Prior to its release, Cubase SX was one of the most anticipated sequencer upgrades in recent history. All of the excitement shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, because Cubase SX is a lot more than just another upgrade to Steinberg's venerable line of sequencers: It's a complete rewrite from the ground up, with special consideration given to ease of use and the growing role of audio in today's sequencers.
Talk is cheap, though — just how good is Cubase SX? It's easy to be skeptical when a program is completely rewritten. Fresh code is usually riddled with bugs, but Cubase SX seems to be free of serious problems. And after some hands-on time with this newbie, I'm convinced that this is the best Cubase that Steinberg has delivered.
Cubase has a unique set of system requirements among PC sequencers. Steinberg has coded this new version around the Windows NT kernel, which means you'll need Windows 2000 or XP to run Cubase SX. That may sound like bad news for users of older Windows versions, but if you're still running on an older platform, it's time to bite the bullet and trade up.
The program is copy-protected by a USB dongle — a significant improvement upon the serial and parallel port dongles of yesteryear — so you need a free USB port before you fire up the program. The dongle is only about an inch-and-a-half long and features a hole at the top so that it can be easily attached to a key chain. Its small form factor is convenient for users moving the key between installations on multiple computers or using the program on the road.
Cubase SX operates with any Windows-compatible soundcard. To get the most out of the program, however, make sure you have one that's ASIO-compatible. Most professional and semiprofessional audio interfaces now ship with ASIO drivers that provide low-latency control of software-based instruments like VST synthesizers and samplers. If you don't have an ASIO card, consider investing in one before you pick up Cubase.
WINDOW ON YOUR WORLD
Cubase SX functions much like other modern sequencers on the market, so if you've had some experience with competing programs, such as Emagic Logic Audio or Cakewalk Sonar, you'll quickly pick up the basics. The main work space in SX is the Project window (see Fig. 1). The bulk of work takes place in there, placing a staggering amount of options at your fingertips. The sheer amount of available options make this window a bit overwhelming at first, but most buttons are clearly marked with descriptive icons, and all of them have mouse-over tool tips that help sort out the confusion.
The Track Inspector sits to the left of the main arrange window and provides control of commonly used track parameters, such as name, pan, delay, effects and volume. Additional drop-down menus provide easy access to insert and send effects, equalizers and the relevant mixer channel for the selected track. In previous versions of Cubase, you had to wade through multiple windows to track down this information; with the Track Inspector, just about everything you need is right at your fingertips, letting you forget about window management and focus on writing music.
The segment of the Project window where audio and MIDI information resides is called the Event display. Cubase SX treats MIDI and audio clips almost identically: All toolbox options — such as trim, crop, move and erase — are nondestructive and function the same, regardless of whether you're working with MIDI data or an audio file.
Automation data is handled on a track-by-track basis and is displayed underneath the parent track in the Event display (see Fig. 2). Commonly used parameters like volume and pan are default destinations in the automation list, and if you insert VST effects into the chain, Cubase offers you control of each plug-in's parameters. Simply pick the parameter from the drop-down list, activate the Pencil tool and draw the desired automation right in the clip. Sine, Square, Parabola and Line tools lend a hand in drawing smooth curves.
SNAP TO IT
Clips automatically snap to the nearest time interval when moved. This is directly related to how the ruler is configured: If the ruler is set to display SMPTE time, clips will snap to SMPTE frames; if seconds are selected, snap points become milliseconds. That is a great feature when working with video, but most average users will probably find the default Bars and Beats setting — in which clips snap to standard musical intervals, like 16th notes — adequate.
That flexibility and accuracy is handy for trimming unused sections off of audio recordings or experimenting with novel production methods like nu-skool stutter edits, for which precision editing down to 64th and 128th notes is required. If you can hear it in your head, there's a good chance that the audio engine in Cubase SX is powerful enough to make it a reality.
HITPOINTS ARE A HIT
Cubase SX includes a unique sample editor. Users gain access to the editor by double-clicking on any audio part; the editor provides all basic editing functions — such as cut, copy, paste and audio scrubbing — to help you quickly zero in on the part you are looking for. Custom regions within the sample can be configured and named, and these regions can later be arranged as separate clips in the event viewer.
Overall, the sample editor isn't much to write home about, but one key element sets it apart: Hitpoint mode (see Fig. 3). This feature is essentially Propellerhead ReCycle embedded within Cubase SX. If you aren't familiar with ReCycle, the concept revolves around cutting a drum loop (or other transient-heavy audio) into its component pieces to gain control of the loop's tempo. Once loops have been processed in Hitpoint mode, they're no longer fixed at one tempo — they'll stretch and bend to fit whatever tempo you choose, all without any change in pitch or sonic character.
Hitpoint mode also ups the ante on ReCycle by making use of its direct integration with Cubase and allowing you to extract the feel of a loop as a groove template. So if you really dig the way a certain loop swings, you can pull the essence of that human feel right from the audio file and drop it on top of your MIDI drum track. Voilá! Instant soul!
Cubase SX packs an impressive complement of 24 effects. The standard fare is present, including delay, reverb, flange, chorus and dynamics processing. More exotic selections such as the StepFilter, QuadraFuzz, Vocoder and Tranceformer offer new and unique methods of processing to give your audio a unique sound (see Fig. 4). Almost all of the plug-ins feature graphic interfaces that update in real time as you tweak parameters. Some even let you manipulate these graphics directly, allowing you to “draw in” the effect you're looking for rather than fiddling with knobs and buttons.
The only slightly disappointing plug-ins in the bunch are Reverb A and Reverb B. Those two are all the reverb you get with Cubase SX; unfortunately, both sound cold and plastic, offering minimal control of reverb parameters. Their sonic quality is passable, and they get the job done with a minimum of CPU overhead, but for serious work, supplement these anemic processors with a professional-grade third-party plug-in.
Reverb aside, I was pleased with the plug-ins included with Cubase SX and found that they stacked up favorably against bundles included with competing sequencers. In all but the most demanding situations, you should be able to complete entire projects using nothing but Cubase's bundled plug-ins.
Cubase SX can handle 32 instances of VST Instruments and ships with three to get you started. The LM-7 is a basic drum sampler with slots for 12 percussion samples and a separate volume and tune control for each. You get three simple drum kits, one 909 kit, an acoustic kit and basic percussion elements. Sample quality is top-notch, but you need more than three kits to get any serious work done.
The VB-1 provides a simple emulation of electric and acoustic bass sounds, with a quaint interface that tries to mimic a real bass guitar. It sounds far more electronic than acoustic, but it's usable, and both the VB-1 and LM-4 are decent staple instruments that can provide scratch-pad building blocks for a track. You'll spend most of your time with the real star of the bundled instruments, the A1 Analog Synth Unit.
The A1 sounds absolutely fabulous (see Fig. 5). It's yet another analog-synth emulation, but Steinberg really nailed this one. The 12/24dB switchable filter section is fat and warm, and the dual-oscillator architecture can produce tones full of rich harmonic content. Couple that with a nice chorus/flange section, as many as 16 notes of polyphony per instance and more than 100 preset patches, and you have a solid workhorse that can find a place in just about any composition. The pads in particular sound very lush.
MASTER CONTROL PROGRAM
If you have a couple of old PCs lying about, you can dust them off and put them to good use with Cubase SX's VST System Link. This innovative system is a great way to recycle those old machines: VST System Link allows you to distribute audio processing tasks across computers. For example, one PC could be dedicated to recording audio while another runs VST Instruments.
The bad news, however, is that you need to have a VST System Link — compatible application running on each computer, and right now, the only compatible apps are Cubase and Nuendo. That's right: You have to buy an additional Cubase SX license for the second computer. If you fancy the idea of shelling out a few bills for some extra power, VST System Link may change your life. Other users, however, will have to wait. Perhaps Steinberg will see fit to release a freeware VST Link shell in the near future so that everyone can reap the benefits of this breakthrough technology without breaking the bank.
No matter how much horsepower you have under the hood of your PC, odds are that, at some point, you'll end up choking your CPU with one too many effects plug-ins. But there's no need to let that stand in the way of your hit track — Cubase SX provides a fabulous rendering facility called Offline Processing that lets you embed CPU-hungry effects in an audio file, allowing you to remove the real-time plug-ins from the channel and free up valuable CPU resources.
As the name implies, Cubase SX's rendering is done offline, which means that playback is stopped and the full power of the CPU is brought to bear on processing the audio. Not only does this speed up the process, it allows users with slower processors to take advantage of high-end plug-ins that might cause their machines to choke in real time. With Cubase SX, you can finally use that Renaissance Reverb on every channel.
One unfortunate omission in Offline Processing is the lack of plug-in chains. As it stands, you have no way to build a chain of cool effects and apply them all at once to a clip; you have to select the plug-ins one at a time and apply them all separately. This is time-consuming and slightly disenchanting from a creative standpoint. Hopefully, it will be addressed in a future update.
When it's time to make a final mixdown of your masterpiece, the Export command in the File menu will save your project as a mixed WAV, AIFF, MP3, Windows Media, Ogg Vorbis or RealAudio file.
Cubase SX is packed with so many features that it's impossible to touch on all of them here. The PDF manual is a whopping 742 pages, so rest assured that if you pick up this bit of software, you will get a comprehensive tool geared toward serious work.
The general feeling I got while working with SX is that Steinberg has learned a lot throughout the years. Sure, Cubase SX is a tad rough around the edges, and it would be great to see some features like plug-in chains in the Offline Processing dialog, but growing pains are to be expected with early versions of any brand-new program. I wrote this review while using version 1.0.2 — by the time version 3.0 comes out, I can only imagine that SX will be nearly bug-free, cruising along like a well-oiled machine.
Cubase SX 1.0.2
Pros: VST System Link. Comprehensive VST Instrument support. Robust audio handling. Offline audio bouncing. Native REX file support. Apogee UV22HR dithering and SPL De-esser included. Hitpoint mode provides ReCycle-style functionality.
Cons: No plug-in chains in Offline Processing. VST System Link requires additional licenses.
Overall Rating: 5