One of the most common questions that people ask is, “What sequencer should I use?” The next is usually, “Should I get a Mac or a PC?” These days, the answers aren't as simple as they once were. If you ask 10 different people the same set of questions, you're bound to get 10 different answers, especially in this context. So, ultimately, it depends. But the truth of the matter is that when you are faced with making a choice between sequencers, you have to realize that they all do pretty much the same thing: allow you to make music. There are myriad differences between Digidesign Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, MOTU Digital Performer and Steinberg Cubase (as well as other sequencers). Architecture, nomenclature, syntax, formats and feature sets vary greatly, however. It mainly boils down to personal preference and whatever you feel most comfortable with, and, often, the best choice is your first choice. Many times, recommendations from close personal friends who know you and your situation best is the deciding factor, and for those who are thinking of switching sequencers, removing yourself from the comforts of a familiar environment can be harrowing.
Before diving right in and reviewing a product as deep, complex and storied as Cubase, I feel it's necessary to give you some background for the sake of perspective: I've never used Cubase before. In fact, I've never really gotten into any other sequencer other than Pro Tools. I'm not saying that Pro Tools is better than anything else; it's just what I learned on and am the most comfortable with. Remember, though, that I would be saying that about anything that I've spent years getting to know. That said, I'm viewing Cubase SX 3 from a completely fresh perspective.
Steinberg Cubase SX 3 is a complete music-creation and -production system with cross-platform support (Windows XP and Mac OS X) optimized for Pentium 4, AMD Athlon/Opteron and Mac G5 systems — with full-featured audio and MIDI recording and editing, true multichannel surround and 32-bit resolution — using the single most popular plug-in format, VST, which Steinberg invented. Installation or upgrading couldn't be easier: Launch the installer, fill in your name and serial number, restart and then insert the USB copy-protection dongle. Cubase SX 3 is compatible with any ASIO-compliant audio hardware, which is usually instantly recognized by the software. Otherwise, it can also be run with a DirectX driver (Windows only) or Apple's Mac OS X Core Audio driver (not necessarily the best option, though). Cubase SX 3 comes with an installation DVD, a 262-page “Getting Started” manual, a USB copy-protection dongle and an extra CD-ROM containing the demo for Hypersonic (an expandable sample-playback/synthesizer plug-in that comes with more than 1,000 sounds). Unfortunately, the separate “Operation Manual,” “MIDI Devices and Features” manual and other in-depth support documents are only included on the DVD as PDF files. Although it's wonderful to have searchable electronic versions of these documents, it would be nice to have the hard copies.
TIME TO TRACK
When opening a new Project in Cubase, a handful of pre-determined templates are made available: Empty, 16-track MIDI Sequencer, 24-track Audio Sequencer, Default, MIDI & Audio Play Order Sequencer, Music (5.1 surround) for Movie, and Stereo Mastering. After snooping around these templates, I decided to start from scratch and open an empty Project. To get my bearings, I started with a familiar-looking Project window and began to get accustomed to the main menus, the top toolbar and the transport controls. Basic menu operations all seemed to make sense, and buttons identify themselves as you mouse and hold over them, demystifying some of the hieroglyphic-looking icons. Creating a MIDI track revealed the track itself and opened the Inspector side panel, where extended information and options for tracks are located. In the lower right of the Project window, a slider controls the horizontal timeline zoom in and out, with another controlling the height of all tracks. Alternatively, track height can be changed independently of other tracks by grabbing the bottom edge. Expanding the height of my MIDI track reveals duplicates of some of the controls found in the Inspector, such as mute, solo, record, read/write automation, lock, MIDI channel in/out and several other features. The Inspector panel contains volume, pan, track delay, inserts and sends, among others.
Cubase SX, as well as many other sequencers, is based on an environment made up of separate windows for different operations. Want to write and edit MIDI? Use a separate window. Want to write automation? Use a separate window. One of the features that I love about Pro Tools is the ability to do so many things within the track itself without having to open a separate window and thereby clutter my desktop. Cubase SX 3 allows you to do this via its new Edit in Place function rather than opening the separate Key Editor. For MIDI, instead of just viewing the region on the track, you can now see the familiar piano roll with a separate row or lane right below it for controllers such as velocity, aftertouch and panning. You can choose to see none of these or have several different lanes open at a time, with the cursor automatically changing to the Pen tool when in this area. Bravo!
Some users don't prefer to have all of this information in one window, but at least SX 3 gives you a choice. This, coupled with a Drum Map feature and easy transposing (among others), equates to a lot of control and power. One downside, though, is that MIDI I/O assignments don't reflect settings made in the Mac OS X Audio MIDI Setup. Instead of matching the naming scheme already set up, it lists MIDI ports by number. Because it didn't recognize my MCFG file as importable, I had to rename my MIDI ports from within Cubase.
Although time and space deter a step-by-step commentary of every aspect of Cubase SX 3 — this is a review, not a tutorial, after all — I do want to give you a glimpse into my first exposure with the program. Like renting a car, it takes a few minutes to get familiar with new program surroundings, but with a fair dose of help from the manuals, I was recording audio, setting up buses, automating and arranging a new track without much fuss. The program looks slick and is fairly intuitive to use with as much or as little control available at your fingertips with many collapsible areas. With the ability to handle as many simultaneous audio tracks and plug-ins as your processor can bear, Cubase SX 3 has room for as many as 64 VST instruments, can import just about any type of file format (including video) and boasts a neat way of integrating external hardware. When an external effects bus is created, it appears in the effect pop-up menus and can be instantiated in the same way as a software plug-in — either as an insert or as a send effect — with the sound being physically routed through your rig instead of internally through software (multi-I/O hardware required). And to make things even sweeter, the program also compensates for the I/O latency of external hardware — a great feature.
What's more, Cubase SX 3 is highly customizable. Different overall color schemes and a choice of colors for individual elements such as tracks or regions are available, as well as the option to customize the look and content of toolbars, the transport, views and key commands (hotkeys). Multiple levels of undo isn't anything new, but Cubase SX 3 not only has an infinite number of undos but also offers the Edit History window, which lists the operations or changes that you've performed in chronological order. Similar to working with Adobe Photoshop, you can go back several steps in a single click. Automatic Project saves can also be determined for varying intervals. In addition, the Offline Process History allows you to remove or modify applied processing without being restricted to the order that they were performed. For instance, say that you have distortion, EQ and compression applied in that order to the inserts of a drum track. To save system resources, you process them and disable the plug-ins. Cubase SX 3 allows you to go back and undo only the processed EQ effect — way cool.
The new Play Order Track feature allows you to work with sections of your project in a nonlinear fashion. By marking sections of the project as Play Order parts and then placing those parts in an ordered list, a pattern-oriented sequence is formed. Once you get the arrangement results that you desire, you have the option of “flattening” the list, creating a traditional linear arrangement that is also undoable. Separate controls and the Play Order Editor allow you to create, manage and navigate this process. This lets you try different arrangements of a song without having to change the original arrangement itself.
Cubase SX 3 comes with a number of VST plug-in effects, including various delays, distortion, dynamics, filters and reverbs that can either be used as inserts or placed on buses. A max of eight insert effects can be placed in each separate track, with the last two inserts being post-EQ and -fader. These can be selected and viewed in the extended Mixer window or the Project window's Inspector section. In addition, you can place tracks in groups that share insert effects. You can also freeze audio tracks; Cubase processes the audio clip with all of the insert effects, thereby easing the load on the CPU, which you can later unfreeze.
Another highlight of Cubase SX 3 is the new time-stretching and pitch-shifting tool Audio Warp. Any audio loop can be matched to the Project tempo, and single or multiple audio clips can be pitch-shifted, quantized or even assigned a fluctuating tempo, all with full support for Acid files. Make sure to check out the incredible Warp Tabs/Samples tool. By marking the downbeat of every measure (or every beat), you can sync an audio file that has natural or “live” tempo variations to a specific, exact tempo. Wow. Adding functionality and increasing work flow, this is a powerful set of features that can be accessed without having to leave the Cubase environment.
ALMOST A CONVERT
I have to say that my experience with Cubase SX 3 has been extremely positive. Although I can't say that I will ever stop using the software that I'm the most familiar with, I can tell you that I plan to integrate Cubase SX 3 into my creative toolbox. Sequencers have gotten so deep and advanced in the past five years that it's obvious that Steinberg has really stepped up to the plate, effectively catching up to (and in many ways surpassing) the competition in terms of features and enhancements that complement a creative, powerful environment. Details such as dummy plug-ins that replace missing plug-ins when transferring Projects to another system (preserving the original plug-in when moving back to the original system), the ability to import and export to OMF, and MIDI device maps and panels that give access to external MIDI equipment with information that can be saved with each Project really bring Cubase SX 3 up to spec and beyond. And in addition to its incredible list of powerful features and enhancements, Cubase really does sound good.
To fully educate yourself about Cubase SX 3, make sure to visit the Steinberg Website and download the manuals. Upgrades from virtually all previous versions of Cubase are available, and a lighter version, Cubase SL 3, is available for $399. Unfortunately, there is no demo, but word has it that a generic demo of Cubase will be available soon.
CUBASE SX 3 > $799
Pros: Play Order Track feature makes trying various arrangements nondestructive. Can freeze or process audio tracks with plug-ins. Powerful, flexible Audio Warp feature. Supports multichannel surround.
Cons: Full manual in PDF form only.
MAC: G4/867; 384 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3.3 or later; ASIO-compliant audio hardware; DVD-ROM drive; free USB port
PC: Intel-compatible/800; 384 MB RAM; Windows XP; ASIO-compliant audio hardware; DVD-ROM drive; free USB port