Steinberg Cubase SX3

The company that pioneered the virtual studio has made it far easier to integrate external hardware.
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I must admit, sometimes when I check out the Cubase user forums, I want to slap some of those people upside the head. First up: The people who go on about how much Cubase sucks – then you realize they’re using a cracked version. Second: Those who like to debate whether Cubase is a “professional” application.

True, Steinberg painted themselves into that corner when they created Nuendo as a “pro” application. So what did that make Cubase? But Nuendo is a post-production solution, while Cubase is for making music. Does that make Cubase any less “professional”? I guess only if you make unprofessional music.

Rant off; back to the review. Cubase VST was ahead of its time by pioneering the virtual studio concept, and made decent computer audio a reality with ASIO audio drivers. In fact, Cubase was well on its way to becoming an audio powerhouse when the audio engine’s chief architect, Mark Badger, died of natural causes at an early age. Not only did the music industry lose a cool guy, but Cubase started lagging in audio just when the industry was transitioning from MIDI to hard disk recording.

Cubase never really caught up until Cubase SX appeared, which was more stable than VST and had a revamped audio engine. SX2 solidified those gains — but still left out some important elements, like acidized file support.

THEN THERE WAS THREE

Now we have SX3 ($799.99, upgrade from SX2 $149), which remains cross-platform for XP and OS X, and still uses the Syncrosoft protection dongle. The biggest two changes: SX3 is aces for anything involving time-stretching; and interestingly, the company that pioneered the virtual studio has made it far easier to integrate external hardware.

Like last issue’s reviews on Acid 5 and Sonar 4, we’ll let Steinberg’s web site (www.steinberg.net) give you the specs and we’ll cover the new stuff.

THE TOP TEN NEW FEATURES

It’s a track . . . it’s a playlist . . . it’s a way to define regions, then try out different orders of these regions. If you like a particular order, “flatten” it to rearrange all the track data to follow the playlist you created. Remixing, anyone? And yes, you can create and audition multiple play order tracks.

This is like Ableton Live’s “elastic audio,” and it’s a welcome addition. Use warp markers to bring out-of-time beats into rhythmic correctness, or the reverse — the screen shot shows moving a rhythmically perfect snare hit a bit behind the beat to give it more “feel.” You can now generate warp markers from hitpoints, too.

Drag “acidized” files in, and SX3 stretches ’em to fit tempo (very well) and pitch (about as well as can be expected). But unlike Acid or Sonar, there’s no way to edit slice markers to compensate for poorly acidized loops. You can, however, use warp markers to at least clean things up a bit. The screen shot shows an Acidized file, REX 2 file, and AIFF file time-stretched with SX’s “hitpoints” feature — all living together in temporal harmony.

You don’t have to open up a separate Key Editor screen any more for MIDI — click a MIDI track’s Edit In Place button, and the track turns into a mini editor, complete with controller pane and optional toolbar for various MIDI editing functions. Earth-shaking? No. Convenient? Yes, particularly when you’re lining up MIDI data with audio.

If your external gear responds to MIDI continuous controllers or sys ex, you can create “panels” within SX3 that send out messages to control your gear. Better yet, automating the panel controls automates the external gear. Making panels is not intuitive, but with MIDI controllers, the process is fairly simple. The screen shot shows a panel I whipped up in about 15 minutes to control several crucial DigiTech GNX4 parameters.

Sure, you could always integrate external hardware processors with software, if you had a multi-channel audio interface — send an output to the effect, then bring the effect out back into an input. SX3 takes things one step further, by having any external unit show up just like any software plug-in insert effect. There’s latency compensation too, although you need to enter the value manually.

A small but useful change, Volume Envelopes, allows altering level without having to resort to automation tracks. These envelopes “travel” with events as well.

You can now have politically correct “tracks of color.” Track colors are reflected in the clips, as labels in the mixer, and as background for track names in the Inspector. You can also “colorize” individual clips; this overrides the track color. Another useful ergonomic tweak: The workspace function now remembers scroll bar and zoom settings.

“Freeze” instruments with or without pre-fader insert effects — you can save RAM by freezing the instrument, yet still tweak effects during mixdown. Of course, you can still freeze audio tracks too.

That innocent-looking “Move Controller” button in the Quantize Setup menu is extremely helpful, as it will move controller data associated with a note along with the note when it’s quantized . . . no more dragging, re-drawing, or swearing is needed to get the controllers and notes to line up.

SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

There are quite a few other additions, one of the most notable being the Studio Connections functionality designed in conjunction with Yamaha. I didn’t have anything to test it with, but I’ll take their word that it works. And SX3 also supposedly works with Windows XP 64-bit Edition so it can access 4GB of RAM . . . not that I have a 64-bit OS for testing, and I bet you don’t either!

There are also two new instruments, one optimized for single-note lines (bass, lead, and so on), the other for pads. Both are very capable, if unspectacular, instruments that add value to the package — as do two new effects. Another useful feature: Dummy plug-ins, so that if you open a project in a different environment that lacks a particular plug, SX3 puts in a “placeholder” (but remembers the original settings for when the proper plug-in is available again).

Cubase SX3 is in large part about exceptional time-stretching options and hardware integration. The time-stretching is indeed impressive, because you can choose so many ways to stretch — as well as just resize a piece of audio to fit the desired length. And, you can do the equivalent of “freezing” a time-stretched piece of audio using the high-quality Prosoniq MPEX2 algorithm. You can’t unfreeze again, nor can you stretch after freezing. But as you start mixdown and the song is set, this is a great way to improve a loop’s audio quality. Excellent.

The flexible stretching also gives some serious audio-for-video mojo when you need to line up tempos and hits with picture. If you can’t make things fit with SX3, it probably can’t be done.

Finally, the hardware integration may not seem that important, until you start bringing outboard processing back into the picture because SX3 makes the process a whole lot easier. It’s worth it.

POWER VS. PATIENCE

Cubase SX3 is one powerful mutha, but the price is that it sometimes seems you have to execute more steps than should be required. Panel construction could have a smoother workflow, as could stretching. Because the stretching options have evolved over several versions, the user interface for them feels unfocused, rather than leading you through the process.

The additional power also demands plenty of pixels. With a standard 1028 x 768 monitor, some windows simply won’t fit — I couldn’t find one important tool until I realized I had to move the window so it would be visible. 1152 x 864 resolution is better, but the real story here isn’t so much about SX3; today’s host software just about demands a dual monitor setup.

SX3 has continued along a path that maintains its rep as an app that pretty much does everything you need, as well as some things you didn’t realize you needed. Overall, SX3 is without a doubt the most stable and comprehensive version of Cubase yet. I suppose I could get worked up about loose ends in SX2.2 that will never be addressed by an update to that version now that SX3 is here. But when you look at what SX3 delivers, it’s hard to begrudge Steinberg the upgrade fee.

In any event, Cubase fans can keep the faith, knowing that their application of choice is pulling together rather than unraveling. For me, the bottom line is that it was a pleasure to do this review. For a complex host program, that’s quite a compliment.