Steinberg has reentered the studio-in-a-box market with Cubase System 4, a bundle consisting of the new MI4 USB audio-MIDI interface and Cubase SL 2, the little brother of the venerable Cubase SX 2. With a retail price of $899, Cubase System 4 is more expensive than its competition; its street price, however, is considerably less, and Cubase SL is arguably more fully featured.
The MI4 control panel features gain controls for the mic/line inputs, a dry/wet mix knob, and volume controls for main and headphone outputs.
The real surprise in this bundle is Steinberg's Media Interface 4 (MI4), a bus-powered, 24-bit USB box offering either four input channels and stereo outputs at 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling rates or stereo inputs and outputs at 88.2 and 96 kHz sampling rates. The interface also includes MIDI I/O and many other goodies. Cubase SL is similar to Cubase SX, but with a few limitations. It can be upgraded to Cubase SX 3 or SL 3 for an additional charge. In the space allotted here, I'll concentrate on the MI4. For a full review of Cubase SX 2.0.1, see the May 2004 issue of EM.
Ins and Outs
The front panel of the MI4 sports two ¼-inch jacks: instrument input (mono) and headphone output (TRS). The front panel also contains gain knobs for the two included mic preamps. The preamps offer as much as 50 dB of gain — enough for most mics that you'd find in a project studio.
Four LEDs next to each mic preamp, provide rough metering of input signals between -20 and 0 dB. (Inputs 3 and 4 get only two LEDs: a green signal indicator and a red peak indicator.) The front panel has knobs for setting the headphone volume, the master output volume, and the level of the input signal that is mixed with the output. Finally, a power LED indicates that the unit is receiving power from the USB bus, and MIDI LEDs indicate MIDI input and output signals.
XLR jacks as well as ¼-inch TRS balanced-line jacks for inputs 1 and 2 grace the rear panel. The XLR jacks override the line inputs, and the instrument input on the front panel overrides the XLR jack for input 1. In a very welcome addition to a unit of this price, the MI4 offers ¼-inch TRS insert-effects jacks for channels 1 and 2. Placed directly before the analog-to-digital converters, they allow you to use a splitter cable for the send and return signal from an external processor such as a compressor-limiter or EQ. The rear panel also houses unbalanced ¼-inch line-input jacks and balanced ¼-inch TRS output jacks for channels 3 and 4.
The MI4 includes coaxial digital I/O (S/PDIF). The S/PDIF output can either mirror the main or serve as a physical output for channels 3 and 4. That effectively changes the MI4 to a 4 input and 4 output device for S/PDIF users. MIDI input and output jacks and a USB connector round out the rear panel.
The MI4 driver control-panel software offers users access to even more features, including +48V phantom power for the mic inputs, -20 dB pads for line inputs 1 and 2, gain adjustments (-8 dB, +2 dB, +8 dB, +10 dB) for all four inputs, monitor source selector, and an external clocking switch for the S/PDIF connection.
The MI4 is one of the most feature-packed USB interfaces available and offers very acceptable sound quality. Be forewarned, though, that it is power hungry. When I first plugged the MI4 into the USB port on the rear of my PC, the plug-and-play installation Wizard failed to install it. After some troubleshooting, I realized that the power light wasn't on. Only unplugging all other devices left enough power for the MI4. Fortunately, the included version of Cubase SL doesn't require a USB-powered dongle, and uses the MI4 as its dongle. If, however, you upgrade to Cubase SX, you'll probably need a separate USB port (as opposed to a hub) for its dongle.
Steinberg's Cubase System 4 is a worthy addition to the studio-in-a-box market. If you have a USB bus to dedicate to the power-thirsty MI4, and you're looking for an all-in-one package, you should definitely consider purchasing this one.