbral VSTi, you still need to use the VSTi rack and assign multiple MIDI tracks and channels, as well as audio outputs. Not surprisingly, none of the built-in instruments are multitimbral.
No sequencer that I'm aware of offers multitimbral instruments in its built-in collection. Nonetheless, plenty of third-party software instruments are multitimbral, and it would be a great convenience to have the option to include multitimbral setup capabilities within Instrument tracks.
Down by the Docs
Steinberg has reintroduced hard-copy documentation with Getting Started, an introduction to Cubase 4 and its sibling Cubase Studio 4, and a nearly 600-page Operation Manual. Getting Started is an excellent orientation to essential functions such as setup, recording audio and MIDI, and editing. It contains thorough explanations and lucidly written tutorials. When that isn't enough, there's plenty of online help, including a plug-in guide, remote controller information, a MIDI devices reference, a menu reference, and the entire Operation Manual in PDF format. Contextual help is also available at the tip of your mouse.
With Cubase 4, Steinberg has knocked the ball out of the park. MediaBay and SoundFrame provide a huge speedup in work flow. Control Room is a major milestone in centralizing the computer's role in the studio. The new synthesizers offer a fresh sonic contrast to the typical analog-modeling and sample-playback fare accompanying many software workstations. Devotees of earlier versions of Cubase owe themselves an upgrade. If you use other sequencing software, you should have a look at what Cubase 4 has to offer. I recommend it enthusiastically.
Marty Cutler will soon debut his new band, the Nigerian Banjo Scam. Kindly purchase your tickets in advance.
digital audio sequencer
upgrades from $199.99
FEATURES4EASE OF USE4QUALITY OF SOUNDS4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Control Room can replace hardware mixer. SoundFrame integrates all relevant media. Terrific-sounding new synths. Instrument tracks combine VSTi, MIDI, audio, and automation in a single track. Clear and plentiful documentation.
CONS: Instrument tracks can't handle multitimbral instruments.