With a heritage dating back to the first commercial MIDI sequencers, Cubase SX is one of the most powerful and innovative digital audio workstations (DAWs) available. Steinberg's recent update to version 3 boasts a host of new features, including workflow and functionality enhancements. In this review I'll focus on the new features; for a complete review of Cubase SX2, see the May 2004 issue of EM.
FIG. 1: The Play Order Track allows you to create Play Order Parts and organize them in the Track Inspector to rearrange playback.
Cubase SX3 requires a powerful computer, especially to use low audio-buffer sizes. Although very efficient at higher settings, at buffer settings of 64 samples or lower, complex projects (including the demo song “Blofeld's Return”) exhibited artifacts on a dual-G5 2.0 GHz PowerMac and a P4 2.8 GHz PC, whereas a faster PC played them without problems. For this review, I primarily used the dual-G5 machine.
Your Play Order, Please
Play Order is one of the big-ticket new features in Cubase SX3. It allows you to designate sections of your song as Play Order Parts, then rearrange them in any order you wish (see Fig. 1). Play Orders are easy to set up: you simply add a Play Order Track to your song and use the pencil tool to create Play Order Parts on it. There are no restrictions on the length or position of the Play Order Parts; they can overlap, and you can even create one Play Order Part completely inside of another.
The Inspector view for the Play Order Track is divided into two sections with the Play Order List on top and a list of all Play Order Parts on the bottom. To create a Play Order from your Play Order Parts, simply drag them from the lower to the upper section — individual Play Order Parts can be used multiple times.
You can rearrange the order of the various Play Order Parts in the Play Order List and specify how many times each one should repeat. You can rename and duplicate the current Play Order List and easily manage multiple Play Order Lists. Those who prefer a larger view than the one provided by the Inspector can use the Play Order editor.
Play Order Tracks offer a great way to experiment with new arrangements of a project (see Web Clip 1). Play Orders play back seamlessly regardless of the complexity of the Play Order Track. When you find one that you like, you can use the Flatten Play Order function to reorganize your parts to reflect the new arrangement.
A New Warp in Time
Audio warping is one of the most exciting new features in Cubase SX3. It offers real-time time stretching and pitch shifting. As with the Play Orders, audio warping is easy and intuitive.
FIG. 2: Cubase SX3 allows you to define warp markers in the Sample editor. These markers determine where Cubase SX3 will stretch and compress our audio when audio warping is engaged.
Cubase SX users who are already comfortable working with Hitpoints will have no trouble setting up audio warping. After opening an audio event in the Sample editor, use the Audio Tempo Definition Tool to set its tempo, length, and time signature. Then turn on Music mode, select a time-stretching algorithm, and use the Warp Samples tool to position Warp Tabs to match your audio clip to the bars and beats grid (see Fig. 2). If you've already set up Hitpoints, you can automatically convert them to Warp Tabs.
Real-time pitch shifting is handled in the Project Window using the Transpose field on the Event Info Line. Cubase SX3 supports ACID Loops, and their tempo, length, and time signature are automatically recognized.
Your Place or Mine?
Cubase SX3 now allows you to edit MIDI parts in the main Project window. When you press the Edit In-Place button on a MIDI track, a miniature Key editor opens in the track lane (see Fig. 3). Although lacking the full toolbar and some of the advanced editing features of the full Key editor, the In-Place editor is intuitive and easy to use.
FIG. 3 : The In-Place editor offers a miniature Key editor in the Project window.
Clicking on the upper-right corner of the MIDI track displays a local toolbar with buttons for audition and edit-active-part-only as well as boxes for inserted-note Velocity and quantize settings. The Project Window's Snap button and Snap Type settings determine the snap functionality in the In-Place editor, but the Snap Grid is controlled by a local Quantize menu on the In-Place editor toolbar. Vertical zooming and scrolling are handled by clicking on the left edge of the miniature piano keyboard and dragging. It would be nice if you could also assign key commands to zooming within the In-Place editor.
In a nice touch, you can edit continuous controller and Velocity information below the notes in the In-Place editor, just as you can in the Key editor. Moreover, you can edit notes and controller information simultaneously, which is something that you can't do in the Key editor.
Bringing the Outside Inside
Steinberg has been at the forefront in developing virtual studio technology to keep everything inside the box, but SX3 adds some new features to help interface with equipment outside the box. The new External FX Bus allows you to connect external hardware units to your audio interface, such as a high-end tube compressor, EQ, or reverb. You can then access them from within Cubase SX3 as you would any other effect. You set up the external hardware interface in the External FX tab of the VST Connections window by entering the name and selecting audio inputs and outputs to which the hardware is connected. You can then patch your hardware in just as you would a VST plug-in. You can even set up delay compensation.
Those who have extensive hardware MIDI setups will want to check out the new MIDI Device Manager. That feature allows you to install MIDI Devices, including patch lists. It also allows you to construct Device Panels for real-time control of MIDI hardware. Cubase SX3 comes with patch lists for many devices and some sample Device Panel constructions to get you started. Device Panels are accessible anywhere MIDI Devices themselves can be accessed, including in a track's Inspector and Extended Mixer view.
The Big Picture
In addition to the major features just discussed, lots of little niceties have been added to Cubase SX3. A new Color Tool lets you to apply custom colors to tracks and parts. Window Set management and Snap and Hitpoint behavior have been improved. The new Audio Pre-Record feature lets you to capture as much as ten minutes of incoming audio before recording is activated, so you won't lose a perfect take if you forget to engage recording. The Freeze function now works for audio tracks and VST Instruments.
Cubase SX3 has added support for Yamaha's Studio Manager 2 software to allow for remote control of its digital mixers and recording hardware. Event-based volume envelope automation is now available in addition to the usual track-based automation. Beyond that, there are numerous bug fixes and small improvements.
On the down side, Cubase SX3 does not offer a collection of plug-ins that is as professional or as extensive as some other high-end DAWs. Cubase SX3 isn't, however, as expensive as other DAWs. One helpful addition would be an extended overview mode for the Mixer, in which you could access individual inserts, sends, and EQs. It would also be nice to have printed documentation; there is, however, extensive third-party documentation available (see the sidebar “Help Is on the Way”).
Using Cubase SX while writing this review was mostly smooth sailing, but there were occasional problems. Random and unrepeatable minor graphics glitches would crop up from time to time. Furthermore, SX3 would crash when quitting about a third of the time; to be fair, however, I suspect that many of those crashes were related to errant VST plug-ins in my system. Overall, I found Cubase SX3 to be very stable, and none of the problems mentioned seriously impeded my workflow.
Steinberg has a clear winner in Cubase SX3. It's a top contender in the DAW market, and the new features, such as Audio Warping, Play Order, and In-Place Editing, make it even more powerful. It is a must-have upgrade for current users, and anyone looking for a full-featured digital audio sequencer would do well to give SX3 serious consideration.
Orren Merton is the author of Logic Pro 7 Power (Muska & Lipman, 2005) and is a former moderator ofCubase.net
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Cubase SX3 is a huge program, and no one manual could reveal all its nooks and crannies. Cubase ships with a short, printed Getting Started manual as well as five more specific manuals in Adobe Acrobat PDF format, which cover general operation, score layout and printing, remote control devices, VST effects and instruments, and MIDI devices and features. While those cover the bases, none take you step-by-step through the learning process. Several independent providers do offer more detailed instruction.
ASKVideo Interactive Media (www.askvideo.com) offers a cross-platform DVD course in the form of 28 videos designed to get you making music quickly. Topics include audio, MIDI, and VST connections setup; recording and looping audio; MIDI editing using SX's mixer; and mastering the new features in SX3 (sample clips are available at the company's Web site).
Thompson (www.courseptr.com) offers beginning and advanced books on Cubase SX3. Cubase SX3 Ignite! is aimed at beginners and includes lots of screenshots and step-by-step instructions. Cubase SX3 Power! offers an in-depth look at Cubase's many power-user features and is as close to a printed manual as you'll get without printing it yourself.
The Digital Music Doctor Web site (cubase.digitalmusicdoctor.com) offers video tutorials aimed at both the beginner and experienced Cubase user. Each course offers two hours of training as well as a variety of sample projects, which cover the basics as well as advanced features.
digital audio sequencer $799
upgrade from earlier versions of SX $149
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Play Order rearranging for songs. Time warping for audio files. Acid Loop support. MIDI editing directly in Project tracks. Expanded Freeze function. After-the-fact audio capture using Audio Pre-Record.
CONS: Limited selection of factory plug-ins. No expanded mixer overview. Requires powerful computer for low-latency performance.