Steinberg Cubase 5.01 (Mac/Win) Review

This revamped sequencer has rhythm and then some
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FIG. 1: The VariAudio window in Cubase 5 analyzes audio tracks, letting you adjust an audio segment's pitch and time.

Cubase 4 contained several stunning-sounding new synthesizers, two of which ventured far afield of the typical analog-modeling and sample-playback fare. Subsequent updates brought sidechaining for VST plug-ins and improvements to the MediaBay. Cubase 5 brings several rhythm and looping tools to the table, two new pitch-correction features, a very nice convolution reverb, a clever VST-expression feature and more.

I had no issues with the dongle-based Syncrosoft licensing software, and installation and authorization were relatively quick. I tested Cubase on two Macintosh systems: an Intel dual 2.8GHz quad-core Xeon with 6 GB of RAM and a MOTU 896 audio interface, and a MacBook Pro 2.93GHz Core 2 Duo with 4GB RAM and an M-Audio Ozonic audio interface. Both machines were running Leopard OS 10.5.7.

Make Your Pitch

Anyone familiar with the basic operating concepts of Celemony Melodyne should be comfortable with Cubase 5's new VariAudio feature. VariAudio parses the audio from a monophonic track into discrete but connected events (segments, in Cubase-speak) in a grid, as if it were a MIDI piano roll. Once that is done, you move segments vertically to change pitch, or horizontally to alter timing and duration (see Fig. 1). A handy scissor tool lets you work on smaller segments. You can also glue together unconnected segments and alter the pitches so they rise and fall. I particularly like the sliders for straightening pitch, which can ease off or emphasize vibrato. All those moves produce a very natural-sounding result.

VariAudio is not a plug-in; it is directly accessible from any audio track. It is also considerably more than a vocal processor, providing analysis algorithms for percussion, plucked instruments, pads and other sounds. I got useful (often excellent) results from a variety of material.

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FIG. 2: LoopMash provides tracks for dragging and dropping loops whose slices can be triggered at random by the master loop.

MIDI data integrates beautifully with VariAudio. Choose a segment and use your keyboard controller to move the segment to a desired pitch. Select Extract MIDI from the Inspector menu to generate MIDI note data with or without pitch bend. Selecting continuous pitch-bend data will bring up a suggested pitch-bend range for your target synth. Despite my misgivings about audio-to-MIDI conversion, VariAudio did an excellent job on a difficult, melismatic phrase that I warped even further (see Web Clips 1a, 1b and 1c).

The PitchCorrect VST-3 plug-in bestows real-time, on-the-fly pitch correction, and its uses extend beyond simple adjustments in intonation. You can change gender, change the pitch of formants, use MIDI input to conform audio to scales and much more. What's more is how absurdly easy these plug-ins are to work with. The manuals — online and hard-copy versions — are clear and focused. Moreover, the installation disc holds plenty of helpful videos that accompany Cubase tutorial exercises.


Steinberg's new convolution reverb, Reverence, is simple to use, even sporting a graphic area to illustrate the origin of the impulse response (IR). Click on the Equalizer tab, and the graphic is replaced by an EQ for high, low and midrange frequencies. A button lets you fire a short noise burst to audition the impulse you have loaded.

Steinberg supplies a great-sounding starter set of IR files. You can, of course, import and store any that you have gathered, and virtually any audio file is fodder for an IR. The upper-right-hand corner of the plug-in has 36 slots to hold impulses and settings — a very convenient way to winnow a choice of settings without constantly navigating to the MediaBay browser. I imported everything from microphone models to cat meows with fascinating sonic results. The meow was too long, but I was able to adjust the onset and length of the IR.

Bangers 'n' Mash

If you want to assemble killer grooves from loops and drum machines, Cubase 5 has some new treats in store. LoopMash is a unique loop-slicing and -sequencing plug-in (see Fig. 2). You layer loop tracks and assign one as a master track. Subsequent layers will then conform to the rhythm of the master track but randomly replace its slices on playback. You can tune each track in semitone increments in case you find a useful loop in a different key. You can create up to 12 scenes, each of which comprises as many as eight layered tracks.

Similarity sliders control the incidence of a loop's occurrence during playback. LoopMash can take on a fascinating, improvisational character (albeit with somewhat of a sound-collage quality) with elements of each loop popping in and out of the overall groove. The constant recombination of different loops brings about plenty of pleasant surprises. There's a healthy breadth of styles in supply, ranging from the funky, Cantaloupe Island-style groove of A Good Start to intense drum 'n' bass grooves to fusion and funk. And mixing up styles is the point of the instrument (see Web Clip 2).

Design of the Times

For more deterministic rhythm programming, it's hard to beat a step-input, pattern-based sequencer. Cubase 5's new Beat Designer is a MIDI-processing plug-in for hardware or software drum modules. If you are already at home with sequencer drum editors, your learning curve will be minimal. You paint notes in a grid that corresponds to an axis of time and kit pieces mapped to pitches and then assemble patterns in the context of a loop, which will sync to the rest of the tracks.

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Beat Designer is easy to operate and allows for plenty of on-the fly editing. You control velocity for each hit based on your cursor's vertical position in the grid. If you don't quite nail the velocity, click and drag on the grid's vertical axis; the color-coded grid will display velocity values, and the cell will change from dark brown through red to an incandescent yellow as you drag upward. Plenty of other amenities, including sliders for swing and per-instrument grid offsets, let you tweak your groove to perfection.

Groove Agent One is an excellent companion piece to Beat Designer. It's a versatile, 32-pad drum module. From the MediaBay, the Sample Editor or directly from a sliced track, drag up to eight samples onto each pad for layers or velocity crossfading. That provides a healthy amount of expressive capability. Groove Agent One is compatible with WAV, AIFF and MPC-format files. Furthermore, Cubase will automatically distribute sliced grooves from an audio track across the instrument's pads for customized beat creation. Dragging a sliced groove is particularly handy because Groove Agent One can generate a MIDI file based on the slices, letting you tweak the groove even further.

Steinberg has updated and streamlined its work flow in many more ways than I have space to cover. For instance, discrete time signature and tempo tracks are accessible and clearly visible from the Project window alongside MIDI and audio tracks, thereby placing dynamic meter and tempo changes in a visual context.

Cubase has grown into a pliable, professional DAW, equal parts uncompromising recording workstation and composer's musical playground. I had lots of fun putting Cubase 5 through its paces. Can you think of a better recommendation than that?

Marty Cutler is working with Kenny Kosek and other cohorts on an eerie blend of Appalachian music and electronica — stay tuned!