When Europe's best‑known sequencer 'went audio' around two years ago, the resulting program was acclaimed as "unique and well thought out" — but times change, and Cubase Audio's latest version is up against some stiff competition from the likes of Opcode, MOTU and Emagic. Mike Collins checks out its chances...
Steinberg's Cubase is perhaps the best‑known and most widely used music sequencer program in Europe. Cubase Audio DAE for the Mac (the designation DAE signifies that the program now uses Digidesign's Digital Audio Engine software) adds a versatile digital audio recorder/editor to this popular sequencer — as long as you have the appropriate Digidesign hardware.
Existing users will be wondering what this latest version has to offer, while potential new users will be wondering whether to go for Cubase Audio or for one of its competitors in the 'sequencing‑with‑audio' stakes, so I'll be talking about some of the features and issues that may affect this decision, as well as addressing the question of what hardware is needed to set up an effective system.
The only difference between Cubase the MIDI sequencer and Cubase Audio is the addition of the audio features — and you can run the program simply as a MIDI sequencer if you don't have a Digidesign audio card currently installed in your Mac. So what audio features do you get?
You can designate any track as an audio track, and record audio into it, or load in an existing audio file from hard disk in Sound Designer II format. Once you have audio in a track, you can edit this audio much as you can MIDI data, cutting up parts in the overview editor with the scissors tool, and cutting and pasting sections to rearrange your music. A useful selection of more detailed editing features is also included. For instance, you can strip out the 'silence' between the hits on an acoustic percussion (or other) instrument which you have recorded, then quantise the resulting series of small audio regions, each containing one percussion hit. If you try this with a series of guitar notes which are much less 'cleanly' played than, say, a clave or snare drum, the beginning of each audio region may not be where the full 'weight' of the note falls, so you can set a Q‑point some way into the audio region — and this Q‑point will be where the region is quantised to. This is a very useful feature which is not available in Digital Performer or Studio Vision as yet!
There may not be a huge number of new features in this release, but they are all worthwhile additions. The fact that Cubase Audio now uses Digidesign's Digital Audio Engine software makes various new features possible. For instance, double‑clicking on the waveform display now brings up a waveform editor similar to Logic Audio's, which provides much of the functionality of Sound Designer II directly within Cubase Audio. There is also a new option in the audio menu which lets you control the EQ of the audio channels in your Digidesign hardware. This is similar to the EQ provided in Logic Audio, and you can select Parametric, Low Shelf, High Shelf, Low Cut or High Cut types, applying frequency and gain parameters where appropriate.
The OMS (Open MIDI System) compatibility of Cubase Audio has been greatly improved, and you can now address two MTP‑compatible MIDI interfaces either in slow or fast modes (which is not yet possible in Logic Audio). This makes Cubase much easier to configure with large MIDI rigs, which will almost certainly be using some combination of MIDI Time Piece or Opcode Studio 4 or 5 interfaces. In common with Logic Audio, Deck II, SoundEdit Pro, and Post View, you can now open a QuickTime movie containing digitised video, and synchronise your MIDI and digital audio with this video. Finally, a Mixer Map is now provided which offers full support for Digidesign's Session 8 hardware, to let you control it entirely from within Cubase Audio.
To make use of the audio features of Cubase Audio you will need either an AudioMedia NuBus card, a Sound Tools system, or a Pro Tools system. The Sound Tools and Pro Tools systems both feature a NuBus card and a 19‑inch rackmounted audio interface. The audio interface is common to both systems and has four XLR inputs and four XLR outputs for analogue audio, plus a pair of phono sockets for S/P DIF digital audio input and output, and a pair of XLR sockets for AES/EBU digital audio input and output. A pair of BNC sockets are also provided, to accept a digital sync signal, and to allow a 'through' connection for the sync signal to other Pro Tools interfaces with 8‑, 12‑, or 16‑channel Pro Tools systems. With the Sound Tools and AudioMedia systems, and with the basic 4‑channel Pro Tools system, you can use four separate channels of audio. In the AudioMedia card, these are mixed internally to come out of the card as a stereo pair, whereas with the audio interface, you get four separate audio outputs. You can expand the Pro Tools hardware up to 16 channels by adding extra cards and interface units, but you also have to add a Digidesign System Accelerator card. With larger Pro Tools systems, and depending on how many NuBus slots you have in your Mac, and on what other cards (such as SampleCell or video monitor cards) you're using, you may well need to use a Nubus Expansion Chassis to accommodate all the cards. Digidesign make a 12‑slot chassis, and a company called Second Wave make 4‑ and 8‑slot chassis.
To synchronise to SMPTE, you'll need an interface such as the Video Slave Driver, or the SMPTE Slave Driver from Digidesign, or an Opcode or MOTU interface such as the MIDI Time Piece or Studio 4/5. Another, more expensive, option is the Timeline MicroLynx, available from Stirling Audio. This offers the added benefit of machine control for professional audio or video tape machines, which you will need for correct sync with tape‑based systems. A machine synchroniser 'looks at' the SMPTE coming off tape, and if the speed of this SMPTE has varied due to tape‑stretching or transport anomalies, it sends 'tach' pulses to the motors in the tape machines to speed them up or slow them down, compensating for these variations.
As far as the computer is concerned, you should use the fastest Mac you can get, such as a Quadra 800 or 950. Cubase Audio DAE needs a minimum of 3.5Mb of RAM, and the Digidesign Audio Engine (DAE) software needs a minimum of 4.5Mb of RAM. You'll need around 3Mb of RAM for your system software, and maybe a few Mb more for a SampleCell editor, or a patch librarian/editor, such as Galaxy. For best results, you should increase the RAM allocation of Cubase to something like 8Mb, and you may wish to increase the RAM allocations of the other software as well. As you can see from all this, the minimum recommended amount of RAM would be about 16Mb, and you could probably use 24Mb without going completely over the top!
Given the number of screens Cubase has to offer, and taking into account that you might want to run other stuff, like Sound Designer II, a SampleCell editor, Steinberg's Time Bandit time‑stretching software, their ReCycle sample loop manipulation program, and so forth, you may find that a 21‑inch monitor starts to look quite small. I often use a second monitor, such as the Apple 14‑inch or 16‑inch, and I know of people using a couple of 21‑inch monitors, or even a third! Cubase is black and white, for the moment, so you only need a mono monitor, but for just about any other Mac software, you'll want colour — although 8‑bit is quite sufficient for music software.
Other considerations are hard disks, backup systems, and possible networking connections. Digital audio takes up about 5Mb per minute of monophonic audio, so one hour of stereo occupies about 600Mb of hard disk space. A good choice here is the Seagate Barracuda 2.4Gb drive which is one of the fastest drives on the market, and is fully‑compatible with 16‑channel Pro Tools systems. You can back up Sound Designer II files to a normal DAT machine using Digidesign's DATa utility software, but you can't back up your Cubase files this way. The alternatives are to back up to removable optical disks, or to a tape‑based computer system such as the various DAT or Exabyte drives sold for this purpose. These are often sold with Retrospect backup software which can deal with any type of Mac files. Grey Matter Response, who make the System Accelerator boards for Digidesign, sell their own DAT or Exabyte systems using their proprietary Mezzo software, which can handle various types of Mac files, as well as Sound Designer II digital audio and QuickTime digital video files. For instance, you can back up a complete Studio Vision project, with all its associated files, using Mezzo. Unfortunately, there is no special provision for storing Cubase Audio files in this way as yet.
How well does Cubase Audio serve its target users? Currently, Cubase is available not only on the Mac, but also on the Atari Falcon and the PC. Steinberg appear to be maintaining a fairly close matching of features and interface across all three platforms at present, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good in the sense that if you can use Cubase on one platform, you probably won't have too much trouble using it on any of the other platforms. The downside is that this restricts the features, particularly of the user‑interface, to a lowest common denominator of the three platforms. As neither the Atari nor the PC with Windows have yet developed their own user‑interfaces to the high standards available on the Macintosh, this means that Cubase Audio in its present version is now looking rather primitive when you compare it to Performer or Vision, or even Logic on the Mac.
Why do so many users opt for Cubase here in Europe? Well, apart from the first‑rate marketing of the original Cubase on the Atari, it was in many ways superior to Notator on the Atari, and had what I always considered to be a far superior user‑interface. However, many Atari users are now turning to the Mac, and if these users have transferred from Cubase on the Atari, they are likely to choose Cubase on the Mac to avoid the steeper learning curves involved in changing to Logic, or even Performer or Vision. However, new users, or those determined to have the best available software, cannot fail to notice that the competition, in the form of Logic Audio, Studio Vision, and Digital Performer, is extremely hot — especially with the latest round of upgrades to all these.
The current release of Cubase Audio will do just about anything its competitors can (and several things the others can't!), though the user interface is definitely less visually attractive. For example, apart from the lack of colour, Cubase only allows you to enter 10 characters for each track name, whereas Performer allows names to be up to 31 characters in length. In addition, Cubase's MIDI Setup page and track assignment features are neither as straightforward to use, nor as well integrated with OMS as are those of its rivals, although this latest version is a great improvement. Logic has implemented its own very advanced visual system for handling MIDI, and both Performer and Vision have implemented similar systems, which allow you to import synthesizer patch names for direct use within the MIDI sequencer. Performer's and Vision's MIDI setups both offer extremely powerful functionality combined with excellent ease of use. Logic's system can be a little more confusing at times, but is even more powerful in many ways than the others. No integration with Galaxy is available in Cubase as yet (though this is rumoured to be in the pipeline), nor with Unisyn, X‑Or, or the forthcoming editor/librarians from E‑magic. Neither do Steinberg offer their own synth editor/librarian for use with Cubase.
Is Cubase intuitive to use? Yes and no; some parts are, like the toolbox which lets you cut up your music with a scissors icon, or glue parts together with a glue‑tube icon, but the input transformer, phrase synthesizer, and logical editor require significant mental effort on the part of the user. The List Edit window is also rather quirky and less easy to use than those in Performer and Vision, or even Logic. Also, Cubase, in common with Logic, lacks 'Markers' — as featured in Performer, Vision, and MasterTracks Pro, and as included in the standard MIDI file format for file transfer. This makes it more difficult to swap files between these different sequencers without the hassle of marking out your sections again from scratch in the next program. OK, not every user wants or needs to do this, but many professional users would appreciate it! There are workarounds, but all involve more effort on the part of the user.
How does Cubase Audio compare in other ways with the competition? The audio features of Cubase Audio are not quite as powerful as those in Logic Audio nor as attractively presented and easy to use as those in Studio Vision, though Cubase Audio DAE does have more to offer in many ways than Digital Performer version 1.41. Furthermore, now that Cubase Audio uses Digidesign's DAE, we should see more sophisticated audio features being developed in future Cubase Audio versions.
As far as support files are concerned, Cubase Audio has a very powerful and useful set of Mixer Maps, which you can use to control MIDI‑controllable audio mixers, or to control MIDI devices of virtually any type. Mixer Maps are provided for the DMP7 and MOTU's MIDI Mixer 7s, and for many popular synthesizers and effects units, such as the M1, MKS50, D110, and LXP5. In some cases you will find editors for devices not available in a patch librarian like Galaxy, such as the MKS50. Performer can do most of this stuff, but you have to spend time setting it up. Vision is somewhat more limited, although what it does do is very simple to set up! Logic, on the other hand, comes with a number of excellent setups for devices such as the Mackie CR1604, the Yamaha DMP9/16, Fostex DCM1000, Lexicon LXP1/5, Matrix 1000, and Alesis D4.
The MIDI Processor is a unique feature of Cubase which lets you create echo, chorus, pitch shifting and other effects via MIDI from within the program. Then there is the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, which you can use to experiment and interact with musical phrases which you've set up for this purpose. The results of this interaction and experimentation can be recorded into a track, for further editing and playback. The dedicated Drum Track feature is also very powerful (although it is possible to set up something similar in Logic, Performer or Vision). Here you can see the name of each drum sound in your particular drum machine or sampler, view, edit or enter notes on a grid editor, and view, edit or enter continuous data such as velocity or volume information. Drum Maps are provided for most popular drum machines and multitimbral synthesizers, and it is straightforward enough to create your own for your custom sampler drumsets.
Steinberg's own Time Bandit program is an excellent add‑on to Cubase Audio, for pitch/time shifting (though Logic Audio comes with pitch/time manipulation built in) and their Re‑Cycle software is also extremely useful when working with sampled loops.
The main competition (if not the only competition) to Cubase on the Atari was from Notator, but this is not the case on the Mac. The other companies, particularly Opcode, are making determined efforts to market and promote their products more effectively in the UK, while Emagic are turning out to be highly innovative in developing the digital audio features of their software. To compete more effectively, Steinberg (and Emagic to a lesser extent) could do with learning the good tricks from the American packages.
But if you are an existing user, and want to stick with Cubase, I can reassure you that Steinberg intend to address many of the aspects of Cubase Audio which I have criticised here in forthcoming upgrades, though this version certainly includes enough that is new to make it well worth your while to upgrade now! Cubase Audio has many unquestionably very powerful features, including excellent notation, MIDI Machine Control, groove quantise, the potential for time‑stretch and sample loop manipulation with Time Bandit and ReCycle, plus digital audio recording and editing (with Digidesign hardware), integration with SampleCell, and compatibility with OMS and the MIDI Time Piece/Studio 4/5.
I do feel that Cubase Audio is aimed more at the 'musician' market than at the audio professional, and when it comes to semi‑pro users, and 'dance' music producers, especially in the UK, it will obviously benefit from the fact that Cubase is the sequencer of choice for the masses. For most successful professionals, however, who inevitably have different requirements, it's no longer the clear‑cut choice. Many users are now turning away from the Atari and going for the Mac, on account of the more competitively‑priced models on offer from Apple. If Steinberg continue to rest on their laurels compared with the other Mac sequencers, all of which are making great strides forward with their latest releases, then they may find it difficult to maintain their market lead — though improvements are only an upgrade away, as ever.
Despite all my criticisms, however, I do believe that the combination of Cubase Audio with Time Bandit and ReCycle provides an excellent set of tools for today's musicians, and particularly for those working in the dance music arena.
Digital audio needs to be properly synchronised in professional systems, and for this you should use a stable reference sync source, of similar type to the sync pulse generators used in TV studios. The level of accuracy you'll get will depend on the tolerances of this unit, which should at least be within +/‑ 0.441Hz of the reference sampling rate of 44.1kHz for acceptable professional use, and should be within +/ 0.0441Hz to prevent any possibility of jitter artifacts being audible when working at 16‑bit resolution. Obviously all the digital devices you are using must have sync inputs to work correctly with an external sync generator, which means that you'll need a professional DAT machine for mastering to and a professional CD‑player for sourcing audio.
If you're using a domestic CD or DAT machine, you can choose to synchronise to this as the master sync source, deriving your sync signal from within the digital audio data stream coming from the digital audio outputs. Unfortunately, even the best domestic machines are nowhere near as stable as is required for the most professional results. If you are working with any audio files longer than, say, a minute or so, you'll need a SMPTE Slave Driver to read the incoming SMPTE timecode from tape. This unit will vary the sample rate of the digital audio signal 'on the fly' in response to tape‑speed variations, and the software on the Mac will follow these variations without the Macintosh CPU having to cope with the task of varying the sampling rate. This is the only way to achieve proper sync to tape! Using the 'continuous resync' option, which Cubase also provides, can cause audible signal degradation as the Macintosh CPU has to take care of this in addition to the other tasks it is concerned with. So the message is: if you want to get your sync sorted properly, you just have to bite the bullet and put your hand in your pocket to get a SMPTE Slave Driver, a machine synchroniser if you're using tape machines, professional DAT and CD machines, and a stable sync pulse generator to lock everything up to!
- Based on the most popular and familiar sequencer user‑interface.
- High audio quality.
- Available over all major computer platforms.
- Integrates nicely with ReCycle for sample loop manipulation.
- No longer the obvious clear leader in terms of facilities.
- Some functions missing that may be important to professional users.
- Interface currently has no colour.
- Time‑stretching only available in conjunction with Time Bandit.
A flexible and useful system for the MIDI musician, but with some compromises evident for certain professional users.