These days, it's all about power. Powerful computers and, yes, for those who can handle it, powerful software. Long a fave of all the Euro-thump jocks who make dance music across the big pond, Steinberg has certainly put its foot to the floor and upped the power of its flagship sequencer, Cubase, with 32-bit processing, 128 channels of digital audio, scads of excellent plug-ins, Internet collaboration and MP3 support.
If you're new to sequencing software or have developed temporary amnesia, here is a quick rundown of the Cubase evolution during the past 10 years. Basically, Cubase began as a MIDI-only sequencer for the Atari ST line of computers, which were quite popular in Europe. When Atari bit the dust, Steinberg ported Cubase to Macintosh and eventually to PC. Steinberg eventually added the ability to (sort of) record and play back audio with the MIDI tracks. Then the company got really ambitious and developed its Virtual Studio Technology (VST), which allowed for native (no additional hardware required) real-time audio processing. That was cause for much rejoicing, especially among computer manufacturers, because successful use of VST required a state-of-the-art CPU with especially big stones. Even with the most powerful machines, your compositional reach could easily exceed your CPU's grasp.
Steinberg realized that Cubase VST was pretty much held together with hairballs and chewing gum, and it was time to overhaul the whole thing. And, boy, did it! Cubase VST/32 5.0 is an incredible work of programming. It is incredibly stable, powerful and easy to use. If ever there were a single application giving you all the power of a recording studio, this has to be it. Here's a look at this wonder of the 21st century.
GET THEE ON MY HARD DRIVE
Installation and setup were no problem. As a matter of fact, Cubase is one of the easiest music-software applications I have ever set up. This is good for those who want to get going without having to study the manual for three months and spend a fortune on calls to tech support. That said, if you want to delve into the more advanced functions, block out a few days to get yourself up to speed.
Essentially, all you need to do is choose your audio engine — either the Mac's internal audio or ASIO-compatible sound card. Using the internal 16-bit audio capabilities of the Macintosh gives great results — many projects have been completed using just that method. This is great for laptops and gives you a truly portable studio.
Using a 24-bit sound card can really make a difference, though. Twenty-four-bit sound gives you more headroom (essentially how loud you can crank an input before it distorts and starts sounding bad). Sound cards can also have benefits of multiple ins and outs, so you can record more than two signals at a time. Multiple outputs also let you route individual tracks to their own separate outs to use with a mixer for additional mixing and processing with outboard effects. Steinberg invented a standard for audio-card drivers called ASIO (short for Audio Stream Input/Output). It's probably the most widely accepted form of audio driver. Just make sure you place your sound card's ASIO driver in the ASIO folder on your hard drive, and you'll be enjoying premium sound in no time.
In the Arrange window, you'll do the bulk of your work (see Fig.1). The tracks are laid out horizontally from the left, with a display on the right that shows audio waveform or MIDI event bars. Double-clicking opens a track for editing and tweaking. In previous versions, things could get cluttered on your screen; every edit function, plug-in or whatever you were doing opened its own window, and before you knew it, you wished you had dual 56-inch monitors to deal with all the stuff on your desktop. Version 5.0 still has plenty of windows, but Cubase provides a couple of slick features to smooth things out. Using the Folder Tracks feature, the tracks in the Arrange window can be grouped together and collapsed into a single track. Let's say you have eight drum tracks cluttering up your Arrange window. All you have to do is group the eight tracks, and when you collapse them, the group only takes up one track in the window. When you want to edit one of the tracks, just open them up again and edit away.
Another feature new to version 5.0 is the Range tool, which lets you grab a track and stretch it to make it larger in the window for easier viewing when editing or recording. That may not sound like a big deal, considering the hundreds of cool features in Cubase 5.0, but if you think about all the time you'd spend goofing around with window sliders just to peep the track you want, you come to realize that it's the little things that make life grand.
And talk about editing — you sure do get sweet editing functions in Cubase 5.0 The one feature that blows my mind is the ability to time stretch your audio files by clicking and dragging the file to the place you want it to be — Cubase takes care of all the number crunching for you. The results are pretty good, too, as long as you don't push it too far.
MIDI doesn't get the short end of the stick either. All methods for editing MIDI are there. Key Edit (some people call this Piano Roll) represents notes as rectangles, and their lengths show the duration of the notes (see Fig. 2). List Edit, where you can get really down and dirty with your MIDI editing, shows MIDI events as text. Score Edit displays your magnum opus as musical notation — a great way to show off all that knowledge you amassed during childhood piano lessons. My favorite is the Drum Edit window, which is great for throwing together breaks on the quick.
While we're on the subject of editing, it's a good idea to take the time to learn the key commands. The key commands can reduce several menu and mouse clicks to pressing just one key. Just about every function has a key command, and if you don't like those, you can define your own key assignments.
THIRTY-TWO — TWICE AS NICE
That 32 tacked onto Cubase VST is very special; it means that Cubase can record at 32-bit resolution. So what does 32-bit resolution mean for the person on the street? It means that you now have nearly infinite headroom for recordings and mixdowns. (Actually, you don't have it for recording because there are no 32-bit audio cards available yet.) You can still make great use of 32-bit mode with 24-bit files, because all the internal processing in Cubase VST/32 is 32-bit. All you have to do is compare a 24-bit mix to one exported in 32-bit, and no explanation will be necessary — you can hear the difference. Another cool feature of 32-bit mode is TrueTape, which simulates the distinctive sound of analog tape in all its mechanical glory. The next time people you know try to slag digital recording for lacking “warmth,” hand them a mix done with TrueTape. It will be warm enough to make anyone a fan.
Of course, 32-bit mixes are all well and good, but what if you want to burn a CD of your track? Everyone knows that CDs are limited to 16 bits. This is where the demon of dithering raises its ugly head. Dithering basically chops off the extra bits that it can't handle — in this case, you lose 16 whole bits — which can sound pretty nasty. To compensate for that, Steinberg has licensed Apogee's UV-22 dithering algorithm to do the dirty work. Apogee makes some of the finest digital converters in the biz, and with Cubase, the software emulation certainly does the trick. You'll always loose some quality when dithering, but the UV-22 is the best option.
VST/32 5.0 supports Rocket Network through Steinberg's InWire system. You can sign up for free and collaborate in real time with other Cubase users all over the planet. How do you work with someone in Sri Lanka if you don't have the same setup? Steinberg dismisses that dilemma by including 70 MB of standard sounds with its Universal Sound Module. The sounds are rather basic, but at least you and the person at the other end of the line will have the same sounds to muck around with.
Cubase also supports the Propellerhead ReWire standard. This is cool and allows you to pipe Reason or Rebirth directly into your mixer as if it were another virtual instrument — an excellent way to add live tracks as well as add VST effects to your Reason grooves. It all works together in perfect harmony.
SO MANY FEATURES, SO FEW PAGES
I have to admit, I was never a big Cubase fan, but version 5.0 sure has turned me around. The program is so much easier to set up than any other MIDI/audio sequencer (including earlier versions of Cubase), and it never crashed or gave me any trouble. Like any complex piece of software, it does take time to learn the multitude of functions, but the sweet thing about Cubase VST is that you can get started easily and learn the more esoteric functions as needed.
It's really tough to find faults in a program that is so well-designed — believe me, I tried. About the only whine I could muster was that the MIDI and audio were handled on separate mixers. My poor, addled brain found itself wishing that I had the option to have them together in one mixer, but that's it. If you're looking for a complete studio on your computer that won't bust your onions with a learning curve so steep you just want to give up, Cubase VST/32 version 5.0 is just what you want.
But Wait, There's More!
More plug-ins, that is. Cubase VST/32 5.0 ships with a healthy array of real-time effects, including reverbs, delays and filters, as well as several VST instruments. Here is a quick overview of what's included.
Mysterizer: This is sort of a virtual Kaoss Pad. Choose one of the eight effects: ring modulator, comb delay, mono delay, stereo delay, lowpass filter, highpass filter, bandpass filter and distortion. Just move the mouse pointer around on the x-y pad and let the fun begin.
Vocoder: Try this 24-band vocoder and noise modulator on your drum loops for instant industrial music. Robo voices galore!
BitCrusher: Holy Nine Inch Nails! Does 24-bit audio sound too sweet for you? Run it through BitCrusher and get your grunge on.
MIDI Gate: Use this gating effect for rhythmic chopping of sounds on your next Ibiza anthem.
SubBASS: Is your track a little weak on the low end? Plug in this, and you'll be blowin' speakers from coast to coast.
Da Tube: This tool simulates the effects of a tube amp without all the fuss.
Rotary: It's 1969 all over again! Rotary models the warble of an old Leslie rotary speaker. Crusty organ players with ponytails will probably gripe, but it sounds okay to me.
Ring Modulator: With this, you can take a nice-sounding track and turn it into a klanging, metallic-sounding monstrosity. Use at your own risk.
Autopole: This plug-in is a good re-creation of those expensive hardware filter boxes that famous people talk about in magazines. Autopole really lets you pour on the acid — I like it.
PhatSync: This rocks! Its two 16-step, pattern-based filters let you do rhythmic, pulsating filter effects that are synched to your song's tempo. Bust this one out first.
MIDI Comb: Finally, another freak-out plug-in lets you control a filter effect on an audio track with a MIDI track. It kind of sounds like rhythmic metallic madness.
JX16: JX16 sounds somewhat like an old Roland synth from back in the day. It has nice pads and lead sounds, and it doesn't take up a lot of processor power.
CS-40: This is a supereasy-to-use 6-voice, polyphonic virtual analog synthesizer.
LM-7: Another easily operable plug-in is this 24-bit drum machine with 16-step programming, just like in the good old days. You can tweak the individual drum sounds to your heart's content.
Cubase VST/32 5.0
Pros: Easy to set up and use. Excellent sound quality in 32-bit mode. Tons of effects. Stable. Virtual synths and drum machine included. Apogee dithering converter. Compatible with a wide range of sound cards.
Cons: Separate mixers for audio and MIDI can be confusing.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 5
Contact: tel. (818) 678-5100
Midex 8 858 USB MIDI Interface
With the release of the Midex 8 MIDI interface, Steinberg has really upped the ante when it comes to MIDI timing accuracy. The Midex 8 uses Steinberg's Linear Timebase technology that is built into version 5.0 of Cubase. Linear Timebase technology takes the timing away from the computer's CPU, so MIDI timing accuracy does not suffer when audio or VST plug-ins bog down the computer's processor. Instead of the computer spreading out its timing over an 8-port MIDI interface, each port of the Midex 8 essentially has its own timing signal.
How does it work? Pretty damn well if you ask me. Although the Macintosh drivers were only in beta version at the time I tried the Midex 8, everything seemed to work properly. I stacked multiple MIDI channels through each of the eight ports with no problem. Then I played back as many channels of audio as my Mac could handle and still experienced no timing glitches. Lastly, I put tons of continuous controller messages (like pitch bend) on the MIDI tracks, and the Midex 8 didn't sweat. I didn't hook the Midex 8 to any high-dollar test equipment to prove its timing accuracy, but I couldn't hear any timing discrepancy, even when loaded down with all I could throw at it.