Few things in this world are so dear to the heart of a modern electronic musician as the digital audio workstation. These studio centerpieces have gone from dinky 16-step analog sequencers to the very framework on which contemporary studios are built, giving rise to a new breed of electronic musicians whose main instrument isn't actually an instrument at all — it's the sequencer itself. Steinberg has always been at the forefront of computer-based sequencing, and last year, it made a bold and slightly shaky move forward by ditching the legacy code for the company's flagship sequencer and rebuilding the program from the ground up. Longtime users were skeptical at first, but Cubase SX breathed new life into a program that had grown a bit long in the tooth, restoring faith for many who had been dogged by the bugs and irritating idiosyncrasies plaguing earlier versions.
During the past year, Steinberg has listened closely to what users want in its products, and Cubase SX 2.0 includes many updates that users have requested for ages: New routing options, full latency compensation, effects-return channels and an even more flexible user interface are just a few of the new features in this remarkable package. Cubase SX 2.0 keeps all of the things that made SX so revolutionary and simply heaps more goodies on top, making it one of the finest sequencing programs on the market today.
A SPIN AROUND THE BLOCK
Having reviewed the initial release of Cubase SX 1.0, I was anxious to take the new version for a spin and see if this upgrade was worth the hype. I tested Cubase on two computers: a Pentium 4/2.4GHz desktop and a Pentium 4/2.0GHz Toshiba laptop, both running Windows XP Professional. Installation went off without a hitch on both machines. After installing Cubase and rebooting, the program automatically connected to the Internet to verify that I was running the latest version. It turns out that Steinberg has already issued an update, version 2.01, which the program downloaded and installed automatically — it couldn't be easier.
Cubase comes with a handy 240-page Getting Started manual that does a great job of walking new users through each major aspect of the program. This little book does a great job of familiarizing you with Cubase, but it wasn't long before I found myself digging into the 828-page Operations Manual that describes each function in detail. Call me old-school, but I'm a fan of hard-copy manuals, so I was a bit disappointed to find that the Operations Manual is only available in PDF format. On the upside, though, it's well-indexed, and searching for specific terms is easy.
Getting Cubase SX up and running for the first time was equally simple, although launching the program successfully required the installation of a copy-protection key, a small plastic USB device about the size of a house key. The key, or dongle, is only about an inch long and notched at one end so that mobile users can clip it on to a key chain and keep it close at hand in case inspiration strikes on the road. It also makes working on two separate machines a breeze.
After installation wrapped up and the dongle was installed, I fired up the application and walked through a few simple steps in Cubase's hardware profiler, which ran an automatic check of my installed audio interfaces. Cubase works just fine with cheap soundcards, but serious professional users will want to invest in ASIO hardware to take advantage of features such as low latency and direct monitoring. Once Cubase took inventory of everything and gave it the thumbs-up, I was ready to rock 'n' roll.
IF IT AIN'T BROKE
Cubase SX 2.0's interface is truly marvelous. The vast majority of features are unchanged from version 1.0, so upgraders won't feel alienated. The color scheme has been improved, and it is easier on the eyes even after hours of work. If you're familiar with other sequencers, like Emagic Logic or Cakewalk Sonar, then you'll be right at home working with Cubase SX. The main work area in Cubase is called the Project window. Steinberg has done a wonderful job of aggregating just about every tool you could ever need into a single work space, and although it can look a bit overwhelming to first-time users, Steinberg has done a great job of laying everything out in a convenient and logical fashion.
One of the best features of SX 2.0 that has remained unchanged from the previous version is the Track Inspector. This handy tool is the Swiss Army knife of the sequencer world, providing instant access to just about every parameter you might want to get your hands on. There are six collapsible sections in all, including EQ, insert and send effects, a mixer-style channel strip and more. By default, only one of these sections is open at a time. You can, however, expand or collapse as many as you like by simply Control-clicking on each one. I found myself working with the General and Channel views most often and appreciated the inclusion of a graphic-EQ display that actually allows you to draw in EQ curves rather than just displaying values set by knobs. There's also a handy Notepad for jotting down comments or flashes of insight.
If you're short on desktop real estate, you can nix the Inspector and just go with the parameters on each individual track. The track parameters aren't quite as comprehensive as the Inspector, but they still offer a great deal of functionality, and you can customize the fields and buttons displayed for each one. All of the standard function buttons are available, and the VST instrument channels feature a convenient patch-selection field with a search function that makes it easy to locate specific patches. Steinberg deserves kudos for providing such depth of control right from the main Project window. No flipping back and forth from mixer to project window here — everything you need is right at your fingertips.
When even greater control is required, Cubase's mixer is the tool for the job. Cubase offers three separate mixers that provide remarkable depth and control of every channel. The mixers can be customized to suit your personal preferences, displaying as much or as little information as you like, and channel settings can be saved as presets for use on other channels or in other projects.
UNDER THE HOOD
Cubase treats audio and MIDI clips identically: All of the toolbox options like trim, crop, move, duplicate and so on function the same regardless of whether you're working with audio or MIDI data. Right-clicking on any clip brings up a handy Context menu that puts the majority of Cubase's editing and processing tools at your fingertips. All clips can be color-coded with your choice of colors for easy recognition at a glance.
Double-clicking on a MIDI event brings up a piano-roll interface called the Key Editor that enables you to work directly with individual notes in the clip. There are handy extras in the toolbox, like a part solo that mutes everything but the clip you're working on, and a function to constrain edits to the active clip only. Multiple MIDI controllers can be selected and edited at the bottom of the Key Editor.
Automation is handled on a track-by-track basis, with automation data for each parameter clearly displayed underneath each channel on separate subtracks. Each subtrack has a translucent image of the MIDI or audio data, so it's easy to get your automation lined up correctly, and you can have as many automation subtracks as you like for different types of automation data. All of the default track parameters like volume, pan and mute are available. If you've inserted any VST plug-ins on the channel, those parameters are available, as well.
You can manually draw in automation using the Pencil tool, or you can use the Shape tool to create sine, saw, square and parabola shapes. The Shape tool can snap to musical intervals, so it's especially slick for creating smooth fades or rhythmic events like volume gating. If you're the hands-on type and prefer to use record automation using an external device like a MIDI control surface, Cubase has you covered — just wire it up, and you can record all of the fader moves and knob tweaks you like.
Speaking of plug-ins, Cubase 2.0 has a brand-new latency-compensation feature that automatically detects and adjusts for any latency introduced by VST plug-ins. This much-requested feature works across all channels — including sends, returns and buses — doing away with the need for mucking about with track delay settings and delay-compensator plug-ins. Your MIDI and audio will always be sample-accurate, regardless of what plug-ins you stick in the chain or how many sends and returns that you use.
If you use Propellerhead Reason, Ableton Live or Cakewalk Project5, you'll be happy to hear that all of these play nicely with Cubase SX via a complete ReWire interface. In fact, any ReWire-compatible application will integrate directly into Cubase, showing up as ReWire channels in the Project window and acting just like any other audio channel. You can automate these channels just like any other, and you can even further process audio from your external ReWire application through VST plug-ins inside Cubase.
GETTING IT STRAIGHT
When you're deep in the throes of inspiration, the last thing you need to think about is housekeeping. It's easy to get tons of tracks down in no time, but before you know it, finding the part you're looking for means wasting time sifting through track after track or poking through directories full of samples while looking for just the right one: buzz kill. Fortunately, Cubase is a pro at keeping things sorted for you, so you can spend more time recording music and less keeping it all organized.
All of the external files used in an arrangement are stored in the Pool. The Pool is the gatekeeper to the project; files can be imported directly into the project through the File Import menu, which will then place them directly in the Pool automatically. Cubase can work with a staggering number of files; whether they be WAV, AIFF, SD2, MP3, OGG, AVI, Windows Media or QuickTime, Cubase handles them all with aplomb and integrates them seamlessly into your projects. SX will even work with ReCycled loops stored in REX files. For those with large audio and video libraries, the Pool also includes a convenient search function that eases the pain of locating elusive files. There's even an option to import audio directly from CD — nice!
Another handy feature that helps keep things straightened up in the Project window are Folder Tracks. You can stuff anything you want inside a Folder Track: MIDI, audio, video, even other folder tracks. From an organizational standpoint, this is handy, but the real fun begins when you realize that each Folder Track can be edited just like a regular track. Just think of the possibilities when creating something like a drum loop. Make each part of the loop on a separate audio or MIDI track and dump them into a single Folder Track; then, any edits made on the Folder Track are simultaneous across all of the tracks stored in that folder. It's a convenient feature that makes it easy to work with data on multiple tracks at once.
The included sample editor can perform basic editing functions without the need for an external editor. A standard set of tools — including cut, paste, delete, insert silence and so forth — is included, and plug-in effects can be applied directly to all or a portion of the source audio file. The sample editor is more than adequate for dealing with simple tasks, but for more complicated jobs, like audio restoration or seamless looping, you'll want to invest in a proper editing program like Steinberg Wavelab or Sony Sound Forge.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the sample editor is Hitpoint mode, a great feature introduced in version 1.0 that brings Propellerhead ReCycle functionality right into Cubase. Just open a drum loop in the sample editor, enter Hitpoint mode and tell Cubase how many bars are in the loop — it will slice up the loop, and from that point forward, the loop will play in perfect tempo with your project. Normally, this sort of functionality only comes with add-ons like ReCycle or Bitshift Audio Phatmatik, but Cubase gives you the basics to sync loops built right in the program. It's a great feature and a real time-saver.
Soft synths chewing up your CPU? Plug-ins pounding your processor? Underpowered computers — or, perhaps, overpowered plug-ins — are a common plight in the world of digital audio production, and until recently, the only solution has been a costly CPU upgrade or an additional DSP card. Fortunately, the folks at Steinberg have added a handy feature called Freeze to the Cubase toolbox, and it's a lifesaver for dealing with projects in which the demands placed on a computer far outstrip its capability.
The concept is relatively simple: When you activate the Freeze function, the selected track is bounced down to a temporary audio file with all plug-ins in place, and the existing data is replaced with the new file. The beauty of this process is that it takes place entirely in the background and is completely nondestructive; the track looks the same in the Project window, and you can unfreeze the track at any point if you want to make changes to the original data.
Freeze isn't the only tool that gives your overworked processor a break. If you have a couple of old PCs lying around the house, get ready to dust 'em off and put 'em to work — Cubase SX includes a nifty feature called VST Link that lets you connect two PCs and run VST instruments and plug-ins over any digital audio connection via ASIO data stream. This revolutionary feature showed up in version 1.0, and it's still a remarkable tool that promises to revolutionize the way users treat their old computers.
THE UPGRADE DILEMMA
Cubase SX 2.0 is an excellent choice for artists making their first foray into the realm of professional sequencing, but what about current Cubase users? Do all of these upgrades in the new version make it worth parting with $150 of your hard-earned cash? It depends. If you're writing great music with SX 1.0 and are content with its feature set, SX 2.0 isn't a must-have upgrade and won't bring about any earth-shaking epiphanies in the way that you write music.
However, the new SX includes dozens of brand-new features designed to streamline the way you work, and once you start taking advantage of these improvements, you'll quickly realize that the time saved is well worth the money spent. The latency compensation and Freeze features alone are worth the price of the upgrade. Other frequently requested features like OMF import/export, effects-return channels, unlimited undo history and a refined user interface make this an upgrade that's well worth the price of admission.
Cubase SX 2.0 builds on the legacy of version 1.0 and is, not surprisingly, one of the finest sequencers I've ever used. It's attractive and stable, and the new tweaks that Steinberg has introduced in version 2.0 may seem minor on the surface but go a long way toward improving ergonomics and increasing overall ease of use. The automatic plug-in latency compensation works like a charm, and the Freeze function is a godsend, bringing relief to CPUs taxed to the limit by power-hungry plug-ins. Surround functionality is improved, effects-return channels offer additional flexibility of routing and automating VST effects, and a host of other features speed up work flow in general.
Whether you're new to professional sequencing or you are a current Cubase user thinking of upgrading to the latest version, Cubase SX 2.0 is an excellent choice that leaves little to be desired. Technology like this doesn't come cheap, but rest assured that when you shell out the cash for this powerhouse program, you're taking home one of the best sequencers that money can buy.
CUBASE SX 2.0 > $799;
$149 (UPGRADE FROM SX 1.0)
Pros: Automatic latency compensation on all plug-ins. Hitpoint mode provides ReCycle-style functionality. Outstanding automation integration. Numerous work-flow improvements. Freeze function frees up CPU power.
Cons: No support for extended surround formats.
MAC: G4/867; 384 MB RAM; OS 10.2.5 or higher; Core Audio — compatible hardware; USB port
PC: Athlon or Pentium/500; 384 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; Windows MME — compatible hardware; USB port