STEINBERG CUBASE SX

MIDI + Audio Sequencer For Windows

Published in SOS August 2002
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Reviews : Software: ALL

Cubase SX is the most ambitious and eagerly anticipated software launch in years. Is this the future for computer-based music production?


Mark Wherry

Steinberg's Cubase is one of the best-known music production applications currently in use by professionals and enthusiasts worldwide. Originally released for the Atari platform back in 1989, and later adapted for Mac and Windows, as a MIDI sequencer Cubase has gone from strength to strength in the last 13 years. The biggest development during this period happened after Apple's introduction of the PowerPC processor to the Mac platform, making it possible for Steinberg to release the Mac version of Cubase VST in 1996. The idea of a MIDI + Audio sequencer was already fairly well established, but Steinberg's Virtual Studio Technology (VST) added real-time effects and EQ within the familiar sequencer environment using no additional DSP hardware.

The Track Mixer offers a variety of view options, most of which can be applied either globally or on a track-by-track basis. The Extended view allows you to see inserts, sends or EQs, while the Narrow option is useful to squeeze more channels on to the screen.

In recent years, Steinberg have turned their research and development effort towards Nuendo, a high-end application offering a competitive 'native' alternative to hardware-based workstations like Pro Tools. In fact, it could be argued that the last major update to Cubase was version 4 on the Mac in 1998, which was never released for the Windows platform. Version 5 eventually gave Windows users the same feature set in the summer of 2000 and, in addition, offered more plug-ins and a general 'spring clean'. But with the release of Logic 5 at the beginning of the year, Cubase was beginning to show a few grey hairs — rumour has it that lines of code from the original Atari version were still lurking in there somewhere.

Many people thus anticipated a new version of Cubase at this year's Frankfurt Musikmesse. However, what nobody had anticipated was that this would be Cubase SX, a completely rewritten application built on the foundations and technology of Steinberg's flagship Nuendo. The SX tag was chosen to reinforce the fact that this is a brand new application rather than being Cubase VST 6.0, and was apparently named after Essex (yes, the Essex in England), the codename given to the new Cubase project by Steinberg developers. I suppose we just have to be grateful they didn't choose Crediton.

I've been fortunate to have used the beta version of Cubase SX since the beginning of April, and this review is based on version 1.01, a minor update made available after the initial 1.0 full release.

Can You Handle It?

Cubase SX is currently only available for the Windows platform and requires a pretty powerful computer running either Windows 2000 or XP (see What About The Mac? box for information about the Mac version of SX). While there were rumours of the SX alpha and beta versions running on earlier versions of Windows, I didn't try this personally and it must be stressed that Cubase SX is unsupported on, if not completely incompatible with, Windows 9x, ME and NT.

Steinberg Cubase SX £530
pros
Streamlined user interface.
Extremely stable.
Excellent project management.
Multiple undo with Offline Process History.
cons
While Cubase SX is a new product, some users will miss certain features associated with the Cubase name.
summary
Cubase SX is an amazing next-generation product, featuring nearly everything you'd expect from a cutting-edge music production tool, and presented in a stable, easy to use package. Full marks.

Some users will undoubtedly be annoyed at the prospect of having to upgrade Windows before they can get their hands on this new Cubase. However, if Steinberg can ultimately provide a better product by not supporting legacy versions of Windows and focusing on new technology to improve performance, this can only be a good thing for users in the long term.

The minimum requirements are significantly higher than before (a 500MHz Pentium 3 with 256MB RAM) and Steinberg's recommended setup includes a 1GHz or faster Pentium 3 or Athlon with 512MB RAM. However, these specifications are fairly typical of most modern computers sold with Windows XP, so anyone with a reasonably recent machine should be able to run SX without too much trouble. It's also worth pointing out that a single display with a 1024x768 resolution should be considered the bare minimum, since certain windows need this much space just to be fully visible.

A final requirement, which has become commonplace in the last couple of years, is a free USB port to accommodate the new USB dongle, replacing the previous parallel-port device that caused a few headaches for users when Cubase VST 5 was first released. I had no compatibility problems with the new USB dongle and from a personal standpoint, if software has to be protected, give me a dongle every time! According to comments made in Frankfurt, moreover, the new dongle has the potential for Steinberg and other third parties to store additional product authorisation information. If this facility is utilised, the SX dongle could in theory provide copy protection for all the plug-in instruments and effects running within Cubase, much like Emagic's XSKey. And while the words 'eggs' and 'basket' spring to mind, any effort to ease the pain of copy protection is always welcome.

In a commendably generous move, users upgrading from Cubase VST 5 will be allowed to keep their original dongle, and both applications seem to happily coexist on the same machine. I did have a slight problem on one occasion where VST refused to see the parallel-port-connected dongle, but a simple reinstall of the 5.1 update resolved the situation.

  What About The Mac Version?  
  As seems to be the growing trend these days, the Windows version of Cubase SX has been released first; and although a Mac version will follow, Steinberg hadn't committed to a public release schedule at the time of writing. This is partly due to the fact that Cubase SX will only run on Mac OS X, and certain technical issues concerning MIDI and audio functionality won't be resolved until Apple releases the next version of Mac OS X, codenamed Jaguar (see last month's Apple Notes).

Some Mac users will undoubted be troubled by this, especially as for some it will mean investing in a new machine capable of running Mac OS X. However, with Apple making it clear that OS 9 is dead, it makes no sense for developers to support this platform with a new product. And on the plus side, with Steinberg not having to allow for OS 9 compatibility, it should mean that Cubase SX offers amazing performance, taking advantage of everything OS X has to offer.

 

First Time

Installation is a piece of cake: insert the CD-ROM, work through the automatic installer, plug the dongle in and off you go. As with many other applications these days, if your computer's connected to the Internet, the installation program will contact Steinberg to see if any updates are available. If a new update is found, you have the option to download and install it, and you can run this Cubase SX Update utility at any time to ensure you always have the latest version.

SX is the first version of Cubase to offer true 5.1 surround mixing facilities, although it lacks Nuendo's ability to be configured for any number of channels.

The first time you run Cubase SX, you'll be greeted with an empty window and the new-but-familiar Transport Panel. Having Cubase load a default song file on startup is now just one of many options available, including the standard 'do nothing' behaviour. My favourite is to have the Open Document Options window displayed, which basically gives you a list of previous songs, plus New and Open Project buttons — everything you could want on startup in one handy window.

Since SX is built from a Nuendo core, Cubase now has one of the best project management systems around. When you create a new Project, it's possible to start afresh with the Empty option, or from a selection of templates that provide starting points for common tasks. You can also save your own templates, and I found it useful to create templates for ready-to-play VST Instruments, such as Steinberg's The Grand, for example. After this, you choose a folder to store the Project (the so-called Project folder) and a new Project window appears on screen.

The Nuendo/SX Project folder works in much the same way as the Session folder in Pro Tools, providing a place for all audio files you record to be stored, along with any edits or fades. This is a vast improvement compared to VST, where the burden of project management was left to the user, and it's now much easier to back up projects, especially if you make use of the Project folder to store any related files. The only slightly surprising thing is that a Cubase Project file is not automatically saved in the Project folder when you create a new Project — it would be nice if this was provided as an option.

The Project Window

It's easy to forget that Cubase was the first sequencer to implement the now ubiquitous graphical Arrange window, where musical sections are represented as rectangular blocks along a timeline. For Nuendo, Steinberg developed the Project window, rethinking their original ideas and taking on board influences from other applications that appeared in the interim. So in Cubase SX, the Project window replaces Cubase's traditional Arrange window, and Cubase Song files have been superseded by Cubase Project files, which are identified with the '.CPR' file extension.

One consequence of this new architecture is that a Cubase SX Project can only have one Project window, whereas a Cubase VST song could have several Arrange windows. To make up for this, SX makes it possible for several projects to be open simultaneously (thus providing multiple Project windows), where you could open only one song at a time in VST. It's also possible for several Cubase Projects to share the same Project folder.

Another significant change means that each audio track on the Project window is now automatically assigned to a unique audio channel, making it impossible for multiple audio tracks to share the same channel as before. On one hand, this is a positive step because it forces you into a more organised way of working, but it seems a shame that multiple takes of the same part require an audio channel each, when they're essentially part of the same track.

For those buyers who are swayed by large numbers, Cubase SX is unlikely to disappoint. Where audio is concerned, assuming your computer is powerful enough, each Project supports a maximum of 200 audio and 64 group tracks, with sampling rates and resolutions up to 96kHz and 32-bit. Although every audio file in a Project must use the same sample rate, it is possible to mix and match bit depths if you require, which can be especially useful if you want to bounce 16-bit audio tracks and keep the internal 32-bit resolution used by any insert effects, for example.

  Always On Top  
  Another one of the little things that can make life easier in Cubase SX is the 'Always On Top' behaviour for certain windows. As the name implies, this option toggles whether a particular window should always be on top (or rather, in front) of the other windows on screen — in Mac-speak, such a window is more elegantly known as a floating window. This is incredibly useful, as Logic users will already know, and windows that can be set to 'Always On Top' include the VST Inputs, Sends, Master Effects and Instruments racks, the plug-in editors and the MIDI Device Manager.  
The Project window offers significantly more editing capability than the old VST Arrange window, and it's now possible to edit with single-sample accuracy. Part of the reason for the improved editing capabilities is that audio Events can now be displayed directly on the Project window — in the Cubase of old, audio Events could only be edited in the Audio Editor. And, in fact, audio you record or import into an SX Project always starts off as an audio Event. Previously, the Cubase Arrange window could only display Parts (collections of audio Events), and it's still possible to make a collection of audio Events into a Part (which can be edited in the Audio Editor as before), which can be especially handy for compiling multiple vocal takes.

As in Nuendo, audio Events are now displayed with handles, allowing you to easily adjust the start and end points, in addition to adding fade-ins and outs and adjusting the overall level relative to the audio channel playing that particular audio Event. Creating cross-fades is also incredibly straightforward: simply select two overlapping audio Events and press X to create a cross-fade based on user-definable settings. These are some of features users have come to love Nuendo for in the last two years, and they make audio editing incredibly quick and easy.

The 'why didn't they think of this before' award has to be given to the optionally visible Overview strip along the top of the Project window. If you remember the classic computer game Lemmings or use a sample editor like Steinberg's own Wavelab, this Overview will seem vaguely familiar. It gives a graphical overview of your entire arrangement, with the currently visible area highlighted with a blue outline. This is incredibly useful, especially if, like me, you work at a single-bar resolution on the Project window, as you can now keep perspective on the overall arrangement.

As with most aspects of the Project window, Steinberg take the Overview to its logical conclusion, making it possible for you to scroll the Project window horizontally by dragging the blue outline, or to change the visible content of the Project window by dragging a new blue outline in the Overview. And if navigating the Project window is your goal, users with a mouse that features a scroll button can press this to scroll the currently visible area in the Project window both horizontally and vertically — neat.

An Inspector Calls

Anyone who's used Nuendo will notice that SX's Project window has been taken one stage further through the addition of some of the best features from the original Cubase Arrange window, including, most notably, the Inspector. The new Inspector offers access to more settings than ever before, including inserts, sends, the inbuilt EQs (for audio tracks), and even a complete channel strip with a fader and full-sized level meter. This means that it's now possible to do complete mixes without ever leaving the Project window — something professionals will particularly love after complaining about the number of windows that needed to be opened in either Cubase VST or Nuendo to achieve simple tasks such as adding an insert effect.

Cubase SX provides some neat MIDI patch selection facilities, including the ability to filter patches using a text phrase such as 'piano' in this example.

With all this extra functionality, you'd be forgiven for worrying that the once-simple Inspector has become cluttered and complicated. Fortunately, the exact opposite is true and the Inspector has been split into different sections for general settings, MIDI-track-specific parameters, inserts, equalisers (for audio tracks), sends and channel settings. By default, only one section can be open at a time (clicking a different section hides the previously displayed section), although you can Ctrl-click to open multiple sections or Alt-click to open them all. One word describes the new Inspector: brilliant. Its full name, however, is now the Track Inspector, because it's no longer possible to make Inspector changes to individual Parts. On the one hand, this is good: it clears up any possible user confusion as to whether they're changing the settings for a track or a Part. On the other hand, though, I'm sure I'm not the only who found the ability to apply Inspector settings to Parts very useful.

To compensate for this apparent loss of functionality, settings for individual or multiple Parts or Events on the Project window are now made via the Event Infoline, which is actually a far better (and less confusing) solution, although fewer options are available on the Infoline when a MIDI Part is selected compared to both the new and old Inspectors. Notable omissions are volume, pan, program and, most crucially, velocity settings, although these can be manually added or processed destructively.

This makes sense, to a degree, since the approach of the Project window is very much 'keep each instrument on a separate track', forcing you to keep everything clearer and more organised than before. This might affect users with smaller MIDI setups (who might now have to add Program Change events manually, for example), but overall I think the new approach is an improvement. Transposing a MIDI Part is just as easy as before, and you can now 'lock' different elements of a selected Part or Event, including the position, size, any other editing or parameter changes, or various combinations of these three options.

Track Types

Like the Arrange window before it, the Project window is capable of handling different track types, although it's perhaps inevitable that certain track types haven't made their way from VST into SX. Audio and MIDI tracks are still there, of course, along with Folder tracks (which aren't available in the current version of Nuendo), but the list of casualties includes Mix tracks, Chord tracks (yes, the Styletrax module has gone), Group tracks and Drum tracks. Even though there's no longer a dedicated drum track type, you can still get the Drum Editor to open automatically when you double-click a drum Part: if a track's drum map parameter is set to something other than No Drum Map on the Inspector, Cubase always opens the Drum editor when you double-click a Part on that track. Clever.

  Further Reading: Cubase & Nuendo In SOS  
  Cubase VST 4 review (Mac): October 1998, www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct98/articles/cubase_vst4.html.
Cubase VST 5 review (Windows): September 2000, www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep00/articles/steinbergcubase.htm.
Nuendo 1.0 review (Windows): August 2000, www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug00/articles/steinberg.htm.
Nuendo 1.5 review (Mac): October 2001, www.soundonsound.com/sos/Oct01/articles/nuendomac.asp.
 
Although I said that Group tracks have disappeared, SX does in fact offer a Group track type. However, these tracks bear no resemblance to the Group tracks available on the old Arrange window (see January 2002's Cubase Notes for more information) and actually provides similar functionality to the Group channels previously available on the VST Channel Mixer. This enables the outputs of one or more Audio tracks to be routed to a Group track, which can be useful when submixing a drum kit, for example.

Unfortunately, although insert and send effects are available on Group tracks (along with EQ controls), there's no automatic plug-in delay compensation. So if you want to use processor-intensive plug-ins that introduce a degree of latency into the system (VST plug-ins that run on DSP cards are often affected by this), you have to start manually offsetting tracks for everything to play in time. The situation is the same with VST and many other native packages, and while Steinberg are aware of the problem and are trying to develop a solution, many technical issues currently stand in the way.

Those users who work with desktop video will appreciate the inclusion of Video tracks on the Project window, especially as you're no longer limited to using only one video file per song. As in Nuendo, video clips can be added to the Project window and displayed as a filmstrip that shows the frames visible at points along the time ruler. This is really helpful for knowing where you are in an arrangement, especially as it saves having to leave the Video Monitor open all the time.

Magic Markers

The previously static Marker track at the top of the Arrange window has been replaced by Nuendo's Marker track, which appears in the standard track list along with all the other tracks. The first two markers are reserved for the left and right locators, and while some users may complain, it's no longer possible to set their positions with the left and right mouse buttons — thank goodness! A single mouse click now sensibly sets the position of the Project Cursor (the new name for the Song Position Pointer), and Steinberg have come up with other ways of setting the locators that are just as easy when you get used to them.

Additional markers can be dropped while the song is playing, or placed more accurately when the song is stopped, and seven of these markers can be assigned to keys (three to nine) on the numeric keypad. Pressing one of these keys makes the Project Cursor jump to the position of the marker assigned to that particular key, and you can also set the position of the Project Cursor to a marker by selecting it from the Locate pop-up menu, which is available on the actual Marker track in the track list.

A new type of marker available in SX is the Cycle marker, based on the old-style markers in Cubase VST. A Cycle marker reflects the positions of both left and right locators, although the start and end points can later be adjusted, and appears as two ordinary markers joined by a horizontal line, which can be visually very useful. You can later reset the position of the locators to a Cycle marker from the Cycle pop-up menu (on the Marker track), or set the horizontal zoom of the Project window in or out so that the Cycle marker fills the screen by clicking on the Zoom pop-up menu. Again, this is a feature that has been implemented really well and offers real benefits over the previous solution.

  The VST System Link  
  Cubase SX is the first Steinberg product to implement VST System Link, a networking technology that allows you to share the resources of many computers via digital audio connections. Other products that will offer support for VST System Link include Nuendo 1.6 and a forthcoming final update to Cubase VST 5.x. This means that if you're upgrading from VST 5 and have two suitably specified computers, you'll be able to make use of the VST System Link without buying two copies of Cubase SX.

One example of its use would be to run a VST Instrument on one computer that is triggered via MIDI data sent from another computer, utilising the virtual MIDI ports provided by VST System Link. The audio output of the computer running the VST Instrument could be routed back to the computer sending the MIDI events, allowing everything to be mixed and controlled from that one computer. The advantage of using VST System Link for this application is that the results emerge in sample-accurate sync, and it can be achieved by using a couple of optical cables.

Since VST System Link is an exciting new technology that deserves a full-length article on its own, watch out for an in-depth guide in a forthcoming issue of SOS.

 

Can We Fix It?

The toolbox was an instantly recognisable Cubase feature and has been superseded in SX by the aptly-named Quick menu, which is still accessed by clicking the right mouse button. I say 'superseded' instead of 'replaced' since although the Quick menu is displayed as a normal Windows pop-up menu, it still offers the relevant list of tools Cubase users have become accustomed to. However, the Quick menu goes further and also provides a list of context-sensitive options based on which elements are currently selected on screen and the position of the mouse when you clicked to access the menu.

The toolbox is now also displayed along the toolbar of every window, providing a second method of accessing the various tools required for editing. In addition to this, it's now possible to select the tools via the numerical keys on the main computer keyboard (ie. not the numerical keypad). Quite logically, the keys that select the different tools (from one to eight) follow the same order as the tools appear (from left to right) on the Project window. Quite illogically, in other editors where the order of the tools differs, the numerical keys still follow the order on the Project window for tool selection, though admittedly it's hard to think of a method that would make more sense.

Track Mixer

The mixer windows of Cubase past have been developed into the new Track Mixer which, again, takes the best features of Nuendo's mixer and then pushes the functionality a stage further. Each channel on the mixer now corresponds precisely to a track on the Project window, where the top-to-bottom order of tracks is mirrored in their left-to-right ordering in the Track Mixer. And rather than having separate mixer windows for MIDI and audio channels, the Track Mixer displays them all, including Group, Rewire and VST Instrument channels.

Some VST MIDI windows such as the Arpeggiator and IPS are absent from SX, which instead offers an open-ended MIDI plug-in architecture. With a suitable wrapper, Cakewalk's MFX-format plug-ins can be used in SX.

However, the biggest improvement to the mixer is the way you can configure its appearance, particularly with the so-called Extended View, which finally allows you to set up inserts, sends and the inbuilt EQ from the main mixer window. There are five Extended Views available, providing either the eight inserts, eight sends or four sets of EQ controls, with the sends and EQ controls able to be displayed as either knobs or sliders — I preferred the sliders. A nice bonus is that you can actually specify a different Extended View for each channel, or set every channel to display the same Extended View. One thing I thought was missing from the Extended View, though, was the ability to display inserts and sends simultaneously on a single channel, as you can in Logic. Although displaying all eight inserts and eight sends in one long column would be too much, a 'four inserts and four sends' view would be a nice touch for a future revision.

Another method of configuring the Track Mixer's appearance will come in very handy if getting all your mixer channels to fit on your monitor is a problem: the ability to display channels in Narrow mode. Although you get limited functionality in Narrow mode, you can at least see the levels and adjust the volume faders for more channels at once. As with the Extended View, Narrow mode can be set for individual channels, or globally for all channels on the Track Mixer.

Generally speaking, the Track Mixer is a great improvement on previous incarnations of mixer windows in both Cubase and Nuendo, though there are still some minor aspects that can become irritating. Some users, for example, have been disappointed that SX doesn't offer two independent mixer windows like Cubase VST, although Steinberg have indicated this should be added in a future release. This isn't something that bothered me as I generally prefer to have as few windows open as possible.

An area that did bother me, however, is the slightly quirky behaviour when switching between the normal and Extended mixer views. Unless the mixer window is positioned a couple of pixels from the bottom of the screen, it gets extended downwards when you switch from normal view to Extended, meaning you have manually drag the Track Mixer back into full view again. I know this sounds like nit-picking of the first order, but it becomes increasingly annoying when this happens so regularly.

  Missing In Action  
  Many users have been fairly vocal about the features they consider to be 'missing' from Cubase SX, compared to Cubase VST 5.1. Steinberg are keen to point out, and perhaps rightly so, that since Cubase SX is a new product, no features have been taken out; rather, features have been added to what was essentially a blank canvas. However, since SX replaces VST as a product, it's not unfair for Cubase users to expect pretty much the same functionality, even if it's achieved in a slightly different way.

One of the most surprising changes in Cubase functionality is the use of Hitpoints for tempo-related operations. While it's possible (and has, in fact, been made easier) to use Hitpoints in the Audio Editor for slicing up audio to change the tempo of a loop as you can in Recycle, for example, it's not possible to use Hitpoints in the Tempo Track Editor as you could in VST's Master Track Editor. Previously, you were always able to add Meter- and Time-based Hitpoints and link them together in pairs, and with the option to 'straighten up' the linking lines, Cubase would automatically work out the tempo changes required to make certain time-based events fall on a certain beat.

This was very useful for transcribing MIDI recordings not played to a metronome, for example, but was probably most useful for media composers writing to time-based events on a film. This latter group of people will also miss the Tempo Processor, a 'fit time' calculator for working out the tempo and number of bars needed for a particular cue.

I couldn't find equivalent features to achieve the same results in SX, unfortunately, and the Beat Calculator that is provided, with its tap tempo function, seems like a poor relation. It's still perfectly possible to write for video without these features, but some users will definitely miss this functionality. And it seems strange that Steinberg should enhance Cubase's video abilities on one hand, while taking away some of compositional tools for writing the music for video with the other.

 

Automation

Let's be honest: the automation in Cubase VST was terrible. More specifically, it was terrible because it worked on a single-event basis — an event was required for every change in the position/value of a controller. So if you wanted to perform a gradual change in volume over the duration of one bar, a series of events had to be created throughout that bar. This made editing particularly tedious, and the fact you had to open a separate window (the Controller Editor) didn't help matters either.

By contrast, the Nuendo automation system, reused in SX, is a much better solution. Clicking the small '+' buttons on Audio and MIDI tracks on the Project window reveals as many automation subtracks as your require for volume, pan and any other parameter you might want to automate. Once automation data has been added and the Read buttons are activated, you can click the '-' buttons to hide the automation tracks again (if you want), while keeping all the automation data intact.

A reason to love Windows XP: here's the Reason 2 demo playing the 'Realization' demo song, Rewired into Cubase SX with the Waves L2 plug-in working its magic on the master output. Notice that the full list of Reason MIDI inputs are available as outputs to the MIDI track in Cubase, and also the fact the computer is on the Internet, running Internet Explorer, Outlook, Instant Messenger and Word (to write this review). No glitches, no crashes, and it sounds pretty awesome too...

Instead of working on a 'one event per change' basis, individual automation Events are joined by linear paths, so only two automation Events need to be created for a fade-in or -out, for example. However, SX has a few extra tricks up its sleeve when it comes to generating more complex automation data. A new Parabola mode allows you to bend straight lines into more natural curves, and the draw tool has the ability to generate sine, triangle or square waves based on the current grid settings.

One curious aspect of Nuendo's automation system, however, was the limited way in which automation data could be written by moving faders, especially when compared to Pro Tools. Fortunately, this has been rectified in SX, with a pop-up menu on the Project window's toolbar offering three modes for writing automation data with a fader: Touch Fader, Autolatch and X-Over. In Touch Fader mode, automation is only written while you're dragging a fader, whereas in Autolatch mode, Cubase starts writing automation from the first click of the mouse until the Write button is deselected or the song is stopped. X-Over mode is similar to Autolatch mode except that Cubase stops writing automation when it finds existing automation data for that control.

When you want to create some automation for a channel that doesn't appear as a track on the Project window, such as a VST Instrument audio output, you initially hit a bit of a stumbling block. Although you can create a Master Automation track for the Master fader to get around this problem, you can't create VST Instrument automation tracks in the same way. Fortunately, the solution turns out to be simple: when you activate the automation Write button on a channel that doesn't appear on the track list, Cubase automatically creates the necessary automation track. Going one step further, Steinberg have made it so that any automation tracks created for VST Instruments are automatically added into a VST Instruments Automation folder track, which is a really nice touch.

Overall, I found myself using automation far more than I ever would have in Cubase VST. Whereas the idea of adding automation used to provoke thoughts of the 'is there another way to achieve this' variety, now I look forward to the prospect of adding automation — relatively speaking, of course.

You're Surrounded!

Many people wondered when and if Cubase would offer support for surround mixing, and Steinberg have answered these people in SX by adding one of the best software-based surround mixing solutions on market. Nuendo has been consistently praised for its flexible surround sound support, so it comes as no surprise that Cubase SX's surround implementation is similar. The only fundamental difference is that SX is limited to six-channel configurations, which are ideal for the 5.1 mixes most users will need to produce — I don't think many prospective home users will be troubled by the thought of not being able to work in 6.1 or 7.1 surround.

Assuming you have a suitable multi-channel soundcard and speaker setup, working with surround in Cubase SX is a piece of cake. Change the speaker configuration from Stereo to 5.1 Surround using the list of presets provided in the VST Master Setup window, activate the required outputs in the VST Outputs window and you're ready to go — the Master channel will now display six channels for Left, Center, Right, Rear Left, Rear Right and LFE. By routing all of your audio channels to SurroundPan, the normal pan control will change to a mini surround panner, and you can double-click this to work with the comprehensive Surround Panner window, where you can also set how much of that channel will be sent to the LFE.

The VST Master Effects panel supports VST effects with more than two inputs, and offers comprehensive routing options to choose which channels go into and out of a plug-in. This allows you to add three stereo limiters, for example, and route the signals so that all six channels are processed. When it comes to exporting your mix to import into a separate DTS or Dolby encoder, Cubase is able to supply individual files for each channel, or one interleaved file.

  Files, Clips & Events  
  The Nuendo terminology for audio files, which is now adopted by Cubase, has always been a source for confusion. Basically, if you make a recording, a new file on your hard drive will be created and Cubase will reference this file as a clip. Events on the Project window are references to clips and different Events can play the same clip. However, a clip is not the same as a file.

The way in which SX (like Nuendo) is able to provide a feature like the Offline Process History is by creating new files (stored in the project folder's Edit subfolder) for any processing you apply to a particular file. In this way, the original file is never touched, making it relatively easy to remove any processing later on; and because all of this happens transparently to the user, the clip is effectively a playlist for all the files required to play back the original file with any edits.

 

Plug It In, Plug It Out

Cubase VST 5.1 included a collection of new plug-ins, some of which were licensed from third-party developers MDA and FXpansion, and SX builds on this collection with redesigned SX-blue interfaces and a couple of worthwhile additions. New bundled plug-ins that were previously sold separately are SPL's DeEsser and Craig Anderton's Quadrafuzz. You're in for a treat if you've not used this latter plug-in before — my favourite use for Quadrafuzz is on drums, where it has the ability to turn a reasonably polite kit into an addictive snarling sonic beast.

The Pool can now handle video clips and features a trash can, making it easier to safely delete files from a Project. You can also organise your Pool more clearly by using subfolders.

On the bundled VST Instrument front, SX retains most of the plug-ins from 5.1, including the rather good MDA JX16, but ditches the Universal Sound Module (the rather poor-sounding software General MIDI module introduced in Cubase VST 5). The highlight for most VST Instrument fans will be the new A1 virtual analogue synthesizer developed by Waldorf. This sounds fantastic, and the factory presets demonstrate its versatility at producing bass, pad, poly, lead and effects patches, including plenty of those oh-so-popular virtual analogue sounds.

While the limit of eight send effects and eight master effects still stands, it's now possible to run a maximum of 32 VST Instruments simultaneously, which should satisfy even the most demanding user of software instruments. If you consider that many VST Instruments, like HALion, are multitimbral and offer multiple outputs, the sheer number of possible virtual instrument channels would be staggering if you had a powerful enough computer to run them all.

A useful change to the structure of the Master Effects chain compared to its VST counterpart means that any effects inserted into slots seven and eight will always be processed after the Master fader. Since you should always use dither as the very last process, if you ever find yourself nudging the Master fader away from zero, by placing your dither plug-in in the latter slots you can now be sure that these adjustments won't affect the newly dithered signal. And speaking of the dithering, the included Apogee UV22 algorithm has also been further improved for Cubase SX.

MIDI Manipulation

One thing that long-term Cubase users will notice is the absence of many well-known MIDI-related windows, including old friends like the IPS (Interactive Phrase Sequencer) and Arpeggio module. In their place, Steinberg have finally implemented MIDI effects plug-ins — I say 'finally' because this is a feature many users and developers have requested for some time.

MIDI effects plug-ins look the same as conventional VST effects plug-ins and work similarly, except that they process MIDI data instead of audio. As I mentioned when talking about the new Inspector, MIDI tracks now contain inserts — a maximum of four MIDI effects can be used — and sends, allowing you to send the output of the MIDI plug-in to another track.

Fourteen MIDI plug-ins are supplied as standard, including Arpache 5, a really neat MIDI arpeggiator, Autopan, a way of creating MIDI Controller data such as panning in much the same way as the LFO of a synthesizer, Chorder, a MIDI chord processor, Quantizer, a real-time non-destructive quantise tool, Step Designer, a cool MIDI pattern sequencer for note and Controller events, and Transformer, a real-time version of the Logical Editor. The MIDI plug-ins are brilliant and I think most users will have a great deal of fun experimenting with them, especially when you start using more than one in series.

Cakewalk users have enjoyed the benefits of MIDI effects plug-ins since the days of Pro Audio 8, when the MIDI FX (MFX) plug-in architecture was first implemented, and because Cakewalk freely publish the guidelines for writing MFX plug-ins on the web, many third-party MFX plug-ins have appeared from developers like Ntonyx (www.ntonyx.com) and MidiFo (www.midifo.com). Although Cakewalk's MFX plug-in standard is different to (and incompatible with) the interface used for SX's MIDI plug-ins, Steinberg have cunningly developed an MFX wrapper allowing Cubase users to run MFX plug-ins. I had no problem in getting the demo versions of Ntonyx's plug-ins to work in Cubase. Although Steinberg don't provide the MFX wrapper with the current release of Cubase SX at the time of writing, you can download it for free at http://service.steinberg.net/webdoc.nsf/ show/download_e.

Double Trouble

The only MIDI-related issue I encountered while using SX was that when recording from a MIDI keyboard, duplicate MIDI events would be created for every note I played. While duplicates are easily deleted with the Delete Duplicates command, this was obviously rather annoying. However, as it happens, Cubase SX isn't really at fault here.

The problem, which most SX users seem to be affected by, happens because of the way DirectX 8 (included with Windows XP) deals with certain types of drivers. Without getting into technical details, emulated versions of certain drivers (based on one driver model) are added to the system in addition to the 'real' version (of another driver model). Since Cubase SX is able to see both emulated and real versions of the driver, and because both drivers send the same information simultaneously, you end up with two copies of every MIDI event — one from each driver.

The solution is to set the MIDI input on the track you're recording to from All MIDI Inputs to the specific MIDI device you're recording from. Alternatively, it's possible to deactivate the emulated MIDI devices in SX's Device Setup window, and Steinberg are reportedly working on a more elegant solution for a future version.

Patch Name Joy

One of my SX favourite features right from the earliest beta versions was also one of the smallest and most simple, but it affects something every Cubase user does all the time: choosing the sound to be played from a particular MIDI track via an external MIDI sound source or a VST Instrument. When a list of patch names is available to an instrument on a given MIDI track, clicking the program parameter displays a pop-up list of all the available patches — nothing revolutionary about this, you might say. However, one nice bonus is that this list is displayed in a special type of window that closes when a patch is double-clicked or if you click elsewhere on the screen. This means that the transport and other keyboard shortcuts stay active while the patch list is open, and you can even use the cursor keys to move to the next or previous patch in the list. Auditioning sounds suddenly becomes much easier than before.

However, the icing on the cake is the Filter text field that appears at the top of this pop-up list. If you type the word 'bass' into this text field, Cubase refreshes the list to display only the patch names containing the word 'bass'. This is an outrageously useful feature which makes finding patch names incredibly easy, especially when you have a sound module with hundreds of patches.

Because VST Instruments automatically make their patch lists available, this functionality is always available to users of such instruments. However, setting up Patch Name Scripts for external MIDI sound sources is now a simple matter of assigning a certain instrument to particular MIDI output port in the elegant MIDI Device Manager. And it's perfectly possible to assign multiple devices to the same port if you have several instruments sharing the same MIDI output port, but set to respond on different MIDI channels.

  Imports & Exports  
  For existing Cubase users, the ability for SX to import their back catalogue is potentially fairly important. I say potentially because buyers will still be able to keep their VST 5.1 dongles and use that version, so it isn't imperative for SX to accurately load songs created in a previous version of Cubase. However, many users will want to be able to finish off all their existing songs in Cubase SX without having to revert back to VST.

Although SX can't read old VST 5.1 songs directly, they can be imported and transplanted into a Project folder. The key word here is 'import' and it's perhaps inevitable that not every exact detail of a VST 5.1 song can be recreated in SX, given the different architectures of the two applications. Generally speaking, importing old Cubase songs works reasonably well, so long as you understand that the process is always going to be compromised to a certain degree. I was mostly successful with my imports, and the benchmark World Demo song supplied with VST 5 was imported in no more time than it would have taken to load the song in VST. The only stops along the way were to assign it a Project folder, to dismiss a window about different MIDI ports being installed and whether I wanted to remap them, and finally to OK the fact that the Cubase Dither plug-in could not be found — obviously this one doesn't get included in SX.

Once the song was displayed in the Project window I could see that, aside from the distorted colours, the MIDI and audio tracks and Parts had been imported accurately, and even the Folder track was still intact. The volume automation had imported correctly, although I had to manually activate the global Read automation button, and SX will also import pan and EQ automation. Most of the settings for effects plug-ins can be imported, but not their automation data.

Cubase SX can also read basic audio and MIDI Parts from older VST 3.7 songs, and can also import old Cubase Arrangement files (with the '.ALL' file extension), which are treated in exactly the same way as songs, and old Cubase Part files ('.PRT'). Other non-Cubase related import options include support for MIDI files and a neat utility for ripping audio CDs.

On the Export front, Cubase SX can export MIDI files and audio mixdowns, which can leave Cubase in a variety of formats, including Wave, Broadcast Wave (which is basically a Wave file with extended information), AIFF, RealAudio, Windows Media, MP3 and Ogg Vorbis, an open-source alternative to MP3. One noticeable absence on the import and export front is support for OMF (Open Media Framework), a standard for sharing audio project files between different applications. OMF is currently supported by packages like Logic Platinum, Nuendo, Pro Tools and Digital Performer, and Steinberg were originally going to include support in Cubase SX as well. Unfortunately this hasn't happened yet, but it is, as ever, promised for a future update.

 

Turning Back The Clock

A feature that will have many Cubase users cheering is multiple undo. This is a common topic for discussion in music software circles these days, and since SX is based upon Nuendo, it benefits from the multiple undo architecture developed for that application — adding multiple undo functionality is not a trivial task for developers.

What this means from a user's perspective is that if you carry out a string of actions, such as moving a Part, cutting it up, deleting certain Parts from the Project window and so on, it's now possible to step back through every one of these actions. A multiple undo history window is provided so you can see the list of actions carried out, and you can drag the 'current status' line backwards (to save repeated Control and Z key preses), or even forwards to reapply actions you might just have stepped back through. It's worth noting that the multiple undo history never gets saved with a Project file, and is always reset once you've pressed the save key during work on a particular Project.

A1 is an excellent-sounding soft synth developed by Waldorf and bundled with Cubase SX.

The computer is often heralded as giving musicians unlimited freedom to try out new ideas, but sometimes it's just too much hassle. Multiple undo makes the idea of try out an idea involving several steps and then comparing the two quickly and easily a viable reality. Again, this is just one of many features Cubase SX provides that's impossible to live without after having tried it.

If you're drooling at the prospect of multiple undo functionality, make sure you're sitting down to read about the Offline Process History. This is separate from the usual multiple undo feature and allows you to select an audio Event and step back through any off-line (destructive) processing that's been applied. Say you've normalised an audio Event, applied an off-line fade-out and reversed it; with the Offline Process History you can step back to any of these points. If this isn't enough, you can even remove the fade-out and Cubase will reapply the reverse process after the normalise process automatically — impressive. Perhaps best of all, though, is the fact you can access the Offline Process History for any audio Event at any time, even a month after the processing was applied, for example.

The only potential down side to this incredible flexibility is that extra disk space is used to store all the previous edits (see Files, Clips & Events box), so the disk space requirements increase the more you process an Event. However, with disk space becoming less of a problem these days, most people, I think, will be happy to make the sacrifice for the extra flexibility. Fortunately, Cubase also provides a Freeze Edit command, which either consolidates all the edits into a new file, or, for those conserving disk space, replaces the existing file and associated edits with a single new file of the same name.

Dive In If You Want To Know

The Pool has been part of Cubase since the pre-VST 'Audio' versions of the early '90s, and in SX it inherits the improved organisation and feature set from Nuendo. The most significant change to the Pool is that there are three folders: Audio, Video and Trash. Audio and video clips are stored, unsurprisingly, in the Audio and Video folders, while the Trash folder works in much the same way as the trash-can on your desktop.

When a clip is no longer referenced by an Event on the Project window, Cubase automatically moves that clip to the Trash folder, and in this way you can safely delete all the unused files from your hard disk by selecting Empty Trash — a neat solution. Once a clip is in the Trash folder, you need to drag it back to one of the other folders before it can be used again, and in the same way, you can also manually drag clips to the Trash can.

A nice touch in allowing the user to organise the Pool more clearly is that it's now possible to create nested subfolders within the Audio and Video folders. This doesn't affect the way the files are stored on disk, but it can make locating clips in the Pool much easier if you tidy everything into these virtual folders.

  SX Versus Nuendo  
  While many of the features in Cubase SX are improvements over those found in Nuendo, Steinberg are still keen to differentiate the Cubase and Nuendo product lines, with Nuendo catering for the high-end audio/post-production markets. For this reason, although many of SX's features, like the Project window and Track Mixer, are improvements over those found in Nuendo, not every Nuendo feature has been included.

The most obvious differences between the two are that Nuendo has extended support for surround sound configurations requiring more than six channels, and for synchronisation with external hardware such as nine-pin devices. However, some of the 'smaller' Nuendo features have curiously disappeared as well, including the ability to 'group' tracks on the Arrange window, which works like grouping objects in a graphics package. Edit mode, where the video monitor is able to scrub through the video frames that are visible at the current location of the mouse as you make a selection, is also absent, as it the off-line Acoustic Stamp process, a convolution tool for applying the characterisitics of an acoustic space.

Another video-related casualty is the 'Replace audio in video' command, which lets you replace the audio track in a movie file with your own. Although I can see why this might overlap with Nuendo's target post-production market, Cubase SX is obviously intended for producing music for video with its support of video tracks, so it seems a shame that an extra utility is required in order for Cubase users to put their soundtrack with the video.

On the other hand, not every Nuendo feature that appears to have been removed in SX has actually disappeared completely. In Nuendo, for instance, the Project window's toolbar features dedicated buttons to nudge audio Parts, but although these aren't present in SX, the nudge controls are actually still assignable as key commands.

For some users, the decision of whether to buy Cubase SX or Nuendo may not be an easy one, especially as it's not known at this stage how many SX-only features are likely to be adopted in future versions of Nuendo. However, at the moment, if you don't need extended surround and video options, SX provides pretty much all the advantages for considering Nuendo in the first place, and costs quite a bit less. For more background, see May 2002's Cubase Notes column.

 

The Editors

The familiar Cubase Key, List, Drum and Score Editors are all present, although they've probably received the least attention in the journey to SX. That's not really a criticism since there was very little wrong with them in VST 5.1, and there are certainly benefits to their operation in SX thanks to the system-wide multiple undo functionality.

The Score Editor is the advanced version as previously featured in Cubase Score and VST/32, and most of the visual aspects of your score are now configured via the Scores menu. The score settings in the main Cubase Preferences are reserved for general Score Editor settings, since changes made here are not song-specific.

The most significant new editor feature is the ability to display multiple controller lanes simultaneously in the Key and Drum Editors. This is especially useful if you're editing pitch-bend information, for example, since you can now keep the note velocities visible on screen at the time same time.

The Master Track Editor is now known as the Tempo Track Editor, providing similar functionality in most cases for tempo and time-signature changes (see the Missing In Action box). However, the Master button still appears on the Transport Panel and indicates whether the Master tempo (using the Tempo track) or the Rehearsal tempo (Master off with the Tempo track disabled) is active.

A new Project Browser from Nuendo joins the Cubase editor lineup, and categorises every element of an entire Project into a database-like format: audio and MIDI Events, automation data — everything! As you can imagine, this provides some powerful editing capabilities, and it replaces previous list-based editors like the Master Track List Editor.

  Manual Labour  
  As with previous releases, in terms of documentation Cubase SX ships with a printed, perfect-bound Getting Started manual plus a set of reference manuals as PDF files to be read on-screen or printed out for your own reference. The only potential omission where the documentation is concerned is that some transitional information for VST users coming to SX would have been helpful, especially in getting used to the new terminology.

The online HTML Help has been dramatically extended and now includes the full operation manual, which has a few advantages over the PDF version. Firstly, it's easier to read on-screen; secondly, it's fully indexed, so finding the information you need is quick and simple; and finally, it's context-sensitive, so clicking help in various windows will take you to the relevant instructions. Full marks.

The release of a veritable library of Cubase SX-related books is inevitable, and Steinberg have already been collaborating with the German publisher Wizoo on a selection of titles to be available this autumn. These will cater for a range of users, including complete beginners, those upgrading from VST 5, and SX gurus. Keep your eyes on www.wizoo.com and www.steinberg.net for more information.

 

Key Commands & Macros

Although Cubase VST offered key commands (user-definable keyboard shortcuts), they didn't provide the same level of functionality compared with Nuendo. This changes with Cubase SX, which employs the same elegant Key Commands window as Nuendo, although it does seem sad that Cubase's support for triggering key commands via MIDI hasn't been integrated into Nuendo's improved Key Commands window.

Key commands are available for most of Cubase's commands, and Steinberg categorise them and provide a search function to make the key command you're looking for easy to find. You can load and save key command sets, and a nice touch is the inclusion of pre-programmed key command sets on disk that replicate the keyboard shortcuts used by Sonar, Logic and previous versions of Cubase.

An additional feature, which takes the idea of key commands a step further, is the implementation of macros, where you can define a series of commands to be executed with a single key command. While the programming of macros is fairly straightforward, I think it's a shame you can't also record the macros by actually performing the actions yourself as you can in, say, Photoshop. One particularly neat aspect to using macros is the ability for a macro to run another macro as a single command entry. This makes it possible for an über-macro to be created from smaller macros, saving you from adding all the individual commands a second time. However, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if the macro I was programming called itself — in theory, an infinite loop would be created and the computer would crash. And in practice, that's exactly what happened! I don't count this as a 'real' crash since it was malicious testing on my part, and besides, you'd never actually want a macro to call itself. However, it would probably be a good precaution if Steinberg stopped users from doing this.

SX Appeal?

One of the aspects that appealed to me when I first used Nuendo was the elegance in the design and operation of the program, and this has certainly been carried through to Cubase SX. In the core areas of the program, particularly the Project window, the attention to detail is obvious, and the overall interface has been streamlined to focus on the most common tasks. The fact that almost every function of the program can be accessed from the Project window without the user feeling that functionality has been compromised or that the interface has become cluttered deserves praise indeed.

Steinberg's plug-in implementations of SPL's famous DeEsser and Craig Anderton's QuadraFuzz are bundled with Cubase SX. Notice also the 'floating' VST Send Effects rack and the new Plug-in Information window, which provides information about the installed VST, DirectX and MIDI plug-ins.

The appearance of Cubase SX is unlikely to appeal to everyone, but personally I liked the subtle, attractive and functional approach that's been taken. The only aspect I had reservations about, at least when I first started using the program, was that the majority of buttons and labels are now pictorial instead of text-based. This was particularly off-putting at first, but hovering the mouse over most buttons displays a hint box to explain the function, and everything seems perfectly obvious now I'm used to the interface.

Computers are often criticised for being unpredictable, but when it comes to stability, I found Cubase SX to be completely reliable. The full release version hasn't crashed on me once, even when pushing the limits with an arsenal of plug-in effects and instruments, and generally it felt as though Cubase SX was a robust platform to run my virtual studio from.

In terms of the Cubase product line, SX replaces both the previous high-end VST/32 version of Cubase and Cubase Score. At the lower end of the market, Steinberg will introduce Cubase SL with a reduced feature set to replace the current vanilla Cubase VST version. No feature set or pricing for Cubase SL was available at the time of writing.

So the ultimate question for most people will be: should I choose Cubase SX as my next MIDI + Audio sequencer? For existing Cubase users, the competitive upgrade price, coupled with the fact you can keep your existing dongle, means that the answer is a resounding 'yes'. For musicians new to computer-based recording, SX is around 150 pounds cheaper than Logic Platinum, and around 150 pounds more than Sonar XL.

There's really not much to choose between Cubase SX and Logic Platinum, other than personal preference. Where Cubase SX gains from being the new kid on the block in its simplicity and streamlined interface, Logic Platinum scores on mature power, and can also handle larger surround configurations. Perhaps Cubase's most direct competition comes from Sonar: as a personal preference I would choose Cubase SX every time, but you should try out both programs before making a decision. I think Cubase is a more elegant program (for my way of working), and Sonar's current lack of surround sound support may also be a factor.

It's impossible to be anything other than impressed by Cubase SX. Steinberg have created an incredible music production tool that's a joy to use and rarely feels like it's getting in the way of what you're trying to achieve.

  Test Spec  
  Steinberg Cubase SX v1.01.
PC with AMD Athlon XP1700 processor, Asus A7M motherboard, 512MB DDR RAM running Windows XP.
Tested with: RME Hammerfall soundcard.
 

 information
£529.99; upgrades from Cubase VST/32 £99.99; upgrades from Cubase Score £129.99; upgrades from Cubase (base version) £199.99. Prices include VAT.
Arbiter Music Technology
+44 (0)20 8970 1909.
+44 (0)20 8202 7076.
Click here to email
www.arbitergroup.com
www.steinberg.net

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